Charity learns that truth the hard way in this high-energy short story.
An orphan from the worst slum in Byzantia, Charity survived by never letting anyone get too close. Being taken in by a sect of priestess-scholars was the kind of luck that urchins like Charity only dream of, but an unexpected letter from the last living soul she’d ever called friend forces her to break their rules and risk losing the only home she’d ever known. Winding up back on the street would be bad enough, but when her night goes from bad to worse she’ll have to think fast and act faster if she wants to survive the night.
It was too damned dark to see anything, and that suited me just fine. Byzantia’s east end was an impossible tangle of dead ends and sodden alleyways, misery and double dealings. Those who lived there just called it the Dead End, and those who lived elsewhere tried not to talk about it at all.
The city’s proper citizens were quite happy to let Byzantia’s garbage, human or otherwise, roll downhill from the Phoenix Gate or wash in from the harbor district to disappear into the east end. No one went there on purpose. When I’d left the place behind I swore to the uncaring gods that I’d never set foot on its streets again, but Garris had sent me a letter, and Garris couldn’t write. That meant he’d begged, borrowed, or stolen enough coin to pay someone else to write it for him and deliver it to the cloister of the Daughters of Vesta in the temple core. I’d known it was bad trouble before I’d finished unrolling the cracked parchment.
I got nicked. In the Rosy Bum now. Need your help. Got one shot at escape, tomorrow night. I’ll leave the top attic window unlatched.
Please help. Please.
I slid down the wet shingles of a flophouse then kicked off hard at the last second to leap across the gap of the street to a flat roof on the far side. Dead End roofs were liable to collapse and leave you with a broken leg or worse, but that risk was nothing compared to walking the streets alone. Urchins and street waifs made the rooftops their highway, and even though I’d gained inches and pounds in the years since the Daughters took me in and started feeding me regular meals I was still light enough to take my chances.
Three jumps and a few hard scrambles later I crouched beneath a wide eve, staring across the street at the outline of the Rose and Rum looming up out of the street fog in front of me and wondering for the hundredth time why I’d even come at all. The Daughters of Vesta sweeping me up off the streets was the kind of luck you didn’t get twice in your life. Each cloister kept one orphan to raise and teach in honor of their goddess, the Celestial Teacher. One orphan in a city littered with countless thousands, and they’d picked me. I’d put all of that at risk by sneaking over the walls after curfew, but as soon as I’d unrolled Garris’ letter I knew I had no choice.
He’d said please.
We’d come through scrapes together, cut purses, outrun thugs, and huddled for warmth like sparrows in a blizzard through the worst of Byzantia’s winters, but through it all I’d never heard Garris say please to anyone. Not ever.
Garris and I were the last of our old orphan crew. Peaksy had been crushed when the wall he slept beneath in winter had collapsed. Momo got her hand lopped for stealing bread and didn’t last the winter, and B Boy had just disappeared. Garris and I stayed breathing because we were quick enough, stubborn enough, or just lucky enough to keep dancing out of Magren’s chill grasp whenever she reached for us. It was a shit life, but we fought to keep on living it, and watching each other’s backs had made the fight a little easier.
Until I left. I hadn’t even had time to find him and say goodbye. In truth I don’t know what I would have said, but whatever words I might have found were five years gone now. But he’d known where to send his letter, and I guess that meant he’d cared enough to look until he found out what happened to me. That made my guts twist. Had he made his way to the cloister searching for me? Stood outside the high walls, caught a whiff of baking bread or the chorus of birdsong from the garden, and realized that I’d left him for good? There we no words to make up birdsong from the garden, and realized that I’d left him for good? There we no words to make up for something like that, and then to top it all off the bastard had to go and say please.
So yeah, I’d come to help him, and I’d have done it even if I had to brain Mother Shanti herself with one of her precious books to get out the door.
The streets were quiet. It was too late for the drunks, too early for the hookers, and the cold fog that clung to the eaves kept even the beggars tucked up tight for now. In short, it was perfect time for some skulking, but I still hesitated, hating to leave the shelter of the shadows that were far safer than the warm lamplight that beckoned from the windows of the huge building across the way.
Even in a place like the Dead End, the Rose and Rum had developed an unsavory reputation. Oh, you’d never know from looking at it. It was one of the biggest and shiniest buildings in the sprawl, three full stories spread over most of a block. It had just been a lone tavern once, but the various owners had borrowed, beaten, and blackmailed their way into buying up the neighboring buildings. Each new one they bought was connected to the others with carpeted walkways and private courtyards, until they’d carved out their own private kingdom of cheap silks and bad perfume. All that buying and building wasn’t funded by the watery ale they still sold in the tavern that served as the front entrance and fooled no one. The back rooms were where they ground desperation and poor choices into gold.
