Wracked with nightmares, rest was not easy to come by. But Catryn had been learning to function on little-to-no sleep as of late, as her dreams were constantly punctuated with terror.
Once the sun had crested the horizon, Catryn made the hike to the Ivantess’r river. She took some time to wash up before walking slowly through the trees towards Mar K’shinta. Without the fear of monstrous creatures leaping out at her, the forest was pleasant. But Catryn was still relieved to see the Crystal City sparkling in the morning light, like a beacon.
Though the outer walls were smooth stone, the Upper City was surrounded by glittering white crystal. Catryn knew that the Inner City had been carved into the mountain by the Ungarhek, but she couldn’t imagine that they had been responsible for the artistry of the Upper City. She had only seen it from a distance, but its design didn’t match the hulking warriors she pictured from the stories. Then again, the only Ungarhek she had met was a musician, and a pacifist.
Catryn entered the city without incident. Though the guards checked anyone coming in, they knew her well enough not to bother. Bryce Thyrolen, a guard she had known well since arriving in the city, stopped her before she got too far. “Catryn. I don’t remember seeing you leave the city last night.”
“I don’t remember you watching every move I make. I’m flattered, really, but you’re like a brother to me. It would be uncomfortable to entertain such things.” Catryn grinned, doing her best Arabella impression, and the guard flushed.
He adjusted his uniform sharply, and asked “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about a fire on the outer wall, would you?”
“Even Sebastian flirts better than this, Bryce. I’m embarrassed for you.” She forced a laugh, turning to walk into the city. She wasn’t surprised that Bryce had guessed her involvement, but it wouldn’t do to acknowledge it.
Rolling his eyes, Bryce called after her. “My father wants to see you.”
She paused mid-step and glanced over her shoulder. Bryce’s father had been the only reason they had gained access to the city. He had been a friend of her father, and he was the only person there who knew where they had come from. There was nothing he could request that she wouldn’t agree to. “When?”
Bryce took the opportunity to close the distance between them, fixing her with a hard stare. He always seemed suspicious that a mercenary, even her, could be so unfalteringly loyal to anything but gold. As always, she passed his scrutiny and he replied “Any time before you head back outside the gates. He said it’s important.”
“It always is.” She sighed, still facing away from him. “Where?”
He handed her a neatly folded note. “He will be at Iron and Bone from midday until sunset, tying some things up with the guild.”
“Then I suppose I will meet him there.” She groaned inwardly; why was it always the tavern? She was trying to stay away from the guild, but this would be the third time in as many days that she would be setting foot inside. For anyone but Jared Thyrolen, she would not have considered going.
It was already approaching midday, she noted with a scowl. She wouldn’t have time to check in on the healer before fulfilling Arabella’s request. Then again, Catryn knew from the schedule that the best time to look in on him would be in the afternoon either way. Reportedly, the attendant he had in the clinic left him alone between midday and sunset. She wanted to get it over with, to settle her concerns, but she would have to wait a little longer. She was going to be pressed for time to get out of the city before the gate closed again, but she didn’t have much choice.
On her way to The Bleeding Rose, Catryn took a detour through the Iron Quarter. The smell of hot coal and burning metal was thick with the acrid smoke in the air. The Iron Quarter was home to the smelters, refineries, and the working man’s blacksmiths. Those in the Steel Quarter specialised in weapons and armour, for the mercenaries and guards. In the Iron Quarter, they focused on tools and everyday equipment. Not as glamourous, perhaps. But the city would grind to a halt without them.
Owain, Catryn’s younger brother and Lissa’s twin, was an apprentice at one such blacksmith. Hammer and Tongs was a simple place, but it had a good reputation. Cain, the owner, made sure of it. He had been reluctant to take on an apprentice at first, but gold had changed his mind. Owain was becoming a decent blacksmith under his watchful eye. His pieces were efficient, and dependable, just like he was.
Once, Owain had wanted to join the Azure Fellowship and wear the vibrant blue cloak with pride. But his dreams had dwindled over the years. The moment he began to show an interest in smithing, Catryn had done whatever she could to secure him a place to pursue it.
Unfortunately, her determination reeked of desperation. Cain’s wife, Beatrice, handled the business affairs and she had struck a very hard bargain indeed. Which was why Catryn was still paying monthly instalments for the apprenticeship. Until Owain was a fully-fledged smith with his own forge, she had to find the coin for them to keep him.
Catryn had given up complaining a long time ago. She still heard Lissa talk about how unfair their situation was. They had not been born to live in the gutters. Their lives in Mar K’shinta were not the lives they deserved. Cat didn’t have the heart to correct her. This life was the only one Catryn could afford to give them, and they did their best with what they had. But she knew that no one was born for the gutter. They were not better than any of the rest in the Under City. They had food, and shelter, and they had each other. For Catryn, that had to be enough.
