Fire Ch. 07byEnithermon©
Hi there. *says the author sheepishly*
Sorry about the wait, I know it was waaaay longer than usual. I was going to keep going and make it a really long one as compensation, but who knows how much longer that was going to take. So here she is, the seventh installment. Got comments, advice, criticism, good intentions, milk? Always, always welcome and needed. I prefer 1%.
Bon Appetite, mes petits choux.
Thea rolled onto her back with a groan and wiped the stingingly cold snow off her face, sputtering. The night sky gazed back down on her silently, its twinkling landscape framed by the bare frozen arms of the trees that stretched heavenward around her.
A voice filled the air somewhere behind her head.
"Better, but you're still relying too much on your strength. You can't invest so much forward momentum in your attacks, a half decent fighter will just use it against you and it will be over before it begins. As the weaker opponent, you need to rely on speed and agility, not brute force."
She sighed. "Not everyone is as strong as you. I'm as tall as most men."
"These Southerners perhaps, but not the Huroth."
"When did you say you were leaving again?"
A face appeared over her, blocking out the stars and grinning a sardonic, fanged, upside down grin.
"Sick of me already?"
"I'm sick of getting tossed around like a rag doll in the snow is more like it." She said with a sigh and sat up, turning her head to look back up at him over her shoulder. "Don't you get tired?"His grin faded to a smirk.
"Every so often." He offered his hand. "If it is any consolation you're starting to get harder to throw around." She shook her head and took his hand.
"It's not." He chuckled and hauled her to her feet. She shivered and wiped her red hands on the legs of her pants, and looked around her feet for her lost knife. He tapped her on the shoulder with it and handed it back when she looked up. "I think I'm done for the night." She said as she wiped the slush from the blade and put it back in its sheath.
"But I was just getting warmed up?"
His face was serene, but she caught the twinkle in his eye.
"You may be, but I'm going to turn into an icicle if I spend any more time rolling around in snow banks."
"Then stop letting me toss you in them." His eyes still glinted mischievously. She scoffed.
"Doesn't the cold bother you at all?" She asked, turning more serious as she rubbed her arms to keep the blood flowing. He'd been coming back between his excursions to the local villages to 'investigate' her disappearance and had, as promised, given her more thorough instructions on how to defend herself. So far all she felt like she learned was how to land without knocking herself out in the process. That, and how to treat frost bite. The weather was getting damn cold as winter drew on. She rubbed her arms. He shrugged.
"Lucky you." She appraised him. There was still so much she didn't know about him, about what he was, and what he was capable of. There were things she was vaguely aware of, his speed and silence and strength, but she knew nothing about where his limits were, or what else he was capable of. As her comfort with him had grown, so did her curiosity. "It seems like there isn't much you can't do." She muttered in what she hoped was an off hand manner.
He returned her gaze, his expression muted. They stood there in the snow watching each other silently until Thea felt the oppression of her unasked questions weigh down on her. He smiled grimly, but his eyes were still dark and inscrutable.
"Fishing for your opponent's weaknesses?" She let out a dry laugh.
"Or something." She offered. Her smirk faded and she cleared her throat. "I guess we should head in then?"
He shook his head. "You go on. I'm leaving for the city."
"Now? To speak with them?"
She swallowed feeling a strange distance in the empty space between them that she hadn't experienced for quite some time, that strange sense of a widening, bottomless chasm. She held her breath as she took the first step towards him, pushing through the thick bubble of tension, and half expecting there to be no solid ground under her feet. She was almost surprised to find she wasn't plummeting into an abyss when she reached for him. She laid her hand on his chest and tilted her head up to graze her mouth tentatively against his bottom lip. He brushed her back, moving as slowly as melting ice, the fingers of one hand touching her face in the barest hint of a caress.
"Good luck." She whispered, their lips still making contact.
His lips moved away from hers, and stroked over her cheek to her jaw. Her eyes fluttered closed and she sighed out her held breath. He feathered his mouth and fingers over the lines of her face and brow before finally settling his mouth against hers, not hesitantly, but carefully. She felt her throat close and her eyes burn inexplicably.
