Mattariel

Making It: Act 1 (ratfolk)

Sep 24th, 2019
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  1. For a better reading experience, as this story makes use of italics and bold letters, this can be read here without an account, just click that you're over 18: https://www.sofurry.com/view/1509589
  2.  
  3. Making it
  4.  
  5. Prologue: Making Contact
  6.  
  7. “No admittance,” said the guard, “paying clientele only!” The squat but broad fellow patted a sheathed arming sword at his waist; less an open threat than a suggestion to leave.
  8.  
  9. “Hey, I'll have you know, and I swear on my ancestors, that not only do I intend to pay for your goods, but I have a VERY specific item I wish to purchase today!” A clear, high voice; a female ratfolk affecting a more refined accent than was probably expected. The guard barring the door looked at the rodent woman, a meagre inch over four feet tall, cocking an eyebrow as he looked her over.
  10. From her clawed pink feet, otherwise covered in dust from the rough cut stone streets, the splash marks of mud around her ankles overlapping onto a pair of tights with off-coloured patchwork knees, most everything else on her person was covered by a muted navy blue cloak, tattered on the hem and her head only exposed because of her lowered hood, leaving her brown furred head and rounded ears exposed, pink nose twitching and whiskers aflicker.
  11.  
  12. “Then you won't mind me looking at your coinpurse, right?” The guard smirked but his eyes remained serious.
  13.  
  14. “Here?” the ratfolk said and sweeping her arms outward. “On the street, where any number of common thieves might pick me as a target? No, sir! I wasn't born yesterday. Perhaps if you were to let me inside, I could show you away from prying eyes? I get admittance, you get your proof of my intent. Everyone's happy, aye?”
  15.  
  16. The guard snorted, eyes darting about at her suggestion, then he licked his teeth, eyeing the mostly empty street, stared her in the eye before he finally stepped aside and started opening the door. It was a vast, old building with a plain exterior, the presence of guards was the notable exception, but with the heavy door finally open, the splendour within felt like a portal to a different world altogether; lavish carpets lined all but the immediate floor of the entrance and tapestries hanging from every wall not already occupied by paintings both grand and modest in a bold, deep green and silver colour scheme.
  17. A well dressed man in fine silks and a feathered hat approached as the outsider stepped on a sturdy, rough mat away from the fine carpets. The man, no doubt better paid than the guard she had been dealing with, winced at the sight of the ratfolk but bowed slightly before moving behind a podium, taking up a quill, thumbing the tip, pinching off a small part of the barb which protruded from the rest, opening an inkwell and clearing his throat, each motion making the ratfolk's whiskers twitch as she withheld any show of her building impatience.
  18.  
  19. “Welcome to the Falkshire estate and auction house. In order to conduct business on the premises, I will need some details. Since you are not a regular, you will also be searched, any weapons or offensive articles kept in a secure lockup until you leave the building. Do you consent?”
  20.  
  21. The ratfolk smiled, her incisors long and uneven but clean, and unclasped her cloak and letting it fall to the floor and raised her arms. She was surprisingly womanly, with broad hips and the unsubtle swell of a bosom beneath her clothing. She wore a faded yet festive looking doublet, festooned with colours both lurid and worn in the form of rough cut ribbons and superfluous buttons, complete with belted breeches with a small blade sheathed on her hip, which was immediately taken from her. The man behind the podium began asking for details as the door guard checked her possessions, her hard-skinned tail twitching from discomfort despite her flat expression.
  22.  
  23. “Name?”
  24.  
  25. “Primrose.”
  26.  
  27. “Family?”
  28.  
  29. “Six! Two brothers, two sisters, ma and pa!” Prim said, smirking.
  30.  
  31. “... Family NAME.” the guard grumbled.
  32.  
  33. “Uh. None?” she responded, earning a sigh.
  34.  
  35. “Fine. Place of residence?”
  36.  
  37. “Patterfield road.”
  38.  
  39. “Bloody... Hrmph! Specifically!?” he snapped.
  40.  
  41. “Huh? Oh! The house with the bucket hanging off of the door.”
  42.  
  43. “If you don't start answering properly, I'll have you evicted from the premises!”
  44.  
  45. “Oh, alright, uh... twenty two.” Prim said, shrugging, “we migrate a lot! It's not worth remembering silly things like numbers.”
  46.  
  47. The doorman finally stopped patting Prim down, leaving her with her coin purse and just the clothes on her back. He handed her a stiff bristled grooming brush.
  48.  
  49. “Get the dust off of you and I'll show you to the auction hall.”
  50.  
  51. Prim let her dark brown eyes wander the room in a bit more detail as she scrubbed down her legs, feet and tail. The hall had a design that lead the eyes along the main hall and away from the doors lining the sides, and a stairway at one end was fenced and doored, complete with another guard in the finer regalia of the man who finished writing in the logbook and turned his eyes to the ratfolk as she finished brushing down, looking almost presentable, and handed the implement back.
  52.  
  53. “Alright, Ms... Primrose. You will obey instructions from any and all of Sir Falkshire's guards, you will not wander, you will keep to the common rooms you are escorted to at the appropriate times and you will not disturb the other guests. Is this understood?”
  54.  
  55. “Yessir!” Prim chirped. The doorman took a small paddle, fashioned from varnished wood with steel numbers depicting '11' on both sides, and handed it to her then gestured for her to follow. Prim marvelled in the feel of the plush carpet beneath her rough and calloused feet; it was a strange feeling as she would normally have to worry about sharp stones or mud patches, whereas this surface was softer than her bedding.
  56. She was lead through to a large chamber with rows of seats and a smattering of upper crust types in flashy clothes and flashier jewellery, all mingling away from a raised stage with a finer podium than the entrance hall, complete with an enamel letter F wreathed in metal ivy emblazoned on the front. All eyes turned to her frayed and uncoordinated attire, despite the confidence the ratfolk carried herself with; she wore her outfit with pride, with only a leather-corded necklace, a pendant concealed in her doublet, giving her any additional flourish.
  57.  
  58. While there were sword-strapped guards at every exit, Prim's escort left her to her own devices, resulting in her finding her way to a long table covered in tiny foodstuffs. Everyone vacated her proximity in thinly veiled disgust as she sniffed and nibbled on everything on offer, wincing at some of the fancier fare but fast depleting their stock of small diced sausages on sticks and fruit selections on dainty silver trays. More than a few half-eaten tid-bits found their way back onto the platters but she at least had the grace to mop her mouth with a napkin after eating.
  59.  
  60. After having packed away what felt like half her bodyweight in tiny treats, an old, wrinkled man in a pale robe appeared and settled behind the podium. The fine folk all took seats on the chairs, and Prim followed suit; hopping onto a chair and swinging her rough-skinned tail around and draping it by her legs.
  61.  
  62. “Good evening and welcome to the monthly Falkshire Auction. If everyone is prepared?” the old man looked about at the various faces, pausing briefly on Prim with a scowl. She returned a smile and a wave that made him raise an eyebrow before clearing his throat.
  63. “Without further ado...”
  64.  
  65. What proceeded wasn't terribly interesting to Prim, as she had a specific item in mind as her prize, an item she had pursued now felt frustratingly close. Two paintings and a sculpture made of stone came and went before she began bouncing in her seat as an old wooden box, roughly a foot in all dimensions in scale, with a hinged lid, lock and coin slot appeared on the stage.
  66.  
  67. “A curiosity, this lot. This charity box once belonged to the Hitherby church before it burned down three years ago. While the church and its contents were lost to the flames, this article escaped oddly unscathed but is both missing the key and resists any attempt to be broken open. Made of immaculately varnished oak with brass hinges, coin slot and lock, I would like to start the bidding at twenty lile.”
  68.  
  69. Prim immediately raised her paddle, waving it with near violent force side to side.
  70.  
  71. “I have twenty... twenty five.” Prim looked across at a smug nobleman, looking in her direction and holding his sign aloft and still; enough money to feed a family for a week gone on what looked to be a whim by someone who probably never knew hunger. Prim bared her prominent teeth and continue waving her sign as the number continued racking higher, the ratfolk refusing to give in even as she patted her pouch and nibbling her lip with increasing pressure until the nobleman suddenly dropping his once the number topped a hundred.
  72.  
  73. “A hundred and ten lile. Going once. Twice.” the auctioneer hammered his gavel on the podium, “sold to the... lady, number eleven. Now, onto our next piece...”
  74.  
  75. Primrose sighed with relief but glowered at the nobleman, who chuckled to himself proudly. Once more, Prim found herself watching the rest of the auction with minimal interest and felt her coinpurse again; she was sure she had about a hundred and something, and doubted she could just tip it out and count it then and there. She occasionally watched what the offending man bought; a pocket watch, despite the man producing one of his own at one point, a box of silverware and a portrait of a local saint, but besides hoping they were forgeries or stolen.
  76. As proceedings came to a close, Primrose and the other nobles who had won lots remained as the other left, and they were escorted through to a smaller, cosier room where a number of guards stood around the auctioneer. Each noble approached, handing over their paddles and various sums of lile, coins made of silver with different numbered and shaped holes punched through to show denomination, before the auctioneer scrawled into a book and secured the coin in a safe as each noble was lead away.
  77. It was Prim's turn, and she placed her pouch on the table with her paddle.
  78.  
  79. “Ms. Primrose, was it?” the auctioneer said, picking up the pouch and bouncing it in his hand, feeling the weight, before he sighed and poured out the contents. He expertly stacked the coins into their seperate values, with the majority being ones and fives.
  80.  
  81. “You're four lile short, Ms. Primrose.”
  82.  
  83. “Oh? Aw, crackers... uh, just a moment!” she muttered, unbuttoning her doublet and reaching into her undergarments as the auctioneer balked. A less than subtle rummaging of her bodice later and she placed a few more coins on the desk. The auctioneer used his quill-tip to slide the necessary coins over before Prim took the extras back, placing them in her now empty pouch.
  84.  
  85. “Very... oh, saints preserve me,” the auctioneer mumbled, pinching the bridge of his nose as Prim made herself decent once more, “very good, Ms. Primrose, all accounts are settled.”
  86.  
  87. Prim cracked a smile as the auctioneer finished sliding her coins into the safe and began wiping his hands on a nearby cloth; it had been a long time since she felt offended by the usual human response to ratfolk and today didn't change that; it was all very familiar treatment. She was guided over to yet another side room, this one clearly a gallery, which now housed every lot from the auction along with a number of private collection items either on glass-topped stands or behind fenced enclosures made of painted metal.
  88.  
  89. Natural curiosity took hold and Prim wandered the room, taking a look at the fancy glass displays. Amulets, rings, vases and urns of various materials but each looked extremely expensive. The sound of a cleared throat caught Prim's attention, and her escort beckoned her over to her purchase. She obediently followed, rubbing the sweat from her hands onto her doublet before collecting her prize. It was heavy enough that she needed to carry it with both hands, but even so she spent a good moment caressing it with a huge, toothy grin.
  90.  
  91. “You may leave at your convenience, Ms. Primrose. Do not tarry, though, or you will be escorted out.”
  92.  
  93. “Sorry, sorry! I'll be out of your hair in a bit.” Prim responded, walking and struggling with her prize. Just as Prim reached the curtained exit, a figure pushed through; the noble who had cost her almost all of her coin. She saw him coming and moved to one side but, deciding to extend his bad manners, he collided with the ratfolk woman and sent her staggering into one of the raised stands.
  94. It teetered, dramatically slowing at the tipping point, but fell with an almighty crash, glass and gold bands scattering on the deep green carpet. Everyone flinched and gasped, most clasping a hand over their mouths or eyes, exasperated as she fell on top of the mess. By pure luck, she seemed to escape being cut by the large shards strewn about.
  95.  
  96. “Ah, I'm sorry! Oh, crumbs!” Prim gasped, rising and moving away with cautious tread, still clutching her box as the guards protected the fallen jewellery. She headed for the exit, only to be grasped her by the scruff of her neck.
  97.  
  98. “I have your attempted thief, sirs!” The nobleman said with a scoff, “I won't let her escape from such a pathetic attempt to pilfer from this fine establishment; what she's doing here to begin with, I have no idea, sullying the Falkshire halls with her ignoble and shabby self.” Prim growled and placed the box down as gently as she could, spinning about and pushing the fop away with as much strength as she could muster but stood her ground rather than running or attacking.
  99.  
  100. “I am no thief, you lack-witted, infantile-minded *vaklith* prick!” Prim said through clenched teeth before turning to the guards, “search me, and you'll find I am completely bereft of anything but the meagre coin I have remaining from my purchase!”
  101.  
  102. “That sounds like a splendid idea!” the noble chortled, “I'll bet all number of trinkets have been squirrelled away into her clothing. The sooner we get this vermin removed, the better! Go on, she offered!”
  103.  
  104. “You don't pay our wages, Lord Gathard... but whatever, if it stops you both bickering.” One of the guards broke away from the collection and began patting down Prim. The ratfolk stared at her box to make sure Gathard didn't approach it, but to his credit he remained at a respectable distance, grinning all the while as Prim was once more manhandled.
  105.  
  106. “Nothing... wait, didn't you say you had a coin purse?” The guard said as he stood, causing her to pat herself down.
  107.  
  108. “It... it's been stolen! I still had to buy food for today! Who would... it must have been YOU!” Prim pointed a clawed finger at the noble, who balked at the accusation.
  109.  
  110. "HAH! As if I have need for your grubby, ill-gotten coin. Fine! If you so desire, you may search me as well.” Gathard spread his arms and the guard proceeded to give him the same rough handed treatment. The guard stepped back after only a few seconds.
  111.  
  112. “Lord Gathard, if you could take out the pouch stuffed into your belt, please?” The guard's fingers gently held the blade on his hip. The noble's grin sunk as he did as instructed, taking a worn, stained pouch in his hand; Prim's pouch.
  113.  
  114. “But... how...” Gathard started, Prim took heavy, angry steps up to him and snatched the pouch back, tying it back onto her own belt.
  115.  
  116. “You utter cad!” Prim snarled and took up her box once more, “I shan't be returning to this establishment again!” She remained just long enough for another guard to grab Gathard and begin picking through his pouches, finding one of the tiny silver platters from the food offerings in the auction-room and one of the rings from the display on his person, and she cracked a smile as the nobleman was dragged out of the room, forcefully.
  117. The brown furred woman made a hasty retreat with her box, leaving the affluent comforts of the Falkshire abode proper and retrieving her personal effects from the guards at the rougher floored entryway.
  118.  
  119. “A moment, if you please, Ms. Primrose.” A deep, mellow voice called out as she finished buttoning her cloak. She turned, spotting an approaching figure; a middle aged man, fair and neat of hair and rather plainly dressed compared to the establishment as a whole or even the guards. He offered a short bow as he reached her, his frame stocky and broad of shoulder but his movements flowing and delicate.
  120.  
  121. “You're... ah, Sir Falkshire!” Prim said, gasping and immediately curtsying in return; lords and ladies were rife in this city, self serving and favour currying was plentiful to the point few inside their social circle were respected beyond their coin, but knights were wholly different; truly honourable and powerful, Prim felt a flutter of her heart to be given the attention of one. This was a time of peace, so servants of the crown had alternative businesses to keep coin flowing for the city and their servants, but Prim never imagined she would meet the owner.
  122.  
  123. “Indeed, Ms. Primrose. It us truly a pleasure to meet you in person; it can be rather stifling to always meet the same people of means rather than a lady of... colour for once. I apologise for both the behaviour of my staff and the despicable acts taken against you by Lord Gathard. I would like to have you visit the establishment again, if you were not overly offended.”
  124.  
  125. “I... have suffered worse, sire.” Prim said, still a little awestricken.
  126.  
  127. “Even so, please take this as a form of apology,” he said as he produced an wax-sealed envelope, complete with the ivy wreathed F upon it, “it should shine some light on the mystery of that donation box you procured. I'm almost sorry to see it go but I believe it is now in better hands than mine. Farewell, Ms. Primrose.” He smiled warmly, and crows-feet wrinkles formed around his kindly grey eyes.
  128.  
  129. She hesitated before taking it, staring at it for a moment, then slipping it into one of the discrete pockets of her cloak. With another small bow, Primrose took up the box and left the building proper, hurrying home in the dimming daylight, her back warmed under the waning sun.
  130.  
  131. Back in her element, she blended into the streets with ease despite her burden. A twisting and turning journey, including a circuitous route to catch anyone following her, and she was back in the shantytown of Patterfield road. Muddy puddles in usually dusty paths, makeshift roads formed by planks salvaged from some of the worst-kept buildings lay exclusively for horse and cart deliveries to a small shop situated nearer the rest of the city than the busy ratfolk bustle that ensued otherwise between the overcrowded and patchwork homes.
  132. Primrose immediately relaxed as smiling faces greeted her, ratfolk workers of any job going were returning from their long and arduous tasks with the scant few coins the human were willing to part with, the young keeping their eyes peeled for any who would threaten their community as well as inform of opportunities, legal or otherwise, and the elders kept the homes comfortable, cooking and cleaning. They were a good group, the Patterfield flock, and Primrose was only ever happy to see them brighten up at her return.
  133.  
  134. “Evenin', Prim! Good take?” said one youth through an imperfect, broken toothed grin.
  135.  
  136. “Yeah, got any prezzies for us, sis?” chattered another.
  137.  
  138. “Can't wait for a moment, can you?” Primrose smiled back as she reached the raised step of the shop, placing the box down. Her hands dove inside her cloak once more, producing a few more silver trays and a pocket-watch, which she handed off to the older youth.
  139. “Spread the coin out, young Rapha! If I hear you've been hoarding again, I'll have your ma tan your tail!” Prim watched them run off towards the local fence, a dealer and crafter of anything and everything indeed, before she opened the shop door for her with the tinkle of a bell. She was greeted by a brown furred but grey muzzled fellow peering at her through cracked glasses.
  140.  
  141. “Oh goodness, you actually got it!” He rounded the counter of the shop and took the box, nodding her through to a back room. Primrose removed her cloak once more, hooking it behind the counter and taking the envelope before following the older ratfolk.
  142.  
  143. Within, lit by candles, was an immaculately kept shrine. Two feral rats crafted from marble on an uneven, broken base sat upon a grand table, holding a gold medallion from a chain clutched between their interlocked forepaws. The elder ratfolk placed the box with utter reverence before the statue as Primrose opened the letter and read the contents.
  144.  
  145. Ms. Primrose,
  146. Do not be alarmed, but I have been aware in your inquiries and interest in the box for a few months. I give it willingly, along with your coin in the form of the second paper within; you may withdraw the sum from any bank in the city. I also anticipate you have taken some articles from my estate as well, and I would have you consider them a gift.
  147. In exchange I would like to be party of your search. I know of a second object you may be interested in and I would like to discuss it in person at the next auction. I will have given your name to my men as a regular and you shall be afforded a more comfortable welcome next time.
  148. Kind Regards,
  149. Sir Jacoby Falkshire.
  150.  
  151. “Well, Father Cathrop,” Primrose sighed, “so much for us keeping this to ourselves; we have a knight poking his nose in.” She handed the letter to the old ratfolk priest, who squinted at it through the least damaged part of his glasses. Primrose looked over the promissory note for a hundred and ten lile, the value hastily scrawled compared to the otherwise neat cursive, and folded it, pinching the crease with precision as if the note itself were made of silver and placing it by the box.
  152.  
  153. “So it would seem. Well, no matter, Sister Primrose. Perhaps having an official backer of the crown won't be such a bad thing; it might mean you won't have to sully yourself with further skulduggery.” Cathrop said, giving Primrose a friendly pat on the shoulder.
  154.  
  155. “I'll do what I must for our people, Father. Now... let's see.” Prim said, pulling the leather strand from around her neck. A pendant, identical to the one held by the twin rats, though smaller and made of bronze. She spun the disk between her hands back and forth in delicate twists, as one would a dial, before it clicked and opened. Within, a single, small key which she took and slotted into the donation box.
  156.  
  157. “Kasta, Noran. I open this relic in your name and spirit for great and holy purpose, Oh Sibling Lords. Please, forgive my transgressions this day.” Primrose turned the key and the box collapsed and unfolded into flat square panels, although a gold ring, lined with fine sapphires, lay on top of it. Cathrop tutted, shaking his head and Prim shrugged.
  158. “We have to keep the people fed, Father. As I said; I'll do what I must.”
  159.  