Gambling halls, drug dens, brothels and more could all be found in the Rose and Rum if your coin was good and you knew which door to knock on. I’d heard once that they had a room where you could beat a man bloody for just two silver, three if you wanted to rent a club. The place had more guards on call than a city watch barracks, and no shortage of willing hands ready to take the place of those who ended up on the wrong end of an angry patron’s dagger.
Working at the Rose and Rum was as close to golden as you could get if you didn’t mind staining your soul every day before lunch. Dealers with quick hands to cheat the drunks, bouncers with heavy hands to keep everything in line, and fetchers with cold hearts to collect on debts and drag in fresh bodies for the patrons’ various pleasures.
Kids were in high demand, boys especially, hence the name we all knew it by. Every Dead End rat learned the score before they learned to walk or steal: stay away from the Rosy Bum unless you feel like having one. I had no idea what kind of stupid had landed Garris inside after all these years, but it didn’t really matter. I was going to get him out, and I’d brought a small pouch of silvers I’d swiped from the alms box to set him up on the far side of town once I did. It was all five years too late, but late was better than never.
But none of that would have mattered much if I got nicked like Garris before I found him, and that meant focusing on the job at hand. I flexed my fingers to drive some warmth back into them, and got back to planning my approach. I’d spotted the window Garris had written about straight off, a narrow frame that stood a gods’ awful height above the ground with a strip of white cloth hanging limp from its open shutter.
“Why couldn’t you have left the cellar unlocked instead?” I grumbled to the empty air. Then I shimmied to the edge of the roof, flipped out to hang by my fingers for a moment, and dropped the rest of the way to land with a soft squelch in the muddy street below. I scurried across the empty space, crouched low and tensed to bolt the other way at the first sign of trouble. I reached my destination without incident, a small alley that had been converted into a receiving dock for kitchen stores. Sure enough, the empty crates I’d spotted stacked against the wall got me onto the roof easily enough.
It got harder from there. I picked my way up the second story wall, moving from window to window as I tried not to look down. The chill night air had my fingers aching before I’d made it half way, but I gritted my teeth and dug them in harder as I kept on climbing.
The last bit was the worst. The attic window was set in a small turret that stood out from the wall somewhat, which meant that the only way to reach it was to throw myself out and up and hope for the best. I clung to the wall for a moment, my mind refusing to let go of my relatively safe perch, but my muscles were wearing thinner by the minute. My only two choices were to leap or leave, which meant I only really had one choice in the end. I took a deep breath, then kicked up off the wall as hard as I could.
I got up around the edge of the alcove and caught hold of the window sill. Then my fingers slipped on the damp wood. I scrambled against the wall with everything I had left in a sudden burst of panic, then rolled over the sill and landed inside in heap.
I just lay there gasping for a moment, appreciating the feeling of a solid floor beneath me like I never had before. Once the hammer thud of my racing heartbeat had calmed down a bit I pushed myself up onto my feet and looked around. The room was pitch black so I really couldn’t see much, but it seemed to be full of boxes and crates for the most part. I was about to head towards the door on the far side of the room when something caught me up short. Wasn’t sure what, exactly, but something felt off. I closed my eyes and listened.
A floorboard creaked in the corner of the room. A faint breeze blew across the open window. No, not a breeze. Too regular. Breathing.
I dove for the window, but a pair of rough hands caught my shoulders and dragged me to the floor before I’d taken half a step.
“Lights, please,” said a woman’s voice. I heard the snap of flint on steel, then the room was lit with the warm glow of half a dozen lanterns, each one held by a man who looked like he knew his business. The two who held me down made eight, which seemed like a lot of trouble to go through for one girl. Under different circumstances I might have been flattered.
The woman who’d spoken sat in a high backed chair that had clearly been brought to the room for the occasion. Her hair was blacker than night and fell down around her shoulders in thick waves. She wore a simple dress of white and emerald green linen, but the silver torc around her neck and the gemstones that flashed on her fingers said that she could have worn ten layers of silk if she’d wanted to. She appeared young at first glance, but the faint powdered tracks of concealed wrinkles along her eyes and at the corners of her mouth told me she was further along in the war with time than she liked to admit.
She was smiling at me, the warm kind of smile usually reserved for old friends, but her eyes left me cold. They were the same shade of green as her dress, lit with a will of iron and the wit to back it up. Mother Shanti once told me that people respond in three ways when confronted with the darkness in the world. Some fight to overcome it, some are swept away by it, and some reach out to claim it as their own. Somehow I knew that those eyes had seen their fair share of cruelty and pain, and had long since learned to look on without flinching.
