I think I had other ideas when I decided to call this a “vignette”. Oh well!
As the sun began to set, Sedave and I moved from our place in the cart and slunk to another boulder a bit closer to the palace docks to see what we could see. At first there wasn’t a lot, but soon men and women began walking out onto the docks. Some were clad in matching outfits – the guards – but the majority were in plain clothes. Those were the workers.
“You’d fit right in, Speck,” Sedave whispered. “What d’you reckon?”
I nodded. The group was mostly Imperials and Redguards with a Khaji’it here and there; if I was careful, I could blend in with the crowd and hopefully not be noticed.
“How would I relay the goods to you?” I asked.
“That’s a good question. Look, there’s a couple of carts there, but they’re manned by them guards.”
If it were viable, that would be the perfect plan, if a bit awkward when it came to leaving. Sedave waits while I scurry around trying to grab the things our client ordered. But without the uniform, it wouldn’t work, and even then it was an iffy prospect. There were no mer there in the crowd, at all, and a Dunmer suddenly showing up would be, at the very least, suspicious.
“There’s no way that would work,” I said.
“Get down,” he hissed back.
We peered over the rock we’d ducked behind in time to see, as if some unseen force had read my thoughts, one of the uniformed men walk away from the others and right towards us. He was shivering, and I could hear his teeth grinding from where I crouched. To this day just remembering that noise makes my jaw ache.
“Wait here,” Sedave breathed before slipping away noiselessly and disappearing into the twilight.
I’d never seen him in action before. It sent pleasant chills up my spine.
I turned my attention back to the guard, wondering if I would need to disappear, myself. Thankfully he stopped a little ways off and began rummaging in a large satchel on a strap that crossed his chest.
“Shit,” he spat as his searching grew more frantic. “I know I put it in here somewhere…where is it???”
“Lookin’ for somefink?” I heard Sedave’s voice before I saw him saunter towards the guard.
“What? Did you take it? I need it to do my job!”
“I didn’t take nuffin’, friend. But I fink I have what ya need. A replacement.”
“A replacement?” the guard repeated, rubbing the back of his neck neurotically while his other arm wrapped around his middle. “Well, lemme see it!”
I furrowed my brow. Had Sedave been carrying skooma this whole time?
“It’s just back here, my friend,” my boyfriend cajoled happily. “I keep it all on me cart.”
“So where is it? C’mon, I don’t have all night!”
“Bugs under ya skin, eh? Come on, then.”
I quietly followed them, Sedave walking easily as if he hadn’t a care in the world, the addict behind him hugging himself and scratching at his forearms. I was amazed that he was so far along and still managed to keep his job, but I suppose if the drive is hard enough, one does what one must to keep the withdrawals at bay…and the longer one can do so with actual coin, all the better. I also suspected if the guard was in his right mind, he’d have known better than to follow a stranger that appeared out of nowhere promising skooma and with nothing to show.
“Where is it?” he asked again once they had reached the cart. “You better not be lyin’, greyskin!”
Sedave rifled through one of his bags and produced a small pouch made of parchment.
“Yes, that’s it! Yes, yes. How much?”
“On the house, accourse! I’m just doin’ a good deed like Mara wants.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the guard yammered, “thanks, thanks. Can I use your pipe?”
“Aw, no, this stuff ain’t your usual everyday skooma. This stuff is super refined, come straight from Elsweyr’s foremost moon sugar expert.”
“How’m I supposed to take it, then???”
“Up your nose,” Sedave said as if that was the stupidest question he’d ever been asked. He tapped his thumb against the side of one nostril to illustrate. “Just hold the parchment like this, yeah? Then put the corner up to your nose wiv one hand, hold your ovver nostril closed, and snort it up, all fast like. Nice and smoove, not like smokin’ them crystals.”
“Okay, okay. Hope it’s as good’s you say it is.”
It was a clumsy action. I had heard of people taking substances this way, but I assumed those people weren’t often in this particular situation. Still, the guard messily inhaled the powder, and in less than ten seconds he began to sway.
