Author's notes: A lot of work went into this one- especially when it came to keeping Ara's voice her own. Let me know how it came out, whether she seems herself or too much of me.

Enjoy!

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I've always liked stories, ever since I was a little girl. I suppose it was because my mother read to me, even before I was too young to understand all the words. I still remember the big old books that she read aloud from: brown with age, damaged by water, large enough to cover her entire lap. They lined the shelves of our tiny house, lay open on the tables, sat stacked on the counters. When I was still small, I thought we must have had every book in the whole world in that house. One night I'd hear fairy tales and the next, a book on training horses, or the log of some adventurer. It was wonderful.

The fondest memories I have of my mother are of sitting beside her, nestled in the big brown chair by the front door, as she read to me from those huge old books.

Even though my mother is dead, the house burned to the ground and the books ash, I still love stories. You know what they say: 'The more things change, the more they stay the same.' I suppose that's the way it is. The world moves around you; part of you goes with it, and part of you is left standing where it used to be.

Well, the part of me that loved those old books stood right where it was and watched, stubborn as hell, as the rest of the world marched on past. I can only guess that it's the same part that loves telling stories so much, too.

This one in particular happens eight years after I left the little house I shared with my mother, brothers, and sister. It's not about anything massively important, nothing that changed me in any huge and incredible way. It's only the memory of something that didn't really happen the way it was meant to-- a situation that went hopelessly awry.

And incidentally, the first time I met one of the gods.

My sister and I were staying in Braden at the time; we'd arrived for the festival of nonsense and the business it was likely to bring. 'Business', by the way, is used in the loosest way possible. At the time, I snatched pouches to get by, and my sister was sharing inn rooms with whoever could come up with coins to keep her there.

Oh, right. My sister. Nearly forgot-- she's Trie, ten years older than myself. And I don't know if it was my mother's fey blood or just some random fluke of nature, but we don't look a thing alike. Well, except maybe facial features. I've been told that we have the same nose. But in any case, her hair's smooth and black-- about as far from my wispy mess of blonde as can be. And her eyes are dark and narrow, not at all like mine, a wide, blue-green.

In a way, I suppose it was her fault we wandered around so much; she could have gotten a real job, settled down. After all, I was only thirteen at the time; anything she said, went. I don't pin it on her, though. Quite the opposite, actually. I don't think I'd ever have turned out the way I have if it weren't for her.

In any case, on the day my story starts, the streets of Braden were crowded. And not just regular crowded-- festival crowded. They were packed to the point where it was hard to move, filled with merchants, festival workers, lost children, beggars, monks and priests and priestesses of all the gods, housewives out hunting for a bargain, drunks who'd passed out in the street the night before and hadn't been moved, all the too-zealous festival goers, decked out in face paint and bizarre costumes, guardsmen, religious fanatics, cats, dogs, pigs, horses, and about a hundred more sorts that I won't even try to list.

Fliers for the festival littered the ground and were nailed to every surface that didn't move. A picture of a woman with flaming pink hair and yellow-orange eyes stared out from them; she was Goola, goddess of nonsense. Braden honors all the gods traditionally, and Goola's festival is known all the world over as the place to be for random, smack-you-in-the-face oddities. And lots of liquor.

So, amidst all the crowds and confusion, I was easy to lose. Which is a very good thing to be, if you're a thief.

It was hot out, and I was sweating. My clothes were a little heavy for the heat, and by the time I'd been out half an hour, they were clingy and sticky. The sweat greasing my hands made pick-pocketing harder, but I was doing pretty well. Still, the sun was creeping higher, and noon was the time I'd set to meet with Trie-- so off I went, picking my way through endless throngs of people.

I was making pretty good progress, actually crawling through people's legs at times when I couldn't get by, when something caught my eye. There in the middle of the crowd stood a young man-- a year or two younger than Trie, if someone had made me take a guess-- so outrageously out-of-place that I was forced to circle back and do a double-take. Even in among the peculiar costumes and elaborate masks, his clothing screamed "Look at me!" Which was interesting, because he was really quite modestly dressed. The thing that had caught my eye was a thin, gold, decorative wire that held the hair back from his face-- a mark of rank, if I knew my job, or perhaps even a crown.

