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-   -   ·····Subchapter 9a - Tradeholm (

Gralhruk 1st of March, 2006 03:36

·····Subchapter 9a - Tradeholm
The sun had not crested the horizon yet the morning found Shade already shrugging into her pack, breath frosting in the chill air. It had been a cold night, the third since she had left the others on the banks of the Chard. She had travelled most of that first night, slept for a mere four hours, and then put in a full day's march the following day. She had not slept well the second night, chose to blame that fact on the cold and agitation over possible pursuit. Last night had been no better, despite her increasing fatigue. She pushed her doubts aside, once again roughly shoving down wayward feelings of regret. Truly, it was better this way.


Tradeholm was a largish city, acting as a trading hub in the region. There was good farmland in the river basin, and the surrounding forest contained a wide variety of game and lumber. The mining industry to the northeast routed raw iron through the city on its way to Enderin. The city itself had a number of artistic craftsmen, who worked with nearly every raw commodity that passed through the city.

Being fairly old and fairly profitable and somewhat removed from the rulers of the land, Tradeholm was one of those places where the written law ran rather distant second as compared to the law of the street. It was not necessarily an unsafe place, nor a particularly chaotic one. It was merely one where most officials could be persuaded to look the other way should sufficient gold change hands.

It is only natural that such a place would attract those with drive - to prove themselves, to better themselves, to lose themselves.

Kelemyn 3rd of March, 2006 10:54

The girl stumbles through the doorway out into the street. She is slender and neatly attired, if a bit rumpled: a few tendrils of her silvery blonde hair have pulled free of the braid that hangs down her back, and her blouse is untucked. A group of street urchins look up from their play, staring. She is too well-dressed for this neighborhood. Her clothing is simple but the style is rich: a tailored skirt in an eye-catching shade of robin's egg blue; a fitted, bleached-linen blouse; dainty, high button shoes.

And she is holding a short sword in her hand. Is that blood on it?

The girl suddenly seems to become aware of the weapon that she holds, and in the same moment notices the goggling onlookers. She hastily turns her back, holding the sword where it can't be seen, and then wraps herself up in a voluminous black cloak which had been clutched in her other hand. When she turns back around, there is no sign of the short sword; and of her former attire, only the high button shoes can still be seen. The pale silver of her plaited hair gleems fitfully agaisnt the deep black of the cloak.

The children go back to their game.

Arjuna looks up and down the grimy street. Where is this place? she asks herself.

Gralhruk 9th of March, 2006 02:17

They had questioned her business when she tried to enter the city but she had asked after Denrit, who held charge of the West Gate. His rough, square face held a set of bright blue eyes which regarded her with apathy until she mentioned Canthras the Weaver, as Skathros had told her to. Then he nodded, easing slightly closer to her, his left hand low and open while his right signaled the other guards to let her pass. The gesture was not lost on her and Shade surreptiously pressed a coin into his hand as she shouldered past and into the city proper, without ever entering her name on the roster.

Then she started hastily along Main, looking for the landmarks. Several turnings and an hour later she was deep into heart of this city. The sun was up by then, casting harsh light on the squalor around her. There were such places in every city, where law abiding folk shunned and the poor and the desparate stuggled to survive. It was here that the element she had come to meet called home. Guild masters might lead double lives, with rich mansions in better parts of town, but most of the thieves and cutthroats that made up the rank and file would live in or near the base of operations.

Young urchins ran unsupervised, barefoot and dressed in rags. Learning to make their own way, most with no place to call home. A hard world for them.

Shade stopped suddenly, slid into the long shadow cast by one of the wooden warehouses lining this narrow street. The urchins had stopped, tense and staring, like wild beasts in the presence of a predator. She casts her eyes about, finds the source of the tension almost immediately.

To her experienced eye there is little to fear of the small blond girl, despite the bloody sword in her hand. It was obvious she didn't know much about how to use it and the look of fear on her face was real. Too richly dressed for this neighborhood, not world bored enough to be a high priced whore. Kidnapped, perhaps?

She watches the quick change ritual, wonders who the girl has killed and why. Not that it mattered to her. The sooner she met with Skathros the sooner she could start a new life.

Kelemyn 9th of March, 2006 08:54

Arjuna knows that she needs to get moving. It wouldn't be safe to stand around idle for long in this part of town, even if she hadn't just left a dead body behind in that abandoned office.

She smoothes her hair back, and finds that her hands are shaking. She'd just killed a man! A teacher. A man in her father's employ. A man who had kidnapped her right out of her father's house.

Oh! Her head is swimming! Too many things have happened today. Or did they happen yesterday, or the day before? She has lost time somehow, but whether it is days or only hours she is unsure. She'd better just . . .

Get moving.

And so she does. To her left, the narrow street meanders downhill, its broken cobbles soon lost in the shadow of taller and taller warehouses. To her right, the way rises gently to an intersection at the crest of a small hill which from here seems to be bathed in early morning sunlight. She chooses that way, to go up rather than down.

