After the storms had passed, Ana had become well-acquainted with the matter of doing errands. The actual shape of Sol’s job quickly became much clearer after a few days on the job. Discretion, reliability and information could be more precious than silver in cramped quarters filled with shadier elements. That is to say, a person who could be relied on to transmit a letter without knowing what’s in it was a valuable thing, but more valuable than that was a person who could know what was in it without even opening the envelope. Sol put her to the busywork, and it was satisfying to her for a while. Half of the addresses she went to didn’t have proper places to put mail; the other half scarcely had addresses at all and she had to ask for quite specific instructions from Sol to actually find them.
She didn’t mind being slightly lost, though. The summer heat and the long walks gave her time to think over the last few weeks. The need for discretion let her quiet her mind like she used to with prayer to the Saints, letting her mind naturally wander over the past and ruminate there. Or, when there was time to avoid ruminating, she’d see the sights, the many monuments of the old capital. They were few and far between in Blackwood, but they were certainly present. She handed off a paper package that jingled when she shook it too hard to a discerning man in front of a small plaque that commemorated the place where one of the first barricades arose. He seemed like one of those new money dandies, or at least he was trying to seem like one, his face powdered and his sharp clothes. He seemed out of place amidst the poverty and when he scurried back down the street towards the bridge across the river Ana couldn’t help but laugh.
On occasions she’d spot the watchmen. They’d always come in pairs or trios, standing tall in the light of day. In fact, from all of Ana’s observations, they seemed to abhor alleyways with such a passion that if she didn’t know better she’d suggest it was an inborn trait. The young ones looked jumpy and nervous; the old, so weathered and gray that they could no longer convey fear through their well-kept white stubble. Ana didn’t have a particular animosity towards them. After all, there was nothing illegal about delivering letters and packages to people, particularly if she didn’t know their contents. The crowds felt differently. Most gave them a wide berth and ceased whatever could be construed as hostility. Drunks hid bottles in their coats or behind their thighs; beggars hid their cups of alms. Even some of the most muscle-bound sailors, the kind that would take barges to the furthest reaches of the Teper and drag the barges with sheer force alone when water would not carry them rolled down their sleeves and hide their tattoos. Others were more bold. Particularly children – they knew that they had youth on their side when it came to this sort of thing, and gangs of them would openly jeer and yell at the watchmen.
If the watchmen minded they didn’t seem to show it.
And then there were the days that Seonya tagged along. She only showed herself twice, but Ana could already feel the habit forming between them. She’d catch Ana a while from Sol’s house, and they’d make more casual talk than they had at the brothel. It was suprisingly pleasant to speak with her again. When she had first appeared out of the blue she had dreaded the thought of more of those memories being drugged up, but both of them had found the shape of what they couldn’t touch or speak on in public. Ana would stay sparse with details, though. She felt she had to, if she was to have any measure of survival in Kallin. Most persistent were Seonya’s little guessing games as to what professions Ana had taken up. It was on the second time they met that she started to turn it into a real sport.
“Hm,” she said as she slowed to observe a viellist as they passed, “Were you… a soldier?”
Ana shook her head.
“You seem military,” said Seonya, “You’ve got the shoulders and the legs for marching, the way you walk. Maybe you were captain? A sergeant? A watchwoman?”
“Nope,” said Ana, smiling and elbowing her, “Nothing military. Not really. Come on, keep guessing.”
“Navy, then. Ooh, or a privateer! Maybe you were a privateer, one that hitched a ride with those mercenary ships for privateering against the Sondi when they were at war. Was it that?”
“Not even close,” said Ana.
Seonya pouted and scratched her head, deep in thought.
“Priestess? I know you got into all of that religious stuff.”
“No. Also very incorrect,” said Ana as dryly as possible.
She entered into a state of long and silent contemplation as they walked.
“You’ve fought some fairly formidable people,” said Seonya, speculating further, “Which means you must have some kind of experience with that before. But then you say it isn’t some kind of formal matter.”
“Yes, all of that is somewhat true.”
Suddenly, Seonya picked up her pace, and once she had overtaken Ana she turned to face her. She pointed at Ana in a faux accusatory manner.
