For the rest of the night that hadn’t gone just as planned, and the day that followed, Sadja seethed. She was a bundle of nerves pulled so tight they ached, with jitters running through her that made her want to bounce off the walls of her small room on the second floor of the inn with its golden pick axe. It didn’t help that she’d cooped herself up, the only whiff of freedom the window looking out over stinking alley. So it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that there wasn’t a single piece of furniture in here that she hadn’t kicked yet at least once.
Worm diligently chattered at her every time she lashed out at an inanimate piece of wood, his little kestrel head tilted far as it would. Though sometimes he took off, since, unlike her, he could come and go as he pleased, zipping out the window to go terrorise the local tit population.
Sadja groaned and flopped down on the bed, arms splayed out wide.
Oh what she’d give to be pestering some tits of her own. But no. No, she had to confine herself up here, what with Eloh suddenly having grown teeth and fangs much unlike what she’d grown used to of the sleepy town. Everyone was talking about the break-in and the murder and the theft of Eloh’s, to quote, Greatest Treasure.
Sadja pulled the treasure from her pocket, a finger gliding over the dull edge of the wooden arrowhead as she held it up over her nose. Everything was the Greatest Treasure if it got nicked, she figured. Including useless old wood. Otherwise, there wasn’t a good enough reason to get so horribly upset about it and forget all about the shinies that had vanished alongside it.
This whole thing was a sticky, unwieldy mess.
At one point, when she had got peckish enough to bother slinking downstairs and buy a bowl of stew, a bunch of patrons had been loudly voicing their opinions about how Marks ought to send the guard and his knights out to burn down the nearest village of those, and she got back to quoting, vile and savage beastfolk. Had to teach them a lesson, they had said. For— well—
Sadja bristled. Her knees came up and her feet kicked at air.
Turned out no one really knew what they wanted vengeance for. That arrowhead was gone, yeah. Real important history gone, bla bla, but then came the bits that ticked her off the most. Supposedly, someone’d sacrificed a guard over their shinies. Violated the whole vault. Not to forget, a virgin had been strung up somewhere, didn’t you hear?
It was all a bunch of shite from the mouth of badly lying men wanting the next drink for free, and the tales only got wilder as the day continued.
Dusk came, and with it the rain. It pelted the walls, hard and relentless, and carried a chill through the window that did little to douse the fire burning in her gut. A fire that she’d cultivated over the hours, stoking it until she’d thought she’d burn up from the inside, leaving nothing but ash on the worn, dirty carpets of the room.
Unchecked, it’d keep burning, so Sadja decided to do something about it.
The rain, a tempest swelling by the minute, draped Eloh in a thick shroud of darkness— and chased even the most diligent of watchman into their alcoves, lest their torches drowned or they drowned in their own boots.
The downside to it?
Elves got wet too.
By the time she’d made it back up the sloping side of Eloh and into the narrow, fancy alleys to stand under a particular Imperial’s window, Sadja’s oilskin cloak had done all it could, but she was still drenched from the tips of her ears to the soles of her boots.
Craning her neck up, eyes blinking against the rain, she stared at the light blossoming behind the window pane of Lucilia’s bedroom. Lucilia, because squirrels, while cheeky, weren’t cunts.
She puffed air from her nose and started climbing. This was a lot less fun than the tower.
Getting the window open was easy enough. Didn’t have a lock and she had a knife, which slid in real neat. After some wiggling— and her arms straining as she hung awkwardly to the side of it —it popped open, and she slid inside, carrying a whole lake with her that pooled by her feet. That’d ruin the carpet, she thought and felt just a little smug.
Not enough to quench the burning want to jab the arrow she was carrying around into Lucilia’s throat. That burnt her up bad enough she was surprised she wasn’t boiling the water off her clothes in a cloud of thick steam.
She scanned the room with a quick sweep of her eyes. Lucilia had shinies everywhere. Rings and necklaces and earrings that winked at her from their tiny, fancy chests, the lids popped off because she didn’t need to bother hiding anything in her up-the-hill home.
But Sadja wasn’t here to lift gold and jewels. She came carrying the lot she’d stolen from the Keep the night prior, the gems sinking deep into her pockets with a weight that didn’t quite befit their size. If given the chance, she’d shove them down Lucilia’s gob one by one.
