- July 3, 2022
Raydorn: The War in the Black (Chapter 26)
“If you don’t let the sandcastle fall down, how will you find the motivation to make another one?”
Astrid, First Disciple of Lapis, 448 A.C.A.
“Hehe,” Astrid chuckled to herself.
From where she laid in the sand, Penny Prim asked, “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Astrid said as she continued building her sand castle with Hana, “just this feeling that someone’s getting their comeuppance.”
“What does that mean?” Hana asked, trying to perfect the tower of her sand castle.
“What does what mean?” Astrid asked back in all sincerity, tilting her head at the little girl in confusion. The little girl tilted her head back.
Penny Tweed sat up next to her fellow Penny to point out, “You just said-” but one of Astrid’s followers just shook his head at the girls.
The disciples of Lapis lined the beach, looking for the pearls that the islanders used to use to pay the Black Legion. At the same time, most of the kids were playing around them, the disciples watching them closely, but as always, Astrid close of all.
Astrid watched the water instead, as the fishermen went out with their Black Legion guards to go fishing for dinner. She could see Quintus with them, able to defend a boat by himself.
Probably can’t throw a fishing spear as well as Andy though, she thought.
‘Well, she did cheat.’
My my, did not expect you to call supernatural abilities ‘cheating.’
‘Hmm, when you learn something without doing work, it feels like cheating. It’s the only thing that feels like cheating to me.’
Astrid didn’t respond to that, as she watched them get farther and farther away. Her already blurry image of them slowly became impossible to make out, even before they went around the bend.
‘You’d actually get to see their tattoos.’
“Hey, Astrid,” Hana asked her as she struggled to make a pattern in the castle with her finger.
Astrid went to hold it up as she asked, “Yes?”
“What are those black lines on the people’s arms?”
“You mean the Icee?”
Hana nodded her head. “Yeah, do they make them sick?”
Astrid couldn’t help but grin. You don’t think…
‘There is rarely a thing such as coincidence. Maybe she’s picking up ideas from us. She could be like you.’
Let’s hope not, there’s enough freaks in this group.
‘Well, special people are drawn to each other.’
Yeah, well, when everyone’s special, nobody is.
Lapis did not respond after that.
“Those are tattoos, they’re art that gets put into the skin,” Astrid said, before lifting up her shirt and revealing her own that she has on her side. It’s a swirling wind that wraps around her abdomen.
Both Pennies and Hanna cooed at the sight of it.
“That’s like, really cool,” Penance Prim muttered.
“Hey,” Penelope Tweed agreed, before asking, “how do you get one?”
Astrid put her shirt down as she explained, “Depends on where you are. The only basic rule is that you don’t get it until you’re done growing. Get it too early and it’ll warp as you grow, or you won’t be able to stand the pain and then you’ll fuck up the artist.”
“Oh,” Hana said as she brought her hands to her lips.
She started mumbling something to her hands, and Penance snapped her fingers for her attention. When Hana looked to her, Penance brought her hands to her mouth, and motioned them away. Hana copied her, realizing what she was doing it.
“Everything alright?” Astrid asked.
“She likes to mumble into her hands sometimes,” Penelope told her, “try to remind her that we can’t understand.”
I feel like kids solve each other’s problems better than adults.
‘They were lucky, if the Pennies were psychos they’d probably be eating each other.’
Did that happen?
‘Yeah, I remember that happening twice, the kids got left alone, devolved to cannibalism. What else were they gonna do, fish?’
That’s two fucked up sentences.
Hana said what she was trying to say, “The bad people who took me, they had tatties I think.”
I’m gonna call them tatties from now on.
‘It’s a better name, also another word for potatoes.’
The fuck’s a potatoe?
‘Don’t pretend you don’t know what a potatoe is you little shit.’
Astrid smirked to herself before noticing how Penance Tweed was stroking Hana’s hair as she had her hands in front of her mouth again.
“Do you not like tatties?” Astrid asked her.
Hana shrugged, swaying her body as she did so. “I like yours, the others here have nice ones. The bad people who took me didn’t look so nice.”
“Probably looked like some meaningless shit,” Astrid said, “something that sticks with you forever should be something that means a lot to you, something you want to see everyday, not something there just to have.”
“Now, I really want one,” Penelope Prim said, looking down her muscular arm, as if looking for a place already.
“You might be able to convince one of the Icee elders to give you one,” Astrid told her, which sparked the slacken Penny’s attention.
“Actually…” Astrid said as she noticed something swimming out in the water, “let’s leave the sand castles and go for a walk.”
“But that sounds like exercise,” Penelope complained, laying back down in the sand, only to grow uncomfortable as the sand got everywhere. “Never mind, a walk sounds fine.”
