By some miracle the hounds never found Ana, though she heard them baying all through the night. It seemed like forever until the incessant howling stopped. Every time they did a chill ran down her spine. It wasn’t like she needed the help. Even in summer, the Teper felt cold as ice on her skin when she dipped into it. Though it took some fumbling for matches, she managed to finally find her way to the abandoned barn that had been long overtaken by the woods.
She clambered into the hayloft, still sopping wet. She dried enough to be comfortable in the dark before reclining onto the creaking boards. There was no hay left for a bed. She managed to find her extra shirt, and place it beneath her head as a pillow before attempting to sleep.
She shut her eyes.
Ana wasn’t sure when or even if she fell asleep when she heard a thumping at the hatch of the hayloft. Then, another thumping, closer.
She produced a match, and lit it. The darkness peeled away in layers and the match was wholesale consumed into the thin air as the fire grew longer and longer. In the blink of the eye, there was a red candle beneath it – and beneath that, a the shape of a woman with a hollowed-out head. Ana felt the air rarify.
She was half-dreaming, she was certain of it. All the same, her anger boiled up. She reached out and grabbed Tros’ flame with her bare hand. Everything went dark again, and instead of burning she felt herself chill to the bone. She held it in place and the sensation of cold only grew. Ana shivered, and soon enough shivering felt like burning again. Like being in the depths of winter without a coat. She held fast until she could do so no longer, the fire blazing to life once more. Ana leaned back and supported herself on her hands and knees.
“Fuck you, too.”
“Rude,” said Tros.
“Rude?” Asked Ana, “I’m rude? You ruined my life!”
Tros cocked her head and tapped her cheek with a finger.
“I think you did that yourself. And your life is not over.”
Ana felt the pistol on her hip.
“What if I spoiled your ambitions for me? Killed myself here and now?”
“I will not lie; I have the ability to prophesy to you what would come of this. Your sweet Edamosfa would find you first. Would that not be terrible?”
Ana was quiet for a long time, and took her mind off of the pistol.
“That’s what I thought,” said Tros.
“Why are you plaguing me like this?”
“I am merely making good on our deal, Ana. I am advising you.”
“And if I don’t follow your advice?”
Tros turned her head away for a moment. She seemed to be looking off into the distance without any eyes to see by.
“You will die; drowned in the Teper, or killed by a highwayman on the road who takes your pistol in your sleep and slays you when he thinks you are to rouse. You will die on the moors of Perasef a year hence, shot down by a witch hunter. Listen to me and listen to me well: walk by the river, not the road. Find passage to Kallin and go to the Blackwood Quarter. There, on Peremin Lane, go to the thirteenth house and find the man there – vzõ Duva. He will give you a good turn. Go, and live.”
Ana stayed quiet as she spoke. Devils lied, but they made good on their deals. She could believe that even as Tros was leading her astray, she was also leading her towards life, as twisted as it was.
“So this is how we’ll meet from now on?”
“Not so,” said Tros, “You may call me for a second and third time with my sign.”
Ana’s eye twitched, in the half-dream and in reality. A symbol came into her mind and she suddenly felt it – the muscle memory of it – like she had been writing it all her life. She resented it. It felt wrong. A little thing of ink and memory that should not have been there in the first place.
“Now sleep once more, little mortal,” said Tros, “You have a long journey ahead.”
And like that, the dream went blank.
Ana slept uneasily. When she awoke, her back hurt like she’d split it over a sharp rock. Light streamed in through the cracks in the wood. Dust floated through the air, and she achingly descended back down to the earth. The hoofprints had long worn away, but the scrabbling marks of rodents had gladly taken their place. Faint strands of straw were still stamped into the dirt. They had gone white and brown with age since the barn was abandoned. She pulled a hand mirror from her case and her knife.
If she was going on the run, she would have to do it properly. She bundled up her hair as she cut it short. The brown-black strands fell around her in a pile. It wasn’t much of a disguise, but it would do from a distance. She dusted stray hairs off her jacket before carefully scratching out the maker’s mark on the side of her case, and on the grip of her gun. She couldn’t have anyone seeing them. She put on fresh clothes and packed her things, before taking her ward out of her pocket, and holding it in her hand.
“Tros, I pray to you. Open all ways to me. Make my path easy and clear,” she spat out.
She sighed, satisfied that her prayer was sufficient, before continuing on with a proper one. She clasped the star in both hands.
