A/N: Last chapter, Golzar decided she was going to pursue changing the Guild constitution. In this chapter, she is seeking audience with the Queen via her Lord Steward, Raymond Tonguard. Bryn catches her holing up in her office and the two of them talk.
Vast stone slabs of walls stretched in a v-shape before them. The structures were a pale grey under the sun, matching the light spring grasses that rustled in the breeze. A sense of peace overcame Bryn. It caught them off-guard. The last time they had come to see the new halls, the ones Golzar had procured for the Miscreants, the ones located far southwest in the capital so the windows would draw fresh air from the mountain side, they had found it too exposed for their liking.
Bryn nodded at the old man who managed the stables here, before continuing on their way to the main entrance.
It had been a week since they had returned from Witchfield. Most of the dreary atmosphere had dissipated by now, helped by the coming of the pale yellow dandelions and the general cheer of the city dwellers who passed to and fro the road.
Still, they couldn’t get used to how the large wooden doors – whooshed – open each time they entered. Bryn froze for a second, eyes wide. From somewhere in the watch tower, one of the new recruits shouted, “Sorry!”. It was a new design. Brought over from Tome, apparently, where Bryn had been hearing a lot of news from lately.
They quickened their pace, heading towards Golzar’s quarters. They had not seen her out of her room all day. Bryn frowned.
As they went through the corridors, they brushed shoulders with a small gaggle of giggling Miscreants who seemed in a hurry to get somewhere. Bryn stopped in their tracks, turned around and narrowed their eyes at them.
There was Tanya, obviously, because the older ones liked to drag her into all the trouble they got up to. There was Richard, the Big Guy, sporting a wide grin and a suspicious damp spot on his shirt. Finally, there was someone he hadn’t expected.
“David.” Bryn beckoned him over with a finger. The young man chuckled uncomfortably, while the other two immediately booked it, sprinting around the corner.
David used to work under Bryn – back when they were the spymaster, not second-in-command.
“What are ya’ up to?”
He blinked grey-green eyes up at them innocently. “Nothing!” David scratched the back of his neck with one hand.
Silently, Bryn’s gaze flickered to Golzar’s door. All seemed in order. It was slightly ajar, but it was one of the stuffiest rooms in the halls, so Golzar had probably left it open on purpose.
“Well then . . . “ Bryn gave him a fond pat on the shoulder. “Get outta here.”
They heard the scuttling sound of David running around the corner to join his companions. Bryn padded over to the door, mindful that ‘nothing’ probably meant something, and that they had only dismissed David out of certainty that the whole thing had probably been Richard’s idea.
Gently, they reached for the door – gave it a yank open – and stepped backwards.
The bucket hit the floor with a loud thump, splashing water over Bryn’s shoes.
Inside the room, sitting at the desk, Golzar jolted upright. The candle beside her flickered wildly.
“Drat.” Bryn shook a few droplets from one foot. “Thought I could dodge that.”
Quietly, they and Golzar regarded each other. Eyes like copper coins reflected the dim lighting, expression unreadable.
“Did you . . . need something Bryn?”
“A change of shoes, probably.” Bryn lingered in the doorframe. They weren’t sure whether to go in or not. They would get the rushes wet for sure, and with the amount of time Golzar was spending in this room nowadays, mouldy rushes did not sound entirely pleasant.
Golzar’s gaze drifted downwards. “Oh.”
A breeze came wafting down the corridor, making a little whistle as it passed. It carried the cool scent of spring blossoms.
Before Bryn could say another word, Golzar perked up, as if some memory had just hit her. It was just as well, because a quiet Golzar was a disquieting one, in Bryn’s opinion.
“I forgot the walk! Ah . . . I promised those rascals yesterday I would go with them.”
“Hmm. I ran into Teeny and the Big Guy outside earlier,” Bryn said. “And David.”
“David? They invited David?”
Bryn shrugged. “Beats me.”
They bent down and picked up the bucket. “Guess this was their way of reminding you.”
Since Golzar had let them know she was pursuing the motion, Bryn hadn’t spoken to her much. It was childish, maybe, but Bryn doubted Golzar had noticed the difference. They set the bucket down beside the door.
