The pain was unbearable.
An agonizing wait filled the space between each new drop falling – my face became a burning sea, each new drop a wave of fire. Held in eternity, I waited for the next wave, dreading that fire, but it never came. Instead, scared and angry screams replaced the laughter to which I had become far too accustomed.
The soft familiar sound of leather boots became too slowly distant and the clamor of steel followed. A metal arm grabbed at me. I made myself small; I tried to move away. But the arm grabbed me anyway. Then I heard the voice and stopped struggling. “By the Vault’s Perfect Key, what did those animals do to you?”
The hard soil was gone; instead arms of icy steel cradled me.
The pain was unbearable, but that was good… it meant I would live.
Natalia leaned against a store wall, silent and calm except for her left hand. In it she held a cruel looking switchblade which she flipped open, habitually, every so often in a casual automatic movement requiring no conscious effort.
She wore an old dark leather outfit stained with grease between the colors. Short raven hair and emerald eyes highlighted her silky white skin. She was beautiful, except for the scar. Half the left side of her face flowed like melted wax, wrinkled and discolored – her eye an empty milky orb that just followed the movement of the right one, the normal one.
She seemed distracted, unfocused, yet moved with certainty through her surroundings, the seedy side of Old Korvosa.
Three and four story buildings loomed overhead, filling the filthy, narrow alleys with long shadows. Most of the inhabitants were working, at either the docks or the workshops. Those that remained slept after their nightly routines, keeping away from the streets even by day. Here and there, Natalia noticed someone in a window of the building in front of her. Sometimes a kid or an old woman had the misfortune to notice Natalia, who snarled at them if they looked at her for very long. Those unfortunates crept quickly back into the safety of the holes from whence they came.
The narrow alleys would make most claustrophobic, but not Natalia. Experienced with working and moving in tight places, she worried more about open areas where anyone lingering at crumbling windows might see her and take interest; she kept herself to the shadows with a snarl on her lips and her blade moving in hand, open then closed, habitual, automatic, threatening.
Jedediah walked slowly to the door of his house, though he could hardly call it a house. It lacked the elegance, the artistry of architecture, of the apartments in Midland District. It was barely more than a room.
He stopped, gut instinct kicking in even before he saw the slim figure leaning beside his door. The figure had already noticed him, twisting the weapon it held ready in its hand ever so slightly toward him. Jedediah took a breath and approached, but not before surreptitiously feeling for the dagger hidden in his sleeve.
The figure, now clearly visible as a woman, concealed her weapon and moved away from the wall, stepping directly into his path. She showed her now empty hands, allowed her face to soften a bit. “Come on Jed, you know I mean no harm,” she said. “Keep your hands off that dagger – you are not as fast as you once were.”
Jedediah shook his head and breathed out in frustration with a huff and a glare, but put his hands in front of him all the same. He might not be getting any younger, but he still had enough wits and reflexes about him to keep on top of his game, even without the dagger. “What do you want, Miss Crow?” he asked, “You know you are not permitted here. He won’t be pleased.”
Natalia shrugged, her eyes watching his. Jedediah felt a shiver run through his body when he met the dead, expressionless orb on her left side. “You know what I want Jed,” she said.
He expected and feared that answer and shook his head vigorously. “You know I can’t sell you any more pesh,” he whispered angrily, “You know what your father would do to me if he found out.”
Her expression changed suddenly from a moment of rage to sadness and then frustration. “I don’t care what he thinks,” she said, “he was never there. If he wants to protect one of his bastards he can go and find another one.” Natalia bit her lip, the burning pain making her feel a bitterness she did not intend.
“Miss Crow,” Jed said, hoping his next words would be enough to allow him to pass, “whatever problem you have with your kin is exactly that…your problem, so stop wasting my time.” It was too much to hope for. One of her hands went to his torso, stopping him – the other grabbed his wrist as Jedediah instinctively let the dagger slip from his sleeve into his hand. She was inside his defenses before he had any time to react. Her face came close to his, the left milky eye looking directly into his eye, her scar almost brushing against his skin. Her lips so nearly touched his that anyone looking would mistake her for his lover.
Her whisper was sharp and cold like metal, piercing his flesh. “I will tell you this, once. I don’t want pesh, I need it. It’s the only damn thing that takes the pain away. You will sell it to me, or…”
“Or what?” said Jedediah, “Are you telling the guard about me?”
Natalia smiled, not a nice smile but a cold and calculated one. Her good eye looked at him intensely and she knew, whatever she said, she was going to have a hold over him. “Tell me, Jed, why aren’t you using the guild’s uniform, or the colors of your gang.” Jedediah went pale as she continued, “Oh sorry, I forgot. You are a freelancer, right? Why is that? In a city where the only legal guild is the criminal one, that makes you what?”
Jedediah went from pale to red so fast that Natalia almost began laughing. She took a breath and said calmly “Jed, don’t take me wrong. I think your violation of the guild’s rules is your own damn business, but if I go through the guild, a friend of mine will know, and that imbecile would do anything in his power to keep me without my medicine. So let’s be reasonable, Jed. Give me what I want and I will leave you alone.”
He breathed deeply. The girl was nothing but trouble. For a moment he considered killing her and good riddance. But it was just a thought. He might risk getting caught selling to her, but he was not crazy enough to kill her. After all, she was a bastard of a Hellknight captain, killing her would have consequences. There were a lot of things they could do to a murderer, things worse than execution. The ruthless, relentless Order of the Nail never offered mercy or compassion.
Jedediah said nothing; he carefully opened his coat and took out a bag. He opened it, exposing five clay vials. Natalia took one with a steady hand and uncorked it. The milky, viscous liquid’s smell assaulted her senses, and she slowly corked it again, putting it inside her belt pouch.
Natalia took a bag of her own, heavy with the sound of coin against coin. “This should be enough Jed… but let me ask you something first. What do you know about Lamm’s little lambs?”
Jedediah forgot himself for a moment and burst into laughter. Just posing that question could end up haunting the mad girl. “Kid, forget about them. Lamm and his boys are monsters.” He glanced meaningfully at the scars covering her face, “So, they were the ones, right?”
Natalia bolted a step back when Jedediah reached up to try to touch her scar. Her face flushed and hate filled the only eye that mattered. “That is my business. I have one more question for you. Who is the one with the expensive clothes?”
Jedediah’s eyes lit up for a moment with realization. Acid. “Yargin. Months ago they went underground. Whatever they are doing, they are hiding well. No one has heard from them since. Do yourself a favor and forget about them.”
Natalia tossed the bag of coins to the floor. Jedediah reached for the bag and looked up, but Natalia was already gone.
(featured in Wayfinder, Vol. 1)