At the intersection her street begins to dip down again, so she leaves it and turns to the left. A couple of blocks later she knows exactly where she is. This is her old neighborhood, the place where she'd been born and raised. It's been a while - three years? - since she walked these streets, but things haven't changed much.

There's the shoemaker's shop (actually a front for a gambling den) where Fat Freda (the specious shoemaker) used to keep an excess of cats, at least one of which was sure to have a nursing litter of kittens stashed in among the piles of discarded shoes. And right over there is the prosperous little noodle hut where she and Alek (and other enterprising neighborhood kids) used to earn a pittance clearing tables for the owner.

And there is the tailor shop, as nondescript as ever. Upstairs is where she used to live before her father came along and took her away from all this.

Mima wasn't her mother - her mother had run off shortly after she'd been born. And Big Sid wasn't her father - her father... well, back then she hadn't even known that he existed. But Mima and Sid had taken her in, just absorbed her into their family as if she were one of their own; and the flat above the tailor shop had been a haven to Arjuna, a safe place, cozy and warm, full of familial love in a cold, grim world. Surely, Mima and Sid were still there. And Alek?

Arjuna crosses the street and opens the rightmost of the pair of worn wooden doors in the outward face of the tailor's shop. The way leads up a rickety flight of stairs, dimly lit from above by open slats in the roof. Beneath her black cloak, the stolen sword (which she now wears tied to her belt) bounces awkwardly against her thigh as she hurries up the splintery steps. Halfway up she hears the creak of the door opening again behind her. She turns around, her heart in her throat, her hand groping for the hilt of the sword. She hadn't even thought to look and see if she'd been followed!

"Juni?" a man's voice asks. "Is that you?"

Gralhruk 14th of March, 2006 03:09

It took her a while to find The Worn Devil since there was little in the way of markers in this twisted maze of streets. A few thugs had advanced purposefully towards her a little while back, but a twitch of her cloak had showed them her steel and they thought the better of it. The sign above the door depicted a stooped demon with a mug of ale. The door, the sign, and pretty much everything else about the place that she could see was in bad repair.

The inside looked a little better, but that was probably because it was so dim. The place was surprisingly busy for such an early hour, though she hadn't heard much noise from outside. Ignoring the looks directed at her, she made her way across the sawdust strewn floor - not to the bar, but to the rough hole in the wall which apparently led into a kitchen. She ordered there, a breakfast of Cara fish and black bread, to be cooked by Delores and no other. The nod on the other side told her that Skathros would get the message she was here. Now she just had to wait for him to show up.

She took a seat with her back to the wall, put a blade on the table within easy reach, and waited.

Kelemyn 21st of March, 2006 13:14

At first, she had merely been running away. Up and out, as fast - but as inconspicuously - as she could go.

Then, when the scenery around her had begun to seem familiar and she realized that somehow she had come home, she had begun to run to someplace, rather than away.

Here is where she is now - at the top of a dimly lit stairway in a rickety old building, only a few swift strides from the front door of her childhood home. A safer place she cannot imagine!

When a voice from the past - deeper and richer than she remembers it - calls out to her.


No-one has called her by that name in over three years.

"What are you doing here?"

It is all too much. A wave of dizziness washes over her, probably some last remnant of the sleeping drug that Vywodor had given her. Her knees give out and she sits down hard on the top step.

"Alek!" She breathes his name, so relieved and comforted by his presence that she feels giddy. "I'm so glad it's you!"

The silhouette framed in the doorway at the bottom of the stairs is broader than she remembers. But he had been only a youth the last time she'd seen him. Tall and lanky - a scrawnier version of his burly father. He has filled out since then apparently, mostly with muscle.

"Juni, what are you doing here?" he asks, stepping out of the glare of the morning light and into the shadows. She can see his face more clearly now. Older. Tougher. He is frowning.

"Why? What's wrong?" She offers a weak smile. Why is he so serious? "Aren't you happy to see me after all this time?"

Silence. He stops his progress up the stairs to stare at her. "That's not the point." The lively gray eyes she remembers are hard and distant now. "You should not have come."

These are not the words she expects to hear. Alek - her foster brother, her childhood companion, her best friend - had always been there for her. Like a loyal guard dog, he'd shadowed her every step. From the time his mother had taken the little neglected waif under her wing until the sudden, unexpected reappearance of the waif's father, they'd been inseparable. Three years ago he'd have done anything she asked of him. Had things changed so much?

"I just need somewhere to stay for a while, until I figure things out," she says, her voice small and soft. She looks down and away from him, at her hands lying helpless in her lap. The fingers of her right hand are smeared with red. Sticky, drying blood outlines her neatly manicured nails. She doesn't bother to try to hide it.

"Alek, my father is dead."