Golzar wasn’t moving from her desk, and so Bryn figured if the rushes grew mould at this point, she’d deserve all the work it took to clean them up. Bryn floated across the thin layer of dried plants to perch beside Golzar at her desk.
The creamy paper, carefully etched in black ink, clearly showed what she had been up to all this while.
“Ya’ know what they say in songs. Women who spend too much time writing letters . . . “
“I don’t particularly care what they sing about women and letters, Bryn.” Golzar picked up her quill once again and continued to write.
The format of the letter said it was a petition. Bryn remembered nights by the campfire, or in tents by the glow of a lantern, stolen pieces of correspondence spread around them.
It was about five years ago. The new hero was short, shorter than Bryn even, and Richard joked they could finally stop being the baby of the group. Bryn was never a baby, so they only fixed a cold stare on Richard until he backed off.
The new hero had long hair, maybe even matching Gerhard’s, although she didn’t tie it up the way he did, like an old mother living in some village hut ready to talk off the ears of small children for hours and hours.
Her name was Golzar – so she said – and she was sitting by the campfire leafing through pages of – something. Bryn craned their neck, trying to see what it was.
Gerhard had been to the most school out of the lot of them, but even he couldn’t read beyond a few select phrases.
When she caught them looking, Golzar raised the stack of parchment to show them. “It’s a collection of fables from the ancient world.”
Bryn’s eyes widened. They hadn’t thought she’d be reading fables, of all things. Because if Bryn could read, they’d be reading something like an instruction manual on how to repair wagons that have been broken ten thousand times over. So they thought, as their gaze drifted over to where Gerhard was changing an axel for the fourth time that week.
“It also has bread recipes in the back. Which is a plus.”
The small group that was the Grey Hound company drifted uneasily about the fire. Bryn could see the two members of their scouting unit lingering by the wagons, and meanwhile the handful of men that made up their infantry and cavalry sat in close-knit circles – separate circles – all around the clearing. Golzar seemed unbothered by the wary glances they shot her.
Bryn didn’t move to sit next to her, but they didn’t want to hover either. So instead they crossed to the other side of the campfire and sat there, cross-legged. “Thought you told fables, not read them.”
Golzar looked at them, finally, and blinked. “True. But there’s no one here who knows all of these tales.”
She explained that the collection spanned beyond the Kingdom of Woodlands and its predecessors. There were stories from the lands in the East as well – places like Besiv, where she’d come from, and Tyn – stories from other kingdoms one could reach by sea.
It was a cheaply-made copy of some nobleman’s prized collector’s item. Golzar said the original would have been written on paper and bound in a temple, with illuminations in red and pink on the cover.
Before Bryn could say anything, Golzar smirked. “But you didn’t ask for me to tell you all that! Say, which one do you want to hear?”
After the war, Golzar had cropped her hair short. It was odd still, to see her without the hairstyle that she’d later imitated from Gerhard. Somehow the short hair suited her more, and Bryn found it odd to see her so suited to everything, where before she had been far easier to pick out of a crowd.
Bryn leaned over the table and read the addressee’s name.
“Lord Steward, Raymond Tonguard. I’ve heard of him.”
Golzar huffed. “Of course you have, he’s the Queen’s right hand.”
“Not like that.” Bryn folded their arms. “I mean in the taverns. They say he goes there frequently.”
At that, Golzar arched an eyebrow. Taverns were the domain of heroes. If a nobleman deigned to frequent one, that either meant he had business with heroes, or that we was shunned by society at large. Given that Lord Raymond sat at the Queen’s dining table, the latter was unlikely.
“You think he’s a fan?” Golzar said, turning her attention back to the letter. She shuffled the parchments filled with drafts, facts and figures, so that the numbers were atop the letters. Then, she shuffled them back. It was more likely, despite her words, that the Lord Steward was making backdoor deals with heroes for whatever agenda he or the Queen had.
Bryn shrugged. “I’m not a mind-reader. Especially not for noblemen,” they said, pointedly. They laid a hand on the edge of the desk. “Anyway, what do ya’ want me to tell the others? That’s you’re not comin’?”
