Bryn accepted the bowl of mushroom stew. It was piping hot, a wisp of steam rising from it. The cook quickly turned away, clearly busy with other tasks. After all, the whole small tunnel of a tavern was now blockaded with hungry heroes, ready for their own celebrations after the parade.
It was a small building, tucked under lodgings, with a low roof. Bryn could see the colours of different hero companies, all crowded together.
Fireplace light illuminated Golzar across the room, seated at the bar table. She was surrounded and shadowed by the other Miscreants. Officially, they were called the Grey Hound company, but Miscreants was fine in the taverns.
Richard, a blond cavalryman, clapped Golzar on the shoulder. “And that’s why no one messes with you in a duel, Commander!”
Tanya, who was sitting next to Golzar like a squire would her knight, pumped her fists. “Yeah! I knew it was a good idea to get that story outta you.”
A grin, somewhat strained. Golzar turned back to her bowl of stew and took a sip from the front of her spoon.
Bryn saw Tanya’s gaze flit to Golzar’s expression. The kid’s voice was even brighter when she next spoke. “Hey – I didn’t tell you Richard’s growing out his chest hair again, right?”
Golzar choked on her soup; beside her, Richard sputtered and flushed strawberry red.
When she had recovered, thumping her hand against her chest, Golzar turned around to face Richard. “What, after I told you to shave it off? The lice will come back, you know?”
“Yeah, Richard! I don’t want you to be all gross and lice-y! We still share a dorm and all,” laughed Tanya. With Richard standing up indignantly, the conversation seemed to have moved ahead of the duelling situation.
Bryn frowned to themself. They stirred their mushroom stew around, watching the little brown chunks float in the broth. The duels were starting to grate on people's nerves, beyond the Miscreants. For one, they knew Thornston's men weren't happy. The Lions were balled up on the opposite side of the tavern, near the back entry, where they'd usually be mixing with everyone. It was humiliating, and people didn't take lightly to humiliation.
There was a moment, where Golzar was turning her head round to look at them and smile. They stared silently. They should say something. After all, they were second-in-command now, right? But then the moment slipped by, and suddenly Bryn found themselves staring into the stew again. Their feet felt frozen to the ground, as the noise of the crowd washed over them.
The air in the infirmary was suffocating. When the healer's attendant slipped in to open a window, Gerhard smiled and nodded at him in thanks. With a pop and a creak, the glass swung open, the rivulets of black framing flitering the afternoon sun in a different way than before.
As the boy turned around the face him, Gerhard noticed he was balancing a tray in his hands. On it there was a teapot and two cups. The boy looked between him and the door with an uncertain expression, setting the tea set down on the long bench beside the bed.
The attendant spoke in a soft voice. "Are . . . are you?"
"Hmm?" Gerhard tilted his head to one side. He pulled the blanket up to his mid-section; it would do a newcomer no good to see the gruesome injuries of war.
"Nothing!" The boy bowed his head and fled from the room. How strange.
Gerhard sighed. He raked a hand through his mess of chestnut hair. On the wall opposite from him - a sight the boy could not have missed - was a battered shield, inscribed with the grey-and-black coat-of-arms possessed by the Grey Hound Company. The hound sigil had sharp, pointed eyes, gazing out at whoever crossed it in battle. There was a chink in the shield that went down to the hound's left cheek. Almost like a scar.
When the knock came, he was just about done putting up his hair. "Come in, William."
A head of greying brown hair poked in shrewishly, before the body it was attached to fell in behind, like a comical puppet strung up for a street performance.
“Indisposed, but not incapacitated.” William trilled.
Gerhard kept his voice level. “I suppose you’re here about me stepping down from the Council.”
“I’m here about you leaving the Miscreants in the hands of your stowaway.”
Gerhard bit his tongue. Sure, he could deny Golzar being a stowaway, but William was still Guild Chief. There had to be something he could say in her defense without outwardly putting himself and by extension, the whole company in opposition with that man.
“Why not take a seat, sir?” Gerhard gestured with an open palm towards the chair next to his bed. He watched impassively as William stalked around the bedframe to sit down, crossing muscular but wiry arms. A sigh escaped him as he looked the older man in the eye. “Well, I think Golzar will be good for the Guild.”
“Good?” William trumpeted. “How?”
“She’s fresh blood, and – “
“Fresh blood is exactly the problem!”
Gerhard’s eyes widened slightly. He took a deep breath. Keep a cool head. He had to. Even if William was a bursting drum on a daily basis.
With a steady hand, Gerhard poured a cup of tea, the hot liquid breaking the silence in the room as it sloshed into the carved wooden cup. Then he offered it to William.
The man glared at him for a second, but he accepted and took a sip. William’s usually beige and cool cheeks were flushed red.
