Were names that easily divulged for non-Slicers? It had to be. Kat knew that Grofford, Rocshim and Conniol were repairing fields beyond the farmhouses to her left. Cela and Kinjara were sitting by the well to her right. And long before Tristien introduced herself, the Slicer had already been aware of her name. The bard had given it up before Kat had come out of hiding.
It wasn’t so for Slicers. Names were rarely earned, never given. Giving hers up would be easier if the deed was a private one but here, out in the dirt yard by the fenced field? No matter how softly spoken, the breeze would carry her words towards the barn, right at the two dolts that were apparently Tristien’s friends.
Had she ever been this vulnerable? It wasn’t just being out of her element, the shadows. It was being here on a farm, so far away from the familiar town or city. Standing alone, she couldn’t shift blame onto nearby innocents nor escape by melding into thick crowds.
Furthering her unease was Tristien’s steady gaze. Kat couldn’t pull her brown eyes away from that constant twinkling stare. Could those grey eyes see into the Slicer’s soul?
Silence hung between them like a veil. The moment lingered as Kat’s hard look conveyed no compliance. Without a word, the scarred woman breathed a heavy sigh. She spun to go to her friends.
“Kat.” The Midnight Slicer’s hands leapt to her own mouth, covering up any more revelations.
Bouncing off Tristien’s back, the word prompted a triumphant return. Her arms, outstretched in friendliness almost reached the Slicer before her words did. “So glad to meet you, Kat.”
Automatically, Kat’s hands raised up in defense but all her forearms did was block Tristien’s hug. During the awkward embrace, the Slicer stole glances at the two by the well. At least they were nodding their heads and not shaking them. A better sign than expected.
Tristien led the still-bound woman to the other two. At their approach, the Yiftan and the bard offered their names in exchange. Not ones to let introductions interrupt their task, they gathered the rapidly decomposing corpses.
Kinjara’s small stature lent to awkward corpse carrying. After the fifth time a rigid elbow hit her in the head, she spat out, “Isn’t causation a requisite factor for corpse removals and sibling obligations a minor one?” she matched her staff with a bruised lump on a corpse, “Puncture wounds are more the likely cause for Om’em’s visits.”
Snorting, Cela retorted, “So, Kinjy, you’d rather we didn’ stop them with our swords?”
“Oh, the tongue distorts and twists words spoken with crystal clarity. The assertions’ summary is thus: if sharpness produces, then the obligations are theirs.” Kinjara scowled, hitting her hips with her fists.
Cela laughed. “In my eyes, since we did the work, you shoul’ be doin’ all the clean-up. Fac’, wha’ the hell am I doin’? I shoul’ be restin’.” She dropped the corpse she was carrying right by Kinjara’s feet.
Kinjara meekly replied as her eyes measured the distance from the corpse to the half-full wagon. “Perhaps hasty conclusions miscalculated the true worth of contributions, including mine.”
With that admission, the tall Yiftan acknowledged her victory by hoisting the corpse over her shoulder once again. She looked over at Kat. “So, you surrendered.” Cela asked without malice as she marched the corpse to the wagon, “Why the prec’ shoul’ we take you? Wha’cha got tha’ we wan’ or nee’?” Grunting out the last word, she heaved the corpse alongside others on the wagon. Climbing on, she waited for the others to bring the final two over.
Tristien helped Kinjara with a female corpse, lifting it by the arms while the bard lifted the legs. Even with their combined efforts, they moved one corpse to Cela’s two. After handing theirs to Cela for hauling onto the cart, they too turned to listen to Kat’s response.
Without taking her brown eyes off the scarred woman, Kat answered simply, “My offer’s to Tristien.” Pointing for emphasis, she added, “Not you.”
A stifled chuckle came from Kinjara’s direction and a loud snort from Tristien’s. Sniffing, Cela turned her back to Kat but it was to suppress a silent laugh from the Slicer’s vision. The other two left to retrieve the final corpse.
A whinny from the barn reminded Kat. “My warbeast, Flick…,” She hesitated. She just insulted one of them. Would they care enough about a stranger’s horse?
