Chapter 11 - Innocent

"Land in sight!" The call echoed across the ship, followed by the sound of a horn.
Meyja hastily packed the few things she owned into her cloth bag, hung it over her shoulder, and pulled the hood over her red hair before she left the tiny room and made her way to the deck. She had spent a whole week on the freighter, spending almost all of her coins in order to be taken as an unplanned passenger, and had been assigned a sort of shed amid all the sacks and boxes on the lowest level of the ship. But she didn't care in the slightest, she had her peace as long as she stayed there, and could think about what she was doing in Sharaya.
Despite a week of brooding, she still didn't know, but she had to get hold of a few coins quickly so she could buy decent clothes and something to eat. At the moment, she probably looked like a beggar, or the fugitive she actually was. She was sure, however, that if there were opportunities to earn some gold in the capital, and even if it was not legal, she should not hesitate long she would consider doing anything.
The horn was blown again as she stepped on deck and a second answered far away presumably an understanding between the incoming ship and the port. The crew was bustling back and forth preparing to unload the goods. Meyja climbed the steep stairs to the stern of the freighter and stood there by the railing, at least she wouldn't be in the helmsman's way while she looked over at the land and the harbour slowly approached.
She had already known that the trip wouldn’t go directly to Sharaya which was on the west coast of Abarglen. They would have had to circumnavigate half the continent to dock in the capital and since the crew of the cargo ship only transported goods between the northern harbour and Sharaya it was probably decided to do this with horse-drawn carts and land in one of the areas east of Jevarish.
To be more precise, it was decided to moor in a gravel desert.
'Ah, wonderful…' she thought.
The harbour was in the Darklands which like the Riverlands belonged to the Kingdom of Jevarish, and to the north of which was a stinking bog, the smell of which wafted over to them from time to time. Like the gravel desert itself the harbour was not particularly inviting, it was a handful of simple buildings surrounded by a barricade made of tree trunks that had been rammed vertically into the ground. It didn't stand out significantly from the rest of the area, but was probably only to blame for the location that they docked here. There was a lot of activity on the jetty onto which their ship slowly glided, workers ran back and forth, carts were provided, and it was even more hectic on deck than before.
The helmsman turned to Meyja. "Make sure that you disembark as early as possible, otherwise you will be in the way here."
She nodded and went back down on deck, standing by the rail where she had come on the ship a week ago. Then the wooden plank next to her was pushed over to the jetty. As soon as this was safe, Meyja went ashore, and made that she got away. She wandered nervously through the harbour, huge wooden boxes with trade goods were piled up everywhere, guards in shiny silver armour patrolled between them, the golden oak leaf of Jevarish emblazoned on the dark blue tabard.
"Get away!" someone yelled from behind her and she hurriedly jumped aside.
A horse cart thundered past her, the man on the driver's seat gave her an angry look, and she raised her hand apologetically.
'I have no clue how to get to Sharaya...' she thought.
Meyja continued through the harbour until she reached the wooden fence where she simply sat on the dusty floor and watched what was happening around her.
The workers were busy either manoeuvring the goods from the freighter onto the carts, or distributing them among the piles of crates that were already standing around. All of that seemed to have to be done quickly because the freighter should probably cast off again soon, at least that would explain the whole hustle and bustle. 
In the midst of the turmoil a young man ran back and forth repeatedly addressing workers who after a brief exchange of words shook their heads before he was hurrying on.
Meyja's gaze followed the guy while she fished her provisions out of her bag and began to eat. It was warm here although there was no sun and she began to sweat under the light leather jacket that Sala had given her as well. Her fur coats would not only have been too warm, but also simply too flashy to walk around with in the south where she was better not recognised as a Voyneress. That was why she had the hood up – it had to cover her red hair. In addition, southerners would certainly freeze in this area and it would be strange, if she just walked around in a linen shirt. So, it was a tightrope walk between a new beginning and her origins which could even cost her head, if she got into the wrong people. Fremar and Sala had given her that, too, before letting her go.
The young guy who was probably only a few years older than herself was still running around among the stacks of boxes stopping one of the guards nearby. "Have you seen a red-haired girl?"
"Red-haired? No, I'm sorry,” the guard replied and also looked around.
Meyja hurriedly drew her head and the hood lower into her face, she wrapped her meal in the paper again and put it in her pocket before she got up inconspicuously and walked along the palisade behind one of the buildings where she approached the wall, leaned, and considered. She was searched for which was downright unsettling and the fact that the guy had even alerted the guards to her was all the more dangerous.
When she heard steps approaching quickly and the boy came around the corner, she grabbed him without thinking twice and pressed him against the wall with the dagger drawn.
"Who are you?" she hissed at the surprised young man who raised his hands in surrender and stared at the tip of the blade.
He opened and closed his mouth a few times before looking up and looking into her face. "I... I'm Jon... and I was asked to look for a red-haired girl... Please... please don't harm me..."
She pulled the hood off her head in one gruff movement. “You found me. And if you don't have a good explanation bad things will happen to you..." 
"No... please... it's about my cart. I was paid in Northaven to take a certain Meyja with me to Sharaya. Are... are you Meyja?” he asked desperately.
She gave him a hard push in the chest. "Who paid you?"
It struck her as suspicious especially since she did not know that anyone had paid for her trip when she had barely been able to afford the crossing.
Jon groaned in pain. "A man and a woman. I was the last to get on the freighter and before I got on board, they stopped me. They gave me a crown and said to find a certain Meyja and take her with me. The description is the same as you, but if you don't want to go to Sharaya, I'll give you the crown and we'll just forget about it, okay?"
Apparently, he was really afraid for his life, tears glittered in the corners of his eyes, and Meyja took down the dagger.
“I'm sorry, Jon. I didn't know anything about it,” she apologized and took a step back, she pulled the hood back over her head and looked around briefly, but no one had observed her. "But I am Meyja and I would like to come with you to Sharaya, if you are still willing to take me there with you."
He took a deep breath, then nodded. "Sure. I even allow myself to be threatened for a crown. But tell me something else please. Are you searched for? Because then I'll end up in the dungeons, if we both get caught together."
"No, I'm not," she replied dismissively.
He nodded again. "Please follow me. We have to set off quickly, otherwise the other carts will be gone and we'll soon be driving alone through this terrible stretch of land."
Silently she shoved the dagger back into its scabbard and followed him back towards the jetty where the ship had just cast off again and there were only a few horse carts standing around. The smallest of them seemed to belong to Jon because he swung himself on the driver's seat and took the reins in his hand.
“You can either sit next to me or back on the loading area. But we will be checked as soon as we leave Easthaven. And it'll be easier when you're up here where they can see you,” he explained.
She climbed after him and dropped down next to him on the narrow bench. “We are being checked? Why are you telling me that only now?"
Jon shrugged. “It is commonplace. You will also be checked when you enter Sharaya.” Without warning he cracked the whip and the cart started moving. “You said you were not wanted. Then nobody will ask stupid questions. Or did you lie to me?"
She kept him from stopping the team again by grasping the hand with which he had taken the reins. “Go on, everything else would be too conspicuous now. I'm not wanted either, but I'm not a citizen of Jevarish. Will that be a problem?"
He looked surprised and a little suspicious, but he replied, "No, they will only check whether they are looking for you." Then he directed the two horses towards the passage in the wooden palisade where two more carts were already waiting.
When the team of horses was checked in front of them Jon asked, "Where are you from if you are not a citizen of Jevarish?"
"Not now," Meyja growled, as she was nervously watching the guards who now turned to them.
"The papers please. Where do you want to go?" the security guard droned impassively down, apparently, he didn't do anything else for half the day and was already somewhat dull.
Jon handed him a roll of parchment. “To Sharaya. We transport fabrics and leather."
The guard glanced at the document and then handed it back to Jon while his gaze rested on Meyja. "Show me your face, hood down."
With a pounding heart and trembling fingers Meyja pushed the leather back, anxiously looking down at the man who asked his comrade to give him a list and apparently kept comparing her face with the descriptions of wanted people. "Where are you from, girl?"
“From Northaven. I was just getting off the ship that was just leaving,” she replied.
The guard rolled up the list again. "Northaven? Then where did the red hair come from? As far as I know this only happens now and then with the Voynarian traitors."
“My mother was from Voynar. She came to Northaven and married my father before the war broke out,” Meyja lied, astonished at herself because this untruth came so quickly from her lips.
But she also knew that she wasn't a particularly talented liar and feared for a moment while she waited sweating for the security guard's reaction. He eyed her for a few seconds before nodding and waving the cart which Jon then set in motion and steered the horses out into the gravel desert.
Only when they had left Easthaven far behind them did Jon put the whip aside and turned to Meyja who had leaned back breathlessly. “Voynar? Is that true?"
Since she had already admitted to him that she was not a citizen of Jevarish, she nodded honestly. "Born and raised in the Ice Lands."
"Incredible. It's even worse than travelling with someone they're looking for,” Jon muttered in disbelief rubbing his face.
She sat up again. "Why?"
“Because Kavanagh is a traitor! And thus, all Voynarians are treated as if they were also involved in the betrayal! If you get caught you will be hung! And me right next to you!” he replied angrily.
"Then you have to protect me now because you are just as deeply involved as I," she replied coldly.
He shook his head in disbelief. “You are all traitors. Why did I just get involved? I should have been taken aback by the golden coin."
“Listen, Jon. I am not a traitor. But I've lost my home and am now struggling to survive. There is no longer a Kingdom of Voynar and probably also none of the traitors as you call them. Just a bunch of vicious beasts that tear everything and everyone that comes between their clutches,” she admitted desperately, the fear that he might simply leave her behind or hand her over to the guards made her heart pound in her chest.
He just stared at her with his dark eyes, but she could see that he was thinking. “Every child in Jevarish knows about the fall of Voynar. For a little more than two weeks nothing else has been spoken of. Still, that doesn't change the fact that you belong to a people of traitors and that I am responsible, if it’s known that I have helped you. So, I'm risking my life for someone I don't even know. It's up to you to convince me not to throw you off my cart here and now and run away."
“You're helping an innocent person, Jon. I had no part in the things that Kavanagh did. My story has fooled the guards before, I can do it again. And once we're in Sharaya, you'll never see me again. I just disappear and you have a clear conscience," Meyja replied pleadingly.
She could see that he was still thinking, but then he shook his head and said, "That's not enough. It's not about my conscience either because I don't see you as innocent."
“I spared you as well. I could have slit you open in half a second if I wanted to.” She was slowly running out of already sparse arguments and she hoped that he would simply decide not to let her down because she was a woman.
He struggled with himself, she could also see that, but finally he sighed. "All right. But only up to the gates then you have to see how you get on."
There was deep relief in her heart and she smiled. "Thank you, Jon. I really appreciate that."
He just growled and said nothing. 
Then, a while later, he made a casual remark, she laughed, and a casual conversation was born. The trees which Meyja had seen approaching from a distance marked the border to Jevarish whose extensive oak forests made up the real wealth of the kingdom. Jon told her about the Jevarish fleet, built with the logs cut in the woods and the coat of arms of the kingdom on an oak leaf. That sheet was a present to King Rakuven of Destrothos which the father of today's King Forsyth had offered when the peace treaty between the three human kingdoms was signed.
After they had left the gloomy lands behind them the other teams of horses had turned at some point and they drove on alone through the bright, friendly forest over which the evening had only recently fallen.
"Isn't it dangerous to travel all alone like that?" Meyja asked when she noticed that in the event of an attack no one would be around.
Jon shook his head with a smile. “No, there are hardly any bandits or the like here. The trade route is protected. But we should still prepare a night camp, otherwise we will soon be in complete darkness."
“A-... Isn't there an inn nearby?” she wanted to know.
He just shook his head again and steered the cart into a small clearing off the road where he finally reined in the animals and jumped from the driver's seat.
"Come on, help me here a little," he asked her and she also followed him off the box.
He showed her how to unharness the horses which they tied to a nearby tree so that they could graze and relax then they put up the tent together that had been stowed under the bench of the driver's seat.
"We should make a fire. It gets very cold out here at night." Jon reached for her hand to pull her with him.
"As you think," Meyja mumbled, she wasn't cold at all, she wasn't even wearing her leather jacket.
Together they picked up branches and twigs from the ground which they carried back through the almost pitch-dark forest to their camp and piled them up. When Jon tried to ignite the pile, she stopped it and knocked the pointlessly stacked firewood over again.
“That will never burn properly. You have to put the thin branches upright in the middle, they form the base and burn quickly. Then you lean the thicker branches against it from the outside. The tinder goes into this gap,” she explained and demonstrated.
"How does a nineteen-year-old girl know how to make a fire?" he asked confused, and looked at the cheerfully blazing campfire.
"In the north your own life can depend on it," she replied, deliberately hiding the fact that she had taught herself to break away from home.
Jon reached out and stroked her cheek. "Is there more you can learn in the north that you can show me?"
She was aware of the ambiguity of his question, so she tried to disappoint him. “Just how to skin and cut animals, and which herbs are edible and which are poisonous. But that wouldn't help us much here anyway."
He didn't want to give up moved closer to her and whispered, "I didn't mean that, Meyja..."
Then he wanted to pull her shirt over her head and she closed her eyes in resignation for a moment while she clutched the lower hem. "What are you going to do?"
When she got no answer, she looked over her shoulder, and saw his horrified face.
"What happened to you?" he exclaimed stunned by the scars on her back.
Even though she was sure that if she told him the truth he would stop, she didn't want to share the knowledge of her marriage with him, so she lied, "I was a rebellious child."
She felt his fingers running over the marks. "Was that your parents?"
"Who else?" she replied glaring at him.
Jon dropped his hand and was silent for a few minutes before standing up. "Let's go sleep. It's late."
She pulled the shirt back into position and also got up then followed him into the tent which they had already furnished with some blankets to make it comfortable for the circumstances.
When they were lying next to each other and Meyja was already close to the limit of sleep, he asked quietly, "Would you like me to hug you?"
"No," she replied dismissively, but still felt his hands reaching for her and pulling her to his chest.
The next morning Meyja woke up to the sound of a passing cart and while Jon was still asleep, she crawled to the tent entrance and looked outside where some team was just moving away, theirs was still where they had left it.
Then she heard Jon's voice. “Good morning. What's going on?"
"Good morning, too," she replied before pulling her head back into the tent. "Nothing, I just thought I had heard something, but I was probably wrong."
"So? What is it?” he asked puzzled.
Meyja didn't answer, but left the tent. “I'm going into the bushes. If you follow me, I'll strangle you."
She could still hear his amused laugh as she crouched on the ground behind a hedge where she relieved herself before going back to the campfire where Jon was already waiting for her.
He handed her some bread and sausage. “I wish this trip would take longer. You're a great companion, Meyja. I feel good in your presence."
She took her breakfast in silence, sat down on the grass, and began to eat while he sat down next to her and also ate his meal in silence.
After she finished eating, she got up. "When do we get to Sharaya?"
"Tomorrow evening, probably," he replied shoving the last bite into his mouth and helping her to load the tent and blankets back onto the cart.
After they had harnessed the horses again, they drove on through the forest of Jevarish and Meyja silently prayed that nothing unforeseen would happen that would delay their journey further.
They spent most of the drive lively, and a few hours later Jon showed her how to drive the team and what to look out for if another cart came towards them then he left her alone on the driver's seat and lay down the balls of fabric to take a nap.
Towards evening Meyja had put on her leather jacket again to hide her hair and was listening to the calm step of the two horses when Jon surprisingly pulled the hood off her head. He kissed her on the back of the neck and wrapped his arms around her torso, his hand on her breast.
"Let go of me, you idiot!" she snapped and poked him with her elbow.
Laughing he dodged her and sat down next to her again. "You're doing very well."
She brought the hood back on her red hair. "With what?"
“Well, driving. I can't do better myself.” He waved the hand as she tried to give him back the reins. "Just keep driving."
She stayed silent, compliments from him weren't worth anything to her, so she just kept silent dismissively and hoped that he would shut up as well.
But he dashed their hopes by asking, “Do you still have a family? A more sociable sister, for example?” He laughed softly, apparently finding his joke very amusing.
"No, just a grim, big brother who can even take on two Virtheriā at the same time," she replied threateningly.
"What are Virtheriā?" he wanted to know.
Her heart had grown heavy, the remark about Yary had been rather spontaneous, but it had brought back the memory of him as well as the longing for him.
"The beasts that are up to mischief in the Ice Lands these days," she replied gloomily.
"And where is your brother now?"
She snapped at him a little more angrily than intended, "That's none of your business!"
"Phew, I've obviously hit a sore spot." He raised his hands in defence.
"You didn't hit anything, shut up," she hissed, threw him the reins, and stepped back over the driver's seat.
He held her hand tight. "Wait. I'm sorry, honestly. I didn't know that he... well... is no longer."
"He is not dead! We were just separated!” she exclaimed.
Then she pushed the completely perplexed Jon back and climbed over the load to the end of the team where she sat down dangling her legs over the edge and began to cry for her brother in silence. 

