"It's okay if you're still mad, you know," Oriana reassured her friend. The pair and their new companion Zane were making their way across the city by way of the less-crowded back streets to try to avoid leaving a trail of witnesses.
"I don't like bein' lied ta, but Jon was right—I'm not a good liar. You was just protectin' yerself. Ain't no fault in dat."
Oriana frowned. Somehow, Wrench's forgiveness didn't feel right without her getting a little angry. Her mother had always been the same way, though, so Oriana wasn't even sure why she expected anything else. It was frustrating. But it was also good to see Wrench's usual smile back on her face.
Giving Wrench as much of a hug as she could manage while walking, Oriana picked up her pace for a moment to catch up with Zane. He had gone far enough ahead that the conversation had been relatively private without being asked, which Oriana appreciated. It was his turn to explain himself now, though.
Zane seemed to be expecting her, as he didn't even wait for her to ask before he began.
"My turn, is it? Well. I suppose I should start from the beginning. It's a bit of a lengthy story, though."
"I heard Sirene, the merchant who sold you your ledger, give you the short version of my childhood. The long version isn't particularly important, so I'll leave it at that. Suffice to say, I didn't have much of a life before you came along."
"When you showed me your eyes... Well, I was startled, to say the least. I'd never seen that before. No one had. Sure, some Cynics will wear a glass replacement, but they are a luxury and look nothing like real eyes. They're a fashion statement. Yours is... functional. You are functional. Somehow. It's incredible, really. I've spent years trying to figure it out. The Crown's best minds have too, and they're not closer to understanding than I am. They're afraid. I'm intrigued."
"You know what happened next, of course. I unintentionally set the whole of Owvry Village on you, and later the Crown. When you escaped, I followed you to make sure you got away. I saw you pack up and leave your home and though you would be okay. So I went back to the village."
"There, the guards found me and took me in. They asked me if I knew where you'd gone. I still couldn't lie, but this time I was at least thinking clearly, so I said nothing instead. This was, unfortunately, tantamount to a confession in their eyes. I was to be detained. Happily, I might add, compared to the alternative. I wouldn't have had a life to waste away in jail if not for you, so I'd gladly trade some of it for your freedom."
Oriana didn't particularly like the sound of someone else going to jail for her, but she certainly didn't like the sound of being captured either. She gave Zane an awkward, appreciative smile.
"It's nothing, really. I wasn't there for five minutes before I was sprung from my prison. A group of men... 'infiltrated' the jail and released me. They claimed to have overcome the guards, and that they were trying to save you from the Crown's men and needed to know where you had gone."
"I was of course suspicious. They could be lying. But they had helped me escape, and more importantly they didn't hesitate to sign contracts swearing not to tell anyone where you were if they found you. So I told them the direction I'd seen you go."
"I was able to make a little money now that I had a ledger. Nobody understood before that I would gladly have made an honest living if only I had been able. Not having a ledger is a nearly inescapable situation in a village like Owvry, though. It wasn't immediately well-known amongst the villagers that I'd been detained, so I bought myself some clothes and supplies and then hid. I was necessarily very good at hiding, and it was even easier when I could actually blend in."
"Then I slipped up. There was a reward for my capture by this point, but I thought I could escape notice and make some more money. I offered to clean out a man's chicken coop, but I could tell by his eyes he had recognized me. I told him I would do it for free if he wouldn't tell the guards. It wouldn't be a lie to just not tell them. He agreed, reluctantly, and the necessary contract was signed. I began my task."
"Not five minutes had passed before I felt a strange sensation. The ledger on my hip was shaking. Subtly to begin with, but gradually increasing in strength until I noticed and looked. I could make sense of it. It trembled in my hands under no influence but its own. It shook its pages open in my hands, the contract I had just signed now visible. Then, when I thought the book would surely shake its twisted spine apart, it stopped. And before my eyes, a line appeared across the page, in crimson ink the colour of the ledger itself."
