Oriana, Wrench, Zane, and Frederick the driver were arrayed around a table in the corner of a crowded but quiet tavern in Southpass. All of the place’s customers seemed to be groups that valued their privacy, as no one spoke in more than the most hushed of tones. Oriana had never seen anything like it; typically Romantics were boisterous and unconcerned with being overheard.
But then again, that was likely why Zane had chosen this place.
“It’s not too bad now,” said a Cynic to whom the group had not yet been introduced. He wore a cloak so red that Oriana couldn’t imagine him possibly blending in with his countrymen and their drab outfits. “A small group of soldiers and a Shade, plus the Pass’s usual guard.”
“But that won’t last, I’m sure,” Zane reasoned. “Additional trouble will be on its way. It’s only a matter of time.”
“You’re right,” came another voice, sharp enough in contrast to the whispers filling the building that many other tables looked up in annoyance or curiosity.
The girl to whom the voice belonged ducked her head and frowned before sitting beside Zane at the table. She was another Cynic, and also wearing red, but hers was much more subdued and Oriana recognized the form-fitting but sensible cut of her clothes as tailored for moving quietly through forest.
“Advance reinforcements are already arriving,” the girl continued, this time in a conspiratorial whisper. “Another Shade, and a dozen soldiers on horses.”
Zane opened his mouth to reply to this, but paused when he noticed Wrench’s hand in the air. He didn’t seem to know what to do about it. Wrench waved her hand above her head.
“…yes?” Zane finally prompted.
“Who’re all dese people?” she asked, gesturing to Frederick and the other two Cynics.
“They’re associates of mine,” Zane explained. “Frederick is a travelling merchant. James is an entertainer. And Kelly is a forester.”
Wrench had barely finished looking unsatisfied with this answer when Kelly spoke up.
“We’re lieutenants of the Carmine Ledger,” she said with a proud smile, her posture straightening.
“You have a… cult?” Oriana asked Zane, raising an eyebrow.
“It’s not a cult, it’s a group of people who have agreed to help me try to protect you from the Crown,” Zane said, exasperated.
“Why do they care?”
“They don’t, necessarily…” he admitted. “But my ledger allows me to secure very sensitive contracts for people with absolute certainty the terms won’t be reneged upon. In turn, they agree to render me their services.”
“And what, they sign contracts with you for it?”
Zane hesitated for a moment but nodded.
“So, they could die?” Oriana demanded, her voice rising enough to gather the attention of nearby patrons.
Zane averted his gaze, and nodded again.
Oriana glared at him, looking ready to get into a yelling match with the boy. But before she get any words out Kelly interjected. Her voice was quiet but her tone was dangerous and her eye burned in reflection of it.
“Look, you ungrateful brat, Zane has done all of this and put his own life in danger countless times just to protect you. You should be thanking him, not telling him off.”
Oriana was taken aback by the stranger’s tone, but she was not silenced. “Just because his goal is good doesn’t mean he can do any terrible things he wants to get there. He’s coercing people into giving their lives for him, in my name!”
“He’s not coercing anything,” Kelly nearly growled. “His contracts gave many of us back our lives! We owe it to him to help him try to save you, even if you don’t deserve his help.”
“Kelly…” Zane started, but Frederick held up a hand and the gesture almost seemed to physically cut off his words.
“She’s right,” James chimed in. “It was our choice. We knew what we would be getting into, going up against the Crown. And not all of us have such dangerous jobs.”
“Right,” Kelly said, nodding with vigour but restraining her tone for Zane’s sake. “We volunteer to be the sneaky ones in the dangerous situations. *And* breaching contracts is already punishable by death anyway.”
Oriana was not entirely convinced. But the way the Cynics did things had never sat right with her, and as far as she could tell Zane really hadn’t *forced* these people to do anything. They seemed to want to help him, and by all appearances he did just want to help her.
She decided to drop the subject for the time being. She could come back to it after she had given it some thought.
“Okay, fine,” she said, before a smirk came to her face. “But did you have to name it after yourself?”
Zane stared, and then threw his hands up in the air in exasperation. “I didn’t!” he protested. “The group and myself are both named after the colour of the ledger you gave me. I have no recollection of my family name.”
Oriana got the impression he had explained this many times. She also got the impression it was just as funny every time. She stared around the edge of the table at the book on his hip. It was red, like she remembered.
“Is that colour ‘carmine’…?”
Zane crossed his arms on the table and slumped forward, hiding his head. Oriana could hear muffled groaning.
“That’s what I said!” Kelly agreed. “It’s really more like burgundy or maroon.”
“No no, it’s far darker,” James piped in.
“Crimson,” Frederick grunted.
James pointed to Frederick and tipped his head in agreement. “But 'Zane Crimson’ doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?”
“Yeah, but 'Da Crimson Ledger’ is pret-ty neat,” Wrench noted, nodding sagely.
