A/N: Last time, Golzar left Queen Lucretia's chambers, having been given an offer: to become part of the palace guard. In exchange, Lucretia implied she would help Golzar reach her goal of changing the Heroes' Guild constitution. Meanwhile, William, leader of the Heroes' Guild made a mysterious appearance outside the Queen's chamber, encountering Golzar's comrades Gerhard and Bryn. Gerhard has misled him to think Golzar is inviting the Queen to her inauguration dinner. Finally, Bryn revealed to Gerhard that they were feeling like a burden to the Miscreants. In this chapter, Golzar dreams, and the mail arrives.
CW: The introduction of this story involves some violence and descriptions of injuries, including blood.
Golzar was dreaming. She had the sense that it was a dream, because the muddy battlegrounds near the border had never steamed with white smoke, and her knees wading in the brown sludge felt numb rather than hot or cold. The wound in her belly felt like a strange cool hollowness, like someone had merely doused her in mint paste.
Still the screams. Always the screams.
Her dream self grabbed a sword from the ground and drove it deep into an enemy officer’s back. No blood spurted from the gash, but when she looked down, there was more red spattering her boots.
She was shouting a series of commands, indistinct, melting into the fuzz of noise around her. Her finger moved of its own accord and pointed at something in the distance. A fort. Yes, they were taking over a fort.
The whistle of arrows through the air came dangerously close to her ear.
In the dream, she could conjure up neither Gerhard nor Bryn, not Robert or Richard or Alexis. The white smoke was too thick, as if leaving her on an island with just the lance and the body of the fallen officer. Her belt was gone and so was her knife. Her bastard sword long since cast to a ditch somewhere.
And then she awoke in a cold sweat, with a face full of fur and her arm tangled with Gerhard’s.
Golzar took a deep breath. The spring air was cold at this hour of the day. It was still dark – the sun had yet to rise, and the fire in the firepit had sizzled down to just a few glowing embers, which cast a red tint over the sleeping bodies of all her comrades.
She had to calm herself. She set to wriggling out of her furs. She folded the warm cocoon the way she did every morning, and then tucked it into a neat square.
“Huh?” Gerhard mumbled in his sleep. “No Tanya . . . you can’t use all your wages on candy apples again . . .”
Golzar eyeballed him. He was turning around, arms wrapping together around himself even as he repeated his naggings from the day before. The spot where Bryn usually slept next to Gerhard was empty, but he didn’t utilise the extra space.
Her glass charm was cool against her shoulder, having been tossed that way by sleep. Golzar returned the pendant to where it belonged, resting on the middle of her chest. Her breathing was starting to even out.
She looked around the perimeter of the room. By the door, Robert was dozing, sitting up against the wall. The afternoon before, she had apologised for frightening him the other day with a pint of beer and some sausages from the market.
When Golzar was in the midst of her musings, she saw a flicker of light and movement from the adjacent space. Bryn opened the door and padded gently inside, the morning mail piled high on their hands. “Hey, Golz’.”
“Hello, Bryn,” Golzar said. She feigned a yawn, and leaned back on her hands, trying to look casual. “It’s just us up?”
Bryn nodded. They cast a glance at Gerhard, who was still dreaming about scolding Tanya for her irresponsible financial habits.
They seemed uncertain, as though they wanted to say something to Golzar, but then decided against it. Golzar shifted where she was sitting. If anyone had nightmares among them, they either talked to Gerhard, or they didn’t talk about it. A smirk flashed across her face and faded. It was a bit unfair of them, she thought. To make one man store all the bad things that had happened.
But there was a reason why it was Gerhard who had led them all through a war.
Deftly, Bryn tiptoed around the others still asleep and set the large heap of letters down by Golzar’s knees. With long fingers, they pinched at the one on the top. “This one came in last. ‘S from the Council. Ran into their messenger jus’ outside.”
Golzar saw the black seal with the insignia of the long-rooted oak tree. She accepted the letter from Bryn, nodding. “Well, guess I’ve got some reading to do, then.”
