Note: this is a short story about my OCs from Forgotten's story/world, the Order of Thorns. @Forgotten if there's anything I should change or add, just let me know! Thanks for reading! :D
General warning: Reader discretion is advised. There's definitely some violence in here.
“You have passed the tests required of you to become a member of this Order. While you are clearly prone to reckless decisions based on anger, we believe that this can be honed to a more constructive outlet. You will be assigned to Kazmer Ross as your mentor; he will instruct you in the ways of an assassin.”
“Thank you,” Nasreen replied, nodding her head slightly. She turned on her heel and strode from the darkened room, her fiery curls dancing around her shoulders.
A man was waiting outside, his arms folded and a grim, expectant look on his face. He raised a dark eye( )ow. “You’re Darzi?”
“Yeah, and who are you?”
“You’re my mentor?” Nasreen scoffed. “You look hardly a year older than me.”
“I’m four years older. And I have about a hundred times more experience than you.”
Nasreen rolled her eyes. “If you say so.”
“Well, it looks like I have my work cut out for me,” Ross remarked, scanning Nasreen up and down. She put her hands to her hips.
“Eyes to yourself, knave.”
“There’s not much to look at. You’re all skin and bone.” Ross’s tawny eyes flashed. “Like I said, we have a lot of work to do.”
“Not everyone has to walk around with perfect biceps,” Nasreen retorted, gesturing to Ross’s noticeably muscular arms. “I’m not going to have to do a hundred pull-ups in real life.”
“Find yourself hanging off the edge of a building and you might want to have the strength to do one,” Ross replied shortly.
Nasreen glared at Ross. “Alright, Boss, you might want to start by showing me this underground city I keep hearing about.”
Ross sighed. “I can’t believe they let you into the Order.”
Ross turned and strode away, leaving Nasreen to attempt to catch up. “What? You don’t think I’m capable enough?”
“I know you’re not, Darzi.”
“Well, I guess I’ll just have to prove you wrong. I look forward to that.”
Ross glanced to his left before turning right, exiting the old stone building they had met inside and crossing the street. Kazmer Ross walked with the air of someone who knew exactly where they were going though Nasreen noticed that his eyes continuously flicked around to assess his surroundings. “So,” Nasreen said, giving Ross a sideways glance, “what’s it like to be an assassin?”
“Don’t say that so loudly,” Ross hissed. “Most of our job involves espionage, gathering information on targets before determining if they are to be assassinated or not. It takes discretion, subtlety, and no small amount of charm.”
“I can be charming when I want,” Nasreen replied with a sly smile.
“You couldn’t charm a leech.”
“Are you this rude to all the women you meet?”
Ross chose not to answer that question and instead slipped into a narrower alley than the one they had been walking through. A figure sat huddled on the ground, seemingly fixated on the cup in his hands. As we approached, however, he glanced at us and rose to his feet. It was then that Nasreen noticed his black, red, and white garb underneath the ratty cloak wrapped around him. He was from the Order of Thorns. The guard nodded at us and slid aside the metal disc covering a dark, yawning gap in the pavement that seemed to stretch forever. Ross slipped inside and landed on his feet several feet below–Nasreen could hear the echo of his boots hitting the stone. Nasreen glanced behind her before following Ross down through the hole in the ground. She landed almost silently on the ground next to Ross, and though his expression changed little Nasreen could tell Ross was at least somewhat impressed. Nasreen arched an eye( )ow and Ross turned away. “Come on.”
“What made you become a mentor?” Nasreen decided to ask. “I mean, I was picturing an old guy with a white beard or something.”
“I didn’t exactly choose this. Everyone thought it would be a good idea to give me some responsibility. Apparently I’m too reckless for my own good. I agreed eventually, though I wasn’t expecting someone like you.”
“Who were you expecting, then?” Nasreen asked in annoyance.
“Someone less irritating.”
“Oh, that’s classy. Are we nearly there?”
“We’re in the City,” Ross replied as if that were obvious. “We have been for some time now.” Nasreen gave Ross an unimpressed look. “It may not seem like much, but follow me.”
Ross opened a door which seemed no more than a seam in the wall and allowed it to swing inward. He wore a sort of satisfied smirk as Nasreen peered around the corner and into a cavernous chamber filled with soft golden light.
“You’re right. Much more impressive,” Nasreen said with a grin. “Secret organization? Underground city? Catacombs in the sewers? Yeah, this has me written all over it.”
“You can stay here for your first few days of training but after that we’ll head out into the city.”
“Good, because I don’t actually have a home in the city.”
“The King burned your house down?”
“No,” Nasreen said, her ( )illiant opaline eyes flashing. “I did.”
Years ago, when Nasreen was young, she lived in a large house with her parents. She was the only child and as such she was destined to be the next goldsmith of the town. Her parents were experts in the trade, nearly the best. The King himself ordered frequently from them and for quite a while they got along fairly amicably. Nasreen was too small to remember what it was that turned the King against her parents but all she knew was that after one of the visits from the King’s representatives her parents seemed worried. The next morning Nasreen was woken by the sound of soldiers ( )eaking down their door and flooding inside with shouts. “You have to go,” Nasreen’s mother said quietly as she handed her child a small satchel full of supplies. Nasreen could hear her father attempting to reason with the men downstairs in the shop. “Before the soldiers take you too.”
“But what will happen to you?” Nasreen cried, tears running down her cheeks.
Nasreen’s mother smiled shakily. “We...we’ll be alright, darling.”
Nasreen and her mother em( )aced each other tightly for a long moment, both of them weeping softly. Then, Nasreen’s mother rose and urged her daughter to go. Nasreen scurried across the room and, climbing up onto the bed, leapt out of the window and scaled the thick vines to reach the ground as she had done dozens of times. Nasreen could hear her parents shouting but, keeping her mother’s orders in mind, she ran off into the town.
Nasreen watched from a shadowy alley as her parents were dragged past in chains and it took all of her strength not to cry out for them. Her heart raced with fear. How could they do this to her parents? How could he? It was then that she saw a few other soldiers carrying gold along with them. As a child, Nasreen couldn’t understand the entire picture but she soon learned as she grew older and wiser that the King had accused her parents of tainting his gold with other materials, attempting to swindle him. They were in prison for no reason, really, and the now ten-year-old Nasreen doubted they would receive a trial.
Nasreen returned to her old home when she was twelve, and the fear she had held for the King and his men had morphed into a fiery anger none could ever soothe. The windows and door of her house were boarded up but she was able to ( )eak in all the same. Everything was coated in a thick layer of dust and a strange tension hung in the air like something about the place was unfinished. Every single cabinet had been pulled open, every shelf torn apart. As Nasreen walked through the silent house it seemed that the soldiers had been extremely thorough in their work. As she climbed the stairs to the second floor where the living spaces were placed, a thought waved a flag in the back of Nasreen’s head. She hurried into her parents’ bedroom and crouched on the ground. Years ago they had had a ( )eak-in and the thief had stolen the raw, unfinished gold. After that Nasreen’s parents had taken to keeping the gold under a loose floorboard. Nasreen lifted the floorboard and a wily grin crossed her lips. She lifted out the few nuggets of gold inside and tucked them into her worn, dusty satchel. She couldn’t use it now, of course–everyone would think a street urchin like herself had stolen it–but perhaps someday she could. Never know when a secret stash of gold could come in handy.
Well, it was time to burn her ( )idges. She was coming for the King and accomplices. She had heard of the Order of Thorns, of course, but she knew little about it. That was where she belonged, she was sure of it, but she would have to prove herself first. That could come later.
Only a few hours later, the King’s patrol found the smoldering remains of the old goldsmith’s house. None of the other houses had been affected but outside the ruined doorway was written a message: I never forget.
“Ah, Kazmer. You’re back.”
Nasreen’s attention focused on the approaching man, who had silvery hair poking out from the dark hood covering his head. HIs dark eyes were keen and searching, glancing from Ross to Nasreen and back.
“Hello,” Ross replied. “I assume you want to speak with us.”
“You know me well. Come with me.”
Nasreen and Ross followed the elderly man into an adjoining room which was filled with shelves of books and a desk. “It’s a temporary office,” the man explained, taking a seat behind the desk. “Now,” he said, “you must be Nasreen Darzi.” Nasreen nodded. “My name is Ishan Salehi. I must apologize for this whole situation. Kazmer is being evaluated for becoming a mentor so unfortunately your training will be somewhat irregular. I have convinced the older members that giving Kazmer an apprentice will help him control some of his impulsive tendencies.”
Kazmer’s eyes hardened. “Again, if this is about what happened with the Duke I assure you it will not happen again.”
“We’re past that now, Kazmer,” Ishan replied, giving Ross a severe look. “You are going to teach Nasreen everything I taught you.” He turned his attention to Nasreen. “If you ever need anything, you can speak with me. Think of me as your second mentor.”
“Thank you,” Nasreen said with a hesitant smile, glancing at Ross with a myriad of questions teeming in her mind. “It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to be a part of this Order.”
“Well, isn’t that just peachy,” Ross grumbled.
“What is your reason for being here?” Ishan inquired, ignoring Ross. “Everyone has a story and I, unfortunately, have not heard it yet.”
“My parents were put in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. I don’t even know if they’re still alive. The King has to be put in check.”
Ishan smiled slightly. “We would all agree with that. Now, Ross will show you to a place where you can stay and tomorrow we can begin your training.”
Nasreen nodded and Ross stood up and hurried out of the room. Nasreen glanced back at Ishan and he gave her a weary smile. “Good luck.”
Nasreen exited the room and glanced at Ross. Ross gave her a withering look. “I respect that man as if he were my father–well, I respect him considerably more than my father–but sometimes he can be incredibly frustrating.”
“I know the type.” Nasreen followed Ross as he made his way through the underground complex. “So, what’s your story? Ishan says everyone has one.”
“I’m nobody,” Ross said flatly, a shadow crossing his face.
“Yeah, when people say that I just assume they have some dramatic, dark backstory. I’ll get it out of you eventually.”
“Sure you will.”
They passed a young woman with dark hair who nodded to them as they passed. “Who’s that?” Nasreen asked.
“And who’s that?” Nasreen inquired, indicating a man passing by who was obviously preoccupied with a thick journal in his hand.
“Do you know everyone here?”
Ross shrugged. “For the most part.” He opened another door and gestured inside. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Try not to burn the place down.”
“Haha,” Nasreen said, rolling her eyes slightly. “See you later, Boss.”
July 15, 2016 update
(sorry if there are spelling/grammar mistakes; I wrote this in a hurry)
Nasreen’s eyes flew open and she stumbled out of her borrowed bed to go to the door. “What hour do you call this, Ross?” she demanded, rubbing a hand wearily over her eyes.
Ross smirked and nodded at Nasreen’s mess of flaming red hair. “Well, you’re not charming anyone with that hair.” Nasreen gave him an annoyed look. “It’s dawn. If I’m going to be a proper mentor I have to wake you up at unreasonable hours, right?”
“If that’s what your mentor did then I’m sure it’s the right thing,” Nasreen said pointedly, raising an eye( )ow. “He seems to have a head on his shoulders.”
“Don’t you start,” Ross growled. He turned and began striding down the passage.
Nasreen ran a hand hurriedly through her hair and attempted to catch up with Ross. “So, what task do you have for me today?”
Ross sighed deeply. “Well, since it’s going to take ages to teach you how to fight we can start with that.” They came into a crowded dining hall and Ross gestured to an empty wooden chair. “First you should probably eat something.”
Nasreen sat and Ross took the seat next to her. All around them was the sound of chatter and Nasreen was slightly overwhelmed by the amount of strange and vaguely familiar faces surrounding her.
“So, what do you notice?”
“What do you mean?” Nasreen inquired.
“Tell me about the people. Tell me about their lives, their opinions of others and the world.”
Nasreen narrowed her eyes. “I thought I was learning to fight first.”
“Rule one of being a mentor: we lie.”
“Yeah, you’ve lost my vote of confidence. Oh, wait...you never had it to begin with.”
“I think you’re avoiding my question.”
Nasreen glanced at the young woman seated across from her and scrutinized her for a moment. “Judging by her hair I’d say she originated from the upper class. There’s a silver pin on her cloak, too, that’s either stolen or a family heirloom. I’d say the latter based on my previous remark.”
Ross tilted his head slightly. “You’re admittedly better at this than I thought you would be.”
“This is how we gather information on potential targets, isn’t it?”
“Correct deduction number three. When you’re ready we’ll visit some upper class events and spy on the guests.” A sly smile spread across Nasreen’s lips and Ross gave her a wary look. “What?”
“You’re from the upper class.”
“What?” Ross repeated with a deadly edge to his voice.
“How else would you get into those events? You’re from the upper class, that’s why you’re entrusted with spying on them.”
“And killing the corrupt ones.”
“Which is all of them.”
“Not as many as you think.”
Nasreen shrugged and smirked in satisfaction. “There’s a reason I chose this path, you know. I’m not entirely incompetent as you seem to think I am.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Ross grumbled, rising. “Let’s see if you have fists as quick as your tongue.”
Ishan decided to join Nasreen and Ross in the nearly empty training room, watching as Ross explained the basics to Nasreen. The boy had talent, that was certain, and most agreed that he was nearly ready to become a mentor. He had a rough, a( )asive sort of exterior but Ishan knew Kazmer well enough to know that there was compassion somewhere in his heart.
“Since you won’t be taking down targets anytime soon I figure we can start with some basic hand-to-hand combat in case you need to defend yourself.”
“I lived on the streets for nearly my entire life. I think I know how to handle myself.” Nasreen aimed a punch for Ross’s jaw, which he neatly dodged.
“Oh, look, we have another ‘tough girl’ with delusions of grandeur,” Ross remarked tartly. “I haven’t heard that story before.”
“Aha! So there is another woman in your life,” Nasreen said, grinning. “What’s she like, huh?”
