I am mere seconds away from leaping out of this cheap, splintering excuse of a chair and strangling the fiddler for his horrendous rendition of a folk song. After sitting in the tavern of this shoddy, tumbledown inn for over an hour now, my patience has become as thin as a sheet of parchment, a sheet I would love to tear in half if I didn't care about being kicked out. Unfortunately, I can't afford to lose my seat at this table. It's already been forty two days since I was forced to leave my home, and this back-alley hole in the wall is my last lead and possibly the last chance I have at clearing my name.
Because I have no choice but to hold onto my self-restraint, I settle for imagining myself ripping the fiddle out from under his chin along with the satisfying sound of it smashing into pieces against the wall. To be fair, there is a reason he's playing so terribly tonight, and if we were anywhere else in this entire town, his song would probably be at least decent. The real fiddler, as I'm sure everyone here knows, is the inn itself. From peeling wallpaper to the excessive amount of salt on their fried rabbit legs, it's clear the inn isn't trying to attract any regular patrons who happen to be passing by. No, more likely than not, the cloaked and hooded figures dining at the adjacent tables aren't here for a good meal. They're waiting to take part in the main event. The Mud Auction.
The problem is our lack of identity. No one knows who the true sellers and buyers are, unless you happen to be a frequent customer of a particular supplier, but at events like these, I've heard that tends to be a rare case. Anonymity is the whole point, of course, given the wide selection of goods acquired on the black market that are for sale in this very building, everything from drugs to stolen artifacts. I wouldn't even be surprised if someone claimed to have source crystals, but they'd probably be fake. It is said that the Mud Auction gets its name from the first year it was ever conducted in an abandoned warehouse in some forgotten town. Apparently, the attendees had all agreed to come with mud smeared over their faces to remain unrecognizable.
Today, hoods and masks replace mud smears, but the process of initiating a transaction is much less straightforward that it once was. Anyone in this tavern could be a bounty hunter waiting for someone with a price on their head, like me, to reveal themselves too early. Worse, someone here could be a Palace informant or even a Royal Knight, like me. Or at least, like I used to be. A little as two months ago, this is exactly the kind of event I would have been sent in full armor to shut down on the Palace's authority. The old me would have been happy to do it, too. Lucky sod.
After taking an obligatory drink of whatever that cheeky bartender poured me (it was supposed to be rum, but who knows?), I adjust my hood and absently check the hilt of my sword at my waist. Though it still fits snugly in my belt, the weapon doesn't bring me much comfort. I was forced to leave the blade I had been using for years, that had been imbued with magic by the Royal Guard no less, behind when I fled the castle. A sword that I bought under the table at a street market would be no more than a toothpick against the blade of a Royal Knight.
I remind myself that it's better than nothing as I continue to steal glances at those around me and across the tavern. They are mostly just like me, people sitting alone in heavy garments to shield their faces and undoubtedly to stash their hidden weapons as well. There are a few pairs whispering quietly among themselves, but I don't see anything exchange between hands. Not yet. The patrons are primarily humans, but there are a few Ithmyans flashing their one-sided fangs as they wolf down their meals, and a lone Skyling at the bar averts his gaze the moment our eyes meet.
A string of curses forms in my head. I risked my neck to get here, but I don't know enough about how this works. If I were to get up and make my way upstairs, would I be stopped? Even if I wasn't, would I find anything or would I just be giving myself away? And yet, I can't sit here forever and miss my chance-
Another wooden cup slams down on the table next to mine. I try to keep myself from appearing obviously startled, but not in time to stop my shoulders from straightening and my hand from flying back to my hilt instinctively.
"Easy…" the newcomer's murmurs as he slides into the seat across from me. His voice is barely more than a low rumble, like that of a lion, but it doesn't sound at all like a threat. More like a coax, which makes me more wary.
By the time he makes himself more comfortable and raises his cup to mine, I've finished gleaning as much as his guise will tell me. Even on first glance, he's a confusing guy. His dark green cloak hooked over his shoulder with a pine broach conceals most of himself, but I know that the collection of stones on his bracelet and the gold cuff that encircles his ear aren't cheap. It's hard to tell if either of his accessories are imbued with magic, but either way, he must come from at least modest wealth. Someone like that wouldn't casually eat at a place like this. That's not the confusing part, given the vast amount of money that is presumably about to change hands here tonight. What's confusing are his teeth. He has curved and pointed ears of an Ithmyan, but there's no protruding, ivory fang to contrast against his skin. Is he...human? I guess he could be a cross, but they're so rare it's hard to believe I'm actually sitting with one.
