The Last Corner

Hunter Armstrong, old Myrrah's fatherless boy, he of the colorless eyes and the quick, fierce temper, was the best burglar in Taleavlad's Red Guild, so when the Iefréan merchant needed someone to 'recover' some stolen items for him, it was Hunter's name he was given. The merchant was coy at first, until Hunter had agreed, for a price the merchant claimed to be exorbitant but paid willingly (not, Hunter thought, a good sign), and when he had unfolded the details--what the objects were (ancient elven carved gemstatues), where they had been stolen (right off Lion of the Sea as she lay berthed in Teris), and who, probably, had them now (the Duc of the Western Altay)--Hunter knew he'd need some help on this one.

Hunter, of course, had no steady partner. In fact, there were few people who would even consider working with him. This wasn't because of his failure rate, which was almost non-existant; it was solely because of his personality. Hunter was not just a single mother's child, he was a bastard. He rarely delivered more than six words in a row to anyone, and when he did, it was usually a threat. He'd spent his entire life on the defensive, and he'd overlearned the maxim about what sort of defense it was was the best; even people who didn't hate him had to admit he carried the battle to you before you'd had the notion yourself.

Normally, he didn't find this a problem. He hadn't had to work with anyone for over twenty years, not since the old Guildmaster had pronounced him fully trained at the ridiculously early age of sixteen. Lucanus Aryn, who couldn't have cared less about Hunter's personality, was more than willing to be his master when others refused, and Hunter had been one of only three boys Lucanus had personally trained in the old man's entire life. Lucanus approved of talent, and Hunter was the most talented Armstrong, even though it was the boy's uncle, Dunbar, was Lucanus's friend. Not that Dunbar had interceded for his nephew: he and Hunter's mother, Myrrah, were at daggers' point over Dunbar's wife's remarks when Myrrah announced proudly that she was pregnant; Karitsa Armstrong believed in marriage as firmly as Myrrah did not, and Dunbar had found himself caught in the middle. He'd done what most men would have, sided with his wife, and Myrrah had never forgiven him. When Karitsa had died, Myrrah's only advice to her brother had been to give his babies to the Guiddites. He hadn't, but he'd remembered the words, and of his children only his daughter Kirsten, who had a hunger for family, and Kelvin, who hated his father, ever went near their aunt. Neither of them could have been said to be friends with Hunter, though Kirsten would have liked to be, but they weren't his enemies. Two of the few...

So now, now that he needed a partner, it was a problem. He could, of course, have requested someone from the Guild in Teris when he got there, but Hunter had a horror of trusting his life to the work of someone he's never seen before. That meant he'd have to get someone in Taleavlad and take them along. Well, needs must, as they say, but the pool was limited: there were at the time only three guildsmen Hunter considered his peers--Yekaterina "The Cat" Voronina, Damian Vanin, and Ashley 'Ambereyes' Windwalker. The Cat never worked with a man (she rather felt the problems of the world would be neatly solved if at least 4 out of every 5 men were killed at birth), and Hunter despised Vanin--a mutual feeling, and one that eventually led to Vanin's death. That left Ashley.

What might have bothered some men about her, that she was a tammie, didn't faze Hunter. He might not have noticed, certainly didn't care. That much was clear to Ashley when, to her surprise, he asked her to join him "on a little bit of work, south, Teris... interested?" She was; flabbergasted to be asked, but interested. The price was certainly right; the chance to irritate The Cat, Ashley's sister Hanni's lover, inviting, given how The Cat had been so annoying lately; the chance to get right away from Taleavlad for a while even more inviting; and the chance to watch Hunter Armstrong, past master and probably the greatest catburglar in the whole North Central Coast clinched the deal. She might regret it, a lot of people might get the chance to tell her 'I told you so...', but she took him up on it anyway.

And Hell and Chaos, he wasn't even bad looking, if it came to that.