Ross swiftly knocked Nasreen’s feet out from under her. She landed hard on her back and she struggled for ( )eath for a moment. “I hope you're losing some of the hot air in that inflated sense of ego of yours.”
Nasreen launched herself from the ground and planted both feet in Ross’s chest. “Yeah, not really.”
Ishan watched as the two of them fought for nearly two hours, both with fists and words. Ishan couldn’t help a smile from creeping across his face. Kazmer was finally receiving a taste of his own sarcastic medicine. When Nasreen escaped Ross’s headlock with a swift kick to the groin Ross decided that it was probably time they took a ( )eak. Nasreen laughed and strolled away to grab a drink of water, leaving Ishan and Ross alone.
“Why did they assign Darzi to me?” Ross muttered. “She’s insufferable.”
“It was my suggestion. I think she will be good for you, Ross. Doesn’t she remind you of someone?”
“This is a waste of my time. I should be out there ( )inging those rats to justice and I’m stuck here with this girl.”
“You need a ( )eak, Kaz. You know why.”
“It was one mistake.”
“One that you can never afford to make again.”
Ross advanced on Ishan, fire blazing behind his golden eyes. “You’re just trying to hold me back. You have too many rules, Ishan, all of you. I could do so much. I think of you as my father, Salehi, but you’re starting to act too much like my real one.”
Ishan gave Ross a warning look and was about to speak again when Nasreen reentered the room. “So, Boss, what’s next?” she asked, eyes sparkling like ocean waves.
Ross gave Ishan one last poisonous glance before turning his attention to Nasreen. “Let’s see how you handle a sword.”
July 17, 2016 update
After a frustrating lesson in which Ross attempted to teach Nasreen how to properly handle a sword while Nasreen made sarcastic jabs at Ross’s hygiene, Ishan, Ross, and Nasreen returned to the dining hall for lunch. The room was noticeably less full at this hour, and when Nasreen asked why Ross replied that most people would be out in the city.
“How big is this place, exactly?” Nasreen inquired, gesturing vaguely around with her fork.
“The Order’s city is spread across the entirety of the surface city,” Ishan answered. “I doubt you will spend time in every part of our city.”
Nasreen took another bite of her roast meat. “I have to say, the food here is better than I expected.”
There was a pause in the conversation before Ross interjected, “Well, luckily for me you already seem to have some skill, Darzi.”
“In the area of hand-to-hand combat, I would agree that Nasreen does not need much instruction,” Ishan added. “When it comes to weaponry, however…”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t exactly grow up in an environment that gave me that sort of experience. That’s why I’m here–to learn new things.”
“I suggest the two of you spend the afternoon in the city,” Ishan said, nodding. “Kazmer can begin training you in the area of espionage and once we’ve determined where your strengths and weaknesses are we’ll go from there.”<( ) /> “In that case, I ought to get my cloak,” Ross replied, rising. He strode off and disappeared into an adjoining corridor.
“I do apologize that you have to experience such…unusual training,” Ishan said to Nasreen once Ross had gone.
“Oh, it’s fine. Ross is a bit rough around the edges but I can tell it’s mostly because he’s bitter about having to train me.”
“That he is,” Ishan sighed. “Hopefully he will come to understand that I am trying to help him.”
“So, where does Ross come from? Who are his parents?”
Ishan smiled slightly. “I’m afraid that is for Kazmer to tell you, not me.”
“Okay,” Ross began with a sigh. “You see that man over there? The tall blonde one.” Nasreen nodded. “He’s a blacksmith from another city come to visit his dying mother.”
Nasreen gave Ross a sideways glance and smirked. “You gathered all of that just by looking at him. I guess I’m supposed to be impressed.”
“This is what I do, Darzi. I observe people and determine their character. I know that he is a blacksmith because of his upper body muscle and the way he carries that hammer in his hand. There’s slight scarring from burns on his lower arms meaning that he has worked with hot metal long enough to make several mistakes. He’s from another city because he–”
“Alright, General Gold-eyes, I think I get the idea. You think that you know about someone that you know the person?”
“I don’t have to personally know my targets to make the call.”
“Is that so? So, how do you explain your little mishap with the duke?”
Ross turned on Nasreen with a deadly gleam in his hawk-like eyes and he yanked Nasreen further into the narrow alleyway by the arm. “Ishan–”
“Didn’t tell me anything. You’re not the only person with ears and I can make deductions just as well as you can. You made a bad call with that duke; you killed an innocent man.”
“No one is truly innocent.”
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
Ross’s expression darkened further. “If you think you’re so clever, why don’t you tell Ishan that you don’t need my training any longer?” he snapped.
Something shifted in Nasreen’s eyes. “Look,” she began quietly, “I chose this area of expertise because I have natural skills. That doesn’t mean I have nothing to learn. I know I might seem like an irritating thorn in your side but you know what they say–the most arrogant people have the lowest self-esteem. As much as I hate to admit it, I do need your help. If I ever want to avenge the wrongs done to this kingdom I need your help.”
At that moment, several figures appeared in the mouth of the alley behind Nasreen and Ross. “You two there! Stay where you are.”
Ross hurriedly pulled his hood closer about his face. “I’ve got this,” Nasreen said with her trademark smirk, turning on her heel to face the trio of helmeted soldiers. “Oh, hello there. Trina, Caldan. And is that Reggie?”
The third soldier lowered his spear at Nasreen’s chest. “It’s Reginald and you know it, fox.”
Nasreen raised her hands in a motion of surrender. “Hey, there’s no need for that.”
“You’re under arrest,” Reginald growled.
“Whatever for?” Nasreen asked in mock surprise.
“Oh, let me see. Theft, arson, harassing of the King’s soldiers, aiding and abetting of criminals…I think that’s enough to be going on.”
“Well, while my friend and I would love to visit the King’s dungeons–I hear they smell lovely this time of year–we do have a bit of a tight schedule.”
The soldiers began to advance with their weapons ( )andished at Ross and Nasreen. Nasreen glanced back at Ross. “This is the part when we run.”
Nasreen grabbed Ross’s hand to get him sprinting before she let go and began thinking quickly. Hoping Ross would follow her, Nasreen swung around to the left, quickly taking another left and bolted into the main street. Nasreen glanced over her shoulder and found that Ross was indeed close behind, so she wheeled to the right and pulled open the door of the bakery. Ross hurried inside after her and gave her a suspicious look.
“We could have easily taken the three of them. Why did you run?”
Nasreen waved to the smiling baker and stepped into the back room. “Half of them are just working for the King because they have to feed their families.”
Ross wasn’t certain how to reply to that. “They won’t find us in here?”
“Nah. We lost them. Plus, I got the baker out of a bad spot a while back so he lets me hide in here when the soldiers are after me.”
“You have a bit of a reputation, then.”
“With a goldsmith’s fingers, of course I’m an excellent pickpocket.”
July 20, 2016 update
The next few days seemed to blend together with the amount of training Nasreen went through. Though she wouldn’t admit it, every evening Nasreen was so exhausted that she could hardly do much else than collapse in bed without dinner. She met a couple of the other Order members in passing. A young woman named Lorelei made a particular impression, and Nasreen hoped that when she was less busy she could get to know some of these people better. She, after all, would be working with them for the rest of her life. However long that was.
“Oh, shut up and give me five minutes,” Nasreen grumbled, pressing her face into her wonderfully plushy pillow. Eventually, Nasreen did get up and as she pulled on her coat and struggled out the door she was faced with Ross. “I see what you’re trying to do here, Clever Hans. I don’t wear down easily.”
“Come with me,” Ross sighed wearily, turning and striding off.
“So, what’s the plan for today?” Nasreen asked, walking alongside Ross with a cheerful bounce in her step just to annoy Ross further. “Dueling with swords? Spying on tailors?”
“Neither,” Ross replied, opening a door to one of the bedrooms lining the hall and stepping through it.
“Let me guess,” Nasreen said, glancing around at the starkly decorated chamber. “This is your room.”
“I stay here most of the time. Tell my parents that I’m travelling.”
“So, what’s going on?”
“It’s your lucky day, Darzi. We’re headed up to the city this evening to attend an event being held by my parents.”
“You think you’re ready to set me loose on the upper class society? That’s probably a mistake.”
“We’re going to spend the entire day working on your etiquette and an alibi.”
“You can’t just go alone?”
“Ishan wants me to ( )ing you along as practice.”
“Well, I hope you’re up for the task because as a poor, uneducated soul I couldn’t possibly hold my own at a swanky soiree.”
“The first thing you need to lose is that sarcastic attitude,” Ross remarked. “People remember that sort of thing and you need to be as forgettable as possible. Oh, and you’ll need this.”
Ross crossed the room and pulled open the doors of his wardrobe, taking out a rippling gown of a ( )illiant teal hue.
“Aww, you’re such a sweetheart, Kazzie,” Nasreen said, taking the dress and then giving him a sly smile. “What was this doing in your wardrobe?”
“It’s my sister’s,” Ross grumbled in annoyance. “And don’t ever call me ‘Kazzie’ again.”
“You’re the Boss.”
Ross rubbed a hand over his face. “This is going to be impossible.”
“You bet your silk pantaloons it will be.”
“Will you just be quiet for five seconds and let me explain what you need to do?” Ross snapped. Nasreen lifted an eye( )ow and Ross continued. “First, we need an alibi for you. I was thinking that you could be the savage cousin who ran away from home to live in the forest, which would explain your unbearably annoying behavior.”
“Hm, that could work. I think you’ve missed the part where I ran away from home because I was being bored to death by a family of surprisingly smelly rogues.”
“What would you suggest, then?”
“Family is tricky. I could always come as your lady friend,” Nasreen said, lifting a suggestive eye( )ow.
Nasreen grinned. “I don’t know a thing about your family tree. Do your parents have any siblings?”
“Yes. My father has two ( )others and my mother has two sisters and two ( )others.”
“Any bad blood there?”
“Well, one of my mother’s ( )others was estranged from the family when he married a poor girl and we haven’t heard from him since then.”
“The answer is obvious, then. I’m their child,” Nasreen said.
“No, I don’t think you understand. My parents hate that man and his wife because he ( )ought disgrace on our family’s name.”
“I’ll be a lovely topic of conversation, then. Plus, if you vouch for me then they should be fine with it, right?”
“Maybe,” Ross conceded.
“What is this event for, anyway?”
“My sister has recently become engaged to a man called A( )axas Mataraci. He’s from a very distinguished family line and though my sister isn’t entirely happy about the whole thing my parents hope that the marriage will help restore our reputation.”
“You see, this is why I avoid the upper class politics. Too confusing.”
“If you’re going to be my cousin, your last name is going to be Percivale. First name is up to you. Until you figure that out I’ll need to teach you how to act when we arrive. You’ll have to put on the dress first.”
“You’re a bold knave,” Nasreen replied in a sultry tone, impishly reveling in the frustration that rose in Ross’s face.
“In your room, Darzi!” Ross exclaimed. “Why do you have to turn everything I say against me? Do you really hate me that much?”
“I don’t hate you,” Nasreen said, sauntering to the door with a grin, “I just think it’s fun to torment you.”
In the end, Ross was able to teach Nasreen the basics of etiquette and when he finally gave up he said that his parents probably expected her to be an uncouth little devil anyway. The dress was becoming uncomfortable but Nasreen was able to take if off for a few hours in the afternoon before they had to depart.
“So, here’s the full effect. How do I look?” Nasreen said as she exited her room and stood before Ross. Ross looked smarter than usual with an em( )oidered vest and boots accented with silver.
Ross appraised Nasreen. “Well, nobody will recognize you as the scruffy pickpocket who harasses soldiers now, that’s certain.”
“I take that as a high compliment, sir,” Nasreen said, attempting to use the smooth, polite language of the upper class.
“We need to hurry if we want to make it to my parent’s house on time,” Ross said.
“Alright, I’ll go as quickly as I can in these unbearably uncomfortable shoes.”
“Good. Follow me–I know the fastest way there.”
Nasreen nodded and walked alongside Ross through the hall, coming out into the damp tunnel beyond. She picked up the hem of her dress and remarked to herself that this was the reason she never wore long gowns, skirting around the moisture at the base of the curved passage.
This particular exit was a barred circular gate, a spill-off for the sewer system into the ocean. “I hope your balance is good, because we have some climbing to do,” Ross said.
Nasreen peered between the rusted bars out at the rippling waves. “If I fall into the ocean, I’ll make sure you come with me, don’t worry.” Ross struggled through the bars and stood on the outside ledge. “Watch and learn, Boss,” Nasreen said as she slipped through the bars with ease.
“Like I said, you have no muscle.”
“All the better to escape from dungeons with, my dear.”
Nasreen came around the corner and inched along the ledge, glancing down at the waves before leaping up and grabbing hold of the edge of the pier. She boosted herself up onto the narrow road and looked down at Ross with a confident grin. “All in a dress, too.”
Ross climbed up to join Nasreen at the edge of the city. The buildings around them were much larger and elegantly decorated than the narrow apartments Nasreen had grown up around. “This house is mine,” Ross said flatly, gesturing up to the left.
Nasreen raised an eye( )ow. “With a gigantic, luxurious house like this no wonder you choose to live in the sewer.”
“It’s the people, not the house,” Ross retorted. “Come on.”
“Ah, yes, I am quite excited to meet your lovely parents. It’s a bit soon, I think, but I understand,” Nasreen said, patting Ross’s arm as she walked alongside him. “You’re just too taken with me.”
“Oh, yes, that’s it. I’ve fallen in love with my deranged cousin who also happens to be my irritating apprentice from an Order that isn’t supposed to exist.”
“So, if this is your house, why are we going in the back door?” Nasreen asked, gesturing pointedly to the door that Ross had just opened.
“It’s better this way, trust me,” Ross replied shortly, stepping through and allowing Nasreen inside before closing the door behind her.
