He had aki n’di ori blue eyes, but instead of the typical light cobalt, they were an intense, cold turquoise, a beautiful color nearly hid under the almost constant narrow-eyed glare he deposited on the rough rowdies surrounding him. He had smooth, light tan skin, high cheekbones, a thin nose, and a sensuous mouth that reminded her of paintings she had seen in her father’s books depicting aristocratic families who lived along the Strait of Co Jer and the Sea of Condioh. His body appeared sleek and refined under the black, fitted silk shirt and baggy pants, a general aki n’di sindari martial uniform style popular amongst the tribal peoples. He moved with an unconscious grace that spoke of long sunmarks wielding a sword, so he likely practiced one of their martial arts. He reminded her of Kethti in the myth Kan Ivore, a powerful yet graceful warrior who won the Ra i’ dori competition and captured the attention of his future lover, the dragonmaster Ivore.
She looked gloomily into her empty mug, depressed at the direction of her thoughts. Who might she attract, with her graceless swordwork, her soft black hair, sun-kissed skin and tourmaline-green Condi eyes, all dulled by her functional, well-worn leathers? Most preferred the refined beauty of a palace siojhetioh, especially one with corn-silk hair, porcelain skin and enchanting dark blue eyes that matched the glittering blue of her wispy skirts. She shoved the thought to the back of her mind; no, no more dwelling on Rien and Kitta.
She raised her mug to signal a refill from the harried barkeep, wanting more ale to dull the memory. Over three lesser seasons ago Rien had cast her aside, claiming that she no longer fulfilled his needs, and took with Kitta, the newest shining star of Queen Tinera’s court. Kitta matched his fame and social rank; she, the brilliant wielder, he the vigorous, skilled swordsman whom the queen had immediately noticed when he began attending the palace guard practice sessions. Now, after winning the palace guard captain badge, he felt that a nondescript fighter such as Shiobe hindered him in elite eyes, and Kitta, a cherished mystery artist with magick bursting from her fingertips, stressed his station.
Of course, their relationship had died long, long before that final break. Sometimes she wondered if it had ended three years ago, before they had left Tura for a better life in the White City of Iova, considering how he treated her when they finally reached its glittering streets.
Kitta had avoided her since becoming Rien’s lover. Not that the siojhetioh had sought much friendly contact since gaining her current position as the queen’s most beloved wielder, but Shiobe had enjoyed their brief moments together. Those times had reminded her of their secluded childhood in the border village of Tura, when Kitta had not been so aloof or haughty.
When Rien had not acted like a surly ass.
Raucous laughter erupted from the arriving shopworkers and apprentices, men who had enough coin to eat in a decent tavern after their workday, but instead chose that place because of the cheap drinks. Their arrival signaled the beginning of the Switch, when the daytime workers found an evening meal and a hearty drink, and those who worked the evening shifts ate and drank with them before trudging to their respective jobs. The Switch usually meant more expensive, watery ale, and Shiobe sighed, wondering if the drink would balance the increased wait.
The beautiful man shifted and rose, granting those milling about him a terrifyingly icy look that should have frozen them in place, had they paid attention to him. Shiobe glanced at the barkeep, realized a full mug long in coming, and rose herself. She nervously brushed at her faded but clean leathers and rearranged her sword about her waist while waiting for her interest to stride from the tavern. She had time to idle, with nowhere else to go. If she returned to her room at the Shady Sword, a small, dark affair with a single window that opened into the alley below, it would only bring her loneliness perilously close to the surface. She would rather stand in the raucous crowd than sit in the shadows of shattered dreams and contempt. She idly wondered if she should just meander over and leave with him—but no. She had nothing to say to the beautiful man if he noticed her—Kitta possessed the smooth tongue.
He slipped through the shopworkers and apprentices as if a clear path lay before him. She tried to bury a small tinge of jealousy; how she wished she had the ability to flow through a crowd without jostling those crammed into the small space. Instead, she waded through the clusters of people, awkwardly avoiding boots and thumping into bodies that suddenly appeared in her way. She hated the foul hoots falling from smiling mouths when she collided with them, and she vowed to leave earlier the next time she patronized the place. Not that she had the coin to do so often, but little enough occupied her time after the palace sword practices that, when she could spare a copper shenk, she drank there.
