Blue Crow Rising ~ Chapter 1 Part 4

The wind whipped at me and I suddenly seemed to realize just how far I’d climbed. High, in short. Nauseatingly high. And this balcony? Not quite a balcony. More like a thin walkway that you could see through. Very thin.

I mean, it certainly was, what, five crows wide, but to me right then it was like a tightrope. I squished myself up against the wall and felt my heart pound in my throat.

Then I heard laughter. “Very well!” a man cheered.

I nearly jumped out of my skin. Whoa? Someone was here? Where? I looked all around before I realized that the voices were coming from within the building.

Help! I thought. Someone help me!

Feeling like every step was a gargantuan task, I began creeping forward, digging my fingers/claws in through the holes of the grid. Looking up, I crept my way around the corner. There, I poked my head around and up – and saw in through a large window.

Inside, from my bizarrely low angle, I saw Mister Macmillan and several other men I didn’t recognize. They looked like parents. Filthy rich too. They were pale like glass, wearing crisp white clothes like you saw in the magazines, and were lounging on a sofa. They were all in a sloppy ring, and at the center was someone, who was bowing to each person in turn.

“Thank you for summoning me,” the person said in a feminine voice. As they straightened, shudders slid down my spine and all my feathers poked up.

The woman had slick black hair that fell into her face. Her eyes were a brilliant orange. Her features were strange. I couldn’t place her lineage by sight, which was strange. For though she had pale skin paler than I had ever seen, her features weren’t wealthy. There was something familiar to her, like she could have come from my own family. Her suit was an impeccable black and tailored to flatter her in every aspect, but it shimmered and sparkled with sequins like an evening dress. Oh, and she was wearing a little black bowtie.

“We expect you to do exactly as we say,” one blonde man was saying.

The woman laughed, a strange and high-pitched cackle. She flipped a hand up and rolled her eyes to the sky. “Of cou-urse!” she laughed. “I just can’t tell you all how excited I am to be here! It’s an opportunity I’ve been waiting for-“

The men interrupted her. Typical. “We have arranged everything. You will be set to work straightaways. And,” this man, whom I could not see, added emphasis to his words. “We expect results.”

Again, that twittering laugh. She planted a hand on her hip and swung a hip out, looking down to her left at where the man must have been seated. “Don’t worry about that! I am the ah, result-maker?” She laughed at her own bad pun.

The men were not amused. Sure, they were smiling, but it was as if they weren’t seeing her. They were seeing beyond, imagining the results they so spoke of.

“So!” the lady clapped her hands together twice and up high with a flourish. “Let’s do this!”

There was scuffles of chairs being scraped back. The woman began, in quiet tones that were still so nasally high-pitched, speaking to one member. I saw her place her hand on his shoulder as they walked away.

A door creaked open, and footsteps led away. I held my breath and counted to four. The business meeting was over – and now I just had to go through the window and follow them. Well! With a flap and a hop I propelled myself up to the window.

I smashed unceremoniously into the glass. Green shimmers marked it as being marked with a barrier. No souls could pass through.

With a flop I landed on the grid-like landing. My mind careened, not just in pain. This room was magically locked? How was anyone supposed to get out in case of an emergency? I thought all buildings, per protocol, had to be magically transparent to allow safe evacuations. Maybe that’s why no one came up to this tower. It wasn’t safe!

Curious and just wanting to get a look at what was surely a forbidden area, I hopped up onto the ledge. Inside, there was a dusty room, a dusty coffee table, and a few leather chairs from a few decades ago. I blinked, not even seeing a file folder or trace of the meeting.

Then, fleetingly, it struck me that this was a strange place to hold a parent-teacher meeting, or whatever kind of meeting it was. In an unsafe room, at the top of an unused tower, and in uncomfortable chairs.

Weird, but I had a bigger predicament facing me.

Turning around on the ledge, I looked into the void.

Behold, a poet would have said, the void looked back.

Well if the void looking back was a thing, it went ‘Boo!’ at me. Because right then, as I was turning around, the wind buffeted me and I saw, far far beneath me, my Aaliyah whacking away at three sprites that were surrounding her. Worse! There was a ring of spirit creatures, our classmates, around her and watching.

My blood boiled. How dare they make fun of Aaliyah! How dare they leave her helpless against three sprites!

I lunged from my perch, my thoughts full of rage and no such thing as common sense. Careening, I sped on recklessly as fast as I could.

It was about halfway there that I realized they were cheering her on. Aaliyah whacked out one sprite, then another, and the third cowered in fear. More cheers. Aaliyah was flush with victory, and our classmates were pounding the earth in support of her.

It was her glorious moment and I, shooting through the sky like a fluffball of idiocy, realized I was about to make a joke out of it by ‘rushing to her rescue’.

Cursing loudly in my head I tried to slow down. It was the worst pilates class ever. Clench those buttcheeks! Flap the wings – oh not that way!

I found myself cartwheeling, flapping, and, I’ll admit it, shrieking my lungs out as the world spun and the earth came closer.

For a horrid blink all I saw was Aaliyah zooming up to me, spinning with the earth – and then something green flashed over me.

Snap! Giant teeth caught me and I was squished by a soft tongue – then unceremoniously spat on the ground. A giant set of claws pinned me to the earth and a snarling jade snout shoved into my face, complete with golden mane and horns.

I froze. My heart pounded in my chest. Jade. Jade dragon, my classmate. Oh, how embarrassing.

Looking left, I saw a horde of creatures staring me down in dismay. Looking right I saw more classmates – and Aaliyah’s shoes.

Character Reveal!

More like a pre-veal? Like, pre-taste of a character reveal?

Basically, as I post book one of Kyrie’s series, I’m editing book 2. At least I’m trying to do so.

Anyways! Book 2 and 3 is FULL of this character. She even replaces Kyrie as the main character for most of book 2. She’s the center of it all for a bit, and she kind of saves Kyrie’s ass a few times. Needless to say, I like her! She’s fun to write, complex, and I find, well, fun!

I did this image in ink, for no particular reason than her hair is black, and she mainly wears black – and the next thing I knew I’d forgotten about color and had just done the whole thing in black and white. And wow! I really like the result! Like, I LOVE it! I feel like I’ve captured the serious essence of Charr, and her willpower.

Anyways, if you haven’t already started reading this book, do so NOW! It picks up fast, and gets complex… not too soon. But it’s a fun read I’ve been told! The first bit of chapter 1 is available HERE on my blog.

Wishing you all the very best of days ❤

Chapter 1 Part 1

“Kyrie! Kyrie!”

