Raydorn: The War in the Black (Chapter 8)

“They say revenge is a dish best served cold, because that is the only way it is cooked. It’s not supposed to be enjoyed by mortals, only the divine.”

Madame Afua, 448 A.C.A.


“If I had a crown for every time someone said they had a plan and actually did, I’d have five crowns,” Andy told Malum, as they trotted up the desert hill.

“That’s not that bad,” Malum said, nodding his head.”

“No, not bad at all,” Andy agreed, “but my point stands, going to Artis for information may barely be a plan, but fuck all, it’s good enough. We can’t just rely on the Icee for food, it took a week before we needed to start rationing.”

“But don’t you think we should operate on something better than, ‘good enough?’”

Andy let out a short laugh, and she would have laughed longer if she weren’t so parched. The sun beat down on them like a cruel and abusive mother. These desert sands covered the northern edge of Seca, the continent across the sea from Gronina and its war.

The sands were hilly where they walked. They had beached their boat down the way from Artis so it would not be seen by any ships in the city’s port. While none of the surviving Black Legion could be sure which country had taken control of Artis yet, all three countries wanted them dead.

Malum,” Andy spoke his name like a question, and with a stare. Under her eye, he made a big huff and looked up to the sky, as if to sigh under that mask.

Andy snapped her fingers and assumed that his eyes looked at her when his head did not move. “Malum, right here, right now, we have no money, next to no food, barely any men, and no purpose. I don’t think you realize how lucky we are to have anything that’s ‘good enough.’”

“Hmm,” Malum muttered, which only made Andy roll her eyes as he took his final steps to the top of the hill.

Andy trotted to follow him and took in the sight with him.

Andy has been to several cities in her young life. She’s been to the capital city of Raydorn and seen its castle spire that stood half a mountain. She’s seen the spires of Sicaron, the capital of Susanna, that indeed did touch the clouds.

She’s seen the technological marvels that give power and light to Susannans across their city, and the metal architecture of Raydorn that imitated the gods so well that men wouldn’t question it.

But now, as she returns to Artis, she finds a city altogether unlike anything else in the world.

“Told you it was a city of garbage,” Andy joked.

Artis was more a moving port than a city. Everything from the shacks to the docks was made of reused sheet metals and rollable logs that trade brought in. Completely reusable, yet utterly wasteful; it’s made of materials other countries believed weren’t worth keeping.

But this was at least to its favor. Because it was made from barely standing rope ties, tightly tethered logs, and bendable sheet metal, it could be taken apart and moved up and down the coast. In a time of war between the homelands of Artis’s most common traders, the ability to run away was more than necessary.

“Does… does Seca not have any… real cities?” Malum asked Andy.

“To my knowledge, there is a kingdom to the southwest I think. Sosusa, it’s called, and they don’t let outsiders like us in, and I mean… I get it…” Andy and Malum turned from each other to look at Artis again, and take in a city smaller than the arena of their doom. “Looks like we just have to settle.”

“Well, isn’t being just ‘good enough’ what settling is all about,” Malum sighed.

“That’s the spirit!” Andy beamed. “From here though, I think we should split up, you do what you do best, be a creep and listen in on people who pretend you’re not there, and I talk to the people who always know the most in towns like this.”

Malum tilted his head as Andy started to walk on. 

Is he coming or what? Andy thought to herself.

“You know where an information broker would be?” Malum asked her.

Before she could answer, Malum was at her side. Andy’s face was already red, and her fingers twitching as it fought to stay overly straight. 

Mind your own business, Malum.

“Are you seriously planning to go to a brothel right now?” Malum questioned her.

Of course, he wouldn’t. 

Andy couldn’t help but get red in the face. Not even the scorching heat of the desert hid her flustered guilt either. Even if she weren’t so pale, she would still have been a shade shy of an apple. 

My paleness betrays me yet again.

“It’s not what you think,” Andy said, only to face Malum’s crossed arms.

“What is it that I think?”

“That I’m addicted to putting my face between the thighs of lovely women, and that I can’t hear what they say when I do that. I’m here to tell you, you’re wrong… I can hear very well, they have very interesting things to say about evil men when you pay them… and do very skilled things with your tongue.”