“How d’ya like it, friend?” Sedave asked. “Good stuff, hey?”
” ‘M I supposed to feel…spinny…”
“Reckon a bit.”
The guard then collapsed so suddenly and with so little fanfare that I nearly jumped out of my skin.
“You can come out, Speck,” Sedave called, and I left the bushes I’d been hiding in.
“Oh please don’t say we’ve killed someone else,” I sighed.
“Nah, he’s just sleepin’ is all. Come on, we need to tie him to a tree or somefink, keep him from interferin’ if he happens to wake up sooner than we expect.”
“What was it you gave him?”
“Sleepin’ powder,” he said tossing me some rope from the cart before hopping down and beginning the process of stealing the man’s clothes. “Alchemist outside of town makes it. Dead useful, but there’s nightshade in it. Certainly could kill someone else if we was of a mind.”
I realized, then, how unfazed I was about Antoninus’ gruesome end. In the moment it was terrifying, and for a little while after there was the shock to deal with, but once that was over, things were back to normal. And now, my main concern when the guard fell to the ground wasn’t the potential loss of life but the added inconvenience. I didn’t know how to feel about such a realization. I was sure I was supposed to feel remorse, but what remorse was there to feel when the actual murder was committed against a pervert? I was already planning Felix’s murder, as it was.
Aside from pondering the value of strangers’ lives, I still couldn’t wrap my head around Sedave’s plan.
“Are you sure you’ll be able to infiltrate those guards?” I asked. “They probably know each other.”
“I’ll just tell ’em I was a last-minute hire; Marcus Severinus thought he’d need anovver cart.”
“That seems like an awfully big gamble.”
“Good fing I’m a gamblin’ man, eh?” he smiled. “You just leave it to me, Speck. I’ve talked my way outta worse jams.”
I took a deep breath. “Okay, then. That must be the ship just on this side of the horizon, and the wind is good. You do what you need to do, and I’ll do what I do best.”
“Small’s a speck and as easy to miss.”
I laughed. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually said the entire thing. I hugged him tightly, kissed him hard, and watched with twisting stomach as he drove the cart toward the docks. My indrik was hidden, wrapped in Sedave’s scratchy blanket. I hoped it would give him some luck.
Marcus Severinus was undoubtedly the “owner” of the city. His palace sat on the shore, with a portion of it accessible via a jetty built a decent way out, and the docks which began just a skip from the city gate ran their wooden walk right up to a side entrance in the stone wall of the main structure. I vaguely recalled the palace from my visit as a child, but in my memory it wasn’t nearly so big. I thought I’d remember something as fanciful as a building out on the water.
The idea that I’d have to go to greater lengths to ensure the successful heist of the required items made my chest seize up. It wasn’t just a case of strolling in and grabbing them; I’d have to be on the lookout for other people getting to those items before I could. I’d just have to be extra vigilant, that’s all. I took a deep breath as I quietly insinuated myself into the group of workers who’d gathered by the slip where the ship was set to dock. A Khaji’it in rather nice clothes stepped up onto an empty crate and waved his arms. He was old, and beyond his nice clothes, he himself looked ragged and tough.
“Everyone, this one needs your attention, please,” he called.
Almost immediately the small crowd went silent.
“The master does not take shipments so large very often, and most of you layabouts can’t remember what you had for breakfast, so Ab’zahr will instruct you in unloading the cargo.”
I looked all around me, wondering if I’d even been noticed, but everyone was looking at the old cat as if their eyes were shackled to him.
“There are four cart- Wait. Ab’zahr was sure there was only supposed to be three.”
I clenched my hands into fists in terror. I watched as he beckoned over one of the guards and held my breath as they conferred with each other quietly.
“I am told Master Severinus felt the need for a fourth cart,” Ab’zahr announced suspiciously. “While Ab’zahr looks into this, you are to take what you can carry, and load the nearest cart. When it is full, it will be taken up to the palace, and you will then load the next cart, and so on. If a guard says a cart cannot carry more, do not argue! Weight is more important than quantity.