“But what about our sandcastle?” Hana asked, appearing quite distressed about it.
Astrid stood up, and leaned over to tell the girl, “If you don’t let the sandcastle fall down, how will you find the motivation to make another one?” The way Hana’s face simultaneously lit up and emptied out made her look 80 years older. Then Astrid waved over the castle and told her to, “Go on, kiddo, knock that shit down so we can make a better one tomorrow.”
Hana hesitated. To her, the sandcastle must have felt like a castle felt to a real king. Something she’s put all this work into, a paradise to separate her from everything, but unlike a real king, she didn’t have to settle.
She fucking swatted the shit out of that sandcastle.
“Aahhh!” she yelled as the sand got all over her hands.
“Go wash off in the water, then let’s go,” Astrid told her, which led to the girl immediately waddling over to the sea.
As Penelope got up and they walked past Penance, Penance clapped her hands to her knees. “No one even asked me if I wanted to go for a walk.”
“Because you’re the only one who hated sitting,” Astrid told her.
Penance thought about that for a second, “Yeah, that’s fair,” then got up.
As her disciple started to follow them, Astrid ordered the first one to, “Fuck off, watch the kids like you’re supposed to and find some goddamn pearls, Eugene, I saw you not doing anything.”
Eugene bowed his head and skulked away to relay the message to the others.
The Pennies snickered as Hana covered her ears over all the bad words.
“Are you done?!” Hana yelled at her.
Astrid nodded and yelled back, “Yes!”
As they walked along the beach, Astrid looked out for what she saw swimming in the water, until Hana walked up and took her hand.
‘Good thing your so short, or else she wouldn’t be able to hold anyone’s hand,’ Lapis teased Astrid.
Fuck you, the Pennies are like two inches taller than me.
Hana looked up at Astrid, and saw the woman looking off into space, her lips only moving just a little a bit. “Are you oh-”
“Did you girls know that the Islanders have this special custom,” Astrid started saying, “where when they come of age, they have to go out and kill something, then bring it back to have its blood be used for a tattoo?”
Hana just turned to look ahead, not bothering to finish her sentence.
Penance Prim stood straight as she said, “No, that’s so cool.”
Penelope Tweed gagged. “That’s gross, what’s wrong with you? What if it has a bunch of diseases.”
Penance turned to Penelope with a deadpan expression on her face. “Survival of the fittest,”she said.
“This is why I’m the clever one!”
Astrid coughed, “Ahem! Missing the point children.”
Hana raised her hand, which drew a strange look from Astrid. Hana proceeded to wave it around as Astrid considered why she felt the need to raise her hand. “Yes, Hana?”
“Uh,” she said when she needed the moment to remember what she wanted to ask, “oh yeah, why?”
“Well I haven’t gotten to it yet,” Astrid said, before snapping at the Pennies, “but I would if you three would pay attention!”
Penance Tweed rolled her eyes as she complained, “Of course, blame the students, not the teacher.”
Astrid stared at her quietly for a few seconds.
She turned to Penolope Prim and said, “Penny, you’re my favorite.”
“No, favorite Penny, Hana is definitely my favorite student.”
“Yes!” Hana cheered.
“I mean thank you,” Penny Prim said with a a shrug, “but there’s only two-”
Astrid interrupted her to get back on topic. “Back to my point, there are also three tribes in the desert who guard this strange rock formation called a plateau. When they come of age, they also send out their young to find a creature and bring it back. Now what do they do with the creature, students…?”
All three girls slowly but eventually say at the same time, “Use its blood for a tattoo?”
“Yes,” Astrid confirmed with an obvious amount of patronization in her voice. “Its strange, we don’t know of a common ancestor between the group of Secan tribes and the Icy Pearl Islanders, but they a tradition that appears to be the same. From that, we can infer that they must have at least met, where one took the idea from another or they shared it together.”
“Okay…” Hana said with a shrug, “that makes sense.”
“What makes sense?” Astrid asked, putting the little girl on the spot, which only made her slightly twist her in confusion.
Astrid smirked. “I’m kidding. To my point, it should make sense. If we recognize that a common ancestor or crossover of their cultures led to this common tradition, we can assume that if something similar happened, with something like a story appearing in multiple places and people, those people’s ancestors must have met at some time, right?”
The Pennies traded glances, getting the feeling that this lesson was leading to a point that should have been especially poignant to them.
Penny Tweed agreed, “Yeah, sure.”
Penny Prim refused to beat around the bush. “You’re going somewhere with this, where are you going with this?”
“Someplace special…” Astrid promised with a dramatic bow of her head, eyeing the water out of the corner of her eye, “in a moment.”
