Bha’ar brought the wagon into the barn. She dismounted in a controlled fall, Hova noticed. She limped out into the lamp lit evening crowd of the dusty dockside street. Once they would have been porters and mariners and debardeurs and compatables and masters and merchants engaged in the loading and unloading of the boats and skiffs that plied back and forth from the capitol to the rest of the empire. The beating heart of trade which went on day and night, now beat but listlessly, and that only in the daylight. Now there were just putains of one variety or another, parasites all feeding off one another. Some submitting willingly, some not so much. Hova watched them now, grading them, measuring them, looking for the one which might be showing any interest in the comings and goings of a peddler and her wagon.
Most nights Bha’ar would start a conversation with some passerby which she would then take to the inn. It established alibis. It made her a fixture in the community. Above suspicion. This night with everyone in nervous spirits over the activity at the Post de légion, the conversation started itself when someone commented on her limp. Hova watched her pantomime the incident from his balcony across the street, making a great show of it, drawing a bit of a crowd. Someone suggested she needed a drink to calm her nerves and nearly every layabout and gossip followed them up to the inn. Well done. Less eyes around the barn. Less ears to overhear. Hova sipped his expresso and watched them all go up the hill and out of sight.
He went inside, downstairs he found Laperte in the kitchen and dropped off his cup. “We will be having guests tonight.”
“Three long term, but I assume there will be a soirée,” he opened the door to the basement.
“Three? Man? Woman? Both?”
He shrugged, “The bird was not specific.” Meaning the note brought by Bha’ar’s jackal-buzzard before she arrived. Laperte made a noise of disgust for him to hear and then quite a few more just for herself, like she always did. They had been married long enough now that he no longer tried to assuage her irritation. Better to let it burn itself out. He descended the steps making no light. Opened the crate, moved the rugs and opened the secret door which dropped into the tunnel. Hova walked the length of the tunnel, listened at its ceiling for a long moment to determine if anyone was in the barn. Hearing nothing, he removed the bars and opened the overhead doors and there was the bottom of Bha’ar’s wagon. He unlocked the smuggling hatch and backed out of the way. There was a pause and then a slim, small shadow dropped down into the tunnel. He could not be sure in the darkness, but still he thought the shadow looked right at him, sizing him up. That would be paranoid. No one could see in this darkness without the equipment which the Legion kept for itself. The shadow reached back up into the wagon and carefully lowered a bag of some sort. Finally an even smaller shadow dropped lightly down. Hova waited. No one else came out. He maneuvered around them and looked inside the wagon. It was empty. He closed the hatch and then the tunnel door, replacing the bars.
At last he uncovered his lantern, just a little, so they could all see each other. A woman and a child looked back at him. “I thought,” he said, “there was to be three.”
The woman uncovered what Hova had mistaken as a bag. Hova cursed as loudly as he dared. The Question, ‘What the hell happened to him?’ nearly popped out of his mouth, but his cardinal rule was: Ask No Questions. The less he and Laperte knew, the less involved they could get. The less they involved they were, the safer. The woman spoke, “One’s guide needs medical attention.”
“Oui, oui, of course,” always best to promise anything to keep the contrebande calm and quiet. He covered the lantern again and led them back through the tunnel, up into his basement, replacing the rugs and lid of the crate. Then up the stairs and into the house’s little kitchen. “Femme,” they used no names in front of the contrebande, “heat water!” An extravagant request, water was only used for two things in Aedlin. Drinking and washing wounds. He cleared the table, “lay your injured here.” The woman brought the wounded man over and Hova was startled by how easily she carried him. There was more here than surfaces would suggest.
Laperte went to work, washing and exposing more and more wounds, muttering with each new discovery, first in the clinical way she learned as a nurse years ago, under the last emperor, then in shock at the extent, finally in anger as it became clear these were not accidental. When she had set whatever bones she felt confident to set, salved the burns, stitched the deep cuts, peered into every orifice for the hidden damage, bandaged the lot, had them move him to a couch by the fire, and smothered him in blankets she dropped into a chair exhausted.
“Izzy gunna die?” the child asked. It was the first time either of them had spoke.
“He needs blood. He needs scans. He needs hospital,” Laperte told them. “Who -“
Hova cleared his throat and cut her off. “Perhaps you are hungry? I know I am.” Laperte made no move. Her eyes said much. “You have worked very hard, dear. Please sit, I will get it.” He brought out some left over pork, rice and vegetables with a half loaf of day old bread and a bit of milk. “You have seen food before, non?” He asked the child when he set a plate in front of her.
“Izdis alla f’r me?”
“Oui. Just don’t eat my hand!”
“Will the child be necessary for your soirée?” Laperte asked him watching the girl eat.
“When she is done eating, I will make her a pallet in the baby’s room.”
“When she is done eating, I believe, will be when we are out of food in the house, unless she eats us!” He meant it as a joke. No one laughed.