“Finally, Ab’zahr must emphasize that you only take what you can comfortably carry! If one rushes, if one carries too much, things break, and this one can assure you, you do not want to be the one to break something. And this one surely does not need to remind you of the price for thievery.”
He said the last part on a dangerous grin that was punctuated with two gleaming silver fangs. I’d not had much exposure to Khaji’it in general, but it never occurred to me that some of them might cap their teeth just as anyone else. I’m sure they weren’t as dangerous as the nasty scimitar at his hip he’d placed his hand on, though.
What was worse than any of that, was that he was going to ask Severinus about our cart. I thought quickly, wondering if there was some way to relay the message to Sedave that he needed to get out and that I would make do somehow. If there was, I couldn’t think of it. Nobody had paid me any mind at that point, but they certainly would if I broke free of the group and made my way to the new cart. And what if I did? Sedave suddenly deciding to leave would surely not end well.
I stood while the ship docked, biting my upper lip and trying not to bounce on the balls of my feet.
“Ain’t never seen you around, girlie,” a woman said to me.
“Oh!” I squeaked. “I just, um…”
“But you’re just little. Did you come with the new servants?”
“Yes! Yes, I did. My parents died. This life is all I know.”
“Well that’s a shame,” the older Nord lamented. “No time for fun and games when you’re in this line of work. Where has Severinus got you working normally?”
My heart clenched. “The, um. I’m in the stables. Shoveling. You know.”
“Is that so? I was just there yesterday. I’m sure I would’ve seen you.”
“Well, like you said, I’m just little,” I grinned.
“You are, at that. Wouldn’t be a trick for you to hide without hidin’, eh?” she laughed.
I joined her through my teeth and in an uncharacteristically high voice.
“I’m Berthe,” she said as I prayed for her to shut up and go away. “You need help carryin’ anything, you call on me.”
“I sure will!”
Now I had someone to very actively avoid. As the gangplank was lowered to the dock, I wound my way through the other people in an attempt to purposefully hide. As I did, I formulated a proper plan. It hinged on some very precise timing, but I figured I could do it. We’d probably wind up with a lot of loot for ourselves, too, if it all worked out.
I didn’t run up the gangplank, as much as I wanted. I couldn’t be among the first, and I couldn’t seem too eager. The hold was crowded with the spoils of whatever circumstances had brought Severinus this amount of wealth. I read in story books about this sort of thing, of gold pieces and jewels just strewn about, but that was apparently not how it was done in reality. Reality here was a very dim compartment with flickering oil lamps swinging in a way that made the shadows shift nauseatingly. Any jewels and gold pieces were sealed up in crates and chests, and while there were plenty of smaller objects, a lot of the work would involve multiple people carrying one thing together.
As everyone got started, I looked around to see if there was anything on the list that I could outright see. There wasn’t, but that was okay. I could make some time. To my left a tarp covered a portion of the items, and I dove underneath it, clambering over things and raising the cloth just a bit to let some light in, or to allow me to peek through.
Crown of Jode
Two jade senche
Why did it have to be three things needing more than one person’s lifting power?
I slipped out the other end of the tarp. Nobody seemed to notice me as they focused on hauling various items that must have weighed more than I could imagine, based on the need for four very strong men to carry a single crate. I wasn’t looking forward to descending the gangplank, if the things I needed were that heavy, help or no.
I looked around until I saw a small box behind one of the crates. I reached out to take it, but-
“What have they got you out here for?” a gruff voice startled me. “It’s inefficient to start grabbing things from behind everything else.”
“Well…maybe it isn’t when you’re small like me?” I countered. “You and your big friends get the things I can’t, and that way your muscle doesn’t go to waste dealing with trifles!”
“Huh. Hadn’t thought of it like that. Anyway, you’re on my crate, so shoo.”
I quickly obeyed and took the box which had caught my eye, gathering a few other small things, as well, to make my story appear to bear out. When I felt it was safe, I dove back under the tarp and opened the pretty box. In the dark I could feel that it was ovular like a crown, and when I lifted the edge of the cloth just a bit, I could only just see the deep, brilliant blue and gold veining of lapis lazuli.