In any case, he undoubtedly has a hidden weapon, like I do, but I can't imagine he would try to start a scene. If he knows the Mud Auction is being held here, then he would know that doing anything to interrupt it would have fatal consequences. I humor him and tap my cup against his.
"You've been here awhile," he muses, just loud enough for me to hear over the rest of the tavern noise, after he finishes his drink. "I've been watching you."
"Oh? Am I that interesting, or are you just interested?" I take another bite out of my rabbit leg to make it clear that's all he's getting from me, but I almost lose my composure when I'm reminded again how awful the food here is. I swear, the way this country butchers fried foods like this makes my island blood boil, but I manage to keep a cool expression. Instead of being thrown off, he gives me a half smile and leans in to whisper.
"It's obvious you're a watchdog. Did the Knights send you?"
I maintain a steady voice, but my shoulders tense in the familiar anticipation of a fight. "I don't know what you're talking about…"
"Oh really?" He drops the fake smile and looks at me pointedly. "Prove it, and I'll help you get inside."
I manage a scoff, but internally, I could beat myself for being such an idiot. Is it really that obvious that I have no idea what I'm doing? With the Knights, I had done plenty of covert missions, arrested insurgents, and even tracked down stolen artifacts from seedy places just like this when I was tasked to, but now I'm struggling to convince one person that I'm not working for the government when it's actually true? The difference is the vast amount of resources I had as a Knight and the network of informants that we had to help us blend in. This is the first time I've been in the field completely on my own.
As my mind races for something to say, my heart hammers away at my chest. If I can't convince him, will he call attention to me? Will I have to fight my way out of here? Assuming most of the patrons around us are also experienced fighters, I probably wouldn't make it past the bar.
The silence between us lasts a moment too long. My interrogator sighs with a shake of his head and reaches into his cloak.
"Wait," I say sharply. He pauses, but a man in a bear mask looks over at us when he hears me. I wait for the masked man to lose interest in our table before exhaling and sitting back into my chair to pull the neatly folded parchment out from under my chainmail. I slide it to him with a silent prayer that it's enough.
The letter is one of the only two things I kept with me after escaping from the castle. I still remember the cold, trembling touch of Seychelle's hand as she slipped the parchment in mine, saying it was the last clue she could give me. She wouldn't be able to leave the castle, but our final embrace was her promise that she would do whatever she could from the inside to expose the ones who had done this to me. It had all happened so fast, I didn't even give her a proper thank you. And I may never get the chance to.
While I'm grateful for her help, and it is really because of her help I'm not already in chains or on the chopping block, the letter is a lousy clue. Most of it is blank. The ink must have been imbued, and only lasted on the page for minutes after being first opened by its reader. There's no way to restore its original content, but what remains is the strange emblem stamped at the bottom, depicting what I can only make out to be a bird with a long, arching neck, three legs, and three outstretched wings. During my training, we had been taught to recognize a number of symbols that various groups of insurgents were using, but I hadn't seen this one before. On my way here, I had snuck into several libraries to check for references to a three-winged bird, but with no luck. Seychelle had told me that I might be able to learn more about the emblem at the Mud Auction, and I had planned on snooping around until I saw someone else bearing the symbol. I didn't expect to show the letter to anyone, but this is the only physical "proof" I have to show that I'm supposed to be here.
Apparently, the letter isn't as lousy as I thought. Upon seeing the emblem, the stranger's eyes widen. He quickly folds the parchment again and glances around to make sure no one else could have seen it. As I store it away again, he says in a low but eager voice, "You came alone, right?"
I nod, repressing the urge to release my breath in relief.
He looks like he wants to laugh, but he settles for shaking his head again in disbelief. "I can't believe you have this but didn't know the code. What, are you new?"
"Something like that," I say. God, I could bite my tongue off for such a terrible response. At least this guy seems to believe me now. He waves for me to follow him to the bar. I comply, cautiously, as he flags the bartender down with a flashy grin and nod of his head.
"Another round?" the bartender asks, reaching under the counter for more bottles until my new companion stops him with a wave of his hand.
