0.5 – New Beginnings 2

 

 

The girl was unconscious, her ashen hair draped messily over her shoulders. She was clothed in a dress so marred and damaged that Aenir couldn’t tell what color it was supposed to represent.

Luise kneeled beside her. Then he grabbed the rims of her dress and, in one quick motion, flipped it all the way up.

“What the smothering hell do you think you’re doing?” Aenir had to jerk his gaze away.

“I, uh, need to check for wounds.”

Scowling, Aenir glared at his companion and, in consequence, at her. He immediately regretted it.

She was pale, and she was thin. He’d noticed that earlier, but now he knew to what extent. It wasn’t the kind of thinness that aristocrat women vie for. It was the kind of “thin” where her limbs looked like skin-wrapped bones with no notion of meat, especially around the wrists and ankles. Thanks to the impudence of his ‘friend’, Aenir could see the outlines of her ribs bugling at her sides and how her belly sunk as if there were no organs within.

But that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was the scars that riddled her body. There were too many to count, but he noted a few that looked like they’d been mortal injuries. There was one on her stomach, an old cicatrix just beneath her ribs that implied she’d been impaled by something larger than a spear. A series of fist-sized marks started at her shoulder, from the base of her neck down across her chest and ending at her hip, giving the image of a large bite mark, though he doubted a creature with a jaw that large even existed.

Just as he thought it couldn’t possibly be any worse, Luise turned the girl’s body on her side, giving them view of her back. A large scar that looked like it came from a blade, cut deep from her right shoulder blade to the side of her tailbone. The slash wound itself was almost hidden among a myriad of smaller whip marks on her back.

“Is she alive?” Aenir asked.

“Yes.”

Luise was about to move the girl’s body again, but Aenir grabbed the wrist that was holding her dress. “That’s enough,” he said. “The least we could do is to not shame her any further.”

Luise furrowed his brows. He sighed and relented, returning the girl to how they found her. “Just for the record, I didn’t know she had nothing underneath.”

“So it’s okay if she had something underneath?”

“I didn’t say that.”

Aenir shut out the man’s retort and leaned near the girl’s face, sweeping away the hair on her cheek. She had delicate features, grimly obscured by starvation. Her lashes were long but the shadow underneath her eyes concealed it, just as her nose and puckered lips were appealing, but were fordone by her sunken cheeks and pallid, sickly complexion.

“I can’t hear her breathe. Are you sure she’s…”

“She’s alive. It’s shallow, but she’s breathing,” Luise told him.

“Anything else you noticed in your little checkup?”

“Aside from the obvious? There’s damage to her nails that looks pretty recent.”

Aenir briefly looked at the girl’s fingers and saw how they were bloody on the tips. Some of the nails looked broken, even. A sign of struggle against her captors, mayhap. “Any thoughts on the obvious, then?”

“She needs a warm bed most of all, but we can’t do anything about that for the moment. She also needs vitamins. We could find some fruits to extract liquid from on the way back if we have the time. Oh, and make sure to give her something warm to drink before feeding her anything solid.”

Aenir was tempted to ask on how Luise seemed knowledgeable on the matter but wised himself not to. Instead he propped his wrists underneath the girl’s shoulders and knees. He then lifted her up in his arms. She’s too light. He frowned. She was light as a feather, but it was too damn literal to be a flattering statement. Rather than a feather, she was a freaking twig.

“You’re really going to bring her?” Luise said.

“We can’t just leave her, can we?” Aenir answered, but in truth, he was conflicted. He couldn’t guarantee the girl’s fate even if he was to bring her back to the camp. Who knew what the Lord would do to her? He was reminded to that one luphaen who escaped, only to be brought back and sentenced to a torturous death.

Even so, this is the better option. This girl in white would probably hate him for this, but she would at least have a better chance with them than among these forsaken, beast-ridden woods.

“What about this thing, then?” Luise pointed his thumb at the enigmatic cube.

Aenir furrowed his brows—another conflict. No mana field existed without reason as there was always something that brought these fields about; a freak of nature like the one at the Eye of Anzu, where the remnants of an ancient war were trapped in a perpetual whirlpool, or the Yggdrasil, an ancient tree massing mana from throughout the Mer. There was something abnormal to be unraveled right within his grasp, and he hungered for it. It could be registered under his name, and the cube, with all the mysteries around it, it was all his to discover. That feeling was almost unbearable.

