Remember where the heart lies.

Gan family motto

 

Sarea took too long to leave the house. The sweet smell lingered out here, night shrouding all but the marsh in darkness. She could hear men shouting, distantly, to her left. Mae might need help.

What help could she bring? The air stood still. No wind or breeze to manipulate, even if she could. She could use fire –

And every noble girl in the town knew she used fire. She didn’t think Commander Jorge stupid enough to ignore gossip. What could she do to help Mae that wouldn’t give her away in an instant? How did she know he hadn’t worked out her last name and wouldn’t be waiting for her at Isaye’s, the next time she visited?

Who’d stay friends with a Durasoona?

She walked along the outside of the marsh, to the right. Around, in the dangerous waning moonlight, for almost a full quarter of the pit, then right over a handful of shack rooftops to an alley. She couldn’t hear any patrolling Instigators. Maybe they were all distracted by Mae.

She walked out, then right. Barely half a minute, at a walking pace, to the crossroads where they’d helped da and Ionas out of the West Side. But if she kept going… the main alley cut all the way around the West Side. She’d find Mae. Maybe find a way to help her.

She needed to leave. Out of the walls and the shacks, she’d be safe from Amisine, and the thing in the pit. Everyone seemed to insist being the Sun mattered. It’d be the right thing to do.

But how long could she going to run from the West Side?

She closed her eyes, breathed in miraculously clean air, and chose to go straight.

She moved without being seen or stopped, and always cutting to the right. It didn’t take long before she found the first body.

He was undeniably dead. No one chose to lay face-down in West Side dirt. She crouched next to his body and listened for breathing before she searched him for weapons. The sword, abandoned in the mud, she couldn’t even dream of using, Tucked into his metal boot she found a short, vicious-looking knife. She took it and left without saying words for him.

The next one surprised her. He sat slumped against a shack, eyes shut, blood dripping out of a gap in his armour, yet he drew ragged breaths. She hesitated – should she finish him off? There were no good Instigators – but kept walking. She didn’t want to waste time.

The third lay dead, too, and his eyes were open, blank, staring. She searched him anyway, and found another knife, this one larger and sheathed. She took it anyway, tucking it into the top of her trousers. After a moment’s hesitation, she closed his eyes. Her hand curled tighter around the hilt of the little knife. She kept following the path.

She couldn’t hear fighting, or find Mae, not even when she followed the alley back around to the pit-side path again. She crouched in the shadow of a shack. Mae’d surely been caught already. But… wouldn’t fighting have brought out more of the Instigators? Where were the rest of them? If they’d caught her and taken her already, then –

Why would they have left the living Instigator?

Somehow, they hadn’t raised the alarm. In a West Side so deathly quiet, maybe the internal patrol was nothing more than a courtesy, or Mae struck too swiftly. Had she followed the trail the wrong way around? There were too many possibilities to deal with. She should have left when she’d the chance.

Something shifted in the night.

Four every fifteen. Four instigators every fifteen minutes. One left.

It occurred to her, in a calm moment, that she made for good bait.

She tucked the little knife up her sleeve, between the tunic and the coat, and stood.

“I wouldn’t, little miss,” a man said. “Turn around. Let me see your hands.”

The Instigator wasn’t in his armour. He stood there in the padded under-leathers they wore in the whorehouse, instead. He put the very tip of his sword under her chin and raised her head.

Sarea kept her eyes on him. She didn’t want to give it away.

He was a dark-haired man, face lined with age, but tall and strong. He barked a laugh. “You’re one of Balint’s girls! Jorge’ll pay me well for you.”

She pressed her lips together and thought, as carefully as she could, about fire. She needed it ready.

“You remember me, girl?” He smirked. “I used to visit y’mother, I did.” The sword pressed a fraction closer. “Speak when you’re spoken to.”

Fire. Not in her hands, or the sword, but the hilt, where his gloved hands were. He wouldn’t feel it immediately.

“You’re just as rude as your father.” He laughed again. “Never mind that. You won’t be talking much.”

Just heat that grew like a plant, little leaves and a small bud, and with one spark, blossomed –

Sarea took one long step back. The sword’s hilt burst into flames. He dropped it, swearing, and Mae in the shadows moved, so quick. He turned, and her hand reached into her sleeve, and without any direction from her, her body lunged forward.

