Danté winces as a twig snaps beneath his foot; he stops moving and listens. Nothing. Just the wind in the trees. This part of the forest is bright; most of the trees being young and therefore unable to create the shadowed canopy found further in. He peers carefully around before beginning once again – this time taking extra care to avoid anything that would give away his position. A few more meters and he is carefully clambering over a fallen tree. As he slides down the other side he thinks he catches a flash of movement behind him. He turns, but sees nothing. His momentary relief is shattered when he hears the giggle above him. Looking up, he sees her perched on a nearby branch. Pressed as is was against the log on one side, the only other exit takes him beneath her – there is no escape for Danté this time. He turns to scramble away, but before he can move she leaps down and thumps him on the back, “Tag!”
Dante laughs, “I don’t understand how you got in front of me again.” Rosalina shrugs, still smiling, “You’re just not paying attention.” She’s twelve, but is quick on her feet and quicker with her wit. Even as she is then, dressed in the simple, bright colours of the travellers, she has managed to evade him. Danté thinks himself rather shrewd, but these past few weeks had brought him great joy in finding out he still had a lot to learn. “Perhaps I am letting you tag me, eh?” Dante jabs her shoulder playfully. In response, Rosalina gives one of her patented eye rolls and walks past him, under the log Danté had shimmied over, “Sure Dante. Whatever tucks you in at night” Eager to show some responsibility and command, Danté catches up with her, “We should get back. Your father is likely wondering where you are. And with my patrol over, mean old Captain Monroe will no doubt be counting the seconds until I return.”
By the time they near the clearing where Rosalina’s family are camped, Rosalina is on Danté’s shoulders. He is telling her the story of the Grey Fox, a daring noblewoman who spent her evenings dressing in disguises and righting wrongs. The stories have become Rosalina’s favourites and Dante was near to reaching the end of his extensive repertoire. He had one more about the Fox overthrowing a corrupt mining baron and then he’d have to start making up some of his own. Before he’s finished however, he goes silent. Between the trees ahead, a contingent of the Greencloak Legionnaires are milling about. This is unusual. Danté had come to Riverton with the other Greencloaks a month ago; the local lord, name of Beauregard, had purchased their services as keepers of the peace. A bandit group had been giving the lord’s merchants in this area trouble, and the Greencloaks were only too happy to ‘address the situation’ for the right price. And they had. Ever since the Greencloaks had arrived, bandit activity had effectively ceased. It wasn’t the nature of bandits to stick around when met with actual resistance and, after a few were killed in skirmishes early on, Danté had assumed the bandits had left the area weeks ago. He was just happy to enjoy a pleasant post with pleasant people for as long as the lord was happy to keep paying. Rosalina’s traveller family has been camping near the village for almost a year, and they had brought a particular happiness to Danté. He has spent many of his off-duty nights by their campfire, sharing stories and drink. Rosalina’s father, Sergei, had even begun teaching Dante the vihuela – he was a natural, or so Danté himself liked to suggest. The travellers had never caused trouble in Riverton and interacted little with the other Greencloaks, so to see almost two-dozen of the mercenaries, all armoured and armed, at their camp made Danté very uneasy.
Danté takes Rosalina from his shoulders and places her in the grass, kneeling down to her eye level, “Just wait here little one, until I find out what is going on. Probably Captain Monroe got lost.” As he nears he can see more of the scene through the trees; Captain Monroe was indeed there, standing in a circle of Greencloaks, gesticulating while giving one of his speeches. Then there is another sound; the crack of an armed gauntlet breaking somebody’s cheek bone. All of his caution leaves Dante as he leapt from the forest into the clearing, his breath catching at what he comes to see. Lined up on their knees with their hands on their heads was most of Rosalina’s family. Her mother, grandmother, sisters and cousins. Her uncle and aunt too; the former of which is bleeding heavily from a bruised face and cut lip. They all see Dante arrive, but none do anything to acknowledge him. There is one other there as well; Rosalina’s father, Sergei. He is kneeling in the circle of Greencloaks, and it was his face that had been beaten with the gauntlet. It is also to him that Monroe had been delivering his monologue, standing over him as he now is. Dante wants to rush in, to stop whatever it is that is happening, but he does not. Instead he goes to the side of Snicket, a lean human who, despite having been with the Greencloaks much longer than Dante, still seemed to pull all of the lousy assignments. Not that Snicket complained. He catches Dante out of the corner of his eye as he approaches, “Late as usual Delarosa.”
Dante’s mouth has gone dry, making speech difficult, “What… what is happening here?”
“Cap’n found the bandits, didn’t ‘e? We gotta lock up this lot, take ‘em to Bo’regar.”
“Bandits? These are not bandits, they are…”
Dante is silenced. Captain Monroe’s voice cuts through their conversation, clean as a guillotine, “Delarosa. Are we interrupting yours and Snickets little chat, are we?” He is a bear of a man, made larger now next to the hunched and bloodied Sergei at his feet. Dante strides through the clearing to him, pushing through the circle of Greencloaks.
