Continued from Part III

Dawen was waiting in the warehouse when Fossick arrived. The Rats were still gone.

“Did you get it?” she asked.

“I think so,” he replied. His expression betrayed his uncertainty. “There is only one green-eyed Red Brother in the city and he’s a friend of the captain, retained by the garrison to do magic for them. But there were several vases like the one you described.” He pulled a small vial out of his coat and held it out.

“That’s not it at all,” she began, “the one I saw was…”

“I know, I know. But I couldn’t take the real one; he would know it was stolen. I poured a little of it in this while he slept last night. We have to test it to see if it’s the correct one.”

She froze at the suggestion. “I’m not going to…” she began.

“We’ll use a rat,” he said, flustered. He looked annoyed by her confusion, but she knew he was simply tired and worried. He had not slept since sneaking her out of his cottage two evenings prior.

Her brother’s street gang was named for the ubiquitous rats of this section of the city, several of which they kept in cages as pets. There was one nearby, a gray one with black eyes and a long, hairless tail. It was the biggest rodent Dawen had ever seen.

“How much does it take?” Fossick asked, removing the stopper and pulling the cage into the torchlight so they could see the effects of their experiment.

“You only need a drop, and it takes a few minutes before it starts to work.”

Fossick poured a few drops into the dry dish and the rat scurried over to drink. After several minutes there were still no visible effects. He frowned at the rat, rubbing his clean-shaven chin with a calloused hand.

Scuffling noises arose near the back door of the warehouse: the Rats had returned with a gagged soldier in tow. His helmet was gone and his hair was matted, though it was too short to cover his face. Hatred, rather than fear, burned from his eyes.

Dawen ran to her brother and hugged him tight. Pontis was sweaty and he stunk like sewage and blood. He kissed her gently on the forehead and messed her hair playfully with a dirty hand, carefully avoiding her bandages. She answered aloud the question his eyes asked.

“I’m alright.”

He smiled back and called over to Fossick. Dawen was surprised to see them shake hands.

“We got us another grunt,” Pontis said. Fossick did not stop his boast this time. “When the garrison gathers tomorrow for breakfast, they’ll count up short again. Sooner or later, they’ll count up empty. Hey, what are you doing with that rat?”

“We’re trying to kill him,” Fossick said with a smile.

“Nice. You want a crossbow?”

“A fiddle would be better. Your sister discovered how the soldiers make the strumplets dance. She also has some ideas for returning the favor if I can find the correct potion,” Fossick said, displaying the small vial. “However, it seems your playmate here is unaffected by this one.”

“Maybe it only works on people,” Pontis suggested.

Dawen’s eyes followed the conversation, turning away as Fossick’s frustrated frown returned and landing on the soldier for the first time. She had seen his face before, though it was by moonlight rather than torchlight. She screamed as memories of the cold alley flooded her mind. She smelled her own blood, felt a copper coin on her exposed stomach. Her hand involuntarily reached for her buttons. The startled captive looked up into her face; recognition showed clearly in his expression. Pontis was at her side immediately.

“Is this one of them?” he asked, holding the soldier’s chin up so she could get a better look. She buried her face in her hands as she nodded her head. She could not stop her shoulders from shaking. “Give me the vial,” he growled at Fossick, who handed it over immediately. “Die well, you swine.”

Pontis ripped the gag from the soldier’s mouth and forced the vial between his teeth. The soldier twisted his head violently, trying to avoid the drink. The end of the beaker broke off and the sharp edge cut his gums. Two Rats grabbed his head and held it firmly in place. Pontis tipped the vial up, pouring the liquid over his bleeding gums and lips. It dripped off his chin and down the front of his armor. Dawen caught her breath, taking a step back, looking at the soldier. Fossick was squatting in front of him, intently studying his face. With a hand he quieted Pontis, urging him to be patient.

The soldier spit out as much of the potion as he could. It was not enough. His leg began to pull madly against the restraints and his eyes widened. The Rats tied his gag back on as he screamed and his arms began to jerk. The ropes held, but it was another five minutes before the dance ended. The chair lay in ruins beneath the soldier’s contorted corpse. Dawen turned from it to Fossick and was surprised by the look of cold satisfaction she saw on his face. She knew the same expression was written across her own.

“Can you get more?” she asked him.

* * *

Dawen’s bandages were off when she returned to Daggers Drawn. The worst of the bruises were hidden by her loose clothing. Her hair was cropped and dyed black. Heavy makeup festooned her eyes and gave her skin a dark hue. She had to work hard to convince the owner to let her into the kitchen for, though she had worked for him for years, he did not recognize her. She considered that test a success.