“Yes,” I hissed, pulling it close. One down, three to go.
Because a large part of my plan hinged on the positions of the carts, I stashed the crown’s box between two of the hidden crates and reemerged with the other objects I’d grabbed. Diligently I carried them down the gangplank and over to the carts. The first one had gone up to the palace, and the second was already nearly ready to leave. Once that cart left, Sedave would be second in line. On one hand, because the reason for multiple carts was the sheer weight, the line was moving quickly, which gave me some relief. On the other, the line was moving quickly, and I still had to find the senche statues and the tobacco.
After exchanging a subtle smile and a nod with Sedave, I ran back up the gangplank and back down into the hold where I once again dove under the tarp. It occurred to me why the tarp was there, and so, in the dark, I tried to work by smell. The hold was already fragrant with the smells of spices, so there was a certain difficulty involved, never mind the fact that I had never smelled good tobacco before. I hoped it would be similar enough to the acrid smoke I was accustomed to that billowed out of the Merry Minotaur back home.
I quickly felt along the slatted tops of the crates I was lying flat on, finding the spaces of the boards and trying to breathe in the scent of what was inside. There were only four or five crates under there, and at any point someone would come along to pull the tarp off. The first three weren’t it. The fourth and fifth smelled similar, although now I wonder if my nose was just overwhelmed by that point. I closed my eyes, took a breath, exhaled it hard, then smelled the fifth one. It smelled close enough. I moved the crown to sit behind it and slipped out from under the tarp once more when I spotted an opening.
The senche. By now the smaller items were picked over, and in their absence I couldn’t see anything jade, senche-shaped or otherwise. My heart began pounding and my hands began to shake. There was no way we could infiltrate that place, was there? I thought it best not to have to find out.
Doing my best to mask my inaction, I looked high and low until finally, in a dark corner behind another crate, I saw two large statuettes in the shape of senche in a severe upright sitting position with their mouths open. They were not, in fact, bookends, just as our client had said, but they weren’t as large as I was afraid they’d be. They could stay where they were. I hoped.
Quickly I gathered what remaining smaller items I could and moved quickly back outside where I saw our cart finally being loaded. Perfect! All I had to do now was run back into the hold and move the items we needed front and center so that they would be loaded and we wouldn’t have to try and hold out for another round. If they didn’t get loaded now, the job was blown.
“Khaji’it thinks this one wants to be an ant,” a big calico Khaji’it man laughed. “The small things are gone. Let us strong ones finish.”
“Oh, but if I push everything out into the open,” I said, “that means less work for you guys!”
“Ah! A good mind the Ant has! S’akha thanks you. Ooh, this one smells of pipes! Master Severinus would applaud you for knowing which crate he would want first.”
“Just doing my job!”
My cheeks were sore by the end of it all from all the nervous and exaggerated grinning I’d been doing.
My plan was going smoothly. Once I’d ensured the tobacco’s delivery, and once I’d lured the next two people into delivering the statuettes, I followed them with the crown all the way to where Sedave was sitting with the nearly-full cart. I found a safe spot for the crown’s box, the first senche got placed, but then-
“Cart’s full,” the attending guard said. “That statue’ll have to go on the next one.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “There’s a space right there.”
“Weight limits, little lady.”
“Oh,” I said, tapping the person carrying the other statue on the shoulder. “Look, I’ll carry it. The other cart’s all the way over there and you’ve already had to lug it here while I only carried that one box.”
“It’d be nice to give my fingers a rest. You sure?”
As soon as the statue was in my arms, I used all the strength in my legs to hurl it into the cart.
“Hey! Didn’t you hear what I said?”
“Go Sedave!” I yelled, running up to the front where he pulled me roughly up into the seat. “Go, go, go!!!”
Sedave snapped the reins and pulled a whip he’d been keeping in his lap to crack over the horses’ backsides. Those animals pulled like I’d never have imagined. It took a good while to get going, but it was quick enough to have caught the guards by surprise.
“Get back here, thieves!” someone yelled more loudly than the others.
