Inaris

Anecdotes: Yule and Regret

“Can I show you anything?” The shop owner looked down at Jade, his patience worn thin by the wave of girls and women who had flowed in and out all day.

Jade did not care. She rested her elbows on the counter and her chin in her hands. “No.”

The man frowned down at the sulking young woman before shrugging and moving off to help someone else who was more likely to spend money.

“Misses Harlowe?”

It took Jade a second, but remembering that that was her, she lifted her head to see who had spoken.

A happy smile lit the Elf’s fair face, and Jade wasn’t sure if it was from having forgotten the lady’s name or the fleeting thought of wanting to look that good in hunting leathers that caused her mind to go blank for a moment. “Oh… Hey. You’re — How are you?”

“Eruviel,” the Elf offered kindly as she set a gloved hand on the counter and looked behind it to the wall covered in gold, silver, and shell necklaces, bracelets and clips. “And I am exceptionally well, thank you. You are here shopping? I should warn you away. I do not think gold is the metal for your husband.”

Jade scoffed, but that brought a little smile to her red lips. “Then maybe a comb for his beard.” She then shook her head. “I’m waiting for the barber to get done”

Eruviel raised her brows. “You are cutting your hair off?”

“Sure am,” she replied, nodding curtly.

“May I ask why?”

Jade glanced side-long at the Elf’s long, intricate braid woven with satin ribbon and pretty winter blossoms. “Feel like being petty,” Jade offered lamely, feeling childish. Lifting her chin, she smirked and tossed her bangs to chase the feeling away. “Don’t tell me you’re cutting yours off. Do Elves lose their powers if they cut their hair?”

The Elf gave an enchanting, silvery laugh. “Not at all! And no, it is one of my most prized possessions. One of the younger members of the guild braided it so nicely and I fear I do not have a clip to keep it from unraveling.”

Jade combed her fingers through her own soft, pale gold hair. “How’s one of your kind end up without anything?” 

Eruviel rolled her shoulders nonchalantly. “I gave it away.” Stopping a saleswoman, she motion to a set of combs and clips stuck to a display. “I don’t know what has you in such a mood at Yule, Miss Jade, but I hope you reconsider.”

Jade studied the display with a thoughtful air. “Oh, it’ll backfire. Reason is silly, but it’s just hair. It’ll grow back.”

“Hmm….” Eruviel picked up a delicate filigree comb. “May I?”

Jade blinked in surprise. “Wh — uhh, sure.”

Eruviel caught a pale swoop of the young woman’s hair with the brass comb, spun it and set it securely in place. “Petty reasons do not justify rash action. Neither are the small regrets worth it.” She hesitated, a warm, distant look in her green eyes. Adjusting the chain of a necklace hidden beneath her collar, Eruviel turned her attention back to Mrs. Harlowe. “And you do have lovely hair.”

The sick feeling that came from her feeling sick at the thought that haunted her lessened, and Jade flashed a charming smile up at the strange Elf. She really would regret it.  “Can’t argue with that.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“You have a minute?”

Frank’s hammer clanked in an awkward strike against the tin. Hand gripping the handle tighter, he finished pounding the sharp bend in the metal. “What do you want?”

Cotton skirts swished, and he could almost feel her at his back though she remained several feet away. “I wanted to see you.”

You little — “You should go home, Maddie.”

“Frank, I –”

Without turning, Frank stepped away from the work bench and moved to the forge before her reaching hand could touch his arm.

“I heard you signed over the farm.”

“I did. I also signed your papers at the Town Hall,” he replied cooly.

Her silenced weighed down around them. “If… I didn’t know, Frank. Who I was, what I wanted –”

“Now we both do,” Frank interrupted sharply, meeting her soft, sad eyes with a cold, even look. “Go home.”

She looked wounded, sorry, but the now former Maddie Burns ducked her head in defeat. Picking up her cloak, she left the warmth of the barn for the frigid, snowy evening.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The little house was warm. Too warm. But she felt cold, and Feira shivered bodily, curled up in a quilt on the lightly worn couch.

Beside her several gifts sat, perfectly wrapped, bound with perfect little bows… except for Lalaith’s which was ready to be mailed in the morning. 

Then there was the tray set on the stool covered with several tea cups and a soup bowl. Torrin had not left her side all day, and his soon to be betrothed had even stopped in to see if you young woman was all right. Feira could feel better in the morning, or it could be a couple days, but she would be fine. 

Still Torrin doted on her as if it were her last day on the earth. They played games, and exchanged gifts, and when she fell asleep he sat and read at the foot of the couch to keep her feet warm. 

She didn’t think she could have had a better brother. 

Staring out the front window, Feira listened to him stumble through the kitchen in an attempt to make supper. The world was not as bright as it had been before. But in a day, or a week, whenever he showed up the two years would be over. She would cry and pretend to be fine, then eventually heal, but while she regretted not telling Torrin more about it, there was nothing, at least in that little moment, that she would have changed. 

Lotus: My Only Friend

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“Can we go again?”

“Again? But we just got back!”

“Not now, but someday. Someday after you beat the bad men in the west.”

“Someday, yes.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

“Cross your heart? And we can visit with the man who owns the water?”

“Liked the place? Yes, sweetheart. You can stay with him.”

“… Where are we going?”

“To get you your last present.”

“But you already got me a present in Can….”

“Khand, sweetheart. And it’s better than the trinkets and robes.”

“Really? Thank you, Daddy!”

“Thank me in a few years, little tiger.”

“Is… Is it a tiger?!”

“No, Inaris. It is better than a tiger.”

Oh….”

“Look. See, up there? It’s your mother.”

“I see her!”

“You should wave to her.”

“Is she coming with us?”

“Good girl. No, she will not be.”

“But I want to show her my present.”

“She already knows what it is.”

“Is it something I can share? Then I could share it with her and my friends.”

“Yes and no. Here we are.”

“But… I’m not allowed in this door… Did I say something wrong?”

“No, little tiger. Before we go in, you need to listen to me.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“Remember what I told you before?”

“You told me a lot of things.”

“About friends.”

“That you’re my only friend?”

“That’s it. People will be nice to you only as long as they need to use you. Never have any other friends. They will always betray you.”

“… O-okay, Daddy.”

“Good, Inaris. Now, let’s get your present.”

“Are… you sure? Do I have to go in there? The Mistress said –”

“You trust me, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now, go in.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The brand behind her ear was hot and raw to the touch. The ache kept her migraine from subsiding, and each throb of pain felt like iron nails scraping against her skull. Thankfully the haze of the past few hours had finally begun to lift. With a soft grunt in effort, Jade righted herself to lean back against the bookshelf.

“I was beginning to wonder if he’d gone too far and finally beaten you.”

Jade tested opening her eyes ever so carefully, only to find that the world was still tinted red, and warm pools of moisture lazily began coursing down over the sides of her pallid cheeks. Then it all came flooding back. Talagol relaxing in a chair in the little, empty apartment as Eglathor drug her in. Why she was there. Why she hurt everywhere.