“Are you trying to nauseate me?”

Andy squinted at him in confusion. “Did you not go down on your wife?”

“What? Of course, I did, why would you say that?”

“Then why would it gross you out?” 

“I don’t wanna picture you doing anything other than getting us some kind of job, or even a heist we can do. Or did you forget we’re fugitives with no money or food? I distinctly remember a fake brunette saying something like that.”

Andy’s squint turned from one of confusion to one of anger. “Listen to me, widower, where’s better to get information from? It’s the one place of business everyone goes to, a place run and kept by people men constantly underestimate, no matter what country they’re from. Plus, it’s the only place I know where they definitely speak Rayne. My tribal is shit.” 

Malum groaned as his finger went to the bridge of his mask’s nose.

“You can’t pinch your nose if you’re wearing-”

“I’m well aware of what I can’t do to ease my pain,” Malum complained, his groans getting louder. 

I honestly don’t know what he expected from me.

Malum gestured to her to listen for a moment, “Just… just so you know, it’s actually Secan, they don’t like to be called tribal since they’re not all in tribes. You’re the one who told me there was a country here, less than a minute ago.”

“Oh, uh, yeah, thanks for the correction.” Andy then went to start walking down the hill, until Malum stuck his hand before her face.

Also, if you’re just going for information, there’s no reason for you to take our gold with you.” 

Andy’s brow narrowed in confusion until she heard the clinking sound of gold coins and saw the brown pouch swinging in Malum’s hand. 

This little pickpocketing shit.

Andy immediately reached for it, “That’s not our gold,” but Malum, being half a foot taller, raised it out of her reach. She made fists in her hands and took a deep breath to keep from breaking that mask of his. “I’ll say it one more time, that’s my gold that I was paid as a mercenary.” 

Andy watched Malum bring it under his cloak to his belt. “And now we need it, thank you for your donation.” 

Andy let out a little chuckle that she obviously didn’t mean.

This little shit, really thinks he’s tough shit. Who is he tell me what I should give to the Legion? One I bet I’ve served in longer than he’s had that sword!

“Don’t make me take it from you, Malum,” she threatened, her first and only warning that she’ll give him.

Andy’s beyond familiar with being underestimated, not simply over her sex but over her profession. The world is a rude and obnoxious place, full of people, friends, and foes with privileges she didn’t have.

She was willing to give Malum the benefit of the doubt that it was his faith in his own fighting ability that allows him to ignore her threat. What she was not willing to do, was be one of those people the detrimentally pacifistic called, ‘the bigger man.’

“Andy,” Malum said, “I respect your skills as a medic, but I’m an-” 

The first thing Andy did was move her hand far faster than he thought she could, placing her hand on the hilt of his sword. That stunned him pretty well.

Then she punched him in one of his many healing wounds, so he was physically stunned to go along with the mental shock she dealt him.

Malum surely felt the wind move against his chest as her hands made several motions he couldn’t see, nor was he fast enough to react before he was thrown over her shoulder and down the hill.

The moment he started rolling, he lost the ability to stop and would not until he reached the bottom. He learned that the sands hid more than bodies, but rocks and stones too. Ones that would beat him down, worsen his wounds, and sap him of the strength to right himself.

Andy had started walking down the hill as she watched him roll, tossing her bag of coin up and down in her hand. 

Everything feels like it’s all there, she thought, more focused on making sure Malum didn’t take any of her crowns than how she may have injured him.

Malum was on his stomach after he stopped rolling, and he laid there for a moment. He could feel a bit of blood oozing from his stomach where he was punched, which made him tilt his head. 

Remember who stitched you up?

Malum looked up and watched Andy as she stopped and stood in front of him. He did not get up to meet her. 

“Now Mal,” Andy spoke down to him, “I respect your skills as an assassin, but I’m a medic, basically, I’ve been your doctor for years. I know your body probably as well as the woman who made you a widower.” 

“What?” Malum muttered as he struggled to push himself to his feet, “My wife, she’s not- ack!” the tearing of his stitches made him go much slower.

