Those Who Found Elissa
Something tickled a strand of Elissa's hair. Maybe a spider, she dare not move to brush it away, though when the tickle moved down to her throat she raised a hand and flicked it aside, taking flecks of dirt with. She imagined she was quite covered in it by now, a healthy coating to assist her blending in with the shadows. The night had swallowed her up and her pursuers were none the wiser.
Her thighs ached though, by Neniton did her thighs ache, and her ankles too; she could not move her feet into a comfortable position. One shift against the pebbled ground would give away her location. She raised herself slightly, untensing her muscles for a moment before easing back into the crouch. She had lost track of time. It could not have been more than an hour. Still, that was a long time for three drunk, possibly now sobered men to stumble around looking for her in the middle of the night. She heard them moving, pushing things, shaking boxes.
"Where are you, thief?" one called out. She hid between the outer and inner wall of an old house. A loose wooden plank hung on its nail in front of her. She stared out the knothole at the men. Behind her, sod walls and support beams concealed her. Her right hand cramped from clutching at the worn journal she had taken.
"Did she get beyond the wall?" one of them asked. The three dark silhouettes gathered in the center of the square. One of them spat.
"No one has seen her. She's likely still in the town."
"We don't know that," said another. "Maybe she knows a different way out."
"No matter. Give the authorities a description of the little rat. Someone will find her."
"And if they don't?" one asked.
"I'd rather not think about that." The three of them stood there, swaying against the nighttime breeze. They mumble to one another as they walked away, abandoning the dark square once more. Elissa breathed a little deeper. It was just her and the night again. She waited a while longer, despite the way her legs shook. Finally, she pushed the wooden plank forward on its nail and slid the board aside. The fresh air felt so good in her lungs. She unfolded herself as she stepped out of her hiding place, holding back groans of pain when her joints protested. Her legs wobbled, but she had the journal. She sighed and brushed off her dark clothes. The morning dew had already begun to collect on the cobblestone, though the sun had yet to rise.
Elissa set off in the opposite direction the men had gone. It would take her longer that way, but she would be safe. She stayed in the shadows and side-passages. Thankfully, no one else lingered on the streets that night and she made it back to the patron's house easily. It was a shabby home, nearly identical to the others surrounding it. Pieces of the roof hung off itself; the windows were darkened. It was designed to not draw attention, placed in a shady neighborhood and surrounded by quiet homes. Elissa had to pause and admire her employer's discretion. Usually, she took jobs from the wealthy. They often employed her to steal some meaningless trinket from a rival, and then gloated about having it once it came into their possession.
She shook her head and ducked down the side passage, a small patch of dirt between the two houses. Her hand searched along the rough wooden paneling until her fingers slipped into the catch. She stopped and pulled the false panel aside. She slipped into the revealed space and closed herself into the darkness. The passage was small; she stooped and felt ahead blindly as she descended into the basement. Elissa finally caught hold of a curtain and pulled it aside. She stepped into the false wardrobe and opened the door, revealing a small, well-lit room. The basement held an assortment of candles and little else. A table lay in the far corner with two chairs. Her employer sat in one.
"Welcome back, shadowbird," he said. The man dressed in plain trousers and a cotton shirt. He kept his beard well-trimmed, though not immaculate, and his hair was always presentable. On the whole, he looked the part of a completely unremarkable merchant. Though Elissa would be a fool to think him just that.
"I have it," she said, ignoring the handle. She walked over to the table and waited for the next move.
"I know you do. You wouldn't be foolish enough to return without it," he said. The man stroked his beard lazily and watched a candle's flame. The light caught the copper strands as he wound them around his fingers.
Elissa dropped the journal on the table. Her hand ached as she flexed it, free of the burden at last. The man gestured to the chair opposite him, but she remained standing. "They searched for a long time," she said, remembering the frantic shouts as the men had overturned the market square looking for her.
"Of course they would," said her employer. "You would too if it were yours." He reached out and laid a hand on the journal cover. He smiled and felt the grooves her fingers had left in the leather before he slipped a hand under the flap and opened the journal. He turned the pages slowly, almost daring Elissa to look. She kept her gaze firmly planted on the table's surface. She had no desire to be caught any more in this man's business. "Ah, you did well." The man readjusted himself and bent over the table to better study the pages. He pressed a finger to the page and traced the path of the lettering. "You don't have any idea what's in here, do you?" He stopped tracing and looked up at her.
Elissa shrugged. "It wasn't my place to look."
Her employer chuckled. "My blind little shadowbird," he sighed and continued reading. "Perhaps you should have looked." This time, Elissa could not help glancing at the inkblots on the page. The words did not take shape, but she knew they were not prose. No, he was reading a list.
"What does it show? Supplies? An incantation?" she asked.
The man shook his head. "Even better." He shoved the notebook toward her. The inkblots formed something more meaningful. "Names."
The list was long, tightly packed with the short scrawl of people's names, signatures, and little tallies written in the margins. "Whose names?" she asked.
"Traitors," said the man. He closed the flap of the book. "Illegal practitioners, dangerous people." The information chilled Elissa's core. If she had just given a list of names to a Hand, she had killed every person on it.
"And to what purpose do you intend to use this list?" she asked. That was a mistake. Elissa usually enforced a rule: never know the ends to an employer's means.
The man laughed. "You know what we intend to do."
Elissa shifted. She stepped away from the table. "You can't kill all those people."
"Of course we can," said the man, waving a hand. "We do it already. You know this."
She looked down at the journal. "I'll take it back."
"I doubt that," said the man. Elissa looked back at him. Her fingers twitched. He stared at her for a long while, that same, challenging stare from before. "You won't do it," he said. "You're a thief. What use are morals and scruples to you? No, the book is safe with me." The candles flickered. The room smelled strongly of moss and dirt. Elissa did not know why she had not noticed before. "You don't know these people. You don't care." She stared at the journal as if it might burn. Her heart beat in tempo with the crickets outside.
"You're right," she said. "I don't."
The man smiled and patted the worn cover of the journal. "Smart girl," he said. He pulled a small pouch from his vest pocket and dropped it on the table. She heard the coins jangle from within. "Your payment, as we discussed." He picked up the journal and stood from his chair. "Do not come back to this place," he said as he walked toward the stairs. "You will find nothing." His feet thumped up the wooden steps, disrupting the discourse of the crickets.
Elissa remained in the room even after he left the house: the damp, mossy basement of an unowned home. She breathed in and tasted bitterness. Then, she took the bag of coins, the new leather crumpling in her grasp. She tied it to her belt, not bothering to count. The purse felt heavy. She glanced at the stairs then back at the secret entrance she had been instructed to use. Elissa sighed, blinked, then moved to crawl back up the narrow tunnel out into the night once more, where the crickets sawed and the stars whispered of her treachery.