Steel sang back and forth, hissing over leather with each stroke, up and down. Broth rumbled and cast iron grated on the far side of the wall while I stood staring at steam rising from a basin of hot water, passing a long razor back and forth along its strop. The air was thick with warmth, wisps and coils forming eerie shapes in the mist as the lass stirred back and forth around me, ember-struck scarlet locks hanging dark and damp in silent mimicry of mine. Seven…I flipped the razor about, dragged it back down. Eight–
“It’s not too rusted?” Faith’s voice rang hollow through the door. “I haven’t touched the thing in years.”
I blinked, looked up to make sure the door was still shut. Opened my mouth to answer, didn’t make it in time before she spoke again. “Are the clothes all right?”
The trousers left me with cold ankles and pulled a bit tight at times, not as long or as wide as the ones I’d left. But they don’t have shit and blood on them. And that’s only an improvement.
“It’s all fine. Better than fine.” The razor had been honed and stropped into a thin wedge of hungry, paper-thin steel. For a moment I felt a strange kinship with the smith who’d clearly put off replacing it until it actually broke on his face. “Thanks.”
I stared down at the water. Lass?
I nodded, picked up where I’d left off, pulling the razor across the rough side of the strop. Nine. Ten. Eleven–
“I wouldn’t want to see you cut yourself,” Faith explained, the sound of her coming very clearly from just on the other side of the threshold. “But I don’t mean to press, it’s only–”
Frustration turned to a laugh in my throat, and I lowered the razor again.
“Woman, I haven’t had a proper shave in weeks. I’d do it with cold water and a flat rock. I’ve done it with sweat and a blunt dagger. This is more than enough.”
She thought about that.
“Well, I’m just outside if you need anything.”
I closed my eyes, took a breath, forced myself to smile.
“I’ll be sure to shout if I fall in the washbasin.”
She laughed, returned to her work in the kitchen beyond, left me in peace at last. I blew out the breath I’d been holding, set back to it.
She’s a bother.
“You like her.”
She’s still a bother.
Grannine laughed. I finished stropping the razor, set it aside, splashed hot water onto my face again. I felt Her stealing closer even as I started to rub the soap through.
“You’re thinking about our plan. If you can call it that.”
I’ll concede it’s not much of a plan. Lather turned my beard silver. I wondered if I’d look my age to anyone watching. Shrugged off the thought. I’d like to think that the plan’s elegant enough it doesn’t need to be complicated.
“If that’s what you’d like to think,” She said lightly, a giggle humming through her words. “We can entertain that idea.”
I laughed, taking up the razor again, and pulled the skin of my cheek tight with one hand, working down the jaw. Steel burned over my skin, wee burrs and nicks grating over each pore. Should have spent more time at the strop. Fuck.
“Will you not stop and do it?”
Grannine laughed at me. I ignored her, even while I worked away, parting the scraggling, wolfish scruff from my face one stroke after another. I only drew blood twice on the left side of my jaw, and was just starting on the right when I heard voices from the tavern, heard Faith calling out.
We went still. So quiet I thought my heart might have stopped beating, standing with razor in hand, holding my breath to hear.
Sound turned eerie, ponderous, fluid as though I had plunged my head into the basin of hot water. Faith’s voice rang clear, each syllable buzzing through walls and floorboards.
“–what this has to do with me, though I do appreciate you informing me.”
A man answered. As he spoke, other sounds warbled in and out of hearing, the shift of chain, the clink of metal, the rustle of other footsteps. He had a keen, hard cant to his voice that I disliked. I looked down at the razor in my hand.
“Thought you’d like to know you needn’t leave the kettle on. Could relax, do something more enjoyable.” He paused. “Maybe I thought there might be some word of warmth from the lovely hostess.”
“I think I’ve given you words warm enough.” Faith didn’t sound like she was talking to him. She sounded pointed, like she was looking to someone else. “Will you be wanting food or drink?”
Silence. Floorboards were rough under my bare feet, the handle of the door cold iron. I set two fingers on the handle, razor hanging at my side, half my beard still on and white with lather.
The other man leaned on something that creaked. In my head, limned with fire, I saw the old bar I’d leaned against when I came in, half-imagined the same sound of protesting from old boards when I put my weight on it.
“You should really be nicer to us,” he said, words lower. “Word in Bridgeport is, your Lord Valraven’s forgetting how to bend the knee. Might find himself under close inspection soon enough.” He clicked his tongue, and among the ripple of sound from his companions, I turned the handle of the door, pulled up on it to clear the threshold silently. “Dangerous times for a tavernkeeper with no man to keep her safe, eh? Might do you good to have a friend in the Scarlet.”
I stepped out into the kitchen, swaying just far enough to look out the door into the tavern. I saw Faith standing with her back to me, and in front of her, a skulking, rangy man up against the counter, his head turned, throwing an elbow into the ribs of the man behind him. Figures in scarlet filled the rest of my vision, and I slipped back out of sight as gently as I could. He laughed, chainmail jingling, and now I could hear him clearer. It wasn’t an improvement. “Hell. Might do you good to have several! We can share.”
