There was no one occupying the main wagon’s sleeping area, so with consent from Pazil, Anala crawled in and lay down to take a nap.
The month of leave had exhausted her, and she was sure Aro was tired as well. She wasn’t sure what had possessed him to agree to come along – she hadn’t known his devotion to his bellica would stretch so far.
They’d packed nothing but civvies and headed for Aeril first. They had agreed to travel incognito, adopting aliases so as not to attract attention, and brought their own meagre supply of gold and silver along – charging to a military account wouldn’t work for Selina deMaya and Evan deKama, a humble pair of travellers.
Aeril was dilapidated and colder than usual – since the death of Lady Nia Ylfen and subsequent ascension of her court-educated daughter, Danika, things had fallen into disrepair.
Danika had spent her education in Atherton, as was the custom with heirs to township posts in the country. Any good that may have been in the girl was pushed out, and now she spent all the town’s money on her own pleasures and luxury, ignoring the needs of her subjects in the grand tradition Zanny had established.
Aeril was the perfect place to find a spark of rebellion.
They’d booked a room in an inn and spent their three days among the townspeople, gathering the general attitude of the populace.
Anala didn’t yet know for whom, or when, but since her visit with her aunt she’d privately vowed to help as much as she dared when the time came, as she knew it must. History showed that all tyrannies fell. Anala wanted to make sure history remained true.
She wasn’t sure how Aro felt about such treasonous doings, and when she asked him he had simply replied, “You’re my bellica. I swore to follow you, and I remain true to that vow.” She had left it at that, glad to have an ally.
It seemed there would be more allies for rebellion in Aeril. Most of the people she’d talked to, while cautious with their words, were obviously mired in malcontent. Only one person had been less than cautious–a girl who felt she had nothing left to lose.
Molly deRosie was eighteen, and one of the bitterest people Anala had ever met. She was the daughter of the innkeeper, and had served up their third night’s supper with a thunk and a smile that never reached her eyes.
“Eat well, Dama, monsieur,” she’d bitten out, and turned to go.
“I’m of a mind ta think we will, if’n ye cooked it yesself, child,” Anala had replied. She’d found her accent to be of a benefit to her here. No one would expect someone from court to speak so.
Molly turned and looked upon Anala with unmatched malice. “Is that supposed to be a joke?”
“Which part?” Anala tried to get a rise out of the girl. She had sensed a great unrest in Molly and in that, great potential.
“Think you truly that a child with such a disability as this,” she gestured to her unbending leg, “could be so useful? Waste not your mocking on me, Dama. I’ll not be fooled.”
“I’d not be mocking ye.” Anala had looked the girl directly in the eye. “I’ve a right to call ye child. Ye’re a full ten years me junior, and ye’d be a minor. And such a disability would liken to impair yer fightin’, not yer cookin, I reckon.”
She’d struck a nerve. Molly had clamped her jaw shut and Anala could hear her teeth grinding. “Call me if you need anything,” the girl said, through her teeth, and limped off.
“Dangerous, Selina,” Aro said softly when the girl was out of earshot.
“No more than whatever else we’d be doing here, Evan.” Her reply was just as quiet. “She’s of a mind to come back,” she’d added as they turned to their food.
The hours wore on and the tavern emptied, Anala and Aro continuing to sit in their corner, barely touching their drinks, for all that his was non-alcoholic and she had a strong head for wine, when they heard the unmistakable thunk-step, thunk-step that signalled Molly’s approach.
The girl sat down unceremoniously on the bench across from them, mug of ale in hand. She noted Anala looking at it and gave her a silent challenge, daring her to call out her underage drinking. Anala had met her eyes but said nothing.
“So,” the girl said in a low voice, “What do you want with an old cripple like me?” Her tone held no humour, nor her smile.
“What would give ye the idea that we’d be wanting ye, child?”
Molly glared. “Now I’m sure you’re mocking me. I’m not so blind as the rest of the townspeople. I see right through you.”
“And what is it ye see?”
Molly was thrown off balance but took it in stride, answering with only a moment’s pause. “You’re not so poor as you pretend to be, nor so humble. You walk too proudly. You spend as if you have no worries to your next batch of coin. I’d even go so far to say,” she dropped her voice even lower, “that you’re spies from the empress’ court. In which case, she’s slipping, because you’re the worst spies I’ve ever encountered.”
Anala had raised her eyebrows slightly. She and Aro would have to be more careful from now on. An angry tension pulsed in Aro’s thigh against her own, and she’d placed a hand on his. His eyes met hers. Peace, her face had counselled him. He calmed down.
Molly watched the exchange with interest. Ignoring it, Anala had pointed out, “If’n ye’re so knowledgeable as to the nature of spies, then ye ken we’d not be any, or ye wouldna said what ye just did.”
Molly shrugged. “I suppose that if it was all a careful ruse to trick me into revealing something, it worked, and I’ll be watched carefully by that supplicating bitch-pup we call Lady of this city – and for this statement, I’ll be killed. So, let us talk openly.”