Astrid let go of Hana’s hand to go racing into the water. She pulled out her rod with its invisible ax and let out a shrill war scream. The three girls watched behind, dumbfounded until the ax’s steel head lit up like the sun before the believer submerged herself underwater.
They stared at the water’s surface for a few minutes before Penelope turned to the others and asked, “What just happened?”
As fast as she went in, Astrid came out, letting out war cries of victory, dragging a shark mermaid on her shoulder. Suffice to say, the three girls on the beach screamed as this woman dragged the sea creature onto the beach by herself, with a strength reserved for several men.
“What the fuck is this woman?” Penance muttered under her breath, as the very dead mermaid was laid down at their feet.
Astrid was panting a bit, but all in all, in good shape as she put her fists on her hips.
She presented the mermaid with one arm out and asked the girls, “Who wants to get tattoos?”
Penny Tweed shook her head bewildered, staring at Astrid as if she were not real. “I’m not getting a tattoo with that thing’s blood.”
Hana held her heads together in front of her mouth again as she asked, “Will it hurt?”
Penny Prim crossed her hands back and forth in front of her as she panicked. “Hold on! I need to think about what I want!”
Penny Tweed turned, took her friend by the cheeks, and yelled in her face, “We’re not getting tattoos!”
As the two began to yell as Hana started poking at the dead mermaid, Astrid watched, grinning about something.
“Aren’t they cute?” she said out loud, a comment which only Hana turned her head up at.
‘Little young for tattoos don’t you think?’ Lapis asked her.
Astrid answered in her head, but her lips continued their subtle movement, movement which Hana watched unnoticed.
Who cares? What proper parent is going to stop us?
Astrid’s grin turned right upside down. Oh, yeah, right… that massive log would…
‘Where were you going with your story before?’ Lapis asked her, the idea of tattoos quickly leaving her mind.
“Hmm?” Astrid again hummed out loud, an occurrence which should have been irregular, becoming less so.
Lapis reminded her,‘You were forming a hypothesis before about cultures’ ancestors intersecting, and using similar traditions as proof.’
Oh yeah, I’ll tell them later, they seem distracted.
Lapis let the dead air hang for a moment as Astrid felt his conscious standing at the edge of the plank, just before the vortex that was her ability to ignore him.
‘Well,’ he started before an impossibly pregnant pause, ‘what about me?’
Wouldn’t you like to know, weather boy.
‘Astrid seriously. Don’t make me command you with my godhood.’
Ah, fine, I was just thinking. The story of Jia as this safe place is pretty common. I’ve heard in Krone as a place where the sky means the sea. I’ve heard it in Seca as a place where the shadows are plentiful. I’ve heard it Susanna as a place burned by the sun, and now from the Pantherlands, I’ve heard it as a safe place for children away from adults.
Astrid could sense Lapis’s indifference. ‘And… why is that special?’
Take a guess what I first heard Jia was supposed to be?
Lapis didn’t think at all for a moment, before he began to think harder than ever. If he had a forehead of his own, you could have seen the impossibly thick vein that would have been bulging out of his skull.
He should have known everything Astrid knew, and it longer than it should have for him to put all the pieces together.
‘Ah? Ah… oh.’
Astrid smiled, as she whispered. “See? It’s all coming together.”
Hana held her hands in front of her mouth, hearing that.
“Aaahh! My arm!” the man screamed after his elbow met Andy’s knee.
“You didn’t have to break his arm, you know?” Malum told her as he stopped halfway through beating a man unconscious.
“He wasn’t telling me what I wanted to know,” she told him.
Oh yes, and with the extreme pain of his arm, he will now…
“He passed out,” she said, as she held a limp man in her hand. As if on cue, more men were jumping down into the stands of the underground cockfighting ring. “Oh well, maybe these guys know where our information broker is.”
“Somehow I doubt it,” Malum said as one tried to pull a knife on him, but he moved in slow motion to the assassin. He quickly disarmed him with a swipe, and brutally grasped the man’s head.
The man’s face did not looked good smashed against the metal railing of the pit.
He caught the next punch heading towards his face. “<Do you know where Haoran is?>” Malum asked him. The man spit on his mask, and Malum proceeded to crush his groin with his knee.
“Uuugggghhhh,” the man moaned as he fell to his knees.
“He didn’t know,” Malum said, as they continued to beat on drunks and thugs.
I assume their thugs, what assholes make poor animals fight? I mean, chickens aren’t the most likable of animals but I believe in putting our food down quickly.
