Thanks everyone for your great feedback on the first chapter of Clockwork River. Here’s the second in what seems to be an evolving, semi-regular feature around here.
The next morning, Fen decided to be somewhere else as Uncle Monteriso supervised the lieutenant of the scout detail dressing down his troops for letting the bandits through. She didn’t need to be gifted to know that most men didn’t like a younger officer, especially her, to be present for that, but she also wanted to stay busy and not think about last night.
Try not to think about it, she thought. I swear it wasn’t my imagination, his voice sounded so weak, like he was fading away.
Fate answered her plea as she made morning rounds at the perimeter with Centurion Sedicatus, who had never stared at her once and he wasn’t much of talker either and that suited her fine — that meant he’d given himself fewer chances to say something to offend.
It was on her second circuit that she spotted the Royal Shan patrol trotting up the road and, even from a distance, their faces looked different from both her kinsmen, the Imperials and even the Outlands peoples.
I have lost count of how many shapes noses and eyes come in, she thought. They even hang their banners sideways, but I bet they want the same as everyone else, they protect what’s theirs, mercy is rare, and men value women for their hips instead of their minds.
Beyond their strange banners, their armor was unusual as it was a mix of woven mats and leathers instead of the imperial design of leather and metals. Fen made a mental note that arrows and thrusting swords would do better against that sort of armor than hacking and slashing weapons. “Corporal?”
Fen’s gaze never turned from the advancing patrol. “Have the Satellitium know that we have a welcoming committee.”
With complete sincerity and no hesitation, he curtly nodded. “As you command.”
She gave a small smile. “Thank you.”
“You are welcome as always, Half-Captain.”
Gods, true professionals are hard to find. She sat tall in her saddle as the patrol kept their distance and watched her. After a while, her Uncle passed by with his lieutenants and a translator, while Damianus spared her a smile that she wanted to slap off his face.
Fen put her hand on her sword. This is one of the few times I am happy to not be given my full due. She kept an eye out for sniping archers, but saw none. But that meant nothing. There were too many hiding places. Never mind if the archer was a Prodigal.
She and Sedicatus watched, ever ready.
Uncle Monteriso trotted back, his troops following. “Pass the word, we will break camp and follow our escort to a Governor’s domain. We are to stick to the roads and they say we have no need of our scouts. We promise full protection.”
Fen’s face was a calculated blank. “I do not like this, sir.”
Her Uncle’s grin stayed on his face though his voice could frost a lake. “And demanding the sun drop from the sky at noon does not make night. We stay alert, watch them and watch the tree line. Our scouts are being escorted back. That gives us extra eyes. Use them.”
The Ambassador’s convoy was a tight fit on the Royal roads, which were paved like Imperial roads but narrower. Fen didn’t spend much time thinking about it though, as she kept scanning the underbrush and the forest canopy for ambushers and archers. It didn’t matter to her that hundreds of other eyes were doing the same. It was a contagious mood that subdued the twittering in the grand ladies’ wagon into muted whispers, which made them now sound like scheming conspirators.
Arwin’s horse caught up to hers just as tall wooden town walls came into view. Without stopping, their escorts barked orders and the gates opened to let them in. Both siblings were silent as they passed through.
The town itself was as quiet as an open field. The flies buzzed, leaves rustled, and somewhere an out of sight chicken clucked. But not one resident was heard or seen. Unlike Imperial towns, there were no hanging picture signs, so even the creak of a sign swinging in the wind was absent.
Fen’s hand slid from her sword’s pommel to the grip. The hairs stood up on the back of her neck. Arwin said nothing; it must have been the longest he’d ever gone without a word. The box sitting in the saddle with him was three feet tall and about two feet wide. A wisp of dark smoke drifted from a slot near the bottom. The astringent fumes belied that it was păcură because coal smelled like dirty earth to her. She saw that his thumb sat on a release switch.
That brought a sardonic smirk to her face. It’s his brass hawk. I want to see it fly again. Her mind’s eye picture it’s metal wings flapping with the sound of wire string and gears moving to a fast rhythmic beat. But I’d rather see in the skies from our old home. Oh, Arwin. You’ll need supplies soon. Without your machines and your substances, you’re only a smart boy with a big sister to protect you. If they had been alone, she would have hugged him. This trip has been hard. I miss the days they let us be children.
A shifting shadow in a window got Fen’s attention – it could have been a hiding villager or an assassin. One of the Shan men caught her stare and yelled something in their weird language, several guards responded by storming the house in two squads. One took the lead by rushing through the front door as the second waited by the back for any escapees.
Fen noted that the Shans’ non-metallic armor made so much less noise than metal-studded Imperial gear. In moments, one of them leaned out the window and shook his head.
Up front where Uncle was, the exit gates were already open, but it felt as if the walls were closing in seemed that the rest of the wagon train crawled by, even though she knew that wasn’t the truth. Fen fought the urge to spur her horse on. If everyone else can take their sweet time, I will endure.
Eventually, as her part of the train passed the gate’s threshold, the knot of unease in her chest loosened and she took a deep breath.
Awrin covered up the box with a black cloth. “That was unsettling.”
Fen’s sweaty hand went back to the pommel. “Have I ever told you about your gift for understatement?”
“Hmm. So back there, what did that tell you?”
She took in the town one more time. “The five kingdoms are always fighting on and off the battlefield. And that the Shan distrust their cousins more than any bandits or Imperial assassins.”
He nodded. “Could there be anything else they’d want to hide from us?”
Fen ruminated for a moment. “No. Why?”
Arwin shrugged. “There are uncommon times when the common answer is wrong.”
“Really, do you think this is one of them, He Who Breathes Ink and Smoke?” Fen said.
Arwin didn’t look back. “Not sure. But you never know, unless you ask.”
Fen would have hit him right there but she was afraid the box would have slipped out of his grip. So a glare had to do. “I don’t need to be jumping at shadows.” Especially me. If I cry wolf at every moving branch, they will think that I’ve gone timid and chuck me into the Ladies Wagon. That’s not true. I’ll end up giving mock duels as entertainment at the Ambassador’s dinners and be Arwin’s tag-along. She shuddered.
To read the rest of the chapter, check it out here.