It been miserable cold and wet when hunger finally drove Merriweather Rose and me to the Diving Pelican square to spy on the Voices' Inn. Winter been a bad time in Lonport to be a canal brat. The rain kept visitors from the Lord's and Lady's Temples, and most folk stayed inside as much as they could so thieving didn't be easy. 'Course, the Voices could always command the rain to miss them, or command their clothes to shed water if they wanted, so they been undaunted by three days solid rain. Naught could keep their arrogance from their evening wine and a good day's boasting.
We sat with our backs to the fountain, hugging our knees for warmth. The spray from the fountain been warmer than the icy rain, and there didn't be no dry place to watch the inn from that wouldn't chase us away. We watched closely as each patron entered the Inn, looking for a likely target to nab on their way home.
Two third-year apprentices from up on Hill wandered across the square. One of them caught sight of us and pointed. His companion laughed. "Canal trash!" he jeered. "Sitting under the fountain like fools!" They shook their heads and pushed open the door to the Inn.
"Snots," Merriweather growled, her green eyes dull beneath the red hair plastered to her forehead. "Wish I could knife them scum."
I nodded, teeth chattering loudly. But apprentices didn't carry much coin, and neither of us had a knife. Neither of us had nothing, for that matter, but the clothes we wore. And that was why we been after a big pinching that night: a Master or Mistress.
Merriweather been uneffected by the Voice. She been practicing against Mistress Serenia until even she couldn't make Merri stop running away. It been a risk going after a Voice, we knew, but we been so hungry, it hardly mattered much.
We spotted our tag not long after the apprentices went in. He been a big man with a bushy brown beard who came stomping over Fishers Canal like he been trying to wake the very stones themselves. His cloak been thrown back over his shoulders, and he been singing to the clouds like they might hear him. What caught Merri's eye and mine was the bulging pouch dancing back and forth where it hung from his belt as he stomped along.
He strode across the square and stopped before us, grinning down. "Glorious evening young lasses," he said. "Can you tell me where I might find the Diving Pelican Inn?"
Merri and I exchanged glances. Obviously he was new to Lonport.
"Be you a Voice?" Merri asked innocently.
The man laughed. "I am many things, but it is an Inn patroned by Voices, is it not?" he asked grinning. "Do you know the way?"
Merri pointed at the light shining through the door. "It be right there, good sir," she said meekly.
He turned to look and bellowed a laugh. "Right there, by Gods! If it had been a serpent it would have bit my nose!" He chuckled again and gave an exaggerated sigh. "My thanks to you, lasses, for setting me straight. And might I add a bit of advice?" He pointed at the black sky with a massive hand. "You might find the evening a bit drier if you didn't sit beneath the fountain spray."
That said, he laughed again and headed for the inn.
"He be drunk already," Merriweather said, nodding at him as he disappeared inside.
"But he be armed with sword," I pointed out.
"Aye, but a few more drinks, and he won't be able to use it. If he comes out again alone, I say we tag him."
We set our trap in a narrow alley a distance from the Voice's Inn on the opposite side of the square. Though the rain kept most folk inside, we felt better nabbing him away from the main paths of traffic where he might get help quick. It been close enough to Pumpkin Bridge that we could take it fast and lose ourselves in the smaller squares that formed the harbor front. They been a jumble and a maze. We canal brats knew how to lose ourselves harborside, and if we could get ourselves the next square over, we'd be safe enough from any following. It seemed unlikely a big man would have much chance of catching us, and the city guards rarely bothered with Diving Pelican square, figuring the Voices could protect themselves. Normally, they'd be right. But Merri been immune to the Voice, and tonight we'd test that full.
A house with its back to the alley burned two seasons ago, and the owner been rebuilding. The alley been mostly blocked by bricks and lumber, and it been easy enough to make it look like I'd been hurt by a falling stack of wood. If she could convince him to come, Merri would lead our tag down the alley to help me, and she'd snag his purse halfway. We would both run then, praying he'd try to stop Merri with the Voice while I escaped, protected in part by the mess in the alley. It didn't be no perfect plan, but no plan was ever perfect. It seemed good enough to us.