Nasreen turned to face a servant. They were standing in a narrow hall, probably close to the kitchens due to the lovely scents wafting through. “Oh, hello. I’m Lydia Percivale.”
“Sir Kazmer?” the woman said in confusion, looking past Nasreen. “You’re back?”
“Yes,” Ross replied uncomfortably.
The servant smiled and rushed forward to take Ross’s hand. “Oh, your mother will be so pleased to see you.”
“Is she upstairs?”
“In the atrium I believe. The first guests have begun to arrive and the entire house is abuzz.”
“Thank you,” Ross said with a polite smile and a nod. “It’s good to see you again, Valerie.”
Ross gestured to Nasreen to follow him and the two of them hurried up the stairs and into a finely carpeted hallway. Nasreen couldn’t help but appraise every knickknack as they passed. That blue vase from the Eastern Empire was worth a small fortune. Too large to steal, though. As they passed a gold figurine of a soldier on horseback Nasreen picked it up and snuck the figure in her pocket. Smirking to herself, Nasreen caught up with Ross just as they were entering the cavernous, glittering atrium.
Almost immediately, a figure rushed toward Ross and enveloped him in a tight hug. “Kaz, you’re back!”
Nasreen smirked as Ross tried to escape his mother’s em( )ace with an annoyed expression. “I wouldn’t have missed my sister’s engagement party for anything,” he said in a muffled sort of voice.
“That’s sweet of you, darling. Who’s this?”
Ross was finally able to ( )eak away and he glanced back at Nasreen. “Oh, that’s Lydia Percivale. I visited their home and she tagged along with me.”
“Quintus Percivale’s daughter?” Ross’s mother said hesitantly.
“That’s me,” Nasreen replied with a smirk.
Ross gave Nasreen a threatening look and Nasreen shrugged. “Well, it is lovely to meet you,” Ross’s mother finally responded in a polite but detached tone. “I don’t know how much your parents have spoken of me. I am Brigitte Ross.”
“It’s nice to meet you as well,” Nasreen said. As Brigitte turned to find her husband Nasreen glanced pointedly at Ross. “How am I doing?”
“Fine, so far.”
“Your mom seems...nice.”
“It’s enough with you being here. I don’t need you to talk about my family as well.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll go and mingle. You talk to your estranged parents.”
Ross watched Nasreen’s retreating back suspiciously. “Kaz! You actually came.” Ross’s attention shifted to the young woman standing before him. Like him, she possessed dark hair and ( )illiant golden eyes but they were hard and calculating.
“Of course.” Ross’s gaze moved to the man standing next to his sister. “Hello again, father.”
“Kazmer. I hope you’re doing something useful for once.”
“Unless you count travelling as useful, no.”
“Just as I thought. The King has offered another position for you in his staff and I really think you ought to take it.”
“I’m not here to talk about my occupation, father. The only reason why I came at all is to make certain Griselle’s fiancée is a decent person.”
“He has money and an influential position. Much more than Lydia’s parents can say, I’m sure.”
“Again, not here to chat with you.”
“I’ll introduce you to A( )axas,” Griselle said, taking Ross by the arm. As they strolled out of their father’s earshot, Griselle gave Ross a pointed look. “Working for the King would be the best thing to happen to you, Kaz. I mean, look at me now.”
“Yes, you’ve made our parents angry with your choice in career and they’re forcing you to marry a man you don’t love because they want to keep you under control.”
“But I’m still working for the King in the most honorable service.”
Ross narrowed his eyes and decided to change the subject. “How’s Marcus?”
“He’s doing much better, you know. He might even come downstairs to join the party for a while.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“Oh, here he is,” Griselle said, gesturing to a clump of men standing by the fireplace in a small room adjacent to the atrium. “A( )axas, I’d like you to meet one of my ( )others, Kazmer.”
One of the men turned and Ross immediately began to evaluate him. Pale blonde hair, clever green eyes. Yes, his family must be quite wealthy and influential due to the fine, rich material his suit was made of. A( )axas offered his hand and Ross shook it firmly. “Excellent to meet you,” he said with a cool sort of smile. Ross nodded with a polite stiffness.
Nasreen sashayed around the swelling multitude of guests and surveyed each one of them as she passed. Batting eyelashes, flattering words...it seemed that everyone here wanted something from someone else present. Well, wasn’t that what these parties were really for? Innuendo seemed to be oozing from everyone’s perfectly smooth skin and Nasreen couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like if she had been raised in this social circle.
“Excuse me, my lady, but I don’t believe I have had the pleasure of meeting you.”
Nasreen turned smoothly to face a young man with driftwood colored hair and olive green eyes. She raised an eye( )ow skeptically. “No, I wouldn’t expect you have since my parents were cut out of this family years ago. Lydia Percivale, by the way.”
The boy smiled. “What a coincidence. I’m Tristan Percivale. I didn’t realize I had another sister.”
Nasreen’s eyes widened. “Here Ross told me that there was no way any of you would be here.”
“Well, I’m telling people that I’m Hunter Gillan. I assume you’re incognito as well.”
“No, I’m your long-lost sister,” Nasreen replied in an air of mock seriousness.
“Don’t tell Kazmer that I’m here. He doesn’t even know I’m part of the Order and I’d like to keep it that way.”
“The Order?” Nasreen repeated, feigning confusion.
“I’m not stupid. I know the two of you are here from the Order.”
Nasreen gestured to Tristan to follow her out onto the balcony beyond the parlour. “I wouldn’t talk about the Order so loudly,” Nasreen suggested as they stood in the quiet of the falling night. “Why are you here, then?”
“I received a message from the Order that I should come here. I still haven’t determined why.”
“Well, isn’t this a convenient coincidence?” Nasreen remarked.
“So, are you Kazmer’s...apprentice?”
“Yes, and I am single since that’s what you’re insinuating,” Nasreen replied with a wily look. “How do you know so much about Kazmer, anyway, when he knows basically nothing about your side of the family?”
“I don’t know that much about him, I admit, but through my communications with Duchess Everdys I have discovered that he is a member of the Order,” Tristan replied.
“And if your parents were disowned...where do you live?”
“Our house is out in the countryside, not too far from the city but far enough that we are rarely bothered by the King’s unreasonable demands. My family has been loyal to the Order for generations and as such we are a kind of sentinel for the comings and goings of the city. I’ve trained a set of birds to carry messages between us and the Order.”
“I must admit that I’m quite impressed, Hunter. Ross is about as interesting as a log and I have to admit that my time at the Order has not been as fascinating as I thought it would. I’ve learned a lot, but there hasn’t been enough running involved. Love the running.”
“Well,” Tristan said, glancing back into the warm glow of the house, “I think we are moving into the dining room. I expect there will be a dance afterward.”
“Yes, I expect so as well,” Nasreen replied with a pointedly arched eye( )ow.
“Might I have the first dance?” Tristan inquired politely.
“Yes, I think you might.”
August 7, 2016 update
It was late afternoon in the city and Nasreen and Kazmer were casually walking the streets to observe patterns of behavior amongst the soldiers. Ross wore a cloak, as usual, though this one was decidedly more conspicuous with silver accents and patterns lining the crimson material. “When you said this afternoon was going to be interesting you failed to mention that there would be nothing interesting whatsoever,” Nasreen remarked in a bored tone.
“I think it should be clear by now that you and I have very different definitions of what is interesting.”
“Well, I’d say that having a fistfight with your father at the end of that party was definitely interesting and you seemed to think so too.” Nasreen smirked. “It’s a wonder your family hasn’t disowned you yet.”
“They don’t want my sister to inherit.”
“They disapproved of her choice in career and now they question her judgment in everything else.”
“Ah, clear answers,” Nasreen sighed. “Now, doesn’t that feel good to get that off your chest?”
Nasreen made a face and poorly mimicked Ross’s lower tone. “Not really.” She rolled her eyes. “Lighten up for once, will ya? I’m going to get us something to eat. You go stare at strangers and try to figure out what they ate for ( )eakfast.”
“Try not to get yourself into trouble. I’d hate to see you come back with a black eye. Wait…no, that would be amusing to see.”
“I’ll try my best, Captain Giggles.”
Kazmer sighed heavily. “She’s going to be the death of me,” he muttered. “Or at least the serious wound of me.”
Nasreen hurried off purposefully. Lesson one of being a thief: always look like you know what you’re doing. People ask less questions if you walk with purpose. Of course, with a few coins in her pocket Nasreen planned to honestly buy her food but it was an old habit to think like a thief.
“Excuse me, miss.”
Nasreen groaned inwardly and turned to face a woman in a decorated uniform. Dark ( )own hair, keen amber eyes…familiar, somehow. “Can I help you?”
“You can, actually. I’ve been hearing repeated reports of a redheaded thief who’s been harassing my patrols.”
“Well, I think you’ve got the wrong redhead,” Nasreen replied. “I mean, there are quite a few of us.”
The woman looked past Nasreen with a clever gleam in her eyes. “Is this her, officer?”
“Most certainly, ma’am,” replied a familiar voice.
Nasreen turned on her heel with a defensive smile. “Hello, there, Reginald. You aren’t still upset about me calling you Reggie, right?”
Nasreen made to run off but suddenly felt a sharp pain in her abdomen. Nasreen stumbled backward as burning agony shot through her and the woman withdrew her dagger from Nasreen’s stomach. Nasreen cursed. “What was that for?”
“You’ve resisted arrest before. I, unlike my sadly incompetent inferior officers, am willing to take more drastic measures to ensure you come with us quietly.”
Nasreen tightened her belt around her wound and hoped that would at least slow the bleeding. “I must applaud you for your efficiency. You’ll spare the executioner a lot of work.”
The woman nodded to Reginald, who took Nasreen’s arms and prepared to cuff her hands together with heavy manacles. He hesitated, however, giving Nasreen the ghost of a look that she took to mean he was on her side. In thanks, she punched him slightly less forcefully in the face than she did the woman. The woman recovered quickly and her fist flew toward Nasreen’s jaw. Nasreen blocked the blow with her arm but regretted the decision not to dodge as a smarting ( )uise bloomed over her pale skin. Nasreen ducked under the next blow from Reginald and knocked his feet out from under him. She deftly somersaulted across the ground and leapt to her feet to kick the woman firmly in the stomach. The woman doubled over and Nasreen took the opportunity to grab up a wooden crate and slam it over the woman’s head. She crumpled to the ground, incapacitated, and Reginald gave Nasreen a subtle nod. Nasreen sprinted off, the wound on her abdomen throbbing intensely. The world began to swirl before her eyes. She’d be fine with some rest, surely. All she needed to do was find Ross and get him out of here before the soldiers recovered.
Nasreen came across Ross standing the same alley she had left him in. “They’ve stopped handing out food to wanted criminals? That’s a shame.”
“Oh, yes, very clever,” Nasreen replied. “No, there wasn’t anything decent in the market. We should probably get back to the Order, though. I saw some soldiers who may have spotted me in return.”
“Brilliant espionage work, Darzi,” Ross said sarcastically. “You’re quite a natural at blending in.”
“Come on.” Nasreen turned and began to stride off, though she swayed slightly and pressed a hand to her abdomen.
Ross caught up with Nasreen and gave her a look of genuine concern. “Are you alright?” he asked seriously.
“Fine,” Nasreen answered with a dismissive wave of her hand. “And since when do you care?”
“I think rule number one of mentoring is to not let your students die.”
“I thought rule number one was that mentors lie.” Nasreen stumbled a bit. “You know, if you’re going to be a spy, you’d better…you’d better work on consistency…”
With that, the world tipped sideways and Nasreen’s vision went dark.
“You know, anyone else would have said right away that they were wounded and gushing blood. But, I suppose staying quiet and bleeding to the point of passing out will get the point across, too.” Nasreen tried to piece her thoughts back together as Lorelei switched out her dove-grey gloves and said something about staying in bed for a while. Then, someone took her arm gently and helped her to her feet. “Come on, let’s get you back to your room,” Ross said, holding out Nasreen’s shirt to her.
Nasreen glanced down at the bandage wrapped around her waist, then back up at Lorelei. “Thanks for…you know, not letting me bleed out.”
“Of course,” Lorelei replied with an amused smile. She helped Nasreen pull her shirt over her head and then Ross escorted Nasreen from the room.
“How did this happen?” he asked immediately as they walked down the darkened hall of damp stone.
“Maybe you should ask your sister,” Nasreen answered venomously. “She’s a soldier, isn’t she?”
Ross froze in his tracks, causing Nasreen to jerk to a halt as well. “You saw Griselle?”
“Saw her, fought her, knocked her out. It had to be her; I mean, she has the same hair and eyes as you. She gave me this lovely scratch with her dagger.”
A dark fire lit in Ross’s eyes. “She’s taken things too far this time.”
“Wait, wait. Why do your parents disapprove of her career choice? Shouldn’t they be happy, since the love the King and everything he does?”
“They think her talents would be better served elsewhere. Plus, they have certain connotations they associate with soldiers.” Ross ran an anxious hand through his hair. “You need to be more careful, Nasreen. My sister is ruthless and she won’t give up until she finds and kills you.”
“I’m just a petty thief.”
“A petty thief who bested her in a duel.”
“Well, if you expect me to stay in this underground city for the next few weeks, you’re wrong. We have things to do.”
“I don’t think you understand the gravity of this situation,” Ross replied, shaking his head.
Kazmer led his apprentice to her room and left her there with stern warnings that he would not let her leave until she had healed properly. “We’ll see about that, Dad!” Nasreen spat in reply as he closed the door. She stared resentfully at her ceiling for a full thirty seconds before trying to stand up. Well, perhaps she might lie here a bit longer…
Ross strode along the hall to Ishan’s office and stepped inside without knocking. Ishan looked up from his desk and a visitor glanced over his shoulder to give Kazmer a pointed look. “Oh, sorry,” Ross said quickly. “I didn’t realize Averon was here.”
