The sun had long since set. Emily was working by the light of a tallow lantern when a noise from the shop doorway made her jump. She turned with a start—and spied the long, angular figure of her employer leaning up against the door frame.
Her heart slowed—a bit, but not completely.
“Puttin’ in ‘nother long evenin’?” She nodded in response. “Mind if I ask why?”
Emily swallowed, thought for a long moment. He’s testing me. Of course he was. He was always testing her. John Ammerman was always testing everyone. Probing. Prodding. Folding the metal, over and over again, seeking out flaws and impurities. At length, she spoke. “Because this is the only hour of the day when I can stand at a work desk without worrying about whether one of my coworkers behind me is checking out my ass.”
That earned a snort, and Emily figured she’d passed. But she knew better than to assume the examination was over. “Boys givin’ ye trouble? Jes say the word, I’ll set ‘em straight. Yer a free woman; ye don’t need to just take it from ‘em.”
Emily shook her head. “They’re buffoons some of the time, but they’re no threat to me. When I need your help with them, Mr. Ammerman, I’ll be sure to let you know. But a free woman needs to be able to take care of herself.”
Ammerman nodded. His hand moved to his chin, fumbled idly with a few hairs of his patchy beard. “Reckon yer right on that score. Still…” His eyes narrowed. “These’r dangerous times ‘round these parts. Dangerous times t’ be a free man in Haven…or woman, of course,” he added hastily. “Reckon Ramesh found that out the hard way.” He pursed his lips. “What if it weren’t me in this doorway here? What if it were th’ murd’rer?” A toothy, feral smile. “What’d y’do then, young miss?”
“Mr. Ammerman,” she replied, “I have, within arm’s reach, six different deadly weapons. Each of them was crafted by the hands of a free man, in the hope that another free man would use it to defend himself—or herself—against the initiation of force. And you’ve trained me in the use of each and every one of them.” She gave him a slight grin. “This shop is, I think, an unwelcome environment for impolite guests.”
That earned her a full barking laugh. “Now THAT’S a good answer, missy,” Ammerman replied. “Not jes’ spirited, but more m’portant, correct. An’ I reckon I recollect training ye up a bit. Ye were a good woman with a blade in ‘er hands, an’ a quick study.” He nodded at the pile of crossbow bolts on Emily’s desk. “Still are, it seems. What’s with th’ fletchin’ on those?”
She picked up a bolt and extended it to him shaft-first; he advanced across the room to accept it. “I’ve been experimenting with a slight right offset,” she explained. Each of the four feathers that ringed the arrow shaft was slightly askew, like the blades of a boat propeller. “With the last set of broadheads we got back from the smith, we’ve had some stability problems.”
Ammerman held the shaft of the weapon between his thumb and forefinger. His thumb stroked it idly. “Customers complainin’?”
Emily shook her head. “No, I just had some trouble at the practice range. Anyway, with the offset, I’ve been getting more rotation on the bolt as it flies. More stability in the air.”
Ammerman frowned, his fingers continuing to caress the weapon. “What about air speed, though?” He glanced at Emily. “Penetration?” He raised an eyebrow.
She met his gaze levelly. “Mr. Ammerman,” she said, “I’m confident that I’d get sufficient penetration with these to take care of anyone who was giving me trouble.”
The feral grin again. Then Ammerman nodded. Holding her gaze, he reached out his fist and, rather than placing the bolt back on the desk, dropped it from a couple of feet up; it clattered to rest alongside the others.
Their eyes met at a distance of not more than a few feet. “Y’know,” he said in a low voice, “y’don’t have t’ work late every night. What’ve ye got t’ prove?”
Emily’s expression never changed. “Myself.”
Ammerman’s smile dimmed. “What fer?” he muttered. “Who cares what people think? Why cain’t ye just believe in yerself a little bit, ‘staida provin’ yerself all the time?”
“Any idiot can believe in himself, Mr. Ammerman. That’s what makes many of them idiots.” That earned her an approving guffaw, but she went on. “Belief is…subjective. It’s a matter of opinion. Proof is better. Proof is empirical. As you say, other people’s opinions don’t matter. The opinion that matters is mine—and I base my opinion on proof.”
Ammerman’s smile had evolved into a wry grin. “Not much fer ‘self-esteem’, are ye, young miss?”
Emily’s expression remained serious. “On the contrary, Mr. Ammerman,” she replied. “This is self-esteem. I seek to prove myself, because I am a thing worthy of being proven.”
At that, Ammerman threw back his head and laughed aloud. “Mighta known better than t’ seek out a battle o’ wits with ye. Leave me lookin’ like an unarmed man.” The feral grin made one final cameo. “And I never like bein’ unarmed. Still,” he continued, “I’m gonna turn in fer th’ night, even if yer not. Door’s locked, shut it behind ye when ye leave.” He turned and marched across the room towards the hall that led to the stairs, and to his quarters atop them.
As he was about to enter the hallway, Ammerman turned again. “Learned a lotta new tricks, young miss. Wouldn’t deny it. Well on yer way t’ bein’ a free woman.” He paused. When he continued, his expression was blank. “Got more t’ teach ye, though. And not jes’ ‘bout weapons either. I’m a man what remembers…an’ a man what knows, as well. Lotta truths waitin’ for ye…if ye got what it takes t’ learn ‘em.” And he was gone.
Emily stood for several long moments. Then she released a long, shuddering breath she didn’t even know she’d been holding in. She stood for a few long moments, shoulders shuddering. She made herself exhale slowly.
Emily stared for a few long moments at the doorway leading to the street outside. She spent those moments thinking about obligations, and loyalty, and about a promise she’d once made.
Then she squared her shoulders, stepped behind the desk, and returned to her work.