The evening sunlight skittering about on the forest floor reminded Oriana of happier times. Times where everything she knew was within shouting distance of her home, and where her biggest fear was that she wouldn't like dinner that day. Times where her mother's constant presence was almost overwhelming.
She was singing under her breath—a hunting habit that she hadn't consciously noticed had followed her into adulthood.
What would her life look like right now if she had never made the mistake of showing Zane her eyes? Would she be making a living for herself and her mother, hunting and tanning, taking game to the village with one eye closed? Maybe she would have been caught some day regardless, by some small mistake, and not been lucky enough to escape. Maybe she would be sitting in a cell somewhere right now, instead of her mother.
She pressed her eyes shut and heaved a sigh, the breeze from it lifting her bangs. But a sound from the forest cut the breath short, and her left eye snapped open, only to wink immediately closed again as a floating strand of hair alighted on it. She swatted repeatedly at the annoyance before resuming her careful look around.
The rustling she'd heard was louder now.
She raised her bow, brought the string to her cheek, opened her other eye, took a deep breath, and waited.
One final rustle accompanied a wild bird's exit from the branches of a nearby tree before an arrow sent it tumbling noisily through the branches.
"Thank you," Oriana told her dinner, and her singing ended for the evening as she went to retrieve it.
* * *
"That's highly unpleasant."
"No, it's a Wildwood Red, and it's your dinner."
"I fail to see the contradiction."
"Well you'll fail to see a drumstick if you don't quit looking at me like that."
Zane opted to keep the look and aim it elsewhere, showing off his distaste to no one in particular. The flicker of the fire cast a wavering shadow of his profile on the canvas tent they had pitched, magnifying his expression.
"Zane, don't be rude. She's workin' hard gettin' dat bird ready fer us," Wrench said. "Ya eat meat, don't ya?"
"Yes, but the emphasis is normally on 'eat', not...," he risked a quick glance at the goings-on, "'witness unceremoniously plucked'."
"This is how you learn to value the life you've taken," Oriana lectured, dressing the bird as she spoke. "Getting one from the market or having it served to you at some fancy dinner, you can ignore it. It's just food. Now you'll appreciate the meal more."
"If I manage to partake..."
"Well if you can't even handle this, you might want to take a walk. I still have to clean it."
Zane looked back over and suppressed a shudder as his eye fell on the half-naked bird. "I don't see what's so awful about cl–"
"Clean it," Oriana emphasized, brandishing a knife.
"Come on den, let's get ya some air before ya pass out," Wrench suggested, rising to her feet. "I'll go wit' ya!"
"No, no. I'll endure it," he insisted, though his disgust and his retreating posture didn't match the conviction in his words. "I assume there will be a great deal more of this in our travels; I may as well acclimate myself to it now."
"If you say so," Oriana shrugged, jerking out another few feathers.
"Why don't ya tell us about yer plan again. Ya kinda got cut off last time."
"I'm not thrilled by the thought of blood spilling while I recount a plan I hope will be free of complications. It seems a bad omen. But I suppose I could 'kill two birds with one stone'... as it were."
Though Oriana didn't look up from her work, she smirked at the morbid joke.
"I've spoken on the problems, so now for the solution: Veils. As independent entities afforded many of the freedoms and privileges of the Crown, they're uniquely suited to infiltrate the mayor's compound. They have the authority to enter, and after remaining confined to his home for so long the mayor will surely appreciate the entertainment."
"So dat Linda lady's gonna get Ori's mudder?"
"No. Her cover is far too valuable to our efforts, and she's already reluctant to abuse her station. However, her visit will present an opportunity for Oriana to enter the compound undetected. From that point on, she will be on her own."
This time, Oriana's work did pause. Her knife, previously ready to pierce the now-plucked bird, froze midair. She stared blankly at Zane. On her own? In a place she didn't know anything about, undoubtedly full of guards? And with who knows how many locked doors between her and her mother?
"Yer not sendin' her in dere alone!" Wrench protested. "I'm goin' wit' her!"
"I would very much have liked for you to accompany her. However, you won't be able to pass for a Cynic, and the more people absent from Linda's entourage the more suspicion it will arouse. You and I will be on standby."
Oriana didn't like the sound of that, but she returned to cleaning the bird regardless. This was her mother. She could do it. She had to.
"When Oriana's mother is free, the two of them will make their escape. Linda will provide a distraction that should ease their escape without compromising her cover. But should the situation present no other option, the Veils are quite capable of extracting them."
"Or we'll bust in t'rough da wall!"
"Or we'll bust in through the wall," Zane conceded.
Wrench's eye lit up with excitement at his agreement, so much so that Zane backpedalled.
"Only if absolutely necessary!" he added, alarmed, but it didn't temper her excitement.