I ducked and ran. No, that wasn’t me! Totally not my name!

“I saw you!” the vendor shouted, who also happened to be my neighbor, so even if I got away now I wasn’t really getting away.

“Late for school!” I shouted over my shoulder in guise of a terrible excuse. It was true though, I was almost late for school. I was sixteen at the time and gangly tall for my age. As always, I wore my dilapidated shoes, some sort of jeans, and a blue hoodie over a t-shirt that I’d dragged from some rich person’s dumpster. It was big for me, but I liked that. It hid my breasts, which made me more comfortable. The only really recognizable thing about me, despite the aura of poverty, was the darkish blue of my hair. A touch of magic!, everyone used to crow about me. Yeah, used to.

Behind me, the dirty street was nearly empty. It was too early for the druggies to be out of bed and most of the drunks were home sleeping their hangover off. A thin, cold, mist hung over the earth, soaking through my pant legs and making my boots skid over the damp sidewalk.

“Thief!” the shitty neighbor shouted after me, as loud as he could. I didn’t care. Everyone knew I was a thief. Everyone, even my mother. She hung her head and nodded whenever someone came and yelled to her about it. She’d order me to give back whatever I stole- but I’d usually already eaten it. She’d get a good talking to from whomever it was (usually our crappy neighbor) and then she’d apologetically close the door. After that, I would get the silent treatment for a day or so. Then, the cycle might just repeat itself right away.

It wasn’t that Mom hadn’t educated me well, as everyone told her. It was that I saw the struggle in her eyes when I reached for a second helping of food. Once, there was no food for lunch. Then, I realized that yeah, I couldn’t eat twice at one meal – but oh look! A vendor!

Now, I never ate twice and mom knew why. It was a tacit agreement that neither of us spoke about the dire finances of our household – and she would keep nodding at the intruders shaking their fists at me.

As I rounded the corner towards school, I slowed to a walk. I pulled the warm pizza pocket out of my mouth where I’d been holding it. I took a smaller bite than the whole thing. It was steaming in the cold air, delicious, and with just a hint of spices that didn’t wholly belong on the pizza. Hey, no one said the vendor paid for these in the first place. I’d caught him garbage diving too one day. We’d fought over a whole box of old bread – and yeah, I just ran away with them.

But now, I happily munched on my breakfast. Yep, life was good right then. I strolled slowly now, knowing full well that I was early to meet my friend, Aaliyah. But I couldn’t wait to meet her. These quiet walks in the morning were usually the highlight of my day. They were also the reason I held an extra pizza pocket in each hand. Another for me, and one for her. This one I would eat with her and we would happily walk together, enjoying our short walk to school before the day really began.

Ours was a quiet existence. I already knew that someday, our friendship would hopefully breach the lines of friendship and we, the pariahs already of our ‘slumbug’ existence, would break into a whole new level of pariah – that of two female bodies in love.

Finishing my first pizza pocket I tried not to dwell on this. But of course I did. I tried to visualize how Aalliyah’s mother (another single mother, just like mine!) would accept this. Would she? I knew Madame Akizah as a generous and kind shop owner. But what did she think of women in love?

We could marry if we moved north, I told myself. There, there was jobs in factories for us ‘unbloomed’ ones. I would work hard to protect Aaliyah and provide for her! I would –

“Already eating?” a laughing voice jerked me from my thoughts. And there she was. The highlight of my life. The shining ray in all this misery.

Aaliyah had gleaming black hair that she kept simply long and plain. Her smile was brilliant, her skin just a tad darker than mine. She was shorter than me by half an inch (which I constantly rubbed in her face) and had the largest and sweetest eyes possible. Today, she was wearing her loose red sweatshirt and gray track pants with sneakers.

Still chewing my last mouthful I made sure not to speak so I wouldn’t spit all over. I’d done that before. She’d laughed at me so hard she’d turned redder than her sweatshirt.

“Thanks,” she said as she accepted it. Then, pressing it between her two hands, she said “Ooh, it’s still warm.”

I nodded and smiled, then finished my mouthful with a gulp. Akwardly, I tried to think of something to say. As usual in these strange silences that would so often fill the air between us, I wished to tell her how I felt.

If only I was big and strong, I thought. If only I was stunningly beautiful like she. If only, if only… and my thoughts would spiral down and down as we walked together. I hunched my shoulders like an unhappy bird and ate ravenously at my last pizza bit.

A fine drizzle began to descend. A car whipped past us, full of jeering idiots. Protectively, I slipped an arm around Aaliyah’s shoulders. She stepped closer to me. It was our safety mechanism. It worked well on strangers because they all assumed I was a guy – even Aaliyah’s mother sometimes called me ‘mister’ if she was scolding me (like the third time I’d tried to steal from her).

But right now it wasn’t wholly necessary. The car was gone, after all, and the walk to school was short. But… I jostled Aaliyah playfully just as an excuse to keep my arm around her. If it was a joke it didn’t matter, so I got to hold her a little longer. “You ready for today?” I asked cheerfully.

She looked up at me with those big doe-like eyes. She smiled, and it was filling me with sparkles. “I think so,” she said “I studied all night. I think I’m ready.”

“Great,” I said whistfully, wondering what it would be like to kiss her – and then my brain registered what she’d said. “Wait- ready for what? Is there a test?”

She gave me ‘that look’. “Physics! Today! First period! Did you forget?”

I whimpered, drawing my arm from around her to play with my hair. “Yes?” Oh crap! And I was trying to get good marks in that!

In a jerk she pulled her bag over her shoulder and whipped a light blue notebook out. First she smacked me on the shoulder with it. I yelped, then she handed it to me. “Cram!” she ordered.

“Yes, ma’am,” I muttered as I took the notebook and flipped it open. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but think she’d be the perfect wife. Strict but caring, disciplined and studious – I could get a job for the two of us and she could keep studying…

Shaking my head I tried to focus upon the notes before me, even as small droplets began cascading down harder and harder.

We, and the notebook, were thoroughly soaked by the time we stood in the corridor before the classroom. Funnily enough, only about half the students were soaked. There were those who had the good sense to own a coat and who were only damp. Then, there was the rich kids.

Oh, it wasn’t hard to tell them apart. They were dazzling and beautiful no matter what happened, and they were just – whatever. I didn’t even look at them.

I just stood in a corner with Aaliyah and our three friends – the total of us being five. ‘The’ five that teachers always talked about. We were the ‘special education’ ones. The unbloomed.

Lage’s Game: Chapter Thirteen, Part One

Lage handed the bag of souls to me. I pulled it open and investigated. There were three tiny spheres. One white and silver, one grey, and one black. Well.