I looked back, and there was Ab’zahr, pulling an already-mounted guard off his horse so that he could commandeer it.
“Oh, fuck, Sedave, he’s got swords! And he’s catching up!”
“Well fink of somefin’ Speck, I’m drivin’!”
I clumsily climbed back into the cart as the silver-fanged Khaji’it effortlessly flanked us. I ducked down as he swung one of his scimitars at my head, and I began looking all around for something I could throw that was both feasibly light and not something we needed to hang on to. When I looked up, Ab’zahr had decided crippling our horses was his best bet and was spurring his own steed harder.
I found a lockbox. It was small, but it was heavy and it had sharp corners. I picked it up and loaded it so that it rested in my right hand, on top of my shoulder. I closed my eyes and prayed to anyone that would hear me as I steadied myself against the rattling of the cart. I twisted my body back, and then let fly with all the force of my body behind it.
Most people know that when one’s moving quickly forward, and one throws something ahead, it’s probably going to come right back. This was no different, but it luckily clipped Ab’zahr’s horse right on the rump, scaring the poor beast into rearing and tripping over its own feet as it tried to sprint away. Ab’zahr didn’t go with it. He’d fallen while the horse was flailing around, just in time to land right in front of the cart’s rear wheel.
“Aria, tell me that weren’t his head,” Sedave said after the significant bump.
He wisely kept driving while I watched the dark lump that was Ab’zahr’s body grow smaller, wondering if I should be happier that I couldn’t see the extent of the crushed skull in the darkness. It was enough, in my opinion, to have heard the strange crushing sound just audible above the rumbling of the other wheels and the pounding of our horses’ hooves on the hard dirt.
“It weren’t his head,” I answered. “But it were.”
“Ah, geez. I mean, I know how to kill people if I need to, yeah? In twenty-four hours I done killed two people. That’s more than I’ve killed in…I guess ever.”
“Well, we’re almost done. We’re gonna really have to move, though. I see lights in the distance, and I’m certain they’re not just dockworkers with lamps.”
“We’re supposed to be followin’ the Atronach, yeah?”
“Yes, that’s it over there. I can see the ruins. Actually…”
Sedave glanced over at me.
“Take the long way. Go right up and hug Anvil’s wall and keep going until the Atronach is where we need it.”
“Why the long way? We need to get there now, Speck.”
“People say Minotaur still call these ruins home. If it’s true, it’d be best to take this route for our own safety, and also, it could put off the guards.”
He slowed the horses to a trot, and we made our way around the ruins in silence. I wrapped my arms around one of his and leaned my head against his shoulder. I felt his cheek against my head.
The hand-off went smoothly, and the client gave each of us a sizeable purse – extra for the trouble, he said. It seemed, for now, that we had evaded Marcus Severinus’ security. We traveled north, then, as Masser rose ever higher, until we came upon a pond into which we dumped every single piece of loot that remained. Gwynne had said we could take some for ourselves, but we decided it would do neither of us much good to be hauling around items that wouldn’t be hard to identify.
We unhitched the horses, laid down some of the hay we’d brought along for them, and sat down on the grass.
“So are we just gonna kill people whenever we’re out togevver?” Sedave asked. There was humor in his voice, but it was masked by tiredness and perhaps a tinge of trepidation.
“I hope not,” I said. “It tends to put a damper on things. I’m sure Joe would have a few words for you and your methods.”
“Yeah, well, lucky he’s not gonna know,” he laughed quietly. “No one is.”
“Not a soul. Sedave?”
“How do you feel about them?” I asked. “Beyond nerviness.”
“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “ignorin’ the nerves, ignorin’ whatever I felt in the moment, I’m glad I kicked that sick bastard’s face in. Ain’t no one gonna be harassed by him again, and I’m the one what did it. As for that cat, I mean, what happened was an accident. Sort of. You did what you needed to do, didn’t ya? If it didn’t work, we’d have to do somefink, wouldn’t we? Them poor horses was goin’ as fast as they could. There’s no way we could’ve outrun ‘im, and when someone’s comin’ at ya wiv a sword and yellin’, it turns into a kill or be killed sorta fing.”