"And then what?" Oriana asked, drawing Zane's attention back to her activities during a particularly gruesome moment. She realized her mistake and tried to turn away from him, but a glance in his direction proved it too little too late.
"Ah..." he began, in a fierce battle of wills with his stomach over his composure. "Then... then, of course, we'll... ah..."
Oriana and Wrench both stared at his greying face with concern—and a hint of amusement or morbid anticipation, respectively.
Zane raised a hand to his mouth and stifled a small burp with the expertise of the high class. Thereafter, he seemed to have regained control.
"Then the Carmine Ledger will assist us in moving you, your mother, and Wrench back across the border. We may need to remain in hiding here in Mardok temporarily while we ensure the crossing can be safely made, of course."
"And then what?" Oriana pressed. "I find a new place to hide in Viducia and hope the Crown doesn't find me again?"
"Well, the Crown will likely never cease pursuit, but the Carmine Ledger will–"
"For the rest of my life, Zane? Is that what you want to do with the rest of yours? With the people you're ordering around? I know you feel like you owe me something but one person isn't worth all of this," she said, frowning. "I'll be more careful this time, and you can move on. You can live a normal life, all of you. I appreciate what you did for me but I don't want a whole group of people putting their lives in danger just to protect me."
"The Carmine Ledger is more than that," Zane insisted.
"I understand that feeling. Wrench and her family are like that for me. They were my family when even my mother was gone. But that's just even more reason to want to keep them safe!"
The words washed right off of Zane, who sat troubled and contemplative. Oriana stared, trying to get a read on him, and the silence settled uncomfortably around them.
Oriana could tell he was unconvinced, but there was definitely something on his mind, causing hesitation. What was he hiding now? Weren't they supposed to be past that?
A yawn thundered across their camp. Oriana's attention turned to Wrench, as did Zane's after a delay for his mind to return to him.
"I'm goin' ta hit da hay fer a bit," Wrench sleepily decreed. "Wake me up when dere's food, eh?"
Oriana nodded and watched Wrench retreat to their tent. Then she turned her attention to Zane, who had gone back to staring at his knees. It wasn't the solid, unyielding posture of someone who had clammed up, though. It was jittery and anxious; an intense internal debate.
Something about his indecision made her believe there must have been a good reason he wasn't sure whether he wanted to talk about it, so she decided not to press matters. She settled down to finishing her work, and when the bird was cleaned and ready to be cooked, she stood up.
"Here. Start the meat cooking," she instructed, handing the skewered bird to Zane and grabbing the leather bag she'd been putting the scraps and feathers into. "I'm going to go for a walk and get rid of this stuff. If we leave it here we'll attract hungry animals."
Zane managed to take the bird from Oriana, but she didn't know how because his eyes were still staring into some unknown distance when he looked up. She watched him put it over the fire and begin absentmindedly spinning it. His continued silence was concerning.
"Don't burn it, okay?" she gently warned him.
She left the camp, picking her way through the dim underbrush just as easily as during daylight. She didn't need to go too far, but she wanted to give Zane some time alone so she let herself wander for a while, the moonlight giving her mundane journey a dramatic appearance.
When she thought she had gone far enough, she dumped the contents of the bag beside a rock and backtracked to a nearby stream. She took her time washing the bag out before finally heading back to camp. Retracing her steps proved a little more difficult than she had thought it would be due to her not taking a very organized path from the camp, but soon enough she was able to find and follow the glow of their campfire.
She stepped back into the clearing without a sound, and found Zane still turning the bird, which was now giving off a delicious aroma. They would have to be sure to pack any leftovers well to mask the scent, or they would still find their camp ransacked by hungry animals in spite of her previous efforts.
Zane surprised her by looking up from his work with a smile. "It will need a little longer yet," he informed her. "But it's coming along quite well, I believe."
"I can smell that," she said, taking her seat again. "So I guess you feel like talking now?"
Zane frowned, and Oriana worried for a moment she had scared him off again.
"I... apologize for that. This concerns a subject I had long since decided not to discuss with you. It's of no positive consequence to you, and only vaguely concerns you at all. I preferred for it not to weigh on your mind, but as a result I've been... dishonest with you. A skirted truth. A lie of omission."
Zane sounded so dejected Oriana was almost frightened to hear what he had to say. Previous knowledge he'd withheld from her, he had stood by his decisions and justified them to her. She couldn't imagine what the magnitude of this problem must be.
"The Carmine Ledger is... not entirely about you," he admitted, unchaining his ledger from his side. He unclasped the cover and flipped through the pages. "It certainly started that way, and protecting you remains its primary function, but along the way we found we had... other congruent interests."
He stood and handed the open ledger to Oriana, beckoning her to read. Her eyes skimmed the page, glossing over paragraphs of needlessly complicated language, until she thought she understood the gist of the thing.
"You work with... Aegra Blade? The Aegra Blade?"
