Saturday, 22 August 2020

It's Just Business


   "An escort job? Who?"
   "Not 'who'. 'What'."
   A crease formed between Taria's eyebrows as she looked from the contract to the humourless man behind the desk. "All right, what then?"
   "No idea."
   "That's not really good enough..."
   "It'll have to be," the man replied, then squinted through his apparently disinterested demeanour to regard once again her sun-kissed skin and almost inhumanly angular features. She didn't flinch from the stare. "Where did you say you were from?"
   "I didn't. Nor," she handed the contract back with a deliberate smile, "do I take on illegal jobs."
   The man's eyebrows rose. "A mercenary with a moral code, how about that. Well, there's nothing here to knot up your precious sensibilities. It's a historical thing of one kind or another - acquired and sold by above-board means."
   "'Historical thing'? A relic? Books? A statue?"
   But he only shrugged. "Couldn't tell you. It's going to Jarl Marland in Kora." He moved out from behind the desk and walked towards a map pinned up to the wall, covered in so many old pin holes that some of the settlements had been completely eradicated.
   She studied where his finger struck it, a city to the north east, then traced her own finger along potential routes from Reyviin. "Three days," she deduced.
   "Two and a half, at most."
   "Demand?"
   He shook his head. "Landscape. So?"
   She pursed her lips while an errant summer breeze slipped through the window and brushed her short, red hair over her eyes. "Fine," she said eventually. "I'll take it. For a hundred and twenty krona." She didn't need to look to know the man had turned red.
   "A hundred and twenty?! This says--"
   "Ninety. I know. I can read."
   "B-but i-it's a small job--"
   "And 'historical things' are valuable." She turned him another deliberate look. "And when the clients are so tight-lipped, that tends to mean they're even more so. Which means the road may not be quite as smooth as it could be."
   His already squinted eyes narrowed further, and he opened his mouth to speak.
   "And I can't help but notice," she continued before he could, "the date on the request, and the fact that the request is still here. If you fail to get it to him in the next four days, the contract will expire and you won't see a penny of it. Am I right or am I right?"
   Words she didn't catch were grumbled under his breath. "Fine. Hundred and twenty." He shoved the contract back into her hands and stormed off behind his desk. "Get out."
   Taria grinned and left.