“Let’s have a look at you.” She twitched a slender finger and her two brutes hauled me to my feet. I scanned the room. Too many bodies between me and the door, and now that I’d had two seconds to think about it I realized that diving out of a window into fifty feet of nothing didn’t seem like such a great idea. They’d planned this well, which meant they’d known I was coming. But how?
Then Garris stepped out from behind a stack of crates and moved to stand beside the woman. His face was as blank as a statue, he wouldn’t look at me, and my heart was suddenly squeezed tight as all the pieces resolved into an answer.
“Well done, Garris,” the woman said without taking her eyes off of me. “I must admit I doubted that a simple letter would bring your friend all the way across the city, yet here she stands.”
“I told you I could get it done, Basila. When I promise something, I make good on it.”
He’d grown. Same square jaw traced with the scar he’d taken in a scrap with some alley bashers. Same mud brown hair that he couldn’t be bothered to cut until it grew down into his eyes. But he was nearly as tall as the other men in the room now. His chest and shoulders had gone from wiry to brawny, and his cheeks were covered in a shadow of stubble. He finally looked up and met my gaze, and the anger I saw in his eyes took my breath away.
“She’s been living in that pretty palace for years now. Must know where all the best bits are kept, and she’ll know how to get your boys inside quick and quiet.”
“Oh don’t be daft, boy. The Daughters of Vesta are far too dangerous to antagonize.”
My ears twitched at that one. No one in the world knew more useless facts than Mother Shanti, but I wouldn’t have called her dangerous unless you were worried about her tanning your hide for speaking out of turn or putting you to sleep with a lecture on the medicinal properties of salvinis gentilia and its sub-species.
“A girl her age is far more valuable than a sack full of candlesticks. Especially if she can read and write.” She turned back to me with sudden interest. “You can read and write, can’t you?”
I scowled, but held my tongue. I’d have sooner stripped naked and danced a flancero than help her take an inventory of my valuable qualities, but one thing the Daughters had managed to teach me over the past few years is that the momentary satisfaction of running my mouth was rarely worth the trouble that followed after.
“Of course you can, dear thing,” she said with a pretty laugh at her own foolishness. “The great Vesta would accept nothing less. And lucky it is for me, no?” She actually winked at me, clearly enjoying herself.
Garris frowned. “But I thought–“
Basila stopped him in mid sentence with a wag of her finger. “Rule number one for my employees, dear boy. No thinking.” Her voice was light and playful, but her eyes made the warning crystal clear. “Now, take our guest down to see Anja. I’ll be along once she’s cleaned up.”
Garris hesitated for a moment, his frown turning into a full on scowl as his thoughts caught up with the sudden change. He looked at me, I mean really looked at me for the first time since he’d stepped out from behind the crates, then turned back to Basila with his mouth open to argue. She didn’t say a word, just arched one slender eyebrow as she stared back at him, but it was enough to freeze whatever protest he’d been about to offer in his throat. He swallowed, nodded, and turned towards the door.
The thugs at my back pushed me forward to follow him, their hands tight on my shoulders. I didn’t fight them. No point in wasting my energy on a useless display of protest. Better to let them think I was beaten and scared for now, so they’d let down their guard by the time I found a better chance to bolt.
That’s what I told myself as they marched me out the door and down a narrow staircase that lead into a large hallway. The truth was that beaten and scared was all I had left in me just then. Garris marched stiff-backed and stubborn in front of me, taking left and rights as they came until I’d lost all sense of orientation. I was in the guts of the Rose and Rum now, and every step we took left my freedom that much further behind me.
“This is you.”
Garris pushed open a door and waved the two goons off as he waited for me to walk through it. They headed back down the hallway, obviously happy to be gone. I just glared at him until I saw a spot of red rise to his cheeks.
“It’s not so bad, V. They feed the girls regular and the rooms are warm in winter.” He scuffed the toe of his boot against the door jam as though removing the spot of mud that clung to it was suddenly the most important thing in the world. “Even pass out some coin sometimes.”
“After you, then, if it’s such a lark.” I waved him through the door. He scowled, but didn’t have an answer. We stood in tense silence for a moment, Garris waiting for me to step inside quietly and me refusing to make it that easy for him.
“What changed, Garris?” I finally asked. It wasn’t that long ago that he would’ve cut off his own hand before setting foot in this place. He sighed and finally looked up at me again.
“I got tired of starving.”
“So you decided a full plate was worth selling out a friend, eh?”
“Yep,” he said without blinking. “I learned that one from you.”
