Note: this is part two of 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.
“Pick up your sword, knave, and face me like the man that you aren’t!” Nasreen twirled her sword rather ridiculously and grinned cheekily at Kazmer.
Kazmer sighed in annoyance, grabbing up his sword from the ground. “This is weapons training, not hand-to-hand combat. Keep your appendages to yourself.”
“Hey, anything to get an edge on the enemy, right?” Nasreen remarked, echoing Kazmer’s words from earlier that morning.
Kazmer lunged forward and neatly disarmed Nasreen with a twist of his wrist. She instinctively reverted to what she knew best and went for a blow to the face. Kazmer ducked and knocked Nasreen’s legs out from under her. She fell backward onto the ground with a huff as all the ( )eath left her lungs and she groaned. “Ouch, I think you reopened my wound.”
“Nice try,” Kazmer said in a bored tone. “I’m not falling for that one again.”
Nasreen leapt to her feet. “It was worth a try. Hey, want to join me in the city for lunch or something? I’m starved.”
“Sure,” Kazmer replied, thinking back to only a few days ago when he’d gone to the city with Varyh. He’d often wondered since how much more he was missing, what darkness lied waiting in this city he seemed to know less and less about.
Nasreen and Kazmer left the training room and strolled along the hall to find the nearest exit into the city. As they walked along the nearly empty tunnel, a young woman came sprinting toward them with a wild, desperate look in her eyes. Her turquoise and purple dress was a bit shocking to see amongst the red and black. She approached one of the other people in the corridor and took hold of his shoulders. “There’s something terribly wrong. Have you seen Everdys?”
The man shook his head and walked away quickly with a disturbed expression. The woman bolted past Nasreen and Kazmer shouting, “There’s something very wrong!”
“Well, that was odd,” Nasreen remarked as the woman disappeared beyond a corner.
“I’ve never seen her before in my life,” Kazmer agreed.
Nasreen stepped into the smoky tavern and ushered Kazmer in as well. “Welcome to the Laurel Hart, where you can find everything from drinks to really drunk people. I used to come here a lot to hear the gossip of the town. You’d be surprised what you can hear here.”
“I’m sure,” Kazmer said darkly, glancing around at the shadowy figures clustered around tables and the bar. “I would say that I’m surprised you ever made it out of here but I guess no one is in the mood for crazy redhead.”
“That’s very sweet of you, Grumpy, now why don’t you go and buy me a drink?”
“Are you even old enough?”
“Please, I’ve been in and out of these places since I was fourteen.”
“You ought to keep your mind clear. No use scrambling it more than it already has been.”
Nasreen rolled her eyes. “Fine. We’ll just sit and get some food, then. Don’t worry, it’s quite decent for a place like this. Follow my lead.”
Nasreen took a seat at one of the low tables closest to the bars and leaned forward in her chair to place her chin on her hand, appearing a bit bored whilst showing off her cleavage to the men at the bar. She raised her eye( )ows at an annoyed Kazmer seated across from her. “Watch how it’s done, sweetheart.”
It took only about thirty seconds before one of the men lumbered over and gave Kazmer an unimpressed look before turning to eye Nasreen up and down. He seemed a bit soberer than most of those who had approached Nasreen before. “A girl like you shouldn’t look so bored. Seems to me that your stick-muscled friend is less than entertaining.”
“Spot-on,” Nasreen said, giving the man a sly look from underneath her lashes. “He’s about as interesting as a sheep.”
“Why don’t you join me at the bar and I’ll buy you a drink?” the stranger suggested.
“I’ve probably had too many already,” Nasreen sighed, running her fingers through her hair. “How about some food instead? I hear that the special today is particularly good.”
“You’ve got it, darling.” The man swaggered off and Nasreen smirked triumphantly at his retreating back.
“I’m an expert at getting free stuff, but I like to vary my techniques. Keeps things interesting.”
Kazmer couldn’t think of anything to say to that but, “A sheep? That’s the best you could come up with?”
“Well, you know, they’re cute enough but all they do is eat grass and walk around. I’ll admit it wasn’t my best.”
“I hope you have an exit strategy for this plan,” Kazmer remarked, “because that guy is not going to be happy when he figures out what you’re really after.”
“Don’t worry, Boss, I’ve always got a plan.” Kazmer gave Nasreen a pointed look and she smirked. “Okay, I’ve usually got a plan. Part of that is you should probably step outside for a second.”
Kazmer sighed wearily, muttering something about this going very badly and rising, exiting the tavern. At the same time, the man returned and took Kazmer’s seat. “I managed to get rid of him,” Nasreen explained with a coquettish smile. “Just the two of us now, eh?”
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you around before. I would have remembered someone like you.”
Doubtful. Nasreen tilted her head demurely. “You flatter me.” She leaned forward again and let her fingers drift over the man’s thick, hairy arm. “You know, I think I might want something a bit stronger to drink. Do you mind?”
“I’ll be right back,” the stranger replied with an ignorant smile. As soon as he had turned his back to the bar, Nasreen grabbed up the plates and bolted out of the door. She turned a corner and nearly ran into Kazmer, laughter in her eyes and a smirk playing across her lips.
“And that’s how it’s done!” she said. “Come on, before anyone sees us.”
Nasreen gestured to Kazmer for him to follow her and she wound her way into a narrow alley. “Of course, I doubt you could pull off something like this,” Nasreen admitted. “To be frank, I don’t think you’re their type.”
“That could have ended badly.”
“Is that a hint of concern I hear in your voice? Kazmer, please, I know this city inside and out. Well, most of it. You don’t have to worry about your apprentice, she can take care of herself.”
“Your over-confidence worries me.”
Nasreen rolled her eyes. “Now you really sound like a grumpy old professor. Lighten up, will ya? There’s enough food for both of us.”
Kazmer grudgingly took one of the golden-( )own rolls and tore off a bit of it. His expression quickly melted from frustrated to awed. “That’s amazing.”
Nasreen laughed. “I know, right? It’s crazy how good this stuff is. Of course, that might have something to do with their rumored connection to the drug cartels, but…”
Kazmer immediately stopped eating and Nasreen burst out laughing again. He groaned. “I’m never going to take you seriously, you know? That’s going to be a problem when you’re in actual danger.”
“If I’m in ‘actual danger’, you’ll know,” Nasreen said, still smiling wickedly. Her eyes drifted to the crowds of people walking past and her smile faded slightly.
“What?” Kazmer said, glancing in the same direction. “What’s wrong?”
Nasreen shook her head. “Nothing. I just thought I saw…something. Never mind. Ready to head back?”
“We should probably get back to training, yeah,” Kazmer agreed with a yawn. “Not that I’m incredibly interested in doing that.”
“Too bad that you’re irresponsible and your critical mistakes earned you an apprentice,” Nasreen remarked.
Kazmer rolled his eyes. “You might laugh now but just wait until you do something even more reckless and you’re sentenced to stay in the city for good.”
“They can do that?” Nasreen asked in disbelief.
Kazmer shrugged. “They can do whatever the hell they want, apparently. I’m convinced they take joy in the suffering of the younger members.”
“Maybe if you tried acting less like…yourself, they would take you seriously and give you a bit more leeway.”
“If I wanted to be lectured, I’d talk to Ishan,” Kazmer said gruffly.
“Ishan’s not as bad as some of the others,” Nasreen pointed out.
“You weren’t his apprentice. Trust me, he can get much worse.”
Kazmer noticed that as they walked back to the Order, Nasreen seemed mildly distracted and she kept glancing around as if she expected to be attacked. Kazmer decided not to comment.
