A cannister-grenade landed not far from the cooking fire. The middle section rotated into position, driven by tightly-wound coil-springs.
The slots in the outer sleeve lined-up with the openings on the inside.
Bujilli looked at the hateful thing. For a moment he wasn't sure what it was...
The inner-workings snapped into place, breaking glass vials and causing chemicals to mix. The cannister began to fizz sullenly.
Bujilli opened his mouth to shout out some sort of warning as he rose from the cushions and lurched towards Leeja.
The cannister jumped four feet into the air as Black Smoke began to pour out of the slots.
Bujilli looked into Mama Rudta's eyes, for only an instant.
"We do not run from this. Not this time." Mama Rudta gestured dismissively at the Black Smoke grenade with her gnarled cane. A young woman with a fragile-looking cage-like false arm ran over to the cooking fire, took-up the empty cauldron and slammed it down over the sputtering, fuming cannister. A small boy with an elaborately-carved amber eye in place of the one ruined by his previous exposure to the Black Smoke quickly tugged guy-lines and ropes, shifting the sloping canvas of the camp's tent-like roofs, bringing in the rain water to diminish the Black Smoke.
Fighting sounds broke through the rain from at least three different directions. No; four.
Bujilli strained to hear what was going on, unsure which direction to go in order to be of help to the Ulpri.
Mishka sauntered back into the camp with a steel arbalest over her shoulder. The flickering fire light made her red-smeared face gory and grotesque. She set the weapon down before Mama Rudta, then took-up her place beside her elder.
Four more fighters, two adolescent girls and a pair of boys with matching white hair carried a crossbow apiece to add to the pile, bowed to Mama Rudta, then loped off into the rain to re-take their positions as guards and watchers.
The last fighter carried three crossbows. She had luxurious white hair that writhed like silky flames in her wake. Niobe*.
"You!" Bujilli felt Mama Rudta's gristly hand clench down on his wrist before he could draw a weapon.
"Hold. She is a friend to us. Known. Spoken for. Proven." Mama Rudta pointed to the stack of crossbows.
"The mongrel. How funny. I thought you and my sister were supposed to be up at the Academy, taking classes and 'learning things' these days..." Niobe froze. Her green-gold eyes narrowed in recognition of her sister lying amid the cushions next to Mama Rudta.
"What have you done now you filthy animal?" Niobe was across the fire and her talons closed upon Bujilli's throat.
"She has inhaled the Purple--" Mama Rudta began to explain.
"Let the mongrel speak for himself." Niobe hissed.
"You did not get very far--"
"No. I did not. Now tell me what happened to my sister before I tear out your throat."
"What?!?" Niobe screeched in outrage.
"Let me go and we can have an intelligent conversation. Otherwise..." Bujilli looked down at the manticore pistol pointed directly into Niobe's belly. The pistol growled softly in anticipation.
Niobe glared at Bujilli. He grinned. She shook herself as though on the verge of a tremendous scream. Let go of his throat. Stepped back. Shook her head.
"You take a perverse pleasure in thwarting me, don't you?"
"Not really. It just sort of happens, I guess. You've lost your fancy armor..."
"I needed to raise some money quickly. Unfortunately, this place doesn't know the value of anything other than fresh meat."
"Come. Sit down. Talk." Mama Rudta commanded. Raised her cane. Issued a few other commands in clipped wanderer-cant.
The awnings went back into place. Three small boys dragged in a cinder bucket and began mopping and sweeping-up the remains of the Black Smoke. a girl with blood-red hair down to her scrawny knees tipped-up the cauldron and carried off the cannister.
Bujilli sat down next to Leeja. Niobe took her place on the other side of Mama Rudta.
"We were sent off on an errand for the Headmistress--"
"You've made your way up in the world, haven't you then? Running errands for the Headmistress herself. How is our aunt faring these days?"
"So you know--"
"Leeja ran off, I didn't get the opportunity, not after falling into--let's just say that I stayed in touch with the family for a bit longer than she did and leave it at that."
