“And how did my Lady fare?” the big red-bearded man asked, looking up as Jasna was pushed into the tent. The man frowned, but rose. He kicked one of the men next to him, and the other two men got to their feet as well. With some effort, Justin struggled to rise. The wine, and the heat of the tent made him dizzy.
“Street rat,” he said with a nod, steadying himself with his sword.
The tall woman in the leathers stepped into the tent behind Jasna, unfastening her cloak and tossing it on the pile by the entrance flap.
“Do you recognize this girl?” she asked.
The two men shook their heads, eyes narrowed and hands on their belt knives.
“And you, General?”
The big man stroked at his beard with a thumb. “Fair hair, so she could be from the east. She’s got Antalian eyes, as well. But she’s wearing your cloth. She’s not one of yours?”
The woman frowned. “One of mine? Certainly not. Though this is very finely made.” She ran a finger over the collar of Jasna’s tunic. “Where did you get this, girl?”
“It… was given to me. At the Home.”
The woman and the big man glanced at each other, shaking their heads.
“We do not know of this ‘home,’” the woman said. “Which of the kings do you call your own?”
“King?” Jasna was certain that was the word they’d used.
“Perhaps yours still calls himself ‘Chieftain,’” the big man said.
The girl shook her head. “I am from here. From Thresho-- from Lugsid!”
“How did you get to this side of the river, then?”
Jasna swallowed. “We… we took the ferry from Fogor Island. This morning.”
“‘We?’ There were more of you?”
“Four. Plus the stableboy.”
The woman turned to Justin. “Is this true?”
He nodded. “Yes, m’lady. Well, most of it. I wouldn’t really say I know this girl that well. We actually only just met a few days ago.”
“And where might you be from, boy?”
Justin bristled, and the big man laid a hand on his mail-clad shoulder. “He claims to be from the coast.”
The woman nodded. “Yes, he has the look of Milen’s folk. Left you behind, did they?”
Justin gave a hiccup. “M’lady?”
“M’lady,” she repeated, raising an eyebrow. “You could learn a thing or two from this one.”
“Put on a skirt, and we’ll call you a lady,” one of the men said.
“What do we do ‘bout this one?” the other man asked, thrusting his chin at Jasna.
“A few more questions, I think,” the woman said. “What was your business over here?”
“We were looking for--” Jasna suddenly snapped her mouth shut. There, right behind the big red-bearded man, laying across two wooden stools, holding two large clay pitchers and several cups, as well as a bundle of rags, was a large bronze shield.
“Looking for what? Our numbers? Where the weapons are kept?”
“Who is the elder of your town?”
“H-halaran?” Jasna said, shifting on her feet. If she was quick, she could duck around the woman…
“Sit,” the woman said, pointing to a space beside Justin.
Jasna swallowed again, and plopped to the floor.
“It is good to see you,” the young man said.
Jasna leaned away from him, wrinkling her nose. “You reek of bad wine.”
“The General is very generous.” He grinned. “That sort of rhymes.”
“You’re drunk. No wonder you’re glad to see me.” Jasna leaned further away, patting the young lord’s hand, straining to listen to the whispered conversation between the tall woman and the red-bearded man.
“You don’t even know who that is, do you?” she hissed at the boy.
“Of course I do! I pay atenshun. Those two are Quinias and Mitri. They’re the General’s right hand men. Can he have two right hand men? Maybe one is his right and the other is his left…”
“Not them! The other two!”
“They sort of remind me of my mother and father,” Justin said, and he sighed.
“They--” Jasna groaned. “We are sitting right in the middle of history, and I’m stuck with a wine-soaked half-wit stableboy. You’ve probably seen a lot more Royals than I ever will, and you don’t even recognize him.”
“Shut up,” Jasna said. “I’m trying to eavesdrop.”
* * * * *
“Well?” Halav asked. “What do you make of it?”
Petra glanced over at the two strangers. “After what happened last week, with the wolf… We can’t take the risk. We can not take them with us.”
“We can’t leave them to the Beast Men.”
“We can not afford to make another mistake like the last one. Your soft heart cost us nine men.”
“We’ll take the boy. You saw his shirt. And his sword. It’s made of the same metal. It went clean through an abominable rat, into the stony ground without losing a bit of its edge. We need that.”
“So take it, and leave the both of them.”
“That gives us one sword. Think, woman. A dead man gives up no secrets. I need to know how they are made.”
Petra pinched the bridge of her nose, squinting against the headache that had been growing all day. “Fine. We’ll take the girl. If nothing else, we can use her has leverage against the boy. But if a tool breaks, we cast it aside.”
“You don’t trust her. What of her words? Did she lie?”
Petra sighed. “That’s just it. There seemed no deceit in her answers, yet… well, you heard them. They were clearly wrong. And earlier, at the river, she invoked the Trickster.”
“He is the Trickster. Not the Deceiver.”
“This is no time for tricks. Nor riddles, or jest.”
“So we’ll wait for Zirchev, then. Let the Huntsman tip the balance, one way or the other.”
“What is taking him so long?” Petra asked, crossing her arms. “We agreed to meet back here near high sun. He should have been back by now.”
“Well, at least we know these two haven’t waylaid him,” Halav said.
“Appearances, my dear General. Remember the wolf.”