She sorted through the pile first. Some of the letters were from civilians, and these she set aside in a pile for Alexis to go through. They were usually the first point of contact for any young child or admiring swordsmith who wrote to the Miscreants. Golzar swiped a couple for herself to look through, for instance the one from a woman widowed during the war, and another from a young man inquiring after Gerhard’s special saddle.
Next, she dug through the pile and found the letter from Lucretia she had been expecting. It did not come with the royal seal, this time, but a generic fleur-de-lis, as Lucretia had whispered to her before letting her leave the room a few nights ago. This, she put together with the letter from the Guild Council and several other letters from nobles, other hero companies and employers putting quests in.
She looked up at Bryn, who was sitting down, looking out the window pensively. Reaching into the pile of letters, she picked out a few from civilians and handed it to them. They looked down at the pieces of parchment, eyes widening.
“Wait. I can’t – “
“Don’t worry too much about it,” Golzar said. “It’s just three or four, you’ll be done in a cinch.”
Before they could protest further, she rose to her feet, carrying a pile of letters that stacked higher than her chin. “I’ll be in my room.”
She weaved past the furs and sleeping forms, pushed the door open with her foot and headed for her private quarters.
The table was clear. She had just cleaned it, to avoid Gerhard from wandering in and doing it himself. Though he’d never peek at anything private, she knew, it still annoyed her to have someone else hanging around this workspace in particular. It felt like she was being monitored. Sighing, she plopped down on the desk chair.
The letter came in a standard grade of parchment. Whoever it was neither was frugal nor overly indulgent. An even, monotonous hand greeted Golzar, with letter 'a's neither loopy nor scrunched. It said:
We are writing to invite you to an emergency meeting in Lucrece, the Old Quarter, and specifically the Barrel Street, the newer one, the one where the old man with a mole on his forehead sometimes takes his corgis out for a walk and then forgets one of them at the common ground and has to circle back to get it later -- that street.
The topic of the meeting is a recent discovery that the hero company Brown Dogs has been arrested in the arid kingdom of Zenith, nearby to the east of Woodlands, owing us negative five hundred in copper coins and to which we owe positive eight thousand in copper coins. The problem is . . .
Edmund! This was Edmund, wasn't it? Golzar tried hard not to laugh. Edmund was the Councillor in charge of bookkeeping. She'd only ever seen him scribbling down notes, his tall form bent over comically throughout the meetings they held at criminally short tables. He was just as old as William, but didn't act it, and she'd honestly never had a conversation with him.
Curious, she read on.
The problem is that the Brown Dogs have been caught trespassing. Note that the punishment for trespassing on Zenithian territories was recently set to be a month in prison and a fine. The month in prison might be shortened for good behaviour, or lengthened for bad behaviour. In my opinion, it should be shortened, because having heroes in prison in a foreign kingdom is bad for our image.
You will come to the meeting place at the capital and vote to bust them out of there, right?
The Council Bookkeeper.
Golzar leaned back in her chair, staring up at the ceiling. Did he really just ask her directly to vote on his side? Pinching the letter corner between her fingers, she flipped it over to look at the seal. Yes, it was an official piece of Guild correspondence, indeed.
Part of her was aghast at the blatant attempt to skew the vote, but another part remembered all too well the way things had worked before.
It had been one of those days. Bright orange light flooded the camp. The egg yolk of the morning sun was rising far in the distance. A ring of heroes had gathered in the centre of camp around the only short table they had brought from the nearby town, and they were sorting mail.
Gerhard was sitting in the chair, going at it one sheet of paper after the other. Golzar was sitting on a blanket on the ground beside him, leaning back on her hands, as she lifted another letter to the light to read.
Cm to Wtch. bfor don or else. Vt. against rotten eggs.
“Gerry,” Golzar said, turning to him. “I think Ariga wanted us at Witchfield today?”
He sputtered. “What? How did I miss that?”
“You need to stop asking Richard to sort out your mail, he always misses things.”
