It wasn’t quick, exactly, but rumors always circulated in marketplaces. It was true in Scorched Rock, and it didn’t stop being true here. A little time was all it took for me to start hearing the right ones.
“-other group of travelers? I thought they would stop coming, since none ever leave.”
“These ones came from a different direction. I think the Steward is panicking. Nobody’s seen the King in weeks.”
“You don’t think?”
“Have you seen anyone go into or out of the throne room?”
“I don’t work anywhere near the throne room.”
“Well, do you know anyone who has?”
That was the first rumor I heard. That was the rumor when it occurred to me that the Steward might be creating the disappearances himself.
“Is it getting colder?”
“It’s just your imagination.”
“No, she’s right. Have either of you been barkside lately?”
“What’s going on?”
“I heard from my buddy in the Crowns that people are starting to see their breath.”
That was the second rumor I heard. That was when I wondered what the people were being kept in the roots for. The third one was the one I was waiting for, though.
“What’s going on, Grint?”
“The roots. There’s not enough.”
“Shit. Have you heard what the Steward is planning, Marz?”
“No, but whatever it is, it can’t be good. We have to do something.”
“What exactly can we do? Between the three of us we know one charm. For light. That children use.”
That was the moment I let go of the sticky-fingers charm and landed in their midst. Flare had been the first person in a long while to find me while I’d been hiding above eye level. Sandy had beaten one lesson into me above all others; people don’t look up.
All three of them froze in place, in the little hallway off the main marketplace they’d been hiding in. I took that chance to say something to keep them from scattering. “I know charms.” I said. “There’s a witch who just got arrested who knows more. She’s my mentor. I need help.”
Everyone was silent. Then, Grint, a tall man with a voice as wide as he was tall, said, “But you’re a child.”
Marz, a woman who stooped a little and wrung her hands a lot, said, “She’s just short.”
“She’s a child! How could a witch mentor a child?”
“Wouldn’t most people mentor children? I’m Vin, by the way.” Vin was a woman with a severe-looking face which nonetheless had held nothing but warm and inviting expressions for the few minutes I’d seen her.
“A witch! You, know, like the stories? Tread softly in the halls when everyone is asleep, the next bit I forget, and then the next breath you take is when the witch takes yours from you!” Grint said.
“Flare isn’t like that, I don’t think,” I offered.
“Look at it another way,” Marz said, “The Steward tried to have a witch, you know, like the stories, arrested. And, apparently, if this–”
“Grace,” I offered again.
“If Grace is to be believed, they succeeded.”
“Flare, the witch, would probably know what’s going on with all the disappearances, too.”
All three of them paused to digest this information. Vin said, “Those weren’t the Steward?”
“If it were the Steward, wouldn’t he clean up the rooms people disappeared in?” I asked.
“Also if it were the Steward, why would disappearances happen in the Crown barracks? Or the farming branches? Or, really, anywhere important?” Grint asked.
“I was thinking that the people who disappeared were all dissidents,” Marz said.
“Then why aren’t we gone?” Grint asked.
“How did they arrest Flare?” Vin asked.
“She was asleep.” I said.
“Witches sleep?” Grint asked.
The conversation continued to meander for a while, as everyone got caught up with everyone else. Grint was the only one who really asked if I was telling the truth, after I showed off my sticky-fingers charm again.
The three of them had what amounted to a hideout, from which we could lay out a plan of attack. Hideout was a strong thing to call Vin’s apartment, but she did her best to make it live up to the name. Stockpiled food, purchased maps of various bits of the city, drawn maps of various other bits, thick notebooks which, while none of them had much written in them, I appreciated greatly for helping get plans worked out in my mind as I tried to make something workable.
That said, my appreciation wasn’t enough to make the plans actually come. I didn’t know this city. I didn’t know what monster might be hounding the people who lived here. The one thing I did know was that Flare was in the roots, and that if we could just get her free, she would know what to do.
It was around when Marz woke me up from having dozed off with my nose firmly in a blank notebook for the second time that I gave up. I wrote down every charm I could think of that I could reliably cast, and Vin led me off to her bedroom. She insisted on me taking her bed, that I would need to rest up, that there would be a plan of action waiting for us in the morning.
Even then, exhausted as I was, I couldn’t help but listen in to the three of them argue. Grint was still asking questions about me. He would name charms I had listed with incredulity, shout about how far-fetched some of the things I had said were, about how I had fallen out of the sky into the middle of them. He never once said that he wouldn’t go through with the plan.
Marz would, every so often, stop to say something. Whenever she did, there was always a little pause, barely there, and then the conversation would continue again. She would point out little observations about the Crowns, about the layout of the warrens through the tree, about something they’d forgotten. At the end of a topic of discussion, Marz never had a disagreement to voice.
Vin filled in everything the other two didn’t say. Occasionally, she filled in things the other two had said, but after she filled them in again things Marz had wondered about before would be followed by a hum of understanding, and things Grint had reservations about would be met with agreement.
At some point, I fell asleep. They kept talking in my dreams. The words stopped making sense, but the rest still did. It still felt like it made sense. I woke up sure that we had a plan.