“Hold still,” said Talagol as he crouched down beside her and removed the wad of cloth that served as a gag from her mouth. While years had seen his olive skin grow darker and heavy from wind and sun, they had done little to soften the man’s angular jaw and high cheekbones. How long has he been in Bree?

Don’t touch me,” Jade hissed, her mouth unbearably dry, jerking her head away. The sharp motion served only to make her headache worse. After a decade of wishing for just one chance to meet him again so she could see the life drain from his eyes he was here, and by the cords that bound her wrists she wondered if he knew just how much she hated him.

Talagol slapped her across the face, and the room spun. “Hold still,” he repeated, his voice no more severe than before as he pulled out a kerchief. “You will heal soon enough but it won’t do to have people see you with blood in those lovely eyes.”

You watched. Watched and did nothing! You vile bastard, you — “Where is the sorcerer?”

Talagol’s stern expression shifted into a dangerous glare as he carefully wiped the crimson tears from the corners of her eyes. “Eglathor has gone to collect his things from the inn. But I want to know something.”

Jade glared right back at him, not responding, nor drawing back again.

“Why did you betray our people?”

“‘Our people” is a very broad term to you, isn’t it?”

Talagol frowned. He was angry, yes, but it seem to be driven more out of disappointment than anything else. “In an hour you will be putting this pitiful place behind you. You should thank Eglathor for making sure you will not be executed upon our return.”

“Well, isn’t he the sweetest,” she cooed, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Don’t expect to get too far.”

Talagol’s harsh features illuminated by the firelight were accentuated by a wry smirk not all that dissimilar from his daughter’s. “We will see. Do you think this Breeish husband of yours will come? If he cannot be satisfied by being reimbursed, well…. Farmers and peasants are fodder for our friend, dear daughter.”

Jade sneered. You had better hope I get free and deal with you before he catches up. “Eglathor may be yours, but as far as you are concerned, I have no friends, remember?”

What Might Have Been

(If things had gone differently…)

Talagol sat outside the office suite of the grand villa. Minutes had passed since the muffled sounds of raised voices had cut off with what he could only assume to have been a book thrown against the thick mahogany doors, and the man wondered why his time was being wasted.

Having survived the bitter defeat in the west, the Wainrider had been surprised when the summons came for him. The battle-hardened man idly played his thumbs over a worn corner of the letter, quelling the growing anticipation as his eyes ran over the tall sandstone pillars. It had been years since he had been back. Longer still since anyone aside from his superiors had dared demand anything of him.

A dull thud sounded as the heavy lock of the double doors slid back. A man emerged from the office. Talagol could not help but cock an eyebrow as he watched his highest ranking sorcerer hurry away, hair tossed and looking like a cow fleeing from a culling.

Turning his gaze back to the still-open doorway, it took him far too long to recognize the young woman standing in the door. She had dyed her hair, but she had her mother’s eyes and, to his surprise, wore the blood-red robes of Mistress.

Tossing her bangs, a wicked smirk played on Inaris’ crimson lips. Crooking a finger, she beckoned him to follow after her as she turned back into the room. “Hello, daddy.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“About time you made it back.”

Asmus curled his upper lip against the thick smell of opium that wafted in every time someone used the back door of the den. “All o’the ships were destroyed. I had to make other arrangements.”

The fat man behind the desk wriggled his nose against an itch, and tossed a fat coin purse across the space between them. “Good work, anyways. The others are waiting for you across town. Use the west entrance.”

Catching the hefty payment, Asmus rose from his seat. “Right. I’ll be around in a week with the new shipment.”

With quick steps he strode down the hall, doing his best not to breathe in the air thick with smoke, incense, and hot bodies. He might not have minded it all that much, but the man had come to expect better things and find his pleasures elsewhere. It was what happened when one caught a lucky break, and he wasn’t the kind of person to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Rubbing the back of his hand over his crooked nose, Asmus left down a long corridor, and stepped out into the daylight that graced the lower quarter of Dol Amroth. The smell only got worse in the filthy alley, but the presence of the open sky beyond high roofs was a small improvement. Turning to head down the narrow way the toe of his boot suddenly caught on something, and the man cursed, stumbling as a wounded yip sounded from the edge of the filthy path.

“What the bloody –” Asmus caught himself on the alley wall and turned to see what he stepped on, and froze. “You?”

The girl laying on the ground drew her knees in close against her chest, hiding behind the long, dirty blond locks that fell around her face.

Asmus crouched down and frowned when she shrunk away from him. What had it been, twelve years? “Shit, girl. What did they do to you?”

Dull amber eyes avoided his gaze, and she shivered in mid-spring heat.

Grunting, Asmus stood, pulled a coin out of his pocket, and tossed it down to her. “Go get yourself a warm meal. Figure I owe ya that much.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Alagos did not bother looking up from his reading as Zagasht pushed past the guards at the door. “I assume you have news,” said the sorcerer mildly. “It had better be worth the interruption….”

Zagasht growled, and nodded quickly. “The others want to know why you have not sent anyone to fortify the tower. The Elf and his Gondorian friends have cut their way into the main hall.”

“Oh, have they?” he mused. It had taken them long enough to get here, but they had indeed come, just as he knew they would. Glancing over his shoulder, Alagos lifted a finger to summon the shadow standing against the wall behind him. “What do they want?”he asked of the thick, clearly agitated Orc.

Zagasht shifted uncomfortably as the dark, lithe figure stopped to hover beside his master. “They… They demand her return… and your head, my lord.”

A cruel, mirthless laugh rose from Alagos’ throat. “Splendid!” He turned his head and reached over to take his companion’s hand. “I had begun to worry they would never come for you.”

“What is your will?”

How deliciously cold her voice was, and the void in those lovely green eyes sent a thrill through his body. She had been his greatest challenge, and his ultimate masterpiece. The little, rage-filled bits of her that remained were carefully caged within her, left to watch everything that she and he did.

“Go. Greet our guests, my pet,” he said, kissing the back of her hand. “I am sure your brother will be happy to see you, and he has many friends to introduce you to.”

Bowing, the elleth that had been Eruviel took up the sword resting on the corner of the desk. Zagasht led the way out of the room, and Alagos sat back to watch her go, a gleeful smile twisting his features as the lights dimmed with her passing.

Bring May

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The clerk sighed again, giving Inaris an impatient look.

“He’ll be here,” she repeated curtly. By the gods, it was not like the clerk had anything else to do all day. Inaris fidgeted with the red silk of her inner sleeve, looking down at the soft lace and skirt as blue as the sea of Rhun. The longer she waited, the more she wondered. Wondering was dangerous, she knew, and it was worse when she began to doubt what she wanted.

Drewett sprinted into the room, a piece of grass in his hair. “I’m ‘ere! I’m ‘ere!” He coughed a little and upset a few chairs as he staggered toward the stage.