Esther hummed an old ditty to herself as she bustled around her laboratory. “No, hydrochloric and hypochloric acid aren’t the same thing,” she remarked, shaking her head as she examined a confusingly labeled bottle. “Who made these labels? Oh, me probably. Sometimes there’s just not the right…um, not the right…what’s that?” Esther leaned over the table and picked up a piece of paper. Her eyes flew across the untidy scrawl. “That’s my handwriting, but…” her eyes widened. “Of course. Don’t forget. Can’t forget. Very, very important. There must be a better place for this where I would remember it. Well, perhaps not. Do I have pockets? No, I never check my pockets anyway.”
An urgent knock came at the door and Everdys strode in with a concerned expression. “What’s going on, Esther?”
“Oh, I was just mixing up some acid to fill these new devices I’ve created.”
“I was told that you were running down the hallways looking for me.”
“Hm, really? I don’t remember that. Of course, it’s entirely possible. I do forget quite a lot, don’t I?” Esther laughed nervously and tucked the piece of paper behind her ear.
“So you don’t remember why you might have been shouting ‘something is terribly wrong’ at people?”
“No, not at all,” Esther said with a smile. “Sorry to have wasted your time. You know, I’ve been meaning to test the rate at which hair burns and if it’s different for various types and shades. If you wouldn’t mind lending me a few inches I think it would make a nice experimental group along with some of my own.”
“No one is burning anything,” Everdys said quickly, giving Esther a pointed look. “You need to be careful, Esther. I can’t always come and check to make sure you haven’t blown yourself up.”
“Careful? I’m an expert at careful. Well, I say that. I don’t really know, do I?” Esther’s eyes suddenly grew soft and sad. “There’s something wrong with me, isn’t there?”
“No, you’re just a bit scatter( )ained.”
“I wasn’t always this way. At least, I don’t think so. No, I’m quite certain that I was different at one point or another. What happened to all of those people I used to know?”
“I think I arrived here quite some time after you did. I wouldn’t know.”
“You can go back to your regular life now,” Esther said, her eyes gleaming unnaturally ( )ight. “Don’t worry about me, I’ve managed long enough without anyone around.”
Everdys seemed reluctant but she withdrew, leaving Esther to ( )ush aside the tears that had formed in her eyes. “Where did these come from?” she asked herself. “I could have sworn I was working on something just now. Perhaps the tears are part of it. No, that’s not right. Look, I need to finish my work quickly so I can go. Go? Go where? I need to go. That’s what I told myself last night.” Esther pulled the scrap of paper out from behind her ear. “I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget, yes? Or maybe I was warning myself not to go. No, I must. I must finish what I started those years ago. My mind isn’t what it was once, but this will have to suffice. What do I ( )ing with me? Who do I ( )ing? That must be why I was working on all of this. But who? No, no one would want to go with me. This is my quest anyhow. I might not come back. Yes, I doubt I will. I wouldn’t be able to find my way back even if I survived. I might need a navigator, then. Well, what is the use of coming back to this tower anyway? No, that’s not right. I’m part of the Order now. See, I don’t know what I’m doing. Well, yes, I do, but I don’t know specifically how I’ll go about doing it. Wait, doing what? No, remember, I told myself right here.” She jabbed the paper in her hand. “Sometimes my cleverness eludes me and other times it is spot-on. I think I used to have a cloak. Yes, a lovely turquoise one. No, that wasn’t mine. I stole it. Well, I sort of stole it. I think. You know, that could have been a dream. Dreams and reality are so close together that it’s hard to distinguish them. A cloak would be nice to have. It’s probably cold out. What do I know? I haven’t been outside in years. Oh, that must result in some serious vitamin D deficiency. Well, see, that’s why I’ve been creating vitamins for myself. I knew that would happen. Clever me. Sometimes. Not always. I can be so blindly foolish at times. Anyway, no, I need to go. Go where? Stop, I know where I’m going. Stop asking questions. It’s not as if I have an outside opinion to answer them anyway. Hm, yes. I’ll take a few of these with me just in case.”
Nasreen lied awake for the longest time that night before deciding to get up and investigate her doubts. It was impossible, of course, but she simply had to make certain that she was right in thinking so. Nasreen sat up and pulled on her books and a dark cloak, grabbing one of the popovers she had stolen from the kitchen and snacking on it as she walked out the door and down the hallway. She crept silently through the passage and hid behind a column when she heard footsteps approaching. A tall man strode past, deep in his thoughts as he consulted a book. Nasreen slipped out of her hiding place and continued into the main tunnel system, sneaking toward the exit. She had managed to slip out before, unnoticed by the guard. She should be able to do it again.
Nasreen turned the corner and ran directly into a ( )ightly clad figure. She stumbled backward and panic raced through her veins. “Who are you?” the woman demanded. Nasreen then realized she was the same young woman who had run down the hallways earlier that day.
“Don’t tell anyone I’m here,” Nasreen hissed.
“Why would I do that? Are you looking for someone too?”
Nasreen gave the woman a bemused look. “Not exactly. I’m Nasreen. Are you part of the Order, or…?”
“Yes. Or, I think so. Well, I’m quite certain that I at least was at some point. I’m Esther, by the way. Isn’t that funny? I always thought so. My father must have named me; he does have quite an interesting sense of humor. Or did. Whatever happened to him? Sickness, yes. The sickness came and claimed them all.”
“I’m going to go,” Nasreen interrupted. “I’ve had enough crazy for the day and his name is Kazmer. Bye.”
“Wait!” Esther pleaded, taking hold of Nasreen’s sleeve. “Do you know the way out of here?”
“It’s been a long time…”
“Yeah, I can show you out. Where are you going, anyway?”
“Best not tell anyone.”
Esther sighed. “I’m off to resolve a crime that has gone unpunished, something I have forgotten about for so long. It’s difficult to explain, such a long story with pieces missing. You have such a lovely shade of hair. You know, I could use hair like that for this experiment I’m working on. I’ve never seen a color like yours. Well, maybe I have. It’s possible. But it’s like fire, or like…the sunset over the ocean. By the tower. The bard and I used to watch the sun set. The bard…what was his name? It’s as if it’s been erased from my mind permanently.” Esther grabbed clumps of her hair and appeared horrified. “That’s what I’m doing. Oh, really? I had guessed it before but I suppose it’s come to it now. I need to leave as soon as possible, I’ve delayed enough already.”
“Far be it from me to stop you,” Nasreen said, rolling her eyes. “Come on. Follow me and stay quiet and you’ll get out just fine.”
“Quiet. Quite. I can do that. I think. I suppose it’s a matter of turning off my thoughts, isn’t it? That should prove to be quite a task.”
Nasreen scaled the ladder and quietly slid open the manhole, nimbly leaping out and grinning. No guard. Excellent. She extended a hand to a struggling Esther, who seemed to be having difficulty climbing the ladder in her trailing dress. Esther took her hand and Nasreen helped her out into the open. Esther took in a deep ( )eath. “What a horrifying smell,” she said ( )ightly.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” Nasreen chuckled.
Esther immediately looked up and her eyes filled with stars. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen them. I’d nearly forgotten about them; but one never truly forgets the stars, do they?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Nasreen remarked. “So, if you’re looking for someone, it must be this bard guy you mentioned. Right?”
“No, not the bard. He was good. The other one. The others, plural. I know there was more than one; yes, there was a whole fleet of them.”
“Who?” Nasreen asked, bemused.
