Old enough to know that I will fail.

Julian Auros, formerly the Iron General

 

The alley stank. Of what, Sarea thought she knew well enough. Rags and half-destroyed crates littered the sides, rats darting between the shadows cast by Ionas’ light. The hand prints had led around the corner and stopped, but he insisted on exploring further. She didn’t know why. From the way they were turning, it probably led out to the edge of Durabilis itself, and she doubted that the ghost would leave. Not when it looked like –

Something moved ahead of them. She caught Ionas’ coat sleeve, staring intently. She knew who favoured this alley, too. Easier to smuggle goods into the tunnel systems she’d always been banned from exploring.

Metal glinted.

“What do you see?” Ionas said.

She pushed in front of him. Spreading her hands, she said. “You don’t want to rob us.”

A man’s voice drifted across in the tight space. “Don’t want your man getting hurt, girlie?” He seemed to materialise out of a pile and a shadow. He was a scraggled mess, his skin and clothes the same colour as dirt, and he bounced from foot to foot as he sidled forwards, hair falling in his face. He bared his jagged teeth. “Gonna start cryin’ over him?”

She folded her arms, straightening. “We’ve nothing for you to steal,” she said.

“Maybe he just aint teaching you how to speak to a man.” The attacker raised his knife. “Maybe I should be, girl.”

“I’ll speak to my father any way I wish,” she said curtly.

Ionas stiffened. She didn’t blame him. If they’d had any resemblance Balint had lost it years ago. She was shorter than him, and had eaten better. But she knew him when she saw him, and this wreck couldn’t be anyone else.

Balint stepped back. “Little Ree?”

“Mugging people off the street,” she snapped, advancing on him. He retreated down the alley, eyes wide. “You had dignity. You had pride. Dock thefts and burglaries. Now look at you. You can’t even recognise your own daughter!”

“No,” he chanted, “No, no, no, no, you left, I made you leave, you can’t be here, it’ll come -”

“The thing in the west side? Let it.” A ball of red-hot rage filled her. “You swore that you’d never sink this low. You promised it to me. Look at you.” She curled her lip. “Now you’re worth less than dirt on the street.”

White-faced, he turned and ran.

What? She stared at his retreating back, recovering enough to remember that he’d held the knife in the wrong hand, hugging his other arm to his chest, that he was bony thin, that he’d fallen this far –

And she’d just pushed him away.

She gave chase.

:-#-:

Ionas stopped by a street corner, panting curses. He wouldn’t lose Sarea – she shone brighter than anything else in this town – but she’d a head start on him and one night’s wander didn’t teach him the alleyways well enough to guess where the two of them were. And anyway, it looked like that one just came out further along the main road –

Right as a group of Instigators marched up it. He swore once more, for luck, and darted across the road, sticking his leg out across the narrow alleyway, just in time for Sarea’s father to stumble straight over it. He caught the man by the shoulders, hoisting him back up. The knife was gone, probably lost in the run, and even if it wasn’t the man was blind with panic.

Sarea stopped, gasping. “I didn’t mean it,” she managed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it -”

“What’s all this?” One of the Instigators came over. Ionas scanned the group. Four with red cloaks, stopped in perfect stillness, and this one with black. An officer, then. Marvellous.

“This fellow stopped us and asked for help,” Ionas said cheerfully, turning Sarea’s father around. “We were just going to walk him home and give him a decent meal.”

The Instigator smiled thinly. “That would be a mistake. How did you escape this time, Balint?”

Her father sagged.

“This man is from the west side and should be returned there.” The Instigator smiled easily. “Thank you for your kindness, but we take care of those people. Initiate Young, take him.”

One of the red-cloaked men marched forward and pulled Balint from Ionas’ hold. He whimpered, turning back as he was pulled away, looking at Sarea. Ionas glanced at her. She was staring back, jaw set.

“Why must he return to the west side?” she said. “Take more care. He’s injured.”

“All who live in the west side are to remain there until further notice,” the red-cloaked Instigator said impassively.

She stepped forward. “Then how do they earn money and get food to eat? This man is starving.”

“All food is supplied by the Instigators. They are thieves and killers all. We give them all and they do not deserve it.” The monotone betrayed nothing. Not even hate. Very impressive, Ionas thought. “Their every need is accounted for, mistress. You do not need to worry.”

“I am a trained hedge witch,” she said flatly. “Even if he wasn’t clearly starved and exhausted, he wouldn’t be able to run from you anyway. Be a decent man. Don’t cause him further pain.” One more step. “If you were a good man, you wouldn’t be wearing that uniform.”