It would have been better if he’d punched me in the gut himself. I started to say that it wasn’t the same thing at all, but the words died on my tongue. Was he right? I’d jumped at the chance for something better and left him behind to do it.
“Ok, the Daughters offered me a home and I took it,” I said as I fought to hold back the tears that had started stinging at my eyes. “But at least I didn’t take a torch to your life on the way out the door.”
“You don’t know shit about my life,” he snapped, “because you never bothered to come back and ask. It’s been five years of hell for me while you’ve been sitting sweet and cozy. Now it’s my turn.”
“How nice for you. You gonna come buy time with me when you get your first wages?”
He jolted back, his eyes going wide at the thought.
“That’s not…” he clenched his teeth as if he’d just bit down on something rotten. “I didn’t mean for it to go this way. I told Basila I knew a way into the temple. Told her I could get you here so she could force you to sneak some of her boys inside for a payday, that’s all.” His shoulders slumped and he slowly shook his head as some of the fight drained out of him. “She never said nothing about keeping you here.”
“A slum lord went back on her word, and you’re surprised?”
He just shrugged. Garris never had been the best at thinking things through, but he’d never needed to be. He’d had me. Garris had always been the toughest of our gang. He was the biggest on our street, so the other kids listened to him or steered clear of him. I’d always thought he ran with me cause he liked having someone to look out for, or just wanted someone smaller at his back that he didn’t have to keep one eye on all the time. After I left I talked myself into believing that he’d be better off without my dead weight slowing him down. Now I was starting to see just how wrong I’d been.
I reached out and rested a hand on his shoulder. “So, what are we going to do about it?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, suddenly wary, but he didn’t brush my hand away.
“You know the way out of here,” I answered, keeping my voice low. “Why don’t we just walk?”
He thought about it, really stopped and thought about what I’d just said while my heart hammered in my chest and I fought to keep my breathing steady.
Then he shook his head and took a step away from me.
“Sorry, V. You’d have walls to hide behind, but I’d have a knife between my ribs before sunrise. I got no choice.”
My heart cracked down the middle, but I kept my face cold.
“We always have a choice, Garris. Own it or run from it, but we always have a choice.”
He blinked twice, then nodded. “You’re right, and this is mine.” He reached out and pushed me through the door. The hinges squeaked as he started to push it shut behind me.
“Wait.” I fished around in my waistband, pulled out the pouch of coins I’d brought along, and pressed it into his hands.
“Brought this to help get you set up once I’d gotten you out of here. I’d rather give it to you than your new boss.”
His hands trembled slightly as he stared down at the pouch.
“V, I…” his words choked off, then he scrambled to shut the door as though Magren herself was trying to get through it. I heard the echo of his boots as he half-ran down the hallway, until even that faded into silence.
I took a deep breath and turned to find out what was waiting for me. The room itself was warm and steamy, which I soon realized was due to the large wooden tubs of warm water stood atop stone hearths that lined the walls. I counted six, and each one could have held a grown horse with room left over. The rest of the room was given over to tables piled high with linens and clothes, some crumpled and stained, others folded in neat rows.
Just as I was beginning to wonder if Basila actually planned on turning me into a full time laundry slave, one of the largest women I had ever seen pushed open another door and walked into the room. Scratch that, she was one of the largest people I had ever seen, breasts or no. She easily cleared six feet, and her face was hidden behind a pile of soiled laundry bigger than me piled high in her arms. She dropped the pile onto an empty table with a huff, then wiped her brow with the back of her hand. With the laundry out of the way I saw that she boasted the pale blonde hair and ice blue eyes of the northern Skandi tribes. She wore her hair in two tight braids that framed a face dominated by a large beaked nose and set with a jawline hard enough to cut granite. I guessed that this was the “Anja” that Basila had mentioned earlier.
“Cernos’ frosted ballsack!” She snapped as she finally noticed me. “Does Basila want me running laundry room or bathhouse? I can no do both together.”
She spoke Byzantian as though she were chewing up rocks, but her words carried the confidence of long use, so I gathered she must have lived here in the city for some time. I just shrugged, since she didn’t seem to really expect an answer.
“Come along, then,” she sighed as she pointed to the nearest tub. I didn’t move. She narrowed her eyes and stomped over to stand in front of me, glaring down like one of the mountain trolls from one of Sister Gisella’s old stories.
“You climb in yourself, or I throw you in. Choose.”
