In the rush during the evacuation, Jakitza was separated from her family. She kept looking back, wondering what sort of magic the man had sneaked in that transformed him into such monstrosity. Her last glimpse of the arena before a guard finally got her out of the court was of the woman called Derrexi Tzelan charging bravely against the demonspawn, supported by a strange man, a hawkfolk priest and, strangest of all… one of her own classmates. She recognized the yellow mane of Niriko Zarranz and for a second envied her courage. The next second she was wondering if the girl was crazy.
She shook her head, trying to clear it for a moment. Everything had happened much too fast had been lost to chaos too quickly. What exactly had transpired, no one knew as Jakitza realized while she was walking home, because the people milling about the streets were all talking excitedly among themselves. But Jakitza was thinking about another thing. About the offer the Lady Tzelan had made, the offer to sign up. Her father had told her of this, hadn’t he? It would be a way to continue with her studies in an official way, continue on the path she had walked before the closing of the school. With slight changes of course.
“Jakitza!!” She heard her father’s voice and saw him rush, pushing the crowd aside to reach her. She found herself in a fierce hug before she could even think of a response. “Jakitza… are you alright?”
“Gahhh…” She managed to say before she could even return the hug in a slightly gentler fashion. “Yes, yes, I’m fine, father.” She said quietly and smiled.
“By Zuze’en…” He leaned down, still holding her by the shoulders. “Don’t ever do that again.”
Because it was just a gesture of relief from her father, she chose not to reply to that, merely smiled again and then looked back worriedly. “What is happening?”
There were a couple of flashes of light coming from the arena as magic forces were unleashed. Jakitza wasn’t an expert in magic, but she knew a lot of the basics and knew that there was no wizard in there; the Watch had lost its wizard recently and none of the apprentices that she knew of were of the level needed for such display of power.
She bit her lip and shook her head slightly. She was very curious, but with her father here now, she would not be able to return in any case and as it was, she wanted her father in a good mood. “Father. You know… I’ve been thinking…” She began, seeing as he was very relieved right now.
His expression of relief changed to understanding, then worry. He nodded. He knew what she wanted to say.
“Will you… allow it?” she asked, almost timidly. She knew that her education meant much to him, but this was something different after all. She would not only be educated, but trained in fighting as well.
“If that is what you really want. “ He nodded. He was still holding her by the shoulders when there was a loud noise coming from the Arena. She felt him cringe violently even if he tried to hide it. It was not that the sound had startled him, but it was what it meant. There was a battle going on in there, something his daughter could very well find herself in the middle of if she continued down that path.
She leaned against him, as much to comfort him as to seek comfort from the step which she had mentally already taken. She was scared to think about the possibility of battles ahead, but she knew at the same time that she would be able to overcome that fear. Sometimes, things were just too clear in mind to ignore them.
There was a rumble shaking the ground and everyone fell silent, looking expectantly at the building. “They killed it!” Someone shouted, and a chorus of voices rose, celebrating a victory that no one had witnessed.
Jakitza felt a slight wave of relief pass through her and smiled softly. “Well, at least I’ll be learning from someone who knows what she’s doing.” She said, trying to lift her father’s spirits.
“Of course. “ He nodded, combing her hair back. “I love you, my child… and whatever life you choose for yourself, I will be proud of you.”“
She smiled again and nodded softly, feeling immensely relieved and strengthened as well by his show of confidence.
Behari was thankful for so many things that evening. The demonspawn attack had cut short her “date;” she often got taken out by the whorehouse’s patrons, which cost extra since she was one of the youngest and, much to her chagrin, one of the prettiest. Not that she ever saw that money, of course. She was back at the brothel, her client being scared out of his wits so that she had a chance to wander around the city before having to return. Since the money was already paid, she could convince her master that she had finished her job and she was allowed to return to her room.
So Behari found herself staring out of the window, reliving the events of this day. Despite her show of her usual meekness, she had already decided on what she would do tonight. The offer this Lady Tzelan had made was what she had been waiting for all her life. It was her chance, the light on the horizon the priest had talked about. Even before she had returned, she had decided that she would slip out of the brothel and go to the lighthouse to sign up immediately, hoping that the Lady Tzelan would keep her word and accept her as she was.
The house was alive with the sounds of partying. The monster’s defeat was already the talk of the day, and she could have joined in, telling everyone how she had talked with the foreigner that had leaped into the arena with ghostly fire floating around him. But that would mean that she was entertaining drunken clients, undergoing more humiliation.