“It’s perfectly alright,” Thelman replied. “You obviously have something important to say.”
“Yes, well…Darzi was attacked in the city today.”
“What?” Ishan said in disbelief. “How could you let this happen?”
“It wasn’t my fault; the girl has a mind of her own. She was stabbed by my sister, presumably when Darzi attempted to escape capture.”
Ishan’s expression darkened. “This is serious, Kazmer. Your sister is out of control.”
“I know. I’m not going to try and justify what she did. She wants to impress the King, and to do that she has to be as heartless as he is.”
“I will speak with Nasreen,” Ishan said, rising from his desk. He turned his attention to Thelman. “We can resume our conversation later, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.”
The three of them exited the office and as Ishan hurried off Thelman glanced at Kazmer. “Responsibility seems to be suiting you. I’ve noticed that there have been less reports of you getting into fights with other Order members.”
“I don’t know why the higher members of this Order decided to give me an apprentice,” Ross sighed in reply. “I’m far too young for their standards. I feel like they’re just trying to hold me back from reaching my real potential.”
“Your full potential, Kazmer, would be becoming a ruthless killer like your sister.”
Ross glared at Thelman. “You don’t know that. Besides, I would be exacting justice instead of killing innocent citizens.”
“I believe Nasreen will be able to teach you a thing or two about who is innocent and who is not, that is all.”
“Perhaps you ought to keep your opinion to yourself,” Kazmer snapped, striding off. Thelman shook his head wearily and watched the young man disappear. That boy’s heart was so full of bitterness…
Ishan knocked and entered Nasreen’s chamber. He found her attempting to lace up her boots as she perched on the side of her bed. “Going somewhere?” he asked with an amused smile.
“Not anymore,” Nasreen replied. “I guess Ross told you about my little altercation with his sister.”
Ishan nodded and took a seat at the chair by Nasreen’s desk. “You ought to be careful of your reckless nature. Kazmer is just the same, and I’m afraid that the idea of invincibility has gone to his head.”
“I’ll be more careful in the future, I promise,” Nasreen said seriously. “Usually, the soldiers leave me alone. I guess Griselle got fed up with their failure and decided to take matters into her own hands. I’ll keep far away from her soldiers in the future.”
“For your sake, I hope you do.” Something in Ishan’s worn face shifted. “Now, where were you planning on going?”
“I felt better, so I thought I’d get something to eat. I also had quite an interesting conversation with this girl, Su Ming, and I was going to see if I could find her.”
“So, you’re making friends, then?”
Nasreen shrugged. “Ross keeps me busy but I’ve met a few people I like. I could see Levora Serdan becoming a good friend. She told me about how you refused to let her be Ross’s apprentice.”
“I didn’t think they would get along well.”
“And you think Ross and I do?” Nasreen said with a snort.
Ishan smiled knowingly. “I think you complement each other well.”
Nasreen gave Ishan a suspicious look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Ishan rose and didn’t answer. “Well, if you’re doing well then I suppose I should get back to work. I’ll have Kazmer deliver some food to you–you need to rest.”
As soon as Ishan left the room Nasreen crept to the door and tried the handle. It refused to budge. “That clever rogue,” Nasreen remarked with a smirk. “He’s locked me in somehow.”
Ishan located Ross skulking around a nearby passage. “I was hoping to speak with you, Kazmer.”
“If it’s about Nasreen, I don’t want to hear it,” Ross retorted.
“On the contrary, it’s about a potential assignment for you.”
Ross perked up at that and gladly followed Ishan into his office. “Who do you want me to follow?”
Ishan couldn’t help but smile slightly at the note of enthusiasm in Ross’s tone. “Our correspondent outside the city just sent a letter to me via falcon. Apparently, he has caught wind of some conspiracies centered around a certain Lady Silvia Westmore. We believe she plans to have someone assassinated. Find out her motives and determine what we should do about this situation.” Ross reached out to take the letter, but Ishan held it firmly in his grasp for a moment, giving Ross a serious look. “This is a second chance for you, Kazmer. Don’t make another mistake.”
“I won’t,” Ross said tartly, snatching the letter out of Ishan’s hand and pocketing it. “I’ll leave right away. Luckily for us, my family is very close with the Westmores.”
“Oh, and Kazmer!” Ishan called after Ross as he approached the door. “Make sure you ( )ing Nasreen something to eat before you go.”
Ross muttered something sarcastic about having to babysit Nasreen but obeyed Ishan’s order anyway. He unlocked Nasreen’s door and slipped inside. “Come to visit the invalid prisoner, sir?” Nasreen asked with an affected accent. She was lying in bed again, the blankets pulled up to her chin.
“I ( )ought you dinner,” Kazmer replied indifferently.
“A thousand thanks. Did you by chance ( )ing one of those popovers?”
“What is the point of having you at my beck and call if you won’t ( )ing me one of those delicious pastries?”
Ross sighed and shoved the plate at Nasreen. “Just take the food and eat it, Darzi. I’m out of here for the evening so Ishan will be keeping an eye on you.”
“Where are you going?” Nasreen asked.
“Ishan finally gave me another assignment. I’m going to spy on Silvia Westmore.”
“Oh, I know her. I went to her house once disguised as a maid to steal her famous sapphire necklace. That was fun.” Nasreen tried to sit up but winced as a piercing pain went through her abdomen. Her cup fell to the floor and the contents spilled out across the stone.
Kazmer sighed and bent down to pick up the cup. As he did, Nasreen leapt out of her bed with a heavy book in her hands and swung it toward Ross’s head. Ross, however, reacted quickly and grabbed the book, yanking it out of Nasreen’s grasp and tossing it across the room. Ross prepared for Nasreen to attack but she sighed and shrugged. “Well, it was worth a try. Guess I’m stuck here. See you later, Ross.”
Kazmer raised a suspicious eye( )ow but left the room anyway. Nasreen hurriedly ate her dinner and grabbed up a patterned cloak she had pinched a few days ago. Perfect. Now, to pick the lock.
Warning: this bit is slightly violent
Kazmer knocked on the door of the grand Westmore house and was greeted almost immediately by Silvia’s daughter, Penelope. She blushed when she saw Ross and adjusted her hair. “Oh, Kazmer! I didn’t expect to see you here. Especially not so late. People might think it…improper,” she added with a seductive look.
“I was just here to visit, if that’s alright with your parents,” Ross replied, unfazed.
“Of course. Come in,” Penelope said sweetly.
Ross followed Penelope through the cavernous entrance hall and into a parlour where Silvia and her husband, Geoffrey, were seated. “Look who came to visit!” Penelope began, unable to hide her enthusiasm.
Silvia and Geoffrey greeted Kazmer warmly and after the usual chitchat of how relatives were doing Kazmer attempted to steer the conversation in the direction of politics. The Westmores, like Kazmer’s own family, were blatant in their support of the King. “And to think, your sister was just assaulted by a vagrant this afternoon!” Silvia exclaimed furiously. “These people are out of hand. It’s a good thing that the King is putting in measures to cut back crime significantly. Lionel Oswald doesn’t support the idea, which makes me wonder how committed he is to the cause.”
Lionel Oswald. The name sounded familiar…perhaps he was an Order member, or at least a relative to an Order member. “Have I met this Lionel Oswald before?” Ross asked. “The name seems familiar.”
“It’s likely you have. He comes to nearly every party.”
Yes, Lionel. Advocate of the people. He had been in danger of his life many times before; he was a good person.
“Mother, I think you’re boring Kazmer to death with this kind of talk,” Penelope interrupted.
“Quite right. Why don’t the two of you speak alone? Certainly you came for Penelope’s company, not ours.” Silvia gestured to Geoffrey and the two of them rose and quit the room.
“Our parents have been trying to push us together for years, haven’t they?” Ross remarked.
“It does make one wonder if they weren’t entirely wrong in doing so,” Penelope added pointedly with an expectant look at Ross. She moved a bit closer and took Ross’s hand in hers. “What do you like about me, Kazmer?”
Ross glanced uncomfortably at the door. “Well, I…um, I think you are quite a friendly young woman. Charming…and beautiful, of course.”
“You really think I’m beautiful?” Penelope said in a kind of purring whisper. “Well, I think you’re the most handsome man I’ve ever met. I’ve meant to say it for a long time, but I suppose now is as good a time as any.”
Kazmer stood a( )uptly before Penelope could get any farther. “I really ought to be going; it’s getting late.”
Penelope hurried after Ross as he practically sprinted for the door. “Wait!” she called after him. “I’m sorry if I seemed forward.”
“I’ll call at a more reasonable hour,” Ross insisted, hurrying off into the gathering darkness. He pulled his dark cloak around him and scaled one of the nearby buildings to perch on the roof, peering into the windows of the Westmore house. Silvia and Geoffrey seemed to be having a conversation in their room. Silvia kissed her husband lightly and then left him in the room alone. Ross watched as Silvia passed from one lit room to another until he spotted her slipping out the kitchen door with a cloak covering her shoulders and concealing her simple gown. Ross inched further along the roof to watch Silvia cross the street and meet a figure in the alley. She handed the stranger something, a leather pouch, perhaps, and then turned to reenter her home. So, she wouldn’t be doing the dirty work herself. That was hardly surprising.
Ross followed the figure from the shadows until he was forced to take cover behind a stack of crates as the stranger met up with a group of others. The figure he had been following removed his hood to reveal a head of pale blonde hair.
“She gave us half of the money now,” he said in a hoarse sort of voice. “The other half we’ll get once we finish the job. Three of you will go around to the back of the house, the rest of us will go in the front.”
Ross took that moment as his chance to step out from behind the crates and pull out one of his daggers, tossing it into the blonde man’s back with a dull thud. The man fell forward, dead before he hit the ground. The others in the group rushed forward, pulling out their weapons. Luckily, the assailants were prepared for a silent mission so their fight would not draw too much attention. Ross crossed blades with several of them at once and it seemed that everything moved ten times faster than it should have. Ross scored a few scratches but for the most part it was his opponents that received the damaging wounds. Blood ran in the street as two of the mercenaries fell to the ground. The other three decided to switch tactics, using their combined ( )ute strength to force the dagger from Ross’s hand and toss it aside, pinning his arms in the process. Ross struggled and it seemed for a moment that everything was a tangle of limbs. Then, out of nowhere, an arrow planted itself in the head of one of the mercenaries next to Ross. A few inches to the left and it would have been buried in Ross’s skull. Out of the corner of Kazmer’s eye, he could spot a figure slipping down from the top of a building and sprinting his way. The other two mercenaries let him go and charged toward the stranger. Both of them fell to the ground in a matter of moments, one of them sporting an arrow to the head and the other a slashed throat. The hooded figure approached, blood spattered across the dark material. From the rose pin on the cloak Kazmer could tell that the person was from the Order. The figure pulled off the hood and ( )illiant red hair spilled out. Nasreen’s aqua eyes glittered wickedly. “Hey, Ross.”
Ross felt fury mounting in his chest. “You could have killed me!”
“I know what I’m doing,” Nasreen shot back indignantly.
“There was absolutely no reason for you to follow me, especially not while you were injured. This was my assignment.”
“We’re a team, Kazmer, whether you like it or not,” Nasreen rejoined. The two of them advanced on each other until they were standing less than a foot apart, glaring into each other’s equally fiery eyes.
“What are you trying to prove by all of this?” Ross demanded.
“That I’m perfectly capable of being part of this Guild!” Nasreen shouted back. “No one has ever believed in me, not for one moment, and I’m sick of trying to prove myself over and over again!”
Something shifted in Ross’s expression and when he spoke next his tone was far softer. “I’ve been trying to prove myself to the Order for years. I know what it’s like to feel underappreciated.” Ross held out his hand. “You’re right, Nasreen. We’re supposed to be a team. So let’s work together on this, okay?”
Nasreen smiled. “Whatever you say, Boss.” Her smile turned into a smirk. “And since when do you call me Nasreen?”
Ross sighed wearily. “Let’s get back to the City. Lorelei would kill me if she knew I let you get out.”
“I’ve got a mind of my own.”
“That’s for sure.”
August 13, 2016 update
“It’s like I’m under house arrest,” Nasreen groaned to Kazmer. He paced around her room, deep in thought. “I’m not supposed to leave my room for the rest of the week and Everdys is going to send people in every half hour to make sure I’m still here. I’m not going to survive.”
“You just need a couple of days to heal, like Lorelei said. Then you should be back to…flirting or whatever you call what you do.”
“Oh, you’re just saying that because you got off with just a scolding.”
“A scolding from Everdys,” Kazmer pointed out. “That’s probably worse than house arrest.”
Nasreen shrugged. “She’s just trying to make sure we don’t do anything stupid again. I can understand that. I just don’t see why I have to stay in my room.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, the last time you were asked to rest you ran off and shot some people.”
“Bad people.”<( ) /> Kazmer frowned at a gold figure of a soldier on horseback which was sitting on Nasreen’s desk. “Where did you get this? It seems really familiar.”
Nasreen snickered. “I was wondering how long it would take you to notice. I filched it from your house when we were there last.”
Kazmer gave Nasreen an exasperated look but left the figure alone. “Well, while you’re here I’m going to send a message to my sister. She’s threatened her last innocent citizen.”
“I can’t believe I’m missing this,” Nasreen sighed miserably.
“I’ll send you a postcard,” Kazmer replied with a satisfied smirk.
“Oh, it just makes you so happy that I’m upset, doesn’t it?”
Nasreen made a sort of growling noise and threw herself face-down onto her bed. She shouted muffled profanity into her pillow and Kazmer inched out of the room. As soon as he opened the door, however, he nearly ran into Ishan.
“Oh, Kazmer. Good, I was hoping to speak with you.” Kazmer could tell that Ishan was deeply troubled by something, and after closing Nasreen’s door he navigated his way to Ishan’s study with Ishan at his side. They sat, and Ishan sighed heavily. “Kazmer, I hope you know that I have always believed you to be a capable student.”
