ARCHIVED: Iron and Bone – Chapter One

Chapter One

The air was always damp in the undercity of Mar K’shinta. Its tunnels began at the edge of Thoras canyon, with the Ivantess’r river carving its path straight through. The river was a good source of fresh water, but in bad weather the lower tunnels of the slums were frequently flooded. A cruel balance of deliverance and devastation. Only the desperate would live in such a place. Unfortunately, there was plenty of desperation to be found in the Human kingdoms since King Deymuid’s fall.

In the shadow of the Crystal City and the Variden Mantle, there was little warmth to be had. The mountain range crested over the canyons like a shield wall, defending it from all attempts the new king had made to reclaim the territory. An ancient Ungarhek stronghold should expect no less. Before their exile, they had carved through the mountain and hollowed it to house a nation. Strong arms and backs could not account for such a feat. But the impenetrable walls meant little to those who had entered from beneath.

Catryn kept her head down and her hood up as she manoeuvred smoothly through a cramped tunnel, keeping her senses sharpened for her quarry. Those she passed made way for her; they knew her reputation. Even the people she didn’t recognise had heard about the mercenary named Wolf, and the mask she wore was enough to make them step aside. In the few short years since they had arrived in the city, she had ensured they were protected.

Closing her eyes, Catryn prowled through the tunnels and let her instincts guide her. People often said that she should be called Bloodhound instead of Wolf; she always found her mark. But those people had never seen her fight. Even so, she was lucky that her magic had no physical manifestation; the last thing she needed was to be locked up and shipped off to another mage prison. But outlawed or not, her talents were the reason she had so much work. Not that she would ever risk admitting it to Ahren. If he knew, his next bounty would be for her.

This mark was particularly slippery; he had managed to evade two other hunters for the last week. But she was always up for a challenge, if the coin offered up was worth it. This one was paying double her usual rate. It was also one of her preferred targets. A merchant that had tried to double-cross his Guild out of greed. Catryn had pity for those who stole to survive. But Daxiel Haro was a contemptable maggot, and the bounty had come from his own wife. He was to be taken alive, and he would stand trial. Provided he didn’t manage to escape the city limits first.

Catryn had some good contacts in the City Guard and they had confirmed that no one matching Haro’s description had been through any of the official gates. That left the Undercity. It had been a while, as Arhen had wasted his time with other mercenaries before coming to her. Long enough, in theory, for him to have slipped by unhindered. But the Undercity was a maze of tunnels and dead ends for those unfamiliar with its patterns.

As soon as she felt the signature tug in her chest, Catryn knew she had made the right call. He was close, and he was panicking. His fear spiked her blood, and she quickened her pace with a grin. Wolves lived to hunt, and she had developed a taste for it. But the thrill settled as she turned into the larger series of tunnels that were ruled by The Shroud. Followers of The Deceiver, the Caretaker of assassins and thieves.

Depending on what he had to offer, Haro might well be able to buy safe passage from the city. There may be no honour among thieves, but the priests of The Deceiver were another matter entirely. Catryn had no desire to incur the wrath of the only group decidedly deadlier than she was. But The Deceiver was a patron to all who wore masks. Perhaps he would also look kindly on her. She took a deep breath and cautiously entered.

She walked slowly. These were some of the only tunnels in the Undercity that were not familiar to her, and she was wary of getting lost. Finding Haro was one thing. Getting out again with a struggling prisoner, or even an unconscious one, was not as straightforward.

The usual bustle of the Undercity faded to a low hum as Catryn slipped through several sets of heavy black silks that had been strung up across the width of the tunnel. Silence invaded her mind and a vast presence settled heavily over her.  From deep in the shadows, a voice she did not recognise murmured “It appears a wolf has wandered into the lion’s den.”

“You must know why I am here.” She replied evenly, her tone measured despite her instincts screaming at her to run. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t see them; she couldn’t sense them either. Just that unnatural weight pressing on her chest. True followers of the Caretakers often had their own gifts to call on. Gifts that human magic could not compete with.

A laugh echoed around her, shifting through the tunnel, and Catryn bit down on a growl. Forcing herself to stand still and straight, she waited. Eventually, she was rewarded with a quiet chuckle by her ear, and the voice whispered, “If you can find him, you can have him.”