The world exploded around her. The light streaming through the grimy windows grew brighter, and the scent of jasmine lingering on her skin and the little white vanilla flowers in her hair filled the air around her.  What do you really want? Inaris could not hide her grin as he filled her vision, and bit back a laugh. “What kept you?” I bet it was that bloody goat.

Drewett grinned back at her, looking at the somewhat worried clerk with a slightly embarrassed expression. “Goat got outta ‘er paddock. Reckon she’s jealous. I’m ‘ere now though!”

Inaris laughed now, a burst of warmth blooming in her chest. “I should have guessed she’d be the one to throw a fit.” She brushed at the sleeve of his best jacket as she gravitated to him. “Don’t you look sharp!”

Drewett shoved his hair back and smoothed down his mustache. He gave a little chuckle. “Y’ look beautiful, by the way. Ain’ never seen a woman looked as beautiful as you…” He looked at her, utterly lost in thought.

The clerk cleared his throat noisily.

Arching a brow at Drew, Inaris smirked before quickly looking to the clerk. “Seems we’re both here now.”

Drewett didn’t seem to notice the clerk, completely absorbed in looking at Jade.

The clerk shuffled his notes. “I… Ah… do you have any witnesses?”

Inaris’s mouth quirked, and she blinked out of the warm spell Drew’s gaze held her under. “Oh… uh…” She looked to Drew. She knew she forgot something. She had meant to ask Dorsett, but when it came down to it, she didn’t have the heart to. He said he was past grief. She didn’t believe him.

Drewett blinked and then shrugged. “Ted’s lookin’ after the farm…” he muttered, scratching at his beard.

The clerk sighed and, looking between the two of them, bellowed out, “Oy! Gwinnie! Ed! Get in here!” After a few awkward minutes passed a hobbit lass in green skirt and a sallow-skinned man in a high collar make their way in and plopped down in seats at the front.

Inaris looked around Drew to grin gratefully at the halfling.

Drewett grinned as well, looking a little embarrassed by the whole affair. The Hobbit, Gwinnie apparently, clapped her hands together. “Oh weddings are so lovely!” she declared to the man beside her who just nodded a little irritably.

The clerk cleared his throat. “Well! Now that’s sorted. My friends, we are gathered together here in the sight of the gods to join together this Man and this Woman in holy matrimony; which is an honorable estate, instituted of the gods in the west, and into which estate these two persons present come now to be joined.”

Inaris reached over to slip her hand into Drew’s, and lightly brushed her hip against his. How perfectly it fit.

The clerk looked over at the two witnesses gathered from the office and flipped over a few of his notes before continuing, “I require and charge you both, as you would answer in full binding before the gods, that if either of you know any impediment, why you may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, that you confess it.”

Drewett squeezed Jade’s hand, he didn’t appear to have looked once at the clerk since the man had begun officiating.

Her slender fingers curled over the edge of his palm, and it surprised her at the amount of effort it took to keep her eyes on the clerk.

The clerk looked over at Drewett. “Will you have this Woman to be your wife, in the estate of Matrimony? Will you love her, comfort her, honor, and keep her, in sickness and in health; and forsaking all others, keep only to her, so long as you both live?”

Drewett coughed, aware suddenly that he’d being addressed. He looked over at the clerk and then at Jade. “Wha’? Oh aye!”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

candles

 “What are you still doing up?”

Feira looked up from where she laid on the floor of her little bedroom. The map of the world from Cirieldis lay flat before her, and beside it a fat candle and several books, each one sprawled open and marked with a bookmark decorated with a flower saved from her first nosegay. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“Again?” Torrin left her door open and his stockinged feet padded softly across the hardwood floor. “What are you looking at?”

“A map of the world,” Feira responded, pulling her loose, golden waves back as she sat up.

Torrin crossed his feet and sat down beside her. By Emeleth, but he looked tired. “Going on a trip?”

Feira snuggled up beside him. “The Lady Ciri offered to send me on a trip. I can go anywhere?”

“Why would she do that?”

Feira rolled her eyes. “Because she is nice? The Lady can do as she pleases.”

Torrin reached over the map to pick up a book that showed a painted drawing of Dale, the Lonely Mountain’s silhouette dwarfing the towers of men. “And you are going to take her up on her offer?”

“Of course I am! How many maids do you know that ever leave this city and it’s bay, let alone Gondor? I may never have a chance like this ever again.”

Torrin grinned, and let her take the book from his hands. “Do you know where you want to go?”

“I want to go everywhere. I have been practicing my Haradic diligently, so somewhere in Haradwaith is definitely on my list. Dale too, it being so dreadfully far away. Also Forochel. Did you know the Lady is from there? I have never seen snow. I bet it’s deliciously cold.”

“How are you going to choose?” asked Torrin with a laugh, suddenly looking uncommonly relieved. “You said you had a list?”

Feira leaned forward to scoop up her stack of books, adjusting the short sleeve of her night dress. “Oh, yes! There were one of the Dwarven kingdoms, but I do not know a lick of KhuzdulI had Edoras on my list, but it is too close, and I do not think there is much to do in Rohan besides drink mead, ride horses, look at horses, and talk about horses.”

“Hey, now! That sounds like a good way to spend every day,” said Torrin, feigning offense.

Feira grinned and waved a hand at him. “I was also thinking of the Grey Havens or Lothlorien, but it is all Elves there, and I hear they are all planning on gradually leaving. I imagine it is all a bit depressing in spite of the scenery. I closed my eyes and put my finger on Dorwinion and Khand, but those probably are not the best of places for a young woman to visit right now.”

Torrin rumbled a chuckle, and kissed the side of her head. “Well, wherever you go, I am sure it will be the best of options. I am glad you’re going, though I’ll miss my little Faerie.”

“Just you wait,” she chimed, beaming a smile a bright as the May sun. “I will be a young woman when I come back. But before I forget!  Will you have time to walk me down to the docks tomorrow?”

Torrin sighed, and rolled his eyes. “Leaving him a letter?”

Feira stuck her tongue out at Torrin as he moved to rise to his feet. “Of course! I can’t just up and disappear on him.”

“Like he does to you?”

Feira scowled, and snagged a pillow from behind her to toss at him. “That’s low.”

Torrin grunted, and caught the pillow, stealing it away with him as he headed for the bedroom door. “That’s the truth! Anyways, get some sleep! You can scold me on our way to the docks tomorrow.”

“You’re the best!” Feira called after him with a roll of her eyes as she laid back down to study her map, propping her chin up on her hands.

“I know. Now get some sleep!” the young man called back as he closed the door behind him. “Love you.”

Bossy. Love you, too.”

(Thank you to Raenarcam for playing Drewett! Jade’s portion was taken from in-game RP and edited for tense and composition.)

Anecdotes: Safe

Feira ducked into the churning crowds in the Court of the Fount. Clutching her basket close, she cast a frightened look over her shoulder.

