Chloe thunked a thick notebook down on the table. “I’m working on a project.”
Arianna looked up at once, smiling. “That’s very commendable, Dame Chloe! Can we be of assistance in any way?”
Flavio sighed. “You’re not even gonna ask what it is first?”
“Oh, of course! What is this project?”
Chloe gravely opened the notebook and fished a pen out of her bag. The page was neatly ruled into three columns, of which she had already filled one with text. “I need to collect data.”
Flavio unconsciously leaned away. “What kind of data?”
“What stuff do you like?” She held her pen poised to record all responses.
“It’s a survey.”
“Oh!” Arianna brightened. “I’ve heard of these! You answer questions about your likes and dislikes, and then an expert uses that information to predict your compatibility with -”
Chloe wrinkled her nose. “Not that.”
“- different classes of weapons?”
“No offense,” said Flavio, “but I think we already know what weapons we’re best at.”
“I wouldn’t be so certain! Sometimes it feels like a staff day and sometimes it feels like a sword day, right, Dame Chloe? A little extra guidance in settling these questions could never go amiss!”
“That’s nice for you two, but I’m pretty sure every day is a bow day.”
“Well,” said Arianna, turning back to Chloe, “whatever it is, I’m happy to help. Are you going to ask Sir Knight as well?”
“Yup. He’s next.”
“What about Sir Bertrand?”
Flavio peered over at the notebook. “What do you want this for, anyway?”
Chloe turned the book around for her guildmates’ inspection. “I’m filling out this table.”
The columns were headed: THINGS I LIKE, THINGS MY FRIENDS LIKE, THINGS REGULAR ADULTS LIKE. The first column started with “Beef, Venison, Pork, Mutton, Books, Interesting rocks,” and continued down the page and onto the next. The second column was blank. The third had two entries: “Beer (gross!)” and “Patronizing Chloe.”
Flavio raised his eyebrows. “Are we working on column two or column three?”
“Two. You’re not boring enough to be regular adults.”
“Okay, I think that was a compliment, but…”
Chloe whisked the notebook out from under his nose and reoriented it to begin writing. “Now are you going to cooperate?”
It looked innocent enough, but Flavio was sure, given three or four minutes, he would come up with a way she could use this for something weird. He didn’t have three or four minutes to consider, though, because Arianna jumped right in. “You have excellent taste! I like venison and books, too. Oh, and interesting rocks! Have you seen a geode before? Cracking one is like opening a present!”
Flavio gave in. “What about spending time with friends? That’s always been one of my favorite things.”
Chloe didn’t look up from noting down Arianna’s answers. “Thanks, Flavio. I need more data from super sentimental people. It should help correct bias.”
“Wh - hey!”
Bertrand had never thought of Chloe as weird - or at least no weirder than any other kid - but there came a point when even he had to admit she was acting odd.
One night she came into his room complaining of nightmares, like she sometimes did, but instead of reading to herself or making him tell her a story, she announced she was going to tell him one this time. And then launched into a blow-by-blow recounting of the battle with Arachne.
“Uh, Chloe, I was there for that one.”
“I know. It’s a good story.”
Another evening when they returned from the Labyrinth, she asked for a jar of the maintenance oil he used on his shield and armor. She wouldn’t say what she needed it for, and she wouldn’t quit bugging him until he handed one over. Three days later he caught her scrubbing his shield with some weird orange gunk that definitely hadn’t come from that jar, and all she said was, “I made a new formula. It’s better.” It turned out to repel water okay, but it was sticky as hell, it stained skin and cloth bright yellow, and it stank like she’d dredged it out of a swamp. He barely managed to keep her from smearing it on his gauntlets, too.
And she would barely let him out of her sight. She had always liked to stick close to him in unfamiliar situations, but she’d also always needed time alone to do her own thing. They’d been in Lagaard for months now, and she was plenty comfortable, so she should’ve been spending a good chunk of her time reading or doing experiments or catching bugs. But for almost a week now, here she was, following him around like a second shadow. And for some reason she’d started pointing out the most pointless, inane crap. “Trand, there’s birds over there.” “Look. Plants.” “It’s an ugly mushroom.”
“What are you getting at?”
