“Do you think we need this, Ossman?” Aldreda asked, picking up a scroll and waving it in his face. “I mean, I’m not expert in ancient gibberish, but apparently I should be able to tell what Armin needs and what he doesn’t.”
Ossman held out his hand for the scroll. “I don’t expect you to be an expert,” he said.
Aldreda rolled her eyes and gave him the scroll. In spite of her frustration, she still was gentle with the relic. “I know you don’t. But you’re not an expert either. Why did Armin give us this job? Shouldn’t we be hauling heavy objects with the others?”
Light, I wish I knew. Aldreda’s frustration mirrored his own, although he didn’t want to admit it. “I’m sure Armin has his reasons, ‘dreda.”
Aldreda brushed back a strand of hair from her face and flushed slightly. Ossman blinked, puzzled. “You’re loyal to him,” she said. “I get it. I’m not saying that he’d wrong, Ossman, I’m just saying it doesn’t make sense. And…flath me sideways, Ossman, you’ve known him longer than me. Are you going to look me in the eye and tell me there’s nothing to worry about?”
Ossman looked down at the scroll first and unrolled it carefully. The glyphs on here were impenetrable to him, but Armin had explained what to look for. The language that he needed samples from had over ten thousand characters, all of them polygons with lines drawn through different segments. This scroll had a couple dozen repeating characters, all of them circles with varying shapes in the middle.
He put it on the second pile carefully. The tomes and scrolls and other texts that weren’t what they needed, but Armin wanted to keep safe. Aldreda was still staring at Ossman, her arms crossed. “Well?” she asked.
Ossman looked up and met her eyes. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Aldreda snorted. “You’re a terrible liar.”
Ossman turned to the next document they hadn’t sorted. This one was a fragment of a clay tablet. “Help me look for the other half of this? It’s got a three point break that looks kind of familiar, I think we already saw it somewhere.”
Aldreda sighed and turned to the fragments they had gathered. “He’s not normally like this, is he? Snapping, broody. That’s not the guy I got to know at least.”
“He’s also never lost anyone before,” Ossman said, finally engaging the topic as he joined her in sifting through the fragments.
“Everyone’s lost someone,” Aldreda said, not looking up.
“No, I don’t mean in general. Bad phrasing on my part. He’s never lost anyone he was commanding before. Ever since the Collegium rebellion, every time he’s taken command, he’s gotten back with everyone alive. I’m not saying I’m not worried.”
“Even though you just did.”
“Well, you called me on that lie. If I’m being honest, I’m not saying I’m not worried. What I’m saying is I don’t think I should be worried. Armin’s dealing with a new kind of grief. Can I really blame him for processing it poorly at first?”
Aldreda grunted, lifting a large chunk of a clay tablet. “Give it here?” she said. She slid it next to the piece that Ossman had found. They looked like they belonged together, but the lettering was too different, and the break didn’t quite line up. “Damn. Thought I had it. And I hear what you’re saying. But…shouldn’t he let go of command until he’s dealt with it? Put Haradeth in charge, or Lorathor, or even you.”
Ossman’s heart rate spiked at the thought. “You’d be better than me,” he said, wiping the back of his arm against his forehead. “Anyone would be better than me.”
“No thank you.” Aldreda shuddered. “I want it about as badly as you do. So Haradeth or Lorathor, then. Until he’s dealt with the grief. There’s no shame in letting someone else take charge when the mission is done.”
“He doesn’t see it that way,” Ossman said, quietly.
“The mission isn’t done.” Ossman picked up another fragment. This one did fit with the peice they’d found, but only a small fraction of it. “We’re going to need more, but I’ve got part of it. Hand me the sealant?”
Aldreda did so, and bent down to help Ossman hold the pieces in proper alignment when it hardened. “How is the mission not done? We beat Theognis, we’ve got the samples, and we have enough gold to fund the resistance for another year. What is missing?”