Almost.

“You stay here if you want. I’ll take her back to camp,” Luise suggested, as if reading Aenir’s thoughts.

“No,” he said. The gnawing hunger was heavy in his mind, but the weightless body in his arms were heavier. “I’m taking her back.” And I’m not sure I could trust you with her.

Luise shrugged and followed as Aenir walked toward the camp. “What do you reckon? An escaped slave?”

“Maybe,” Aenir said. “They’ve been using this route for a while. An escapee from a previous shipment, maybe, but that would mean she had to survive in the wilderness for two moons at least.” Yet the damage on her nails were recent, weren’t they? That doesn’t fit. He looked down on her face. If he put the haggardness aside, she looked young. Too young for this kind of suffering. His grip on her tightened. “Who could’ve done something like this?”

“You’ve been in this industry for nearly a year. Surely you’ve seen cases like this?”

“Even slavers have a degree of lenity to their investments. Yes, some are crueler than others, but this? This is madness.”

“What do you plan to do once we get her to camp?”

Aenir hesitated. “There’s a spare cage.”

“You’re going to lock her up?”

He nodded. Two days. I’ll just have to protect her for two days until the last group arrives, then we can initiate the ambush.

 

 

▬ ▬ ▬

 

 

“Two days. We’re two days ahead of schedule,” the driver said. “The Lord will be content seein’ us lot so early.”

“Uh-huh. Think he’ll give us an extra cut?” his friend said.

“Aye. We earned it, am I right?” He looked over his shoulders and met Latasha’s eyes. “Got a great catch too.”

She threw needles at him through the bars. His response to her glare was to laugh it off with his friend.

Filthy thugs. Latasha was never by any means a thoughtless or careless person, so how in smothering hell did she end up here? A ditch in a ditch; off the map, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by lowlife bandits. It was a ridiculous turn of events and she didn’t even have anyone to blame but herself for being so damn careless. It had been days since Latasha was taken captive by these lowly criminals and she was dying, not literally, but her pride had been damaged to a point of no repair. Who did they think they are, to touch her so brazenly and cage her like some kind of… some kind of wild fauna! She even had to share the tiniest cage in the world with some random plebeian! She, a Cardinal whose pillows worth more than the average man’s annual earnings, had to sleep in such close proximity, shoulder to shoulder, with a commoner! In a cage!

The worst part was not the cold, nor the fact that they hadn’t given her sufficient food or water, or even that she’d spent a whole freaking day without a bath. No, the worst part–, the worst part, was how they made her do her potty business in–, in–, in a smothering bush! With an impromptu latrine! Which she had to dig with her own hands! Un-mother-believable. That was something she would take to the grave.

She looked around upon recovering from her internal crisis. Aside from her own, there were two smaller cages on the wagon, both inhabited. There was another wagon trailing not far behind, though it didn’t have a roof and was carrying rough, smelly-looking soldiers instead of cages. Hell’s, she’d rather be there than share a cage with this thing.

Latasha leered at the thing, at the weeping girl. Her clothes, which must’ve been a commoner’s negligee, had been torn with holes where gashes on the skin were visible. And her musk– gods, her musk, as if she’d waded through mud and hadn’t taken a bath for the weeks after, and it horrified Latasha that it might very well be the case.

At any rate, she decided to tolerate the creature’s existence for now. For now, because for now, she had no choice but to put up with the ambient sobs, the frequent jostling as the wheels bump against rocks, and the suffocating closeness with the filthy girl.

 

 

Time passed agonizingly and just as she reached her limit, the wagon finally stopped. It was around sundown when they arrived at a camp inside a forest somewhere north, where they met up with even more outlaws. It was a gathering of outlaws. Having been raised in a birdcage, Latasha was naturally excited. After all, it was a gathering of outlaws. Then she saw the cages. There were more people locked up in wooden prisons just like hers, though aside from the three in her group, all of them were seemingly luphaens, judging by their big hairy ears poking out the sides of their heads.