Andy crouched down in front of him, showing him the sack of her coin. Then she leans over, reaching her hand inside of his cloak, and presses two fingers right on his ribcage. “I know where certain wounds never truly healed,” she continued to taunt as she squeezed and his whole body tensed, “where it would be easy to apply pressure to cause you pain, or even cripple you again…” 

Andy, being careful but not particularly slow, removed her hand, and took a stray coin from inside his cloak, getting the rest of her money back. “So I don’t have to patch you up again, how about we leave people and their money alone, and you know, stop being turds.” 

Andy stood back to her feet, looking down at the assassin who made no move against her again. “I’ll go to the brothel, and you talk about the port. We’ll find recruits, work, food, something I’m sure. I have faith in you.” 

Then the medic turned, and made to leave, whipping her cloak to throw some sand into his mask. 

I enjoyed that a little too much.

Andy didn’t turn back to watch Malum struggle to sit up, nor to make sure he was alright. She felt this surge of confidence since she had both aptly disabled him and left him capable of murdering anyone who bothered him.

And as Andy walked into Artis, she could imagine quite a few people bothering him.

Despite being directly under the sun, with no natural shade for miles, the light barely hit the ground. The city’s current location was picked for a reason. It was deep in the ground, letting the buildings build themselves on top of one and another. It was purposely deceptive to hide just how deep light had to travel to find any home there.

Andy walked on a downward slope as the buildings around her looked intricately designed in their placement, yet like detritus in terms of aesthetic. 

As she walked deeper, past people of Quintus’s dark skin, she learned that there were establishments not made of scrap. There were a few buildings of wood and clay, lit by crystals, lights, and oil lamps. Trade from Gronina had been good to several key establishments, so good, that they could abandon a completely crafted modern building to the sands should Artis need a new home.

If only I could make this kind of bank.

Artis stood as a dark ending, the capital of capitalism on the continent and the next moreover. Its place in Seca worked only to make it the more humorous of oxymorons.

But, Artis was, and for as long as it stood, like all cities in one regard. 

A place where tourists needed directions.

Andy hid her coin under her cloak, not because no one would know she had it, but so none could conceivably steal it as it forever sat in her grasp. Gotta treat this place like any city. Just because everybody in this city has something better to do, doesn’t mean there aren’t just as many pickpockets.

She was careful to remove two coins from her sack and offered them to the closest of the would-be thieves following her.

The children mostly ran, save for one who had the proper sight to see the coin in her hand. She waited and reached out for it.

Just before she could touch it, Andy pulled back the coin, drawing a fervent glare from the girl. Andy coughed into her hand as she thought about what she wanted to say in the little she knew of Artis’s dialect of the Secan language. 

She meant to say, “I’m just teasing you, I promise you these two coins if you can point me towards the closest brothel.”

In reality, it was more like, “<Can you… slow me a place… where… men and women…> uh…?”

The girl made a circle with one hand, and then put her other finger through it.

Oh god, this is humiliating.

It took everything in Andy’s power not to gag and curl into a fetal position. She barely nodded her head.

The girl nodded in turn and reached for the coin, which Andy took back again. “<One now,>” she spoke, performing better with fewer words, “<more later.>”

The girl rolled her eyes but seemed to understand, as she held out her hand for the first coin.

Andy dropped one into her palm and noticed that this girl was not dressed in rags. She wasn’t clean, though what group of children were. Her clothes had holes, but they were about as holey as any kid with friends should be. 

Andelyn was far from a native, but she knew this girl was no poor orphan as she took Andy’s hand. I’ve never seen an orphan with hair brushed and cleaned so well.

Andy found herself trying to strike her biases and pre-sculpted opinions as this child led her through Artis. The legionnaire did not fail to notice how everyone seemed to be even a foot farther from her. It was as if someone had come in and moved everything in the room a bit farther from the door.

The children aren’t bothered here. If only the same could be said back home. Here’s hoping they don’t jump me later, thinking I’m some creep. 

As the child led Andelyn deeper down into Artis, she began to wonder if she was about to be led into a trap. 

You know, that probably should have been my first thought.

