Milanor crouched down along the scrub lining the canyon, peering down into the darkness and focusing his hearing. When he smacked the bones of his knees on naked rock the urge to swear out loud was strong, but he battened it down just in case.
So far it didn’t seem like there were any more Imperial troops lying in wait out here. This was good—they’d been able to handle that Inzaghi and his motley collection of sad sacks just fine, but if those Imperial knights had been able to reach them they’d’ve been fucked, plain and simple. He’d lucked out and Kylier had been there to back him up, but he couldn’t always depend on her busybody instincts to keep her literally hovering over him. With only a handful of his flunkies still alive—plus one pitifully inexperienced noble girl as a tagalong—the next fight they got into could very well be their last.
Hopefully they’d reach the border into Orlando soon. If the princess was telling the truth, her army’d be close then, and they’d get backup.
Until then it was important—tedious, but important—to have to scout around ahead to know if there was anyone in the thief band’s path that it’d be best to avoid. And tonight it was Milanor’s turn.
Fidgeting with impatience, the Silver Wolf peeked around once more. No sound, no light, no flashes that could be moonlight on armor: The coast was clear. Satisfied, he stood up, hissing and stamping his feet. Middle of spring though it was, the Norn wastelands were bitter cold at night this time of year. It almost made Milanor miss Lost Aries. Life there wasn’t any less miserable or anything, but at least he could go out at night without chancing the loss of any body parts to frostbite.
Least now he could retreat to camp, where a modest campfire and his bedroll would be waiting. It was no old fort—there’d be no protection from the wind—but it’d be something.
He missed his fort.
“This sucks,” Milanor informed the wind. Being an antisocial fucker, the wind didn’t reply. The young thief shuffled through loose gravel for the hell of it, pulled low to the ground, and headed towards his camp in a lazy canter over the hard-packed dirt and stone.
The sight that awaited him there was so out-of-place and funny, though, he came to a halt quick enough to kick up dust.
His battered, scruffy flunkies—or some kinda ghouls that looked just like them, because Milanor was pretty damn sure he’d trained his boys better than this—were sitting in a half-circle around the fire like a pack of polite hunting dogs. Balanced over the middle of the fire was the largest pot in their collective store of dented crockery. And plopped in the center of his boys’ half-circle like the highest point of a tiara, sleeves rolled up as she leaned over the pot and stirred it lightly, was Princess Yggdra.
Diamonds and dross. And also, the fuck? Milanor approached with caution, shaking his head. Then he said it out loud. “’Scuse me for bein’ crass, your ladyship, but what the fuck?”
Yggdra beamed up at him. If she was bothered by his language, he couldn’t see it on her face. “Everyone is hungry, and we had more than enough supplies for a little potato soup. I’m sure this will warm everyone right up!”
The flunky on Yggdra’s right grinned, gap-toothed, up at Milanor. “You ain’t gotta worry, Boss. The fire’s too small t’be seen outside a’ here, an’ the wind’s blowin’ all the steam to bits afore it can give us away.”
“Well.” Milanor raised his eyebrows and scratched his head, then sat down across from Yggdra. Only one thing to do when you can’t beat ‘em. “I guess it’s fine, then. It has been awhile since we got to eat somethin’ warm.”
And whatever it was that the princess was cooking sure did smell good. That was a surprise. Milanor doubted that any of the overseer border nobles cooked their own meals. He’d thought that all nobles were probably like that, never raising a hand to take care of themselves, no idea how common folk lived and with no appreciation of hard work. But then, Yggdra was a decent hand with her oversized sword too, and that had to be more than just instinct and desperation. Maybe some gold-braided noble ninny had been behind her lessons, but learning to fence took actual sweat. And she was inexperienced in real combat for sure, but she didn’t squeak and stutter about drawing her enemies’ blood.