The light of the candle cast a soft glow. It lit up Golzar’s frown. Bryn could see how her brow crinkled slightly in the middle, how she quickly smoothed it out again as she tapped the quill performatively against her chin. Slowly, she lowered her hand to rest on the letter.
“I’ll make it up to them later, I promise.”
The fable she had told them was a short one. Neither of them had much time in those days, and so she had chosen one of the shortest stories in the book. Bryn remembered the animation in her eyes as she went on, making little voices up for each speaking character. Of course, the original text hadn’t come with dialogue – most fables had very little of it – but Bryn suspected she had made some additions to the story.
“It was the Festival of Clay Soldiers – and they said so in the title, too – and two men were talking in the village square. They were carving masks to worship the Goddess, and one of them said to the other ‘I’ll bet I can make a prettier mask than you, you dunderhead’ –"
“Did he really say that?”
“ – maybe? It doesn’t matter. But anyway, they challenged each other, went to some temple to see some priest, and there we had it, official duel in craftsmanship. One of the men was a great flatterer with a silver tongue.”
“I think I’ve heard this one before. The flatterer wins in the end, doesn’t he?”
“Bryn!” Golzar looked scandalised, raising a hand to her chest in false drama. “I never thought you’d be one to spoil the story for everyone.”
Bryn gestured to the emptiness surrounding the campfire. Everyone had left. “Who’s everyone?”
“You,” she said, in a sing-song voice. “It’s just the principle of the thing, Bryn, we don’t do shortcuts in a narrative arc.”
“I just did.” Bryn might have smirked – just a little. “What happens in the end again?”
Golzar coughed. “The flatterer wins by befriending the judge of the duel. Unlike sword fighting duels, duels of craftsmanship rely a lot more on the judge, you know? Which is why I’d never participate in one, if I could help it. Anyway, the judge says either way, the flatterer would have won, because the bet was worded to award the maker of ‘the prettiest mask’, and the flatterer had disguised himself best to fit his circumstances.”
“Hmm.” Bryn looked up at the moon, which was a brightly shining dinner plate in the sky that night. Stars speckled around it, like salt or pepper. It was just the sort of night to be out on the road, with not-quite-friends around the campfire. They suspected Golzar was enjoying the silence, too.
The courtyard and training area of the halls was bathed in pale yellow sunlight when Bryn sauntered out and beckoned the others over. Richard and Tanya walked over sheepishly, with David following behind, and gathered in a sort of haphazard triangle before Bryn, ready to be scolded.
“Golz’ says go on ahead.”
The three perked up, eyes wide with surprise. Bryn scratched the back of their neck. “Says she’ll get you lot something nice later,” they said, before adding “so long as you don’t spend all of your wages this month on carving supplies, Big Guy.”
The statement cut through the earlier air of disappointment and glumness. Richard grinned. Tanya looked between him and Bryn, her posture like a little rabbit ready to spring. “She’ll come to see us, right? I can’t wait – I need to tell her how Richard tripped over the training dummy the seventh time this morning!”
“What?” Richard squawked. “No, don’t tell her how I tripped over the training dummy the seventh time this morning!”
Everyone burst out into laugher – even Bryn chuckled a little. They looked up at the sky. It really was a good day for a walk. The blue was deep, nearly purple, and little wisps of clouds trailed their way towards the mountains. They cast one last, lingering glance at the shut doors of the halls.
“Bryn! We’re leaving. Wanna come?” Tanya looked up at them with bright eyes. Bryn blinked. Her shout had drawn the attention of not just Richard and David, but some of the other Miscreants who were loitering about. A flush crept up their face. They weren’t usually invited to these little romps the younger members went on, and it was clear the others thought it was strange as well. One of the healers cast them an odd look, as if to say ‘no, you wouldn’t really’.
But it was a clear spring day. Bryn joined Tanya, hands clasped behind their back. “Just to the market,” they said. “No funny business.”
Tanya gave a little whoop and cheer. David smiled warmly. The four of them walked out the front gate, out onto the cobblestones, the meandering path that would take them to the marketplace. Bryn supposed Golzar knew well what she was missing out on, maybe even better than they did. and so they didn’t look back.