"Actually, we're heading off to our next engagement, but I wanted to ask, do I have something on my face?"
Without even looking up from the glass he's cleaning, the bartender nods. "You'll want to clean up first in the bathroom. You can use the one around the back."
"Thanks," my companion says with a grin, placing two silver coins on the counter before leading the way. As I turn to follow, I catch the bartender throwing me a sideways glance, but he doesn't say anything.
The "bathroom" that we were told to use has an out-of-order sign nailed to its front, but we're far enough from the noise of the tavern that I can hear low voices drift from behind the door.
Ear Cuff silently signals for me to follow his lead as he lets himself in. As soon as the door knob turns the voices within cease. Inside, we are met with two armed men flanking the only stall in the bathroom, each wearing indifferent frowns and hardened gazes. Well, it certainly smells like piss, but clearly this room is not meant for doing one's business, or at least not that kind of business. The musty walls are completely bare, without mirrors or sinks or any sort of plumbing, and of course, there's the misplaced guards blocking the way to the only other thing in here. I'm not a small guy, and neither is Ear Cuff next to me, but these guys easily have a foot on us and seem to have no problem carrying the oversized swords that hang at their sides. Even if the toilet inside was made of gold, those weapons would be overkill.
When Ear Cuff bows his head respectfully, I do the same and wait for him to exchange another password or something, until I realize that he's looking back at me expectantly. He nods his head as if I'm supposed to do something, but I have no idea what he means.
"Well?" the guard growls. His hand moves to his hilt.
"Show him the emblem," Ear Cuff hisses at me.
With a meager attempt to save face, I fumble for the letter in my pocket until finally, I'm flashing the three-winged owl. The guard stares at it incredulously for a brief moment, before returning to his apathetic expression and moving out of the way. Ear Cuff straightens and gestures for me to step inside first. Since I can't afford to give myself away by looking like even more of an idiot, I swing open the stall, prepared for anything but met with nothing.
Not nothing. A small latch protruding from between the floorboards reveals the tight passageway leading underground. I push it open and slip through until I find myself in a narrow corridor lined by flickering blue torches. Ear Cuff touches down next to me and pats the dust off his cloak. A second later, the entrance above us closes and a click of the latch tells us it won't open again if we tried.
Needless to say, I am beyond confused now, but Ear Cuff seems unfazed as he leads the way down the corridor without a word. Part of me wants to break the silence, to at least ask him for his name, but I hold back. There's no need to be so impatient. I'll have him talking soon enough.
We continue in the dark, cold, and stuffy corridor for a few minutes, until we reach an iron-plated door. Even without closer inspection, I already know we can't open it from this side. I sigh.
He shakes his head and reaches out to knock three times. "Showing the invitation back there should be enough. This, this is just ambience."
As soon as he finishes speaking, the door swings open, unleashing a wall of sound that crashes over me like a breaking wave. Unlike the fake and delicately tense atmosphere from the earlier tavern, the room before us roars to life the moment we step inside. We are bombarded by the competing sounds of rambunctious laughter, clinking and cracking mugs, and real musicians with actual drums and serpent horns. I can't decide if we're in something more of a pub or a lounge, between how loud everyone slurps and yells at each other and how the bejeweled dancers twirl on the stage at the far end of the room. The torches hanging along the wall burn dimly in different colors, from blue to orange to green, making it difficult to see the details of anyone's face, unless they're standing a foot away. The crowd is more or less the same makeup of those in the tavern above, mostly human with a few horned Skylings and fanged Ithmyans. The only real difference is their vivacious attitude, no doubt a result of knowing that everyone else down here is supposed to be part of the Mud Auction. Well, almost everyone. No one seems to give us more than a second's glance.
Ear Cuff gestures for me to stay close to him as he pushes through the crowd and dodges a spout of bourbon that is only inches from staining his velvet cloak. After elbowing past several drunkards and stepping over a puddle of who knows what, I join him in front of another corridor that's much nicer than the first, with its gold and red patterned carpet beckoning us into one of its many doors. Several of the doors have reservation cards with nonsensical names, like "Blue Herring" or "Lion's Claw," but I don't see one that mentions anything remotely resembling the three-winged bird.