Oriana was particularly unconvinced, and it showed. Zane noted her raised eyebrow and frown, and held his hand in the air.
"I swear it's the truth. You'll believe what happened next even less, though. There was a commotion on the street, a guard shouting. Something about searching the area. My ledger had to wait. I carefully looked, and I saw that the man with whom I had signed the contract was dead on the street, at the feet of the guard. I thought he'd killed him, but I overheard someone say that he'd told the guard he had information about a fugitive and had just... dropped dead."
"I ran. I didn't have any choice. They'd think I killed him to protect myself, and I was already on the run from the law. I didn't realize until later that I had killed him. Or rather, my ledger had."
"Zane," Oriana warned him. "What is this all about? Why, how, do you think it's a good time to be telling me ghost stories? Am I supposed to trust you with my life when you pull this?"
"I would sign a contract confirming it right this second if I thought it would mean anything to you! It's the truth. The man had no wounds, I learned, no signs of poison. Had simply dropped dead. No one could make any sense of it. But the ledger had clearly crossed itself out right as he died, and he had died right as he had attempted to break the terms of the contract. There was no other explanation I could see."
Oriana's face settled in a deadpan expression, waiting for some sort of punchline. But Zane continued, undeterred.
"The men who had saved me from jail? I later learned they had been working for the Crown. A lieutenant who had just happened to be in the village, and his men. On a time sensitive and important mission such as capturing you, they had exercised the authorization to lie and even break contracts in the name of the Crown, an ability most citizens still aren't even aware high ranking members of the Crown's forces have."
"I only learned myself when they started dying. The lieutenant first, at the gates of Owvry Village, as he returned to deliver a report on your whereabouts. And the rest later, when they were found near the Viducian border after an attempt to capture you was thwarted by a 'gypsy bear' who I can only assume is your friend, Miss Murphy. My ledger shook itself from its chain as they attempted to deliver their reports. Two apparently couldn't or wouldn't report, as their contracts remained intact until one crossed itself out a few weeks later. I haven't been able to figure out what happened to him, or the remaining survivor."
"Once I knew what was happening, I was able to use it to my advantage. I built up a network using airtight contracts and a reputation for—"
"Are you kidding me right now!?" Oriana shouted, stopping to square off with Zane. Behind them, Wrench also stopped a distance away and watched them with her head tilted and her smile receding.
"I don't know what your game is, but you certainly seem to expect me to believe all of this nonsense. For what? So I can think you're a murderer instead of a liar?"
"A murderer? I've never killed anyone! And the ledger has never taken an innocent life. The punishment, by law, for breaking a contract is death. They should have died anyway."
"That's not up to you to decide!"
"I'm just protecting you! You would have been captured by now if it wasn't for that ledger."
"I don't need that kind of protection. I can take care of myself, and I have friends who will help me without killing people."
Wrench awkwardly raised a hand.
"Like her. She's the one who saved me from those men, not you. And they were still alive when we were done with them."
"I didn't know those ones would die until it was too late anyway! Everything I've done has been to keep you safe. You think you escaped notice for this long on your own but you have no idea."
"Uh, guys..." Wrench interjected.
"What, 'stop fighting'?" Oriana asked, with more venom than she intended. She took a deep breath. She certainly didn't feel like not fighting, but for Wrench...
"No no, fight all ya like. Seems like a good t'ing ta be clearin' up, wit' da, um, killin' and savin' and whatnot. But yer book's doin' somet'in' awful funny dere, Zane."
Zane's face fell from a scowl to dismayed.
"Oh no. No no no..."
"Great, who did you kill now?" Oriana said with disgust.
Zane flipped the ledger open and found the page it seemed to be attempting to draw attention to. It wasn't yet crossed out, but the book was vibrating more heavily.
"A friend," Zane said quietly.
Oriana blinked. "What? Why? What's going on?"