“The head chef at the castle taught me a little cooking and baking when I was a girl,” Yggdra explained as she stirred. Milanor wondered if his train of thought showed on his face, but she wasn’t looking up. She just kept stirring with single-minded intensity. “My uncle—not really my uncle, I suppose, but one of the members of the royal cabinet who had always doted on me as if he were my real uncle—he complained that it was beneath my station, but my father approved of it. He said that it would build character, and teach me appreciation of my people. And our chef made me learn from simple things onward, even when I was too small and silly to know that I couldn’t just leap into making subtleties and grand feasts.” The smile she had worn telling the story went flat. “…The knights said that many of the nobles were killed in the coup, but I hope that my uncle Alanjame is all right. The chef and his helpers, too.”
Milanor scratched his chin and grimaced. “They say Imperial soldiers don’t bother civilians. Chin up, you may get to see your chef buddy again someday soon.”
Yggdra nodded. “I certainly hope so.” She raised her head and looked around at the circle of her companions. “It’s ready now. May I have bowls for everyone, please?”
There was a great rummaging around in packs, and a veritable thicket of chipped bowls surrounded Yggdra. It made her laugh. Milanor fought the urge to sigh and let his shoulders slump. Every kid in his band of followers swore when they’d joined him that the nobility would get nothing out of them but hate and distrust, but these poor saps were too excited about food to be wary.
Then again, Yggdra was about as dusty and dirty as everyone else here. She was just pastier, and her clothes were made from nicer cloth, that was all.
Yggdra served all the thieves, Milanor included, before filling a bowl for herself. The boys started scarfing down their hot meal right away; Milanor smelled his and blew the steam away before having a taste. It was good—savory, like—and the potatoes made the broth thick.
She is the weirdest noble I’ve ever seen. Milanor watched Yggdra over the rim of his bowl with a critical eye. She wasn’t eating yet, instead watching the thieves—maybe to gauge their reactions. Maybe it’s just because she’s got nowhere else to turn and she’s grateful we took her up on her offer. But she doesn’t look like we’re shit she stepped in even when she doesn’t think we’re watching. Maybe even nobles whelp one good pup in a dozen litters.
“I made enough for seconds, so please eat more,” Yggdra said, smiling like a saint in a painting.
Maybe she’s just an idiot, Milanor thought as his boys all held their bowls out at her again. When she turned that beatific smile on him, he grinned back. He had nothing against idiots, being as he was the leader of a whole pack of them.
“I’m on for the first watch, so all y’all go on ahead and get some sleep,” Milanor instructed. “We’re gonna be up and moving at dawn, ‘cause Orlando’s not far from here. I’ll wake one of you up and we’ll take the night in shifts of a coupla hours at a time. Got it?”
“Yes, Boss,” the thieves chorused, and then set about undoing their bedrolls in a circle around the fire. Milanor stood and stretched, watching them curl up and wink out like lights. He noted that Yggdra was still sitting by the fire, looking up at the night sky.
“It’s amazing,” she said at length. Again, she didn’t look down to spot Milanor’s gaze on her. Either she always assumed that people wanted to hear her talk, or she was sensitive to being looked at. “I’ve always lived in the city, and there are always lights on there even at night, so I’ve never seen the stars this clearly before. There are so many more of them here, it’s beautiful.”
Milanor glanced up at the sea of black flecked with white and yellow dots above, then shrugged. It was just the sky, nothing special.
More importantly, a noble girl like Yggdra couldn’t be expected to take care of herself out in the world properly, so he had to do it for her. Sure, he was sticking with her because he was going to get a new base out of it, but he was the boss of this band of thieves. No boss worth their shit let a flunky run herself into the ground. “Yo, you can stare into space some other time. You gotta sleep right now. If you’re tired, you won’t be able to keep up. Especially if we get into a battle. Dunno if you’ve noticed, but there’s only a handful of my boys left. We need you fightin’ on the front lines or we’re all in trouble. And you gotta take care of yourself if you wanna build up your strength to get your city back.”
Yggdra narrowed her eyes and looked down at her hands. “Really, I’ll be all right.”
