It smelled like mint in the cold of the morning. Ana thought she might have been dreaming it at first, but when she found the space beside her on the bed empty, she knew that Edam had got up before her and was making something. Groggily, she got up and staggered to the kitchen with every part of her body screaming in anguish for her to stop. She stretched her toes and then one leg after the other. It was far too quiet this morning. On any other day, the city would be waking up and going to work around her, but she already knew that the streets would be thick with the law and the oppressive atmosphere that it brought. Even those few walkers that were out at this early hour seemed dimmed and silenced by the heavy weight of the morning after a night of chaos, fighting and rioting.
Edam came in wearing her nightgown and carrying a cup that steamed in the cold and a plate with scrambled eggs and bread. Ana nodded to her, and took her cup.
“Mint tea,” said Edam, “Soothes the body. I figured you could use it.”
“Thank you, dear,” said Ana. She drank it, letting the hot liquid down her dry throat. The fresh aftertaste settled down somewhere in her bones and she relaxed for a moment. She ate in silence for a while with Edam.
“You were crying in your sleep last night,” said Edam.
Ana set her fork down.
“You don’t have to apologize. I think you were just having a bad dream, or-”
She placed a hand on Ana’s thigh.
“I was worried. I am worried.”
Ana was quiet for a little while, and finished off the eggs with a bite of bread. Edam gently rubbed her with her thumb and drew in close. She looked over the bandages; they had stained the color of river-mud, a ruddy brown that deepened to the point of blackness. Edam lightly peeled them back to examine the wounds.
“Well, you aren’t bleeding much,” she said, “We should change these in the afternoon.”
“I’m sorry,” said Ana again, listlessly.
“Stop apologizing,” said Edam, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You just cried after a long night. It’s natural.”
“I just don’t know why.”
Edam curled up against her, and stroked her cheek very softly. In the dim, early light, a single beam caught through the shades and onto her face, and Ana looked deeply into her eyes as she spoke.
“I think you cried because you were afraid. I think it’s been a while since you’ve had things to lose, and when I saw that locust… I don’t know. I think I saw something break in you.”
“I don’t think I-”
“I’m not trying to tell you how to feel,” said Edam swiftly, “Never. I’m just trying to- to- oh, I feel like there’s a word for this in Agoran or Kolet, and somehow I can’t find it in either language. You’re tough Ana. At least, you want to be. I see it all over you when we walk together out on the street. You just… keep one arm around me, like it’s so perfectly natural for you to be my protector.”
“It’s a difficult habit to break,” said Ana.
“It’s sweet, is what it is,” said Edam, “I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Especially not with a woman like you.”
“I’m just saying that you deserve to be able to be open with me. Because I don’t know what’s going on in your head right now.”
Rightfully, Ana couldn’t either. She felt like a hunting dog that had been scratched by willful prey, and now she was wandering back to her master, whining and pitiful and with her tail thoroughly between her legs. There was more to it than just her failure, though, and she couldn’t place her finger on it. She touched Edam’s hips, and entwined herself with her other half for a moment. Edam stretched awkwardly to keep the dish from falling, placing it on the bedside table instead.
“I’m not sure, love. I guess I’m just not sure. I’m tired. I’m often lonely, though you help quite a lot with that. I’m afraid.”
“Of- of losing you. And of you not having a happy future.”
She felt Edam tense beneath her fingers, and Ana held her very tightly.
“The first time you told me about your cousin, I was – I was heartbroken. I was just torn up inside that anyone could treat anyone like that, but especially you – you, so kind and soft to me, so understanding. And you seeing me as a witch, as an apostate, in this wretched way- I feel like I’m just talking about these unconnected strands, but there’s something more to it, something in between it that I’ve yet to put together. I know it’s here, somewhere, but I can’t quite place it anymore than you could place that word.”
She rolled her head back, and cracked her neck.
“It’ll come to me eventually.”
“I’m sure it will. But in the meantime – you can cry on my shoulder any time, peron.”