"I know all about Rynem," he says steadily, climbing the stairs again.

"And a man that he trusted - that I trusted - tried to kidnap me." She stares at the blood on her hands. The flesh of her fingers is pale against Vywodor's black cloak. Vywodor's cloak hides Vywodor's sword. She'd thrust the sword into her teacher's belly, and the blood had poured out like a hot fountain over the sword's hilt and through her fingers.

The dizziness comes over her again.

"Alek, I don't know what is going on."

"They're looking for you. We can't talk here. Come on." His strong arms pull her to her feet and lead her away.

Kelemyn 22nd of March, 2006 18:08

"They're looking for me? Already? For killing Vywodor?"

"Who's Vywodor? You killed someone, Juni?"

Alek had hustled her down the hall and through the door to his family's flat, one of four that shared space on the second floor of the building. He looks at her now, clearly shocked by what he's heard. But he settles her in a chair at the kitchen table, and brings her a small cup of watered ale to help steady her nerves.

"Drink," he says, pusing the cup into her hands. Then, "You'd better tell me what's happened."

Juni tells him everything.

"Vywodor was one of the teachers that Father hired for me after he took me to live with him. Well, I say that I lived with him - I lived in his house, but Father was hardly ever there. Business kept him away from home most of the time.

"But there were servants, and my teachers. Vywodor was one of them. He was teaching me different things. Some history and geography - he was foreign and well-travelled. And some sword play. That seemed odd to me, but Father insisted. And he was teaching me mental discipline. You know what I mean," she says, giving Alek a certain look. "He was like me... and like Father. He could do things. With his mind. He taught me that part secretly - the servants and the other teachers Father hired didn't know about it.

"Then something happened. I don't know when it was... Yesterday? Or the day before. I don't know, but right in the middle of one of my other lessons he sent Lady Couertney away, and the servants too. Everyone was gone. And then I think he drugged me somehow. I don't know what happened, but I woke up in some dirty room all alone, and the door was locked.

"He came to me later, dressed for traveling. And he told me that my father was dead. He didn't say how, but he said that with him gone, there was no-one to stop him from taking me. He said that they had uses for someone like me in his country, better use than my father was going to make of me. And he said some other things that didn't make sense.

"He left again, locking me up in the room. But when he came back, I was ready for him. I've learned to do some things, and I've learned control since I left here. Vywodor was a good teacher, but I was careful never to let him know exactly what I was capable of doing. I managed to surprise him, but it took everything I had and only left him weakened. I ended up taking his sword, and I.. I killed him with it."

She wavers in the telling when she comes to the murder, seemingly shocked to hear herself say the words. She finally drinks the ale that Alek has brought for her, downing it all in one long gulp. She's afraid to look across the table at Alek or say anything else, but there's something she has to ask him.

"You said that they are looking for me, but not because of Vywodor. Who are they? Who is looking for me, Alek?"

Gralhruk 23rd of March, 2006 06:17

Sitting there in the dark, waiting, Shade had plenty of time to consider her employer. She didn't remember him, though he obviously remembered her - from the guild back at Driftport, he said - if he could be believed. He knew the right names, and anyway, she didn't see any reason why he'd lie about it. Apparently, they had both been apprentices at the same time. Business had taken him to Karkas, where he'd spotted her, and from then he'd kept an eye on her.

Why such an interest?

He just smiled, and she had felt her face almost redden. That embarassment had put her out of sorts and the other questions she ought to have asked were forgotten. Instead, she had pushed on to the job itself and what it entailed.

Now, though, sitting here and thinking, he really hadn't told her anything. One glimpse of someone he didn't really even know and he was tailing her for months? And for what? No, that didn't make any sense at all. But here she was, alone in the dark, at his bidding.

The moon had set, but the night streets here were still lit with gilt lanterns filled with expensive oil. It didn't matter. The light worked to her advantage, creating deeper shadows, blinding people to what lay beyond each bright circle.

Skathros himself looked like he might hail from this area, immaculately groomed, garbed in fashionable, expensive clothing. If his trappings were any indication, he'd risen quite high. High enough that he had the leeway to contract a freelancer to steal from a nobleman.

Unless he was planning to use her as a scapegoat. It was possible. She didn't know anything about the politics here, had nobody who would warn her. It seemed like a lot of trouble to go through for someone expendable, though - finding her, tracking her, rescuing her from the Citadel.

A light suddenly appeared in the lower story window of the mansion she was watching. She uncoiled from where she crouched, moving forward with the oily swiftness of a predator. She thrusts all thoughts aside. There was only a small window in which to accomplish her task . . .

Kelemyn 1st of April, 2006 08:16

Alek doesn't answer right away. Juni finds that she is holding her breath. Why does he look at me that way? His manner is polite and solicitous, but his eyes pierce like daggers.