  160. The pair then looked at the wood panelling, studying the intricate grooves and lines; a map of part of the city from ancient times. A vault, plainly labelled in their oldest tongue as 'salvation', sat in the middle; a square made of metal gilding away from the other marks and lines.
  161. It was woefully incomplete, though, designed to be a piece of a puzzle.
  162.  
  163. “I suppose I shall have to meet with Falkshire after all.” Primrose said, pocketing the ring and turning about. Cathrop scratched his chin and sighed.
  164.  
  165. “We're cutting it close. The signs are mounting, forming of a grim portent, and not just for our people. Everyone is in danger.”
  166.  
  167. “Don't worry, Father. We'll all be making it,” she said, “let's just worry about earning some lile for now, hmm?” Prim left to visit her fence. One problem dealt with, many more to come.
  168.  
  169.  
  170. * * * *
  171.  
  172. Chapter 1: Fences
  173.  
  174. A bell chimed and a door creaked as Prim, cloaked and hooded, entered the room, a sign claiming the establishment was closed was a lie and invitation in equal measure to those that knew. It was an extremely clean room; small scratches from clawed feet on the hard worn wooden floor notwithstanding, every piece of furniture was extremely well kept or brand new and expertly carpentered, each with a small sign in value of lile. The room smelled of lacquer, freshly cut wood and warm, sweet incense; all three of trade and one to mask.
  175. On one wall was a hand drawn display of highly detailed weapons and armour, with a sign reading 'Please inquire for pricing', and beside that a weapon dealership license housed in a fine wire frame; such a document was worth thousands of lile.
  176.  
  177. “Come on, Bantam, I know that you know I'm here.” Prim called out, dropping her cowl and shaking her large ears free. A weird coughing, merged with a clicking sound, made Prim shiver despite knowing she was safe. Mostly, she thought, as she could never really tell with the owner.
  178.  
  179. “It's too early.” a voice called back, quick words punctuated with more clicking and tapping in a high rasp.
  180.  
  181. “So? Didn't stop you from buying from young Rapha.” Prim shrugged, looking over the counter and through a doorframe, a beady twilight blue eye blinking back from the darkness, shrouded in a dark and shiny iridescent plumage of black and hints of purple beneath fine linen robes. A long, black beak opened and tapped closed a few times as the crowman placed his scaled, taloned hands on the desk.
  182.  
  183. “Huff huff, fine and fine, Primrose; business has been slow besides those renegades. Young are no good for deals and dealings!” Bantam clacked his tongue, agitated.
  184. A strange fellow from a faraway and exotic land to the west, while the crowman lacked an accent it always seemed to take effort for him to speak, as if it were a skill that needed practice rather than something natural to him. Prim was always uncomfortable trying to read his expression, or lack thereof, complete with his words being uttered by a slight opening of the beak, a little tongue motion and his throat clenching to form the syllables.
  185.  
  186. “Never mind them; they just want to feel like they're helping, just as we all do, you old buzzard. Let them help the community in their way and they'll learn the values and benefits of kindness.” Prim produced the gold ring and placed it on the table and Bantam twitched his head to the side, peering down at the precious band from an inch away, beak clacking excitedly and head twitching, before he finally snapped it up in his beak, twitching his head to catch it further back, and licking it a few times with his dark tongue.
  187. “Really?” Prim groaned, disgusted.
  188.  
  189. Bantam dropped the ring back onto the counter-top and took out a cloth and monocle from the folds of his thick, plush silken robes. He snatched the ring back up inside the cloth and began working his fingertips vigorously around the shrouded ring, re-exposing it, breathing on it with a wheezy rasp, then peered at it through the polished lens, his eye magnified to uncomfortable detail as Prim watched. The lack of visible white in the eye was off-putting enough, let alone the fathomless dark blue only not seeming black because of the void of a pupil it surrounded, making Prim glad it was soundly focused on the metal band.
  190.  
  191. “Gold is gold, good gold. Stones are fake stones. Sixty lile.” He said with a whistle, dropping the ring back on the counter as if discarding it.
  192.  
  193. “What? You're certain?” Prim went to pick the ring up, only for Bantam to snatch it and rap it against the hard wood thrice, the third tap causing one of the stones to shatter and fall out of the mounting in three tiny pieces.
  194.  
  195. “Fake is fake. Pretty pretty, shiny shiny glass.” Bantam once more let the ring bounce off of the table, forcing the ratfolk to snatch it back before any further damage was caused.
  196.  
  197. “Oh, Noran's breath... Bantam!” Prim chided him as if speaking to a naughty child, “even if they are fake, I could still use them!” Prim tugged on her whiskers and growled as she looked at the damaged and increasingly devalued jewellery.
  198. “The question is does he know?” she mumbled.
  199.  
  200. “He who? Who he? Oh, and fake fake stones, Bantam can replace for fee.”
  201.  
  202. “I hope you mean 'for free', you damnable fiend, you're the one who broke it! And never you mind who, that's my business.” Prim.
  203.  
  204. “It's all business business busyness to me. However,” the crowman murmured and turned his head, peering at Prim as his beak clicked, “perhaps Bantam knows thing or two on tick-tock item the renegades brought in? Knows Lord who likes time in pieces?” Prim stared into the distance for a moment before realising to what this particular brand of double-speak referred.
  205. Or rather whom.
  206.  
  207. “Gathard isn't the one I'm interested in, Bantam, and like I said,” Prim sighed and pocketed the ring, “it's raotharran business. I don't mean offence, but you're better off not knowing.”
  208.  
  209. Bantam clicked and warbled a sigh, looking at the ceiling for a moment then clicking again.
  210. “Harrumph! Fie and fie, fine and fine, if Repenter will not take wormy wormy bait, Bantam will give. Good will and sorry for broken stone.” He walked into the back-room and returned with a sheet of paper. He walked around the counter, hopping down from the raised platform to reveal his short, four foot form and walked with a plodding gait as he had to lift his large taloned feet clear to not cause more scratches to the wood, planting each three front and one back toed step with caution.
  211. He held the page out, and Prim looked at it with a confused expression.
  212.  
  213. “Time-piece has been looking for this, he's been asking Bantam's friends. Relief of two foody rats instead of clothesy rats.”
  214.  
  215. “These aren't just two rats, Bantam. They're Kasta and Noran, the Sibling Lords.” Prim stared at the page. It was a detailed picture of a tower shield with the Great Aunt and Uncle of the ratfolk, the Raothaar, emblazoned upon it in their usual pose. It appeared to be made from wood but braced with metal bands, segmenting it into even squares. She had never heard of such a thing despite her faith; her kin had never gone to war, they simply moved with the tides of battle and found peaceful integration wherever they could find.
  216.  
  217. “Eh, rats is rats, human-men is human-men. Why you all claim them divine, Bantam will never know.” Bantam shrugged and hopped back behind his counter, regaining his height advantage.
  218.  
  219. “Oh, hush, you old, rude pest,” Prim said, clearing her throat and taking a deep breath, “they're the cornerstone of my people, the very moral fibre of our way of life. See, Kasta is the sister; she embodies nurturing, fertility, protection and healing but also seclusion, stagnation and stubbornness. Noran is the brother, he is the violent and short tempered, but inventive, pragmatic and open minded. We live our lives to embody both in balance; no good without the bad in harmony!” Bantam shrugged at the lecture and pointed to the page again, making Prim stop and think.
  220. “Oh, right. So, what do you know about this and what does it have to do with Gathard?”
  221.  
  222. “Been demanding, asking, threatening,” the crowman whistled sharply, “taking, buying, stealing, burning foody rat pieces.”
  223. Prim immediately froze, her eyes distant and ears pricking up. Bantam waved his hand in front of her face before tugging her ear, making her hiss and wince.
  224.  
  225. “Get off!” she gasped and slapped his hand away. “That's monstrous! How dare he! Wait, you said he's buying? Gathard's willing to spend his own coin to destroy the Sibling's relics!?”
  226.  
  227. “Is. Hasn't found many, getting angry, desperate. Paying tiny tiny silver and big big threats. Dumber, softer, weaker merchants giving. Others not.”
  228.  
  229. A loud hammering on the door made both rat and bird flinch, with Prim's hand darting to her blade while Bantam cawed loudly.
  230.  
  231. “GOWAY!” he screeched, “Not open! Closed, door and shop!”
  232.  
  233. “Open the bloody door, ya dumb bastard! I ain't warnin' twice!” A brusque voice, dripping with malice and stupidity in equal measure.
  234.  
  235. “You, hidey hide!” Bantam pointed to the counter. Prim shook her head.
  236.  
  237. “I'm not abandoning you to some upstart thug, friend. I'll fend them o-ow ow ow!” Prim squeaked as Bantam grabbed her by the ear, dragged her behind the counter and pushed her through a door. He slammed it shut and before Prim could get her feet, the click of a bolt made her mutter under her breath.
  238. “Oh no, you don't!” The ratfolk immediately pulled a long, solid cylindrical leather case from her belt, unbuckling the lid and producing a tiny, flat tipped S shaped steel bar and a long, fine probe. She slid the bar into the bottom of the lock, twisting it and holding it firm, before gently poking into the keyhole with the pick, closing her eyes as she worked.
  239. The mild distraction of Bantam and the thug talking did not stop her ears from noting the subtle clicks and rattles within the lock.
  240.  
  241. “Pay up or I'm makin' pillows outta ya, you little shit.” the thug snarled.
  242.  
  243. “Already paid, and paid again! No thruppency pay! No tuppence or onepence! Out out!” Bantam screeched. Prim gritted her teeth as her dextrous fingers and well made tools poked, prodded and clicked the tumblers into place, just one more...
  244. The lock gave a satisfying, mechanical clack and Prim shoved the door open, drawing her blade as she deftly replaced the picks.
  245.  
  246. A scream, Prim leapt up onto the desk and was met with a spray of blood, blinding her. Raw instinct made her jump back down from the counter and scamper to the side, blade raised as she found a corner.
  247. Footsteps. Prim couldn't make out the details, her mind was racing, missing details of the sound, she shivered and pointed her blade around as her other hand tried to wipe the blood from her face. A clicking made her gasp and drop the blade before her mind caught up and her fears abated; Bantam was alive.
  248.  
  249. “What did Primrose see!?” Bantam demanded. Prim froze; he sounded furious.
  250.  
  251. “W-what?” Prim whimpered as taloned hands grabbed her collar, pressing her against the wall, “you're hurting me!”
  252. His breathing was sharp, rapid, almost a panic. A series of clicks, then a few seconds passed in silence. Bantam then relaxed his grip, making a throaty sigh.
  253.  
  254. “Bantam apologises... but warned you to hide. Some of Bantam should not be seeing and seen. Old shame, new shame.” He whispered. Prim was released, receiving gentle a pat on the head and a moment later, a wet cloth was thrust into her hands. She mopped the blood from her eyes and could finally see. Bantam's face was covered in gore but his body, bereft of his robe and clad in only a pair of breeches, reveal the thicker plumage of his body and wiry frame were unmarked.
  255. The crowman walked around the counter and out of sight, with Primrose following and finally seeing the source of the blood.
  256.  
  257. The thug, or his lifeless body, was that of a heavy-set human in simple, ill-fitting blood-soaked patchwork clothing had a single, clean cut across his throat. Beside his head, three fingers neatly cleft from his right hand lay scattered as he lay flat on his back. The once neat wooden boards were ruined and there was only one sword visible, a scant inch loose of the scabbard on the thug's belt and completely clean. Bantam's robe was likewise soaked and placed in the pool, probably to keep it spreading further.
  258.  
  259. “Going to have to make new floorboards. Again again.” Bantam crooned, clicked his beak twice and shook his head, “on your way, Primrose. Keep ring, bring back later, give lile then. Sorry sorry... take care of yourself.”
  260.  
  261. Prim was far beyond curiosity at this point. She made sure she had everything she needed, pulled up her hood, and hurried home as fast as her legs could carry her.
  262. She mixed water with a few chemicals she kept on hand and scrubbed herself fiercely; an old recipe she had learned long ago could rid her fur of blood. She lacked an appetite, and having stressed herself as far as she could take for one day, she threw herself into bed and rolled herself up in the covers, her thoughts rushing about as she fought for sleep against her mind.
  263. Primrose felt hours pass by before fatigue finally overpowered her, and her eyes closed at last, thinking of the box, a prize she had sought for longer than the three years it had been missing. To have it at last after ten years...
  264.  
  265.  
  266. * * *
  267.  
  268. Prim hated this. Mostly everything, but it was easier to focus on the now; the desperation, the rain, the cold, the gnawing ache in her stomach, the dizziness. She hated the judgemental glares, the hushed whispers, the rude gestures. Prices mysteriously increasing because she's a raothaar. Citizens of the crown? Members of the community!? Humanity was the problem, not her!
  269. If she had any tears left to shed in self pity, they weren't forthcoming. Not since the orphanage or her so called 'friend' left her. She couldn't even proclaim that she was a true orphan; no, she was given up due to a lack of food. She hated her parents and siblings as well, wherever they were.
  270.  
  271. No, here she was, squeezing through a weakened iron bar fence, which she had been grinding the mortar from the weather-worn brickwork base. The fence was just too tall and too close to the upstairs windows of the nearby houses for safe entry, so a little scraping and chipping each pass for a week and propping a few boards to cover her tracks; too many religious folk entering and leaving the church during the day and the gate was a real monster of a thing that seemed fit to ward off anything shy of siege engines.
  272. The church the real centre of the Hitherby community, so that meant there was plenty of charity coin for her to find and... borrow. They wouldn't miss it, they always had more and the plain décor and trappings inside were clearly a front, an appeal to modesty. Prim had been here a few times to case the place, offering false prayers whilst watching ratfolk get their free hand outs of food and water, even luxuries like soap and blankets on occasion, all handed out to the locals. Prim was no local so there was no way they would give anything to her. That wasn't how the world worked.
  273.  
  274. She felt a sharp pain in her side, halting her passage through the gap. A quick look revealing a rusty and corroded section of the iron fence tearing through her already damaged shirt and pressing on an untreated wound. It was a stupid scuffle over a dry spot in an alley; a twine-bound shiv made of a shard of glass glass against her trusty butchers knife? It should have been easy.
  275. It's never that damn easy. Desperation works both ways and for all comers. Now she had an itchy wound, she felt cold despite the layers she would bundle herself up with each night and her senses were all over the place. Prim wouldn't be beaten though, never, she would survive. It's all she was good at.
  276. She gripped the bar and pushed with all her strength, the iron protesting in a harsh squeal. It was as painfully loud as the feel of rough metal on her cut eased.
  277.  
  278. “Hey, is someone there?” A male voice called out. Prim couldn't afford to work out who said it, she just struggled as hard as possible and got free, losing a couple of inches of skin and fur in the attempt. Her mouth opened in a raw scream, but she held back the sound and clutched the wound. Fresh, warm blood began seeping again. Just keep moving, just get inside and get what you need, it's more important than a little blood.
  279.  
  280. She could see lamplight and dancing shadows beyond the fence as she moved to the church's side entrance, away from the well lit double doors at the west end of the church; she had to work fast. Prim took out a key she had pinched the other day, smiling through the pain at the clicking bolt, and entered the dry, warm interior. Her eyes adjusted to the dark, the tiny traces of light allowing her to see further than any human could and giving the nave, the main hall of the church, a dull grey aura.
  281. Prim moved straight to the charity box, right by the vestibule. A good, solid thing with what looked to be a simple lock. She pulled out a bent iron cooking skewer she had taken from a tavern and some folded, hammered wire she had salvaged from a smithy's cast offs and studied the lock while rubbing her hands, trying to stop them shaking; damn the fever and damn the pain, she needed this money.
  282.  
  283. She slipped the skewer high in the hole, levering it against a small panel with some movement and applying firm pressure clockwise, then used the bent wire to gently push against the spring-loaded pins. It was slow going since she still couldn't feel her hands, so the subtle tremors of the pins were hard to feel, but by trial and error, she gradually pushed each section away from the housing after learning to rely on the louder creaks and clicks. Suddenly, the skewer snapped.
  284.  
  285. “No!” Prim gasped, immediately followed by a shine of light on her. She reached for her knife and backed herself against the wall, keeping the point between her and the threat.
  286. A neat, well kept looking ratfolk dressed in a neat black cassock, hands raised and a lantern in his hand. His blonde coloured fur and gentle hazel eyes made Prim almost lose the grip on her knife, even more than her blurring vision and weakening limbs.
  287.  
  288. “Are you alright, miss?” He said, calm and gentle.
  289.  
  290. “Just fine! Stay back and you might walk away from this with all your fingers!” Prim snarled.
  291.  
  292. “You're bleeding... and that wound looks bad. Please, put down the knife and let me help you.” He took a step forward, allowing Prim to see more details. He was probably in his late teens, like herself, and smooth features, handsome with no scrapes and scratches like most ratfolk tended to have; probably comfortable living.
  293. “Please, miss, you're unwell.”
  294.  
  295. “I damn well told you, choir boy, I'm...” Prim bumped against the wall, the knife tumbling to the floor as she realised she was falling. She caught herself on the mounting for the box and the young man bolted forward, helping her up with caring hands before she gasped and slapped him, a claw dragging a line of red across his cheek. He backed away, holding his face as Prim shoved past him, back to the door she had entered through, moving by memory and feel as her eyes failed her, darkness tingeing the edges of her view and the world violently spinning.
  296.  
  297. Prim managed to leave the church and she knew she couldn't risk another attempt through the fence opening; little point in subtlety when you've already been caught. She reached the front gate, opening it with a monstrous squeal of grinding metal and well aware she was being watched by many eyes, ratfolk eyes that reflected the lamplight through windows; accusing eyes, angry eyes, pitying eyes. To the hells with them all.
  298.  
  299. She found herself darting to the nearest alley, twisting and turning not by choice as she staggered, just trying to put distance between her and the borough of Hitherby. It had all gone wrong; she was worse off than before, she had lost her weapon and tools. Her stomach nagged her foolishness, her mind swam in a fog of both blood-loss and fever. Primrose fell, slapping into the mud as the rain continued to lash down upon her before she knew nothing else but the dark.
  300.  
  301. Then warmth and low candlelight. A gentle humming from a deep, masculine tone, then soft words; a song? A hymn, she realised.
  302.  
  303. “Oh, Kasta gave and blessed of me the joy of life and mind,
  304. So potent willed, and soul now filled to give and thus be kind.
  305. On day the next, She gave to me the gift to love and cherish,
  306. So every day, and come what may, I'll do right 'til I perish.”
  307.  
  308. “Come then next week, our flock still meek, Kasta said to endure,
  309. Through times of strife, and trouble rife, yet live a life as pure.
  310. Yet She would ask, beseech and pray that each of us keep safe,
  311. Build fences high and brace our doors, enduring 'til we chafe.”
  312.  
  313. “And lo it was that Noran preached that we now break the walls,
  314. To strive beyond and threat respond, take arms when duty calls.
  315. He gave the gift, to ponder swift, create and grow to greatness,
  316. To laugh, to sing, and thus take wing and fend off low sedateness.”
  317.  
  318. “Then Noran blessed us all to act with wit and wicked daring,
  319. While Kasta gave us back the urge to be of all us caring.
  320. So Sibling Lords did strike accords to give our people worth,
  321. Go far and wide, and live with pride, upon this trying earth.”
  322.  
  323. “Gull's shit, you sound like you're in pain.” Prim rasped, her throat dry, but she managed a wry smile.
  324.  
  325. “Oh, you're awake! Kasta's mercy be praised! When my son brought you in, we feared you wouldn't last the night, my child. You've been asleep for three days.” The singer said, moving near enough for Prim to see him. An older ratfolk in his forties with small flecks of grey on his muzzle against the brown fur and a pair of slightly scuffed glasses glinting in the candlelight. He was wearing a pendant of the siblings, a simple bronze coin with the two rats, forepaws clasped with each other.
  326. Prim suddenly realised he recognised him; he was the priest who lead the Hitherby church. It made her catch her response mid-breath and caused her to cough loudly.
  327.  
  328. “Here, drink this,” the priest said as he poured something from a copper kettle into a wooden mug, a little steam rising from it. He then tipped a second substance from a little bottle into the mug and stirring it with a teaspoon. He gently lifted Prim's head and tipped the mug to her mouth, a sweet smelling liquid that tasted like some sort of tea, rich with honey but very herbal on the back. Prim took the mug from his hands and leaned up, downing the liquid greedily and no sooner than it was empty, he refilled it.