Ana nodded, and kissed her very softly. She wasn’t certain how she felt about it, or why, but the kiss still felt good, and that was enough grounding for her. She rose up and stretched her arms before putting on a fresh shirt from the dresser, kicking the bloodied one beneath the bed further down so that it’d be better hidden. She wasn’t planning on their house being raided, but at this point she wasn’t going to bet on it not happening either. Every precaution mattered. She put on a hooded jacket; it was cold enough to justify it. Edam followed suit, swiftly changing out of her nightgown and hiding her scars under a long-sleeved dress and a cloak. She used a dirtied linen wrap to hide her mouth – the chimney sweeps and anyone who wanted to not be seen would wear them. They walked out of the bedroom together just as Seonya walked into the kitchen.
She was quiet as a mouse, slouching her way to the table and sitting heavily. Her mouth was locked tight with stress and anxiety. Her right eye had deep circles under it; if there were circles under the other, it was obscured by the heavy bruise that fell there, blotchy-purple yellow extending from there and down to her cheek. She looked up at them and sighed.
“What happened?” Asked Edam.
Seonya pursed her lips.
“Ended up at work. Curfew started. I tried to leave, and a guard jumped me and asked me what I was doing out at night. I said I was headed home, and he wasn’t having it. He punched me, and I ran back to work and stayed there.”
She sniffled, and the room was silent.
“I didn’t sleep,” she added, “People were screaming all night outside. It was too much for me.”
“You rest. It isn’t safe on the streets right now. We’ll be back sometime after noon, I hope. I know it’s your night, but Edam and I can cover dinner when we get back.”
Edam nodded in a combination of agreement and concern. Seonya didn’t smile, but she leaned back and out of her slouch.
“Thank you,” she said, “I appreciate it.”
They said their goodbyes and left onto the streets. Immediately, Ana had felt the atmosphere change. There were guards seemingly on every other corner. They were hardly arresting anyone – instead, they were focused on observing. That alone was enough to quash much of the activity on the street. Beggars hid in alleyways and stoops, going to the few refuges from the prying eyes of the law who might have them for loitering or soliciting. They crammed into the thin side-streets like fish in a barrel, forcing Ana and Edam to sidle along them and tip-toe over them to keep out of sight. Edam profusely apologized the whole way through.
Ana kept herself close to Edam, trying not to stare at the guards that they passed. The constant scrutiny felt like a physical weight on her back, exacerbating the bruise and her sore muscles. The streets that once had felt like a respite from the law and from the Church’s most overbearing elements were now a narrow and precarious channel that threatened to fall out from under her as surely as she might have fallen off the bridge the previous night. She rubbed the ligaments of her hand and gently stretched her neck as they passed through a marketplace. The stolen goods were off the table; merchants worked anxiously and silently where they might have loudly advertised themselves before. Ana silently made the calculation in her head as she looked at Edam’s worried eyes. As long as this kept up, not only would they not be able to get out of the city by port; they wouldn’t even be able to pawn the stolen gold in the first place. It would draw too much suspicion.
Taking side roads and less traveled routes took time, enough so that it was a little before noon that they passed the half-disassembled barricade near to the docks. The light of day gave very little cover to criminals, and it was clear the the makeshift battlement had been abandoned as soon as dawn had come. A dozen or so guards were all put to the task of disassembling and untangling the lashed-together furniture and debris. Several more were attempting fruitlessly to find the original owners of the various chairs, seats, small couches and foot-rests and other odds and ends that were contained within. The locals were too poor to give up much of anything, including talk. They acted too busy for the investigation and swiftly walked away with their returned effects, or else claimed that they had never seen that furniture in their life and that it must belong to someone else.
Finally, they reached the old warehouse that ostensibly contained a fencing salon. Inside was an entire delegation of criminality arrayed around the arena. She couldn’t judge all of the parties involved, but there were certainly some distinct groupings. Some were clearly hired muscle and toughs. Others were more vague, but if she had to guess they were some combination of confidence men, thieves and fences that filled out the ranks of Temari’s employ. The woman herself sat at the front, tapping her foot anxiously, with Sol and Varna not far away. Ana and Edam took a seat close to them.