“Please captain, I know these people. These are not bandits, I mean how could they be…”
Once again Captain Monroe silences Dante, this time with a raise of his hand, “I was unaware you were privy to our intelligence briefings, private. Step away. I will deal with you later.” Monroe turns, but Dante reaches out and grabs his shoulder, “Please, sir, these people…!” Dante is silenced once again as Monroe strikes him hard across the face, sending him reeling to the ground. Two Greencloaks lift him to his feet, but do not let go of his arms. Monroe approaches him, “You do know what an order is, don’t you Delarosa? When you’re told to leave, you leave. And when you’re told your employer wants bandits to hang at his anniversary of rule, you find them.” He holds Dante’s face in both of his hands, “It pains me to hit you, Delarosa. You’re a Greencloak, and that means something. That’s important. But I will break every bone you have if you ever hesitate in following my orders again, understand?” Dante doesn’t respond and Monroe takes that as agreement, turning back to Sergei on the ground, “Besides, our horse-shit-smelling friend has already confessed, haven’t you?” Sergei speaks through broken teeth, “Yes, yes, I did it. I’m the one. Let my family leave, they know nothing.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible. Hanging just one bandit at the festival isn’t very… well, it’s not very festive, is it?” As Monroe is speaking he is rummaging through a leather satchel one of the other privates has with him. When he turns back to face Sergei he has a large set of shears in his hand, “Unfortunately, we can’t have you or your family speaking either. Might raise a few questions, you understand.” Two Greencloaks come forward and hold Sergei in place by the shoulders, while the beaten traveller cries through his shattered jaw. Monroe approaches him with the shears, “Come now, open wide.”
There is a flash of movement and steel, and the two men who were holding Sergei step backward – Monroe too. Rosalina stands next to her father, a Greencloak rapier in her hand, which she whips around, pointing it at each man in turn. She is screeching, her face twisted with anger, “Get back! Let my papa go! Let him go or I’ll skewer the lot of you!”
Monroe has taken a step back, but remains the closest to her, “Girl. The last thing you’ll ever do is threaten me. Put the sword down before I make you regret it.” Rosalina isn’t having it, and she slashes wildly. One of the men behind her step forward; she spins and drives the rapier outward, slashing his face and drawing blood. It is all the opening Monroe needs. In one stride he is on her, his great dagger unsheathed and driven into her spine in one fluid motion. Rosalina’s body seizes and she drops the rapier, falling onto her father who cradles her against him. “I’m sorry papa” is all she can manage before life leaves her. Dante screams, struggling in vain against the men who hold him. Sergei wails, drawing his daughter’s body to him and heaving with great sobs. The rest of the family, incensed by the death, leap to their feet. The suddenness of the act catches the Greencloaks watching them off-guard and Rosalina’s uncle manages to disarm one of them, slashing at him with his new weapon. Rosalina’s cousins leap on the nearest Greencloak and beat him with their fists, while her sisters and mother rush the circle. There is suddenly a great commotion and, through it all, Sergei hold’s his daughter’s body tightly. It is not to last. Rosalina’s uncle is surrounded and cut down; one of the cousins is stabbed through the hand, and the others are dragged off by superior numbers; one of Rosalina’s sisters is killed and the other knocked unconscious with the back of a blade. All the while, Monroe is trying to get his men to avoid killing the travellers, “Dead men don’t hang!” Sergei draws the dagger from his daughter’s body, leaps to his feet and charges Monroe. The seasoned military captain dispatches him with little trouble, leaving his wife to cry in despair once again. Monroe marches over to her, flicking the fresh blood from his blade and lifting it in the air. As he brings it down he finds Dante suddenly kneeling between he and Rosalina’s mother, arms outstretched to protect her, “Please Captain, please. These are… good people.” Monroe casts his eye around the campsite, “Not very good at fighting. Stand, Delarosa.” Dante does as he is told. “The most important thing in life is loyalty.” Despite everything that has just happened, Monroe’s voice is calm. He hands Danté his sword. “This woman’s life is already over. Your career is just beginning.” With that he stands back, leaving Danté standing over Rosalina’s weeping mother, sword in hand. Danté lifts the blade; in his mind he sees Rosalina, at once sitting on his shoulders, laughing at his stories, and laying in a pool of her own blood in the grass not five-feet away. He presses the tip against the woman’s chest; she no longer wails, but instead stares up defiantly up at the Efrit. They remain just so for some time, until finally the blade presses through the skin. Danté cries in surprise as the traveler presses herself forward, skewering herself on the metal. She reaches out and grabs Danté’s hand before he can let go, and with one pull she completes the thrust, splitting her heart. She dies quickly. Monroe puts his hand around Danté’s shoulder, “Stay loyal only to your men, Delarosa. Helps to avoid such unpleasantness.” He takes the sword from the Efrit and replaces it in his scabbard, ordering his men to collect the bodies for the wagon.