She exited the tavern and glanced about in the hazy evening light, half-wishing to see the direction the man walked. Instead she gazed upon even more hungry shopworkers and the grubs out begging for their coin. She gave all of them as cold a glare as she could manage. The grubs grumbled and scurried away, and any shopworker who showed an initial interest turned away in scorn when they realized she wore a sword instead of a lace scarf about her hips. She muttered darkly to herself. Men rarely took an interest in a woman who had the ability to protect herself—unless that ability was magickal and wielded by a gauzy-clad, beautiful palace siojhetioh. Then the gift to kill a man with a sphere of fire or a shock of lightning became attractive, exciting.
She elbowed her way to the far edge of the sidewalk, annoying one hungry man enough he pushed her, hard. She rammed against the rotting wood of the building’s wall with a wince. She placed her back against the grey, splintery wood and peered down the street, hoping for a small opening to slip past the crowd and into a clearer section of street. Three years had not perfected her city skills to the point she could skim through a crowd, but at least she was not a country bumpkin who never managed to traverse a congested walkway without getting robbed.
She rubbed at her forehead; the small accomplishment meant little in the scheme of things, especially considering her failures. She had yet to receive the training she needed to become the dreamed-of swordswoman of legend, had yet to find a position that paid her more than a pittance, had yet to have anyone of import take her seriously as a fighter—including Rien, who once promised to teach her all he knew so they could face the world’s dangers side by side.
The crowd parted slightly. She focused on a breadseller’s cart and grumbled to herself about the reason for the clogged sidewalk. Iova had plenty of space set aside in the squares for people like him to ply their trade, which, ostensibly, kept them from jamming up the streets during busy times. She could track down a guard to hassle the merchant, but she far more wished to find her handsome interest.
She finally glimpsed his head above the crowd, then frowned. A grub had joined him, speaking rapidly and flapping his arms about excitedly, nearly jumping from foot to foot. Shopworkers avoided them, granting the grub annoyed glares, though a few cast him a look that indicated they felt sorry for the crazy man. That the stranger appeared to listen to him made her frown deeper. What had a well-dressed fighter to do with this particular grub? Men such as he usually cast the needy aside with distaste and displeasure; she had seen the palace guard and shadowwalkers do it often enough, even while claiming to help those same people by donating a bit of food or clothing to a temple. Of course, most of that charity occurred after a random mob rained destruction through the lower city and people connected to the throne needed to prove that the palace held some sort of compassion for the commoner, however minute.
She shoved her hands into her pockets as a gentle, chill, early Spiced Air breeze blew between the dull gray stone buildings, and moved forward, intent on keeping pace with the two, her indomitable curiosity needling her. She had noticed that grub at odd intervals over the past two lesser seasons, mainly lounging near the palace workers’ gate. He always looked too dusty, as if he purposefully dumped a bucket of fine dirt over his head before begging, and he peered intently at those exiting the grounds without accomplishing much soliciting. He stooped and whined fast enough if he thought someone paid him too much interest, but she had never seen him accept any coin or food. She had mentioned his behavior to Rien, but he expressed extreme skepticism that the man might be anyone more sinister than a ratty grub trying to figure out how to beg effectively. Spies, he insisted, did not sit at the entrance to the servants’ gate and plead for food in plain sight.
Maybe so, but it still struck her as odd.
She muttered quietly to herself as she replayed the confrontation. Rien continually cautioned every palace guard and hired fighter to look sharp in public places because four years ago, King Shiel of Illena took advantage of a nasty civil war and invaded the neighboring country of Merren. He quite easily destroyed the usurper king within a year and squashed the glimmerings of native rebellion right after. The successful invasion became the first step on the road to recreating the expansive Jonna Empire, an ambition he did not hide, and which made him a dangerous enemy to Soline and the other countries south of the Sea of Condioh. The Iovan palace believed the Illenans had spies in the capital, and any suspicious activity needed to be investigated with all haste. Yet Rien had not listened to her when she noticed such activity, and if she told him of this encounter now, he would scoff at her for repeating the subject.