With a quiet cry of joy-- I couldn't believe my luck-- I began making my way towards him. Fighting through the sea of people was no easy task, but I made it eventually, turning the crowd to my advantage as an excuse to get close to him. Shuffling in behind him, I reached a hand around to get at the strings of his money pouch.

It was hard work, the pouch being on his side, and I couldn't get a good enough hold-- but I was good at what I did. If it hadn't been for an impatient shove from behind me, I never would have managed to get my fingers tangled like an amateur, and I certainly wouldn't have fallen forward into him. To say nothing of the fact that I sent us both toppling to the ground, skinned my palm trying to stop my fall, and ended up with the coins on the ground and the strings to the empty pouch still tangled about my fingers.

I was on my feet and starting to slip away before the man had even managed to sit up. People walking by didn't seem to care-- no one had noticed my little accident, and I really didn't care to point it out. The crowd was about to be the perfect cover one more time-- until a hand on my ankle brought me back to the ground with a crashing halt. And another skinned palm.

I still remember the look on his face. "You..." he said, sounding shocked. "You were trying to steal from me."

Inwardly, I groaned. Of all the people attending the festival, I had to get caught by the one who didn't even realize what was going on. I took a mental breath to steady myself. Maybe his cluelessness would extend to other areas, I'd reasoned.

And so I cried.

I've always been able to do it-- quite realistically, I'm told-- so I think that I can say with some certainty that I sounded pretty pathetic when I began to speak. "I... I'm sorry. My... my sister can't get work any more... and if I don't take what we need, we won't-- we won't--" I broke off, shoulders shaking and hitching sobs. Maybe it's not the most fair of tactics, but it's been damned useful.

I almost felt sorry for him-- the understanding that I watched begin to form, the slow widening of his eyes, the regret that showed in every line of his face. "Don't cry, miss," he comforted, fumbling in his pocket for a handkerchief. "It's going to be okay." Carefully, he patted at the tears still wetting my cheeks.

I let him help me up, didn't protest as he led me to a side-street where the crowds weren't so stifling. I made sure to lean on him the whole way.

"There." He still seemed mildly shaken as he found a spot for me to sit down; the worry was still there, in the crease of his forehead. "There. How's that?"

I snuffled piteously, making use of the crumbled handkerchief now in my possession. "Y-you're not going to have them-- beat me?"

"Beat you?" I could've catalogued every expression as it passed his face. The boy was that easy to read. "Of... of -course- not."

"R-really?" I tried on a watery smile, feeling it wobble just a little.

He offered one back, just as strained. I could tell that his mind was turning, that he was struggling to come up with a solution. What I hadn't expected was for him to think long-term. A free meal I would have taken, or a hand-out, but he had bigger plans in mind. "So... what does your sister do?"

Now, at this point, I'd like to take a few lines to describe exactly the sort of feeling that I mean. Because this was the first of many, many times that little alarm bells began screaming "Run away!" over the course of the next few days.

Imagine eating something cold-- teeth-aching cold. That's been sitting out somewhere unpleasant for a few days. Uncovered. And following it with large quantities of milk. Which has also spent time in said unpleasant place.

Now. The oh-dear-I-don't-think-that's-going-to-stay-down feeling that follows-- that's the feeling I mean. The exact moment of understanding that something's not quite right, and that it will likely be very ugly very soon.

The words caught in my throat for about two seconds before I forced them out-- because after all, the alternative was the truth. And that wouldn't do at all. "She's... she's a mercenary."

"A mercenary...." The words that followed were slow, thoughtful, as though he were puzzling it out as he went. "There's this place I know, not far from here." He fixed me with those kind eyes, a warm but unremarkable shade of brown. "I have to leave for there tonight, but there's been trouble along the roads. Bandits, you know."

He was watching me, trying to judge my reaction. I was trying not to look as though I wanted something sharp to cut my wrists.

"I was wondering... perhaps if you'd introduce me to your sister?" His face had softened into a genuine smile, now; he was glad to have found a solution. "I'd been hesitant to leave, but if a mercenary were along..."

Somehow, I found it in me to offer an answering grin. "Of course! Of course! Right away-- let's go right away!" Caught up in my act, I surged to my feet.

As we waded out into the crowd one more time, I had the decency to realize that Braden could do with a good deal more hearts and minds like the one I'd just discovered. At the time, though, I was too busy worrying about getting my sister in on the game before she could give us away.