I don’t know. Armin was still in mission mode, and it was bothering Ossman. “Probably just won’t count it as complete until he has looked at the fragments and decoded Theognis’ codex. With that, we’ve got everything we came for. Then he can call it done.”
The sealant began to expand, filling the crack so perfectly that it was almost impossible to tell there had ever been a gap there. Only a slight break in the lettering revealed the flaw.
“Then why in darkest Shadow did he send the two least literate people in the group to retrieve scrolls and tomes? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to pick anyone else?” Aldreda gestured at herself and Ossman. “We know, between us, eleven different weapons and one language, not counting Alohym battle cant.”
“You mean Alohym swears?”
“They’re one and the same, and you’re not going to distract me.” Aldreda wiped her forehead too. Gathering books shouldn’t be hard work, but when half the books were large enough to be one of those eleven weapons, and the other half were written on clay, it was more exhausting than Ossman had expected. “So one language between us, because battle cant doesn’t count as a language. Meanwhile, Haradeth is a godling and fluent in three languages – which I only know because he’s mentioned it a half dozen times. Lorathor is a Sylvani, so he at least speaks their language and ours. Synit…okay, so Synit would probably be worse than us, but I’d wager she at least can speak the Alohym’s tongue, so that still makes her a better linguist than the two of us. And that creepy little automaton has probably forgotten more languages than the rest of the Resistance combined knows. Yet…we are the ones gathering up the scrolls and tomes?”
Ossman rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know what to tell you, ‘dreda. I’m worried about him. And you’re right, it doesn’t make sense.”
“Because you’re looking at it the wrong way.”
The sudden voice was so unexpected, Ossman nearly dropped the tablet fragment he was holding, and Aldreda whirled, one hand going to her sword. Armin stood there, leaning against the room’s entranceway.
“Armin,” Ossman said. “How long have you…”
“Not long, but sound carries a long way down here.” He walked over to the clay fragments. “I chose you two because you aren’t going to get distracted. If Haradeth finds a copy of The Lineage of the Little Gods, he might stop to read it. If Lorathor finds an account of the early Sylvani’s interactions with humanity, he might stop to read it. If Bix saw a book that looked like it had a face, she might stab it. Then read it. Or maybe the other way around, I can’t figure it out.” Armin reached down and plucked out a fragment. “Sealant?”
Ossman handed it over, and Armin slid it into place.
“And me,” Armin said, “I’m likely to end up just sitting here and trying to decode the entire damn thing without eating. I picked you two because you can do what’s needed without getting distracted. Maybe Synit could, but she still finds movement painful. I wanted to get her treatment.”
“Armin, I didn’t mean to give offense,” Aldreda said.
Armin looked up at her and smiled. Ossman hated how it didn’t reach his eyes. “I know. And…you’re right. I shouldn’t be in charge of anything dangerous right now. I’ve already talked to Haradeth. If we find ourselves in a fight, he’ll take command. But outside of combat, I’m still leading this mission. Can you trust me with that much, at least?”
Aldreda nodded. Armin looked over at Ossman. “And you?” he said.
“Always,” Ossman responded without hesitation.
“Thank you. Both of you.” Armin stood up. The fragment he’d picked out – from walking into the room, after both Ossman and Aldreda had been looking – fit in place perfectly. “I think this will be enough. Let’s-”
find and grab and break and tear and shred and –
“of here.” Armin glanced over at Ossman, and his forehead furrowed. “You alright? You look like you just saw a ghost.”
“Stray thought,” Ossman said, dismissively. “Distracted me. But I’m with you. Lets get out of here.”
Armin and Aldreda both looked concerned, and Ossman smiled. “You sure you’re alright?” Armin asked.
“Alright then.” Armin relaxed. “Let me know which of these boxes I can handle? Without throwing out my back, I mean.”
Aldreda pointed to one of the boxes and gave Ossman a wink. It was nice, in that moment, to be able to prove Aldreda wrong about one thing.
When he needed it, he was an excellent liar.