“Most of the time, yes.”
“Well, then you ought to know that what I have to say next does not come from me, but the leaders of the Order.”
Kazmer felt resentment rising in his chest. “Let me guess. They want me to stay put until Nasreen and I learn how to handle ourselves outside of the Order again.”
Ishan nodded wearily. “I’ve negotiated the sentence down to about a week, but the two of you need to learn to be more discreet when navigating the city. I’ll be sending a warning to your sister in your place.”
“The Order has no idea what I’m capable of,” Kazmer snarled furiously. “I could do so much good and they want me to take it slow because I’m young.”
“I’m not going to take a side here, Kazmer. I care too much about you to do that.”
“Fine. They can’t keep me restricted forever. What I did last night was good, and yet I was reprimanded for it.”
“What you did was a good thing, but how you did it was another. The mercenaries are becoming a serious problem, but I should never have sent you in the first place. I’ve been taking things too fast since the incident and everyone disapproves. Especially Everdys.”
“What does Everdys know of what I can and can’t do? She’s not my mentor.”
“No, but she is trying to look after you all the same. I’m afraid Nasreen made a bit of a bad first impression as well, so I’d be careful not to step out of line around Everdys again.”
Kazmer leapt to his feet and strode to the door, cold fury blazing in his eyes. Ishan called out after him. “Kazmer? Is that a promise?”
Kazmer glanced back, and when he did Ishan was a bit unnerved by the grave ferocity to Kazmer’s expression. “I promise nothing. I have my methods and no one is going to tell me what to do.”
The door slammed shut and Ishan pressed his hands over his eyes. “What am I going to do about that boy?”
The door opened to Nasreen’s room and she hastily wiped the tears away from her eyes, stuffing something into her pocket as she did so. “You’re Enos Kerdan, right?”
“That is correct, my lady. I was sent here to see if your injuries are healing properly. I trust Lorelei did an excellent job, but she insisted upon me checking just in case.”
Nasreen sighed and lifted her shirt so Enos could check the bandage. “You seem to have healed remarkably quickly,” he said. “You will still need to rest for a few days but I wouldn’t be surprised if you could get back to training after that. I wouldn’t leave the Order for some time, however.”
“I’m a tough old bird,” Nasreen remarked in a snarky tone, straightening her shirt back to its proper place.
Enos gave Nasreen a mildly amused smile. “I will return to check up on you at some point in a few days. Until then, I would rest. That is the best thing you could do for yourself. If you don’t mind me asking, what were those other scars?”
Nasreen’s tone grew cold and hard. “I do mind, actually.”
“Of course. I apologize for asking. I hope to see you doing better when I return.”
Nasreen rolled her eyes. “Me too, for the entire Order’s sake.”
After Enos left it seemed days before Nasreen received her next visitor. This time, it was Everdys. She found Nasreen pacing in circles around her room with wide, nervous eyes. “How long have I been in here? It’s got to have been at least five hours. Maybe five days.”
“It’s been twenty minutes,” Everdys replied flatly.
Nasreen groaned. “I’m going to die here.”
“The entire point of this is so you don’t die. What you did was…entirely reckless and foolish. Of course, Kazmer should have ensured you never left in the first place. Neither of you should have been out there at all, actually.”
“I’m pretty sure we can handle ourselves.”
“And yet you’re here with a dagger wound to the stomach.”
“That was one mistake. Next time I’ll make sure Griselle doesn’t see me.”
“You have only just begun your time at the Order and yet you already seem determined to flaunt every single rule. Kazmer is moving far too fast in his training, probably because he hopes to be rid of you as soon as possible so he can continue with his reckless antics alone.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Nasreen said, her mind flashing back to when she had shouted the very same thing at Kazmer. “Kazmer? I have no idea. I’m still partially convinced that he’s a shockingly boring jerk with no sense of personal hygiene. But me? I’m pretty sure I know myself well enough. I’ve spent my childhood navigating the streets of the city. I started spying on others and stealing from then when I was seven.”
“You have much left to learn.”
“I know!” Nasreen exclaimed exasperatedly. “The best way I’m going to learn is through a hands-on experience and I’d say Kazmer’s doing pretty well with that.”
“Only recently, two of our young students have been killed on assignments outside of the Order,” Everdys shot back. “I don’t want to make it three.”
“Okay, so maybe two kids died. That’s life! People live and they die. I’d rather die doing my job out there than biding my time in here because I’m too scared to go out into the real world.”
“You forget your place,” Everdys said, and this time her tone was dangerously quiet. “You are still young and inexperienced. You ought to consider listening to those who have enough experience with the real world so you can avoid making the worst decision of your life.”
“Okay," Nasreen rejoined. "If I ever need advice, I’ll go to Ishan. He’s the only one around here who really seems to believe in me. That I can do something to help. Maybe if you wanted people to listen to your demands you should start trusting them a little, too.”
Ishan stepped out into the gently pouring rain and hastily pulled up the hood on his cloak. It had been quite a while since he had been outside of the Order, he had to admit, and it was good to be back in the city. His home was near the outskirt of the city but he hadn’t been back there since his wife died. It was a bit strange, too, to be going without Kazmer. Ishan sighed and tucked a slip of paper into his cloak as he strode past the guard and into a narrow alley. The rain caused the streets to shine with a pearly silver sheen and citizens ran around with their clothes plastered to them.
Ishan navigated the streets to Kazmer’s house easily. He could have ( )ought the letter to the barracks directly but there was more of a chance he would be recognized and remembered there. Ishan stepped up to the door, ensured that none of his silvery hair was sticking out from his hood, and knocked. In a few moments, a maid answered the door. “Hello, sir,” she said.
“A letter for Lady Griselle Ross,” Ishan replied, handing the letter to the maid. His hand was gloved, another precaution in case Griselle was as smart as he thought.
“My lady is out at the moment, but I will give it to her as soon as possible.”
The door closed and Ishan turned. His eyes immediately fixed on a hooded figure across the street, the only fixed point in a flurry of other strangers. Ishan crossed the road that approached the figure, who lowered his hood ( )iefly. A head of tawny hair was revealed, along with keen hazel eyes and a roughly shaven jaw. “Tristan,” Ishan said in some surprise. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“It’s good to see you. I need you to give this to Nasreen,” Tristan replied quickly, handing Ishan a scroll. Ishan gave him a puzzled look. “The conditions were a bit severe for one of my birds.”
“You know Nasreen?”
“Yes. We met at Griselle’s engagement party. Both of us were incognito. I thought you would know about that–the Order sent me a letter for me telling me to go there and observe the situation.”
“I know nothing of such a letter,” Ishan answered.
Tristan’s ( )ow furrowed. “Oh. Maybe someone else, then. I ought to go.”
Ishan took the letter. “I’ll ensure this makes its way into Nasreen’s hands, don’t worry.”
“Thanks,” Tristan said with a smile.
Not long after Ishan returned to the Order, Levora checked in with Nasreen. Nasreen seemed to be going a bit stir-crazy, sitting on the side of her bed with her hands wound in her hair, but she looked up hopefully when Levora entered. “Please tell me you’re here to get me out,” Nasreen said.
“Sorry,” Levora replied with an apologetic grimace. “Just here to deliver this.” She handed Nasreen a scroll. “Ishan would have given it you himself, but he’s a bit busy talking with Everdys.”
Nasreen grimaced slightly herself as she harkened back to her heated conversation with Everdys. She felt guilty for snapping at Everdys–after all, she was only trying to help–but Nasreen was a bit tired of people’s excuses. “Thanks,” she said, taking the scroll.
“How are you feeling?”
“Positively spiffing,” Nasreen responded dryly. “But seriously, I don’t know what the big deal is. I feel fine. Mostly.”
“Believe it or not, I understand how you feel right now.”
“Enos and Lorelei both think I’ll need about a month to heal completely, but hopefully I’ll be back to punching Kazmer before then.”
Levora laughed slightly. “Yeah, I expect you will be.”
Nasreen unfurled the scroll and her eyes flicked across it. Then, she allowed it to roll up again and set it aside. “Anything interesting?” Levora asked.
“No, not really,” Nasreen replied with a shrug. “Anyway, how are you doing?”
“Fine. Life as usual, you could say.”
A knock came at the door and Kazmer entered the room. “Hello, Serdan,” he said.
“Wait, do you call everyone by their last names?” Nasreen asked.
“Yeah. Thought you would have noticed that by now with your supposedly amazing espionage skills.”
Nasreen shrugged. “What are you doing here?”
“Just thought I’d stop by for a minute.”
“You’re bored, aren’t you?” Nasreen gave Kazmer an unimpressed look. “Or you’ve come to gloat about your little expedition to the city.”
“I never went. Ishan says that it’s for the best if I stay here.”
Nasreen smirked. “Well, I can’t say you don’t deserve it. Now we’re stuck here together.”
“I’ll talk to you later,” Levora said, crossing the room to the door.
Nasreen sighed as the door closed. “Nice job, Boss. She’s the one person I actually want to talk to around here. Oh, and Ishan. Whenever he’s not busy would you send him over here? I’d do it myself but I think I’d be incarcerated for life if I stepped out of this room for even a second.”
“Probably,” Kazmer agreed.
“Ah, resentful Ross has returned. Why am I not surprised?”
“I’m surprised you’re not going insane here.”
“I am. I keep trying to tell myself that this is for my good, that people are trying to care for me, but it’s not really working. Hopefully by staying here for a while I’ll be released for good behavior. At least I don’t have the track record you do.”
Kazmer frowned. “If we’re supposed to be working together, aren’t you supposed to stop with your endless insults?”
“That was never part of the terms and conditions,” Nasreen replied in mock seriousness.
“Right, then I’m going to leave,” Kazmer said, turning for the door.
“Aw, did Nasreen hurt Kazzie’s feelings?” Nasreen taunted in a singsong sort of voice.
Kazmer narrowed his eyes and exited the room, ignoring Nasreen’s mockery. The faster he trained her, the faster she would be out of his way.
Things seemed to settle down over the next few days. Nasreen was beginning to enjoy ordering Kazmer around while she was stuck in her room and Kazmer himself was cooling down and becoming less irritable. He even went as far as to apologize to Ishan and Everdys, though he refused to speak with the leaders of the Order. Finally, as dusk drew in a few days later, Kazmer entered Nasreen’s room to find that she was fastening a cloak around her neck. “Where are you going?” he demanded.
“Out,” she replied.
“Did someone say you could?”
“Yes,” Nasreen said pointedly. “Ishan and Enos agreed that it would be fine. I guess they just trust me more than you.”
Kazmer glared at Nasreen and a deadly edge came into his voice. “Where are you going?” he repeated.
Nasreen rolled her eyes. “Wow, you’re really turning into an overly protective mentor. I’m going on a date with your cousin,” she said sarcastically.
“Fine. If you don’t want to tell me, don’t. I guess I’ll have to ask Ishan.” Kazmer turned on his heel and left the room, fuming. If Ishan was sending Nasreen on an assignment outside the Order, there would be hell to pay.
Nasreen smirked at the closed door and tucked the scroll she had received a few days ago into her sash. “Oh, Kazmer, you’re so clueless.”
When Kazmer received no new information from Ishan he decided to revert to his core strengths: sneaking out and spying on people. It didn’t take long to find Nasreen making her way through the city, but he had to admit that she did an excellent job disguising herself. She’d managed to get hold of some kind of wig and the hair poking out from her hood was blonde. She was careful to avoid any soldiers who appeared in the streets and she waved to a few familiar people she passed. They hardly seemed surprised to see her in disguise.
Kazmer began to wonder where Nasreen was going when they headed for the outskirts of the city. He was certain that they would be moving in the opposite direction, toward the palace and the city center. That was where most of the action took place, anyway. Instead, Kazmer had to hang back and hope Nasreen didn’t notice he was following her as they stepped out into the open countryside. There was nowhere to hide here; of course, there usually wasn’t a reason to hide in the country. Where was she going?
Nasreen soon reached a stone cottage which sat in the middle of a valley, sheep dotting the landscape as they roamed freely over the land. She stood under the short stretch of overhanging thatched roof and knocked on the battered wooden door. In a few seconds, the door opened and revealed Tristan Percivale. He smiled ( )oadly. “I’m glad you could come, despite your injuries.”
“Well, Enos agreed that I could go as long as I didn’t get into trouble along the way and aggravate my wound.” Nasreen pulled off her hood and blonde hair, allowing her true fiery color to tumbled around her shoulders. “It’s better we’re meeting out here. We shouldn’t run into any soldiers. Is your family home?”
“Yes,” Tristan said. “Well, my father is out, but everyone else is here. I thought we could set up a kind of picnic by the cliff. The sunsets over the water are quite a sight.”
“I’m sure. Well, lead the way, good sir,” Nasreen said in that same affected accent she had used with Kazmer.
“We’ll go out the back. I still have to pick up the food from the kitchen.”
“Of course. Let me know how I can help.”
Nasreen and Tristan slipped inside the cottage and Kazmer advanced. He hadn’t been able to hear the conversation, but he vaguely recognized the boy. Where had he seen him before? Well, he would wait here and interrogate Nasreen when she returned.
Nasreen and Tristan strolled to the cliff in high spirits, taking in the intoxicating scent of the wildflowers and the sea. “It’s been ages since I’ve been on a date, you know,” Nasreen remarked. “My last boyfriend was…terrible.” Nasreen grimaced. “I had to kick him out of the city and threaten him within an inch of his life for him to leave me alone.” She laughed, though there was a bitter edge to the sound. She paused as they reached the edge of the cliff. “Wow, the sunset really is quite nice.”
It seemed that the sky was lit by fire, reflected in the rippling water to create an astounding effect that reminded Nasreen of fire opals. Shards of ruby and topaz danced across the water, gathering at the horizon in a blinding sheen of candescent white. “It is, isn’t it?” Tristan said with a smile. He laid out an old wool blanket and set out the meal for the two of them.