The ironic part of going deeper into Artis was that she began to see less of it. She was a visitor whose eyes had not adjusted to the dark and artificial lights that the residents were accustomed to. Instead, Andelyn found herself walking in the dark, at the mercy of a child and the child’s grip on her hand. Should this child suddenly decide that she did not care enough for the coin, or that she would have better luck stealing it, what would Andy do?

I mean, I guess I could swat the kid, but I feel like that would see me beaten by a mob pretty quick, understandably. Andy thought of the look on the faces of the men and women who watched them move through their city. They didn’t seem to care much for each other, nor for the things they do or allow to trade through their city. But they cared for the children.

Artis, a child sanctuary, how ironic that it’s also the biggest slave port in Seca.

When the child stopped, she had the foresight to step out of the way, letting Andy nearly trip over herself rather than the child and her small height.

Andy stopped and looked up at the place, with words in these amazing colors that she couldn’t understand. Although she couldn’t read the dialect of a language she half understood spoken, Andy knew she was in the right place. There was this sense of knowing that filled her to the brim, and she had no thought of questioning it.

“Here’s an extra bit for the road,” Andy muttered as she handed the child at least two more crowns than she promised.

The girl smirked and chuckled like a goblin as she ran away.

Andy looked around to find her but she was gone. 

I could take that as a warning and not go in… but there’s a chance of putting my life back together here… and kissing girls but mostly putting my life and the Black Legion back together… do I value my life and safety? 

Over kissing what should be very pretty girls? 

Andy took her hood down and walked in, her hand still on her gold under her cloak. It took less than a second to know that she had walked into the right place.

There weren’t just men and women hanging around without clothes of any kind like a pubescent boy’s fantasy. This was a business, with guards, clerks, and teases of the service they sold. 

There were many rooms blocked off to the lobby by curtains, and Andy could hear the sounds of who awaited a customer. Then there was the smell, that nearly had Andy smirking. The mixture of perfume and cologne staled the air but couldn’t hide everything.

Andy pressed her hand to her face and had to remind herself. Did Mother not teach you of self-control? Did Father not give you enough examples of why you need it? Did Stacia not give you a hundred examples of how you should behave and think?

Surely, dear little sister had impure thoughts. Don’t punish yourself, she reminded herself, just focus, you do have a good reason to come here. You do have more than a buzz and a high to chase.

Andy laughed to herself. She felt like she was a dime a dozen trapped in the body of someone who was one of a kind. 

“Is something funny?” 

Andelyn found herself caught off guard both by the voice, and by hearing her native language spoken out loud. 

She looked up and found herself being approached by a large woman with large muscles and large swords. 

When she looked down at Andelyn, Andy couldn’t help but admit, “I’m a bit pathetic, I realize, it’s hard not to laugh sometimes.”

The woman didn’t grow enraged, nor amused. She arched her brow, because when could a patron of their establishment have a healthy sense of self-recognition. There weren’t as many women visiting their house, but the few that did weren’t going to self-reflect in the middle of the lobby like Andy.

“If you wish for companionship, our front desk will show you who would be with you and who wouldn’t,” the guard instructed. 

“Sorry,” Andy said, which made the guard narrow her eyes. Andy made sure to slowly lift her arms, showing the guard her money and proof that her sword was only on her waist. The next part would be strange, so it was better that she not give this imposing figure a reason to attack her. “I came for information, I have the crowns for it, and you have the Madame to receive it.”

“We do not ‘have’ people,” the guard snorted.

“Tell that to the people at the docks.”

The guard growled and flexed muscles capable of taking Andy’s head off with a tight squeeze. She didn’t have the chance to show them before another voice called her name, “Aquita.

Andy and Aquita both turned towards the stairs that wrapped around the lobby, to see a woman who could only be the Madame of the establishment. 

Oh… Andy thought, trying to strengthen her legs so they didn’t turn to mush. 

The woman wasn’t old enough to be Lady Stella, but certainly had a decade of experience in her eye. Andy had the hardest time looking away from the way her dark skin shined, and the dark brown of her eyes pierced through Andelyn like a javelin. 

There was this scratching sound that Andy ignored for the most part until she noticed it was the Madame’s red nail trailing along the railing. The red wasn’t reflective like gloss, and Andy’s spine chilled as it would under any threat. Still, her legs felt like mush.

