Armoria was a city of taverns. A place fuelled by alcohol and song, by the beckoning warmth of hearth fires and the colourful stories told around them. How then, Vanth wondered miserably, had she ended up at the Star of Armoria, a place it was said even the parasite-riddled keuhogs avoided.
Only a week previously, Vanth had kept a room at the Bard’s Rest. Margie, the innkeeper, had always insisted she liked having a Salt Sword about the place. It made her feel safe. Not that Vanth believed Margie would ever need her help to fend off the more violent punters. The woman was a wall of muscle and flesh, as wildly beautiful as she was intimidating. Not surprisingly, the innkeeper had survived despite the utter destruction of her establishment. Vanth knew it would be rebuilt eventually but for now, her rather dour surroundings could not be further from the clean, bright room she was accustomed to.
Vanth would rather have been at the Mermaid’s Purse or even the genteel and rather more expensive Dancing Crayfish, but all the taverns of the Bard’s Quarter had been filled to bursting by the newly homeless. Vanth didn’t need the room to live in, of course. She had perfectly adequate quarters alongside the rest of the Salt Swords at the Obsidian Citadel, but they did not provide her with the privacy she craved. Namely, she was unable to bring outside guests into the Citadel and if caught doing so, she would certainly be punished. A Salt Sword should be setting an example to the rest of Armoria’s rabble. Instead, Vanth spent her off hours knocking boots with a bard and routinely getting so drunk she would often wake in the early hours of the morning with her head hanging over a fountain, knuckles red and bruised from a fist-fight she barely remembered.
Thunder rolled overhead, punctuating a relentless sweep of hard rain that flooded the streets below Vanth’s window and lashed against the glass. From her vantage point on the wide and rather grimy window ledge, Vanth could just make out the entrance to the Wool and Cloth Merchant’s Association. It was a tatty looking door, set back into the wall with only one small lantern hanging from the lintel, flickering restlessly in the wind. Someone was furtively slipping inside, the hood of their thick wool cloak pulled up against the rain. Vanth watched them with idle curiosity. The Salt Swords had long suspected that the Wool and Cloth was merely a front for some shady enterprise. They certainly kept strange business hours.
Behind her, tangled in a mess of warm sheets, was Barlo. His hair had fallen across his face, his lips gently parted as he snored. Vanth shifted to look at him and winced as fresh pain flared along the length of her right leg. The druid’s poultices and pungent salves were certainly effective but sitting for so long beside the cold damp of the window had made the tender muscles pull taught and stiff once more.
“You shouldn’t be sitting like that, all hunched up,” Barlo said, his voice heavy with sleep. “Your leg needs to rest on something soft.” He patted the mattress beside him. “Come back to bed, Vanth. Allow me to speed up the healing process.”
“I didn’t know you were awake,” Vanth said, ignoring his suggestion.
“Who could sleep through this interminable weather?” Barlo scowled in the direction of the window. “Perhaps I should follow the changelings to Kaelunis. I could be sleeping on a bed of warm sand right now, with the sweet caress of stars for a blanket.”
“You would probably wake to find a fangcrab in your underwear.” Vanth smiled to herself in the dark, imagining Barlo leaping about the beach with a fangcrab hanging from his breeches. Then a new thought occurred to her and the smile faded. “You’re not really considering leaving the city, are you?” She pushed herself further back against the softly rotting window frame as Barlo’s chest visibly expanded and a grin spread across his face.
“You’d miss me, would you?”
“I would soon replace you,” Vanth said quickly, fervently wishing she had not spoken her thoughts aloud. Lack of sleep was making her foolish. “But it would be a tiresome task, finding another I was willing to share my bed with on idle nights.”
“Not many would consent to spend their idle nights in a hole such as this, either,” Barlo countered. “I hope when you do come to replace me, Vanth, you offer the poor bloke a more romantic environment. Clean sheets would be nice. Maybe even a room without rat shit swept into the corners or mould blooming across the ceiling.” Vanth failed to reply. She turned her face back to the rain-lashed night beyond the window, the fingertips of one hand absently drumming on the glass.