I drew the black one out. It was feeble, tainted, ad worthless to me. Mere filler so they could say that they were giving Lage three. I dropped it, crushign it under my heel.

With a squeal and sigh, the soul was free. Their thanks and relief poured into me, and I nodded graciously. You’re welcome.

Then, I looked to the other two in my palm. The gray one was next. I tossed it up and caught it in my mouth. It tasted sweet, fruity, and had a tang of spice to it.

I spat it out, satisfied. A good soul, but not worth my time. Be gone.

The soul scurried away, whispering thanks and all that.

Finally, I held up the silver-white one. Who are you?

I tossed the ball to the ground, ordering it silently to show itself.

As it struck the ground, a silhouette appeared above it. A hologram almost, one could say, or a ghost of a shape. It was the shape of a man, dark like onyx and bearing a striking resemblance to Rebella. Yet where she seemed merciless he seemed softer, wiser. He had long locks that were drawn back and let to fall down around his cloaked shoulders. He was dressed royally but not frivolously.

He bowed slightly to me, proper as could be. “Greetings,” he said clearly, a difficult thing for a spirit to do.

“Serve me,” I ordered. I could sense his power. Noble lineage, good fighting skills, yes, I wanted his service. He would build me a proper army, be a good general.

He hesitated. “What goal are you reaching for? What purpose?”

“I will destroy those who upset the bonds between the worlds. I have come to end the game,” I said.

He inclined his head. Lowering his gaze, he seemed to think.

“Join me,” I ordered again.

His eyes rose to mine, somber. “What you seek is no easy path. I will join you – if you pledge to keep my line safe. Especially Rebella.”

My lip curled in disdain. “Fine,” I snapped a little too swiftly.

We bowed, and the pact was sealed. As I straightened from the bow, he vanished in a flicker. I picked up the sphere from the ground and placed it back in the pouch. I tied it to my belt, and decided my time was done.

Like a cold deluge, all my heat and power drained away. I felt the biting snap of cold on my toes. I felt the sharp winter on my face, my hands. I was suddenly a thirteen year old girl, cold and in a strange land.

Shaking, I looked around as if seeing the grounds for the first time. Lage stepped forward. “It’s you again,” he said gently, crouching down before me. He took my shoulders. I gaped, looking at the bodies around. They hadn’t even had the chance to fire their guns. Or had some supernatural force held them back?

“I did that?” I asked, my voice trembling.

“No,” he said, blue eyes clear and honest. “It wasn’t you.”

“Who?” I looked down at myself. I felt so small compared to that power, that confidence, that I had been filled with just a moment before.

He sighed. “I’m not sure. But you must go somewhere safe.”

“Get her out of me!” I ordered. I knew for sure it was a woman, intuitively. How, I was not sure. But she was a ‘she’.

Lage straightened, hands still on my shoulders. “You can stay with me -”

“You work with them!” I yelled, wrenching free.

“I do not,” he said sternly. Looking around, he sighed, as if looking for some escape. “I merely do my job,” he muttered.

A shaky breath came through me. I felt like a scarecrow, just rattling with the wind. “I want to know,” I said. “I want to know- everything.” Who could I trust? What was going on? “I want to know!” I raised my voice, almost yelling.

Lage looked down at me. “You’re so young.”

Fury boiled in me – but this wasn’t the same that brought power. This was plain anger, unfuelled by that ‘other’ sense.

Then, as if the thought summoned it, I felt it wave up through me. I felt taller, haughty, and ready to take on Lage in all his own power. I didn’t care if he was the main player-

“Main player?” I asked, suddenly brought out of the trance by the jarring knowledge. “What – what does that mean?”

Lage’s eyes narrowed. I felt a sense of humor in the back of my mind, like part of me was laughing at him. I wanted to tip myhead back and cackle. Yes! Be afraid, Lage!

Lage took a step back. “Leave me,” he said sharply. “Take her with you. I can’t save you from her.”

“Fine,” I heard myself say coldly. Struggling, I tried to push aside that coldness, that haughtiness. “Lage-” I said, forcing myself to become myself again.

He shook his head and stepped back. “I can’t help you.”

“But!” I felt myself failing. I needed him – I needed someone!

Lage turned around and walked away. I stood there alone, listening to the sound of his boots crunching in the snow.

“Come back to me,” said a voice from within. Rebella. “I can tell you, everything.”

Fury boiled up within me. I yanked the dagger up from the snow where I had dropped it. I shoved it clumsily into my belt – giving myself a tiny cut on the thumb for my carelessness. Then, turning, I stomped back the way I had came.

I walked for five minutes, following the snowmobile trails, before I realized I could take one of those and save myself the hours of walking. Turning around, I trekked back to the snowmobiles and took their keys from the dead bodies. Gulping down bile and ignoring the fresh smell that was staining the air, I clambered onto the smallest snowmobile.

I drove considerably slower on the way back than we had come. I didn’t want to end up crashed against a tree, and I doubted my parasitic spirit’s bravado would save me if I did have a smashing accident.

By the time I arrived at the city’s outer gates, the sky was turning a deep shade of greyish black. At the gates, proud and pleased, was Rebella on a horse at the head of a handful of guards.

“There you are,” she said as soon as I let the engine choke to an end a bit away from the horses. I stepped off the thing, scowling at her. She smiled like she was so pleased. Like I was her special gift. “Come,” she nodded to the left. “I have a horse for you.”

Still scowling, I marched to where a guard was waiting with a soft brown horse. They helped me up and I found myself sitting directly beside Rebella. She was still smiling at me. With a satisfied nod, she wheeled her horse around and entered the city.

Clumsily, the horse doing more the following than I the guiding, we made our way after her. The guards cocooned around me, following Rebella. These guards were not jesting or joking about me any longer. There was a wary look to their eyes and silence to their lips. I wondered what had changed – and realized that I would probably find out soon. Very soon.

Lage’s Game: Chapter Twelve, Part Two

Rebella took me through the castle and to a hall. It had an arched ceiling that lent it all an air of grandeur, except that was wasted, for the hall seemed to have lost anything worth mentioning. It was empty, really. There was a throne, guards, but the walls were bare. The throne was a stone seat, but it had pockets and chunks missing from it, as if gems had been pried off it. Rebella’s sister was pacing before the throne, and before here were ‘them’.

Oh, I could recognize them alright. There were three of them. They weren’t the same ones as had been sent after me before, but they had an air of familiarity to them, what with their polarized fleece winter coats and thick snow boots. They wore reflective sunglasses, hats, and lots, lots, of guns.