I have a problem, even I have to admit I want to shoot too high here.

“A large sack of coin, you have there,” the Madame asked Andy, her accent matching that of the others in Artis, but not quite Quintus’s.

Andy took a breath, needing it just to speak. “Yes…” Andy said in her language first, but then repeated in the Madame’s, “<yes it is.>”

The Madame’s eyes narrowed as she approached Andy on the ground floor. “<What kind? Kronish crowns? Rayne mulas->”

“<Crowns,>” Andy answered, “<the best kind.>” 

The Madame smiled, but Andy couldn’t tell if she was humored by her guest’s attempts at her language or the coin she offered. The Madam raised her head at Andy, or at least Andy thought until the mercenary realized that she held the sack of coin between her and the Madame. One can hope, but maybe one shouldn’t.

“A sack that large can pay for knowledge Madame Afua holds,” she said, which made Andy exhale. 

I didn’t even realize I was holding my breath.

Madam Afua flicked her hand and Aquita bowed her head before returning to her post. Afua turned and Andy took a step to follow her until the Madame held her hand for her to wait. 

“You cannot bring weapons past the lobby,” Afua warned her and pointed to the front desk. “Rafa will take good care of them.”

Andy reached under her cloak for the belt around her waist that held her sword and scabbard. She raised it by the loop over her head, making sure Aquita saw. 

“Completely understand,” Andy said as she walked it over to the front desk man named Rafa. “The last thing I would want is to make anyone uncomfortable.”

Afua still held her hand up to stop her.

“You must strip more for us to be sure you’re weaponless,” Afua told her, her expression caught in this place between cold indifference and a smile. 

But I so do want it to be a smirk.

“Well,” Andy spoke as she began to remove her cloak and undo the binds of her leather armor, “I wouldn’t have come here if I was shy.” 

As Andy removed herself of her armor and continued to her tunic, Afua’s words made her pause.

“Your jokes, they are… amusing, and revealing,” she told Andy, her eyes inspecting Andy’s body in the brief moment when Andy could not see her. But Andy could assume and hoped her sharp abdomen was impressive. 

The joke was to be able to cut glass.

As Andy had only fabric bindings, the couple scars she had on her well-defined arms and abdomen were laid bare. She was shocked to see that Afua seemed less than impressed.

“I don’t want your amusement,” Madame Afua told Andy, “no one asks for Afua’s company to be in Afua’s company. Stop insulting me.”

Oh, she thinks I’m flirting to get on her good side, not because I’m legitimately ready to offer my face as her seat. 

As Andy removed herself from her trousers, she bowed her head. “My apologies.” 

Afua nodded in acceptance and the moment it was clear that Andy had no weapons, she was handed a robe. She promptly put it on.

“Do you understand Uzuri,” Afua asked, teaching Andy the language’s name, “or do you know your few words?”

Andy kept her tone professional this time. “I understand more than I can speak.” 

“<Then I would prefer to speak in my tongue as you speak in yours.>” 

“That is fine with me.” 

“<Come,>” the Madame ordered with a gesture, already walking up the staircase, “<you can retrieve your clothes and belongings on the way out, but take your gold. Company policy is that money unspent can stay with the customer.>” 

“Much appreciated,” Andy said, as she was quick to follow at the Madame’s heels, feeling the burning eyes of Aquita below her.

Afua opened her mahogany door to Andelyn, and let the mercenary be hit by scents she’s never smelled before and likely wouldn’t for a long time.

“<Enter,>” Afua bade her, and Andy concurred.

The Madame’s quarters were larger than that of a ship captain’s, so as large as Andelyn had in her ancestral home. Andelyn was used to the furniture though. There were pillows on the ground and a sofa that had no legs. They reminded Andy of Susannan furniture, but the Madame had darker reds and browns. The candles only made the colors appear deeper, and the beads that hung from the ceilings worked to hide parts of the room from its intruder.

There were things Andy was not meant to see, but that was quite alright. Andy kept her eyes on the Madame as she led them both to their seats.

Andy laid her sack of gold on the table, between her and Afua. Better to set the reward before her eyes, set the stakes for her.

