Slipping out of the city unseen was more difficult than Catryn had come to expect. She had scaled the walls many times before, but never alone. Ahren had always been there to pull her up, or to laugh at her scrambling. She hadn’t realised how much she had relied on him. Now, though, she was alone. It was entirely possible that she could convince one of the guards to let her out of the city. But they would ask questions she did not wish to answer. Especially those she counted as her allies.
A shock of white hair caught her eye as one of the guards took off his helmet. Sebastian. Persistent and driven, she might admire him if he stopped propositioning her whenever they were alone. He scratched his head briefly before replacing the helmet and standing a little straighter. The way he adjusted his uniform hinted that Captain D’luran must be nearby. The Captain was the most devout follower of The Judge she had ever met. He could have been a priest, but he had decided that he could better serve his Caretaker as an officer. No chance of getting the gate opened or leaving with a simple slap on the wrist if she was caught.
Dancing from shadow to shadow, Catryn used the darkness to her advantage. She knew how to move quietly, had practised for months until she was as soft on her feet as a cat. Her boots were cushioned slightly to help, and her weapons were secured tightly. Clothed in black and grey, she would not stand out too drastically in the darkened courtyard.
Reassuring herself, Catryn moved between two of the taller buildings and pulled herself up onto a ledge. She murmured reminders to herself as she went, listing the steps Ahren had taught her to follow. Her arms ached before she even reached the roof of the inn, but she did not dare stop. She paused for breath at the top and surveyed the edge of the wall.
Guards littered the street, in perfectly spaced patrols. Sure enough, Captain D’luran was inspecting his men and overseeing their duties. He stood out for the jade cape he wore slung over his left shoulder. The slight slope of the roof Catryn perched on helped her remain hidden from any cursory glances, but that would not last long. It was quite a jump to the outer wall. She had made it before, but never without someone to back her up. If she slipped, it was a long way down onto hard rock.
For a heartbeat, she considered going back to the Iron and Bone tavern and asking Ahren to let her stay. To go home. There was no reason for her to struggle this way. But she knew that she couldn’t. If nothing else, she didn’t deserve a home after the things she had done. Perhaps she couldn’t trust that she was safe from Ahren but…she knew that he wasn’t safe from her either. Steeling herself, she threw caution to the wind and leapt the gap before she could change her mind.
Crashing into the stone winded her, and she scrambled to hold onto whatever she could get her hands on. She imagined Ric’s hands on her arms, warm and strong and safe, pulling her up. But she was alone. It was only then, hanging above what felt like an endless abyss below, that she realised she had forgotten to time her leap. She should have remembered the patrols, and jumped only when she knew she had enough time to pull herself up.
Voices below grabbed her attention, but she daren’t look down. Instead, she threw caution to the wind and dragged herself up and over the side. Her shoulders screamed in protest, but she ignored them and pushed through until she lay atop the wall. No shouts followed her, but she could not be sure. She nursed her bruised ribs and risked a glance over the edge.
Any notion she’d had that only luck had saved her was quickly dismissed. Whether he had known she was there or not, she had been saved again by Ahren. He stood, leaning casually against the wall a little way off, talking to the captain and a couple of the guards. Nothing in his demeanour suggested that he had seen her. He often spoke with the guards about recent contracts or to get more work. He and the captain were on surprisingly good terms.
Trying not to marvel at the way his hair glowed gold in the torchlight, she sighed. Intentional or not, his distraction would give her the time she needed to get out of the city. It would be best not to squander that. Reluctantly getting to her feet, Catryn crouched with the intention of assessing a safe path down. Instead, her eyes lingered on the Variden Mantle. Blue and purple against the dark horizon, the mountains carved a path through the sky. Always shrouded in mist, they looked forbidding to most. To her, they only ever seemed like home.
Groaning at the nostalgia that threatened to consume her, Catryn shook herself and bit down on the feeling. She could reminisce later. Getting down the wall would be even more difficult than climbing it; the outside of the wall was completely smooth. No handholds, and no ledges. A convenient pile of rope caught her attention nearby, but she was reluctant to use it. If a guard came by, they could easily cut the rope while she was only halfway down.
Pulling down her mask, Catryn forced herself to make a decision. The only option in front of her was to rappel down the wall with the rope. If she dithered, the likelihood of being discovered would only grow. She secured it in place and, the instant the patrols were out of sight, she dove off the edge of the wall. Her gloves protected her hands, which was a relief because she was not taking the time she normally would. When she reached the ground, she spared a few seconds to set the rope ablaze with her tinderbox before sprinting into the darkness.
Ahren had explained to her the importance of such things. Even if they operated outside of the law on occasion, the city was theirs. They were its protectors, and they were responsible for its safety. If a roaming bandit or villain could use that rope to get into the city, any damage they caused would be on her head. Her escape was not worth that. As she ran, she heard voices shouting after her and she ignored them. She knew she would not be pursued once she reached the trees.