"Who do you think is looking for you?" he finally asks her, his voice sharp. "The Guild, Juni. Damn! You should not have come."

Words die on her lips, withered by the harshness of his response. But what is there to say anyway? She did not know about the Guild, and can't think why they would be after her. Seeing the incomprehension in her eyes, Alek softens a little.

"It's because of your father, and the way he died. Don't you know what happened?"

She shakes her head wordlessly. Vywodor had told her nothing except that her father was dead.

"It was during a meeting of the Council, behind closed doors. The Guild Council, Juni. Your father was a member. Didn't you even know that much?" Alek sighs. "I'm not surprised. You always were the naive one.

"No one is talking about what happened exactly, but there was some kind of mishap - Rynem lost control or something. A couple of high-ranking council members were killed also. An hour after it happened, my superiors ordered me to take two men and retrieve you from your father's house. We were to use whatever force was necessary to ensure your cooperation. I don't know what they expected you do do, but the Guild is serious, Juni.

"So now you see the difficult position you've put me in. This family depends on the Guild for its livelihood. All of us - from Father on down - work for the Guild in one capacity or another. How can I put my family at risk by crossing them?"

Juni hangs her head, finding it difficult to look Alek in the eye. She had never meant to bring him trouble. How can this be happening?

Gralhruk 5th of April, 2006 04:32

The heavy amulet clatters at the polished boots of a handsome, blond haired half elf. He smiles sardonically at the threatening woman who hurled it there, seeming not at all perturbed by her menacing stance or the fact that her slim hands finger the hilts of her twin swords.

"What the hell is this?"

His eyes drift down to focus on the pendant at his feet - a beautiful object, though in a masculine way, fashioned in the shape of a dagger piercing a heart. Rubies imitating trails of blood run down its surface. His bright eyes meet her grey ones lazily.

"It is what I asked you to retrieve."

Her blade is out now.

"Damn it, you know what I mean. That belongs to Ricard."

Her knuckles whiten on the hilt and she starts towards him. The expression on his face doesn't change, the smile still adorns his cruel mouth. He brushes a speck of dust from his sleeve.

"As it happens, yes, it does. I am still working for him."

Living death, she pounces towards him, the dusky metal of her adamantine blade glittering in a wide horizontal arc. It slams into his chair, blade biting deep into the laquered wood, surely a blow that would have very neatly severed his throat - had he still been there. His mocking laugh seems to come from behind her. She spins, seeing nothing except a fleeting wisp of shadow at the edge of her vision.

And then, like in the Citadel, she is caught in the dread grip of intense cold. She can feel her strength sapping as icy black fingers caress her spine. His voice comes again, this time definitely behind her. She turns, sluggishly, to face him. Another wave of cold hits her and she fights the impulse to lay down and hug herself for warmth.

"You really are too impulsive for this business."

He sighs and retrieves the amulet from the ground. He holds it up as she begins shivering, sword dropping from her numb fingers. It clatters on the polished wooden floor.

"This was a present for you. You must hate him, possibly even more than I."

She struggles to speak but finds it impossible to form words through chattering teeth.

"Ssshhh. No need to thank me."

He steps forward and picks her up, cradling her in his arms like a babe. The heat from his body is like a furnace. Unwillingly, she sinks into it, desparate for a reprieve from the cold.

"The pleasure of revenge is proportional to the pain of its origin. Pleasure and pain, a recurring theme."

Down her spine again, the intense cold, then it is like a wall pressed against her back. She can almost see shadowy fingers brushing at her face.

"Have you met Salwisse? I don't think you have been formally introduced."

The dark, translucent fingers caress her face gently, feeling like icy razors across the skin. She shudders, gripping onto him with the last of her strength. Her mouth moves once again, trying to speak. He smiles down at her.


Gralhruk 6th of April, 2006 01:38

Arms behind her head, Shade lay beneath the silken sheets, staring up at the bronze sheen of the heavy ceiling beams and the intricate scrollwork of the wrought iron chandelier hanging there. Golden slivers of daylight streamed in through the slats of the shuttered windows, leaving the room bright enough that the candles were unnecessary. Judging by the angle of the sun it was early afternoon.

She ought to go but her body was tired, still sapped of strength. Her mouth twists bitterly and she shudders involuntarily at the thought. Salwisse, it turned out, was some kind of living shadow and apparently entirely devoted to Skathros. Loathing is what she wanted to feel, for his deception, for what he had done to her, for him. It wasn't in her, though. She didn't like him, but there was something in his power, his confidence, his complete control of any situation that she responded to. Yet she was filled with conflicting emotions, still hurting from her abrupt departure from Cadrius. Maybe she had needed this to break her ties to him.

She slides from beneath the sheets, naked, sore. In the end, he hadn't forced her, though. She washed her face in the basin, ran wet fingers through her short, raven hair, stared at the woman in the mirror. Her hate for Ricard flared anew, fueled in part by things Skathros had told her last night.

