WHAT MUST BE DONE
By Captain Neato and Sugar Venom
A single candle on the table at the back of the tavern flickered a light too weak to penetrate the heavy hood of a woman sitting alone, staring at the leaves swirling in her steaming cup of tea. She’d been sheltered all her young life from the roving bands of people whose old women wore clattering bangles up their arms and read the futures of gullible customers in tea leaves.
Despite her thorough education, Julia would have paid well, in that moment, for such a service.
Every head turned when Catherine entered. The red and white uniform was gone, but her drab hooded cloak failed to remove the disquieting sensation that a predator had stepped into the room. That heavy feeling did not waver despite the smile Catherine offered to Julia as she threaded through the tables to Julia’s booth, sweeping off her cloak to reveal a well-fitted dress true to the local style.
The serving-boy’s words stumbled like pebbles rolling downhill: “Good.. good even… how can I… would you like some… what can I…?”
Catherine stared the boy down, allowing him to stutter until he had found the end of a sentence. “Wine,” she said, a smile playing at one corner of her mouth.
“Right away… and you, ma’am? Can I get you more tea? Hey, aren’t you Jul…”
Catherine stepped close, one fingertip on the boy’s chin, turning his eyes back to her. “Red wine,” she murmured.
Julia exhaled a breath she hadn’t known she was holding as the serving-boy tripped away. “Oh great subterfuge, Cath. Let’s please be as memorable to our fellow patrons as much as possible.”
Catherine scoffed, feigning hurt. “You are so unkind. I am quite proud of my disguise. And look– buttons!” She winked, spreading her arms.
Julia laughed, but the sound was brittle, fighting not to become a sob. “Your disguise is as subtle as a hat on a tiger.”
Neither woman spoke while the wine was poured. Only after did Catherine lean forward in earnest. “She wants the twins, Lia, and you alive to make war before you can win it.”
Julia lifted her chin. “Gythia will aid me.”
Catherine shook her head. “Perhaps. Someday, if the time were right. But the Stormguard is here today. I couldn’t send word; I had Vyn on my shoulder the whole journey. He watches your family now.” Catherine clasped Julia’s shaking hand in hers. “This mission is happening tonight. The twins will come back with me to Mont Lille.”
Julia jerked her hand away and looked up at a cobwebby corner of the tavern. “No.”
Catherine’s spine straightened. “You know I would have it any other way if it could be. But you do not have a choice in this. I give my word, Lia, I will watch over them.”
“No!” Julia insisted. “My sister would make a tyrant of Celeste in her image, and you could not stop her.”
Catherine opened her callused palms. “So? What do you propose? You and Ardan cannot defeat the Stormguard tonight, not even with my help. Those not surrounding your farm have barricaded every road out of Pompium. Once we have completed our mission, we will disappear. Lia. Your only option is to trust me.”
“The way my sister trusts you?”
Catherine’s eyes narrowed. “You and I have been friends since we were children.”
“We were all three friends when we were children.” A long silence once again wedged itself between them. At length, Julia sighed. “I will warn Ardan that the Stormguard may be closeby. The children will go about their routine as usual; nothing will seem amiss from the outside. I will help Ardan escape with the twins when you attack.”
“There is no escape through the Stormguard.”
“There is one way. A mage is never more powerful than at the time of death. When you take my life, I will pass my gift to him. He will make it through.”
Catherine gripped her wine glass, her voice cold as frost. “I will not do this.”
“Make a show of it. Create a diversion.”
Catherine’s eyes sparkled wet, her teeth clenched. “I cannot.”
“And then, run. There is nothing more for you in Mont Lille. The Stormguard will chase Ardan; you must escape to our friends in Gythia.”
The glass in her hands exploded, shards of tinkling rain skittering across the table top. The tavern went quiet as all heads turned to Catherine as blood shimmering with halcyon dripped from her fist. “Neither you nor your sister ever consider the weight of your demands,” Catherine choked out, blinking away unshed tears.
Julia swallowed against the knot in her throat. She took Catherine’s bleeding hands with all the patience she’d learned as a mother. “I am touched by your devotion, but I am not a person. I am an empire.” She pulled glass from Catherine’s palms, her voice a sing-song whisper. “If you deliver my children to my sister, she will make a monster of my daughter, put my son at the front lines of her military, and gain territory at the mouth of Gythia.” Blood and wine dribbled onto the floor as Julia cupped Catherine’s hands inside her own. Green light glowed, Julia’s healing power drawing strength from the halcyon, the lacerations closing. “Never feel guilty for what must be done. And… and..” Julia faltered, then stopped.
“I will make it fast,” Catherine said softly.
Julia’s shoulders wilted. She released Catherine’s healed hands. They slid out of the booth and stood, regarding each other across a distance that had grown, in only a few moments, unspannable.
Catherine smiled and touched her hand to Julia’s cheek.
“Hey, Lia,” she whispered.
“Hey, Cath,” Julia whispered back, a sob and a laugh catching in her throat.
Catherine’s back straightened, her eyes cleared, and her hand returned to her side. She nodded once at Julia, grabbed her cloak, and stepped through her own spilled blood, past the silent patrons and their tracking stares, out the tavern door into the waiting night.
More to come…