Copyright: Larissa Doe

Chapter 12 - Greetings

The sight of the gigantic city gates of Sharaya took Meyja’s breath away for a moment. She really was here, in front of the capital of the kingdom of Jevarish, on the largest bridge she had ever seen. There was a dense crowd at the crossing, countless traders waiting with their carriages to be checked and let through. Even if she couldn't see anything of Sharaya apart from the wall that surrounded the city and the gate, she was still impressed and couldn't wait to get inside.
Jon hadn't touched her since the argument yesterday, but stayed silent for most of the time, driving the cart. She was almost worried that she had upset him so much that he was now really considering betraying her.
"Jon?" she began quietly after she could finally tear her eyes away from the city wall.
She looked at him searchingly from the side. "You're not going to betray me, are you?"
Returning her gaze, he was silent for a few seconds, then shook his head with a sigh. “I thought about it, but no. I won't say a word, I promise."
"Thank you," she whispered, relieved, and breathed a reserved, emotionless kiss on his cheek.
Smiling happily, he put a hand on the spot it had kissed, and then looked at his fingers. "Thank you," he muttered, barely audible.
"I beg your pardon?" she asked.
"Nothing," he replied softly, avoiding her gaze, then handed her the reins. "Don't leave just yet please. I'll be right back."
She took the leather straps in her hand, let them slide through her fingers and wondered why he was suddenly acting so strangely. In addition, he had just disappeared from her field of vision which made her fear that he would still hand her over. Maybe there was a reward or a bounty for exposing the so-called traitors and he would draw the guards' attention to her for the money. Now she was sitting here alone and if he pretended not to know her, no one would associate him with the cart, let alone that he would be hanged with her. Still, she had no choice but to sit nervously, her heart pounding while she looked for any signs of Jon's betrayal.
A little later she spotted him among the horse-drawn carts and leaned forward, ready to jump up and run away. He approached her, snaked through the people, but apparently, he was alone and she relaxed again a little.
He climbed onto the driver's seat next to her, dropped onto the bench, and when he noticed her look, he asked, "What is it?"
"Nothing, it's okay. I was only worried for a moment that you would have whistled on me after all.” She tried to give her voice an indifferent undertone.
He shook his head gently. "I said I wouldn't stab you in the back."
"What did you do then?" she wanted to know.
With a smile he pulled a white rose from his sleeve and handed it to her. “I saw that one of the carts was loading flowers. And then I thought that you might like it."
‘Of course, a rose... Wot else…‘ she thought.
Meyja stared at the blossom which reminded her a lot of the ice roses that grew in the north and that she hated so much, but then she reached out and took the gift.
 “It's very nice. Thank you,” she muttered, sniffing the flower to cover up her lie.
She didn't understand why he gave her a rose; it didn't make any sense. For her they just sat together on this team of horses because there was something like a mutual dependency. While Meyja wanted to go to Sharaya herself, it was Jon's concern to make the days a little more pleasant by using her as company. And the rose just didn't fit that theory, no matter from which angle she looked at it.
"What do I owe you now?" she asked suspiciously.
He frowned in amazement. "How do you think I could charge something for it?"
“Nothing is free. You pay for everything in this world,” she replied quietly.
Jon thought for a moment, then said, “No, it was a gift. Because I love you, Meyja."
Now it fell like scales from her eyes. She looked at him startled, the hand in which she was still holding the flower trembled, and she was unable to say a word.
 He loved her. So that was it. No doubt he wouldn’t let her go now, but try to somehow tie her to him and she was sure that he would do it by force if necessary.
When the shock subsided and nothing but sheer panic remained, she dropped the reins and the rose, grabbed her bag, and stood up.
"I have to go," she muttered jumping off the driver's seat.
"Meyja, wait!" he shouted.
But by then she was already submerged in the crowd and disappeared from his field of vision. She hastily pushed her way between bodies, horses, and carts that she didn't really notice, nor did she hear the annoyed shouts of some people. Only when she was standing in front of a huge stone bridge pier did she stop and lean against it to take a deep breath and look around to see, if he had followed her. When she thought she heard quick steps, she pushed herself on a circumferential edge along the pillar until she could no longer be seen from the bridge.
There was a wide river beneath her that if she fell, she would probably drown. In fact, she could hear Jon calling for her, but she didn't answer, but stood exactly where she was, heart pounding, and palms sweating. Only when his shouts had subsided did she slowly tip back and jump back onto the bridge with one leap before she looked around again, pulled the hood lower over her face, and headed for the city guards guarding the gate.
"Who are you and what do you want in Sharaya?" asked the guy in the shining armour while he examined her from top to bottom.
"My name is Sala Briggs and I come to town looking for work," she lied nervously.
 Knowing that Briggs was a common name in the south, she had chosen this for her provisional alias; she had borrowed her first name from the friendly landlady in Northaven.
The guy chuckled in amusement before nodding his chin towards her headgear. "Take off the hood, girl."
Her fingers still trembling with excitement, she pushed the leather back on her neck, and revealed her face.
The guard looked very suspicious for a moment then he waved one of his colleagues over.
"Look at that. Little traitor, huh?” the second man growled and grabbed her arm.
 The first guard grabbed her other arm, then led Meyja through the gate and to a narrow wooden door with a barred window.
Her heart pounded when she protested, “I am not a traitor. Why are you doing that?"
"Shut up," ordered the second guard and knocked noisily.
After a few seconds the passage opened and the city guards pushed Meyja into a dark, cool room, in the middle of which there was a simple table and two chairs, on the opposite wall was another door through which a third guard just disappeared. The two men dragged her to one of the chairs and pushed her onto it before the second guard sat across from her and the other took up position in a corner behind her.
"Name?" the seated guy asked curtly and stared hostilely into her face.
Meyja repeated. “Sala Briggs. I'm coming..."
"You only say something when I ask, get it?" the man interrupted harshly.
She bowed her head intimidated, inwardly praying that he would ask the questions for which she had already come up with an answer, otherwise it would be over quickly for her.
"Good. What do you want in Sharaya?” he asked further.
Here, too, it was repeated. "I'm looking for work."
The two guys laughed and looked at each other for a long moment, then the second guard said with a chuckle, "There's no work for someone like you in the capital."
Now she had to put everything on one card, on the only story that seemed even in the beginning plausible, and she replied, "There are no whores in Sharaya?"
Of course, she had never considered looking for this kind of work, but there were easy girls and prostitutes everywhere, even in Northaven she had seen some a couple of times.
The guard eyed her again. “You don't look like a whore. But like one from the Ice Lands. Where do you come from?"
"From Northaven," she replied, and before he could interrupt her again, she continued. "My mother was from Voynar."
"Get Bryce," the second guard instructed the first and the first guard immediately moved to go back outside.
Then the remaining guard stared at her in silence until the door opened again and his colleague returned with another black-haired guy in an even more elaborately decorated armour.
The second guard immediately stood up, saluted, and said, “Major Bryce, this girl was picked up at the gate. She tells strange stories about her origins."
Bryce waved his hand impatiently and his two subordinates made room for him to stand together in the corner while the major sat down in front of Meyja and looked at her with his dark eyes contemptuously.
"Tell it again," he asked, his voice low and yet uncomfortably cutting.
Meyja obediently repeated herself one more time, but this time even more quietly than before. “My name is Sala Briggs, I come from Northaven and am looking for work here. I look like I came from the Ice Lands which goes back to my mother who left Voynar before the Great War, went to Northaven, and married my father there."
Bryce was silent for a minute during which he continued to look at her gloomily then he yelled, causing Meyja to wince. “She doesn't even have a Voynarian accent! You stupid idiots! Step away!"
The two guards saluted hastily and then hurried back outside while Bryce slowly stood up and took one last look at Meyja who was still intimidated and sat with her head bowed. "Strength for Kavanagh," he whispered softly and she lifted her head in amazement to look at him with wide eyes. “Dye your hair, sister. Or stay within the walls from now on."
Before she even understood what was going on, he had left the room as well and she made her come out where she stumbled down the street, her bag pressed to her chest she pulled the hood up again. Bryce also was from Voynar. He had let her know with the greeting that only people from their homeland used, and so he had just saved her.
She moved around a corner of the house and leaned breathlessly against the wall, eyes closed, trying to collect herself, and calm the pounding in her chest.
In fact, she had made it, she was standing in the streets of Sharaya, the capital of the Kingdom of Jevarish – the capital of the enemy. And that only because another Voynarian had given her life by not betraying her although he would certainly have received a handsome reward for doing so.
Besides, she was free now, she had been able to get rid of Jon and there was no one left who would try to give her any instructions. Her heart jumped joyfully and she covered her mouth with the back of her hand, her face raised to the sky and her eyes closed so as not to cry with relief. Fortunately, excitement kept her from thinking about her brother and she shouldered her bag before taking another deep breath and stepping out of the narrow alley to take a look at the city.

Copyright: Larissa Doe

Chapter 13 - Roads

Meyja walked through the streets with shining eyes like a child, wanted to see everything and discover every nook and cranny, the excitement in her heart and a smile on her face.

Sharaya was in a valley, seemed to nestle in a deep caress against the mountains, over which the sun stood and burned down hotly on her.

The quarters were divided by further smaller city walls, ascending to the highest point, where the king's castle loomed above all other buildings. The part of the city Meyja was in at the moment was at the foot, the streets were dirty and there was a stink in many corners of excrement as well as the typical fumes exuded by tanneries and which she already knew from Voynar. Countless narrow streets ran between the run-down buildings in which beggars and other rabble huddled past each other, but no one took any notice of the red-haired young woman.

Her way led her deeper into the city, she swam aimlessly with the noisy stream of people and handcarts, but Meyja already loved Sharaya. And so, she just strolled on through the streets and looked around, passed the various shops, inns, and market stalls while she was annoyed that she had hardly any money in her pocket. Only four Billons – as the coins made of silver were called – were left.

When she turned again, she was back on the main street which led steeply up the mountain, and through which she reached the higher quarter through a wide passage in one of the inner-city walls where she continued, fascinated. There was already a lot less poverty here and there was at least a little less dirt, even if it was still dirty and smelled unpleasant every now and then. A little further on she discovered an inn with a large wooden sign over the door.

To the ‘Drunken Beggar’...‘ she thought.

She passed it with a smile and memorized exactly where the dive bar was, so that she would find it again later when she had to take a room for the night. No doubt her financial situation did not allow her to be accommodated in a neater building, so she would have to make do with the Drunken Beggar.

In the lowest quarter, where the tanneries were also located, the poor had apparently been crammed together, so it was something like Sharaya's gutter. According to the signpost above this quarter was the Old Town which you could still see that it was once the poorest part of the city in times of peace, but since the great war Sharaya seemed to be bursting at the seams and you probably had to create more space for all the people.

The Old Town housed a wide variety of shops, pubs, simple factories and handicraft shops that had no place in the third quarter where all the blacksmiths, tailors, and other workers had settled. She had found the clergy directly below the last and fourth inner city wall there was also an imposing cathedral, the tower of which rose to dizzying heights. In addition, there were pharmacists and priests in the Cathedral District who campaigned for the health of the population and offered all kinds of herbs, tinctures, ointments, and alchemical products.

She finally had to turn back two hours later. After she had explored at least part of the four parts of the city, the guards on the wall behind the cathedral denied her access to the smallest of the quarters, in which the military barracks were located and to which the citizens had no access. So, she returned to the main street and went down the mountain to the Old Town where she had discovered the inn.

Even if it had been dark for some time the Cathedral and Artisan District appeared bright and friendly in contrast to this; street lighting was also completely lacking in the Old Town. When she had found the right alley and a rat scurried past her feet, she instinctively put her hand on her dagger which she wore hidden under her long shirt before proceeding cautiously.

As she headed for the entrance, a dark-haired man stepped towards her from a niche, his face covered with a black cloth up to under his blue eyes which were radiant in spite of the darkness. She stopped instantly when he held a dagger to her throat that looked a lot more dangerous than her own.

He pulled the mask aside with his free hand and grinned at her intently. "Do you give me your money voluntarily or do I have to persuade you first, honey?"

Meyja gave him a sugar-sweet smile. "Do you take away your little knife voluntarily, or do I have to shorten you a bit beforehand?"

His grin died away in the blink of an eye and he slowly looked down to see where Meyja held her blade to his balls.

Reinforcing her demand, she pressed her dagger lightly against the bump in his pants. "And while we're at it, why don't you give me your money instead?"

He slowly took his weapon from her throat and held it up where Meyja could see it. “It's okay, you won. It wasn't meant like that. Please don't make a mistake,” he whispered.

“Only if you don't do one either. And now with the money. Come on!” Meyja had no idea what she was doing, but he didn't seem to notice and slowly pulled a small pouch out of his pocket.

She took this and at the same time her blade from his crotch, still smiling she nodded to him. "Good evening, Sir."