His mouth brushed her ear. "Watch yourself."
She nodded silently against his shoulder. She felt him release her and pull away, but when she blinked her eyes open, he was gone.
Something tickled her neck and she reached up to brush it away and her hand hit something cold and metallic. She looked down, surprised to see a necklace resting across her collar. She reached back to remove it.
She'd never even felt it go on.
It looked almost insubstantial, held together as it was by fine interlocking swirls of silver which reminded her of clouds or whirlwinds and was studded with jade and another pinkish red stone she'd never seen before. It was terribly beautiful. She wondered if it would be appropriate to put back on. Was it hers? Had he put it there as a gift?
'Well why else would it be there?' She mocked to herself.
Still, she felt a pang as she replaced it and tugged her cloak so that it was covered. He'd never given her anything like that before, excepting the pearl perhaps, but this was different. She wondered what had compelled him now.
Regardless, the gesture warmed her. Not least because it came on top of all that he was already doing to help her. He had never actually expressed in words affection for her, barring that first vague 'I liked you,' which now in retrospect sounded charmingly boyish to her. Her lips quirked as she fingered the lacy bit of jewelery. However, the fact that he'd been helping her, as if he'd never contemplated doing anything else...well, that spoke loudly enough.
She blinked and looked up.
Berin's face appeared from behind the door.
She held up her hand.
He grinned. "Girl, I need a hand."
She threw herself back into reality and made her way over. "What, are you doing?"
He gave her a pitiful look. "The axletree on the hand cart is startin' to rot out. I'm trying to get a new one the same size, but I can't get the damned vice tight enough to lathe her smooth." He held up a hand and clenched it in an explanatory way.
She nodded and followed him in. "I'm sure Timothy would be stronger."
He snorted. "He's in a mood."
"He's always in a mood."
He turned back to her and winked.
"Good to see you're not."
Her smile twisted into a wry one. "Well, we'll see how long that lasts." He paused to let her catch up and clapped her on the shoulder.
"Well little girl, that's life now isn't it. Just gotta take the good while you got it."
"You're a wise man." He gave her shoulder another little squeeze.
"You be sure and mention that to May, eh?"
She only shook her head, and giggled softly.
"That took a while...any luck?" Marcus asked looking up from his glass. Jairus seated himself at the same table, pulling the chair so that the back pressed against the wall, then scanned the busy common room for interested eyes or ears before answering and pushing back his hood.
"Not really. It may be a dead end."
"Huh." He didn't sound surprised. Jairus knew he wasn't the only person who used Marcus as a go between, and he wondered if some of the other people looking for her weren't also working with Marcus. Better for the client, and either way Marcus would get paid. However, it was a dangerous game to play. People who killed for a living were not people one normally double crossed, unless of course one had become foolishly over confident.
It was possible Marcus had become impatient, or the client had for that matter, when Jairus hadn't returned with his usual promptness and results. Then again, someone had beaten him to the mid wife, and he'd not taken that long to get there, just longer than he was generally known to.
Once again he just couldn't let the girl alone, and once again it was going to cost him.
"Have you spoken to them?"
Marcus snorted, "Unfortunately. They're becoming rather impatient. They want results and fast."
"I'm sorry to have disappointed them, but if it consoles them, there is a good chance she's already dead."
"If my information was correct, then it seems the heiress was killed in some sort of ritual sacrifice." He watched Marcus as he spoke, and again noticed a distinct lack of surprise or interest. Jairus was sure the man had heard this before. Marcus only nodded in response. After a moment cleared his throat and nodded towards one of the back rooms.
"One of the clients is waiting in the backroom there, he can send for Darius as soon as you're ready."
"Now is as good a time as any."
Marcus nodded again but remained seated and sipped at his liquor, watching the room.
"There's another group who've turned up looking for her as well."
"And?" He asked when Marcus paused, still looking away.
"And they've offered substantially more...only....only they want her alive."
"Alive? Did they say why?"