   "Hold here, Ten," Taria told her horse, and peered up at the fine house standing regal near the more manicured of the public gardens. A frown creased her brow. Historical research paid this well?
   She shrugged it off and dismounted at the gate. No one was around to guard or greet her, so she went ahead and wandered up the path and knocked at the door. The man that opened it was old and humourless, and didn't say anything beyond "courier?" before closing it again and marching off. Apparently, she wasn't permitted inside.
   Muttering his lack of manners, she satisfied herself instead by peering in through the window beside it at the array of trinkets and valuables on open display. She whistled in astonishment. It was just as well she was above thievery. This place was just begging to be looted.
   Taria darted back when she spotted movement inside, and the door was quickly snatched back open. The stiff old man gave her what she assumed to be a disapproving look, then stepped aside and let a younger man out instead. Again, no words were exchanged when he closed the door.
   Taria sneered after him, then turned her attention onto the new fellow who she found staring back at her, wide-eyed. He couldn't have been more than twenty, but it was as if he had never seen a woman before. He flinched when she smiled, and offered her hand. "Taria."
   "E-Edred. Edred. Lord Ingar's apprentice." He shook her hand nervously. Then stood there, staring at her again.
   She nodded slowly, then looked to the package in his arm. It was large, probably about two and a half feet long, but it didn't seem particularly heavy. "Is that it? What we're delivering?"
   "Wha--oh, yes, yes it is." And then he stared again.
   She smiled uncomfortably, then turned on her heel and led him away. "You have a horse?"
   "In the stables," he hurried along behind her, "yes."
   "Good." She took Tenebris's reins and gestured for Edred to lead the way, which he did with a strange, hurried shuffle, as though he wasn't moving at all from the knees up.
   Far from her surprise, they barely spoke at all along the way, and once they'd mounted up outside the city walls, the silence quickly began to prickle. Taria wasn't inclined to endure it. But then, she never had been. It was only out of courtesy for his clear discomfort that she'd restrained herself for the last fifteen minutes, but it was rapidly becoming more than she could bear.
   "So you're an apprentice," she said before she could stop the words from tumbling out, and gave him as friendly a smile as she could while he looked back at her with wide, startled eyes. "What does that mean?"
   "O-oh, uh, yes, well, uh, you see, every few years, Lord Ingar takes on one aspiring historian and teaches them his methods. Then, when they've advanced far enough, he'll write a referral to the Fellowship of the Hiso--"
   "No," she chuckled, "no, I know what an apprentice is. I mean what do you do? For him?"
   "Oh!" He managed a meagre chuckle, himself. "Well, I organise his work..."
   She continued to smile patiently. "...And?"
   "...And learn the processes he works by..."
   "...And you do your own research in between?"
   "Uh, no, I-I help him with his - organise his files, check for errors, corroborate his connections, strengthen them where they need to be, collect what he needs from libraries..."
   She couldn't keep the frown at bay for much longer. "You do none of your own work? At all? It's all his?"
   "Mhm!" And he sounded proud of that.
   "I...see... Oh!" Her smile returned in triumph. "I see! So your name will be on it beside his when he publishes it!"
   But his sudden chuckle erased it again. "Gods, no! No, of course not! It's not my work!"
   "Mm. Seems to me that it kind of is... Well, how long have you been in his tutelage?"
   "About three years."
   Her eyebrows flickered. "And how much longer?"
   "The same again."
   "Half way?! You're half way, and you're still only doing clerical work?!" She shook her head as his wide eyes blinked. "How will you possibly know you've advanced 'far enough' if you're not given any chances to prove it?! When I was an apprentice, I might've had to gather sword oil and wrappings, but at least I was still able to hone my own skills in between..." She cast him another furrowed look. "You seriously don't do any of your own research?"
   But his expression had stiffened, and he held himself with a sudden pompousness that certainly didn't suit him. "Miss," his tone had risen foolishly, too, "it's a manner of work you don't understand. Master Ingar is a fair and highly-sought master. I'm fortunate to be chosen."
   "And I daresay he's fortunate to have someone so...obliging..." She sighed and drew out her map at a fork in the road. "Well, what drove you to history, anyway?" She glanced up when he didn't answer, and found him frowning at her peculiarly.
   "You're not much like I thought a mercenary would be..."