“Stop fretting,” she heard Lucilia say after she’d padded halfway through the room.
Sadja tilted her head. Listened.
“She’s probably long gone.”
Her voice carried through the cracked open door, and Sadja slunk up to it, nudging it open a little further to peer out the hallway. A short set of stairs led down into what Imperials called a sitting room, even if you could really sit any bloody where, so why’d they need a special room for that?
“Gone with a key,” said a second voice. A man. A grouchy man, too. “What were you thinking hiring an elf?”
Hire. If Sadja’d had hackles, they’d have raised sky high. Odin would about as likely cut off his fluffy beard, as she would carry out someone else’s whim. She had plenty of those herself.
“I was thinking that you wanted me to get you an excuse to convince Marks to clear out some land for you, and that is what I did. Now get out of my house. It’s been a long day, you won’t believe the mess we’ve had to clean up.”
“If this comes back to—“
Whatever else the grouchy man had to say after that carried up as little more than a few annoyed noises, followed by a door slamming. Which meant it was her turn.
Sadja ducked back into the bedroom and right behind a divider. Least that was what Lucilia had called it. Those were things put into rooms so proper ladies could get into their dresses and out of them, a detail Lucilia had told her all about. Told, not shown, since mostly her dress had ended up on the floor the last few nights Sadja had been here.
No one was going to get undressed behind it tonight, either.
With her dagger out, and her shoulders pinching from all the frustration that’d been gathering in them, Sadja exercised her patience.
Didn’t take a lot of waiting until Lucilia swept into the room, bringing the thick, sweet scent of vanilla with her. The smell kicked at Sadja’s belly. Got it all confused by how the pleasant memories it ought to associate with it were replaced by dry twigs added to a fire burning out of control.
When the footsteps stopped, and Lucilia held her breath briefly, Sadja knew she’d spotted the wet footprints on the carpet, so she slipped out from behind the divider and put herself in front of the door.
“That wasn’t very clever,” Sadja said, fingers pumping around the dagger hilt and her wrist giving it a quick wiggle so the blade flicked up and down. “Gaming me like that. Underestimating me. Thinking I’d get stabbed for you. Don’t you know you shouldn’t upset my kin? We can be horribly vengeful.”
Lucilia turned to look at her, her brows pinched and lips pulled down. Gone was the clueless, innocent frown, replaced by something much more calculating as Sadja got sized up.
“As I recall, you didn’t seem to mind being wicked.” Lucilia’s eyes cut back up to meet hers after they’d got done studying her. “And you’re alive,” she added.
“I’m my wicked. Not anyone’s little attack dog or pawn to flick over on your fancy.”
Lucilia’s slender, well tended left brow slanted up and she folded her arms. “That’s why you came here? To lecture me about how I gave you exactly what you came looking for? Don’t insult me, I know you were after the key, you eager little minx.”
Sadja’s teeth clicked together. She bristled.
“Oh, come on now.” Lucilia let her arms fall by her side in an open armed gesture. But Sadja saw how one of her hands twisted closer to her back, wrist bent ready to grab for something likely sharp. “Don’t be so sore about it. We both got what we wanted. Leave Eloh, fence the gems. Go look for trouble elsewhere and we both win.”
Sadja took a step forward, eyes narrowed. “I didn’t want a part in your fricking game.”
“Then you shouldn’t have played.”
“And I won’t do as you tell.”
Lucilia came at her. So bloody obviously, she reminded Sadja of a bright pink pig with how woefully she failed at being subtle about it. Pretending to be dumb and innocent she’d been real good at, but fighting?
Maybe by some Imperial set of rules, where you stabbed at each other in turn.
Sadja slipped to the side when Lucilia tried to slash at her, the blade she’d pulled from a fold on her dress thin and wickedly curved. Three more times she tried to catch her, the edge of the knife slicing only at air. Between each lunge and each step, Lucilia worked up a blush. Not the pretty pink from the past few nights, but an unflattering, angry red.
“Hold still!”, Lucilia barked, the frustrated flush on her face deepening.
Another stab, and Sadja danced up on the bed.
Yet another, and she’d grown bored.
She hopped off the bed, ducked under a wide, infuriated sweep of the blade, and dove for the carpet Lucilia was twisting around on good as aimlessly. Grabbing the sides of it, she yanked it aside with one hard heave.