Which it didn't. Which was surprising. Travelling south, they had been almost obvious: not trying to attract attention, but not giving a damn if people noticed them. They had ridden horseback, with a pack animal, and been obviously armed, and had put up a good inns. Hunter had allowed his menacing presence to override any objections a Taighi landlord might have had to renting a room to mixed-race couple, and he had paid extra without argument to clinch the rooms. It was legal in Taighem, of course, just as it was in Taleavlad, but that didn't make it acceptable in either place. You just didn't get thrown in jail for it.

But Hunter had not once in eleven nights seemed to notice her; he'd been as unmoved as if she'd been a man. Or, she'd thought once, covertly observing him prowling about the room like a cat, maybe that was the point. One certainly never heard any talk about him...maybe if she'd been a man, he'd have been attracted. Who knew? If there was one subject she was unqualified to talk about, it was Hunter Armstrong's sex life. She was just grateful that he wasn't making the assumptions other men did when they worked with her, and she didn't care if it was out of politeness or proclivity.

But she'd have put her money on the latter if she'd had to, knowing what she did know about his childhood, knowing what she knew about his mother....

Myrrah Armstrong didn't really like men. Oh, she liked sex all right, but that was about all men were good for. She hated the way they moved in on a woman, tried to take over, laid claim to all she had and did and was ... she'd despised her mother for surrendering to her father: the Candlers were honest merchants and artisans, the Armstrongs anything but, and for all that Myrrah was a master thief, she had always known that her mother had sold her beliefs out to marry her father. And why? For children? That was the only reason to do it, but who needed to marry to have a child? You just needed a career, and that was another thing men wouldn't let you have. Stay at home, cook and clean and fuck. Whores had it better, they fucked for a living but at least they didn't have to live with a man.

No, Myrrah had left her father's house as soon as she could, forced her way into the Red Guild and made them admit she was as good as her brother, if not better, and lived her life the way she wanted to. And that way included men, all right. It included a lot of men. Men who moved in, until she threw them out, sometimes before dawn, always before the second month was over. Young men, strong men, men who were there for no-strings sex, men who thought they'd be the one to tame her ... Myrrah had men around, but she never liked them. And in the end, not many of them liked her.

She did better with the ones she didn't want to screw. The ones she had a professional relationship with, other thieves, her brother...until his wife had gotten so damned insulting. And you couldn't fool Myrrah: she knew that Karitsa meant to be insulting, even if her words echoed Myrrah's attitudes. So to Hell with Karitsa, and with Dunbar too if he stood against his own flesh and blood like that, though men, who could expect otherwise? Myrrah wanted the child with her whole heart, and to Hell with anyone who said anything against it.

So Myrrah's acquaintances learned not to say anything where she could hear it, but they scarcely held their tongues else. And their children made Myrrah's son's life miserable. Even the whores' children could at least say their mothers earned a living at it. So Hunter grew up as surly and disagreeable as his mother, and, as far as anyone knew, he also grew up as libertine as she. But in fact, he didn't.

He was always quick to defend himself, and became quick to attack, but he had no time, nor room, for the softer emotions. Those were driven out of him long before he was old enough to taste desire. He should have been half-a-mage, at eight he had a sorceror's empathy, and for him it was no gift. His mother's love was obsessive, devouring, undisciplined; the life she led was a swirling storm of emotions, a maelstrom worse than any generated on the Gulf of Storms, and his most vivid memories from his early childhood were of Myrrah's parties, parties at which he was as a matter of course present, and of spending nights curled up in corners of rooms while emotions he could barely comprehend and could certainly not deal with swept over him, a conflict of desires and angers that would leave him a tight, angry, and exhausted child. The result was a complete denial of that talent, a turning entirely to the physical skills that had made him a master at his profession, a choking down of anything resembling understanding. And his mother's love summoned a fierce and undeniable love in response, and this, coupled with his terrifying awareness of her men, shaped his childhood, summoning the violence which was not his last but, it seemed, his only resort, and which deprived him of friends of his own age.