The descent of darkness provided her with deeply shadowed recesses to hid in while she followed the two men. They meandered through the congested, modest merchant-class streets and into the dirtier, darker, more dangerous alleyways of the Lower City—a district she called home. A district of crumbling stone buildings erected centuries ago, when that part of Iova had prospered, when daintily clad noblewomen and their eager escorts had walked the pristine, paved streets without worry of a docksman stabbing them in the back before he robbed them. Such a carefree time, before the current ruling family destroyed those nobles to gain power and constructed a new, brilliant white palace to the northeast. The once bright structures had greyed with age, their carefully crafted stones tumbled down into the streets. The sculptures had cracked and fallen, their damaged heads and hands and torsos shoved to the side of the broken paving stones and left to gather moss or become the property of looters. The once opulent mansions now provided inadequate housing for families who shoved a dozen members into single-room abodes created from old drawing rooms and pantries, giving them a roof to sleep beneath and little else.
True night fell before they reached their destination—a narrow, secluded alley between two abandoned, dilapidated warehouses near the old city wall. Shiobe crept quietly through the shadows, carefully peering around the corner at them as they walked towards four other smears of shadow. One paced in jerky agitation, and leapt towards the new arrivals, flinging out a hand whose fingers glint with jewelry.
“Lord Sikode!” he shouted in angry derision.
Her mouth fell open as another man quickly hushed the speaker with what looked like a sharp jab in the ribs. Lord Sikode? She knew of one Sikode; King Shiel’s confidant and champion, a man of refined tastes and a deadly sword. A man, the Soline gossip claimed, whose abilities in the Flame martial arts helped him personally destroy the wielders guarding the desperate Merren usurper king. The gossips delighted in the grim details of the mystery artists’ deaths, and relished the thought of a once-proud king turned into sniveling man begging on his knees to be handed to anyone else but the Rakan, who did not treat the enemy kindly or nicely.
Who else in Soline dared possess that name? It was hardly a common Catak moniker in the aki n’di ori tribes, let alone out-land. She swallowed as her heart pounded in her throat. Had she truly happened upon that Sikode? Dare she try to overhear what they had to say and find out?
She moved out of sight and leaned against the hard, cold stone wall as the low hum of agitated voices began in the background. She thumped the back of her head lightly against the rock and sternly grounded herself. She had briefly let her imagination get the better of her. Even if she thought the grub behaved oddly, the man with him could not possibly be that Sikode. Besides, who at the palace would believe her if she claimed she followed Lord Sikode of Illena to a meeting with five men? Rien would roll his eyes and proclaim her overactive imagination got the better of her, Natan would never consider this important enough for shadowwalker concern, and Rooster had no reason to send his city guard to an out-of-the-way alley to check on petty criminals when more important duties awaited them. She was worthless and powerless in this situation.
She glanced down the vacant, unlit, crumbling street; most residents refused to travel this area at night for fear of attack—only thieves or worse walked these roads after dark. And she had been stupid enough to follow two of them. She clenched her teeth as she situated her sword on her hip and flexed her fingers. She had enough training to protect herself from the random scum others feared but confronting multiple criminals all at once did not favor her. She strained to hear the voices as she inspected the shadows, determined not to be caught off-guard by a late arrival.
The thought thrilled her. The thought terrified her. Her curiosity fought a sudden battle with her more rational self; however much she wanted answers as to why a sleek, handsome man met with a palace grub and several others in a dark backstreet alley, dying before she could ask questions did not count as brave. It counted as stupid. She needed to walk away before something terrible did happen to her, and plan her next move once safely locked inside her room.
She caught motion from the corner of her eye. She whirled as a hand snaked around the corner and grabbed her. With a startled squeal, she stumbled into the alleyway, her collar in the hands of the beautiful stranger. He jerked her to him and grabbed her chin, forcing her to look at him. She clamped her hands around his wrist and tried to push her thumbs into the tender bits of arm, but her fingers slipped across chilled air. Wielded shields. Of course.
“And why follow me?” he asked in a low, cold voice. His tone slid over her like a Frozen Air’s wind, whispering against and freezing her skin. While he spoke Jonnese very precisely, his accent indicated he came from Rakan—which meant he very well could be that Sikode.
“Why not?” she choked, the only thing she could think to say. Her mind mercifully blanked. He snorted and roughly pushed her away from him. She stumbled back and landed heavily on her rump, the chilled, slimy ground immediately soaking her thin leather pants. The fall jarred her, slammed her thoughts back into motion, and she scrambled to her feet in disgust, trying not to think of the stuff clinging to her palms.
He had used only one hand to knock her down!
He chuckled in derision. “And are you as competent with your sword as you are at stealth?”
She flinched at the dismissive tone. Her hand instinctively slapped her hilt. He watched impassively as she curled her fingers around the cold metal.