“Saints, watch over me on my travels, and forgive my sinful state. And watch over Edam, and send her a new partner who’s better than I was to her.”
She sat in silence for a while. Her knees dug into the dirt. She shuddered.
She’ll be fine, she told herself, She’ll do just fine without you. Better to keep moving now.
The reassurance wasn’t enough. Ana choked back a sob and wiped tears from her eyes before standing, picking up her case, and leaving the barn.
It was a bright, sunny morning. A soft breeze filled the air and made the branches of the fir trees sway. When she reached the bank of the Teper again, the water shimmered with the light. The muddy depths were still inscrutable, but they seemed less threatening in the light of day. The water flowed languidly.
It was a long walk to Kallin.
After a long time of stumbling through the woods it once more gave way to open fields. The spring wheat had just begun its steady transformation towards gold. The only demarcation between the fields were the little stone Here and there, farmhouses and barns marked the landscape, alongside the occasional pasture. A black bull stood proud on a grassy hill; cows and oxen laid nearby, relaxing in the heat of summer and swatting flies away with their tails. She was far from the roads. Hopefully, they were expecting to find her there.
That was the rule in Tyeka. When you were in trouble, they’d sweep the streets first, then the buildings – if they were the types to stop trouble. Some shops didn’t mind if a child stole bread. Many did mind, but some were willing to put up with the occasional theft. They were the ones you needed to go after first, which of course inevitably tested their patience as the occasional theft became the constant theft, and then all of a sudden they were the kind of person to call the watch on an urchin. With the countryside, they’d have no buildings to sweep and no good ways of tracking her.
The sun danced across the sky as afternoon approached. As she walked, she came across a megalith – an ancient stone brought upright. It was twice as tall as her, and deep whorls and spurs had been carved into it. All around it was a charnel mound of burnt bones and ash. A lone heptagram hung from a spur, no bigger than her palm. She found herself deeply distressed by it for no reason she could immediately discern. The heptagram seemed so tiny in comparison to the pagan idol, and the idol itself seemed so distinctly old. She didn’t know if the old nobility made it, or the Gyetyan dynasts before them, or Immortals before them, or the Horned Lords who sat at the beginning of it all. All that seemed certain was that it had stood for an aeon, and it would stand for an aeon more.
She gave it a wide berth and clutched her sword close to her.
Ana was pulled from her thoughts when she saw a somewhat familiar sight on the horizon. Two rivermen had brought a small boat to shore. Two more lounged on the boat, quietly noting her as she walked up. It was a merchant vessel, the kind driven by a single sail and oars and made for the low waters of the Teper. Barrels stowed by ropes sat on board, and the sail and oars hung slack; a canvas hood sat over the stern for shelter. The two on the shore had made a firepit with their provisions, sitting on an upturned log. To one side was an older man, with a salt-and-pepper beard, and the other much, much younger – a teenager with long, unkempt hair and a scar near his upper lip. Father and son, judging by the resemblance between them. They had a few cuts of fish smoking over the fire; they smelled delicious. Her stomach rumbled.
Passage, she thought, Passage down the Teper. She wasn’t lying. Alright, act naturally as you can and be as honest as you can.
“Morning,” she said.
“Not good morning?” Said the man, giving a sort of mischievous grin.
“Not really, no.”
“Sun’s doing well, and the wind’s fine,” he continued on, “You sure it isn’t good?”
“No, sir,” said Ana, “Not at all. I’m down and out.”
The man grunted, and gestured for her to sit. She did so and warmed her hands by the fire. Her back felt slightly better when she set down her case and let herself be warmed.
“How bad is it?”
“I’m out of a job,” she said quietly, “And out of the graces of a good friend. I’m headed to get a fresh start in Kallin.”
The older man nodded. The younger one simply continued to stare with a stony-faced suspiciousness.
“You wouldn’t be happening to head down-river?” She added.
“We are, actually,” said the old man, “If you want, you could come aboard and we’d port you if you worked.”
“Father…” said the young man, trailing off.
“Speak your mind.”
“We can’t have a transvestite on board,” he said, just loud enough for her to hear.
Oh, thought Ana, My hair. Between that and my clothes, I probably look like a man.
The man interjected before she could finish.
“Danan! You can’t just accuse a woman of being a transvestite because she has short hair.”
“Dad, you said-”
“Yuna wears her hair short. Is she a transvestite?”
“No, dad,” said Danan quietly, “She isn’t. I’m sorry, ma’am.”
The father turned back to her.