“I do not plan to leave,” Barlo eventually said, lifting the silence stretching out between them. “My home is here. My friends, my work. Lord Dewer will not chase me from the Bard’s Quarter.”
“I do not believe Dewer released that monster on purpose.” Vanth spoke so softly, Barlo had to sit up in bed and lean closer to hear her. “He talked of ‘re-capturing’ it, as though its release was a mistake. What if there are more?”
“Gwin says there are.”
“Yes. Gwin says many things.” Vanth bit her bottom lip hard enough to draw blood as she thought back to her conversation with the Asrai at the Leafling’s Half.
“I saw Gwin yesterday, in Midnight Square. She said she’s no longer looking to create this changeling army of hers.”
“Well, how can she? Now they are fleeing the city?”
“That was not her reason, Vanth.”
Silence descended once more. Vanth shivered, pulling the blanket she had wrapped around herself tighter about her shoulders. Her gaze briefly flickered to her clothes, discarded on the floor hours earlier. She badly wanted to climb down from the window ledge and get dressed in the warm, comforting leather of her Salt Sword uniform, but the stiff ache in her leg made her pause.
Barlo began to move agitatedly in the bed, perhaps tired of being ignored. Finally, he threw the sheets aside and stood naked in the dark, stumbling about the room until he came upon the one small cheap lantern the tavern had been kind enough to supply. He lit it quickly and began searching the room again, this time ducking beneath the bed to retrieve the half-bottle of rum that had rolled to a stop there. Finally triumphant and making no attempt to disguise his nakedness, gently illuminated now by the dull light of the lantern, Barlo turned to Vanth, presenting the bottle like a hard-won trophy.
“Enough of this dour talk,” he said. “We have a roof over our heads on a most inclement night and enough drink left to share. Let us be grateful for that, at least.”
Vanth had watched this entire spectacle with increasing amusement. She rewarded him with a small smile and held out her hand. “Let’s be having it, then.”
Barlo handed the bottle to Vanth and turned to gather up a discarded bed sheet, tying it around his waist like a shapeless skirt. He perched on the opposite side of the window ledge and watched as
Vanth pulled the cork from the bottle with her teeth and took a long swallow. The rum was strong and sweet. Vanth closed her eyes as it worked a warm, delicious trail down her throat.
“Leave some for me,” Barlo gently chided.
She passed him the bottle and carefully shifted her weight on the window ledge, stretching her aching leg with a grimace. “I keep thinking about those people who ran from the Bard’s Rest,” she said, her own candour surprising her. She must have taken a longer shot of the rum than she realised.
“The people who died, you mean?”
“I know many people died that day,” Vanth explained, taking the bottle back from Barlo and downing another swig, “but they died right in front of me.” She paused and drew a shuddering breath.
“They died because of me. I had to choose between saving them or saving a druid. Lord Dewer told us to protect the druids, so that’s what I did.”
“You must not blame yourself,” Barlo said. He placed his hand on her arm and Vanth flinched but did not push him away. “It was not you who unleashed a monster on your own city.”
“No.” Vanth spoke into the bottle. “But I carried out the orders of the man who did.” She took a last bittersweet swallow of the dark, swirling rum before passing the bottle back to Barlo. “When I first joined the Salt Swords I never questioned anything. Everything feels different now. It feels…” She groped for the right word. “It feels complicated. The world has been set off-kilter. Ever since Gwin arrived.” She spoke these last words through gritted teeth.
“It was Gwin who saved the Bard’s Quarter,” Barlo reminded her.
“I know. If you recall, I risked my own bloody life in order to aid her.” Barlo had no knowledge of the things Gwin had told her in the Leafling’s Half and she had no intention of ever telling him about the apparent changeling blood lurking in her veins. Blood that made seemingly innocuous shadows grow large and frightening; blood that sang in her ears as she slept and spun vivid, otherworldly landscapes through her dreams.