One by one, the other delegations arrived. First was a thin, brown-skinned man with piercing eyes and an expensive-looking outfit – practical, but clearly well-made and tailored to him. He was followed by two bodyguards, and sat silently on the far side of the bleachers. After them came five men dressed in clothes fit for sailing, strong, tough-looking men with their caps caught low over their eyes. Lastly, there was Dzhate’s delegation. They were an odd, awkward bunch – there was the obvious, the hired muscle and the bodyguards, but far outnumbering them was a bevy of urchins, young pick-pockets, fish-wives, beggars, and hermits. It was an army twenty strong of the odds and ends of the city, with Yeorel and Dzhate at the center. They filed into the arena, and waited for Temari to speak. She got down from her place in the seats and went to the center of the arena, speaking loudly to the gathered crowd.
“Ladies, gentlemen,” she said, “Esteemed friends. I bring us all together today in recognition of the problem that we’re facing. Namely, the fucking guard has shut down the port and is hunting us in the street like dogs.”
There was a clamor from Temari’s section, who seemed equally enraged and excited by her words.
“We need to get our situation back under control. That’s why I’ve invited you all here today – to help formulate an organized solution to our problem. I know some of us have had our differences before. I know some of us have never met before. But I’m extending an olive branch here. We’ve been competing for far too long. We need to be working together, especially on things like this.”
The thin man regarded her with disdain.
“I see. And what is it exactly that we intend to work together towards?”
“Ending the blockade,” said Temari plainly, “It’s in all of our interests to keep Blackwood open for trade and under a long leash from the guard. I think we can all agree on that, right?”
All of Temari’s men murmured in agreement. Ana did so as well, both in earnestness and in an attempt to make her value clear to Temari.
“The ayes have it,” she said, in a mock senatorial tone, “But the problem is finding a solution. Resources are stretched thin – on all sides, I think. It’s been a rough year for all of our trades, and you all know it. So I suggest we pool our force together, our wits and our muscle, and we talk to the people that need talking to, bribe the people who need bribing to, and hurt the people who need hurting to. Is all that clear?”
The sailing-men looked to one another, and the one at the front spoke up.
“The Dzhima works upriver and uptown. What’s to stop us from just waiting for you to be crushed by this latest round of raids and moving in after?”
“Firstly, you won’t have the men to hold a position after I’m gone,” said Temari confidently, “And secondly, if I end up in jail, I happen to know the name of one of the men cooking your books. It’d be a shame if that sort of information got into the hands of the law. So really, you have every reason to help me.”
The man who took the lead twitched.
“Fine, but we don’t have money to spare. We can put you in contact with our people, but we look after our own funds first.”
“And the Agoran?”
The thin man rolled his neck before speaking.
“The Ille wishes to remain neutral in this matter. We will, however, observe closely, and see if investment is worthwhile.”
Edam seemed to be startled at the name Ille. She reached for Ana’s hand, and Ana took it.
“Fine,” said Temari, “As expected. Lastly, Dzhate? Is she in the room with us this noon?”
Dzhate stood, along with Yeorel.
“As requested. My apologies for not reaching out to you sooner. My schedule has been… difficult.”
“No offense taken,” said Temari, “You really are her? The urchin queen out past Blackwood?”
“Perhaps my reputation has spread too far,” said Dzhate, “I am merely a broker of information and student of the occult. Everything else is incidental.”
“As you say. What do you say to helping your fellow woman out of this jam?”
“I have already deemed it advantageous to me even before this meeting. In fact, with the aid of my contact here, I have found a solution to our problem. Yeorel?”
“Thank you,” said Yeorel, stepping forward from Dzhate’s small delegation, “I have found myself in the good graces of four mercenaries – good folks, honorable, of their word and not the type to leave a job half-finished. Dzhate had recently come into a payday, and so was able to pay them half, which is their advance.”
“And what are these good folks going to do, exactly?” Asked Temari.
“You want specifics? Fine. They’re specialists in ‘fine work,’ as they put it. They’ve traveled a long way without any action, and told me that they wanted the work. I presume it involves breaking a few kneecaps, talking to those that need talking to, that sort of thing.”
“And what’s the catch?”
“While I’m usually well-funded, the take has been quite poor this month, and I’ve had my regular flows of income cut off,” said Dzhate, “I need some help from you in this parley, but again, I’ve been assured of their skills by all reports. The exact division of money can be negotiated, but I can also assure you that I am good for it and will pay you back in full – with interest, if you deem that necessary for the inconvenience.”
Ana nodded in response.
“I’m curious – where are they coming out of? Another criminal syndicate?” She asked.