"Of course. We were returning from the Atheanaeum--"
"You went to see Morquin? This gets more interesting..."
"We headed back toward the Academy along the roof-tops--"
"Let me guess; that was my dear sister's bright idea, wasn't it?"
"Yes. We found a place, an abandoned property and took refuge from the storm."
"Oh but of course. You sap."
"Did it ever occur to you that she planned your little respite?"
"You truly are that naieve." Niobe laughed.
"I do not under--"
"You will. Sooner, rather than later, I would guess. But I'm not interested in my sister's sordid liaisons and breeding experiments. This 'errand' you were handling for Shael--what can you tell me about it?"
"We delivered a message."
"To Morquin? Really? You apparently lack any appreciation for how exceptional that particular turn of events truly is; and how did Morquin respond to your mistresses' so-called 'message,' if I might ask?"
"I...think it all went well..." Bujilli felt his guts lurch with a sense of dread. There was too much going on that he didn't know enough about. He looked over at Niobe. She stared back at him.
"No." She smiled; "I will not act as your instructor in politics. You've made some friends, not just enemies; go talk to them. Besides, I'm leaving this place."
"Where are you going?"
"Anywhere. I thought of crossing the Kalaramar Drifts, maybe I'll head down to the South and the Vast Wall or I might make my way to the flooded coast and the cold sea. I haven't decided.
"There's trouble brewing in this place. The sort of trouble that makes money for mercenaries..."
"Very true. So you would encourage me to stay, to become a sell-sword, even if that pitted us against one another?"
"You couldn't talk to your aunt?"
"You are incredible. You really are that ignorant. No. I cannot. Unlike my sister, I have the Mark upon me, and my aunt cannot take my service; only my head, my soul or my life."
"Because you killed your father?"
"Oh I did far more than simply killed the old bastard. I ate his heart. As is our way." Niobe whispered the last.
"And because of this--"
"I am even more outcast than ever before."
"But you served--"
"I was allowed to serve Radizan of Molgravio because it amused him, and his legal staff were able to exploit certain loop-holes in the old laws. Now, thanks to you, or rather Ajjmae, that treacherous shit, that particular option is closed to me. If I were still within comfortable reach of Aman Utal, I would be under constant threat of assassination or worse. As it is, the maledictions hurled at me by my former Lord's curserers and hexigosters are so many mumbled imprecations signifying little. But even so, I cannot return to Dendo, nor the underworlds I knew as a child."
"No. You are not. Nor am I, honestly--my sister and I were never welcome among our supposed people, our so-called family. Much like yourself, we were the products of some sort of experiment, weapons bred to a particular use, never children. We ran away all the time. They sent their servitors after us, until we learned how to elude them. Then...things got more difficult. More painful. But we kept escaping. Getting caught. Brought back. Punished. Running away again. Finally we discovered a tomb..."
"Beneath Zurugossa." Leeja sat up on her cushions.
"You live." Niobe challenged.
"I still live." Leeja nodded solemnly.
"Let them rot..."
"We will be free." Leeja coughed; "What are you doing here sister?"
"I suffered a few set-backs, nearly ran afoul of the Confectioners and their masters--it was all just a misunderstanding, of course--and met-up with Mama Rudta's folk on a night not too dissimilar to this one. I've stayed with them while I prepared to leave this place..."
"And how is that going for you?"
"I can see that you lost your armor."
"Pawned for a handful of tokens, ration-coupons and what turned out to be counterfeit bills."
"No. The shame was that my armor was gone when I found the conniving fool who tried to cheat me. I took what he had that was worth anything, left the rest to the cockroaches and spiders."
"I spoke to aunt Shael."
"Spoke? I gather you've been running errands for the bitch."
"Yes. But only because it confounds her."
"I can well imagine...but you were always her favorite."
"A meaningless distinction and you well know it."
"So you are in her service?"