She had seen them as she was finishing her errands for the estate. What do they want?! She knew what they wanted. They had most likely let her spot them on purpose. Then she would tell Torrin, and their message would have been sent for them. Pay up, or else.

Fastening a kerchief over her golden head of hair as many of the female shopkeepers did, Feira skirted around a cluster of sailors, then around the other way past a gaggle of ladies who had come to indulge in the festivities. She spotted them on the far side of the great court, the young dockworker from the market, and the man with the crooked nose. She let out a breath in relief to see that they had lost her.

Careful not to rush or shove past the festival-goers, Feira wove through the throng, heading straight for the tall gates and hedges where she knew she would be safe.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

An excited thrill coursed through Jade as she began gathering the few things in her room at the Mantle that she owned. Yes, in truth she would miss it, but the pleasant ache that lingered in her muscles told her it would not be much.

The door to her room slammed shut behind her. The smell of potent men’s cologne, cloves, and burnt flesh assaulted her nose. Jade did not trust her initial expression, and so continued folding her silk night robe, back still turned to the dark, wiry man who waited five, six… paces away.

“Running away again?”

His voice turned her stomach. “Taking a holiday,” she responded, tone aloof and cold as she felt her walls easily slip back up into place. Perhaps too easily. “We both know it would be worse if I tried to.”

The man’s chuckle crawled over her skin. A dart of heat brushed past her cheek, and burned a small hole in the wall. “It took me a while to find you. I like the haircut.”

Jade fit the robe into her satchel, and kept her hand concealed as she found the weapon hidden within. “You always did prefer fair-faced little boys.”

A strong hand slipped around her neck, and the trickle of electricity meant to shock her as a warning just flowed in to dissipate in her throat. “They were right,” he said after a minute. “How fascinating. And your pulse is as steady as ever. Whenever Talagol is able to travel and find this little hole in the world we should catch up.” A bony finger brushed at the brand behind her ear as if to remind her, then pulled away. “Don’t go far, dear Inaris. I will see you in a few months.”

The door opened and closed quietly behind her. Drawing a shaky breath, Jade waited, listening to the sound of footsteps fade. There was silence, then her heart leapt into a race within her chest as she slowly peeled her fingers away from the hilt of her dagger.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Warmth drained out of the gash in her side and her neck. Her arm screamed in pain as she fought blindly, attempting to dodge the punches that forced her body to suck in the stagnate water she was trapped beneath. Something tore at her leg. Panic rose as her lungs burned, and screams went unheard as the weight of the orc clawing at her breastplate pressed her further into the muck.

Darkness, just like before. No hands to pull her up. No hands to drag her to safety, or help her find her feet. Only the desperate will to live as, once again, the cruel claws of orcs forced her back into the suffocating black.

Eruviel shot upright in her bedroll, gasping in the fresh air that flowed through her tent, and pressed a palm against the throbbing wound on her thigh. Choking on a silent sob she lay back, weight on her good leg as she faced the unused bed beside hers that was littered with rocks. Lifting silent thanks that there was no one there in the dark to see her, she groped above her head till her hands found her broken bow. She clutched the last remnants of her brother to her chest. The Elf curled up, closed her eyes and pushed back the sudden wave of loneliness.

She willed warmth into her limbs, and passed beyond the ruined walls of Ost Guruth. Back she went in her mind, north and west till strong arms held her safely after infinitely worse days, and the words of Fionwe and Milloth mixed and melded together.

Look around you, look around you, dear little sister. Look around you and find strength. I am here. It is never so dark when you see the faces of those you love. It is never so dark when you create your own light.

Anecdotes: What We’ve Done

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Twenty-three men. A hundred and four had joined him at Minas Tirith, and now twenty-three was all that remained of the 6th, excluding Peldirion. By now they had gone to set up camp, but he remained, an unmoving remnant before the fresh graves that had joined the pillar standing in memory of his brother and friends.

You are in good company.

He had put the halberd back in it’s resting place, and only memory told him that the stained silk ribbon tied at it’s neck had once been emerald green. The elf had been right. He had fought harder with it in his hands, and more than once the long weapon had saved his life. Now he returned it, one of the many burdens he had bore now lifted.

It had begun with Halethon, then with Lalaith, and now the last ten years and past two months came slowly crashing down on him. She had made it so much more difficult to keep it all in. Little by little his Arien had pieced him back together. Every soft touch and tender word was salve to an open wound, and suddenly he could grieve. It hurt far worse than Peldirion had ever anticipated, the ache tearing through his chest as the miles between them grew. Hot tears poured down his face in the dark, and he did not move as Ferris stopped several paces behind him.

“He’ll take care of them.”

Peldirion slowly nodded. Yes, they were in far better hands now.

“S-Sir?”

He did not respond.

“Camp has been set up, Sir.”

Still, the young man got nothing but silence.

“I… W-Would — Should I bring your effects here for you?”

It wasn’t the same. Not without Halethon, but he kept telling himself that the boy would learn, and Halethon would return. “No,” he said, his low voice unwaivering, not bothering to wipe his eyes. “Bring food for you and I to my tent. We have work that needs done.”

Hands clasped firmly behind his back, the Captain pivoted on his heel and marched away, mounds of fresh earth marking the graves watching him as he walked away.

Six more months. Only six more months….

 

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She’d left first, shaking bits of spring grass from her short hair that was in desperate need of a trim. Strolling around the block had proven to be just enough time for Jade’s companion to depart, and she pocketed the little pouch of silver as she slipped back into the dimly-lit garden. Ignoring the patch of disturbed grass in a shadowy corner, Jade strolled over to the side where the stone wall was coated with vines boasting of little white flowers.

It smelled better than she had remembered. Stretching out on the low stone wall, Jade cushioned her hands beneath her head, and let the sweet smell of vanilla roll over her. It was funny, people and what they would do. Had it really been a year? He’d prevented her from falling, propelling her towards a silly supper party where she’d found ghosts, and trouble, and somehow her heart. They had shared a small smile at the funeral, and perhaps that was all that was really needed.

Utterly ridiculous.

Smirking, she pulled the thin gold chain she wore up and over her head. Carefully extracting the ring from it’s hold, she slipped the gold band onto her finger and studied it on her hand in the lamp-light. How difficult the farmer made things. How strange, how much she like it. Work had began to loose it’s luster because of him. Her regular customers became unsatisfying, and instead of indulging in the occasional tryst, she had to tell them one by one (with a foreign sense of relief and girlish anticipation), that things had to end.

Sighing, Jade sat up and carefully uprooted a small sprout of the sweet-smelling vine to take with her. She’d be staying at the Mantle tonight. She didn’t want to be, but told herself to enjoy it while it lasted.