Before her thoughts could even finish, Cela whipped around. “You gots one? Where? Is it alive?” The concern was evident, even touching.
Kat turned around and pointed at the Darsprian Forest beyond the furthest field on the farm. “He’s loosely tied to some bushes.” She might as well let them know what was bothering her. “If you kill me, find him and use him. He’d make a good farmbeast.”
This remark earned Kat a modicum of Cela’s respect more than the others. She agreed to the offer with a firm nod.
“Maybe we should get him now.” Tristien looked thoughtful. “Come on, it will give us a chance to speak privately.” She gestured for the Slicer to follow but before either could take a step, Kinjara called out.
“Tris! A moment,” Worry lines etched into Kinjara’s forehead. “An ambush or trap may be the destination of the path she leads.”
The sudden change was astonishing. Melancholy evident in her voice, Tristien said, “I consider everything to be a trap now.” She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly and steadily, as if blowing the sadness away. “I refuse to be ruled by those feelings though.”
Both Cela and Kinjara nodded in unison and understanding. Somewhat reluctantly, the two left with the wagon of bodies for the other side of the farmhouses. Whether their reluctance was due to their distrust of the situation Tristien was walking into or due to their odious task at hand, Kat wasn’t sure.
With her bindings still surrounding her wrists and thumbs, Kat led the way into the tall grasses beyond the farms. At times, she could feel Tristien’s body heat. The scarred woman was only a half step behind. Was she afraid to lose the Slicer? Their feet kicked up a small dust cloud, marking their way across the dirt path by the farm’s edge. The breeze seemed to swirl around them, leaving grit in Kat’s mouth.
The small amount of wind relieved little from the spring sun’s heat. Though the sun had begun its descent, it was still chimes away from lowering its intensity much. That had to be the reason her armor felt stifling to Kat. Or was it too tight? An occasional warmth on her neck told her Tristien was still only half a step behind. With astonishing difficulty, Kat forced herself to focus on getting to the nearby forest. Where Flick was. Where cooler air could filter out the difficulty in focusing.
She needn’t have bothered. The moment out of earshot, Tristien’s questions threw cold water on the mood. “Cela’s questions have merit. Why should I take your offer? Not to sound callous, but what do you have that I could possibly want?”
It was one thing out of Cela’s mouth, but coming from the woman she surrendered to? Yet, despite the words, it wasn’t derision that she saw from those kind, grey eyes but pity. Did she think there was nothing Kat could offer?
The assassin huffed, “People mean the opposite of what they say.” Turning away to glare at the looming forest, the rush of feelings surprised Kat. Stinging from the possible rejection, she said, “You say, ‘Not to sound callous’ because that’s exactly how it sounds.”
Kat’s stiff and brisk walk away didn’t stop Tristien’s guffaw from reaching her ears. With her longer scarred legs, Tristien overtook the growing distance between them with ease. “You’re correct. Those words are a way to apologize ahead of time.” She chuckled.
Kat’s annoyance didn’t disappear with Tristien’s feeble excuse. She stopped to face the scarred woman. “Jish-poor way, if you ask me.” If she wasn’t going to survive, why hold back? She continued her rant, “It’s saying ‘Dismiss what your ears tell you; I’ll be the one to explain what’s real.’” Kat snorted. “Basically you begin with a lie.”
Her anger didn’t stop there. She had surrendered to learn. In surrendering, there was a good chance she’d be killed. So if Tristien didn’t accept the surrender, it’d have all been for nothing. So why should she have to explain what she could offer! She glowered at Tristien.
When Tristien acknowledged Kat’s words with a grin, the glower faded. Tristien beamed earnestly as she held out her maimed right hand and said, “So that’s what you have to offer. I accept your surrender.”
It was such a sudden turnabout that Kat’s anger instantly dissipated. “Wait, I didn’t tell you what I ha– I mean… what do you mean, ‘That’s what I have to offer?’ I didn’t offer you anything!” Despite racing over what she said many times, she couldn’t understand the scarred woman’s apparent change of heart. “Why do you accept?”