“I’ve got it. You’re a pirate.”
Ana guffawed, and brushed past her.
“Nice tries, Se,” she said, “But wrong again. I’ll tell you some other time, promise.”
And so the game was stopped for a while, and eventually they parted ways, and Ana slipped her letter under the door without any trouble.
Today, Ana had been given another letter. Sol had felt it necessary to fill her in on some of the details on this particular matter. It was a communique from Temari to another player, one who went by Dzhate. She was supposedly a savant like Ana, more naturally capable with sorcery than most would achieve with many months of practice, and she had turned the gift to criminal ends. His other warning was far more ominous. He explained that she kept a spider-web of spies across the Blackwood Quarter and the rest of the city. Ana didn’t put too much credulity onto the idea that any mere human being could know everything, but that didn’t make the ones that tried to do so any less dangerous. In conjunction with sorcery, that danger was doubled.
Paranoia made even the sunniest days seem unnatural and menacing. It was stupid to look for spies around every corner, but Ana’s eyes had taken precedence from her mind in this matter. She couldn’t discern if anyone was looking at her in particular, if she saw any faces in the endless crowds that she recognized time and again, if someone was tailing her. For all she knew, the people behind her were merely behind her because they were going to the same destination, and of course most of them were; those beggars that sat at corners needed coins, not her scrutiny, and she felt guilty for giving them that scrutiny in the first place. She couldn’t assuage it besides saying that she didn’t really have the money as she passed, and even then she couldn’t offer that the Godhead bless them for fear of incurring the wrath of Tros.
The feeling faded only slightly as the day wore on. She was further out, beyond Blackwood proper. The air began to take on a milky texture, curdled in the hot sun and making itself sour on the tongue. The blackened shade of the tenements faded to kinder tones as Ana approached the hinterlands of Kallin. The houses came unglued from each other, no longer crowding each other in to make unplanned allies and bizarre conjoinances. Horses and stables were far more common here. The worn streets and thronging crowds of the deep city could make a horse balk or panic, so most people coming from afar would only bring a steed this far before finding some other means of transporting what they were carrying.
Ana straightened her spine as she approached her destination. It was a plain looking two-story. She eyed it with suspicion, trying to examine it for any sign of a trap. Sol had said that there was no good reason for Dzhate to be angry with her specifically, but caution would do better for her in things like this. The windows didn’t look to be particularly modified besides the curtains that blocked out all light. The dark chimney smoked away into the blue sky, telling her that someone was home. The door was plain and unadorned. If it had been made into some kind of focus, there was no sign of it on the outside.
With nothing left to do, Ana knocked twice.
A low voice gave an answer.
“The door’s open. Come in.”
Ana pushed it, and sure enough it was unlocked even before she touched it. It clearly once had been a very plain house, but something had gone awry. It had been swept and cleaned quite fastidiously, but in the place of any well-adjusted decoration, there was wild graffiti and hanging implements. Old pots, deeply inscribed and covered with chalk drawings, clay shards, rusty nails and more hung on long strings from the ceiling in a haphazard array of junk. The graffiti whorled and shivered across the walls with the sort of wild abandon that felt primitive, but Ana didn’t trust that feeling. They were complexes, sigils of a sort made of layered white and red and brown paint layered over the wood. Much of the floor was treated likewise, with a small semi-circle in front of the door that was left untouched. Still, there was nothing in the hallway but floating motes of midday dust.
Ana stepped up, and got into the semi-circle. The same voice came off from the side, and she turned to see a young woman there. She crouched off in the next room, thin streams of light illuminating her through the curtains. At least, that was her first impression. She wore a ratty dress, but her head had been crudely shaved as near to stubble as possible.
More unusual than that were her eyes. It took a moment to tell what was off-kilter to them besides their surroundings. There was a heaviness to her face that shouldn’t have been on a young person. Dark bags sat under her eyes, but the girl held them so wide that Ana felt as if she was trying to needle through her. Beyond that, she bore one brown eye, and an aberrant blue one that seemed as sharp as a hawk’s.
She was on edge. Ana kept her hands far from her waist. A sudden move in that direction could make things turn sour.