“Behaaaaari. “ One of the girls stumbled into the room, slightly drunk. “Hey, hey… why looking so mopey? There’s someone asking for a young sweet thing like you… master’s doing something else so I was supposed to look for you but… well… wanna come down?”
“Not a chance.” She half snarled, the mere thought of some revolting drunkard touching her again bringing the anger to her eyes. She figured then, that probably, the best time to escape was now. Everyone was busy partying, the master busy with something else.
“Hey, whoa.” The other girl laughed nervously. “I’ll just get Hiatzi, no need to bark at me…”
“No… sorry.” Behari brought herself under control again and smiled lightly. “I’m sorry… just a bit touchy tonight.”
“Ah, your Moon’s time… got it. Sheesh, the master knows very well it’s bad luck to make us work during the Moon’s days.” The girl winked and got out of the room.
“Farewell.” Behari mumbled, looking after the girl a moment. She then gathered herself up, waited a moment longer and quietly sneaked out her room.
She knew the house well. She had sneaked around more than once, hiding from her ‘duties’ and finding the darkest corners and the most hidden corridors. The noise of raucous celebration rose from the tavern part of the house, drowning out the already light creaking of her footsteps.
The problem lay in her appearance. A girl walking alone at night would draw suspicion from the Watch if she was lucky; from the mercenaries if fortune was really against her.
She bit her lip. She decided to sneak by the front entrance where the guests usually left their cloaks, take one and wrap herself in it and thus not appear too obvious.
She got to the house’s entrance without a hitch, and she could see the different garments ready for the taking, but old Nikeru was there. The bouncer sometimes doubled as receptionist when the master could afford to pay mercenaries to stay outside so… if Nikeru was inside, it meant that there were more guards outside.
“Damn.” She sighed and shook her head softly, and then she doubled back into the shadows. She’d have to disguise herself differently then. She brushed back a strand of her hair and then blinked, realizing there were more things she could add to her disguise.
She used the service corridors to reach the kitchen, waiting patiently for the cook to deliver a meal and grabbing the cleaver closer to the door, before sinking back into the shadows. The music and noise that was normal in the hall hid her maneuvers. Hiding the knife inside the robe she walked towards the second floor, smiling demurely to the couple of people she crossed, pretending to carry a client’s robe for him.
She knew these rooms well; her stomach turned when she remembered what she had been through inside them. Behari gritted her teeth and put her ear to many doors and chose the one with the loudest moans. She was adept at opening doors silently, the better to slip away once her “shifts” were over. Partially used to the darkness, her eyes located a heap of clothing. She rummaged quickly and grabbed the first thing she found.
A few minutes later, she was hiding in a store room, wearing a man’s short tunic and holding her hair with one hand, the stolen knife in the other. She was certain that it would not be very easy to cut her hair evenly without a mirror or without light, but she did so anyway. Her hands were trembling slightly because she knew she still had to hurry, but she forced herself to go carefully. It wouldn’t do to cut her own throat on her escape, now would it?
The other girls had praised Behari’s hair. It was a lighter brown than was common in Beldatz, much like her skin was darker. She was the brothel’s exotic attraction. She felt strands of her silky hair come loose in her hands, ignoring the sharp pain caused by some clumsy tugs that pulled on her scalp. She had no way to know how she looked now, but she didn’t even care about the greasy smell the knife had left in what remained of her former cascades.
She looked at the strands of hair on the floor, only a slight sting of sadness at having to part with them but, with them, she was parting with her old life and that made up for anything. She continued her way out of the brothel again, eager to get away, wearing the stolen overcoat over the stolen tunic.
Her heart skipped a beat as a group of men suddenly opened the door; Nikeru received them with a bored expression, taking their cloaks promptly. She used the distraction to mingle with the new group, putting them between her and the bouncer. She heard him grunt something akin to “thank you for your business, please come again.”
She walked past them; they were coming in, she was going out… her heart was pounding when she walked past the two mercenaries outside the garden, walking the stone steps that had seemed like another wall to her… she was breathing the evening’s air, watching how the shadows lengthened as the Sun hid behind the mountains. She crossed the gate, the final threshold that separated her from the life she wanted.
She had to refrain from laughing with joy, instead keeping her head down and walking with deliberate normal steps through the streets, towards the lighthouse.
She would have to sleep outside, or in the streets, it didn’t matter. She would be hungry and cold, but she would be free.
“What in the Nine Hells were you thinking, you idiot girl!?” Gaizco Zarranz was raising one of those nine hells at his home, where the Watch had dropped his daughter and told him what she had done in the arena.