“That seems fair.” Shivers rippled across her body and she scarcely contained her trembling. Catryn was glad that her mask would hide her clenched jaw and her barely suppressed snarl. It was all she could do to control her body, but she had always been too expressive for this kind of work. Ahren had often said he could read her like a book.

When she looked around her, the tunnel had become hazy. There wasn’t much colour in the shadowy passages anyway, but what little there was had been drained away. When Catryn glanced at her fingers, the only part of her that was uncovered, her skin was ashen. She was as grey as a Terikharn.

The comparison made her shudder; like her, they were apparently naturals with blood magic. They also had a terrible reputation. Glancing at the ground, her eyes found several tracks. Among them were a set that interested her, and she bent to inspect them. Finely shaped boots like those could not be found in the slums.

Frowning, Catryn took a few tentative steps before shaking her head. The prints shifted under her gaze and she sighed wearily. The Deceiver. Trickery, duplicity, and stealth. She likely couldn’t trust any of her senses in this place. Almost any of them, at least.

Catryn closed her eyes and took another deep breath to steady herself. In her pocket was the ring Haro’s wife had given the guild as a pledge, her husband’s ring, and she thumbed it carefully. Just enough to bring forth the essence of the man. The scent of spices and dyes. Sickly sweet perfume, smothering the sour decay of a rotten core.

Catryn swallowed the lump in her throat and ignored the chill that crept across her skin. This was her least favourite part of her magic. But once she had located the merchant, the hunt would begin again. She didn’t need to follow his boot prints when she could follow his spirit.

Pulling her deep hood further over her head, Catryn set to moving. Too fast. Too fast, but by the gods she wanted out of this place. The tunnels curved and coiled like a snake. The silks fluttered and flapped in a phantom breeze. Even growing up in a city of mages, a prison, she had never felt anything like the aura in The Shroud’s domain. The existence of the Caretakers was a certainty, but she had never known one to be so strongly rooted in a place. Not even a temple.

The sooner she found Daxiel Haro, the sooner she could get back to the secure solid walls of the tavern. Strengthening her resolve, she put her head down and darted down the main tunnel. She came to a fork and did not hesitate, barely flinching as she dashed straight into the wall between the passages. Beyond, a cavern opened out with a single solitary door fixed to the wall on the far side.

Other than a small table and three chairs near the edge of the cavern, it appeared empty. But Catryn’s instincts had never been wrong before. Haro was here. Somewhere. She faltered for a moment, grateful that her mask hid her expression, and drew one of her throwing knives. With one swift motion, she flicked it into the centre of the table, and lifted her chin. “Found you.”

A chair clattered back, falling to the floor, and a shrill male voice screeched “You gave me your word!”

Catryn followed the scrambling and scratching around the room with a confident smirk that no one would see. Play the part. “Haro, this is not fitting behaviour for a merchant.”

An image shimmered, flickering into view. A man in black sat casually at the table, the only hint of his confusion shown in the gentle furrow of his brow. The rest of his face was hidden by a scrap of canvas cloth pulled over his nose and mouth. The cursive glance Catryn sent his way told her little, but he was unimportant. Instead, she turned her attention to the gaudy array of colours that did not belong in the depths of the city.

His style was…unique. The dyes and fabrics were clearly expensive, and there was far more material than necessary. The baggy silk trousers were once a shimmering green, with orange embroidery and blue trim. Now they, and the fine red shirt and bronze cloak, were spoiled and ruined. The man underneath was a quivering heap, cowering on the ground. But even in his desperate state, he turned to the man in the chair accusingly, spluttering “I demand you return my payment.”

“It will do you no good where you are headed, Haro.” Catryn said passively, keeping any sign of her disgust from her voice.

“Bounty hunters make me sick.” He spat on the floor and pushed himself to his feet. Every word was accompanied by some gesture or wave. His face was red, and spittle flew from his mouth as he began to charge towards Catryn. A flash of her knives convinced him to halt. Suddenly, the anger switched to a broad smile and he coaxed “Any petty quarrel is worth your time, if you get the scraps from the table, is that right? I can pay you triple what you have been promised. Though I sincerely doubt you can even comprehend the meaning.”