“<So, tell me,>” the Madame began, her eyes settling on Andy, and making her feel like both the smallest and most important thing in the world, “<what does a Black Legionnaire want to know from Madame Afua?>”

“You…” Andy trailed off, caught with her pants down, “you knew I was Black Legion? Did you hear what happened to us?”

Afua’s head craned back, and then Andy realized just how much she revealed with her questions.

Andy told herself, You need to focus, this is like any other political conversation. They have something you want, but you have something they want. You can’t risk giving it up especially when you don’t know what it is.

That is the rule of law for conversations.

Andy fully expected Afua to then play things close to the chest, but the Madame threw her off by answering her in full. “<Ah… it’s my turn to give the apology and my condolences. Your once brothers-in-arms who serve at the Vile Line… they have come in for our services and they talk and brag. They were paid handsomely to keep doing what they do and to leave you behind.>”

That’s honest, though it sounds like common information. Don’t read too much into that she said it, remember what she said. 

My comrades have betrayed me.

“I… I see.”

“<I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news,>” Afua said, and Andy felt genuine pity coming from the Madame. 

Then again, who would want to give bad news to a stranger? That’s just awkward. Andy tried to salvage some of her position, treating this conversation like mental chess, as if she were capable compared to the woman across from her. 

“No, no…” Andy said, hiding her eyes with her hand, “we knew that must have been the case, but it hurts, nonetheless.”

“<Have you come for revenge?>”

“No, that would be pointless.”

Andy caught the little smirk form and disappear on Afua’s lips.

“<We agree on that, but I wasn’t sure, considering the garb of your friend, who I hear you felled.>”

Spies everywhere it seems. Foolish of me to expect Artis to be any different.

“So you watched us come in.”

“<Yes, your friend’s garb is well known to those who would pay him, and we’ve paid one of his kind before in revenge.>”

“I’m assuming it didn’t go well.”

Afua laughed at Andy, which made the mercenary crack a smile. Oh, her laugh is like a siren’s call, it’s bound to make me stop thinking.

“<Oh no,>” Afua said as she fanned herself as if laughing was a great exercise, “<your comrades are good at what they do, it went off without blame ever reaching us, but… catharsis never came. They say revenge is a dish best served cold because that is the only way it is cooked. It’s not supposed to be enjoyed by mortals, only the divine.>”

Andelyn’s head tilted, as the conversation felt a bit more honest than she had expected.

She’s either a better person than me or the best at this game. Hopefully, she takes pity on me.

“Wise words,” Andy said, “so wise that maybe I should not consider trusting you.”

“<Well, first you have to tell me what it is you want.>”

“Information for work, food, recruits, perhaps all three.”

“<If that is true, you will have nothing to fear from me.>”

“And why won’t you betray us?” 

Afua paused after that. She leaned forward to pick up a cup of tea that was still hot. She held it like it were the most important thing in the world, but showed no intention of drinking it.

“<The Black Legion guards the Vile Line, you protect us from the Kasai and the infection of Koreida. Those monsters would ravish and rape us first before going on to you and your countries. Not everyone in Artis understands and respects that, but I do… and you are owed the common decency of privacy.>” 

“So you’re saying you know how to mind your own business.” 

“<Precisely.>” 

Andy smiled and thought, Fuck it, you miss all the chances you don’t take. 

“Well, thank you.” 

Afua told Andy, “<I can tell you where you might find recruits, and maybe food along with them. The warring tribes of the savanna will enslave and sell their enemies to the Krones without remorse. Those with no honor will come here, but many will serve you if you rescue them.>” 

“It wouldn’t be to serve,” Andy assured her, “they’d be paid like anyone else… once we have money, so I guess we’re all just servants to each other now…”  

God, I must be making us sound like the poorest, sorriest, pieces of shit. 

“<I trust you to care for them, though it’s hard to imagine the Black Legion could be worse than the Krones. You can find the Kronish ships in the port, and you can use any of your ships to meet them on the sea.>” 

Andy smirked, deciding it was not worth the effort to hide how smitten she was with everything the Madame does. “How do you know we have frigates left?” 