  329. Prim dragged herself up to a sit, resting against the backrest of the bed and took in her surroundings as she sipped more tea. A simple bedroom with modest furnishings, even if the bed was plush and comfortable. As nice as this was, she was now twice the intruder of the same man and she didn't want to press her luck.
  330.  
  331. “Thank you, sir, but I should go. I don't want to be a bother.” Prim said as she began pushing herself from the bed, only for her wound to ache and a wave of weakness stilling her efforts.
  332.  
  333. “You're still under with a fever, my child, though I have cleaned and stitched your injury and it needs time to mend. Please, you're no bother at all. Although...” he fiddled with his glasses and licked his lips, “I would like to ask why you haven't come to receive alms. I have spoken with the community and many recognised you sleeping in alleyways and getting into mischief.”
  334. Prim bit her lip and winced.
  335.  
  336. “I refuse to take charity. I can look after myself.” Prim was talking to herself as much as the priest.
  337.  
  338. “Ah, too proud for a handout,” he said, nodding. He smiled in earnest but loosed a sardonic chuckle. “But not too proud to steal from charity.”
  339. Prim felt as if she had been stabbed again and frankly it would have been a lesser pain than the shame she felt. Looking away from the priest, she tried to fight back as she usually would, hurling barbs and witticisms to justify herself, but she had nothing.
  340.  
  341. “Do not worry, I have no intention of informing the constabulary. We look out for our own flock here in Hitherby. By Kasta's grace we look out for our own and Noran's open mind to those who have wronged us; it was my son who you threatened in the church, after all. I would be gladdened to have you join our flock if you feel the shame you wear so plainly if you seek to do right. You seem to have the Brother's gifts in spades, and a sharp mind would be quite welcome around here.”
  342.  
  343. “You're soft in the head, old man. You'd welcome someone who pulled a knife on one of your flock, your own boy, no less?” Prim watched him nod, still regarding her with kind eyes.
  344. The door opened, and the blond furred ratfolk from the church entered and their eyes, Prim looked at him and he looked at her.
  345.  
  346. “I do, because I think you're a decent soul dealt a poor hand, used to erecting fences around herself as Kasta would. We would welcome you with open arms, if you would like a place to stay and work for a better life not just for you, but for all of Hitherby. I'm Renard Cathrop, and this is my son, Antoine.” Renard gestured to his son, who approached the bed as both smiled kindly to her. Prim felt awful already, let alone when she saw the red mark on his cheek.
  347.  
  348. “I'm just glad you're alright, miss. I hope you'll join us.” Antoine said, smiling.
  349.  
  350. “I guess I could give it a try. Uh... nice to meet you. I'm Primrose.” She responded, and held out her hand, Antoine taking it.
  351. His hand. It was so warm.
  352.  
  353. * * *
  354.  
  355. Primrose opened her eyes, rays of sunlight cutting through the dark room through the many small gaps in the curtain. She looked beside her, at the untouched pillow and empty space on the large bed, and sighed.
  356.  
  357. * * * *
  358.  
  359. Chapter 2: Prophecy
  360.  
  361. “Murder most foul has taken place this day or the last!” A large man, wearing a fine and tidy coat, with a cravat that fluttered against his neck fat by the stiff breeze and a tricorn hat resting on his balding head. He held a bell the size of an infant's skull by the clapper as he already had everyone's attention.
  362. “The constabulary has identified the victim as one Cidric Wedgewood! His body was fished from Cabaril river at dawn on this day, and his surviving family members have been informed! Captain Plywell is offering the exact sum of ten lile for any information that successfully brings about the arrest of whomsoever ended Mr. Wedgewood's life! For anyone who knows the identity of the felon, in which said accusation weathers scrutiny under police investigation, and thus leads to a conviction, shall be awarded the exact sum of one hundred and fifty lile! All values are non-negotiable, and only to be paid upon successful conviction!”
  363.  
  364. Primrose briefly considered throwing Bantam to the bluebacks before realising that was the old Prim, the Primrose that she had been before finding faith, love, purpose, and a home (specifically in that order), but after three kinds of abandonment, two methods of betrayal and killing a man who deserved every inch of her old butchers knife through his eye-socket.
  365. Even the old Primrose would have been hard pressed to justify losing a fence who could sell her brand new tools and blades at a little over cost for just a hundred and fifty lile. She would have kept it in mind though in case things got desperate, though she supposed it didn't matter; this was a different kind of desperation than she once felt, and this time she had people who would protect her so Prim wouldn't let them down in turn.
  366.  
  367. She cleared her head and walked away as the bellman moved on to foreign affairs. It was at first interesting, but it was the same as the past few weeks; news of a dragon proclaiming himself emperor and slowly taking over the Vliechovan continent to the south and the appearance of otherworldly entities appearing in the grand city-state of Ardentiphe, finally causing the bitter rivalry of two warring nations in the like named Ardentiphe isles to stop and focus on protecting their lands in the far east. Both of these were part of the signs that Father Cathrop's interpretation of the old raotharran scripts on the end times. Primrose didn't believe it at first, but then the night of the fire...
  368. The words of the prophecy flowed through her mind, just as they did when she watched Hitherby church catch alight, the flames spreading and burning most of Hitherby during the blizzard three years ago. Prim would never forget them.
  369.  
  370. It shall ride upon the four-strand paradox and The Sibling's children meet a terrible fate.
  371. When the Great Tyrant rules by courtesy and Those Beyond enact a war that brings about peace.
  372. When on starless skies, all is illuminated and when home catches flame in the coldest night.
  373. When One, chosen of Kasta, and One, found of Noran, are given to sea and plague.
  374. The world shall succumb to madness and all shall shatter.
  375. Seek Their aspects. Find Salvation.
  376.  
  377. “You there! In the name of the Queen, remain where you are! I have some questions.” Prim was brought back to the market square from her gloomy reverie, turning about and coming face to face with a large, terrifying looking dog, full of wicked teeth and vile intent in its savage brown eyes and ugly tan fur. She unable to hold back a panicked gasp as her whole body twitched so hard she swore her heart stopped for a moment.
  378. A far less frightening human owner, a woman clad in the heavy blue coat of the constabulary, held the beast by a heavy chain. She looked tired and frustrated, so Prim decided to be compliant; she had neither the motive or reason to indulge her usual snideness. She doubted she could play her usual games, not when she was this on edge. Prim raised her hands slowly to shoulder height.
  379. “What's your business here this morning, citizen?” The constable asked as the powerful looking mastiff, clad in chainmail barding, sniffed Prim up and down. The ratfolk forced her focus away from the dog and studied the human as a distraction, to try and calm herself before garbling a response. The constable had dark hair, mostly covered beneath a hardened leather helmet with a wide brim to keep the sun and rain at bay, and her face had a few nicks and scratches from hard living, but otherwise she seemed plain in appearance. The dull gloss of the waterproofed felt coat was outshone by the glint of the polished copper badge on her chest, a rhombus with a central crown inside ten stars, then four pairs of crossed blades and finally two outfacing dragon heads at the longer tips.
  380. Prim finally sighed and responded as the constable started glaring at the stalling ratfolk
  381.  
  382. “I'm here to visit the bank, constable. Afterwards I planned to peruse the market for items of interest and then be back home for luncheon.” Prim said, as calmly as she could despite her hands shaking and tail twitching at the dog's continued attention. She nibbled her lip and hoped she had scrubbed herself firmly enough to remove the scent of blood from her; the police needed little to no reason to detail ratfolk outside of their districts and even the vaguest hint of Mr. Wedgewood's scent on her would have her likely at least locked up for a few days or, at worst, pin her as the culprit and get her hanged.
  383.  
  384. “You unwell, or is that just nerves?” The policewoman asked, her dark, bagged eyes narrowing, accusing. It just HAD to be a hound-mistress.
  385.  
  386. “I have a pho- uh., I dislike dogs, constable, and many take issue with me in kind. I tried to pet one as a child and it nearly took my arm.” Prim replied, trying to control her breathing. The constable tilted her head and looked the ratfolk over.
  387.  
  388. “And here I was wondering if you were hiding something. Silly me!” The constable leered at Prim. “You must have a pretty nasty scar from that. Mind if I see it?”
  389.  
  390. “I'm afraid if I put my arms down your dog might take offence.” Prim stopped breathing as the hound sniffed at her face. The ringing in her ears started. Her heart hammered. She wanted to run, hide in any of the shops, dive in the river. Anything to get away from this damned dog.
  391. The officer finally started tugging the chain leash, connected to a series of straps around the dog's armoured torso and it obediently turned around and sat next to its owner. Prim took a deep, desperate breath, and clutched her hands together, trying to stop shivering, before rolling up her left sleeve, exposing a twisting bald patch against the brown fur made of scar-tissue in a number of short, jagged lines.
  392.  
  393. “Huh, alright,” the hound-mistress said, clearly surprised, “mind if I ask what you're planning to do in the bank, madam?”
  394. Prim's blood ran cold again. Without the dog as an immediate threat, she realised she had revealed more than she intended to. She hoped being on the constables good graces by complying would give her some leniency, at least.
  395.  
  396. “Constable, I'm sorry, but I really should be getting on with my business.” Prim slowly stepped back, and the hound-mistress let a few links of the chain go loose. The dog gladly took the extra slack and approached. It looked at her hungrily and Prim's attempts at secrecy cracked again as her heart thundered. “I have a promissory note that I'm collecting on!”
  397. The constable's eyes narrowed again and she held out her hand expectantly.
  398. “Oh, you must be kidding... of all the...” Prim muttered and spat, taking the neatly folded paper from a wooden case tucked against her side. The constable plucked the document as soon as it was within reach, creasing the corner and the ratfolk winced. The guard looked over the page, mouthing the words.
  399.  
  400. “Sir Falkshire, eh? And how did you get this, exactly?” The Constable stared daggers at Prim, who shook her head, realising she was getting backed into a corner as this was taking a dangerous turn towards discussing her mission. She considered lying, but at this point she doubted any path lead to anywhere except an arrest and a house-call to Sir Falkshire. He would at least vouch for her, hopefully.
  401.  
  402. “I bought an item at his auction house. A donation box from the Hitherby church, where I was a nun. It was the only thing that escaped the blaze and I felt it would be better with the raotharran-”
  403.  
  404. “The what?” The constable cocked her head to one side. Great, Prim inwardly groaned, an uneducated blueback. She was counting the seconds until she earned a broken rib or a black eye for using too many complicated words, or officially, belligerence.
  405.  
  406. “Ratfolk. My people. That box belonged to our flock, so I bought it. Sir Falkshire graciously refunded the coin in the form of that note when he realised it was for a good cause. We have plans to rebuild Hitherby, and having the original donation box would bless our charitable cause, Kasta's grace be willing.” Truthful, but keeping the details hidden. Prim hoped that would be enough
  407.  
  408. The constable licked her lips and started handing the note back. As Prim reached for it, the hound-mistress dropped the note early with a snide grin, letting it flitter towards the ground. A grin that vanished when Prim snatched the paper from the air with a single precise pinch and set about smoothing the creases.
  409.  
  410. “On your way then, but I'll be keeping my eye on the bank while you're inside and I'll be keeping Gemma here on a very loose grip the moment I hear anything unusual.” The constable finally left, and Prim's heartbeat calmed a little more with every footstep, dragging that damned dog with her. She felt like shouting at them, calling the constable a bitch and the dog a snatch-licker, and the old Prim ran a hand over the grip of her blade as sinister thoughts danced in the corners of her mind. The new and current Prim, however, calmly replaced the promissory note into the watertight case and took calm strides towards the bank.
  411.  
  412. Prim mused herself as she approached the grand white stone and red brick building, Carwallick First Bank and Trust. How many times had she dreamed of breaking in here, like the old legendary thieves such as Garreth the pagan eyed or Sley Copre of Rakkon? More lile changed hands here than one could spend in six lifetimes. It was the primary bank of the city, where every other nation and every noble handled their money. People had walked away with fair sums by making daring raids or robbing the safety deposit boxes, but nobody had cracked the core safe.
  413.  
  414. Prim had been here plenty of times as a client, clad in her nun's habit assisting Father Cathrop in putting aside a rainy day fund with the spare donations, with her Noran blessed wits being put to work to ensure they weren't being conned.
  415. They were. Of course they were, and Prim dared to imagine how much lile had been taken away from Hitherby before she set things straight with her sharp tongue, bluster and guilt inducing sob stories. The savings only afforded them one street of broken down and despondent hovels called Patterfield road. A borough, however small, now reduced to a single dirt road with thirty houses, five of which were being broken down to repair the rest. At least four families per household, except for Father Cathrop's shop, where he, Prim and... where Father Cathrop and Prim lived out of respect to the unofficial leader of their people.
  416. Prim felt her heart ache for the second time that day. She felt foolish, getting upset over this again. It had been two years and they were making it, despite the struggle. She shook her head and entered the bank.
  417.  
  418. The queues were painfully long inside, and feeling the guards watching her, she buried herself in her thoughts, moving along the slow shuffle with the crowd yet feeling like a lighthouse on a coastline, watched by former soldiers of the Queen's forces. There hadn't been a war for six years, and the last two of those sent many soldiers out of work as they simply weren't needed. The nobility and merchants got the rank and file, the knights got their trusted officers with their hand-picked few, and the banks got everyone else. Each guard here was paid their weight for their skill with a blade or aim of their crossbows.
  419. The end of the war had been sudden, no doubt coinciding with the rise of this dragon emperor. Otherwise, news from the front during the final days wasn't pleasant; tales of death from short iron bolts loosed by 'an almighty crack and an unnatural whining sound, as if the spirits were claiming their victims', as the soldiers would say. The return of the soldiers just dug up bad memories for Prim, so she turned her attention to the hall again.
  420.  
  421. It was a finely decorated space with mottled marble floors, tall white and grey stone pillars, a few busts of the bank's original owner and, in the middle, large statue of a robed and pretty human woman, St. Valarie, the saint of luck, trade and oceans, holding a seashell in one hand and a crown in the other.
  422. Prim remembered the hogwash she was forced to read back at the orphanage about how Valarie saved a nation by trading a seashell for a lile, then she spent the lile on an old kettle, and after cleaning it and hammering out the dents she sold it for three lile, then Prim generally fell asleep and awoke when Valarie traded ownership of a kingdom for a strait and took ownership of every ship that used it.
  423. Prim's noticed the last person in the queue finish his business, and she approached the counter.
  424.  
  425. The teller glared down at her wordlessly, and after sighing and bracing herself, Prim handed over the promissory note. The man opened it and his eyes flicked between the page and her. Prim shook her head the moment the teller looked across the hall to someone behind her as she bit her lip and turned around, raising her hands.
  426.  
  427. “Yes, fine! I will come with you while you verify the note, Noran's vakli-.” Prim growled, bit her knuckles and took a few deep breaths as one of the guards approached. “Just take me to the holding room and get this over with.”
  428. Prim tensed up as a gauntleted hand grabbed her by the arm and pulled her with enough force to make her hiss in pain. Even when she started walking at the same pace as the man, he still tugged her about as they approached a metal door. She was all but thrown inside the plain room, with only a few metal chairs as furnishings, each firmly bolted to the walls and floor, and the door was slammed behind her.
  429.  
  430. * * *
  431.  
  432. An hour later, the door opened again with a sharp whine. Prim looked up and blinked, breaking from her silent prayers. The guard from before was talking to someone just beside the opening.
  433.  
  434. “... as you can see, we have her secure here. Please remain behi- Sir, wait!” A finely dressed and very familiar man pushed through, brow furrowed as their eyes met; Sir Falkshire, again plainly dressed in light, muted colours. The guard, hand at the ready on his arming sword's grip, stepped to place himself between the knight and the ratfolk woman.
  435.  
  436. “Mr. Regis, was it?” Falkshire asked, turning a firm stare into the back of the guards head.
  437.  
  438. “Aye, Sir Falkshire. Do you recognise this peasant?”
  439.  
  440. “Mr. Regis, why was she detained? I was explicitly told, and I quote, that a 'ne'er do well with a potentially fraudulent document' was being kept here.”
  441.  
  442. “Sir, this rode-I mean, this woman didn't seem the sort that you would socialise with, let alone do business with you. The teller assumed the note was false, and-” Falkshire's stare turned increasingly grim, with his kindly grey eyes turning into storm-cloud ferocity.
  443.  
  444. “Mr. Regis!” The knight snapped and let the silence stand for a moment. “What. Did. She. Do!?” Each word sounded like it could kill a man with the poison behind each utterance.
  445.  
  446. “U-uh... Sir, she... approached the teller and handed the promissory note-”
  447.  
  448. “You have detained, insulted and, I suspect, manhandled a personal friend of mine, Mr. Regis. I will be having extremely firm words with the owner. I suggest you find a boarding house posthaste, because by the end of the hour, I will have your job. I will have the tellers job, and by St. Gareg's unceasing breath, I will ensure this bank loses every lile that my circle of associates have invested here unless Ms. Primrose is released, given a formal apology and given every lile as listed on my note IMMEDIATELY!” Falkshire's voice echoed off of the walls and the guard marched out of the door faster than Prim could have sprinted.
  449. As soon as the pair were alone, Falkshire shook his head and lowered himself to Prim's eye-level.
  450.  
  451. “I hope they haven't treated you too poorly, Ms. Primrose. I had no idea the staff here were so vile.” He said. Prim once again felt a little warmth, looking into Falkshire's kindly eyes.
  452.  
  453. “Oh, nothing I haven't suffered before, sire.”
  454.  
  455. “I'm beginning to wonder how much ill treatment you're subjected to, Ms. Primrose.” Sir Falkshire turned as a weaselly looking man entered the holding room, who bore a striking resemblance to the fellow depicted on the busts in the main hall. The knight put his arm around the slight man's shoulders and pulled him to one side, having a hushed conversation. Prim, however much she would have liked to pry, began to wonder exactly how knowledgeable Sir Falkshire was concerning how ratfolk were treated.
  456. Was it ignorance? He had so clearly known about her attempts to locate the donation box, and seemed to know of the connection it had with the raothaar. Surely he couldn't be blind to the plight of her people.
  457.  
  458. The slim and snooty man, who Prim now assumed was the owner, walked around Falkshire and approached her. She looked him over; a wiry moustache and neatly tapered sideburns seemed to be more of an attempt to cover for his narrow chin, beady eyes and hunched shoulders. He was little more than the antithesis of Sir Falkshire strong and noble bearing.
  459.  
  460. “Ms. Primrose, I can only offer my sincerest apologies for the rude, mean spirited, vile-”
  461.  
  462. “Racist.” Primrose said through clenched teeth. The owner remained still, with his mouth frozen, agape. “And don't you DARE deny it.”
  463.  
  464. “T-that would... I... to call my staff such a thing!” The owner cleared his throat and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. “To imply we would treat any citizen of the crown any differently would make us seem treasonous to her decree and that simply isn't the case, Ms. Primrose!”
  465. Prim felt her muscles flinch as the gathering strain and fury, both from that morning and her life in full, boiled over.
  466.  
  467. “Just give me my lile before I throw up, you pathetic, milquetoast, dunderheaded, fussbudget, mollycoddled, *vaklith, meotuashir* pig!!” Primrose screamed, bared her teeth and felt her hand grasp the worn wood of her blade's grip. Every cynical thought that had sent her to steal from Hitherby church played over her mind; why she went there, why she had been so desperate and all she could think of was everything that had been taken from her.
  468. Antoine wouldn't like seeing her like this, and she felt her heart slow its relentless rhythm as she carried the memories of him to soothe the fire inside her.
  469. “I... I'm sorry.” She said, but not towards the owner. “Please, can we just conclude this unsavoury business and I shall be on my way.”
  470.  
  471. Prim largely kept to herself, ears flat and ashamed, simply following the two wealthy humans back out into the main hall. Falkshire took care of the rest as the owner threw wasted platitudes alongside the lile owed as well as some trinkets as an apology; a modern pen, a quartz cube paperweight with a gouge drilled through it to rest said pen, a few bottles of ink and access to a safety deposit box, complete with a little key. These items would usually have Prim's mind spinning with trickery she could indulge in were she not fighting off the clouds in her heart.
  472. 'It's only natural, having indulged in Noran's wrath or Kasta's docility for so long, that one becomes engorged upon their sustenance and sickened' Father Cathrop told her a long time ago. She thought she was past the worst of it. Prim was wrong, as usual.
  473.  