Then she walked past him and quickly entered the tavern, her heart pounding as she threw the door noisily into the lock behind her.

It was a gloomy, shabby dining room in which she stood, but there were a few people here, the seats at the bar were all occupied except for one, as were the few tables. Left and right stairs led to the upper area and there, too, she could vaguely make out a few guests. The conversations were silent and all eyes were on her.

'Crap...' she thought.

Meyja tried not to let it show and walked over to the counter with a playful snooty where she took the last free seat.

An infinitely long minute later, the people gradually resumed their conversations and the landlord slowly approached her. "Yes?"

"I would like a room," she replied quietly, trying to give her voice a confident undertone.

She got a nod back and a key he fished out from under the counter. "That makes eight billons."

She stared at him and her gut told her it wasn't the right price, but then she reached into her pocket took out her last four billons and put them next to the key. Without removing her hand from the coins, she reached for the key with the other and put it in her pocket. "Keep the rest," she whispered to him, then turned and went up the stairs to the guest rooms.

For a moment she expected the landlord to call after her but he remained silent. The guests' eyes followed her again until she was out of sight.

Once in her room, she immediately locked the door and leaned against it.

'Wot got into me…' she thought.

Meyja couldn't believe it. Like this, she didn't know herself. She had just robbed a man, and held her own in a tavern full of shady characters. She couldn't help grinning and only then did she look around the tiny room which was just as dark and dirty as the rest of the tavern. There was a simple table, a chair against the wall, and a bed next to it. The only window was so dirty that there was hardly any light through it even during the day, so she lit the lamp on the table. When she tried to open the window, she noticed that it was nailed shut.

She put down her pouch and took off her boots, then put the dagger on the table, and sat on the smelly bed. For a moment she sat undecided then she remembered the little pouch and pulled it out of her pocket to look inside.

She hastily pulled the cord of the purse back on.

And looked inside again.

Then she let the coins slip into her hand and counted them.

'Damned...' she thought.

Thirty golden crowns gleamed in the palm of her hand. No copper shillings, no bronze nickel, no silver billon, but golden crowns!

She had assumed that the guy on the street had been a little bandit whom she had only relieved by a small amount, but the crowns were there, smirking they shone at her in the twilight and she went cold.

Meyja could imagine the robber wanted so much money back, adding that she had annoyed the landlord. And she had left an impression that was not in the least what she was capable of because she was not a cunning robber, not a thief or anything – she was a well-bred young woman who had to flee her homeland, not a criminal!

Probably she would never dare to leave this room again, but she would worry about that in the morning, it was late and she had a long day behind her. Tired, she put the bag with the money on the table, turned off the light, and lay down on the bed where she immediately fell asleep.

Meyja woke up after a few hours from a deep dreamless sleep and didn't know where she was for a few seconds, but then she remembered. With a low exasperated groan, she rose from the bed and put on her boots. The bag with the money was still on the table next to it her dagger, both of which she took. But just keeping the coins in her pocket seemed too risky, so she pocketed one and wrapped the rest in the shirt she was wearing before putting it back in the cloth bag with the rest of her belongings. Then she put on a fresh shirt, also long enough to cover the dagger, and hid her hair under the hood.
At the door she took another deep breath before summoning up all her courage, turning the key in the lock, and leaving the room. She walked down the narrow hall and entered the dining room with a pounding heart. Fortunately, it was almost empty, only a handful of people were here early, even someone else was standing behind the counter from the previous evening. She walked quickly across the room and left the tavern.
Even on this sunny morning, the neighbourhood appeared very gloomy and forbidding. Meyja turned to the right, she wanted to avoid the place where she was almost attacked. Without provoking further unpleasant occurrences, she walked away through the alleys.
A little later, she discovered a leather goods store and went inside. A woman and a man, presumably a married couple, greeted her warmly. She spent an hour in the store, choosing a pair of trousers and a new pair of boots, plus a kind of sleeveless vest worn over a shirt. She had to order three more pairs of trousers from the owners, they would be ready for her to pick up in a few days then she left the shop with a new large leather bag over her shoulder and continued through the old town.
Now a sign on a building caught their attention. Daggers and Accessories. Interested, she went in and looked around, but there wasn't much to see, only a few goods were there, a few daggers and matching scabbards. Almost disappointed, she turned to go when a guy came out from behind a curtain. He was small, plump, and had dark shaggy hair that was already lighter. When he smiled at her, she could see that he was missing a few teeth.

"The lady want something other than this humble stuff?" he asked.

Meyja nodded a bit confused before she was led through the curtain that blocked the view into another room.

Amazed, she admired the great variety she hadn’t expected in the back room. There were a multitude of different daggers, glass vials of liquids she couldn't identify, and, most interestingly, an impressive selection of leather straps that would keep your weapons hidden but close at hand. She was particularly fond of a pair of daggers and a matching black leather strap.

She struggled that the rest of the money should be enough for new shirts and a meal, but when she bought the daggers and the belt she’d have to go back to the tavern and start again. And since she didn't know how precarious the situation was there, she didn't want to go to her room until late in the evening.

The seller noticed her hesitation and commented with a grin, "There is an opportunity for a discount."

Meyja looked at him with a raised eyebrow, she thought she knew what he was going to ask of her but she was very wrong. It wasn't an immoral offer.

“If you pick something up for me in the Lower City and bring it to me, I'll leave the whole thing to you for half of it. And I'll put some poison on top.” He took one of the vials and handed it to her, the greenish liquid in it sloshing back and forth.

When she nodded, he smiled, and handed her a roll of parchment. “Just say there, Ed sent you. And bring the package to me as soon as you have it, understand?"

Meyja nodded again and set off. The lower city was the lowest ring of Sharaya where the tanneries were located. As she unrolled the parchment, she recognised a map of the city on which a drawn red circle probably marked her destination.

Copyright: Larissa Doe

A short time later, she was standing in front of the right building in the middle of the Lower City, the name was inconsistently carved into the wood above the entrance. To the Weary Traveller. When she tried to open the door, she found it locked, so she knocked and waited. Inside she could hear an incomprehensible shout and then a frantic patter, finally a man opened the door and eyed her suspiciously.
"Ed sent me," she said curtly and tried to make her voice sound confident.

"Well, if that's the case..." he replied and let the young woman in, then waved angrily. “You can come out. The coast is clear."

As they walked through the tiny dining room of the tavern, a few people came up the stairs behind the counter. Meyja's arrival must have startled them and prompted them to hide. She followed the man across the room and back outside again where she found herself in a narrow alley surrounded by houses. A small package lay on the floor behind a couple of barrels which he picked up and handed to her.

When she reached for it, he held it, and glared at her. "If you look inside, girl, you are dead, I swear to you."

"Why should I?" was all she answered.

He nodded and took her to the exit, the door slammed shut behind her and she could hear a key being turned.

'Strange guy... ‘ she thought.

She immediately went back and when she got to the store, Ed was already waiting. 

"That was fast. You don't mess about,” he said with a grin and grabbed the bundle she was holding out to him.

Then they went through the curtain into the back room where he cut the cords wrapped around the misshapen package and pulled the paper aside. There was a terrible smell when he unwrapped the severed half-rotten hand. There was a ring on one finger which Ed looked at briefly and then pulled it off with satisfaction; at the sight of it she almost choked.

"Excellent. You can take the things with you. Keep your money, but come back next week then I have something else to do for you.” When he noticed her questioning look, he rolled his eyes and then grinned again. "Just running errands, you won't get any other tasks from me."

"Why not?" Meyja wanted to know.

Ed stopped grinning and snapped at her, "Because I only need a reliable messenger, that's why."

He wanted to turn away and go to the front of the store, but she stepped in his way. "Listen, Ed. I'm new to the city and am trying to gain a foothold. Tell me what to do and I will do it. Reliable and without asking questions."

Ed gritted his teeth and brought his face close to hers. "Listen up, girl. I don't know where you're from and I don't care. But that's a little too ambitious for you. I can tell you are not one of us. You are wet behind the ears and have a clean slate. Almost a child. And you sure have never killed anyone. I give you some advice. Try honest work before you venture into our swamp or you will either die or be swallowed up forever. Once you're there, you'll never get out again."

Meyja just stopped and held his gaze. Then she made a decision – she would try to convince him. He had just almost acted protective – that she would take advantage of. If he had scruples about turning her into a criminal, he would certainly also have scruples about simply sending her away.

“You may be right in what you say, but you don't know me. I am aware of the circles I am in but I have never done honest work. I helped pour beer and do laundry for a couple of months, but with all of that I get nowhere, I can't build a life with that. I want more. And if I have to kill for it. I have nothing to lose anyway. I have no family and no home. But I have a pair of daggers and a will. If I get lost, you don't care. But at least give me a chance!” She glared at him grimly.

Ed looked at her in silence for a moment then pushed her roughly aside and walked to the shop door. She thought he was going to throw her out, but he locked it and came back into the back room. "Come along."

He led her through a hidden door then up a flight of stairs to his apartment where they sat at a table. Around them were shelves with all sorts of odds and ends on which he kept everyday items.

"So, you've got a will, huh?" Ed started.

"I have," she replied nodding.

He frowned. "How does a young thing like you get into such circles?"

Meyja bowed her head, wringing her tears, she thought of Yary who had been more important to her than her own life. “I just have nothing left, no home, and no family. That's why I came here looking for work and to build a new life for myself."

He paused and asked in surprise, "Alone?"

She nodded again and Ed burst out laughing.

"What's so weird about it?" asked Meyja, his laughter was confusing her.

He got up and got two cups of schnapps, one he handed her. “It seems I was really wrong about you. And you didn't lie, you really have a very strong will. Sharaya is a terrible city and whoever comes here to build an existence all by himself needs a lot of guts. How old are you?"

"Nineteen," she replied.

Ed nodded slowly and took a sip of brandy. "Don't make me regret what I'm doing now... I'll give you a chance. But you have to prove yourself first. If you mess it up, it'll fall back on me. It's a merciless business; you quickly pay with your life for it. But I know someone who can teach you the most important things. Tomorrow, I'll introduce you to him."

When they had finished their schnapps, they went back downstairs to the back room.

Ed took the daggers and the leather strap she had chosen and set them aside again. "You need something better if you want to be successful," he said quietly then put another pair of daggers on the table.

Meyja took one in her hand and looked at it.

“A titanium alloy. Doesn't break as easily as plain steel when you hit a bone. In addition, the blade is narrower and can be sharpened. Even though it's so narrow, you're making a big hole in your opponent. The effort is also much less which should be an advantage for a slim, short person like you," he explained before he put another belt in front of her. “With it you can carry your weapons on your back and draw even faster. With your physique, they are not as noticeable under clothing as they are on the hips."

Ed added a few more vials of various poisons, a stiletto with a leather strap that she could wear in her boot, and a whetstone for the blades.

"Put the things on so I can see if it fits," he asked, and went through the curtain to the front of the shop.

Meyja pulled the hood off her head before taking off her shirt and the old dagger then she took the leather strap and buckled it around her chest. It huddled perfectly against her torso. The titanium blades could be pushed in, she easily reached the designated holders which lay parallel between her shoulder blades.

Meanwhile Ed was talking quietly to a customer, she could hear the voice of another man besides his. When Meyja was kneeling on the floor to fasten the stiletto in her boot, the curtain was pushed aside and Ed came in. Startled, she straightened up and covered her red hair with her leather jacket. Before the curtain fell back, she could just make out the shape of the customer in the store and she went freezing.

"What a lucky coincidence," Ed babbled happily. “Aron has just shown up. I was talking about him earlier. He will be your teacher and teach you everything you need to know."

Meyja forgot her modesty, at least her nakedness was still covered by her under shirt. "The one out there? Not a good idea,” she whispered, pale as a sheet.

Aron had apparently seen her, too, because he suddenly stood in the passage and stared at her. "Oh what... you…"

She tossed her jacket aside and quickly drew the daggers which she held out to defend. "Not a step closer!" 

Ed looked back and forth between the two of them, confused, then held his hand in Meyja's direction soothingly. “Put the daggers away, girl. Aron, what's going on here?” 

She slowly pushed the blades back into the strap then reached for her shirt and pulled it on.

Aron still glared over at her and mumbled. "We already know each other."

Ed rolled his eyes. “You don't say. But where from?" When neither of the two replied and they were still tense, he tore open the door to his apartment and ordered, "Come with me. Both."

It took Meyja a moment, but then she averted her gaze from Aron, and followed Ed up the stairs.

All three of them sat down at the table and Ed rumbled off with crossed arms, "Would you finally enlighten me now, Aron! Otherwise, I'll chop your head off and throw it in the gutter!"

After another hostile look in Meyja's direction, Aron admitted, “Yesterday she relieved me by thirty crowns. I actually wanted to take a few coins from her, but she turned the tables without blinking an eyelid. Then she left me and disappeared in the Drunken Beggar."

Ed looked at her with an expression of disbelief. "Is that correct?"

She just nodded in silence, a moment later Ed was laughing on the table and couldn't calm down. Aron crossed his arms and leaned back until Ed eventually straightened up and wiped the tears from the corner of his eye.

"I really can't think of anything more to do that," he remarked then got up and got some schnapps before solemnly lifting his mug. “The teacher learns from the student. We drink to that."

Meyja did the same and said to Aron who still was sitting there and looked at her dismissively, "Don't take it personally."

Aron just snorted and reluctantly clinked glasses with them.

"Then you both have already got to know and love each other. How nice," Ed laughed again before looking at Meyja a little more seriously. "And now you'll tell me where you're from." He pointed to her hair.

“Northaven. My mother was from Voynar,” she replied tersely.

Ed nodded slowly. “You should still dye your hair, otherwise you will get into trouble faster than we’d like. It's a miracle you even got into town. You hardly ever see red hair and blue eyes here. At least not together."

"How should I do that?" Meyja took a sip from her cup.

“Go to one of the tanners and get Melenyt. You apply this generously to your hair and leave it on for about half an hour. Then wash it off with clean water. Should last for about a month. But make sure you don't miss a strand,” Ed answered.

"And what about my money?" asked Aron draining his schnapps in one gulp and slammed the mug on the table.

Ed grinned. “You lost that, come to terms with it. If you think of a beginner like... What's your name, girl?” He looked at her questioningly.


"...having someone like Meyja take your money off, you didn't deserve it any other way," he finished chuckling with amusement and poured Aron schnapps.

"You’re probably right," muttered Aron.

Meyja sipped from her mug and asked her future teacher. "When do we start?"

Aron emptied his drink again in one gulp. “Tomorrow. At the second hour after noon. Behind the barn by the pumpkin field, just outside of the city. Be punctual."

"Okay. See you tomorrow," Meyja said goodbye, got up, and left the room.

A minute later, Ed and Aron heard the shop door slam and they looked at each other meaningfully for a long moment.

Then Ed growled, "She never comes from Northaven. I'd rather swallow every single dagger in my shop than believe it."

