“I don’t like this.” I said, more to myself than my only company as I stood by the bedroom window, pretending to stare out at the moon bathed and rain drenched city. “I don’t like this at all.”
“They’ve only been gone for a day.” Tatianna didn’t look up from her book while she spoke.
Though distracted by my worry, I’d been secretly reading along with her, possible because she was either a slow reader or simply liked to linger on each passage for longer than normal. The pace suited me fine – my own reading ability was somewhat limited, especially for an individual of my noble breeding. My eyes had made it difficult to learn.
I wondered what kind of education someone of Tatianna’s low origins might have. The fact that she could read and seemed to have a grasp of basic mathematics at all made her an exception of her class, but there was a lot I simply didn’t understand about that echelon of society.
“Don’t worry about them. I’ve known Darrus for a long time – and from what I’ve seen he and Baen make a good team.” There was a faint note of something in her voice. Bitterness? Wry bemusement? Something else entirely? I couldn’t be sure. She’d been a little more reserved since the argument in the courtyard the previous week, but to her credit she’d not held my little act of defiance in the face of her authority linger in the form of any visible resentment. “I’ve half a mind to be jealous.”
“That’s not what I meant.” I said.
“It’s the waiting. We’ve been sitting here for nearly two weeks now.” I replied. “The longer it is before we take action, the more risk we run of the Rage or the Horn – or both – coming back, and then we’ve got an army against us.” I frowned, thinking about what the past weeks had been like.
My recovery was almost entirely complete, much to everyone’s surprise. Slight twinges here and there, but I had already begun training again and found that fluidity of my movements hadn’t been compromised. When not resting or revitalizing stiff muscles, I had been hard at work with the rest of the crew to do what we could to fortify our borrowed manor. Tatianna had, somewhat flippantly, announced that the home’s owner should be pleased with the changes and Torment take him and his complaints if he wasn’t.
We’d installed boards over many of the larger windows, reinforced the doors where possible. I did little of the grunt work – physical labour was a task better suited to the experienced sailors, who were used to this sort of work. I busied myself with forming a plan on how to bring down The Misericorde’s pet monster should it find us before Levaunt’s men did.
And I didn’t like it. Every scenario I concocted resulted in failure, this home was not a fortress. Too small to effectively set up kill boxes, too large to easily defend with our numbers. The monster was too powerful to stop with a single trap, and there simply wasn’t room for two.
“You said you wanted to stay.” She said, mildly.
“I didn’t mean that we should just sit here and hole up while waiting for something to happen.” I replied.
“The plan isn’t my first choice, as you know, but reinforcing this building is the next best thing to leaving.” Now there was definitely a note of bitterness in her voice. “I think we’re as prepared as we can be if Ingesbror – or whatever other bastard has taken over – finds us.”
“So we just wait? That’s not a plan.”
“We beat them here, we hurt them here and they’ll crumble from the inside.” She asked. “Unless they kill us they’ll never be able to maintain control of Levaunt’s empire.”
“Levaunt’s men aren’t the only enemy we have out there.” I reminded her. “And this is the terrible place to be if The Misericorde sends his pet. We need to be out there, in the city, if we want to fight it. We need more room.”
“Why are you so obsessed with killing it?”
“I said I don’t like leaving things unfinished.” I said, somewhat more tersely than I had intended “I’m fully recovered now, so we should be out there doing something instead of just bunkering down here.”
Tatianna sighed and set her book aside. “I don’t like the situation anymore than you do.” She got to her feet and moved to stand behind me. “But when you spot a storm on the horizon, you don’t try to fight it. You either batten down or get out of the way.” I saw her hand rise, as if she was about to rest it on my shoulder. Tentative, hesitant, then it withdrew, fingers curling away before they touched me. “There are a few things out there you can’t fight.”
“I’m not fighting a hurricane. That monster is flesh and blood. Maybe a bit of magic thrown in, but it’s not a force of nature. I’m surprised you’re not as eager to go after it.” I said, crossing my arms. “That thing seems damned interested in your crew, and how do you know it won’t keep hunting you even if we leave?”
“It’s a gamble.”
“It’s not a risk worth taking.” I said, feeling myself growing somewhat angry now. “Better to kill it here, now, then ever have to worry about it again.”
“And what if it kills you? What if it kills Baen?”
“Baen knows how to take care of herself. We both do.” I said, still not turning to face her. “We set up a plan, we control the field and then we bring the beast down. With it out of the picture The Misericorde will know we’re not to be taken lightly. He’ll agree to talk and we’ll bargain for our safety.”
“That’s a serious assumption.” Tatianna said, and there was a note of anger in her voice now too. “You – we – know nothing about The Mis. For all you know she’ll just get mad.”
