This is a story in two parts, and it is a sequel to The Girl Who Knew No Fear. You don't necessarily need to have read the first short story to understand this one, but I would recommend it.
Henri Spenser couldn’t stand it a moment longer. He couldn’t continue to sit and pretend the muscles in his leg weren’t cramping up enough to make him want to tear them out and give up walking altogether.
It was his own fault, really. The hold compartment they hid in was small and cramped, and he had tried to give the baroness as much room as he could. The hours had passed by, in greater and greater torment, and he stubbornly stuck to this courtesy he wanted to show her but he needed to--
“Stretch your leg out,” Bennett Quint said, her tone one of casual command.
“I didn’t want to annoy you,” he replied, fighting to keep his tone even. He was pleased to note that he seemed to have won that battle, but the victory wasn’t all he’d hoped.
There was no fooling her. Her mouth twitched at the corners. “When have you ever not annoyed me?”
“Ha ha,” he said. He stretched his bad leg out carefully, setting his booted foot beside her and barely suppressing a sigh of relief. “Bloody hell. How can you just sit there without any complaints at all? This isn’t exactly the most comfortable of conveyances.”
“Well, I’m not a damn cripple,” she said bluntly. “That helps.”
He may have annoyed her, but she annoyed him right back. “If you’re going to tell me yet again that you would have preferred I stay safe in a tower with the crown prince--”
“No. I’m glad you are coming with me,” she said, taking him by surprise. “I was simply stating a fact. Which, as you can see, is not a good way to talk a person out of trouble. You are better at that sort of thing than I.”
He wanted to tell her that she had just talked her way out of trouble with him, but he wanted it to come out blithe and charming and he couldn’t find the right words. For all the diplomacy he’d learned at his father’s knee, words failed him more often when he faced this woman than any head of state or fellow peer, even when he was lying through his teeth.
“I find I have to hurt fewer people when we work together,” she added.
Henri cleared his throat. “Ah, yes. Well. I’m pleased to hear it.” The pleasure of stretching his leg out had subsided somewhat, and he had to start kneading the stubborn, stupid muscles of his mid-thigh, where the largest knot had taken up residence.
The baroness, bless her soul, pretended not to notice. He could still see a faint glitter of amber hazel through her nearly closed eyes, but she said nothing for a time. Until finally: “Did I ever tell you how I saved the Earl of Moray’s son?”
Bennett had told him next to nothing about her life, though he knew the story. Everyone knew that story. But anything to take his mind off his leg. “No,” he said.
“Where is your flask?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Well, the story starts with me drinking, so it seems reasonable that we ought to start the telling with a drink.”
He found himself opening the front of his jacket, pulling his flask from a pocket, unscrewing the cap, and offering the Sellsword Baroness his very, very expensive Corovian brandy. She took a drink and offered the flask back, and when he started to screw the cap back on, she tsked, so he took a drink, too.
The liquid’s familiar burn seemed to make the pain ebb, just a little.
Bennett smiled at him, and before he realized he’d done it, Henri had taken another drink. “So,” she began. “It all started in a tavern…”
Bennett Quint usually avoided taverns. It wasn’t that she couldn’t take care of herself. She could more than take care of herself. It was that she did not like to be annoyed and drunk men in taverns were annoying. But she was safe with her uncle. Mathias Quint had the look of a man who was not to be trifled with. He was not overly tall or broad, but something in his eyes, a cool, flinty indifference and practical calm, suggested a vast potential for violence. Bennett had not yet worked out how to mimic him but it was one of her goals.
He tapped his beer mug against the table and stared into the middle distance. That was another thing about him. She always wondered just what exactly he was looking at when he looked so faraway. But she knew better than to ask him just then because she knew he was angry with her.
“Your problem,” her uncle said suddenly, “Is that you aren’t afraid of anything at all.”
Bennett Quint considered this for a moment as she poked at the bit of roast chicken left on her plate. She was by no means a great philosophical wit and this struck her as an almost completely new idea. Am I afraid of anything? she thought. Finally, she said, “Fear slows you down.”