Lucilia went down with a hard thump, frilly dress going everywhere. Thought she didn’t let go of the dagger, kept it clutched in her fist all the way until Sadja stepped on her wrist hard enough to make her yelp. With a flick of Sadja’s foot, the blade slid under the bed.
And then she sunk down, put her knee right on Lucilia’s wheezing throat, and pressed her dagger down, the tip set just below her last rib. One jab and it’d slide right in. Silk dresses, pretty as they might be, made for terrible armour.
“You’re horrible at this,” Sadja said. “Don’t they teach you Imperial womenfolk how to scuffle?”
Lucilia twisted under her, mouth opening lamely, but Sadja leaned into her knee some more, right as she pushed the dagger through the silk. Eyes wide, and skin now blotchy from exertion and how fear drained the colour from it at the same time, Lucilia grew still.
“No, don’t bother answering. Instead, have a think on what you might got that’ll convince me not to end you.”
First, it was “I— take anything—“, which Sadja promptly interrupted with the dagger drawing blood.
“I’m not taking your gold. I don’t want it. Think harder.”
“A writ,” she coughed up a bunch of heartbeats later. Probably a lot more on her end than Sadja’s. “I have papers, in my ledger. Signed by Duke Arminius. About the job.”
Sadja tilted her head. Worm, bless him, had really rubbed off on her lately.
“You wrote this down? Someone let you put that on paper and then they went and signed it? Fuck me sideways, you’re all a bunch of daft bell ends.”
To her credit, Lucilia clenched her jaw and looked offended. While also looking like she’d pissed herself. That was a feat.
“So they can’t cheat me,” Lucilia said, as if that’d explain a thing.
“Uh-huh. Where is it.”
“Right bedside table, top shelf.”
Sadja’s eyes flicked that way, then back to her.
“Under it,” Lucilia added, choking on the knee shoving down again. “Under the shelf. Take it. It’s enough to get us thrown into the dungeons, if that’s what you’re after.”
Sadja tilted her head the other way.
And, with a firm, even push, ran the dagger under Lucilia’s ribs.
“Not enough for me.”
The ledger was nothing more than a simple flap of grained leather holding together loose pages and a few rolled up papers with wax seals still on them. It was light. Smelled of dry leather and vanilla and one very badly gone wrong plan.
Sadja bunched it up and shoved it into her coat, right where the gems had weighed her down before.
The same gems which now lay carelessly thrown against Lucilia’s corpse. Most of their shine had faded, smudged by the blood they’d rolled into.
Grasped in a fist held together by a gaudy necklace, because she wouldn’t keep her fingers closed otherwise, Lucilia held the wooden arrow. The shaft with its intricate carvings, anyway. A piece of wood that, history edged into it or not, ultimately didn’t have a lick more worth than any other dead piece of tree.
Except to Lucilia. Her, it’d cost quite a bit. Everything, really.
Sadja palmed the arrowhead in her pocket, her other hand grasping on the open window frame. Rain washed against her side, and, finally, the fire in her gut faded to nothing more than an irritating lump of heat.
That too would pass.
It always did.
Until then, she’d keep busy. There was one more thing left to do.
Lucilia, back when she’d still been alive and all that, had been right.
About how she’d never make it within eyesight of the castle before a guard would spot her, start ringing their little (but loud) bell, and chase her right off again.
Tonight, the heavens themselves leaned down around Eloh in sheets of rain so thick, even Sadja more guessed than knew where was going. The torrents pouring from the skies concealed her scent and footsteps, made every guard hound unawares, their twitching noses and ears full of nothing but the rush of water. Which was good. Less so was how they tried washing her off the walls and the rocks. That was just plain rude, since if she’d fall, there’d be nothing left of her but a vaguely elf shaped splotch on the ground, that was how far up she was. Though lightning would have had to strike her before she’d let go, and so she climbed and she climbed and she climbed, up through the pitch black and to the blurry beads of light overhead.
Sadja had come to Eloh in search of a scratch to an itch.
Not for shinies. Not for blood. But for something that’d make her heart drum. Make her blood sing. And it’d been singing happily enough, between the Keep and the nights she’d spent getting played for a fool.
Kind of poetic of sorts how this had all started in a bedroom, and how it was about to end in one, no?