Ionas stared. She blazed, poised almost as if she were going to jump on the man and beat him to death with words. Medics! He loved medics. The things they wouldn’t do if they saw something wrong.

But the last thing they needed was to start a fight with a militia. Pity. The moment she actually looked like a Durasoona –

“Listen to the woman,” the officer said. “She’s right. He’s not running.”

The Instigator loosened his hold, his expression unchanging. The officer turned to Sarea and said, “Who would you be, defending this man?”

“Sarea Sahar.” Sarea folded her arms. “You?”

“Commander Guilliarme Jorge.”

Damn, damn, damn. Ionas caught Sarea’s arm. “And my apprentice, I’m afraid,” he said, flashing a smile.

Sarea bristled.

“A hedge witch is an apprentice.” Jorge eyed him. “You are?”

“Her mistress saw fit not to teach her magic, Commander. I wouldn’t doubt her way with medicines.” Ionas rubbed the back of his neck, feigning embarrassment. “My name is Ionas Pachin. I apologise if we’ve offended.”

Jorge spread his fingers, shaking his hand. “No, no. It’s been a long time since I met anyone with…” He paused, looking Sarea up and down. “Basic human decency. My job doesn’t expose me to many such good souls, I’m afraid. Are you new to Durabilis?”

Sarea tensed. Ionas tightened his grip. You don’t want to do that, he thought at her. This man had danger written in every inch of him. If she started a fight here, Ionas would finish it for her, but he’d rather there was no fight at all…

“Just staying for a few days,” Ionas said, smiling, showing his teeth. Back off. “Always expose your apprentice to as much as you can, that’s what I was taught.”

“A good lesson. Teach her to keep that heart.” Jorge smiled back. “Someone might just tear it out of her. Let’s get this man home, Initiate.”

“Yes, Commander.”

Ionas waited until they were definitely out of earshot before he let Sarea go. She whirled on him. “They’re starving them!”

“They’re starving him,” he said.

“Your first lesson in life,” she said. “Instigators don’t care if you live or die. Whether you’re eating meat or rubbish, if you’re getting water or forced to drink from the marsh, they don’t care. I cannot see my -”

He dropped a silence spell on her faster than she could blink. Her mouth worked for a moment before she shut it, glaring at him. Oh how she was bright. Nearly blinding to look at. He’d rather be blind than stop looking.

“I’m sorry,” he said, keeping his voice down. “I think the next word was going to give you away.”

The glower faded a little. The glow didn’t.

“If the Instigators rule the west side, we’ll deal with them the same way we deal with the demon influence. But we do it tomorrow, or next week, not today. We’re going to cut their legs out from under them first. Do you understand that?”

She pressed her lips together and nodded once.

“Now, I’m going to lift this spell,” he said. “Next time, can you save the yelling until we’re not on the street?”

She nodded again.

He let the magic go.

She slapped him.

He reeled backwards. Gods, if she’d hit that idiot Tolle this hard –

“Do that to me again and I leave,” she said, stepping up to him. “Take away my ability to speak one more time and you cannot make it up to me. Do you understand that?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, rubbing his cheek. It was worth it. Trembling with rage, she burned like the sun itself. He blinked rapidly, looking away. “Can we go back to Gregor’s and eat now, ma’am?”

She stared, wide eyed, glow dulling, and said, “Have I done nothing today but mistakes?”

“What?” He focused on her again. “You took it on yourself to do something, you defended yourself, and you spoke your mind. How is any of that a mistake?” Maybe it hadn’t been rage that made her shake. Damn. “You could learn a little about diplomacy -”

She snorted.

“The idiots in their half-ruin will come back to us in the end,” he said. “I’m hardly going to tell you how you handled him is wrong, Sarea, and if I crossed a boundary for you, I deserved it.” He winced, rubbing the sore spot on his face. “Remind me not to do that ever again. But please. If I don’t have dinner, my stomach will leap out of my body and swallow me whole.”

“For a man that eats moonlight,” she said, folding her arms, “You’re always hungry.”

“Moonless night,” he threw out casually, and got the barest of smiles. Much better. “And the bathhouse,” he said. “We have to go back there. Hot water is paradise.”

Sarea frowned at him. “Not today,” she said. “You’re going to sit in one place like a normal person tonight.”

“How do you plan on making me do that?” he wondered.

“Well, I could start by burning your clothes to ash,” she said.

“I can just make it look like I’m dressed,” he said, grinning, but it’d be chilly without real clothes on, so he nodded at the street. “Shall we?”

She shoved her hands in her pockets and walked. He strolled beside her. After a moment, he said, “I’m not going to apologise.”

Sarea shrugged. “I don’t expect you to.”

back home forward