   Mercifully, by the dawn of the next morning, Edred had relaxed considerably. Her constant pestering of questions she just couldn't for the life of her hold back had sufficiently worn him down, and he laughed at her story over a breakfast of fruit and cheese.
   "He slipped on the wine," she grinned uncontrollably, "the mug flew from his hand, hit the lamp, the last flame burst in a sputter and fizzled out, then he's on the floor, wailing like a cat. Two more come at me, but I could see them just about clearly enough with the window behind them, but all they could see of me was the light reflecting in my eyes - so I closed them, crouched, scurried forwards and tripped them as they ran. Then, while they're rolling about on the floor, cursing and wheezing and the rest, the cobbler flips his pancake, even in the stiff darkness, and says 'I had more onions in the back'!"
   "You're making that up!" He guffawed.
   "Not a word of a lie!" Well, mostly.
   While he continued to grin and partially collapse as he repeated his favourite bits to himself, Taria noticed someone approaching from the road. She rose and positioned herself smoothly between him and Edred. She could see even from that distance that the tawny-skinned, well-muscled man was another mercenary.
   Her hand loosened, ready to reach for her blade even as she relaxed her tone and smiled. "Morning," she called once it was clear he was definitely heading their way, and he replied in kind.
   "Morning - are you Ingar's couriers?"
   Her hand flicked closer, but her smile widened amicably. "Certainly. And you are?"
   "Yaruun." There was little friendliness in his voice. "He sent me to join you."
   "Oh? Why would he do that?"
   But the man's eyes immediately slipped onto the apprentice. Edred duly paled. "Why?" He managed not to stammer, looking back to her in confusion. "He didn't say anything to me about it."
   "Why would he send you if I've already been hired?" She asked as he came to a stop a polite few paces away.
   "You were hired on Jarl Marland's behalf. I'm working on Ingar's. It's as simple as that."
   Her hand twitched again as he reached towards his hip, then withdrew a folded sheet of parchment from his belt. He extended it warily, and the pair stared back at the seal.
   Somehow, Edred paled further. "He doesn't trust me..."
   "I can't attest to that," Yaruun replied, tucking it away again. "I'm just here to make sure you don't feign theft so your jarl gets both it and a refund. It was an after-thought, though, so I'm being paid well whether I end up being necessary or not. All the same," he turned pointedly to Taria, "if you are up to no good, I advise you to leave now. You can't stand against me. I will be able to stop you."
   Her eyebrow twitched, but she smiled all the same. "I appreciate the warning. But I took a contract, so I'm sticking around. I need the money."
   "Well, I'm paid either way, so it makes little difference to me. And if you're lying, at least I warned you." He turned and marched back to the road where his grey horse waited. "I'm ready when you are."
   Taria gathered up her tidied bedroll and clicked Tenebris over, strapping them back to his saddle. She noticed Edred's nervousness as he tidied away his own. "Not one for people, are you?"
   "I admit," he cast another uneasy glance down towards the man, "I prefer seclusion. Just being out here is several great leaps from my comfort zone. But...he makes sense..."
   "Yes, unfortunately, he does. So it's just as well we're not up to no good. Right?"
   He smiled nervously. "Right."

   Edred had stiffened back up in the company of this man, but Taria was unconcerned. If anything, she found herself even more interested in breaking down the mercenary's walls than she had been the apprentice's. She trotted Tenebris up beside him, and heard Edred draw his closer for safety.
   "Do you have any idea what we're actually transporting?" She asked him. "Edred won't tell me."
   "It's not my business to know," he replied flatly despite his lilting accent, his eyes unmoving from the road. "It's my business to escort it."
   "Even so, you're not curious?"
   "Why should I be? It's intellectual business, and I don't have the head for it, no matter how much my mother might wish otherwise."
   "She disapproves of your profession?"
   "Yours doesn't?"
   Taria's eyes pulled back to the trees, and she shoved away the small crease from the middle of her brow. "I wouldn't honestly know..." Her gaze drew back to him easily enough, and she smiled once again. "You're not from here."
   "No. Ivaea."
   "That's it?" She asked, picturing the deserts, mountains and grass plains to the north. "Just 'Ivaea'?"
   "You need more?"
   "I suppose not..." She looked again at the serpent crest on his scabbard, and the matching image on his shoulder. "Are you part of a guild?"
   "Yes. The Dralagsi."
   "But you're working alone?"
   "Not all of us are cut out for working in groups, and not all jobs need multiple hands. Surely you realise that. You're out here without your guildmates, too."
   "I don't have any. I always work alone."
   "No guild?" Despite the vaguest hint of surprise in his voice, he still didn't look away from the road.
   Taria smirked to herself. "'Not all of us are cut out for working in groups'. But I did train with one."
   Yaruun grunted, but that was all.
   "What do you usually work on?" She asked after barely a moment. "What's your speciality?"
   Finally, he looked her way, and his eyes were brimming with suspicion. "You ask a lot of questions."
   "As far as I'm aware, it's not a crime."
   He looked indignantly back to the road. "It's considered rude among my people."
   "Oh...well...we're not among your people. Really, though: what's your speciality? And why did you start? If your mother doesn't approve, it can't be a family business."
   "It isn't."
   Silence.
   "...So why did you?"
   His answers became only more tight and closed off with every question she asked, and before long, he stopped answering altogether, leaving them to ride on in what silence Taria would let sit. But they wound up making good time - mostly because the mercenary seemed to be pushing his horse in an effort to get away from her, but she supposed she couldn't blame him. And anyway, she was being paid by the job, not the day, so the sooner it was done, the better. And it looked to be an easy matter, too. With two mercenaries, thieves were less likely to try anything - though his unwillingness to talk made it difficult to gauge his likely reaction if they did. All she could really guess was that he would probably either try to take charge, or try to do it all himself. Either way, it looked like her part would be defensive. But giving in to that position early on was easier than trying to break down someone's stubborn pride...