“I found her,” announced Rebella, dragging me into the hall after her. With a haughty tip of the head, she presented me to ‘them’. “Here you go.”

“How do we know it’s really her?” asked the man who was standing in the front of the other two.

“That’s not our problem,” said Rebella sharply. “You should have known what you were looking for.”

The man tilted his head to the side, and I wondered if Rebella was about to earn herself a hole in the head. Did I want that to happen?

The closest ‘them’ took a grip on my shoulder and wrenched me to their side. He held up a device to my shoulder, and it beeped. He nodded to the others.

“We’re going,” said the head one to the Queen. She nodded, obviously relieved.

“Have a nice trip,” said Rebella with a smirk.

The goons looked at her. I was beginning to sweat. My stomach was doing flips in my chest. I was cold, hot, and wanted to be done with murder – if I could bring myself to do it.

Where was my anger? Where was that blood-infused strength? I didn’t have it now.

They dragged me after them, marching out of the hall. My heart was pounding in my throat. The world flickered on and off, and I was just registering glimpses of what was around me. It was all happening too fast. I wanted to stop, to pause, but it was all too much.

They loaded me onto a snowmobile where they should have been riding horses. Servants watched earnestly. I felt a cold knot in my stomach, and I was trembling.

The engines revved. Servants startled away, and we zoomed off.

The city flashed by, the cold wind slapping and biting me in the face. It brought me back to life.

I was going to die, I realized. Or worse. These people meant business – and I realized I had two options ahead of me.

Screw Rebella, I could go with these ‘them’ and settle things once and for all. I could go to their nest, their boss, and slay him.

Slay him? I was rattled from that thought by the foreign-ness of it. Who was that, thinking that in my head?

But now I was cool, calm, and unafraid. I felt composed, ready. Beneath it all was a boiling anger, a power that was just waiting to surface. I was there.

As I realized the presence of this… presence? Within myself, it slipped back over my mind.

Coldly, I thought again of my options. I could kill them in their nest. Slay their chieftain. Or I could slay these ones and flee. Flee again! I was tired and sick of running. But did I have a choice? Was I strong enough, at one, to defeat them in their nest? Would they let me close enough to utterly destroy them?

They first gates, those of the castle, whizzed past. Horses and people were now jostling out of the way. We had to slow, and that gave me precious time.

Two paths, so clear, lay before me. All involved death and bloodshed, but I was settled for that. It was nothing to me now, just another consequence of life. But was there a third path?

Lage, I thought. I swallowed his card.

Nagging, in the back of my mind, I knew that meant something enormous. Gigantic. Could I call upon him like these other spirits? Would I be able to summon him to my aid? I was not sure, and certainly did not know how.

Then there was Ekundayo’s necklace. But what good was that? I dismissed it almost as swiftly as it had come up.

No, two paths it was. Which one?

Guards rushed, people screamed, and we were at the final gates. The guards watched nervously, and we whizzed past them. The warm stench of the city was now gone, and we were out in the biting cold. Snow churned up around us.

Now, a voice called out within me. It called, if such a thing was possible, through my chest. From the stone, I realized coldly.

Rebella, you bitch, I thought. You’re watching me.

Distantly, I heard her laugh. Come back to me, she ordered.

I held my stillness. I was still not sure which path I was to take. In fact, I was beginning to drift towards the first. Not only because it was delayed action, but because I wanted things to end. Let me have closure. Let me close this chapter.

The forest, black trees on a white background, it all went by within the deafening roar of the machines. A familiar dolmen appeared, then grew in the distance. Beside it stood Lage, wrapped in his cloak with a spattering of snow atop his shoulders.

The snowmobiles drew to a jarring halt before the dolmens. “Here,” said the goon in charge. “We pay the toll.” He drew a pouch from his pocket and handed it to Lage. Lage, looking tired and drawn, accepted the pouch. He pried it open and looked within.

I heard a strange whispering, the cries of souls on the wind, and felt a sense of whimsical homesickness. How I missed having my own souls, being paid my own tributes.

Shoved off the snowmobile, I returned to my senses. I was just a kid, a teen. Fear seized me. Cold bit through me. In a flash I wondered at what was happening in my mind – what was this presence taking over me?

But then I was cool again. Controlled. I rose to my feet as the goons, the soldier I realized they must be, dismounted their snow machines.

My eyes met Lage’s. In a flash I knew he didn’t want this. He would help me – if he could.

Then help, you bastard, I thought. And he heard me. He lifted his head, holding up the bag. Cleared his throat.

The goons looked at him. It was a fleeting distraction, but it was enough.

In one fluid motion, I drew the gun from the holster of the guards’ hip. Bang, bang, bang. I heard the shots, but didn’t so much register what was happening. In a blink, I heard yells. Heard the almost silent thud of the gun hitting the ground. Felt the touch of the dagger in my hand.

I came to, wiping my dagger clean on their clothes. Lage stood there still, the bag now closed in his hands. Three heads lay at my feet, still bearing their sunglasses. Should I keep them? Did I want these souls as mine?

“Thank you,” I heard myself say to Lage. I turned to him.

“Who are you?” he asked softly.

I felt humor come over me. I laughed, and the voice was jarring. Again, I shifted. Panic swelled over me. Was I-? Who was this in me? What was this feeling of – otherness?

But then it slipped back over me. I was calm, controlled. I held out a hand. “Give me those souls,” I demanded. Not that I needed the food. But a girl likes an army, doesn’t she?

Lage’s Game: Chapter Twelve, Part One

I caught Rebella by surprise. There was a smear of blood on the Grandmother’s lips, but it was tiny. Rebella spun with a yell, but I had the dagger.

I stabbed blindly – but she caught my arm.

And we were stuck. Me bearing down on her with all my strength, her sitting, half falling backwards, bracing up against me and the dagger. The dagger which was so, so, close to her eye that it was maddening.

Fury pumped through me. I willed this with all my might. To murder her.

“Guards!” Rebella yelled as her hands slipped ever so slightly. The tip of the dagger grazed her cheek, cutting a slim line.

It was not enough! I wanted her dead!

The door behind us burst open. Hands seized me and I was flung back, the dagger wrenched from my hand.

“What on earth are you doing?” yelled a voice. As my mind spun, I came to on the floor at the foot of a guard. Before me was the tall figure of the other princess, who was holding Rebella by a blood-spattered wrist. “What are you doing?” she screamed.

Rebella wrenched free. “What needs to be done!” and she turned to her grandmother.

The moment seemed to stand still. Rebella gasped. Her dagger clattered to the floor, splattering my blood across the planks.