I sat shivering in the alley in a puddle, my leg stuck under part of a beam, waiting for Merri to return with our tag. Eventually it stopped raining, and a lamplighter passed soon after it started growin dark. He didn't see me as he lit the torch on the corner, and I was glad for it, but most folk never noticed us canal brats, so that been nothing new.
It been long, long after dark when I heard Merri's voice approaching, urging someone to hurry.
I quickly laid back on the damp cobbles and moaned loudly.
"She be down here, sir," I heard Merri say. "Please hurry!"
Only a Voice, Exocutioner, or fool would rush down a dark alley at night following canal trash, but our tag turned the corner without hesitation. He looked even bigger with the lamplight behind him and his face masked in shadows, and I didn't have to fake the whimper that came out of my mouth. Truth was, I was scared… scared for me and scared for Merri, but it was too late to go back now. I moaned, loud, so he could hear me.
He was halfway to me when I saw Merri skillfully slice the cord to the pouch with a bit of broken glass.
I cried out again to distract him, but he noticed the absence of weight despite my effort. He whirled, but Merri been sprinting down the alley already.
I slipped out from beneath the beam and lept to my feet, preparing to fly.
"HALT!" the man commanded in the Voice.
It been aimed at Merri, but it nearly stopped me, instead, such been the power he used in the Word. I stumbled forward, slowed by feet that wanted to obey his will.
Glancing over my shoulder I saw Merri still in full flight, about to near the corner. There was something whirling in his hand... two rocks tied on opposite ends of a rope.
I gasped, realizing his intent. I'd seen Exocutioners use their binders in a fight. "Merri watch out!" I shouted, even as he let the weapon fly.
Merri ducked reflexively and rolled, but the binder sailed toward her like it had eyes of its own. I barely had time to see it strike her tumbling body before the man turned towards me. I stumbled backwards, seeing him pull another binder from somewhere beneath his cloak. He smiled sadly as he whirled it in his hand.
I turned and fled in panic then, but made only a few steps before my head exploded in a shower of lights and stars.
I woke to a splitting headache, immediately aware that I been trussed up like a farmer's pig, unable to move my hands or feet, totally at the mercy of my captor. My stomach heaved, but had naught in it to throw up. I been shivering and wet, and I felt sicker than I had in many, many long moons.
"Look what you done to her," Merriweather said beside me. "She hadn't done nothing, sir... please, I beg you, let her go! I been the one who stole your pouch." I recognized our tag's voice as he chuckled. "Aye, but you can't tell me you weren't working together. No, you're a pair of thieves, the both of you, and you'll both get the punishment you deserve for thieving."
I opened my eyes briefly. We were still in the alley, but nearer the lamp. The flickering light made the world tumble like dice in a leather cup, so I closed my eyes up again tightly. The punishment for thieving in Lonport was loss of a hand to the ax, but that moment I wished it might have been my head instead.
The man continued when Merri didn't answer. "You do know the punishment for pouchpinchers, don't you?" he asked.
"Aye," Merriweather said, and I been proud of her 'cause her voice didn't quiver a bit, nor did she sound the least afraid. But then, Merri had a will of stone and not many things could make her scared... not the threat of losing a hand for certain. She been too tough for that.
"Is this pouch really worth the price of your hand?" the man asked.
"Aye, sir, when you be starving," Merri said meekly, and I knew she was trying to tease his heart. "What be the loss of a hand when you be dying anyways?"
The man snorted and was silent for a moment. "You're clever, girl. Very clever, and yet.... What is your name?"
"I be Merriweather Rose," she said. "And this be my sister Elintina. Please let her go, sir. I be older than her, and forced her to it. Don't you think she been punished enough for that? Look at her... she be green in the face!"
"Your concern for your sister does you credit, young Merriweather. But I can't let either of you loose to roam the streets again. That much is clear." He sighed. "How old are you?"
"I be fourteen, sir," Merriweather said.