I slipped out of my tunic and jumped in the tub before my clothes had hit the floor. Despite her size I got the feeling she could move fast when she wanted to, and I had no desire to add a partial drowning to the list of things that had turned today into a royal shitfest. She came at me with a bar of soap and got to scrubbing, her hands firm but surprisingly gentle. The Daughters had insisted on a weekly bath when they first took me in, but even Mother Shanti began to overlook them after I’d made sure that my torturers left the bath house soaked wetter then me a few dozen times. They could lecture me about the invisible ills that cling to our skin all they wanted, but every sane person knows that water is Magren’s world. No sense in attracting her chill gaze any more than was necessary.
Still, this particular bath wasn’t half bad. It helped that the water was kept comfortably warm by the hearthfire beneath the tub, instead of the ice cold torture buckets that the Daughters carried from the temple well. Soon enough the water swirled with all the dirt and grit that I’d collected in my adventures around the temple grounds, and she hauled me out to stand naked and shivering while she dried me off with a spare bedsheet.
“No,” she said as I went to retrieve my tunic. She dug through a stack of folded clothes, then pulled out a bundle and shoved them into my hands. “You wear these.”
They were some of the strangest clothes I’d ever seen. A pair of long trousers, a shirt with sleeves down to the wrist, and a vest lined with wool, of all things. I knew I’d melt into a puddle within ten minutes of sunrise in them, but I didn’t think that protesting would do me any good. I sighed, dressed, and immediately started sweating in the steamy heat of the laundry room. Anja reached out and tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear as she surveyed me with a critical eye, then nodded in satisfaction.
“Better,” she said with a satisfied nod, then turned and marched out the door she’d used earlier without another word, pulling it shut behind her.
I stood alone in the silent room; damp, exhausted, and more thoroughly miserable than I had felt in years. I hadn’t cried since I was ten, but I was seriously considering giving it a go when the door behind me swung open and Basila swept into the room. She was flanked by one of the guards who’d marched me here earlier, this time armed with a dagger and short sword strapped to his waist. Garris walked in behind her, looking nearly as miserable as I felt.
“Excellent, you’re all ready to go,” she said with a smile, sounding as though she was sending me off on a summer picnic.
“Don’t suppose you’d care to tell me where I’m going, exactly?”
“But of course. You’re going on an adventure to rival any of the stories that Vesta’s Daughters have stuffed into your head, that’s for certain.”
I frowned, confused. How could she know what the Daughters had or hadn’t told me? My thoughts must have been plain on my face. Basila walked up and brushed her fingers across my cheek with a sad sigh.
“Poor dear. I’m doing you a favor, you know. I doubt you’ll see it that way for a time, but it’s the gods’ own truth. At your age I’m surprised Mother Shanti hasn’t shoved you out the door already, but even if I let you go right now it wouldn’t be long before you found yourself out on the street with nowhere to go and nothing but your own wits to save you.”
She barked a small, bitter laugh as my eyes went wide.
“Surprised? You’re not the first urchin that hag has taught and sheltered until she tired of them, and you won’t be the last.”
“You lived with the Daughters, too,” I whispered as understanding dawned.
She nodded, a faraway look in her eyes. “For a time. Sometimes I wonder if it was just a dream I had once. It certainly felt like one, until I woke up one morning to find it gone.”
She blinked, and her gaze snapped back to the present. “Your pretty little dream would have ended toom even if you hadn’t come here. The hell you went through just to survive then would be nothing compared to what I’m sending you to, believe me. Thankfully, my contact in Farshore is offering good coin for young girls, double if they’re healthy, and an emperor’s ransom if they’re educated. Seems there’s no shortage of cold beds on the far side of the world.”
My head swam as it caught up with what she was saying. I’d heard stories of the emperor’s colony across the waves, and all of them were bad. A land of cold winters, death, and, according to the sailors who worked the ships that made the crossing, filled with terrible monsters right out of the myths. I didn’t believe the tales of lurking horrors and mythical creatures for a minute, but the realization that she meant to send me on a one way trip to grow old and die as some fat merchant’s bedslave turned my knees to water.
“Oh, don’t make such a sour face,” Basila chided. “It might be hard at first, but a new world also means new opportunities. If you have half a brain you’ll make your way there far easier than you would here, that’s for certain. Once you get your feet under you, perhaps you and I can do some business together, eh?” she said with a wink. “No doubt you’ll be running the place in a few years time.”
Then her face grew thoughtful. “Or you’ll be dead. It really depends on you, doesn’t it?”
She turned and hooked a finger at Garris.
“Master Rondan’s ship sails with the morning tide. Take her down to the docks and see her loaded aboard before it does.”