Stew was simmering in the kitchen above a small, crackling flame. The air was dry, and the drops of water on my skin were starting to fade. My hands itched.
“I wonder, Blake.” Faith’s tone was magnificently disinterested. “Has a woman ever desired you? Or has it always been fear?”
Two of the men behind him laughed, and I thought I could hear his teeth grind.
“I’ll teach you fear, widow.”
“Did you have other business here?” Once again, she sounded like she was talking past him, over him. I straightened, cracked my neck left, right. Wished I hadn’t left Fury back against the wall in the other room. “Or did you only come to threaten me and let Blake stare down my dress?”
A new voice, a calmer man, rougher and deeper.
“We thought you’d like to hear sooner than later.”
I shrugged the violence from my shoulders and wandered into the doorway, eyes wide, hands hanging down. Beard stiff with foam and more than half missing, I hoped I might have managed to look unthreatening.
“Thank you, then. I’ll ask you to leave, now.” Faith took a chilly tone like cracking ice, kept talking without seeming to hear my feet on the floor. “I have guests, and I won’t have you disturbing them.”
“Guests, you say?” Blake had lightless black eyes that I would have liked to punch. He met my smirk and matched it, looked me over. He had the marks of a three-year penitent on his scarlet, held himself like a violent man, and I saw pure hatred in him even as I ducked my head under the doorframe. “I only see the one. Am I disturbing you, stranger? I see we’ve caught you without a shirt to your name.”
Faith looked back at me quickly, surprised. She took a breath to speak. I beat her to it this time.
“I don’t much mind disturbance.” I looked at Blake, and the fuck took a step back from the bar, left hand falling out of sight the way a man’s hand falls away when he wants to steady his sword. “And I haven’t heard the rest of your discussion. But I did hear the lady ask you to fuck off.”
“That’s between her and I.”
“I think it’d be wise of you to do so.”
“Giving orders to a Church soldier, are you?” His right hand crossed his body—and the older man made himself known, caught his wrist.
“Enough. We’re done.”
“Sergeant Warren.” Faith was all sweetness. “So nice to see you. How is Temperance?”
“She’s well.” The older man was going grey at the bottom of his face, and bald at the top. He had scars over the right side of his face…and the silver-threaded chains of a seven year penitent around the neck of his tunic. “She sends her best. Says she’s been meaning to stop by and see if you have any chores that need done.”
“Nothing I can’t handle, but she’s a dear for offering.”
He nodded to her, and then to me.
“Sergeant.” I kept my right arm straight. Might be that the bar would keep them from noticing the naked razor. “I think I’ll go back to my shave, then.”
“Might want to strop before you do.” He tapped one gloved hand against his cheek. “Got a bleeder there.”
I touched my face, and my fingers came away bloody. I laughed, touched my forehead to him in a salute, slipped out of the doorway.
“Faith.” Without waiting for an answer, he went on. “Right, out with you lads.”
No further sound intruded. I went back to the washbasin, splashed lukewarm water on my face to revive the suds, and resumed scraping the steel over my skin. The cuts on my cheek were tracking blood down my face like ruddy tear tracks.
Footsteps into the kitchen, slow, and then to the door, more tentative. Faith nudged her way into the room, hands resting on the knife sheathed in her apron. I didn’t look at her, kept my eyes on the water, worked the razor down, stroke after stroke.
She broke the silence, composed.
“Is that hot enough? I can put the kettle back on for you.”
She nodded. Touched the handle.
“You’ll call if you need something.”
I stopped mid stroke, turned and looked at her.
She laughed, at herself or at me, and stepped out. The latch clicked behind her. I cut the last of the stubble away, ran a hand over my face to check for more.
Where were we?
“Not much of a plan.”
I grinned, took a handful of water and splashed it on my face, hair and soap collecting in the bowl. Took the bowl in two hands, walked to the window, and opened old wooden shutters, looking out to the slope west of Caer Lunan. Mossy stone heaped high up out of sight, a climb rough enough that it made my legs ache in anticipation. I dumped the water out, shut the window, threw on my borrowed shirt. It was short in the shoulders, cut too narrow. I sighed.
Barefoot, I opened the door, and found an empty kitchen. I frowned. The back door out to the slope was shut, still locked from the inside. Cool air blew through the doorway to the bar.
I followed it out, rubbing my hair dry, and stopped at the threshold. Faith stood a few paces out, in the mud, a hand over her mouth as she stared past the central building, past Tyler and Annie’s wee new house. I thought briefly about going to her, dismissed the idea. Haven’t had clean feet in weeks, either.
“What is it?”
She jumped, glanced at me, lowering her hand. Swallowed.
My heart froze in my chest. I felt the chill run through me, ice-cold and wickedly sharp, a surging shock like cold water.
Faith spoke in a whisper that only just made it to my ears.
“I–” She had to stop, breathless. “I think it’s an Inquisitor.”
Before I could think, I was moving past her to look.
It wasn’t just an Inquisitor.