Lyana folded the last of her clothes and tucked them neatly into the chest at the foot of her bunk. The sides and top of the chest were scuffed and scarred, evidence of two tours with the 17th. She stretched her hips forward as she leaned back and stared at the ceiling. It was flat white, the same color as every room she’d stayed in for the last several years. She wouldn’t, she was sure, miss the monotony of her accommodations.
She looked around the room to ensure she wasn’t missing anything. She had folded all her uniforms and bedding tightly enough to satisfy the strictest drillmaster and stacked them neatly in the chest. The pack on her bed had just had the straps replaced, but it sat nearly empty. She’d purchased three sets of clothing from a run-down shop on the other side of the town from the fort. Two were folded, less neatly, and stuffed in the pack. She wore the last set.
Several smaller sacks within the pack were filled with bullets she’d “borrowed” from the quartermasters over the years. Ammunition remained expensive, but the government had flooded the army with it to deal with the church rebellion. She was sure a few of the quartermasters suspected what she’d done, but they had bigger problems on their hands than the loss of a few hundred rounds.
The remainder of the meager pack was supplies she’d purchased in town to make her travels easier: some soap, matches, a pan, and a few other assorted goods. She reached into the pack to ensure the rolls of coin she’d sewn into the pack were in place. A wealthy merchant wouldn’t blink at the amount, but it was everything she’d been able to save during her service. It was as rich as she’d ever been. If she was careful, she figured it would last for two years. Maybe three if she was stingy.
She rolled up the top of the pack and used the straps to cinch it tight. The dagger she always carried was hidden near the small of her back, the sheath secured by a belt she’d designed herself a year ago between tours.
Other than the pack and its contents, she owned nothing. Other officers had accumulated much more during their travels, but she’d never seen the point. She’d looked forward to this day since the afternoon she’d signed up for the army, and she certainly didn’t want anything holding her down. In her opinion, most people didn’t realize the true cost of the goods they bought.
Footsteps stopped outside her open door. “Leaving so soon?” a voice asked.
Lyana turned to see Roger’s familiar figure leaning against the door frame. His light hair was even lighter after this last tour, a victim of the sun’s continual bleaching, but it contrasted well with his tan face. His blue eyes twinkled with mirth, even as he tried to look imposing by crossing his massive arms.
“Room’s not mine at noon. Figured there was no point delaying the inevitable.”
Roger feigned injury. “My room is still open.”
“And if I stay there, I might as well sign up for another tour, because it’ll be too hard for me to leave.”
“You don’t have to leave.” He tried to pass it off as a jest, but there was an ache in his voice he couldn’t quite hide.
“I do. But I will miss you.”
Roger smiled without mirth. “You won’t reconsider?”
She stepped forward and put her hand to his cheek. It was smooth, which meant he’d shaved before coming over. She matched his smile, hoping it would be enough to keep tears from forming. Roger was the best part of the army, and she liked him well enough, but not so much she would stay. She was tempted to kiss him, but knew it for a mistake. Leaving was hard enough. “Take care of yourself,” she said.
She turned away from him, grabbed her pack off the bed, and squeezed past him before he could object.
Less than an hour later, Lyana stood outside the fort, a civilian for the first time in over two years. In some ways, it felt like she’d been in the army for her entire life. Then sometimes it felt like she’d blinked and aged two years. This moment was one of the latter.
She glanced back at the fort, halfway expecting to find Roger on the walls staring down at her. Instead, she was greeted by the sight of the fort’s massive doors swinging shut behind her. They closed and she heard the heavy iron bar being dropped into place on the other side. Though the land was supposed to be at peace, the forts remained on alert. The commander was wise enough to know that winning the war didn’t mean winning the hearts of those who had rebelled.
She turned away from the fort and toward Preston, the town less than a mile away. She’d made the walk dozens of times in the last few weeks, but her steps felt lighter now. A returning patrol saluted to her as they passed, which she returned out of habit.
It didn’t take her long to reach Preston. It was one of the west’s new cities, one of dozens of places that had sprung up overnight like weeds. Two railroads approached it from the east, bringing settlers, miners, the hopeful and those who had lost almost all hope. Two train lines also stretched to the west as the companies competed to carry the most people and wealth further west.
Lyana wasn’t sure how many people lived in the city. She’d heard somewhere that the number was close to seven thousand, and that seemed roughly right. It was a growing city, though. The army didn’t allow it to expand any closer to the fort, but the sawing and hammering of new residences carried on throughout the day.
She had spent plenty of time in the city, but living here didn’t appeal to her. It was too noisy, too crowded, and too bright. Not to mention most people wouldn’t accept her if they knew what lurked within her chest.
Lyana made a straight line for her favorite tea house. It was one of only two in the city. Most citizens preferred the taverns, but she wanted something quieter.
The tea house was well off Preston’s main street. It was a modest, single story wooden building with a small sign nailed up just outside the door frame. Lyana entered and took off her boots, grateful to be some place that kept old traditions alive. She washed her hands at the small basin a few feet deeper in the entryway and dried them with one of a stack of provided hand towels.
Just beyond the entryway, the floor was made of polished wood, worn smooth from use. The teahouse’s owner, Marian, greeted her with a deep bow. “To what do we owe the honor, Lieutenant?”
“Not Lieutenant anymore. I finished my second tour this morning and came here to celebrate.”
Marian’s face lit up with joy. “Then come on in. I just received a shipment of new leaves I think you’ll love.”
Lyana appreciated the sentiment and followed Marian in. The owner remembered her favorite spot, a small table along a south-facing window that let in plenty of sunlight. Lyana basked in the warmth as Marian prepared and served the tea.
The brew was every bit as wonderful as Marian promised. Lyana sipped and stared out the window, running her plans through her head over and over, looking for any weakness. She didn’t find one.