“Sorry, he’s a zealous one. You look ready to work. Would you like to come aboard?”
“Sure,” she said, “I won’t ask for any pay if you give me food and passage. And I’m good in a fight, if that’s needed.”
“You better be,” said the man, grinning with some rather yellowed teeth and extending a hand, “Wouldn’t want you swinging that sword around if you didn’t know how to use it.”
Ana took it, and shook.
She tried not to pause as she thought of one to give.
“Welcome to the crew, Merya.”
He handed her one of the fish off of the black grate where it was cooking when it looked ready, and she ate it greedily. She barely tasted it before finishing, picking the pin bones from her teeth with her nails. The other two members of the crew – a tall, black-haired man, and a woman wearing a dirtied pair of calico overalls – joined them as the father began to explain her duties.
“I’m the captain of this ship. My name is Falyel. Don’t feel required to call me captain, just sir or Falyel will do fine. My boy is Danan, and my other hands are Koere and Yuna,” he said, gesturing to each.
Yuna, the woman, pursed her lips and waved as she took her own portion of fish. Danan and Koere continued to eye her suspiciously. The rest finished their meals before they embarked and Falyel explained, at length, every duty that she would be taking up, on account of the fact that one of their previous crewmembers had decided to stay home for the expedition. The wind was fortunately on their side that day, and all she was required to do was help raise the sail.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. There was labor – the occasional managing of the sail, but other than that the river was calm and steady. Ana relished had a chance to rest her feet. Seven days or so downriver, she’d get off; five days to a new life.
On the third day, they reached Larena, and she found herself on the far side of the ship when they stayed in port, away from the rest. She felt as if she should’ve prayed, but the thought of praying to Tros first annoyed her. Instead, she stared at the stars. The boat rocked in the gentle flow.
She was startled when the captain tapped her on the shoulder. The lamplight set his aging features in an eerie glow. She caught her breath.
“Sorry, Merya,” he said, “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You’re fine. I was caught in thought,” she replied listlessly. It still felt odd to be called by a new name.
She sighed. She supposed she could elide a few details and get by fine.
“My friend. I suppose she isn’t my friend anymore.”
He sat in front of her, stretching his legs.
“Care to speak your mind?”
“Fine. She was more than a friend. I wanted to- to care for her. And I went and screwed it all up. Got in a scuffle with her cousin, and now she hates me. And I don’t have a real job on top of that, no offense to you.”
He shook his head.
“None taken. How long were you together?”
“Depends on what you mean by together,” she replied, “I was her friend for about nine or so months. We were more than that for a few weeks. And I’ve become so close to her that now I find myself scared of what comes next, and what she’s doing right now, even though I’m far away. I guess I’m wondering if she’s staring at the stars like I am.”
He nodded, staring out at the lights of the dock. Larena was only a little larger than Tshalagrod; it earned most of its importance from being the main stop for traders and those looking to resupply on the way to Kalinn. It was a cool night, and very quiet, save for the cicadas.
“I lost my wife,” Falyel said quietly.
“I’m sorry,” said Ana. She wanted to say something about the Saints watching over her. She held back; she wasn’t sure of how much slack Tros would give her. Bleeding locusts wasn’t exactly her idea of staying undercover.
He smiled – a broad, very kind smile.
“No need. You didn’t do anything to her. And it was a long while ago now. Coming up on seven years. I remember losing her though. She died in childbirth. Our girl went with her. It was the saddest day of my life. I was so shocked I – I suppose I was just too scared to cry. It took a week for me, and then I laid down in my bed, and I just sobbed. For hours. After that, I felt quite lost. I suppose you’re feeling the same.”
A barn owl called through the night as Ana listened. His voice nearly cracked a few times as he spoke.
“I’m sure she doesn’t know what she’s missing,” he said.
“Oh, she knows,” said Ana, “She knows exactly what I am. You didn’t do anything to hurt your wife. But I lied to her. I jeopardized her job. I hurt her, and I only have myself to blame. Well, maybe I could blame some other people, but what good would it do? It wouldn’t magically bring her to my side, or make her suddenly care for me like she used to.”
“Blaming yourself won’t help either,” said Falyel, “I did that. Just chastising myself day in and day out that I should have never suggested we have another child. It didn’t do me any good. What did make it better was focusing on my work. On raising my boy.”
“I suppose you’re right. I just don’t have anyone else. Anyone else I could rely on.”
“Well, when you’re at the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.”