“You know,” Andy told him between kicking one man face first into a table and throwing another into the fighting pit, “I just wanted to say, despite all the shit I’ve talked to you and will continue to talk to you, I respect you a lot for coming here.”
Despite the sounds of two bladed roosters slicing apart a man’s face in the background, Malum told her, “You want to elaborate?” and somehow she heard him.
“Coming to the last place you want to be to save your guy, real leadership stuff.”
“Oh,” he said as he punched behind him without looking and made a man fall onto his face. “It’s not as big a deal as you think. He knows too much, he knows where we are, and we can’t let him help the archmage and his new Dynastan destroy what we have left.”
Andy caught a man’s wrist, and twisted it to make him drop his knife. She felt his bone bend under her touch, but silenced his screams with a chop to his throat. She did this all while she mocked Malum. “Sure, sure, it’s okay, I’ll keep it a secret that you’re a big softy.”
Malum didn’t even bother to groan as his leg went up into a man’s jaw…
… and down behind his head.
As the metaphorical dust settled, and they were the only two left standing, Andy mumbled, “Uh, Mal.”
“We forget to ask these guys about our information broker.”
Malum paused as he looked around him, finding not one conscious body among them, save for the man being attacked by the roosters.
“To the docks,” he said.
As they beat up the licensed slavers, or managers as their so called bosses called them, Andy talked between her punches. “So I’m thinking about trying to make an honest woman out of the lady I was with a few days ago…”
“Oh god,” Malum groaned as a man hit him with a wooden 2×4, and it snapped against him. Malum slowly turned towards him, stood straight, and cast him in his shadow.
As Malum proceeded to beat on the screaming man, Andy thought out loud, “Her, or maybe the madam in Artis, one or the other, they are both very pretty and very good at eating apples.”
If Andy could hold a relationship down for a week or two I’d be impressed.
As Malum let a now unconscious man fall to the ground, he asked her, “Why are you asking me this?”
Andy roundhouse kicked a man off the docked towards the water. The crack his jaw made after meeting her foot was as loud as when his face met the side of the rowboat.
“Oh,” Andy groaned as she cringed at the sight. She almost didn’t see the next man coming, ducking under his arm before uppercutting him.
As she walked towards the staggered man, she told Malum, “You were married, you must know something about attracting women without paying them.”
Malum yelled back, “You are a woman!” as they both knocked out another slaver.
“Yeah,” she admitted as she reloaded her leg into a chamber, and started kicking a guy repeatedly, “but everything I was taught was on how to please a man. I don’t even find them aesthetically pleasing, even Pagallo’s statues!” On that last word she let the guy fall to the ground with her leg still reloaded into the chamber. “Do you know how much you have to hate the look of men that you can’t even respect the expert craftsmanship of Krone’s best sculptor?”
Malum stopped beating on a man to ask, “How do you…?”
“Jack’s dad had one made of himself,” she explained between a backhand slap and a haymaker she threw out, “or how he wished he looked, I guess. Back then Raydorn and Krone still had basic trading agreements. It looked like he was actually wearing real clothes but it was all stone. Why couldn’t it have been on someone who wasn’t so ugly?”
“Andy,” Malum interrupted her thoughts.
Malum gestured to the ground of people beneath them. “I think we did it again.”
Andy realized that guy she just punched was the last one and barely conscious. She ran to him, muttering, “No, no, no,” grasping him by his collar and shaking him as he passed out. “They don’t make detestable goons like they used to anymore.”
“I think its just us, Stella. Let’s try the poker game.”
After grabbing her ass, a man was now eating his cards as Andy stuffed them down his throat. Malum was beating away their goons as she did it.
It was far from the worst reason to beat someone up, Malum figured.
“Were you ever good at this?” she asked him as she smacked the man and started patting the deck of playing cards down deeper into the man’s mouth.
“Good at what? Forcing a joke down a man’s throat?”
“Wha…?” Andy muttered before she noticed that the joker card was the most visible one in his mouth. “Ah, I see what you did. Seriously though, I mean, talking, you know, conversating about something other than the mission.”
“No, not particularly,” he admitted as he took a steel chair and…
… smacked a man’s face with it.
“Maybe if you tried,” she said as she kicked the man back in his chair, sending him and his cards to the ground.
“Like you try being sober?” Malum taunted her back.
“I don’t like you anymore.”
Before she could finish glaring, she rolled towards the nearest knife on the ground, and threw it.
Malum swayed to the side as it flew past him and stabbed a man’s hand into the wall, right as he was reaching towards a memorial sword. As he screamed, Malum turned to Andy to hear her say, “Look, we left one still conscious!”
“Huh,” Malum said as he looked back at the screaming man who was now crying too, “I guess we did, good on us.”
