Dawn was poking her fingers above the horizon, the rich orange that stained the sky almost invisible through the trees. The Dawn Star, Eosphorus as she was sometimes called, still just visible, winked merrily down at the forest below and then was eclipsed by the growing brightness, her job done for the day.
Among the trees, Mecho was being fed soup.
It hurt to swallow and to talk and to breathe, despite the warm flavours, his many questions and the obvious necessity of oxygen. Nyssa da Silva, nevertheless, insisted that he ate before anything else.
"You need energy," she stated, and refused to say any more. Mecho, entranced by her, did as he was bid; he tried not to look as she used his still-damp scarlet cloak to patch the ragged clothing she already wore, although part of him longed to catch a glimpse.
The voice of his da, after a last warning, had disappeared with the growing dawn. His son half-wished he hadn't; life had suddenly got rather more confusing.
"Ma'am," he croaked awkwardly, laying aside his bowl. "What happened?"
"I wouldn't talk just yet," she said calmly, not looking around from what she was doing. "And my name is Madame Nyssa da Silva. Madame will do."
Mecho flushed a little, fingering the painful weal around his neck; she let out a quiet laugh and turned to face him.
"I believe the man commanded to execute you attempted strangulation, but did not manage to complete the process. He was likely in a hurry."
The erstwhile Corporal did not want to think about that. He dropped his eyes, and caught a glimpse of what she had been doing. It looked like a map, but to where he could not work out.
She followed his gaze and smiled.
"For a friend," she said briefly, and turned back to it, blocking his view with her body. He decided not to try and see what she was doing there; he held this Madame in some awe, and was sure she would put some magics on him if he displeased her.
Eventually she finished whatever she had done; from what Mecho could see the crude map scratched into the dirt looked the same as it had before, but there was the faint taste of metal on his tongue and for a brief flicker of an instant the air wavered above the markings. Something had been done.
Madame da Silva, though, did not seem about to divulge any information.
"You can walk?" she asked, and the tone almost wasn't a question. Mecho hastily scrambled to his feet; he was after all a soldier, and not as hurt as all that. She smiled briefly.
And with that she headed into the undergrowth at such a pace he had to jog to keep up.
Not so far away, a black dog trotted submissively at the heels of an elegant Vagari woman, a sturdy sergeant watching them both with deep suspicion as he marched by the side of his newest recruits, who after several days had almost sorted out their rights and lefts.
Sergeant Esben, his attention fixed on the pair, saw the dog's head jerk up, his nose scenting the air; saw him cast a covert glance at the moodily-pouting Khoreia (who wasn't enjoying this expedition at all), and saw him disappear in an instant away into the bushes.
Esben smiled grimly to himself and waited for Khoreia's anger. She would not like that her pet had got away, especially from right under her nose. That would teach her to pay attention in the future.
Sure enough, it wasn't long before she realised her previously-faithful black shadow was no longer there; the stormclouds gathered in her face, and she reached out to seize the front of her pet Captain's shirt.
"Find the dog," she hissed, venom in every word. "Find it!"
The Captain, who was thin and ragged and unshaven, black shadows ringing his eyes, unable to pay attention to anything but his darling, jumped to obey. As he had known he would be, Esben was immediately summoned. Nothing but the next-highest officer in the troupe could be sent to seek his beloved's wicked pet.
Saluting smartly, Esben took his recruits and followed the dog.