“Fear keeps you from doing anything really stupid,” Mathias countered.
She wasn’t certain she could argue this point, though she made a valiant effort and said, “I just don’t think that’s true.”
“You just don’t think,” he said gruffly, and downed the rest of his beer.
She saw no point in arguing further. There would be no changing her uncle’s mind. He was as stubborn as an ox.
He lifted his mug to the barmaid, signalling for another and she hopped to, for the barmaid noticed his hard eyes and cool demeanor as much as the bar patrons did.
“I’d like another, too,” Bennett said.
“You’ve already had two and you’re small,” he said to her, and to the barmaid he said, “She will have cider.”
The barmaid listened to him as though his word were law and Bennett sighed. Mathias eyed her darkly at the sound and she turned her attention back to her food once more.
They continued in silence a few moments longer, until Bennett could bear it no more. She snapped, “I killed it, didn’t I?”
Mathias went very still. It was a hunter’s stillness when he spots his prey. He said, slow and careful, “We agreed that I would know when you took a job. I would know where the job is and what you would be hunting. Is that true?”
Bennett poked a hole in the last bit of chicken and said grudgingly, “Yes.”
“And on this last job, you had a chance to tell me where you would be going and what you would be hunting, and you deliberately ignored it. Is that true?”
“It was a siren, Uncle,” she snapped. “It was nothing.”
“A siren is not nothing.”
“I stuffed my ears with cloth and could barely hear her. And I killed her and got the reward and here we are.”
This did not placate her uncle. He glared mightily at her, and she almost flinched in the face of his anger but she just managed to squeak by with the smallest twitch. “Sirens are not like dragons,” he snapped. “Dragons don’t care when you kill other dragons. Sirens do not forget when their sisters are killed.”
“Excellent,” she said. “I don’t want them to forget. I killed her quite easily, and I would like them to remember what I’m capable of. If they’ve got a brain in their heads, they’ll leave me be.”
He slammed his beer mug down on the table. She did flinch then, but he had already stood up and turned around and did not notice. He stormed out, and left her to pay their bill with money from her reward for killing the siren.
“He wasn’t used to it?” Henri interrupted. “You aren’t exactly the most cautious woman in the world and I suspect that’s not something that you developed at an older age.”
Bennett shrugged. “He was used to it, but being used to something and being happy about it are two different things.”
“Has he resigned himself to it yet?”
She gave him a rare grin, her amber-hazel eyes glittering. “I am very good at what I do.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“I don’t speak for him.”
She shrugged. “I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
“Sellsword Baroness,” Henri said.
She smiled. “Well, that’s only been a title for a little while now.”
Eventually, Bennett summoned up the courage to go after her uncle, ignoring the nagging voice that told her he was right with every move that tightened the armor over her side, where the siren had slammed her against a rock that jugged from a wall.
He stood just outside the door. She could see his face faintly illuminated each time he drew on his pipe. A fine mist rained down from the darkening twilight. She said, “Uncle--”
“Winter’s drawing in,” he said. “It’s time to settle in for the season. We’re going home.”
“I was thinking of going south for the season.” She settled against the wall behind him. “Get a horse. Something tough and fast and light.”
“Sounds expensive,” he said, breathing smoke.
“I’ve recently come into a nice sum of money.”
“You don’t know what a ‘nice sum of money’ means.”
“You are being awfully--” She stopped herself. She knew better than this. Just listen to him, she thought. Listen and nod your head when he says something and just shut up.
She exhaled slowly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything.”
Mathias grunted and tapped his pipe against the wall to knock the ash free, and they stood in silence for a time, until she said, “You could come with me. You never come with me and--”
“There is a reason,” he replied.
He frowned, and looked very much as though he regretted saying anything at all, but then suddenly she saw him go still again. That hunter’s stillness. He was looking at something off on the other end of the yard and she followed his gaze from the corner of her eye.
