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 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 to 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 he 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 more space for all the people who have to create.
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 two more 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