It struck Ana. She had the exact same thought when she was a child. And now she was at the bottom again.
“Thank you,” she said, “Honestly, thank you. That’s something to look forward to. Making a life for myself again.”
“You’re welcome, Merya.”
He paused, then reached into his coat, and produced two small tin cups and a glass bottle. It shimmered golden in the dull orange light. She already knew what it was. The water of life. Whiskey.
“Will you drink?”
“It’d be ungracious of me not to.”
He set down the cups, pulled the cork and carefully poured out two portions. She took it, and clinked hers against his own as she picked it up.
“To a good ascent. For both of us,” he said.
“Cheers,” she replied, swallowing the contents down whole. It burnt on the way down, and she set her empty cup on the deck once more.
The captain paused to cough slightly as he corked the bottle once more.
“So, where are you heading in Kallin? It’s a big city.”
“Blackwood,” she said.
He frowned in a moment of silent judgement.
“I know,” she said, “I have a friend there.”
“I hope he’s a good one.”
“I do too.”
With nothing more to say between them, they both stared up at the stars before bidding each other good night.
It was six days in the end. Falyel took her as far as the river docks on the outskirts of Kallin. Ana hefted her case and tipped her hat to them as she left. The buildings had just begun to grow taller and fatter; the houses on the outskirts were quite rich and pleasant-looking. Most were brick-and-mortar buildings with pleasantly neat walls and ornamented doors. The people matched the place well. They wore makeup and perfumes. The women wore jewelry openly, without care; the men wore feathers in their caps. She briefly stopped at a shop where they were selling fresh meat before seeing the prices. She sucked in air and walked away. She was fairly sure that she could have bankrupted the parish in Tshalagrod just by buying a few steaks.
Ana kept walking towards the sea. The buildings changed with it. The townhouses became tenements, the stores got cheaper, the horses fewer and further between with pedestrians taking up more of the street. Most gave her a wide berth. She saw her first beggar halfway to her destination. He was an older man, bald and bearing a haggard white beard. His sackcloth clothes were slack on his pitifully thin body. He reached out at her, holding up an empty bowl.
Ana shook her head sadly and kept moving. She would’ve given him a coin or two if she was still funded by the Church. Now she didn’t have that luxury.
The heat of the Blackwood Quarter would have felt quite pleasant if it weren’t for the fact that it was the most enormous morass of poverty and sin she had seen since she left home. Tyeka had its slums and ghettos, and the backstreets of her childhood echoed here as she padded over the cobbled stones. It was not home, not the city that she knew; but it was the city that she understood. Orphans and urchins dotted the crowds and throngs of charlatans hawked cure-alls and gin and more.
“Ten for ten kopeks! Best pick of the catch!”
“This philter will fortify you, miss! You’re too pale, miss! Please, please, just give it a chance!”
“Yes, real, genuine texts! These scrolls from distant Gveertya detail the place we call Mezij! Not a man there is poor – gold paves the streets, and every man owns a diamond necklace.”
Seems like that myth still hasn’t died, mused Ana.
Somewhere in the distance a vielist spat out a frantic, droning song that was backed with the beating of pots and pans from their busking friends. The houses were by and large fitting to the name; they were deep black-brown, with some brick and mortar structures supplementing the aging wood. Smoke spilled out of the chimneys with abandon, dirtying the blue sky.
Ana found herself running up against the Teper again as she tried to get her bearings in the city. The river had gone from merely wide and muddy to utterly disgusting. All manner of refuse had collected there, from raw sewage to the drained off animal fat that was not used in lard or candles. It was an awful, sickly yellow-brown with swathes of black and sickening iridescent sheen. She had heard that you could dip a torch into the mouth of the river, pull it out, and find it burning brighter than it was before. Ana didn’t want to get close enough to the wretched smell to try. She made another turn through a twisting alleyway, nearly bowled over by a burly man with a goiter as she did.
Food. Her stomach churned horridly. The discarded husks of lobsters were strewn in trash buckets and in the gutters, alongside squab, chicken and pig bones stripped of every scrap of flesh and already boiled for stock. Everyone is hungry; almost everyone left their detritus where it was. She checked her pockets, and cursed her lack of foresight – she had a single ruble, alongside some twenty kopeks in loose change.
Ana made a few more turns until she reached her destination – 13 Peremin Lane. It wasn’t exactly new construction, but it looked far better kept than the rest. What struck her was its proportions. It was almost stately in its presentation, a regal two stories of wood and brick and even some metal sandwiched between a rather shady looking bakery and another home of similar height but much more width. Above, a balcony sat empty. The door carried an aged copper knocker covered with verdigris.