Then she stopped, and the little knife in her hand dripped a drop of red, and the Instigator lay on the ground, and she didn’t move.

“Biter,” Mae said, her tone, face, body showing surprise. “You did good.”

She’d just killed someone. She didn’t feel a thing. She shrugged.

Mae came forward and crouched, wiping her long knife on his jacket, and sheathed it. She patted him over and came up with a coin-purse. “Right,” she said. “Let’s be out of here.”

A bell rang through the night. Mae swore, standing. “Come on, kid, wipe that off – ” she took the knife and swipe it against his jacket, red streaks next to red streaks. She pressed the knife hilt back into Sarea’s hand. “You in there, biter?”

Mae’s eyes were so blue they could cut.

She slapped her. Sarea blinked, cheek stinging. “What?”

“This isn’t the time to get lost in your thoughts, biter. We have to get out of here.” Mae smiled. Sarea tilted her head. Blood streaked down Mae’s face. She’d been hurt. “They’ll find us.”

Sarea nodded. “This way.”

Men shouted in the alley-way. Safe on the marsh pit path, Sarea and Mae crept past them, and climbed over the shacks along the old Durasoona house to the path. Mae went to leave. Sarea turned left, feet leading her left along the alley-way and down a small gap where a lantern hung, light flickering weakly.

“What are you doing?” Mae hissed, behind her.

“The right thing,” Sarea said, and knocked on the door.

Someone opened it. Someone female, face painted in swirls of brown and red, in a low-cut dress that showed her scarred arms and more of her breasts that seemed sensible. “What is it?” she said.

“I’m Sarea Sahar Durasoona,” Sarea said. “I need somewhere to hide.”

The woman stepped aside.

Sarea stepped into the shelter of the whorehouse, and Mae followed.

“Why are we here?” Mae said.

The woman closed the door and slipped around them. Murkily dark as the entrance was, she went straight for a door that opened into blinding brightness, and held it open for them.

“I’m not going to run,” Sarea said, and followed the whore through.

She’d not seen the common-room of the whorehouse since she and Amisine were both two, and their mother died. She knew it, in her mind, but didn’t have any memories of it. She looked around, blinking against the lights, at a room filled with women, walls covered in faded tapestries, and a floor covered in chairs, lounging couches, and cushions. It might have looked luxurious, once. Sarea saw the threadbare fabrics and stains, and heard, loud as the alarm bell, their silence.

“They want sanctuary,” the woman said.

Another said, to her left, “Why should we give it?”

Sarea turned and said, her voice blurred between West Side and country, “Three Instigators are dead.”

Whispers rose like wind and faded.

“Four. They won’t save that’un.” Mae put her hand on Sarea’s back.

“I will see the rest brought down, before I’m through,” Sarea said. She couldn’t settle her accent. Her mind whirled through what she was doing. She should’ve left, run, hidden with the Hunters. Who was she, to do this? “I’m Sarea Durasoona.” They didn’t know the Sahar, here. “All my – ” Breathe. She had to breathe. So many bones around her father’s neck. “- little dead brothers and sisters. They’re your children, aren’t they?”

Quiet. A third voice said, cracked with age, “They are.” An old woman pushed herself up from her chair. “And you’re going to end that all, are you?” She had the only proper dress on, and a ratty shawl across her shoulders. “Just the two of you.”

“There are those who will come for me,” Sarea said, “And I’m capable of more than you think.”

“I’m good at killin’ people,” Mae added.

For a moment, laughter.

The old woman’s skin was too pulled and tight to have wrinkles, and her gaze reminded Sarea of someone. “You’ll cause trouble for me and mine, girl.”

“There’s always trouble,” Sarea said. “It gives them excuses.” She had inklings, nothing more. This woman didn’t have the look of Tineke, but of a dead girl. “Please. Sanctuary.”

“You’ll see us all dead.” The old woman’s smile held only bitterness. “Get out.”

Sarea stayed exactly where she stood. “Right now, the only thing keeping any of you alive is the Instigator’s will.” Breathe in. Out. “Grandmother.”

 

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