 

cr_Box_153_2__39637.1406589167.1000.1000

Fletch lounged on the bed, head resting on his paws as he watched Eruviel put away her things. Aside from the travel pack and old quiver full of new arrows she’d bought from a vendor she didn’t know, the room felt strange. Everything was tidied and in it’s proper place. The bed was made, downy pillows neatly piled at the head of the bed, her weapons hung from pegs on the wall aside from her bow that lay unstrung on the bench by the foot-board, and a fistful of flowers and grass (courtesy of Eboric) filled the little vase sitting on her mantle.

Removing the blue agate pendant from where it hung around her neck, she carefully laid it to rest in the crystal box on her nightstand. Raenarcam and Kemendin both insisting anything of sentiment be left behind, she gladly replaced nearly all of her gear, and remembering the memory she had witnessed, Eruviel replaced the rest as well, just to be safe. Bow from Milloth, swords from Rainion, bracers from Raen, daggers from Myrthrost, shirt from Esgaroth….

Her door locked just in case Eboric woke and decided to try and wander into her room, she sat on the rug in her skin, Fletch hopping down to stretch out beside her. Raen had cut her hair. All the lovely silver strands. Eruviel was not willing to make such a sacrifice. With care she wove her long, soft waves up into a tight bun that would be out of sight and out of mind.

“You be good, all right? No running about Durrow causing trouble while I’m away,” she muttered softly, scratching the growing pup behind his ears.

Fletch made a soft grumble in understanding. Licking her hand, he rolled over onto his side to beg for more pets.

 

lotroDAnight

“Good evening… May I help you?” Having only just gotten home after putting in extra hours, Feira looked out into the waning evening light at the man who stood on the stoop.

His face paled for a moment, looking at her as if he was seeing a ghost. A minute passed before the middle-aged man cleared his throat. “You’ve grown up. I didn’t — That is… Is Torrin home?” He fidgeted, trying hard not to look anxious. The edges of his eyes looked blood-shot, and something about him, perhaps the smell of burnt, syrupy smoke that lingered about him or the strangely familiar crook of the bridge of his nose, made her feel uneasy.

Sorry, Faerie. Been a long day. If anyone comes by asking for me, I’m not home.

“I — I’m sorry, sir, but he is not,” she replied, careful not to move to block his view as he peered past her into the small house. “I can tell him you called though, mister….”

The man swallowed, and Feira resisted squirming under his gaze as he eyed her. “Just tell him a friend stopped by, and that we’ll come collecting in two months.”

Feira nodded, the stiffness that gripped her joints aiding her in not closing the door too fast. She waited, clinging to the door handle as she listened to the man’s retreating footsteps. Then she remembered to breathe. Sinking down in the corner behind the door, Feira pressed a trembling hand to her mouth to keep back the rising panic. Amber eyes lifted from the dark floor to the ceiling beneath where her brother slept.

What have you done?

Anecdotes: Where We Go

“I can carry that stack in too, if you’d like.”

Feira looked over to the petite maid from where she hung a sheet on a line. “I would. Thank you, Mariah! These go with the first load to be pressed. The ones on the bottom are to be put in the first three guest rooms.”

The brunette nodded and accepted the stack atop the basket of clean laundry she already carried. “Sure thing. You headed out after this?”

“For a few hours. The rest of the morning chores are done.”

“Don’t read too hard!”

Feira waved after her and hefted a large sheet heavy with water up onto the next line. Laundry was always best on days like these. Warm sun and cool breeze amplified the scent of flowers from the garden and the billowing white sheets that surrounded her. Two more sheets to hang and she would trade it for a couch tucked away in a quiet corner of the library.

A gust of wind caught the next sheet she hung, and Feira grinned, her bare feet curling in the grass. The sheets turned into sails and her mind began to wander. The grass turned into wooden planks of a deck, the billowing linens turned into an armada, and a whistled tune was taken up….

Her eyes snapped open. She knew that tune. Warmth rose to her cheeks and, taking up the last sheet, she back up to an open spot on the line behind her, whistling harmony as the first whistler drew closer. She hung the wide, white cloth and the voice fell silent. Feira followed suit. Footsteps drew near and she skipped into the shadow of a sheet partially to play and hide, and partially because it was all she could think to do as her heart began to race from anticipation.

The heavy footfalls stopped opposite of her sheet and a head appeared to peer at her. His sun-bleached hair longer than she remembered, Lhainan’s sea green eyes caught her and he grinned.

“Hiya, Blondie.”

  ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

She was warm. Deliciously warm. Inaris drew in a deep breath, not bothering to open her eyes, and smiled as she remembered.

How long had she lain there? Ten minutes? Thirty? Maybe an eternity… Yes, she could spend eternity like this. Life was not supposed to be like this. She wasn’t supposed to be okay with it, but she couldn’t help herself.

It hadn’t been like this before. It hadn’t been so easy. Was it supposed to be easy? Something ingrained deep inside of her told her she should slip out from under the covers and leave. That she should open her eyes and see it all as lies.

Hate was as simple as breathing. She enjoyed it, the hate and anger and control that fueled half of her work days. It had gotten her safely this far from the inland sea, and suddenly she had no need for that hate nor the indifference that came with it. Her walls were tall and cold and hard as iron… and he walked right through them.

Maybe she hated that most. That she suddenly did not have to. That everything beyond this point was an entirely different world than she’d ever thought for herself. That here in this moment she was more safe than she’d ever felt in her life. To the Pit with it all. Let them come for her now. Let them waste their time. And if they found her? Well, she wouldn’t want to be them.

Adjusting the ring on her finger she nestled close against his chest and beckoned sleep back to her. She was warm, and she was safe, and for the first time she believed it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“I thought you were going to the Blue Theater.”

Peldirion looked over his shoulder to Halethon. “I mean to to. I walked by.”

The young soldier crossed his arms over his chest as he watched his superior rise to find a towel to wipe the sweat from his face and chest. “You spend too much time here.” He motioned to the empty training hall.

“I like the exercise,” said Peldirion gruffly. “Just because my off hand is out of commission does not mean I should sit idle.”

“Yes, but you should actually relax once in a while. Ask one of those ladies to the theater or supper or… I don’t know, go for a walk in the gardens.”

“I don’t need to walk in the gardens.”

Halethon chuffed a breath and went to retrieve Peldirion’s effects. “Because you smell like one?”

Peldirion cast him a glare.”It is lavender. Supposed to help the pain. I think the healer is just screwing with me.”

Tunic and light armour in hand, Halethon did not move as he leveled a look at the Captain.

What?”

“You’re not sleeping again, are you?”

Peldirion’s dark eyes did not meet Halethon’s.

“My lord?”

“It is not a problem. Same as before.”

The young man pursed his lips and offered Peldirion the tunic. “Have you tried –“

“You know nothing helps,” interrupted Peldirion, snatching the tunic from Halethon’s hand.

“I could find you company….”

Peldirion paused before pulling the cloth over his head. “No. It did not make enough of a difference last time.”

“I don’t like it, Peldirion.”

“You don’t have to. I will try and sleep when this is all over.” Peldirion frowned and took his armour. “Get my weapons.”