After the captors disembarked, there was this middle-aged man who approached them, dressed in southern orange-colored robes with high collars, mismatched with dull pairs of gloves and boots. He was waving around a heavily ornamented cane while shouting angry words at a younger bloke that was leading Latasha’s group of captors.

“Subs! I want fucking sub-humans, you incompetent twats!” the man barked.

“But my lord,” the coach whimpered, “these three humans ‘ave redeeming features, I assure you!”

A loud pang—the old man had struck with the cane. The coach fell on his side, holding the side of his head. Red liquid was seeping between his fingers.

“Someone, take him away. I’ll deal with him later,” the old man said. Then he turned at the coach’s friend. “You, with me.”

“Y– yes, my lord!” The younger man whimpered.

“My lord?” Lord of what? Latasha eyed them as they climbed onto the wagon and inspected the cage nearest to the back.

Inside was a golden-haired luphaen. Latasha could tell with a single glance that her clothes were made of high-quality material, but it was terribly worn and had patches where the fabric had tattered. This girl had been hugging her knees for the entire journey, her face buried between her thighs. The old man rattled the bars and, when she didn’t react, poked her with the cane. The girl looked up. Latasha guessed by his smile that the old man liked what he saw.

“It’s a good catch.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“Don’t thank me yet.”

They moved on to the next cage, inhabited by an olive-skinned girl with shoulder-length auburn hair. She was dressed in plain baggy overalls—a commoner, albeit one with a nice face and shapely build. Her upturned eyes glared as they drew close.

“Explain,” the “Lord” demanded.

“T– this one was sold to us, my lord.”

“Truly? That’s fine, then.” He leaned in to take a closer look. “Red-haired Narsi. Marvelous. She’ll sell well.”

Then the red-haired girl spat right into his face.

The younger man froze as if under a spell. Latasha could see his hands trembling as his so-called Lord pulled out a handkerchief to wipe with.

“As fiery as her striking hair suggested. Your buyer will take pleasure in breaking you, as will I,” he spoke with a half-scowl, half-smile.

The girl glared at him, but he only gave her his back as he continued onto the last cage. Latasha’s cage. Well, shared with the other girl who, by the way, was still crying. Latasha was beginning to wonder the limits of a human body.

The Lord frowned when he saw the weeping lass. “She’s hurt,” he said, crumpling his wrinkles into what he must’ve thought an expression of sympathy. It was nothing short of disgusting.

“Erm, apologies, my lord. The mercenaries were rather, uh, undisciplined. I’m positive she’s still worth a…. price…” he trailed off as the old man glared daggers at him.

“My girl…” The Lord reached in and patted the brown-haired girl’s head. She flinched, but the old man continued rubbing without a care. “I’m sincerely sorry for the misfortune that has befallen you. What is your name, if I may inquire?”

She kept sobbing.

“Where do you live? Do you have a family we can return you to?”

She cried louder. Latasha cringed away from the painful spectacle.

“Um,” the younger man spoke out, “I– I’m afraid, she…”

“What?”

“She no longer has a family, sir.”

“Ah.” He turned back to the cage and spoke in a softer voice, “Don’t worry, dearie. I will make sure you are properly compensated.”

Compensated. Latasha couldn’t hold it in anymore. A snort escaped from her before she could stop it. The Lord’s attention turned sharply at her, and she froze like a deer caught in floodlights.

“Is there something funny?” Angry wrinkles mustered between his brows.

“I was just wondering how you could possibly compensate for a dead family,” she answered. Her voice sounded unlike herself – daring and fearless, while the truth was the exact opposite. “Oh, and by the way,” she added, “do you know what the punishment for impersonating a noble is?”

His glare intensified. “You’re assuming I’m a fake?”

“Are you not?”

The Lord moved so he stood near Latasha’s side of the cage. He took a lantern from the younger man’s hand and raised it to take a clearer look at her face. He looked down to meet her eyes, while she looked up. The raven-haired girl tried to keep a domineering posture, but the constriction of the cage made it hard. She settled on having her knees pressed together to her side, her back leaning against the bars with her arms crossed delicately on her waist. If only the girl she was touching shoulders with wasn’t infecting her with such pathetic.