“Don’t s’ppose she knows how’ta run a Council meeting, “ he said, looking away. “Or any o’ our traditions, for tha’ matter.”
“S’not something you can’t learn,” Gerhard replied. He folded his hands in his lap, atop the white linen blanket.
“Well.” William harrumphed. “The inauguration dinner will be in a few weeks. We will see how she does there.”
His eyes glinted. “There will be noble names, landed folk.”
Gerhard smiled, though inside his gut churned. Yes, nobility would be present. And William was wrong to presume it would necessarily be just Golzar having a problem with that . . .
“We’ll do our best, Chief.”
Something told him that was not what William wanted, not one bit.
In the afternoon, they left the tavern. She clapped Robert on the back as he followed his brother out of the low-roofed room single file. He yelped in surprise, but hurried onward. “Right, boys! See you at training!”
“Aye!” they all chorused, including Tanya.
Golzar watched them walk down the street. On either side, there were large stone walls, rising up to cast great dark shadows across the lowlier cobbles on the path. The surfaces were carefully scraped of any mould or greenery. At some points, the stones at the top even reflected the white flames of the sun.
From behind her, Bryn coughed lightly. She turned around to see them looking at her expectantly, their usual black cloak switched out for a grey mantle, which let in the spring breeze. They averted their gaze, shifting the wooden clip that held the mantle together. “We’re seein’ ‘im today, aren’t we?”
Golzar nodded. She slung one arm over their shoulder. Together, they turned and began walking towards the infirmary in the opposite direction to the other troops.
The sunlight turned the cobbles golden from this direction, like a honeymilk washing over the street. As they walked, Golzar pointed out the various activities among the serfs and freepersons going about their day.
A craftswoman was sitting atop a short stool by the side of the path, spinning a spool of thread. Beside her, an attendant was readying a large bucket of green dye and dipping the already-done threads into it.
On the other side of the road, a group of children waved at Golzar and Bryn as they passed. The little ones were playing amidst the rubble of a broken-down storehouse, building a castle out of chipped pebbles, glued together with ash. Bryn stopped, turning to her with a meaningful look.
Right. Golzar should probably tell them to scram. The repairs of the city were proceeding slowly, as one would expect immediately after the war, and children didn’t know danger when they saw it.
Before Golzar could call out to them, however, there was a voice from the other end of the road. When they heard it, the children immediately started to disperse.
“Hey! Gerhard!” Golzar grinned, as her mentor approached, walking stick clacking against the cobbles.
At the same time, Bryn exclaimed, voice unusually loud and shrill. “H-hey, what are you doin’ out of the infirmary?”
Gerhard was the oldest member of the Miscreants – in two senses. He’d been out questing for longest, and he’d been birthed the earliest as well. Golzar noticed the dark circles deepening around his eyes as the years passed, though despite his complaints and insistence that he was aging, she’d yet to see any wrinkles on his still-young forehead. His complexion was slightly dull and ashen still, Golzar noted, but there was a bit of copper in his cheeks. “Goddess, I – needed – the fresh air.”
He looked between them and huffed. “Come on in then, if you want to keep me indoors so badly.”
Gerhard led them into a sitting room in the infirmary. With the door shut, there was still a flood of orange evening sun from the windows, which were all prised open to let in an abundance of spring air. Golzar pressed her lips together. Her gaze flitted to Gerhard for a second, but she quickly looked away.
In the corner of her eye, she saw Bryn do the same.
The floor was hard-packed dirt, as it was in the main rooms of most houses here. Golzar remembered rumours during the war, especially in the countryside areas of Witchfield, that every house in the capital was furnished with at least thin rushes. Rumours often said more about their speaker than their subject.
They each dragged out a chair from around a squat wooden table.
As he sat down, Gerhard threaded his hand through his hair, a nervous gesture, as though he was going to undo and retie it – but then he stopped himself. Golzar watched him. She realised her back was tensing, as if getting ready for a fight. Steel grey eyes narrowed at Golzar. “Why were you picking fights with the Lions again?”
“Ha! I knew you would bring that up – “
Bryn, the snitch, looked between the two of them.
“ – what, did Thornston come crying to you again?”
“N-nevermind who told me,” said Gerhard. He folded his arms. “I know you do this every time, and so why would it be different this time? Either way, we need to talk about this.”
His voice dropped. “You’re a commander now. People are watching you.”
As if they hadn’t been watching before. Golzar scoffed. She knew she was mirroring his posture, crossing her arms loosely as she turned away from his burning stare. Suddenly even the open windows weren’t giving her enough air.
Gerhard went on. “Don’t you think you’ve been too reckless? I know it’s not easy, but we’re not at war anymore. They won’t let things slide so easily now that they don’t need us to fight their battles.”
