When I came back to Thrushmoor a cold Kuthona rain pissed down on the streets, soaking my clothing. I silently thanked Desna that I chose to leave my alchemist’s trunk behind. The apparatus was too heavy to lug around in this weather. Grateful to be out of the rain, I made my ways through the halls of the Lowls Estate to my room. Kripatka, the maid accosted me at my doorway, waving a finger at me. “That cat of yours is a monster. I did not clean her mess.”
I murmured a quick and confused apology and hurried into my room. I saw my alchemy bottles splayed all over the floor. All the little bags of herbs and bone dust and fried flowers were scattered as the trunk had exploded its contents. Nothing was spilt, thankfully, but it was quite the mess.
I looked at Mila who sat on the window sill swatting her tail back and forth. “I’m sorry.” It seemed like I had a lot to apologize for lately. To Halda for outing her psionics to the witchunters. To Sulayn to grazing him with arrows. To the group, for not refusing Diaudin’s requested job when it smelled fishy. And now to Mila, for leaving her here for days. It didn’t really matter if there wasn’t a better way.
Mila was having none of it. She looked at me with golden eyes as hard as gemstones. I tried again. “What was I supposed to do? Take you with me into the Versex wood?”
“And why not? I’m not your pet.”
“I know that, but I’m responsible for you. What if somebody chose to attack you? One swipe with a sword…”
“I gave you some of my power because I thought you were worthy. I chose you. I’m more responsible for you than you are for me.”
I stepped back, stung, and more than a little confused. “What do you mean, ‘gave you some of my power?’”
“How do you think your dull eyes grew so sharp in the night?” She jumped from the window sill and leapt up to the bed to stare me down at a closer distance.
She frowned, revealing a fang. “I…well…” mimicking me. Then she gave a hiss. “Humans. So dull sometimes. Well. Tell me of the automatons. I suspect you let them go.” Her tone hinted at her disapproval.
“I did. Elias offered to escort The Created to the River Kingdoms, where they would be free to live in peace, such as it was in the Kingdoms. It was generous of him to do so, though it took some convincing. It was difficult to sway him in his belief that all people should live as subjects under the nobility’s wise hand. Somehow, despite the history of our nation, and the constant reminder of Sczarni families who travel, he could not shake the belief that the noble families of Ustalav had either been touched by the gods or earned the remarkable right to dictate how others must live, where they must live, and in what ways they must express their joys. He did finally come around when I pointed out that many people don’t choose to live according to the official boundaries of grand civilization as he knows it. Perhaps it was Persephone’s icy warning look that truly convinced him. I can’t be sure. Or maybe it was the promise of glory in escorting them to the River Kingdoms. He seemed very pleased with the adventure of it.”
Mila nodded. “And the others?”
“Aetherton and Halda wanted The Created to atone for their sins, but they slowly realized justice would not be found in Versex. Only vengeance. Sulayn was impatient to let them go. It was just an accidental murder, and we all make mistakes, he claimed. Mistakes we might make, but murder is quite the mistake. In the very least we had the responsibility to investigate if they understood the gravity of their little accident. The results were mixed, but apparently the necklace I found in the workshop helped remind two of them that life was valuable, that one’s life meant quite a lot to someone else.” I shrugged. “It’s the best we could do. Sometimes the answer isn’t as simple as vengeance or mercy, life or death.”
“I don’t see why I couldn’t have come along.” Clearly she was still hurt. “I long to see the world.”
“And would you be able to protect yourself?”
Indignant, she licked her shoulder. “Of course, I would leap from your back at the hint of danger. As small as I am, and agile, I would be hard to hit and immediately take to any shadows. I would even watch your back. Besides, I simply won’t have it this way with you traveling for days in the wilderness while I sit inside four walls. I need to be stimulated. And we have work to do together.” She punctuated the last phrase with a dangerous glint in her eyes.
“Very well, my Mila. How can I refuse? We will travel together – at least for now. You will have to forgive me sometimes. If I meet a beautiful woman and wish to dance with her by firelight, I must be free to do so and to go wandering off.”
I thought I heard her snicker as she licked her paws. “Like Halda? If you wish to waste your time on such things, be my guest. I would think we have more important matters to attend to than dancing.”
“Nothing is more important than dancing. Except for maybe music. Or good drink. There are many things that one should attend to in life.”
Another snicker. “A poor excuse for a monster hunter you are.”
I smiled and picked her up. “The best, you mean. What would I be if I were to stop loving these things?”
She looked at me sideways. “You would be focused.”
“I would be dead.” I scratched behind her ear, and she closed her eyes, satisfied she’d won the right to travel with me.
That night I took a walk and played my violin for some coin. Tomorrow, we’d get back on the trail of the Smiling Man, but tonight I had some time to enjoy the turning of the seasons in the shadow of tavern lights. In between songs I had time to reflect on the children of Steel Steward Orphanage since few people stopped to talk to me here in Versex. They begrudgingly dropped pinch or the occasional shield, but quickly moved along and left me to my playing.
The candied fruit I brought those orphans was cold comfort for children like Stephen, who the Smiling Man had taken. And the governess, Natalie, deserved the resolution I promised I’d try to bring her. This had turned out to be much harder than I ever expected, though. Here I was, halfway across Ustalav, on the trail of these followers of Gi, hoping to meet up with Randolph and disrupt these ogres that should give us some lead on the Smiling Man. Quite the mess. Well, this time we didn’t have Diaudin to blame. We were all walking into this one of our own choice.