Malum and Andy walked up to the backdoor of an alley, lit by a lightbulb. Andy looked at it with a perverse look on her face, but found annoying Malum to be preferable.
“I told you beating people up would help us find who we’re looking for,” she said while nudging him with her elbow.
Malum proceeded to knock on the door as he reminded her, “No it didn’t, we only found this place by paying the weird guy on the street corner, beating people up did literally nothing.”
A man opened a slit in the door, and asked for the password. Malum replied with, “<Eritusi will behead us all.>” The man closed the slit and opened the door for them.
As they walked in, Andy asked him, “Why do you only talk a lot when you’re being insulting?”
The assassin groaned in response.
The room they walked into was an underground flea market, only for the most expensive of vendors and the most dangerous of clients. It was a place where you could buy opiates for the best highs, weapons for intimidation, bodyguards to preserve unwanted life, and poisons to end it all, but of course, Andy’s eyes settled on the one thing she struggles to resist.
Malum grabbed her chin and pointed her towards their goal. “Stop looking at the whores and come with me to the information broker.”
Andy didn’t say anything to him, she just dipped her head and followed. She squinted over shoulder and whispered a promise to herself, “Before I leave this country, I will pay her the money and respect she deserves.”
“You are foul,” Malum told her.
“I prefer hedonistic, and free, and… probably a bit addicted.”
They walked up to a hut inside this underground flea market, that had a curtain door guarded by two men almost as tall and large as Quintus.
“Wow, finally two guys we might struggle to beat up,” Andy muttered to Malum out the corner of her mouth.
“Good thing I have no intention of fighting them,” Malum told her.
“No fun,” she teased him.
She’s really enjoying herself today. Usually she’s so serious back on the isles where she… I refuse to believe that this is just because she’s getting regularly laid again.
When Malum approached the guards, he showed them his coin. They refused it but gestured for them to give them something again. Malum asked him, “<Will you be inside where I know you won’t be stealing it?>”
The guard nodded.
“Give them your weapon,” Malum told her.
“I speak better Susannan than you, I know what you said,” she said as she unbuckled her sword holster and gave it to the same guard Malum gave his sword to.
The guard whose hands were free pulled the curtain to let them in, and the guard who collected their swords entered first. Then they were gestured in.
Honestly, this meeting has been pleasant far longer than I thought it would be.
As they entered they found the information broker they were looking for. They stopped in their tracks, clearly befuddled by the one named Haoran.
He was a bit… shorter than they thought he would be to say the least.
The kid asked them, “<Ah, if it isn’t the two legionnaires beating up everyone important on the water. The money I could make telling people about you!>”
The kid was clearly Susannan, but also something else that made his skin tone darker, and whatever that was seemed to be where he grew up because he had an accent that was unlike even Andy’s Rayne one.
I’d wager one of his parents was from Seca, based on the darker skin and the accent that reminds me of Quintus’s.
Haoran gestured to the pillows on the ground for them to sit on, and they did not need pressuring. They did give the kid a good laugh as Malum flipped out his cloak so he didn’t sit on it, and whipped Andy in the face.
“Watch where you put that thing, it smells disgusting,” she told him.
“I wash it regularly, what you smell is yourself.”
“<You haven’t even sat down and you two already crack me up,>” Haoran laughed at them.
So he knows fluent Rayne.
“Glad you’re amused,” Malum told him, trying to seem serious, but that only made the kid laugh harder. “Should we be worried about you telling people about us?”
“<Of course, but I have a policy of not selling people out until at least 48 hours after they’ve been my client,>” he tried to assure them, and if he could see Malum’s face he’d see the arch in the assassin’s brow. “<Well, unless they offer to pay triple the usual rate.>”
“<That makes more sense,>” Andy answered in his language.
“<Ah,>” Haoran said, clapping as if impressed, “<the foreigner knows our language, and she’s not too bad either.>”
“<Being fluent in Susannan comes with the trade.>”
Haoran’s mouth curved into a smug smirk, and his hands stopped clapping as they held each other together in front of him. “<And is your trade the reason you have come to meet Haoran?>”
Of course, he speaks in the third person.
“<No,>” Malum answered him with a shake of his head, “<we need to get into the Silver Spire, and the only way to do that is through a Regalic.>”
“<Ah, already a few steps ahead, that’s good,>” Haoran applauded him, and a for a moment, Malum forgot he was talking to a boy who couldn’t have been more than a 12. “<If you had asked how to get in, I couldn’t have told you.>”
“<Couldn’t, or wouldn’t?>” Andy asked him.
