First: Spoils of War I: Surrender
PLEASE NOTE: I WENT BACK TO THE END OF CHAPTER 21 AND AM REWRITING FROM THAT POINT.
“You’ve been talking to the cat a lot in… in the last couple–?” Nikol repeated.
Aran didn’t answer.
She ate a little more food. Her body did not want to move. She lifted her arm and made herself scoop in the oatmeal. “Kind of rich,” she added.
“They had some uh, some fats. Not as good as proper butter but it turns out they don’t go rancid. So uh. It’s – coconut?”
“Okay, that’s a little weird. But it tastes good.”
He ducked his head and looked away, muttering. “When you’re done, I’ve got uh. Some maps and stuff. I’ve been talking to Ford — Ford Tejas-dottir, she’s one of the women you saved — she came from the Mountain, too. And we’ve been working on everything we know, in terms of the layout, of the Mountain.”
“Aran, how long have I been sleeping?”
“You know, if you keep asking—”
“You know, I could order you to tell me.”
“I know, and you’re not.” He pulled up a chair and sat down, stole a roll off of her tray and spread something on it.
“There’s rolls.” She kept eating her porridge. Her stomach thought it was a very good idea.
“Yeah. No butter though. Found some canned jam, pretty good still. But uh, any cows or goats around here wandered off a long time ago.”
“The thing — the monster, he didn’t seem like he had any control over animals. The cat —”
“Your cat is fine. Doesn’t like these two, but has been ghosting around checking on you.”
“She’s not my cat.”
“She saved your life, though. My life. You made a promise to a cat.”
She snorted and ate more porridge. “Not the weirdest promise I’ve ever made, either.
“Your life must have been awfully weird, a mercenary making promises to animals. You don’t even talk to animals.”
Nikol shrugged. “You were talking to Ford. Ford Tejas-Daughter. And you were talking to ‘my cat’,” she prompted.
“Ford thinks she’ll stay here, her and the other two. One of them was just passing through, but Ford and her man, they were fleeing the Mountain when the Thing caught them.”
“Seems like a lot of people were.” She looked away, but there was nothing but a very faded painting on the wall, something that might have been a landscape, if it hadn’t been left in the sunlight since the world had ended. “This town. Nothing fell down. No windows broke — you think it’s going to start falling apart?”
“You think it was some big Preserve Working?” Aran made a noise like he was thinking. “Could be. But there’s gonna be people here now. So they can upkeep it.”
“Not three people,” Nikol protested.
“Eat your food.” Aran leaned over and poked her shoulder. “Eat your food and we can talk about the future. And this town and if it stays up or not. And the Mountain and the same.”
“Wait, are you giving me orders now?” She narrowed her eyes at him, but she didn’t feel particularly upset about it. Truth be told, she felt weak as a kitten and she really ought to et.
He pointed at the bowl. Nikol ate.
She finished the porridge and the meat — sharing half of them with Long-Tail — and the last roll, with a jam that she thought might be strawberry. Aran watched her the whole time, petting the other cat.
“That was really good.” She leveled a look at him. “How long did I sleep?”
“Three days. Most of three days,” he corrected. “I did some basic Workings to keep you hydrated and uh, clean and things. It was getting a little, uh. I was getting a bit worried.” He looked out the window. “But you were breathing steadily and the cats weren’t concerned.”
“Glad the cats are good diagnosticians. I — hrrm. I feel – well, hungry, wobbly, but fine.” She murmured a Tlacatl Working on herself and found that the magic was a little shaky, like her legs, but functional. “Yeah, I’m mostly recovered, I just need food. Which is what I get for sleeping for days.” She waved a hand at him. “You did the right thing, thanks. You okay? Town’s okay, horses are okay?”
“The horses are thrilled. We fixed up some fencing that used to be around a park and now they have a really big place to run around and eat grass. They think this is heaven.” She thought, although it was hard to tell with his face still mostly pointed away from her, that he looked a little guilty. “I’ve been doing a little hunting, helping Ford and the others round up some feral and wild former-livestock, and we have another paddock for those. Had to kill a pig; it tried to kill Ford and after all the work you’d gone to saving her-“
Nikol snorted, because she was pretty sure he meant that as a joke. “That’s why the meat tastes so good.”
“Surprised you got enough to know. Long-tail there looked like he was enjoying it quite a bit.”
“I had at least half of it. And it tasted delicious.”
He rolled his shoulders. “It never goes away, does it? The way being Kept feels.”
“I don’t know.” She didn’t know what else to say to that. “I don’t know anyone who’s fought it like you do before. So it’s hard to tell.”
“You think if I keep fighting it-“
“I don’t know,” she repeated. “I know generally it mellows out as you, uh…”
“As I’m good and obedient.” He said it like it left a bad taste in his mouth. After that monster they’d just fought, it left a bad taste in hers, too.
“Something like that,” she agreed reluctantly. “Damnit-“
“Look, don’t worry about it, okay? I was trying to kill you. I was aiming to gut you. You saved my life.” He shrugged and turned back to her with the fakest smile she’d ever seen plastered on his face. “I was aiming for your death. I can handle a little uh, a little weirdness when you like something I do because I’m alive, and you’re alive. Right? Anyway. We have a Mountain to take down and I have some plans.”