Catryn’s hand hovered over the clasp of her mask and she hesitated. Pulling it back on, she turned towards the voice and held her breath. Even then, she felt her pulse quicken at the sight of him. She slammed down on her treacherous heart and steadied herself, finally replying “Ahren.”
“A word?” He indicated towards one of the separate meeting rooms of the tavern, and Catryn reluctantly followed him inside. He closed the door and looked her over, frowning slightly at the mask. “I expected you back by sunset.”
“I am.” She leaned against the opposite wall and folded her arms in an attempt to seem casual, but her heart had been racing from the moment she heard his voice.
“Barely. You’re losing your touch.”
Trying to project confidence she did not feel, Catryn lifted her chin. “You should have come to me sooner.”
He raised an eyebrow, his face even more unreadable than her wolf mask. “If you want first pick at our bounties, you could always come back into the fold.”
“You nearly lost this one. He was with The Shroud.” She muttered, trying to act as though she hadn’t been quite so shaken by the experience.
“How did you…?” The hint of surprise lit in his eyes, flashing like sunlight on a sword, and then faded as his expression shifted easily into a smug smile. He rubbed his chin, drawing her attention back to the rough stubble which only highlighted his strong jaw, and laughed “Never mind. Good job.”
“You don’t sound surprised.” Catryn murmured, tearing her eyes away from his mouth. That half-smile hit her the same way every time. It was dangerous.
“I know by now that you always find your mark, wildcat.” Her heart thudded at his old nickname for her, so loudly that she was certain he must have heard. Ahren seemed to almost hesitate for a moment before casually suggesting “Stay for a drink?”
Relieved, she shook her head. “Only guild members after sunset, unless something has changed in the last season.”
“You could come back. I still don’t understand why you left.” He admitted quietly, fixing her with another searching stare.
Catryn forced a grin, even behind the mask. “I told you. I’m tired of fighting all the time. I’m better suited for sneakier work, and there’s more of that with the other guilds. Besides, I…” She trailed off at the serious look in his molten grey eyes. It was an expression that always stole her breath, and she hated the effect he still had on her.
“Don’t like being tied down.” He finished quietly, his steely eyes not leaving her face. “You know, kitten, something tells me you’re not being completely honest with me.”
He was right. He was always right. Even behind her mask, he knew every tell she had. But that was why she had to stand her ground. Though she was trembling, she laughed “Why does it matter, Ric?”
“I want you here.”
Her heart stopped. She stared at him for a long moment and shook herself. Valiantly, she tried to joke, “You can’t just have me all to yourself.”
“Why not?” His steady voice belied nothing of his thoughts or intentions.
“Don’t get greedy.” Her voice had dropped to little more than a whisper as Aeric Ahren took a step closer to her. She screamed at herself to act more naturally; he had been this close to her before. They had trained together and fought together. This proximity was nothing. But his earthy scent, mixed with the leather and sweat that told her he’d been training, was intoxicating.
“I’m a mercenary.” Ahren said, simply, as though that explained everything. He grinned wolfishly, and Catryn wondered if her knees were going to buckle beneath her. She pressed her back against the wall more securely to steady herself and bit her lip hard enough to draw blood. She tore her gaze from his face, trying desperately to remind herself why she was staying away from him when all she wanted was to give in. Watching her like a hawk, he added “Greed is in my blood, wildcat. Especially where you’re concerned.”
Saving her from the expectation to find a response, there was a sudden thumping against the door and a loud voice called “Boss!”
Catryn dropped her face to the floor instinctively, forgetting that her burning face was already hidden. Ahren sighed and told whichever ingrate couldn’t last without him for a few minutes that he would be there shortly. Realising the passage of time all too suddenly, she muttered “I need to leave.”
“Well, you know where I am when you come to your senses.” He said quietly as he opened the door, his expression as unreadable as ever.
Walking through the length of the tavern from the meeting room, Catryn kept her deep hood firmly over her head. She did not hesitate, or look around, until a loud voice from the table nearest the door caught her attention.