“<Those mean the same thing today, darling,>” he called her, making her wince. “<But tell Haoran, which Regalic are you looking for?>”
“<One in need of champion, a position in which my friend here can fill,>” Andy explained as she grasped Malum by the shoulders and seemed to present him to Haoran.
Haoran’s face immediately soured, dropping his smirk for a gaze full of judgment. “<That’s all you want to know?>” he asked deadpan.
This won’t sound good.
“<Yes…>” Andy said slowly, her eyes switching between Haoran and his guard, while her ears listened for any movements outside the curtain door.
Haoran stared at them both for a few seconds before his hand rose up and palmed his face.
“<That’s it? You trash half the ports for information you can get at a brothel?>”
Andy immediately turned to Malum, pointed in his face and shouted, “I told you! Brothels are the place to go in every city!”
“Someone fucking kill me please,” Malum groaned as he wiped his mask if he were wiping his face.
Haoran jabbing the air with his hands as he reiterated his point. “<If one of the brothels doesn’t have the information you need, just go find another one, you can find them all around the city!>” As he said it, his hand slowly fell to his prepubescent chin to stroke a beard that has never existed. “<It’s strange, they’re always somehow both rich in cash but never too busy that you’re waiting in line.>”
“I noticed that too,” Andy agreed with Haoran, the two pointing and nodding at each other as she finished her thought in his language, “<what’s up with that?>”
“<Stop talking about brothels with a child,>” Malum said as he slapped her hand down, “he shouldn’t know what one is.”
Haoran crossed his arms as he informed the assassin, “<My beloved mother was a whore, I grew up in a brothel, I have every reason to know what goes on in them you duplicitous masked dolphin.>”
Malum was quiet, with his arms slumping at his sides, making him appear absolutely formless.
“<How is dolphin an insult…?>”
Haoran answered, “<The males are known to torture their prey and rape the females, evil creatures.>”
“Excuse me, I would never-”
Andy interjected, “<I’ve seen you torture people.>”
“<I would never do the other thing!>”
“<Yeah, you’re too busy mourning your dead wife.>”
“Oh my god…”
“<He has a dead wife?>” Haoran asked himself before stroking his non-existent beard again. “<Haoran should have saw that coming. Very well, I will give you a list of all the Regalics who currently don’t have a champion. Hint, hint, it’s most of them.>”
Malum grumbled as his arms slowly raised and crossed. There’s a reason for that, I’m sure.
“<Do we want to know why?>” Andy asked.
Haoran said, “<The Dynastan’s champion is a Jitari Arts user, master of Fuchou and Huibao. Even in the weaponless contests, his martial arts skills will allow him to brutalize the competition. If only there was another with the same skills and talent to take him on.>”
Haoran proceeded to wink at Malum without pretense.
The information broker raised his finger, a gesture that had their attention instantly. “<If Haoran may make a suggestion, try Regalic Sol. They’re more desperate than anyone else to see their trade take charge of Susanna, and if anyone was going to do some good for the people of this country… it would be the Regalic with the fewest family ties and most professional loyalty… and I would hurry too. Archmage Hun and his helpers are doing everything they can to speed up the process of declaring a new Dynastan.>”
“<Whatever they can do to collect more power,>” Malum grumbled.
Haoran didn’t argue on that point, but did offer Malum some food for thought. “<That’s obviously true, but we are also at war, one on two fronts. Susanna can’t be without a leader.>”
Andy gave the kid money Malum knew she shouldn’t have had as she said, “<Okay, we’ll talk to them as soon as possible.>”
Bitch stole my money, again. I mean it was for him, but still, she’s a good pickpocket for a Rayne noble.
Andy and Malum sat up, and bowed their heads in thanks to Haoran. “<Oh, fancy fellows are you, something to tell people who will ask me on how to kill you.>”
As they turned to leave, Andy pointed her finger at the kid and said, “<We expect your usual safe window afforded to your customers.>”
He wagged his finger at her and reminded her, “<Not if they offer Haoran triple!>”
Andy cackled as they left the little keep and retrieved their weapons. “You know,” she muttered to Malum, “he never said if it was triple our price or triple the offering price of whoever asks about us.”
“Assuming they’re different, I’m sure its whichever gives him more money,” Malum said.
“Heh, probably… so…?”
Malum didn’t have an immediate answer as they walked their way out of the underground marketplace. But it wasn’t until they were clear out of anyone’s earshot and Malum was still quiet that Andy started to question it.
“Mal,” she said quietly as they stood in the alley.
“Hmm,” he grumbled to himself, staring off into space in thought.
I could do it… but I couldn’t leave until the Solistan was finished… if I did, that could be a disaster for Susanna.
