Gideon led them out of the small building they had been in. The door was only big enough to allow one to leave at a time, meaning that by the time Dan finally got out, most of the others had already made for a low square building, which Dan assumed served food. He turned to follow, but then stopped, catching sight of something above him on the wall.
Gideon and Kaori were standing on the wall, looking outwards, and discussing plans in quiet voices. Dan glanced at the wall. He could see nothing beyond it, nothing but pure blue sky and wispy clouds. Were they in the middle of a rolling plain? On the side of a mountain? Overlooking a lake? Dan’s curiosity got the better of him, and he took a step towards the wall.
Gideon glanced up. “Get some food, Dan,” he said. “Kaori and I will be along shortly.”
Dan nodded and turned his steps towards the low building. He would see what was beyond the wall soon enough. Instead, he occupied himself with watching the stream of faces moving past him.
In the SR Unit, once Dan had seen Heleer, it was easy to pick out the errors in the SR faces. They were all different, but they had all shared the same mistakes: lifeless eyes, a not-quite-right skin color, and strange actions which, until Heleer had come, Dan had assumed were completely normal. Not so now. Every face Dan saw was perfectly real, and completely different from the last.
Dan slowed, simply taking in the barrage of endless faces. Again, he found himself smiling. He could stay here forever, simply watching the faces. He imagined Heleer by his side, watching them with him. She would like that, once she got used to it.
He glanced around. Maybe they would one day be here, watching the stream of faces. Maybe from one of the nearby houses. One on Dan’s right had a window looking right out onto the street. Dan didn’t have to try hard to see himself at that window, Heleer by his side, both of them happy and content, both—
Dan walked right into the samurai without meaning to. He had been looking sideways, watching the people parading past him, and not realized that he had inadvertently crossed the path of a particularly large samurai, wearing full armor and hurrying down the street.
The samurai lost his balance. He teetered on one foot for a brief moment as Dan staggered from the impact, and then fell backwards. Dan saw, as he managed to regain his balance, the samurai shove a knife away from his side as he fell. The knife was secured across the samurai’s chest by a leather strap, but was – why, Dan knew not – unsheathed. A split second later the samurai landed, sprawled flat on his back in the dust. Had he not managed to shove the knife away from his side, it could have very easily gone right between his ribs.
The samurai clearly wasn’t too pleased. He leapt to his feet, shouting a phrase in a language Dan couldn’t understand. Dan took a step back as the samurai continued to yell at him, anger evident on his face.
“I – I’m sorry,” Dan stammered, taking another step back as the samurai advanced.
“Baka,” the samurai spat. He glared at Dan, and then said something else in the strange language, speaking quickly. He gave Dan a look which plainly said he expected him to say something.
“I – I don’t know what you want,” Dan said. “I said I’m sorry.”
The samurai glared at him, his face growing darker by the second. Dan saw him clench his fists.
“Matte!” Jaseff, appearing from nowhere, ran between Dan and the samurai, holding up his hands. “Matte,” he said again. “Sore wa jiko datta.”
The samurai turned his glare to Jaseff, and said something hotly, but then he shrugged his armor back into place and, after giving Dan one last angry glare, shoved past him.
“Come on,” Jaseff said, beckoning Dan forwards. “Stay on the side of the road. Leave the middle for the troops.”
Dan quickly moved to the edge of the street. Now that he took the time to look at it, he saw that the columns of soldiers constantly moving back and forth did in fact stay in the middle of the road, while everyone else parted around them. He must have wandered into the middle without realizing it.
“What was he saying?” he asked, catching up to Jaseff, who was already halfway to the low building.
“He was just angry,” Jaseff said.
“What was he speaking though?”
“What? The language? Japanese. All the samurai speak it. I don’t speak much, but Trela and I have been with Einar’s forces so long that I’m beginning to pick it up.”
“What did he want?” Dan asked.
“An apology, I think,” Jaseff said, arriving at the door of the low building. “I told him it was just an accident.”
“Thanks,” Dan said, remembering that it was what Heleer would have said.
“Don’t mention it,” Jaseff said. “And if you thought he was bad, just wait until you meet the commander of this place. He’s an old samurai, and the only reason he’ll listen to is his own. He’s inside. We’ll try to avoid him.” Jaseff opened the door.
The low building was, as Dan had suspected, full of people eating. Windows let in the daylight, and in the shadowy corners, torches had been put on the walls, or candles hung from the ceiling in metal brackets. Dan immediately spotted the rest of his group: they were all clustered in the middle of the one giant room which made up the building, close enough for Dan to hear them. They seemed to be speaking to an old man who stood in their midst, wearing heavily embroidered clothing.
“How goes the war, Gideon?” the old man was saying. “Have you managed to fill up Vydar’s prisons yet?”
“What do you mean?” Gideon asked tensely.
“We all know what he means,” Laelia cut in. “He thinks you’re a traitor, Gideon. Brave words coming from him, when we know he’s the real traitor.”
The old man smiled against Laelia’s biting tone. “Now Laelia,” he said calmly, “you don’t really want to say that, do you? Einar would be most displeased.”
The old man’s tone of voice alone was enough to make Dan dislike him. He glanced at Jaseff. Jaseff caught his look and nodded. “That’s him,” he said. “Commander of Hyleran.” He emphasized ‘commander’, lacing it with sarcasm.
“You might be Einar’s representative here,” Laelia said, “but I’ll always know you as a traitor, Takuya.”
Takuya. The name was familiar to Dan. After a moment he remembered. “Isn’t he the one who betrayed Kelad?” he asked Jaseff.
“Yep,” Jaseff said. “That’s him. Takuya Imai. Never passes up an opportunity to pad his own pockets, and Kelad dropped one right in his lap.”