“I have to say, this is the nicest date I’ve ever had and it’s not even over yet,” Nasreen answered with another laugh, this one sweeter. “Usually they’d just take me to a tavern. Of course, that was always entertaining because I was an expert at starting bar fights.”
“I could see that.”
Nasreen took a bite of the tender roasted meat and her eyes widened. “This is amazing. I mean, really. Is it mutton?”
“Yep. Obviously most of the meat we have at our house is mutton, but this is my mum’s special recipe.”
“It’s fantastic. The potatoes are great, too.”
“Our neighbor grows potatoes and we trade him for wool and mutton.”
Nasreen sighed, gazing out at the opalescent water. “I’ve often wished that I could have lived a life like this. Everything is so simple. You have a real family who loves you and helpful neighbors.”
“Surely your family loves you,” Tristan insisted.
“Oh, my parents do, yes,” Nasreen said. “Or did. I don’t know if they’re still alive, to be honest. No, after that I had a kind of family in the city that I thought cared about me. Turns out I was wrong. They only wanted to exploit my talents as a thief.”
“I’m sorry. I know it doesn’t make it any better. Have you tried getting them out? You’re part of the Order now. I’m certain Ishan would approve of a noble cause like that.”
“He would, but I doubt some of the others would,” Nasreen said. “I’m a wanted woman now. Kazmer’s sister stabbed me, as you know, but since I hit her over the head with a crate I think she’s going to be looking for revenge.”
Kazmer’s legs were beginning to grow cramped as he crouched behind the bush but as he considered ( )eaking cover and finding Nasreen now, a man came strolling up the lane. He looked familiar, though it took Kazmer a few moments to realize that it was his uncle. He hadn’t seen the man since he was young, but there was no mistaking it. He looked very similar to Kazmer’s mother. Wait, so that meant…Kazmer watched the man enter the house Nasreen had stepped into not long ago. Oh, great. She hadn’t been sarcastic at all.
The stars were beginning to appear in the sky when Nasreen and Tristan returned to the cottage. “Thanks again for dinner,” Nasreen said ( )ightly. “Your mother is a wonderful cook.”
“Actually, all of that was my doing. I thought you might be hesitant to try something I cooked. I haven’t been doing it for long.”
“You sly knave!” Nasreen laughed. “I happen to have a very open mind when it comes to food.”
“Well, next time I’ll cook you some eel, then.”
“Looking forward to it!” Nasreen called over her shoulder, still chuckling as she closed the door behind her. She was enveloped in darkness and in the time it took her eyes to adjust Kazmer leapt out from the bush. Nasreen took a few steps forward before shouting in fright. “Ross! What are you doing here?”
“I was following you to see what you were up to,” Kazmer replied.
“Does Ross have a crush on his apprentice?” Nasreen said in the same singsong voice. “That’s sweet, darling, but I think I’m a bit out of your league.”
“No!” Kazmer snapped. “How do you know my cousin at all?”
“We’ve met in the city before.”
“I’m a member of the Order,” Tristan added, coming out of the cottage. “We met at your house for Griselle’s engagement party.”
“What? You were there the whole time?”
“It’s not as if you would have recognized me.”
“Why didn’t I know you weren’t a part of the Order?” Kazmer demanded. “Nasreen knows, and apparently Ishan knows because I doubt anyone else from the Order lives outside the city and sends messages with trained predatory birds.”
“Look, Kazmer, I just didn’t want to complicate matters in our family.”
“And now you’re dating my apprentice, apparently.”
Kazmer seemed as if he were about to explode and Nasreen smirked. “Come on, Boss. Let’s get back to the Order. Ishan’s going to freak out when he realizes you left too. I actually got permission to leave for the evening.” She waved at Tristan. “See you later.”
The two of them walked off down the gravel path. “I think you were just jealous.”
“Jealous of him?” Kazmer scoffed.
“No, jealous of the fact that I got to leave the Order. You were afraid I was doing something important.”
Kazmer gave Nasreen a sideways glance. “Maybe.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry because I’m not going to ( )ing justice to the city like I should be. I’m just going to visit a boy.”
“Alright,” Kazmer sighed heavily. “I’ll leave you alone in the future. I still wouldn’t trust my cousin, though.”
Kazmer’s expression darkened. “I have my reasons.”
Griselle’s footsteps could be heard along the damp hallway from the moment she opened the door. Her smart, sharp steps filled with ruthless ambition ( )ought dread into the hearts of most of the prisoners contained in the dungeons. She held her chin high as she passed by the inmates, considering them like trophies in a rapidly growing collection. The King was considering promoting her soon as a reward for her faithful service, and Griselle was desperate to have it. There was just one personal matter she needed to take care of first.
“My mother delivered this letter to me a few days ago,” Griselle said, handing the slip of paper over her shoulder to one of her subordinates. “A threat on my life if I continue my work.”
“Ma’am, this is serious. You ought to inform the King.”
“Don’t tell me what I ought to do,” Griselle snapped. “I will handle this matter myself. I want you to double the attacks on the city. Take anyone on my list of suspected criminals. Leave most of the mercenaries, though. They are sometimes essential in this line of work.”
“Now,” Griselle said, a dangerously satisfied smirk crossing her lips as she came to stand before one of the cells, “to the matter at hand.” The man and woman inside the cell, gaunt and wasted from their years in the prison, looked up at Griselle. “I’ve recently learned that the thief’s real identity is Nasreen Darzi from a former accomplice of hers. Apparently, he’s recently returned to the city and he exchanged information on Darzi for his criminal expungement. These are her parents.”
The couple exchanged worried glances. “Nasreen is still alive,” the woman ( )eathed.
“Oh, yes,” Griselle replied. “Alive and well…for now. Caldan, I want you to arrange the execution of these two. Make a public announcement. If I am right, Darzi will show up in an attempt to free her parents. We’ll be waiting for her.”
“No, please!” Nasreen’s father pleaded. “Take our lives, but leave our poor daughter alone!”
“I’m afraid your daughter has chosen to follow in her parents’ footsteps as a criminal,” Griselle said, lip curling into a sneer. “The fruit doesn’t fall from the tree, now does it?”
“You’re a monster!” Nasreen’s mother shrieked, leaping up and attempting to grab Griselle through the bars. Griselle, however, was too quick and with a flash of her silver blade the woman stumbled backward with a large gash to the face.
Griselle neatly wiped the blood from her blade on a cloth and returned her dagger to its sheath. “If you expect me to feel remorse you will be sorely disappointed. Enjoy your last days together.”
With that, Griselle turned sharply away and strode off with Caldan at her heels. Her vicious footsteps, sharp as the knife which rested on her thigh, faded away as she left the dungeons.
August 22, 2016 update
“Morning already? Well, that’s what the clock says. Could be wrong. It is getting old. Isn’t it?” Esther tapped the clock and it wobbled unsteadily on the table. “Hm. That’s rubbish. I ought to turn you into something useful, like a…oh, I don’t know. Never mind. You just stay put and do as your told.”
Esther turned to another of her desks, her pale fingers drifting over the materials scattered over the scratched and scorched wooden surface. “Now, where was I?” She picked up a vial of a silver liquid and held it up close to her eyes. “Ah, I’d wondered what I did with this. Caesium, yes? Yes, yes, it’s definitely caesium. Someone’s been moving my things again. Wait, no…that was me. Earlier this morning. Or this evening. Whatever time it is.” She placed the vial on a rack of others. A smoky, burning smell drifted to Esther’s nose and she turned on the spot, eyes widening. “Oh, no, no. Don’t do that, I only just–”
A glass beaker exploded with tremendous force and shards of hot glass flew across the room. Esther ducked before bustling forward and singeing the hem of her colorful dress as she attempted to clean up the mess of chemicals. “Hm, that’s not good. Looks like this won’t make a panacea after all. Magnum opus, cauda pavonis…” Esther scribbled a few alchemical symbols in white chalk on the table, glancing up at the wall to reference her abundant chalk drawings and equations there.
A knock came at the door and Esther jumped in fright. “No one’s supposed to be here,” she muttered to herself. “No one is around for miles. Wait, no, that can’t be right. Yes, yes, I’m quite sure I live alone.” Her eyes flicked around the room. “Quite possibly.”
Esther approached the door cautiously as if it might be alive, reaching for the handle and pulling the door open. She tilted her head from side to side as she considered the dark-haired woman standing before her. Then, her face ( )oke into a smile. “Everdys! Have you done something different with your hair? I didn’t recognize you for a moment.”
“Not quite. I was just passing by when I heard some loud noises. Are you alright?”
“Of course,” Esther said with a laugh. “Why wouldn’t I be alright? Oh, while you’re here, you simply must see this. Come in.”
Everdys sighed softly but followed Esther into her room filled with vivid colors, pungent odors, and soft dinging sounds from a clockwork device that spun and whirred. There were many such devices around the room, most of them partially disassembled and left in pieces on various workbenches. There was a bed in the room, though it was buried under a pile of papers and old books. Everdys gazed around at the various symbols and equations drawn on the walls. “I see you’ve been practicing alchemy again,” she remarked.
“What? Oh, yes, that. That’s not what I wanted you to see. Look, here.” Esther paused, searching her desk. “It was just here a moment ago. A little vial of caesium. I put it here to remind myself that I needed to show you what it can do.”
Everdys’s eyes wandered over to the rack of vials. “Is it over here?”
Esther joined Everdys and plucked one of the vials from its place. “Thanks,” she said, bobbing her head. “I keep meaning to come back to the city, you know. It’s been so long since I’ve seen…Harold, yes. How is he doing?”
A shadow crossed Everdys’s face. “Harold…Harold is dead. He has been for three months now.”
“Dead? Three months?” Esther repeated. “But that can’t be true.” She rubbed her hands over her face, a few tears rolling down her cheeks. “Wait, you’ve told me this before, haven’t you?”
“It’s alright, Esther. Really.”
“No, it’s not alright! I can’t remember the simplest of things. I’ve got too much…noise in my head. People just don’t seem to stick.”
“So, what does this do?” Everdys asked pointedly, gesturing to the caesium.
“Oh, yes, of course.” Esther’s green eyes lit up and Everdys couldn’t help but smile at the chemist’s excitement. “Follow me. I should have a tub of water around here somewhere. Here, yes. I’ve been experimenting with melting and freezing points under various circumstances. Of course, no…wait, that’s not what this is about. Although, it is quite interesting to see human eyes explode in the right situation. Here, look.” Esther made to uncork the vial but hesitated. “You should probably stand back.”
“How dangerous is this, exactly?”
Esther considered for a moment. “Um…quite, I’d say. Under the wrong circumstances. Don’t worry, you'll be safe.”
“Just be careful.”
Esther poured a small amount of caesium into the water and hurried backward. As soon as the alkali metal touched the water, smoke erupted and a miniature explosion caused a large amount of the water to fly out of the tub. “It might not be the most exciting, but after my sulfur bomb I figured it was a good idea to stick to less nasty experiments. A large amount of this could prove quite interesting. Potassium works as well, gives off a nice purple flame, but it’s less powerful. Slower reaction time. It’s cool, though, isn’t it? No, you’re right, it’s not the greatest. How is the Order doing? What’s been happening?”
“We’ve had many new recruits since you last stepped out of this den. You should come out, you know, and visit some of the other members. They would love to meet you, I’m sure.”
Esther shook her head, tucking back a strand of her curly, thigh-length hair. “They wouldn’t like me much. No, I’m better off here. Thanks, though. Send Harold up here sometime, will you?” She paused. “Wait…no, he’s dead, isn’t he?”
Everdys smiled sadly. “You’ll be alright, then?”
“I’m always alright,” Esther beamed. “Here, take these and give them to whoever needs them.” She picked up a basket of bottles and handed it to Everdys. “This one has a very violent exothermic reaction with iron,” she said, pointing to one. “This one is a bit less exciting but still explosive; this one will put the victim into a catatonic state for at least half an hour. Careful with it, though. Too much and the venom will shut down the nervous system. That one there gives off a great deal of thick black smoke when you ( )eak it. Very difficult to see through, though possibly slightly toxic. And…well, most of the others are explosives but this one is a fun sort of corrosive substance which can ( )eak down nearly anything. Don’t touch it with your bare hands.” Esther tittered, a sort of birdlike sound. “Well, that should be obvious. Anyway, I hope this will help.”
“Thank you, Esther,” Everdys said, glancing down at the bottles. Most of these would be quite a help once she determined what they actually did. “If you ever want to visit me, you know where I am.”
Esther rubbed her arm uncomfortably and cocked her head. “I’m not sure about that, but thank you anyway. Oh,” she exclaimed, rushing forward and tapping a large beaker of a sapphire liquid. “Don’t drink that stuff. Very bad for digestion.” She shook her head seriously. Then, she smiled ( )oadly. “If you need anything, let me know. I’ve been experimenting with electricity and I think I might have something quite interesting for you soon.”
“I look forward to seeing it,” Everdys said, turning and stepping over the threshold. As soon as the door closed she could hear Esther talking to herself again. She really was quite ( )illiant, that woman, but as many geniuses are she was quite eccentric.
August 23, 2016 update
Kazmer and Nasreen met Ishan near one of the exits and found that he was accompanied by a tall, dark-haired man dressed in black and carrying a serious, mature sort of air about him. Kazmer appraised the man for a moment, unimpressed. “We’re taking him with us?”
“He’s quite the accomplished assassin. You ought to know that. He, unlike you, has not failed a single one of his missions,” Ishan replied pointedly.
“Dark, ( )ooding, and actually knows what he’s doing,” Nasreen considered with a smirk. “I think you’re being replaced, Boss.” She strode up to the man and held out her hand. “Nasreen Darzi.”
“Varyh,” the man said, taking Nasreen’s hand firmly with a glimmer in his pale eyes. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Quite a charmer, too,” Nasreen said slyly.