The sounds faded into the background as the woods closed around her. Soon, she was surrounded by the gentle rustling of leaves in the breeze, and the cries of the animals. There were beasts in the forest, but Catryn knew she had nothing to fear from them. The monsters, though, were another story. They were always more active under the cover of night, and Catryn did not wish to encounter them.
Quickening her pace, Catryn kept the fear at bay by focusing on her surroundings. The crisp air was fresh and welcoming after the stale smells of the city. Pulling aside tough vines from her path, she fought against the panic that would swallow her. She knew the dangers of the city, but the wilderness reminded her of a time when she was powerless and alone. She usually avoided travelling in the dark because of the memories it brought.
Coarse fur bristled against the back of her hand, startling her. But instead of fleeing from the large grey wolf, Catryn smiled. Not alone, after all. Comforted by her companion’s presence, she continued on her way and kept her eyes open for the forked grey tree. Without it, she would never remember when to leave the hunting trail.
Eventually, she found her landmark and began to forge a path through the thickets to the West. The ever-deepening shadows and the smothering silence were anything but inviting. Catryn had never been so relieved to see her shack in the undergrowth.
From the outside, it seemed to be falling apart. The roof was full of holes, and the wooden panels were half rotted. Even the door frame was barely holding itself together. But, for now, it was her only real refuge.
“In or out?” Catryn whispered, kneeling in front of her companion.
An impatient whine was her only reply. Biting her lip, Catryn looked back into the darkness and felt it look into her. Muttering a prayer under her breath, she slipped into the shack with her wolf. The only sound once she had barricaded the door was the river half a mile away. But the silence was no real comfort.
Rummaging through the rubble, it took her shaking hands far too long to find the trapdoor. Eventually, in the secure store room, Catryn finally felt her muscles relax. The old bandit den was the safest place she had come across outside of the city.
Once the bolt was firmly in place, Catryn moved towards the table in the centre of the room and froze. In a heartbeat, her knives were in her hands and her mask was back over her face; she wasn’t alone. “Show yourself.” She growled, crouching beside her companion.
A slow clap met her from one of the deeper shadows, and a figure emerged. “I thought it would take you longer. Though, still long enough that I could have slit your throat.”
He spoke in an accent that Catryn did not recognise, though he reminded her of a merchant from the kingdom of Jenoth. Unsurprisingly, his face was covered by black cloth. His armour looked much higher in quality than the only other member of The Shroud that she had seen. Her eyes instinctively moved to his left arm, and saw three red bands. “Then why do I live? You are an assassin, are you not?”
“I am not here for your life.” He replied, his tone perfectly measured.
Catryn’s grip tightened on her knives, but she stood slowly. Forcing her muscles to relax, she lifted her chin and desperately tried to calm her frantic mind. She could not afford to panic against this man. “Forgive me if I do not take you on your word. My presence in your master’s domain was not welcome, and I left with your charge. If you are not here to kill me, then why?”
He did not answer for a long time, but Catryn got the impression that he was amused. He lazily sat on the only chair in the room, and put his feet on the table. Catryn couldn’t help but notice that his boots were pristine; not a single spec of dust or dirt. He did not appear to be watching her, but she knew by now not to trust appearances. If she made any motion to attack, she knew that he would not be caught unawares.
“First, allow me to ask you a question.” He finally said, leaning back in the chair. His voice was casual, but his eyes were sharply trained on her again. “How did you see the merchant?”
She considered lying, but there was little point. A faint, bitter scent on the air hinted that he had a gift or two from his patron. The bands on his armour would have been enough to suggest that, even without the aura he gave off. There was nothing to gain by lying when he would see through her words either way. “I didn’t.”
“Ah, a most convincing ruse. I suspected as much.” He sounded almost pleased, his silky voice dripping with confidence. Casually, he added “If you could see through the cloak of the Deceiver, then my mission may have been altered slightly. Some talents are too dangerous to overlook.”
Catryn barely suppressed a shiver. She couldn’t get the measure of this man. She supposed that shouldn’t surprise her, but she could usually get a sense about people. He was an empty slate. Biting her lip, she muttered “I would think that your people would appreciate suck trickery.”
“We do. Moving through our domain as you did, without hesitation, is no small feat. If you did not see through the illusion, then there is something else at play. Something I cannot quite put my finger on.” The wolf at her side growled threateningly, and Catryn leant into its side for a moment. The assassin spared the creature a glance, before his gaze flickered back to Catryn. “Tales of your talents have been heard all through the city. You rose through the ranks of Iron and Bone quickly, but now you work alone.”
“Get to the point.”
He bowed, mocking her, and said “You are better suited for sneakier work, and there’s more of that with the other guilds, remember?”