James and Kelly oooh’d, and Frederick nodded with her.
Oriana, meanwhile, was staring at the top of Zane’s head.
“So why carmine?” she asked.
Zane groaned some more and lifted his head with theatrical effort. “I’m fairly sure it is carmine,” he muttered. “Had I known this colour was not common knowledge I would have chosen a different name.”
“Well, I think it sounds pretty good,” she assured him, with a smile that grew smarmier as she spoke. “Besides, thanks to your mistake the Crown will be busy looking for some guy with a 'carmine’ ledger instead of a red one.”
Wrench chuckled quietly, and Oriana stifled her own laughter. The rest of the group were not so polite about it, though, and chortled, guffawed, and snorted uproariously. Zane’s head sunk back into his arms.
“Can we just get to the plan?” came his voice through the protective arm wall.
“No way, food’s here!” Kelly piped up, seeing two of the tavern’s staff headed toward them loaded with plates. “You guys better have ordered me something good!”
× × ×
Plates of leftover food were scattered across the table like the debris from a delicious explosion, and the group slumped around it looked like they’d been hit by the force of one. Wrench and Frederick looked particularly sluggish—though contented—after their eating contest had ended in an impressive stack of cleared plates and an amiable draw.
“Well fought,” Wrench whispered over the end of the speech Zane had been regaling them with, holding her fist out to Frederick. Frederick nodded and gave her fist a dap with his own.
“That should be everything. Does anyone have any questions?” Zane asked.
If anyone did, they were apparently not in any condition to ask them.
Zane frowned. “Well, I hope that’s just a sign I’ve explained it well. We can discuss any concerns that may surface in the morning, though. We don’t know how far ahead of those Shades we are and any time we waste only makes the situation in Mardok more trying.”
Though many heaving sighs and groaning attempts (and failures) at movement were had, the group eventually made it to their feet and scatter to their rooms. Zane asked Oriana to stay behind.
“Oriana, about the ledger…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Oriana reassured him. “I haven’t quite decided how I feel about it but you’re off the hook for now.”
Zane’s eye swung from corner to corner as he considered this before settling back on Oriana’s face. He nodded.
“Additionally, your bow. We were unable to locate a toy-maker with arrows of the correct size and quality for use in combat. So I’m afraid you’ll have to do without.”
Oriana couldn’t interpret the strange, pointed look he was giving her. Like she should already know what he was thinking. She raised an eyebrow.
“…your bow was an integral part of your role in tomorrow’s excitement…?” he offered.
“Of course. So what are we going to do about it?”
Zane squirmed. She might have found it entertaining if she hadn’t been worried about where the conversation was going.
“Well… nothing. I didn’t want to embarrass you in front of everyone, but you’ll need to sit this one out.”
“No,” Oriana countered without hesitation. “We’ll figure something out. Give me a sword.”
“You don’t even know how to use a sword,” Zane cringed. “You’ll be much safer if you just stay out of it.”
“Safer? Who cares about safer? You want me to just let everyone risk their lives for me while I do nothing?”
“Yes! Or the risk they’re taking will have been for nothing! I fail to see how this is any different than the past few years they’ve been doing so while you did nothing in Genethan,” Zane said.
His eye widened as soon as the words left his mouth, but he realized his mistake far too late. He had barely touched the ground before Oriana started walking away, shaking out the tension the punch had left in her hand.
Sitting involuntarily on the floor, Zane touched his cheek gingerly. His normally pristine hair had shifted over his good eye, revealing the sunken eyelid where his right eye should have been. His ledger had fallen open beside him, revealing one of many contracts he had with his followers. His shirt was running up on his stomach and his rapier cape had fallen off completely.
But for once he didn’t seem to care how inelegant he looked. He sat in silence as a bruise began showing its first signs on his face, staring into nothingness.
Down the hall Oriana had left through, the nearest door crept open and Kelly stepped out. She sauntered over to Zane and offered him a hand getting up, which he wordlessly declined. She shrugged and sat on the floor beside him.
“That went well,” she teased.
“I chose my words poorly, perhaps, but I’m only attempting to keep her safe. I can’t imagine why she reacted in that manner.”
“I’ll bet you can’t.”
Zane gave her a curious look. “Would you have acted the same way, were you in her position?”
“No,” Kelly admitted, grinning at the look of vindication this gave him. “Her jab sucks. I would have hit you much harder.”
Zane frowned and heaved a sigh. Kelly laughed.
“For someone you’ve dedicated your life to, you still have a lot to learn about her.”
“I suppose my lessons will begin tomorrow, when she runs into danger with no weapon or regard for her personal safety,” he muttered.
“I’m sure they will! Come on, let’s get you to bed.”
Accepting her offer of help this time, Zane straightened out his clothing, gave his ledger a long look before picking it up, and trudged down the hallway to his room.