"I'll keep an eye on her for you," answered Aron.

Ed nodded. "Good. And you know what to do if she causes problems."

"Sure," Aron replied shortly then he got up and hurried to follow Meyja in order to shadow her for the rest of the day.

Copyright: Larissa Doe

Chapter 14 - Aron

Meyja sat leaning against a thick tree in the grass and waited for her teacher, she was wearing her new clothes and the daggers, the leather vest lay next to her in the grass, it was just too warm for them. In her boot was the stiletto and in the pouch that was also next to her were the poison vials and the grindstone. After leaving Ed's shop yesterday, she had found a store that had a wide variety of linen shirts and underwear, and was stocked up on everything she needed. After that she had bought Melenyt from a tanner, as Ed ordered, and dyed her red hair dark with it, even if the chemical had burned terribly on her skin.

She felt cold steel on her throat and noticed Aron next to her, he had covered his face like when they first met.

"You weren't prepared this time, were you?" he whispered.

Meyja slowly turned her head and looked at him. "No, not this time."

Aron took the dagger away, but he put a hand on her neck and pressed her against the trunk of the tree until she gasped.

"If you weren't under Ed's protection... I swear I would fuck you, slit you open, and nail you to this tree," he whispered in an angry voice, then let go of her, but crouched down next to her.

“Do what you can't help but do. I don't need a protector,” she hissed defiantly.

Aron hit her hard on the cheek which threw her to the ground, then pulled her by the feet, turned her onto her stomach, and tugged at her pants. Meyja panicked and began to kick her legs, accidentally kicking him in the crotch. When he started with a suppressed moan, she jumped up and yanked the daggers from her back, gave him a kick that now carried him to the ground and sat on his chest, the blades crossed at his neck.

"Do you still want to fuck me, asshole?" she gasped breathlessly.

Ed stepped out from behind the tree, grinning broadly, and clapping his hands slowly but approvingly. “I would say she passed the test. What do you mean, Aron?"

The vanquished raised his hands defensively. "She did."

Ed laughed and Meyja got up a little confused, put the daggers away while Aron sat up and pulled the cloth from his face.

"That was painful," he remarked with a grin.

To her surprise, he didn't look the slightest bit angry, so she held out her hand and helped him to his feet. "Sorry. If I had known that this was a test…” she began.

But Ed raised his hand and cut it off. "Then you would hardly have passed it because you would not have fought seriously."

"What if I had killed him?" asked Meyja.

Aron just laughed softly. "Never. Even when you had the blades on my throat, I could still have defeated you."

Ed nodded in agreement. “He would have. After all, he's the best. That's why I chose him as your teacher. But what am I talking...? You must have a lot to talk about and Meyja has to learn a lot. I'll leave you alone.” He turned to leave, then paused, and reached into his pocket. “Almost forgot... Congratulations on passing the test, Meyja. And nice colour,” he smirked, pointed to her hair, and threw her a black piece of cloth then walked away whistling.

She caught it and looked at the mask, it was exactly as Aron wore in front of his face.

He went up to her and rubbed his hands. “Let's start then, huh? Let's sit down."

They went back to the tree and this time sat down together on the grass.

“First of all, I have to apologise, if I just hurt you, that was not my intention. But situations like this are what make you better. First you need to acquire some theoretical knowledge. That forms the basis for everything else. You will have to fight a fight like this less often if you are good,” he explained.

Meyja raised her hand briefly to interrupt him. "Wait a minute, Aron. I have a few more questions, if you will." He nodded and she continued. "I already told Ed that I would kill to make a living, too. He had indicated something in that direction. But what exactly will I learn? What will I have to do to be good? What do you do for money? And how will I make money in the end?"

Aron paused briefly. “You really don't know what you're getting into? Which business you are currently getting into?"

"Not exactly. It's criminal, I know that, but I don't know any more,” she admitted.

He nodded again but this time slowly and while he pondered how to explain it, he let out a noisy breath and rubbed his forehead. Apparently, he had assumed that she already knew about everything, but she wasn't.

When the silence became almost uncomfortable, he began to talk. “In my opinion, it is utterly insane that Ed left you to me with such a lack of knowledge, but so be it. If you still want it after I've answered these questions, you will kill people for money. Assassin. Murderer. Bounty hunter. Call it what you want. That is exactly my profession. I take orders, usually I get some scrap of parchment that says who I should get out of the way. Then I go after that person and strike at the right moment. You will learn what it takes to see the details. The quickest way to kill someone, and what to do when a fight actually comes, or you have to leave to avoid being killed yourself. The pay is extremely good because clients are often generous when it comes to having someone removed who is in their way. But to get really good, you need a lot of practice. I'll teach you the basics, after that you're on your own. Does that answer your questions?"

Meyja nodded and sat in silence for a few minutes, then she really looked at the man next to her for the first time. So, this was what a murderer looked like. Aron was only a few years older than herself, and actually seemed friendly and harmless if she wasn't robbed. His muscular body was dressed in clothing similar to what she wore, black leather trousers, a dark linen shirt, and coarse black leather boots.

His hair was black and came down to his shoulders, and his beard was also black and framed his mouth. Almost everything about him was black, except for his lightly tanned skin and bright blue eyes. On the whole, he was really handsome.

"What?" He had noticed her look and looked at her questioningly.

She shook her head and quickly looked in another direction. "I was just wondering why you also have blue eyes."

“I am often asked about this, but I have no answer. It's probably just a mutation,” he replied.

So, he wasn't from Voynar. She was almost a little disappointed about it, even if she missed the people of everything about her home last. Indeed, it was the snow and coniferous forests and the cold that she longed for most.

When she was silent, Aron asked, "So your mother comes from Voynar and you were born in Northaven, did I understand you correctly?"

"Yes, you have. But she's dead, just like my father." She nodded before asking, "When do we start?"

“You really want that, Meyja? Once you're in the business of death, you can't go back so easily. You will see and do bad things. Sometimes you won't want to kill your target, but you still have to.” Aron looked at her seriously, their eyes met at his last words.

"How does it feel?” she wanted to know. “The killing? Is it haunting you?”

“First of all, it's a hunt. The re-enactment is the nice, fun part, but the really bad part is when you do it. When a person might even look at you and then die at your hand. It actually haunts me for a while but you get used to it,” he replied.

"Which victims could one not want to kill?" she asked further.

An indefinable expression crossed his face as he ran his fingers through the grass. "Women. Children. I've already wiped-out entire families because they got in someone's way.” He tore out a flower and looked at it, then handed it to Meyja. "Think it over well. There is no place for pity in our ranks."

She took the flower from his fingers and looked at it, too, the sun shining on the white petals. “The world is cruel; I had never done anything bad myself and yet received no pity. Everyone has to see where they are to survive. And I will kill to survive. Teach me, Aron.“ Meyja gave him a steady look.

He looked at her searchingly for a long moment. "How old are you?"

"Nineteen. Why?” she replied suspiciously.

He sighed. "And how old are you really?"

“That wasn't a lie, I was born in Medelya in the year 47. But why do you want to know?"

"Fine. I ask because I want to know if you’re even old enough for such things. But nineteen is good.” He nodded somewhat reluctantly. “Well, let's start with the basics, the equipment. It's almost as important as your skills. What did Ed give you? Show it to me."

He got up and gave her his hand to help her to her feet, Meyja let the flower fall into the grass, took his hand and pulled herself up. Then she took the daggers from her back and handed them to Aron who weighed them in his hands and nodded appreciatively. “Just the thing for you. I prefer steel myself, but titanium should be the right choice for you. Just to start with. What else do you have?” He handed the blades back to her and looked at the stiletto, which she also showed him. “You should only need that in an emergency. Good for throwing, if someone tries to run away,” he explained and threw it into a nearby tree where it got stuck in the bark. "What do you wear your blades in?" He asked further before following the stiletto and pulling it out of the trunk.

"I have a chest strap and one for the calf," she replied.

Aron nodded and came back at a leisurely pace. "Don't be frightened," he said softly, turned her around, pulled the shirt down the back of her neck with one finger, and checked the strap.

For a moment she had expected that she would be uncomfortable, but strangely enough she didn't mind his touch even when he felt through his shirt where the straps were. She just didn't care.

“Fits perfectly, but you should wear the strap next to your skin. The less clothes you have on, the better, which brings us to the next topic." They sat down by the tree again and she tucked the stiletto back in her boot while he continued. "A fabric shirt is fine as long as it is fits tightly. But only the strap should be underneath. When fabric rubs against fabric, it can create a rustle. And in some situations, you are not allowed to make a sound. Tuck your shirt into your pants, if you're wearing one."

She slipped the fabric under her waistband with her fingers.

"Since the daggers are on your back, your clothes don't have to cover your hips like mine." He lifted his own shirt a little and she could see his belt with the weapons that she had felt twice before.

"Why don't you wear it on your back like me?" asked Meyja.

Aron grinned and raised his arms to his neck, he reached it with difficulty with his fingers, then he explained, “I am not as slim and flexible as you. Most of the men in our ranks carry the daggers on their hips, just from this one reason. Remember that if you ever have to assert yourself against one of us." Meyja nodded and he continued. "The rest of your clothes should be made of leather. It's more durable and doesn't rustle like fabric. You haven't done anything wrong with the pants and the vest. The boots are good, too. Take care of your equipment and it will serve you well, especially the daggers should always be kept clean. Do you have poison?"

Meyja nodded and opened her bag, let the glass vials roll into the grass.

Aron took one in his hand. "Do you know how to put poison on a blade?"

"No, I didn't even know what that was good for," she replied, almost a little ashamed of her lack of knowledge.

"I'll show you." Aron patiently explained everything to her then he took out one of his daggers and took a cloth out of his pocket and carefully rubbed the blade clean with it. “There is a very fine groove near the cutting edge that runs to the tip. See?” He held the side of the blade to her face and she nodded again. “Your daggers have one, too. This indentation is used to keep the poison on the blade when you slide it into the leather holder. In addition, it does not roll off as easily when it is in the groove and can reliably get into your victim's wound. Don't ask me why it works because I don't know. But I know that you can rely on it. The green poison here leads to death in a few minutes. The red only causes a high fever and a burning pain all over the body,” he explained and pointed to the appropriate vials before he put his dagger away, and then opened a container with fever poison. "Draw your daggers." Meyja did as she was told and Aron took one out of her hand. "You hold it with the point down, a little to the side, and put a few drops in the end of the groove. The poison distributes itself evenly in it,” he muttered while demonstrating to her then handed her the vial. "Now you."

It looked easier than it was. Her hand shook slightly as she dropped three small drops of the liquid on the metal. Aron moved up to her and leaned over to watch her.

"Good?" asked Meyja then looked at her teacher.

"Excellent." For a moment he stayed so close to her, and returned her gaze only when she thought he was touching her did he get up. “Unfortunately, I have to go now. An order…” He pulled the mask over his face and winked at her.

It was only then that Meyja noticed that the sun had moved on and that they must have been sitting here for a few hours because dusk had already set in and it was getting cooler.

They said goodbye to each other and Aron went on his way while Meyja was relieved to collect her things which were still lying in the grass, and then went alone to her room in the Drunken Beggar.

Copyright: Larissa Doe

Chapter 15 - Observation

Sharaya, Kingdom of Jevarish, Caligon of the year 67

Aron laughed softly and shook his head. “You are really busy, Meyja. In my opinion, however, it’s too early,” he muttered dismissively.
They had spent the afternoon together practising, as they did so often. Her teacher was a pleasant, good-natured guy who showed a lot of patience when she was not very clever and she liked him better every day. They had almost become friends, but Meyja was afraid of being closer, she didn't want to send false signals.
Even if she liked Aron, her fear remained that he might see in her more than his student. But now he wanted to go out and observe a target person and she had asked him if she could accompany him, her curiosity about it had just been too great.
"Are you just chasing the target or are you killing it?" she asked undeterred.
“He'll probably spend the next few hours in a tavern and get drunk. I just watch for that long then I go into his room and put an end to him if it happens." He put his hands in his trouser pockets and looked at his feet before he said thoughtfully, "Maybe you could even be useful. It's less noticeable when you're sitting in an inn with a woman."
"Please, Aron...", Meyja begged and widened her eyes.
“Well then, come with me if you really want to. We'll leave your things in Ed's shop,” he finally gave in.
She smiled contentedly and easily caught up with him as he walked towards the city.
"Do you like beer?" asked Aron with a smile.
It was already dark outside when they left Ed's shop and made their way to the said tavern in the Old Town. Aron had just received a few new orders and looked satisfied.
“In the Drunken Beggar we will hardly be noticed. There is a lot of rabble around there. I'm also something of a regular guest," he said.
“In the Drunken Beggar? I have a room there,” Meyja replied.
He looked at her in disbelief and asked amused, “How did you come up with this crazy idea? Wasn't there anything free in one of the alleys in the gutter?"

“I just didn't have any money and the other inns looked way too expensive,” she replied truthfully.

He chuckled softly. "No money? You took thirty crowns from me, do you remember?"

“Yes, but I only found out in the room that it was so much. If you want, I'll give you the rest back. I haven't spent much so far."

He waved his hand with a grin. "Keep it. Like Ed said, it's my own fault that I lost it. Besides, I don't even need it."

"You are swimming in wealth, aren't you?" Her question was meant more jokingly and she was startled when Aron nodded.

“I'm good at what I do and get paid just as well. I don't have to worry about money, I have more than I can spend,” he said without sounding cocky.

Meyja nodded impressed. "What do you have to worry about?"

He stopped, looked at her, and said seriously, "It's about you at the moment."

Then he continued on his way, and she continued to walk beside him. "What do you mean?" she asked confused.

He was silent for a moment. “Don't screw it in there. Don't look in the direction of the target. When I say or do something just play along and don't question it. Act normally, and do not reveal anything about yourself. That applies not only to tonight, but in general. If I follow the person outside, you stay seated. Don't follow me, do you understand?"

Meyja nodded and he held the door of the tavern open for her which they had just reached. In the light she could see that he was grinning again.

"Come in, dear lady."

She returned the smile cautiously and went in, the dining room was packed and all seats were taken, except for the stool at the counter which had been empty on the day she arrived. Aron walked past her, steered purposefully towards it, waved to the host who immediately approached him and he took a seat.

"Aron, what can it be today?" grunted the coarse fellow with a brief glance at Meyja who had stopped next to Aron.

Aron replied, “First of all another stool for my company, Seth. And then two beers."

"Yo, come at once," Seth confirmed, hurried off, and returned just a moment later. "I'm really sorry, but there are no more stools."

Aron said nothing, but stared at the man on his left until he sighed, got up, and cleared his seat then he moved upstairs, and Aron patted the empty seat with a grin.
“Now you have a stool, Meyja. Sit down,“ he asked her and she did as she was told with a smile. The landlord put two mugs on the counter in front of them and disappeared again. Aron lifted his mug and said solemnly, “To your first lesson. And many more."