“No!” gasped Rebella, shaking the elderly woman, who now bore a slight smile on her face. But the woman was limp. “No!” Rebella screamed, shaking her some more. Desperately, she smeared blood on the grandmother’s lips – only to be wrenched back by the sister.

“Don’t do that! You can’t!”

“I can and I will!” screamed Rebella, wrestling free from her sister. “I don’t care! She can’t die! We need her!”

“Stop being so selfish!” screamed the sister, grabbing at Rebella again. “It’s not about you! Let her rest!”

“No!” Rebella screamed, stamping a foot. “We need her! I don’t care if it curses us all! We need her!”

I staggered to my feet, determined to try again. The sister turned, our eyes meeting. Her eyes swept me up and down – and she nodded to herself. “Guards! Take this one to the healing ward! And this one-” she gestured to Rebella. “To her room! And keep her in there!”

“No!” Rebella yelled, but the sister yanked her forward and away from the Grandmother. A squabble began, but the guards quickly seized Rebella. With a slam Rebella bodily shoved one aside, punched the other in the visor, and stamped past me out of the room.

“See to it that she stays in her room!” called out the sister at the guards who rushed after Rebella.

I was left in the custody of one guard. They picked me up in their arms, limp and head spinning. The last thing I remembered was watching the ceiling twirl above me – and then nothing.

Time passed in lurches. I saw darkness, then I was beside Lage, watching him fish in the ice.

“You’re here?” he asked. “So soon?”

Then, the world lurched. Ekundayo was beside me, humming as he drummed happily with a stick on a rock. “Child, child,” he said, shaking his head with that strange grin.

Then, I spun downwards.

With a gasp, I sat up. My chest was seizing with pain. Two pairs of arms belonging to robed people were stretched above me. They were chanting incoherently. A sense of panic was crashing over me. I had to get out of here. They were going to pullt he card out of me!

I lurched to the side, falling clean off the bed and before a pair of feet. I grabbed onto a hand and helped myself up – and was faced with a sneering Rebella.

“Well,” she said.

Hatred swelled in me- but I was pushed backwards onto the bed.

“You should sit,” said Rebella nastily.

I breathed, heart hammering in my chest. Rebella. How I hated her. The monks, healers, whatever they were, lowered their arms. A sense of static electricity left the air, and my panic left me. Cool calm came over me. I focused on Rebella, wonderign how I could kill her.

But Rebella wasn’t herself. She was fidgeting, looking from me to the door beyond the curtains that framed the bed. “They won’t think of coming here,” she murmured. Then, to the healers, she snapped “Get out!”

The healers bowed, scraped their feet back, and shuffled away without another word. Rebella followed them. Once the door was shut, she latched it shut. Then she pressed her back to the door nad glared at me.

It dawned on me then that this wasn’t an infirmary. The room was small from what I could see, but – it was a personal room.

Rebella marched towards me. “Who are you? Why do they want you? Hmh?”

She was now at my side, drawing out a dagger from her belt with a hiss of metal. She held it between us, eyes flashing.

“They?” I asked. “They’re here?” Could there be more than one ‘they’?

“They want you,” said Rebella angrily. “They are saying they will kill the new Queen if we do not hand you over.”

Her hand was trembling. Her eyes flicked over me like a spider darting all over.

“Who are they?” I asked, feeling a sense of control. A sense I could finally get some answers.

“They?” she hissed. “You know them! They are the Associates. They rule your world, or so they say.”

I made a face. “They do not,” or so I hoped.

“Why do they want you?” she hissed, prodding the dagger at me. But I knew she wouldn’t hurt me this time. She was too uneasy. Or maybe that was the danger.

“Where am I?” I asked, drawing back the curtains from the other side of the bed. My fingers barely grazed the fabric before my shoulder was seized by Rebella. She shook me, making sharp daggers of pain burst in my chest.

“What do they want?” she hissed rabidly. “You- who are you?”

She had dropped the dagger in my lap. In a flash I knew I could take it and slash her throat- but somehow I chose not to. I grabbed her wrists and pried them off me.

“I am no one!” I answered coolly, shoving her back so I could stand. “I-”

“They wouldn’t threaten my sister for just anyone!” and the dagger was back between us. Then, with a flick, she slid it back into her belt. “Tell me – or I will bring you to them!”

That stilled my heart. That meant … “If I tell you?” I asked cautiously.

“I will keep you safe from them,” she said too swiftly. Nodding to herself,she held out her palm. “Word of honor.”

There was a catch. Obviously. But I didn’t want to be turned over to ‘them’, did I?

I looked around the room, hoping for some escape. I gripped at my robe, a strange flimsy white thing. I was barefoot, too. I wouldn’t get far.

“Five,” declared Rebella. “Four,”

I scowled at her. What a stinker she was.

“Three,” she said, challenging me.

“I ate Lage’s card,” I snapped.

Her jaw fell. A choking sound came out of her throat – then she turned to disbelief and started laughing. “You did what now?” But then she tipped her head back and laughed.

Humiliation burned over me, but she seemed relieved when she was done with her laughter.

“You idiot,” she said happily. Then she clapped a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “You are stupid, you know that?”

I fueled all my anger at her through my eyes, choking up on words. How I wanted to tell her that I hated her right then. Maybe I should try and kill her again.

“Don’t worry,” she clapped my shoulder. “I will keep you safe. Now,” she pressed a finger to her lips and looked me up and down. A smirk drew itself on her lips. She looked smug. “We need to find you some clothes. Come.” She snapped her fingers at me and motioned me to follow her.

We drew to a large chest, from which she drew out some old clothes. They were worn through in their colors, but still solid looking. Several shirts were held up to me until she found one that she found suitable. From there she gave me a tunic to put over, a sort of bra to wear under, and pants. Boots – she gave me some soft slipper-like things in leather.

“They will have to do,” she muttered, cluckign her teeth. Then, she gave me a belt. It was set with a snake biting its tail worked into the metal ring. She set a dagger on it and set it about my waist. “Here,” she said. Then, stepping back, she looked me over. “Good,” she declared.

I had a sinking feeling that something was wrong. Something about the satisfied gleam in her eyes. I felt like a pig being dressed for slaughter.

She took a gray cloak trimmed in white fur from the chest. It was old as well, but fitted me a little largely. It occurred to me that I must look like a younger version of her – was I to be some decoy?

“Now,” she took a white globe from down her shirt, fishing it out with some difficulty. “Hide this in your shirt. Don’t eat it,” she added with a chuckle.