“I’m no fake,” the Lord said. “A Lord is defined by his power to keep his own words.”

“Ah, you’re planning to keep yours, then? To compensate her?”

“Of course. Then we will release her,” he said. “You and her both.”

“Why not release us now? We’ll work it out whilst free from our bonds,” Latasha suggested.

“I’m afraid we’ll have to process you first,” he said.

Process. Latasha managed to hold back a sneer. “Process? I believe how you spell that is torture and blackmail. Hardly a better fate than slavery.”

“I don’t make slaves of people.” He made a disgusting smile, the lantern near his head casting ghastly shadows on his face. “Do not fret, miss. No harm will come to you, I’ll make sure of that.”

“And her?” Latasha gestured at the red-haired girl. It was her best attempt to avert his attention away from herself, even if for a second. His eyes, however, stayed on her like a hungry wolf.

“An exception. The Narsi was bargained for.”

“The rest too, then? The luphaens?”

“That’s a different matter.”

“Oh,” Latasha made an understanding nod, breaking her gaze as casually as possible. “Because they’re not people.

His smile went wider and uglier. “You seem to be a well-cultured person, miss…?”

“Hm? I do believe it’s proper etiquette to give one’s own name before asking for others’.”

“Of course, where are my manners? My subordinates refer to me as Lord, as you may now refer to as well.”

“Truly? My own servants call me Lady, as you may now refer to as well.”

He snorted with amusement. “Lord and Lady. You flatter me.”

She could feel his gaze scanning over her body. It sent a shiver down her spine. “As was intended, my lord,” Latasha said with a well-practiced smile, hiding the trembling of her fingers inside the folds of her coat.

“While I do enjoy this wonderful exchange, I must ask; what is it that you want from me? I assumed you wanted something when you pulled my attention, but now you seem intent on keeping it.”

Latasha paused for a second, as if caught off guard. “Release me, my lord, and I’ll make sure you will be the one compensated.”

“And how will you compensate me?”

“I have vast resources, such that you will thank me in the end. But if you still doubt me…” Latasha drew her hand and traced two fingers up over her side in a slow, provocative way. It lingered over her chest for a moment, drawing invisible circles before settling her palm at the base of her neck. She tilted her head against her hand in a calculated angle while still maintaining her gaze. “…perhaps I can give you something else in advance.”

The Lord’s throat bulged as he swallowed, the corners of his mouth twitching as he held back a grin. He replied without much pause, “A tempting proposition. And if I refuse?”

“Then, uh, you’ll find yourself paying for a hefty consequence,” she stammered. The Lord opened his mouth to answer, but Latasha interrupted with a dismissive wave of hand, shooing. “You can go now. Think it over, my lord.”

A vein popped on the Lord’s forehead, but he kept his ugly smile. “I most certainly will, my lady. I wish you a good rest.”

He turned away and headed towards the back of the wagon, dragging the younger man along.

“Oh, and by the way,” Latasha called out, “it’s public hanging.”

The Lord stopped and shot a look at her. “I beg your pardon?”

“The punishment for impersonating a noble, it’s public hanging. Have you ever seen one?”

He wasn’t playing ball, keeping quiet, so Latasha continued, “Well, I have. I attended the hanging of the White-Faced Fox five years ago. Did you know that the law demands death by suspension for impersonators? No quick drop there, just a slow and painful one where air is cut off from your major organs. The blood vessels in your eyes and face will burst, but you wouldn’t even feel it because you’re slowly dying of asphyxiation. You’d just be there, wriggling in the air for minutes’ long, waiting until one of your organ failures kill you so you’d finally be relieved of the pain.”

Still no reaction. She pushed on, “So there you are, hanging dead and pale. Then the executor cuts down, and all these mounted blood pressure blows out. You get the ‘angel’s lust’—your manhood engorges post-mortem, spewing bodily filths. One last humiliation, and it would be how you are remembered in history evermore.”