I nodded. “You’re not sorry at all?”
“Nah. It’s just significant, innit? Somefink what takes some time to fink about. What about you?”
“I think we’re on the same page, baby.”
We leaned against each other, looking out over the pond.
“Gwynne will find out,” I said as a sudden, painfully obvious thought passed through my head.
“Ah, yeah,” he said, confounded. “We’ll just have to be honest. We’re not in jail. It was a bid for survival. She’ll understand.”
“Do you think I should cut my hair?”
“People saw me, Sedave. You’re safe; all you did was sit with a scarf over your face. Without them knowing how tall you are, you’re just some Dunmer to them. But me? All that has to happen is a description gets out. ‘Stunted blonde Imperial’ probably doesn’t describe a whole lot of people.”
“Right,” Sedave said. “Reckon you’d have to dye it, too.”
I couldn’t believe the notion of cutting off my hair. My long, carefully tended hair. If there was one thing I did for the sake of vanity, it was doing what I could with the resources I had to keep those locks pretty. And then to stain what was left! But what could I have done? The guards’ uniform included the scarf. If I had worn a mask, I’d have drawn even more attention than what I got.
“Well maybe not, Speck,” he said when he noticed I was on the brink of tears. “I mean, half of what the Guild does is greasin’ palms.”
“Something tells me that Gwynne wouldn’t be thrilled that we brought a bounty with us from being this sloppy.”
“I dunno if I’d say we was sloppy, but I suppose all’s we can do is wait and see.”
“C’mon,” he smiled, leaning over towards me and kissing my temple. “Fink I could help you put it out of your mind for a bit?”
I don’t think Sedave ever knew or comprehended my inability to just put things out of mind, but I figured it was certainly worth a try. I mean, there were few things back then that I’d rather do more than make love with my dearest Sedave, but in the end, I’m just a worrier. And I can certainly tell you that an orgasm loses just a tiny bit of its luster when your brain is formulating all the ways you’re about to get into trouble.
We returned to the City just after noon, exhausted. I didn’t sleep on the ride, this time, although I took a turn at driving so that Sedave could. As we began to unload our belongings, it seemed the possibility for punishment had properly sunk into Sedave’s mind. We both were quiet as we trudged tiredly through the streets with our arms full, and though I couldn’t speak for my boyfriend, my stomach was only growing tighter and tighter.
“You ready, Speck?” he asked.
I nodded, took his hand, and walked with him up to Gwynne’s office.
“Look who it is,” she smiled in her self-satisfied way. She wasn’t happy to see us; she was happy that she had set someone to do something and they had returned, proving to herself that she was right. “I take your presence to mean you saw your mission through?”
“Y-yes,” we both stammered.
Gwynne’s eyes narrowed only the tiniest bit. “I sense that there is a ‘but’. I don’t like those.”
“We got the items to the client just as he wanted,” I said. “He was pleased, and we came back. …um…However, we may have killed someone as we were escaping, and people saw my face and know who to look for.”
“I don’t find your substitution very amusing, Miss Aria. I also don’t like the words ‘may have’. Did you, or did you not?”
“We did,” I said, hoping it didn’t sound as meek as it felt. I felt Sedave’s arm around my shoulders.
“It was an accident, though, Gwynne,” Sedave offered. “We was movin’ the cart outta there fast as we could, some Khaji’it guard was after us, and Aria, she was only tryin’a slow him down.”
“What on Nirn did you do?” Gwynne asked. “I am really not liking having to drag these details out of you two.”
“I’m sorry!” I said quickly. “He was on a horse, and he was going to hurt ours to catch us. There was extra loot in the cart, and I threw something heavy at him. I just wanted to knock him off his horse, that’s all, but he fell and one of the cart’s wheels ran over his head.”
Gwynne sighed. “And you, Sedave? How did they see Aria but not you?”
“I was disguised as a guard. Had a scarf over me face and everyfink.”
“Out of the both of you, I would have expected Aria to be so thoughtful. So what’s your excuse?”