“Uh, I think they called themselves dzakiv-dayal.”
Sol looked up.
“Dzãkiv-dajal? They’re Gveert?”
Varna shifted and looked around uncomfortably.
“Yes,” said Yeorel, “Yes. That’s what they said.”
“And I don’t suppose that they’re ex-military?” Asked Sol quietly.
His face twitched. He looked at Dzhate. For once, she seemed surprised.
“You knew about this?”
“Yeorel just said they were mercenaries. I was hard pressed. I didn’t do as complete a check as I could of them. I know that the dzãkiv-dajal are exorbitant – I’m currently suffering under that myself-”
“No,” said Sol, “You don’t understand what you’ve done at all, do you? You don’t know what you’ve brought here.”
Temari crossed her arms over each other.
“Out with it. What’s the matter with them? Are they incompetent?”
“When you have a meeting of lords among the Gveert for war, there are three sorts of sorcerers that they bring into their armies. The first kind are healers and doctors, like I was. The second are the rank-and-file ones, to supplement regular forces and help with direct assault and defense. The third, the dzãkiv, were like the cavalry. That’s where they get their name, actually – crimson riders. They are killers, assassins and madmen, all of them.”
“They said that they were honorable,” said Yeorel, now sounding quite meek in comparison to Sol.
“Honor? Oh, yes, they have honor. That’s what makes them mad. They fulfill their orders without question or reason. They accept payment in full and only in full – and if a single dram of gold or silver is out of place you can expect to pay for it in blood tenfold. That ‘fine work’ they spoke of? They were experts in assassination.”
“You can’t know that,” said Dzhate, “And besides, there’s only four of them.”
Sol nodded, and laughed – a terrible, sad laugh. For a moment, it almost sounded as if he was choking.
“Four? Only four? I was lucky enough to never meet one in person, only see their craft during the siege of Ambon after the fact.”
Varna cringed. The stories from the war were always sparse and often simple – the Gveert and the Sondi had a dispute over their territory and their religion. The Sepulcher’s men were honorable and the Sondi were underhanded. It ended with a near stalemate, the Gveert only earning themselves a few small counties and provinces on the very edge of the Sondi Empire, with the lands being handed to Gveert lords in their loose confederation. Ana had always doubted the whole veracity of those claims, but hearing it from someone who had been there first-hand was different. He became very quiet – only raising his voice enough that he was certain that everyone in the room could hear.
“A girl – a Sondi girl – had called me out for help. Now, back then I was a doctor through and through, and I could not deny someone’s call for aid. She was injured, limping very heavily, and I could hardly understand her accent as well as I would have liked, but I followed her. What I found was – well, I think it was twenty dead. Maybe more. Most of the bodies had been butchered so thoroughly that it became a little difficult to tell. Many were beheaded, others so dismembered that all I could make of them were mismatched limbs and torsos, and their weapons in a neat little pile by the alleyway as if a child had finished with their toys and put them away when their parents had told them to.”
He looked Dzhate in the eye.
“That was one of them. They didn’t break the siege in Ambon – they caused terror and they slaughtered people and gave their enemies no quarter, and that only increased the furor of their reinforcements. That is what you have brought on us by making that deal. That is their honor.”
Sol clapped his hands together and smiled grimly.
“So! We either pay them in full, or we die. All of us. Probably more than all of us – they’ll be messy when making their escape as well – so that will be on our heads and our souls when all of this is over. Temari, my friends from the Dzhima and the Ille – you’ll help her pay.”
The thin man shook his head.
“No,” he said slowly, “We have no interest in being forced into a deal with such unsavory and dangerous types. We would rather keep our distance.”
“Agreed,” said the man from the Dzhima, “We wash our hands of this. If you bring down the hammer on your own head, we won’t save you.”
“And you, Temari?”
Temari grimaced, and began to deliver the bad news.
“I was… deceived. The informant in the guard that I thought I had under my control was not. Last night, I was fed information about the curfew to draw me to the front and into a riot. While I was distracted, a raid was held on one of the store-rooms that my bookies use. Between that and the people I needed to pay – I’m not sure how much I can give you, Dzhate.”
“Fuck,” whispered Ana. She rubbed Edam’s hand.
One damn break, she thought, Can’t she and I catch just one break?