The Lord’s eyes were glued open, pupils dilated. Long seconds passed before he snapped his gaze away from her. Without a word, he and his entourage jumped down the wagon and left, a bit hurriedly, leaving a blaring silence in their wake. Silence? The wussy girl had stopped crying somewhere in the conversation, Latasha hadn’t even noticed that. Her own heart was beating so loud she was sure the wuss could hear it. She took deep breaths and calmed herself down somewhat.

She’d done it now, that look in the Lord’s eyes when he left told her that. It was a good outcome, considering what the situation had given her. She made him think she was all bark, acting like a naïve and scared girl putting on a brave front. Feed his pride, amuse him with the feeble act and finally make him angry, take away all that ego from under his pitiful beard. He was furious, she made him furious, and that’s exactly why he would deal with her. It was all an act, you see; the stammering, the averting gazes, all to feign weakness. Even her story about the hanging was a lie, something she read about in a tabloid a few years back. It was all an act, and anyone who didn’t agree could just go to hell because the next time he returned, it would be to bring her to his tent to discuss terms, and fornication would not be among–

Latasha’s orchestration was interrupted when she realized her cage-mate had been staring wide-eyed. The other girls as well. They’d listened in to the conversation.

“What are you looking at?” Latasha said, and the wussy girl quickly looked away, trembling. Figures.

She’d gotten used to that look. People looked at her the same way back home. Her peers, even some of the powerful adults, staring and whispering when they thought she wasn’t looking, and it was fine. “Better to be feared than to be belittled,” her uncle had said. She never liked her uncle and could never see any reason for anyone to like him, but the counsel of a man with an age-old reputation was not to be brushed off, especially when it had gotten her this far…

Latasha perked up when she heard incoming footsteps. That was quick.

Apparently, the Lord was a quick decision maker. She braced herself to be called to his tent. Mind you, though she did tempt him suggestively, she would never, never allow him to place even one finger on her person. What she would allow was to open a civilized dialogue and explain to the Lord of whom she was, maybe even threaten him if things were to go that way.

Or that was her plan at least, if the footsteps actually belonged to the Lord. They weren’t. A man came from the opposite direction of where the Lord went. He moved swiftly and carried no lights, wearing clothes that blended into the darkness, but Latasha could still make out the figure of a man carrying another person. He climbed onto a wagon next to theirs and she watched as the man fumbled with the door of an empty cage. He placed the person in his cradle into the cage and locked them in. His movements were stealthy when he left to join the other outlaws, as if he didn’t want eyes on him hanging around that place.

Latasha’s new neighbor was a sickly-thin person with white hair. She initially thought of an elderly woman, but that wouldn’t make sense in the way of profitable slavery. Then she saw the pallid skin – it was an albino. She could guess what that man had been doing with the pale girl in the woods and why he wanted to hide it. You see, this Lord seemed to have a sick sense of commercial professionalism, and she could imagine him exercising punishment like she’d seen with the coach, maybe even worse, if he were to find his subordinates ‘playing’ with the merchandise and thus ‘lowering’ their worth.

Latasha grasped on her elbows, her nails biting into the fabric. She’d known about it, took lessons about how backward cultures in the fringes of civilization brought forth such abominable acts and heinous crimes that made up the Scripture of Sins. Yes, she’d known about it, but seeing it happen before her own eyes was too different from reading about it.

It had been too long since she had anything to eat, not to mention that it had been the longest she went without a wash, and she hated feeling dirty. She should be feeling angry with this treatment, but she wasn’t. She was just… irritated. Impatient, maybe, and that feeling peaked when she heard about the family of the girl beside her, again when she saw the dark-haired man with the albino. She couldn’t understand that feeling or why she felt that way. It was like seeing a romance novel in the politics shelf; it was wrong and she had to fix it, but she couldn’t reach it and she wasn’t allowed to use the ladder.

What did I do then? What did the littler, stupider me do to correct that wrong?

She’d climbed the shelves. Then she’d fell along the way.

Mass hysteria swept the whole house that night. Every servant was sent out to find the best doctors and medicines in the District because the little miss had a three-feet fall into what was basically a pillow. Everyone panicked, so she panicked, and all she could remember was the feeling of the book in her arms.

Another pair of footsteps drew Latasha’s attention away from her inner thoughts. The dark-haired rapist was back.