“If you say so,” Varyh responded seriously.
Kazmer sighed exasperatedly. “If you two are done flirting, we ought to be going. Unless you want your parents to die, of course.”
The four of them exited the underground city through another manhole and clambered out onto the flagstones. They had decided to intervene at the execution rather than attempt to rescue Nasreen’s parents beforehand; it would be easier to get in and out without too much trouble. The only thing they would have to worry about were civilians who may be present.
“You’re here to take care of Griselle, aren’t you?” Kazmer hissed to Varyh as they crept along the streets that were dipped in the dove-grey hues of dawn.
“Ishan thought you might not be up to killing your own sister,” Varyh replied simply.
“I agree that my sister is crazy, but I think there are other ways to stop her apart from killing her.”
“Would you be saying that if it were anyone else? From what I hear you are always eager to stop a guilty man or woman’s heart.”
Kazmer glared at Varyh but did not reply, instead dropping back to walk alongside Nasreen. “I don’t like this plan.”
“Aw, don’t worry, I’ll protect you from your psychotic sister,” Nasreen said.
Varyh turned and handed Nasreen a thin vial of some inky substance. “My sister got this from a friend of hers in the Order. It should create some kind of thick smoke.”
“That should be helpful,” Nasreen remarked. “I’ll use this after you cut them free.”
Ishan motioned for the others to slip into an alleyway and they obeyed. “The execution is taking place in the market center,” he said. “You know your places.”
Nasreen nodded and pulled a blue scarf over her head. “Kazmer and I can totally pull off the adorable peasant couple look. Well,” she amended, glancing at an annoyed Kazmer, “he’s the less adorable of the two.”
“Let Varyh take care of the soldiers,” Ishan ordered Kazmer sharply as he turned away to stride into the square. “Your job is getting Nasreen and her parents out safely.”
“I can’t believe this,” Kazmer muttered furiously.
“I’ll make sure he doesn’t get into trouble, sir,” Nasreen said with a wink. “Come on, hubby, let’s find a spot before all the good ones are taken.”
Varyh glanced at Ishan as Kazmer and Nasreen strolled off into the market. “She’s certainly an…interesting person.”
“That she is,” Ishan chuckled. “It always amuses me to see the two of them together.”
“I’m going to get into position,” Varyh said, his expression unmoved by Ishan’s smile. “As long as everyone does their jobs all of this should be over in a few minutes.”
“They know what they’re doing,” Ishan replied. “It may not seem like it, but they’re quite talented.”
“They might do better if they weren’t constantly annoying each other.”
“Oh, you think this is bad. This is what it looks like when they’re working together.”
From his place in the second-floor window of the bakery, Varyh could see Nasreen and Kazmer standing near the edge of the crowd to the right of the scaffold while Ishan was placed near the front. Griselle was the first to step up onto the scaffold and she surveyed the assembly with a triumphant sort of smirk. “Today you will witness what happens to those who attempt to steal from the King. These two,” Griselle said, gesturing to the waiflike couple being led out of a wagon, “are guilty of theft and treachery and will be dealt with accordingly. Let this be a warning to the criminals of this city. The King will not tolerate discord in his land; he wishes to cleanse it of its impurities and restore it to its former state.”
Nasreen shifted angrily as her parents were dragged roughly onto the scaffold and ropes were fitted around their necks. “Not now, Nasreen,” Kazmer hissed.
“I know,” Nasreen spat in return. “I just can’t wait to see that smirk wiped off of Griselle’s face.”
“You know, that’s what your face looks like about ninety percent of the time.”
Nasreen glanced at Ishan and then back at her parents. Their faces were so gaunt, their eyes dim and without hope. A pang of mingled sorrow and fury shot through Nasreen’s heart. All this time they had been alive, wasting away in the dungeon.
Varyh leveled his crossbow at the ropes on the gallows. He was here for Griselle’s life alone, but he was obligated to help Ishan and his young accomplices as well. He glanced down at the crowd. Ishan looked up at the window where Varyh was stationed and back again. Varyh pulled the trigger and a thick arrow shot from the bow, cutting through both of the ropes at once. Immediately, Nasreen and Kazmer rushed forward and Nasreen pulled something out of her pocket. A glint of glass flew through the air and heavy black smoke enveloped the scaffold. Varyh narrowed his eyes in concentration as he waited for Griselle to surface from the smoke.
Nasreen had keep a careful eye on her parents the entire time and now rushed straight into the darkness for them. Kazmer was a bit slower on the uptake but he followed Nasreen, swallowed up by the smoke. Ishan was quick to get the people out of the square, and soon their frightened shouts faded into the distance.
Nasreen ( )oke through another layer of smoke and nearly ran into her parents as they attempted to escape from the situation. “Come on!” she urged them.
“Nasreen,” her mother ( )eathed. “It’s really you.”
“Yes, let’s go! We can talk once you get out of here.”
Nasreen turned and strode off, but as Kazmer caught up with her his eyes grew wide and horrified. “Griselle, no!”
Nasreen whirled around and at the same moment heard a sickening thud. Her heart seemed to stop as she watched her father fall forward with a dagger planted in his back. Griselle strode forward out of the clearing smoke, twirling another knife through her fingers. Nasreen’s mother sobbed and knelt next to the dying body of her husband, paying little attention as Griselle approached. “Hello, Kaz. It seems my own ( )other is against me,” she remarked, unfazed. “Now, Nasreen, you have a choice. You can watch your mother die too or you can come with me.” Nasreen’s mother made to rise but Griselle ( )andished her knife threateningly. “Move and I will kill you.”
“You’re not the only one who can throw a knife,” Kazmer growled.
Griselle quirked an eye( )ow. “You would kill your own sister? My, how I’ve underestimated you.”
“You have no idea.”
Nasreen glanced up at the window. Where was Varyh?
Varyh had been watching the scene for any sign of movement when the door behind him burst open and soldiers flooded through. Varyh turned and managed to fell two of the five soldiers with another crossbow bolt and a dagger respectively. He drew his swords from his belt and with a flash of metal the other three collapsed as well. First checking the hall to see if there were any more soldiers, Varyh returned to his task and fitted another arrow to his crossbow. By now, the smoke was clearing and he could clearly see that something had gone wrong. Nasreen and Kazmer were standing before Griselle. At Griselle’s feet knelt Nasreen’t mother. Without hesitation, Varyh pulled the trigger and the bolt flew straight into Griselle’s chest.
Nasreen rushed forward to pull her mother away from the scene as Griselle slowly fell backward onto the scaffold with scarlet creeping across her blue vest. Kazmer sprinted toward his sister and caught her just before her head hit the ground. Everything else seemed to dissolve around him as he watched his sister labor for ( )eath, her eyelids fluttering.
“Looks like your people got me in the end,” she whispered.
“It had to be done,” Kazmer replied, though he only partially believed that himself. He remembered a time before Griselle had been corrupted by the beliefs of the King, a time when they ran through the house with Marcus and got into all sorts of scrapes together. She wasn’t all bad. Maybe that’s what Nasreen had meant. He couldn’t really know a person just by knowing about them. Kazmer squeezed his eyes shut and tried to keep tears from forming there.
“Tell Marcus I love him, won’t you?” Griselle ( )eathed. Kazmer nodded and Griselle closed her eyes, focusing on ( )eathing.
“Kazmer! I could use your help!” Nasreen’s voice cut through the moment and Kazmer turned to see her attempting to lift her father from the scaffold.
“There’s nothing we can do for him,” Kazmer replied, setting Griselle’s head back on the wood and rising. “We need to get out of here.”
“I’m not going to leave him here!” Nasreen protested.
“Fine,” Kazmer relented, approaching Nasreen and helping her.
Varyh sprinted out of the building and joined the others. Ishan had reappeared as well, though he appeared a bit out of ( )eath and his hands were covered in blood. “I really hope that’s not yours,” Kazmer remarked to Ishan.
“You ought to be thanking me. I prevented another patrol of soldiers from ever reaching you.”
“You’ve still got it in you, grandpa,” Kazmer laughed.
“We need to go!” Nasreen interjected. “Mom, follow us.”
Ishan fell back to explain the situation to Nasreen’s mother as the others rushed ahead to find the nearest entrance to the Order. There was no doubt that Nasreen’s father was dead with his bloodless face but Kazmer knew that Nasreen would never accept it until Lorelei or Enos said it themselves. The resolution and disbelieving fury in her eyes told him that much.
Nasreen’s father was proclaimed dead after Enos examined him, and Nasreen strode from the room without another word to anyone. Her mother would be given sanctuary in the Order for a time before Ishan would prepare a way for her to leave the city and begin a new life somewhere else, if she wanted it. Nasreen’s mother insisted that she would stay for her daughter, but Nasreen refused. “You’re safer the farther you get from this city,” she said.
Kazmer, meanwhile, grudgingly thanked Varyh for his help. “Any time,” Valyn replied with a nod, disappearing into the shadows.
Tristan showed up as soon as he heard the news and sat with Nasreen as she vented her anger and tried not to weep. Kazmer watched Tristan with growing suspicion, though he wondered if he had any grounds to blame him for what had happened. “The question we must answer now,” Nasreen said, her eyes growing cold, “is how Griselle knew who my parents were in the first place. Someone must have told her.”
“There are plenty of people in this city who know you,” Tristan remarked.
“No one who knows my name would give me up,” Nasreen replied. “I only told the people I trusted absolutely.”
“Then one of them must have betrayed you.”
“Trust me, when I find out who it was they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.”
A large squad of soldiers descended on the scene in the market square. It was still nearly abandoned with everyone avoiding the large amount of bodies on the scene, and as the soldiers flooded into the square everyone who had been ( )ave enough to venture through the market fled. A few of them approached their fallen captain and crouched around her. “Alright, let’s carry her body back to the castle,” one of them said. “We’ll bury her outside the barracks.”
As soon as they made to pick up Griselle, however, she coughed and her eyes fluttered open again. “Good,” she panted hoarsely, struggling for ( )eath. “You’re finally here.”
“Captain!” the soldiers exclaimed. “You’re alive.”
“It helps to be wealthy enough to afford a nearly impenetrable ( )eastplate,” Griselle managed to say, wincing. “I think I have a cracked sternum, though.”
“We’ll get you out of here, ma’am.”
“I’m counting on it. I have some news I have to relate to my parents as quickly as possible.”
Night had fallen on the city and the Order was quiet, though a few members still walked the halls. Among them was a rather lost-looking young woman wearing an elaborately patterned turquoise and purple dress which seemed rather impractical. She was muttering to herself with her ( )ow furrowed and couldn’t seem to decide where she wanted to go. “I’m certain it was this way,” she remarked. “It was the last time. Or…or maybe it was this way. Did the walls move? Hm, possible.” She stared disapprovingly at the wall. “Go back to where you belong. Didn’t I tell you to stay put?”
The woman turned a corner and nearly ran directly into Varyh, who was just returning to his chamber from another ( )ief assignment. “Oh, I’m sorry!” the young woman exclaimed hastily. “I shouldn’t have left in the first place, I was just looking for some food and possibly Everdys. That is her name, isn’t it? I haven’t forgotten that she’s died too, have I?” Without waiting for Varyh to respond, the woman advanced and peered straight into Varyh’s face, mere inches from his. “Hm, I recognize those eyes. I must know you from somewhere but I admit I don’t know where. That does happen. You have a lovely facial structure, you know? Wonderful skull, I would imagine.” The woman withdrew a bit. “That probably wasn’t the right thing to say. You must think me odd.”
“Who are you?” Varyh asked.
“Esther. At least, I think that is what I’m called though it could have been a note to myself to add esters to my solution.” Esther laughed at her own joke. “No, I’m quite certain of that. Now, as to where I come from and what my family name is, I couldn’t tell you. And you?”
“Varyh of the Rose.”
“Roses are nice, roses are lovely,” Esther remarked. “Have to watch out for the thorns though. I used that design to develop a rather interesting invention. I think I took it apart to make a clockwork bird. It was an attempt to make myself some company.” Esther laughed again but this time her eyes were a bit sad. “It does get lonely, you know. But that doesn’t matter, I have a job to do. Why are you here? I thought I was alone, but I found myself in this place. Is it a castle? I don’t like castles. Don’t remember why, but I am quite certain that castles are bad.”
“You’re in the Order. Same as me, I imagine,” Varyh replied, harkening back to what little Everdys had told him about the eccentric chemist friend of hers.
“The Order, yes, that’s it. Oh!” Esther turned and faced the opposite hallway. “That’s where I was meant to go. Is the food this way?”
“The kitchens are that way, if that’s what you mean,” Varyh said.
“Oh, thank you!” Esther cried, rushing forward and seizing Varyh’s hands in hers. “You really are quite a gentle soul. And you have a nice skull. No, never mind that, it doesn’t matter. Well, it might, who am I to say? I do hope to see you later, though I expect I will have scared you off by my strange manners. Goodbye.”
With that, Esther turned away again and strode off purposefully down the hall. “What a nice man. Very quiet, true, but you never really give people a chance to talk, now do you? Perhaps I should stop saying everything that comes into my head. No, data overload would occur if I did that. Can’t keep everything inside and the running monologue would be too much. I’d have to force out all of my knowledge of quantum mechanics if I wanted to do that and that would be a mistake. I need that. I’ve seen his face before, I’m sure of it. Company, I need company. Company doesn’t want me, though. Everdys said I ought to spend more time outside of my room but I simply can’t manage it. They wouldn’t like me much. No, no, they’ll just say I’m odd like all the others did. Well, perhaps that’s because I am odd. But certainly there must be something to that. Wait, did I say the others? Was I just remembering something now? No, it’s gone. Too late. I did have friends once, when I lived in that tower. The bard came by and sang until the stars came out. Light in the air, fire in the water. Isn’t that right, my dear?” Esther stopped in her tracks. “What was that? That was me recalling something, but it doesn’t feel right. Did it happen, or am I imagining things? There was certainly a time I lived in a tower. I do remember that. Oh, there’s too much information to keep my own history straight. No wonder people say I’m odd.”
