Kat looked shocked. “I shall submit to no such abuse!”
The captain did not rise to her ire. “You have surrendered, your grace.”
“What about him?” She jabbed an angry finger my direction. “You have no idea how much cutlery he’s hiding.”
The captain looked pained and turned to me, shaking his head slowly. “You heard her,” he said to one of his men. “Apparently this gentleman has some other weapons. Make sure the only one here who can kill a soul thief is unarmed.”
Katherine stood, white-lipped, as she was relieved of her weaponry, and I of mine. Bags gave up his glittery sword and his hunting knife, but no one present considered him defanged.
I cooperated, giving up one blade after another, until I was naked for the second time in as many days. The soldier handled the blades with respect, pausing over the black blade. Traces of wizard blood clung to the base of the blade. “Beautiful,” he said. “Where’d you get it?”
“Old friend. There’s another out there somewhere.”
“Hopefully she’ll find her sister someday.” He was a big kid, angular, with a sideways smile and a crooked nose. I had been planning to kill him hours before.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“I like you, Wingles.”
He gave a half-shrug, not sure how to take that.
“Take good care of these,” I said. “And if the world goes sideways, maybe you can help them back into my hands.”
“I can’t do that, sir,” he said as he nodded yes.
I smiled, but already that naked feeling was growing in my gut. “Well, I had to try.”
“All right, then,” the captain said. “Let’s move.”
And so I walked, the mounted patrol matching their pace to mine. Elena was on a horse always, riding behind the soldiers each in turn, entertaining them and worming her way deeper under their skins. They had already faced death for her once, and they would welcome the opportunity do it again.
The Captain’s plan was simple: travel some fifty miles to the outpost the soldiers called home, deposit the corpse of the man I had most recently killed, get more horses and men, and proceed on to Sky City to allow Katherine to face the King’s justice. I was confident that none of the prisoners in the group, myself included, had any intent to meet the king, but I was willing to follow long enough to see Elena under the King’s protection.
We covered about half the distance to the outpost on the first day, and once more I sat by the fire as the soldiers made camp with unthinking efficiency. I found myself next to the captain.
“I wonder,” I said.
He smiled. “This should be good.”
“I was thinking that I should teach Elena the basics of the knife.”
He thought for a moment. “I can’t let you have a blade.”
“But she can have one. She needs to be able to defend herself.”
“I’m not so sure about that. I think half my men would follow her orders instead of mine right now.”
I smiled. “She does have a way about her. Still, I’d feel better if she knew how to use a blade without hurting herself.”
The captain mulled for a moment and nodded. “All right. But you don’t touch the knife. Ever. You’ll be strictly supervised.”
“I want to use the black knife,” Elena said. Of course she had been listening in.
“We will start,” I said, “With a stick. Tomorrow, if you do well, we will use a simpler knife. The dark one…” I took a breath as I allowed that it might even be possible. “You will have to earn that.”
I expected protest, but she was watching me carefully. I wondered what she saw. “I will earn it,” she said. “Let’s find some fucking sticks.”
When Kat finally cornered me after the lesson she didn’t seem concerned that anyone in the camp could hear us. “That wasn’t the first soul thief you killed,” she said. She’d been waiting a long time for this conversation, and I have to admit that after avoiding it for so long I was hooked by her opener.
“No shit?” I asked. I hope historians see fit to make my words more clever.
Kat rolled here eyes “No shit, Martin. If you spent a little more time with your eyes open, you’d know that.”
A petty jibe. An attempt for high ground in the coming debate. But false. My eyes are always open when I kill someone. “You husband, then?” I asked. After all, he was the only other one I’d killed that she had known.
I couldn’t remember her ever smiling before. “Don’t make me laugh. The baron was a boy playing in the games of men.”
“And women,” I said.
She paused, and her smile came back, a little different. “And women. But no, my dearly departed husband was not a Soul Thief. It was Bags who figured out who you are.”
Who I was, to the best of my knowledge, was a smaller-than-average man who was physically and emotionally well-equipped to solve my problems by cutting people open. When I had money I was rather unpleasant to be around. None of those characteristics is terribly unique. Nothing that makes “who I am” terribly interesting.
“You are known to the Shadow Thieves,” Katherine said.
“And how do you come to know this?” I asked.
“Bags has done some work for them in the past. So have you.”
Many of my employers over the years had gone to lengths to preserve their anonymity, so now that the existence of the Soul Thieves was incontrovertible, it was certainly possible that they had hired me before. But I don’t as a rule kill my employers. Bad for business.
“They called you the Gray Man,” Bags said, sitting on my other side. “I wouldn’t have heard about you, but your last job for them caused a shit-storm.”
“What’d he do?” Elena asked, injecting herself in the conversation.
“There was a power struggle going on. The wizard I took my orders from hired the gray man to eliminate one of his rivals,” Bags said. He turned to me with his gap-tooth smile. “I was unemployed soon thereafter. At least for the moment, all the other Soul Thieves agreed on something. My master had crossed a line.”
“And you think I’m the gray man?”
Bags nodded slowly. “I do.”
“I don’t remember killing any wizards.”
“You took something from him. The stiletto you keep strapped to your wrist. I didn’t see it until we were in Mountain Forge. That’s when I knew.”
Unconsciously I rubbed my forearm where the knife should have been. It was true that I had relieved it from a man who would not be needing it any longer. He’d been a big man, well-muscled, with hair cut to a rough stubble, sleeping in a run-down hostel surrounded by others down on their luck. He hadn’t seemed very wizardly, whatever that meant. It was entirely possible that the man I’d killed had been the gray man, but there didn’t seem much point chasing that idea any further. My comrades had made up their minds. “And that’s when Kat started trying to get me to join you.”
Kat snorted. “That’s when I knew I’d succeed.”
Elena jumped forward and sat on my knee and put one arm around my neck. “He’s with me,” she said. “You two can fuck yourselves.”
Bags laughed and tousled her hair. “Things like this don’t happen by chance,” he said. “Someone wants us together. Someone whose wishes come true.”
Took me a while to get this episode out; and I’m still not are how I feel about it. At some point in a first-draft serial, however, it’s time to just let it out there and move on. So when I got to a point that didn’t annoy me, I threw it into the wild without so much as a proof-read, so I wouldn’t continue to second-guess myself.
I hope you’re all still enjoying this; I haven’t heard much in the last few episodes. Hopefully I can get back on a more frequent cycle so it’s easier to follow along.