“I will kill you,” he said nonchalantly. “If you interfere.”
So cold. So confident that his skill outshined hers. “I won’t interfere,” she vowed, purposefully deepening her voice to keep it and her lower lip from quivering. He laughed, a stinging rebuke. She screamed at herself to remain calm despite the adrenaline that rushed through her veins and demanded she run far and fast, away from those frozen eyes and sharp, scathing tone. She instinctively knew he would show no mercy to the prey.
He walked to her and her inner voice shrieked at her to flee. Instead she stayed rooted, watching him with dread anticipation as he halted a pace from her. So graceful and intent—if he attacked, could she draw her sword in time to defend herself? If he did practice an eastern fighting art, he could kill without weapons, just fists and feet. Was that why he carried no blade? Perhaps her initial assumption carried weight.
“No? Then why stand at the entrance to this alley rather than remain at the counter with a full mug?”
He had noticed her at the tavern. Did he think she had orders to follow him, because why would she, otherwise? Did he wonder how long she had listened? How much of the conversation did he assume she overheard? Too bad she had let her cowardice take control; she might have bargained for her life with a bit of relevant, if false, information. She dropped her sword hand and slowly backed from him to plaster herself against the wall—no use aggravating him before she could plan an escape.
If he allowed her to escape.
She breathed deeply and finally noticed that no one else remained in the alleyway. Where had they gone? She had thought this corridor ended at the city wall—did one of the warehouses possess a secret entrance? Despite the ramshackle appearance of the buildings, the alleyway was free of debris—they could not hide from her behind a pile of garbage. She managed a glance to her left; he laughed icily at her. She looked quickly at him while he slowly scanned the alley then shrugged.
He played with her. Why? She gritted her teeth and slipped further away from him, blending into the shadow cast by the huge city wall, fighting to regain her composure. “Continue on your way,” she said in a low, bored tone. “Who am I to stop you?”
“Who indeed?” he replied. She blushed, feeling nauseous, at the dismissiveness. Was this all? No duel with the sword? No attempt to silence her? He turned sharply on his heel and walked to the street, leaving her untouched, apparently unconcerned she would run to the authorities—as if they would listen to this ludicrous tale. The contempt, the bravado, infuriated her.
“You’ll find your task much harder than you assume, Sikode,” she spat in Catak, spite causing her to use his name—the only bit of firm information at her disposal. “We’re not Merren. You seek in the shadows, but it’s the light which must concern you.”
He paused and looked over his shoulder, his eyes narrowed in something other than derision. Shiobe gazed back, a strange anticipation tightening her chest. He did not seem concerned she used his name, and the reference to Merren and the Shining Stars hardly phased him. Did she assume correctly? Was he Lord Sikode? That would explain why he did not fear the siojhetioxh who worked for the palace.
Why had King Shiel sent a high-ranking advisor like Lord Sikode to Iova? He had not come as an ambassador—everyone in Iova would know if King Shiel had sent him as an emissary. Was he spying for the Illenan crown? Or had he another reason to visit the White City?
“I’ll find you later,” he promised, using the same language.
Why? “If you avoid the shadowwalkers that long.”
The idiocy of the statement immediately made her wince. He obviously had, and would likely continue, to do so. She, a woman trained in the history, literature and languages of the Jonna empire, could not find a glibber rebuttal?
She waited for him to leave, head down, embarrassed to the point of tears, trying to ignore the amused, ominous laughter that made her blush harder, made her chest tighten and ache in humiliation. The laughter echoed away before she hurriedly walked down the alleyway, into the dark street beyond, and scurried towards the lit roads inhabited by streetwalkers and gamblers. She needed to run from her stupidity.
As much as she wished it, she could not stop from immediately replaying the event. Strange, that he had not terrified her into senselessness. Yes, her heart had beat rapidly, but she had not fallen into a mindless fear that would have completely obliterated her sense of self-preservation and her ability to protect herself. Still . . . he, Lord Sikode, did intimidate. And the menacing feel to him . . . she had no doubts as to her quick demise if she annoyed rather than entertained him.
Stupidity times two, for having stayed and listened.