The man snorted through his nose. "Gods' mercy but you two will cause me no end of trouble."
Thick hands grabbed my shoulders, lifting. I cried out in pain as my head seemed to re-explode, then I knew no more again.
"Wake up, Elintina," a woman's voice said. Somebody been shaking me. I hazily noted two things immediately: my head no longer hurt, and I been warm... warm as I'd not been since my parents died seven years ago. I sighed and curled up into a ball, reveling in warmth and softness and comfort. Soon, I knew, I'd be uncomfortable enough - when I been took before the Voice of Law and they chopped my hand off.
The woman chuckled softly. "Would you rather eat, or sleep?" she asked.
I wondered if she been talking to me. Surely not, 'cause noone ever offered me food. I slept in either case.
The tantalizing smell of food roused me from sleep.
"How long is she going to sleep like this?" a man's voice been saying.
"She needs the rest," the woman answered. "She's half starved and suffering from years of abuse. Her body is worn out, poor soul. It will take her longer to heal than most."
"I don't have time to wait," the man said. "I must leave for Sterling today, and I haven't found any who would take her. Noone wants a canal brat. Not even you."
"It isn't a matter of want, as you well know, Exocutioner. We have no room for her. We are already taxed to our limit by these winter floods. Perhaps next spring..."
Exocutioner? Had she said 'exocutioner?' My head felt stuffed, and I doubted my ears. I opened my eyes. They were talking about me, certain. I been a canal brat after all, and he been right. Nobody wanted a canal brat. But what had he meant, noone would take me? Had he been looking for somebody to take me? Take me where? To do what? Was he not going to turn me over to the Law himself? And where been Merri?
A woman dressed in dingy white been standing beside the man. She looked like a healer. She held a bowl in her hand which gave off a most delightful odor. My stomach growled, and she turned to me.
"Good morning," she said, smiling. "Are you hungry?"
Truth, I been starving, but I did not answer. It all been so strange... I wondered if I might be able to get to the door before they caught me if I took them by surprise.
The man laughed. "Don't even think about trying to escape, girl," he said as if he could read my mind. "You belong to me, now, by command of the Voice of Law."
He nodded when he saw my wide eyes. "Oh yes. I asked her to spare you and your sister if I promised to take responsibility for you, and that's just what I intend to do. You are mine, and you'll do as I Say, if need be."
Merri might be able to resist his Voice, I knew, but I could not. It been an effective threat, and I felt my stomach turn again. He could do anything to me! Force me to do anything for him!
"Trent," the healer said reproachfully, sitting in a chair beside my bed. "You're terrifying her. Elintina," she said, and I wondered how she knew my name, "Trent is a Paladin of the Sun, an Exocutioner. He will not hurt you."
"I wouldn't say that," the man growled. "I'll do many things if pushed far enough."
I looked back and forth between the two. I didn't believe they been telling the truth, neither of them. The man been no Paladin of the Sun, that been certain, no matter that he could use their binders. He didn't wear no armor, nor wear their red and gold tabard. And besides, no Paladin would take note of a canal brat, even one who tried to pinch his purse, lest it be to hand her to the Guard, or lop her hand off himself to save the Law the effort. Exocutioners could do that, execute the Law. Obviously they wanted me for something else... like whatever they did to Merriweather that she been nowhere by. There been many a Voice in Lonport with a wicked lust for torture and blood. One of my friends.... Merri and I seen his body floating down in Crow's canal... cut and shredded... I gagged at the memory and tried to hide further under the blankets. Whatever they wanted, I wished they'd get it over with.
"Aren't you hungry?" the woman asked, holding out the bowl.
I shook my head.
The man snorted. "Nonsense, girl. You must be hungry. Your sister ate herself sick. What are you afraid of?"
"What have you done with her?" I finally asked.
The man smiled. "Ah, so that's what's troubling you. I'll tell you then. I have a friend in the Voice guild, one Master Fenard, who agreed to take her on as his apprentice. With as strong a will as she has, she'll do well there. She told me to tell you, `keep your nose down.'"