Tristien took Kat’s hand and stroked it reassuringly while she explained. “Because your offer is to keep me honest. I’ll never use ‘Not to sound’ anymore. You are correct about the hypocrisy. Thank you Kat.”
The soft way her name escaped Tristien’s lips, sent shimmering tremors down Kat’s spine.
Tristien continued, “Please continue to point out whenever I’m hypocritical or worse, lying to myself.” With that, Tristien let go of Kat’s hand before Kat could examine or marvel at the amputation scars.
Both women dropped into silence as they both pondered the implications of the surrender. Kat wondered how long it would take her to get accustomed to new rituals, such as the offering of names. From the records, it seemed that some Midnight Slicers thrived straddling the two worlds of public personas and private guild assassin. But many more succumbed to obscure guild laws whose sole existence was to root out divided loyalties.
Reaching the edge of the Darsprian Forest, Tristien abruptly yanked Kat back with a tug on the elbow. With the right hand’s little finger, she pointed at the ground below the giant oak tree trunk. “Poison vine. They have thorns that poke through leather boots and make you sick for days. Mostly grows under giant tree trunks so you’re mostly safe from them. Still, it’s good to be aware.”
Sure enough, Kat was a step away from thorny vines. Her foot still in midair, she contemplated her next steps.
Brushing past her, Tristien set down deliberate steps for the urban woman to follow. “Where’s your beast?”
Kat pointed to the southwest, even though she wasn’t quite sure if that was where her cantankerous warbeast stood. Had they been in a city, she’d pride herself on never getting lost, no matter how unfamiliar the architecture nor confusing the maze of thoroughfares. But here where every tree and rock was a duplicate of the one before, where the canopy hid the sun’s progress, the Midnight Slicer was hopelessly lost.
Taking the lead, Tristien seemed to enjoy herself pointing out various plants and animals to Kat. To be honest, the assassin had never given much thought to varieties of the same plant, but according to the scarred woman, they had different properties. Despite the attempts to teach, Kat felt that Tristien recited the plant names more as a reminder to herself.
Every once in a while, the mutilated woman startled at some unseen sight. Since Tristien declared herself to suspect everything to be a trap, Kat wasn’t sure if the causes were figments of fertile imagination. Paranoia and insanity were often partners in a person’s life.
Tristien located Flick fifty yards northwest of where they entered the Darsprian Forest. To Kat’s surprise, the usually nasty warbeast greeted the scarred woman warmly. Either Tristien’s charm extended to stallions as well or the beast was starved for attention. Since Kat’s approach elicited the same greeting, it had to be because of being left alone in a strange forest. Still, it was noticeably unusual for Flick to act welcoming.
Bending over, Tristien clasped her hands together to give the still-bound Slicer a boost. Understanding, Kat took a jogging start and leapt onto Flick’s back using Tristien’s hands as a springboard. The scarred woman then took the reins and led the way back to the farm. Without turning around to face the Slicer, she asked, “Want to explain your presence in the Quietude?”
Kat smirked, “I could ask the same of you.” It was indeed curious that in almost twenty years of usage, this was the first time she had run into anyone in this… Quietude.
Tristien nodded without responding. Walking past the cropfields, she led the warbeast towards the barn. “I suppose we have time to learn about each other.” When they reached the barn, the scarred woman stopped Flick and turned to face Kat, her grey eyes and scarred face surprisingly open with earnestness and sincerity. “If you want to learn how to use the Quietude, you’ll have to trust me. If you don’t, you can’t learn anything.” She added with a kind and welcoming smile, “I hope you’ll choose to.”
Katriyana Pusabunthri had rarely encountered kindness in her life. Even as a child, she kept to herself. Especially after given to the Midnight Slicers at age six to avoid the automatic conscription that befell every Trabian child. Since then, to survive meant friendliness was viewed with suspicion. There was only one person, whose gentleness and lack of guile indicated an incapability to inflict deliberate harm. Other than Tsaddis, she had no friend.
