Previously on Seven Stones: Anessa offers to escort Karak and his wife out of the ruins in exchange for them destroying the contents of the vault. To stop the guards noticing the escapees, she adds a sleep potion to the water supply. But, before she can sneak out of the cistern, Col discovers her.
“Thirsty work climbing over the wall twice.” Anessa straightened and rubbed a hand across her lips. She hadn’t noticed a bucket in the room; hopefully that meant the water level was close to the top.
Col swaggered forward, corners of his mouth curled up. His resemblance to a weasel stopped it being reassuring, but he kept the light out of her eyes. “Looks like you spilled half of it on your singlet. Best take it off so you don’t catch chill.”
She glanced down. Stale sweat stuck the cotton to her chest, the lantern beam highlighting every inch. He wasn’t considerate; he just preferred to shine the light somewhere else. She’d a good mind to smack him in the groin. But brawling with a guard might raise suspicion. “Couldn’t see a bucket, and weren’t no one here to ask. Anserth told me to hurry back.”
“Anserth… I didn’t…” Col put the lantern down and sidled sideways. “Take the light. I’ll be fine in the dark. Anything else I can do?”
Anessa frowned. He must have known Anserth asked her to do something, so what’d scared him? “Moonlight’s enough to see. I’ll travel faster with both hands empty anyway.”
“Great idea. Only being helpful. You know that right?”
Shit piles, was he only helping. But she wanted to be gone as bad as he wanted her gone. She nodded once and strode out the door.
After the lantern, the ruins seemed dark. But her memory of the street proved good enough that she made it out of sight without incident. Pausing in a shadow, she screwed her eyes tight to speed her night sight. Seemed Anserth’s people were as scared of her as Karak. So going to her was the last thing anyone’d do if they’d sense. For a moment, Anessa thought about finding Kobb and somewhere to hide until everyone was asleep.
If she didn’t return though, Anserth’d tire of waiting and send more people over the wall. Going back was scary, but might mean the difference between all the guards wetting their throats and not. After offering the Maker a smile for the Blessing of walking openly, Anessa clambered up a pile of stone and sought a good route.
Rough direction picked, she set off. Collapsed buildings stopped her moving in a straight line, but not needing to hide made it easy to move around them. Sweaty, dusty, and wishing she’d really had that drink of water, she staggered to where she’d left Kobb and Anserth. Instead of the group of warriors she expected, a lone woman in dull leathers squatted in a doorway.
Anessa leaned on the jamb. “Where’s Anserth?”
The guard jerked a thumb over her shoulder without shifting her gaze off the wall. “Took the Reverend and the girl to camp.”
“Thanks.” The news made Anessa feel less tired. If Kobb was with Frinna, she wouldn’t need to creep about trying to find her. After a long stretch, she headed toward the basement. Unlike the last time, the doors stood open and the guards waved her past unchallenged.
The same group of people, Anserth now with them, stood clustered around the maps as Anessa entered. She couldn’t see Kobb or Frinna anywhere though.
Anserth stepped away from the table and ran her gaze up Anessa. “Welcome back. Looks like a hard journey. Last report said one of those monsters still circled. Did you…?”
“Don’t know what it’s doing. I sorted things, though.” Anessa forced herself not to look away. Nothing she’d said was a lie… exactly. “Best wait for morning before we go in.”
Anserth moved closer, a smile softening the angles of her face. “You don’t want to go now?”
Anessa felt warmth slip up her neck. Don’t break eye contact. She just needed to keep it up until Kobb turned up. “Rubble’s not an easy climb. Be easier in daylight.”
“Good idea. It must’ve been hard work. You’ll want a chance to relax.” Anserth placed a hand on Anessa’s shoulder. “You’re shaking. I’ve a bottle of wine in my quarters I saved. Let’s have a goblet each.” Anserth turned, her hand moving to Anessa’s back.
Each of Anserth’s fingers felt obvious with only the thin singlet between her skin and the gauntlet. Stomach roiling, Anessa let herself be steered into Anserth’s quarters. Wine might calm her down. And sipping it’d give her time to think. She stumbled to a halt as her companion’s hand slipped away.
The Inductor tugged her gauntlets free. “Could you undo my breastplate? The danger’s over; I don’t need to clank around. So no reason we can’t be comfortable.”
Anessa peered at the thick metal plate. As soon as she undid one side, it’d twist sideways. “Err… I’m not sure how, Inductor.”
“Just get close and undo both sides at once. You won’t break anything.” The Inductor removed the armour on her arms and dropped it to the floor. “And you’re not under my command; my friends call me Serth.”
“Anessa.” Unsure if this was better or worse than having to talk about Karak, Anessa stepped closer. Pressing herself right up against Serth’s torso, she could reach the both sets of straps at once. Her fingers felt like dough, but she managed to unhook the buckles. As the last set slid free, the breastplate dropped hard onto her chest.
She stumbled away. Serth caught her by the shoulders before she fell. The bottom of the armour pressed against Anessa’s thighs.
“Grab the edges and guide it.”
Fingers gripping tight enough to turn white, Anessa eased her feet back then let the plate slide. Serth’s arms still bracing her, she shoved the breastplate sideways. The crash of metal hitting stone was louder than she expected, and – despite her companion’s comment – she looked up in panic.
Serth smiled at her, less intimidating with half her armour gone. “Can you do my legs, too?”
Thick leather straps ran from the top of the leg pieces to a thick belt. They’d be easier to get at if she knelt. Close up, the buckles looked easy enough for someone to undo on their own; so, why did Serth need her to do it? After several moments of fumbling at straps that wouldn’t loosen, Anessa began to think her fear had turned her fingers even more doughy.
A moment’s peering later, she realised the plates interlocked with the groin plate somehow; meaning there wasn’t enough give to unbuckle them. The big buckle in the centre of Anserth’s belt opened smoothly. Happy for having worked it out, Anessa eased the metal trousers down while Anserth stepped out. A thick padded jacket thumped to the flags beside her leg.
Startled, Anessa sat down hard. Dressed in only a thin singlet and hose, Anserth was curvier. Which made sense: Anserth’s leathers smoothed her chest. It was another thing seeing the difference, though.
Serth rolled her shoulders and then stretched her arms up. The hem of her singlet stayed decent… barely.
Throat tight, Anessa looked away.
“Definitely more comfortable. Thank you.” After arching her back again, Anserth held out a hand to Anessa. But instead of the expected gentle help, she pulled hard.
Half-tripping, Anessa caught herself on her companion’s chest with her free hand. Blood burning her face, Anessa snatched her fingers away. “Sorry… We should get Kobb. Save me telling things twice.”
Anessa only realised Serth’d still been holding her hand when she let go. Strong fingers pressed against her chin, tilting her head up. Serth’s face’d lost the last of its harshness, but that didn’t make her gaze any less scary.
“So dedicated. I respect that. But you deserve to relax. Give your report in the morning.”
Serth’s fingers weren’t pressing hard. Anessa could just step backwards. So, why weren’t her feet moving?