I inhaled sharply. It been our password, our private joke... keep your nose down so you wouldn't drown like a sheep staring up at a raincloud. Keep your nose down so the tags couldn't look you in the eyes... Keep your nose down so the bullies wouldn't think you been getting uppity and stomp you down again... canal trash weren't allowed to have pride...
"What does that mean, anyway?" he asked.
I didn't answer. Why would Merri tell him our password? Unless he'd forced it out of her somehow. But Merri been so strong... It must have been awful to make her tell a secret like that.
Without another thought, I sprang out of the bed and darted for the door.
"STOP!" he commanded, and my legs froze in place. I squeezed my eyes closed so I wouldn't have to watch whatever would happen next.
After a moment the woman said, "I told you, Trent."
I shivered in the cold air. My clothes been gone. I been wearing nothing but a shapeless grey tunic instead, and it been cold without no breeches.
I heard the man walk around until he was standing in front of me. I still could not move, so I just waited for him to hit me. That been what people did to me and Merry. Kick, beat. It wouldn't be the first time I'd been beaten by a Voice.
"Look at me, Elintina," he said.
He didn't use the Voice, so I didn't obey.
"All right, don't look at me," he sighed. "But know this. I mean you no harm. I swear it by the Lord's light. I want to help you, but I can't do that unless you trust me. I can't let you go back to the squares... I promised that much to the Law. And since I can't find anyone else who is willing to take you, I'll have to look after you myself, at least until your sister is in a position to take care of you herself. You can either make this very easy, or very difficult on yourself. What will it be?"
I opened my eyes. He sounded so sincere, but I knew better than to trust a Voice by the way he sounded. He looked sincere, too, but then, so did Merriweather when she been trying to touch some merchant for a handout. So did I when I been begging, too. Looks meant nothing, neither. Looks been used to deceive more often than naught.
"He's telling the truth, Elintina," the woman said. "Surely you can trust my word? You must know that the Lady's healers do not lie."
If she really been a Lady's healer, I thought. But I had to admit it didn't make much sense. Why waste such effort on a nobody like me?
"Why would you be helping the likes of me?" I finally asked.
The man smiled. "I've sworn the Paladin's oath to help those less fortunate than myself," he said. "And since the good Gods saw fit to throw you and your sister forcibly into my path, I will keep that oath. It seems clear to me that Merriweather was fated to learn the Voice. A will as strong as hers is a rare treasure indeed. But what of you? Will you let me help you? Shall we find your fate together?"
It been truth that Merri belonged in the Voice guild. It been what she wanted most, always, but getting there seemed so impossible. And she'd always sworn she'd take care of me, ever since our folks died, she'd sworn. But she been gone.... Would she really leave me in the hands of a stranger, even if she'd had a chance to learn the Voice? No. Merri wouldn't abandon me. Not without a fight. She wouldn't!
"Merri wouldn't leave me," I said aloud.
"It's true that she did not want to," the man said. "But the Priestess and I convinced her to do what's right... to join the guild and learn the Voice. In a year's time, she may be able to earn a living for both of you."
"You be lying!" I spat. "She wouldn't leave me! She swore she wouldn't. She wouldn't! I want to see her!"
"New Voice apprentices are sequestered in the Hall until they pass their first trials. I'm afraid that's impossible at this point. However, after we return from our trip, I may be able to make special arrangements for you to visit her."
"Trip? We? What trip?" I could feel the panic rising in my stomach, and I was trying hard not to blubber like a baby.
"After you've eaten the food this Temple has graciously supplied you," the man said, "we will be leaving on trip. I have some temple business I must conduct."
"Leave? Leave where? Why can't I stay with Merri?"
"She's been taken as a Voice apprentice, girl. You can't stay with her, and I swore to the Law that I would not let you return to the squares. So I'm taking you with me to Sterling."