Ana knocked once, and waited.
The door opened to a man just a little taller than her. He was Gveert, as she had expected by the name; dark-skinned, and quite lean-looking. A jagged scar the size of a finger marked his forearm, and when he turned his arm over it was clear that whatever had hit him had gone straight through to leave a paired scar on the other side. His hair was made into long locks, and his linen shirt looed quite fine, in spite of a few splashes of what looked like charcoal on his cuffs.
“Mr. vzõ Duva?” She asked.
“Please, call me Sol. Or Uroyo,” he said, his voice lightly coloured by a Gveert accent, “Are you… okay? You don’t look well.”
“No,” said Ana, “I’m homeless. Someone told me that you could give me a good turn.”
He nodded, and let her in. The room was quite quiet, and better furnished than she had expected. A long daybed sat before an empty fireplace; at the far end, a pantry and an open window that showed a bright stone square behind the house. The iron pans and pots gleamed dully in the sunlight. Beneath them there was a small table with three chairs around it, neatly tucked into place. A heptagram made of brass sat over the mantle.
Sol gestured for her to sit on the daybed, and she did, stretching her legs out from all their use. He sat beside her.
“I want you to know that I don’t do this often, but I do it out of the good of my heart,” he began.
“I’m gracious for the charity.”
“Your thanks is appreciated. I do need to ask you some questions and lay down some rules, though.”
“Ask away. Not sure how well I can answer you.”
Ana shrugged her shoulders. He didn’t seem untrustworthy. He was fulfilling the duty of Nacad – though she was pretty sure the Gveert called it Gad. She wasn’t sure. She had less knowledge of Gveert than Agoran, and she knew about three words in Agoran by her last estimate.
“Are you on the run from anybody?” Sol asked. His eyes took on a deeply piercing quality. He was commanding in a way that made her think immediately of a priest who was good at preaching, making a rhetorical question. It felt as if he already knew the answer.
She looked away.
“You don’t have to tell me who.”
“Yes,” she said, feeling quite ashamed.
“And if somebody comes looking, who should I say lives here besides me?”
“Merya. Merya Kolenov.”
“Should I call you that?”
She shrugged. The devil did say that she could trust him.
“My real name is Ana. You can call me that in private if you wish. Otherwise, Merya will do.”
“Alright, Ana,” he said, “Are you a prostitute?”
Ana sputtered in shock.
“Am I what?”
“A prostitute,” he repeated, enunciating very carefully so as to eliminate his accent, “A person who has sex with other people for money. Sometimes they don’t have sex, I suppose.”
Ana was utterly befuddled as she tried to process what he had said. Firstly, did he think she didn’t know what a prostitute was? His tone wasn’t at all condescending – if anything, it was downright concerned that she might not know. She decided to ascribe the second half to being in the Blackwood Quarter. Stranger things had happened here than a prostitute not having sex with clients.
“It’s not a problem if you are. I just have a general rule that you not have guests too long after nightfall while I’m around. Or that you at least not be noisy-”
“I’m not a prostitute,” said Ana, trying to control her embarrassment.
“Fair enough. I’m just telling you about the rule about guests.”
He tapped his fingers against his leg in a slow rhythm.
“Now, I also have to ask – were you a soldier?”
“Of a sort,” she said.
“I was too, in another life. It can be hard to adapt back to being outside of that kind of readiness. Could I ask you to put down your arms?”
Ana nodded and reluctantly removed the sword from her side. She hadn’t even realized that she had felt so attached to it. She carefully placed it near the cushion at the head of the daybed. He put a hand on her shoulder, and his expression softened.
In another life, she thought. It was a strange way of saying it for a man who looked so young. She still couldn’t place his voice. Now she felt like he might be an officer. She could picture it, certainly, him having a dozen medals on his chest. He held himself right for it.
“Were you a commander or something?”
He smiled and shook his head.
“Oh no, nothing like that. I was an armed chaplain for a Gveer militia in Aatkhut. I find it funny that you would think that I held such a lofty position.”
Armed chaplain. Ana almost laughed. She was close.
