She watched Marks Keep from her perch atop a tall building, her back pressed to a chimney and her legs stretched out. Evening gathered in slowly. Shadows stretched and reached, their dark fingers gripping at the day. Normal shadows though. Not the sort that ate the light and ate you, too.
“Almost time,” she said.
“You know, you can come with me. I can put you in a pocket. Gods know you’d fit.”
Worm hopped from her shoulder, spread his wings, and landed on her knee. She pulled it up, brought the kestrel up almost to her nose. “You would. Totally would.”
He ruffled his feathers.
Sadja shrugged, and while Worm stuck his head under a wing to nap, she pulled her pack closer to her and began rummaging around in it.
First, she dug a length of dark cloth from it, which she wrapped around her skull with a few practiced loops. Pulling it as taught as she could without making her ears ache as they got squished under it, she tied it all off with a knot, and stuffed the tail end of it into her shirt. Right alongside her long, thick braid.
Couldn’t let the hair get in the way. That’d be embarrassing, now wouldn’t it, having it caught in something and spoiling all the fun. Certainly couldn’t— or rather shouldn’t —let her ears peek out either.
Wasn’t like she had a bunch of other elves to shift the blame to.
Next came a chipped and worn tub of charcoal paint, eager fingers, and a lack of coordination and care.
When she was done, the elf was gone. What sat on the roof was a boy of ambiguous age, covered head to toe in a mix of dark leather and cloth, and his face smeared with erratic patterns of black paint.
Sadja didn’t bother with the streets at first. She kept to the roofs as far as they would carry her. The alleys below were tight. Narrow. It made it easy to dance from one to the other, sometimes climbing half a floor, sometimes landing lightly a little ways below.
It felt good. Felt right. Even if her calves often protested when she leapt and her elbows smarted when she misjudged the distance between one ledge and the other. Sometimes, it almost felt like she grew wings.
Finding her way was piss simple, too. Was hard to miss the keep, what with how it loomed up ahead like a bulky bear, squatting against a backdrop of stars and surrounded by the soft bloom of torches.
It was far from pretty, the keep. But it hadn’t been built for pretty. Once, the Marks had fended off man and beast alike from there. Now, they’d stuffed it with things to brag over. Which didn’t change at all how the whole thing had been built to make it difficult to get past it. Or into, for that matter.
Half the fun, really.
Her way in was at the back of the keep. The butt end of it, the one that faced the mountain, with two towers sticking out on each side. Like the bear’s ears poking at the night skies, and she’d be going up one of them.
She approached the one corner that sat tucked into darkness for the most part, with nothing but a bunch of shacks for company. Storage. Shitters. Those sorts of things. Things no one really gave a toss about, let alone bothered to keep lit. So what torches there were, were spaced out far and wide, their light not quite licking at the tower’s base.
She climbed it. Naturally. What else did you do with towers?
Her fingers quested for cracks and her toes wedged in wherever they’d fit, and soon enough the shacks below had shrunk considerably and all she had at her back was air.
She liked it. Loved it. Loved the subtle drag in the pit of her stomach as it told her she ought to not be up that high, especially with how the ground that’d wait at the end of that fall was tightly packed and hard.
By the time she’d reached the top, she wished the tower was taller, though her arms burnt something fierce and disagreed. She’d also only used no more than two of the metal spikes to step up a little higher.
Finally, she slipped over the tower’s toothy crest, quiet like a shadow dripping from the night sky, and hunkered low for a while to listen to the world softly creak and whisper all around.
Nothing much stirred past the light wind. There was an owl somewhere. Not too far off, and rather vocal about a thing or another, but no footsteps and no clink of swords in scabbards.
And there wasn’t much up here. Just a lot of dirt and moss and lichen and a single wooden trapdoor with metal hinges and a metal lock. She eyed it, and right away her stomach tickled with a funny sort of itch on the inside that very little could scratch.
But this’d do.
Grinning, Sadja went about tying the rope she’d packed to one of the teeth dotting the top of the tower, and then got to picking that lock.
. . .
Which really didn’t like picking.
By the time she heard it click open, she’d cursed up and down every toe on Freyja’s pretty feet a few times over. She also vowed never to tell Worm how it had given her so much trouble, and how she’d let out a small, frustrated growl, bared her teeth, and then gone and felt her patience snap. Right along with one of her picks.