Haven’t you had enough? She was about to shout at him when she saw what he had in his hands; a bowl of soup and a piece of bread – a bribe to silence the albino. Latasha scoffed as she watched the man approaching the white girl’s cage.

That was when a lightbulb flashed in her head. “Hey, guy yonder,” she called out. Assuming she caught his attention, she continued, “She won’t be eating that anytime soon. Why don’t you give it to me instead?”

She was famished, in case you didn’t notice. She could see the man turning to her, hesitating, looking between Latasha and the meal in his hands. She decided to give him a push. “You should give me those,” she smiled, “lest you want the Lord finding out about miss whitey over there.”

There was a gasp coming from the wuss, and a ruffling hinted that the red-haired girl had a similar reaction. Threatening a slaver when she was in a cage herself—foolish? Not quite. She had protection, you see, in the form of unfinished business with the Lord. Or at least, that’s what she thought. She had second thoughts when she saw the man donned a pistol at his hip as well as a big, big sword on his back.

He walked up to her cage and smiled back. “Are you threatening me?”

“W– who’s threatening who now?” her own smile nearly faltered. He was way taller than she thought.

The man looked neat. Too neat for an outlaw. His dark hair was cropped, and he only had a thin stubble, unlike the other cavemen. His garments, the long overcoat worn over dark jacket and trousers, almost seemed like it was tailor-made for him. She wouldn’t figure him as one of the mercenaries if it wasn’t for the sword on his back which, now that she had a closer look, seemed way too big to be of any use in a fight. The wheel gun on his hip, however, was a different matter.

Suddenly, the man sharply stepped near, drawing a little shriek from the wussy girl. He stopped short and made a look at wuss, sizing her up and down.

Latasha knew that look. Oh, no you don’t, you sick smothering perv–

Just as she was about to unleash threats from the depths of hell, the man sighed and quietly placed the bowl and piece of bread in their reach. Then he walked away without another word. Latasha stared at his retreating back, somewhat dumbfounded. She’d expected to have to make more arguments but apparently, the mercenaries feared the Lord as much as their captives did, if not more.

When the man finally went out of view, she reached out and grabbed the food into the cage, placed the bread in her lap and used the bowl to warm her hands. She took a sniff of the soup. It was sickening.

Beggars can’t be choosers, Latasha. With that kind of conviction, she took a sip. Immediately she spurted the poison out of her mouth. That was all it was; poison. No edible food could ever taste like that.

The wuss was staring at her, witnessing everything.

“Umm… hungry?” Latasha offered the bowl. She’d forgotten she had a poison-tester on hand.

The brown-haired wuss took it, paused for a moment, then placed the bowl on the floor. She looked back at Latasha, welling emotions in her puffy eyes as she drew closer…

What is she… oh, holy ass of Athyra. There was nowhere to go. The wuss had trapped Latasha into a smelly, cruddy hug. Her head, her fluffy brown hair was rubbing against Latasha’s chest, giving the Lady the unfiltered musk in all its glory. It was all she could do to freeze and hold her breath, trying her best to not breathe inthe terrible, terrible toxin. When the wuss finally let go and went back to the bowl of soup, Latasha was still frozen in shock.

It had been a long day—she had been dragged against her will, starved and humiliated, but now, now she was stained. She was even sure the wuss left a snot on her overcoat. That piece of clothing was cheap as a rock, sure, but there was no way she could continue to wear it, so she stripped it off. She was wearing layers of well-insulated clothing, so the cold wouldn’t bother her that much. On the other hand, the wuss was wearing what was basically a thin drape filled with holes. With a flick of her arm, Latasha threw the coat at the unsuspecting wuss.

The wussy girl shrieked at the sudden attack, her flinching causing a bit of the soup to spill. She looked at the clothing, and then at the one who threw it. Her eyes bulged with gratitude.

It was dirty, so I’m throwing it away, okay? You just happened to be in the wa– Latasha realized her mistake when she had a bad omen of a second assault.

Before that could happen, though, she was saved. “Umm, can I have some too?” said the red-haired girl.

Latasha glanced at the ruddy, who was clinging to the bars like a hungry pooch. She still had the bread, but she knew just from touch that it was a cold, hard bread, not in any way suitable for humans as far as she knew. But if the pooch wanted it, then…

“Catch.” She threw the bread.

