"Following this girl across the continent is not what I signed up for," commented Wyatt to his partner, Kouth.
"Wasn't what I signed up for either," agreed Kouth, "but everyone was certain she'd lead us to another nest of those star-marked, and she hasn't."
The two near middle-aged soldiers, both dressed in travel worn mufti, ate their food in silence for a few moments. "I think she was going somewhere in particular back in the beginning, when she left Runhaven," said Wyatt. "But then it was more like she was just going away."
"Can't blame her for that," replied Kouth. "We killed her family, levelled her home, and destroyed her neighbourhood. You and me, we’re her nightmares. Maybe she was going somewhere, but what she was looking for wasn't there. Or she did what she was supposed to do, and then kept moving." He ate another strip of cooked rabbit. "We may even have seen her do it, and not have realized what we saw."
"You think she's that good?" Wyatt speared at a piece of root vegetable with his knife.
"I think she's got skills. So's this Third Battalion used-to-be she's joined up with, different skills. Good for them both." Kouth took a swig from his tankard. "If we'd realised she was an engineer earlier on, we could have scraped an acquaintance with her and joined up with her ourselves - unless she saw you in uniform during the suppression in Runhaven?"
"Not me, I was in the western sector," replied Wyatt. "Speaking of the Third Battalion used-to-be, do you think he's going to be allowed to get back to his enlistment site to claim his payout?"
"From the tales I've heard, I have doubts," said Kouth. "Doesn't seem right to me. Aside from anything else, that might be us one day."
"True," agreed Wyatt. "Perhaps we should run interference if it's needed. I mean, we are following them anyway."
Meanwhile, some distance away, Saleetha was saying to her travelling companion, Friedrin, "You might want to start taking steps now in case someone decides to start accusing people dressed like you of pretending to be military officers."
"You don't trust the authorities, do you, Sal?" Friedrin continued eating his meal of salted and smoked fish.
"Not the civil ones," agreed Saleetha. "And from what you've told me, I don't think you can trust the military ones."
"The problem is, even if you're right, I can't afford a new suit of clothes." The drink here, in this inn, was summer ale and Friedrin found it to his taste.
"I was thinking, perhaps, if you got a second-hand waistcoat in a contrasting colour so you could wear them both at the same time, or swap out the one you're wearing," suggested Saleetha. "Or if you got a tailor to put a different frogging on your facings - we should be able to raise enough coin for both of those."
"How?" She could tell from the expression on his face that he really had no clue.
"There's always someone who wants something done and is prepared to pay for it because that's the only way someone else will do it for them." Saleetha gave him a smile and a shrug. "The trick is to be careful that you don't find yourself in the middle of something you can't or don't want to handle. Like a gang war."
He gave her a sideways look. "I was raised as the son of a gentleman, remember that bought commission? I was the one handing out coins for holding my horse or having errands run. The closest I ever came to a gang war was politics, and it was my elders who got the family involved in those."
"Been there," commiserated Saleetha. "For the same reasons. One of the reasons my family's dead and I don't have a home. You might not want to be involved in a gang war but, in my experience, they're cleaner than politics.".
Three days later, Friedrin was admiring the tailor’s work on what had been his uniform’s jacket. It was still olive with yellow facings, but the frogging was now bronze green and the braid it was made of extended in a swirling pattern from the buttons and buttonholes up over the shoulders and hid any sign that epaulettes could have been attached. It looked very well, and the cost had been less than he and Sal had feared because there had been no need to retailor the garment, just adjust the embellishments. “I’m still not entirely comfortable about this,” he told the tailor. “It feels like I’m out of uniform.”
“But, sir, you’re not in the army anymore,” pointed out the tailor. “You aren’t supposed to be in uniform.” He added very quietly, “One hears stories sometimes, not often you understand nor openly reliable, but unsettling ones.”
“Oh?” Friedrin gave the man a sideways look with his eyes without moving his head.
“Lots of men on the roads these days, making their way home. What with one thing and another.” The tailor paused.
“I’m one of them,” acknowledged Friedrin just as quietly but with a flash of humour.
“They overlap on their stays after the bigger stretches of road. They get a sense of who’s travelling around them, going in the same direction.” The tailor paused again, and Friedrin nodded just enough to show he was listening. “Some men haven’t turned up where they should be. Sometimes it’s not just travellers – there was a cowherd from over Lowfield way a few months ago who didn’t get home after delivering three heifers his master had sold. Delivered the cows that had been paid for, set off for home, and hasn’t been seen since. No trace anywhere.”
“Thank you. I’ll keep it in mind,” replied Friedrin, still regarding his reflection in the mirror. “I take it that this conversation never occurred?”
“I’m sure we’ve only discussed the braiding, sir. Aren’t you?” The tailor tweaked at the coat’s collar. “You might want to consider replacing your stock with a cravat, sir. Just for a change.”
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