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Mouser

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Nix was the one who found him and carried him to safety while he healed. It seemed strange that he should heal, at first. It had certainly felt like he was dying, or he never would have said as much to First as he did. But the Kamond that powered him was exceptional, filled with the hero's own Kan, and he hadn't rebelled against his orders, so it carried on: mending his injuries, renewing his strength.

It took time. The battle was over before Elgar felt well enough to walk further than the bath, and the world was changing. There would be no more new Kan released to circulate; it would ebb as it was used, and eventually there would be none left anywhere. Elgar considered asking Nix about his own Kamond's fate, but he could guess. Already, this was a longer life than he'd expected—his master had perished, but he still lived.

"I want to leave," he told Nix when he felt strong enough to be sure of himself.

Nix frowned. "You're not going to go looking for Juto, are you?" First went missing during the last battle.

Elgar considered it for a moment. "No," he said eventually. "There isn't much point anymore." There wasn't anything left to prove, with Master gone and the war over and everything changed. "I just want to...travel. See things." All he had done before was fight, and now the battle had ended. "I don't know what I should do now, so I want to see what Lanzheim is like. What I could do."

For some reason that made Nix smile broadly, reaching out to clasp Elgar's shoulders with both hands. "You're growing up," he said. Elgar blinked at him. "All right. We'll put together some traveling supplies for you—but I want you to remember you can always come back here, if you ever want to. You have a home here."

"I will remember," Elgar promised.

He left his mask behind when he departed, and the clothes he wore were nondescript gray and green instead of his signature red and black. He already knew how people reacted to him when he was Elgar the Regicide, terror of the Northern Forces. He wouldn't learn anything about how to live among humans if they fled from him.

The end of the war and the slow death of the Kan supply weren't treating anyone well. People were hungry, now that growing crops was harder. People were angry about the changes. There were fights over food around Belfort, and the scattered settlements across Ruhalt weren't welcoming of travelers. The Mare had closed off the borders of the marsh entirely, and while Elgar was certain he could defeat their warriors, there wasn't much to be gained by it. Navyblue Marsh held no importance for him.

The green fields around Abazet fared somewhat better. Still not perfect, but less desperate, certainly. Elgar stopped along the road one afternoon, watching a man try to dig thorny brambles out of a field with a broad-bladed hoe. Crops would take time to grow now, time and hard work. The man was clearly struggling with the task, tired, stopping to wipe sweat from his forehead with his sleeve.

He frowned when he saw Elgar there. "This isn't a show," he said. "What are you stopping to stare for?"

Elgar hesitated. "Do you need help?" he asked.

The frown melted into a look of surprise. "I don't have much to spare," the man cautioned him, "but you can stay for dinner if you want to take a turn trying to dig these damn things out."

He didn't need a stranger's charity, but he didn't have anywhere important to go, did he? "All right," Elgar said. He hopped the fence into the field and reached out to take the hoe.

The work was repetitive, simpler than combat, and not unbearably difficult for someone whose body had been trained into peak condition. There was something satisfying about being able to see the progress made, Elgar decided, as more of the brambles were vanquished and more of the red-brown earth broken up. By sunset, he had cleared most of the brambles from the field; his hands were sore from the unfamiliar grip, but it wasn't so bad.

And the way the farmer smiled at him—grateful? pleased?—was an entirely new thing. "Well. Guess I'd better put on something good for dinner, after all that," he said. "Come on up to the house, ah—I didn't catch your name before."

Elgar hesitated, his shoulders tensing. "My name?" He should have thought of one to lie with, but the only thing that came to mind now was First's, and he wasn't using that.

"Don't want to say?" the farmer asked. He shook his head. "There's been a lot of that going around, with the war. I'm not going to turn you in to anybody, you know, but you can give me a name nobody would be looking for, if you need to."

"Thank you," Elgar said. He gave it another moment's thought. "You can call me Yun."

"And I'm Jeong," the farmer said. Elgar nodded, not quite a bow but close enough. "Come on up to the house, Yun."

