Gwin paused at the edge of Midnight Square, hitching the hem of her cloak up slightly to avoid the layer of ash and rubble still littering the ground. Residents of the Bard’s Quarter, side by side with Armoria’s finest carpenters and masons, had been working day and night to clear the remains of the charred buildings and begin to repair the damage, but the process was slow. The Bard’s Rest was still a sad pile of gently smouldering wood and shattered glass.
Gwin squinted at a group of people, working to load a section of the ruined stage onto a cart ready to be hauled away. The man standing above the rest and issuing impassioned instructions looked familiar.
“Barlo?” Gwin said, moving towards him. “Barlo, is that you? I have been wondering how you fared.”
Barlo looked up at the sound of his name and smiled warmly at Gwin, jumping down from his lofty position on an upended crate. “The fair lady, Gwin,” he said. “How soothing it is to behold your beautiful face amid this brutal destruction.”
“Must you always greet me so?” Gwin asked, embarrassed.
“Your radiance makes it hard not to.” When Gwin looked away he reached for the fat burlap sack she was holding. “Please allow me to carry this,” he offered. “Where are you going?”
“That’s very kind of you, but I can manage. Besides,” Gwin added, her nose wrinkling slightly as she took in his dusty clothes and soot-smeared hands, “I fear you would dirty anything you touched.” She smiled, not wishing to upset him. Thankfully, Barlo was not easily offended.
“A fair point, succinctly made,” he said.
“I am to meet Gulpe at his shop,” Gwin continued. “I just wanted to ask after Tamsin and Neave. And yourself, of course.”
“We are all well. As well as can be expected, at any rate.” His face fell and when he moved closer, Gwin caught a rare, fleeting glimpse of the man beneath the mask, vulnerable and frightened. “I have never seen a creature like that before,” he said. “Many changelings are leaving the city to seek new homes in Nymed or Kaelunis. I even heard some mention making the long journey to Jonick. They fear that monster was unleashed with the sole purpose of destroying them.” He lowered his voice. “You will likely struggle to form any defence against Lord Dewer now, Gwin. The changelings have been abused for so long, many have no fight left in them. You must not blame them, they simply wish to make a life for themselves unburdened by fear.”
“I wouldn’t dream of blaming them,” Gwin replied.
“And what do you believe?” Barlo pressed. “Do you think that creature was Dewer’s living weapon? A demon sent to crush what is left of the changeling community?” His voice carried an oddly urgent tone, as though he was desperate to know Gwin’s opinion.
Gwin placed a hand on his arm in an attempt to soothe him. Beneath the thin fabric of his shirt, she could feel him shaking. “I do not know for certain,” she said. “All I am sure of is that it was somehow connected to Lord Dewer.”
She paused and glanced about the square, making sure they were not being overheard. “I have a new plan,” she whispered. “One that does not involve the changelings. At least, not yet. I would like to tell you more but I am about to place myself in an extremely precarious position and it would not do to-”
“I understand,” Barlo said, interrupting her. “But let me know if I can be of any assistance at all, won’t you?” He grinned unexpectedly and bowed low before her, sweeping one arm high into the air. “It is always a pleasure to see you, lovely lady.” Any hint of fear or worry was once again carefully hidden beneath his wide smile and the theatrical twinkle in his eyes. “When might I see you again? You really must come to our next show. We will be performing the Lament of Suki Sidhe. It promises to be spectacularly moving.”
“I’m glad to hear your Players haven’t decided to leave the city,” Gwin said. “Many of them are changelings, aren’t they?”
“They are indeed. Neave is playing the titular role of Suki Sidhe. I know she would be deeply moved if you were to attend.”
“Where will you be performing? Surely the stage won’t be back to its former splendour for some time?” She cast a doubtful look at the blackened planks of wood and the tattered and charred remnants of what had once been handsome curtains, stacked in two swaying bundles on the back of a groaning cart.
“Marya of the Mermaid’s Purse has kindly offered us a home at her rather quaint establishment. We are used to a larger performance space, of course, but we must not complain. What the people of this quarter need in these dark days is the finest entertainment, and the Barlo Players are duty-bound to provide it.”
After promising that she would attend his play, Gwin left Barlo to his group of sullen-faced workers and turned into Midnight Lane. The narrow street had been largely untouched by the previous week’s destruction, yet a fine sifting of ash and brick dust still stirred from the rooftops whenever the wind swept past, casting a subdued, grey pall across the usually warm glow of the shop fronts.
Gulpe was standing behind the counter in his shop, head bent over a very thick, brittle looking book. He looked up sharply as Gwin entered and closed it with a loud thump.
“Well, if it isn’t Armoria’s resident monster slayer,” he greeted her. “How does the morning find you, Mrs?”
Gwin could not be sure if the hobgoblin was being surly or if he was genuinely pleased to see her. “The morning finds me well,” she said. “But I’m hardly a monster slayer, Gulpe. Vanth was the one who felled the beast.”
“So I hear. She’s a strange sort, for a Salt Sword.” He eyed the burlap bundle still clasped in Gwin’s arms, one bushy eyebrow raised. “What do you have there, Mrs? Travelling supplies? Are you leaving town already?” In a small glass jar on a shelf behind him, something blue and green emitted a low croak.
“Quite the opposite,” Gwin replied. She drew herself up to her full height and drew in a deep breath, ruffled by the suggestion that she would turn tail and run home.
“What is it then?”
With a triumphant flourish, Gwin pulled a long white robe from the sack and held it up in the ashy light falling through the shop window. She expected Gulpe to be impressed but instead, he grimaced and took a firm hold of her arm, pulling her further back into the shop.
“What in Thetia’s name are you doing flashing that ugly thing around in here?”