My eyes were burning and my throat had slammed shut. Anger and consequences are what they are, but nothing hurts so much as disappointment. Sedave was rubbing my back with his open palm, but it wasn’t doing much to help.
“Well? I don’t have all day.”
“I couldn’t,” I said. “I had to pose as a worker. If I covered my face, I’d look suspicious.”
“You couldn’t have found a hat? Put your hair up? Anything?”
“I-I didn’t think of it.”
Gwynne nodded and looked down at her fingers.
“But you shoulda been there!” Sedave said enthusiastically. “Aria did almost all the work, orchestratin’ and stuff. All’s I did was knock some ol’ skooma fiend out to take his clothes. And like she said, we got everyfink to the client. He even gave us extra gold for our work, and he told us to give you this.”
Sedave pulled a folded piece of parchment with a wax seal from his jacket pocket, the letter the client told us to give to Gwynne. I’d forgotten about it entirely in my worry. I hoped whatever it said was good, although now my brain had shifted into paranoia: what if the letter was something mean about us?
Gwynne reached out and took the parchment, slashing open the seal with a small knife. Every part of me was shaking. I wanted to scream out the fear and then run until I couldn’t keep going. It took so very long for her to read, but I’m sure part of it was her being who she was – which is to say, just a little bit sadistic.
“Well,” she said finally, tossing the letter onto her desk, “I won’t go into everything that was said, but suffice it to say that I was sent this letter specifically because he was pleased, and that we should expect more work from him in the future. That somewhat makes up for your blunders, but I shouldn’t need to tell you how hard I and our enforcers will need to scrub to get you back into good standing.”
“I’ll cut and dye my hair,” I offered quickly. The idea was actually growing on me just a bit, if I had to be honest.
“That won’t be necessary, though I like your initiative. That extra you mentioned, Sedave? That’s going straight into our coffers. Understand?”
“Yes ma’am,” we answered in unison.
“Meanwhile, Aria, you’re not to leave the city until this has been taken care of, and even then, I advise you to lay low. I’ll give you local jobs that aren’t up to the standards of the full members. Somebody has to do them, and I know that you know better than to complain. Yes?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said again.
“Good girl,” Gwynne said, standing up. “Sedave, I think Jocelyn has a job needing tended to.”
“Right-o,” he said uneasily. He kissed my head hard before leaving.
My heart was pounding, I was trying very hard not to just collapse into a sobbing mess.
“I gave you and Sedave a very difficult job,” Gwynne said, half-sitting on the edge of her desk. “Too difficult, most people would say, and perhaps they’re right. But I didn’t get to where I am by not taking chances where I see them. I can’t say you bungled the job, but you and Sedave certainly made missteps. What’s important is that you are smart enough to identify those missteps, honest enough to tell me about them, and humble enough to admit to your wrongs. Even if you were a bit more reticent than I would like.”
I nodded, somewhat relieved.
“In the end, you did what you needed to do. It wasn’t elegant, and I’ve got work to do because of it, but I shoved you off a cliff, and you landed more-or-less in one piece.”
“I guess so,” I said quietly.
“I’m hoping that these smaller jobs you’ll be given in the near future will give you time to think about your technique. I want you to familiarize yourself better with the assistant masters and our other veterans. I wasn’t aware that I would have to suggest this, but Sedave isn’t your only source of instruction.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. You’re right.”
“We’ll see how you handle yourself over the next few weeks,” she said. “At that point, you’re either in, or you’re out. Now go on. I’ve got meetings to call.”
I did as I was told, walking straight out of the headquarters while Sedave was speaking with our fence Jocelyn. I was depressed, discouraged, and in keeping with Gwynne’s punishment, I went to my old cubbyhole where I grabbed Joe’s bow and practice arrows. My head and my heart were a mix of all sorts of things that I didn’t like. Hiding my lessons from Sedave, being tethered to the inside of the city walls and thus missing out on said lessons. A shameful excitement to let that rugged, vulgar Breton have his way again.