It was cold like ice, so much so that I almost dropped it. It was marble perhaps, smooth white with shoots of glimmering gray woven through it.

“When you are ready to escape, call out the name-”

“Escape?”

“Of course, I’m going to hand you over to them. Then you will escape.”

There it was. The betrayal. “But you had promised-”

She held up a finger between us. “I can’t hide you. If I do, they will sack the city. No, I will hand you over. You have my dagger, and my spirit-weapon.” she closed my fingers over the white ball. “Call their name when you are ready to kill them, and they will appear and fight with you.”

“Kill them?” I gawked. I’d never killed before!

“You must strike the killing blow,” she said softly, “and don’t leave it to the spirit to do.” Then, sensing my dismay, she added “You must kill them. If you don’t, they will follow you back to the city. Killing them will buy us time. Take it,” she pushed my hand to my chest. “Kill them. Then come back to me.”

On remote, I put the ball down my shirt. Then, numb, I felt myself turning to ice. This couldn’t be. It was too awful to be true.

But it was. Rebella whispered a name to me, then nodded. “Come back to me, and I will take care of you,” she announced.

Like hell I would.

Lage’s Game: Chapter Eleven, Part Two

The trees were coated in soft fluffy white snow. The flakes sifted slowly down through the air. A slow breeze slid through the trees, biting through me. I huddled under the cloak, stumbling ever forward through the forest.

It had been what felt like hours that I was walking. The only change in time was the shift of the weather. Sometimes warmer, sometimes colder, and now the snow.

I knew I had to find Lage. Lage, or someone who could bring me back to my world. Somewhere, somehow. I’d be safe there, I told myself. I knew I wouldn’t, but I told myself I would. I told myself that at least there wouldn’t be a stupid princess throwing me in a dungeon with … an assassin? Who rescued me?

I plodded on, gritting my teeth at the complexity of this newfound world. The princess, the dying Queen, the gun, it was all piling together in my head. I knew I wouldn’t be safe in my own world – and stumbled over a branch. My arms flung out to break my fall – and I landed in something white.

Not the snow. A pair of arms.

Slowly, I looked up. Red eyes looked down from a white-as-snow face with icicles for hair.

I gaped. The creature grinned, revealing a fanged set of teeth.

I screamed, jumping back and flailing. The creature was a disembodied thing, a torso with just a whispy tail-like bottoming out. It had hands like claws that were tipped in blue talons.

Spinning, I darted straight back the way I came, floundering through the snow.

A high-pitched chuckle echoed in my ears as I ran, and the ‘thing’ rushed along behind me, in the corner of my eyes, clacking its teeth and snagging at me with its claws.

Breathless, I crested a small hill- and tripped over a root. I tumbled straight down the hill in a blundering blurr of white that bit at me and roots and stones that jabbed into my sides.

When I floundered to a stop, there was a horses’ nose before me. A soft brown horse nose that snorted at me. I scrambled to my feet, thinking that I was lucky – when I saw that there was a guard atop this horse. And on the horse beside it. And on that horse, beside it? Another guard.

A clacking sound from behind made me spin. The strange ‘thing’ was rushing towards me, eyes glowing, jaws open, and blue finger-talons out.

“Enough!” barked a voice. The thing reeled to a halt just before me, its talons a mere foot from my face. It looked to my right, where another horse was stepping forward. On this horse, dappled gray, sat Rebella with her white cloak. “Come,” she ordered, holding out her arm.

With a squeal, the creature turned into a snowy white owl and flapped its way to her arm. There, she gave it a small bit of meat. It looked suspiciously like a dead mouse. Rebella turned her cold glare to me. “It looks like we found it,” she sneered.

My blood boiled. “Me,” I declared. “You found me. Not an ‘it’. I’m a person.”

“Oh, well, person,” sneered Rebella. “There I was thinking you had rocks for brains.”

My fury bubbled over, but I was speechless once more, silent in my white-hot fury. Rebella nodded to a guard. “Take it,” she ordered before wheeling her horse around.

The guard reached down, seizing me by the shoulder. I wrenched free.

I wished for a knife. Some dagger, magic maybe, to help me overcome all of them. Maybe even a gun – which I normally hated.

Between two guards I was lifted up, kicking and biting, up onto one of their horses, before the rider. Then, with an armored arm around my waist, we wheeled around to follow Rebella.

I gave up on fighting as we trudged back through the forest. I turned limp, glaring viciously at Rebella’s back.

I hated her. I wanted to utterly destroy her. She was quickly enlarging in my mind, becoming synonymous with ‘them’. Those hated unknowns now had a face and persona in Rebella.

When we trudged back within the cities’ walls, I had decided that I was going to kill her. No matter what. It was my chance to hit back at ‘them’.

We plodded through the grubby city, the horses’ rhythms suspiciously lulling, annoyingly slow-paced compared to a car. Houses that were mere shacks passed on and on. People covered in filth stared, mouths agape, pointing at me but never at Rebella. She must be a villain they were used to.

What struck me was the silence, though. The people whispered but voices never rose into spoken words with clarity or force. They merely whispered, mumbling from mouth to ear behind hands. Definitely no one shouted.

My chance came when we entered the castle’s walls. There, the guards visibly relaxed. They began laughing among themselves, cracking jokes I didn’t listen to and laughing rowdily. Rebella, however, had her back to us and rode on ahead. That is, until we dismounted.

I was dropped to the ground, aching all over and numb from the cold. But I sensed a window of opportunity. A tingling came over me. Rebella had her back to us still, throwing her reins to a servant. The guards were dismounting around me, trading jokes.

I spun, seizing the sword from the hip of the guard behind me. With a hiss of metal the sword drew clear. I stumbled, but swung it with the momentum, lurching forward at Rebella.

In slow motion, I saw Rebella turn. I saw her eyes widen, her lips part slightly in surprise.

With a shriek, the owl burst at me, wings flapping at my face. I stumbled back.

Time jolted back to full speed. Rebella was before me, the bird tossed aside. She grabbed my arms, wrenching the sword from my grasp. I kicked at her, but she deflected it with a swipe of the leg that sent me falling face-first into the muddy snow.

“You are all so useful,” Rebella sneered at her guards as she turned her back on me once more, dropping the sword to the snow mere feet away from me.

The guards murmured apologies. I staggered up, but was dwarfed by hands. No more freedom for me. As Rebella marched on ahead I was bodily dragged after her, arms held out like a scarecrow. My feet dragged, catching in the stones and earth as we marched into the castle.