   It was only when Taria peered at the map and tried to work out if the forest ahead was Tuskroot or not that she realised just how dark it had gotten. Kora was surely only two hours away by now - but Edred was tired, the horses were tired, and there was every chance that the jarl would not appreciate being woken in the middle of the night to deal with the arrival of an old relic. And the last thing she needed was to upset a client and have him pay the middleman less. That would mean less for her.
   So they made camp just hours from midnight at the edge of the birchwoods that sheltered the old city, ate their dried meat and tough bread - a meal that didn't seem to sit too well with the apprentice, as it hadn't the night before - and turned in, leaving Yaruun to keep watch.
   It took some time for Taria to find any sleep. Her mind kept knotting and twisting and racing. It wasn't often that that happened, but Yaruun - a man who didn't belong here in Turunda any more than she did, and who followed the path his profession laid out just the same - had made her think on her own home. Or, what little of one she had. Bouncing between orphanages hadn't exactly instilled a sense of 'belonging' anywhere. But she'd made the best of it, and she couldn't say she didn't enjoy where her life had taken her - especially seeing what passed for an apprenticeship in this place. But...she just couldn't shake the question as she lay there in the restless, smothering summer warmth: would her mother have been proud of her, if she'd had one? Or would she be disappointed? Or would she just be scared for her, risking her life and sleeping rough as she so often did?
   She lost herself in the matter for a long while before the sheer power of the knot in her jaw reminded her that the answers weren't for her to know. And that, honestly, they didn't really matter. She was happy with her choices.
   Taria closed her eyes and breathed, and sleep settled in easily once she let it.

   The world was black when she jolted awake, and only one sound touched the air. It wasn't an owl. It wasn't a cricket. It wasn't the wind. It was one sound she'd heard more times in her life than should probably have been healthy if it invoked an immediate sense of purpose rather than fear. Did that make her survival instinct broken, she wondered absently as she reached for her sword, or heightened?
   Well, she wasn't dead yet.
   She pushed herself up as the sword withdrew from Edred's body, and watched him hit the ground with a heavy thud and a gasp while Yaruun lifted the package from among the apprentice's belongings.
   Yaruun met Taria's burning stare. "He wouldn't hand it over." His eyes, in the half-clouded moonlight, were neither regretful, nor cold. It was just business.
   Edred's, when her gaze flicked back to him, were wide with shock. But the wound in his shoulder wouldn't be fatal - assuming she could get him help in time. Which meant dealing with Yaruun quickly.
   She'd already shoved herself to her feet, and her blade waited ready in her hand. All the numbness of sleep had fled with the sound of it ringing across her scabbard's locket.
   Yaruun was on her before she could ask a single question. And she realised too late that she was at an immediate disadvantage. His longsword had far greater reach than her shortsword. There was little use even trying to compete.
   Daggers, however, required an entirely different fighting style.
   She barely sidestepped his thrust as she lunged aside for the smaller blades, and danced her way around a second. He must have expected her to take a moment or three to adjust to the difference, and that incorrect assumption gave her room to get in an easy shot at his unprotected side.
   Or so she'd thought. He turned just fast enough to knock her dagger away with his sword.
   "I've warned you," he told her coolly.
   "I know," she replied much the same.
   "Stand aside, Taria. I have a contract."
   "So do I. But more than that," she made for another quick strike, which he didn't deflect in time, "you drew innocent blood."
   He pushed off, disregarding already the shallow cut in his side, while she leapt back, found distance, and exploded into a quick attack towards his legs. Her blades moved in a flurry, and she hit him a handful of times before his boot fired her backwards and sent pain flaring white across her face.
   She cursed and shook it off as fast as she could, and barely managed to sidestep and duck beneath his next rapid strike. He kicked at her again before she could react, but she saw this one coming and slashed a blade across his calf. He grunted, but that was all. His sword still flashed upwards into a skyward arc.
   But Taria didn't steal distance this time. She twitched back and let his momentum continue, leaving his torso open. Then she shot around his exposed side, moved up to his sword arm, and feinted just as he engaged his next attack. Her foot hit the side of his knee with all her strength.
   He crumpled with a curse, and she kicked him forwards as he fought for balance before stamping hard on the back of his other.
   Despite the crunch and howl, Taria's attention turned immediately onto Edred.
   "You okay?" She asked while he stared past her, pale, at the man trying to push himself back up, grunting through gritted teeth.
   His wide eyes soon crashed up onto her "You won't finish him?" He somehow managed both to whisper and shriek. "He'll come after us!"
   "Not with his ligaments in that shape, he won't. And anyway," she smiled, turning her attention quickly to the extent of his bloodied shoulder, "I don't take lives if I don't have to. He was only doing his job. Now come on: to your feet." She dragged him up and clicked the horses over, helped him up onto his own, gathered their things and left Yaruun there. The Ivaean mercenary didn't ask for help once.