  474. “… Primrose?”
  475.  
  476. “Huh?” She realised she was outside the bank. Sir Falkshire was looking down at her, deeply concerned.
  477.  
  478. “I asked if you were alright, Ms. Primrose. You haven't been yourself since you soundly, and justly I might add, gave Mr. Carwallick a firm dressing down.”
  479.  
  480. “Just some... old demons, sire. Unpleasant places that it seems I have to walk every day.”
  481.  
  482. “Well, if it pleases you, and I was planning to wait until my next auction to go over this with you, but I have a proposition that might cheer you up. Let's head to my estate and we can discuss the terms on the way, in privacy.” Falkshire gestured to a horse-drawn carriage parked across the street, complete with one of his better dressed guards in the drivers seat. Prim, instead, noticed a hound-mistress walking towards them. Prim felt her heart resume its ear-filling rhythm as her eyes focused on the mastiff once more.
  483.  
  484. “Fair morning to you, sir. Are you having any trouble with this miscreant?” She said.
  485.  
  486. “Why should there be any trouble?” The knight responded with a steely grimace, causing the constable to tense up.
  487.  
  488. “Sire?” Prim interjected. “I've had quite enough for one day. Can we just leave?” Falkshire looked at her for a moment, then again at the blueback.
  489.  
  490. “What's your number, constable?” The knight approached the hound-mistress with such presence that even the mastiff cowered behind its master. “And might I remind you that lying to Her Majesty's knights is considered punishable by flogging and, for both the military and constabulary, exile?”
  491.  
  492. “Ten-nine-one, Sir Falkshire!”
  493.  
  494. “Words will be had, hound-mistress. I'm becoming quite concerned there's a sickness in this city if you go around judging the citizenry with open contempt. I suggest you have a good look at yourself in the mirror and ask if you're really a servant of the people, as you swore you were when you took your oaths!” The knight gestured for Prim to follow, and they both climbed into his carriage as the constable petted her mastiff with a flat expression.
  495.  
  496. The interior was predictably luxurious, in the same deep green colours of Falkshire's estate. Prim felt uncomfortable to be in such close proximity to the knight, alone, but he had once again proven to be an ally. He sat and smiled at her as she hesitated, checking to see if she was covered in any stains or dust that she might get on his upholstery, but the knight simply nodded and gestured for her to sit.
  497. No sooner than she sat down, Falkshire knocked on the wall behind him, and with a snap of the reins, the carriage began to roll. He leaned forward and clasped his hands as the carriage rocked and shook from the rough roads.
  498.  
  499. “Are you sure you're alright, Ms. Primrose? After the exuberant and cocksure demeanour you demonstrated when we last met I would say you don't seem yourself.”
  500.  
  501. “Sir Falkshire-” Prim watched Falkshire raise a hand and give a light chuckle.
  502.  
  503. “Please, we can dispense with the pleasantries. I'm hoping we can have a long and fruitful relationship. Call me Jacob.”
  504.  
  505. “Fine, just Primrose, or Prim. Si-... Jacob.” Prim clutched her hands and tried to collect her thoughts, “can I just ask exactly what you know about what happened today?”
  506.  
  507. “Bigotry, and in sickening amounts. I admit, I deal with so few of your people that if these are commonalities, then I wish I had approached you sooner.”
  508.  
  509. “I will confess today was worse than normal, but yes.”
  510.  
  511. “I trust there's some cause? I had nothing but praise for the raothaar volunteers during the Vliechov invasion six years ago.” Prim perked up as Jacob looked out of the carriage window, revisiting his past.
  512.  
  513. “I'm aware my people in this land haven't been the most steadfast when it came to the invasion, but that's in our dogma; we aren't fighters, so we would rather withdraw when faced with a threat and not cornered. My people left a few villages to fend for themselves rather than getting stuck in, all except the volunteers...” Prim paused for a moment, her tail twitching against her ankle. “I don't suppose you knew Antoine Cathrop?”
  514.  
  515. “I do; a bit of a hero, that one!” Jacob grinned and scratched his clean shaven, chiselled jaw. “Yes, young fellow, untouchable in a fight. I remember him well; I've never seen a man with such skill with a shield. There were rumours that he was hiding behind his fellows since he kept returning from protecting our most vulnerable towns and villages with nary a scratch, but I sent one of my scouts to watch things and that certainly put an end to that falsehood. He could fight four men at once and come out the easy victor!”
  516. Prim couldn't help but feel a little smile push through her dark mood.
  517. “I trust by that smile that you know the man?”
  518.  
  519. “Yes, I... forget about it.” Prim cleared her throat. “Uh, but as I was saying, my people were always at odds because of our faith, but it's become worse in the last few years. Now that we're confined to a street and barely hanging on, I suppose we're now paying for our ways.” Prim's expression sank for a moment before a wry grin formed.
  520. “So, anyway, to change the subject; what was this about a relationship and a proposition? I should let you know, I don't come cheap. I'm a private contractor, so I don't belong to any bordello, house of ill repute or cunny-warren.”
  521.  
  522. Jacob's face flushed and he raised his hands.
  523. “On St. Phoebe's silken hair, I swear that was not my intent, Primrose. I apologise. No, I wanted to offer you gainful employment and I wish to donate to the Hitherby restoration fund as part of the deal.”
  524.  
  525. “It still sounds like 'sword polishing' from where I'm sitting, Jacob.” Prim briefly flicked her eyes between his legs then winked at him.
  526.  
  527. “I-I... oh, you insufferable tease.” The pair shared a laugh before Prim gestured for him to continue. “After your antics at my estate, I have need of... let's give it the moniker of counterspy? I'm aware you purloined a few items but they weren't the first, and as much as I respect my men, they weren't exactly ready for the city's most cunning. I could use your keen senses and knowledge to brief my men and act as security. In exchange, I can offer you ten lile a day for your own pocket and a hundred per full week to the Hitherby fund.”
  528. Prim felt her jaw drop at the numbers, but her years of cynicism took over.
  529.  
  530. “You could hire a team for that sort of coin, sire.” Prim said, relaxing into the plush seating. “The Four-Sails guild are known for their trap and lock specialists and I know from experience fifty lile would have one of their number locate and secure any points of entry. Be frank with me; why me and why the raothaar? Not to say I don't deeply appreciate the offer, because I want to believe you are a decent man, but this doesn't add up.”
  531. Jacob nodded and looked at his feet, clasping his fingers together and leaned forward, elbow to knee. The mood grew dour once more and even the carriage seemed to jostle about less.
  532.  
  533. “I'm aware of the Kasta and Noran's prophecy of the found and chosen. I was aware of it before I even knew it was from the Sibling Lords... I should explain, because I feel it will both explain much and prove my honesty. So, a year ago...” He leaned back and rested his hands on his lap, taking a deep breath through his nose.
  534.  
  535. * * *
  536.  
  537. “M'lord, your sister is calling for you.” Jasper said through the door. He was a good man; he'd protected Jacob's back during the battle of Tethral's Pass and lost a hand for his trouble. Even then he refused to stay at camp, having had someone fashion a custom strap so he could still use a shield and finished the campaign. Of course Jacob was going to make sure he was looked after and gave him a position at the Falkshire estate, but he always was such a worry-wort.
  538. Jacob winced at his thoughts; that was unkind. She's in constant pain and Jasper's always been an empathetic soul. The knight sighed and stood from his desk, having finished the cataloguing for the next auction.
  539.  
  540. Jacob left his room and let his eyes adjust to the darker corridor. The wall mounted clock's ticking silenced what little sound emitted from his footfalls on the plush carpet, and saw it was five o'Clock. He turned and closed the door, then faced Jasper, a red haired man with hazel eyes and a cleft nostril, the scar of which ran all the way up to his brow, barely missing his left eye.
  541. “Well, that's convenient.” Jacob said.
  542.  
  543. “Sir?”
  544.  
  545. “Just in time for her next dosage. Jasper, you wouldn't go and fetch the syringe and opium, please?”
  546.  
  547. “Of course, sir.” Jasper nodded as Jacob patted him on the shoulder and headed down the hall. The sound of low, strained moans penetrated the sturdy wooden door at the end. It was a horrible feeling; he was aware that he had become numb to her calls and felt little about his sister's ailment, even though he should feel something. Jacob supposed he had become hardened after three wars, but it didn't make him feel any better for it. He opened the door and walked through.
  548.  
  549. Inside, on a large bed, the sheets twisted around her legs and blankets strewn beside her like wings growing from her back, was a woman with the same fair hair as Jacob's own, which clinged to her sweat-soaked brow as she slowly writhed. Ten years younger than his forty, yet her face looked wizened and wrinkled from the strain of her condition, a nerve disease that came and went but never this bad or for this long. Jacob had sent for healers and physicians from all over the country, yet none of them could find a root cause, leaving them with the solitary option of simply helping her cope with the pain.
  550. “I've sent for the medicine, Tabitha, keep strong for me.” Jacob said as he pulled a chair beside his frail sister and sat down, gently taking her hand in his. “I dare say we may have to administer more frequent doses.”
  551.  
  552. “Nnngh... Jacoby,” she grunted, holding her hand across her face, “you have to listen! Something... something's coming!”
  553.  
  554. “Tabby, you know hallucinate sometimes, we've been over this. You're safe here, he can't hurt you any more.” Jacob bit his lip; curse her husband! The fiend deserved more than being hanged. For every night for a month after his death, Jacob prayed to St. Gareg to bring the bastard back so he could run him through personally, slowly, painfully. His own vows and oaths stopped him then and he regretted it ever since.
  555. A charming snake of a man with a taste for pursuing the wives of others and, more tellingly, their young daughters. Any time Tabitha questioned where he went, he beat her and threatened her into concealing it. Tabitha finally broke and came clean after a miscarriage and Jacob insisted on staying with her for a few weeks and caught him in the act of slapping her.
  556. The only solace Jacob had was that he fractured the scoundrel's skull when he brought him in, driving his face into the cell door before the guard could open it after dragging him by rope across the city's streets to the prison. Frustratingly, Tabitha's emotional and physical abuses weren't the cause of her condition, as at least that would have given Jacob a sense of justice in seeing the bastard hang, but he certainly didn't get her the help she needed when the symptoms started.
  557.  
  558. Jasper entered the room with a metal tray, handing it to Jacob. A metal syringe with a glass measuring gauge, a leather tourniquet and a corked bottle sat on top of it. The knight tied the strap around her arm then filled the syringe, and after testing the flow with a squirt, he moved the needle towards one of the prominent veins on her inner elbow.
  559. Tabitha then grabbed his wrist with a firm strength he never thought she was capable of. He could have overpowered her, but the needle was a hairs breadth from her arm, and his strength was further robbed by the intense clarity in her eyes.
  560.  
  561. “Her chosen has been taken into Valarie's embrace! Home of body and spirit has burned! They could all see in the depths of night! You will find her by the unmarked box! Jacoby, please! Help Their people find salvation! It's the onl- aah!”
  562. Tabitha released Jacoby's hand only to clutch at her chest, her eyes bulging.
  563.  
  564. * * *
  565.  
  566. “... her heart stopped after that. Her pain was finally at an end and she could go calmly into St. Gareg's embrace.” Jacob smiled, trying to mask the sorrow in his eyes. “Those words were burned into my mind, so here we are. Tabitha was no oracle or soothsayer but her hallucinations were... ordered, structured and lucid, as if she could see things beyond mortal scope. I believe that by helping you and your people, I can both do an overdue kindness to the raothaar and potentially save many lives.”
  567.  
  568. “I'm sorry for your loss.” Primrose replied. “There seems to be plenty of that going around. I... I accept your deal, Jacob, and thank you. Thank you for helping my people.” The pair shook hands.
  569.  
  570. “I'm glad.” Jacob said. “I'll do everything in my power to secure whatever form this salvation takes, but I could use some information about the prophecy. When my sister told me, I spent some time searching for anything she was referring to and most lead to mentions of the Sibling Lords, but little else. Several books had been bought or stolen by someone, but nobody was willing to say who it was.”
  571.  
  572. “Gathard. A friend of mine told me he's been seeking artefacts of my people and burning them. As for the prophecy though...” Prim recanted the Sibling prophecy word for word as Jacob palmed his chin, nodding.
  573.  
  574. “Well, a lot of that fits the bill.” Jacob looked out of the window as his mind roamed. “This self-titled emperor from Vliechov taking over, yet you never hear of any battles or rampages like most dragons when they get uppity. The troubles from Ardentiphe, as the two strongest nations finally set their differences aside because of unnatural creatures sacking the neutral city-state, and even I remember Hitherby burning and the starless, moonless night where the sky glowed blue. The only two I'm not sure of are the chosen and the found.”
  575.  
  576. “Antoine... he was Kasta's chosen.” Prim sucked in a deep breath and her eyes grew wet. “H-he was my husband... claimed by the sea on his voyage to help bring prisoners home from Vliechov after the war ended.”
  577.  
  578. “Oh... My sincerest condolences. I can only reiterate that he was a man of peerless strength, courage and character. I... don't suppose that makes you Noran's chosen? Or found, was it?”
  579.  
  580. “Don't be foolish, Jacob. Just as Kasta's chosen was a raothaar who could not be sullied by wound or illness, Noran's found was said to be someone of impossible skill. They are said to be able to defeat any foe, no matter how tough, enter any room, however guarded, and climb any wall, however unassailable. I... I lost a fight against a drunkard with a shard of glass.”
  581.  
  582. “I find it curious you didn't provide his name when you attended the auction though. Being the widow Cathrop would have certainly given my men cause to treat you with respect.”
  583.  
  584. “And sully his name with my underhanded acts?” Prim scowled. “No, I gave up the Cathrop name when I undertook this hunt, this... trial. I will do anything and everything necessary to seek salvation for the raothaar, but I will not have anyone speak of Antoine as anything but a hero. If that means dying for my cause in obscurity, then so be it. It's all I've ever deserved anyway.
  585. “He saved me from a pathetic life of despondency, roaming the streets alone, fighting for scraps, stealing and... and killing just to survive! He gave me purpose, a home, a true reason to live! He saved my life even when I threatened him harm...” Prim's hands shook, tears flowed from her eyes and her voice cracked.
  586. “Why did he have to die!?”
  587.  
  588. The carriage came to a stop at the Falkshire estate and the driver dismounted, opening the door. He paused and closed it again and stood patiently to one side.
  589. Inside, Jacob held Primrose in his arms as she wept into his chest. It was not a gentle weeping, as she shuddered and Prim heaved erratic breaths until her throat was raw and her lungs ached. It was as if it had happened just a day ago, but for the survivor who finally had a chance to live, the plummet back into the old ways had always rested on Antoine's shoulders.
  590. Without him, Prim once more felt herself slipping into the dark and the anger, feeling comfort in the strong arms around her.
  591.  
  592. * * * *
  593.  
  594.  
  595. Chapter 3: Worth
  596.  
  597. “Here you go,” Jacob said, handing a beautifully sculpted mug to Prim before sitting down in the office of the knight's estate. The fur on her cheeks was still wet from the tears but she had calmed a great deal, the grief having now been supplanted by shame. Most steps of her life had been an exercise in restraint; from the orphanage, doubling as a school for proper ladies where shows of emotion earned the swipe of a riding crop on one's wrist, to acting the remorseless and hard nosed rogue to show no weakness in like-minded company and finally the centre of moral strength as a nun, listening and advising others in a various states of distress.
  598. Prim sighed and sniffed at the mug; a 'hot toddy' by what she'd seen in the preparation, and sipped it. Warmth from a mix of hot tea and good whiskey, tempered with the fragrant leaves themselves floating in a muslin pouch and a sweet edge from rich honey complete with a cutting citrus spin with a edge of lemon. It reminded her of the honeyed tea she had the first time meeting the Cathrop's on that fateful bungled attempt to steal from the church, and had she not already broken down once today, she would likely have wept again from the memory.
  599. Instead, as Prim always did, she downed the drink in a few hard gulps and sighed again, although from relief. She realised it was likely a bad idea to guzzle alcohol before midday, but she was secretly hoping for a refill after the morning's disastrous events. She couldn't help but eye the room of its worth, her gaze meandering before finally finishing on the whiskey decanter but decided against asking for more.
  600. The room was notably functional compared to the rest of the estate, rather like Jacob himself; while still largely decorated in greens, he had little in the way of the finery the rest of his house displayed, although Prim knew a few people who would pay a good eight hundred lile for the wax seal stamp and embossed papers on Jacob's desk.
  601.  
  602. “Thank you, Jacob. I'm sorry you had to see me like that.” Prim went to place the mug down on the desk, then noticed a pewter coaster and reached over to it. “Here we are, discussing my employment as an important part of the protection of your estate and I go and act like a complete fool.”
  603.  
  604. “It's no worry, Primrose.” Jacob opened a couple of drawers behind his desk, producing a written page and an envelope. Prim sat upright on the chair peering at the official looking document, noticed Jacob looking at her, and cleared her throat as she stared at the window and hoped he hadn't noticed her attempts to read it.
  605. “I only just had this finished yesterday, but I wasn't expecting to see you again for another month. Your contract, Primrose; you'll excuse me if it seems like I don't trust you, but considering you may be throwing blame and accusations at my men and guests, it's a good idea to make sure you have a place of authority. Once you're in my employ, you can arrest others in the name of the crown.”
  606. He turned the page to face Primrose and pushed it to her, then a quill and ink.
  607.  
  608. Despite her growing trust she read through the page diligently. It was a verbose yet nothing seemed repetitious, consisting largely about the powers she would be given and juxtaposed with a list of severe punishments to be enacted out if she were to break the law. At this point, after so many years being beneath the heel of the constabulary, she preferred her chances with Jacob; a new sense of purpose would certainly help take her mind off of things, but one lurking issue remained; her mission.
  609. “You said you knew where another of the Sibling's relics could be found?” Prim fiddled with the quill.
  610.  
  611. “Yes. I have a uncle who lives out in Hakesfield forest; Brigadier Isaac Randell. He's an avid fan of hunting as well as a collector of the strange and unusual.” Jacob stood and moved to a tall bookcase, running a trailing finger over a few volumes before pulling one free. He returned to the table and opened it, exposing a bookmark of braided leather, and placed it on the desk beside Prim's contract.
  612. The pages depicted rare books, from unfinished works of deceased authors and even kobold journals from Vliechov, but one stood out; Prim recognised the cover as the very same wooden squares as the donation box was crafted from, complete with lines and grooves carved throughout, bound in thick cord.
  613. “Sadly, he's out of the county right now and he keeps his collection in a well guarded vault, just in case you get any ideas,” Jacob said, grinning at Primrose, who rolled her eyes as he continued, “he's back in a and a week month and he always invites me to one of his gaudy functions with some of the other nobles he knew in his naval days.
  614. “Anyway, in regards to that,” Jacob gestured to the book in front of Prim, saying, “by all accounts its was a book of stories for children, written in raothaaric. My cousin spent a fair amount of lile on recovering it from a collector. Then the damned fool left it unattended and one of his serfs threw it in with the firewood. It was only the morning after that they found the cover and cord binding, unscathed.”
  615.  
  616. Prim's ears flicked up.
  617. “Incredible. It really must be the same material as the donation box.” Then her ears drooped again. “It's still a shame about the stories, it would have been a true pleasure to try and translate them. There's so little of my people's written language left and most simply never learn to read, let alone speak it.”
  618.  
  619. “I didn't even know anyone knew the language, although you have said a few words in anger. I assumed it's was akin to the typical soldier and their knowledge of Vlieden; greetings, farewells and cussing.”
  620.  
  621. “Ey, vraid seetan, posoun-torad, Jacob. Jan harli raothaar harliti.” Prim's tone was smooth and confident before finishing with a smile, “or; yes, quite well, if I don't say so myself. I speak the many-folk tongue.”
  622.  
  623. Jacob chuckled softly back, saying “so I see. Formal education?”
  624.  
  625. “Madam Henswick's orphanage, which was also a school for proper raothaar ladies before she passed away. It was her honest belief that our people were on the societal rise, so we were trained to be the smart, skilled and well spoken. Oh, and before you ask, it's finhi, johel and you're already familiar with vaklith.”
  626. Jacob tilted his head and shrugged.
  627. “That's hello, goodbye and shit-sucking, a derivative of bottom-feeder, like one would describe a fish.” Prim tittered. With the morning all but forgotten with their banter calming her fully, she took the quill, gently tapped the tip on the neck of the bottle to remove the excess, and signed her name on the contract. She then stood and saluted.
