She let Aled draw her to one side, away from the others. She watched them over her shoulder as they moved Harun, laying him beside Bethan. A few of them murmured instructions to each other, then left to find the space for two graves. Aled angled his shoulders so that she couldn’t see them behind him, and she looked at the ground, took a breath in, let a breath out.
“What did you find?” she asked.
She suspected that he raised his eyebrows in disbelief then, probably blinked at her, maybe even gave her half a sad smile. She looked at the grass beneath her feet. She could smell the fires from last night, feel the heat from a few moments ago, but just here the grass was still green. It bowed gently in the breeze.
“Are you all right?” Aled asked, low.
She straightened her neck carefully, and met his eye. “They’re not the first ones I’ve watched die,” she said.
“Oh,” Aled said. He looked like he wanted to laugh, but couldn’t find it in his chest. “I’m sure of that.”
“What did you find?” she asked sharply.
Aled shoved his hands into his pockets, and looked away from her. “There’s a woman back in Serres who helps hide keimon. They call her Auntie. Sometimes she finds you, sometimes you find her, but if you get in trouble, somehow she has a way of either hiding you so you can’t be found, or telling the guards that they just don’t need to find you. Nobody I talked to knows what kind of deal she’s running, except that once she does you that favor, you owe her three. Whatever she asks for.” He gave Seryn a heavy look. “And she asks for a lot.”
“All right,” Seryn said, short.
“The way things have been going the last few years in Serres, she’s done pretty well,” Aled said. “They figure she has somewhere between twenty and a hundred people on pay, helping her in her ugly little hobbies. And the rumor is that Ern was her testy, ambitious second-in-command, and that he left with up to half of the people she owned, striking out for a little something of his own. And his work is just as ugly.”
Seryn looked away, slowly running a glance over the crowd of wagons and sleepers. She avoided her own, and just looked at the quiet parts of the camp.
“We had three hundred people here,” she said. She didn’t like how much smaller the group looked now. It might have only been two hundred, but she’d do a proper count later. “And fifty of them were his?”
Aled snorted. “Probably not,” he said. “Rumors are always more impressive than the real thing.”
“How sure are you that he was her second?” she asked.
“Pretty sure,” Aled told her. “I talked to someone who had actually owed Auntie her favors. He said Ern looked too familiar, and got very uncomfortable when I asked more questions.”
“Where is he?” Seryn asked.
Aled gave her a rough idea of his area of the camp, where he was sleeping beside a wagon with a horse painted on the side.
“Get Rhian,” Seryn said. She paused, just to think of who else she wanted. “And Tomi. Wynn, and Tes. Send them over here, then get some sleep. You look horrible.”
Aled paused. “What are you doing?”
“Get some sleep,” she repeated. She didn’t look at him.
“You first,” he said.
Seryn stared at him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Aled demanded. “We lost people. And you look exhausted. Ern can wait.”
“Don’t,” Seryn said, low, quiet.
Pulling back, Aled snapped his mouth shut. Seryn met his eye, steadier than before, not caring what he saw in her face anymore. She was exhausted, tired of this of day, ready for a new one, but this was the day she had: one sleepless night, a morning when she had tried, failed, lost, and an afternoon with more work to do. And this was the day she’d threatened him. Somehow, he looked at her like she hadn’t, but she didn’t want him to.
“Go,” she told him. “I’m not going to say it again.”
For half a second, she thought he might still argue, and she was ready for it, ready to run a punch into his gut and double him over onto the ground. But then stopped, saluted in his usual lazy way, and turned toward the others.
Seryn stayed just where she was.
When Rhian arrived, Seryn nodded, then waited for Wynn to step up beside her. Tes and Tomi were a few minutes longer, and Tomi looked a little dirty, like she’d been digging.
“Can you all stand a few more hours awake?” she asked.
They glanced at each other, understanding the seriousness of the question. Then they looked away, and nodded, one at a time.
“Can you work?” she asked.
There was a long pause after that. She didn’t blame them.
“Can you?” Rhian asked.
Seryn nodded. “I’ll be fine,” she said. Another pause, and she wasn’t sure if she had stunned them, or if they just didn’t believe her. She met their eyes, one at a time. “I saw each of you when you came in this morning. You weren’t as tired as the others. I know you’re stronger than you’ve let on. I need to know if you can do this.”