   Despite the circumstances, she still gasped at the sight of Kora: the ivy clinging to the outer walls, the high merlons cut into the shape of leaves, clear even in the moonlight - and, above all else, the back of the city, cut straight from the quartz-studded cliffs, glinting and glittering like a sheet of stars.
   Edred was in little state to admire it, nor answer her flurry of questions. He half-slumped over his horse, clutching his shoulder, and looked about with listless eyes.
   Her concern hiked, fascination sharply forgotten, and she urged her horse faster. "Hurry, Ten! Hurry!" He snorted and obeyed, dragging Edred's leashed horse into a canter behind him.
   The guards at the gates gave her directions to the medica, and she kicked forwards without a second to waste, weaving on up through the sleeping hillside city until the old rounded building appeared ahead through the quiet streets.
   Despite few being on hand inside, Edred was seen to immediately, and she was pulled aside to have her nose poked at, too. She was fine, and assured them of it multiple times, but they insisted.
   She sighed and sat back down while a young man began pressing clinically at the bruising across her brow, and stifled her curse. She'd worked it out along the way there. Actually, she'd worked it out the moment she'd heard his blade cut through Edred's flesh. Yaruun had been hired to steal it back. Of course he had. He hadn't tried hard enough to get rid of her, so she hadn't noticed it at the time, but with her dead beside this unlucky apprentice, the jarl would be satisfied that thieves or bandits were to blame rather than any kind of underhand deception - maybe he'd even get his money back and compensation from the contract office, and the seller, evidently protected by some obscure liability clause or rule in the transaction, would keep both the jarl's money and the...whatever it was...
   She frowned down at the package she'd carried in, not daring to leave it outside to be stolen. She still hadn't been able to work out what was inside it, nor why it had made a noise when she'd grabbed it.
   Once the medic had concluded that she was, in fact, fine, and gave her a salve to cool the swelling, she left the poor, pale apprentice in their care, assured that he would make a full recovery, and sought out somewhere to stable Tenebris and find herself some rest - after casting back a cursory note that there was another man out at the edge of the forest that might also like a little bit of help, of course. She wasn't a monster.

   She slept well until she awoke beside her horse to a blinding strip of early dawn light falling across her eyes.
   She cursed and shielded them behind her arm, then found the tiptoeing stablehand apologising profusely for waking her, though he looked bemused at the same time. Why would she sleep down here when there were beds in a tavern literally on the other side of the wall? But, honestly, she couldn't even remember making it to the stables. Something in the salve must have made her drowsy. They really should give warnings about that kind of thing...
   After a quick bite that often consituted a breakfast on the road, Taria went to check on the apprentice, but he'd apparently lost more blood than she'd realised and the medics refused to discharge him. He was given no opportunity to argue, though, because he had yet to actually wake up. So it was left to Taria to take the mysterious bundle to the jarl, who the medics told her she'd find in library in the cliff face itself. She couldn't help a skip of fascination in her step as she hurried along towards it.