"I wasn't aware of the existence of more than one Aegra Blade," said Zane.
"Zane! You work with the most famous political rebel in Mardok? Is that how you were able to find so many followers?"
"No, actually, I'd already amassed quite the following when Aegra approached me."
"But... come on! Aegra Blade? I wasn't even living in Mardok and I've heard of her. Does she really have mechanical limbs?"
"What? No. Well, not exactly. She has a single artificial arm, yes. Who told you that?"
"Everyone! They said her sword can cut right through a house in one swing. And that she has a magic eye that can see lies. And that she defeats a platoon of Crown soldiers every week."
"I think perhaps Romantics are not the best source for this kind of information," Zane suggested as he took his ledger back. "She's only human. And the majority of her efforts are legitimate politics, though there are sorties on occasion when the Crown sends soldiers after her. Without her operating outside the law they can't officially arrest her, so they use mercenaries that are nearly impossible to trace back to them. And on the public front, they mostly ignore or ridicule her activities, in an effort to prevent her from appearing to be legitimate competition."
"Seems like they must be lying or breaking contracts to do that to her," Oriana suggested. "It's at least really sneaky."
"And that's entirely the point!" Zane agreed, suddenly animated. "You were the catalyst—a target the Crown decided to circumvent the rules to go after with all their might and no reasonable cause. Attempting to protect you opened my eyes and those of the people who pledged to assist me to the Crown's routine misuse of their power."
"So the Carmine Ledger is going to overthrow the government?" Oriana clarified, raising an eyebrow.
"Essentially. Though, not on our own. And not by violent means. There will undoubtedly be violence regardless, but this is not a coup, it's a grassroots effort that we're willing to take up arms to protect from unlawful assault."
"No more than protecting you. Perhaps less dangerous than that, even. And for a nobler cause."
Oriana choked on laughter, and it took a minute for Zane to realize what he'd said.
"Protecting you is plenty noble as well! I simply mean... a whole country is being deceived, and we aren't even aware of how many others the Crown has pursued in such legally grey ways."
"It's fine, Zane. I know what you meant. But why keep this from me?"
"I really do apologize for that," Zane fussed. "I wanted to avoid you being consumed by the larger struggle we're involved in. You've endured enough hardship already."
"Let me decide what I want to do," said Oriana. "I can make my own decisions about my life."
"And..." Zane added, "...our association with Aegra is not public knowledge. If she were the Crown, we would perhaps be the analogue of the mercenaries I mentioned earlier, legally speaking. Though unlike them we aren't sent to murder anyone."
"Right, so you're not following the law either," Oriana challenged. "What makes you better than them?"
"In order to challenge a corrupt system, you may on occasion need to circumvent that system's rules," Zane muttered, averting his eye. "I don't enjoy it, and we attempt to do so as little as possible, but there are at least a few among us who should be put to death for breaking contracts, as far as the law is concerned. Once they have crossed that line, they have made a pariah of themselves and it becomes difficult even for us to trust that their contracts are assurance of their actions any longer. And yet they do so willingly—and many have died—to make our vision for our country a reality."
"I understand, kind of, but I don't get how you can start a new Mardokan government with so many secrets. It seems like no Cynic would trust you."
Zane patted his ledger. "Everything we have done is recorded in contracts and records. Once the Crown is overthrown, it all becomes public knowledge. As do the activities of the Crown. Then it's for the public to decide what to do with that information. Perhaps Aegra will not rule, but we have confidence whoever takes up the mantle will do better than the Crown. We'll stand by long enough to make sure of that, and then disband and submit ourselves to the judgement of our peers."
Oriana frowned. She didn't like the sound of that. But Zane knew better than she did what he was doing by putting their lives in the hands of people who executed those who broke the terms of simple contracts. And yet he did so regardless.
"...it's that bad?"
"Think about the position you and your mother are in now, simply because of your existence. The Crown sends after you armed soldiers and monsters most won't even speak of because their very existence must be a lie."
Oriana stared at her feet. Zane certainly had a point. She hadn't done anything wrong. Everything she had done had been to protect herself. It didn't make sense that the Crown would be so adamant about her capture just because she was different. She was pretty sure she hadn't broken any laws by having two eyes.
But didn't that mean she should help? Mardok was her home, even if she hadn't seen much of it before she'd been forced to leave. It was certainly her mother's home. The two of them could flee to Viducia and maybe live a peaceful life, but there would always be the chance the Crown would find them. And even if they remained safe, the Crown could be treating others the same way. What if there had been more people like her out there, but the Crown had found them first?
"I believe this is finished cooking now," Zane eventually informed her, interrupting her thoughts. "You should go wake Wrench."
Oriana nodded, and trudged to the tent to retrieve her friend for dinner. Wrench would definitely be hungry, but Oriana seemed to have lost her appetite.