“Well, someone had to get the sword to the Lady Tzelan!” Niriko tried to defend herself. Despite her show of courage, now that the adrenaline was out of her veins, she was a bit shaken at what had happened. Still, she was proud of what she had done.
“And what were you doing in the cages in the first place?” The portmaster glared at Niriko. “You were supposed to be delivering the tally for the fishermen!”
“Uhm… well, it… I… someone offered me show me there! It was the best spot to watch the fight!” She grumbled lightly, looking up defiantly.
“The soldiers said you were with a Quetzerri! What kind of trouble have you been getting into? I mean…” He snorted. “Apart from stupidly risking your life by running under demons!”
“No trouble! Honestly! I just met that Quetzerri and he’s working with the Lady Tzelan!” She was clenching her fists slightly, readying the revelation she wanted to make to her father in a moment. She would take up the offer of the Lady Tzelan. She’d become a Hawk Maiden!
“Is he now?” He looked at her unbelieving. “For heaven’s sake, Niriko! Do you have any idea of what you did?!” Of course she had; the consequences of her snap decision had been a foot from her face in the form of the demonspawn’s claws. For a moment, she knew she was going to die.
“I…” She blinked a moment, reliving the moment of her near death. She still wasn’t quite sure what had happened. “Yes, I know.” She then said quietly.
“And?!” He was gripping his cane so hard that his knuckles were white.
“I think I’ll do well once I sign up with the Hawk Maidens.” There, the blow was delivered and the steeled herself for the outburst from her father.
He blinked at her, stared at her for an eternity, his whitening brows joining together in a tight frown. “No way, out of the question.” He said curtly.
“It’s my decision!” Niriko said stubbornly. “And I want to go there. I want to learn to fight and I want to continue my studies as well!”
“I said no!” He retorted, and Niriko now noticed the strength of the grip he had on his cane. “Do you think that demonspawn was an accident?! Someone’s out to get that woman from the capital, and I won’t have you in the way of whatever happens there!”
“I will go there!” Niriko said, her defiance stirred and rising. “If what you say is true, then all the more reason to learn how to fight!”
“You stubborn…” He scowled, turning away from her in a fit that startled her. “If you go there, you are just inviting disaster… why do you want to fight, hm?” He turned around, clenching his teeth. “What do you expect to win by learning how to fight?”
“Maybe then I can walk through the streets of this city without being stared at as though I was a dirty piece of clothing.” She heard herself muttering through clenched teeth. “Maybe then people will respect me for what I am and overlook these… these damn pointy ears!”
Her outburst caused a reaction she had never seen in her father. He looked as if he’d just been slapped. He looked confused, ashamed… the man some of the sailors in the harbor claimed had been a fearless pirate hunter now looked… afraid.
She immediately regretted the outburst, but there was no taking it back now. It was true, she had friends, but she had had to work ages to even get them to listen to her for more than a second. And still, whenever she walked through the streets, she was subject to stares. She hid herself behind her cheerful persona, hid behind her easy-going way. But the truth was, she was sick of being at the edge of society.
“I… just want to belong.” She said quietly.
Gaizco turned away, walking towards a corner of the small house the two of them shared. She saw him pull a plank loose and pull up a bundle wrapped in cloth. He grunted as he struggled to get up, his leg giving him trouble as it did sometimes. He placed the bundle on the table and signaled her to take it.
She blinked, not knowing what to make of this sudden change of behaviour. She slowly reached to pick up the package and open it.
She found a strange knife… the blade was clearly carved from a bone, but it looked as sharp and hard as steel. Entwined around the handle was a small pendant. A shapeless little stone made of silver was the center of three odd-looking fangs, and the whole ensemble hung from a leather cord. “Those…” He said. “Those are the only thing I have left of your mother. Those… and you.”
His mentioning her mother was like a slap in her face. He had never spoken of her mother, always evaded her questions. She touched the knife slowly, her eyes wide her thoughts whirling in her head.
“You don’t need to belong anywhere. “ He said, sitting down on a chair, looking more tired than he’d been in ages. “You are… you are unique… you’re special… don’t let anyone tell you any different.”
She didn’t answer, just stared at the knife a little longer before her eyes looked up to her father. “I…can’t stay here forever.” She said slowly, her hands cradling the knife.
“No.” He sighed and looked down. “I guess you can’t… you are too much my daughter… and your mother’s.”
She stepped around the table, kneeling in front of her father and looking up to him. “But I want you… to be proud in me… I’ve always… always wanted to… to make a difference somehow, to do something… something important.”
“Idiot.” He chuckled with a sad smile, putting a hand on her head. “I’m already proud of you.”