“The natural world is full of cool stuff,” she said, in the tones of someone who had read that somewhere but hadn’t personally confirmed it. She pointed to a stray sheep grazing the hills above the city. “I’d put that in a stew over mashed potatoes. See? Nature.” He didn’t bother telling her sheep were domesticated.
And one morning, out of nowhere, she hugged him. This had not happened since she was knee-high, and even then she’d just been using him for structural support on her way to something else.
It was the most awkward eight seconds of a very long life.
She pulled back completely stone-faced, nodded once, and went to join the others in the inn lobby. “Is everyone ready to go?” said Flavio, in his best totally-not-being-passive-aggressive, definitely-not-aimed-at-the-old-guy-holding-the-rest-of-us-up voice.
“Gimme a sec,” Bertrand called back, “I forgot something.” He went back up to his room. Chloe had already “borrowed” his shield once, and she was obviously still up to something. If she’d been messing with his stuff again, better look for evidence now, before Hanna and Quona could get in and tidy things up.
And, what do you know, there was a smoking gun - Chloe's notebook lay open on the chair like she’d left it there in a hurry. She must’ve snuck in this morning to do something. The page she’d left off on showed a table of THINGS I LIKE, THINGS MY FRIENDS LIKE, THINGS REGULAR ADULTS LIKE. On the reverse page a column was added for THINGS AT LEAST ONE FAFNIR KNIGHT LIKES.
“The hell?” he muttered, flipping the page back and forth. Most of the entries were crossed out, but a few were circled or annotated. Next to “Books” was written “A. says he’s suspiciously knowledgeable about pulpy detective series. Follow up?”
Now that he thought about it, before this all began, he could remember seeing Chloe grilling the other kids and noting down what they said. And now she was using it - what? To find new ways to hassle him? What was her master plan here?
(And hadn’t he asked Arianna not to tell anyone about that? Damn.)
He hid the book, so she couldn’t come get it back before he could ask about it. Now he just had to figure out what to ask. That wasn’t gonna be fun.
It was after dinner. They were standing in Trand’s room.
“Chloe, is there something you wanna tell me?”
It felt like being in trouble. She hadn’t done anything wrong, and even if she had, she was too old to just be generically “in trouble.” She was twelve. She’d explained to her parents, and Trand (and Regina a couple of times. Sometimes you really wanted to try the steak without waiting your turn), that at her age they should be reasoning with her like an adult and having a calm discussion about consequences. They should not just resort to being disappointed and tall and expect to win that way. It wasn’t fair. Trand had at least taken it more seriously than Mom, who just laughed and said, “I’m sure your honorary degree in psychology is in the mail, but go to your room.” But he was still a grown-up, and they all had the same basic strategies. And trouble was the worst.
“No,” she said. “There’s nothing.”
“You sure? You’ve been sticking to me like glue this past week or so. Did something happen? Are you mad at the others?”
She shook her head. “I’m not mad. I like them.”
“Good. Glad to hear it.” He took a breath. “Then would you please explain, for this old man’s sake, why you can’t leave me alone for half an hour?” He sounded tired. That usually meant more trouble than if he got mad. Chloe made sure to stand firm. “And while you’re at it” - he pulled something from the chest at the foot of the bed and held it out to her - “can you explain why one of my socks is double-knotted and filled with leaves?”
Of course she recognized it. “It’s not just leaves,” she said. “It’s that tea that you like.”
“And I’m supposed to drink it out of a sock.”
“No, you leave it, and it makes the whole chest smell nice.”
“Uh-huh. ‘Cause it’s not like I’d ever need to wear this or anything.”
“You’re a hundred years old. You should know to pack spare clothes.”
For just a second, he winced. Then he pointed a finger at her. “This isn’t about me.”
She didn’t want to make things worse for herself, but she had to know: “Did you find anything else?”
“As a matter of fact -”
“Then did you break any of them open?”
He stopped. “Did I what?”
“Did you try cracking open any of the rocks I put under your pillow?”
“You put rocks under my - ?” He crossed to the bed and moved the pillow, revealing the four round gray rocks she’d put there, all undamaged.
“I asked Hanna to leave them there until you noticed. Didn't you notice?” They’d been there for three nights. He must sleep even heavier than she thought. She’d need to make a note of that. “You should open one now.”
