The Past Always Catches Up
by Rachel Ciaran
The dark swept in on black wings that evening, the sky scattered with stars that swung dizzily through the veils of remaining light. Inside of the Red Roan, though, the night had come alive: barmaids drifting through the press of bodies with ale on twin platters, raucous laughter that shook the ceiling beams and the sight of smoke spiraling through the dimness. At first glance, the three sitting by the door were not particularly noticeable: a trio of adventurers mostly dressed in leather and light mail, with jaws sharp enough to cut glass and smiles like the blade of a knife. It was common to see those of their ilk around this part of town: rough-and-tumble, ready to fight with a sword rather than the cut of their tongues. Yet it still made some patrons profoundly uneasy.
It was the woman who seemed to strike these strangers the most. Sleek and smooth as a mountain lion and just as dexterous, dressed in furs and leathers and with a battle-axe on the table before her, Tris’ras sat with her chin lifted and back erect. Her face was broad as a cat’s, her eyes just as piercing, and bright feathers adorned her blue-black hair. A typical Aethani, a druid and a warrior, she was a foreigner in this place— but such things had never bothered her, as she’d never truly known a home at all.
The two who sat beside her at the little table were men, one more heavily armored and the second subtly dressed, as if made for slipping in and out of shadows unnoticed. There was a somberness to his face that Tris’ras and their other companion Sebastiane couldn’t trace, a darkness always cast over the vulpine fineness of his features. His name was Nesthos. Tris’ras, always in the mood for a story, had pried him for details of his past, his childhood— but the sun elf refused to oblige, with his slanted eyes winter-dark and a mouth that rarely smiled. Eventually, even Tris’ras gave up on seeking the truth of him, acknowledging that some secrets shouldn’t be shared.
“You shouldn’t drink so much,” Nesthos said softly to her. Though he spoke quietly, there was a sternness in his voice that seemed to suggest he was not used to being disobeyed.
“It’s just ale, Nesthos,” said Tris’ras, with a smile of her hard white teeth. Through the smoke her features looked ghostly, fey. She was beautiful – had always been beautiful – and had used this frequently to her advantage. She wasn’t sure what Nesthos thought about such a thing, nor did she particularly care.
“We have more important things to think about,” said Sebastiane, slipping his hand over Tris’ras’ and squeezing it briefly before drawing away again.
“Ah,” said Tris’ras, smiling, ignoring his touch. “The Silver.”
“Where did he contact you?” Nesthos leaned forward a little, and the faint crackling fire illuminated his catlike features, so sharp they looked almost hideous in the half-light.
“We met at an inn,” said Sebastiane, running a hand through his hair. “In a hellish part of town.”
“And?” Sebastiane raised his eyebrows. “As you know, they’re going to pay generously. That’s all the information we need.”
“You can be terribly simplistic.” Tris’ras drank more from her mug of ale, wiped the back of her hand against her mouth. “Not everything is easy in and easy out.”
Something hardened in Sebastiane’s face, and for the briefest moment Tris’ras felt an unfamiliar flash of trepidation. For all of his affection towards her, there was something cold within him that couldn’t be rooted out. Now he shifted his weight on the chair, pale eyes taking them in with no judgment at all, the silence speaking more than his words ever could. Even Tris’ras lowered her gaze, so briefly, unable to meet the cold blaze of his eyes. He’d been a soldier, she knew. Whatever horrors he’d seen, he kept them private, locked away with the key swallowed down his narrow throat. Like Nesthos, there were some things made to go unspoken.
“What would you be,” she murmured, “If you weren’t a Cloak?”
“I would leave,” said Sebastiane, frankly. “Go somewhere safe and quiet, somewhere that I couldn’t be bothered.” But Nesthos had no answer at all. Perhaps this was all he knew.
“Tomorrow,” said Tris’ras softly. “Tomorrow we break into the Domada warehouse. And then what?”
“We flee for a short while,” said Sebastiane, with unusual frankness. “Go someplace lovely, someplace even warmer.”
He’d actually tricked Nesthos into smiling. “I’d rather go somewhere cold.”
“You’re an odd one, Nesthos,” said Tris’ras with a laugh, as Nesthos ran his thumb over the blade of his white-of-pearl knife. Blood pearled on his dark skin.
“We should get some rest,” Sebastiane said bluntly. “Tomorrow won’t be easy. I rented two rooms upstairs.”