Halethon’s brows drew together and he inclined his head, deciding it best not to challenge the man’s dark look. “Yes, sir.”

Lotus: Things That Glow

Lost in thought, Inaris climbed the steps to the archives with three books in her hands. The first two were scandalous volumes that had fallen short of expectations, and the third was an introductory to knitting (which, while a valiant attempt, had ended in utter failure).

Not watching where she was going she stumbled up the last step that, to her surprise, did not exist, and sniffed indignantly at her clumsiness. Returning the books to the main desk she turned to look around when she caught sight of Dorsett. Completely oblivious to the rest of the room, the man was engrossed in writing down notes and looking at a small stone beside him that emitted a faint light.

Sauntering over she stopped behind the man and peered around him at his work. “Hey there, you. What ya doin‘?”

Dorsett jumped and looked first to the stone, as if it might have done something between then and the last time he looked, and then glanced back at Jade. “Oh– Jade, hello,” he murmured, offering her a weak smile. “Just… just copying a book, you know how it is.” He glanced to the stone. “What are you doing here?”

Inaris’s head listed dramatically to one side as she eyed him. “Returning books and hopin’ to bump into you. What’s that?” she asked, motioning to the stone.

Dorsett looked back at the stone. “Oh, that is… that is…” He stopped, and took a deep breath. “That is a stone which is magically tied to a ring Atanamir wears. It– well, when he wears the ring, the stone is supposed to shine a bright pink. This…” He gestured to the dull white color, “…This means he is not wearing it. And he never takes it off.”

Inaris leaned a little as she peered at the stone. “Does the ring give off any light? Perhaps he’s… somewhere where it might give him away, or he has it hidden to be kept safe…” she offered slowly, hoping herself that it was just that.

Dorsett shook his head. “No, no. It is just black, and it does not… glow, or anything. He always keeps it on so I know he is safe. This is… this is not good.”

Her expression sobered a bit. “Maybe… maybe he was robbed by brigands in the night and he’s currently hunting them down to get his stuff back?” She tried hard to sound encouraging.

Dorsett chuckled a little, quietly. “I doubt it. But I appreciate the thought.” He paused. “I know he cannot be cooped up in the house all the time, but every time he goes out, something like this happens….”

Inaris crossed her arms under her chest and moved to lean against the edge of the table. “Do you know where he went off to this time?”

“Angmar,” Dorsett said with a bit of a shrug, as though it were a perfectly reasonable place to vacation. “He was looking for an artifact of some kind. Took Hallem and Oendir with him. He sounded so confident when he left.”

Inaris arched a brow. She had heard mention of the place more than once, and none of it was ever good. “Yeah… bright and sunny spot to go treasure hunting,” she responded dryly. “No wonder you’re wound so tight.” She then nodded to the stone. “How long since it stopped lookin’ pink?”

Dorsett looked at it again. “A… few days. Four days. I wish there were some easier way of making sure he is all right….”

Inaris hummed in agreement, then turns her keen gaze back to him. “And I suppose you are spending all day staring at it, and sleep with it at night just in case?”

“Well… well, yes. I mean to say, what else would I do with it…”

The young woman huffed and shifted her leaning to stick out a hip. “Not wear it out. You won’t be any good when he comes back if you’re anxious and helplessly sleep deprived.”

Dorsett looked a little guilty. “Well… well, no. But if I do not keep an eye on it I will not know if he is okay.”

Inaris narrowed her eyes at Dorsett as she gave him a look. “Would the stone turn a different color if he died or a different person put the ring on?”

Dorsett hesitated. “No. I mean… just if he put it on again, you know…”

Inaris nodded curtly. “Well, then that settles it.” She extended out a hand and leveled her gaze at him. “I’ll babysit your rock tonight.”

Dorsett blinked. “Oh– no– you do not need to. I can keep it.” While unspoken, “Just in case,” hung readily in the air.

She smirked. “I think I do,” she countered stubbornly. “I promised Atanamir that I’d keep an eye on you. Either you can surrender the rock to me for the night, or we can have a sleepover and I’ll stay up with the rock while you get some rest.” She almost preferred the latter option, imagining the man might need to be force-fed tea and sat on to keep from fidgeting and pacing all night.

Dorsett looked torn, but he eventually picked up the rock and handed it over. “I could just keep it in a cabinet,” he mumbled.

Inaris barked a rich laugh. “Uh-huh. I don’t believe you one bit, Dorsett. If you stuck it in a cabinet you’d just stand there with the door open afraid you might have blinked at the wrong time.”

Dorsett sighed. “I use that thing to read at night, you know. Light without a fire.”

Inaris shook her head at him as she cradled the rock in one hand. “I sympathize for you, but a little warm flame won’t hurt you, and the light of a fireplace is more likely to lull you to sleep. Besides, I’m sure Atanamir has other non-lethal glowing things about the place.”

Dorsett couldn’t argue with that, so he finally gave up. “Have you convinced Drewett that Elves exist yet?” he asked quietly, shuffling his papers around aimlessly.

Inaris ‘s mouth curves in an amused smile. “No, not yet. I’m picking my battles with that one, though I can’t decide if elves or dragons would be a harder topic to sway him on.”

“I think… I mean, could you not start by convincing him that Elves are essentially people who look a little differently than we do? Dragons seem like something that could be only a legend, but Elves…” His voice drifted off before quickly adding, “And we have an Elf or two we could introduce him to.”

Inaris hummed thoughtfully. It would at least be entertaining. “Good point. Think either of your Elves are the type to agree to meetin’ him?”

Dorsett cleared his throat. “I feel like, ehm, like Miss Raenarcam might terrify him just a little, so… maybe Miss Eruviel. She might humor us if we ask nicely.”

Inaris arched a brow. “Worth a shot. Would you mind asking her? I admit I’ve never really talked with an Elf before. Not sure how to approach ’em.” Thinking about it, she was sure approaching an orc would be far easier… of course that she had done.

Dorsett blinked. “Well, um. I suppose I could, yes. I sort of just… say hello, and then…” He trails off, like someone wondering if they had been doing things totally wrong up until now. “But, I mean to say, I can ask her. I suppose it is not terribly important that he believe in Elves, since most people will never see one around here.”

Inaris shrugged. “True enough. Maybe I’ll stick to dragons, then and make a game of it.” She almost carried on, suddenly distracted by how absurdly endearing Drewett’s superstitions were, but she cleared her throat and gave her bangs a toss of indifference.

Dorsett smiled faintly, and started cleaning up his things. “I suppose I should go home. I will see you tomorrow to get the stone back, yes?”

Inaris nodded. “You will. Don’t fret so much, really. I promise that if it changes I’ll go to your place straight away. Try and take a breather, though, all right?” she insisted, more sincerely. “Feed the cats and yourself, and try a hot bath or something. It’ll be all right.”

Dorsett tucked his papers into his bag, and attempted a slightly wider smile. “Thank you, Jade. I will… see you later, then.” He paused for a moment, and then slipped out.

