No, you listen to me. That? That was my wife. Not a lying bone in her body and that, that was her only trick. So you will sit there and you will make her sacrifice worth it or I will end you.

Ionas Pachin

 

Amisine hovered close, without touching, and the other two stayed two long steps from her. May, always keeping the ghost in her sight, and Ionas looking away.

They crept around the edge of the West Side in quiet, save for Amisine’s soft, “Do you remember this Sarea? The wall?”

Sarea said nothing. The stakes, rising up out of the base of the sheer, grass covered wall, were new. The bones, newer. At least they were sized for an adult. They shone in the moonlight, stripped bare and white.

As she walked, letting the other two go ahead, she became aware of a deep-seated anger rising up. How dare they? How dare they? Thieves and beggars, the lot of them in the West Side, but what other choice did they have? Even their accent was different to the rest of Durabilis, though no outsider would have known it. Only people from the town would hear it. If you wished to turn honest, you faced the reputation, and nobody would trust if. Sometimes, if you got away, if you ran as far as you could…

She’d heard of kids being told to sneak onto barges and stay there until they reached Lenife. No food, no water, no certainty – but no hope here.

But beggars should be free to accept charity, from those good few and the many who wished to be seen as good. Thieves still deserved food and clean water. That was the right of it, upheld by Durabilan law.

Law laid down by her ancestors. Her step faltered. Not once in her life had she remembered that. It was true, of course, but until she’d seen Lisheva, she hadn’t known a Durasoona could be proud.

“Sarea?” Amisine whispered. Cold touched her face. Sarea jerked sideways, no, no, no, don’t, if she doesn’t

Cold pulled away. “I’m sorry,” Amisine said, like a broken thing. “You stopped, you see.”

“Please,” Sarea said. “Just don’t -” She stopped. “I don’t like being touched, very much,” she finished softly. “I’ve grown used to it. But you’re cold.”

“Oh,” Amisine said. “I see.”

If she doesn’t touch me, Sarea thought, she isn’t real. Sarea should be glad. Amisine was still here, if not alive, and didn’t seem to blame her. If she could get past the feeling that this was unnatural, that this thing wasn’t her sister, it would work. It had to. She’d been alone so long.

Ahead, Ionas and Mae stopped, and were looking back. Sarea walked faster to catch up, only a minute or so, Amisine floating dejectedly behind her.

“This is it,” Ionas said, pointing at a rock in the wall’s base with his foot.

Mae grumbled, “Or it was. You’re out of luck, biter.”

“No,” Sarea said. “I’m not. Ionas?”

He nodded, still not looking at anyone. “It’s there.” He pointed with his foot again, and his toe sunk into the rock. “What people can’t see, they can’t block up. It’s just small.”

She nodded, eyeing him. “How much pain are you in?”

“I’m fine,” he said.

She reached out and caught his right hand, raising it. He winced, squeezing his eyes shut, but made no noise. “It’s not going to be easy getting in,” she said, “Or out. You’re already hurting and you’re going to hurt worse. Stay out here. I’ll have Mae, and Amisine.”

“No,” he said flatly. “Where you go, I go.”

“Would be good to have power on our side,” Mae said, and earned a flash of surprise from Ionas. “But not if he’s going to hold us back,” she added. “What’s it like over there, ghost?”

“He’ll have to climb over the rooftops.” Amisine drifted forward. “Hide away and make no sound.”

Sarea looked around. Of course. Even with the stakes, the formations of the rocks here was familiar, in a way no moonlight landscape should be. “This is the smuggler’s way?” An old shack long since built around, so there was no way of getting in or out. The roof had crumbled into a ramp thy used to climb in and out, and store goods under. A tight space, and the way across to da’s house wasn’t long, but it could dangerous. Puddles gathered in the spaces between rooftops, and the moss made even the sure-footed slip. Then there was jumping the street gaps, lest you were caught in the street with no place to hide. She turned back to Ionas. “You cannot come with us. Please.”

He shook his head. “Where you go -”

“Being taken by the Instigators is the worst fate I know,” she said. “Stay on the outside, so not all of us are. Please, Ionas. No one else will know we’re in there.”

After a moment, he nodded.

The best I’m getting, she decided, and turned to Mae. “I know the way,” she said. “Follow me.”

She dropped to her knees and, hoping to not look a fool, crawled forwards.

:-#-:

“You’re not staying back at all,” the Hunter said coolly. “I know that look.”

Ionas pressed his lips together. He did hurt, but never so much as to leave her alone. “Stay with her,” he said.

“I will.” The Hunter looked him up and down. “Only one person I’m going to save,” she said. “So be careful.”

And she bent down to crawl after Sarea.

That left Amisine, staring at him. She bared sharp, sharp teeth. “Have fun, idiot,” she said, and rose up above the wall.

He turned about and, limping, drew a notice-me-not spell around him.

He wasn’t going to be able to crawl in…

:-#-:

The smuggler’s way was tighter and darker than she remembered, but its course was dry and smooth. The gap at the other end was thinner than the way. She tossed the bag of buns through and pushed her head into the gap.

The stone they used to block it had fallen, halfway across the hole. She had just enough space to push her body through sideways, feet digging into the tunnel walls. Easier, when her shoulders were free.

“Give me a moment,” she called into the tunnel, and set herself against the stone. No one had come this way for months. Summer rains entrenched the stone in thick, dried mud. She pushed, on her knees, and it inched sideways for long, gasping seconds before rolling backwards sharply.

She sat back on her knees, panting. The way wasn’t open enough for goods, but it had enough room for Mae to come through, looking around with sharp eyes.

The old shack that guarded the way had crumbled years before she was born. It’d been one of the first, built out of old stone and bricks, and with a good tiled roof, big enough on the inside for five to curl up and be warm. But wood rotted first, here, and the rafters had collapsed. The tiles had been rearranged into a ramp at the side facing them. The rest was dirt and emptiness.

Sarea walked, crouched down, to it and peered under. Moss-covered barrel wrecks hid under it. Wine, probably, that no one came back for.

She climbed up the ramp, looking out over a vista of ramshackle rooftops. Even for night, the West Side was silent. No wind stirred the air, and if a bird lived here it’d been eaten years ago. There should be children, crying, the feral dogs howling to the moon. She sniffed, and reeled.

No stink of sweat and shit and poverty. Just a sickly sweetness, covering all. So wrong. The West Side smelt like people, not this corruption of goodness.

“Tell us where we are,” Mae said, settling next to her. She had the buns tied to her belt. Sarea nodded, looking around.

“There’s the whore houses,” she said, pointing to their right. The crumbling, towering brick hadn’t changed in seven years, nor the lights in the upper windows. They flickered, as if lost. “Not for us. For the Instigators. There’s the old dying house.” To their left, where there had been another like it, but now there was an absence, ringed with ruined walls. “Or was. And there…” Somewhat to the left, towering above the shacks, almost touching the old dying house, was a brick building that still stood. “Behind that is our home. We have to avoid the streets. The Instigators make sure there’s nowhere to hide, and no one opens their door no matter how you beg.”

Mae nodded. “Lead on,” she said.

So Sarea scrambled up onto the mossy roof ahead. It creaked and shifted. She froze, waiting, but nothing happened. Onwards she crept, across the space, to where the gap of a street was one long pace wide. She rose to her full height to cross it, then dropped back down on the other side.

Somewhere, there was the clank of armour. Patrolling Instigators. She held her place, listening. Distant. She hoped they’d just one patrol tonight.

 

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