He never did fall in love. He was straight, and Myrrah would have killed any man who laid a hand on him even for normal discipline ("whose house is it, you dog's son? let my son alone"), but he wasn't ready for desire when it came. He lost his virginity at fifteen, to a woman more than twice his age whose motive was rage at Myrrah's snagging her husband for a week. That night, that angry coupling, drove him even farther down the road he was on. Lust he recognized only as an appetite, like hunger or thirst, and he treated it as such: he didn't cook for himself, he didn't romance his wine merchant or bartender, and he paid whores as coldly as he paid the others who supplied his needs. Like his mother, he didn't believe in romance; unlike her he didn't seem to need sex much. Even with whores it was a complication. He was alone; he chose it that way; he rarely noticed that he was also lonely.

Ashley knew she was lonely; she always had been, pretty much. But it had never been her choice.

Like every other tammie family in Taleavlad, Ashley's had been ravaged by the White Death that burned through the city of Taleavlad in 4049. Some families had lost only one, hardly any had lost no one, and no tammie of the right age didn't know someone who died. Eleven-year-old Ashley had been completely orphaned by it: grandfather Raythan, father Malcolm, mother Rolynna, brother Roland -- all had died in the fierce flames of that plague. Her mother's family, the good, honest Farwinds, who lost their own thirteen-year-old daughter, would probably have taken in their errant Rolynna's surviving child had they known where she was, or that she was alive. It was Malcolm Starsheen who'd made sure they didn't, Malcolm who was anything but "good and honest", though his daughter had no memories of him that weren't sweet. But Ashley was just one more lost tammie orphan in the streets of the Honeycomb that hot, dreadful summer.

She had nonetheless been luckier than many, because she had found a second home. Dariyon Windwalker, who made his living writing letters and reading notices for the unlettered poor of Taleavlad, and his wife Betheria had taken in the lost child, not realising, perhaps, that she was not, alone on the streets, in as much need as their two-years-younger only surviving child would have been. But although Ashley knew she was tougher -- and in many ways more unscrupulous -- than the gentle scribe and his blind wife could have imagined, and though her ambitions had been shaped in a lifestyle they could not have believed anyone could love, she also knew that her life in the Honeycomb would have been anything but pleasant on her own. She would have been forced to seek someone's protection, and no one would have been as loving, if as puzzled, as the Windwalkers. And no one else could have given her the sister she had always longed for, either.

Hanaianah Windwalker loved Ashley, too. They had been like sisters, close and sharing, especially after the Windwalkers died seven years after the White Death, the scribe murdered by a man never found and his wife grieving to death a few months later. But when Katerina Voronina came along (introduced by Ashley), Ashley realized that she would never fill Hanni's heart like The Cat did. And by then, she wasn't sure anyone would fill hers. She had traded her body for things the Windwalkers would not have understood, though thanks to them she'd never had to trade it for food or shelter; but tammie men wanted a shadow and human men wanted ... well, they wanted human women, however they acted. The men she'd slept with had always been only after her body, had treated her herself like something that might get in the way. Once she had position enough to get training and equipment without them, she'd managed to do well enough without men; not that she'd ever felt like Hanni, and made women do instead.

She'd just been lonely, and resolutely pushed the loneliness aside to enjoy as much of life as Taleavlad's Honeycomb offered a tammie woman who insisted on being a member of the Red Guild and her own person. And mostly she'd enjoyed it well; the past nine years had mostly been good.

... And so the two mismatched partners had made their silent way to manytowered Teris and located the pilfered items. As anticipated, it was far from easy to get them, though it was fairly straightforward, and it definitely required two masters. Any lesser thieves attempting to recoup the Iefréan merchant's loss (if loss it had been) would have failed. Ashley and Hunter did not fail: they retrieved the small treasures and made good their escape, although not undetected: one arrow took Hunter in the shoulder. They didn't pause to examine the damage, just threw a cloak over him to hide the blood and beat a hasty retreat to their waiting mounts. Ashley paid off the boy who was holding the horses while Hunter stashed the goods in one pack, and they took off in haste for the north.