Watching him go, Inaris leaned back against the wall as the door clicked shut behind him. She tossed the stone up to catch it a few times before stopping to inspect it. “I know he’s cute when he frets, but this is just cruel,” she muttered as if the stone could hear her. Tucking the stone safely down the front of her dress, Inaris turned to head for the other exit. “Get your act together and get home.”

The Trouble with Boys

staring_out_window

“Faerie?”

“…Fei?”

“Feira!”

Wha — Torrin!” Feira jumped from where she sat by her bedroom window, and nearly fell from her seat. “Can’t you knock?”

“I did,” her brother replied with a smirk as he leaned in the doorway. “You got a little…”

Feira’s eyes grew wide. “A little what?”

“A little mark from the sill on your face.”

“Ha ha.” She made a face at him as she scrubbed at the indent on her cheek. “Is supper ready?”

“It will be as soon as you stop pining and moping, and change out of that ridiculousness.” He motioned to the blue silk skirt from her ball gown that she wore over her work dress, topped off by a baggy knit sweater.

“I-I’m not pining,” she muttered as pink rushed to her cheeks.

“Uh-huh… And I’m not judging. He gone again?”

Feira tossed her sweater aside, and focused on the skirt.

“Feira….”

“Been for a while.”

Torrin scowled. “Wanna know what I think?”

“No.” Feira wiggled around as she pulled the cloth of the gown’s skirt up over her head.

“You should find yourself another boy.”

“I don’t want another boy,” came her muffled response from beneath layers of cloth.

“You all right in there?”

Her struggling stopped for a moment. “I’m fine.”

“Really, Fei. The city is full of young lads who drool when you walk by.”

“No they don’t. Nobody drools at maids.”

“Yeah-huh, they do. Problem is your nose is always stuck in a book, or your head’s up in some cloud thinkin’ of that blasted sailor.”

She started struggling again within the confines of the skirt. “You’d like him if you met him.”

“No I wouldn’t,” he retorted. Sighing, Torrin walked into the plain room and move to assist the struggling girl. “Nothing good can come from a sailor. Besides, I haven’t met him. I don’t like some sea fairing highwayman calling on my baby sister and taking her who knows where.”

“Heavens, Tor. He’s on a naval ship.”

“And that makes it better?”

Giving a despairing sigh, Feira let him help her as she finally found the hidden button that had snagged on her apron. “I’m not a baby, Torrin.”

He grunted in disapproval. “I know. You’re a young woman now. And that is suppose to make me feel better?”

“I don’t — I don’t need you to protect me.” She didn’t sound as convincing as she’d hoped to.

“You keep tellin’ yourself that… Heeeere we go,” he said as he pulled the skirt up and away. “Smart or no, you’re too pretty to be walking about without an escort.”

Feira chuffed out a soft chuckle, and tossed the skirt and her apron onto her bed. “Only ladies have escorts. You’re my brother. You’re biased.”

“Damn straight. I call it as I see it.” He crossed his arms over his chest and gave her his sternest look. “And then I catch you attacking bales of hay and trees with pointy sticks? I’d rather you learn to run faster than anyone else instead of learning how to fight –”

Before he could get the last word out Feira had flung her arms around his torso, and destroyed any chance he had of seeming dour.

“Woah, Faerie, what’s this for?”

Feira’s hug tightened. “F-For caring.”

Torrin’s wavering frown instantly melted into a warm smile, and he hugged her back. “I’ll keep bugging you about the sailor. Find a honest, wealthy, hard working young man who treats you like the world. Then I’ll be content.”

Releasing him, Feira poked him in the stomach. “Whatever, Dad.”

Torrin snorted, and tugged playfully at her ponytail. “Your face is leaking.”

“Oh, shut it,” she retorted, pushing him away and heading out to the room to go downstairs as she wiped at her eyes.

“Shut it? Shut it?! Ooph! I’ve been shot!” he cried, grasping at his chest.

Feira snickered and padded down the narrow stairs. “I smell burning!”

“What? No you don’t. I took all the food off the hearth.”

“Oooh… Is that smoke?”

“Don’t say that!” Torrin shouted, darting after her. “I haven’t burned anything all week!”

“You made it all the way to Tuesday!” she shouted back, squealing as he chased her into the kitchen.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Marlowe-Fireplace

Inaris gazed out her front window into the dark as the light from Drewett’s lantern disappeared down the road. “Good for you, Jade. Now you’ve gone and done it.”

Brushing her knuckles over a smooth cheek his scratchy beard had kissed she sighed, then promptly abandoned the window to began tugging furiously at the strings of her cossetted vest. “Bloody hell,” she grumbled.

It had been a year since he‘d left, revealing everything to be lies. A year since she wasn’t rich enough, or not well bred, or good enough. And it had been a year since she turned her back on him and left the Mark to end up in this backwater little town. She was going to be free. She was going to traipse around the realm and do whatever she damned pleased. She’d be with who she wanted and never tie herself down….

Think y’might be properly th’most amazin’ woman I ever met.

All of the tiredness that crept up on her earlier in the night had vanished, and she cast every ounce of clothing aside except for her long, thin blouse that she now unbuttoned well below her breasts. Tossing her swooping bangs out of her eyes in a futile, irritated gesture, she lit a fire in the hearth and tromped back into her little bedroom. Being cold fueled her frustration at herself, and the shivering that set upon her she gladly accepted as punishment… before promptly wrapping herself up in an over-sized blanket and returned to the front room to plop down before the hearth.

He said he loved her. Did he really? She’d been told that before, more times than she cared to remember, and not all of it from the one man she’d thought had spoken the truth. What was love, but a bunch of lies bound in copper, and silver, and hungry smiles?

But this one was different. How, by all the gods, he had slipped in past her walls and made her suddenly consider being (of all things) an honest woman was well beyond her. He wasn’t like the last one… aside from the broad shoulders which she didn’t mind one bit. No, he didn’t have a long, golden mane, or eyes like the blue sky over the inland sea. Most would find him unremarkable… And for some reason she didn’t want to sell him anything. She wanted to give. The glint in his green eyes, the curve of his bearded smile, and the feel of his hand brushing against hers made her feel that terrible awful warmth inside, beyond the desire to make him smile more, that she had only known once.

Damned Farmer, singing sad songs to his goats, conning ale, not believing in dragons, and looking at her like she wasn’t just a conquest. Sometime we’ll build a castle or sommat, that’ll show ’em.

He said he loved her. How could he? A part of her told her that suddenly worrying was ridiculous, and a part of her said he’d say about the same. As guiltless as she’d always been concerning her past, she felt that she could be ill at the prospect of telling him. He would ask, eventually, about her brand, and tattoo, and where she was really from. He would want to know why she kept her hair short, and hated her father, and if she’d ever taken a life.