“Ye’d be quite reckless with yer life for one sa young as yer years.”
Molly took a swig of her ale and shrugged again. “Life’s not worth much if you can’t work to pull in a decent living. I’ll be stuck in this tavern till I die, so there’s no difference as to if it’s today or when I’m old and barren as the southern desert. She paused. “I applied to join the military.”
When she didn’t speak again, Anala had asked, “Why?”
“Adventure, travel, a chance to die doing something worthwhile. That was before things got so bad – only five years ago.”
Anala had sensed a block had been loosened, that Molly was saying what she’d not been able to for years. “They wouldn’t take me, though,” she continued. “My leg – it’d never get better, they said, and they couldn’t waste their time training one so unfit – not even as a medic.”
“Have ye some healing ability then?”
“To be sure…at one time. I’d apprenticed to a healer when I was quite young, but she left town a year after Duchess Danika’s ascension.” She laid a nasty emphasis on the honorific. “Went to Nucalif, probably hoping things would be better there. I never got a chance to join her. She’s most likely dead now.”
Anala had flinched inwardly, reminded that the price of obeying orders was a heavy tax on one’s soul.
Molly talked on, oblivious to the reactions to her story. “So it was up to me to be town healer, meager as my training was.” She laughed bitterly. “By some cruel twist of fate, had she not left I would not have needed her services two years hence, and so would not be so deformed. The Goddesses make cruel jests on us indeed….” She trailed off and stared into her mug of ale, as if looking for an explanation to the workings of the universe in its depths. Anala hadn’t known what to say.
After a time Molly seemed to collect herself and turned her attention back to the Bellica and Major. “So the question still stands – what would you want with an old cripple such as myself?”
“Information and support,” Anala had said simply, glad to be able to reply.
Molly gave a half-smile. “Of what sort? You should know from our conversation I’ll not help the empress, lead though it may to my death.”
Anala had returned the smile. “I’d be pleased to know we’d be of a like mind.”
“Then,” Molly said, allowing the smile to spread to the other side of her face, “let us speak of our business and tarry no more.”
Working in a tavern made her privy to all sorts of information, and Molly told them everything they wanted to know: Duchess Danika’s habits of ruling, a list of people discontented enough to fight back, how the town would react to a coup. More than half the town would support a rebellion, she figured, and almost all of those people willing and able to fight. Of the other half of the town, she didn’t think many would openly work against the rebellion and those who did would be dispatched with easily.
A few hours passed before Molly asked a few questions of her own.
“Who are you, really?”
A valid question, Anala had thought. Why had Molly not asked it earlier? Knowing she couldn’t answer with the truth, no matter how much she liked and wanted to trust Molly as much as the girl had trusted them, she had deliberated, not knowing what to say.
Sensing her discomfort, Aro took the liberty of a diplomatic reply. “Residents of Atherton and frequenters of Court, though we are far from courtiers.”
Molly stared, first at Aro; then Anala, working it out. Then her eyes widened in recognition.
Oh, feck. Found out.
Molly laughed, low and guttural. “Of course. I don’t know why I didn’t recognise you before, Ma’am. And I shall continue as if I haven’t. You remain Selina deMaya and Evan deKama to me, come torture or death.” She raised her left palm, her right hand over her wrist. “I swear by Her who waits in the Last Hall.”
“And I’d hold ye to it, lest death be too kind to those who’d be forsworn,” Anala had said a bit harshly, though relieved. An oath on the name of Bellona was not taken lightly.
Molly smiled, unperturbed, and asked her next question as if nothing of import had transpired. “When do you plan to revolt?”
“We plan nothing,” Aro said, deciding to handle this one as well. “We act as allies with whoever leads us to freedom.”
Anala had looked at him with surprise. She’d never heard such passion in his voice.
Molly’s eyebrows shot up past her bangs. “You’re taking an awfully big risk for a rebellion that’s not yet been planned. But I respect your bravery, and I’ll ask you no more questions. It nears the midnight hour; we’d best quit our meeting before suspicions are raised. Stay you another night?”
Anala had shaken her head. “We’d be needing to head to Two-Sides in the morning, but we’d be grateful for yer hospitality, and we’ll be keeping in touch, I reckon.”
Molly nodded. Her slight look of disappointment had not gone unnoticed by Anala. She’d felt her heart twist for this girl to whom she felt so akin in so short a time but allowed herself to be led by Aro to their shared room. There had been nothing they could do about it; there was more work to do yet and Two-Sides was a long ride away.
Now Anala turned over and tried to quiet her mind enough to sleep. Thoughts of Molly had stayed with her the rest of the journey, and probably would for a while yet, but there was no use wasting her sleeping time thinking of the girl. She willed her thoughts to turn to her usual pre-sleep jumble, and slowly drifted off to the rocking of the wagon.