“I dunno.” She squirmed under his gaze. “Your monster hand or something.”
He stared at her.
“I think they're geodes.”
He kept staring.
She admitted, looking down, “But they might just be rocks.”
He rolled his eyes and sighed. “Okay, no, I didn’t find those, obviously. But I found something of yours.”
She had a sinking feeling in her chest. She hadn’t been able to find her notebook since coming back from the Labyrinth. She’d asked Arianna to help look for it, but nothing had come up at the inn yet. Maybe she’d kicked it under her bed by accident. Maybe she’d dropped it inside Yggdrasil. She couldn’t have left it here, right? She was being so careful.
Trand was holding her notebook.
She snatched it back from him. “You better not have looked inside it. It’s private.”
He snorted. “You’ve been pawing through my stuff all week and you think you can play that card?”
“Relax, I didn’t go snooping. I only read the page it was open to.”
The survey. If she’d left it here, she would’ve left it open to her survey results. But why was he being like this? If he knew about that the whole time, why didn’t he just say so instead of pretending the sock was the only problem? This was another dirty trick used by adults to make you incriminate yourself. She glared at him and tucked it securely into her bag without saying a word.
“You wanna tell me what’s going on, or should I start guessing?”
“I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
He sighed, again. “No. I guess technically there’s nothing wrong with bootleg potpourri or the world’s least informative nature hike. But you’re not acting like yourself. Don’t think nobody noticed.”
“Of course I’m acting like myself. I’m always me.”
“C’mon, you know what I mean. Work with me here. Something changed, right? There’s some reason you decided to do all this.”
Sure, something changed, Chloe thought. You should know what it was. He hadn’t figured out the secret, so she had nothing to be nervous about anymore - but now she was getting angry that he hadn’t. She didn’t like how it felt. “Start guessing,” she said.
“So it’s gonna be like that, huh. Okay. Here’s what I’m getting. You went around asking everyone but me what kind of stuff they liked. Then you compared all the results and made a list of nice things to do for people.” She nodded. “And now you’re trying to do those things for me. In totally bass-ackwards fashion. Whether I like it or not.” She nodded again. “Great. Why?”
Why didn’t he know?
“Do you… want something from me?” She said nothing. Let him keep guessing. “If this is about that lab set you’ve been eyeballing, you have enough glassware already, and no way to take it home when all this is done. We’ve been over this.” She shook her head. “Okay…” He rubbed at his jaw. “I know Regina didn’t cut you off, because we’re still getting normal service at the cafe. Are you in trouble with someone else? Did you break something at the trading post again?”
“That only happened one time.”
She scowled at him. “It looked like it would spin. I had to check.”
“So is that it?”
“No. You’re being insulting.”
“You aren’t giving me a whole lot to work with.” She raised her chin in defiance. “Geez, all right. So you don’t want me to buy you anything and you don’t need to be bailed out of trouble. But you’ve gotta be lobbying for something. I’m not a mind-reader -”
“Just tell me what you want. The worst that could happen is I say no. Bribing me isn’t gonna work, and it’s honestly getting weird.”
She couldn’t decide if he was being stupid, a jerk, or both. Either way, it stung to be misunderstood that badly. “It’s not a bribe! It’s...” If she didn’t tell him, he’d just keep guessing wrong, and she didn’t want to hear any more about the kind of person he thought she was. “I don't want to fight you again.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Is that what this is about? Because it's okay. You don't have anything to make up to me. You kids did beat the crap out of me, but I had it coming. No hard feelings.”
How could he still get it so backwards? “I'm not being nice because I feel bad. I don't feel bad.”
Why was he such an idiot? “Because you scared me! You tried to sacrifice yourself and we stopped you and now you're acting normal again, but I don't know what you're planning! But I know you did it because you were in pain, so I have to fix it. I have to make sure you're happy, because if you get sad again, you might die!”
His eyes were wide. “Holy shit.”
“I don’t want you to leave. You’re the only Trand I have. So I have to make - I have to make sure you like staying, or...”
“Holy shit,” he said again, softer. He wasn’t looking at her, but at some point in the distance beyond her. “I didn’t know -”
“That’s not an excuse!”