And the next one, tucked underneath the first:
When Normand comes up for supplies, make sure you tip the packet I sent you into his drink, okay? And before you ask any questions, crummy idiot deserves it.
P.S. You can save half for the rich fools coming right after him.
Golzar had no idea what any of these people would do if someone from the nobility intercepted their correspondence. She sighed, looking up at the sky. Then, she smiled a lopsided smirk. Well, she thought. At least it wasn’t her job to deal with something like that.
Around the table, people were beginning to leave. Tanya stalked off, annoyed that she hadn’t gotten to read any of the letters over their shoulders. Bryn wandered towards the tree they had strapped a bullseye to, for target practice.
Gerhard turned to Golzar, a crease in his brow. “Think you could get more paper from the market? I need to tell William his bribes aren’t working, the villagers still won’t let us walk past the river.”
“Yeah.” Golzar snorted. “Sure thing.”
In the present, the candlelight flickered. Golzar reached over and snubbed it out. The sun was beginning to shine in through the window.
It had been funny even for her, but she knew she had the tendency to laugh at anything. Laughter made things easier when she couldn’t afford to think too hard about something. Now she had all the time in the world to spend thinking. Well – maybe not all the time, but certainly some of it.
She thought hard about what to write in reply. With the time frame, she would have to send a quick courier over to the Guild Hall, just for propriety’s sake. The fresh piece of parchment scraped against the table as she pulled it out and began to write.
Dear Sir Edmund,
I hope this letter finds you in good health.
Edmund was her senior by far in the Council. Even if he started the writing the way he had, it was up to her to maintain their social boundaries.
She wrote thanking him for letting her know about the situation. After that, she began a new paragraph and noted that she would be there. Finally, she wrote a little farewell etude and ended: Goddess conserve.
The clerics at Besiv, who taught children to read and write, would have been proud of her, Golzar thought, as she reached for her seal. The black circle, with the hound head etched into it, glistened slightly as the wax set and hardened. Once she was done, Golzar at last let herself peek at the Queen’s secret letter.
Outside, Bryn sat in their corner of the common room. They had a couple of wooden chests arranged in an L-shape to mark their territory – and to contain their extensive collection of rocks from throughout Woodlands. Now, they pulled their knees up, fitting snugly into the intersection between the chests, and they began to go through the mail.
The first one was from a young boy in Lucrece. There was a lot of the usual talk, thanking them for saving the city, even though their battles surely reduced part of it to rubble, and then talking about how much he wanted to be just like them when he grew up.
Briefly, Bryn imagined a young kid dressing up in Ariga’s enormous bulky red armour, wearing an eyepatch and swinging a longsword around. They shuddered.
In the next part of the letter, the boy talked about how he was a fan of the Miscreants in particular, and now Bryn’s imagination had switched to thinking about a young kid wearing Gerhard’s old matron hairstyle and shouting at a crowd of other kids about how the latrines shouldn’t be dug next to the kitchens, and how his name was Gerhard not Old Shrew, and Bryn, could you please stop painting red bullseyes everywhere where the enemy can see us?
Their mirth soon died. The first strands of daylight were filtering into the room. Squinting, they could see the thin layer of grit that had accumulated on the windowsills. How the sun made dirt light up like gold.
Golzar probably asked them to read these letters to make them feel more included. Bryn knew they always shied away from interacting with the townsfolk. If you asked them, civilians loved the heroes too much, given that they were essentially mercenaries wandering around, looking for the next bite to eat. That was how Bryn perceived themself, anyway.
Bryn remembered how lost they had felt the entire time at the palace, how they’d hid behind Gerhard like a coward. They looked at the knife they had used to open the simple clay seals on the letters, inspecting its edge. They would have never hidden themself like that, on the battlefield.
What would the young boy think, Bryn wondered, if he knew one of his idols was more willing to leave for another job in the mountains than to nestle in with his kind in a town or village? The morning breeze felt cold. They watched how it buffeted the black standard that hung on the wall, sent its edges rustling, and then faded away.