  628. “Okay, sir. Where do you want me?”
  629.  
  630. Jacob stood to attention, snapping his heels together, an arm across his chest, a fist over his heart, and bowed his head.
  631. “At ease, Agent Primrose,” he said, then laughed. “You can save the official tone when in company. As for your first task, as you've brought it to my attention, I want you to look into who's been replacing the stones in my jewellery displays. But before that, I wanted to know something.
  632. “Exactly what did you do on the day of the auction?”
  633.  
  634. * * *
  635.  
  636. “So let me get this straight,” said one of the guards, “you hid those trays between your tits?”
  637. One of the others elbowed him in the ribs, chiding him with, “oi, don't be vulgar!”
  638.  
  639. “It's fine. Yes, sir, I did,” Primrose responded, arms akimbo. She didn't respond beyond indifference but swung her hips from one side to the other. Three of the guards were blushing, several others sheepishly looked at the floor and one grinned, looking the ratfolk up and down and smoothing his moustache.
  640. “See, this is why it was so easy.” Prim sighed and paced back and forth, her eyes meeting Jacob's who, while also looking a bit embarrassed, was holding back from laughing.
  641. Prim continued, “you all seem a bit too prudish; people who truly want to steal will use anything, both in what they're carrying and even their bodies, but only one of you looks like he would be willing to give me a proper pat down. I know several people who are quite willing to shove valuables up their arses to hide them and most of you would be afraid of copping a feel. Speaking of which, why do you only search people on entry?”
  642.  
  643. “We watch everyone at most times, Primrose,” said another guard, “and it's mainly to prevent anyone bringing weapons and nobody reported seeing you keep any of those trays, much less stuff them down your top.” This one was a one handed man that Prim remembered from Jacob's recalling of her sister's death. Jasper. who had a strange, coiled and blunt tipped steel hook in place from his wrist.
  644.  
  645. “Well, of course not. One simply doesn't just 'stuff them down your top', and if you were listening, you would know exactly what I did.” She shook her head and sighed, exasperated. “Let me go over the process again; when I first took the trays, I put them separately in my sleeves,” Prim said, pulling said sleeves up. “Then, when I raised my arm to swing the bidding paddle around, I bounced about on the chair to help settle them into my doublet.
  646. “Then, when I went to pay, I made sure I was just short of the price by moving coin from my pouch to thin pockets lining my trousers,” she said and pulled at her patchwork leggings, revealing some of the thick stitching weren't just rough-shod repairs.
  647. “Lastly, when I had to undo my top and have a good rummage about for the extra coins, I not only discomfited the auctioneer into looking away, but it gave me a chance to secure the trays to some spring clips on my brassiere. What nature provideth, useth.”
  648. The moustachioed man looked a little eager as Prim's hand tapped at her chest, claws tracing the buttons, but he tried to hide his disappointment as her hands once more went to her hips.
  649. “Any unsightly bulges and lumps are easily padded out by the ribbons and buttons I wear, concealing not only materials hidden beneath those spots, but also giving reason to any creases and bulges since they're attached somewhat haphazardly to give the impression of pinching fabric.”
  650.  
  651. “So what about the ring? How'd you know you were gonna break the case?” A different guard this time, a bald man with a crooked nose and half of an ear missing.
  652.  
  653. “I didn't, obviously. Not every theft is planned out, but rewards are many if you keep in mind what you have on hand. I had a box that, by the auctioneers own admission, couldn't be opened of which I had the key, so in my scrambling to stand with my box I palmed a ring into the coin slot and I was unlucky that I couldn't take more. Coincidentally, when Lord Gathard apprehended me, and I turned to shove him, that was when I planted my pouch to draw attention away from me.”
  654.  
  655. “And took his pocket watch, no doubt,” Jacob added with a wry grin.
  656.  
  657. “Why, sir!” Primrose balked. “I have quite no idea what you mean.” Prim winked at him with her face turned away from the rest of the guards, though her tail wriggled in a playful way.
  658. Prim then turned back towards the guards and produced the ring she had taken. All eyes stared at it as she studied each face in the group.
  659. “Now, I know this is sudden, but as well as assisting with protecting the premises and helping you with all future auctions, I will be investigating an issue I brought to Sir Falkshire upon my recruitment. That ring may have found its way into my possession, but like a one lile harlot waiting for a disappointing client, she was fingered ahead of time.”
  660. Prim let them chuckle but once more studied their expressions.
  661. “I will be conducting an investigation. During it, I'll be talking to each of you, I will sometimes be following you, and when I am satisfied that everyone here is loyal, we can look into regular clients and see if anyone has an appropriate motive. The maids and serfs too, but they don't go near those rooms unsupervised as I understand it, so I have my doubts.”
  662.  
  663. Jasper scowled and looked down his nose at her.
  664. “Says the known thief.” He turned to Jacob, saying, “you honestly can't trust her, m'lord! What gives her words more worth than ours?” Jasper gritted his teeth, hesitating, then finally said, “you said it yourself, what your sister said before she passed-”
  665.  
  666. Jacob flinched and his body tensed up, his clothes shifting and stretching as his powerful frame seemed to swell. The same deathly glare Prim had seen him use on the hound-mistress shut Jasper's probing words down, but it softened and he ran a hand over his brow.
  667. “I appreciate your concerns, old friend, but... I trust Primrose, and I hope you will too, in time. She is a woman of good moral character who fell on hard times before and now by working for me, she hopes to rise above them.“
  668. “As for what Tabitha said,” he sighed, then continued, “I believe in my heart that there are dark times ahead and, The Six willing, we will all be making it through them, but the time for distrust is over. I assure you all that Primrose is only investigating all of you to help her understand how we run the estate and the auctions, and I'm sure the falsified ring is a result of some opportunistic filth of whom we invited into our home and they outwitted us all. This will not happen again.”
  669. Jacob walked over to Prim, putting a hand over her shoulder. She hoped the other guards weren't familiar with the reddening of her long, round ears as she blushed.
  670. “In time I hope to expand the business into Hitherby, to add more of the raothaar on as workers, with all of us working together as one community and to lead by example as one people. The Falkshire Estate will show everyone that Primrose's people need but a helping hand to realise that they are as a part of us as we should be to them. We will, in turn, show them that by joining with humanity, they won't need to run. Not again.
  671. “Bralran has survived this long against Vliechov, two hundred years of bloody skirmishes against a vicious conqueror, thanks to a just and noble royal line backed by our blood and our sweat! The late King Welden, who proclaimed that the raothaar are equal citizens. Even young Queen Ophelia, long shall she reign, follows in her fathers footsteps. Her own tutor and nurse is one of the many-folk!” He looked at Prim, who couldn't help but nod at the term, then he continued, “a woman of such immeasurable grace and kindness that she ruled as steward until Queen Ophelia was of age just two years hence.
  672. “So, I ask you, Jasper... all of you, my friends, of which each and every one of you, as I have in the past, I would put my life on the line for each of you, and know you would do the same in return. Are you with me?”
  673.  
  674. Every guard stood to attention, saluting and speaking as one.
  675. “Yes, Sir Falkshire!”
  676.  
  677. * * *
  678.  
  679. “I'm not averse to a uniform, Jasper,” Prim said, “but I'm just wondering if I could take some... creative liberties with the design.” She looked over the wide, plumed hat she had been given, as well as the stiff looking jacket and trousers that lacked a tail slit or strap, and that was ignoring that they were also far too long for her legs. The room was filled with all manner of weapons, clothes and armour arranged on mannequins, shelves and racks, both well ordered but full enough to overwhelm; Prim wondered how Jasper could find anything at all.
  680.  
  681. The red haired human shrugged and started looking over a wall display filled with sheathed swords, from huge, six foot, two handed claymores, full length longswords, basket hilted broadswords all the way to exotic, curved shamshirs from Ardentiphe, the sort of fancy weapon Prim could make an easy fifty lile with to one certain crow.
  682. “It's only for the auctions, Primrose. Everyone else wears them, and you get the fancy stuff anyway since you're being classed as a specialist. You can get them fitted tomorrow, Sir Falkshire owns one of the finest tailors in Isfield row. Now hurry up, we're sparring until it gets dark.”
  683.  
  684. “And that's another thing; I'm more of a fend off and flee sort. Hardly soldier material.”
  685.  
  686. “If you're working for Sir Falkshire, you have to learn to fight. We've been winners of the city tourney six years in a row and everyone pulls their weight. We certainly get paid our worth in prize money.” Jasper picked out a narrow arming sword and added it to Primrose's growing pile of official equipment.
  687.  
  688. “The buggering contract never said anything about tourneys,” Primrose grumbled and pouted.
  689.  
  690. “Guess you didn't read the part that clearly says 'attendance of all functions, within and without'? That means the Lords Arms Tournament, and that's in three months. You'll pick it up; if you've been in a fight and lived, which is the way Sir Falkshire tells it you have, then you've got more experience than half the mercenaries the lords throw a handful of lile at. Just keep back and let us take the brunt. Besides, it's all blunted weapons and the referees are quick to penalise anyone going too heavy handed.”
  691.  
  692. “I'm fairly sure most of these lile handful brigands also outweigh me twice over and have two foot of height on me as well.”
  693.  
  694. “Like I said, just sit back and get stuck in when you see an opening. Now, go put your things in your room then meet us in the yard.” Jasper picked up a scuffed but sturdy heater shield, with an odd arrangement of straps Prim noted, and left her on her own.
  695.  
  696. She followed him out and hurried along to her room; Prim had told Jacob she had no problem sleeping with the other men in the bunk-room, but both agreed that since she would be investigating them, she had best keep herself safe until all suspicions were cast outside the estate. It was a luxurious room, at least by Prim's estimations, bigger than her bedroom and she would be returning to Father Cathrop's shop on the weekends.
  697. Hitherby, or she supposed Patterfield Road, was still her home, but deep down she was glad for a change of scenery, and even more glad for the work as a chance to demonstrate her worth. Even as someone who loathed fighting, owing to her lack of training or inherent skill, she looked at the sword on the pile and nodded to herself.
  698. Placing her new uniform on her bed, she left for the back yard, only to pause when she looked at the far end of the corridor. A door down the hall from Falkshire's office, beyond the clock on the wall.
  699. Tabitha's room.
  700. Curiosity took hold, and she eyed the door handle, identifying the lock brand and picturing the tumblers inside, but then Jacob's kindness and understanding quelled the urge to investigate and she proceeded down the stairs.
  701.  
  702. The guards were all outside, all dressed in basic clothes and wielding wooden poles swathed in padding, gathered near a sand circle housed within a shallow brick wall. Jacob walked to her, handing her an arming sword-sized pole, which she took and took a few practice swings.
  703.  
  704. “Can I just reiterate, sire,” Prim said, nibbling her lip, “that I really don't think I'll be much good at this.”
  705.  
  706. “Relax, we'll be taking it slow and easy. More than anything, I'm intrigued to see someone used to fending for herself on the streets handles themselves when they aren't fighting for their lives. Bernard, you first.”
  707.  
  708. The man with the moustache stepped into a circle of bricks and while Prim approached, the old fears flared up before she stepped in.
  709.  
  710. “Eyup, there Primrose. It's alright, see, I don't bite.” Bernard said with a honest looking smile and an accent strong with a North Bralran twang, probably from Elquay or Creshward.
  711. Prim hopped over the wall and stood opposite Bernard.
  712.  
  713. “Alright, Primrose,” Jacob said as the other guards stood at the ring's edge, “this is just warming up. The actual fighting is three rounds set over the evening and we cycle combatants every day as sort of a tournament. The winner of each week gets a bonus, and more straight forward drills every other week, but on All-drakesday I fight the victor for triple or nothing.”
  714.  
  715. “Oh. Has anyone actually won that?” Primrose couldn't help but feel it was impossible; the old stories about knights always painted them as capable of taking on whole squads at once.
  716.  
  717. “Aye, on occasion. Makes it worth t'while,” Bernard chuckled as he limbered up.
  718.  
  719. Prim hopped about, making more practice swings before changed to jogging on the spot while facing away, trying to calm her nerves.
  720.  
  721. “Take your places when ready.” Jacob called out after a few minutes. Prim held her weapon as she always did; pointy end sticking at her foe and hoping her speed and reflexes both would suffice. Bernard had his guard low, training sword pointed to the ground; it didn't look especially sturdy.
  722. “Ready?” Jacob raised his hand, then swung it, calling, “go!”
  723.  
  724. With a deft swipe of his 'sword' he knocked her stiff armed guard away and tapped her gently on the nose for her trouble, making Prim cough, sniffle and her eyes water.
  725.  
  726. “You're a smaller opponent, Primrose,” Falkshire called out, “and you're not as strong as him, so don't act like it's a fair fight either.” Jacob raised his hands again as the two combatants took their places again.
  727. “Go!”
  728.  
  729. Prim flinched, hopping side to side, but Bernard just studied her.
  730. “'ows about you take the first swing? Won't be much fun if ye don't get a go.”
  731.  
  732. “Don't patronise me, Mr. Bernard, just fi-” Prim finished her sentence with a wild lunge, which while it caught Bernard by surprise, he turned his body and deflected Prim's strike and let her run into him before resting his training sword on her shoulder as she staggered back.
  733. Another reset, her weapon batted away as if held by a child and a trip into the sand.
  734. Yet one more attempt. A series of swings batted back until Bernard's final parry struck her wrist hard enough for her to drop her sword.
  735. And another. Twice more. A light tap on the snout after what she felt was a foolproof feint.
  736.  
  737. “Oh, vak... buttocks and barn doors!” Prim threw her weapon on the ground and started to storm off, but Jacob intercepted, taking a knee and placing a hand on her shoulder again. Anger kept her from blushing, but she calmed all the same at his touch.
  738.  
  739. “Easy, Prim. Calm now. You shouldn't be taking this seriously. This is just about knowing how I can train you, nothing more. Just do your best.”
  740.  
  741. “My best is worthless!” Prim stared at the ground, mired in her worst once more.
  742.  
  743. “Men, practice amongst yourselves for a bit,” Jacob called out to the guards then turned to her and calmed his voice, saying, “Primrose, let's take a walk.”
  744. Glad to be away from the others, Jacob lead them both from the training yard and through a set of grand gates to a small field of wild flowers, about fifty feet squared, unkempt yet beautiful but isolated from the city; the rooftops of the local buildings were visible just over a brick wall that surrounded the area. The pale blooms were still and calm, protected from the breeze, but the breath was caught in Prim's throat all the same; whites, blues and pinks were scattered about as an ocean of colour.
  745. “This was a public park, once upon a time.” Jacob said, and proving the fact by sitting on an old park bench judging by the worn wood, but the metal frame had been recently painted.
  746.  
  747. “It's really quite something, although I suppose you expect me to ask why you have a public park as your back garden.” Prim said, walking over and sitting on the far end. She shuffled about to get comfortable, not noticing she had moved a bit nearer to him.
  748.  
  749. “It started with my parents buying the land as a memorial to my grandmother seventeen years ago and it was converted into the Meribeth Falkshire Memorial park. My current estate was once a library, in fact; people would read and muse about stories and history whilst looking out over this beauteous scene just out the window. Of course, being a public garden, locals would sometimes leave a mess, but most folk wanted to maintain the garden.
  750. “One day a couple of local gangs decided they would settle their disputes here, and the park was a bloodbath. The constabulary cordoned off the park every other day, nobody wanted to attend the library and donations dried up, people were understandably afraid to come here, even if most of the violence occurred at night.”
  751.  
  752. “I remember hearing about that from the bellman when I was on the streets,” Prim mused. “The Sitchward Jackdaws and the Raddleman Pipers, no? I seem to remember they were disbanded.”
  753.  
  754. “Yes, their ongoing feud soon drew the ire of Captain Plywell and he cracked down on the district, but the damage was done; the fiends tore the grounds to pieces, the flowers trampled, bodies were strewn all over and blood stained the footpaths. Some volunteers tried to get it back into a good state of repair, but local drunks found it a quiet enough place to sleep for the night and every time someone planted some new flowers, the glass bottles, vomit and worse would spoil it. Eventually it was just a pile of dirt and an old, broken down library.”
  755.  
  756. “You wouldn't be able to tell; it's so pretty now. How did you manage it?”
  757.  
  758. “Sometimes for something to recover, it needs time to heal under protection or guidance. You wouldn't ask a wounded man to keep fighting unless you were desperate. You set him up in bed, you clean and dress his wounds, you keep him well fed and let them take control back of their lives when they're ready. I bought the library and used my family deed to the park to wall it all off and I've had my people nurse it back to what it is now, and I fully intend to open this garden again at some point, but I want to do so in a gradual, controlled way while keeping an eye on it.”
  759.  
  760. Prim looked at Jacob for a few seconds, wondering what the moral of the story was before mouthing 'oh' as she realised.
  761. “I'm the garden, aren't I?” Primrose fiddled with her fingers at the attention, then gave a low laugh, saying, “or rather I'm the pile of dirt smothered in vomit and bottles.”
  762.  
  763. Jacob chortled with her for a few seconds before turning serious once more.
  764. “I've seen people broken with grief. I've seen wives, mothers, sisters, brothers and sons utterly shatter from losing their partners, parents and siblings. I can't say I've been luckier than others; I've had people dear to me pass before their time, both related by blood and not. Tabitha was the first one that gave me a purpose as she passed and I see it as a blessing from St. Gareg, as the beginning and the end, to show me what I must do, how to use the loss as a means to do good. I know little about what the Saints, or your Sibling Lords want of me, of us, but I know one thing.”
  765. Jacob turned and looked Prim in the eyes, and they held their gaze for a time.
  766. He finally nodded, saying, “while you don't believe you're Noran's chosen, and I certainly can't say either way myself, you're tied to this prophecy. Inextricably so, and with The Six and Siblings as my witnesses, I will do everything in my power to make you as strong as you can become,” he smiled and winked, finishing with, “if that means getting dirty on my hands and knees, then so be it.”
  767.  
  768. Primrose looked at her clawed feet and listened to the distant bustle of the city. She wasn't sure she had strength, or worthwhile skills, or a purpose. What she did have were people depending on her, and now a man as grand as Jacoby Falkshire was focused on making her as good as she could be, her temper-tantrum in the fighting ring seemed utterly pathetic. Primrose stood and smoothed the fur on her muzzle, and cleared her throat.
  769. “I'll take whatever help you can offer, sire. You're right... it's not about what I want, it's about what's needed. I need you to make me someone of worth, no matter how much I grumble.”
  770.  
  771. Jacob's warm smile made her blush again, and he stood, rolling his heavy shoulders.
  772. “You're priceless anyway, but aye; let's earn some bruises.”
  773.  
  774. “And plenty of dirt, Jacob! Never enough dirt,” Primrose said as the pair walked back to the training circle.
  775.  
  776. * * *
  777.  
  778. Primrose was aching all over, within from exertion and without from the bumps and bruises as she entered her bedroom. At least thirty solid strikes of padded poles had struck with enough force to leave tender spots and a rather ugly mark on top of her hand, but she'd given them a few strikes back. Well, a couple. One would have certainly have needed a bandage, were her sword real.
  779. All fights she had been party to in her life were short, bloody affairs and she seldom stuck around without good reason, but having spent five hours of drills and sparring was a new experience. Her fur was still a little wet from bathing and finally away from prying eyes, she got undressed to her small-clothes and dragged herself into bed.
  780. Only one day in, Prim was already glad for a set routine and even specific clothing. It was already familiar, the act of falling in line and doing as expected, and she couldn't help but think about the last time she had felt this way as sleep found her as she stroked her shoulder, remembering the feel of his hand.
  781.  
  782. * * *
  783.  
  784. “I look bloody ridiculous.” Prim glowered at the large robe and scapular around her shoulders in the mirror before she tugged at the hood on her head that completed her nun's habit. She was even wearing shoes, which she hadn't done since she was in the orphanage, usually making do with strips of cloth wrapping to protect her feet instead. The new, soft leather was tight and uncomfortable, and she anticipated blisters before the day was out. Prim rubbed the sleep from her eyes and blinked at a nearby window; the dawn finally approaching.
  785.  
  786. “You will grow used to it, my child.” Father Cathrop chuckled, placing a stack of old, dog-eared books on the cabinet beside Prim. “Or perhaps Sister Primrose would be more appropriate? You look natural in it, if you don't mind my saying so.”