This time, we did not enter the huge gardens within that dome. Instead we marched up a flight of stairs, turned left, and found ourselves in a dark corridor. At the end of it, servants lined a room. These guards were adorned in purple with large feathers atop their helmets. The servants exchanged nervous looks, but bowed their heads as Rebella approached them.

“What are you all doing out here?” Rebella demanded, half-yelling. “Why have you left her alone?”

“She ordered-” murmured one servant who was standing before a door. She didn’t finish her sentence, as Rebella took her by the shoulders and threw her out of the way, crushing into the other servants.

“Bring the thing!” shouted Rebella, yanking the door open and barging in.

The guards yanked me forward. I was shoved into the room seconds after Rebella entered it. It was almost a touching scene. Almost.

The grandmother Queen was laying on a giant red four-poster bed with the curtains drawn shut. Rebella had opened one side and was now clasping the grandmother’s hand in both of hers. The grandmother’s good eye was open, but it too was now turning milky white. The decay had almost taken over her entire face.

“Child,” said the grandmother, breath heaving.

“It’s not your time. We need you,” whispered Rebella, clutching the withered hand to her chest.

The grandmother smiled mysteriously. “That’s not how the world works.”

Determination came over Rebella. She lowered the grandmother’s hand. “Get out,” she ordered, backing away from the bed. “All of you. Leave the thing here. I have something to do.”

The guards backed away, shuffling nervously out the door. It shut behind them with a creak and a clap, and I was alone with Rebella and her dying Grandmother.

Rebella wasted no time. With a yank she drew a dagger from her belt. With a toss her cloak fell to the ground and she marched towards me, head held high.

I just wasn’t expecting it.

With a flash of the arm, she stabbed me in the chest. I gasped, the sharp pain slicing through me. I found myself gripping at her arm as she yanked the dagger out of me.

I staggered as Rebella yanked away. The world swam as her back walked away, back to the bedside. My knees struck the floor. I was clutching at my chest, watching the blood seep out from between my fingers. I knew enough to know that this was severe. I was going to die.

And Rebella was still alive.

“Blood of the heart, lift this curse,” I heard Rebella whisper as she was lifting a bloody finger – full of my blood – to her Grandmother’s lips.

“Child, no,” whispered the fading Grandmother. The good eye fluttered closed.

I was taking that bitch down with me, I thought. I saw the dagger set beside her on the bed. I launched myself.

Lage’s Game: Chapter Ten, Part Two

The door to the shack creaked and rattled so loudly as it was drawn open that it almost fell off its hinges. Inside was a cluster of people huddled about a tiny fire. They looked up like owls. Terrified, huddling – and then they were angry and ready to attack.

They cried out, clutching at each other yet lurching forward as one. Ekundayo held up a hand, and said something. I wish I knew what he was saying, and they in turn. But I couldn’t understand, and would remain as if deaf to this whole conversation. The conversation rattled on, sharp retorts from person or other among the huddle, and Ekundayo answered so calmly. He placed a hand on my shoulder, and I decided not to shrug him off. We might need his story to be actually believed.

Finally, the huddled people returned, not to owls, but to disgruntled sparrows or something like that. They huddled again, and took to whispering. But the conversation was over. Ekundayo smiled at me. “They welcome us,” he said sweetly to me.

“Who the fuck are they?” I muttered angrily, hugging the cloak around me. We were still standing in the doorway!

“Oh, dear, they are poor people,” he said as he drew me away from the door and back out into the cold. “They’ve, how shall we say it? They’re a society of people.”

“Okay,” I snapped as I was directed to turn and walk to another building.

“And they’ve decided we can live in their lands. It’s a sort of, commune? People that share, that hoard and spend together. All coins are to be deposited in, here,” he said as he gestured to the next building. “Come,” and he went up and rapped upon that door. It didn’t look ready to fall over. It practically did.

This door was shoved open by a person with a rat-like face, protruding hairs, and a sniffing nose. Their eyes were sunken in caverns, and they had a walkign stick in hand and a shawl about their shoulders.

They sniffed the air, then cocked their head to the side. A grin split their features.

“Ekundayo,” Ekundayo said. He drew a pouch from his belt and rattled it loudly before handing it to the blind rat.

“Ekundayo!” the person cried out. Then they sniffed again, reaching towards me. Ekundayo took their hand and guided it to my shoulder, where he patted it into me. I grimaced, but didn’t move.

“My daughter,” Ekundayo said with a twinkling smile at me. “She’s my apprentice too.”

“Oh! Oh!” the person cried out.

“This is Crow,” said Ekundayo to me. “He used to be a great dame.”

“I was elegant,” Crow sniffed. “But I am happy now!” He squeezed my shoulder and patted me. “Come in, daughter and father!”

Crow backed away into the building, shuffling and muttering. We followed, Ekundayo gesturing me in before himself. Once we were in, he shut the door behind us. The cold remained, only a little stifled by the shack’s walls.

Here, there was no fire. There was only a large table laden with coins, pouches, and all sorts of items, a straw mat in a corner, and a pile of more junk in another corner. Ekundayo dropped his pouch into the pile and began rummaging. “We need clothes for my daughter,” he commented calmly. “Her mother is going to want her back, as will the princess. She was a handmaiden, you know?”

“Oh! Do you know dame Minstrel?” Crow asked chirpily as he shuffled to his straw mat and plopped down with … no grace whatsoever.

I didn’t answer, feeling the vices of our lie tightening around us. Ekundayo sighed into the pile of junk. Loudly, he drew out a piece of clothing. “This will do!”

“What will do?” asked crow loudly. “Is she a girl? Or a boy?”

Ekundayo looked at me with a glimmer in his eye and a foolish grin on his face. He held out the tunic to me. “Hm?” he asked, to prompt me to answer.

“I’m a girl,” I said sourly. I reached a hand out for the tunic. It was a bit large, but it would do. It was sufficiently mud-colored with a hue of green about it. I would blend into the streets.

After digging me up some pants and a pair of oversized boots, Ekundayo went to sit on the cot beside Crow with his back to me so I could change.

Crow, however, had gotten a taste of conversation and seemed ready to indoctrinate. “Are you sure? You seem,” he snapped his fingers in the air before himself. “Unhappy.”

“Oh, she is unhappy,” said Ekundayo with a chuckle. I began changing angrily.

“It is not about that,” I said sourly as I pulled the boots on. Then, thinking things over, I moved to sit on Crow’s other side. Resting would be nice, I decided. A bath would be better, but that would be probably impossible in this world.

“So what is it about?” Crow asked. Then, completely ignorign me, he began prattling about how, when he was young, he never knew what was wrong, but he knew something was wrong and –

I tuned it out, glaring at Ekundayo. He grinned at me like this was great fun. I scowled and leaned against the icy wall, hugging my cloak about myself.

