Bonds of Silver, Bonds of Gold 22: Counter (Part 1)

Sadly, Miss Aura’s estimates proved to be too generous, and the sun had set by the time we approached Baris, a blocky line of black set against deepest blue. It it hadn’t been for the witchlights’ steady glow in the windows of Deterikh Tower, I might have mistaken it for a new constellation. As it was, the torches that topped the walls blended the city into the sky, giving me the sense that we were racing towards the horizon.

As we drew close enough for me to make out individual archers pacing along the rooftops, the sage’s horse let out a halfhearted squeal, and then the thundering of Kelena’s gallop suddenly became little more than a shuffling walk. I heard Miss Aura rattle and crack the reins, but the wagon held its trudging pace. The drivers’ window opened, and Miss Aura yelled down from the front seat. “That’ll be it, then. Kelena’s run to her limits.”

The baron and sergeant exchanged a glance, then my master shook his head with a bitter chuckle. “That would be the way of it.”

Mister Valentin groaned and hammered against the wall of the wagon with his fist. “Dust,” he swore under his breath. He twisted his muzzle into a scowl, then raised his voice to the window. “Can she still walk?”

“She’s walking now, isn’t she?” Miss Aura called back. “I’ll take no bets on her making it to the walls, though. The sooner we can lighten her load, the sooner she’ll recover.”

The sergeant sighed in response. “Right, stop the wagon.” Almost as soon as he spoke, we shuddered to a stop and I heard Kelena groan and slump to the ground. He tugged the door open, then jumped down to the ground and held a paw up for us. “From here, we walk.”

My master took the proffered paw in one of his own, the other on my shoulder as he dropped from the wagon. “But what about the supplies? We can’t just leave them here.”

“We’ll bring what we can carry,” the sage called down from the seat. “Unpack the chest, I’ll need that at least. Valentin, your help? Now’s no time for another twist.”

While the sergeant helped Miss Aura down from her perch, my master tugged me after him to the rear and began untying the knots holding the supplies from Barony Jazinsk. “What’s all this for, anyway?” he groused as we set aside bags of hardtack, a quiver of crossbow bolts, and a coil of rope. “Were they expecting us to scale the battlements?”

“Likely Dagos gave us everything he thought they could spare,” Mister Valentin chided. “Take it as a gesture of political support, not material.” He wiped his paws on his pants legs. “My pack is clothes; it can stay, as can the rest of this.” He pitched himself into the work alongside his baron, and soon bags lay scattered around the rear of the wagon. “Aura? Your trunk is free.”

The sage picked at the sleeve of her blouse with her claws as she knelt in front of her chest. “Good, I’ll start sorting this.” She motioned to one of the bags of rope. “Erik, unhitch Kelena and tie her bridle with as much lead as you can give her. She’ll not run far, but she’ll want a bit of room to pace when she recovers.” While my master nodded and set to work securing the horse, Miss Aura opened the trunk and began rummaging within. Inside, thickly padded crushed velvet lined the walls, with rows of pockets holding small vials and bottles. Books and scrolls haphazardly filled the center, along with other bits of apparatus I couldn’t identify. At one point, I heard the tinkle of glass shards bumping into each other. “That’ll have been my alembic, no doubt,” she hissed through clenched teeth. She lifted what looked like a hollow teardrop with a flattened base, its tip hooked sharply. “That’ll be a prince’s ransom to replace.”

“No doubt Baron Deterikh will be happy to replace it, assuming we live to see the exchequer again,” Mister Valentin quipped. “What did you need out of there?”

“Everything, eventually,” Miss Aura quipped, her head back down into the trunk. “In the immediate, though… ah, there!” I heard more shifting glass, and then the clank of thin metal banging against something solid. The sage sat back on her heels, holding a pair of worn pewter flasks, which she passed to the sergeant. “Strength and speed. You’ll want that when the time comes to stare down Datsia. One for each of you.”

My master took his flask and unstoppered it, then sniffed at the contents. His ears flattened and his lips curled, and he quickly capped the bottle again. “And we’re supposed to drink it?”

“As much as you can manage,” the sage agreed. “Give it, oh, a quarter-hour to come to full potency, so plan on downing it well before you meet her, and expect to feel a li—” She snapped her eyes in my direction, then turned back to the sergeant. “A bit foggy after. It should give you a good half-hour’s advantage, though.”

Mister Valentin pinched the bridge of his muzzle with his free paw. “Assuming we get the chance to use it. Anything else?”

Miss Aura turned back to the trunk and cautious rattled the contents, grumbling to herself over other broken apparatus. “One last… there.” She sat back over her heels, a small metal vial balanced on her paw. Unlike the others, this one was highly polished, likely silver, and stoppered with wax. In the wax, someone had scraped a rough circle with three small dots in it, an uncomfortably familiar symbol.

Reflexively, I put my right paw against the left and rubbed at the blackened fur, but the sage glanced in my direction and gave the barest shake of her head. I lowered my arms to my sides, but the fur continued to itch, as if the sight of that sigil had reminded me of the sensation. Miss Aura, however, turned her attention back to the other two, visibly dismissing my discomfort. “Crack the seal, carefully, and pour this on your spearpoint before you stab her.”

That sent Mister Valentin’s ears flat against his head. “Poison?” His voice rose in disbelief.

The sage’s eyes glimmered above her cold smile, and her tail hooked behind her. “It’s no dragonbane, but it’ll do the job.” She rolled the slim vial in her fingers. “Just don’t get it on any cuts. I can treat it if I get to it fast enough, but for her, I doubt that’ll be an issue. The closer to her heart you can get it, the quicker it’ll do the job.”

Mister Valentin frowned at the vial and crossed his arms. “I’m not comfortable with this, Aura. In one swift stroke, you’ve turned us from rightful rulers to a bunch of assassins.”

Miss Aura shrugged in response. “History is written by the victors. You wanted tools to help you deal with Datsia; I’ve provided what I could in the time I had.”

The sergeant shook his head at that, turning towards my master. “No, no, this is a step too far. If we have to stoop to this—”

“Datsia’s already done worse,” The sage snapped. She jabbed one finger at me, glaring at Mister Valentin. “She had an innocent slave warped to serve as a distraction, duped the baron’s best friend to turn against him, sold out her own family’s legacy for a strip of land, and waged an unjust war on her neighbors. Assassins? We’re physicians, drawing out the disease to save the patient. No-one blames the leech for its necessity.”

Mister Valentin stared down at Miss Aura for several seconds, then pressed his fingers to the bridge of his muzzle. “Listen, Aura, you’ve managed to make me doubt the virtue of our path. Well done.”

Miss Aura sighed. “Then consider this. When you run into Datsia, you’ll have a choice: let her live, or kill her. You know you can’t trust her as long as she lives, and you know that she’ll not hesitate to kill you in return, by whatever means she can. The faster she’s dead, the faster you’ll be able to stop the war and the smaller the odds that you’ll have to fight the Jazinsks.” She tossed the vial to Mister Valentin, who fumbled for it reflexively. “If both of you fall, I’ll have no hesitation about using it myself.”

My master and Mister Valentin exchanged a look at that. Then Mister Valentin passed over the vial. “Hold onto this. Use it only if it looks like you’ll have to fight her alone, and Great Family, don’t spill it.” He turned back to Miss Aura with a frown. “What other surprises have you packed? A plague of locusts, perhaps?”

The sage chuckled bitterly at that and picked at the sleeve of her blouse. “We hadn’t the time to summon one. The rest, I’d need a circle to manage properly, and more supplies than we’d rather carry. I can get us past the guards at the front gate, but from there, we’re in Koshki’s paws and yours.”