Inside the tower, things were— dark and dusty, mostly. She had to rub her nose trying hard not to sneeze and crept carefully through the black, her soft soled boots finding their way down sturdy wooden steps. There was a sliver of light at the bottom. A beacon of sorts that she followed. Slowly, because tripping would be embarrassing even if no one was around to see.
She had three stories to descend— which felt like they stretched on forever —and then there was a gate. Sturdy, with thick bars too close together to slip through, and probably put in as an afterthought at some point, because while the archway was, well, arched, the gate itself was square, lodged in with a gap left at the top. It was the sort of gate no one really opened any more, because all that stood behind it was an empty tower filled with dust bunnies that’d been breeding like mad, and what self-respecting Imperial wanted to deal with that?
It was also the sort of gate that came conveniently unlocked since someone had turned the key for it before she’d gone home to sleep under her silky sheets. Mighty kind of her. Maybe Squirilla had earned herself another nut for that. For doing as she’d promised. Not an actual nut, of course.
Sadja slipped through, and immediately her feet found a carpet so soft, she stood there for a moment and stared. It was thick and red and stretched on through the entire hall laid out in front of her. There was another that went right.
Ahead, a man-shaped shadow loitered against the wall, cast by a flickering torch.
She hopped right, onto the carpet there, and followed it.
Quiet as a mouse, she scurried through the keep, following a crudely drawn map laid out in her head. Where she’d got that from? Her Imperial spy, her partner in wicked crime— even if she thought this was a dare and a laugh, bless her big nosed heart. She’d traced it on her pillow with a finger and Sadja had put it together in her head.
And it was perfectly accurate.
With a grin on her lips, Sadja approached the warmly glowing heart of the keep, locked behind yet another gate. This one was the sort of gate you couldn’t pick if you even wanted to, Squirrila had told her. That was what the key was for.
Behind it, lay a circular room, thickly covered in more soft carpets, and with banners of fishes hanging from the walls.
… why had they bothered building something made of stone, if then they’d decided Naw, this is too cold and too hard, let’s cover it in cloth.
She puffed an amused noise into the cloth over her mouth and approached the gate. Her hand set against one bar, slid down it, while her eyes scanned the inside some more. A single, large flame lit the room, trapped in a bowl that hung from the ceiling in the centre of it all. It cast lazily dancing shadows from the backs of chests and drawers and display cases set to store trinkets and riches.
But there was something else in there, too.
Sadja saw him crouched in one of those thick shadows behind a particularly fat case of sorts. Had her eyes been a little less wood elf and a little more plain old Imperial, she’d have missed him.
And if she’d been any more reasonable and a little less her, she’d have turned around.
Yeah, that was real likely, wasn’t it? That she’d listen to herself. To the obvious laid out right in front of her: This is a trap. She knew that, plain as day, the second she saw him. Men in dark clothes, tucked into shadows, didn’t spring up from the ground, after all. You had to put them there. On purpose.
She was that purpose.
It only took a bunch of chittery heartbeats, and Sadja had made up her mind on what she’d do. With defiant heat filling her chest, the swell of pressure making her think maybe it’d burst, she shoved in the key and turned it, fingers twitching all giddy like.
Applying more force than what was called for, she pushed the gate open, the hinges whining. It took a lot of effort to make that much noise too, to slap her feet down like she was some lumbering ox, and to strut up to a particular row of glass covered cabinets as if she’d come to buy carrots at the grocer’s, rather than pocket a bunch of shinies in a treasury.
All the while she felt the worn pommel of her dagger pressed into her palm.
Her would-be ambusher fell for it.
He lunged. Came right from the shadows with the glint of steel following him, and made to plunge it someplace unpleasant.
Sadja danced aside with the twist of her hip, his blade catching nought but air.
“Hi,” she said. Her arm came up soon as her foot touched down in its first step of that dance she’d been invited to, and her own blade bit into the man’s wrist.
He was taller than her. Of course he was. But she’d sliced deep enough for him to drop his blade, the metal thumping down on the soft carpet with a dull knock. She stepped in, slammed her heel down on his booted foot— leather, not steel, because he’d tried to be quiet — and snapped her elbow into his throat.
He wheezed and staggered and looked like a properly drunk jester— at least until he went for his blade on the floor to have another go at her. Sadja jumped onto his back even as he reached for it, one hand grasping thick black hair, the other driving the dagger into his neck.
He didn’t die quick and he didn’t die pretty. It took two more stabs before he stopped trying to buck her off, the air now thick with the sharp scent of coppery blood. When he finally collapsed, he did so with her still clinging to his back, and for a while, Sadja hunkered there, dragging in air.