Garris swallowed hard, then motioned for me to follow him. I walked towards him in a daze. My mind kept searching for an escape, fighting like an animal swept up by a flood tide against the rapid flow of events that had caught hold of me. Just a few hours ago I’d climbed out the window of my small room on the second floor of the temple annex that looked over the wall to the market square beyond. For the past five years I’d awoken every morning in my own bed to a day full of lectures, study, and chores. All that time it had seemed like a tedious but relatively small price to pay for a roof in winter and three meals a day. Now that I realized I was about to lose that life forever, I found that I would have given nearly anything to listen to Sister Pechra explain the proper way to calculate sums of four figures and above, or even just scrub the kitchen floor one more time.
My last and final chance for freedom would come as we walked down to the docks. If I watched for an opening and jumped when I saw it I might be able to break away and lose them in the Dead End’s twisting streets and blind alleys. I knew it was a slim chance, but any risk was worth taking when the alternative was as bad as what lay waiting for me at the end of the road.
Then I found myself standing face to face with Garris, and I realized what my escape would mean for him. He’d be dead before I made back to the temple, and I had no doubt that Basila would make him hurt bad before the end. Running back to my safe little home would mean leaving him behind for a second time. I don’t know if some of the Daughter’s teachings about duty and virtue really had managed to sink through my thick skull or whether it just came from just being five years older, but I realized then that even if Basila had held the door open for me herself I couldn’t leave if it meant Garris would pay for it.
As my last hope for freedom slipped away from me, I discovered that the words I couldn’t find five years ago came easily now.
“I’m sorry, Garris.”
He jolted back with a short gasp, his eyes wide, but I pressed on before he could cut me off.
“I’m sorry I left you, and I’m even more sorry I never came back to tell you why. I was scared and tired of fighting to stay one step ahead of Magren’s claws, so when the Daughters offered me a home I took it without a second thought. And I was a coward, so when I woke up sobbing into my pillow from missing you I convinced myself that I’d done the right thing, that you’d be better off without me. But I was wrong. You were like my brother, except better than a brother cause you chose me when you didn’t have to. So I’m sorry, and I don’t blame you for what happens next, ok?”
Water pooled in his eyes and hung from his lashes, but he didn’t even blink.
“I never heard you say you’re sorry before,” he whispered. “Not ever.”
“Well I’ve never been sorry like this before,” I answered, my eyes filling up to match his.
He took a long breath, swiped an arm across his eyes, and when he dropped it back to his side there was cold steel in them like I’d never seen before. He turned to Basila and shook his head.
“Find someone else.”
“Excuse me?” she asked, her voice full of honey while her eyes flashed daggers.
“V is blood to me.” He put a hand on my shoulder and pulled me behind him, squaring his shoulders as he moved to stand between us. “Find another girl for your ship. Hell, I’ll go out and find one myself, but you’re letting her go. Now.”
The amused smile that Basila had worn since I first met her slid off her face, and the naked rage that replaced it sent a chill down my spine.
“Listen, you little shit. You don’t speak to me that way unless you want to start breathing through a hole in your stomach.”
There it was; the sloppy drawl in her words, the animal instinct to bite back before backing down. There was the street rat Basila had once been, and worked so hard to keep hidden now.
She caught hold of herself with a visible effort and smoothed the front her dress with a cheery little laugh as she put her calm and collected mask back in place.
“Oh dear. I usually save this little speech until after I accept someone onto my payroll, but here we find ourselves,” she said with a shrug, then cleared her throat and drew herself up straight.
“I pride myself on being a fair and reasonable employer. I understand that everyone makes mistakes at times, and so I give all of my employees one free pass. You mess up and I forgive you, no questions and no consequences.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“You just used yours up, I’m afraid, but I can respect your reasons. Loyalty is a fine quality, one that will take you far as long as you have the good sense to entrust it to the right person. Now, you will follow my instructions to the letter, and when you return we will discuss your salary, and the bright future ahead of you.”
Garris didn’t move an inch.
“Figured you’d say something like that.”
Then he looked over his shoulder and flashed a smile my way, one of those rare, beautiful, stupid smiles that he only broke out when he was planning to do something especially stupid.
“We always have a choice, right V?”
I realized what he meant to do just one breath before he did it.
He jumped forward, pulled the dagger from the guard’s belt, and slammed it into Basila’s chest.
She didn’t even have time to be surprised. Her body dropped to the floor like a sack of flour in a mill, dead before she got there. Garris turned and shoved me towards the door.
“Run, V! I’ll–” the tip of a sword burst through his chest, cutting off his words in a spray of blood.
He looked down at the sword, then back at me, and his face was calmer than I’d ever seen it before. He clenched his teeth, then threw himself backward, taking the guard to the ground in a tangle of limbs.