Wynn dropped her head like she’d been caught at something. Tomi rubbed the dirt off her hands, and didn’t meet Seryn’s eye.
“I need it right now,” Seryn told them. “But I need to know that I’ll walk out with as many as I walk in with.”
Wynn took a breath.
“I can’t,” Tomi said, quick, and it sounded like a lie.
Seryn looked at her. Her shoulders were bent forward, but her feet were square and her hands moved quickly enough as she tried to rub the dirt free. Seryn looked her over a second time, checking the tense of her spine. “I need as many as I can get,” Seryn told her. “There’s no wrong in telling me you can do this.”
“But you’ll tell Macsen,” Tomi murmured. “Who went with you today.”
“There’s nothing I don’t tell Macsen,” Seryn said.
“I can’t,” Tomi repeated, a little lower. It came off more honest that time, a better rehearsed lie. Pausing, Seryn considered taking her anyway. Then she nodded, and sent her back to the others.
“Where are we going?” Tes asked.
“Have you ever woken up a man by standing on his chest?” Seryn asked without facing him. The silence went on a little longer than she expected, and she turned to find him looking at her with wide eyes.
“No,” Tes said slowly.
“You’re going to give it a try,” she asked.
Tes looked at Wynn, then to Rhian on his other side. “Sure,” she murmured. “Why not?”
Seryn led them away, looping around the outside of the camp to avoid waking the men and women settled in their bedrolls. She kept an eye out for the painted wagon, then kept an eye on the three walking in a string behind her, and gave everything else a wide berth. When she spotted the painted horse, she turned, stepped lighter between the sleeping heads. Ern was sleeping on his back, and the men to either side had given him a little space, but stayed in a protective ring around him. It wasn’t obvious, but it was exactly what she expected from a man like him.
She pointed Rhian, Tes and Wynn to the three men closest. Then, she stepped up to Ern. The others hesitated, as if they weren’t actually sure they were supposed to step on anyone. She nodded to them, and they each planted a heel on the chest of their man. They woke up gasping. One of them cursed. One of them pulled a knife out of the blanket beside them.
Seryn ignored them, trusting her people to stay on their feet. She bent toward Ern in the half breath it took for the noise to wake him, then put one foot on his chest and leaned on it.
Ern jerked, looking up at her, eyes wide.
“Good morning,” Seryn said. She leaned an elbow across her knee.
Ern dragged in a breath. Seryn tried not to focus on the sound of it. He grabbed her boot, one hand on her heel, one hand on her toes, and tried to twist her foot off his chest. She rocked back on her heel, dug into the nerves at the base of his ribs, and he stopped at all once, hands going limp around her boot.
“Tell your friends to hush up,” Seryn told him. She pressed a little harder.
“Quiet!” he said, as sharp as he could with her foot pressing down on his lungs. The men behind her went still. Wynn pulled the knife away from her man. Tes slowly leaned forward on his knee, too, mimicking Seryn. He raised his eyebrows at her, but didn’t seem to dislike it.
Seryn pulled her heel back up, just a little, and looked down on Ern. “I think we should be friends,” she said.
Ern glanced from one side to other, marking the three she’d brought with her, and his own men with their spines pressed into the dirt. He let his hands drop to either side, fingers wide to show he was letting go. “All right,” he said. He took a breath, and let it out, experimentally. “Let’s.”
“So, to start, we’ll stop lying to each other?” she asked.
Ern blinked. He seemed to consider that, and nodded. “Sure,” he said.
“I am one of Vardeck’s,” she said.
He seemed to expect something more, but he nodded when he realized she was finished. “All right.”
“I’ve been charged with moving all of you safely to a fortress this side of the mountains for King Madden,” she said.
“So, you failed last night,” Ern said, and almost smiled. She put weight back on her heel.
“Yes,” she said.
And his smile faded, maybe from pain, maybe from the dullness of her honesty. “What do you want?” he asked.
“That depends,” she said. She looked at the men lying on the ground. Two of them were watching her. One of them was staring up at Rhian. She was the smallest of them, the thinnest, and she could see him calculating how easy it would be to roll and bring her down to the ground instead. Rhian just looked disappointed, perfectly balanced over him. “How many of these are yours?”
Ern waited a thoughtful moment before he answered. “I brought thirty-five with m–“
“Liar,” she said.
He swallowed the last syllable on a groan, shut his eyes, and readjusted. “I have forty-seven,” he said.