She forced herself to the edge of the first brightly lit, crowded street, and paused, contemplating the crowd, avoiding the urge to run her hands over her tightly bound hair and deposit gunk from her palms in it. She needed water, and the nearest fountain was several blocks away. Firming her lips, she sidled up against the closest wall, avoided the random trash pressed against the base and scurried as fast as possible to her destination, her mind, unbidden, continuing to replay the confrontation, over and over. He promised to find her later—why? To kill her? He just had the opportunity to do that without witnesses and forsook it. Perhaps he wished for a more intimate setting to get rid of her? But that seemed unlikely. Perhaps he wanted to know what she had overheard, but, again, if it concerned him, he should have dispatched her in the dark, empty alley. Why even bother with her afterwards?
Or would he send a man to follow her? He had at least five under him, after all. Where had they gone? One of the warehouses had to contain a secret doorway. Or maybe they had used a kick-portal? It would make sense, a spy employing someone who could create a wielded doorway in one place, and have it open into another. They could kick-portal behind her without her knowledge and follow her—and she, embarrassed and upset at her inadequacies, did not bother to check for a tail.
She looked behind her but noticed no one loitering in the deeper shadows, just behind the surging crowd; disappointment stabbed her. No, of course not. He did not see her as a threat, and considering her mistakes, he was right. Why else keep her alive? Why else toy with her? Perhaps he felt her death would cause suspicion, but she knew that Rien, as confident as he was in his assessments, would assume she finally succumbed to the low-life streets he constantly warned her about. She doubted he would extricate himself from his smugness about being right to find her killer.
The fountain had a few washerwomen clustered about, looking worn and uninterested in their surroundings. She quickly washed her hands as far away from the clothes as she could manage, trying not to feel too much revulsion at the look and smell of the stuff as it floated away, then, with a wince, removed the gunk from her sword and sheath. Her pants were going to need more than a quick wash, too, but while she wanted to use the washerwomen right there, she needed to wait for another time. She refused to strip at the fountain, considering the time of day and the drunks who would immediately try to take advantage of so odd a situation. Those who sought drink after the Switch tended to imbibe heavily, and a pantsless woman would attract their fuzzed attention.
She shoved her hands into her pockets and bent her head before entering and worming through the throng of stragglers, drunkards, rowdies, and loose men and women, absently keeping an eye out for the pickpocket. She normally wandered with the crowds longer than necessary because navigating the bustle kept her from dwelling on sad memories and pain, but the smell wafting from her pants drove her home. Too bad the odor could not halt her from replaying the humiliating idiocy that described her encounter with a foreign spy, over and over again.
Deprecating laughter bubbled inside her as she approached the dimly lit, wooden building called the Shady Sword. Her final shouting match with Rien dealt with her living in the upper level of the tavern—to dwell among the cutthroats and seedies, he said. No lover of his would continue to embarrass him in such a way, and demanded she move. She had tried to tell him that no one else lived there, that the supposed haunting of the rooms from a demonic ghost kept others from renting, that her meager freelance salary could pay for nothing better, but he refused to listen—as always. He dismissed her words as he dismissed her.
Before she entered the tavern’s wide-open front door, she encountered the thick puffs of greasy smoke, a combination of smoking weed and haze from ill-ventilated fires. It trailed across her face, tickling her nose and eyes, the caustic fog causing tears that she could pretend were not a reaction to her unhappy thoughts.
How long after he broke their relationship did he try to become Kitta’s lover? Had he even waited? Doubtful.
She waved her hands in front of her face to dispel some of the irritant. Did it matter?
Her feelings for Rien had cooled considerably since their childhood. He had never sought to openly impinge her freedom in Tura, but shortly after their arrival in Iova, he decided to manage her every move, dictating where she should live to the food she ate. He constantly reminded her that she did not think before she acted, and he strove to do so for her, as if she were a bumbling soldier endlessly tripping over her own feet on the battlefield of life. Her annoyance at his controlling nature and unfair conception helped destroy any lingering warmth for him—and on top of that he accepted Kitta’s oh-so-unbiased advice despite the fact the siojhetioh brashly rushed into things without understanding the situation, which had caused several small but uncomfortable incidents at the Iovan Court. Why did he eagerly embrace the counsel of the Shining Star when she proved no better? Apparently outed affairs and broken, jeweled perfume bottles did not bother him as much as her living in the Lower City had.