"No. But I can arrange a meeting for later tonight...elsewhere of course, if you're interested in hearing them out. They seem to have done some digging of their own, so they might have a fresh lead for you...though I can't say how much more they might know than you. You took your sweet time, so I assume you were pretty thorough."
Jairus was very interested in hearing what they knew, and if they knew more than he wanted them to. He nodded.
Marcus stood and sauntered across the room.
A slight blond girl blocked his view before he saw Marcus disappear. She smiled widely, though her eyes were empty and restrained.
"Can I get you a drink?" This was Marcus' regular place of business so he had seen the girl before, and he didn't doubt she had seen him. He shook his head and her smile tightened. "Let me know if you change your mind." She moved on to the next table, and he watched her smile widen again as she leaned into one of the men sitting there and brushed lingeringly against him in a seemingly innocuous way to collect his glass. The man grinned at her and placed another order. Her eyes glinted warmly and she swished her hips and fluttered her hand at him, brushing his shoulder.
He watched as she moved away, her body stiffening and eyes turning empty once more, she glanced back towards his table, probably feeling his eyes on her. She forced a tight smile onto her face when he caught her eye.
He broke the gaze and let it travel along the bar next to which she stood. He saw one familiar figure. A slight young man with a narrow pointed face sat perched on one of the stools, his beer still full in front of him, though he brought the glass to his lips every once in a while. The youth was also watching the room.
Jairus had seen him here a few times. He had caught him 'at work' as it were. Twice he had spotted the boy out in the middle of a job. Once because the lad had simply jumped a mark in a nearby alley and the man had called out before he was able to silence him.
Jairus had been nearby and checked the alley out of curiosity. He supposed the job was effective enough, but the man had set up an alarm and Jairus hadn't been the only one drawn to the sound.
He had watched from a distance as the would-be assassin was chased by two irate citizens shouting bloody murder. Shoddy work to be sure, but amusing to watch. The second time had been even worse. He'd used his alley 'technique' again, only this time the mark was expecting an attack. Unsurprisingly, as Jairus had also spotted the boy tailing the man in the most obvious of manners, and the man would have had to be an idiot or blind not to notice.
Remembering the previous encounter, he had followed to see the results. They were also most amusing, though he eventually took pity on the boy and pulled the mark off of him once it was clear he had been overpowered and out-maneuvered.
It was simply enough for him at least to grab him by the throat and tossed him into the wall, knocking him out.
The scathing look the youth had given him was as comical as it was impertinent. He was only trying to be helpful after all. Ever since the incident, the boy had given him that same look when in a rare moment they happened to cross paths.
However, he was still in one piece and Jairus had yet to catch him jumping marks in alleyways like a common mugger, so apparently the experience had taught him that at least. Marcus reappeared, and Jairus watched his eyes dart quickly to the boy on the stool. Interesting.
"He'll be here shortly, you might as well go wait."
Jairus said nothing, only stood and left. He did glance up as he closed the door behind himself and watched the boy rise, leaving his still untouched drink sitting on the bar. He sat and he waited.
He didn't have to wait long. He heard Darius before he entered, balking at how long it had taken the "disrespectful cocksucker" to return with information. Jairus allowed himself a brief smile before the door swung open. Darius charged into the room and stood before him, arms crossed.
"Well? Is it done?" Jairus waited until the door was shut behind him.
"Are you asking if she's dead? Or if I've finished my investigation?"
"Which one do you think I care about more?" He growled.
"Assuming you mean the former, and forgetting for the moment that I never actually accepted the job, I'd say that if she's not already than she has vanished without a trace, though to more than that I cannot attest. I assume your other informants have told you that there is a village a couple days south which claims to have done away with her already." He watched the large man's dark face contort slightly, confirming that this was so. "If they continued the search they will also have discovered that no surrounding village had seen a woman matching her description, so she is either dead, in the city itself--though how she came unseen is a mystery--or she is far from this land, perhaps even from the empire." The man snorted and uncrossed his arms, balling his fists at his hips and looking down at the floor shaking his head.
"I assume this you have also heard?" Jairus asked.
"I need a body. I need to be sure." Jairus could tell the words were not directed at him specifically. The Huroth shook his head again.