"The auctions will be taking place in each of those rooms," Ear Cuff says, just loud enough for me to hear, when he follows my gaze. "Your invitation should have had the code for the seller you're here to meet. It's still too early, though." He tries one of the nameless doors, and when it happens to be unlocked he invites me inside. I hesitate in the doorway, where I get a quick glimpse of the dark, windowless suite, furnished with a king-sized bed and velvet couches. Ear Cuff raises his brow. "Unless you'd rather wait with the crowd? That's fine with me, but you didn't seem the type."
"No…" I exhale steadily and size him up one more time. We're practically the same height, and though I can't tell much more than that from how he hides the rest of his figure under his garments, I'm willing to bet that I'm faster. "This place is perfectly fine."
As soon as the door closes shut behind me, the noise from the party outside leaves us in a tightly wound silence. The tension snaps, and we are both lunging before we each realize that the other means to do the same.
I was right about being faster. Instead of going for his throat as I had originally intended, I duck under his swing and counter by driving my fist into his gut. With a twinge of pain shooting up my forearm, I realize he's wearing more than just chainmail under his clothes, but I strike with enough force to throw him off balance. Before he can regain his stance, I hook my heel around his ankle and sweep his foot out from under him. Two legs of the wooden table in the center of the room splinter apart as he crashes on top of it with a grunt. I move to pull his arm behind his back, until he takes hold of the chair beside him and whirls around, breaking it over my shoulder and my arm as I try to protect my head.
Disoriented, I stumble back. Ear Cuff tries for another blow to my temple, but I block and grab his wrist instead. After pivoting on my heel, I heave him over my shoulder and throw his back into the ground at my feet. His armor makes him heavier than expected, but I still manage to pull him over. I retrieve the spare dagger from my boot and pin his shoulders to the ground. He struggles to push me off, until the edge of my blade brushes against his neck. We share another moment of frozen tension, catching our breaths and glaring at each other, while I gather my demands.
"Tell me what you know about the emblem," I say, pushing the dagger with enough force to make him feel the flat edge of its blade, but without yet breaking skin. "If your answer is satisfying, you might live to see another day."
"Funny, I was going to ask you the same thing," Ear Cuff scoffs, flashing me a harsh smile. Now that I have a much closer look, I realize that one of his top teeth stands out from the rest, as if its crown has been coarsely sanded down.
Ear Cuff doesn't waste my moment of surprise. A sudden knee into my stomach forces me to relent, giving him the opening he needs. Before I can react, my back slams into the ground as he rolls on top of me and twists my arm. I try to control my wrist, but it's no use. If he twists any further, the bone could break. I let go of the dagger.
"You...you're Ithmyan, aren't you?" I breathe, hoping to catch him off guard as well, but no such luck. "I wasn't sure at first, because your fang is missing. It broke off?"
He shakes his head and growls, "It's my turn to ask questions. I thought you were just one of the Talons' witless lackeys, but I guess you saw through me after all. Tell me everything, or I'll break your arms, both of them. Who do you work for? What are you here to buy? What is it that the Talons are after?"
Clearly, this man has never properly interrogated anyone in his life. He's asking too many questions at once, for starters, and he's only threatening to break my arms? If he's unwilling to go as far as killing me, he shouldn't make his intentions so obvious. But what really shows his inexperience is how much information he's already given away. "Talons" must have something to do with the emblem, the organization that it represents, and it sounds like they're expected to be here tonight as buyers. I wonder if he might be playing with me, but the naked fury in his eyes tells me he's completely serious.
Ear Cuff grips my wrist tighter and starts to twist again, making me grimace. "Answer me! What's so precious that you monsters would kill innocent people to keep it a secret?"
I bite my lip and try to pull my arm from his grasp, but he's too strong. Pain ricochets through my shoulder as my arm threatens to snap. Finally, I decide it's not worth losing my arm over. "I don't know! I don't know anything about the Talons. I didn't know they had a name until just now. My only clue is the letter I showed you earlier. I came here to find them myself."
"Liar!" he snarls, unconsciously showing me his sanded tooth. It's not nearly as large as the fang would have been, but somehow, seeing it has the same chilling effect. "You're saying that to save your skin!"
I shake my head. "I swear to you, I thought you were working for them! That's why I attacked you. Isn't that why you approached me?"