“Never mind, it’s not important. Well, it is, but not to you. This is my fight, whether or not I accept it. I accept it, of course, but it’s a daunting task I have before me. If I don’t return, let Everdys know that she was a great friend. And tell Harold that he was right. Thank him for helping me. I wouldn’t have spoken a word if not for him. No…there was something I needed to remember about him. It’s so difficult to remember people, you know?”
“Whatever you say,” Nasreen said, taking advantage of Esther’s ( )eak in speech. “Have fun with whatever you’re doing. Don’t follow me.”
Nasreen parted ways with Esther and hurried along the streets with her hands tucked in her pockets, enjoying the cool ( )eeze that caressed her face. It was nice to be prowling these familiar roads at night anyway, even if there was nothing to search for. It was better to make certain than to find out the hard way later on.
“Hey, sweetheart, you’re out late.”
Nasreen turned smartly and smiled at the approaching trio of men. “Hiya, fellows. I’d love to stay and chat but I’ve got to find a doctor. My entire family has contracted a rather nasty, highly contagious illness. I’m the only one left who can still walk, but it’s only a matter of time before I start sprouting unseemly boils and whatnot. Best be off, eh?”
With that, Nasreen darted off into the night and congratulated herself for another successful encounter. Inventing horrifying and repulsive stories had become her specialty over the years; well, one of her specialties.
Nasreen found herself standing in front of the Laurel Hart, which was as busy as it always was at this hour. Nasreen ( )eathed in the delectable scent of the tavern food before turning on her heel and fixing her eyes on the same sign she had seen before. She strode across the street and ran her fingers across the ( )ick, in which had been carved a small but easily recognizable symbol to her. It was the general depiction of a fox, with a triangular head and slanted eyes.
“I knew you would come back here at some point. How could you resist?”
Nasreen tensed and clenched her fists, trying to calm herself as her heart rate spiked in fury and mild fear. “I told you never to come back.”
“I didn’t listen.”
Upon hearing how much closer the voice had come, Nasreen whirled around and found herself face-to face with a young man. His dark eyes, like the void, stared deep into Nasreen’s blue ones and a smile crept to his lips. “It’s good to see you again.”
He reached out to cup Nasreen’s face with his hand but she snarled viciously and backed away. “Touch me and I swear I’ll gouge out your eyes.”
“Now, that’s not very nice.”
“What are you doing here? You’ve got to be incredibly thick to ignore the warnings I gave you.”
“I’ve come to reclaim what’s mine.”
“You stay away from me,” Nasreen hissed.
“Everything,” the stranger added with emphasis. Nasreen paused. “Now that I have your attention, you might want to listen carefully. If you don’t comply with my demands, I’ll tell this entire kingdom who you are and what you’ve done, including those new friends you’ve made from the Order. That’s right,” the man continued with satisfaction as Nasreen’s eyes widened, “I’ve had my eye on you for some time. I don’t think they’d like to hear the whole tragic story of Nasreen Darzi, do you?”
“Shut up, Cato, I know you wouldn’t do that,” Nasreen said, though she took another step backward and found her path blocked by the wall. “You’d get in trouble too.”
“I’ve already worked out a little arrangement with the King’s law enforcement. In case you were wondering, I was the one who tipped that woman off about your identity. I think you’ll find I’m not bluffing.”
Nasreen seemed to wilt slightly, folding her arms uncomfortably. “What do you want?”
“In one week, you and I will walk out of this city together with all of the assets you’ve collected from our exploits. We’ll go off somewhere quiet and isolated after we sell off that stuff,” Cato continued, advancing like a wolf approaches its cornered prey, “happily ever after.”
“I could kill you right now,” Nasreen said, painfully aware of how close Cato was.
“They’d know it was you. I don’t think you’d risk facing their wrath.”
“I have backup of my own.”
“You can hide in that city as long as you want, but at some point you’re going to have to come up for air,” Cato replied. “I know you well enough to know that.”
Nasreen’s fist flew into Cato’s jaw and he staggered backward. “You don’t know a thing about me!” Nasreen growled, striding off into an alley.
“One week, Nasreen!” Cato called after Nasreen as she vanished into the shadows. “One week.”
September 24 2016 update
Esther stopped in her tracks and turned slowly on the spot, her ( )ow furrowed. “What am I doing here? I’m quite sure I’m not supposed to be here. I was in the tower…no, the lab. No…I left, didn’t I?” Esther looked down at the paper in her hand as if someone else had put it there. “There was something I was supposed to remember.” She unfolded the paper, her eyes flying over the hastily sketched map and the flourishing symbols she had written beneath it. “Well, that’s rubbish. What’s that supposed to mean?” Then, Esther beamed with a wild glint in her eyes. “Ah, yes. I remember. Remembering is such a good feeling. Sometimes. Sometimes it can be so painful. Whatever happened to him? No, let’s not talk about that. That’s something I want to forget. I need to go back to the Order. The Order? No, I think I left. Well, I left the Order but I didn’t leave the Order, if that’s what I mean. It’s difficult to tell sometimes. It’s also difficult to tell the difference between Everdys and that nice man. There’s probably a reason for that. Reasons…reasons are no good at this point. I can’t be reasoned with. No, you won’t reason with me. I’m going and whether or not I kill myself in the process it is my decision. They must pay for what they have done.”
Esther plunged into the trees on the side of the road and pushed her way stalwartly through the undergrowth which tried to hold her back. “A little girl ran through the forest and came out the other side, frost in her feet and silence on her tongue. She wouldn’t say where she’d been, much less where she was going. The memories of the dark and the grey were fading away; that’s what happens when someone toys with your mind and stuffs it back into place again.” Esther burst into tears and paused again. “I can’t go back! You can’t make me go back. But I must, mustn’t I? This must be done if I want no one else to suffer. No one else will be plucked off the road and hidden in the forest to prevent their screams from reaching the surface. I’ll do justice here, my lovely bard.” Esther then burst cheerily into song as she trekked ever deeper into the impenetrable darkness of the woods.
“This must be done very, very carefully,” Esther whispered to herself as she crept along the edge of the clearing, eyeing the unassuming stone building as if it was the gate of hell itself. “Quiet, careful, can I do those things? Well, assuming I stop talking to myself, perhaps. Got to keep the thoughts, though, the important ones. Perhaps I ought to rearrange my priorities. I might remember people better if I do that. No, that’s a bad idea. People aren’t quite as important. Well, in some contexts I suppose they could be. I’m getting off topic again. I do that a lot, don’t I? I suppose. I couldn’t exactly say, could I? Not with my memory. Memories are what ( )ought me here.”
Esther seemed to grow gradually tenser as she approached the door. There were no guards, no indication of danger. But, as Esther knew, it was far easier to get inside than to get back out. Esther opened the door and was swallowed by darkness. Flame flickered into being from ( )ackets on the walls and Esther glanced up at the orbs of light near the ceiling. “Burning tungsten,” she remarked. “Magnesium has too short a life. Yes, I imagine tungsten. Still, they must have some sort of buffer–”
“Can I help you, miss?”
Esther’s eyes drifted down to fix on a middle-aged woman standing in the hall with a stack of parchment in one hand. “Yes, I’m here to see the doctor,” she replied. Her eyes had grown strangely solid and focused and she stood a bit straighter, as if some spirit had taken a hold of her frightened and drifting soul and anchored it to one spot.
The woman looked Esther up and down. “You’re from the King, then?”
“We didn’t expect a representative to come so quickly,” the woman admitted, putting on a more formal air in an attempt to impress Esther. “The patient is doing well. I’m sure he will be glad to hear that his best soldier will be up on her feet in no time. With some improvements, of course.”