“Mal, I can usually accept you ignoring me when I’m drunk, not when I’m sober,” she said as she laid a hand on his shoulder.
He turned to look down at her, and let out an audible sigh.
“I know what you’re going to ask, yes, I am trained in the Jitari Arts, yes, I know of the wielder of Fuchou and Huibao, and yes, I… think I can kill him.”
Andy arched her brow, and smirked a little. “I wasn’t going to ask about that, I already knew that,” a statement that made the assassin cock his head. “You never answered my question from before.”
Then she really smirked at him. “I asked if you had any advice on how to broach a relationship. I was mostly kidding about starting a relationship with a prostitute, I’m not emotionally mature enough to deal with that, but…” she tried to wave it off jokingly, but found her hand resting on the back of her neck, trying not to slump too far down in front of him.
Is this really happening? I don’t know if I want this to be happening.
As he thought that, it kept on happening. “I don’t know,” she said, “I don’t think I want to be alone after the war is over, once we don’t have anything we’re avoiding or hiding from. You were married-”
“Still am,” he corrected.
“Really dead,” she interrupted with a waving gesture of her hands, “she’s alive in your heart, I know, but when you were together, were you happy?”
I’m certainly not right now, he thought to himself as he took a breath and calmed down, trying to avoid snapping on Andy, as thoughts of his wife coursed through his mind. Memories… don’t have to be painful. Sometimes it can be what we make it.
“Yes,” he said, slow to start, “though, not because we were married.”
“You’re getting into the minutia of it,” Andy said, talking faster and faster as he slowed down, fitting in more words in nearly the same time. “I’m not talking about having a family, getting married, just having someone. Isn’t it more than just having good friends, having a real partner? I-I have no actual idea, really, honestly…”
“Hmm,” he hummed, dragging out, seeing how it was torturing her, and smirking under his mask at the sight. “Yes… and no…” he said, watching her grip her neck in her hand, doing her best to appear as if she was hanging onto his every word. “It’s…” Then her fist started to tighten.
Malum huffed and answered, “I’ve had friends who are almost as close to me as my wife, who I trust almost as much, but it’s never quite the same, never as strong… I’d do anything for those friends like I would for her, but it’s different. I’d call her my best friend, but it’s more than that.”
Andy let her hand fall from her neck as she stepped closer to Malum, her arms outstretched, as if looking for him to give her an answer to a question she hasn’t asked. “Is there something you would do with her or for her that you wouldn’t your friends?”
“Outside of sex… no, I don’t think so. I think… I think the difference is that if it came down to having to help my wife or my closest of friends, I would always choose her, every time. That’s the difference, the best I can describe it, she’s the person I pick over everything else when given the chance.”
Andy slowly picked her head back up, looking away to be alone with her thoughts and his words. “Hmm… thank you,” she said, before turning completely away, with her hand on her neck again, “that… helps.”
Malum crossed his arms as he stared at the back of her head. “Good, I’m glad.”
The door opened to the prisoner’s chambers with a long and loud squeak. Most rats make themselves scarce when light comes in, but Hùnxiě didn’t let light into the spy’s cell.
Light is a gift, the archmage thought, and lack of it drives men mad.
When the assassin on the ground glanced up with the same look of indignation, Hùnxiě considered that maybe he had finally broken, but then the assassin just looked back away. He motioned the same way, every time, with some light behind his eyes.
Maybe there are some who’ve spent so much time in the dark that they think it’s all they need. Let’s see if that changes if I want something that doesn’t hurt him to give.
Hùnxiě pulled along a chair to set and sit in as he looked down at the man chained to the wall. He held his hands together in his lap as he asked, “We’re going to change things up today, my little pet project. I’m not going to ask about Malum Chun, or the whereabouts of your home. I want to talk about someone else, someone named Andelyn Stella.”
For the first time, the assassin’s expressions betrayed him, and the betrayal came in the form of a sneer.
“Ah, you know of her, friend of yours?”
The assassin was silent of words, but not of noise as he snorted.
Already making progress. Goes to show, loyalty can be a narrow road without any back alley trails.
“Interesting, I’m going to take that as a ‘no,’” Hùnxiě said, letting the assassin know of his mistake.
The assassin turned his head away to deride himself for even giving that much information to the archmage. He recited one of his master’s old teachings in their language. “Give your interrogator an inch and they’ll make a foot out of it.”
“Clever saying, I’m guessing your master taught you that one,” Hùnxiě said, only to be met with a venomous glare.
Hùnxiě’s heart rate didn’t change, the assassin having never posed a threat to the archmage once in his life, but he still mocked retreat.
“Oh don’t be so hard on yourself,” he told his prisoner, “you’re going to give things away sooner or later. It’s much harder to hide your feelings about someone you hate than someone you love.”