Afua rolled her eyes at the question. “<Don’t ask stupid questions. Beyond that, I’m sorry to say that I cannot help you much more. Honor abides that I cannot relieve you of all the gold you offer.>” 

Afua went to push most of the gold back to Andy, but Andy leaned over to stop her, placing her hand over the Madame’s. Swing for the fences.

“This is a place of business, Afua,” Andy spoke in a hush, briefly moving ever closer to the Madame, watching the other woman for any sign of revulsion. Andy sat right next to Afua, as the Madame paid her no change in expression or body language. All Afua did was turn her head to follow what this foreigner was trying to do.

Andy placed the sack of Kronish crowns right in front of Afua, and puffed her chest out to ask, “Surely, I can purchase other services here?” Afua pursed her lips looking down at Andy. “Will this cover your services?” 

Afua chuckled as she leaned down towards Andy, and the mercenary closed her eyes, only to feel Afua’s breath on her ear. “<How charming you are.>” Andy felt a chill when Afua gifted a kiss on her cheek for longer than a few seconds. 

Andy whispered, “You said no one asks Afua for her company, and I have to say that’s a shame.” 

Afua stopped her kiss but remained just as close as she reached over to plant her hand on Andy’s sack of coin. She had Andy so enraptured that the mercenary had not noticed this, nor Afua’s other hand behind her head.

“<You know this more than covers even my fee,>” Afua said, giving Andy one more chance before the mercenary risked feeling swindled later. 

Andy answered by trying to speak in Afua’s language, “<Then bring me more beauty,>” trying to sound romantic but failing to put the right words together.

Afua nearly burst out laughing struggling to keep a straight face, embracing Andy in a hug, which the mercenary soon returned. 

The two of them rolled together over the pillows as Afua laughed at Andy.

“Oh, what did I say? I swear I didn’t mean it as poorly as I said it,” Andy muttered, finding herself under the Madame. 

“<Just know this,>” the Madame said as she let her dreads fall around Andy’s face, “<what you said was not a sentence,>” before leaning down and bringing her lips to Andelyn’s.

*****

The docks were not places for small children, one of the few fast rules of Artis. If there was one action the residents would not tolerate it was the thieving of children. Yet, with all the slavers in the port, one would think kidnapping a regular occurrence. 

Slavers did use to try and snatch kids, typically foreign ones. It didn’t matter how much their trade partners warned them that the natives were protective of their young, the pale-faced foreigners never listened. Then Artis set several of their ships aflame and several heads to the ship’s crews to take back home. 

There were a few battles between the Kronish Empire and the people of Artis before it was agreed that children would be banned from the docks. That way they couldn’t tempt the slavers.

Children still came, especially when men in dark robes tended to their wounds in open light.

One dared risk his life, skulking between the adults who seemed to not care for him, but would kill for him if they must. If one were to venture a good guess, the adults wanted to see if the child could succeed. It was almost as if they preferred revenge to dissuasion.

The child moved quietly, all the way up to the cloaked man’s back, and reached for the sack of coin he had at his side. As he worried about his stitches, the child reached. The man’s hands were both occupied, giving the child the perfect chance to make his steal and run. So he reached…

Snap.

…and found the man’s hand gripping his wrist.

The boy immediately tried to wrench his hand back before he was pulled towards the man and found himself face to face with the mask. The helm of Eritusi, the Goddess of War, looked back at the unknowing boy. Her eyes of rage held fire stenciled around the black orbs he could not see. 

And like Eritusi’s mask, the assassin’s had no lips, but where she meant to protect her mouth between her war cries, he never made a sound he did not want to.

“Never come here again,” Malum told the child before flinging his arm out and sending the child to the ground. The child did not hesitate to turn and tail run to the safety of Artis’s shadows.

There are kids like them everywhere I go, Malum thought and turned back to the stitching he was fixing. 

He winced as he pressed harder than he meant to. He could not wield the needle like a sword, and it did not hurt like one. I think I’d prefer a long sharp blade running through me than this small, fucking pin. God, I’ve seen Andelyn thread dozens, including herself. How she keeps a steady hand, I’ll never understand.

Crack!