He had been there, he said, the night Ricard had tried to kill her. Skathros had gone with him when Ricard left Woodhaven for good, along with a few other low ranking members of the guild. They had fought some bloody turf wars here in Tradeholm, but then he'd made a deal that got them in decent standing with the Night Eyes, the smaller of Tradeholm's two rival guilds. Eventually they had joined forces and gotten high ranking positions in the guild. Ricard had started getting paranoid, though. One of his pet projects for Skathros had been Shade - finding her, making sure she wasn't out for revenge. Somewhere along the line Skathros had gotten intrigued by her, and that had joined with the feeling of resentment towards Ricard that had been growing within him. After all, he did all the hard work these days, he was the eyes and ears - his unique abilities helped him immensely with those duties. It wasn't everyone who could seem to disappear the way he did.

There was a large copper tub in the room and Shade was certain that she need only pull the velvet cord hanging nearby to summon someone to fill it. She wasn't ready to make herself that at home here. Instead, she dresses rapidly and finds her way out a back entrance, reassured by the familiar weight of her cloak and sword belt.

And just how did he manage that trick? Was he some kind of wizard? She had asked, of course. He only smiled and told her it was a story for another time. Ricard is what he had wanted to discuss. She had done far more listening than talking, wondering if she hated him enough to kill him in cold blood. She had every reason to, but she didn't think it was in her to do. Not after the dwarf. In the end, she had said nothing and he had let it go at that.

The door to The Stinging Serpent swung open at her touch with a burst of smoke and laughter, followed by the smell of cooking. Her stomach roiled unhappily. Food was the last thing on her mind. Right now, she wanted something to drink.

Kelemyn 14th of April, 2006 09:34

Another brief episode of dizziness nearly overwhelms her. This time Juni realizes that the cause is lack of food and a missed night's sleep rather than the after-effects of a sleeping drug. When had she last had a decent meal? She can't even remember.

She sits at a small table in a dim corner of the tavern. A tempting platter of roasted meats goes by, hoisted on the shoulder of a slatternly-looking serving girl. Juni mentally counts the coins in her purse and decides that, much as she'd like to, she can't afford to eat yet. Who knows how much it will end up costing to get herself smuggled out of the city? She's here only to meet her contact - someone who Alek says will be able to help her. Someone from one of the other minor guilds who will be more than happy to cross the established Guild and thwart its plans, whatever they may be for her. All for a price of course.

She ignores the tantalizing aroma of food, and concentrates instead on blending into her surroundings. She pretends to sip from the crockery cup in her hand - the cheapest mug of ale that the tavern sells - and hopes that no-one has noticed that she's still on her first drink. At least Alek had been able to dig up a change of clothing for her. They're not a perfect fit, and the blouse is a bit lower-cut than she'd like; but the laced-up bodice and above-the-knee leather skirt are pretty much the standard dress of young women in this part of town. Her pale hair is piled up in a loose coil on top of her head and covered by a jaunty cap. Vywodor's folded cloak draped across her shoulders serves as a shawl. Only the high-button shoes are truly her own.

The front door bangs open, and Juni jumps nervously. Is this the contact? She hates not knowing who she is to meet. "He'll know you by that cap," Alek had told her when he'd finally returned from making the arrangements. "When he sits down at your table you will ask him, 'Do you know what the future holds?' His response will be, 'Only the black crow knows.' That's how you can be sure that he's the one."

But it's a woman coming in through the tavern door now, not a man, although it isn't so easy to tell by the way she's dressed. Dark breeches and tunic, soft leather boots, a billowing, midnight-blue cloak. And a hint of steel at her belt. But it is the woman's grey eyes that catch Juni's attention as they carefully scan the room. Wary as a cat's they are, hard and cunning. But wounded and sad somehow too.

If she weren't so mentally drained, she'd be tempted to --

Juni looks quickly away as the woman's eyes turn suddenly to meet hers.

Gralhruk 18th of April, 2006 23:06

Her grey eyes sweep the room coldly, picking out two of Skathros' men - Veren was the lanky one with the crooked smile. She couldn't recall the other one's name - he was short with shifty eyes and thick fingers - but she saw him nudge his comrade and lean forward to converse when he caught sight of her. Shade ignores them, cursing herself mentally for coming here.

She should have gone somewhere outside the guild's territory. Too late for that now. As she looks around for an empty spot her gaze meets that of a young woman, seated by herself. There was fear in the girl's eyes; either she was in the wrong place or she was here to hire someone. The girl quickly looks away and Shade watches her for another moment before taking an empty spot near the bar, where she has a view of Skathros' men, the door, and - thanks to idle curiousity - the girl.

She orders a drink, has them leave the bottle with her. Stirh - a strong liquor fermented from the seren fruit of Cordava - her drink of choice. The first long sip is enough to make her eyes water. It is neither the time nor the place for her to be drinking heavily. At the moment she doesn't particularly care.