“Why is the Captain still wasting his time with that traitor?” Narti snarled, making no effort to hide her disdain. One of the few other women in the guild, she had always despised Catryn. Especially when Wolf outperformed her at every turn. Catryn wasn’t one for competing, she was more interested in getting the job done.
“He put a lot of effort into training her.” Tomas smirked, glancing in her direction. He had always been one to follow Narti’s lead, still desperate for approval.
“Time is gold. He doesn’t want to lose the investment. Plus, she’s made a fair chunk of coin.” Varrien shrugged. He was a mercenary through and through; everything boiled down to profit. You didn’t stay in the business as long as he had without it affecting your outlook. But Catryn could not disagree with his logic.
Rynir, a soft-spoken man that Catryn had always admired from a distance, was sitting at a table near the bickering group. Without looking up from sharpening his hand-axe, he quietly stated “Traitor, she may be. But she’s talented.”
Narti flicked her straight black hair off her face and fixed Catryn with a venomous glare. Though Catryn knew that the woman had her own motives, she had still let her claims get to her. She would never admit it, but Narti’s wild accusations and theories about the Captain were a large part of her reasons for leaving.
Gold. She reminded herself, trying to ignore her plummeting heart. She knew better than to get her hopes up when dealing with someone like Ahren. She was an investment. He didn’t want to lose face and seem as though he had made the wrong decision in recruiting her. Nothing more.
I want you here. She shivered as his words echoed in her head. His eyes were intense; she knew that she always read more in them than he intended. It would not do to dwell on something her imagination conjured. She had made the decision to distance herself because Ric…Ahren was too dangerous. She had her brother and sister to think of. Either one of them could be the next bounty through the Iron and Bone tavern. As could she. Ahren himself had taught her never to get attached to people that might compromise her ability to defend herself.
Still, each time she left the Iron and Bone tavern was more difficult than the last. Not only because it had been her home, but because Varrien was right: they had invested in her. She wouldn’t be who she was if Ahren hadn’t recruited her. An ache settled over her as she stepped out into the street, but the light had faded fast and the Steel Quarter was full of opportunists.
Instead of lingering, Catryn hurried towards the Bone Quarter. Where the Steel Quarter housed the warriors and weaponsmiths, the Bone Quarter was home to hunters, and the dead. The temple to The Gatekeeper took up a large section of the Bone Quarter, built into the mountainside itself. It was the only entrance from the Outer City to the catacombs, where the dead were entombed. The priests of The Gatekeeper allowed anyone entry from dawn until dusk, but Catryn had heard that visitors were escorted at all times. She assumed it was to ensure there were no dishonourable thieves, but she had never been inside herself. Her family had not been lucky enough to have been granted a proper burial.
Grumbling about the delay navigating The Shroud’s territory had caused, Catryn trudged towards The Bleeding Rose. Nearer the outskirts of the Outer City, it was not ideally placed for the merchants, and occasional noble, that frequented. An establishment of such reputation would certainly fare better inside the mountain, in the merchant district of the Inner City. But Arabella, the owner, found no end of amusement at having her brothel in the Bone Quarter. So, there it stayed.
About a year after Catryn had arrived in Mar K’shinta, Arabella had run into a spot of trouble with some bandits that had shacked up just outside the city. They had been thrown out of The Bleeding Rose for their treatment of some of the staff and hadn’t been entirely pleased. In retaliation, they had targeted every shipment in and out of the city bearing the twisted rose symbol. Iron and Bone stepped in, and Catryn had led the raid on their den deep in the canyon.
Since then, Catryn and Arabella had formed something akin to friendship. Neither of them enjoyed speaking of themselves or their pasts, nor confiding their hopes and dreams. But they respected one another. Arabella was one of the few people in all the kingdoms that she could trust to take care of Lissa. When she was old enough, Arabella had taken Lissa under her wing and set her to helping with the administration of The Bleeding Rose. Not many ladies in the outer city could read or write, so she had become very helpful.
Catryn was particularly relieved that Lissa was earning her own wage. Making payments for Owain’s apprenticeship was difficult enough without her guild income. She made a point of spending some coin at The Bleeding Rose, but she would struggle to keep paying for Lissa’s board. Still, it wasn’t the worst tavern in the area.