   Her eyes adjusted quickly to the dark of the library, and when she turned around to glance back out through the glass doors, the morning light almost blinded her again. She snapped away with a strained murmur and set off further into the building. Or, carving.
   Bookshelves lined the walls and segmented the hall, reaching all the way up to the tall, far-off ceilings. She saw, as she craned her neck, the images cut into it, though she couldn't make them out, and wound up spinning on the spot trying to find the right perspective.
   "You there!"
   She stopped and snapped around at the voice, then spotted two men hurrying towards her, both well-dressed, though the older of the pair held himself with a distinctly prouder bearing than the other. Both of them carried an eager light in their eyes.
   She bowed. It had to be the jarl. He didn't seem to notice the gesture, though.
   "You've brought it!" The jarl beamed. "Marvellous!" He all but snatched it from her, but before she could confirm her latent presumption that a fat purse meant fat fingers, he handled it with at least as much care as Edred did.
   She watched the pair of them stare at the wrapping as if they were suddenly afraid of what might be inside it.
   Then, suddenly, the jarl's head lifted and his eyes crashed back onto her. "Come! You've ferried it all this way, it's only fair that you get a look!"
   She wasn't about to argue, though she did have to hurry to keep up, and followed them into a well-lit back room where the jarl set the package on the table. Taria frowned as he all but leapt back from it, then the younger of the two moved forwards, and she watched him stare at it for another long moment. It was only at the jarl's excited command that he finally began to unlace it.
   Her eyebrows dropped when he drew back the cloth. "A tattered old fiddle? That's what we were bringing here? A fiddle?"
   "A nyckelharpa," the young man corrected in a voice barely above a whisper, his green eyes glittering. "Pre-magic elven, First Era, about one thousand four hundred years old, one of the earliest versions of what became the most iconic instrument, even in our own age!"
   "Really?" She took a more interested step closer. He caught her hand before she could pluck at a string.
   "Really."
   "Anthis."
   They both looked back to the jarl, his eyes as thick with fret as his voice.
   "Can you restore it?"
   Even she turned a cautious look back towards him as he circled around the table, mindlessly ushering them out of the way to look at it from all angles before daring to finally touch it. Never mind that it had been jostled about and strapped to the back of a horse for the past two days.
   Finally, he nodded. "I can. I think. I know a luthier who should be able to help..." he breathed a sound that was either a gasp or a stifled squeak. "It's so old... How much did you--"
   The jarl's cough and far from subtle nod towards Taria cut him off. He straightened instead and enforced composure over himself. It did little to chase away the glee in his eyes.
   Then the jarl was suddenly in front of her, shaking her hand vigorously and pressing a note of confirmation into her other palm, all while ushering her towards the door. "Thank you for your help, young lady. It trust it wasn't...too much...trouble..."
   She turned her head away while he stared at the bruising across her nose and brow, probably only now noticing it for the first time, and smiled offhandedly, freeing herself from his grip and making towards the door for herself. "No. None at all. And it took me only two days - you might want to let the oaf in Reyviin know that. Otherwise, gentlemen, best of luck with your fiddle." She reached for the handle, but she couldn't help casting back a curious smile. "I should like to hear it, if you get it working."
   Anthis smiled and gave a single nod of his head while the jarl descended back into staring at the thing, then Taria stepped back out into the library.
   Her smile promptly withered, and her eyes dropped down to the note of delivery. "Now to try to get my money out of that weasel..."


Taria and Tenebris belong to Patricia of FairyLiterary. Set in The Devoted's Turunda by request. This story is not to be copied or reproduced without both mine and FairyLiterary's permission.
Words copyright © Kim Wedlock



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