"Sterling?! But... but... I don't want to go to Sterling!" For some reason I felt like my whole world been crumbling like rubble around me. There been nothing to grab onto... I been even more scared than the first time I been caught by a Voice... I just wanted Merri back, even if it been to get our hands chopped off together... I still couldn't believe she'd just up and abandon me! And I couldn't leave Lonport.... I didn't know noplace else! "P-Please, sir," I stammered, "d-don't take me from my home!" I looked entreatingly at the lady for support.
She looked at me sadly, measuringly.
"Elintina," she said slowly, "The canals of Lonport may seem like home to you, but they are cruel and pitiless. This man, this Paladin, offers you much more than the canals could ever do. He will feed you, clothe you, protect you. He will make sure you are never too hungry and never too cold. Just as he brought you here to be healed, he will always be there to help you."
"I don't need help!" I said indignantly.
"True enough," the man said. "You are no fool. And only a fool would turn down the offer that I make to you now: Mind my orders as would a page, and I will look to your every need. In addition, would... half a silver every moon be sufficient pay?"
Half a silver every moon! Why, I'd be rich! I sobered. I couldn't believe it.... It been a trap, a lie. It couldn't be true, something like that. He just been trying to get me to go without no fight. To go without Merri...
The woman held out the bowl again. "Elintina," she said quietly, "have some food, and think about it on a full stomach."
My stomach grumbled so loudly that they both smiled. I frowned. "How do I know it don't be poisoned?"
She smiled and ate a spoonful herself. "See?" She held it out to me.
It smelled so good, I can't tell you. I decided it might be worth being poisoned just to taste it. I snatched the bowl from her hand and sat down in the corner to eat, ignoring the spoon that she still held out. It been delicious soup... it even had chunks of meat in it... I tried to remember the last time I'd had fresh meat…it been Springfest when my drunk tag dropped the chicken leg he'd been eating. I'd gone for the chicken instead of his pouch, and it'd been so good I'd eaten it all, not even saving a bite for Merri. I'd felt so bad after that I'd cried when I seen her, but she forgave me with a laugh... Merri always forgave me... no matter what dumb or awful thing I done.
Merri… I couldn't believe she'd leave me. I missed her even now. But learning the Voice had been her dream. If these two been telling the truth, I could hardly blame her for it.
I finished the soup and stared at the bottom of the bowl, tears finally coming. I wiped `em away, mad at myself. I didn't want to seem weak nor so helpless as I felt.
"Well?" Trent said, bending over to take the bowl from my hands. "Do you come with me willingly, or do I Command you?"
I been sitting in a corner in more ways than one, I knew. What choice did I have, really? "You promise to pay me?" I asked, not daring to look him in his face.
"If you'll serve me as a page, yes."
"What do that mean?" I risked a glance up at him, and saw him smile briefly.
"A page will tend to my armor, weapons, and my horse. You'll help me set up and take down camp. You'll cook and run errands for me. You'll work hard, but I will not ask you to do anything you're unwilling to do. That I swear upon my honor."
Well, that was the trick, now, eh? What if he didn't have no honor? I swallowed, feeling the fear rise up again. "I don't know how to do none of them things," I said honestly.
"Then you'll have much to learn." He kneeled in front of me, then, and took my face in one large hand, tilting my face up so I was forced to look into his eyes. "I will teach you these things, Elintina. I will take care of you."
"I don't trust you!" I said, almost defiantly.
He pursed his lips and nodded once. "Then I'll endeavor to teach you how to do that, as well."
That took me by surprise.
He smiled and stood up, holding his hand out to me. "We must go," he said seriously. "How's it to be?"
I stared at his hand. It was strong and calloused, and I wondered if my hands would look like that after serving as his page. But he could always Command me, anyways. Was it better to force him to it? Or go willingly? I just didn't trust noone except Merri. But Merri wasn't here. Could I ever trust anyone else?
"Please," Trent said still holding out his hand, and his eyes entreated me.
"A full silver!" I said, testing him.
He frowned, though I could see his eyes twinkle. "Half a silver and five coppers."
I swallowed, and took his hand. "Deal," I said, and let him pull me to my feet.
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