When she stopped in at Hammer and Tongs, Owain was nowhere in sight. Knowing that Cain didn’t like to be disturbed with idle chatter, Catryn thought it best not to linger. But still, she sighed. It had been too long since she had seen her brother. She would have to ask Lissa where her twin went when he wasn’t in the shop. She had practically raised them both after the rest of their family were taken from them, but she hardly knew who they were anymore. Then again, she thought grimly, she did not recognise herself from the girl she had once been.
Without a word, Catryn dropped a pouch of coins on the counter and stepped back out into the street. In spite of her trepidation for the day ahead, she found a small smile threatening her lips. There was one small remnant of the person she used to be, and of the family that had been taken from her. With that at the forefront of her mind, Catryn hurried to The Bleeding Rose.
Arabella cast a disapproving look over her attire, but waved her through without a word. As always, Catryn rang her fingers across the name carved on the underside of the keyboard and let herself remember. Her prim and proper elder sister, Alia, was ever the lady of the house. But still she had asked Catryn to teach her how to carve the name of the boy she loved into her most precious possession before they left Anthoralyn. Einion. He had been as close as a brother to Catryn, and she had been certain that he would marry her sister.
Fire scorched the memory away, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth. Instead of fighting it, Catryn simply placed her trembling fingers on the keys. Her mask and most of her daggers were stashed in her bag, behind the bar. For the short time she played, she would cast aside the blood of the last years and pretend to be the naïve girl she had lost with her parents. Very few would recognise her as the mercenary, Wolf, without her mask.
Sounds and scents assaulted her senses from every angle, but Catryn spent enough time there to be used to such things. Even so, the arousal was thick in the air and it wasn’t long before the sensations around her became distracting. There was only so long she could handle being so close to so many people with so few inhibitions.
She closed her eyes, trusting her fingers to find the notes, and conjured Ahren’s earthy scent. She imagined his rumbling voice, teasing her to calm down and focus on the task at hand, oblivious that he was her biggest distraction. His silver eyes, always steady. Everything else melted away, but Catryn’s eyes remained closed until she finished her last piece.
“Dreaming of a lover?” A voice Catryn was certain she was still imagining slid through her.
“Ric?” She turned, startled, and nearly fell off the stool. His arm hooked around her, pulling her upright and into his chest. Catryn longed for her mask to hide her flushed cheeks, but she settled for lowering her face. Unfortunately, due to his proximity, that meant she had more or less buried her face in his chest.
It took all her strength to keep her voice even when she finally mumbled “What are you doing here?”
“Can a man not step out for a drink from time to time?” His tone was as unreadable as ever, but his heartbeat was faster than she would have expected.
“You live in a tavern.” She accused half-heartedly, her fingers fluttering across his chest in spite of herself.
Fingers brushed the side of her neck, sending shivers across her skin. The words he whispered into her hair only enhanced the all-too pleasant sensation. “But the company here is so much finer.”
She steeled herself, channelling as much sass as she could from her friend and took a sudden step back. The slight tension in his arms as he released her made her hesitate a moment too long to make it a convincing retreat. Still, she just about managed to reply “Well, I suppose I shall leave you in Arabella’s capable hands.”
With a grin and a wink, she sidled away from him and towards Arabella’s office. Lissa was usually in there, doing paperwork, and she could not keep putting off the conversation. She certainly was not running away from Ahren. Again. She most definitely did not spare a glance at him as she closed the door behind her.
Soft blue eyes, their mother’s eyes, met her as her little sister looked up from the desk. When she looked at her rosy cheeks and her long black hair, she was struck by the resemblance. But Lissa’s temperament was nothing like their mother’s quiet composure.
“I was hoping to speak with you. Do you have time?”
Lissa’s only reply was to roll her eyes and return to her work. Yet her quill did not move. Instead of turning to leave, Catryn sighed and prompted “Arabella told me of your ambitions.” Silence met her. Her sister didn’t even spare her a glance.
“Would you please speak to me, Lissa?” She asked quietly, leaning back against the door.
Without looking up, Lissa muttered “What, pray tell, would you like me to say?”
Things had been tense between them for quite some time, but her sister had never felt so far from her. Catryn took a moment to choose her tone, and replied carefully. “I would like you to tell me why you want to work upstairs.”
“You don’t even understand. If you’d ever tried it, you might not be so stuck up about the idea!” Lissa snapped, leaping suddenly to her feet. “I am sixteen. I can make my own decisions. Besides, we can’t all go running around killing people for money. At least my way, I’m making people happy instead of miserable!”
Catryn automatically stepped to the side as Lissa, a full head shorter than her, stormed over. Tears glistened convincingly in her eyes. As she reached for the door, Lissa looked up at her and cried “I never ask you for anything, and you can’t even give me this.”
As Lissa ran out of the room and upstairs, Catryn hung her head. Every choice she had made had been for Lissa and Owain. The jobs she took were the only ones that paid enough money to keep them in relative comfort. Anything they needed, she made sure to provide. Oftentimes, she would go hungry to make sure they had enough. It was for Lissa’s safety that Catryn had distanced herself from the only home she had known in years.