“Where is she kept here?”
“She’s in the central lab. I can take you there.”
“Good, excellent, yes.”
The woman raised an eye( )ow but turned and strode off. Esther dipped her hand in her pocket and withdrew it again. The ends of her fingers were coated in some viscous substance which she daubed on the walls as she walked behind the scientist. She didn’t speak a word all the way to the laboratory, her lips pressed tightly together and her eyes fixed straight ahead.
“The captain is in here,” the woman said, opening a door and showing Esther through. Esther’s eyes flicked around the room before coming back to rest on the figure in the middle of the room. His hair was grey now, but beneath the wrinkles and thick spectacles the face was unmistakable. He smiled politely as Esther entered and approached.
“You must be the King’s representative.”
“Call me Esther.”
“Enchanted. As you can see, Captain Griselle is doing quite well for someone who was nearly fatally shot.” He gestured to the prostrate figure of a young woman lying unconscious on a cot. Esther didn’t recognize the patient but even if she had she wouldn’t have cared at that point. “We’ve strengthened her mental and physical capacity and heightened her threshold for pain,” the doctor continued. “Our experiments are finally paying off. Of course, if we want to continue this research we will need more funding from the King.”
“I’m sure he will be happy to supply you with money for this work,” Esther remarked somewhat stiffly, gazing around at the mechanisms and panels of levers and buttons around the room. Her fingers drifted across them and she turned back to face the doctor. “This is quite the incredible technology you have here.”
“The very best in the kingdom, I’d say.”
Another man stuck his head around the doorframe and Esther poked at a few of the controls while the scientists were distracted. “Doctor, your assistance is needed with one of our test subjects as soon as you get the chance.”
“I’ll be there in a moment.” The doctor returned his attention to Esther, who was now under the pretense of examining Griselle. “I trust that your report to the king will be satisfied.”
“Yes, I do believe it is time for me to go,” Esther said as the machines around the room began to spark and tremble. “You really shouldn’t have let me press all those buttons,” she added with a sadistic smile beginning to twist across her lips. “And when I add something like…let’s say, caesium to such moist air…all of your good work goes to pieces.”
“Security!” the doctor called, real panic beginning to grow in his eyes. He scuttled toward the door but Esther reached it before he did, taking hold of his wrist with a steely grip.
“You’re not going anywhere, darling,” she said in a sickly sweet tone. She forcibly dragged the man despite his struggling to the examination table. The young woman was just beginning to return to consciousness, her eyes drifting lazily from side to side before she sat bolt upright and she shivered. “What’s happened?” she whispered in a terrified voice, shrinking away as another of the mechanisms on the wall sparked and crackled.
Esther hesitated for a fraction of a second, her eyes fixed on Griselle’s. She knew that fear, that horrifying sensation of not knowing what was real and what was the nightmare. “Get out of here while you still can,” Esther finally managed to say, the words spilling from between her lips in a short burst. Though she wasn’t looking at the scientist she still had him tightly pinned to the table with one hand. Griselle sprinted from the room and Esther returned her attention to the doctor, looking down scornfully at the man. He’d managed to grab a scalpel from a nearby tray and jab it into Esther’s arm which she now noticed and delicately plucked from her crimson-stained skin. The man’s eyes widened in mingled fear and awe.
“You’re one of mine, aren’t you?”
“I belong to no one but myself!” Esther spat, ( )inging down the scalpel on the ulnar nerve in the doctor’s arm. He screamed and Esther smiled. Flames had sparked into being and distantly Esther knew she only had a few minutes to complete her job before she was blown into bits.
Esther wanted the doctor to feel the pain she had, the pain he had. Her lovely bard. He was dead, wasn’t he? That was the only logical conclusion. He never would have willingly left her on her own. So, Esther carved into the doctor’s head, digging into the tissue that he had scarred one too many times in Esther. The flames were leaping toward the door. It was time. Esther leaned over the doctor so that her face was inches from his, cupping his face in her blood-soaked hand. “Physician, heal thyself,” she hissed.
Esther groggily opened her leaden eyes and felt aching pain washing across her body. She groaned and slowly turned over, flexing her sore joints. “Where am I?” she asked herself in urgent fright, looking up at the trees and then at the ruined mess of a building before her. Huge chunks of scorched rubble had careened through the forest and crushed dozens of ferns and thistles. “I could have sworn I was in a tower by the sea…no, that was too long ago. There was a dark room once, a sort of laboratory I kept for myself. Yes, that’s where I have been most recently. Then what am I doing here? Certainly I must be here for some reason or another. Perhaps it has to do with this building. Did I destroy it? Is that what the laboratory was for? My laboratory was very nice. It was quiet and no one disturbed me…of course, I became quite lonely after a while, didn’t I? People are supposed to have people. At least that’s what I hear.” Esther struggled to her feet and examined her ruined dress in dismay. “I loved this gown. It had pockets and everything. Ooh, pockets. I love pockets. I always forget I put things in here and it’s quite fun to see what I’ve forgotten about. Well, most of the time. Some things I’ve forgotten about are not fun at all.” Esther glanced back at the ruins. “Oh. I remembered something. That’s why I’m here. I must have remembered something and I ( )ought myself here to…to…well, I don’t really know, do I? I guess I never will. I’ll have to go back without remembering a single thing that happened here. I suppose that isn’t so bad. I do have to get myself a new dress, though, else I won’t look presentable. I’ll need to make certain it has pockets. Pockets, right. What’s in them?”
Esther rummaged in her pocket and came up with an empty container. “Caesium,” she remarked, reading the label. “Why would I carry around an empty jar of caesium? I must have used it, then. Well, I was experimenting with fireworks, wasn’t I? Yes, I’m quite sure of that. No. I didn’t use caesium for that. Magnesium is much better. Caesium in this sort of damp air would make quite a nasty explosion.” Esther’s eyes widened even further, to the extent that one might think they would fall straight out of her head. “It was me, then. I did this.” Esther twisted her hands together nervously, backing away. “I ought to get back. Back? Back where? Where do I have to go? There is nowhere I can call home and none who think I am worth the time to get to know.” Esther burst into tears and turned toward the trees, running off into the undergrowth. After a few seconds of full-out sprinting, Esther stopped dead and considered. “No, there is the laboratory. I like that place. It’s quiet and dark and no one bothers me. I wish they would bother me, that would be nice. Oh, if only I weren’t such a strange and repulsive thing! No memory and no sense of social etiquette makes for terrible conversations. Conversations with fellow human beings are such nice experiences. Two insignificant specks in the universe, talking and laughing and falling in love. Love? What do I know of such things? No, I must go back to the Order and get back to my work.” Esther glanced back over her shoulder. “Perhaps that was my work. What I’ve been working up to this whole time. No, I have other things to do. I must continue. There is a war to be won and though I’m no soldier or diplomat I can do my best to help.”
October 23, 2016 update
“Nasreen, we need to do something.”
“Of course I do. There’s no we in this.”
“So, you’re not planning to just let him walk all over you?”
Nasreen gave Tristan an exasperated look, pacing around the rough wooden table. “Of course not! Cato still thinks he has control over me but I’m not as young as I once was. He doesn’t seem to realize that I’d walk through the fires of hell to keep what is mine. I’ve kicked him out of the city once before–I can do it again.”
“What’s the catch, then? You wouldn’t have told me if there wasn’t something you needed help with, even if you say you need to do this on your own.”
“I just needed to work through the details. Maybe get some advice. I admit that I’m a bit nervous to confront one of the most powerful crime families in the city.”