September 4, 2016 update
Esther once lived in a tower by the sea, an ancient stone building which carried the wear of centuries. It sat far beyond the King’s reach, though still in his domain, and Esther lived a peaceful life with her family far away from the corruption and suffering in the city. That is, for a time.
Esther learned everything she knew from her father and when he died of a terrible illness she was heart( )oken. Her mother and ( )other were the next to go, leaving Esther alone with her thoughts. She dove into her work, striving to finish the work her father had started: to create a panacea that would cure all diseases. For the next several years she worked alone, hardly eating or sleeping while she discovered new ( )anches of science and mathematics on her own.
Storm clouds sealed in the sky and Esther peered out the window. “Seems as though it might rain,” she remarked. “No, not just rain. Thunder, lightning. Light in the air, fire in the water. I ought to secure the windows so nothing blows away. Wouldn’t want to lose my life’s work.”
Laughing melodiously like a songbird, Esther fluttered about the tower and gathered up her things as the rain began to pour outside.
She had been quite right about the storm; rain beat upon the tower like millions of missiles and the wind tore through the cracks in the stone. The sky was nearly black, causing night to fall early, and the little light that could be seen came from the lightning which struck all around. Esther’s father had set up lightning rods away from the house when he was still alive to deter lightning from hitting their tower, the tallest structure for miles. A lightning bolt chanced to strike the ocean and it lit up electric green for a moment. Esther stood outside in all of it, her hair and clothes plastered to her body and her arms outspread, her face upturned to the rain.
“My lady, are you quite well?”
Esther jumped in fright and looked around, finding that a man had approached without her knowing. “It’s the storm, sir, such a magnificent one. Don’t you think?”
“If you can call icy rain and unpredictable lightning magnificent, yes. Do you live here?”
“Of course. Who might you be? I see by the instrument on your back that you must be a bard of some kind.”
“I am,” the man replied with a smile, pushing back his sodden hair from his face. “I am called Kato and I come from a country quite far away. I have been travelling these past years around the world, seeking my fortune and telling my tales in song.”
“You must come inside, then. This is how your trade works, right? You sing for shelter and food?”
“Quite right, my lady.”
The bard followed Esther into the house and found the walls covered in chalk equations and bizarre sketches. A sort of purple vapor wafted in from one of the rooms and Esther hurried off to take care of that. When she returned, she gave the bard an expectant look. “Sing something beautiful, won’t you?”
The bard smiled slightly and pulled the lute from under its cover on his back. Esther ushered him into the dusty sitting room where a fire was smoldering in the hearth and the two of them took the seats closest to the meager blaze.
As soon as the bard struck up his tune, Esther closed her eyes and smiled. Such a lovely and sad song this would be, she could tell. She listened as the bard wove a fantastic tale of crossing stormy waters and open countryside, meeting the emperor of a distant land and the oldest fisherman west of the sea. The bard watched Esther out of the corner of his eye and by the light of the fire he could see that she was like a withering flower, gaunt and limp. Her eyes, however, were filled with wonder as she listened to his song.
Esther watched the bard’s slim fingers pluck the strings of the lute with a masterful grace. He would make an excellent chemist. Such precision in those bones. And he had such lovely eyes, too, like sunlight filtering through summer leaves. It’s been so long since I’ve seen the leaves. Wait, where am I?
Esther’s eyes flew open and she sat up quickly, wincing as pain shot through her stiff neck. She’d managed to fall asleep at one of her desks. “What was I doing?” she wondered aloud. “There must be some reason all of this gunpowder is lying around.” She sifted the grainy material through her fingers. “Hm, I don’t think this will do. Wait, was I just dreaming? What was it about? I can never quite seem…oh, yes, I was going to use this to make more fireworks. That’s not the best idea given what happened last time. Well, I was trying to create something fun but I suppose I ought to stick to the serious work. The bard. My lovely, lovely bard with his eyes and his fingers.” Esther reached up to her left eye and found a few tears lying there. “What? Am I crying? Why am I crying? No, I was crying. The tears are cold. I must have done it in my sleep.” She laughed softly. “That’s odd. No, why is that odd? It’s not odd at all; I often wake up with tears in my eyes. Dreams are memories that we’ve just forgotten. Oh, where did that come from?” Esther glanced all around her as if something might jump out and grab her at any second. “I need to stop sleeping. Work, yes. What was I working on?”
Esther ran over to a cabinet and threw open the doors, resulting in a cascade of clutter which gathered around her feet with a flutter and a crash. Esther jumped backward with a little squeak of fright and bent down to examine the fallen items. “I forgot I put all of this in here. What’s this?” she picked up a partially assembled box, the bottom carved away to reveal the intricate ( )onze mechanisms beneath. She shook it gently and a few wobbling notes of an ancient song came clinking out. Esther froze, eyes wide and heart beating rapidly. “I know that song. I know that song. I’ve heard it before. Before, what a nice word to hear myself say. There was definitely a before, and such a nice before it was. No, not all of it was nice. What was I making this for? It must be a music box of some kind.”
Esther rushed up the spiraling staircase to her room and came back down again with a silver box in hand. “Listen to this,” she said to the bard, opening the lid. A soft, haunting melody emanated from the box and the bard smiled slightly.
“That’s my song. The first one I sang for you.”
“I put it into a box so I’ll never forget it. So I’ll never forget you.” Esther’s eyes shone unnaturally ( )ight. “I wish you could stay longer. You’re such nice company and it’s been so long since I’ve talked to anyone.”
“You could come with me, you know,” the bard suggested. “See the world, live a life beyond the confines of this tower.”
“That sounds…too good to be true,” Esther sighed. “Isn’t it dangerous out there?”
A smile played at the corner of Esther’s lips. “Alright. I’ll come along.”
Esther hastily shoved the unfinished music box back into the cabinet. “The song isn’t quite right. No, I was never quite able to catch that melody again.” She hummed a few notes before shaking her head. “What happened to that first one? No, don’t ask that question. There’s a reason I forgot so much.” She turned on her heel, leaving the rest of the mess on the floor. “Now, what to do today? Or tonight, I suppose. What time is it?” She tapped one of the many wearily ticking clocks in the room. “Hm, this is rubbish. You can’t even tell the time properly with your second hand moving back and forth like that. Let’s see here…ah, there we have it. Of course, without a reference I won’t be able to reset you but at least you’re working. Now, stay there.” Esther rushed to the other side of the room and grabbed up a few chemicals from their place on a shelf. “Just a bit of these should do the trick.” She glanced at the flasks. “Well, if I knew what I was making. Hm, I could make an excellent anaesthetic or sedative from this. Knock out enemies for a few hours. Wait, enemies? Do I have those?” Esther tilted her head slightly. “Um…yes, I’d say I do. Somewhere in that fog of the past.” Esther hummed to herself a bit as she combined the chemicals and added a dash of some suspicious-looking powder into the mixture. A puff of smoke bloomed from the solution and Esther coughed as she ( )eathed in most of it. “Oh, that’s not good,” she said as her head swam and her vision went out of focus. “No…not good…at all…”
“Please!” the scream cut through Esther’s mind like a poisoned knife and she shivered violently in her cell. “Please, I’ll do anything! I’ll tell you anything! Just stop!”
Another agonized yell told Esther that they weren’t planning to stop anytime soon. She wrapped her arms around herself and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the sound. The door scraped open and Esther tensed, not daring to look up as footsteps approached and fingers caressed her arm. “Don’t worry, darling, it’ll be your turn soon enough.”
Esther shrank away. Why are they doing this to us? I just wanted to see the world and now…
The door opened again and Esther picked up her head as the bard was dragged into the cell by a masked guard and a woman in a coat. Blood was running down the bard’s dusty uniform but it was difficult to tell where the wound was as there was so much of it. “It will be a few hours before he is useful again,” the woman remarked to the man. “I suggest we try the new ( )ain test on this one.”
Esther was pulled to her feet by the first man. “Did you hear that, pet?” he asked with a smile. “It’s time to go.”
Esther hung limp in the man’s grip, her eyes wide and fearful as a small animal’s might be in the face of a hungry predator. The woman considered Esther disapprovingly. “She doesn’t say much, that one.”
“She hasn’t said a word since she went through the first test,” the man replied. “We’re still trying to determine if it has something to do with the manipulation of the left hemisphere of the cere( )um.”
“Carry on, then,” the woman said.
Esther shivered again as she was escorted out by the man, his arm around her shoulder, with the guard striding behind. It wasn’t the cold in that forbidding stone complex that made her shiver; rather, the fear. According to her “doctor,” the ( )ain test was supposed to make her feel happier. True, with every incision she was given a dose of endorphins and morphine in an attempt to associate pain with pleasure but it felt horribly wrong. They wanted to build a better kingdom, they had said. A better kingdom with better soldiers who don’t feel pain and never become weary.
Esther was led to a small room where she was secured to an antiquated metal table. The man leaned over her, a sickly smile spread across his sallow face. “Now, darling, just try to relax,” he said as he adjusted a few mechanisms over her head. He unfurled a set of tools and lovingly plucked a scalpel from its place. “This shouldn’t hurt a bit.”
“Esther? You seem to have gotten yourself into another spot of trouble.”
Esther’s eyes flew open and she hastily ran a hand over her head. “Yes, I have hair. It grew back, didn’t it? That was quick. No, that was some time ago. Oh, hello.” She glanced down at her gown. Turquoise and purple with joyous flourishes, not the dark and dusty material she had once known. She looked back up at Su Ming with a smile. “Quite alright, yes. Good, very good. What am I doing on the ground?”
“I would say you knocked yourself out with whatever you were making. I was just stopping by to see how my order was coming.”
“Oh, yes! I’d forgotten about that,” Esther admitted with a soft giggle. “Of course, I do forget quite a lot of things. You know that already, I’m sure. Your fingernails are quite strong, you know? I could use something like that in my formula. Good, strong fingernails. Practically un( )eakable. I don’t imagine you’d want to part with those, no. I do wish that nice man would be able to lend me his skull for a time but somehow I think he’ll be needing it just a bit longer.” Esther laughed at her own wit and bustled over to the other side of the room. “Um…yes, here. This should be it. It’s nearly done, just give me a few more hours to make sure I’ve got the measurements right.”
“Okay,” Su Ming said hesitantly, giving Esther a slightly concerned look as she watched her rush about. “In that case, I will come back later.”
“Yes, yes, please do! It’s nice to have friends like you around,” Esther replied ( )ightly as Su Ming left the room. “If we’re friends. Well, I’d say we are but of course a friendship is a two-way relationship, isn’t it? It’s like saying that nice man is my friend even though I’ve only met him once. Well, perhaps not quite the same thing. It seems that everyone needs someone else. A person to talk to, to be with. Why is that? Brain chemistry demands we have a companion? People walk in pairs, in groups, and when they’re alone they usually know one or two people they could be walking with. I don’t have a person. Perhaps that is what is wrong with me. No, that’s not it. I need an extra ( )ain to keep my wild ideas in check.” Esther straightened and her eyes grew distant and strangely cold. “I will find you someday.” Esther tensed and looked around her in fright. “Ooh, what was that? That was me, wasn’t it? There’s no one else around, anyway. Not now. Maybe I will visit Everdys later. She is my friend whether she likes it or not. Oh!” Ester exclaimed jubilantly as she spotted a parcel covered in a thin layer of dust. “My shipment of nightshade flowers must have arrived. Wonderful.” Esther hummed a few notes of an old song to herself and stopped just as she was opening the box. “What is that from? I’ve heard those notes before; those frequencies and that resonance are quite familiar.”
Esther raced through the trees, thorns tearing across her skin and thin, skimpy dress. Snow drifted from the sky and sent flurries of ice into Esther’s face. She flicked the snow and the ( )anches aside, her strangely discolored eyes full of urgent panic. Her bare feet crunched repeatedly across the gathering blanket of biting white snow until she ( )oke out of the line of trees and into the open road. Esther’s heart raced and her vision swam as she turned her head wildly back and forth. Where to go? Where to run next? Right, look for any signs of civilization and run in the opposite direction. But it was so dark, so cold…perhaps she should…just…rest. Esther swayed on the spot, her sparse amount of hair flailing around her face. She became painfully aware of how cold it was, how the intense chill had turned off the senses in her feet and hands. Then, as Esther struggled to keep her eyes open, the world tipped sideways and went entirely dark.
“There, she looks a bit warmer now. Poor girl was lucky to make it out of whatever situation she was in. Those stitches on the back of her head look fresh.”
“We need to get her inside. We should be able to carry her if we do it together.”
“Yes, she looks like she weighs hardly anything. Come on.”
Esther shifted a bit and realized that she was wrapped in a thick cloak of some wonderfully warm material, a ( )ight turquoise color which stood out against the stark white of the snow. She found that an older man and woman were gathered around her, prepared to lift her into their arms. They smiled when they saw her eyes. “Don’t be afraid,” one of them said. “We’re just going to take you back to the city and find you a doctor.”
City. Doctor. No, those were terrible words. It’s all slipping away so quickly, but I’m certain of that. Esther jumped to her feet, stumbled a bit, and sprinted off with the cloak wrapped tightly around her shoulders. The strangers shouted after her but Esther refused to pause for a moment. I must keep running, even if it takes me to the edge of the world. I’ll return someday…I will. Not today. When I am stronger I will return. Then they will be sorry for what they have done.
Nasreen Darzi, Kazmer Ross, Ishan Salehi, Tristan Percivale, Esther, and Griselle Ross belong to me
Duchess Everdys, Levora Serdan, Enos Kerdan, Varyh of the Rose, and Thelman Averon belong to Forgotten
Lorelei Tholl belongs to Sorachan
Su Ming belongs to LadyLeaf