Kelemyn 19th of April, 2006 04:44

Waiting. Waiting. For hours, it seemed. Juni can't help feeling that she stands out like a sore thumb in this crowd, just sitting here alone, barely nursing a drink. She's afraid to keep watching the door, but unsure of just where she ought to be looking. She wishes that Alek were here to keep her company, but that of course would've been impossible.

He'd changed so much in three years. So much more serious now, so business-like. She sensed that he had been glad to see her underneath it all, but concern for his family - and for his own career - had prevented him from acknowledging what he felt. And of course with the trouble she had brought him, the sooner she was gone and out of his life again the better off he would be.

Realization hits her. There is no-one now, no-one in the whole city - in the whole world - who cares for her. She must trust to strangers now to help her. And she must leave the only place that she has ever known.

Suddenly, there is a man sitting with her at the table. She'd been so lost in thought that she hadn't seen him approach. Juni stares at him for a moment, not quite able to find her tongue. It's a man that she'd noticed earlier drinking with a friend at a nearby table. He looks back at her, his crooked smile seeming almost a leer as he leans toward her expectantly.

That's right. She's supposed to speak first. Juni concentrates on making heself seem confident and capable as she says her line:

"Do you know what the future holds?"

Ominous words. Who thinks these things up anyway? She holds her breath, waiting for the answer.

"Only the black crow knows," the man across the table drawls. "Sweetheart." He winks and the crooked smile widens.

Juni doesn't know what to say next, but fortunately her contact doesn't wait around for her to think of something.

"All righty then," he says leaning in even closer. "Whatcha got for me, darlin'?"

Juni looks at him blankly.

"Coin, sweetheart. Money. We ain't doin' this for free."

"Oh," Juni says, and takes a coin purse from her belt and places it in the center of the table.

"Not like that, darlin'!" he says, jumping up and reaching out with quick fingers to whisk the purse out of sight. "Where 're you from? Not from this part of town, no matter what m' boss says, I reckon. All righty then, we'll take a look at that in a bit. You follow me now, back this way. Just sit tight for a bit, sweetheart, and then we'll see what's what!"

The man with the crooked smile takes Juni by the elbow and leads her through a curtained doorway at the back of room...

Gralhruk 20th of April, 2006 00:00

She tilted the bottle and watched intently as the amber liquid slowly trickled into her glass, as though it were the only thing in the world. Appearances could be deceiving, though, for peripherally her eyes followed Veren as he rose and approached the girl. The alcohol was no longer cold, having been sitting out for too long, but by now she had been drinking long enough that she didn't really care. A bitter smile appears on her lips. She had wanted to get away from everyone and everything, forget her problems and start over. Yet this place might as well be one of the dives in Woodhaven. Instead of being someplace new she was right back where she had started.

When was the last time she had really been relaxed or let her guard down? Even now, when she was trying to just let go of everything, part of her mind stayed alert, wary. If she really wanted to be alone, why not just go into the woods and live in a cave? She knew well enough how to survive out there.

Her mind registers the coins changing hands on a table not too far away, her eyes shift focus, watch critically as Veren and his companion lead the woman away. The girl was in for trouble - she clearly didn't belong in this place, no matter that she tried to look the part. Not many folks around here would be wearing those expensive and impractical button boots . . .

Her eyes widen slightly, then she looks intently at the line where her hat meets her head and catches a glint of light off silver blond hair. Her mind jumps back to the alley, right after Shade arrived in Tradeholm, and that rich girl with a bloody sword in her hand. She turns away, fingers restlessly drumming the tabletop. Everyone did things they needed to get away from. Would this girl run off to the same life she thought she was leaving?

Her mind was alert now, less fuzzy, no longer mired within itself. There is an edge to her bearing that was not present a moment ago. Unconsciously, she tracks the movements of those entering and leaving, ticking away the minutes in her mind until Veren and his pal reappear. The short one says something soft to Veren, who jerks his head toward the back rooms they had just left and laughs.

Shade is staggering towards the door to the outhouse at just the right moment to cross their path.

"Got lucky tonight?"

The two fall silent and stone faced.

"Yeah," shorty says flatly, "got us a high priced whore."

She sneers.

"That was quick, even for you."

He bristles but Veren stays calm and puts a hand on his arm.

"Jus' business."

She smiles stupidly to buy a moment to study the pair, wondering how much leverage her relationship with Skathros gave her. Some, but Veren was clearly his master's pupil. He was being cautious but not showing any jealousy - probably figured she would fall out of favor soon.

She laughs, sounding more drunk than she is.

"Just being friendly. Anyone I should know?"

Now Veren smiles.

"Nope. Nobody you should know."

Shorty barks a laugh without changing his unfriendly expression.

"Ain't noone gonna know her soon anyways."