  787. Just as overdressed as Primrose felt, Father Cathrop was clad in a full suit which, while well worn, was perfectly clean and immaculate in its fit, as if the old fellow was born in it or it was attached to his fur. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and lifted the Sibling Lords symbol hanging from his neck and set about polishing the already pristine silver pendant.
  788.  
  789. “I can't say I honestly care for much of this,” Prim said and tugged at her collar for the fifth time, “but I said I'd join you, so here I am. What do you want me to do?”
  790.  
  791. “First I wish for you to place the hymn sheets on the back of each pew. Er, those are the benches-”
  792.  
  793. “I know what a pew is, old man-” Prim tutted and rolled her eyes as Cathrop cleared his throat loudly, “... Father Cathrop. I know I currently look like an imbecile but I did go to school.”
  794.  
  795. “Of course, Sister Primrose, my apologies. I'd also like a little less self-loathing; it's unbecoming for one of the flock. Anyway, once you have distributed the sheets, I want you to sweep the interior and the path from the gate to the vestibule, then help Brother Antoine weed the cemetery. Once that's done, return here and we shall familiarise you with how we run a service.”
  796.  
  797. “Alright, sounds simple enough.” Prim left the room, passing through the church. It felt strange that it had only been two weeks since that desperate night, yet the main hall of the church had changed in its atmosphere; no longer a final objective, a path to riches, a dangerous lair, but now it felt calming, soothing, as if it was a part of her as much as she was a part of it despite the lurking darkness. Prim opened a cabinet behind the altar and collected a stack of thick papers and chicaned between the pews, slotting the prayer cards into the boxes every couple of feet before placing the last set on holders fitted to a wooden fence on the front row.
  798. Primrose then took up a broom and started sweeping. She couldn't help but wonder if this was really better than risking life and limb breaking into homes and taking what she wanted. She wasn't even getting paid for this, which was painful enough, let alone the boredom. She liked to think she was a woman of her word, so she began brushing the flagstones from the furthest back towards the vast front doors and studied the wooden panelled walls, all carved with various pictorials about the siblings; something she was having to study again. The ease of the job only gave way to the actual size of the task; minutes bled from the gushing wound of tedium.
  799. It was actually a surprise when she finally reached the vestibule doors and saw the large pile of dust she had accrued. Prim opened both sets of doors, eyeing the donation box as she did. Once more, it wasn't a target, but a simple part of the wall; a wooden box against the grey stone, held in a cast iron bracket that wrapped around its lower half. She was curious about how much was in there but she forced herself into shoving more dust through the vestibule chamber and out the front door.
  800.  
  801. It was now morning proper; the subtle chill of the spring dawn giving way to a forgiving warmth, small traces of rain-darkened stone tucked into corners as if hiding from the light, puddles that would be vanquished by the rising sun on a fine All-drakesday, the end of a week. A day not of any human saint, but of the drakes of old. Prim wondered if Vliechov celebrated the day now rather than the Bralran tradition of it being a day of rest; she recalled the poem, The Lives of the Six;
  802.  
  803. St. Gareg's rest has come to pass, and rise again he must,
  804. knowing full well that by weeks end it all must turn to dust.
  805. He turns his face to high on east to look and find beholden,
  806. to smile at last and longingly at shining sun, so golden.
  807.  
  808. St. Vanterre stands both strong and fierce and clad in mighty iron,
  809. his eyes aflame and muscles firm; a proud and noble lion.
  810. With battles fought, both won or lost, and evermore hereafter,
  811. he serves them all until the end, injured but filled with laughter.
  812.  
  813. St. Phoebe's grace and beauty instils life in all around her,
  814. and while her lovers number many, each is given succour.
  815. Of love, of lust, fertility or greater still, sheer joy,
  816. as mothers birth from far and wide a healthy girl or boy.
  817.  
  818. St. Valarie rides atop the waves to provide for one and all,
  819. trading from humble fisherman to the most exotic stall.
  820. She chances storms and vicious winds, a threat from every side,
  821. and picks her way by fortune's fate and nary with a guide.
  822.  
  823. St. Dastor gives us hearth and home, from chiselled stone to trees,
  824. from simple hut to largest fort with barricades, locks and keys.
  825. Beyond the walls he marks the land with mountains, streams and lakes,
  826. a land of wondrous creatures from low insects up to drakes.
  827.  
  828. St. Zoeli watches from afar, the shepherd to our flock,
  829. the elder mother of our kin, our morals and our rock.
  830. We live each day as best we may and face down every turmoil,
  831. and with each year, draw further near our end of mortal coil.
  832.  
  833. All-Drake rises as Saints now rest, the beast now rife with anger,
  834. with week undone and setting sun, we strike the bell with clangour.
  835. So as the drake now takes his toll, we rest and take reprieve,
  836. and spare a thought for those we've lost and thus a chance to grieve.
  837.  
  838. “Oh, good morning, young lady!” A cheerful croak of a voice made Primrose almost hop from the floor, turning to see a droop-snouted raothaar lady, old and hobbling along with a walking stick. She walked up to the gate with a satchel, and fiddled with her glasses as she eyed Prim over.
  839. “It's so good to see you up and about. The way the good Father told us about your plight, Oh Kasta's mercy, we feared for you... er... Sister Rosy, was it?” She winced and looked confused.
  840.  
  841. “Uh. I'm Primrose. Who're you?” The young nun bit her lip. “I'm sorry, I'm still getting used to all this. Let's try that again; Good morning, madam, I'm Sister Primrose. To whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
  842.  
  843. “Not at all, Sister Primrose. Hazel Withersong,” she said and shakily bowed her head as if it were on a ratchet, continuing, “just an old biddy with a true and hearty love of Hitherby and all her people out on her rounds. All is forgiven to those willing to be in service to The Sibling Lords, and to see you presentable and healthy! I'm truly glad. Don't you mind me, good Sister, but I wondered if you would like to partake in a little breakfast for yourself, the good Father and his upstanding lad.”
  844.  
  845. Primrose had drunk a milk and oat potage for breakfast which, while fine for chasing away the morning cold, wasn't especially filling, and before she could respond, Hazel produced a paper wrapped cube from her bag and the waft of cooked bacon arrived at Prim's nose. She salivated, but felt guilty at the mention of the old raothaar woman's pride for the neighbourhood compared to Prim's misdeeds.
  846.  
  847. “I had best not, Mrs. Withersong. I'll give them to Father Cathrop and Brother Antoine, but I-” Prim swallowed her spit with a dose of pride, “I tried to steal from Hitherby, I don't deserve such generosity.”
  848.  
  849. “Codswallop, Sister Primrose!” The elder huffed and thrust the parcel through the fence. “You are one of us now, and if I can't treat one of our own, then may Noran strike me down to feed the rest! You eat and enjoy, young lady. I shall return for this morning's service and see you then, Sister. Good day to you.”
  850. Prim took the parcel, feeling the warmth permeate the paper, and bowed to the elderly ratfolk, who started hobbling along the street at a leisurely pace as the church bell rang. It was seven in the morning and service began in two hours, so Prim went back inside.
  851.  
  852. Father Cathrop was expecting the second breakfast, unpacking the foodstuffs, revealed to be a stack of bacon and apple chutney sandwiches made with thickly cut bread that had to have been baked not minutes before their delivery and heavily buttered. As much as she wished to eat it right then and there, a flutter in Prim's heart sent her taking the rewrapped bundle out to the cemetery grounds in search of Antoine.
  853.  
  854. He stood out amidst the graves, which were many and weather worn, but clear of any moss or filth by a caring hand. He was a tall figure now that Prim wasn't nearing unconsciousness or bedridden, near as made no difference five feet tall, more than a full head taller than she was. He wasn't wearing his cassock, which hung from the hook of the ground-keeping shed, but instead a simple shirt and trousers that were stained green and brown from kneeling in the dew-soaked grass.
  855. Prim had cursed her illness and injury, as the more she saw him, the better she felt but he was always at work, be it for the church, the locals or, on four days of the week, he left to train with the local militia, the nearest Hitherby had to police; Hitherby looks out for its own, indeed.
  856.  
  857. “Excuse the interruption, Brother Antoine, but Mrs. Withersong has kindly given us a little extra to eat.” Prim watched him stand as she pulled her hood down, shaking her ears free and her eyes firmly stuck on watching the swell of his thighs beneath the coarse material, and only just looked him in the eye as he smiled to her. Primrose reopened the paper wrap and handed him his sandwich, once more distracted as his thick bicep shifted beneath the fur.
  858.  
  859. “Thank you, Sister Primrose, and please, just Antoine's fine,” he said and nodded her over to a nearby bench. The pair sat down and tucked in, savouring the salty, greasy meat, the sharp, tangy chutney and thick, dense bread. Duties and silly outfit besides, Prim couldn't be happier.
  860. “How are you finding things, Sister? If you're having any trouble, you can always ask me.” He asked.
  861.  
  862. “And just Primrose, if you please,” Primrose tittered. “I'll manage. I've been a burden on top of trying to... well, stab you.” She cleared her throat and looked away. “I have a great debt to repay for my life alone, let alone my misdeeds.”
  863.  
  864. Antoine shook his head, wiping a bit of melted butter from his lip with his wrist, saying, “all is forgiven and you're not a burden, Primrose. You deserve a fresh start. Six years living on the streets...” He looked crestfallen and his gaze fell to his muddy boots, then he turned at Prim again and that flutter returned to her chest despite his sad eyes. “Nobody deserves such treatment, least of all you. As my father said, you should have come to us sooner. We would have gladly helped you.”
  865.  
  866. “It's never that simple, Antoine,” Prim said, then laughed, continuing, “well, I guess it was, but to me it didn't seem that way looking from the outside. When the orphanage closed and we were sent to anyone willing to take us in instead of the official writs most adoptive parents would bring, nobody could have known what we would be subjected to.
  867. “I know some of the children ended up in good homes, and a close friend,” Prim said, then grimaced before continuing, “someone who I thought was a close friend abandoned me and I ended up being 'cared' for by a scoundrel, an old convict named Quinn Shelby.” She growled the name, and tore at her sandwich, envisioning a neck before continuing, “he taught me things you simply can't learn from a legitimate trade, things that could be useful in all manner of ways, but nothing that helped me become honest.
  868. “He'd done wrong by some even worse people and they had his legs cut off, or so he told me,” Prim couldn't hide a grin at Antoine's slack jawed expression, then resumed, “so it was more that I was looking after him, stealing anything I could to keep us fed while he filled my head with falsehoods and fear about the city at large. That I was worthless to everyone, that the raothaar only look out for themselves, even viewing outsiders of our people with suspicion.”
  869.  
  870. “Father said you'd told him about this Shelby fellow, but he wasn't keen on the idea of telling me more than a few details. I confess I get angry hearing about true scum like him.” Antoine finished eating and sat back as Prim ate a few bites of the cooling food.
  871. “I suppose he knows best, but I'd still like to hear it and I promise I won't get upset. I just hoped it would let me know more about y-,” he stammered and corrected himself, “help you better.”
  872.  
  873. Prim settled her nerves by taking the time to savour the bacon, but realised the silence was growing awkward. The more she spoke about her much maligned adopted father, the worse her mood felt so she pushed on.
  874. “Quinn was an insufferable drunk as well, and after a year with him, his alcoholism had grown uncontrollable. I could sympathise with his struggle to get around on naught but a rickety wheelchair, but any time I couldn't scrape together enough coin for food after his requirement of gin, he would strike me if I was nearby or throw bottles. Considering the apartment was one room, no bigger than a shed and he had me afraid of everyone outside... let's just say not all of my scars are from knives and blades protecting myself on the streets.”
  875.  
  876. “The scars weren't that bad. Oh! U-uh...”
  877. Antoine coughed and cleared his throat as Prim looked at him in time to see his ears flush red.
  878. “I should come clean-uh... explain! I'm sorry! I-I saw some of them when father treated your wound. The one you got from the fence, I mean. They aren't so terrible. They make you look... d-distinguished?”
  879.  
  880. Their eyes met and Prim smiled.
  881. “Probably not as distinguished as yours, Mr. Militia.” She giggled as Antoine scratched his ears, trying to cover them as his embarrassment grew.
  882.  
  883. “I don't have any, I suppose. Good training. I'm apparently a prodigy with a shield and ruddy good with a mace.”
  884.  
  885. “You have one scar, at least.” Prim popped the last bit of sandwich into her mouth and reached over to him. Antoine froze as if afraid to move as her finger traced the healed mark on his cheek, hiding amidst the soft, blonde fur. The one she had left on him. “Sorry about that, by the way.”
  886.  
  887. “It's fine! Just a scratch. You caught me off guard, at once looking near death then striking with Noran's own impressive speed. I'd almost ask if you would join the Hitherby militia; I'd bet your reflexes would serve you well when you're not half-starved and wounded.”
  888.  
  889. “I can't fight, Antoine. Not well, at any rate. No, I'll be content if I can just help out here and set right my many wrongs. As many as I'm worth, anyway. Like I said, I can't believe how kind everyone seems, considering how I tried to steal from them and likely would have turned a knife on them if they had approached me as you did.”
  890.  
  891. Antoine's hand covered her shoulder. She couldn't help but sidle a bit closer to him.
  892. “You're doing right now, Primrose, and I can see the honesty in your eyes. You're where you're worth the most.”
  893.  
  894. Prim's hand covered his and their ears blushed as one.
  895. “I feel richer already,” she said, staring into his blue eyes. Blue like the sky.
  896.  
  897. * * *
  898.  
  899. Prim awoke, and for a moment felt the sadness that usually came with these bittersweet dreams, but it faded. That was then. This was today, and today was different.
  900. Today she felt power and strength, the self loathing had boiled away as a fire sparked within that she thought had been smothered. A will to act and an urge to work. She stood, stretching away the aches from yesterday with a satisfying series of pops as her back aligned itself right and her tail flexed and coiled about like a mad serpent, then looked at herself in a mirror hanging on the wall.
  901.  
  902. Staring back at her was a raothaar woman in her late twenties wearing just her small-clothes. She was full figured, certainly not what you would expect for a sly thief or a guard in training, probably better suited as a home-maker, or perhaps just a harlot, with her deep cleavage formed from her brassiere and wide hips that swayed whenever she walked, but she laughed at herself, at the damaged but comely woman staring back at her.
  903. It was a false front, and one she eagerly abused to make others underestimate her; sweet on the eye but vicious on the teeth. She ate well but she pushed herself hard, balancing the soft curves with solid muscle beneath the russet brown fur, her shoulders and arms shifting as she tensed up; raothaar being a little stronger pound for pound than humans, yet this woman staring back at her was as strong as an average human woman despite being short even for her race. She wasn't a good fighter, but prying open stuck doors, lifting heavy objects and occasionally barging past home owners in a desperate escape were all crucial aspects of breaking and entering, and even now she attacked her tasks with hard determination to maintain her physique.
  904. She was short but she knew she was quick, and her raw umber coloured eyes were filled with cunning had faced down danger, they had seen death given by her own hand. They saw the light fade from that bastard Quinn Shelby's eyes. At the age of eleven, after a bottle to the face too many earned a scream of rage and a knife she had stolen driven into his throat and chest six times,
  905. Primrose could take anything thrown at her, but she had forgotten. She would love Antoine forever, the softness and tenderness of those simple years as his wife would give her pleasant thoughts until the day she died, but she would also never forget the kindness she had been shown by Jacob, so now was the time for hardships. For all of them. For their sake, alive or dead.
  906.  
  907. It would be survival again, but from a place of stability and support instead of every act dictating whether she would eat for a day, or have shelter, or steal from ever poorer people out of desperation and fear. She wouldn't cry any more, she had no more self pity to give, just blood and sweat, an ocean of each as needed; she would drown whatever foes she faced in effort if skill was lacking.
  908. Primrose had to prove her worth, and she swore on Noran's teeth that by All-drakesday, three days away, she would pin the man who was stealing from her boss, a knight who had faced Vliechov's worst and walked away and still suffered loss, a man who had seen real conflict, not the petty street nonsense Prim had experienced. She would prove she was worth his praise, fulfil every ounce of promise he said was in her.
  909. She dressed, nodded to herself in the mirror, and threw open the door with the bluster of a dragon.
  910. This week was hers to take, and no soul would dare stop her.
  911.  
  912. * * * *
  913.  
  914. Chapter 4: Games
  915.  
  916. Primrose held the glass case up against the growing light outside. It had been cleaned, if half-heartedly; she saw traces of dust, a smeared finger print, a little hair hanging from the faintest patch of grease left by oily skin. She sniffed it, gleaning nothing, but that was fine, as she already had expected most of these traces were too slight. It wasn't their presence that Primrose was looking for.
  917. She placed the glass box down on the display stand and removing the silk gloves she was wearing, hopping down from the footstool. She placed it by another display stand before moving to a table to one side, the only one in the room, and looking at the wooden surface.
  918.  
  919. Ten guards worked in the estate, three had access to the keys to the cabinets and five were present when Prim was last here in the jewellery room and whilst it had only been a two days, it was clear they had spare cases; the glass box she had examined was newer than the others, and even in that short time, these mounting imperfections caught her eye against the older displays. The older ones bore scratches, nicks and even a little chipping where they had likely been placed on the table she was now examining.
  920. The varnish had been maintained by a professional. This room, more than the others, must have been expensive to keep on top of in order to make even the act of entering it feel right, as if entering a flawless space and taking a part of it for yourself with the sensation that that it was money well spent, no matter the item.
  921. Ultimately, plenty of coin moved around, and she recalled Jasper mention about a tailors Jacob owned. If he had one shop under his control, he likely had others. Another detail she noted to investigate later, but right now, footfalls approached.
  922.  
  923. “Huh? Primrose? What're you doing here?” Jasper said, still looking sleepy. It was a little past six in the morning and the sight of Prim candidly approaching another case, the one she had put the footstool near, slipping on her gloves and lifting the glass forced him to came to his senses and clench a fist.
  924. “Wait, who gave you access to the keys!?”
  925.  
  926. “Do you know the first thing you need to learn about locks, Jasper?” Primrose didn't look at the man, she simply scrutinised the case before putting it on the ground and inspected the padding around some fetching ruby brooches, running the blunt of her claw between the pads and plucking a tiny ball of lint from within. She was just looking busy; Prim already knew that many of the stones had been replaced with more fakes; she put them under far more scrutiny now that she knew what to expect, and lots of coloured glass was on display, yet precious metals remained.
  927.  
  928. “I asked you a question, Primrose!” Jasper's growl didn't stop her continuing.
  929.  
  930. “They only keep out the honest. These locks were pathetic. They looked fancy, nice silver makers marks and pretty lettering, but they were of equivalence to a lock you see at a butchers to secure his back door. Three loose pins and only one actually had any real tension, and two pins that were there for show. I bet the key even has a flat-toothed tip. Even then, a thin blade could be used to push open the latch, although thankfully nobody's been that crude. Have these things ever been maintained?”
  931.  
  932. “I... maybe, I don't know, but that doesn't change the fact you're breaking into Sir Falkshire's things!”
  933.  
  934. “Oh, please. I've already stolen from him once and it lead to him recruiting me. I doubt you care for my words, but I swear to you, Jasper; I will help him with every skill I have for what he's done for me already, let alone what he's giving to my people.” Prim hopped down from the stool again and approached the one armed man with enough confidence that he took a respectful, maybe even fearful, step back.
  935. “I would think you would understand, Jasper. I lost my husband after the war. A mission to simply help return some prisoners from the conflict. A peaceful mission, and he was taken by the cruel fates. Just as you lost something too,” she nodded to Jasper's missing hand, “something irreplaceable. Yet you're still here. I heard you had someone fashion that replacement to allow you to continue serving Sir Falkshire, because you know he's a good man, one you would serve unto the ends of the world. I, too, will do everything I can, no matter how dire.”
  936.  
  937. They both stared for a while, measuring each other's resolve. Prim was looking harder, though. She'd seen liars and thieves buckle under pressure because of the nagging thoughts inside, usually deflected by bluster or hostility, but she saw no weakness in this man.
  938.  
  939. He kept his glare back but relented as he sighed and shrugged, saying, “you've made your point, but still, ask next time; you might have damaged the locks.”
  940.  
  941. “Actually, one of them already is. Also, somebody left scratch marks that look suspiciously like the blunted point of your hook and a smattering of finger prints from your right hand all over it.”
  942. Prim watched the man frown, blink, gawp and stammer. She didn't flinch.
  943.  