Seryn tried not to blink. She’d expected him to lower the number, not raise it, but she nodded, like she knew he’d given her the right answer. His breath came a little harder, though she hadn’t pushed down again.
“I need to borrow fifteen of them,” Seryn said. “All keimon. And I’ll need your help later, too, as many times as I ask for it.”
“Why would I do that?” Ern asked.
Seryn tilted her head, considering him, and dropped lower over her knee. “You sleep like a man used to four walls,” she told him. “You sleep heavy. I’m sure a creaking door would have woken you, but there’s no door here. There are no walls to break through, no roof to protect your head, no loose floorboards to give you another warning that we’re coming.”
He glanced to either side, slow.
“We didn’t have to wake you,” Seryn said. “We didn’t have to put a heel in your chests. We could have put a hand. Or two.” She didn’t move, her arm still slung loose over her knee, but she took a breath in, let ice slide down her shoulder and heat pool at her palm. The bright blue smoke drifted down through her fingers, fading before it reached his chest, but she knew he could still feel the heat.
Tes lit his hand as well, a perfect copy of her, down to the tilted head as he looked at his man. Wynn leaned forward, and sparks rattled off her fingers. Rhian just folded her hands behind her back, and smiled, daring her man to guess what she was doing. The air started to waver above her shoulders.
“You want me dead?” Ern asked Seryn. His tone was even, lined with disbelief.
“I could,” Seryn said. “If we weren’t friends.”
“Kill me, and there are forty-seven keimon who will kill you,” he said lightly.
“I brought soldiers with me,” she said. “We’ve been trained in two things since we were five years old: how to destroy, and how to keep ourselves alive. We’ll be all right.”
He started to smile.
“And…” Seryn shook her head, like she couldn’t believe she’d forgotten to ask before. “How did Auntie feel about you leaving home?”
Ern didn’t answer.
“I think you don’t want her to catch up with you,” Seryn said. “Which means, all I have to do is hobble this crowd, slow it down, and I’ll have allies.”
“She’s not comin’,” Ern began.
Seryn nodded. “Maybe not,” she said. “But I also think you don’t want any of these people knowing that you were Auntie’s man.”
“She’s helped a lot of the people here,” Ern said, too easily.
Seryn shook her head. “She sounds like a saint. How many did she hurt?”
He didn’t answer that either.
“There’s a lot of people here,” Seryn said. “That’s a lot more allies I can pull. You’ll help me.” She pulled her weight off her foot, signalling that this conversation was almost over.
He grabbed her ankle, and held her where she was. “You’re not giving me anything.”
She leaned into his hold, put pressure back on his chest. “I don’t have to give you anything.”
Ern grunted. “I can make this very hard for you.”
Seryn shook her head. “Not before you’re dead.”
“But after,” Ern said, quick, so he could get it out on what breath she left him. “I can leave trouble or you, and you need this easy. You’ve had too much trouble already.”
Seryn shook her head, holding his eye. “Dead men don’t get pleasure.”
“I want a uniform,” Ern said.
Seryn looked at Rhian. Then at Tes. Wynn just raised her eyebrows. Slowly, Seryn turned back to Ern. “You want into Madden’s new army?”
“Yes,” Ern said.
“I can buy your loyalty with the right colored jacket?” she said.
“Yes,” Ern said.
“Why would you want that?” she asked.
For a moment, he blinked up at her. “Why would I want to stop hiding? To stop running and step right into the glory?” He looked at her like she’d forgotten to use the space between her ears. “I have no idea.”
Seryn considered, longer than she had to, then stepped back. He sat up immediately, and she kept backing away. “Done,” she told him. “So long as we stay friends.”
“Fifteen of your men, rested and ready by nightfall,” she told him. She nodded to Rhian as she passed her. The girl pulled her hands from behind her back, shook one more flash of blue-white off her palms, and fell in behind Seryn. Seryn collected Tes, and then Wynn, each of them taking their place at her shoulders. “In a few hours, you should get up. You’re going to decide this place isn’t safe any more, and start everyone moving as fast as they can toward the mountains.”
“Yes, cousin,” Ern said behind her. She looked back, caught him giving her a firm, but incorrect salute. He held three fingers to his forehead, and brought it down too sharp. “And your people could still stand to talk a little more,” he said.
Seryn nodded, just once. “I’ll find you later,” she said.