At first she didn’t see it. Though the mist and gloom, the carriage was only a shadow in the distance, in a small line of other carriages. There were two shapes up in the driver’s seat, one hunched over slightly. And then, the hunched shape fell, and the other shape flicked the reins and the horses chuffed and stamped and started to move.
“What the hell?” Bennett asked, but Mathias was already on the move.
They reached the man in the ditch at the side of the road as the carriage began to disappear around the bend. Mathias was down beside him, shaking him gently, and when he pulled a hand away it came away bloody. “Lord Alain,” the dying man whispered. “They’ve taken Lord Alain.”
She glanced back at the crest on the side of one of the other carriages. It was recognizable enough. She had received her bounty from the Earl of Moray, and had seen the swans on a field of red so often she still saw it in her dreams. Lord Alain… She took a guess. “The Earl’s son?” she asked.
“Yes… Get Lord Dalton…”
But then someone was pushing her out of the way. “Where is the other carriage?” She recognized his voice before she saw him, and then he recognized her. To be accurate, he remembered her, but he did not remember her name. “You.”
She looked up into his big, squarish face, barely illuminated by the dim light through the clouds and misting rain, and said, “We saw someone hurt the driver and they drove off.” Then she was up and saying, “I’ll fetch my horse.”
Lord Dalton looked to one of the men who had come with him. “Give her mine.”
Someone lead her to a horse, and behind her, she heard Lord Dalton say, “You are with the bounty hunter?”
“Yes,” her uncle said.
“Did you see the way they went?”
“Yes. My niece and I can track them.”
“Your niece…” The guard who led her to the earl’s horse put the reins in her hands. The earl said, “Take a horse, too. Captain Royce, go with them. I’ll pay you and your niece double what I paid her to kill the siren if you bring my son back quickly. You, too, Captain.”
“Just like that?” Henri asked.
Bennett paused, arching a brow at him. “Yes, just like that. I’d just done the earl a good turn.”
“Yes, but I did a very good job,” she said defensively. “I’m very efficient. And anyway, I didn’t realize how cheap he was then. I thought I’d made a lot of money killing that siren and the very idea of double that reward...”
“He is a stingy bastard. You were probably criminally underpaid. I can’t imagine you affording a halfway decent horse on even double what he gave you for killing a siren.” Henri tilted his head, a bare hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, eyes glimmering in the dim. “Alright. Go on.”
At Mathias’ counsel, they did not follow too quickly, and Bennett had to work hard to swallow her disappointment. She could feel the power of the horse and longed to take it for a good, hard gallop down the well-kept road. But she knew he was right. They were unlikely to take the carriage from the road. It was more likely that they would stop somewhere and leave it.
The captain was asking her uncle something but he kept his voice low and she couldn’t hear him over the wind and horses’ hoofbeats. She heard her uncle’s answer, though. “Bennett will know. She always knows.”
And she did know. She could feel them, the gathering whispers at the back of her mind that urged her forward-
“I’ve been meaning to ask you about that,” Henri said. “The whispers.”
He did his best to keep his tone light and casual, but Bennett’s mesmerizing amber-hazel eyes turned hard. “You have asked about it. And I’ve ignored the questions for a reason.”
“What’s the reason?”
“I don’t have an answer for you.”
“You don’t have a reason or an answer?”
“The reason is I don’t have an answer.”
Henri frowned. “I’ve never met anyone who has a gift like yours.”
Bennett shrugged. “I’ve never met anyone with a gift like mine either. It’s just something I can do, and I use it to my best advantage. Now, are you going to be quiet and let me get on with the story?”
He would have to figure it out for himself, he knew. Henri knew she wasn’t lying to him. She didn’t understand her gift. She simply had it, and used it, and that was that. He could almost admire her for it, but he had to know what it was and what it meant.
But he didn’t need to know now.
He handed her the flask again as a peace offering. She accepted and took a sip. “Now, as I was saying…”
To be concluded...