My words leave him so taken aback that he momentarily forgets his anger. "You think I work for them? I would rather die than be involved with their atrocities. I approached you because I thought you were a Royal spy. I figured out the passcode, but I didn't have proof to show that I was part of the auction. I was going to ask for your help to capture one of the Talons tonight, but when you showed me that letter, I realized only a Talon could be carrying something like that."
"Look, this is all a misunderstanding," I say, relaxing my arms and my shoulders in the hope that he'll do the same. Of course, I still don't really trust him, but I don't get the sense that he's lying either. "It sounds like we're after the same thing. The people behind that emblem-the Talons-ruined me and threatened someone I care about. I want answers just as badly as you do."
He examines my gaze intently for a long moment, long enough to make me feel uncomfortable, until he asks, "Why should I trust you?"
I let out a short laugh. "You shouldn't. At least, I wouldn't. But that doesn't mean we can't team up for the night. We both have different pieces of the puzzle. I have the letter that can get us around the auction, and you have a better idea of what we're looking for. What do you say?"
Another brief pause, and then an exhale of defeat. "Fine. I find it hard to believe that anyone could fake looking as lost as you did in the tavern." He moves off of me, but slides the dagger into his own belt before I can take it back.
I try not to look annoyed as I shrug. "I have another spare one, of course."
"Uh-huh." He waits apprehensively as I stand, but after I roll my eyes and show him my empty palms again, he relaxes and holds out his hand. "Capturing a Talon will be easier together."
"Glad to hear you've got some sense, Ear Cuff," I muse as we shake on it.
He raises his brow at the nickname. "You can call me Zolmi."
"Mylo. So the Talons are going to be here as a buyer, but you don't know what they're after?"
Zolmi nods, though he still looks somewhat reluctant to share information with me. "According to a broker, they've been searching for something for years, and rumor has it that there's a seller tonight who might actually have it. I can't imagine they would pass up on this opportunity, but..."
"But it's impossible to know who they are among the crowd," I finish. That is a problem. We can't afford to make a scene, and we have no way of getting our target to reveal themselves to us. "Unless," I think aloud, "We find the seller first."
"And wait for them to come for their trade. That could work," he says slowly. "Buyers and sellers at the Mud Auction usually have never met, so they would have to agree upon a door code to meet each other."
"In that case, we should get moving. We don't know when they're meeting and we don't want to miss it." Thankfully, it's not a complicated task that requires elaborate disguises. All we have to do is pick the right door code, break in, and secure the room before the buyer comes, but if we choose incorrectly, there probably won't be a second chance. "I hope you're feeling lucky tonight."
I gesture for him to follow my lead as I quietly open the door just a crack and peek out into the hall. The room from before still bursts with the sounds of attendees indulging themselves before their part in the auction begins, but down the hall, I don't hear much. Another hooded figure passes by our suite and knocks thrice on a reserved room two doors away. After waiting in the hallway for a brief moment, the door opens slightly as the figure produces a piece of parchment that's too far for me to read. Apparently, whatever's on it is their ticket in. After the figure, who I presume is a buyer intended for that room, steps inside, Zolmi and I move discreetly into the corridor and begin surveying the door codes.
Rose Drops. Black Thunder. Game Master. The codes are too random. I have to consciously hide my frustration as we pass a masked woman exiting a room labeled "Frozen Lilies." This isn't going to work-
Zolmi catches my cloak and nods to the door beside him, which reads "Owl Eyes."
"This one matches your emblem. An owl, right?"
I frown and pull the letter from my pocket. "An owl? This is a falcon, right?" It's certainly a three-winged bird with a strangely long neck, but with how intense it looks, it can't be an owl.
Zolmi outlines the bird's head with his finger, whispering exasperatedly, "Of course it's an owl. A horned owl, see?"
If I squint, I can barely see what he means. As he shakes his head, the door swings open, forcing us both to freeze and clamp down on our tongues. A tall man with white paint distorting the rough features of his face and a heavy tiger's pelt draped over his shoulders stops in the doorway when he sees us in the hall.