“We’ll wake with the sun,” Tris’ras said simply, placing down her last mug of ale. The tavern was still alive with music and swearing and chatter; she wouldn’t know if she would even be able to sleep through the raucous noise, but the ale had made her drowsy and careless. She rose from the table, leaned down to kiss Nesthos’ cheek and followed Sebastiane upstairs to the rooms. They’d done this countless of times before, a wild elf and a former captain of the civil guard, the strangest pairing most had ever seen. When she turned back before looking up the stairs, she saw Nesthos still sitting by the table– waiting, though for what she didn’t know.
The bed was narrow, the sheets flea-bitten, but it was better than sleeping on the hard loamy earth. At once Tris’ras began to undress, leaving on her undergarments and then slipping into bed. She wasn’t blind to the way Sebastiane watched her: the flat stomach, full high breasts and neck like a swan. Sometimes she wondered if it was her beauty that lured him, nothing else.
Sebastiane joined her in bed, and Tris’ras put her face onto his chest, breathing in the smell of him: smoke, sweat, the scent of the dying flowers fading downstairs.
“Do you think we can do this?” she asked softly. It was a strange question for Tris’ras – a woman unused to losing.
“We’ve been through worse,” Sebastiane said, inclining his face to kiss her forehead.
“One of these days I’m afraid it will be our last,” she confessed, something she would tell no one else.
“Tris’ras …” Sebastiane’s voice was soft as rabbit fur, as timid as a fox. “Everyone dies.”
“But not like this.” She lifted her head, kissed him gently, teeth-tongue-lips. She felt him exhale, release an airy breath.
“I promise you, Tris’ras,” he said, though he was in no place to promise such things. “We’ll be fine. We always have been.”
But her eyes were already closing, lulled to sleep by the sound of Sebastiane’s voice and the wind gusting past the window. There was the slight flicker of gossamer lashes against her cheeks— and then nothing.
Morning arrived with streams of molten gold spilling through the window. Tris’ras was already awake, brushing her long dark hair in the steel-gray mirror and examining her features: curved nose, heart-shaped mouth and finely-cut broad cheekbones. By any measure she was beautiful, but her heart was pounding in a way it rarely did; all she saw in her reflection was fear.
“What are you thinking about?” Sebastiane’s voice was soft.
“The Tapestry,” she said, so quietly. It wasn’t a lie. Even beyond the theocracy, the Tapestry’s reach was long.
“You’re safe, Tris’ras.”
A slight shrug, a slope of her shoulders. “Among some people I am.”
“I can protect you.”
Something bristled along Tris’ras’s spine. “I don’t need protection, Sebastiane.”
“We all look out for each other,” Sebastiane replied, getting out of the little bed and pulling on a tunic, and then his armor. “Just because you’re not alone doesn’t mean you aren’t strong.”
“I spent years by myself, killing and looting,” Tris’ras said with a shrug. “Sometimes I think I prefer being by myself.”
Sebastiane walked to her, brushed the hair off the back of her neck and then kissed the side of her throat gently. “It’s the adventure I want,” she said, so softly. “It’s not about the coin for me.”
“I know,” Sebastiane said. “I know.”
They met Nesthos underneath the eaves of a fishery shop. The sun elf was dressed in fine dark leather, a mask that covered his lower face and black-brown eyes that were intrepid and cold. He looked as if he hadn’t slept in days, but then, Nesthos always looked like this: a bleakness underneath his eyes so profound that sleep could not fix it.
“Nesthos,” said Sebastiane, by way of greeting. “Did you rest well?”
It was one of the only times that they’d ever seen him smile. “Do I ever?”
“Fair enough,” said Sebastiane, smiling slightly.
Tris’ras wondered what it was like for Sebastiane. Unlike Nesthos or herself, he’d worked as a captain of the civil guard in the six-city Confederacy and before that a soldier. Much like Nesthos, Sebastiane did not wish to discuss his past. But Tris’ras was too anxious to ask, afraid that she would receive an answer that she truly didn’t wish to know about a man she was much closer to. Now she put a hand on his shoulder, smoothing down his light armor, and Sebastiane didn’t move away. Instead he turned, gave her the slightest smile that betrayed nothing at all, and turned back to Nesthos.