“Now, I’m going to help you get back on your feet. I’d ask that you keep relatively tidy, that you bathe regularly and that you don’t steal too much from my pantry. I mean, you can take as you feel hungry, but I have to eat and live too. Eventually – and I wish it weren’t so – I will ask that you pay rent. I could maybe have you here for a month or so for free, but after that it will be difficult for me to keep you here. I won’t set a fee, though. I’ll just take whatever it is that’ll pay for feeding you.”
He pulled his hand away gently.
“Hey. Look at me for a moment.”
She met his gaze.
“You’re going to be fine,” he said. He smiled, and for a moment Ana could do nothing but believe him. Even as the troubles rushed back in, she managed to weakly smile back.
“I’ve seen soldiers in worse states than you,” he added, “I’m sure you have too. You’ll be back on your feet in no time. So Ana – Merya – whichever – do you have any skills? Any trades you’re good with?”
She thought for a moment.
“Manual labor. I can be a decent porter if I need to be. I used to do that on the side before I was a-”
She corrected herself before she said inquisitor.
“Soldier. I’m good at fighting. I have the temper for a bodyguard, I suppose. And I… I’m good with sorcery. Not as good at making foci as I ought to be, but I can do it. I’m good with my hands.”
Sol nodded and pursed his lips. He seemed to be deep in thought.
“Miss Ana, I am a man of many talents. It’s what people hire me for – everything and anything that’s needed, I facilitate and smooth over. One of those talents is finding places for people.”
He stood and smiled at Ana.
“You rest for now. Don’t get into trouble. I’ve got an errand to run, and tomorrow, I’ll take you to a friend of mine, Temari. She’ll have a job for you.”
He walked over to the door before looking back.
“Oh, and I’d ask that you not go upstairs unless absolutely necessary. I like my room to be private.”
Ana nodded, and watched as he left. She sighed, and went to raid the pantry for whatever food she could find. A month was plenty of time to find a job, and Sol seemed determined to help her get back on her feet. She found a small loaf of rye bread hidden in a cloth wrapping in the pantry and ate it alone. When she was finished, she felt aware of a keening pain in her chest. After some brief thought, she decided it wasn’t physical – it certainly wasn’t the presence of anything as real as a bullet or a knife between her ribs. It was a slow and creeping absence that had filled up her lungs and heart and organs, where she was certain that Edam had filled her up.
Ana sorely wished she had told Edam that she loved her.
She went back to the daybed, laid back and stared at the ceiling. She was too exhausted to do anything but sleep.
The warehouse wasn’t falling apart at the seams, but it was making an astounding effort to contribute to the urban decay of the Quarter. The stones were eroded by sea-rain and salty air and the gutters were uncleaned. All the windows were long broken. Ana wouldn’t have been surprised if they had been destroyed in the revolution seventy years ago and sat unrepaired since then.
“This is it?” Asked Ana.
“This is it,” said Sol, “Come on inside.”
He opened the front door and invited her in, and found it surprisingly populated. Much of the original layout had been rearranged, and was hit with a sudden wave of history. Once there had been stalls here to divide up goods by their kind and their owner. That arrangement had clearly changed at some point to housing – there was piping for toilets and the like in each of the stalls, which meant it had running water at some point. She couldn’t be sure, but she was willing to bet that they were all lead. She shuddered and felt glad Tyeka had mostly done away with the sweet water.
Ana had heard about buildings like this from the last years of the nobility – she had lived in them when she was poor. They had crowded people into places like the Quarter as a way of keeping them under control. Now all the walls for the tenements had been torn away and apart, and turned into makeshift stands in a vast semi-circle. Around them a few of the stalls remained. They were separated off by wood and ragged sheets. A few rough-looking men loitered around, and a tall woman jumped off of the stands to meet her. She wore a rough-looking dress and two golden rings on her fingers. She had the physique to protect them, too, and the sheathe for a knife was prominent on her hip.
“Temari, pleased to meet you, or unpleased if that’s what pleases you,” she said, smiling through crooked teeth. She extended a hand, and Ana took it gladly.
“So I suppose I’m not here to be a porter,” said Ana, “I’m Merya.”
Temari looked past her, not releasing her grip as she spoke to Sol.
“No fucking way Sol, you got one with good muscles? Where’d you find her?”
“Came in off the street,” said Sol, “Best not to look a gift horse in the mouth. She says she’s good with foci.”
“Welcome to the East Blackwood Sparring Salon,” said the woman, “I’ll show you the bracket.”
Oh, thought Ana, This is going to go horribly.
Even as she thought it excitement sparked and another part of her replied.
This is going to be the most fun I’ve had in years.