Nasreen sighed. “It’s nothing.”
“You need help. Get Kazmer and some others from the Order to help you out.”
“This is my fight,” Nasreen said.
“Or you’re just worried they’ll find out whatever Cato knows.”
Nasreen folded her arms uncomfortably. “I don’t want the Order to get involved. I doubt even they realize the extent to which this family runs a great deal of the crime business around here.”
“And you do?”
“Yes,” Nasreen said with a pointed look. “So it’s my responsibility to burn them to the ground.”
“At least let me come with you. I don’t care if you were a thief, murderer, or something worse–you’re not the same person now and that’s what matters.”
Nasreen smiled softly. “That’s sweet of you, Tristan.”
“So, you’ll let me tag along?”
“Why not?” Nasreen relented, her smile turning into a smirk. “I might need some cannon fodder anyway.”
Tristan laughed. “I can be of use a bit more than that.” He paused. “Why didn’t you tell Kazmer, anyway? I would think you would at least trust him a bit more than the others.”
“He’s got enough to deal with as it is.”<( ) /> “What do you mean?”
Nasreen shrugged vaguely. “Kazmer has been distracted and paranoid for the past few days so I thought I’d give him a ( )eak.”
“Nice of you.”
Nasreen shrugged and then sighed heavily. “If you’re going to do this, know that you’re walking into a great amount of danger.”
“I think I guessed that already.”
“I want to try and talk with them first to try and negotiate terms. I’d rather not confront them if I don’t have to.”
“Is this the same Nasreen talking who runs headfirst into every single confrontation she can?”
Nasreen gave Tristan a serious look. “That should tell you exactly how much they scare me.”
Esther hummed to herself and poured a dash of ammonia into a copper solution to turn it a deep, rich indigo shade. She coughed as the ammonia vapors filled the air but continued on without much thought to the fairly toxic fumes. It was a wonder that Esther hadn’t suffocated on some of her creations before now, what with the poor ventilation in her makeshift lab.
“Oh, I’d quite forgotten about this,” Esther remarked to herself, peering into an empty bottle. “I guess I’ll have to fetch some more hydrocyanic acid. That could take ages, collecting all of that from fruit. Well, I could try and make it myself but that would require a substantial amount of heat. Do I have any live coals? Wait, no!” Esther beamed and rushed over to a cabinet to pull out a cyanide salt. “Now I’ll just use a strong acid to draw out the gas…maybe I should have something to eat first? I could go out and look for some berries. I think some of them grow nearby.” Esther shook her head and pressed a hand to her temple. “No, that’s not right. I’m not there anymore. I keep going in circles. I need to find the cure. I thought alchemy might do it but the more I look into the less probable it seems. My father believed we could do it. My father…he’s dead. They’re all dead. I wish the sickness had taken me too. None of this would have happened. But not all of it is bad, yes? Well, maybe that’s because I can’t remember all of it.”
A knock came at the door and Esther bounded over to greet her visitor. Duchess Everdys appeared in the doorframe, her ( )ow furrowed. “You’re back, then,” she said.
“Back? I…don’t think so. That implies that I left,” Esther pointed out. “Come in!”
“Esther, you were gone for hours. I came last night because this part of the complex seemed a little to peaceful and sure enough, you were gone. I looked all over for you.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“I was worried! Esther, you know as well as I do that you’re…a bit forgetful. I thought you might have gotten lost or something.”
“Well, I’m back, like you said.”
“But where did you go?”
“You might want to stand back a bit,” Esther suggested, about to pour a clear substance into her apparatus. “This should catch all of the hydrogen cyanide gas which will then cool into a liquid, but it’s not a foolproof experiment. Prussic acid is toxic and flammable as far as I can tell, so…”
“Then why–?” Everdys began, shaking her head. “Never mind,” she sighed, rubbing a hand over her eyes. “You’re avoiding the question, Esther. Where were you?”
“No need to monitor my comings and goings, I’m harmless enough,” Esther tittered.
Everdys raised an unimpressed eye( )ow. “You never leave the city.”
“Can’t a person change their habits now and again?”
“Perhaps I don’t remember; did you consider that? As you so frequently remind me, my memory is the equivalent of a burnt potato.”
Everdys was somewhat caught off guard by the hostile note in Esther’s voice. “Alright, if you don’t want to tell me, you don’t have to. I just want to keep my fellow Order members safe, and you have a penchant for…playing with fire, per se. Rather like a few others I know,” she added, annoyance crossing her mind as she thought of Nasreen and Kazmer.
“Look, I am perfectly well and healthy,” Esther said, gesturing to herself. “Not a scratch. Whatever happened, you can be assured that I am perfectly safe.” Esther considered. “Unless you were referring to keeping other members safe from me, in which case I have no idea.”
Kazmer strode down the passage, clutching a piece of paper in his fist and appearing deeply troubled and agitated. Just as he walked past Nasreen’s room, the latter appeared and watched him storm purposefully down the hall. “Hey, Kazmer! What’s up?”
Kazmer paused and glanced back at his apprentice. “I’m not going to explain twice, so you might as well come along. Where have you been all morning?”
“I was out. Talking to Tristan.”
“You can’t skip training to flirt with your boyfriend, Nasreen, I hope you realize that.”
“I was under the impression that we weren’t training this morning.”
“Well, we could have been.”
“Oh, I see,” Nasreen said with a roll of her eyes. “I guess I should just put my whole social life on hold, then.”
“That would be preferable.”
“Wow. No wonder you have no friends.”
Kazmer narrowed his eyes. “I do have–oh, Ishan. Perfect. I was hoping to talk to you in private.”
“What is this about?” Ishan asked, glancing from Kazmer to Nasreen in some concern. “If you’re coming to tell me that you dropped another sword into the ocean, I’m going to have to tell some of the elders that you can’t handle responsibility. Again.”
“No, it’s not about that,” Kazmer muttered, shooting Nasreen a poisonous look.
“That was to prove a point,” Nasreen shrugged.
“It’s about my sister,” Kazmer added.
Nasreen fixed Kazmer with a searching look. “What about her?”
“Yes, let’s talk about this in my office,” Ishan said finally, appearing even more troubled than before.
As soon as the door closed, Kazmer slapped the crumpled paper onto Ishan’s desk. “I went out into the city and look what I happened to find.”
Ishan calmly smoothed out the paper. In block letters at the top of the paper were printed the words, “Wanted: Kazmer Ross for High Treason and Attempted Murder of a Royal Officer.”
“How did they find out?” Ishan asked, glancing up at Kazmer.
“Look at the signature,” the other replied blankly.
Ishan’s gaze trailed down to the signature at the bottom of the page and Nasreen searched for it as well. “Under the orders of Griselle Ross,” Nasreen ( )eathed. She glanced back at Kazmer. “But how?”
“I don’t know!” Kazmer exclaimed in exasperation.
“Varyh killed her. We saw him take the shot,” Nasreen said. “You held her in her last moments.”
“It must not have killed her. She could have passed out and woken up later, barely alive,” Ishan replied. “She would have certainly died shortly after that, however. How she recovered is beyond me.”
“Maybe it was her last order before she died,” Nasreen suggested hopefully.
“Either way, my cover is completely blown,” Kazmer said, shaking his head. “So much for being an excellent spy in the upper class.”
“This is serious,” Ishan agreed, folding his wizened hands together. “I will have to consult with some of my superiors to determine what we should do.”
“Why aren’t you one of those superiors?” Nasreen suddenly asked. “I mean, really. You seem like you have a lot of experience.”