There was one story that Sebastiane had told, though – a tale of the Crimson Guards, brutal men to whom the word ‘savage’ was no insult. They were Domada’s prime fighters, deadly and swift as an uncoiling snake, and Sebastiane had always found it hard to get along with any one of them. Sometimes he mourned the life he could have lived had he not been caught up in the civil guard and House Domada, if he’d chosen a paintbrush or a hand-tool over a blade. But it was too late now – far too late – and he was merely doing the best with the cards that he’d been dealt. Even if it was a poor hand, indeed.
“We’ll wait until dusk,” said Sebastiane, sounding as if he, too, were coming out of a reverie.
“Do you think the three of us can do this?” Nesthos’ voice, dry and void of expectation.
“I think we have a good chance,” said Tris’ras. “Better than most people in this city.”
Evening fluttered in on swift wings, drenching the world in stripes of pale moonlight. Armored and outfitted with axes and daggers that were carefully concealed under their armor, for a few long minutes they were nothing but three silhouettes walking through the lower part of town, taking in the sights: the flower stand closed down forever now, an outfitter closed, a general store stocked with both sugar and bullets.
The Domada estate’s warehouse was enormous, pillared with sloping roofs, the hint of something exotic to its elegant appearance. Outside of its gates, the three of them paused: strangers to this sort of opulence, save for Sebastiane. Nesthos whistled.
“It’s got quite a security detail,” he said softly.
“I know,” said Sebastiane softly. “There’s a way into the garden along the back. Come with me.”
They moved slowly and silently as rogues, turning the corner of the great wall and seeing a hole in the brick, large enough for any of them to slip through. The three of them crouched, examined it carefully – for once they were inside, they would have no protection. Their mission was simple: to steal, to evade. And yet something was pounding brilliantly in Tris’ras’ heart, as if they were on the verge of something terrible. She knew Nesthos would roll his eyes if she said it, and that Sebastiane would comfort her. She wanted neither. Suddenly, all she wanted to do was leave.
“This doesn’t feel right,” she said finally, bluntly.
“Strange coming from you.” Sebastiane smiled, just a little.
“I’m serious,” Tris’ras said frankly. “You know I’m never intimidated by a job. This just doesn’t feel right.”
“We’re going in,” said Sebastine. He was the leader, after all, and the other two were expected to oblige him; yet there was not a submissive bone in Tris’ras’ body. For a few long moments they simply looked at one another, Tris’ras to Nesthos and then Nesthos to Sebastiane, and at least Tris’ras shoulder slumped as if in defeat.
“If you think it’s best,” she said.
One by one they snaked through the hole in the brick, muddying their knees and elbows, and when they were finally all through, the garden looked as silent, as mournful, as a graveyard. The flowers were in bloom, the wind-curled grass scraped their knees, and for a few seconds they simply looked about. Tris’ras had her hand on her axe, Nesthos was gripping his daggers. Sebastiane said nothing at all. And then –
“Well now.” An unfamiliar voice, grave as if it pulled from the depths of the earth, came from the shadow of weeping willow. Tris’ras’ hand went to lift her axe, but the man who’d spoken just laughed. “We thought it would take the lure of good coin to get you here.Tris’ras, Nesthos, Sebastiane. I’m very glad your greed was greater than your fear.”
And then from the shadows came more men dressed in the dark red livery of House Domada’s elite, and Tris’ras could almost feel the sinking dread in Sebastiane’s voice. “The Crimson Guard,” he said, in a softer voice than Tris’ras had ever heard from him. “Come to take one of your own?”
There were six of them, well-dressed, well-armed, and they were drawing more closely with every passing moment.
“You were never one of our own,” said the Crimson Guard who’d spoken before.
“Once. You betrayed me.”
“Never.” The Crimson Guard had their swords drawn. “Is it betrayal if the person deserves to be punished?”
Tris’ras looked to Nesthos, and Nesthos looked back. Though Tris’ras was rarely frightened, and often bold, there was a coldness creeping down her spine as the six-armed men drew closer. Perhaps this was it, she said to herself. She had always expected to die like so many of her kin, an elf hunted for her supposed heresy. Instead, today she was going to die for her companion’s past. She raised the axe, to which many of the men laughed.
“Come here, sweetheart,” said one of the men, crooked-toothed and weak-chinned.
“I’ll kill you first,” she said.
“Then come here,” the man replied, “and let me show you all how a real soldier fights.”