“Albin and Pictor say I have gone soft,” Vanth continued, grabbing the bottle back from Barlo when he offered it to her and clasping it to her chest. “They wonder what has become of Vanth the Vile.”
“I do not believe such a woman ever truly existed,” Barlo said.
“You were not there as witness when I first earned the title,” Vanth replied with a humourless grin. She turned back to the window, her warm breath making fog on the cold glass. “Everything was clear then,” she said, as much to herself as to Barlo. “I trained my mind to keep my thoughts from wandering. My focus was sharp and narrow. If you were not trusted by Lord Dewer, you were not trusted by me. It made matters very simple.” She glanced back at him. “You would have hated me. I was cruel to the changelings, to any soul who happened to cross my path. I filled the Pit of Thorns with fresh prisoners faster than any other Salt Sword. They ordered me to slow down, the cells were getting overcrowded. That’s when I simply started beating any person I decided was guilty of a transgression, no matter how minor. I acted like a wild animal, full of rage. But that was all it was. An act. In reality I haven’t truly felt an emotion as pure and undiluted as rage for years. Not the way other people do. Not since my mother died.”
“Well, of course anyone would feel that way. You suffered a terrible loss and you were so young—”
“No, you don’t understand,” Vanth interrupted him. He waited patiently as she gazed across the room, unseeing, struggling to find a way to explain that hollow feeling. She sometimes thought it was like being trapped behind prison bars, forced to watch everyone around her live their lives in the sunlight while for her on the other side, the rain was endless. There was comfort to be found in rain. It could soothe, it could refresh and transform. But after a while you’re bound to get tired of being constantly cold and damp and will start to squint at the horizon, yearning for the return of the sun. Vanth found she couldn’t explain any of this. Instead, she frowned at the peeling paint of the window frame, at the wood warping and splintering along the ledge, and kicked at it with her good foot. A chunk of detritus fell to the floor.
Vanth stared at Barlo, her expression dark with suspicion. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, why did you stop being Vanth the Vile? You are a friend to the changelings now, trusted above any other Salt Sword throughout the Bard’s Quarter. What changed?”
A long roll of thunder unfurled across the leaden sky and Vanth squinted into the harsh flash of the ensuing lightning. She had never allowed herself to consider why she no longer felt the need to press a boot into the back of anyone who crossed her.
“Living your life through a lens of cruelty and degradation is just so bloody tiring,” she finally said. She drained the last of the rum and set the bottle on the floor.
“Well I for one am delighted that Vanth the Vile is no more,” Barlo said.
“Yes,” Vanth agreed. “She would have detested you, a theatrical lay-about with delusions of grandeur. You would definitely have spent a few nights in the Pit.”
“What a poor miserable wretch she must have been, unable to see that there is nothing at all delusional about my grandeur.”
They smiled at each other for a few moments in the half-light before Vanth began to move and stretch her leg once more, preparing to stand.
“I must leave,” she said. “It will soon be daybreak and it’s a long walk between here and the Obsidian Citadel.”
“You intend to travel in this weather?” Barlo said. “If your leg is not rendered entirely useless by the time you get there, you will catch your death of cold.”
Vanth winced as she stepped into her trousers. “The pain in my leg will ease as I walk,” she argued. “And I do not intend to let death catch me because of some rain.”
As Vanth stepped out into the wash of rainwater that had been a dry street when she first arrived at the inn, she noticed the mysterious visitor to the Wool and Cloth Merchants Association had exited the building just ahead of her and was rounding a corner, their thick cloak fanning out about their feet. Vanth wished she had thought to bring a cloak of her own. Instead, she could only bow her head against the onslaught of rain and limp back to the Citadel as fast as her protesting leg would allow. There would be opportunity to procure more of the druid’s spicy smelling salves in the morning.