“Go, little sis,” he coughed, then his eyes went to glass. I screamed, pain and anger clawing their way up my throat. Then I turned and ran, stumbling blindly through hallways and slamming through doors as I shoved bodies out of my way. I wanted to stop and break things, hurt things, wanted to burn the whole fucking place to the ground until even the doorknobs and hinges were ash.
But the calm and reasonable voice in the back of my head that always kept me alive wouldn’t let me. It reminded me over and over that Garris had just died to get me out of here. Getting myself captured again because I stopped to throw a fit would be the worst sort of betrayal. So I kept running until I finally stumbled into the large hall of the main tavern, then out the front door into the cold air of a Dead End sunrise.
I made the journey back to the temple quarter in record time, hauled myself up the sheet that still hung down from my window and rolled over the sill into my small room. I lay on the floor gulping air, exhausted, heartsick, and soaked from scalp to toe in sweat, but alive. When my body had finally calmed enough I pushed myself to my feet and found Mother Shanti perched on the edge of my bed.
The shock of seeing her hit me like a bucket of cold water to the face. Her weathered face was calm, offering no hint of her thoughts as she studied me. With her white hair pulled back into a tight bun and her large eyes full of secrets the old Vestan had always reminded me of an owl. The kind that haunts old buildings and swoops down to rip mice to pieces before you see her coming. I didn’t speak, just stood in stubborn silence until she finally gave me one last, long look from head to toe and cleared her throat.
“You’ve returned later than I expected, Charity. A busy night of shopping, perhaps?” she asked, pointing at the strange clothing I wore in place of my usual light tunic.
I started laughing. I couldn’t help it, and once I started I couldn’t stop. I laughed until my gut cramped up and squeezed a few tears I didn’t think I had left from my eyes. She twitched an eyebrow towards the ceiling and waited.
“This is…the second…time,” I gasped as I fought to catch hold of myself. I drew in a long breath and held it tight to calm my shaking limbs. Every inch of me was raw inside and out. The image of Garris slumped against the wall, his vacant eyes fixed on nothing at all as blood ran from his mouth, lurked around the edges of my mind. I knew that if I truly faced it now I’d simply scream myself to pieces, so instead I locked my mind’s door as Mother Shanti herself had once taught me, and schooled myself to stillness. The floating, detached calm born of long hours sat in meditation settled over me like a warm blanket, and I welcomed it.
“Sorry,” I said, my voice steady once more. “This is the second time tonight that I climbed through a window only to find someone waiting for me inside.”
“I see,” she nodded. “I take it your outing took a turn for the dangerous?”
I had been so careful. I’d made a point of raising an even bigger fuss over my lessons than usual so as not to arouse suspicion, and waited until even the birds that roosted in the garden trees were sound asleep. I’d truly thought I could slip out and return before even the early-rising Daughters realized I had left, but I realized then how foolish that had been. Mother Shanti knew everything that happened within her temple walls. I was beginning to think she knew more or less everything about what happened outside of them as well.
“Don’t worry, Mother. I’ve learned my lesson this time.”
“Then it is the last one you will learn with us,” she said as she stood to her feet. “Your time with the Daughters of Vesta has come to its end.”
I was grateful for my self-imposed calm just then. I don’t know what her words might have done to me without that armor wrapped around me. I was tempted to ask if she was testing me as she had so many times before, watching to see how I would react. Perhaps she was even attempting a joke for the first time in her long and barren life? But I knew she meant her words, and so I knew that any protest or pleading would only be a pointless waste of breath.
“Did you have to make it sound so easy to say?” She might have at least betrayed some hint of sadness. Even vague disappointment would have been better than the utterly impassive face she wore now.
“What must be is always easy.”
“Of course,” I sighed, too tired to beat my fists against he cold stone of her soul any longer. “So what happens now?”
“You may take as long as you need to gather your belongings.”
I couldn’t hold back a bitter chuckle. “You know perfectly well that I came to you with nothing but the rags on my back and the mud in my hair.”
She raised her gaze to the ceiling for a moment as she considered my words, then nodded.
“Then you shouldn’t need long at all. I will expect you at the gate in five minutes.”
She turned and left the room without waiting for a reply.
I stood in silence. Four walls, ceiling, small cot, chamber pot. They weren’t much, but they’d been mine three heartbeats ago. Now I was a stranger standing in a small, cold cell that would soon belong to someone else. I had no doubt that a mountain of soul crushing pain and despair was waiting for me somewhere in the future, but for now I was too numb to feel anything more. I took one last look around the room, then followed Mother Shanti out the door.
The path from my door to the temple gate was at once familiar and terribly foreign, as though my mind erased each step and turn from memory as I took it. Soon enough I stood on the street outside as the heavy wooden doors swung shut with a crash that echoed in the still morning air.