There were colourful silk hangings draped from the doorways. Exotic paintings and carvings, which Arabella had gathered on her travels, were tastefully scattered around the rooms. Incense burned in the darker corners, where there were lounge chairs and interesting blown glass ornaments. Nearer the door, there were some simpler furnishings that were still in keeping with the general décor but were more easily replaceable. It was a tavern, after all, and drunken men and women were prone to breaking things.
The ground floor was strictly for drinking and gambling, and general merriment. There were private rooms for business deals and meetings, but any of the other services were kept strictly on the upper floors. Catryn had never seen anyone try to breach those rules since the bandits had been dealt with.
Finding Arabella tucked in her usual smoky corner, lounging lazily and looking out over the room, Catryn raised her hand briefly. Chocolate brown eyes snapped to her face immediately, and Bella rose slowly to her feet. Every man in the room watched as she walked confidently through. It was as though the slight wiggle of her hips as she moved entranced them.
Bella was a beautiful woman. Her skin was bronze, which was unusual in these parts, and her curves were exquisite. Somehow, she was unmarked by her time at sea, and she had the bearing of a noble lady at court. Eyes followed her wherever she went. Catryn had overheard many a conversation devoted solely to her accent, and the cadence of her voice.
Rolling her eyes, Catryn allowed Arabella to embrace her briefly and followed her back to her alcove. Once they were seated, a drink was placed in front of her, but she shook her head gently. With a sigh, Catryn murmured “I cannot stay long.”
With a charming smile, Bella indicated to the bag she had been keeping for her. As Catryn reached down to retrieve it, Arabella reached for her wrist. Long nails dug into Catryn’s skin slightly as her grip tightened, holding her in place. With a grin like a crocodile, she murmured “How would you like to earn some money tomorrow?”
“Which floor?” She asked casually, twisting her wrist gently out of the surprisingly strong hold. With a sigh, she leant back in her seat to increase the distance between them.
“Don’t worry, I’ve learnt my lesson asking you to cover upstairs.” Bella laughed, and the subtle lines around her eyes told Catryn that she remembered how the conversation had ended the last time. Bella was used to getting her way, and Catryn had been forced to emphasise her refusal in a way the pirate could understand. Waving her hand, Bella explained, “Nia is having some difficulties, so she won’t be able to do her session.”
Nia was the only girl there skilled enough to play the piano Arabella had scavenged and restored. Catryn’s fingers tingled slightly with the itch to play again, but she hesitated. Reluctantly, she asked “What about Raeun?”
Arabella’s eyes glittered with anger, and she huffed “That ingrate hasn’t been in Mar K’shinta since the solstice!”
“You did tell him not to breathe in your general direction again.” Catryn reminded her, laughing.
“That is not the point.” Bella sulked, and drained her goblet.
Catryn looked longingly over at the piano. That particular instrument held a space in her heart. It had been too long since she had been able to play any instrument. Growing up, the piano had been a favourite of her elder sister. Strings were her personal preference, but the idea of doing something beautiful for a change was too much to pass up. “Then I suppose I will see you tomorrow. Midday?”
“Midday.” Grinning triumphantly, Arabella held up her glass to be filled by one of the men passing. She watched Catryn over the rim of her drink for a long moment before finally asking “Now that is out of the way, how was the guild?”
Catryn knew that Arabella was asking after Ahren as opposed to the group. She frowned to herself and sighed “Something was bothering him.”
Arabella stood fluidly and indicated for Catryn to follow her. They moved to the bar together and she nudged the young woman behind the bar to move along. When they were more or less alone, Bella returned to the conversation. “What do you mean?”
“He had stubble. A couple of days’ worth.” Catryn said quietly, more to herself. At Arabella’s blank expression, she explained “He’s normally only scruffy when he’s on campaign. Something must be distracting him.”
Without taking her eyes off Catryn’s face, she prompted “Hmm…sexy?”