They toasted and Meyja tried the cold beer.

"Good?" Aron wanted to know and she nodded.

"Very well actually," she confirmed and he grinned happily. "You seem to be very well known in these circles," she remarked and looked at her teacher in awe.

“At some point you will be, too. And if you're good, they'll also keep a seat for you. If you want one,” he replied, took another long swig, and winked at her over the rim of the mug.

"Let's see if I have any talent as a criminal," she evaded but Aron nodded.

"You have. Definitely as a mugger," he grinned broadly, and she snorted into the foam of the beer she had just wanted to drink.

The flakes flew into her face, causing Aron to laugh out loud then he reached out, and wiped the foam from her cheek.

Meyja stopped in surprise when he touched her and leaned over to her.

"Listen," he whispered and put his arm around her shoulders. “In order not to attract attention, tonight we will pretend we are very familiar with each other. The target sits behind us at the table in the middle. He keeps looking over."

She nodded. "Why is he looking over? Does he know you?"

"Yes, fleetingly," he replied, taking his arm away again. “If you feel uncomfortable, you can go anytime. But at the moment my camouflage is the most important thing."

"All right. I wanted to come with you and will play along if it is necessary so that you don't get caught,” she replied with an embarrassed smile and drank her last sip of beer.

Aron laughed and also emptied his mug. "If I'm not careful, you will drink me under the table." He waved to Seth and raised two fingers who immediately waddled off and poured them more.

It was a fun evening, they talked about banalities for about three hours, laughed a lot, and drank beer. In between, Aron casually put a hand on her back, but Meyja was a bit drunk didn't really notice it anymore, and had almost forgotten why they were sitting here.

At some point Aron got up. She slid off her stool to her feet and stood in front of him, swaying and giggling.

"He's coming," he said with a smile, then pulled her close, and kissed her passionately.

Meyja was confused for a second, but then she remembered the disguise again, so she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back.

It tasted good, like a whiff of beer and something else which was probably his own taste.

'Damn, I'm drunk...' she thought.

She leaned against him and enjoyed the moment in drunken arrogance until they were interrupted.

"Aaaaaron, greetings." Slurping, his target person patted Aron's shoulder, who loosened the embrace a little reluctantly, but left an arm around her shoulders.

"Good evening, Thogar," Aron greeted his future victim. "What is the business doing?"

"Good, good. Can't complain as long as drinking is enough,” replied Thogar with a heavy tongue. He was laughing and tossed a few coins on the counter then nodded in Meyja's direction. "Who is your little one there?"

Before she could say anything herself, Aron waved his hand with a grin. “She belongs to me, Thogar. You can't buy her."

Thogar belched loudly and screwed up his mouth. “What a shame, I would have loved to take her home with me. Maybe another time. See you."

"Come home safely." Aron raised his hand when the drunk staggered away, then looked at Meyja again. "Which room do you have?"

"Number two, why?" she wanted to know.

“Because we're going there now. We'll talk upstairs, just be quiet, and keep smiling,” he mumbled also smiling and placed five crowns on the counter.
Seth came cuddled and wanted to grab it, but Aron held his hand. “The young lady here can live in her room as long as she wants. She can get whatever she wants to eat and drink. And you clean that hole up there every few days, do you understand?"

"Whatever she wishes," he nodded hastily.

Aron looked satisfied, grinned at her, and then led her up the stairs to her room. There he locked the door, went to the table and lit the lamp on it.

“Thogar is so drunk that he won't see me coming. The perfect time to turn him off."

Meyja sat down on the bed and nodded.

He drew his daggers and provided them with fresh poison. “From now on it will be uncomfortable. This part is the real work," he continued seriously, in the glow of the candle flame he looked almost threatening, but then with a smile in her direction, he pushed his weapons back into his belt and sat quietly next to her. "You were good. I'm sure nobody noticed that the whole thing wasn't real."

She returned the smile somewhat cautiously and mumbled, "Aron, may I ask you something?"

"Sure," he replied immediately and looked at her waiting.

Meyja looked back with cocked head. "Why are you paying for my room? Why this generosity?"

He looked at his boots and shrugged. "Because I'm able to do it. See it as a small present for your services tonight."

“That was absolutely nothing. I just kept you company. After all, you don't ask anything for teaching me your knowledge, do you?” For a moment, she had an uneasy feeling in her stomach and feared that he was expecting payment after all, they hadn't agreed on anything in this regard.

“No, I am not asking anything from you, Meyja. I just like you. That's all," he chattered, took a deep breath, then winked at her briefly. When he got up and went to the window, he suddenly looked very tense. "It's time." He pried open the boarded window with one of his daggers and removed the nails from the wood, then pulled the cloth in front of his face before looking over at her again. “See you tomorrow on the tree, like today, and at the same time. Take care of yourself."

Meyja also got up, nodded, and replied, “You too. I wish you success."

But by then he had already disappeared into the night.

Copyright: Larissa Doe

Chapter 16 - Philos

Sharaya, Kingdom of Jevarish, Avonia of the year 67

On this day, too, the sun shone down on her through the tops of the trees when Meyja was again sitting on the tree behind the barn by the pumpkin field in the grass and waiting for Aron. The cathedral clock had struck at the second hour after noon some time ago, and she was beginning to wonder where he had gone. Her classes were held at the same time almost every day, so she didn't think he'd just forgotten. She pushed away from the trunk and stood up resolutely. If her teacher didn't come, she'd just start practising alone, at least she didn't want to sit around doing nothing. She pulled the stiletto out of her boot and weighed it briefly in her hand to remember the feel of the weight then held it by the tip, as Aron had shown her, and tossed it towards a tree some distance away. The blade whizzed through the air and fell into the grass.

'More power...' she thought.
She picked up the knife and returned to where she started.

Throwing had been a headache for her for weeks, she just couldn't do it, but she had made great strides in the rest of the way. By now she knew about the basics – at least theoretically – and had some practice in duels. Aron had shown her a few tricks that she could use when it came to asserting herself against an opponent without weapons. And she could also move silently and pry locks and locks on windows, but none of that was by far enough for her first order out.

Half an hour and many attempts later the stiletto got stuck in the bark at least once, but she still hadn't hit the point she had aimed at.

'One last time...' she thought.

She took the stiletto between her fingers, let out a concentrated breath, and threw it. Met!

“Yes!” She couldn't help but shout a quiet victory.

Meyja walked up to the tree and pulled out the stiletto that was exactly at eye level and when she turned around, Aron was sitting below their tree. She winced, a hand on her chest.

"You finally made it, but it was about time," he remarked with a grin.

"How long have you been watching me?" She approached him.

“I was just coming when you were pulling the stiletto out of your boot. I thought it would be interesting to see how you do when you feel unobserved," he admitted and Meyja's cheeks visibly reddened.

"That's creepy to be honest," she remarked.

He laughed out loud. “You can assume that someone is always nearby and can see you. Even now we could both be watched without even realising it. It is nowhere safe, especially outdoors."

Meyja stopped in front of him, put her hands on her hips and looked around.
Aron looked up at the young woman who had impressed him so much for several months.

She showed commitment, perseverance, determination, and, moreover, a certain cold-heartedness that fascinated him most. She had stepped into his life out of nowhere, and since then they have seen each other almost every day. He had chosen her as an easy victim six months ago, a welcome change from the boredom of everyday life, but she was able to prove to him how much you can be wrong sometimes, even if you thought you were one of the best.

The wind brushed her dark-dyed hair which she wore in a high ponytail as always, some loose strands gently blowing in the light breeze. He let his gaze wander over her contours, the skin-tight clothing made of black leather looked great on her, her body was slim and yet appeared powerful, almost graceful, and when she walked or moved, it almost seemed as if she was dancing. The hands she was just putting on her hips were small, the fingers slender like her body. She had high cheekbones and a small nose, covered with freckles, and above them large, dark blue eyes that were always studying the surroundings with interest. When she looked at him, her look seemed clever, as if she already knew everything there was to know and sometimes, he even got a little afraid she might read his mind with it.

Taken together, an intelligent, impressive, beautiful woman with a particularly pretty face that was seldom found in Sharaya. She had a dark deep voice that sounded not in the least masculine, and her laugh was immediately infectious, even on the blackest night she made the sun rise with it. But he had to laugh particularly heartily when she got upset, then she almost sparkled, like now.

Meyja couldn't believe that he just sat there and ignored her, even though he was looking directly at her with a strange, absent look. "Aron!"

She was just leaning down to him when he laughed, shook his head, and apologised in amusement, “I'm sorry, I must’ve been dreaming. What did you say?"

"I asked how I can tell if someone is sneaking around here!" she repeated angrily.

Aron got up and looked around then stepped behind her, and looked over her shoulder while he explained quietly, “Watch out for movement in the grass. And everything that offers a certain amount of coverage. You will probably not realise any of this at this point in time, but that comes with experience. When you have learned to hide yourself perfectly."

She nodded slowly and then looked at him over her shoulder with a look that made his stomach ache.

“What should I learn today?” she asked.

He rubbed his bearded chin thoughtfully with his fingers. "I think I'll show you the best way to kill effectively, what do you think of that?"

Meyja helplessly raised her arms. "Aren't you the teacher? Tell me what to practise and I will practise."

Aron smiled. "Get a little branch somewhere, we'll practice killing."

They spent the next two hours re-enacting various scenarios in which Aron played the victim and Meyja performed the fatal blows and cuts with the stick as a dagger bustle according to his instructions. Finally, they sat down under the tree again, it was still light but Aron took his flask out of his pocket and took a sip then handed it to Meyja. The contents smelled strongly and she just sipped carefully before handing the container back to him. For a while, they sat next to each other in silence and drank schnapps then Aron got up.

“The day is still young. Do you have anything to do today?” he asked.

"No, a few more errands for Ed tomorrow morning. Do you?” she looked up at him.

He shook his head and looked towards the city as she got up, too.

Somehow, he made a strange impression on her today. “Is everything okay, Aron? You seem... I don't know... almost exhilarated. And yet absent."

She eyed him sideways, but he waved it off. “Everything is fine with me. Let's do something crazy."

"What were you thinking of?" she asked with a frown.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I have no idea yet. Let's go to my flat maybe we'll think of something on the way."

"Agreed." She was still a little confused, but she followed him up the meadow and back into the city.

Aron's flat was in an inconspicuous house in the Workshop where she had expected a tiny dirty room. She didn't know why, but she was wrong about him because there were two large bright rooms and it was extremely neat. He took off his boots, put his daggers on the table under a window, and crossed into the other room.

Meyja also left her shoes at the door and was looking around when Aron called from the next room, "Are you hungry?"

"No, not yet."

He came back with two mugs and sat down in one of the two armchairs in the middle of the room between which was another lower table on which he placed the drinking vessels.

"And to drink? Wine, beer, or something stronger? What do you want? I can get you water too,” he offered.

She took a seat in the other armchair. "I take the same thing as you."

He grinned. "So, wine and Philos."

"Philos? What is that supposed to be?” Maybe the impression was just wrong and Aron had behaved differently towards her up to now than he normally did.

“You don't drink it; you smoke philosopher's herb. Wine goes best with the taste,” he explained and disappeared again into the next room.

He sat down again with two small metal cans, a bottle of wine in his hands, and handed her a can. “I've never had any guest. If I am a lousy host, please let me know."

Meyja nodded and opened the lid of the metal box from which an interesting, spicy scent of what looked like dry grass poured towards her. "I've never smoked anything before, but it smells nice," she remarked handing the container back to him. “But my father often smoked a pipe in the salon. Previously. He is dead." She bit her tongue. She hadn't wanted to tell that much. She didn't even want to remember that much. And certainly no one in Northaven had a salon in his house. "Please forget it again. That was stupid." 

Aron looked at her in surprise for a moment then just nodded and began to mix some of the Philosopher's herb with a coarse brown powder on a strip of paper.

"What is the other stuff?" Meyja asked curiously.

“Simple tobacco. It has no effect, but the Philosopher's herb does,” he explained as he rolled the powder into the parchment.

"Effect? Like alcohol?” she asked further feeling increasingly stupid.

'I don' know anythin’...' she thought.

He nodded again. “Similar to alcohol, but different. You will feel it. And you'd better take off your weapons and your strap, it could be that you want to lie down afterwards," he advised with a wink, lit the cigarette, leaned back, and sucked his lips on the lower opening then he breathed the smoke with relish the end.

She got up and went to the table by the window to put down her daggers, laboriously trying to loosen the chest strap under her tight-fitting shirt.

"Do you need help?" he wanted to know with a smile.

She looked over her shoulder and shook her head. “No, it's okay. Just close your eyes for a moment please."

"Are tightly closed." Aron closed his eyelids, but he opened them again a little when he heard that she put something on the table.

Only her silhouette could be seen, but that was enough to convince him one more time of her beauty. For a moment he thought about telling her how beautiful he found her, but then decided against it. He would have loved to let her into his life, but his fear for her was greater than the need to be close to her.

"Thanks, you can open them again." She just sat back in the armchair and he passed her the smoking fragrant cigarette. "How do you do that now?" Meyja asked helplessly.

“Exhale, take it lightly between your lips, and then suck a little air into your mouth through it. Finally, take a deep breath, and slowly breathe out again. But be careful.” He took a sip of the wine.

She did as he said, but coughed briefly as she breathed out. With a giggle, Meyja handed him the rolled parchment back. "Interesting," she remarked.

He also drew once and gave it to her again, so they smoked the entire cigarette together.

At the end, she asked, "Do you do that often?”

"What do you mean?" he frowned.

She giggled. "Smoking. What else?"

Aron grinned broadly. “I thought you mean taking women into my apartment. Philos is hard to come by and it's expensive, but I still smoke almost every day."

"You said you had never had any guests before," she reminded him.

"Oh, right," he remarked. "I think the Philos is starting to work."

They laughed exuberantly and drank their wine then Aron sat up and looked at her.

“I just got an idea. Something crazy.” He smiled.

"Even crazier than this?" She looked at him surprised and when he nodded she straightened up too. "Tell me."

He laughed softly and confessed, “I've always wanted a ring in my ear. But I never managed to pierce it myself. Would you do that for me?"

Meyja laughed uproariously and nodded her head expansively. "This is really crazy."

"Do you dare?"

When she was still nodding and giggling, he got up and went into the other room a third time, this time coming back with a candle, a thick needle, and a couple of metal rings.

Aron lit the candle and held the needle briefly in the flame then he grinned at her. “We can start. Come on."

Meyja got up, shaking her head and walked over to him. She stopped behind his chair and he handed her the needle which she carefully took between her fingers at the back end. Well, where do you want it?” she asked exuberantly.

He tilted his head on his right side, brushed his hair aside, and pointed a finger at the back upper part of his auricle. "About there, can you do that?" he asked, slight nervousness in his voice.

She didn't answer just put two fingers around his ear, and stabbed the needle through it from back to front before he could change his mind.