I slipped into the Merry Minotaur, and, sure enough, he was at the same table as last time, chewing the end of his short pipe while he played cards.
“Well hey there, Blondie,” he said around the pipe, not bothering to look up from his cards. “Whatcha got there? Surely not somethin’ people’d talk about if they saw a couple others messin’ with it?”
I was getting tired of feeling stupid.
“Oh this? I’m still cleaning out my old digs. It’s just a bundle of-”
“Mmhm. Whaddaya need?”
“I can come back when you’re not busy,” I said.
He finally looked over at me. I couldn’t tell if he was annoyed or angry or what, but he didn’t look happy.
“Sitting this one out, boys,” he said, pushing himself up and leaning his pipe against a dish of ashes. “Don’t let no one take my seat. I’ll be back.”
His hand was between my shoulderblades as he guided me upstairs and into a quiet room. It wasn’t an affectionate gesture, and I wanted very badly to throw the bundle at him right then and storm out.
“Now what are you doing bringin’ that in here?” he asked after ushering me into one of the tavern’s “private rooms” and closing the door behind us.
“I need to give it back you,” I said. “I mean, without being able to practice I won’t be able to get what I want done, done. So nobody could link me to you, and I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
“Take a breath, Blondie. Shit. You just tried to cram fifteen thoughts into that sentence and I only asked for one.”
I wasn’t going to cry in front of him again, and so I didn’t respond.
“Now, let’s untangle this. What’s this about practice?”
“Sedave and I messed up a job over in Anvil and Gwynne’s keeping me in the city until things blow over. So I can’t take lessons from you.”
“I see. So you’re returning this to me because you’re givin’ up on your little scheme.”
“I’m not giving up!”
“That’s what you said, isn’t it?”
It was. I don’t think I intended to say it that way, but that’s how it came out.
“So what didja do that made Gwynne ground you two?”
“Not us, just me. Because I didn’t think to try and hide my face somehow, and the heist was huge, and someone died.”
“Someone got killed,” he smirked.
“Whatever, Joe,” I sighed. “Just take your bow back. Sorry I started this whole thing.”
I shoved the bundle into his chest, and he shoved it right back.
“Okay, okay. I’ll find a drop for it or something.”
“I’m not takin’ that,” he said somewhat sharply. “I know how you are. You’re pissed off and you’re feelin’ sorry for yourself. Just like when we were shooting over by old Tiberius’ place. You get real low, and when it passes, you’re back to normal and you get right back to whatever it is that’s buggin’ ya.”
“But I can’t leave! I can’t practice this in the city.”
“Maybe you need some practice in the art of stealth?”
“Are you saying I’m not stealthy?” I asked.
“Well you are being punished because-”
“Sure. Anyway, I know you know you can work your way around from the docks towards those fields. I don’t mind teachin’ ya in the night time. Better for ya, anyway.”
I swallowed. This was such a stupid idea.
“Can I think about it?” I asked.
“Take all the time you need, darlin’,” he answered. “I’m not goin’ anywhere.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
“Before ya go, think I might bother ya for a blow job?”
“Well aren’t you brazen?” I asked, almost completely blindsided.
“Hey, you’re just a girl I like to fuck,” he grinned. “I ain’t gotta romance ya.”
I couldn’t help the laugh that pushed through everything else.
“Would you take an I.O.U.? I have to stash this and get back to Sedave.”
“Understand,” he said, raising his hands slightly in deference. “See you around, baby girl.”
I thought back to Antoninus as I left the tavern. Antoninus, the respectable business owner who pushed and pushed until finally attempting to have his way, regardless. Then there was old “Eagle Eye” Joe, the slimy bastard whose list of crimes could probably fill an entire book, who would ask me plainly to get him off and simply step back when I said no.
Not everyone is what they seem. Perhaps I wasn’t obfuscating my features during that heist, but I certainly wasn’t just the child, the brains, nor the ant. I would show Gwynne what I could do. No mistakes. No covering myself in foul plant matter to mask my scent. No clumsily getting caught and improvising with nervous grins. I knew where and what I wanted to be, and I would make it happen.