It was New Moon, the day the garrison gathered for their monthly feast. On other days they ate what they could extort from the people of the city, but on feast day they closed Daggers Drawn and conscripted the cooks to make them something special. Though it cost him a fortune, owner did not complain; he was wise enough to suffer the inevitable silently. Dawen nervously watched the other cooks load food onto the cart for the short trip to the Garrison’s kitchen where it would be prepared by the Daggers Drawn staff. She climbed aboard the cart, clutching the small vial that waited patiently within her pocket.

She looked out into the dining hall at the long tables set with empty bowls. There were at least sixty soldiers present, laughing and pounding the tables with their utensils, while the green-eyed warlock talked with the captain at the head table. She shuddered when she saw the Red Brother and the fire in her eyes momentarily smoldered. It was rekindled by flame from Fossick’s eyes. On duty tonight, he stood in his red armor behind them. His expression was aloof but for the eyes that burned into the back of the Red Brother’s head. His palm lay uneasily on his sword hilt. She had seen this mood before but doubted anyone else would discern it on his stoic face. He would not be eating tonight: he was here to guard the Red Brother. Dawen knew that for the first time in his disciplined life, Fossick was purposely negligent in that duty.

Half a dozen strumplets were there, too, though they were not allowed to eat with the soldiers. Instead they ran from table to table, delivering mugs and receiving pinches and slaps from rough hands in return. One of them entered the kitchen for more mugs, recognizing Dawen as she stirred the stew. She had already poured its final ingredient into it.

“Hey, you’re…” she began before seeing the alarm on Dawen’s face. Her voice quieted. “I’m ready to get away now. I can do it, I really can.”

Dawen checked quickly to see that no other cooks were near. Then she looked at the girl. Her eyes were blackened and there was a red line, a cut, from her scalp to her chin. It was fresh, though it no longer bled. Her face was ashen, her expression pleading. Though she was the first girl Dawen had urged to escape, she had changed so much in the last few weeks that Dawen barely recognized her.

“It won’t be necessary,” she said. In a few short sentences, Dawen laid out her plan. She felt uneasy sharing so much with a girl she barely knew, but the anger that had risen at the sight of the girl’s disfigured face smothered her disquiet. Their eyes met. “To hell with them all,” Dawen concluded coldly.

The girl was horrified but promised to help if she could.

Dawen watched the routine from the kitchen. She had seen it countless times. These were soldiers, after all: disciplined and predictable. All would go according to plan. Four waiters rolled the stew out as the strumplets scurried back and forth. The enlisted men lined up double file, filling their bowls and sitting down quickly. Their spoons lay flat on the table; none of them dared eat before their captain. He and the Red Brother were served where they sat. Fossick stood at attention, his eyes pointed forward.

The frightened strumplet set steaming bowls in front of the captain and his warlock. She was shaking and the bowl rattled, nearly spilling its contents into the captain’s lap. He grinned cynically as she fumbled with the cutlery.

“What’s the matter, trollop?” he growled. “Don’t like the stew?” She bit her lip and said nothing. “Taste it,” he said, raising a spoonful to her mouth. His deep voice carried through the hall where the soldiers sat patiently, watching them and waiting for permission to eat. The Red Brother whispered something to the captain, catching his attention momentarily. Fossick’s knuckles were white on the sword now, and Dawen expected that it might leap from its sheath at any second. He stared straight ahead, past the strumplet. Dawen saw his eye twitch, but his expression did not change.

Dawen looked back to the girl. The strumplet’s eyes erupted with fear verging on panic. She took a tentative step away from the captain and looked up helplessly toward the kitchen. Then her eyes met Dawen’s and held them firmly. As the captain looked up in impatience, the girl’s panic subsided and her expression calmed. Even the angry wound on her face seemed to fade. Glowering into the captain’s eyes, she emptied the spoon and swallowed. Then she waited silently behind him, hands at her sides. Her passion was gone, replaced by a sad serenity. He looked at her and laughed scornfully. Once the benediction was over, she walked slowly to the kitchen, looking straight ahead. Tears moistened her cheeks as she entered. She hugged Dawen fiercely and ran crying into the night. Dawen followed to hold her hands while she died.

In the hall the soldiers ate heartily, as soldiers do. As bowls were emptied and spoons were set down, Fossick edged toward the door. Though no music was playing, the soldiers, one by one, rose up to dance.