Ishan smiled faintly. “You have a lot to learn about this Order, Nasreen. I’m not what you would call the most conventional member here.”
“I’d like to meet a conventional member,” Nasreen remarked pointedly, folding her arms.
At that moment, Su Ming entered the room with the air of having come a long distance in a great hurry. She pushed a few stray hairs back from her eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said hastily as she realized that she had interrupted something. “I should have knocked but I am a bit scattered at the moment. I was picking up supplies for a repair I’ve been working on. The mechanisms in some of the eastern halls have been down for a few days, you know.” Here Nasreen smirked at Kazmer and he gave her a warning look. “While I was there, I overheard some palace workers saying that one of their research laboratories was destroyed last night. I didn’t even know there were research laboratories. I know this is probably trivial and you know about it already…I simply thought you ought to know anyway, just in case.”
Ishan set his chin atop his folded hands. “No, I hadn’t heard of that. It’s possible that I am merely out of the loop, but I will check with some of the others. Thank you for telling me.”
Su Ming nodded and left the room, soon followed by the other three. “For now, Kazmer, I would just stay here,” Ishan advised. “Don’t try to see your family. Don’t even leave the Order. Understood?”
Kazmer sighed but nodded sullenly. As they lingered on the threshold of Ishan’s office, Everdys came marching up. Her footsteps were filled with purpose and her eyes ( )imming with a growing fire. Nasreen made to slink away but Kazmer grabbed the back of her collar. “If I’m getting in trouble, you are too.”
“I just heard something about a laboratory being destroyed,” Everdys said. “Do you know anything about this?”
“All I know is what I heard from Su Ming.”
“Yes, that must be who Varyh heard the information from,” Everdys considered, placing her hands on her hips. “None of the higher ranking members know of this either. I just spoke with Petra.”
“Or they’re just hiding it well,” Kazmer pointed out.
“Now isn’t the time for your conspiracy theories, Kazmer!” Everdys protested irritably. She sighed. “Sorry. It hasn’t been a good day and a half.”
“If it wasn’t us, who was it?” Nasreen wondered. “I mean, they’re obviously on our side.”
“I’m thinking of sending a small team to investigate the scene itself,” Everdys said. “Would you two be capable of handling this?”
“Absolutely,” Kazmer replied.
“As long as I get back here by sunset,” Nasreen added.
“What are you doing after sunset?” Kazmer asked suspiciously.
“None of your business, Boss,” Nasreen hissed.
“Okay,” Everdys interrupted. “You two look into this matter and see what you can find. It would be best if you ( )ought someone knowledgeable in the sciences…I’ll see if Lorelei is free.”
Lorelei, Kazmer, and Nasreen stood before the scorched ruins of the lab, bits of stone and iron scattered around the clearing surrounded by trees. “So, somehow the Order leaders knew where the laboratory was and yet they’ve never told the rest of us about it and we’ve done nothing about it before.”
“They have their reasons, I’m certain,” Lorelei replied.
“Eh, don’t listen to Kazmer. He’s got some crazy theories about the Order.” Nasreen knelt down next to a piece of twisted rubble. “What would do this sort of thing? Do you think it was just one of their experiments gone wrong?”
“Doubtful,” Lorelei remarked. “If we haven’t heard of any incidents before now, they must be very careful about their proceedings. Whatever the explosion was, it came from around here,” she said, striding a distance off and gesturing to the center of where the building used to be.
“The upper levels collapsed on everything underground,” Kazmer agreed.
“But that wouldn’t be enough power to blow everything else to pieces. This is a pretty large building we’re talking about here. Chunks of scrap in the forest. I mean, it had to be a decent explosion to get that kind of momentum,” Nasreen pointed out.
“Since when did you know so much about explosions?” Kazmer asked suspiciously.
“The only way anyone finds out. I blew stuff up.”
“O-kay,” Kazmer said, folding his arms, “so, Lorelei, do you know what might have done this?”
“Well,” Lorelei considered, “it could be a lot of things, quite honestly, and whoever did this obviously wanted to leave as little evidence as possible.”
“You said the upper levels caused the underground ones to cave in,” Nasreen said. “How do you even know that there are underground levels?”
Kazmer shrugged. “There’s no way this is all there is to the lab.”
Nasreen nodded. “I guess you’re right. I wonder if we could salvage anything from underneath the rubble.”
“We couldn’t move all of this rock,” Kazmer pointed out.
“We could get more people. Or a lever of some kind. Or…small controlled blasts could do the job. Or–”
“I believe we have run into a dead end,” Lorelei interrupted before Nasreen could suggest something else. “I know that Everdys is a bit anxious to find out how this happened, but honestly whoever did it is a friend, not a foe, so I think she has little to worry about.”
“So, are you telling me that we came out into the middle of the woods for nothing?” Kazmer grumbled.
“I could always push you in front of a soldier or a crowd of bounty hunters,” Nasreen said. “I’m sure that would be worth your time.”
“Nasreen, your suggestions are terrible,” Kazmer responded.
“There was no evidence that could point us to anyone,” Lorelei summarized with a sigh.
“That’s alright, I just wanted to make certain,” Everdys said, vague thoughts lingering in her soft blue eyes.
“So, can we go now?” Nasreen asked. As soon as Everdys nodded, Nasreen bolted off and disappeared from sight. Kazmer watched her depart with suspicion before loping off in the other direction. Lorelei was about to excuse herself when Everdys stopped her.
“Would you come with me for a moment? There’s someone I would like you to meet.”
Everdys began to walk off and Lorelei hurried to catch up with her. “I wasn’t sure if you would find anything in the forest, I just needed to confirm my suspicions.”
“What do you mean?”
Everdys merely sighed in mild frustration and turned a corner sharply to come into an adjoining hall. The passages were far narrower and damper in the less frequently travelled sections of the city. Everdys stopped in front of an inconspicuous door and knocked before opening it. “Lorelei, meet Esther.”
“If I hadn’t left my tower, none of this would have happened. Wait, what even happened? That doesn’t matter. Best not dwell on the past. Makes my head hurt. Well, more than that.” Esther jumped in fright as she turned and spotted the two visitors. “Everdys! I didn’t hear you. Well, maybe I did. I was just distracted. I have a lot to do, you know.”
Everdys coughed and waved a hand over her nose as heavy ammonia vapors attacked her senses. “Esther, did you go to the King’s laboratory last night?”
Esther froze. “That does sound familiar…but no, no, I’m sure I didn’t go anywhere. I always stay here, you know.”
“Esther, we’ve been through this. You did leave last night.”
“You told me once that you were ( )ought somewhere terrible where they did things to your mind. You went back there, didn’t you?”
Esther seemed to wilt a bit. “I think I did,” she whispered. “I didn’t want to…well, I did. I wanted revenge.” Her fingers curled tightly around a knife lying nearby. She whirled around and there was a strange and fierce glint in her eyes. “I wanted them to feel my pain!” Esther then dropped the knife like it was something poisonous and corrupted. It clanged to the floor and Esther took a step back, hands clutched over her heart. “I didn’t mean to do this,” she continued in a soft voice just above a whisper. She wound her hands in her hair. “My head,” she whimpered. “It’s killing me.”
“Esther,” Everdys began in a quiet, soothing tone, “I’ve ( )ought Lorelei along with me to take a look at you.”
Esther looked up and her eyes fixed on Lorelei. She beamed. “Ah, I’ve met you before, haven’t I? The woman with fiery hair, yes. You helped me get out of the city last night.”