I looked up at the small, dark window of the gatehouse, knowing that Mother Shanti stood there watching me even though I couldn’t see her. Anger began to build, rising like a fire from the earth to set my knees trembling and my gut boiling. I wanted to scream, to throw stones and curses until I foamed at the mouth and collapsed senseless in the street. If I’m honest, I wanted to beat my fists bloody on the unyielding gate, sobbing and pleading and promising to be better until she relented and took me back again.
But those were all V’s thoughts, the animal panic of the starving, desperate orphan that had once thought the temple beyond those walls a finer palace than the emperor’s own home. The memory of the day I rolled through the huddled in the back of a wagon swept over me, and I found myself watching the half-wild thing I had been as if I were meeting a stranger for the first time. She was so small. Small, angry, and most of all, far more helpless than she could even see, with so much of the wide world existing out beyond her limited understanding.
As the memory faded and I turned my thoughts back to the present I realized that V was gone forever now. I had become someone else. My hands might have been empty, but I realized in that moment that I was not leaving the Daughters of Vesta with nothing. They had given me a name. Not just a name, but an education and the power that knowing more about the world than the man standing next to you afforded, and by all the uncaring gods I was taking it all with me.
Charity. I’d hated the sound of it from the beginning, but now I held before me like a shield. Charity was quick and clever. Charity could read and write. She could reason, plan, and out think anything Byzantia cared to throw at her. She…I could survive. No, I could do more than that. I could take the tools the Daughters had given me and use them to shape a life of my own.
I took in a deep, steady breath, then offered Mother Shanti Vesta’s sign as a final farewell. I touched three fingers to my forehead — wisdom, curiosity, and temperance to guard and guide me — bowed from the waist, then turned and walked towards the city’s heart without a backward glance.
Sister Gizella ran up the gatehouse steps two at a time, her breath burning in her lungs. She reached the top and burst into the watch room only to find Mother Shanti already standing alone at the window.
“Day’s greetings, Mother,” Gizella gasped, fighting to control her breath and conceal her surprise as she braced for a sharp rebuke. None came. The ancient sage didn’t even turn toward her. Instead she took a half-step to the side to offer the younger woman a place beside her. Gizella moved to the window and looked through it just in time to see a small figure disappear into the last stubborn shadows of the early dawn. As the silence stretched long around them, Gizella was forced to accept that the rumor she’d heard whispered in the refectory hall was all too true.
“She is gone, then.”
Mother Shanti nodded.
“Could you not have let us say goodbye?”
Only a decade of study and training enabled her to keep the anger and resentment that swelled within her out of her voice, instead phrasing her words as a neutral question.
“Would it have made today easier for you?” Mother Shanti asked, meeting the question with one of her own, as always. Gizella thought for a moment, then shook her head.
“What must be is always easy,” the Mother intoned, but her voice shook with a note of uncertainty that rang in Gizella’s ears like a gong. She had never heard the Mother betray emotion like that before, and it left her deeply uneasy. Unsure of what to say in reply, Gizella stood in uncomfortable silence. Finally, Mother Shanti gave her head a quick shake, then waved for Gizella to follow as she turned towards the door.
“Tomorrow we go in search of our next ward,” she said as she began to descend the stairs.
“We will never find another like Charity.”
Gizella was surprised by the strength of the conviction in her own words, but she realized their truth as she spoke them. The girl had been a prodigy. None of the orphans Gizella had taught had ever mastered their lessons so quickly, or proven themselves so capable across such a range of subjects. But it was the fire in the girl’s heart that had truly set her apart. Charity had always been ready with a question, ever testing and unraveling until she forced her tutors to spend secret hours in study before each lesson if they wished to remain one step ahead of her.
“And I doubt we ever will again,” Mother Shanti replied, echoing the Sister’s own thoughts. Gizella almost missed a step as the implication of her mentor’s words struck home.
“You think she is the Nexus?”
Mother Shanti didn’t answer her as they proceeded down the last of the stairs and out into the courtyard. Just as Gizella began to think she never would the old woman sighed and shook her head, looking more tired in that small gesture than the Sister could ever remember seeing.
“I don’t know. I only know that the signs long foretold have begun to manifest. Magren stirs in the cold dark, and we are not prepared.”
She turned her head towards the sky and studied it as though Vesta herself might part the clouds and descend with scrolls of revelation in her hands.
“I do not know what to think, but my heart tells me our Charity came to us for a reason even as her path now leads her far from these walls. We have done all we can to prepare her. Now all we can do is to wait, and pray that it is enough to carry her through the storm that awaits her.”