"Ouch!" he whined and began to laugh.

"You wanted it that way, why are you crying now?" She also went down on her knees laughing.

"I'm not crying at all," he replied indignantly but then had to smile.

"How do I get the ring in there now?" Meyja got up again, she was still chuckling.

"You have to pull the needle out again and thread the ring at the same time I think," he replied handing her one of the metal rings.

"You think so?" she repeated.

He looked over his shoulder, the needle still in his ear. "I have no idea, after all, I've never done that before."

"I'll just try, after all, it's not about my ear." She slowly pulled the needle forward, as it was about to slip out of the hole, she quickly pushed the ring behind.

"Well wait, it's your turn now..." he mumbled grinning.

“Oh no, I don't want an earring. But I'm done, looks good.” She was bending the metal at the same time so that it stayed in place.

He got up and grabbed her, holding her head under his arm as she squealed.

"No please, I don't want an earring!" she laughed, but he pushed her into the armchair, and pressed his hands on her shoulders so that she wouldn't flee.

Then he looked into her face with a grin and asked himself. “What would look good on you? Hm..."

"No earring!" she pleaded and tried to break free again.

"I know," said Aron quietly and she paused.

"What do you know?" She looked at him waiting.

“What would suit you. Here...", he whispered and tapped a finger on her right nostril with a smile.

"No," she whispered back.

"Are you scared?" asked Aron with a smile.

"No, not that, but it will surely look awful," she whined softly.

With a gentle shake of his head he mumbled, "Trust me."

"Do it," she said resolutely and would have liked to slap herself for this madness in the next moment.

He picked up the needle she had dropped, wiped it on his shirt, and put it into the flame of the candle again before turning back to her and gently putting her face in his hands to reposition her head to turn. Then he carefully cupped her tiny nostril in his big fingers and stabbed through it from the inside to the outside at lightning speed.

Meyja blinked a few times until the tears that had come into her eyes were gone. She didn't want to show the pain, even when Aron pushed the ring through, she just closed her eyelids, and didn't make a sound.

"Complete. And it looks good, really," said Aron quietly.

"I don't know..." she began doubtfully, but he nodded vigorously.

"Honestly, I think it's nice," he affirmed.

"Well, if you say so." She was still sceptical.

Aron turned around and took a small mirror from the shelf which he handed to her. "See for yourself, if you don't want to believe it.”

She looked at his work critically, her nostril was smeared with blood, but it was already dried which is why she didn't care.

“You're right, I like it," she remarked with a transfigured grin on her face.

He smiled too. "That makes me happy. Did it hurt a lot?"

She wrinkled her nose and lips while nodding.

"You were brave," he said in mock seriousness and patted her head gently.

"Hey, I'm no dog!" complained Meyja and they burst out laughing again.

Aron went into the next room one more time and came back with a bottle full of clear liquid and a linen bandage, she looked at him questioningly.

“Pure alcohol, we can use it to clean the injuries. Before anything ignites,” he explained and tore off a few strips of the material with his dagger before he soaked it with the alcohol, and went back to her.

"Good idea." Meyja tilted her head back.

Carefully, he wiped the blood away with the small rag, rubbed gently over the metal and her skin and mumbled. "It's definitely not bleeding anymore."

"I saw that," she replied softly.

Aron asked. “Mine didn’t?”

She took one of the scraps of cloth, and let him sit down in the armchair before she nodded again. "Yes, a little."

Stroking his hair aside, he put his head back to one side, and she also wiped neatly over his ear and the metal ring when he suddenly winced and laughed softly.

"Your hair tickles," he remarked. 

"Oh, sorry," she muttered, brushing the strand that hung down to his neck behind her ear before sitting back in her chair.

"More Philos?" suggested Aron and she nodded.

So, he rolled another cigarette, lit it, and leaned back. While he was smoking, he looked at Meyja, a tiny smile on his face.

She tried to meet his gaze, but gave up after a short time with slightly flushed cheeks.

“What?" he wanted to know with a smile and passed the Philos over to her.

"Nothing. I was just wondering why you are looking at me like that," she replied, inhaling a drag, and exhaling a thick cloud.

He looked at her for a moment. "I have only examined my work."

Meyja knew that he was lying because he had looked her straight in the eye, and they weren't sitting far enough apart that he could have hidden it. Nevertheless, she asked. "And are you still satisfied?"

When she handed him back the cigarette, he nodded and tugged on the stub again before tossing it into the ashtray provided and pouring them more wine. "Do you want to lie down?"

"Yeah, I'd really like to," she admitted embarrassed.

Aron took the two drinks, got up, placing the mugs on the bedside table, and went over to the bed before lying back on it. "Where are you?" he asked lifting his head.

She had stopped next to the bed and was still hesitating, actually she had assumed that he would remain sitting in the armchair. But what of it, after all, they were both still in their clothes, so she lay down next to him on her back and put her feet on the edge.

He lay on his side and looked at her. "Does it still hurt?"

Meyja turned her head in his direction. "A little. But hardly worth mentioning. The earring suits you very well."

“I can only give the same back. Really nice,” he remarked with a smile and ran a fingertip over her cheek.

She blushed and quickly looked away. "Thanks."

They lay there for about an hour, talking about various things, then Aron got up, looking down at her. "More to smoke?"

"Gladly," she replied with a smile.

They sat back in the armchairs, smoked two more cigarettes, drank wine, and told each other funny stories.

It was already night when Meyja fell asleep and her head sank to one side.

Aron went over to her, knelt in front of her, and put a hand on her knee. "Meyja?"

When she didn't react, he gently shook her shoulder to wake her up, but this attempt also failed, she slept soundly. But since she was breathing calmly there was nothing to be alarmed about, even if he couldn't bring her to her room at the Drunken Beggar in this condition. So, he put one arm around her back, and the other under her knees, picked her up gently, and carried her to his bed where he carefully placed her on the sheets. Then he blew out the candle that was still burning on the table and went back to the bed, looked down at her with a smile, and wondered for a moment whether she was always sleeping in her clothes.

He had no idea if she was wearing anything underneath, however, so he discarded the idea of taking off her trousers so that she would be more comfortable. He also left his own on, and lay down to rest with his back to her.

When he was almost asleep, Meyja put her arm over his hip, mumbling softly, and snuggled up against him.

He blinked in surprise. "Meyja, are you awake?"

But he got no answer, at some point he closed his eyes again and fell asleep with a smile on his face.

Copyright: Larissa Doe

Chapter 17 - Suspicion

"Wake up, Meyja."

She heard Aron's voice and felt a hand on her shoulder. When she opened her eyes, he was laying right next to her. She sat up in bed with a jerk and looked around, it was already light outside and she was still in his apartment, so she must have fallen asleep.

"Good morning," he said with a smile and swung his legs out of bed.

"As well. Why didn't you wake me up yesterday?” she asked confused.

“You slept so deeply that I couldn't wake you up. It was late so I let you sleep.” He looked at her.

Meyja nodded slowly, blushing before she asked softly, "We... we haven't...?"

"No, we have not. What do you take me for?” he replied with a frown then went into the next room and made breakfast for them.

A quarter of an hour later they said goodbye on the street and Meyja went to see Ed. Aron walked away in the other direction, she didn't know exactly where and she didn't ask, they would meet again later that day behind the pumpkin field anyway.
When she got to the store, Ed was in the back room with a supposed customer, so she went out again, and waited outside, the fresh air was good for her and helped her to remember the previous evening. In retrospect, she remembered everything, the rings they had made for each other, what they had laughed at, the wine, and the Philosopher's herb. Even that Aron tried to wake her up and finally put her in his bed, she remembered darkly, she had been cold, and she had warmed herself on him.

'Crap...' she thought.

Meyja covered her face with her hands and took a deep breath.

He liked her.

A lot.

It hit her like a blow.

His behaviour undoubtedly indicated it, but she had closed her eyes to it. Couldn't she, or didn't she want to see it? She couldn't answer that question herself, so instead she wondered, if she felt the same way.
She listened deep inside, thought of Aron and imagined his face, how he looked when he smiled, how she felt when he touched her.

No doubt she liked him too.

For the first time she really liked a man.

But that wasn’t allowed, she was afraid of these feelings, it just didn’t work, she wasn’t allowed to feel that way, that was far too dangerous!

If he did to her what Ethan had done...

She quickly pushed that thought aside, she would never let that happen, never again would a man lay a hand on her if she could prevent it. And so, she quietly decided to pretend she didn't feel for Aron.

When the customer finally left the shop, Meyja went in and greeted Ed who looked at her in horror.

“Child, what happened to you? You smell like philosopher's weed a hundred yards away. And what do you have on your face anyway? Were you with Aron?” He wanted to know.

"No, I wasn't," she lied dismissively.

Ed crossed his arms and shook his head. “You can't hide this from me. I only know one person who can afford this expensive stuff."

She looked him in the eye and repeated her lie. "I was still not at Aron's."

With his index finger pointing forward, he went up to her. “If Aron walks in here afterwards and wears a ring like that, you can prepare for the worst because you lied to me. Got it?"

She threw up her arms in resignation. “Well, I admit it. I was with Aron all night. We smoked philosopher's herb, drank wine, and embellished each other with metal rings. Do you want more details?”

Ed slowly lowered his finger, scowled at her, and replied a little more gently, “Be careful of him, Meyja. He may be a good teacher, but he is a bad person."

“Aren't we all bad people for killing others, or at least planning to? Aron is nice to me, and I like him a lot. What's wrong with that?” she wanted to know defiantly.

He shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing in itself at first, but I'm only warning you about him this once. Take care of yourself when you get involved with him."

“I don't get involved in anything; we are friends. Nothing happened. Nothing at all," she muttered.

Meyja would like to end the discussion immediately, but her boss continued. “Girl, that may be true. But that means nothing to him. He changes his friends almost every day. I've known him for a few years now and have noticed a lot. He likes nothing but crowns and whores. But what am I talking about? You're old enough and you will know what you're doing.” He put two packages on the counter and pointed to them. “This has to go to Jared in the Workshop, the other to Quincy in the Tired Traveller. And now get out of here." With these words he shooed her out the door.

Four hours later, she'd done all of the jobs Ed had given her for the day, but he'd still looked a little annoyed the last time she'd left the store that day with her meagre errands in her pocket. Usually, she would have been a pain in his neck a little more until he gave her some extra work to get rid of her, but she didn't care about the coins that day. It was enough for a meal and so she sat chewing with some bread and cheese on the wall that separated the Workshop from the Old Town and enjoyed the view.

There was a small lake by the pumpkin field and she usually went there, but she didn't want to meet Aron at the moment and according to her guess he would hardly hang around on the city walls. When she had finished, she just sat there, dangling her legs from the wall, and holding her face in the warm rays of the sun, but she couldn't really enjoy the moment, the conversation with Ed in the morning just couldn't let go of her.

Maybe he was even right with his warning about Aron, after all he really knew him better than she did, and she hadn't even noticed that Aron had feelings for her, besides, he had behaved very strangely yesterday which she also did could not assign. The tower clock struck at the second hour past noon and Meyja jumped up.

'Damned...' she thought.

She quickly climbed off the wall and dashed off.

Breathless she reached the tree where Aron was already sitting in the grass, and he looked as she let herself fall next to him.

"Did Ed rush you through town again for half the day?" he asked with a grin.

She just nodded, still breathing heavily, and he gave her another minute to relax then said softly. "I just had a very unpleasant conversation with him. He seems almost worried about you."

"So?" Meyja pretended to be ignorant.

“He doesn't like that we're more than just teachers and students,” he continued.

She pretended to be stupid, frowned, and asked, "Is that us?"

He hadn't been ready for this answer, so he was silent for a moment.

"If you don't want to, it's not us," he muttered his heart pounding as he said it, and waited for her to reply, he was almost afraid that she’d hear the pounding.

Meyja swallowed, she also was surprised by the course of the conversation, and not in a positive way. He actually asked her if she wanted him? Did she like him more than a student used to like her teacher? Did she also have feelings for him? She had decided this morning to ignore these feelings, and now he was tormenting her by trying to get the truth out of her. But she was suddenly unsure whether her theory made sense at all maybe he just wanted her friendship after all.

"What would we be, if we weren't just teachers and students?" she asked.

Her counter-questions felt like slaps in the face to him, he had hoped so much that she would have simply said she wanted more than that, after all, he had given her the opportunity to reveal herself. He was also sure that she harboured feelings when he kissed her in the Drunken Beggar, only through her it became a real kiss because she had returned it, even seemed to enjoy it and she had also unconsciously sought his presence last night. But her final answer was still pending.

He considered himself, gathered up all his courage, and looked at her. "Lovers."

Meyja nodded understandingly, and looked at her feet, so he really didn't want friendship, he wanted her by his side, as she had feared. She wished she could just say yes, not have to hurt him, but she couldn't. Her fear was stronger than anything else, she was still its prisoner, and she could not free herself from its grip.

When she raised her head and looked at him again, tears shone in the corners of her eyes. “I... I can't do that, Aron. I'm sorry…” Then she jumped up and ran.

He got up, too, but before he could run after her she was already out of sight and he was left alone.

Aron had never been a child of sadness, his daring, self-assured manner and his appearance had always helped him when it came to making a woman his own for a night. And if it did not turn out, he had enough gold to buy himself the service of one of the whores, of whom there were innumerable in the city. But he had never loved before, he had never even let one of his playmates into his apartment. Since he knew Meyja, it was different, the interest in other women was a thing of the past and the only thing he was looking forward to were their hours together at the tree. He thought of her when she wasn't around, even if it made him unhappy, he longed for her so much. In her eyes he could tell that something was wrong and he suddenly became very worried about her.

Meanwhile, Meyja kept running straight ahead, not even noticing which direction she was headed, but at some point, her muscles began to burn so much that she had to stop. Breathing heavily, she looked around and saw that she wasn’t far from the harbour.

Below her was the bay that was the real power of the Kingdom of Jevarish, even if only three of the imposing frigates were at anchor. She had never been here before, but she knew the port was far outside Sharaya.

The sun was just setting and she dragged herself still completely out of breath to a small hill where she sat on the grass, and watched as the glowing ball of fire seemed to sink into the sea behind the horizon.

It was only in the middle of the night that she realised that she was still sitting and staring down at the harbour, the entire time her thoughts had been going in circles. Over and over again she had looked at the matter with Aron from all sides before she had always come to the same conclusion. It did not work. She was unable to love him, even if she did like him.

It wasn't even the fear he might rape her anymore because he had already had the opportunity to do so more than once. Rather, it was about the fear of what lay dormant within herself. And yet this fear was always present, had spread inside her and now poisoned her from within, so that it seemed impossible to her ever to get close to any man again.

But how about if it wasn't about a man, but a woman? Would it be easier for her then? Certainly not because it was all about her own feelings which came out when someone touched her, even if she wasn't aware of it herself.