“No. No, it’s not.” Now he was looking at her, and he looked… upset. He raised a hand to his mouth and slowly dragged it down his face. “Chloe -”
That was the opposite of what she wanted. She shouldn’t have told him anything. “Don’t get sad now. I’ve been working so hard.” Her voice came out squeaky. Her nose was starting to run. Maybe if she pretended it wasn’t happening, he wouldn’t notice.
“Hey. I’m not that fragile.” He rumpled her hair, which was not a convincing gesture, because under normal conditions he would’ve remembered that she hated that. “All that stuff’s behind me. Promise.”
“How do I know?”
“Am I acting like a guy with a death wish?”
“You’re acting like yourself.”
He backed off, stricken. For a moment he said nothing. Then he muttered under his breath, “Ask a stupid question…”
After another moment he sat down on the edge of the bed and patted the spot next to him. “C’mere.”
“I’m not crying.”
“Never said you were.”
“Just making sure.” She lifted her glasses for a second to scrub at her eyes, and then went to sit beside him.
For a long time no one spoke. Then Trand said, “Do you have any idea how young you are?”
“How old I am? I’m twelve.”
“That’s not what I mean. You’re a smart kid - the smartest I’ve ever met - but you’re still a kid. There’s so much you haven’t seen yet. There’s so much you can’t possibly - look, don’t glare at me like that, I know how this sounds. But… you should never have to solve adults’ problems for them. Anything I’ve done to make you feel like it’s your job to fix me - that was wrong. You don’t protect me, I protect you. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
“Not a damn thing. Just… be young while you can. Try not to worry too much. And when you’re grown up,” he said, looking off into the distance again, “do better than I did.”
“Doing better than you won’t be hard.”
He grimaced. “Y’know, you don’t have to say it.”
She leaned into his side. “Are you really done trying to get killed?”
“And you won’t leave?”
He shifted. “Not on purpose, not before you’re ready. Okay?”
“You’re hedging your bets.” Was she using that expression right?
“Chloe, things happen. We don’t get to make all the choices we might want to. In a perfect world, no, I’m not going anywhere, but if I promised that and then got run over by an ox cart tomorrow morning, you’d spend the rest of your life mad at me for lying.”
“An ox cart wouldn’t kill you.”
“Three ox carts. In a horrible collision that stops all traffic into and out of High Lagaard for a day and a half, and gets marked down in the history books forever.”
She realized she was smiling. She didn’t want to be smiling. “So if we turn all the oxen into steak before tomorrow, that won’t happen.”
“Great idea. Good luck selling it to the farmers. Hey,” he said, picking up one of the rocks still lying on the bedspread, “you said these were geodes, right? Wanna go ask around if anybody’s got a sledgehammer?”
A blatant subject change. But for the first time, she could see why adults favored them so much. She got up. “Quona’s dad has one. For driving posts. I’ll ask her where he keeps it.” Trand gave her a skeptical look. “What? I’m not going to ask for permission. People never want to give me the cool toys. They always say it’s too dangerous. Would you give me a sledgehammer?”
“See?” She hurried off to fetch it. But right before she closed the door, she looked back for a split second and saw something she wasn’t meant to. Trand, sitting right where she’d left him, slowly put his head in his hands.
After a single blow, the rock crumbled into dust. There were no interesting crystals in evidence anywhere.
“That wasn’t a geode,” said Chloe.
Trand frowned, setting down the hammer. “That’s just sandstone.”
“I have to tell Arianna.”
“Tell her what?”
“I only got four, but she bought twenty. She has them all lined up on a shelf.”
“And she hasn’t broken any of them yet?”
“No, she’s saving them for rainy days. She says she likes imagining their potential.” That didn’t make any sense to Chloe. If you got something to smash open, why wouldn’t you do it right away? And what did rain have to do with it?
“Do you remember what shop they all came from? Can you point out who sold them to you?”
“Good. Can you go get all of Arianna’s? Make whatever excuse you want.”
“You and I have a scammer to shake down. Shouldn’t take long.”
She could hear someone running up the stairs. From down the hall, Hanna shouted, “What was that crash? Is everything all right?”
Chloe exchanged glances with Trand. “And we should go now?”
He shoved the sledgehammer under the mattress. “Yeah. Right now.”