  944. He scowled and barked, “I'd never work against Sir Falkshire! Don't you dare accuse-”
  945.  
  946. “Oh, hush,” Prim chided. “If I were to finger you as the culprit I wouldn't be announcing this. No, the finger prints alone aren't right; they're too perfect, whereas yours are worn from additional use owing to your reliance on your right hand; manual tasks, routine training, etcetera, etcetera.”
  947.  
  948. “When did-” Jasper bit his tongue as she continued busying herself with her inspection, then just rolled his eyes, saying, “alright, so who is it then? And how do you know what scratch marks from my prosthetic look like?”
  949.  
  950. “I'm getting there. Just narrowing down the field, so to speak. All I know is someone's aiming to get you in trouble; probably took a butter knife to the cases and picked them up a few times. Blunt as your claw is, it still ends on a finer point than what's been left on here from what I've seen on the back of your shield. I saw them when you picked it up for practice the other day.
  951. “Oh, and as for where I learned this type of analysis? I have a rather irksome friend who happens to have a very discerning eye. He's halved the price on things I've pinched over the years because of scuff marks I hadn't even seen, or refused to take items belonging to especially notorious folk. Thus, both experience and his guidance taught me to see any sort of damage beyond face value. Just as every scar has a story, every scuff mark is a misadventure.”
  952. Prim replaced the glass box and set the stool back beneath the side table. She then looked out the window, her finger tapping her chin for a few moments before saying, “well, thank you for your compliance, Jasper, I'd best be getting on. Oh, and I'm sorry, but you'll need to relock all of the cases.”
  953. She left, leaving Jasper to cuss under his breath and do as instructed. Primrose needed time to think, so she headed to the bustle of the streets to run some errands.
  954.  
  955. * * *
  956.  
  957. Having taken her uniform to a tailors and enjoyed a little personal shopping, Primrose was back at the Falkshire estate, sitting in the dining room and eating a huge batch of scrambled eggs, bacon and buttered toast that she'd prepared herself with permission of the house cook, making up for skipping breakfast. She wasn't even paying attention to the food, which she'd picked up herself on her way back from the market, instead her mind was wandering, and her best thinking came when she was eating; the old recesses of her mind dabbling in survival were pushed aside, knowing she would be fed for another day or two back when she was homeless.
  958. Primrose was once again on the topic of her current job; mulling over the counterfeit stones. She felt clarity that she'd lacked for some years, her focus renewed and her wits turning wheels in her mind but there was still so much she was missing. Her earlier examination of the displays hadn't just been the glass cases themselves. She'd looked over the jewellery as well. It seemed odd the precious metals were untouched, yet the stones were taken.
  959.  
  960. “Eyup, Primrose, how's it?” Bernard entered the dining room. “Oh, and uh... I 'ope you'll accept my apologies for yesterday. I'm well used t'fightin' the other blokes. I should've taken it a mite easier on you.”
  961.  
  962. “I'm quite well, Bernard,” Primrose said, “and it's no trouble. In fact I'm sorry about how I acted yesterday; I'm not used to combat, so I should have taken my lumps with grace and dignity, not like a pouty child.”
  963.  
  964. “Well, glad that's cleared up then,” he said, busying himself with the bread Prim had bought, cutting off a large slab and taking some cheese and sausage from a nearby larder before joining Prim at the table, sitting opposite her. Prim was aware that he was watching her eat, but simply continued thinking.
  965. “Now, I've got a good respect for a lass with an 'earty appetite,” he said, studying the rapidly shrinking pile of meat and eggs. “That bein' said, 'avin' seen you eat durin' t'auction, I'm surprised you're not...y'know.” He gestured around his waist, adding width and puffing out his cheeks before adding, “no offence meant, mind!”
  966.  
  967. “None taken. I was raised in an orphanage, and the adults would begin eating before the rest of us so they could take the better portions.” Primrose stopped eating for a moment and patted a napkin on her lips, then continued, “then they would leave to let the ten of us finish eating by ourselves, and this larger girl would steal from everyone else's plate even before finishing her own food.
  968. “It eventually became a challenge, almost a game, learning to eat quickly without choking or drawing the ire of the bully or being noticed 'being greedy' by the adults. Then, during my time living on the streets, I used to take every opportunity to eat as much as I could whenever the opportunity arose. Both combined, and well... old habits die hard, I suppose. Of course, I started putting on weight when I got married, so I used to make extra work for myself, run everywhere and so forth. The rest is just good old fashioned Raothaar metabolism.”
  969.  
  970. “Aye, well, I'd heard you had a bit've a rough past from Sir Falkshire. Glad t'hear you came out no worse for wear,” he said and nodded, smoothing his moustache. Prim noticed he'd shaved since yesterday; his stubble was gone and trimmed the rest neatly. Even his hair was even slicked back with beeswax pomade.
  971. “Just a regular serviceman myself. Joined t'army to make me father proud, had the St. Valarie's own luck to get put in service t'the good Sir and St. Vanterre's grace t'survive whatever we faced. Only maybe fifteen of us marchin' down t'river towards the Vliechoven's, and we're the ten that survived. I remember first thinkin' that Sir Falkshire would just do a bunch of pointin' an' posturin', but he got stuck in good 'n' proper. You can ask any one of us, Primrose, each man'll throw themselves on a sword for him.”
  972.  
  973. “Quite,” Primrose concurred with slow nod. “I dare say that Sir Falkshire's lucky to have you all and the same in return. I can attest to that myself.”
  974. Primrose resumed eating and Bernard followed suit, and she swore he was trying to keep pace with her. The game was on, and it wasn't long before he began struggling, even as Primrose mopped the plate of grease with her last morsel of toast and popped it in her mouth, then once more cleaned her muzzle. Primrose had everything she needed.
  975.  
  976. “Well, I'll see you at practice, Bernard,” Prim said, standing and tidying up after herself and continuing, “I must say, I'm looking forward to distancing myself from any relationships for a while and really knuckling down to some hard graft. I've spent too long wallowing and this job should give me ample chance to improve myself. Farewell, friend.”
  977. Glancing from the corner of her eye, Prim could see Bernard was clearly watching her behind as she left, but he sighed, dejected, nonetheless.
  978.  
  979. * * *
  980.  
  981. Primrose sat on her bed, brushing her muzzle fur by candlelight, watching the flame dance and flicker. A day spent studying the men had revealed both much and very little. Each was a steadfast, loyal soul. They all seemed earnest. Each had a story to tell about their service under Sir Falkshire and the thought that any of them, each a salt of the earth type, would have the gall to steal from him, let alone the cunning and duplicity to have the stones stolen, replaced and the items returned without anyone else noticing had brought her investigation to a stop.
  982. Prim likewise couldn't work out how guests would manage to sneak in and steal anything by the same virtue. It would take a professional to pull it off. The locks weren't much of a challenge to her, and she considered herself better than the average locksmith; as down as she was on many of her flaws, her hands were quick and steady. The scratch marks were too obvious as well; an attempt to mislead, but by whom?
  983.  
  984. Not to mention the glass gemstones, expertly cut, in precious metal bands, brooches, dainty chain necklaces and pendants. The metals alone would fetch a fair price, she supposed. Not that coloured glass was often cut into such shapes without a purpose. You don't just walk down the street and ask for glass cut into a specific fit for even more specific jewellery. It would need to be a skilled craftsman with knowledge ahead of time of the socket size and the stone facet shapes and design.
  985. Even the fake stones would certainly be worth a lot of lile, though, so despite the expense, and the loss of earnings through not taking the whole ring, the thief would be walking away with plenty of profit, but it was a great deal of effort to expend, a lot of risk for a diminished reward.
  986. After a shorter bout of combat drills than yesterday. Prim invested her time in researching the Falkshire auctions and the properties he owned; books upon books of transactions, revealed thousands of lile passed through each event, and that was just the average, as well as the businesses he ran that moved and shipped these treasures that doubled as merchant vessels, through which he took commissions from a large number of shopkeepers. Some auction totals numbered in the tens of thousands, with Jacob himself earning what looked to be between ten and twenty percent on top and a few hundred per day in basic trade.
  987. Even so, the hundred lile weekly for the Hitherby fund was absurd, let alone her fifty per week wage, as she wasn't paid for the last two days of the week; they were her days off, but she was sticking to her own pledge to solve this before All-drakesday.
  988.  
  989. Nothing specific to the forgery of the gemstones, but she could see the little connections, so she closed her eyes and tried to fit the pieces together, breaking them down to smaller parts.
  990. Intimate knowledge of the jewellery. Contacts with skilled craftsmen. Knows the guards well enough to try and implicate one, and one with a disability at that.
  991. It couldn't be... could it?
  992. Primrose glanced at the door and left her room, her eyes adjusting to the dark and giving the green a grey tinge as her night sight took over. Jacob's door was open, and a look down the opposite way revealed a soft glow of light beneath Tabitha's door. She crept up, pinning herself against the wall the moment she saw movement downstairs, Bernard was on night watch and carrying a lantern as he did his rounds, and the moment he peered up the stairs, Prim watched the lamplight moving, shadows of the stair bannisters, and her ears pivoted and twitched; his footfalls on the plush carpet making the lightest of thuds, the subtle creak of the lantern ring, a more solid thump as he stepped away.
  993. Primrose kept low, walking on all fours like an actual rat and standing only when she reached the other end.
  994.  
  995. A whispered voice from Tabitha's room. Prim stopped moving and held her breath and pressed her head against the door.
  996. “-her, Tabby. I think I've found her. The one you told me to find.”
  997. Jacob's voice, calm and tender. Primrose drew nearer and tried to look into the keyhole, only seeing more lamplight and the edge of a bed.
  998. “You would like her. She's clever, good hearted, witty, and more than a little devious. You always said I was too 'straight and proper' for the city. Of course I never believed it; you had been subjected to so much evil that you always saw the world through a cynical lens. Primrose does too, but just as I need her to ground me, I think she's destined for great things but she needs help keeping her chin up.”
  999.  
  1000. Primrose wondered if she should continue to listen in, glean what she could and call it quits. Maybe wait for Jacob to leave, pick the lock and search the room herself, but then she realised that while that would give her what she wanted, it wasn't what she needed. What she needed was honesty. So she knocked on the door.
  1001. “Jacob?”
  1002.  
  1003. A stirring of motion and a brief pause, then he responded, “Primrose? Please, come in. What's wrong?”
  1004.  
  1005. Primrose entered Tabitha's room. It was tidy, likely maintained despite the lack of occupant. It had a decidedly feminine touch but the furnishings looked barely used. The green colouration was gone, replaced with delicate yellows and whites with subtle gold trims, and Jacob stood beside a beautiful vanity of white ash wood, where his hand lingered on a small portrait with a pendant hanging from it.
  1006. “I'm sorry to interrupt, Jacob. I needed to ask you about something. I hope I'm not intruding.”
  1007.  
  1008. “No, of course not, Primrose,” he said, glancing down at the portrait. Primrose knew it was Tabitha, both by simple logic of location and seeing the woman's sad smile. Fair haired like her brother, though her eyes were a lighter hew of grey. Prim felt guilty for what she was about to ask whilst standing in the remnants of Jacob's tragic loss, but she had to know the truth.
  1009.  
  1010. “Jacob. Be straight with me. You're the one who replaced those stones, aren't you? The false jewels.”
  1011. Jacob didn't react, and Primrose had her answer.
  1012. “I'd like to know why.”
  1013.  
  1014. “Alright. No more games. Could you shut the door, please?” Jacob said, sitting on the vanity's chair as Primrose did as instructed. He then gestured her towards Tabitha's bed, and while hesitant, she climbed on, her hands clutching together.
  1015. “I'm sorry to lead you on like this. I needed to make sure you were the right woman for the job. I'm impressed though; I ensured those false stones were of such quality that only a truly perceptive soul would know the truth.”
  1016.  
  1017. “I could sit here and brag about stumbling upon the truth, but I wasn't the one... at least, not at first. A friend told me of the fakes in the ring I filched, but my own investigation revealed all the others were just the same. This couldn't have been cheap and something doesn't add up. And would you really risk me accusing Jasper? Even if you knew the truth, I doubt he would have taken such a thing lightly”
  1018.  
  1019. “Jasper would have been fine. I would have had a private talk and explained things if you had fallen into that trap, but I had faith you were up to the task. Oh, the fakes weren't just to test you,” he said, then opened his mouth to continue, but then grew quiet, looking conflicted.
  1020.  
  1021. “I suppose you don't have to tell me if you wish not to. I understand.” Prim stood again, heading for the door, only for Jacob to reach for her, putting a hand on her shoulder.
  1022.  
  1023. “No, no. It's just... like yourself, I've let the past hold on to me. I still remember Tabitha's husband's gloating, irksome face. I remember the smug satisfaction he had when his charges were read to him, as if to celebrate the short life of decadence, and he likely knew he was on borrowed time. The man had earned his way into the nobility, like so many others, by smart exploitation, penny pinching and strategic marriage.”
  1024. Jacob's grip firmed and Primrose grew afraid for a moment, that he would start hurting her, so she placed a hand over his and he relaxed, retracting his arm before saying, “I'm sorry. I fear the worst part of Tabitha's death was the revelation it lead me to. Just as people are mistreating your kind, the lords and ladies play games with everyone they deem as beneath them. From the most loyal family serf to the most distant citizen, the nobility care so little for them it sickens me. That my men and I, and the whole Bralran army, fought off the Vliechoven invasion while these bastards sat back and played their games...”
  1025.  
  1026. Primrose's mind danced and darted between the gaps and cracks of knowledge she'd carved from the effigy of Jacob she held. A man of righteous character, given a rank that superseded the nobility, yet he was playing an underhanded game. A man who had seen what a state ruled by rich and wealthy who could scratch the backs of those already 'in favour' with the crown's establishments, such as the banks and trade guilds. People given power by the weight of their coin rather than the strength of their virtues, and the knights were there not just to protect them, but to stop them from growing corrupt.
  1027. Yet he was inviting them into his home, and selling items of supposed great value to these people and taking their coin, yet she knew he was in the market of creating counterfeit goods. Of course, it seemed obvious now.
  1028.  
  1029. “Jacoby Falkshire, I mean this in the most positive light, but you're naught but a con man.”
  1030.  
  1031. Jacob chuckled, then bellowed a hearty laugh.
  1032. “Guilty as charged, my lady.”
  1033.  
  1034. “Sticking it in the eye of the nobility by making them weaker, diminishing their coin.” Primrose sat back down and tapped a claw on her long incisors, continuing, “well, perhaps not so obviously; after all, your reputation likely protects the items you sell from too much scrutiny, and I seem to recall you own several ventures who dabble in trade of these goods. No doubt you have quite the ring of folk in place to assure anyone with doubts so you're playing along game here.”
  1035.  
  1036. “That's the long and short of it. When I feel it's time to strike these filth down a few pegs, I was going to send out my lists of auction customers to Captain Plywell anonymously; instigate a few raids. I've been careful in buttering up nobles from houses that have bad reputations and inviting them to my auctions.
  1037. “I've been pocketing the most reputable jewellers for some time, well before I started this whole plan although naturally I've stepped up my enterprise. They know to look for genuine metals but ignore the stones.”
  1038.  
  1039. “Just how long have you been playing this game, Jacob? I... suppose I approve, but one wrong step and you'll be disgraced.”
  1040.  
  1041. “I was wary before Tabitha passed away, but that was what drove me to it. It is the duty of all of Bralran's knights to serve the people on and off the field of battle. To protect the interests of the populace by shield or by service, and by Queen Ophelia, I will remain loyal to this land and her people for as long as I live, but I swear this to you, Primrose; Bralran has bred a class of scum that needs to be dealt with, and by the Falkshire name, I'll do something about it. It's why I need someone like you, and not just for your cunning.”
  1042.  
  1043. “I'm not just a counterspy, am I?” Primrose stared at Tabitha's portrait, then back at Jacob. “You're in over your head. Plus, what good is your plan if you truly believe that something terrible is coming. The Prophecy of the Sibling Twins.”
  1044.  
  1045. “Guilty as charged, once more. Look at this, and tell me what you think,” Jacob said, and opened a jewellery box, producing a silver pendant and handing it to her. It bore the symbol of St. Phoebe, a lotus flower surrounded by a ring made of arms, locking hand over shoulder on one side, and a depiction of a beautiful and shapely woman, likely supposed to be St. Phoebe herself, with her hand outstretched and holding another lotus flower to the edge of the pendant face on the other. It was all wreathed in a fine silver leaf-like ornamental engraving.
  1046. It was a nice enough thing; simple, with a fine silver chain and a teardrop shape, but it was surprisingly heavy, and far more bulbous than it should be. It was also very old; even as well kept as it was, it bore scratches, the chain was clearly newer than the pendant itself, and even the hinge looked like it had been repaired at some point.
  1047.  
  1048. “Not just a pendant... a locket?” Primrose was afraid of damaging it, running a clawtip around the well hidden lip and feeling the equally fine hinge. Looking at the opposite edge, she saw the tiniest button, only just discernable against the filigree. She pushed it, and her eyes grew wide when she saw what was depicted within.
  1049. Two upright rats, hands clasped at the hinge. Kasta and Noran on opposite faces.
  1050.  
  1051. “Tabby started wearing that not long before she was bed-ridden from her condition,” Jacob said, staring at the pendant just as Primrose was. “It wasn't until her effects were returned after her autopsy and I was just holding and toying with it, coping with my grief when I accidentally opened it. Suddenly her final vision made sense; not just random thoughts, but perhaps the Siblings had been talking to her. I've been a man of traditional faith since I was anointed by The Six, but besides respecting those fine folk who work in their temples, I wasn't truly pious. My sister always offered prayers to The Six Saints, and it was only after she moved in with me she started praying in private.
  1052. “I believe now. Not necessarily in The Six, but wood that resists all flame? Antoine Cathrop, who was a fine but young soldier, true, but he was able to fight groups alone and come away completely unscathed? My sister's words sending me to you? The Sibling Lord's are real, and they're playing a game with us, Primrose.
  1053. “We have to stop whatever tragedy is set to befall us. I also believe that the Siblings are talking to people like my sister to make me act on faith. Pushing humans to help the raothaar, and the same in return.”
  1054.  
  1055. “Hand in hand, whatever the fates throw at us,” Primrose whispered and closed the locket.
  1056. “Making it together.”
  1057.  
  1058. * * * *
  1059.  
  1060. Act 1 Epilogue
  1061. Noran's Teeth
  1062.  
  1063. “New reports of banditry have surfaced!” The powerful voice called out with a outrageous din of a ringing bell as the market crier waited for quiet, then continued, “all travellers are to be advised to hire additional men-at-arms should they wish to travel the roads from Kingsbay to any neighbouring towns and cities! The Stonehead guild has paid me, I announce as duty directs, to inform you that their services are presently the cheapest in the city, and promise the utmost protection of you, your associates and your belongings from these brigands!
  1064. “To wit, Captain Plywell has issued a reminder of an existing bounty notice,” the bellman clutched his bell beneath his arm and produced a folded note from his fancy jacket, opening and reading it aloud, “The lead bandit, the self named 'Lady Lile', leads a group of thieves and murderers that have recently been striking near the city! Any who bring her in alive, or half for dead, will receive the sum of twenty thousand lile! Her compatriots, known for their pierced ears, will earn twenty lile per ear, complete with silver stud!”
  1065.  
  1066. Primrose honestly thought Lady Lile was a myth, something belonging to a 'lilypage'; crudely written tales printed on a large, folded sheet of crude paper that wouldn't last a foggy day worth of damp before turning to pulp. They were so named because they sold for one lile, or a lily, mass produced using the first modern set of printing presses made after they were sold off from the more reputable news outlets. Prim would read the latest ghastly, often graphic or sordid yarns with sheer glee as it gave her comfort and a distraction when she lived on the streets.
  1067. She largely stopped reading them as a nun, but she did remember one of the last featuring this 'Lady Lile'. A raothaar with silver fur and a gleaming estoc she named 'The Piercing Tongue', a edgeless sword that apparently, as per the lilypage, could pierce inch thick steel. It was all nonsense, but it was a fun read nonetheless. She could still remember the ink staining on her hands, the smell of solvents and lampblack on her fingers for days after reading one.
  1068. Fonder memories of her darker days were all well and good, but she moved through the crowded streets with a purpose and a wooden box over her shoulder. Prim jogged for efficiency and exercise, otherwise cloaked and dodging the bustle of the marketplace.