Veren shoots him a dark look but Shade is already moving off.

"Well, have fun," she calls back.

She peers through the cracks between the planks in the privy, watching the street outside until she sees them exit. They go down the street together and she breathes a sigh of relief. She had half feared that one would sneak back to keep an eye on her.

Shade heads back into the tavern and moves purposely to the bar. The man there required a little convincing - the proper sneer and mention of Skathros' name, along with coin for his trouble - and then she was in back. Some of the doors were locked and some bolted from the outside. The one she wanted was one of the latter. She slides it back silently and slips into the room almost as quietly, leaving the door slightly ajar behind her. The girl was looking out of place in a mostly bare room, sitting in the only chair and looking ready to bolt. Shade studies her silently, waiting to see what she will do.

Kelemyn 20th of April, 2006 03:06

"Don't wander off," they'd told her before leaving her alone in the room. Juni had heard the soft click of a bolt sliding home on the other side of the door, and had been uneasy about the implications. But she'd convinced herself that the two men were just making sure that she stayed where they put her and didn't go snooping around.

After they left, she'd looked around the room - a small, disused office, it seemed - and found little of interest. There was nothing to do but 'sit tight' as they'd told her to do and try to relax. At least she could finally take off the silly hat!

She doesn't hear the bolt slide free again or the door creak open. But she feels a sudden presence enter the room, and looks up to see a slim, dark figure standing in the doorway. A lamp set on a small table next to her chair flickers in the stirring of air. But its bright circle doesn't extend to the door, and only a small amount of light leaks into the room from the hallway behind the figure. Juni can't see a face, but she can tell that this is neither one of the two men who brought her here.

She stands, but has no idea what to say. Is this person here to help her? The 'boss' that her contact had referred to earlier? The two men hadn't said to expect someone else, but it seems like the most logical explanation. How to be sure though?

Juni has a sudden idea.

"Do you know what the future holds?" she asks the intruder in a breathy whisper.

Gralhruk 20th of April, 2006 03:33

Shade stares at the girl for another long space in silence then steps forward into the circle of light, her manner more at ease.

"Trouble, same as the past."

She takes a moment to lower her hood thinking to herself how true those words were - and that she must be drunk to be here at all. Freelancers didn't stick their noses in guild business. At least, the ones that wanted to stay alive didn't.

"What are you doing here?"

Kelemyn 20th of April, 2006 05:14

Trouble. The answer given is a presaging of what will be, Juni knows it. But it is not the correct response. Now what?

The stranger reveals herself by stepping into the light. Familiar grey eyes regard her - it is the woman who caught Juni's attention earlier when she stepped through the door of the tavern. She'd seemed wary of her surroundings then, but now she seems merely... curious.

"I'm... waiting here," Juni answers, hoping to justify her existence. Realizing that she hasn't given much of an explanation, she hastens to add, "Someone is supposed to come and help me. I'm... " She lets the sentence trail off, not wanting to give too much of her secret away. "I thought maybe you were the person I was waiting for."

Stupid! She couldn't possibly sound like more of an idiot.

"I mean, they said they'd be back for me. But when you came in I thought that maybe they had a partner or you were their boss. But you're not, are you?" Juni looks at the other woman, sensing somehow that she doesn't really belong here either. "Who are you then? Why are you here?"

Gralhruk 20th of April, 2006 22:16

Shade finds herself reluctant to answer either question. If anyone found out she had been in here it would be trouble, and she didn't trust the girl not to say anything. On the other hand, they'd know her by her description anyway.

"Shade. My name is Shade."

The other question was more difficult. They were completely different, at least judging by appearances. But in her mind Shade had put together the pieces of what she knew about the girl and come up with an idea of what had happened. This fictional version of the story was similar to events in her own past; it made her feel a certain kinship.

"Are they smuggling you out of the city?"

It was the logical assumption. Skathros was the overseer for both smuggling and burglary. If they were helping this girl, then maybe it meant there could be something good in this profession. Maybe there was room in the guild for her after all.

Kelemyn 21st of April, 2006 02:41

"Shade." Juni smiles shyly, a hint of relief in her eyes. It is nice to know someone's name in all this. She peers curiously at the woman, noting the pale scar slashed across the dark canvas of her face, and the depth of her shadowed grey eyes. The name seems to fit. And for some reason, knowing the woman's name makes it easier for Juni to confide what she is doing here.

"Yes, that's right. They're going to help me get out of Tradeholm. There are some people looking for me, and.. and it would be best if they didn't find me." It still comes as a shock to her that she is wanted by the Guild. The thought makes her feel shaky again. Can this woman, or anyone else in this place, understand how much her life has changed and how suddenly she has lost everything?

"My name is Arjuna," she says, her little smile of relief fading again. But she doesn't wish to appear unfriendly so she makes an awkward little curtsy as she introduces herself, and extends her hand for Shade to take, falling back on the manners she'd learned from the teachers in her father's house. It doesn't occur to her that such propriety might seem out of place here.