Did all non Slicers ask for trust so quickly and easily? This was a high price, but the stark trade was simple it seemed. Trust for learning. Furthermore, this trust had to extend towards the other women as well, if she were to travel with them for education.
Tristien helped Kat off the warbeast. After putting Flick into a stall where the stallion happily munched on hay, the two women left the barn. With the sun hanging halfway up in the sky, a chill was just starting to drift in. The scarred woman led Kat past the farmhouses. A path divided parallel pens and fields.
Sniffing the air, the assassin wrinkled her face as they walked down the path. Though sheep and cows meandered inside the pens that were formerly fields, the stench didn’t come from them. It emanated where they were heading, an open field.
One step onto the field and it was obvious a battle had taken place. Parallel rows of dirt broke formation and crumbled where feet trampled. Seedlings, once promising, snapped at awkward angles. On the far side, Cela and Kinjara wore bandanas to unload the bodies.
When the Slicer hesitated, Tristien let go of Kat’s bindings and walked towards her friends. “I’ve accepted Kat’s offer. She’s staying with us awhile.” She gestured for Kat to walk over.
Stepping carefully over the broken up ground, Kat was fully aware that she was still bound. She expected protests from the other two women. Instead, they just laughed at Tristien.
Kinjara tossed her hair back saying, “We almost made a bet on whether you would— ,”
“–Bu’ both of us knew you’d take tha’ assassin in.” Cela interrupted.
It wasn’t just Kat who froze. Both Kinjara and Tristien did, too after dropping their mouths wide open at Cela.
Kat readied herself for battle, just in case. She had a fighting chance because of the weapons Tristien had been kind enough to give back. Her hands were still tied, but there were ways around that as long as a blade was ready nearby. There was no need to make a move yet, but it was good to be prepared.
Angrily, Tristien spoke up. “What the preck are you talking about, Cela? That isn’t funny.”
The furious demand surprised Kat. Was the scarred woman taking her guild affiliation personally?
The mutilated woman jabbed her left pinky at Kat, to emphasize her point. “Kat’s a mercenary. Part of that failed raid, remember? A warrior-for-hire.”
“Mercenary she might be at the momen’” Cela’s nonchalant look accused Kat. Obviously, the Yiftan had no fear of her. “Bu’ there ain’ no possibility tha’ she ain’ a Midnigh’ Slicer — I’ve crossed paths with too many of them not to spo’ someone trained by them. Did’ja see how she handle’ tha’ longswor’? And how much di’ she get better with her own daggers. Her damned dahrts. Look at her ahrmor, how it’s for mobility, not protection? If she ain’ a Slicer, I’ll eat my saddle!”
Kat sensed no animosity from the Yiftan, only a sense of satisfaction from having sniffed out her guild affiliation. Truth was, there was no reason for Cela to feel threatened. Time was the only factor in their last fight, Cela being the obvious victor.
Realizing that the others expected a response from her, Kat quickly went through her options. If she confirmed her guild affiliation, she’d be breaking a core guild tenet. Tattlers and turncoats were two of the least tolerated sins. She shook away the memory of the last Midnight Slicer caught spilling secrets.
If she didn’t confirm it, then trust wouldn’t be built. For the first time, Kat wanted someone to trust her. It wasn’t just for the sake of being taught the secrets of the Quietude. She wanted to get to know someone… Tristien.
Though she told herself she didn’t care if Kinjara trusted her, Kat still looked at the red-head’s face. She expected fear or repulsion and strangely, found neither. What she saw instead, was curiosity behind Kinjara’s green eyes. Even if Kat came clean about being an assassin, the small red-head would have to get used to disappointment. No other secrets would escape these lips.
When Kat searched, Tristien’s face reflected an earnest desire to know and understand what she was dealing with, an understandable wish.
Could she really go through with this? Without her gaze leaving the scarred woman’s, she approached and said, “My life is now in your hands. Yes,” Kat paused to take a breath before continuing. “I am a Midnight Slicer.”
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