“An associate of Dzhate, I presume?”
The girl did not move. Not a muscle.
“Yes. I’m looking for a woman named Dzhate. If I’ve come to the wrong house, I’d be happy to leave.”
“And what are you planning to do?”
“I need to deliver a letter,” said Ana, slowly reaching for her pocket, “That’s all I’m reaching for.”
At once she held up her hand.
“Stop,” she commanded, “Don’t reach there.”
Ana held her hand in place.
“If you could just bring me to Dzhate, that’d be great. I’ve been told she really needs to see this letter.”
“Dzhate,” she said, “Does not need letters to know what is happening in her city.”
“Merya. You are Merya. An itinerant sorcerer, pugilist and sommelier of good prostitutes. Mae!”
At once, a man emerged from around the corner, and realization dawned on Ana’s face. She had seen him – his uniform – on a watchman on one of the corners. She hadn’t given it a second thought then, but now it was far more clear. He didn’t even have the right kind of cap for the job, but the outfit was a close enough approximation to make him seem like he was part of the watch.
“Son of a bitch,” whispered Ana.
Mae gave her a dirty look before the girl gave him a nod. He retreated back into the recesses of the house.
“The word is that you’ve been running all over the city at the behest of Sol.”
Ana started to calculate the situation. This girl clearly thought she was in control here. She had some command of the people that were around her, some part of Dzhate’s pie. She didn’t strike Ana as the leader of a criminal enterprise. The light made things tricky to tell, but she couldn’t have been far past girlhood – at oldest, she was sixteen. She’d seen it happen before. The more enterprising and unscrupulous criminal elements in Koletya would do the same sort of thing. As a sort of charity, they’d take in proteges as young as thirteen as spies and pickpockets and then mold them as successors. Then, they’d make the protege take over the enterprise in time while their own family got to take a tax off of them. At the very least, those were the rumors she heard. She had seen some of the first part, but she doubted the second ever actually happened. The bags said that she was tired. Whatever was on her mind, she wasn’t sleeping easily.
“I take it you’re the lieutenant around here,” said Ana, keeping her hand on her pocket.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing,” said Ana, “I just take it that you’re in charge right now. You’ve clearly done your research.”
For what felt like the first time since Ana saw her, the girl moved, cocking her head before standing.
“You think I’m… subservient, then?”
“Then why would you call me a lieutenant?”
“If you think the title’s wrong, then you’re free to correct me,” said Ana.
The girl shrugged.
“I cannot be a lieutenant on account of the fact that I am not subservient to a higher force. To do so would be against my nature.”
“Of course,” said Ana, trying to relate, “Subservience chafed me at times too.”
“Chafe? No. I do not wear it at all. I am higher than that.”
“So… you’re the monarch? Then where’s Dzhate fit into this?”
The girl moved her hand in a very deliberated, near-mechanical fashion, and she brought it close to the pocket of her dress. She fiddled with it for a moment before letting her arms fall to her side once more.
“Forget about Dzhate. We aren’t talking about her right now. We’re talking about what I am. I also cannot be the monarch. Most monarchs demand worship. When we had monarchs here, we worshiped them; when we gave them up, we gave them up to an immaterial divinity, which is also the monarch of all things, not just Koletya. Neither am I suzerain, as this indicates that my authority would supersede the authority of other rulers. If I were to do such a thing to any of my competitors, or even my most open of enemies, I would wage a war of offense, not a civil war, and so I cannot be suzerain.”
She spoke with a strange and awkward rhythm to her voice, as if she was reading from a book rather than the words coming straight fro her mind. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, there was a charismatic sort of energy to her in the half-light. It was not attractive in any sense, but rather potent. The percussiveness and intensity she put behind the words made Ana feel as if she was talking to someone with a particularly absolute knowledge of the truth.
“So I am not a monarch. Nor am I count, marquis, duke or any other such thing. I have no intent to establish a dynasty. Rather, where other such rulers are bound by law, by promotion, by duty and by family, I am free to pursue my own aims.”
“Pleasure,” said the girl, “And freedom from pain, illness and death.”
“You speak like a philosopher.”