If only Yary was still with her. Then all the problems would just vanish into thin air. Confusion and despair made her cry again, but she got up and started back to Sharaya.

Copyright: Larissa Doe

Chapter 18 - Commands

Meyja woke up the next morning in her bed in the Drunken Beggar, and sat up with a groan to get dressed. The night before, she had taken a bottle of schnapps with her to her room, and drank it half empty which now revenged itself with a heck of a headache. On her way through the nocturnal city she had always kept an eye out for Aron and already feared that he would run into her again, or even sit at the counter when she returned to her temporary home, but nothing like that had happened.
She took the liquor bottle that was on the floor next to the bed and took a long swig from it before slipping on her boots, slipping the daggers into her strap, and heading to Ed to do her daily errands.

Heart pounding, she pushed open the shop door and was relieved to find that she was alone with her boss, who came through the curtain and frowned at her.

"What happened again?" he wanted to know and crossed his arms over his chest.

Meyja waved her hand impatiently and replied, “Nothing. I just had a little much booze last night and it didn't work out very well for me. But before you ask... I was drinking alone. What is there to do?"

Ed took two small packages from the shelf behind the counter and walked over to her. “I told you to stay away from Aron. At least as far as possible. It's not good for you, child."

“My name is Meyja and I would be grateful, if you called me that. But while we're on the subject... Isn't there anyone else who could teach me?” she asked embarrassed.

“So, it is because of Aron. I knew it," Ed grumbled and thought for a moment. “Well, there would still be one or the other who could be considered a teacher. But they are nowhere near as good as Aron. However, he said you had great talent, so it would at least be worth a try."

“I just want to avoid him. We kind of had an argument and I would be happy, if I didn't have to see him for a while,” she replied quietly. "But please choose someone who takes me seriously and doesn't treat me like a girl or even a child."

"Of course. There is also no point in sparing yourself. You are supposed to be good, after all. I have enough third-rate assassins, even if it sounds tough,” he said and handed her the package. "Deliver the two of them here, and when you come back, we'll see. This one with Jared, and this one with Quincy. Unfortunately, I don't have more.” He pointed to the corresponding packages, and watched as Meyja pushed her way out the door.

An hour later, Meyja finished her errands and returned to the shop where fortunately there was no trace of Aron to be found. Instead, another guy with short dark hair, and equally dark eyes was sitting on the counter which he slid off when she walked in. He was a lot older than her, and didn't seem particularly friendly.

“You have to be Meyja. Ed has already talked a lot and gave me the glorious task of educating you. However, he didn't say that you smell like the inside of a liquor bottle,” he greeted her while he looked at her disapprovingly from top to bottom.

She nodded tiredly. “I am. And I've had a tough night. It won't happen again, sorry."

"Well. That also explains why he said that we shouldn't start practising until tomorrow,” he continued and held out his hand to her. "I'm Raemur, and if you're really as talented as Ed promises, we'll both have a good time together."

"I can't answer whether he promised too much, but we'll see," she replied.

The shop door behind her was thrown open and when she looked over her shoulder, she hastily lowered her head again because it was Aron who looked back in astonishment.

"What's going on here?" he asked and stepped over to them.

“From now on, I'll take care of her if you don't mind. Ed asked me to do it,” said Raemur, amazed at the tension that existed between Meyja and Aron. "However, I don't know the exact reason for this."

"Neither do I," muttered Aron.

Meyja who still kept her head bowed felt the looks of the two which literally pierced her. She didn't know what to answer, so she just kept quiet as she wiggled her toes, and looked at the small bumps that were pressing into the toes of her boots.

“Raemur, would you excuse us for a moment? I think that Meyja and I still have something to clarify,” asked Aron.

When Raemur agreed and his feet moved out of her field of vision, she was already cramping inside, since she had absolutely wanted to avoid this confrontation.

"Will you tell me what's going on?" Aron asked quietly after the shop door had slammed behind Raemur.

She gathered up all her courage, lifted her head, and looked at him before she replied coolly, “No, and there is nothing to be clarified either, Aron. I just think it's better to keep your distance."

He returned her gaze, and she could see that her words had hurt him, but he nodded slowly and cleared his throat softly. "Alright. Then I will leave you in peace now if that’s your wish."

When she nodded, he turned away and went through the curtain to look for Ed while Meyja fought back tears for a few seconds and then went outside where Raemur was waiting.

"I'm sorry you had to wait," she muttered a little absently.

Raemur just waved a hand. "All right. Where did you two always meet to practise?"

"Behind the barn by the pumpkin field," she replied pointing in the approximate direction out of town.

“Well, we'll meet there tomorrow at noon. I know about your errands and Ed said that you always met Aron at the second hour. Let's just keep it that way,” he said before turning and walking away without saying goodbye.

Meyja sighed and also made her way to Drunken Beggar where half a bottle of schnapps was waiting for her, but which she undoubtedly had to keep her hands off of, if she didn't want to risk trouble with her new teacher.

Ed looked at Aron seriously, his arms crossed over his chest as so often.

“You know this is all nonsense. Talent or not. It brings unrest in our ranks and we can't use that,” Ed grumbled.

Aron puffed out air in surprise and replied, "If I may remind you, it wasn't my idea to take in a mugger."

“It has not yet been accepted. But you know what that means,” Ed muttered darkly.

With a violent shake of his head Aron hit the table. "No, Ed. I will not do that. She is not one of us, even if she has done well so far."

"Yes, it's okay. Then I'll put Deval on her,” Ed replied throwing his hands up impatiently.

Aron jumped up indignantly. "No, not Deval!"

Ed glared up at him and pointed to the chair so that Aron sat down again a little meekly and bowed his head submissively.

“It seems to me that you have a lot to say about our red-haired beauty. Out with it,” Ed ordered, his tone of voice showing that he didn’t allow arguing.

You could clearly see how much Aron was writhing inside, but Ed was his boss and he didn't dare to annoy him anymore. “It's kind of my fault, too. Besides everything she tries to hide from us, she's not a bad person. Rather, she gives the impression that she has experienced things that we cannot dream of. If you are right about the theory that she comes from Voynar, that would even be more than plausible. And she freaked out because I tried to get closer to her," Aron admitted.

"You like her?" Ed exclaimed dismayed.
Aron just nodded in silence, his eyes lowered on the mug of schnapps which he turned back and forth in his hands.

“Well, that changes the whole matter very much," Ed muttered gritting his teeth.

“I know you don't like this, Ed. I'm sorry, but I didn't choose. You just don't have control over who you fall in love with,” apologized Aron.

Ed got up, picked up his mug, and peppered it in a corner. “And for this very reason, Aron! Now we've got the shit on our hands!” 

"Nevertheless, the problems it caused are no reason to take care of them for a long time please," Aron replied seriously.

Sitting down again, Ed slowly shook his head before he replied, “No, Aron. Actually, that's really not a reason. But I would like to see her dead just to teach you a lesson. You know what? In the end, you gave us this shit. And I know you; if I let any of the other men do it, you will blame them, and this will tear the entire guild apart. Do it yourself, and get rid of it with it. I've taken you under my wing for far too long, now it's time you finally took responsibility for what you do. There was a deal, and you will stick to it. By all heavens! You’ll be twenty-five in six months! And I treat you like a child all the time! Do it or live with the consequences! Get out of here now before I lose my mind!"

Aron couldn't believe what Ed was asking of him, but he got up, and shuffled out the door. Once on the street, he leaned against the wall of a house and tried to calm down. So, he should kill her, otherwise Ed sent Deval to her, and that meant a painful, cruel, and slow death, whereas he himself would do it quickly and graciously. Still, it just wasn't right.

Meyja was a problem but he was sure that it would only be temporary and that she would soon prove herself, if one gave her a chance.
For the first time he had opened up to a woman and now it should mean the end of her, he couldn't believe it. However, she had made it clear to him that he should leave her alone after which he could bury any hopes of togetherness anyway.
And Ed was the boss, so Aron wasn't allowed to judge what he'd always been happy about, even if it was different now. Yet...

He pushed himself away from the wall with grim determination and set off to find Raemur who would surely help him to lure Meyja into a trap.

Copyright: Larissa Doe

Chapter 19 - Questions

When Meyja came to the pumpkin field the next day, Raemur was waiting for her, leaning against the tree.

"Am I late?" she asked nervously and unsure about her new teacher.

Raemur shook his head, and walked slowly towards her, finally stopped at an arm's length, and looked her over again.

"Show me your daggers," he said holding out his hands.

Little did she know something was wrong, so she drew her weapons, and handed them to him.

Raemur looked at the blades. “Even poisoned. You seem to take the matter really seriously, all due respect."

"Of course. After all, it's about a lot,” she replied puzzled. Did he really expect her to do things by halves?

"Do you have any other weapons with you?" he asked further.

Meyja nodded, pulled her stiletto out of her boot and reached out her hand to take back the daggers before she handed him the throwing knife. But Raemur kept the titanium blades in his hand and was about to take the stiletto from her when her instinct screamed that something was wrong.

"Wait... what are you going to do? What's going on here?” she asked worriedly, took a step back, and looked around hastily.

Aron stood a few metres behind her; he also had his daggers in his hand and wore the mask in front of his face.

'No...' she thought.

Now she knew what was going on. Raemur and Aron had lured her into a trap and wanted to kill her.

"You aren’t serious, are you?" she exclaimed dismayed. "Why?"

“Meyja, it wasn't our decision. And I'm very sorry about you, but you just know too much,” Aron tried to explain.

"I don't know anything!" she shouted angrily and tossed the stiletto that she was still holding into the grass. “And I'm unarmed! Do you also kill unarmed women, yes?!"

Raemur laughed, dropped her daggers, and pulled his own from the waist belt. "The little one has a sense of humour," he said with a grin and took a step towards her.

When she saw that Aron was also moving towards her, she turned on her heel, and ran off with a hook, a few metres further a stiletto whizzed past her head, and she accelerated her run.

Aron and Raemur weren't nearly as nimble as Meyja and she'd left them both after a minute. Breathing heavily, she stopped, sat down on the ground behind a bush, and considered.

So, now they wanted her death because she supposedly knew too much but she had no idea what exactly she should know that could be so life-threatening that two assassins were after her. And above all, she didn't know what to do now. If she just went back to Sharaya, they’d no doubt find her before she could leave. But she didn't have a coin with her, was unarmed, and didn't know her way around Jevarish. Besides, she didn't know anyone who would help her, so her situation was more than precarious.

Her brooding was stopped by the familiar coldness of the steel on her throat and she didn't even have to look to know that it was Aron who had found her.

"You're quick," he remarked breathlessly and pulled the cloth from his face.

“And you are good. Do it quick, please,” she mumbled resignedly and closed her eyes.

Aron sat down next to her and shook his head. “No, Meyja. I will not make it quick. First you answer a few of my questions."

"Go ahead," she replied dismissively, even if she wasn't about to give him an honest answer.

He thought for a moment, then asked, "Who are you really?"

"Nobody," she whispered.

Sighing, he looked up at the sky without moving his head. “Why don't we just stick to the truth? What do you have to lose?"

"That's the truth, and I have nothing to lose," she replied evasively.

The next moment she rammed her elbow hard into his side and jumped up but he caught her ankle and made her fall. When she tried to get up again, he threw himself on her and tried to push her to the ground, but she struggled fiercely even knocking the dagger out of his hand which then landed a little further in the grass. Though she was clearly inferior to him physically, she managed to punch him in the chin with a fist that made his ears ring. Fidgeting and kicking in panic, she kicked him with her feet, but he continued to hold on to her, even if she hit him a couple of times and he groaned in pain.

"Now hold still, I don't want to kill you at all!" he shouted urgently grabbed her shoulders and shook her vigorously until she finally stopped.

"But?" she hissed dazedly and glared at him.

“I want to find a solution. Just understand..." he replied impatiently.

"Again, these solo efforts, Aron?" Raemur remarked and stepped over to them.

Aron waved his hand off and growled. "Get out of here, Raemur. It's a thing between Meyja and me, you have nothing to do with it."

“Yes, I have. At least yesterday you asked me to disarm her for you, do you remember?” Raemur hissed angrily and stared at the young woman at his feet with hostility.

“And you did, so you can go home now. Thank you for your help, but from here on I can manage on my own.” Aron rolled his eyes in exasperation.

"Just do it, then we'll be over," whispered Meyja.

"Aron just likes to complicate things," Raemur grumbled but then he turned around and walked away.

Aron was silent for another minute in which he considered how he should best explain the matter to her while he held Meyja so that she would not try to escape again with some trick.

She interrupted his brooding when she almost pleaded. "Send me to the dead and stop torturing me."

"What am I torturing you with?" he asked confused.

A lonely tear ran from the corner of her eye. “With everything. With these questions and your betrayal that you don't want to end now. Just do it and release me."

“But I don't want to kill you, Meyja. I want to talk to you and to understand why. Even when I'm told to kill you, I never meant to do it. I wanted to take the opportunity for a conversation, but I was stupid and I'm very sorry," he explained again.

“There is nothing to understand. You betrayed me and now I am faced with nothing again. I am insignificant and alone in this world. Nobody needs me and there is nobody left that I need,” she replied.

"What happened to you?" Aron asked softly.

She laughed cheerlessly. "Again, one of those questions." Then she quickly grabbed his second dagger which was tucked into his waist belt and when he snatched it from her hand, she cupped his wrist around the blade at her throat respectively. 

"Come on!" she snapped at him.

He writhed out of her grip, got up, and threw the weapon away before shouting, "Stop it! This is so crazy, Meyja! Are you sure you want to leave me with all this vagueness, yeah? Is that what you want?” After taking a deep breath, he said in a low halting voice. "We were... friends..."

She recognised his pain, the tears in his eyes, and suddenly she was so sorry for him. He must have suffered in the past and now she only made things worse, even though she had already hurt him a lot. And he was right that they had been friends, they had seen each other every day for over a year, smoked together, and pricked each other with needles. Meyja had enjoyed it very much but now she acted as if none of this was worth anything to her. And Aron had not only become a good friend, but also something of a confidante. Although she had never told him anything about her past, he would have been there for her as Yary was back then in Voynar.
For several minutes, during which she was unable to find the right words, he simply stood across from her, shifting restlessly from one foot to the other, then turned around, picked up his daggers, and hurried away.

She was still wrestling with herself, but a moment later she got up, and ran after him. "Aron, wait! I'm sorry!"

Desperate she looked around for him but she couldn't see him anywhere and after a short time she was standing on the hill from which she had seen the harbour two days earlier. There she finally sank to her knees and fought back tears. It was quiet around her, only the faint rustling of the wind in the trees could be heard, and even when she tried to listen more closely because she couldn't stand the damned silence, it only got louder. Her thoughts echoed in her head like echoing screams, so she covered her ears.

She winced, and put her hands down when something big dark appeared in the corner of her eye, but it was Aron who was standing next to her.

“You know, Meyja. I've had enough of this back and forth. We're going to Ed. Now. Together,” he said flatly.