I never ask you for anything. The words echoed and dragged Catryn reluctantly back to the last time her sister had said that. A young man with a face she had known from her childhood stared up at her. Eyes as blue as his cloak, wide and pleading.
Raucous laughter startled her back to the present. Suddenly exhausted, she swayed gently on her feet for a moment before she could compose herself. The sounds and scents of the inn hit her once more, but she had no reason to stay. Relieved, she grabbed her things from behind the bar and slipped outside, into the fresh air. She would have to hurry to be at the makeshift clinic in time to see the healer, Bennett, at work and decide if he was worth getting involved with The Shroud.
With her mask and her knives fixed firmly back in place, Wolf moved swiftly through the tunnels. She glanced at the map before discarding it; her feet knew the tunnels and she found it difficult to navigate with a map. Thinking too much always seemed to get her into trouble, so she felt her way instead. It was uncomfortably easy to find the trail of magic.
The scent of freshly cut grass and Spring sunshine led her to a clinic of some kind. It was roughly thrown together, in a small cavern that had been abandoned. It was clean enough, for the Under City, and there were a few straw mattresses arranged neatly. In the centre of the cavern stood a man with his back to the entrance. Rolling her eyes, she thought that he would not stand a chance if he were found. Noticing another man in the room, a patient, she crept around the cavern to a pile of crates and silently climbed them.
From her new vantage point, Catryn saw the skilled way Bennett worked on the man’s arm. She was too far to make out any real details, but she knew the patient was oblivious. Bennett was practiced in medicine, as well as magical healing, and it appeared that he masked one with the other. To one uneducated in either craft, it could be easy enough to hide. Sure enough, the man he was healing said, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say this was magic.”
Bennett, to his credit, laughed naturally and replied “Nothing as sordid as that. You would be surprised what a few simple herbs and the right knowledge can mend.”
“We would be interested in hearing about this knowledge.” A voice rang out, and the patient scurried away as Bennett turned with a polite smile that froze on his face.
Wolf’s heart stuck in her throat as she saw the source of the voices; blue cloaks. The Azure Fellowship. She made a quick decision and hurriedly removed her gloves. As the two men casually walked into the cavern, they passed her hiding place and she leapt. With the pommel of her knife, she dropped down onto the closest knight and swiftly knocked him out with a well-placed jab to the back of the neck. He fell like a sack of potatoes, and she dashed past to the second.
Wolf knew this would need a decisive ending, or more would come. Her hands shook at the thought of killing them, but there was another way. Something she had only tried a handful of times in the past. Throwing her knife, she distracted the man into deflecting the blade. It gave her enough time to close the gap. She had no weapons, but she didn’t need any for this. She gripped the bare skin of his neck and right hand and forced her energy into him like a pulse.
She focused wholly on the thread that connected them, following it into his mind. The process was difficult and rough, but she thought she could make sufficient adjustments to create the desired effect. The main thought she tried to leave was that the healer was no mage. She tweaked the impression in the man’s mind towards the mundane. He used herbs, poultices, and other tools you would find in any herbalist’s clinic. No signs of the arcane in the area. A group of simple bandits got the jump on them, unexpectedly, but the healer assisted them before losing consciousness also.
Exhausted, she fell back and broke contact. Before she could forget, she cut the pouch of coins from his belt and crawled to his comrade to do the same. She spilled a few small coins, and made sure to kick the dirt to mirror a scuffle. It was messy work, she knew, but people seldom looked too deeply into likely scenarios. Besides, it was the best she could manage.
The mage watched her uncertainly, waiting for an explanation. He was as scruffy as the sketch she had been given, but his eyes were a vibrant mixture of green and gold. They matched the scent of his magic, and she remembered them well. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was Galen. There were so many things she wanted to say. So much she wanted to tell him. Instead, she said “You should tend their wounds.”
“I am more concerned with yours.” He frowned, obviously confused.
A manic laugh bubbled from her lips before she could stop it, and she buried her head in her hands for a moment. The ground itself was trembling beneath her. Before Bennett could tentatively approach, she rolled back onto her feet and turned to the entrance. “They will remember being attacked by thugs, and they will remember that the healer in the under city uses no magic. Make sure not to change their opinion before they leave.”
Ignoring the words he called after her, Wolf ran. Her feet took her to the entrance to The Shroud’s domain, and a hooded figure waited for her. Falling against the wall of the tunnel, she snarled “You tricked me. You knew he would be attacked, and you knew I couldn’t just leave him to be taken.”
“Welcome to the fold, sister.” There was no hint of emotion in the voice that greeted her, and she shuddered. A pouch dropped at her feet. “I take it you still require your payment.”
Reluctantly, she retrieved the bag and put it in her bag with those she took from the blue cloaks. Her ears were still ringing, and she wasn’t sure if the earth was shaking or if she was, but she didn’t have the luxury of time. She could collapse when she was alone and secure. First, she needed to meet Jared at Iron and Bone before sunset.
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