“That wasn’t me,” Lorelei replied hesitantly. “I think you might mean Nasreen.”
“Yes, I imagine so,” Everdys remarked.
Esther bounded up to Lorelei. “Well, then, it’s nice to meet you. I always like to meet new people, new friends. Not that you would want to be friends with me; I’m too odd. But perhaps we can talk anyway.”
“I’ve ( )ought a few healers here before to check on Esther, but all of them are a bit tired of her…unpredictable nature, so I hoped that maybe you wouldn’t mind taking a look at her? I’ve been trying to help her repair her memory, but so far no one has been able to improve it much.”
“I’m not entirely certain I am qualified–” Lorelei began.
“Please,” Esther interjected suddenly, her eyes wild and terrified, “can you just try to help me?”
Lorelei paused. “Of course. I can try.”
The moon had risen well overhead by the time Tristan and Nasreen stood before a small, unassuming house. “I never come to this side of the city anymore,” Nasreen remarked, gazing up into the candlelit windows. She took in a ( )eath and tried to calm her nerves. “Okay, let’s do this. You stand guard outside the building. Try not to look obvious about it. I don’t want anyone coming inside.”
“What do I do if someone tries to get in?” Tristan asked urgently as Nasreen stepped up to the door and knocked.
“Distract them. Fight them. Actually, no, don’t fight them. Bad plan. I don’t know, whatever your style is.”
“You’ll be alright, then?”
Nasreen glanced back over her shoulder and smirked. “Come on, it’s me. What could go wrong?”
Before Tristan could answer, the door opened and he had to scamper off into the shadows. Nasreen was met by a tall, elegant woman. She had an air to her that told Tristan that she was the sort of woman that could invite you to a fancy dinner or ( )eak you in half, depending on her mood.
The woman smiled. “It’s been a long time, little fox. What ( )ings you here?”
“Well, Mother, I was hoping we could speak about your son.”
The woman continued to smile but there was something forced and poisonous about the gesture. “I thought you threw him out of the city.”
“I did. Best decision I ever made. Unfortunately, he was stupid enough to come back and now he’s making unreasonable demands. I was hoping I could negotiate something with you.”
“Of course, darling. Come inside.”
Nasreen walked into the house and closed the door behind herself.
“So,” the woman said, “how has Cato been bothering you?”
Nasreen sighed. “Where to begin? So, the other day I was minding my own business when Cato shows up and tells me that I need to give back everything that is ‘his.’ Of course, what he fails to realize is that none of what he is referring to is actually his.”
“And your point is?” the woman asked, raising a dark eye( )ow at Nasreen.
“I just hoped that you would talk to him. I’m willing to let him stay in this city as long as he leaves me alone, which honestly I don’t think he’s capable of but if you talked to him I know that he would.”
“Darling, you know that I love you almost as much as my own child.”
“That’s not how we do business, little fox. You have the right to keep your assets as long you fight for them.”
“Okay, I understand that. Blackmail is fair play, but I am negotiating terms with a party of higher authority. Also fair.”
The woman smiled darkly. “Good point.”
“So, you’ll talk to him?”
The woman looked past Nasreen. “I think you ought to speak with him yourself. You might find he has something else to say.”
“Wha–” Nasreen turned and at that moment the door was flung open to reveal Cato dragging the limp and unconscious body of Tristan behind him. Two long gashes crossed Cato’s cheek where Tristan must have slashed him with his knife.
“Hello, mother,” Cato said with a wild and hungry smile. “I’m back.”
Kazmer landed softly on the white balcony looking in on a dark room. He silently slipped the blade of his knife into the crack between the doors and the lock clicked apart. Kazmer pulled one of the doors open and crept inside, his tread silenced by the carpet on the floor.
Kazmer froze as the bedcovers shifted and Griselle lit a candle on her side table. She looked terrible, her bones easily visible beneath her skin and dark circles under her dull eyes. “I thought you might be here,” Kazmer remarked, continuing his approach with his fingers curled around his knife.
“Well, I couldn’t exactly stay at the barracks in my condition, now could I? Plus, Mother tends to worry.” Her voice was hoarse and weak.
“How did you survive?”
“I’m no weakling.”
“The King looks favorably on those who serve him with the kind of loyalty that I do.”
“Yes, I’m sure that’s why you haven’t been promoted above your station in two years.”
“It’s not about my position, Kaz.”
“Oh, but it is. Is Father disappointed that you haven’t been made a general yet?”
“He’s more disappointed that his son turned out to be a traitor to the King,” Griselle hissed, swinging her legs over the side of her bed and attempting to stand. She wobbled and sat back down on the edge of her bed.
“Careful,” Kazmer said. “You look like you could keel over any minute.”
“I might have little strength left now,” Griselle said, ( )eathing hard and ( )ushing her choppy hair out of her face, “but just you wait, ( )other.”
“I could kill you right now,” Kazmer growled, his blade lingering around Griselle’s throat.
“Then do it,” Griselle spat, taking hold of Kazmer’s wrist and pressing the knife to her own skin. Something changed ( )iefly in her eyes. “My head is on fire,” she whispered, almost fearfully. She shook her head as if to clear it. “If you had someone else do your dirty work last time, I doubt you’ll have the courage for another try. And who knows, that might not kill me either. Those scientists changed my chemistry. Made me stronger.”
“Scientists?” Kazmer repeated. “You were in a laboratory?”
“Yes,” Griselle replied. “So what? Oh, did you and your traitor friends not know about the lab? Well, good news for you–the entire place was blown to hell last night.”
“Who?” Kazmer asked urgently, taking a hold of Griselle’s shoulder with his other hand. “Who did that?”
Griselle shrugged. “Some psychopath in a blue dress. She helped me escape.”
Kazmer had no idea who that would be, but he logged the information in the back of his mind for later. “Never mind that. I need you to reverse the warrant for my arrest.”
“Not going to happen.”
“I could kill you.”
“And that wouldn’t help anything.”
“It would save a lot of people from suffering.”
“Then go ahead. I already called your bluff. I do not fear death, for I have already stared it in the face–and laughed.”
Kazmer turned away to leave, anger boiling in his heart. “It’s a pity you’ll miss the wedding,” Griselle called after him, a dark fire leaping behind her golden eyes. “Mother was so looking forward to seeing you again. How you’ve ( )oken her heart.”
The woman rushed forward and kissed her son on his unblemished cheek. “Cato, my little wolf! I see you’ve ( )ought us a little treat,” she said, glancing down at Tristan.
“Cato,” Nasreen growled. “You leave him alone.”
“Bringing your little pet along was a mistake, you know,” Cato said. “They’re so often caught in the crossfire.”
“I was just explaining to Mother about our misunderstanding,” Nasreen continued, staring with unblinking ferocity at Cato.
“Oh, there’s no misunderstanding. I did overestimate you, however. Asking my mother for help? I mean, what a cowardly move. I thought that you would at least put up a fight.”
“You haven’t seen the half of it,” Nasreen snapped. “Now put Tristan down before I punch you in the teeth.”
Cato dropped Tristan onto the ground with an unpleasant thud and Nasreen bent down to check his pulse. He should be fine as long as she left within a reasonable amount of time. “You gave me an ultimatum, so here’s mine,” Nasreen said, rising and gazing levelly into Cato’s dark eyes. “You can either leave the city with just the clothes on your back or leave me alone.”
“Your threats have no backing to them. It would be easy, so easy to spill all of your dark deeds to the right people. You know where that would get you,” he added, drawing a finger across his throat. “The King hates criminals.”