“At present he’s trying to kill us. Not sure how it can get much worse than that. This has to end in blood, and I’ve no intention of it being mine.” I shook my head. “Or yours, for that matter. This is getting out of control, and if we don’t retake the initiative we’re-”
“Just stop.” Tatianna’s hands were on my shoulders, and she spun me around to face her, slamming my back against the window hard enough that I was afraid we’d shatter the panes. “You’re caught up in this ’cause of me and I’m not goin’ t’have your death on my conscience for the rest o’ my life because you were too proud t’walk away.”
“That’s not your decision to make.” I hissed, my own anger rising to meet hers.
“Yes it is, ’cause I’m the one who has to take responsibility at the end.” She snapped, her hands taking firm grip of my collar. “Being a captain means knowing that when something happens to your crew – your family – it’s your fault, it’s your job t’fix it.”
“I’m not part of your crew, remember?” My fingers were wrapped around her wrists, but she only tightened her grip. I could hear the fabric straining.
“But you’re here, and it is because of me an’ mine that you’re involved in this at all.”
“We came to you!”
“And I should have sent you away!” She shouted. “Now you’re all goin’ to die and it’s going to be my fault. Again!” She let me go then and abruptly turned away. I staggered, unprepared for the sudden blindness, but managed to catch myself against the window sill.
“This isn’t your choice to make.” I said again. “And we’re not going to die.”
“You don’t know what you’re fighting.” She said, that exhausted tone creeping back into her voice.
“Neither do you.” I countered. “I’ve seen it twice, fought it once, and I’m still alive.”
“You didn’t fight it.” She said. “You said yourself you chased it with Baen, it didn’t fight back. And you saw what it did to Levaunt’s crew. Do you really think you could outfight a ship’s worth of pirates?”
“I won’t have to.” I said, straightening. “Not with a plan, not with a trap.”
“You’ll die.” She said, keeping her face turned away. There was a faint cracking in her voice. “And I’d rather not have that. I’d prefer it if you lived.”
“I’m not part of your crew. I’m here by choice.” I said again. “If I die that’s not on you.”
“You wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for me.” She answered. “That makes it my responsibility.”
“We’re talking in circles.” I said, exasperated. “And the point is moot – Baen and I are doing this.”
“I…” She trailed off, breathing out slowly. “I just don’t want to lose any of you.” The softness of her tone took me off guard, and when she turned to look at me I couldn’t help but notice what I thought was a faint blurring in the corners of her eyes. Tears? It was so unlike her that I stood, speechless, as she moved to stand in front of me again. “Things have been happening fast since you got here, Kaede.” She said, her voice low, quiet. “I can’t help but feel responsible for what happens to you. You just got here and I’ve already gotten you hurt half a dozen times.” Her breath touched my skin like a silken paintbrush drawn across my throat, and I realised just how close she was. “I don’t like that. I don’t like you getting hurt.”
“Tatianna…” I tried to think of something else to say but stopped, stupidly, at her name. There was something oddly fragile about her now, and I had no idea how to address it.
“Why can’t we just run?” She whispered, her eyes closing as she leaned forward till she was all but whispering directly into my ear, her arms going around me to pull me into a hug. I stiffened, slightly, but with the wall behind me and through my own bewilderment I didn’t pull away. “We can lose ourselves out there. Away from The Misericorde, away from the politics and the drama and the danger.” Her hair brushed against my cheek, and the smell of whatever soaps, oils or perfumes she used surrounded me. Vanilla and honey, I thought, somewhat dizzy – it was a warm, unobtrusive scent that triggered the stirring of something low in my chest.
“We can’t run.” I said, somewhat mechanically, trying to understand what was happening. How we had gotten to this point? How did I – did we – get here? “I have to stay and fight.”
She leaned back a little to study my face, her hand coming up to rest her palm against my cheek. Her hand was cool, almost cold, and I couldn’t help but shiver a little. When she took the frame of my glasses between two fingers and began to pull them away I reached up, taking her wrist in my hand to stop her.
“It’s okay.” She whispered, cutting me off. “I told you, they don’t bother me.” Slowly, without really intending to or thinking about it, I released her and allowed her to reveal my eyes.
She looked into them, unabashedly, for what seemed like long time. I did my best not to look away or squirm in place or think too much about what was happening and why she was acting this way.
“They’re actually quite pretty.” She said, and I could hear the smile in her voice. “Your eyes. They’re… beautiful.” Her hand went back to my cheek. “You have so many secrets, Kaede.” Her breath was on my lips now. “These eyes shouldn’t be one of them.”
Thoughts of what would happen if she so much as tilted forward a hair’s breadth rose, flooded my mind, then vanished as the roar of gunfire shattered the night.