Catryn blushed and grinned at her friend, admitting “Unbelievably so. But that isn’t the point.”
Arabella made a thoughtful sound and turned her back on Catryn, busying herself with wiping down the counter. After a moment, she tentatively asked “Are you sure staying away from him is the right thing? From what I can see, neither of you are happy apart.”
“Bella, we’ve been over this. He’s not…we’re not like that.” She bit her lip and glanced away, hiding her blush behind her tankard. Suddenly, she wished she hadn’t removed her mask.
The conversation paused for a few moments while Arabella flirted with a customer that had approached. Catryn subtly watched, marvelling at how one flick of Bella’s thick brown curls turned a simple drink into an hour with the most expensive girl on the second floor. “If he doesn’t care for you, then why does he keep coming in to check in on you?”
Startled, her heart sinking, she muttered “He’s been here?”
A knowing smile on her face, Arabella replied “A couple of times a week. Just checking for updates on how you’re doing.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” She scowled into her mug, dreading the answer but unable to keep herself from asking “Does he…stay?”
“Despite my best efforts, no. He politely refuses all my girls, asks me how you are, and leaves alone.” Arabella’s sigh showed how much of a slight it was to her otherwise flawless record. With a sidelong glance, she smirked “Not that you care, obviously.”
“I can’t afford to care, Bella. It’s best I stay away. For both of us.” She reminded herself, again. With a valiant smile, Catryn insisted “Besides, he’s just hoping I’ll come back because I made money for the guild.”
“If you say so.”
Changing the subject, she asked “How’s Lissa doing?”
Casually, but watching Catryn like a hawk for her reaction, Arabella said “She wants to move upstairs.”
She coughed into her drink, surprised, and wiped her mouth before mumbling “Oh.”
“I worry.” Catryn corrected her friend. Unlike some women, she wasn’t appalled by what Arabella and her girls did. She wouldn’t exactly choose it as a career herself, but it wasn’t disapproval that concerned her with Lissa. “She is reckless as it is. She begged me to keep her safe, but she flaunts herself in more ways than she knows.”
Lowering her voice to barely a whisper, Arabella asked “You think the temptation to use her magic would be too great in certain situations?”
It wouldn’t be the first time, Catryn thought darkly. But she pushed it aside before it could swallow her in memories again. “I think that temptation is the name of the game here. She’s too young.”
“She’s sixteen.” Arabella challenged gently.
Lissa saw fit to remind her of that every time she wanted anything. With a sigh, Catryn said “She has never quite grown up.”
Arabella could not argue with that. She of all people understood what a brat Lissa could be. But she pulled out a bottle of her finer whiskey and poured two glasses. “You can’t compare her life to yours. You had already killed at her age.”
She sighed and murmured “It’s not like I had a choice, Bella.”
“Nor did I.” She replied quietly, downing her drink and pouring another. “But she isn’t like us, Wolf. She wants to help people and make them happy.”
“I don’t want her to be like me.” She admitted quietly, though she disagreed with Arabella’s assessment. Nursing the glass, she took a hesitant sip and winced as it burned her throat. “I’ll talk to her about the job. If you even want her there?”
“She’s a natural working the room. The rest…I have a good feeling about her.”
Catryn tried not to read too far into the glint in Arabella’s eyes, and groaned. “Just…none of the weird ones, alright?”
“They are all weird, sweetheart.” With a mischievous grin, she said “Some of them even request you.”
“And that’s my cue to leave.” Catryn stood and hitched her bag up onto her shoulders. Her glass was left, barely touched, on the counter.
Arabella turned her gaze to the simple wooden door of her office, on the other side of the room. “Would you like me to call her over?”
“No, leave her be. I don’t want to interrupt.” Lissa always grew heavily involved with her work, and never appreciated being disturbed. Besides, she wanted some time to decide what she would say to her little sister. Dropping some coins on the bar, Catryn reasoned “I’ll be here tomorrow. I will make time before I leave to talk to her about her…ambitions.”
“Leave the mask at home. You need a day off.”
Knowing that she would not go anywhere without it, Catryn just smiled. “We’ll see.”
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