Inaris bundled the blanket up tighter around her, and flopped over to lay on the rug on the floor in a puddle of self-pity. She had told him her name. The gods be damned. She had said she loved him too. Did she really? Did she love the way he cursed, and didn’t believe in ghosts, and couldn’t read to save his life? Yes, somewhere deep down, she knew did.

Lotus: Guests

“Aysun!” Inaris marched down the paved street towards the side entrance to the House, and where the other girls waited with robes. Adorned only by the dust that had filled the market square, she scoured the gaggle of courtesans till her unforgiving gaze locked on her competitor. “You spineless wench. I win the wager.”

The fear that had been in Aysun’s eyes minutes before was gone, and the haughty young woman looked down her nose as her followers wrapped a crimson silk robe around her body. “Little liar. Do you dare call me a cheat?”

“I do,” Inaris responded frankly, not missing a beat. “You saw those Easterlings and ran like a whimpering pup.”

Aysun’s face flushed with embarrassment, but she sniffed indignantly as the other girls looked to her. “The insolence at calling me a coward. I walked the whole way. Everyone here saw me walk around that corner.” Though all of their peers nodded in agreement, Inaris noted the doubt many of them failed to conceal.

Finally accepting the silk, sky-blue robe that was offered her, Inaris let the collar hang loose and cinched the sash tight. “You have always been a coward, which is why, in the eyes of the Masters, you will always be second.”

The young woman’s face turned a shade darker, this time in anger, and she gestured an insult at Inaris. “You lose the bet, you take my place serving the Masters tonight.”

Inaris shrugged as if it was nothing to ever be concerned about. “Fine.” Giving her long, platinum blonde hair a toss, she turned her back on Aysun, not giving her the reaction she wanted.

“You… You whore! I hope they bore of you!” A fate none of them wanted. “Disrespect me again and I will have the
Mistress send you to the darkest, filthiest brothel in Middle Earth!”

The spoiled, pompous…. The girls around her tensed as Inaris stopped, and slowly turned to face Aysun. Unfortunately
(though fortunate for her opponent), before the venom on her tongue could spill out, a call sounded from above.

“If you ladies have a moment,” the youngest of the Masters began in a cool tone, “you are all wanted inside. We have guests. Wash your feet, and come to the courtyard.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

All twenty-some of the girls that had been gathered outside filed into the courtyard. Sheer cloth streamers were strung between the pillars, and lush, blossoming flowers lined the walls and filled marble planters.

The line of young courtesans came to a halt in the center of the yard by their Mistress. Turning to face out, it was then that all of their unspoken questions were answered. Several of the Masters stood gathered a short distance away. With them stood several Easterlings and their servants. Inaris noted that they were the same ones that had been in the market.

Inaris retained her indifferent expression, but oh, the self control it took to keep back a wicked smirk. As the guests spoke quietly amongst themselves, she risked a glance at Aysun. The young woman was a shade paler than her usual olive complexion. She cast a glance back at Inaris, but would not meet her eyes.

Gliding forward, their regal, stern-faced Mistress moved to address them. “To put the rumors to rest, the army camped to our south will be moving West against our enemies. From among you will be chosen a select few to accompany them, and serve their officers. It is an honor, and I expect you, as my wards, to behave and perform in a manner suiting the station granted to you by being a part of this House.”

Inaris, along with the whole line of young women, bowed their heads. Remaining silent, they fixed their eyes ahead as two Easterlings and a servant approached the line. Each in turn were considered. One Easterling would tuck back a lock of hair on one girl, then lift the next girl’s chin. The second would stare into one girl’s eyes, or fix the soft collar of yet another. Some flinched, some smiled, but Inaris remained unmoving as she kept her gaze down in some semblance of submission.

Finally, it was over, and the men stepped back once more. Speaking quietly with the Mistress and their Masters, three girls, all who had flinched were selected. The rest were quietly sent away, all except for Inaris and Aysun. Called forward, it was probably the first time the girls had quietly stood side-by-side.

“We noticed you two earlier,” spoke the second Easterling, though he did not sound like one. “Quite a little competition between the two of you.” The man stepped forward and slowly circled them, testing Inaris’s blonde, and then Aysun’s black hair between his fingers. He did not walk like an Easterling. Something in her gut tugged at her, telling her that no good could come of this.

Stopping in front of Aysun, the man leaned down a little to look her in the eyes as his comrade joined him. “Hold a moment,” said the first man. “What is your name, my dear?”

Aysun smiled a bit shyly as the Easterling inspected the brand behind her ear. “Aysun, my lord.”

“Aysun? Lovely. Will you do something for me?”

The girl nodded timidly. “Of course, my lord.”

“Punch my friend here.”

Aysun looked stunned. “M-My lord?”

The first man gave her an even look. “You heard me. Strike him. That is an order.”

Her dark eyes darting to Inaris, Aysun raised her hand, and lightly slapped the man on the cheek. Electricity hung in the air.

The second man blinked, then let out a long, disappointed sigh. Reaching out, he gingerly touched Aysun’s chin. The young woman froze in place, and her eyes widened with pain. “Poor little girl. You should do what you are told.” He released her, then, and the two men turned to Inaris.

There was no hiding the shock in her eyes, but she did not recoil as the first man leaned in towards her. “And what about you? How well do you follow orders?”

Inaris lifted her chin with a prideful air. “Try me, my lord.”

The first man smirked, and the second arched a dark eyebrow. “Punch my friend.”

She turned her bright blue gaze to the second man, and while she knew it may be her undoing, Inaris did not hesitate. Her fist flew forward, smashing into the Easterling’s face. By the gods, it felt good to punch that man. He reeled back, not having expected her response. Aysun, still frozen from whatever he had done to her, stared at Inaris in horror. The Mistress smiled, the Masters nodded in approval, and the Easterlings laughed.

“Yes! Delightful! We shall take her as well.”

“You should know, she comes with certain conditions,” offered the Mistress as she bowed to the two men.

“Hmm?” The second man stopped rubbing his jaw, and reached to look behind Inaris’s ear at her brand. “I see. Well, that should not be a problem. His eyes met hers, and as his fingers lingered behind her ear a gut-wrenching pain tore through her. Cold and prickling, it raked down her limbs. Inaris tensed, but after the first second the pain quickly dissipated, and she was only aware of the power that was being tested against her.

She did not know what it was, and apparently the Easterling did not either, for he stared at her with genuine surprise. Then his lips curled in a small, cruel smile. Pulling his hand away, he lightly patted her on the cheek, and turned back to join the others as they moved to walk away. 

“We would like a copy of the terms so as to not suffer you any trouble,” said the first Easterling, offering his arm to the Mistress. “Business has always been good in the past, and we would like to keep it that way.”

Their voices and footsteps faded as the group retreated. Aysun had yet to move, and Inaris considered her with a dispassionate gaze as she smoothed her hands down the front of her robe. 

“I guess that means the bet is off.” Spinning on her heel, Inaris pinched Aysun’s cheek before moving to stroll away. “Have fun tonight!”