She smiled faintly and leaned against his touch for a moment. “Will you… tell me about my mother?” Niriko asked quietly, looking up to him. She was still decided, the matter was settled for her that she would go to the Lighthouse tomorrow.
“There’s nothing to tell.” He said, strangely talkative. “I met her when I was exploring the woods with some friends… she joined us out of curiosity. We… spent time together, but I never saw her again after we parted a couple of years later. Two years after that, she knocks on my door, leaving a noisy little bundle in my arms before leaving again to gods-know-where.”
She nodded softly and looked down to the knife again, shaking her head as though thinking about something. “I will go to the Lighthouse tomorrow.” She said after another moment of silence. “But I won’t be out of the world… and I will not leave for gods-know-where without saying anything.” She said quietly and smiled reassuringly up to her father.
He ruffled her golden mane, pushing her head backwards in a rough gesture of affection. “I’m sorry… that I couldn’t show you a way you’d want to follow. Go and find your own, but don’t come crying back if there are too many stones in the path.”
“I couldn’t bear your smug comments if I did come back crying, so rest assured I won’t.” She replied with a soft smile and leaned up to place a light kiss on her father’s forehead.
Gisako wasn’t sure what woke her up in the middle of the night. Excitement? Maybe… Regret? Maybe too. She had managed to sway her parents to allow her to join the Hawk Maidens, not that she actually needed their permission, according to Lady Tzelan’s announcement… but it was better that she did have it, to avoid further problems. No, it was something else that scared sleep away. She turned lazily, opening her eyes to the moonlit darkness, and she discovered that she was not alone in her room.
Gisako jumped, half-scared, half-outraged and pulled the sheets of her bed around herself, her gaze trying to pierce the darkness. “Who’s there?” she demanded, sure that if she cried for help, help would be there in a moment.
“Hush.” A silky voice came from a corner, where shadows seemed to be gathering of their own accord. “I mean you no harm… not tonight at least”
Gisako blinked and inclined her head slightly, turning to look in the direction of the voice. “What would you be here, then?” Gisako continued. “And why do you hide yourself?”
“Questions, questions.” The voice chuckled, almost giggled. Gisako only recognized it then as a female voice, but she still couldn’t place it… unless… she had heard a voice like that two days before at the palace party.
“Hey… I know, no… I heard you before… at the party!” She blinked, trying to remember who of all had such a voice. She could not believe any of the guests and certainly, guests at such parties would not sneak into her room in the middle of the night.
“You may call me Eclipse.” The voice took form, then. A small yet strong-looking girl wrapped in clothes as black as night. Gisako had to blink and rub her eyes, for it seemed that the shadows in the corner receded… and then became part of a strange pattern on the girl’s bared arms and thighs.
She blinked rapidly again. Shadows. Then it made click in her mind. The corridor, the voices. That was one of those voices. “Eclipse…” She said slowly and narrowed her eyes. “It fits… “
“Of course.” The girl chuckled again, walking towards the bed quite nonchalantly. Gisako then noticed the muted gold mask that covered the lower part of her face, and the red bangs of hair that escaped from the dark purple hood. Nobody had red hair in Solerne.
“What are you?” she murmured, receding slightly, drawing back from the approaching Eclipse. But as she was only clothed in a small gown for sleeping and otherwise was only covered by the blanket, she didn’t have much room to go.
“A demon, according to some. “ The girl sat on the far side of the bed, but Gisako had the impression it was more as if Eclipse was playing a game of cat and mouse, rather than any consideration for her modesty. “A legend according to the majority… but I’m not here to talk about me… I’m here to talk about you. “
“About… me?” Gisako swallowed. Was she here to do something to her after all? The voice in the shadows had threatened her, had implied that she better forget about the encounter. “What would you want to talk about? I’m not… special.”
“Starting tomorrow, you are. “ Eclipse said, leaning forward. Gisako was sure there was a predatory smile behind that mask. “Such a pity, though… you are to pledge to the Sun goddess, instead of the Moon god.”
Gisako tried to withdraw a bit further, but found her back against the wall. “The Hawk Maidens… but why would that be a pity?” She was trying, in vain, to find a reason and any sense in this talk.
“Because I would have wanted you to join us. “ The dark girl laughed softly, one of her hands sliding across the bed covers to try and find Gisako’s leg. “The Moonshades…”
That immobilized Gisako. Moonshades. The name was legendary indeed. There were so many legends concerning these spies, informants… assassins. “You wanted… you are… a Moonshade?” She managed, but couldn’t move or take her eyes away from Eclipse.