“Like shit,” Milanor said simply. “Look, everybody here’s lost family and friends. We’ve all felt what you’re feelin’. You’re frustrated and you feel powerless. But there’s people who’re dependin’ on you back home, right? What’s the sense in torturin’ yourself, then? There’s only one of you. If anythin’ happens to you, nobody’s gonna stand up for your townsfolk.
“Look, like—if the way you been behavin’ around me and the boys is genuine, I got no doubt that you love your people. But to do right by them, you gotta do right by yourself too. Maybe nobody’s taught you that before, but I’m tellin’ you right now. If I started not sleepin’ or whatever because of my dead flunkies, my boys who’re alive’d go to pieces. It just ain’t practical. Here, where we’re poor, we learn early that if we don’t look out for ourselves and our kith and kin, we ain’t gonna survive.
“It’s okay to feel sad about your parents, Yggdra. It’s okay to worry about the people you knew. But you can’t do anything unless you’re fit to fight, your own self. Until you understand that, you can’t be the boss. So you think on what I said, ‘cause I really don’t think any fancy-ass knights are gonna be so all-fired enthused about obeying gutter scum like me.”
Yggdra giggled some, went red in the face, and giggled more. “Milanor, you shouldn’t call yourself gutter scum.”
“Why not? I’m scum from the gutter and you fucking bet I’m proud of it.” Milanor crouched down to grin at Yggdra at eye level. “So, being as you’re still learning how to be a boss, and I’m still handin’ out orders ‘til you’re ready, you oughtta listen to me when I’m tryin’ to look after you.”
Yggdra smiled again, calmer now. “I suppose that only makes sense. I’m sorry for being self-centered and causing trouble for you.”
“Nobody who cooks stew for gutter scum is self-centered,” Milanor said. “And the trouble here is you’re worrying about everybody else too much to worry about yourself. And if you’re sorry about causing trouble, be good and listen to me.”
At last, Yggdra nodded.
“Use my bedroll like before. I’ll just kick the next watch guy outta his.”
Very carefully, Yggdra undid the ties that held Milanor’s bedroll together, then laid it out in what open space there was between her and the next thief. Next, she reached behind her for her oversized sword and laid it next to the pelt-lined bag, within easy reach. Milanor nodded in approval. If nothing else, Yggdra sure did learn fast. After the way he and the boys had found her, he doubted she’d ever let herself get caught defenseless again.
“Goodnight,” Yggdra said a little self-consciously, taking off her little white shoes and navigating the huge mass of her skirts into the bedroll.
“’Night,” Milanor replied with an easy grin. “At least try to have some good dreams.”
Yggdra gave a small nod and closed her eyes, shifting with a sigh. Within about fifteen minutes, her breathing had evened out and she was dead to the world, making sleepy noises into her covers.
Milanor let out a light snort. Yeah, he’d figured as much. Even if she was too bent out of shape worrying to appreciate it, she was tired. He wouldn’t have any trouble keeping her there tonight.
As he watched, Yggdra frowned a little and wiggled down into the warmth of the bedroll, her thin brows knitted and creased. “…Father…”
Milanor rested his elbows on his knees and put his chin on the heel of his hand. When all was said and done, she was still a kid. She was a kid who’d had a lot of responsibilities dumped into her lap, and she’d have many, many more cares by the time all this was through.
“I can’t bring your old man back, but I can help you save your city,” he told her, though he knew she wouldn’t hear. “You’re offerin’ us a roof to put over our heads, and that’s more than anyone else would ever do. I’ve got your back, so you just keep grinnin’ like an idiot while you can. It’s okay to stay a dumb kid for a little while longer.”
Yggdra turned over again, somehow managing to avoid rolling to either side in the fur-and-fleece bag. Milanor smiled and shook his head, then looked up at the sky.
Stars. He bit his lip so that he wouldn’t laugh out loud. Now wasn’t that just like a city kid, to make such a fuss out of plain old stars?