The sound of whips did not make Malum flinch, but he did stop. His eyes moved behind his mask, gazing over at the docks again. He watched as one tribe of Seca, covered in black paint, spoke and traded prisoners with a Kronish official. 

Malum watched as people in chains from Krone, men and women dressed from all walks of life, were given to this Secan tribe, and the Secan tribe traded one of their enemies. 

So is this truly where the excess of criminals go? They must be the Arub, the tribe in charge of the Prison of Thorns. Seca takes Gronina’s enemies, and Gronina takes Seca’s. To them, it’s a trading of trash, making slaves of prisoners. 

Vile minds think alike, I suppose. I wonder which land treats their slaves worse?

As Malum retied his tunic, he groaned over his own thoughts, “That was morbid to think about.”

Malum heard her by her footsteps but knew it by her voice. “How are your stitches?”

“Fine,” Malum grumbled at Andy as she sat down next to him, her back to the docks.

He looked over at her, seeing a mesh made of her hair, and this glow of life coming off her. She was even smiling, genuinely.

I don’t think she’s had a real reason to smile in a long time. How skilled Artis’s courtesans must be.

 “Thoroughly fucked?” Malum asked, making Andy turn to him with this smirk that barely contained a laugh. 

“As if it’s any of your business.” As she was busy trying to mock him, she missed the sound of him sniffing the air.

“It’s not like we need money and you’re spending gold on ladies of the night.” Malum had yet to let go of their earlier debacle, one that left him doing little more than redoing his stitches. 

“You can call them by their profession, whores. It was definitely still daylight by the time I was done.” Andy assured Malum that she was certainly intoxicated when she mockingly asked, him, “Jealous?” 

“Hmph, what are you 12?” 

No.” 

“You’re drunk too.” 

“Am not.” 

Malum sighed as he dipped his head into his hand. Being sober in a conversation with a drunk was not terribly different from being an adult having a conversation with a child. But thing Malum knows for sure, Only the rich ones lie to themselves.

“Sometimes I forget that despite the calluses, you’re still the daughter of a Rayne lord.” 

Andelyn’s little smirk twisted at that remark, the assassin having finally ruined her fun. Anger seemed to focus her, keeping her from slurring her threat. “Say that again, and I’ll actually break your ribs this time.” 

Malum pushed her by bowing his head as he asked, “Did you at least learn anything useful, milady?” 

“I’m warning you, Malum,” she said, as she found herself staring at a mask, unable to see his eyes. She stared into the dark holes where they should be, and Malum smirked knowing she’d never find them. 

“And to answer your question… yes. While this is far from the best place to get food and work… on account of everyone here being an untrustworthy sellout…  we can get new recruits to rebuild our numbers with the slave ships. We save them from Kronish slavery, and we can expect some of them to join us, if not most. Now we just have to figure out what kind of ships are trading in people. I think we better stakeout the docks to-” 

“There,” Malum said, pointing to the ship he had been watching with a dreary depression.

Andy’s mouth opened a bit the moment she saw a slave ship a stone’s throw away. “Oh, I see you found a ship already.” 

“Yup.” 

Andy kept staring, rubbing her head as her intoxication seemed to bother her.

Now you realize what you miss, letting all the shadows creep in.

Andy spoke in a hushed tone and held her hand over her chest, where children think the heart is. “I… I can’t believe they do this in broad daylight. I mean its…” 

When she trailed off, Malum finished for her. “Wicked? Vile? Evil?” 

“All yes, but mostly dehumanizing, and everyone just… watches.” 

“They don’t even watch, to be honest,” Malum said as if only to bring her down lower with him, “if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my travels, everyone, everywhere, hates each other. They need to learn to care about people other than their own, not the other way around.” 

Andy scrunched her nose listening to Malum. “And I thought Harry was a pessimist.” Malum opened his mouth but she somehow knew what he was going to say. “And no, you’re not just a realist.” 

She does that more often than anyone somehow.

Andy hooked her hand inside Malum’s elbow, pulling at him to stand to his feet. “I think it’s time we head back. On Lucilla’s ship alone we should be able to intercept them and take them home or with us if they want.” 

He nodded his head in agreement as he stood up. “I have no other plans tonight.”

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