"I'm nervous about all of this," she admits after a moment of awkward silence in which the other woman seems to be sizing her up. "I don't really know what to expect. Do you know the men who brought me in here?" Her eyes flick to the door and back to meet Shade's again. "And... why would they bolt the door from the outside?"

Gralhruk 22nd of April, 2006 02:31

Shade rests her hands on the weapon belt hidden beneath her cloak, near the worn hilts of her swords. The gesture is subtle and almost unconscious, the result of years of always being ready for trouble. The woman in front of her - Arjuna - was unthreatening, but there were other things to be worried about.

"I don't really know them. I've been introduced but I haven't been here long enough to be a good judge. Veren is hard to read."

The other question is the one that bothers her, but she doesn't know enough about the operation here to say whether or not it is standard procedure.

"Maybe they were afraid you'd lose your nerve and they bolted the door to keep you from running off and getting hurt."

Still, Arjuna had given her money over already. No need for them to really care what happened to her now. Unless there was someone important that was paying the bills for her.

"Was that your money you gave him? Or is someone else paying your way?"

Kelemyn 23rd of April, 2006 15:06

Juni quickly drops her gaze to the floor, afraid that her guilt will proclaim itself in her eyes. It was Vywodor's money that she'd given them, stolen from a pouch on his belt after she'd killed him. She rubs the palm of her right hand on her skirt, remembering the blood that had stained her fingers.

"No-one else is paying my way," she says without looking up. "The gold came from me. It was all I had, except for a few coppers." Another one of her worries - money. There's not enough for her to get by on, assuming she makes it out of the city and survives the road to the next town. But there's not much point in thinking that far ahead. One obstacle at a time.

"Have you ever been out of Tradeholm?" Juni looks up at Shade again, noting for the first time the travel-worn boots and the practical cut of her clothing. A stupid question. "Of course you have. You are lucky to be able to travel. What's it like out there? Alek- a friend, I mean, told me about a town to the south. I was thinking about going that way. Or maybe north," she adds suddenly remembering that the fewer people who know where she's going, the better. "I- I haven't decided yet."

Gralhruk 25th of April, 2006 03:43

Shade frowns bitterly, reminded that Karkas lay North of here. Arjuna was in trouble if she had never been out of the city and had nowhere to go. The world was an inhospitable place.

"Don't go North. You'll freeze this time of year before you get anywhere. Besides, there are more settlements South. You can follow the river until you find something that works for you."

She pauses, considering. The girl could make it to a village that way. Depending on who was after her it might not be far enough, but there wasn't anything Shade could do about that.

"It's none of my business but I'd be careful if I were you. Don't trust anyone, especially if you can buy them for a few coins."

Kelemyn 27th of April, 2006 03:30

Juni says nothing. She realizes that Shade's advice is sound, but she doesn't have much of a choice in the matter. Alek had warned her that she could never hope to pass through the gates of the town unnoticed by the Guild unless she had help. That kind of help could only be purchased from a rival guild that specialized in such services - the Night Eyes. "But don't forget," he'd told her, "that they are thieves too, and will feel no particular loyalty to you or to me."

Footsteps sound in the hall outside the door, and Juni holds her breath listening. The steps are uneven, seeming to stagger almost, and soon pass by the door without pausing. All is quiet again.

"I wish I knew how long before they come back for me," Juni says with a sigh. She sits back down in the stiff-backed chair, carefully arranging her skirt and her cloak to keep Vywodor's short sword well hidden.

Gralhruk 28th of April, 2006 04:12

Shade's grey eyes are dark, window to the emptiness within. There had been a time when she had been as desparate as Arjuna, when she had made a stand against the life that was preordained in everyone's mind but her own. Breaking away had been hard, starting a new life had been harder. But she had done it, and for a short while it was everything she had hoped for.

She rubs her eyes against the sting of the light, feeling the thick ridge of the scar against her fingers as she does so. It hadn't taken long to find out that the world hadn't any care at all for her happiness or her plans. Shade felt like there should be some advice to give, some bit of wisdom about how Arjuna might avoid pitfalls and make her own life into what she wanted it to be.

She didn't have any wise words, couldn't claim to know how to find something she herself was still looking for. All this time, and she was right back where she started. The footsteps in the hall bring her back to the present; her eyes suddenly snap into focus, hardening.

"If they locked you up in here, it means you're valuable. They'll be back for you, sooner rather than later."

Skathros' offer for a reckoning with Ricard surges suddenly back into the foreground of her mind. Would a confrontation set her free from the past?

"I have to go. Nobody needs to know I was here."

She pauses at the door, wishing again that she had something to offer the girl. She looks down at the ground, then back at Arjuna.

"Trust will get you killed."

Then she is out the door, sliding the bolt back in place.

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