It was cramped. Hot. Stuffy. But most importantly, it was loud—everything creaking and shaking, overpowering any other sound.
Was that the wide, clear clacking of hooves in the open air? Or the close, deadened echo of the sound bouncing from the trees? Oriana thought she would be able to tell the difference, but with all the jumbling around it had been five minutes since she had first thought maybe the quality had changed, and she still couldn’t be sure.
Too early and she would be vulnerable. Too late, and she may not have been able to help at all. Waiting—not knowing—was just making her feel more cramped due to antsiness, more hot due to frustration, and more stuffy due to her breathing becoming faster and more shallow.
She couldn’t take it any longer.
× × ×
A rickety cart full of assorted crates and barrels bumped down the road through the forest. The path, first worn flat by frequent travel, was now pocked and pitted by the same. The cart’s contents rattled and clattered and clanked in protest of the poor road conditions, but the driver pressed on.
After a particularly large pothole, a barrel that had been rocking back and forth fell right over the side and rolled into the ditch. The thud of it hitting the ground was deafened by the dirt and trees and the racket of the other contents, not reaching the driver. He kept the cart on its course, oblivious to the sound of his precious cargo being left behind.
The sound was just loud enough to reach the back of the cart, though.
“Oriana?” another barrel inquired. When no answer was forthcoming, its top cracked open and a purple eye peered out.
Down the road, Zane could see Oriana stretching out her back beside the overturned barrel. His eye widened and he stood to his full height, hitting his head on the lid and sending it careening over the side of the cart. He hopped on one foot as he tried to step out of the barrel, and nearly toppled it over in the process.
Watching him pick his way over and around the other cargo, Oriana saw his courage falter as he stood at the edge of the cart and watched the ground slide past below him. She rolled her eyes and turned to head back the way the cart had come from, but a thump from Zane’s direction caught her attention again.
Zane had landed in a surprisingly graceful crouch, the cart now pulling away into the distance. He heaved a relieved sigh before standing to his full height again, and jogged toward Oriana.
“I knew you’d do something like this,” Zane complained, but the lack of fire in his voice betrayed his resignation.
Oriana turned away from him again and began to walk quickly toward the edge of the forest, not bothering to face Zane as she spoke.
“Of course you did, because I specifically told you I wouldn’t hide while our friends are in danger.”
“They’re more safe now than they would be with you around.”
“Oh yeah?” Oriana challenged.
“Yes ‘yeah’. Right now, if they even get stopped, you’re not with them. And none of them have done anything wrong. The Crown will not just attack them out of the blue.”
“But you said Wrench is a 'known associate’ of mine.”
Zane pulled ahead of Oriana and stopped. He shook his head. “That doesn’t mean she has broken the law. They may question her, but that would be the extent of it. Please, could we just follow the plan?”
Oriana stopped short of running into him. She considered what he said for a moment, brow furrowed, but she shook it off and a resentful determination returned to her features.
“The last time you said something like that, the Crown didn’t follow your 'rules of engagement’,” she said. “I need to at least make sure they’re okay.”
Zane pursed his lips, holding the challenge in her gaze with his own.
“Very well,” he relented. “I suppose that’s fair. But please, at least try to be stealthy about it.”
“I grew up in the forest, Zane. I may not be much use in a fight right now but if there’s one thing I can do it’s be quiet in the trees.” The idea of it brought a small reminiscent smile to her face, despite the tension.
“Then let’s go. It shouldn’t be too far.”
× × ×
“…but until I began better acquainting myself with my contacts, I didn’t have any friends. Some of those I’d assisted in the past were very grateful, of course, but I couldn’t spare any time to get to know people wherever I pleased. There was work to be done. But they did eventually overlap, as I was saying, business and pleasure, so I started—”
Zane’s eye fixated on Oriana’s finger, which she had pressed without ceremony to his lips. She had stopped in a crouch behind a grunberry bush, her arm stretched behind her to silence him as she watched the trees around them.
She had already hushed Zane a half dozen times, but he had been insistent on explaining his actions; how he didn’t have very much experience with close relationships, how he hadn’t had any moral checks and balances being on his own, how he had done whatever he could not to get anyone killed. It had gone on and on until Oriana had given up on trying to silence him.
But now, she had seen something in the forest ahead, and Zane seemed to understand this wasn’t Oriana growing tired of the conversation. This was serious.
Oriana caught Zane trying to follow her gaze in the corner of her eye, but as his head scammed back and forth without a jolt of realization it became obvious he couldn’t see what she was looking at.
What had caught her attention was a splash of purple between the green of the leaves in a nearby tree. It was conspicuously motionless; not swaying with the breeze like the branches, or twitching with the nervous movement of an animal. She was trying to watch it through the kaleidoscope of gaps in the leaves, but they refused to give up more than this small patch of colour.
Oriana drew her finger back from Zane’s face and pointed to the ground instead, signalling him to stay put. She still didn’t look back at him—despite not yet having any luck, she held out hope she might steal a glance at her quarry.
Parting the bushes and juvenile trees of the underbrush, she crept forward in a crouch with the silence of one who had years of practice moving in the forest. Her feet were feelers, probing and prodding the ground in front of her for quiet spots, but her progress was steady despite her care.