By ‘they’, Gerhard meant the nobles. Golzar could see a couple of expensive hooves trotting down the street through the windows just then. White mares with gold-tipped horseshoes that shined in the sun. Her two companions turned at the sound of clopping. She continued to stare. Who were these people to come running into the square when much of the city had been ruined to rubble?
“Golz’, you okay?” Bryn’s voice was low and unusually earnest.
Golzar turned to look at them. She quirked the corner of her lip. “I am in excellent shape.”
“But y’know Gerhard – “ she said with a false casualness, canting her head to one side “ – maybe I want them to see me.”
The knot in his eyebrows deepened. “What do you mean?”
“I mean someone needs to teach these guys a lesson.” Golzar narrowed her eyes. “You’re right. The war’s over. And now all the nobles see is a bunch of mercenaries left to run loose – chevalier or not.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t realise they’re the ones pulling all the strings. If they influence the Queen enough, they could get her to revoke anything the heroes have earned for ourselves – including our freedom.”
Bryn stared at their lap quietly throughout all this.
“And besides,” Golzar went on. “I don’t like what some of the troops think they have the right to. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t let them go on like this. And given I’m in the Council now . . . ” Her tone of voice inclined upwards, almost anticipatory.
Bryn let out a sigh, beginning to twiddle their thumbs. “Why d’ya hide in a backalley then.”
“If you wanted them to see you.”
A silence passed among the three. Golzar’s gaze was downcast. She glared at a chip in the table’s edge. “Well. Because they’re not ready.”
“You think they ever will be?” Gerhard folded his hands on the table, leaning forward. Before he could continue, though, Bryn interrupted.
“S’long as we don’t get into too much trouble.” Hazel eyes glanced away from the two. Then, as if pushing further, Bryn turned around in their chair, resting both legs on the side and leaning their elbow on the wooden back. “Didn’t sign up for this just to get thrown back into serfdom.”
Golzar opened her mouth to speak, but Gerhard raised a hand. Out of habit, the both of them fell back into old patterns, their old relationship as commander and captain.
Bryn crossed their legs, trying to act casual. “I mean, if ya’ ask me, I’d take the troops and run, y’know? Now we’ve got enough loot to spare us.”
Golzar felt her lips twist into a scowl at the suggestion. No one was looking anyone in the eye. A window creaked, blown by the wind.
When Gerhard spoke, it broke the silence. “Before all that . . . remember we’ve that dinner to plan.”
“Dinner?” Golzar and Bryn said simultaneously.
“Your inauguration dinner? You’ll have to host it at our new quarters – I mean – our halls.” Gerhard rolled his eyes.
“Oh. Pleasantries.” Golzar smirked. “No worries, Gerry. I’ll charm them well enough.”
“They’re not just pleasantries, Golzar.” Gerhard’s stern grey eyes met hers earnestly. Seemingly out of nowhere, he unrolled a scroll that spread over the table and then spilled over the edge.
“What,” Bryn said, turning back to him, a glint of engagement in their eyes. “That your list of fans?”
“No, this was my action plan from when I hosted my inauguration dinner some years back.”
“You’ve kept it all this time?” Bryn almost groaned.
“Heh – resourceful as always, Gerhard!” Golzar appraised the neat handwriting. She remembered how she’d taught Gerhard to write late into the night at camp, the candle flickering over the thin sheets they used for messages in war. Ever since then, Gerhard filled in scroll after scroll of lists, inventories and, sometimes, names.
“I didn’t tell you back then because I didn’t want to cause you worry, but the inauguration dinner is . . . crucial. For determining who in the Council gets to stay and who leaves. William is very particular that Councillors can show up the nobility on their own turf. You understand me?”
Golzar nodded, a thoughtful frown coming across her features.
“And if you want a good name in the Council, you’re going to have to do more than not mess up,” Gerhard said. “You’re going to have to impress. Gather . . . supporters, even at this stage.”
“What do you mean by ‘supporters’?” Golzar asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Loyalists, at best.” Gerhard’s voice did not falter, even with the rasp that had worsened through the years of war. He cleared his throat. “I . . . just want you to be secure before you start anything. I know you don’t always want to listen to me, but . . .”
“Yeah. Yeah, I understand.” Golzar chipped in quickly, before things could get awkward. She reached out and patted one of Gerhard’s hands, smiling.
Soon, Bryn excused themself. Said they were going out for some air. Night time had fallen, and the keys jangled at the door, marking the return of the healer. Golzar bid Gerhard goodbye, the scroll tucked safely under her arm.
Midway on the cobblestone path, she turned around, and she saw that Gerhard was still standing at the window watching her leave. He raised an arm and waved. A solemn, sad little wave. Golzar waved back.