"No. We have to keep looking." He sneered, looking up at Jairus. "How much?" Jairus shrugged.
"Nothing. You have not had satisfaction; however, if you wish for me to continue searching, it will cost you that much more. I suggest you abandon the search; I have no interest in wasting your time in a pointless hunt for a ghost. My advice to you, though you may disdain to take it, is to channel your time and resources elsewhere. I have a feeling you may have more problems than a wayward girl on your hands before long." Jairus kept his face placid, but noticed with satisfaction that two of Darius's men who lingered behind him were nodding in unconscious agreement. "Besides I doubt you have much to worry about, from what I've heard of her at least. It seems unlikely that she made it out of the forest alive, weakened and tortured as she was...they say there was blood on the ropes..." He added idly.
"She's Huroth, of the great house...she would survive." He interrupted announcing the fact with a mixture of annoyance and pride. Jairus very nearly rolled his eyes. Instead he shrugged again.
"Fine, but if you wish to retain me, the cost will double, and I make no promises or guarantees." He shook his head.
"No then...but if you do come across a body or proof of life or death, consider it a bounty."
"As you wish. But...tell me, why does she concern you? Do you honestly think a peasant girl raised within the Empire will attempt to re-take the throne?" The man paused and looked back at him through narrowed eyes. For a moment Jairus thought he wasn't going to answer, but he shook his head.
"It's not her I'm worried about. There are...other interested factions, who might use her as leverage."
"Ah. I see. Well," he said smirking and rising from the table, "here's hoping they have as much luck as you have in finding her then." He said it with complete sincerity. The man appraised him again, eyes still narrowed.
"You're Huroth aren't you? Were you born Empire? You don't act like one of us." In Jairus's opinion that was a high compliment. He tipped his head in acknowledgment.
"Something like that."
That seemed to satisfy the man, as he nodded firmly, then gestured to his men, who filed out behind him in a practiced way. Short and to the point...again, at least they had some redeeming qualities. Marcus slipped in shortly afterward and closed the door behind him.
"So, how did it go?"
"Ah. Well then. You don't care to elaborate?"
Jairus leveled his gaze and did not smile. He remained standing. "They seemed as surprised as you did with my information." Marcus stared back unflinchingly, though his eyes held questions.
"Is that so? How surprised did I seem to you?"
Jairus did smile slightly at that.
"Not terribly." He paused only a second before pushing on, indicating that the subject was, for now, closed. "Is the other meeting set up?"
Marcus was, as always, quick on the draw.
"Certainly, and another if you'll have it."
Jairus arched a brow at him. "Not more Huroth chasing ghosts I hope?"
Marcus smirked. "No, this one's a little more substantial. A regular sort of job, but in an odd sort of place. Head to the Three Tuns and they should be waiting for you upstairs, last room on the left, then come back here if you're willing to hear the job." Jairus nodded, both his understanding and assent.
"It is unlikely that this will take more than an hour. Set the meeting then."
Marcus gave him a slightly quizzical look, but new better than to comment. The Three Tuns was a good twenty minutes of winding alleyways from where they stood. Jairus knew a more direct route.
A minute later he was grinning icily to himself as he skirted quickly, but carefully, over the red curved tiles beneath his feet, carefully lest he loosen one and sent it skittering down to smash in the streets below. Some of these tiles, he knew, were older than him.
It was early yet, and the city was still bright with life and movement. He paused in the shadow of a bell tower, and glanced around and below him. To the north, the White Sea stood in defiance of its name as an empty blackness signaling the cities edge. The lamps of a few late boats still flickered, tiny and distant.
Around him spread a different sea, one of red tile slanting into grey, umber, and rose tinted plaster which cracked and peeled and eventually gave way, far below, to the smooth and blackened cobblestones lining the crooked streets and plazas.
At his feet five young men in dark cloaks and Bautas spilled out into the empty alley. They were probably wealthy, and almost certainly up to no good. Their masks distorted their voices, as well as their features, so no one would identify them when they were spotted doing something their wealthy parents would rather not have to pay for later.