The assassin kept his eyes with their dark gray bags, focused on Hùnxiě, letting him see the poisonous emotions that he wished could kill.
Hùnxiě acted without mercy, and proceeded to pull out a little contraption he had, a small rubber ball of some kind. He lightly dropped it to the ground, only for it to bound higher than the height he dropped it at, and then caught it.
“Let’s play a game of honesty,” Hùnxiě told him, as he played with the ball, a bit of entertainment for the assassin lacked in his cell. The assassin struggled to pay attention to the archmage’s instructions as he bounced this small ball.
If the loss of light cannot be used to break you, maybe the promise of something more will ensnare you, Hùnxiě thought to himself.
“I’ll be honest with you, and you’ll be honest with me. The truth is that a rival of mine, someone you hate named Amidala Kain, wants this… Ms. Stella, and I need to know what happens if I give her what she wants. Can I afford it? I can’t allow Kain to get more power than me, but I want her friendship long enough so I can capture and dissect the evil woman. What do you think?”
The assassin was quiet, with the only sound between them being the sound of the ball falling to the ground, hitting it, flying through the air back up and back into Hùnxiě’s hand before its journey started again.
Hùnxiě’s hairline considered sweating, until the assassin said, “I think you should kill Andelyn Stella before Kain gets the chance.”
Sometimes its hard not to grin.
“You think so?” Hùnxiě asked, to which the assassin nodded his head. “Thank you… um, hmm, conversation would go so much easier with your name.”
The assassin answered in a different dialect from what they were speaking, but Hùnxiě knew it well enough. “Vale Méiyǒu Rén.”
“Hah, ‘nobody,’ should have saw that coming,” he said as he caught the ball, and held it tightly in his hand, watching the assassin’s eyes as they followed the ball and not the archmage.
“Okay, Rén, thank you for telling me one truth. Let me tell you another.
“I’m going to kill you when I have what I want, but I can you kill with a lot of things. Poison, blades, panthers, boredom…” Rén’s eyes grew narrow at Hùnxiě’s last threat, and the archmage returned his expression with a smirk of his own.
“Why, yes, believe or not, I think the boredom that comes with decades of working out of an office, with a plain wife and plain child would be a fine way to kill you.” The assassin’s eyes were mere squints in Hùnxiě’s direction, to which the archmage responded with a shrug. “I can only use that though if you’re honest enough with me. For now, I can kill you with food and a cot to sleep.”
Rén didn’t hesitate. “Andelyn is the medic,” he informed the archmage of Susanna, “once a Stormguard before the power was ripped from her.”
Hùnxiě rolled the ball around between his fingers as he continued to fluff up his words for the assassin’s benefit. “Ah, interesting, interesting, a female Stormguard, I assume that’s why it was ripped from her. Raydorn isn’t the most progressive country on Gronina. Anything else you want to tell me about her?”
Rén sought to speak, “She is… strange,” with more thought and less hesitation as he went on, “she holds a place of leadership, but has never fought, nor does she teach or train. She was Harris Thorn’s right hand-”
“Lover?” Hùnxiě guessed to which Rén shook his head.
“She prefers the company of women.”
“Hmph, so close friends likely, but hardly any of this explains why Amidala Kain wants her. Imagine it, Rén, this Andelyn is all that’s standing between you and sleeping in a cot tonight.”
That temptation made Rén growl to himself, struggling to think for longer than Hùnxiě wanted to wait.
Time to give him some quality motivation, Hùnxiě thought, and then mocked getting ready to stand up.
Rén’s eyes opened wide, but he had an answer before Hùnxiě could even start standing. “Her hair… she dyes it so it looks brown.”
Who cares about that.
Hùnxiě waved that comment off at first, “My mother still does that, hardly-”
Rén “Her real hair is white.”
Hùnxiě’s one eye opened, “White? Like blonde?”
“No, it’s white as snow, and sometimes her eyes have this green ripple when she’s looking into fire. She… she keeps to herself, an outsider… she’s… she doesn’t spend time with the rest of us, only the other leaders, at least, not really… she’s there, but she’s also not there. It doesn’t make any sense. I think she is not one of us.”
Hùnxiě leaned back and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
This is good stuff, but why let him know that?
“And you just magically know this?” Hùnxiě asked him, mocking suspicion pretty well.
“No,” Rén snapped, “this was pointed out to me by someone else suspicious of her.”
A potential betrayer amongst the Legion?
“Who among you is suspicious of Andelyn?”
Rén arched his brown. “Who else would matter to me? The same man who has had me spy on her, my master, Malum.”