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The walls of Wafret were not so high or so thick as those of Nordport, but they still formed an imposing ring of stone around the city. The gate was suitably large to pass even the largest merchant wagons, and it was tended by a cadre of vigilant guards. Worryingly vigilant, all things considered.

“Just follow my lead,” Nancy murmured to us as we progressed along the queue. “I have a notion, and I think it’ll make our time a bit easier.” She leaned up against me, curling an arm around my waist.

I’d been amazed enough to see how all of them could shift from an upright, mile-eating march to a slouching saunter; it had changed their entire demeanour in ways I couldn’t possibly hope to emulate. Now Travis and Elizabeth leaned up against one another, with Helen coming up against my other side, and we made our way up to the gates as such.

If not for the circumstances being so dire, it would have been rather enjoyable, truly.

The guards flanking the gate were a man and a woman, each keeping their attention on some part of the traffic going through it; Nancy steered our party toward the man, casting him a broad smile. “G’afternoon, sir! So nice to see someone takin’ our health t’ heart. How’s th’ day findin’ ya?” she drawled, in a voice that seemed to have never heard of the concept of a schoolroom.

“Five of you together? And where are you coming from, then?” The guard was having none of her ingratiating ways, but at least he was more amused than irritated.

Amused and a bit of something else, perhaps. We had been on the road for some time, and so far as I knew, Nancy hadn’t yet… well. There’d probably been other women in such a state, passing by him over the course of his shift; little surprise that he was more sensitive to it than I.

“Oh, we’re from out Nordport way, good sir,” Nancy went on, cuddling in against my side. “’s dangerous t’ live there now, y’know? People settin’ fires, homes burnin’ down – it’s horrible dangerous. Now how’s a body to do ‘er weavin’ with all her yarn burnt up? I ask you.”

“Tradesfolk, are you?” He looked all of us over, his gaze lingering a time on white-furred Travis.

Just as I thought that perhaps the wrong man had gone with Jessica to keep her safe, Nancy caught on to the direction of his gaze and said, “Oh, well, us womenfolk are.”

“My man’s a dear,” Elizabeth laughed, pressing up against Travis’s side. “But I wouldn’t trust him with my metalwork, no sir. He’s good for a few extra hands, or helping move things from here to there. And a few other things, if you know what I mean and I think you do.” Travis heaved a long-suffering sigh, nuzzling at Elizabeth’s ears as her hands slid about him.

“Steady on, people,” the guard said with a chuckle. “You’re almost in the city now, you can wait a touch longer yet. And this…?” His eyes slid over to me.

“Oh, well,” Nancy laughed, “we’ve got to have some company for the road, don’t y’know? This lovely fellow was heading this way anyway, so we helped him along, an’ he kept us happy on the way, and now here we are, safe and sound at last.”

“Come to ply your own trade, Blue?” The guard smirked. “You’ll find there’s plenty of competition to be had.”

“Oh, well, that jus’ means ‘e’s got to be a little flexible, don’t it, boy?” Nancy reached up to stroke along my jaw. “’ey, you’re lookin’ a mite bothered, all these people goin’ through.” Nancy slid away from me and walked right up to the guard as though she’d never eaven heard of the notion of personal space, reaching up to touch his unresisting jaw. “I got my hands on ‘im fer tonight, ‘course, but tomorrow – you into the menfolk at all, good sir? Once you’re off duty, ‘course, everythin’ right an’ proper, but -”

“I think I must decline, good woman,” the guard replied, slowly and carefully, though a smile was spreading over his muzzle and he peered at me with some curiosity and interest. “Besides, I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of your… company.”

“Oh, well, suit yersel’,” she drawled, coming back toward me. “’e’s delish. Say, y’know where there’s a good inn what might have a handful of beds, still, maybe a room or two?”

“The Blue Boar’s a good place for tradesfolk, I’m told,” the guard said, stepping back and gesturing along the cobbled street. “Just go down to the square with the Duke’s statue, turn left, and look for the sign. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you kindly, good sir!” Nancy replied, tugging me and Helen along; Helen, apparently greatly distracted nuzzling along my arm, took a moment to lurch into motion. The other two followed behind us.

Once we’d cleared the press of the merchant wagons, Elizabeth hustled forward somewhat. “Remind me to put you on the list for a commendation, Nancy,” she said under her breath. “I can hardly believe you got us past without being so much as inspected. That was brilliant.

“The best lies are like pearls, wrapped smooth around a grain of truth at their heart,” she replied. “If I’m going to be somewhat on edge, I might as well turn it to our advantage. Thank you, by the way, Edmond; you’re handling this with excellent grace.” The women were still close up against me, maintaining the image they’d presented at the gate.

“It’s not as though I mind the contact, not hardly,” I said, and couldn’t help but smile. After all we’d been through, especially in the last few days, the relaxed moment of good humour was a welcome respite.

“What do we do if there’s only a few rooms free?” Helen asked. “The common room isn’t a very appealing notion.”