When she replied, Catryn could not help but slip into the more formal tone she had been educated in. “You would do well to render yourself silent, merchant. Your wife requested you brought in, dead or alive.” She turned her dagger in her hand for emphasis. For the first time, she allowed a sinister note to creep into her voice and continued “As there is no difference in the price offered, it is down to you to convince me which is the easier option.”

After that, it was surprisingly easy to get back to the guild. Aside from dejected mutterings about cutthroats and mercenaries, Daxiel Haro had no fight left in him. His only plan for escape had fallen through, and it had not occurred to him to think of another. The lie Catryn had told about his wife and his bounty had also affected him more than she had expected.

Even if the reputation of Wolf did not precede them, Haro did not know how to talk to the people of the slums. Those he tried to address would sooner kick him into the dirt and rob him than accept his bribes. After one threw a rock, which Catryn did not try to catch, he gave up. By the time they reached the nearest path to the Outer City, she was almost dragging him. Not because he was struggling against her, but because he no longer had the will to keep moving.

“You may have sullied your name, but your clan deserve better. I was under the impression that the merchants cared about reputations and appearances.” Catryn said, feigning indifference. But she knew that level of despair and, for a moment, she pitied him.

Obviously disgusted, he hissed “Do not presume to speak to me as an equal. I have not yet sunk low enough to need reassurances from a common thug.”

His words renewed her desire to throttle the man, but at least he was moving under his own steam once again. Strutting like a peacock, with his head held high and his arms tightly pinned to his back. They approached the Steel Quarter, where most of the mercenaries and warriors went about their days. The smell of coal and hot metal permeated the streets, and the sound of striking hammers kept the rhythm of the district.

Haro’s eyes lit with ambition at the sight of so many soldiers of fortune. This would be the most dangerous stretch of the journey, Catryn knew, but she did not falter. The Undercity knew her best, due to her humble beginnings in the city. But stories travelled far in Mar K’shinta, and she had once been part of the strongest guild in the Outer City: Iron and Bone. Ahren’s guild.

To her great surprise, and relief, she only had to cut down one ambitious mercenary on the way through. After that, the others went back to their individual businesses and paid them no mind. Haro had been easy enough to catch up with as well, and nearly as purple as his pointed boots. To add to her luck, he had been running ‘away’ towards their destination.

Trepidation burdened her steps as the tavern came into view. It shared the name of the guild it housed, and Catryn had seen it many times. Until a few short moons ago, she had spent most of her days and nights inside.

She did not pause to admire the bone carvings hung outside, or the way the wooden beams had been designed to look like iron bars. She did not feel her heart swell with pride at the guild symbol hanging above the door. The symbol that had once emblazoned her jerkin, and her cloak. Instead, she felt a pang of homesickness that she had thought she had left behind when she first stood at Ahren’s side.  

With no need for flair, Catryn escorted Haro into the tavern quietly. But all eyes still turned to her as she entered, and the general murmur ceased. The sun had begun to set, painting the front of the inn with crimson light. She would not be welcome inside for much longer. Tightening her grip, she approached the bar without a word.

“Iron and Bone.” A gruff voice came from out of sight behind the bar, and the Kaczedar stepped up onto his footstool with a grimace. Maco was always the same; his wild hair and wide eyes spoke of his true nature, but at the front of the shop he had to be tough. Truth be told, he was energetic and almost childlike in his own time.

Catryn pulled up her mask and smiled, and Maco’s whiskery beard twitched with the effort not to return her grin. He was probably one of the people in the guild she missed most. With some hesitation, she sighed, and replied “Steel and stone.”

He nodded with approval and squinted sternly at the painted dandy trying to sidle away. Catryn had no need to hold onto him anymore, now that they were on guild grounds. She had gotten him through the door, so no one else could claim the bounty. Leaning in, he croaked “He didn’t give you too much trouble, I hope.”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle.” Catryn shrugged without bravado; boasting was not in her nature.

“Apparently so.” Maco continued to squint at Haro, wheezing “Not a scratch?”

“As requested.” She replied quietly, reaching over to pull Maco’s goggles from his head onto his face. He nodded gratefully at her and continued to inspect the merchant. Catryn ignored the enraged look on her quarry’s face as he realised her deception and waited patiently.

Several moments passed before Maco reached under the counter and pulled out a bag of coins. With a brief nod, Catryn weighed it in her hand and glanced inside. From what she could tell, it was all there. But she did not want to wait around long enough to count it out properly. Maco had never tried to deceive her or underpay her before.