She sipped and sat for hours, enjoying the fact she had no place to be and was in no hurry to get there. When she’d first joined the army, she’d enjoyed the structure it forced onto her life, but now she was ready for freedom. No more orders for her.
Once it was dark, she left the teahouse, wishing Marian well. She turned north. Her path took her from the small but tasteful buildings to a neighborhood where the homes were small walled fortresses that rose three or four stories in the air. The homes here belonged to railroad officials, merchants, and retired generals.
Lyana reached her destination, a three-story house made of wood and stone protected by a stone wall. It wasn’t the tallest of the homes in the neighborhood, but it took up the most space. The stone alone must have cost a small fortune to move. But Marcus had spared no expense in creating his little fort. Lyana wondered if he was simply jealous of the army.
On paper, Marcus was a successful cloth merchant and a pillar of the community. In reality, he was a high-ranking member of the Family and dirtier than Lyana’s boots after a week of marching in the rain. He spent more time at the brothels than he did with his own wife and children and had a proclivity for bareknuckle boxing.
Tonight, he was hosting a small gathering at his place. Everyone from the local mayor to the presidents of the regional branches of the railroads would be present. She would be, too, though she hadn’t received an invitation.
Lyana watched from the shadows of an alley as a carriage pulled up and a merchant and his wife stepped out. Their clothing cost more than the coin Lyana had in her pack, but they didn’t tip the doorman.
Once she had a clear idea of how the guards were positioned, she made a large arc around the house and approached it from the rear. There was a guardhouse on each corner of the wall, but they were lit and the guards spent more time focusing on their games within than they did on watching the wall.
They probably assumed no one would be foolish enough to strike their boss. No one wanted to die that badly. Nothing protected Marcus so well as his reputation.
“Ready?” Lyana whispered.
The sagani within her stirred, which she took to mean as agreement. She ran up the side of the wall and found a pair of handholds. She dangled there for a moment before quietly working her toes onto holds. None were large, but her assisted strength made the challenge simple enough.
She climbed slowly, valuing silence over speed. She reached the top of the wall without so much as scuffing her toes. Soft laughter carried down the wall from the nearest guardhouse. She pulled her head over the wall and looked left and right. The wall itself was empty. The guardhouses had their doors open, but no one paid attention to the wall. She slipped over and dropped to the other side.
She landed softly behind a pair of well-maintained bushes and listened for any sounds of alarm. The guards on the wall continued their games, oblivious to her presence.
Lyana peered around the bushes, but there were no guards on the grounds. Most of the attention was focused on the arrivals at the front gate.
She stood, brushed herself off, then hastened toward the rear door. It was unlocked, so she opened it and slid through. She closed the door softly behind her. The back door led to a small mud room. Most visitors would have cleaned their boots on the rugs and stepped through the door straight ahead, but Lyana looked up.
This was why she had been eager to come here tonight. A secret a drunk cook had let slip a few weeks ago. A forgotten detail that had unlocked a bold plan. This was her chance to make Marcus pay, just a little, for all he’d taken from the people who lived here.
There was a trapdoor in the ceiling, built in such a way that it almost blended in with the design. Lyana pulled the dagger from her belt and stretched onto her toes. She still wasn’t tall enough, so she jumped. The tip of the dagger pushed a small latch aside and the door opened, dropping a ladder almost on top of her head. She stepped back just in time, then grinned as she looked up.
The darkness above welcomed her. It was like crawling into the depths of a mountain, the way she had when she was younger. She climbed eagerly. At the top, she searched for another latch, which opened a trapdoor beneath a rug. Lyana slowly lowered the trapdoor, then slid the rug gently aside.
She climbed up and entered Marcus’s private study. The ladder was a secret escape he’d built into the house. She looked around, hoping the object of her search wouldn’t be hard to find.
Lyana almost laughed when she saw it. The weapon was sitting in a glass case, resting on an oversized cushion. Marcus probably planned on showing it off tonight to his new friends.
Lyana hurried forward and studied the case. It was locked tight, and she didn’t have the key or the ability to pick locks. So she took the hilt of her dagger and smashed it into the glass. It shattered loudly, but no one came to check on the noise. She reached in, careful to avoid the jagged shards that threatened to cut her. Then she picked up the pistol and stared at it.
It was a work of beauty, part art and part weapon. The barrel was polished until it shone, and Lyana was almost certain Marcus had never fired it. The grip was large in her hand, but it was probably the only pistol within a hundred miles. She couldn’t afford to be choosy. She shoved the pistol into her belt and returned to the trapdoor.
Once safely ensconced in the secret tunnel, Lyana replaced the rug as best she could and locked the trapdoor again.
Then she scrambled down the ladder. She’d been lucky thus far, but it was a mistake to assume the luck would continue. In less than a minute, she was back on the first floor in the mudroom. She lifted the ladder and the trapdoor folded back up into the ceiling. She cracked open the rear door and was pleased to see no guards yet patrolled the area.
Lyana ran back to the wall and climbed up and over. She half-climbed, half-jumped down the back side and disappeared into the dark alleys. Once she retrieved her pack, she made a straight line away from Marcus’s home. When he discovered his brand new prized possession missing, there would be a hunt for her the likes Preston had never seen. Fortunately, she didn’t think she’d been spotted.
She turned down a few different alleys and eventually found herself near the city square. Off to the side, there was a pillar with dozens of papers nailed to it. Lyana walked that way and studied the papers. She saw a caravan was leaving for the west in the next day or two and they needed guards. The pay was poor, but it was free travel.
On another side of the pillar, she found the train schedule. One train was departing west tomorrow. It would cost more, but it would get her west faster, where her adventure could really begin.
All she knew was that she had to make her way out of Preston before Marcus figured out who had stolen from him.