Circling the tree at a distance, she had just begun to make out more details of her target when she heard a crunch behind her. She spun around to see Zane frozen behind her in mid-crawl, one forearm covered in the pulverized remains of the dead leaves he had crawled into.
Incredulous, she spared him a second’s dropped jaw before jerking back toward the tree she’d been approaching, just in time to see a purple pant leg disappear.
“Are you kidding me?” she hissed, only half trying to keep her voice down.
“I’m sorry! I’m not nearly as proficient at this as you.”
“Which is exactly why I told you to wait back there!”
Zane averted his eye. “Ah. I had assumed you were instructing me to 'get down’.”
“That doesn’t even make any sense! You’re in a forest! Who crawls in a forest?”
“Misplaced infants?” he hazarded.
Oriana was so caught off guard by this comment that when she finally figured out what he meant a short, explosive laugh left her more out of shock than anything.
“You’re unreal. There was someone in that tree that got away because of you, and now you’re telling jokes.”
“She didn’t get away,” Zane assured her.
Humouring him, she glanced at the tree again, but there was no sign of whoever had been there before.
Zane shook his head and pointed behind Oriana, who turned with alarm to see about a dozen people moving quietly toward them. Farther off, another group of five made a great deal more noise attempting to catch up, and bringing up the rear seemed to be a mass of red clothing come to life.
Oriana realized that all of them had red somewhere on their outfits—whether an accessory or an item of clothing—just as Zane spoke again.
“Oriana, may I introduce you to the rest of the Carmine Ledger?”
“These are all…”
“Well, not quite. But these are all the bodies I could gather on such short notice and without compromising other operations.”
“No, they’re all… with you?”
“Yes, we are,” said the woman at the front of the group. She caught Oriana glancing at the purple of her trousers and smiled. “You move skillfully in the forest. I wouldn’t have known you were creeping up on me were it not for Zane.”
“So do you,” Oriana said, puzzled. “But you don’t look like a hunter or forester.”
The woman was one of the tallest people Oriana had ever seen, easily the same height as Frederick but much more lithe. She was as pale as the moon, with hair like curtains of midnight and a blood red eye. She carried herself with the same grace Zane did (when he wasn’t crawling through the dirt). And her clothing, while practical in cut, was too colourful and expensive looking to fit in in the forest.
A few of the people behind her gave the same impression, while the rest of the first group dressed in the same way as Kelly and were clearly at home in the woods. The group bringing up the rear looked like ordinary people, aside from the person wearing far too many clothes, who looked more like a ball of red yarn.
“Am I so transparent?” the woman laughed. Oriana liked her laugh. “No, I’m not a forest-dweller like our friends here. However, I am adept at remaining unnoticed.”
Oriana didn’t understand how this could be possible. The woman was grand in both the literal and metaphorical sense. She seemed like she would command the attention of everyone in the area, not avoid it. But she had managed to sneak away and back again without Oriana’s awareness, as had her companions.
“I see Zane couldn’t keep you out of the excitement,” she noted.
Oriana flushed defensively, but the woman shook her head.
“That’s good. I’m pleased to be able to meet you. My name is Linda. I am a Veil, though I sense you won’t understand the significance of that. Suffice to say I have my finger to the pulse of the Crown.”
“Linda…?” Zane interrupted, under his breath.
“Of course, Zane. No word yet.”
“Where is John?”
“Yet,” Linda emphasized. “He’s off being a hero. We became concerned the attack may have occurred in the open when they failed to reach our position in time.”
“Okay Zane, I can see you have many irons in the fire,” Oriana groaned. “I’m very impressed. Now how about you fill me in instead of being vague about it.”
“You haven’t informed her of your plans?” Linda said, arching an eyebrow.
“I wasn’t positive you would arrive in time,” he explained, before turning to Oriana. “I assumed the others would be safe without your presence, but I had no desire to risk them being injured or captured if I were wrong or if you interfered, so I tasked the Carmine Ledger with lying in wait beyond where a Crown ambush was likely to take place. As a contingency plan. But I couldn’t rely on them being here in time, so it was imperative you remained separate.”
Oriana didn’t know what to say about this. She appreciated that he had tried to keep their friends safe, but she didn’t like being talked about like she was some kind of objective or wild card. And while she would have liked to have known about this backup plan, she was self-aware enough to know a maybe wouldn’t have changed her mind anyway.
Zane left her to think, turning his attention to Linda again. “You think they may have attacked them in the open?” he asked. “That would remove all of the advantages of an ambush, and allow a much easier escape. I don’t see why they would do such a thing.”
“We’re awaiting word from John, but either they were aware of our presence, which I very much doubt, or an occurrence beyond their control pushed their hand,” Linda said, a knowing look attaching some special meaning to the latter possibility.
“Shades,” Zane frowned. “I’m beginning to wonder whether they’re no more than rabid hounds let off the leash. They seem to have little regard for the Crown’s plans.”
“So they could be fighting Shades?” Oriana said, tensing up. “We have to go help them! Now!”
Zane nodded and turned to address his people, but Oriana ran off before he could do anything. He opened his mouth to call her back.
“I’m touched, but yer runnin’ da wrong way, Ori.”