Hillsdale was almost exactly as Tythel remembered it, at least in the details. The houses had changed little in the weeks she’d been gone, still spread out to take advantage of how much spare room the village had to grow. People milled about the streets in the evening sun, going home from their daily tasks. At the end of the road was the inn where she’d rested and recuperated under the watchful eyes of Otis and Freda after she’d been injured that first day.
Skitters rested in the lot behind it, as they had when she’d left, and smoke rose from its chimney in gentle puffs. Even though Tythel knew it was no different from the smoke of the burned forest that still hung low on the horizon, it seemed different. This smoke was kind. It was safe.
It was also a lie. Hillsdale wasn’t safe. She and Nicandros had fled here with the Alohym in direct pursuit. They’d found her here because someone had reported Otis and Freda. What was that woman’s name? Catha Lambright, that had been it. The woman who had said she wasn’t human, had told Freda to report that they had found her.
Tythel pulled her cloak in over her head a bit tighter. Catha might recognize her. The veil that had served as a disguise before would stand out too much here – Warrior Maidens coming to a sleepy town on the edge of the kingdom would draw more attention than a cloaked figure. At least Hillsdale was too small to warrant walls that would be guarded along their full length, only along the gates. They had approached off the main road and leapt over the wall – Tythel carrying Tellias – to avoid detection.
The arcplate was stored in a grove nearby, buried under a hasty pile of leaves. It wasn’t the best solution but was infinitely better than trying to sneak it into the town. They’d had a cart last time to hide it in, and no one had been looking for it. After the battle in the forest, everyone would know what to look for.
At least, now that they were past the wall, people didn’t give them much more than the normal glances reserved for strangers in a small town. They were new, they were noteworthy, but since they were inside the wall, clearly, they belonged. Otherwise, the guards would have stopped them.
It was the kind of circular logic that Eupheme had needed to explain to her.
“People are…stupid isn’t the right word. Lazy is a better one, but still not accurate. I think it really boils down to the fact that most people are honest. They stay within the rules, they obey the laws, and they keep out of trouble – so they tend to assume everyone else does too. Which means if you’re breaking those rules, if you’re violating those laws, or you mean to cause trouble, but you act like you aren’t going to…They’ll see what they want to see. Someone who belongs.”
Tellias had agreed with her. “Back in the day, my grandfather was plagued by a thief that robbed him on no less than seven separate occasions. Stole over ten thousand keys worth of goods. When they finally caught him, my father asked him how he’d picked the expensive locks built into the doors. The thief had explained he’d gotten in by knocking and insisting he had important business. Each time wearing a small false-face – a mustache, a beard, clean shaven, longer hair – and an expensive suit. The servants had let him in because he’d clearly belonged.”
Tythel thought that some of those details must have been inflated by years of retelling, but it was gratifying to see that they had been right about. Everyone who bothered noticing them – which was only a small fraction of the residents they saw – was looking at them like they were strange and different, but not out of place.
They made it all the way to the Inn’s entrance without being challenged a single time.
“Told you,” Eupheme said quietly as they slipped in the door.
Tythel rolled her eyes. “I didn’t exactly doubt you. But it’s still hard to believe. How do people manage to be so unobservant?”
“Mmm,” Eupheme said, holding the door for Tellias. “And how many people we passed had served in the Alohym’s army?”
The inside of the common room was a wall of noise, the crowd far denser than Tythel had expected. In one corner, a group of men threw dice in a game of Snakes and Skulls. A cheer erupted from that table as one man cursed loudly. Copper Keys were pulled from their place in front of him and distributed amongst the group. In another, a large man – not overweight, just overall large – sat with his shirt unbuttoned and drunk heavily to the encouragement of a small group that had gathered around him. He finished the drink and slammed the mug down on the table with an impressive belch.
“Your turn!” he growled to the woman in front of him. She wasn’t as large as the man she sat across, but she had a farmer’s build, stocky and strong. She gave him a wolfish grin and grabbed her mug, starting another round of encouragement.
All around them it was like that. People living, talking, laughing, cursing – living. As if they didn’t have a care in the world. As if beings from beyond the stars hadn’t taken over the world. “I don’t know,” Tythel admitted to Eupheme’s question.
“I counted six,” Eupheme said.
Tellias snorted. “And how, pray tell, did you do that?”
“Alohym soldiers drill on marches six hours a day for their first month of service,” Eupheme said, taking a seat. The general din of the tavern was enough to keep their conversation from prying ears – Tythel could barely make out unique voices unless they were shouting, and no one else here would hear as well as her. “It’s a very specific step, crisp and sharp. After they leave their service, they tend to retain a vestige of the march in their normal walking gait. I saw six people with that walk.”
“So, what’s your point?” Tythel asked.
“That most people are the same in that regard. It requires very specific training to start noticing people. It’s not a flaw – it’s just the way our minds work. You’d be surprised how much you miss too, is all.”
Tythel nodded thoughtfully as one of the serving girls approached. “What can I get for you?” she asked in the friendly polite tones of someone who didn’t particularly care what you answered but had a duty to fulfill.
Food and drinks were ordered. “We strike out for the mountain the morning,” Tythel said after the serving girl was out of earshot. “We should be able to make it by midday.”
“I saw that mountain,” Tellias said doubtfully. “It looks like it’s a good distance away.”
Tythel nodded. “It is. Which is why we’re going to get a Skitter before we leave. Quicker.”
“I don’t know if we can afford a skitter,” Tellias said with a frown.
“We can’t,” Eupheme agreed. “Even if we could find one willing to sell it on such short notice…”
“I never said anything about paying for one,” Tythel said. The return of the serving girl with their drinks interrupted her response. It gave plenty of time for Eupheme and Tellias to give her confused looks.
“Not that I’m opposed to the idea,” Eupheme said once they were again protected by solitude and the wall of noise around them, “but…I figured I’d have to convince you.”
“I don’t like it,” Tythel admitted, her nictitating membranes narrowing with displeasure, “but I don’t see another choice. We have to make sure that our passage is noticed, and there’s no doubt to our destination. That’s the whole point of coming out here. Once we’ve lured them into my father’s illusions, the flyer will have to land to find us. But…even if we’re noticed like we hope, they won’t know for certain where we are going.”
“But if we make a big noise in the theft and make sure we’re seen leaving…” Tellias said thoughtfully, “then it won’t take much of a leap to decide you’re going to your father’s lair.”
Tythel nodded firmly. “And I think I know exactly how to make that big of a noise. I also think I know how to make sure we’re before then. I’ll tell you first thing when we wake. For now…drink lightly. We’re going to have an early morning, Light willing.”
Tellias and Eupheme gave her fierce grins, and Tythel could only hope she wasn’t leading them to their dooms. No, she told herself firmly. You’ve cast that die. They let you cast that die. Trust them and trust the plan. Tonight…try to enjoy yourself.
As the food arrived, mutton that was piping hot and smelled divine, Tythel thought that might be easier than she feared.