Gideon had put a hand on Laelia’s shoulder, but she seemed to be ignoring it. She flared up at something Takuya said, too softly for Dan to hear.
“You joined Caius simply because his friends were bigger than mine!” she spat.
If anything, Takuya seemed to be enjoying his goading of Laelia. A twisted smile was on his face, and his calm voice was maddening, even to one removed from the conversation, such as Dan. “As I’ve told you and Einar himself,” Takuya said placidly, “I never joined them. I was—”
“Spying, I know,” Laelia interrupted. “And I don’t believe a word of it.” She managed to shake Gideon’s warning hand off of her and stepped right up to Takuya, glaring up at him with no hint of fear.
“You know what I think?” she said, her voice suddenly quiet. “I think when you saw my father’s friends, you decided Caius was done for, and left him. You’re a rat, Takuya. You abandon every sinking ship you’re on.”
“Still wrong, Laelia,” Takuya said, “though I will say it’s a useful practice. There’s no glory to be had in staying on a sinking ship. Just shame and suffering.” For some reason, Dan saw him glance pointedly at Trela. Trela glared at him. Dan hadn’t thought she could force so much hatred into her face. When he had met her before, she had been the complete opposite: open and friendly.
“Don’t pretend that you know about glory, Takuya,” Francois said. Dan noticed him for the first time. He had removed his helmet, allowing Dan to see that he had long dark brown hair and a weather-beaten face. “You’ve never been within a mile of the front lines. If you ever want us to believe you, you’ll eventually have to get your hands dirty like the rest of us.”
Takuya turned to him, the same twisted smile in place. Dan could tell he was enjoying this, needling them from behind Einar’s protection. “Wars aren’t won by brute force, Francois,” he said. “They are won by intellect. I’m far more useful here, where Einar needs me.”
“Useful?” Francois echoed, a false laugh escaping him. “I have my doubts about that. Your intellect is about as useful as that of an orc, and I think Einar’s smart enough to know it. I think you’re scared, Takuya. Too scared to put your life on the line like the rest of us.”
Takuya seemed unaffected by Francois’s jab. “Scared?” he said. “No, not scared. Perhaps a bit wiser.”
Francois let out a real laugh this time. Ana, who had been standing on the edge of the group, moved away in disgust, actually shoving Takuya with her shoulder as she passed. One by one, the others followed her, Laelia being the last to leave, giving Takuya one last look of loathing.
Dan and Jaseff went to join them, giving Takuya a wide berth. They all sat down at a long table. Takuya’s actions were enough to make Dan dislike him, but he felt that the old samurai at least had a point. There wasn’t anything to be gained in staying on a sinking ship, as the others seemed to suggest. Maybe there was no honor or glory in it, but what were those when compared to what you could lose if you stayed? Usually nothing. He might be maddening, but Takuya had a measure of logic Dan found compelling.
“Do you really think he joined Caius?” Trela asked Laelia as they sat down. “I hadn’t heard that.”
“Of course he did,” Laelia said. “Caius was his idea of a hero: confident, commanding, plenty of big allies to back him up. He was part of his band of thieves long before Caius was driven away, and he joined right in when Caius came back leading a drow raid. Only when Caius started losing to Retiarius and the others did he slink away to the shadows and pop back up in the city, sporting his ‘wound’ and acting like he had been spying the whole time. The coward,” she added under her breath.
“Don’t let him get to you,” Gideon said to Laelia. “He thrives off of goading us, knowing we can’t touch him. Ignore him, and he’ll leave us alone. People like him are always a nuisance we have to deal with, especially in war. They’re always there, and they never change. There’s no point in acknowledging them.”
“I can’t believe that,” Jaseff said. Dan looked at him, surprised. So did everyone else.
“But you know him,” Trela said. “You know what he’s like.”
“I know him,” Jaseff said. “But people can change. I’ve seen it before.”
“Not Takuya,” Laelia said. “Not him, or those like him. All they care about is themselves. Nothing will ever change that.”
“Of course they can change,” Jaseff said, looking around the table. “I mean…” He seemed to be floundering. “Ana, back me up. You think Takuya could change, don’t you?” All eyes turned to Ana.
Ana looked very much like she didn’t like being put on the spot, but after a moment said in a quiet voice, “I think he could change, yes, but only if he wanted to.”
“That’s fair,” Gideon said. “Maybe he could change, but he’s happy where he is.”
Laelia nodded. “I despise him,” she said. “I hope he stays true to himself and betrays Einar again at some point. That way I can kill him along with Caius.”
“Quiet,” Gideon hissed, though he couldn’t keep a smile from briefly flitting across his face. “Wait until we’re out of Hyleran to start plotting Takuya’s demise.”
Laelia looked like she wanted to smile, but couldn’t through her frown of dislike for Takuya. She wound up grimacing.
“I don’t want to stay here,” Trela said after a moment. “Not with him in command.”
“We’re leaving at dusk,” Gideon pointed out.
“I want to leave now,” Trela replied. “I don’t want to be in a city commanded by a traitor.”
“None of us do,” Gideon said, “but we’re staying until it’s dark. If Utgar’s scouts catch us leaving during the day, they’ll warn Valkrill.”
“We’re staying,” Gideon said firmly. “And now if we’re finished with our rant on the state of Hyleran’s governance, you will notice that the food has arrived.”
It had indeed arrived, as kyrie were winding their way towards them through the maze of tables and chairs, bearing large trays of food. Dan suddenly realized how hungry he was. The last thought he had before his mind descended to the food before him was that he was glad they were leaving that night. Takuya might be logical, but Dan didn’t like the idea of him commanding a city.