Not Lucilia’s, but in one far up the mountain, in the castle with its eyes set on Eloh day in and day out. In one considerably larger, fancier, and full of fish banners. There was more silk, too. More carpets (naturally), and also a bed so large, it’d make for a good raft to get a small army across a river.
In the bed slept two figures. One on the left somewhere, the other leagues away to the right. One was all quiet, the other sounded like someone was taking a saw to a dry tree, the loud snores halfway drowned out by how the rain relentlessly pelted the windows and the balcony door. Which was also a window. Which was, if you asked Sadja, odd. Doors were doors and windows were windows, why’d they have to put them together?
Nevermind that though and nevermind sleeping nobility, since what she’d come from lay at the side of the bed: a pair of sheepskin slippers.
No one talked about the scandalous slipper robbery. Days later, and Marks still hadn’t admitted that he’d had to walk his halls with one foot getting chilly on the stone floor.
They’d put more guards up by the castle, sure. More still than after the Keep had got itself violated by yours truly, who was convinced everyone was real upset about the loss of the slipper and just mourning it in private.
Oh, and they’d arrested a man, not to forget that. A man with a fancy title, who’d signed his name on a piece of paper because those were the rules. Paper that’d been in the ledger which’d got stuffed into Marks’ other slipper, along with the slip she’d found on the would be assassin.
Her lips pulled up at the memory of that and she wiggled her ass on the rickety high chair in front of the bar table, making the wood creak under her. All in all, she was pleased with how the stormy night had ended though. Could have gone considerably worse, yeah? Like she could have got caught. She could have fallen. She could have this and she could have that, but instead here she was, back in the inn with its golden pick axe out front.
Except now she was bored.
One hand twisting the tankard filled with stale mead, and the other palming the arrowhead right under her chin, she sat hunched over, the cowl thrown over her ears and shielding her from the noisy mess of the busy inn.
What then? What now?
Her eyes flicked to the arrowhead and the carvings she rubbed her thumb over. She’d filed off most of what’d been left of the shaft and fixed a leather string to the remaining stub. Turned out it made for a decent necklace.
Bringing Marks the ledger hadn’t made much of a difference.
Granted, a difference hadn’t been what Sadja had been looking to make. She didn’t much care if Eloh sent their guard into the valleys or the swamps over a lie, because there’d be another lie coming right after. Eloh didn’t much regret its history edged into the arrowhead, after all. Not as much as it liked repeating it.
What she’d cared for— why she’d scaled the castle and traded a slipper for the truth —had been not being a part of someone else’s game while they were having all the fun.
So, no. It’d made no difference. Everyone still hated the beastfolk. The beastfolk still hated them in return. Or the other way around, what with how Eloh’s skirts were currently on fire. That’s what the people gathering under the inn’s roof were saying anyway, while they were eating and drinking and not doing anything about the fire.
Imperials were an odd bunch.
Like that one that’d just washed up against the bar next to her. All dressed up for battle or some such thing. Not in leathers or in mail, but with metal encasing his torso, prettily made up with creatures made of gold flanking his chest. Dragons. Wings and claws and tail and all. Though dragon-boy had forgot to put sleeves on, which made him leaps and bounds more interesting than Eloh’s guards with all their heavy chain and jerkins.
Sadja slipped the arrowhead into her shirt, tucking it between her breasts, and eyed him as he stood with his back pressed to the bar top. His eyes were doing a lot of eyeing themselves, scanning the room for Freya knew what.
They were alert though, the eyes. Alert and peculiar.
Under his arm, he carried a helmet, none the like she’d ever seen. For one, there were even more dragons on it, and then there was the entire crest of long, spiky hair at the top. Horsehair, probably. Coarse and stiff.
Sadja tilted her head to the side, and, with curiously scratching at her like an eager dog digging at dirt, flicked her finger against the helmet.
Ding it went and he turned his eyes her way, fixing her in a stare of green and gold.
“You clean cobwebs off the ceiling with that thing?” she asked.
And just like that, unwittingly, she’d set herself on a path that’d take her further than slippers, further than ledgers, and further than pointless little lies.
– the end –
Thank you all for reading this.
If you want to know what happens next, then Mav will have to release her short story collection first. Then you’ll find out who the sleeveless man with all his dragons is.