Ahren would not approve, she thought to herself. Glancing nervously towards the window, she remembered the dying light with a sigh. “Time to go.” She murmured aloud.

Maco glanced at her, a hint of sorrow in his glassy blue eyes, and hopped down. He hobbled around the bar and grabbed Haro’s bound arms with his vice-like grip. The merchant yelped, with pain and surprise, and looked positively horrified as he was dragged away by the gnome.

Suppressing a slight giggle, Catryn slipped the coin purse into her satchel and moved towards the door with her head down.

“Wolf.”

Her hand hovered over the clasp of her mask and she hesitated. Pulling it back on, she turned towards the voice and held her breath. Even then, she felt her pulse quicken at the sight of him. She slammed down on her treacherous heart and steadied herself, finally replying “Ahren.”

“A word?” He indicated towards one of the separate meeting rooms of the tavern, and Catryn reluctantly followed him inside. He closed the door and looked her over, frowning slightly at the mask. “I expected you back by sunset.”

“I am.” She leaned against the opposite wall and folded her arms in an attempt to seem casual, but her heart had been racing from the moment she heard his voice.

“Barely. You’re losing your touch.”

Trying to project confidence she did not feel, Catryn lifted her chin. “You should have come to me sooner.”

He raised an eyebrow, his face even more unreadable than her wolf mask. “If you want first pick at our bounties, you could always come back into the fold.”

“You nearly lost this one. He was with The Shroud.” She muttered, trying to act as though she hadn’t been quite so shaken by the experience.

“How did you…?” The hint of surprise lit in his eyes, flashing like sunlight on a sword, and then faded as his expression shifted easily into a smug smile. He rubbed his chin, drawing her attention back to the rough stubble which only highlighted his strong jaw, and laughed “Never mind. Good job.”

“You don’t sound surprised.” Catryn murmured, tearing her eyes away from his mouth. That half-smile hit her the same way every time. It was dangerous.

“I know by now that you always find your mark, wildcat.” Her heart thudded at his old nickname for her, so loudly that she was certain he must have heard. Ahren seemed to almost hesitate for a moment before casually suggesting “Stay for a drink?”

Relieved, she shook her head. “Only guild members after sunset, unless something has changed in the last season.”

“You could come back. I still don’t understand why you left.” He admitted quietly, fixing her with another searching stare.

Catryn forced a grin, even behind the mask. “I told you. I’m tired of fighting all the time. I’m better suited for sneakier work, and there’s more of that with the other guilds. Besides, I…” She trailed off at the serious look in his molten grey eyes. It was an expression that always stole her breath, and she hated the effect he still had on her.

“Don’t like being tied down.” He finished quietly, his steely eyes not leaving her face. “You know, kitten, something tells me you’re not being completely honest with me.”

He was right. He was always right. Even behind her mask, he knew every tell she had. But that was why she had to stand her ground. Though she was trembling, she laughed “Why does it matter, Ric?”

“I want you here.”

Her heart stopped. She stared at him for a long moment and shook herself. Valiantly, she tried to joke, “You can’t just have me all to yourself.”

“Why not?” His steady voice belied nothing of his thoughts or intentions.

“Don’t get greedy.” Her voice had dropped to little more than a whisper as Aeric Ahren took a step closer to her. She screamed at herself to act more naturally; he had been this close to her before. They had trained together and fought together. This proximity was nothing. But his earthy scent, mixed with the leather and sweat that told her he’d been training, was intoxicating.

“I’m a mercenary.” Ahren said, simply, as though that explained everything. He grinned wolfishly, and Catryn wondered if her knees were going to buckle beneath her. She pressed her back against the wall more securely to steady herself and bit her lip hard enough to draw blood. She tore her gaze from his face, trying desperately to remind herself why she was staying away from him when all she wanted was to give in. Watching her like a hawk, he added “Greed is in my blood, kitten. Especially where you’re concerned.”

Saving her from the expectation to find a response, there was a sudden thumping against the door and a loud voice called “Boss!”

Catryn dropped her face to the floor instinctively, forgetting that her burning face was already hidden. Ahren sighed and told whichever ingrate couldn’t last without him for a few minutes that he would be there shortly. Realising the passage of time all too suddenly, she muttered “I need to leave.”