“The King needs criminals to keep his own questionable operations going,” Nasreen pointed out. “But enough politics. Mother, what say you?” She turned to look at the woman.
“I think you two are old enough to sort this out for yourselves. It’s a petty fight; I don’t need to be involved.”
“It’s not a petty fight!” Nasreen protested. “Cato is under the impression that I’m his property and that…well, that is quite frankly very messed up.”
The woman smiled pityingly, and spoke next as if explaining a simple concept to a small child. “Everyone belongs to someone, darling, unless they take action to free themselves.”
Nasreen sighed in frustration. “And here I thought you would be on my side.”
“She’s not your real mother,” Cato reminded her. “I, on the other hand, am her blood relative. Her eldest son.”
“I know that very well,” Nasreen hissed in reply before returning her attention to the woman. “But I also know that Mother is a woman of principle, not biased by anything.” Untrue, but she would be flattered. Nasreen knew how to play her cards right.
“This is up to the two of you,” the woman repeated, shrugging and adjusting her sleeves primly.
Nasreen’s head was jerked back as Cato grabbed hold of her hair and spun her around so that they were face to face, nearly nose to nose. “Excellent,” he said with a sly grin. “It’s just us, then.”
“No one else needs to get involved,” Nasreen agreed, shoving Cato away and freeing her hair.
“Unfortunately, your friend asked for it,” Cato replied, taking Nasreen’s hint and nudging Tristan with the toe of his boot. “I’m serious about this, Nasreen. I will tear you apart to get what I want.”
“The irony,” Nasreen remarked. She casually paced around the kitchen, picking up some of the items on the counter and weighing them in her hands. “Listen, you’ve made some stupid decisions in your life. This one blows the rest of them away. Use your head, if that’s at all possible, and consider the fact that I am a fighter. I won’t let you walk over me. I’d happily hand over the gold. I don’t care about that. What I do care about is you treating me like something less than a human being, so there’s where I put my foot down.”
“You’ve started a war.”
“The war already started,” Nasreen replied sweetly. “The game began ages ago. And this is my next move.”
Nasreen’s fingers flashed and in the next moment a great amount of some liquid had been poured across the floor and flames burst from the rapidly spreading puddle. The flames leapt in Nasreen’s eyes and she smiled triumphantly at Cato’s mildly panicked expression. She bounded nimbly over to Tristan, hauled him up so he was leaning against her side, then opened the door. “Checkmate,” she said, holding up the keys to the house and bounding out into the night. She locked the door with one twist of her fingers and then she was gone, moving at a surprisingly rapid rate for someone carrying the weight of a fully grown man on her shoulders.
“Kazmer,” Nasreen hissed. She had been waiting for the sound of his characteristically moody footsteps to pass by her door and as soon as she heard them she flung her door open. Kazmer halted and looked back at Nasreen.
“How did you–” he began.
“Come here,” she hissed, grabbing hold of his arm and dragging him into her room.
“Nasreen, if you’re drunk again I’m walking out of here,” Kazmer muttered, though as soon as his eyes fell on the figure draped over Nasreen’s bed he changed his tune. “What is Tristan doing in your bed?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Nasreen said with a teasing grin. “He’s bleeding out from being attacked by my psychotic ex.”
Kazmer rubbed his ( )ow. “Nasreen, what the hell is going on?”
“Exactly that. We were out in the city and he was attacked.”
“What am I supposed to do about it?”
“Well, I’ve already stopped Tristan’s bleeding but I was hoping you could help me get him to a healer.”
“Yes, of course.”
Nasreen and Kazmer then worked together to lift Tristan gently off the bed and they carried him down to the hospital ward. Nasreen quickly explained the situation with as little detail as possible to the suspicious medics before she hurried out of the room with Kazmer at her heels. “Are you going to explain what really happened?” he demanded. “You’re being uncharacteristically vague.”
“Yes, I’ll explain. I have to.”
Nasreen shut the door to her room and sighed heavily, crossing the room to sit on her bed. She then jumped up again. “Ugh, I kind of forgot about the blood,” she remarked, wrinkling her nose and ( )ushing off the back of her pants.
“Well?” Kazmer prompted, folding his arms.
“Okay, okay,” Nasreen began, pacing back and forth. “So, my parents were arrested, right? I was left to fend for myself as a sort of orphan.”
“Yes, so you enjoy saying.”
“Well, I ran across this family when I was probably ten years old who told me they would take care of me. Being the naïve and foolish child I was, I made the stupid decision of agreeing to stay with them. They were perfectly sweet for a few months, but I realize now that it was only to gain my trust and loyalty. Then, they started asking me to do things for them because money was tight. At first, it was simple begging and whatnot but then when I was about thirteen my ‘mother’ had the ( )illiant idea of having me prostitute myself. That didn’t get very far since when the first guy who came along I called him several rude but insightfully accurate insults, stole his wallet, and ran off. That was when my ‘family’ realized that I had true potential in thievery. I actually enjoyed that; running around the city with Cato and stealing stuff. Cato was kind of like my partner in crime, the oldest son of this family. So, even though he wasn’t really my ( )other it was a bit weird when he started flirting and making advances. I thought it was kind of fun so I went with it. Anyway, that’s not the point. I buried all of my assets in a secure and secret location, one that no one apart from myself would ever be able to find. I think by now the amount of stuff hidden in there is worth more than all of the heirlooms in your house put together.”
“I don’t see how any of this is relevant.”
“Well, I finally realized how creepy Cato was and I told him to leave me alone. He didn’t like that much, but when I threw him out of the city I thought he was gone for good.”
“I’m guessing you were wrong.”
“Yeah, he came back. He’s given me one week to give all of my assets to him and then we’ll go live happily ever after in a different country. He’s delusional, I’m telling you.”
“And you told Tristan about this?”
“Some of it,” Nasreen said vaguely. “He wanted to help me, so I told him he could come along while I went to visit Cato’s mother. I was hoping to talk some sense into her, but she’s pretty determined to stay out of this.”
“There’s something else, I can tell.”
“Cato threatened to tell the Order about me. The crimes I committed when I was younger.”
“The Order knows how to look past that sort of thing,” Kazmer replied, shaking his head. “As long as you’re loyal to them now, they don’t care where you’ve been very much.”
“I think they would.”
“What could you have done that’s so terrible?” Kazmer pressed.
Nasreen hesitated, her eyes flicking around the room. “I suppose it’s better if I tell everyone anyway. Then Cato will have nothing to hold over me.”
Normally Nasreen would have been excited to hear those words from Kazmer’s mouth but the situation was too serious for her to make a joke now. “That family I was a part of…they’re the most influential crime syndicate in this city. They had a bit of a rough patch when I was really young but I helped them get to the point they’re at today. I don’t think most of the Order even knows that they’re the root of ninety percent of what goes on in the city; they’re very careful and know how to delegate tasks so that their work looks like it’s coming from separate places.”
“That’s…intense,” Kazmer commented finally. “What exactly did you do that helped them out so much?”
“Oh, you know…stealing, threatening people’s lives, burning houses down…I’m responsible for the deaths of quite a few innocent people in this city,” Nasreen said. She glanced down at her hands and spoke quietly, hoping Kazmer wouldn’t hear what she had to say next. “Possibly including some Order members.”
Nasreen Darzi, Kazmer Ross, Ishan Salehi, Esther, Griselle Ross, Tristan Percivale, and Cato belong to me
Duchess Everdys belongs to Forgotten
Su Ming belongs to LadyLeaf
Lorelei Tholl belongs to Sorachan