Stabbing a man was hard work.
She ran the back of her hand over face. There were splatters of blood on the bridge of her nose and dappling her cheek like fat freckles, and when she was done wiping and wiping, it was probably all just a smeary mess of black dye and runny blood.
It’d wash off.
And then it was time for thinking.
A trap. He’d been waiting for her, had known she’d be here. Frowning, Sadja shifted around on the dead man’s back. Her fingers began frisking pockets, and that frown soon turned to a scowl. He had some paper with words on it, which did her no good, so she just pocketed it. But he also had some bibs and bobs on him, all stashed in a satchel. Those were a great deal more curious. A dagger, for one. Worn and old, the handle made of bone. It wasn’t an Imperial forged blade, but one forged by men of the north or carried by beastfolk and their allies.
There was also a necklace. A necklace that came together from— Sadja grimaced. Dried ears? Human ears, all round and soft and whatnot. Still. Her own smarted at the thought of getting touched funny, let alone cut off, and she leaned her head to the side, rubbing her shoulder against one.
The necklace also had small, hollowed out bones on it, the string running right through them, and for a second she was just horribly confused. Why-ever would an Imperial carry around… oh.
. . .
You skunk, she thought.
Squirilla had tried to trick her. Play her. Use her to frame a bunch of beastfolk, probably. Worse? It hadn’t even been a good game or a good trap, but half-arsed at best.
Scoffing, Sadja got to her feet. She kicked the corpse on the way, a burst of anger flaring in her gut.
Too bad for that Imperial cunt.
Sadja rather liked playing games and she rather liked winning. Liked to be a bigger cunt, truth be told, and so her eyes fixed on the display cases and the frown from before twitched up into a grin.
She smashed the glass with the pommel of her dagger and scooped up every single gem that’d fit into her pockets. The ones mounted to rings, the ones stuck to necklaces… the ones just prettily cut and laying there sad and alone. And then, she walked right over to the raised pedestal sort of thing that an arrow lay on.
A wooden arrow. The whole damn thing was wood. The head too, which made it really useless, come to think of it. Though it wasn’t meant to be useful, was just meant to look pretty and to tell a story, if the intricate carvings running up its shaft and along the flat arrowhead was anything to go by.
She leaned over it and squinted. The carvings must have taken quite a bit of effort, being so tiny. Especially since she could tell they were of men and beasts having a go at battling, with the men clearly winning as they drove the beasts to the back of the shaft, while they built cities on the arrowhead itself.
Sadja shrugged and snatched the whole thing up.
There was a guard in the hall this time. Standing right in front of the gate. The closed gate, naturally. Sadja sighed. Probably locked, too. She’d bet Worm’s tail feathers it was.
Huffing and squaring her shoulders, she padded over the soft carpets, not bothering to hide. The man immediately rounded to stare at her. Unlike the assassin, this one didn’t look like he was in the whole thing. He was just a plain old guard, with chain mail and leather and the Marks colours all over him.
Not shady and stuffed full of lies.
“Halt!” he shouted down the hall, sword drawn and boots thudding over the carpet into her direction.
“Excuse me wha’?” she shouted back, a hand cupped to her ear as if she was deaf, and picked up her pace a little, walking briskly.
“I said halt and drop your weapons—“
Sadja broke into a run. Right at him.
The guard stopped his advance, froze for a second, and she could see his eyes widening a little in disbelief. A disbelief that lasted just long enough, before he got ready to skewer her with his sword.
But they were all so slow. How did they ever get a thing done? She sprung to the right, one foot kicking her off the ground. The sword swung by her back. Her other foot found the wall on the right and pushed off of it hard, throwing herself back into the guard. She slammed into his side. Forceful enough to bruise her shoulder, yeah, but also with enough kick to send him crashing into the other wall.
Unlike her, he cracked his head against it. And, unlike her, he wasn’t back on his feet the next heartbeat and dashing for the gate.
Luckily for Worm, bless his pretty tail feathers, the gate was, indeed, locked.
“Halt!” the guard tried again behind her, making her wonder if that sort of insistence ever worked. What was he thinking? That she’d stop? Throw her hands up? My bad, good sir, have at me.
Sadja scaled the bars. She reached the top long before he’d caught up, and squeezed through the gap at the top like a mouse might through the crack under a door.
When she landed on the other side, he was just getting started with bumbling around with a key chain. So she leaned as close as she dared, her nose almost touching the bars, and flashed him a wink.