“Well, you know where I am when you come to your senses.” He said quietly as he opened the door, his expression as unreadable as ever.

Walking through the length of the tavern from the meeting room, Catryn kept her deep hood firmly over her head. She did not hesitate, or look around, until a loud voice from the table nearest the door caught her attention.

“Why is the Captain still wasting his time with that traitor?” Narti snarled, making no effort to hide her disdain. One of the few other women in the guild, she had always despised Catryn. Especially when Wolf outperformed her at every turn. Catryn wasn’t one for competing, she was more interested in getting the job done.

“He put a lot of effort into training her.” Tomas smirked, glancing in her direction. He had always been one to follow Narti’s lead, still desperate for approval.

“Time is gold. He doesn’t want to lose the investment. Plus, she’s made a fair chunk of coin.” Varrien shrugged. He was a mercenary through and through; everything boiled down to profit. You didn’t stay in the business as long as he had without it affecting your outlook. But Catryn could not disagree with his logic.

Rynir, a soft-spoken man that Catryn had always admired from a distance, was sitting at a table near the bickering group. Without looking up from sharpening his hand-axe, he quietly stated “Traitor, she may be. But she’s talented.”

Narti flicked her straight black hair off her face and fixed Catryn with a venomous glare. Though Catryn knew that the woman had her own motives, she had still let her claims get to her. She would never admit it, but Narti’s wild accusations and theories about the Captain were a large part of her reasons for leaving.

Gold. She reminded herself, trying to ignore her plummeting heart. She knew better than to get her hopes up when dealing with someone like Ahren. She was an investment. He didn’t want to lose face and seem as though he had made the wrong decision in recruiting her. Nothing more.

I want you here. She shivered as his words echoed in her head. His eyes were intense; she knew that she always read more in them than he intended. It would not do to dwell on something her imagination conjured. She had made the decision to distance herself because Ric…Ahren was too dangerous. She had her brother and sister to think of. Either one of them could be the next bounty through the Iron and Bone tavern. As could she. Ahren himself had taught her never to get attached to people that might compromise her ability to defend herself.

Still, each time she left the Iron and Bone tavern was more difficult than the last. Not only because it had been her home, but because Varrien was right: they had invested in her. She wouldn’t be who she was if Ahren hadn’t recruited her. An ache settled over her as she stepped out into the street, but the light had faded fast and the Steel Quarter was full of opportunists.

Instead of lingering, Catryn hurried towards the Bone Quarter. Where the Steel Quarter housed the warriors and weaponsmiths, the Bone Quarter was home to hunters, and the dead. The temple to The Gatekeeper took up a large section of the Bone Quarter, built into the mountainside itself. It was the only entrance from the Outer City to the catacombs, where the dead were entombed. The priests of The Gatekeeper allowed anyone entry from dawn until dusk, but Catryn had heard that visitors were escorted at all times. She assumed it was to ensure there were no dishonourable thieves, but she had never been inside herself. Her family had not been lucky enough to have been granted a proper burial.

Grumbling about the delay navigating The Shroud’s territory had caused, Catryn trudged towards The Bleeding Rose. Nearer the outskirts of the Outer City, it was not ideally placed for the merchants, and occasional noble, that frequented. An establishment of such reputation would certainly fare better inside the mountain, in the merchant district of the Inner City. But Arabella, the owner, found no end of amusement at having her brothel in the Bone Quarter. So, there it stayed.

About a year after Catryn had arrived in Mar K’shinta, Arabella had run into a spot of trouble with some bandits that had shacked up just outside the city. They had been thrown out of The Bleeding Rose for their treatment of some of the staff and hadn’t been entirely pleased. In retaliation, they had targeted every shipment in and out of the city bearing the twisted rose symbol. Iron and Bone stepped in, and Catryn had led the raid on their den deep in the canyon.

Since then, Catryn and Arabella had formed something akin to friendship. Neither of them enjoyed speaking of themselves or their pasts, nor confiding their hopes and dreams. But they respected one another. Arabella was one of the few people in all the kingdoms that she could trust to take care of Lissa. When she was old enough, Arabella had taken Lissa under her wing and set her to helping with the administration of The Bleeding Rose. Not many ladies in the outer city could read or write, so she had become very helpful.