"And then?" she asked startled.

He looked down at her. “Then we'll save your life. Come along."

She took his outstretched hand reluctantly and let him help her up before she followed him in silence to the pumpkin field where they collected her daggers and stiletto.

However, Aron initially kept the weapons, so that Meyja didn’t pose any obvious danger to Ed, then they walked back to Sharaya in silence through the nightfall and stopped in front of the shop.

"Let me speak, you couldn't say anything anyway that would convince him to let you live," Aron mumbled tense before opening the door.

She followed him in quietly and looked embarrassed at her feet when Ed came through the curtain and eyed the two angrily.

“What's that supposed to mean? You had a job, Aron,” Ed growled and sat up in front of him.

Aron handed him Meyja's blades. "She is unarmed and I ask you to listen to me before something stupid happens that we can't undo afterwards."

Ed gave Meyja a long unfathomable look before he looked at Aron again and nodded barely noticeably.

"Thanks, Ed." With a short nervous throat clearing Aron rubbed his forehead before he began. "First of all, I would like to apologise for disregarding the order. But I had my reasons which will certainly appear comprehensible and sensible to you when I have reached the end."

"I hope so, otherwise you can prepare for the worst," Ed grumbled sourly.

"I know. But before I pick up the inevitable rub, let me explain it first,” Aron continued undeterred. “Meyja and I talked, and I even initially let her believe that I would kill her. To be completely honest, I took advantage of this situation because I was interested and wanted to learn more about her. She could have just come out with it but in the end, she’d have chosen death rather than betraying a syllable. Even my hand with the dagger she brought to her own throat and I could tell that she had already finished with her life. This proves that she can be trusted and would be loyal to us if we let her. Besides…” Aron grabbed his lower jaw and grimaced before he continued. “She can hit hard as hell. Even if she is so small, she will surely soon surpass me. And then you don't want to do without her anymore."

Aron looked at Ed expectantly while Meyja still didn't dare to look up.

"Are you finished?" Ed wanted to know and waited for Aron's nod. "Then go upstairs. Meyja, you come tomorrow at the usual time. And don't forget the daggers."

She grabbed her weapons which Ed held out to her, mumbled a low thank you, and made her get out without looking back.

When she turned the corner, she paused, and turned around before stopping again, and turning around again. Should she wait for Aron or just disappear? On the one hand he had just saved her life but on the other hand he had only put it in danger.
Still... They were probably still friends – or so she hoped – and so she would wait until he left the shop. So, she placed herself not far from the entrance and peered tensely at the door.

Leaning against the wall of a house, she stood motionless, and involuntarily thought again about how much she actually liked Aron. Had she left Sharaya that day, she would have been very sad and missed him, but she still couldn't let him into her life easily, even if she wished more than anything that she could.

She thought of his face, the bearded chin, and his strong jaw, the bright blue eyes, and his nose which he must have broken at some point. It was therefore slightly crooked. His mouth with the soft lips that she had tasted once before and that she silently longed for every time they met. Her stomach fluttered strangely and for a moment she thought she was going to be sick but shortly afterwards the feeling subsided again.

A few minutes later a shadow stepped onto the pitch-dark street and came in her direction at the corridor she recognised that it was Aron and she went to meet him.

A little in front of each other they stopped and looked at each other before Aron asked quietly, "Are you okay?"

"Depending on the circumstances, yes. And you?” she mumbled depressed.

He nodded then took a surprisingly long step and pulled her into his arms. "I am now," he whispered and she could hear him crying.

She didn't want to push him away, even if she found this sudden hug a bit rowdy. So, she tried to relax and let herself into it by putting her arms around him in turn, leaning against him. His body was warm and although she actually preferred it to be cool, she liked his presence more and more with every second.

When his shoulders shrugged slightly she asked. "Are you alright?"

"Of course. You're alive and out of danger, so it couldn't be better,” he replied, crying softly, and hugging her tightly.

He smelled incredibly good, and she unconsciously breathed in his scent then he loosened the hug, and looked at her in surprise.

"Have you just sniffed me?" he wanted to know.

She raised her head embarrassed and met his gaze when she noticed he had a blue eye.

"What happened?" she exclaimed dismayed and her hand twitched to his face.

"Well, I ignored Ed's orders and he was a little angry about it. But it doesn't hurt, at least not as much as my jaw for your hard right hook,” he remarked with a grin and wiped his wet eyes roughly.

"I'm really sorry, but it was self-defence," she said and shrugged her shoulders apologetically. “But actually, I waited to thank you. And because I wanted to know something..."

He waved generously and cocked his head questioningly.

"Well... I... It... Are we still friends?" She secretly was glad that it was so dark that he couldn't see her bright red cheeks.

After hugging her again he whispered. "Of course."

A huge load fell off Meyja’s mind and she returned the gesture effusively.

After another minute in which both enjoyed being close to each other Aron said, "I don't know how you are but now I have nothing against a little Philos and a cup of wine."

"I'd love to. Thanks for the invitation," she replied smiling.

"Never mind. I thought you already knew how much I like you to be with me." He grinned and let his arm around her as they made their way to his flat.

Copyright: Larissa Doe

Chapter 20 - Silk

Arriving in his apartment, Aron went straight into the next room to get them two glasses of wine and when he came back, Meyja was already sitting in one of the armchairs. He took off his belt with the daggers and put them on the table next to her weapons before he sat down with her and picked up the tin with the Philosopher's herb.

While he rolled a cigarette, she watched him and mumbled, "Your eye still looks a lot worse than your jaw."

“To be honest I don't really care. At least I look reckless and daring," he replied with a broad grin and lit the tube – as he liked to call his cigarettes.

She laughed softly and replied, "If you ever feel like it again please let me know and I'll arrange for a new black."

Chuckling in amusement, he pulled the tube again, and then passed it on to Meyja before nodding.

Before he could say anything she continued, "Besides, you look daring even without a black eye." Then she drew once, gave him the cigarette with a giggle, and leaned back.

They were both already a bit dazed and Aron asked, "Do you like that?"

"What do you mean?" she was standing very beside her because she had hardly eaten anything all day and the Philosopher's herb hit her head like a hammer.

He laughed uproariously and replied, “I remember a similar moment, only then it was the other way around. But I meant this…” With a sweeping gesture of his hand he indicated his appearance.

Meyja's cheeks reddened again and he caught her bite on her lower lip before she simply nodded silently and avoided his gaze.

Aron's grin died down and he stared at her in amazement, he hadn't expected that she would just admit it. "Is that why you smelled me in front of the shop?"

“When you put it that way it sounds kind of abnormal. I only noticed that you smell good, that's all," she replied offended and took a long sip of the wine.

When she mustered up enough courage to look at him again, she noticed that he too had blushed, and she couldn't help smiling.

"What?" he asked and she could tell that he knew exactly why he was amusing her.

So, she just shook her head, and just kept looking at him while she wondered why she was so afraid that he would get too close to her – after all, he was Aron and she trusted him like no one else in Sharaya.

"I think I would like to lie down," she mumbled dazedly and swayingly stood up.

With soft knees she shuffled over to his bed and lay down on it with a groan, only now noticed how tense and tired she was. Her whole body screamed for rest after this exhausting day while Aron seemed to feel the same way.

He lay down next to her and exhaled audibly. "Would you mind if I take off my trousers?" he asked before realising how wrong his question sounded. "Wait... it wasn't meant like that. I just thought that we will both fall asleep soon and I don't like to rest fully clothed."

She giggled softly. "As long as you keep something on that covers the awkward areas, you can put aside as much as you want."

"Awkward? He's really not to me but I understand what you mean. Don't worry, I'll keep my underwear on,” he replied and laughed uproariously when he saw that she was red again.

She slapped him gently on the shoulder. “Stop laughing. It's not as if I don't know what a naked man looks like."

"But?" he asked still grinning and took off his shirt and pants.

"Well... I... just forget about it, okay?" she stammered covering her eyes with one hand.

She couldn't explain it, but she would just be embarrassed to see him completely naked, even if she wasn't afraid that she would be assaulted.

He threw his clothes off the bed and turned to her. "You're so cute when you blush."

Sparkling between her fingers she threatened, "Isn't a black eye really enough for you?"

She unconsciously looked at his body, Aron was actually muscular as she had already suspected. Some dark hair grew on his broad chest and his legs were anything but narrow. He laughed again and her heart slipped into her boots as the fluttering returned in her stomach and she realised that it was probably because she thought he was so wonderful.

“A black eye is enough for me but I hope I have more opportunities to get hold of one of you. After all, we're still friends,” he muttered trying to hide the disappointment that they weren't more than that.

She just fell silent and took her hand from her eyes again to hold it in front of her mouth instead before yawning. Then she sat up and undid the front buckle of her chest strap from under her shirt. "Would you help me? That won't work if I still have something on,” she asked embarrassed and turned her back on him after he nodded.

He picked up the fabric and reached under it but stopped in shock when he saw the lower part of her back. "Meyja... what the...?" he whispered and took his hands off her again.

She hastily pulled her shirt back down. "You should never see that. Forget it. That's nothing to worry about."

"But... who did this to you?" he asked with shining eyes.

She shook her head, climbed over him, and went to the table by the window. “I think I'd better go. I'm sorry to have bothered you with it.” She routinely pushed her daggers into the strap which was not tight as usual but still did its job then she put on her boots.

"Please stay. I'm sorry, I didn't want to…” he began but she interrupted him by raising her hand.

With an apologetic smile on her features she replied, “No, stop it. You cannot help it. See you tomorrow by the tree. Good night."

She slipped out the door before he could answer anything and left the completely insecure Aron alone.

When she woke up in the morning, she felt like she hadn't slept at all. Still, she crawled out of bed, put on fresh clothes, armed herself, and made her way to Ed. Thick clouds hung over Sharaya, but she refrained from pulling up her hood, enjoying the cool drops, and the smell of the rain that washed the dirt down the streets.

She pushed open the shop door and waited for Ed to come through the curtain.

“Good morning and welcome back. You smell like Philos again, so I assume that you have made it up with Aron," Ed grumbled sourly when he saw her.

“We smoked, yes. But I spent the night at the Drunken Beggar,” she replied and reached for the three parcels he handed her.

Ed let her know where to bring the deliveries but didn't say a word more about Aron or yesterday and she set off.

After she had gone up through the wall into the Workshop and turned a corner, she was suddenly grabbed and pressed against the wall of the house, so that she dropped the parcel startled.

"Shit, Raemur! What's that supposed to mean?" she snapped at the attacker and pushed him aside before she picked up the bundles from the wet street.

“So, you're back. Good to know,” he muttered as he eyed her condescendingly. "Tell Aron that he has to take good care of you from now on."

Speechless at the threat, she watched him go until he disappeared behind a building.

'What was that...?' she thought.

Confused she went on and did her work, pondering, before she got the payment for the errands from Ed and wondered what to do next. She had now saved quite a sizeable sum of coins and decided to buy some new clothes. So, she went back to the Workshop and strolled through the alleys, bought a whole stack of tight, dark linen shirts and ordered three more trousers made of soft leather from the couple in whose shop she had also bought the ones she wore. Finally, she wanted to get stockings and underwear, at least underpants because it was simply too warm for under shirts in Sharaya, and she hadn't put them on anyway since Aron had suggested that she should wear the chest strap on her bare skin.

She went into the tailoring shop where she had bought her linen underwear when she arrived in town and looked around. She didn't particularly like the shirts here, as they were almost too long when she slipped the fabric into her pants, given her small body size, so she had already stocked up in the other shop. She just left the area with the outerwear and went further back where she found all sorts of other things.

The traderess stepped up to her and greeted her in a friendly manner, "Hello, can I help you in any way?"

Meyja gently shook her head and replied, “Also. Thanks, but I can find my way around I think.” She took some of the simple linen briefs she already owned and several pairs of knee socks.

“Simple and comfortable, that is out of question. But let me show you something,” said the traderess and handed her another pair of silk underpants. "A pretty woman like you shouldn't hide behind plain linen underwear."

Reluctantly, Meyja looked at the silk panties which admittedly felt much softer than linen, and were still much too wicked for her, after all, she had no intention of seducing anyone and anyway never anyone saw her in underwear.

"You feel very different when you wear something like this," the woman continued with a smile.

"How?" Meyja wanted to know. She remembered how she had felt in the underwear her mother had given her back then before her wedding and it was far from pleasant but disgusting.

"Confident, attractive, beautiful..." the traderess enumerated and handed her insecure customer a few more underpants in other colours so that she might be able to convince her to buy.

Meyja didn't notice that she was being chatted and finally just nodded to end the conversation. "Fine. But I also want the linen ones,” she said grudgingly.

"Gladly. Which colour would you like?” asked the woman and showed Meyja the selection.

"Only black, thank you," Meyja mumbled and looked on morosely as the woman put five black silk panties on the pile with the linen underwear but she didn’t protest.

'Ah, wonderful...' she thought.

“Only wash the silk with cold water and a little soap. You should boil the lines, but you know that for sure,” explained the traderess and with a smile accepted the coins which Meyja handed her with a nod. "Thank you, and come back soon."

"We’ll see," she just mumbled and turned to the door.

When Meyja stepped back into the street, she exhaled noisily and rubbed her forehead. So, now she had silk panties and didn't know what to do with them, but the dealer had promised her that she would feel more confident with them, and she was quite curious about them. She left the shirts and linen underwear in a laundry then left the Workshop and made her way back to the Drunken Beggar.

In her room she took out the silk underwear and looked at it thoughtfully. 

Admittedly, the short material was nice, so it would depend on a try, after all, her wedding night had been a few years ago and she was still a child at the time. She undressed and slipped into one of the silk panties that hugged her skin comfortably. In the mirror that was on the table, she saw that her bum was only half covered, but at the same time she got exactly the feeling that she had been advertised. Even if the scars in her eyes were a big blemish, she found herself beautiful and attractive again for the first time in a very long time.

Wearing only her new silk panties, she washed the rest of the underwear in her little wooden tub as instructed and hung the fabric over the back of the chair to dry. Then she got dressed again and went to meet Aron.

When she arrived, she was almost an hour early but Aron was already sitting on the grass and waiting for her. For half the night she had thought about what to tell him about her scars because he would no doubt ask her about it now. But she just couldn't think of a lie that would have been plausible enough that he would have taken it from her, so she felt accordingly uncomfortable now when she sat down next to him.

“You're way too early," she muttered avoiding his gaze.

"Not just me." He eyed her.

Meyja remembered the meeting at noon and said, “I had an unpleasant encounter with Raemur today. He threatened me."

"What did he say?" Aron wanted to know worried.

“That you should take good care of me from now on. But I hope you know that you don't have to," she answered seriously.

He shook his head briefly. “Let's discuss this somewhere else. Let's go to my place before anyone can hear us."

She just nodded and followed him back into the city in silence.

Copyright: Larissa Doe