“I read from them frequently,” said the girl, ”And in my readings I learned of the men of the Dhemya Hosts. They call their leaders Medhmanya, which is a word that means that they are free to recruit men, to order them; to work for other rulers, or to not do so; to wage war, or not do so. The best translation is Freelord.”
Ana looked around nervously. Her pace had quickened as she spoke, but it never quite left the realm of a dizzying monotony that left very little for Ana to read into.
“So, you’re free to do as you please. That must be very nice. I’d really like to get out of your hair, though, so if you would simply be so kind as to tell me where to find Dzhate, that’s all I need.”
“I am the one,” said the girl, “Freelord Dzhate, in the flesh.”
Ana nodded. She had come to the conclusion at about the same time Dzhate had said it.
“Will you let me reach into my pocket now?”
“You could’ve from the beginning. I thought subservience chafed you?”
She asked the question like there was some kind of mortal contradiction in what had been said. It irked Ana, the subtle condescension in it. She reached into her pocket, pulled out the letter, and held it out in front of her. Dzhate plucked it from her hand, and neatly opened it. Now that she was in better light, it was clear that she was quite young indeed. She only came up to Ana’s chest in height. She wasn’t even sure if the girl had finished growing.
“Younger than expected?” Asked Dzhate as she read the letter, “What, did you want a withered old crone?”
“I’m getting a sense that you have an inquisitive nature,” said Ana.
“What of it?”
“Well,” Ana prodded, “I have an inquisitive nature as well, which is leading to me the question of how a girl such as yourself ended up running information between adults like this, as part of a criminal enterprise.”
“You’re asking the wrong questions, Merya,” said Dzhate, “But you’re on the right track to understanding the core of the issue.”
The girl looked up from the letter, with a serious look, and then grinned widely. Her teeth almost glowed yellow.
“Now you’re trying to take shortcuts. Multiply before you add.”
If this was an interrogation, Ana would have followed that by glibly saying that she was deflecting. Instead, Ana held her tongue. She had gotten a smile out of the girl, and that was more than she had expected at the start. Playing by her rules would do more to please her.
“What do I receive from getting things in the right order, here?”
“What’s the prize? You’re playing a game with me, but I don’t know what I’m wagering to you, or what I stand to win.”
Ana rolled the stress off of her neck. Showing that she was afraid wouldn’t ingratiate her here.
“Knowledge is a prize in and of itself, but I do have some resources that might be of use to a person such as yourself. So, a deal. Tell me how I came to my position, and I will give you access to some of these resources, without a single string attached.”
Ana gave her an incredulous look.
“Not a single string?”
“Believe me. If I needed another true puppet, I would not even imply the existence of my influence to them. They would see me only through an associate of an associate of an associate. You have entered here alive because I have let you, though I will admit that I am not inclined to any form of violence, as it is not in my whims very often. You leave here alive because you have done some services for me, like delivering a letter.”
“Hm,” said Ana, “I’m still uncertain as to whether you’ll keep true on any of that.”
“That is fair. Our businesses are both relegated to the realm of quite absolute and damning truths and the realm of even more damning lies,” she said as she folded the letter, “But I will tell you one more thing, as a payment. You have amused me.”
With that, she gave such a wide and stiff smile that Ana felt greatly disquieted. Suddenly, the inquisitive part of her was feeling rather stifled in spite of the doubled promise of an ally and a distraction.
“Well,” said Ana, “I ought to be going. Busy day and all that.”
“No, it is not,” said Dzhate, “But you are free to take your leave.”
“Uh, yes. Okay. Thank you, and goodbye,” said Ana awkwardly, uncertain of how to cut things off. Eventually, she retreated out of the door, and shut it behind her, basking in the heat of the day once more. She exhaled a sigh of relief.
“Pretentious little thing,” she muttered to herself as she walked back towards the street.
At once, the door slammed open behind her, and Ana looked back in a start. Dzhate looked at her with the same unreadable smile, only her head peeking around from the doorway.
“And do not be rude, Miss Merya!”
She slammed the door shut again, and Ana quickened her pace all the way back home. She slept fine that night, but it took all week to wash the feeling of eyes off of her back.