The red-haired Narsi reached out through the bars and nimbly caught it. She looked at the bread in her hands, then back at Latasha, tilting her head. “Um, what about you?”

“I don’t like bread.” Latasha looked to the other cage that housed the golden haired luphaen. “Hey, Goldie. Ruddy has bread if you want it.”

“Rud– huh?” blurted the red-haired girl, hence baptized as Ruddy.

‘Goldie’ meanwhile kept her head nestled between her legs, remaining unresponsive. Latasha and Ruddy exchanged a look and shrugged.

“Um, I haven’t said thank you yet,” Ruddy said.

“You’re welcome.”

“The name’s Kaelyn, by the way.”

“I’m Latasha.”

“Okay, um, don’t take this the wrong way, but are you a bloody idiot?”

Latasha stared into space, taking two seconds to make sure she hadn’t misheard. Roughly only four people in the world would even dare talk to her that way. Two of them had the power to bring whole countries on their heels, another one had probably killed more people than a drunkard got drunk in his lifetime, and the fourth one was that very drunkard.

“Ruddy,” she said, calmly, “I’m taking this in a very wrong way.”

“Look, I don’t know if you’re a daughter of some noble or whatever, but what you did just now, threatening an armed criminal for a bit of grub? That was a stupid thing to do.”

“You mean that bit of grub in your hands right now?”

“What’s even more stupid,” Ruddy ignored her, “was provoking the man who was clearly their boss. Hell’s, you even threatened him to a public hanging and that angel’s rust or whatever.”

“Lust, not rust.”

“Look, what I’m meaning to say is, I know you’ve probably lived a sheltered life, but are you really that naïve?”

Latasha rolled her eyes. Sheltered life, sure, but naïve? This whole thing happened precisely because she wasn’t some starry-eyed princess waiting for someone to come save her. “Just eat your bread, Ruddy,” she said. “I know what I’m doing.”

“It’s Kaelyn, thank you very much, and I’m only saying this because I don’t want to see you getting hurt for saying some stupid word at the wrong moment.”

“I have a plan, so just…” shut the smothering hell up, “sit tight, okay?”

“A plan, really?” Ruddy said with one brow and one side of her lips raised.

“A plan,” more like a plan for a plan, “and if it goes well, it might avail you your freedom at the end of it. All of you.”

Ruddy snorted, looking down at the cold bread as if considering eating it. “Even if that was true, I… I have nowhere to go.” She glanced at Goldie, “I don’t think many of us do.”

That feeling again. The irritation, and the craving to fix it. Latasha shook her head, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

“If you don’t care then why are you doing this? He’s letting the two of you go even if you don’t do a thing.”

Latasha sent her a ludicrous look. “And who exactly is the naïve one here? These criminals can’t just let us go, Ruddy, not when we’ve already seen their faces. They’ll first send us to the same place the rest of you are going, and then they’ll take precautions to make sure we don’t talk. Cut off our tongues, in a metaphorical sense. Or maybe not so metaphorical, who knows?”

Ruddy fell silent. The wussy girl too had placed the bowl down and conjured a depressing face.

Feeble minded peasants. Latasha snorted. If you can’t take it, then don’t speak up in the first place.

“Where…” a new voice, and it came from right beside her.

“What?” Latasha had been beginning to think that the wuss’ voice was sealed for everything but crying.

“Where are they sendin’ us?” the wussy girl asked with a tiny voice that tallied her timid appearance.

Latasha narrowed her eyes. She really, really didn’t want to set off another bawling fit that could potentially go all night long. “Somewhere south, maybe,” she answered, intentionally omitting some details.

“South?” Ruddy said. “You mean like the Sinean?”

“No, I meant South, somewhere beyond the isthmus,” Latasha corrected.

That moment, a rattling sound came from Goldie’s cage. The luphaen had risen her head and was holding on to the wooden bars, ears perked up, cat-like eyes fixed on the neighboring wagon.

Latasha followed Goldie’s gaze and found a pair of blood-red eyes staring right back at her. Whitey was awake.

 

 

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