Catryn was particularly relieved that Lissa was earning her own wage. Making payments for Owain’s apprenticeship was difficult enough without her guild income. She made a point of spending some coin at The Bleeding Rose, but she would struggle to keep paying for Lissa’s board. Still, it wasn’t the worst tavern in the area.

There were colourful silk hangings draped from the doorways. Exotic paintings and carvings, which Arabella had gathered on her travels, were tastefully scattered around the rooms. Incense burned in the darker corners, where there were lounge chairs and interesting blown glass ornaments. Nearer the door, there were some simpler furnishings that were still in keeping with the general décor but were more easily replaceable. It was a tavern, after all, and drunken men and women were prone to breaking things.

The ground floor was strictly for drinking and gambling, and general merriment. There were private rooms for business deals and meetings, but any of the other services were kept strictly on the upper floors. Catryn had never seen anyone try to breach those rules since the bandits had been dealt with.

Finding Arabella tucked in her usual smoky corner, lounging lazily and looking out over the room, Catryn raised her hand briefly. Chocolate brown eyes snapped to her face immediately, and Bella rose slowly to her feet. Every man in the room watched as she walked confidently through. It was as though the slight wiggle of her hips as she moved entranced them.

Bella was a beautiful woman. Her skin was bronze, which was unusual in these parts, and her curves were exquisite. Somehow, she was unmarked by her time at sea, and she had the bearing of a noble lady at court. Eyes followed her wherever she went. Catryn had overheard many a conversation devoted solely to her accent, and the cadence of her voice.

Rolling her eyes, Catryn allowed Arabella to embrace her briefly and followed her back to her alcove. Once they were seated, a drink was placed in front of her, but she shook her head gently. With a sigh, Catryn murmured “I cannot stay long.”

With a charming smile, Bella indicated to the bag she had been keeping for her. As Catryn reached down to retrieve it, Arabella reached for her wrist. Long nails dug into Catryn’s skin slightly as her grip tightened, holding her in place. With a grin like a crocodile, she murmured “How would you like to earn some money tomorrow?”

“Which floor?” She asked casually, twisting her wrist gently out of the surprisingly strong hold. With a sigh, she leant back in her seat to increase the distance between them.

“Don’t worry, I’ve learnt my lesson asking you to cover upstairs.” Bella laughed, and the subtle lines around her eyes told Catryn that she remembered how the conversation had ended the last time. Bella was used to getting her way, and Catryn had been forced to emphasise her refusal in a way the pirate could understand. Waving her hand, Bella explained, “Nia is having some difficulties, so she won’t be able to do her session.”

Nia was the only girl there skilled enough to play the piano Arabella had scavenged and restored. Catryn’s fingers tingled slightly with the itch to play again, but she hesitated. Reluctantly, she asked “What about Raeun?”

Arabella’s eyes glittered with anger, and she huffed “That ingrate hasn’t been in Mar K’shinta since the solstice!”

“You did tell him not to breathe in your general direction again.” Catryn reminded her, laughing.

“That is not the point.” Bella sulked, and drained her goblet.

Catryn looked longingly over at the piano. That particular instrument held a space in her heart. It had been too long since she had been able to play any instrument. Growing up, the piano had been a favourite of her elder sister. Strings were her personal preference, but the idea of doing something beautiful for a change was too much to pass up. “Then I suppose I will see you tomorrow. Midday?”

“Midday.” Grinning triumphantly, Arabella held up her glass to be filled by one of the men passing. She watched Catryn over the rim of her drink for a long moment before finally asking “Now that is out of the way, how was the guild?”

Catryn knew that Arabella was asking after Ahren as opposed to the group. She frowned to herself and sighed “Something was bothering him.”

Arabella stood fluidly and indicated for Catryn to follow her. They moved to the bar together and she nudged the young woman behind the bar to move along. When they were more or less alone, Bella returned to the conversation. “What do you mean?”

“He had stubble. A couple of days’ worth.” Catryn said quietly, more to herself. At Arabella’s blank expression, she explained “He’s normally only scruffy when he’s on campaign. Something must be distracting him.”

Without taking her eyes off Catryn’s face, she prompted “Hmm…sexy?”

Catryn blushed and grinned at her friend, admitting “Unbelievably so. But that isn’t the point.”

