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, and had a terrible reputation because of that. 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 count high enough to 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.
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 she 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, but 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.”
“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.”
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. 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 her, 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.
The Steel Quarter was the safest part of the Outer City, if you could walk the walk. Thieves and thugs knew to avoid it, but the mercenaries were always out for one thing: gold. Any sign of weakness would be exploited, sooner or later. Wolf fought to keep her shoulders back and her head high, but her mask was the only thing keeping her safe from the increasingly suspicious glances.
Murmurs and whispers followed her. Paranoid, she tuned into every hushed dialogue and rowdy banter. She always struggled to put her guards back up after overextending her capabilities, which meant she was bombarded by scents and sensations from all sides. Her feet knew the way to Iron and Bone, leading her where her clouded eyes could not.
Instead of entering the tavern, she skirted around the building towards where she knew the meeting room was. Smoke and steel drew her, threads of gold and silver dancing in what was left of her vision, leading the way. She murmured a prayer of thanks to whichever gods were listening that there were no mercenaries in the alley. She no longer had the strength to keep up any kind of façade.
Slumping at the ground, far beneath the window, Catryn could hear Jared’s low rumble of concern. “She should be here by now. Something must have happened.”
“You worry too much, old man. She can take care of herself.”
“Then why are you the one pacing?”
Catryn could feel his scowl as Ahren sighed “I’ll go and find her.”
Taking a deep breath, Catryn grabbed a stone from the ground and tossed it up to the window. She gathered the dregs of strength she had left and followed the stone, scrambling up the side of the building. As she had hoped, Ahren was reaching his hand down to help her inside by the time she reached the second floor.
Ahren moved aside as she tumbled through the window. Her senses were bombarded by the essences of the men, of smoke and steel, silver and gold. The roaring in her ears grew until all else was pushed aside. Ahren knelt beside her when she remained on the floor, and his presence was the comforting stillness she needed to gain her bearings.
The moment fingers closed around her hand, the world went silent once more and the pressure lifted. Clarity came to her vision. With the sudden change, she gasped a breath of air and wondered when she had stopped breathing. A rough hand remained around hers, anchoring her. Looking up, Catryn was not surprised to see Ahren and Jared at her sides.
“You still in there, kitten?” Ahren asked gently.
Jared’s features were lined with concern, but still he opened with “Remove that preposterous mask and let me take a look at you.”
Catryn smiled in spite of her pounding head. Jared never changed. Every time he saw her in her “uniform”, he called her ridiculous and told her to focus more on her work than her clothing. She slowly unfastened the mask, wondering absentmindedly why her limbs were so reluctant to obey her, and dropped it to the ground in front of her.
“By the Judge, what have you been doing, girl?”
“You should see the other guys.” She joked weakly, shooting him a smile. His glower softened briefly, and he stepped back to the table, muttering to himself.
Ahren remained at her side and murmured “It doesn’t look very comfortable down there. Do you mind if I pick you up, little one?”
“I can walk.” She muttered, fighting with her leg muscles in an attempt to get to her feet. When they would not respond to her sluggish demands, she said sheepishly “On second thoughts, I like it here.”
Leaning in, much too close for her comfort, Ahren whispered “It wouldn’t be the first time I carried you to my bed, Catryn.”
Flushing bright red, she groaned “You can’t say things like that.” There had been nothing untoward about any of those instances, but her heart could not handle his seductive tone. Whenever she had pushed herself too hard, she always seemed to end up collapsing at his door. He would laugh, calling her reckless, but he would always end up scooping her up into his arms. He had once said the only way to make sure she took the rest she needed was by watching over her himself.
As he lifted her, Catryn allowed herself a moment of weakness to bury her face in his chest. “The table is fine. You know I cannot stay past sunset.”
“Aeric Ahren, if you think your ludicrous rules are going to kick my girl out onto the street, you will answer to me.” For an older man, Jared was still surprisingly muscular. He had lost none of his tenacity since retiring from the City Guard. If anything, the additional time on his hands only led to more extensive training. It was a rare man that could stand against him without flinching.
“With respect, Jared, I am more concerned about answering to her. Besides, I would not be able to make Catryn leave any more than I could convince her to stay.” He looked down at her, still in his arms, and grinned “Wolf makes her own decisions.”
Looking her over once more, Jared pursed his lips and said sarcastically “I can see that.”
Sliding out of Ahren’s arms, she perched carefully on the edge of the chair. “I am certain that you did not call me here to discuss my poor decision making.” Catryn wiped her eyes, and her fingers came away smudged with red. She did not need the metallic smell to know that this was blood. Clenching her jaw, she looked up at Jared expectantly.
“I have a request. A job.” He spared Ahren a glance as he took the third seat at the table, waiting patiently for him to settle. With a sigh, Jared shrugged “It requires careful handling, but I suppose I shall have to entrust it to the two of you instead.”
Ahren was still watching Catryn carefully, but he smiled wryly at that. “Hilarious, as always.”
“I try. This, however, is no laughing matter.” Jared stood and moved around the table, kneeling in front of her to make sure she was lucid enough to understand what he was saying. He seemed satisfied enough with her condition to continue. “The contract will go to the guild, but I must pass along the request that you are included in the roster on this occasion.”
Feeling the tension he barely concealed, Catryn took a deep breath to steady herself and met his gaze. “Go on.”
“The dead are rising in the catacombs.”
Silence met his words. Whatever they had been expecting, that was not it. The dead did not simply rise, especially in a place sacred to The Gatekeeper himself. Catryn stole a glance at Ahren, trying to read his ever-inscrutable expression, but gleaned nothing.
Clearing his throat, Ahren asked sharply “What, exactly, do you expect us to do about that?”