"What are you two-" he starts skeptically, until he catches sight of the letter in my hand and recognizes the emblem. "You're early, aren't you? Our auction isn't for another hour-"
Zolmi and I are more in tune that I would have expected. As soon as the understanding passes through both of us, we each clasp a shoulder of the man and drive him back into the room. Before the man can cry out, I kick the door shut while Zolmi covers his mouth with his hand. I start to think that we might have miscalculated as we wrestle him to the ground. Even with the two of us, we can't force him on his stomach long enough to restain his wrists. It takes all of my strength to keep him from getting off the floor. Zolmi let's go of his shoulder to try to control his arm but realizes his mistake too late. The man throws Zolmi off and hits him hard with a headbutt. Zolmi stumbles back against the wall as I jump back, cursing and reaching for my hilt, before the man can swipe at my neck. I see the flash of the man's blade as he draws it and lunges for Zolmi, but I'm already a step ahead of him.
His blade drops onto the ornate carpet seconds before splashes of his blood follow. Zolmi watches, breathless, as the tip of my sword hovers inches from his own chest after piercing the man between us. When my blade withdraws from the man's body, he attempts to maintain his stance for a few seconds more, before stumbling toward the exit and finally collapsing to the floor just as he rests his fingers on the doorknob. I put away my sword only after I no longer hear his gasps for breath.
Zolmi doesn't move from against the wall. Instead, he stares at me in frank horror. "Y-You killed him..."
"I did," I say evenly as I turn to inspect the room. Its size matches the suite we were in early, but all the furniture has been exchanged for several large, wooden crates stacked against the wall, some with tags indicating that their contents are fragile while others are covered in red silk sheets. None of the tags bear the three-winged emblem, instead indicating that their boxes carry rare gems and concoctions. One tag in the corner boasts of pooled blood from both Ithmyans and humans, while another claims to carry several pounds of Skyling horns. Part of me hopes it isn't true, but I have the feeling sellers would bear severe consequences for selling fake items at the Mud Auction.
I look over my shoulder to ask Zolmi if any of this stuff looks like what the Talons could be after, but he still hasn't moved and his eyes still betray his shock. Is he serious?
"Oh, don't look at me like that, he would have killed you if I didn't get him first. Besides, by the looks of things, he either kills people for a living or works for people who do."
With a shaky breath, Zolmi clenches his jaw and joins me by the boxes, though he doesn't say anything or meet my gaze for a long moment.
"I...I don't think these are right," he mutters finally. "These are appalling, but whatever it is that the Talons are after must be much harder to get than any of this."
I curse under my breath. We could leave and try another room, but any second now our luck could run thin. Not to mention we would have to somehow hide the man's body before someone else finds it and sounds the alarm.
My back-up plan formation is interrupted when one of the stacked crates under the red silk in the corner creaks. Startled, Zolmi and I look and wait, as if somehow we could have both imagined hearing it at the same time. A pause. Then the crate creaks again, sharper, before shifting slightly with a high-pitched screech as it scratches the crate below it. Something rattles softly. Metal?
I start to draw my sword again, but Zolmi pushes past me and pulls off the silk to reveal a wide metal casket with small air holes in its cover. Another thump from within rattles the chains that keep the cover firmly sealed on top. I'm about to try using my sword against the chains when Zolmi finds the key from within the dead man's pockets. The lock clicks open easily with the key, but Zolmi hesitates and looks at me. I nod.
As soon as the chains fall off, another violent bang against the wall of the casket from inside pushes the casket off its stack, the cover flying open as it topples to the ground. Zolmi and I scramble back, before two figures spill out onto the carpet.
It takes me a minute to comprehend what I'm looking at. Two girls, one in her mid-teens, and the other only as old as eight or nine. Their blouses and trousers may have been nice and pretty at one point, but now are tattered and caked with dirt and blood from whatever journey brought them here. The younger doesn't move from where she happens to be sprawled out on the floor, her dark, curly, thick hair concealing her face from my view. The teenager, however, groans as she slowly pushes herself to her knees with bound hands. Dazed and surely sore, she blows the tangled strands of bronze hair from her face. A Skyling, I realize, as I see the distinct glassy sheen of eyes that lack pupils. Well, they don't actually lack pupils, but the lines of their cross-shaped pupils are so fine that they are unnoticeable from greater than a foot away.
When her gaze refocuses, she looks at me, then to Zolmi, and then back at me to find the sword in my hands. Her confused expression quickly turns into a scowl as she throws herself over the body of the younger girl and hisses, "Stay away from us!"
Snapping out of his astonishment, Zolmi crouches so that he's eye-level with her and shows her his open palms. "It's okay, it's okay," he says softly as he takes a closer look at her face and scans her for injuries. "We're not here to hurt you."
