Having crept away in the night, leaving Eldan with a pile of snacks and a note, Kerowyn returns to Menmellith to rejoin the Skybolts.
Menmellith is a small country sandwiched between Karse and Rethwellan. According to Kero’s correspondence with Daren, Menmellith was a fractious border area in Rethwellan until it was granted its independence. States don’t usually give up chunks of territory. Even lands that are not valuable in their own right are usually seen as worth keeping out of enemy hands. In this case, Rethwellan was hoping to realize some cost savings consequent to no longer being directly responsible for Menmellith’s defense. As a practical matter, however, it would be bad for Rethwellan if Menmellith were overrun by Karse. Rethwellan chose to deal with the strategic drawbacks of Menmellith’s independence by extending a loan to Menmellith’s ruling council so that it could hire mercenaries to secure its borders.
Since I have to fill in the gaps on Menmellith, I have decided that it’s a lot like late-19th century Serbia. I assume that its nationalist struggle has led to a series of assassinations and an international dispute over pig processing. Tragically, the Skybolts have failed to fulfill their contract with Menmellith, as they have neither stopped the bandit incursions along the Menmellith/Karse border nor proven that the bandits are (or are affiliated with) Karsite regulars. When Kerowyn finds her way back to the Skybolts’ camp, she discovers that the company commanders have been decimated, and the company has not been paid.
As readers, we barely got to see Skybolt Captain Lerryn Twobolts. He seems to have been a heck of a guy. He didn’t make it. The new commander is Ardana Flinteyes. Ardana’s plan to get the diminished Skybolts back on their feet involves a contract for a winter war. Usual practice for well-established mercenary companies is to maintain winter quarters, to which the company returns during the winter months. This time is used for rest, rehabilitation, and training new recruits. The upshot of this crash course in mercenary guild standards and practices is that Ardana is not a good commander. The war in question involves a merchants’ guild and some farmers, south of Menmellith in Seejay. We still don’t have a map of this region, so all we know is that Seejay is south of Menmellith, and the state of Ruvan is between them. Kerowyn claims, in frustratingly unspecific terms, that she comes from that area. Her Skybolt friends hold out hope for mild winter weather, but Kerowyn knows better. The weather is miserable, the pay is terrible, and the Skybolts’ are poorly suited for this kind of conflict. When a quick MindTouch with one of the merchants calling the shots reveals that they merchant guild plans to control costs by encouraging Ardana to throw her troops away in a suicidal charge, Kerowyn severs her contract and flees the scene while Ardana demands her arrest.
Kerowyn has two resources to help her in this situation—the mercenary guild, and a bank draft for Eldan’s ransom. I am so thrilled to know that Heralds have checking accounts and that Velgarth’s financial systems have not yet been internationalized. I eagerly anticipate the future book where the people of Valdemar invent the joint stock trading company.
The mercenary guild finds Kerowyn acted appropriately in severing her contract, but cannot get her another job in the depths of winter, in a city over-supplied with unemployed mercenaries. She takes a job as a bouncer, working for bed and board. Kero’s affair with Daren didn’t seem traumatic at the time, but the scars left by his thoughtless marriage proposal prevent her from going to Valdemar to cash in Eldan’s ransom. If she went to Valdemar, Eldan might offer her a job. And she might take it. Obviously, that would be a terrible choice. She’s better off sleeping on a tavern floor, imagining Eldan telling mercenary jokes to pretty Valdemaran ladies. (Lackey does not deign to tell us how many mercenaries it takes to change a candle—she’s withholding a frustrating amount of information in this section). But try as she might, Kerowyn can’t lay low. A City Guard tries to rape her and Need intervenes, resulting in Kerowyn facing charges for assault on a municipal employee. She is found innocent, but now she’s unemployed again—she thinks.
Either Kerowyn is incredibly skilled at covering her tracks in winter weather or the rest of the Skybolts need to level up their tracking skills. The Bolts have spent an uncomfortable season chasing Kerowyn around this un-named chunk of Velgarth so they can tell her they’ve voted Ardana out and would like her to be their new captain. The bad news is the Skybolts are broke. Or they were. Until they elected a captain who has a bank draft for a Herald’s ransom in her back pocket. The mercenary guild fronts the Bolts the cash, minus a percentage, and sends a representative to collect Eldan’s ransom in Haven. Kerowyn pays for resupply—Heralds are worth a lot, everyone comments on it, no one names a number or a form of currency. I’m mildly annoyed by this. I need someone to name some countries, and maybe drop a few hints about exchange rates. I’m appeased by the next section, where Kerowyn examines her new recruits in Bolthaven, and then imitates her previous commanders’ vague commentary. Just like Miles Vorkosigan! Mercenaries—they’re the same all over.
What’s Kerowyn going to do with her fabulous new career? Tune in next week when she’s reunited with Daren, and a pig plays an actual role in the plot.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.