“Oh, yes. “ Eclipse edged a little closer still, and Gisako flinched and drew her legs closer to her when she felt the other girl’s hand on them. That drew another chuckle from the Moonshade. “Relax… I said I’m not here to harm you.”
“Sure, yeah.” Gisako thought to herself, but couldn’t hide a shiver run through her body. She wasn’t entirely sure from what this shiver originated. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t exactly fear.
“I am here because I need you, actually.” Eclipse climbed on the bed now, sitting cross-legged as if they were two close friends sharing confidences during a sleepover. “You are observant, smart, well-placed… pretty… although that last one is rather irrelevant to my purposes.”
“You… need me?” Gisako blinked, feeling strange indeed. “What could I possibly do?”
Again, she was painfully aware of the wall in her back which made it impossible to withdraw further unless she wanted to fall from the bed.
“You see.” Eclipse said, leaning back and putting her arms on the bed. “I have a job, and that is to help Lady Tzelan from the shadows, since I think she will hardly accept my kind of help. So, I need someone close to her.”
“And since I will be training under her…” Gisako began, nodding to herself. That made some kind of sense. “But, you want me to spy on her?”
“That is such an ugly word. “ Eclipse laughed again, leaning forward once more. Gisako couldn’t help but admire her feline grace. Looking closer, Eclipse was probably shorter and thinner than her, but somehow she knew she was also infinitely stronger. “I rather prefer ‘observe’. I will have another contact keeping an eye on her but she’s rather… unreliable, and the poor girl won’t be around Lady Tzelan as much as you will. Trust me; it’s for her own good. As you should know, there are forces gathering against her, the type that a sword cannot vanquish.“
Gisako nodded, her gaze drifting over Eclipse’s body for a moment, finding that she could not help but admire the woman and it probably showed. “I see.” She murmured.
“What is your decision, then?” Eclipse asked. “Will you help me?”
“I…” Gisako had been about to say yes, but she narrowed her eyes slightly. “Why?” she asked simply.
“Pretty please?” Eclipse laughed and began to crawl over to Gisako’s side, moving like sensuous cat on the hunt.
Gisako flinched slightly and shifted back, but the wall was still there. She felt a bit like a trapped animal under the scrutiny of a predator. “I suppose, if you’re really there to help Lady Tzelan…”
“Of course.” Eclipse purred, laying on her fours on top of Gisako and a scant few inches away from her face. “It’s going to be so nice to finally have someone to talk to.” Eclipse’s voice was as dangerously playful as it had been, but Gisako was almost sure that she actually meant those words.
“T-talk?” Gisako stammered and stared up into the eyes of Eclipse quietly, shivering slightly.
Eclipse had richly green eyes, unreadable and impossible to turn away from. From this close, Gisako knew that her visitor couldn’t be much older than herself.
“You’re… young.” Gisako whispered, not quite sure why she said it, but she was mesmerized by those green orbs.
“Age is relative.” Eclipse whispered back.
“I…” Gisako began, but stopped, unsure what to say or do. She reacted to an urge, quite surprising herself as she reached up and took a strand of Eclipse’s hair. It felt… dead. This wasn’t real hair. Eclipse closed her eyes briefly, then opened them again. Her brows were dark, a totally different color than the red strands.
“I see.” Gisako murmured and her hand trailed a bit further up, briefly touching Eclipse’s skin, then falling beside her. She was not sure why she had done this.
Eclipse stared at her for a few moments, then her eyes widened. Gisako didn’t even feel the force upon her bed when the Moonshade jumped back to stand at its feet. “Dear gods.” Eclipse laughed, her breath labored. “You came so, so close. I must go now.”
“What?” Gisako blinked, not quite sure what was going on. “Why? You can’t go like that! How do I contact you? What should I do? You haven’t said anything. And what did I do?”
“I will contact you.” Eclipse said, her chest rising and falling with agitation, her arms around herself. “For now, just watch. Observe. Take in. I will come to you. You will know when.”
Gisako sat upright in bed, modesty forgotten for the moment. “What happened just now?” she asked, confused.
“Nothing.” Eclipse walked towards the window and climbed on it effortlessly. She turned to Gisako and added, in an almost coarse whisper. “Nothing at all. “And then she was gone, vanishing as a cloud interrupted the moonlight.
Gisako jumped from the bed and hurried to the window, looking out into the night. She felt the breeze caress her skin, forming goosebumps and making her shiver.
She thought she saw the girl’s silhouette running on rooftops, but it could have been a trick of the Moon’s shadows.