Arabella made a thoughtful sound and turned her back on Catryn, busying herself with wiping down the counter. After a moment, she tentatively asked “Are you sure staying away from him is the right thing? From what I can see, neither of you are happy apart.”

“Bella, we’ve been over this. He’s not…we’re not like that.” She bit her lip and glanced away, hiding her blush behind her tankard. Suddenly, she wished she hadn’t removed her mask.

The conversation paused for a few moments while Arabella flirted with a customer that had approached. Catryn subtly watched, marvelling at how one flick of Bella’s thick brown curls turned a simple drink into an hour with the most expensive girl on the second floor. “If he doesn’t care for you, then why does he keep coming in to check in on you?”

Startled, her heart sinking, she muttered “He’s been here?”

A knowing smile on her face, Arabella replied “A couple of times a week. Just checking for updates on how you’re doing.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” She scowled into her mug, dreading the answer but unable to keep herself from asking “Does he…stay?”

“Despite my best efforts, no. He politely refuses all my girls, asks me how you are, and leaves alone.” Arabella’s sigh showed how much of a slight it was to her otherwise flawless record. With a sidelong glance, she smirked “Not that you care, obviously.”

“I can’t afford to care, Bella. It’s best I stay away. For both of us.” She reminded herself, again. With a valiant smile, Catryn insisted “Besides, he’s just hoping I’ll come back because I made money for the guild.”

“If you say so.”

Changing the subject, she asked “How’s Lissa doing?”

Casually, but watching Catryn like a hawk for her reaction, Arabella said “She wants to move upstairs.”

She coughed into her drink, surprised, and wiped her mouth before mumbling “Oh.”

“You disapprove?”

“I worry.” Catryn corrected her friend. Unlike some women, she wasn’t appalled by what Arabella and her girls did. She wouldn’t exactly choose it as a career herself, but it wasn’t disapproval that concerned her with Lissa. “She is reckless as it is. She begged me to keep her safe, but she flaunts herself in more ways than she knows.”

Lowering her voice to barely a whisper, Arabella asked “You think the temptation to use her magic would be too great in certain situations?”

It wouldn’t be the first time, Catryn thought darkly. But she pushed it aside before it could swallow her in memories again. “I think that temptation is the name of the game here. She’s too young.”

“She’s sixteen.” Arabella challenged gently.

Lissa saw fit to remind her of that every time she wanted anything. With a sigh, Catryn said “She has never quite grown up.”

Arabella could not argue with that. She of all people understood what a brat Lissa could be. But she pulled out a bottle of her finer whiskey and poured two glasses. “You can’t compare her life to yours. You had already killed at her age.”

She sighed and murmured “It’s not like I had a choice, Bella.”

“Nor did I.” She replied quietly, downing her drink and pouring another. “But she isn’t like us, Wolf. She wants to help people and make them happy.”

“I don’t want her to be like me.” She admitted quietly, though she disagreed with Arabella’s assessment. Nursing the glass, she took a hesitant sip and winced as it burned her throat. “I’ll talk to her about the job. If you even want her there?”

“She’s a natural working the room. The rest…I have a good feeling about her.”

Catryn tried not to read too far into the glint in Arabella’s eyes, and groaned. “Just…none of the weird ones, alright?”

“They are all weird, sweetheart.” With a mischievous grin, she said “Some of them even request you.”

“And that’s my cue to leave.” Catryn stood and hitched her bag up onto her shoulders. Her glass was left, barely touched, on the counter.

Arabella turned her gaze to the simple wooden door of her office, on the other side of the room. “Would you like me to call her over?”

“No, leave her be. I don’t want to interrupt.” Lissa always grew heavily involved with her work, and never appreciated being disturbed. Besides, she wanted some time to decide what she would say to her little sister. Dropping some coins on the bar, Catryn reasoned “I’ll be here tomorrow. I will make time before I leave to talk to her about her…ambitions.”

“Leave the mask at home. You need a day off.”

Knowing that she would not go anywhere without it, Catryn just smiled. “We’ll see.”

Hello there! If you made it this far, consider hitting that Like button, or drop a comment to let me know what you thought.

If you would rather read the full work (up to date) all in one place, all finished chapters will be updated on the Iron and Bone page here: https://onyxshortclawegdr.home.blog/writing-projects/iron-and-bone/

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