  1069.  
  1070. Leaving the square, she dived back through familiar streets as she found her way to near the Patterfield neighbourhood, to Bantam's shop, complete with a sign saying it was 'closed'. Prim knocked as she remembered his grouchy demeanour from last time.
  1071. A beady twilight blue eye peered through the darkened glass, and with a rapid series of clicks and metal ratcheting locks, the door opened and a dark beak poked through the gap, opening with a low creak and saying, “what and what? Bantam busy. And closed! Busy closed.”
  1072.  
  1073. “I have a special order for you, friend... oh, and uh... is everything alright? After last time, I mean?” Prim dared not put her face any nearer, still afraid of losing an eye. Once more she realised as much as she called him her friend, the business side of things always came first, but she recognised his clicks and low whistle; resignation.
  1074.  
  1075. The door opened and the smell of fresh varnish wafted over her. Bantam stepped inside and beckoned her in and crowed, “don't get your pitterpatter feet on the new wood! Drying and sticky stick.”
  1076. The initial aroma of varnish soon gave way to incense as Prim rounded the fresh floorboards and drying varnish on the floor, the remnants of Primrose's last visit, and placed her box on the counter. Without even a word, Bantam snatched the box and thrust a chisel into the rim. Prim would complain, but she expected this.
  1077. Within was her newly tailored uniform, which Bantam placed onto the desk, pinching the fabric and unfolding each article before reaching the sword at the bottom, a pair of metal elbow guards and bracers as well as the fancy pen and quartz cube she had been given by the bank.
  1078.  
  1079. “I want the blade given a once over; whether it needs reforging, oiling, sharpening and what have you. I need some inner pockets for the uniform, complete with chainmail lining, small sheaths on the vambraces and a few concealable tool slots in them. Here's what I had in mind.” Prim said, handing a piece of paper to the crowman, who took it with his beak, still examining the sword, then re-sheathed it and read the page, unleashing a few clicks and a ticking noise.
  1080.  
  1081. “Three hundred and sixty lile,” he called and slapped the page down on the surface.
  1082.  
  1083. “Bantam, come now, that isn't-”
  1084.  
  1085. “Three hundred and sixty lile.”
  1086.  
  1087. “Stop, listen to me, I thi-”
  1088.  
  1089. “Three hundred...”
  1090. There was a laborious pause.
  1091. “... and sixty lile.”
  1092.  
  1093. “Hogwash and hullabaloo!” Prim raised her arms. “You'll get two hundred and like it, you old coot,” she finished and slammed her fists back on the desk as punctuation.
  1094.  
  1095. Bantam turned his head back and forth, studying her with each beady eye at a time. She returned the stare, unblinking.
  1096. “Kek kek kek,” he suddenly laughed, or perhaps coughed (Prim wasn't sure), then said, “someone's got her fire back. Three hundred!”
  1097.  
  1098. “It never left, I just forgot how to use it. Two fifty and you get the ring you damaged, you damned miser!” She plucked the false sapphire encrusted ring from seemingly nowhere and flicked onto the counter, causing it to clatter, tumble and bounce off the other side.
  1099.  
  1100. Bantam didn't even look, he just caught it, then eyed it up close, finally nibbling it in his beak before placing it on the surface with more caution than the last time he held it.
  1101. “Dealy deals dealt. So, Repenter, what game?”
  1102.  
  1103. “I beg your pardon?” Prim tilted her head.
  1104.  
  1105. “Bantam knows that look. Primrose has purposeful purpose again. Survival once, peace second, what now? What game?”
  1106.  
  1107. Primrose looked at her uniform on the counter. The green colours, the neat stitching. She remembered Jacob's pep-talk about helping her, improving her, so she could be unleashed once more.
  1108. “Noran's game,” she said, nodding and talking to herself, then talking to Bantam again, “I've been as Kasta at work for years. I don't regret them; I needed them to set me right from wrong and to show me that I don't... no, I won't be alone ever again, but now I need to play as Noran for those I love. I need to be a sharpened point, not a clumsy blade. Supple armour, not heavy plate. My people have lost Antoine, Kasta's chosen. Worse... I lost him...”
  1109. Prim trembled as if something was about to explode inside her.
  1110. “Fuck the prophecy!” She roared and hammered the desk a second time, earning a wince from the crowman. “It's ruined the lives of my people, the Sibling's own! Their own bloody prophecy! It took the love of my life from me, but I won't be cowed! I'm not part of it, but I'll stop it on my own terms. I'll do it for the right reasons and whatever methods as necessary. I'll be as Noran's teeth, ready to bite and tear!”
  1111.  
  1112. Bantam never smiled. He just couldn't, the fleshy part connecting to his beak lacked the function, but his eyes glimmered and he laughed again.
  1113. “Waiting wait here, Repenter.” He said and plodded into the corridor behind the desk. Prim heard his odd footfalls climb the stairs and move above her, a scraping and scratching of wood, a heavy thump, a creak. Then the footfalls returning, and the crowman returned to his place behind the counter, placing a bundle of blue silk on the counter.
  1114. “This is yours. Bantam believes he told you about the power of possessions before. The day Repenter killed her adopted fath-”
  1115.  
  1116. “Don't finish that word,” Primrose said, grim and cold. Bantam shrugged and slowly unfurled the silk.
  1117. She stopped breathing. The worn blade with the spots of dried blood on the otherwise grey, scratched dull iron. The handle was blackened and charred, yet it was as sturdy as fresh, untainted wood. It turned her blood cold. Her old knife.
  1118. “Where did you find this, and why do you have it!? I... I dropped it when I met Antoine and never found it again.”
  1119.  
  1120. Bantam whistled and loosed an odd croak.
  1121. “Forgetful. Forgotten. Bantam tells story...”
  1122.  
  1123. * * *
  1124.  
  1125. New home. New shop. New faces.
  1126. Bantam. That was my name now. Someone called me it when I got off the boat after getting into a fight.
  1127. “Bit of a bantam, ain't ya?”
  1128. Felt right. Better than old habits, old shame, old ways. Old name. Bad name. Bad bad name. His name.
  1129. New home. New shop. New faces.
  1130. I clicked in frustration and whistled in thought. Bantam was angry at himself for thinking about his plan to settle in. It was like before, always a plan. Always about execution, not about living. Not allowed to live. He raised you. Purpose.
  1131. New home. New shop. New faces.
  1132.  
  1133. Rat people lived nearby. Like food rats, but bigger, clothed and talky. A tangle of streets called Hitherby, a borough, like a village in a city just around the corner where I now live. Humans were untrustworthy, so Bantam needed to talk with these shorter people, learn then, study them. Find weakness...
  1134. I croaked and growled. No, find common ground to mingle over. No old shame. Paid for freedom. Paid too much, but paid nonetheless. Peace now.
  1135.  
  1136. I, Bantam, looked at the shop, bought with the last of the his possessions. He didn't need them any more but I kept one anyway, too much bound to it, to me, to him, to us. The strength of him was tied to it, now hidden in the rafters, a wire a hairs-breadth wide dangled about eight feet above him tied to it and dangling temptingly above, hiding amongst many others like it. He would say they were for hanging lanterns if anyone asked, and buy some if anyone asked a second time. It pulled to him, but to let it go... to unleash it on another. I'm me now, not him. Bantam, not... the old crow.
  1137. The building was once clothes shop or some sort of parlour, but it was spacious and well maintained. The quiet and orderly aura and gave me a sense of calm I'd been missing since I left home, thousands of miles away to the west. A place of honour, where he thrived in dishonour. A place of light, where he dwelled in dark. A place of life, where he didn't... I did want it. Light now. Never dark. Never him.
  1138. Bantam crooned and sighed. He had lived the life for so long, I struggled to turn away, so I unpacked my new tools and started carving a bed. A distraction was needed.
  1139.  
  1140. Saw saw sawing. Cut cut cutting. Bore bore boring. Both kinds, both good. Good for the mind. Legs and slats and body, cleaned and joined and pegged, buffed and varnished and polished. Neat and tidy. Then a chair, a table, cabinets and a chest of drawers. Remembered watching carpenters back home, remembered the method. In a couple of days, I'd furnished the house and shop floor.
  1141. Started getting bored, so made clothes too. Fabric, needles and thread. Like making tools in old life, just had to watch seamstresses a few times to learn. Found a royal smithy as well, will observe them, make weapons, armour. City has weapon licences, will make on sly, buy licence when affordable.
  1142.  
  1143. Here, a few months later, Bantam has a shop. People saw the hobby crafts and liked them, they would pay a lot of lile for them. Thin silver coins in a pig-iron ring to protect them and shapes punched through in greater sizes to depict value. One lile is a thin outer ring of silver, five is a triangle cut so the points touch the case, ten has square cut in the middle, twenty a pentagon, fifty a tiny hexagon. Complicated, but the holes let you slide wooden pegs through them into stacks of ten coins and pinned on the ends, akin to the stringing coins at home.
  1144. So I start making things for people. They sometimes have impractical designs and I can charge them more for it. Easy to copy; visualising, replication was bred into my people, imitation is our creed.
  1145. Finally settle in, but I'm dealing with more humans than ratfolk. They keep to themselves. No ratfolk where I'm from. Going to get recognised by traders who travel west if not careful.
  1146.  
  1147. Then she entered. Covered in blood. Tiny ratfolk girl holding it; a bloody knife, but I can see it, the way her knuckles stand out, white from gripping the thing so tight. A unique thing, this blade; made with care, worn but sturdy. It's tainted, and I can feel the aura. Like what I have hidden above. A stain on the world encased within the base wood and metal.
  1148. The ratfolk girl, slim and malnourished, with brown fur matted with blood and fresh bile on the lips. One of her big incisors is chipped and glass shards glistening stronger against the fur, some of the blood hers. She stares at me, shivering, shocked, surprised at me? No. That stare. A life taken. First time.
  1149. Then voices outside.
  1150.  
  1151. “I saw'er come this way! Keep your 'jack ready.”
  1152. Jacks? Ah, black jack. A soft-headed flail. Designed to beat and subdue without cutting or breaking skin. Local police. Want her alive for questioning.
  1153. Ratfolk girl might be way to start business with the others of her kind. They'll also take that knife when I want to study it. Need to help her, gain trust, take advantage of opportunity.
  1154.  
  1155. “Inside,” I croak. I wasn't expecting to have to talk. Still uncomfortable. I pull her and she flops after me and drag her to the back room. Shut her in and lock it, then notice the damned drips of blood on the floor. I grab a pot of wood varnish and pour it on the incriminating spots. Wanted it done properly. Oh well.
  1156. I'm spreading it and doing a poor job. Amateurish. Doesn't matter. People enter, stopping just shy of the varnish. Men in blue coats made of felt material, covered in heat-treated waterproofing wax and a rubber resin, wooden buttons. Slight protection, designed for cold and wet weather, probably hiding flax padding beneath. Easy to slash through, but they're not a threat. I stood and they stared at me, holding wooden shafts with leather-clad lead-shot filled pouches on the ends, brandished with menace. Also idiocy. Clumsy clumsy humans.
  1157.  
  1158. “What in Phoebe's tits are you?” One balked.
  1159.  
  1160. “Shut up, Gael,” the other said, elbowing his companion and clearing his throat, saying, “excuse me... sir?” He exchanged a glance with his companion. “We're looking for a violent criminal. Ratfolk, about so tall.” He held his hand out about hip level. Impressive memory on this one, it's only an inch higher than she was. Observant. Worrying.
  1161.  
  1162. “Yeah, brown rodent girl, she was seen heading down this street. Don't suppose you've seen her?” Gael said.
  1163.  
  1164. “Does it look like talky rat has been here? Bantam varnishing! Don't step in it!” I clicked and waved them back before kneeling and continuing to try and salvage the wasted varnish, at least trying to make the floor look nice.
  1165.  
  1166. “Sounds disrespectful to the crown's law to me, Poe.”
  1167.  
  1168. “Aye, it does, Gael. A simple yes or no would have worked. Seems awfully suspicious as well; gotta figure one beast-folk might be harbouring another. Stand aside, we're gonna conduct a search.”
  1169.  
  1170. “No you're not,” I growl, accidentality creaking with my throat and stop spreading the varnish but I don't look up. “Bantam knows laws! Constables need warrant! Get paper, then search!”
  1171.  
  1172. The swoosh of air; a swung black jack. I duck lower and it brushes my neck feathers.
  1173. Then a boot came at me, Poe's. Worn, well polished calf leather, steel toed, cotton twine woven laces that were once brown but stained darker with bootblack, studded with brass hooks and grommets. Slightly muddy. Rained recently, streets dry, crossed public park, ran across grass. The girl came from Vagrant's way. She was panicking, unlikely to take cautious route.
  1174. Will check later, investigate the dead for trinkets.
  1175. Boot drawing near for now.
  1176.  
  1177. I push my hands against floor, shove myself to a stand, received the kick in my arms and then twist, pulling the leg. Causes Poe to overextend as I release him. Fails attempt to stop the fall, foot hits the slick varnish and he lands, legs in full splits, hear a crunch from his hip and he screams in pain.
  1178. Gael swings his club and I weave beneath it, leading him to strike Poe's head and earning another crack of pelvis bone as his companion falls on his side and his leg twists further.
  1179.  
  1180. “Fuck!” Gael says and takes another swing at me. I dig my talons into the slick floor, angle head, tense neck and poise beak, ajar by an inch, at his wrist. His arm thrusts itself onto my waiting bite. Impact on my face, it hurts, I growl in pain and taste blood as I 'accidentally' rip out his wrist tendons and cut a vein. The club falls and his hand flops like a dead fish, blood leaking. He repeats his cuss as a scream and clutches the wound.
  1181.  
  1182. I swallow the blood and wiry flesh.
  1183. “Leave.”
  1184.  
  1185. They're still gasping and crying. Gael struggles to help Poe to his feet and they retreat, with the limp-wristed man supporting the other as they slowly struggle off. They'll be back, but not any time soon. Enough time for my purposes. The varnish is tainted with blood again and I croak on reflex; I'll need to replace the floorboards now.
  1186. I close the door and the curtains, then hear the clattering of wood through the locked back room door. Boxes I'd stacked in there. Likely moved to reach the window. She's trying to escape but she's too big, despite how thin she was.
  1187. With a whistle and a croak I unlock the door to see everything as I'd expected, a mess. I growl when I see my tools scattered on the floor and the ratfolk perched on an uneven stack of small crates, still clutching the knife. She turns, and points the knife at me.
  1188.  
  1189. “G-get away from me!” She's shivering even harder than before, her eyes wild and bulging.
  1190.  
  1191. “Foolishly foolish girl. Put down the knife. We need to talky talk. Mean no harm.”
  1192.  
  1193. “I just... I-I didn't mean to...” She jumps down from the boxes and after a few seconds, the knife falls from her hand. It doesn't bounce or clatter about. To my amazement, and more than a little frustration, it embeds into the floorboards halfway up its five inch blade.
  1194.  
  1195. “That thing won't help you any more.” I walk slowly, in case she startles, and reaches for it. While it's true I don't wish her harm, I expect an attack, to lock her flailed limb, break her arm; thin reedy things that they are, it will be easy.
  1196. “Things carry a presence, and that knife is covered in misfortune, misdeeds.” She's looking confused and I creak a sigh. “It's also evidence, so you're better off leaving it with Bantam. Me.”
  1197. I wait for a response but nothing comes. I'm next to her, so I tug the knife up with my foot and flick it into my hand.
  1198.  
  1199. I can feel it. It's almost alive with hatred and grief. Jealousy and rage but a steadfast determination as well. It's intoxicating in its potency; fresh and new. I hold it up so I can study it.
  1200. The girl suddenly bolts, shoving me, grabbing the knife back. I let her go; even if I could stop her, we would be on the street by the time I got to her and she would just draw more attention. The front door slams open and she's gone, and I'm left to pick up the pieces; a badly varnished shop floor and crates of stock to reposition. But I have something interesting to meditate over now. I thought I'd left such feelings back home.
  1201.  
  1202. * * *
  1203.  
  1204. “I guess I remember something like that,” Prim said, “but it's been, what, eighteen years? And that doesn't explain how you found it.”
  1205.  
  1206. “Kept in Hitherby church, so it seemingly seemed. I searched it after it burned down, looking for anything, salvage and salvageable. Then I found that,” he gestured to the blade, “kept it... but it doesn't belong to me. It's Repenter's, but you weren't ready then. But now you're strong and stronger, wise and wiser.” Bantam croaked and pushed the knife to her. “Not giving this back lightly, Repenter, but you're challenging fate. You need an anchor of the past if you want to push and fight and cull the future. Like planting your feet to thrust a spear.”
  1207.  
  1208. “I still don't understand, Bantam. How does some old blade have any sort of power?”
  1209.  
  1210. “Foolishly foolish girl,” the crowman clicked and cawed before continuing, “you were bonded to a man who could stop almost any strike and was lost at sea as per the prophetic prophecy! Yet Repenter still doesn't believe. She seeks out relics, wooden wood that doesn't burn, yet Repenter still doesn't believe? It's a world of spirits and dragons and magic, Primrose! Strife and struggle and stains and imbues and infects and infests and clings, clawing and carries and continues! Take it! Feel it!”
  1211.  
  1212. Prim stared at the knife. A primitive five inch blade, small patches of rust-like staining on its length that never cleaned away. It looked like a kitchen knife, broad and tapered down to a point, very simple in its construction, but the menace it exuded made Prim shiver. The knife that had turned her from an innocent child into a killer. It turned her into someone willing to fight to the bloody death over shelter or food. Turned her into someone willing to steal from her own people in the dead of night, from a charity box filled with kindness and faith.
  1213. The idea that this thing may have made her travel that dark path made her hesitate even as her hand hovered over it. Primrose was far more eager for peace and kindness since she lost it, and while she had bought herself another blade since, it almost never left its sheath. Now, though, knowing what she did; the best years of her life behind her and a chance to live as she'd always dreamed, she nonetheless now had a purpose given back to her.
  1214. Something inside her swelled, and her hand reached forward. She gripped the handle and her heart thumped in her ears. The handle was charred, yes, but it was sturdy and smooth. The wood had a grain to it, free of the varnish but stained black, yet the wood itself felt comfortable. It also felt disturbingly warm to the touch, alive. She swore it was moving, but not wriggling to escape or to cause her to act, but as if it was seeking the most comfortable position in her palm.
  1215. This was a relic. She knew it now. This wasn't just a knife. This was Noran's Tooth; his own hunting knife, and it was bound to her when she took a life with it. She seemed to remember finding it when picking pockets for Quinn and kept it to protect herself. It did just that. It had saved her from people bearing her ill will, yet it had failed her just as often. One day she would unerringly pluck a lustful eye or slice off grasping fingers, then times like that fateful wound she'd earned fighting over a dry spot in an alleyway lead to her clumsy swings opening her up to a shard of glass in her side.
  1216.  
  1217. “What does it do? It's just a blade, surely,” Prim whispered as she stared at the sullied blade.
  1218.  
  1219. “Many many things and nothing nothingness. It has motives of its own, but in the end, it's a tool, Repenter, so use it as one. But remember what it represents, and that will guide you on how it works.”
  1220.  
  1221. “Anger, vengeance and wrath. Yet also cunning, luck and courage,” Prim said, her hand growing numb, as if the knife truly represented her worst and best at such distances that she felt strained. Noran's Tooth felt eager, as if expecting to be used, so she gently put it back on the silk and sighed with relief.
  1222. Bantam took out a plain leather sheath and slid the blade inside, holding it with reverence. Prim felt both a bit calmer with the edge concealed, but it was in her now, as if the negative emotions she had felt recently was now contained within it and some part of the blade had taken its place, filling her with even further strength than ever before. Primrose took it and buckled it on her belt at the small of her back, covered by her clothes and easy to reach out of the sight of others.
  1223.  
  1224. “Live that life again at your peril, Repenter. As you said, you need to play as Noran; the aggressive rat, the clever rat, the rat who takes risks for the right reasons. Bantam still doesn't put much stock in these self named gods, but what they represent?” He clicked his beak together a few times, then said, “that's what makes sense. Spirits and sins and virtues embodied.” Bantam replaced Prim's things back into the box and tucked it behind the counter.
  1225. “Now go, get, git, goway! Bantam will have your gear done by tomorrow morning. Bring coin. Try not to die. Have nice day.”
  1226.  
  1227. End of Act One
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