When he takes a tentative step toward her, she draws back, her eyes flickering from his hands to mine. Zolmi glares back at me and motions for me to put my weapon away. With a sigh, I comply.
"Y-You're here to buy us, then!" she stammers, to which Zolmi shakes his head calmly.
"No, we're not, but that's why you have to keep your voice low. We can't let anyone know we're here." His voice is surprisingly soothing for someone of his frame.
She locks eyes with him, searching for the smallest sign of a lie or a trick, but she finds none. Finally, with an edge of hope in her voice, she whispers, "Then...you're here to help us?"
Zolmi nods and offers a sincere smile, the first I've seen on anyone tonight. When the girl seems to relax a little more, he gestures to her wrists. "If you'll let me, I can cut you free," he offers gently. Tentatively, she nods and holds them out as he carefully retrieves the dagger he took from me. He makes sure to avoid swift or sudden movements as he saws through the bindings. When the rope falls and she rubs the patches of red skin it leaves behind, Zolmi looks to the other girl and then back at her as if to get her permission. The older girl nods again and helps Zolmi turn her companion over so he can free her wrists as well. I only watch impatiently, listening for any warning footsteps from out in the hall.
"There," Zolmi continues once the younger girl's hands are free. He checks her wrist, relieved to find what I assume is a steady beat, but she doesn't respond to her attempts to lightly shake her shoulders.
"They sedated her," the older murmurs. "She's not good at staying quiet when she's scared, so they gave her a lot."
Zolmi nods and maintains a neutral expression, but I notice his fist shake at his side. "I see. Don't worry, you two will be safe with us now."
I can't take it anymore. "Hey!" I whisper sharply upon his empty promise. "This isn't part of the plan. Do you realize what kind of situation we're in? We're here to find the Talons. We can't even assure our own safety!"
My quiet outburst earns me another scolding glare. "Are you mad? We can't just leave them here, either. We can uncover the truth about the Talons later. Protecting children always comes first."
To argue with him further would only paint me into a callous jerk, but Zolmi stubbornly overestimates our abilities. And while I obviously have qualms about abandoning two girls here, this may very well be my last chance to discover who framed me for treason and why they did it. To leave without at least finding a new lead on the Talons would be to abandon the possibility of returning to my old life, to the only people who care about me in the slightest.
"You want to know about the Talons? I can tell you about the Talons," the girl pipes up. The more she speaks, the more confident her voice becomes as the thought forms behind icy blue eyes that shine brightly in the dim room. "If you can get me and my sister out of here, I'll tell you everything I know."
"What would you know about an organization that eludes even the Royal Knights?" I scoff. Zolmi slaps my arm as he stands, but the girl shows me an artful smile that I don't expect.
"I know why they took us, why they've taken children for years, and why they'll continue until someone stops them. I also know why no one, not even the Knights will stop them. And I know the names of the people who want to buy me."
Zolmi and I exchange glances. "Okay, kid, so the deal is-" I start, until she raises her hand to stop me.
"The deal is you two take us to Genshulan, and once we're safe there, I'll talk."
"Genshulan?" I shake my head incredulously. "That's a two week journey on horseback. That's too far."
"There's a family there who can keep us safe," she insists, her gaze hardening. "Do you want this information or not? Because I bet I can tell you more than the foot soldier that the Talons hired to collect us from this place."
Zolmi's answer is clear as he waits expectantly for me to say something. I let out a defeated sigh. "Fine, kid. But until we get to Genshulan, you two have to do as we say-"
She shakes her head and flickers her long hair over her shoulder. "No, we're the ones hiring you, so if you want to be paid with the full information, you have to accommodate us. And my name isn't 'kid,' it's Jeyna,"
I almost bite my tongue off to keep myself from raising my voice too loud. "You-"
The door swings open.
Two men in leather armor and matching tiger pelts stroll inside, laughing to one another with their cheeks still rosy from the liquor they had just been consuming. "After tonight, we're going to be rich-"
Their laughter stops abruptly as they look up and see us just as the door closes behind him. Then they find the slumped form of their third companion with a bloody wound in his back at their feet.
As I brandish my sword and step in front of Jeyna, my exasperation is clear. "You better not be pulling my leg. The deal starts now."