“It’s not all that hot, and I can’t promise the kind of sleep you’ll have tonight, but I figured it was the least I could do. I wish there was more I could give you.”
Mishal glanced up to Isadora, who sat beside him with two bowls of stew in each hand. She held one out to him with a wooden spoon swirling around inside, disturbing hearty chunks of meat and unidentifiable vegetables. He took her from her and tried to remember what she was talking about.
“You didn’t have to,” he said quietly. He sipped the broth and found some of the tension run from his shoulders. It was good, the best they’d had on the road so far. He gave Isadora a look. “Did you—?”
She smiled down at her own stew. “I’m not to only one who wanted to try to give you something a little extra today.” She let out a soft whistle. “Sixteen already.”
“Before you ask, I don’t feel any different.”
Isadora nudged his shoulder with her own. “I wasn’t going to.”
As far as the days had been passing, it was a clear and sunny day and they’d had no hiccups on the road. The endless riding was beginning to wear on him though. Stellarsyl, he knew, was large country. He hadn’t realised how large until now. Exhaustingly large.
It didn’t feel momentous. Celebrating birthdays had been an overplayed extravagance before anyway, and he couldn’t say he missed them. They were loud and bright and showy. Everyone had the night to celebrate, not worrying about their tasks or study or…
Okay. Okay. He missed them a little. Was it so bad for him to enjoy the occasional indulgence?
An hour had passed since they’d stopped. The horses were cared for, the poor things growing as tired of the travel as everyone else, and here now was a midday meal. It was selfish of him to assume that perhaps Margaretta had allowed them more rest today because it was his birthday. Right?
He scooped a chunk of meat from the stew and glanced towards the forest beyond the road. It was a tall, coniferous forest, dark and imposing. He would swear on anything that he saw them moving, little motions from the corner of his eyes or turning to find a boulder that wasn’t there when he looked back.
Two weeks trying to adjust to the strange and unpredictable nature of the Wilderlands, and he’d gotten no better. A chill rose in his chest every time. He wasn’t afraid. Cautious, perhaps.
He’d gotten only halfway through his stew when the oncoming drumming of hoofbeats began to grow louder from the direction they had been travelling. As they grew closer, he could make out a group that was perhaps a little more than half the size of their own. Several beats later, he could also make out navy scarves that all these riders had tied around the bottom half of their face. They slowed their approach by this time, and everyone rose to their feet.
One of the riders came forward towards them, the pack following at a more sedated pace. His horse chomped at the bit and threw her head, hooves stamping and ringing out against the road. As he drew near, he unclipped his navy scarf and let it flutter by his neck.
Margaretta approached the lone rider with Gracia at her side, shoulders set but expression guarded.
“Who do you suppose that it?” Isadora asked in a lowered voice. Both their stews were forgotten.
He shrugged, and as if in silent, mutual agreement, they both edged closer to hear the conversation.
“Greetings! You have a merry bunch of explorers handy, I see. How does the travel fare for you? I think I saw rain clouds a few hours back,” said the rider who had come forward. He tilted his head towards the sky, holding up a hand to shield his eyes from the sun.
“Yes,” Margaretta said dismissively. “Do you need space to rest? We have quite a number and the domesticated fields are not large, but we can make room.”
The man smiled, and a sudden and slimy unease landed wet and heavy in Mishal’s stomach. He didn’t like that smile.
“We’re set for the next few hours, though you’re very kind and you have my gratitude for the offer. We’re on business, actually. You see, my fellows and I are on official business. Collecting the toll for the roads. It’s a sparing fare for all your men and your horses, but the walking carriages will cost a bit more, I’m afraid.” The man nodded towards where the brass, glistening carriages were parked, the undercarriage against the ground as though it was squatting. Its four spindly legs were bent at its side like a crouching spider.
Margaretta’s eyes narrowed, and he began to play with the metal of the hilt on his sword. It was a reassuring, if not slightly morbid gesture to calm himself.
“There is no toll,” Margaretta said, some of the forced warmth seeping from her voice like a soft whoosh of wind. “There has never been a toll.”
The man still smiled, and Mishal had never wanted to see someone smile less than he did at that moment.
“Ah, perhaps you haven’t been on the road for a few months. It’s been in place for some time now,” he said. Then he shrugged, as if to say what are you going to do? “I do apologise for the inconvenience, and the lack of informed word that’s led to this unpleasant business, m’lady. But rules are rules.”
“By whose decree?” Margaretta pressed. She folded her arms over her chest. “Everyone uses these roads, and I know for a fact not all of them would be willing or able to pay tolls.” She said tolls like it was a disgusting scrap of rotten meat.
Isadora gently brushed his arm with her hand. She gave him a questioning, uh oh look. He nodded, brows knitting together. There was something wrong.
“King Lysander and Queen Juliette,” replied the man. “I suppose they need all the gain, financially or otherwise, that they can get their hands on. Way up in the sky like that.” He turned once again skyway, squinting, in a direction that may or may not have been Heaven’s Keep.
He was pretty sure it was not.
“I see,” Margaretta responded, her tone cool now. “Tell me then, how did Queen Inga and the labourers of Chromium respond to this? They are the ones who built these roads in the first place.”
The man’s smile finally cracked, and he blinked at Margaretta like he’d never heard such a question before. He glanced around briefly, and then shook his head.
“My good lady, it is my job to follow the orders given to me, not to ask questions of the semantics of such proceedings.” He smiled again, but this time, he squinted down at Margaretta like he was one smelling something foul and trying to conceal it. “I’m afraid I have to insist.”
Margaretta took a step backwards. “If you cannot show me proof of this new law, or your orders, or explain to me why Heaven’s Keep would be capitalising on the exploits of Chromium, then there will be no payment.”
That was the moment that, glancing back at the rider, he realised there was an ugly, thick sheathe at his side. All of the navy-scarf clad riders had weapons of varying sorts, in fact. The stranger who was speaking to Margaretta moved his hand to the hilt of his blade.
“There will be payment,” he said, his voice much lower now. Then his horse leapt sideways, and he snapped back on the reins, catching her badly in the mouth. “Dammit,” he snapped, and tugged harshly once more on his mare’s reins. “Dammit! We will get our payment!”
And then he straightened his poor mare and the sound of his sword shinging! out of his sheathe filled the midday air. The rest of the riders drew their weapons. And then they charged forward.