Elgar followed Jeong up the small hill to his house—a simple thing, much more like the cottages of Highwind Island than the heavy stone buildings of Belfort. The house needed work much as the fields had; the roof thatch was thin in a few places, and the paint looked badly weathered. "You live here alone?" Elgar asked. As far as he understood, that wasn't generally how these things worked. One person couldn't keep up with everything.

"Still waiting for my son to come home," Jeong said. "He joined the Southern Forces in the early days of the war. Sent letters when he could. I haven't heard anything from him lately, but I'm...still hoping." There was a rustling in the underbrush beside the house, and a silver tabby cat slunk into view, mewling loudly. "And no, I haven't forgotten you, Elgar."

Elgar froze. "What?"

"It's the cat's name," Jeong said, with a smile Elgar couldn't quite decipher. "My son thought it was in bad taste, and probably he's right. But I got the cat to be a mouser, you see? Figured I should name him after a killer."

"I see," Elgar said. He followed Jeong into the house; the cat slipped in between them. "Did it work?"

Jeong laughed. "Not in the least," he said. "Laziest cat I've ever seen, just wants a sunbeam to lie in and someone to scratch him under the chin. Couldn't care less about hunting." He opened the wood stove on the far wall and stirred the coals before feeding a chunk of wood into it. "Go on and make yourself comfortable while I throw some things in the pot."

Elgar sat down one one of the cushions arranged around the low eating table. After a moment, Elgar-the-cat came over to sniff at him. Often, animals were hostile to him; perhaps they could sense the power of his Kamond and knew there was something unnatural about him. But this cat didn't seem to care, and once it determined that Elgar would hold still for long enough, it climbed into his lap. Elgar tried stroking its back—its fur was so soft!—and the cat started to purr, eyes slitting half shut.

"You're going to ruin our reputation, Third," Elgar told it very quietly. The cat only leaned into his hand, encouraging him to scratch behind its ears. Somehow that made him feel absurdly warm.

"You say something?" Jeong asked.

Elgar looked up. Jeong was sort of watching him, but not especially warily, still feeding noodles into a pot over the stove. "And then you kept him even though he wasn't a good mouser?"

"Couldn't just get rid of him," Jeong said. He stirred the pot, and the savory smell of the broth made Elgar's mouth water. "Got fond of him, you know?" He shrugged. "Sometimes, things don't go the way you plan. You just have to live with the changes, and plenty of times that works out for the better."

"Hmm." It was hard to believe that it could be so simple, that one could just...stop doing what they were meant to. Though First had, hadn't he? And somehow that had made him stronger, not doing what he was designed for. Elgar frowned. The cat dug its claws into his trousers, kneading determinedly.

Jeong snorted. "Not so sure, hmm? Looks like you got out of the army just in time." He took a bowl down from a shelf on the wall. "You're too young to be that set in your ways."

Elgar considered that for a minute, as Jeong ladled soup into bowls for both of them. "What will you do with the field now that it's clear?"

"It needs a harrow next, to break up the turned earth so new seeds can take root," Jeong said as he sat down. He lifted his bowl, plucked a mouthful of greens and noodles from the broth with his chopsticks. "Why?"

"I...was a very good mouser," Elgar said. "But maybe I should do something else now." He picked up his bowl, careful not to disturb Third, who appeared to be falling asleep in his lap. "Things have changed, after all."

Jeong smiled slowly, a slightly different expression from earlier; eventually, perhaps Elgar would learn how to sort through all the nuances. "The work would go faster with two," he said. "You can stay a few days, at least, if you'd like to help with the harrowing and learn how to put a crop in."

Elgar sipped the broth of his soup, warm and savory, and thought about it. This was what he meant to be doing with this trip, wasn't it? Learning how humans lived? "Yes," he said. "I would like that."

It was a small step; he didn't have an answer yet to the question of what he should do with himself. But it was progress—a human willing to help him, an animal willing to trust him, a warm meal and the pleasant ache of work done. He was learning. He would find his own way.