Then, to the sound of Crow’s exaggerated story of elegance and misery, I fell asleep.

Lage’s Game: Chapter Ten, Part One

The rush of prisoners before us scattered at the top of the stairs, parting left and right into corridors. The creature, whatever he was, led me to the right. There we rushed down a narrow corridor. The prisoners ahead of us tangled with guards in brawls they lost. We wove around the messes and he drew to a halt at a window. The glass pane opened outwards, and he climbed up, sidling sideways so his body could slip out.

A guard yelled at us. The creature held out a hand to me. I hesitated.

I was seized from behind by the shoulders. I burst, a wave of anger suddenly crowding my mind.

I screamed, I lashed out. I felt the surge of power and adrenaline taking over. I wrenched myself free, jabbing elbows against armor and thrashing with all my might. The world had dissolved in a haze of red. The guard grappled at me – but was slammed back by a kick from the creature who was half back in through the window. Again, the hand was thrust at me.

This time I took it. I was yanked up, onto the window’s ledge. My hands gripped the edges of the window, and a rush of cold air greeted me. A drop opened up beneath us, one large story down.

“Climb on my back,” the creature said, taking one of my hands and putting it on his shoulder. I climbed, swinging my legs around his waist and gingerly grappling at his neck beneath the hood.

Too soon, the creature, man, began to scale the wall. I yelped as we moved away from the window, tightening my grip on his neck and locking my legs around his waist. But we did not fall. Instead we scurried down, to the side, and climbed atop the wall that separated the castle from the rest of the city.

He didn’t stop to set me down. Guards rushed us, but they were too slow. He had already jumped off the wall, scurrying down like a spider to the ground below.

The guards shouted from atop the walls, but they could do nothing it seemed. He ran, darting through the crowds of people to slide in narrow alleyways between houses. After several dizzying turns, he slowed to a stop.

“You can get down now,” he said gently, bending over slightly. “We should be safe here. At least for a little while until the guards recover their senses.”

Trembling, I set myself on the ground. I gripped my hands into fists, trying to calm myself.

In these shadows, I could see the one who had set me free much better. He was certainly tall, but maybe he was still a human. Yet something about him forebade it.

“Show me your face,” I ordered. What was he? Some monster? He had already admitted to being an assassin. How much worse could it get?

He smiled, flashing those white teeth. “Bossy. That’s good. But here, just for you,” he bent over before me, lifting the beaded fringe from his eyes and with it, the hood up off his head.

His eyes were brilliant golden set with sparks in them that gleamed. They reminded me of cats’ eyes in their roundness and their tilt. He had a tall forehead, from which grew a myriad of thin silver dreadlocks. Beside those dreadlocks, pointed ears poked out.

An elf?

He ran a hand through his hair, flashing me a grin again as he stooped before me. “You see? Our hair is the same. I’m just much older than you.”

I was pretty sure I’d never have actually silver hair. Just gray, if I lived long enough to get old. He was trying to make me like him. I was determined not to, putting on my most sour expression.

His smile didn’t falter. He straightened, brushing his hood back up. “The sun hurts my eyes,” he explained as he set the fringe back into place. “And the fringe helps me hear the spirits. I’m a shaman, you know.”

I didn’t answer, looking around. We were in a tiny crackle of a space between four buildings. A crossroad of sorts. The snow was trampled into the mud, proving that this was a well-used path.

“We’ll need to find you clothes,” he hummed. “Something practical.”

I didn’t answer, but I knew he was right. My yellow and pink pajamas, now covered in filth, were sorely out of place even if I hugged the guards’ red cloak around myself. And something besides socks would be good. Now that I relaxed, my feet were frozen. They stung with cold.

The elf looked around. “Should I kill someone? It would have to be a young woman, or do you wear mens’ clothes?”

“Don’t kill anyone,” I griped, deciding that there had been enough death already. “We can just – steal.”

He laughed. “How ideal. How shall we do that?”

I looked around again. “We should get moving,” I muttered, not wanting to admit that, unlike in movies, there didn’t seem to be laundry hanging haphazardly around for easy plucking. Did people not do laundry in winter?

“This way then,” said the elf, nodding to the right with his head. His fringe’s beads caught the light and glimmered. “I know what we shall find for you.”

As we walked, he began to talk. “My name is Ekundayo. What about yours?”

I didn’t answer, glaring ahead.

“Very well,” he said cheerfully. “I will call you simply ‘apprentice’. How is that?”

I frowned at him. “I am not your apprentice,” I hissed between my teeth.

“Oh but you see, it shall be useful,” he said, lifting a finger at me. Then, he winked. I scowled.

We walked for several more minutes in silence until several people appeared beside the buildings. They stepped out of the alleyways and barred our path.

I hesitated, slowing. These people were all hues of dirt and scuffed even worse than the ones I’d seen when entering the city. They meant trouble.

But Ekundayo put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t be afraid. They’ll smell it,” he murmured happily.

And so we walked on to greet these bandits.

They seemed baffled by this behavior, or more so by something about Ekundayo. They looked from him to me and back again, frowning. There were four of them, and they looked at each other with arms crossed and large knives at their belts.

Ekundayo inclined his head and said something in gibberish, starting with “Shee, shee.”

The bandits shuffled their feet. They looked at me. The woman that stepped forward with a lifted chin answered in that language to Ekundayo, nodding at me.

Ekundayo placed a hand on my shoulder, and he laughed softly before saying more gibberish.

After another curt exchange, the bandits stepped aside. Ekundayo patted my shoulder and we walked on past them.

“What was that?” I hissed after we were out of earshot. “What did you say?”

He chuckled, pulling the hood up onto my head. “You’re going to have to learn the language of the poor to live here, apprentice. Only the rich speak your language.”

I paused. It had never occurred to me before that English was not universal. But now… “Teach it to me,” I ordered. I’d need it, certainly.

More smiles. Another chuckle. “About what was said. I told them you were my daughter, spawned with a noblewoman, and that I’d finally rescued you from their clutches.”

I gaped. He winked again. “It explains you not speaking a word of the poor speech. And why you look so out of sorts.”

Anger rose within me, a steady burn in my chest. “I’m not your daughter, and I’m not your apprentice. Stop imagining things!”

He shook his head, tutting. The fringe on his hood rattled. “Children these days,” he scoffed before chuckling again. Then, he pointed to a shack that looked no different from the others. “There,” he said. “We will find our friends there, daughter.”

“I’m not your child!”

He laughed.