She slowly plodded up the shadowy, narrow wooden stairs just to the left of the entrance, ignoring the chatter of rough men and coarse women, sinking into lonely thoughts. Kitta attracted attention wherever she walked, a sleek, shimmering siojhetioh, bejeweled and loved. Their hometown had adored her and everyone, from the youngest child to the oldest grandmother, knew the shadowartist would rise far above her humble roots and shine. And who was she, Shiobe, in comparison? Kitta’s shadow, the ignorable, duller one. Few had paid her much heed, and, other than her parents, no one thought her extraordinary talent with languages and her interest in history and literature would take her far. Tura never understood why her father proclaimed her his intellectual heir. They thought her brother should hold that honor. Pendarrin scoffed at them, because his son only knew four languages instead of eight and never buried himself in history and literature like his daughter did. Darrin ignored them in favor of sword study, and she continued reading every book she laid her hands on while studying genophyte texts with her father. She supposed that explained his anger when she eagerly told her parents that she and Rien planned to seek better sword training in Iova; he wanted her to continue her education with him, rather than escape rural Tura for a new dawn in the White City.
Sword training. So much for that. She laughed at her past gullibility regarding Rien and his promises. True, after Tonna magnanimously handed her instruction over to him when he was fourteen and she twelve, he had done his best to teach her what he knew, however poorly he did so. She desperately wanted to become a swordswoman possessing grace, agility and skill, so she accepted the oddness without comment, though it had hurt her deeply to realize a teacher she idolized did not think much of her. Those mediocre lessons had died once they reached Iova, and her lover neglected her in favor of Sian, a promising young man with fire and a naive need to protect the queen—a mirror image of her ex-lover.
She should have realized Rien’s fake support at that point, but she had not. She had continued with him, despite his growing anger, his dismissal of her swordarm, his scoffing at her languages and her learning. When he became the palace guard captain, he generously cut the meager, freelance salary the previous captain had paid her, proving that speaking Daione or knowing the history of the Jonna Empire or the floor plans of ancient temples or the Kan Ivore meant absolutely nothing to him or the palace. She now struggled to pay for a small, square room, a bit of food, and her dirt-colored wardrobe. While she took a limited number of small jobs translating foreign texts for the local bookseller Trin, that earned her enough coin to drink a mug of ale at a tavern, and little more.
She dug her key from her pocket, reached for the knob, and hesitated. Something felt odd, out of place . . .
She peered into the darkness of the hallway that led to four other rooms but could see nothing in the inky blackness. She stepped to the side, unlocked the door and shoved it open, waiting for a moment after it banged against the wall. No other sound came from her room or the hallway, no betraying footstep or breath. Yet something made her arms prickle. She quietly drew her sword and pivoted into the doorway. She saw nothing. She slowly entered the room, glancing nervously into the gloom, wishing she had thought to ask the peacekeeper for a taper. She had lived in the shadows for the last year and preferred the dimness—except when it hid the dangerous and unexpected.
She toured the room, glancing at the short wooden box she used as a larder, removing the wooden knife target from the hooks and opening the door to her closet, but the small, sparse room held no place for an assailant to hide. Except maybe under the bed. She glanced beneath anyway, feeling her face heat when dust bunnies met her eye. The feeling of dread encircled her, but she brushed it away as best as she could. It was a reaction to her night, a late response to being dragged into a dark alleyway by an underhanded man. He should have killed her. Instead she miraculously survived and arrived home to an empty room.
Why had she expected him to be there?
She walked to the doorway, leaned against the jamb, and again studied the hallway; she saw nothing but shivering shadows that indicated how tired she was. Should she return downstairs and ask the peacekeeper for a taper? No. The patrons would claim she had finally encountered one of the ghosts they constantly warned her about, and they would try to spook her further with their untenable tales.
She half-laughed. Kitta had cured her of that nonsense as a child. Ghost were fading wieldings or artistic illusions, nothing more, and she had watched the siojhetioh wield more than one spell that created them. She did not fear folk tales; she had a far more real antagonist to worry about.
She closed the door, then locked it—a precaution, considering who supped and drank downstairs, though the rowdy patrons did not concern her as much as an icy, unimpressed Rakan. She sheathed her sword, unbuckled her belt and slung it over the back of her rickety, wooden chair, undressed, dumped her soiled pants in the furthest corner from the bed, donned another faded, comfortable pair of leathers, retrieved her dagger and sank onto her mattress. Something still nagged at her, but she had no idea what or why. She ran her fingers over the battered sheath, then clutched the weapon to her chest.
She sighed at her state of mind, sternly reminded herself that Lord Sikode would have exterminated her in the alley if he wished her dead, and slid under the blanket, her sleeping companion cold iron.
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