“Escort the priests while they consecrate the area.” He replied quietly. A man as seasoned as Jared could be shaken by very little. Catryn wondered how he could keep his composure, when she could feel his fear beating at her. “Their rituals require time and concentration, or so I am told. It is a simple matter of keeping them alive.”
“Simple. But not easy.”
Jared managed to roll his eyes at that. “There is no need to haggle, Ahren. You will be paid handsomely, provided the task is completed.”
“Why me?” Catryn asked quietly. Keeping her eyes on the table in front of her, she schooled the dread out of her voice, continuing “Why specifically request me for this?”
“You would have to ask the High Priest.” Jared replied. “The job came directly from him, as did the request that ‘the mercenary with the face of a wolf’ accompany them. It seems your reputation precedes you, my girl.”
Ahren was watching her as closely as always, but he showed no sign if he noticed her fear. With a wry smile, he said “You have made a name for yourself. We get requests for you more often than I care to admit.”
“Strange this is the first I am hearing of that.” She muttered, irritably.
He replied with a wry smile, “Strange that I would give work away instead of keeping it for the guild I am responsible for.”
She was saved from having to conjure a response when there was a knock at the door. Catryn jumped, earning her a concerned look from Ahren. Even if he didn’t know about her particular abilities, it was strange she hadn’t sensed anyone approaching. Things rarely startled her.
Maco entered with a tray of steaming tea, laden with three cups and a selection of food. His keen eyes flashed with lightning, taking it her dishevelled appearance, but he said nothing. Glaring at Ahren, he simply backed out of the room silently.
Ahren raised his eyebrow and grinned at Cat, indicating to the closed door. “There’s another man who will be after my head if anything happens to you.”
“That sounds like your problem, not mine.” She managed a smile, and turned her attention back to Jared.
“I should tell you, you are not the only guild they are approaching. Each of you can bring up to five of your best, to escort and protect the priests.” He hesitated, looking sympathetically at her again. “Catryn, you have been requested. However, if you are not fit for the job, no one is forcing you to take it.”
She longed more than anything to take him up on that. The last thing she wanted to do after so narrowly escaping meeting the Gatekeeper in person was go into his domain. It had been scarcely two months, but the scars still ached. Not to mention the uncomfortable pull, which still came back to her in her nightmares. Yet she found herself saying “No, I will take the job.”
She told herself it was because she needed the money, and because Jared had asked. It was true that she had never turned down a request he had made of her. But she would be lying if she said that fighting alongside Ric again had nothing to do with her decision. Besides, if there was one thing she could not do, it was take a step backwards.
“When do we begin?” She asked, projecting confidence she did not feel.
“At first light.”
At that, she faltered. “So soon?” There was no way she would be strong enough to get to her safehouse and back again by sunrise. Not if she wanted to recover enough to be of any use.
“We cannot leave the dead to roam, my dear. The priests were reluctant to delay until the morning.” Turning his attention to Ahren, he stated officially “If you have this in hand, I will take my leave.”
Ahren nodded, and stood to clasp his hand. Catryn waited quietly until Jared walked over to where she sat and murmured “It was good to see you again.”
“Next time, it will be under more pleasant circumstances.” He assured her, though they both knew that would not be the case. Touching her shoulder briefly, he turned on his heel and left Catryn alone with Ahren.
Fixing her with his molten steel gaze, Aeric muttered “You think you’re going to be able to climb the wall in your condition?”
She felt naked without her mask, but she knew he could read her either way. Lowering her face, she did her best to hide behind her hair. “Even if I wanted to stay here, I don’t exactly have a bed to fall into anymore.” She knew she had no chance of leaving the city, but that didn’t mean she had to stay there. She would be able to find some shelter, somewhere in the Undercity.
“Yes, you do.” His voice was quiet, but firm. Catryn was surprised to feel his hand tremble slightly as he drew the hair off her face. She hadn’t heard him move, but he was kneeling in front of her. “You can have my bed tonight. You’re going to be watching my back tomorrow. I need you at your best.”
Looking at him slowly, Catryn tried to muster some bravado but she couldn’t. Instead, she bit her lip and murmured “Where will you sleep?”
“You let me worry about that.” He insisted gently, keeping his expression neutral. “Can you make it to the bed?”
“I don’t know.” She admitted, feeling tears prickle in her eyes. It had been a long time since she had allowed herself to cry, but it had been a long day.
Aeric’s mask finally cracked. “What have you done to yourself this time, kitten?” His calm expression gave way to something she could hardly name, and he gathered her into his arms. Despite her best intentions, she couldn’t help but breathe in his scent as he pulled her close to his chest. Her senses sparked to life, savouring the feel of him.
“If you sleep somewhere else…they’ll know something is wrong.” She realised, waiting uncertainly for his reaction.
“I certainly wouldn’t call you in my bed wrong” he replied with a grin, “but I see your point. What would you suggest?”
Her face was still buried in his chest, but she didn’t dare look at him. “Stay with me.”
“It is the logical decision, if you want your presence to be unknown.” He suggested quietly, giving her every opportunity to shrink away from what she had said. It didn’t have to mean anything more than she wanted it to.
She should let him believe that she was making the smart, logical choice. Correcting him would only make it more difficult to distance herself. And she knew she had to distance herself. But she found herself whispering “I don’t feel right sleeping here without you.”
“That makes two of us, kitten.” He murmured into her hair. “Come on, you need to rest.”
He lifted her effortlessly and carried her out of the room and down the hall. Snuggling into his chest, she insisted to herself that she would be stronger tomorrow. She could be weak, just for one night. Feeling safer than she had in two months, Catryn was asleep before they even reached his room.