“Some guilds, perhaps. But I am too expressive to be a spy. And I am no killer.” She snarled. But her blood ran cold as she recognised her own words from earlier in the day.
“We both know that is false.” Catryn averted her eyes for a heartbeat, but looked back in time to see the assassin’s eyes glint. Even with her mask, she was giving away far too much. This man was dangerous. But he argued no further. “Nevertheless, we do far more than simple assassinations. Any work that must be kept in the shadows is ours. Among other tasks, we protect those the law cannot.”
That was no news to her, considering why she had entered their domain in the first place. “You harbour criminals.” She stated, keeping her tone as flat as she could. Saving people like Haro from justice was not something she was interested in.
“That is true, from time to time. Though it depends on your perspective. After all, how can one decree that simply existing is a crime.”
Catryn froze, staring at him for a moment. Frowning, she asked “You…are you talking about mages?”
“I have a task that needs completing. And I believe it will be of particular interest to you, if our sources are to be believed.” Catryn tensed as he reached into the folds of his clothing, but he pulled out a scroll. The parchment was deep red, and it was tied with thick black ribbon. She had seen its like only once before, when one of the mercenaries in Iron and Bone had been persuaded to lose their mark. It was one of The Shroud’s contracts.
He stood and walked fluidly towards her, holding out the scroll. Clenching her jaw, she stated “I have no interest in joining you.”
“Perhaps this will change your mind, if you dare to open it.” A trickle of humour reached her, though the man’s demeanour did not change. His voice was still even as he continued, “Tell me, why would simple bandits raiding a simple town happened to have an item that would dampen all but the strongest of magics?”
“What do you…” She tried to speak past the lump in her throat. He was stood in front of her, patiently waiting for her to take the scroll. It would not do to let him see her weakness, though her knuckles were white around the hilts of her daggers. Instead of the nonchalant response she struggled to conjure, the words she snarled were “Get to the point.”
A quiet, empty chuckle was his answer. “All of our members have access to our tunnels, and contacts. You will find that our resources are unmatched.” He placed the scroll down on the table with an air of smug confidence, continuing “I can find another to take the contract, if I must, and you will never have to see me again. There will be no repercussions, and we shall leave you in peace.”
“Then this is goodbye.” She insisted, and stepped away from the trapdoor pointedly.
“As you wish.” He bowed slightly, though his eyes did not leave her face. “If you change your mind, the details are on the contract. You have until sunset tomorrow to make your decision. We will know if you take the job, and we can discuss the terms once it is complete. If you think to betray the information, you should know that only your eyes will be able to make sense of the script.”
“I know better than to make an enemy of The Shroud.” Especially when they knew more than they should. She kept her distance until he was gone, then swiftly secured the trapdoor behind him. She silently sat in the corner, determined to ignore the scroll. She spent a long time cleaning her equipment, trying to keep herself busy. But she couldn’t keep her eyes from sliding back towards the table.
Eventually, giving up, Catryn tentatively picked up the scroll. The assassin had said that she could read it. Looking at it was not the same as accepting the contract. Her hands shook as she untied the ribbon, and she turned it over to see a seal bearing a mask and a dagger. She hesitated again, reminded of the foreign presence that had smothered her on all sides in the tunnels.
Catryn held her breath and broke the seal. Nothing happened. She wasn’t sure what she had expected, but there was no change in the room around her. Easing some of the tension, she sighed and unrolled the red parchment. There were three sheets, which she laid out onto the table. Lighting a candle, she read the letter requesting the protection of a man known as Bennett. Reportedly, he was a mage living in the Under City, using his gift to heal the less fortunate.
“A surprisingly noble cause…what’s the catch?” She muttered, under her breath. There was little to be found in the letter except the location of his clinic. The second sheet held notes of the schedule he seemed to keep, though he had only been in Mar K’shinta for half a cycle. Unconvinced, Catryn looked at the last sheet. When she saw the likeness drawn there, her heart stopped.
Unbidden, her mind conjured a memory of running through the halls of the tower with a young apprentice. His name had been Galen then, and he was scruffier than she remembered. It might not be the same boy she had known. It had been nearly ten years. The resemblance was there, but it didn’t mean that it was him. She was just leaping to conclusions.
Even as she insisted that it couldn’t be Galen, Catryn knew that she would have to see for herself. She had until sunset to make a decision about the contract. Conflicted, she looked at the picture one more time. If nothing else, she needed to know if the mage would be a danger to her or her family. It was likely to assume he had come from Anthoralyn. Even if he didn’t recognise her, she didn’t want anyone bringing attention to Mar K’shinta from the Azure Fellowship. The last thing anyone needed was for more mage hunters to be called into the city.
Suppressing a shudder, Catryn sat in the corner of the room and buried her head on her knees. Eventually she settled into an uneasy sleep. Her companion curled up at her side, keeping her warm.
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