Elizabeth looked over at me, then at Nancy. “For practical reasons, we should try for two rooms at least,” she said, slowly and carefully. “One we can lay out or rolls in to sleep, one for… well. If there’s only one…”

“I’m not shy,” I offered into the silence. “Though I could certainly understand if you’d rather not be quite so directly subjected to it, anymore.”

“I’ll live, if it comes to that,” Travis agreed, and grinned. “Though it might make me start to doubt my prowess.”

Helen laughed, reaching over to swat at his shoulder. “I think you like being aware of it, you rake. Don’t think I haven’t smelt it on you. But yes.” Turning to Rebecca, she went on somewhat more soberly, “I’d rather give some privacy for anyone who needs it, but I’ll avert my eyes if that’s what we must do.”

It turned out to be good that we’d come to that decision in advance. There were two rooms available, but one of them was a fine suite, and would have cost us so dearly that in the end we opted for the one large room with four beds. Even so, we’d need to come up with some finances somehow or other.

“I’ve never had to walk the streets,” I mused, “so I’m not sure I’d know how to carry myself; and I think there’s some who might see the stud and think I’m only after the women. Not so many that it’s a great cause for worry, of course, but there’s a few who might otherwise go for it that could be turned away.”

“We’ll deal with that bridge when we come to it,” Elizabeth replied. “Though I must say, I’m somewhat surprised that you’re taking all of this so smoothly. It’s been a busy day, and we’ve been rather cavalier about assigning you this or that.”

“It’s what I can do,” I replied with a shrug. After a moment’s thought, honesty compelled me to add, “And in truth, keeping busy is… something of a help.”

“Well, I’m afraid we’re not about to get much done tonight,” Helen said, sliding her pack onto the floor of our room. “Maybe we should take what time to relax as we can. It’s been a rough trek.”

For a moment I wanted to refuse; I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to keep going. I didn’t want the chance to start thinking. But the realization sank in that at the moment, there simply wasn’t anything for me to do. We’d made it to Wafret. Rebecca was as safe as we could manage; Jacob would mind her, and they had enough supplies to last for some time, enough guns and bullets to hold off most of a regiment. We were safe inside the city walls, and we had a roof over our heads. We’d made it in without any undue scrutiny, and we’d done so before the bodies of the patrol had been discovered.

And there was the thing I was trying to avoid.

It was strange, really. It should have been more profound, I thought. At the time, it had happened so fast, I hadn’t dared take a moment to think about what I was doing.

But when all else was stripped away… I’d shot someone. Killed someone.

Ought that not to affect a man more strongly?

I confessed this strange feeling of numbness, and Nancy took my hand. “Don’t fret about it, Edmond,” she said. “Maybe some part of you knows that you had no other choice. You had to do it. It’s not a great thing – trust me, none of us wish to ever be ordered into combat – but when the time came, you did what you needed to do, and you did it without hesitation.”

“There are many good soldiers who would be honoured to have such an accolade,” said Elizabeth, nodding slowly. “I was wrong about you, back when we left Nordport. Very wrong. If you hadn’t been along, we’d have been lost today before we could even get properly started.”

“You don’t need to be shaken up over it,” Travis murmured over my ears, his hands sliding over my shoulders, seeking out spots of tension and teasing them smooth. “It’s enough that you not enjoy the prospect, so that you don’t seek it out when you don’t need to. Being able to not break down each time you need to kill – to be quite honest, I think you’d have made a good soldier, if you’d wanted to.”

“And that’s the honest truth,” Elizabeth confirmed.

It was so strange. Not long ago at all, I’d been aghast that I was feeling the strain so much more than anyone else. And now, I’d been worried about not feeling enough when faced with a thing that some part of me thought should be so much more profound.

“For now, let’s relax as best we can,” Helen suggested. “We’ll need to be busy tomorrow, of course, but we’ll be the better for a night of proper rest.”

“Such as it is,” was Nancy’s wry quip.

“Oh, you’d better not be fretting about that,” said Elizabeth with a small smile. “It’s not like it’s anything we’re not familiar with – or haven’t had to do over the course of this very journey.”

She had a point there; I chuckled. “After tonight, I think I’ll be a common ground of sorts between everybody here.”

“You don’t mind?” Nancy twisted toward me. “I mean, we are in a city, now. I could find someone; you don’t need to…”

On a moment of whimsy, I replied, “What, and risk my cover?” Smiling, I leaned over to nudge my nose against hers, whiskers mingling for a moment. “Besides, it’s something I can do, and it’s something I know.” And that might just help to keep me from worrying overmuch about the things I’d need to do that I didn’t have such experience in.

She laughed, letting herself be drawn into my lap. “You’re a dear,” she sighed, leaning back against me.

Even if the task ahead was daunting, at least I no longer had to worry about fitting in with these people. The quiet camaraderie in the room was as calming as a warm summer day.

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