"No. We are under the auspices of our mentor, Gnosiomandus. He allowed us to carry out the Headmistresses' errand as a favor to the Headmistress, not Shael; he respects the office, if not the one holding it currently."
"You've gotten deeply embroiled in the politics here."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not deeply enough."
"You can't trust Shael..."
"I know that. But we don't need to trust her; we can trust the office. We can trust the Headmistress, despite whomever currently holds that office. Shael is bound to the office, to the Academy, in ways that she might not have considered possible before-hand."
"A dangerous game..."
"Run away if you are afraid."
"I'd watch my tongue if I were you--"
"Spare me. We both know you wouldn't still be talking if you didn't need something that you cannot simply take for yourself."
Niobe looked into the fire.
Mama Rudta clapped her hands, laughing softly at the two white-haired sisters. She gestured with her cane, rattled off a chain of commands in the guttural dialect she had used before. Children came out from the makeshift tents. The cauldron that had covered the grenade was carried out of sight to be scrubbed. A heavy tripod was set-up over the cooking fire and a larger cauldron was swung into place on square-linked chains taken from an artillery carriage. Cabbages, onions and mushrooms were tossed into the pot, along with liberal splashes of liquor and buckets of rain-water. More children came and went, each carrying a turnip or radish or small clump of herbs to add to the pot. A tall, thin girl in a stained smock stirred the pot with a rifle-barrel that had been hammered into a sort of crude spoon.
"Now that you're not going to kill one another, we can prepare food for our new friends."
"I wish I knew--"
"No." Mama Rudta jabbed Bujilli in his chest; "No. You do not need to know all the details. that way leads to paralysis and letting evil take root. Too much waiting is no good. You can always make more preparations, make more plans, make more excuses. Is false notion; you never know everything. All you can do is make good choices based on what you do know and keep going."
Bujilli sat back. He disliked not knowing what what going on around him. Raised to be a hunter and a scavenger, to always be vigilant and aware of his surroundings, he realized that he had allowed himself to get distracted by the noise and nonsense surrounding him. He wasn't paying attention to what mattered, but was getting caught-up in the misdirection and obfuscation swirling through this place like a perpetual social miasma.
Passivity did not suit him very well.
Nor did it serve his interests.
But what were his interests?
Bujilli watched the crippled and maimed children, the bandaged and mangled adults, mostly women, who moved about the alley-camp. They all sang as they tended to various tasks. Some laughed. Small children played. Older ones took care of chores. The smells of roasting roots and hearty stew filled the place.
Bujilli stood up. Leeja had been talking. She went silent. Stared at him. Niobe watched him with a curious expression on her face.
"Mama Ruda; where does this food come from?"
She laughed heartily. Nodded to herself. called out to Mishka who appeared next to Niobe.
"Mishka; take our friend here to the Farmer's Market."
The girl nodded once. Turned and started walking off into the darkness.
Bujilli looked to Leeja; "Get your rest. Maybe you can get your sister to tell you something useful."
Leeja nodded. Smiled. Clasped his hand briefly.
"What are you up to little mongrel?" Niobe wondered aloud.
"Maybe nothing. Maybe everything." Bujilli rushed after Mishka.
Once he was safely out of earshot, Mama Rudta leaned forward on her gnarled cane and addressed both of the sisters in a stern voice; "That is a good man. With a good heart. That makes him a very dangerous man in a very bad place."
"But what is he up to?" Niobe growled.
"Things don't have to stay the way they are..." Leeja's eyes went wide in sudden realization.
"Only a fool would believe that they could change this place--" Niobe scoffed.
"Only a fool can change things; the wise-ones are too caught-up in their games and schemes, their politics." Mama Rudta laughed softly.
"Only a fool..." taunted an unseen woman's voice.
Firelight glinted from the edges of a steely knife.
Mama Rudta wasn't laughing any more.
Then the screaming started...
* Niobe is Leeja's sister, last seen in Episode 48.