They almost immediately doubled back, however, and, abandoning the horses where they'd almost certainly be stolen within the quarter hour, threaded their way through Teris's warren of alleys into a dark corner. There they changed into peasants' clothing, which they had been carrying in the second pack, and made their way to another stableyard where they picked up a small donkey. Now appearing to be a farm couple on the road (Ashley modestly cloaked and hooded to hide her race and coloring, and Hunter nondescript, save for his eyes, to begin with) they made their way out of Teris. In the morning they traded the donkey up for a bony mule, throwing in some carefully chosen Taighi silver coins, and continued on their way, lowly and unthreatening and headed southwest along the coast toward Terhem, not north to Taleavlad.

Coming south they had been very different: well mounted, well dressed, and obviously armed, they had ridden the middle of the road and stayed at good inns. Now they were beneath notice, keeping to the side of the road and moving into the mud when horsemen passed them, Hunter walking at the mule's head, weapons out of sight. True, if someone had looked closely at them they were not what they seemed. Ashley's hair might have been over her ears, but sharp eyes and a modicum of knowledge could have read her heritage in her face and her eyes if her hood was ever thrown back. It was no crime in Taighem to be married to a tammie, unlike many other places (such as Chaiku across the river), but the human in such a union would find himself treated like a second class citizen at best. And there were those who wouldn't have found the wedding bracelets Hunter had remembered to provide enough reason not to enjoy what tammies were reputed to be best at, and woe to the tradesman or farmer who tried to protect his wife then, laws or no. Moreover, a cursory examination of the hands so carefully hidden in her sleeves or his ragged gloves would have shown them not to belong to working folk at all. But, of course, anyone making that close of an examination would have already learned that these two were in false colors, probably to his lasting regret. The first day, however, they encountered no pursuers, and no one curious enough to care who the travellers on the shoulder of the road might be.

They stopped the first evening at the Sign of the Setting Sun, a lower middle class hostelry. Hunter's motley coinage and western accent drew some notice, as (thought Ashley) did his eyes though no one commented on them directly, but it was clear none there figured them to be from Taleavlad. They were in luck, said the innkeeper, a fine big room was vacant, and he'd let them have it for only a coppper bit more than the smaller ones, and for another bit he'd send their meal upstairs to them. Neither would have argued his bigotry in any case, and now it was a godsend; Done, said Hunter, and taking up the larger of the packs he followed the innkeeper's son up the stairs. Following them, carrying the other pack and the saddlebags, Ashley noted how Hunter favored his right arm. He'd told her the shoulder was okay; now she resolved she'd have to look at it for herself. The food came up directly, and the aroma of it made her eat first, and then tend to other business. Of course, the very first thing either of them did was check the exits.

Having left the dishes in the hall and locked their door, Ashley pushed their cloaks over onto their outer shirts lying on top of the chest by the bed, and rummaged through the saddlebag until she found what she was after. Hunter was by the window, rechecking the latches, still favoring his right arm. Ashley walked up behind him, carefully not sneaking, and tugged on his shirt, noting the slight bloodstains on it as she did. He turned to face her, left eyebrow hike questioningly.

"Strip out of that," she said, in a tone that brooked no arguemnt, "and I'll take care of that shoulder."

He paused only a moment, and then shrugged and shed the garment while she brought the lamp over and set it on the window sill above the bench. He sat, and she knelt beside him, the lamplight picking highlights out of her dark blond hair. Fortunately, the wound wasn't much: muscle only, and loss of blood, but slight. There was some heat in it, but overall she was satisfied. The arrow hadn't really penetrated; there was a ragged tear across his shoulder which she cleaned efficiently, while his colorless eyes were fixed on the wall. She took the salve jar and began smearing it gently across the wound, glancing at his face. Although his forearm lay on her shoulder, he seemed distant, detached. She could smell him: soap (he was fastidious); a faint scent of leather, sweat, and blood; a masculine scent. Human men smelled male, she'd always thought, you could tell them in the dark. And for a human he was attractive, to her mind, an unremarkable face to be sure, but a body well made and very graceful. The tensions of the day were leaving her, and others were arriving, and for a moment she wished he weren't so removed.

"This will scar, probably," she said, picking up the length of linen she'd brought over to wrap his arm and shoulder with. "But not badly, I think, and you shouldn't have any trouble with it. It's not as bad as the cut I took--" which had left a scar from her throat to her elbow "--and I have full use of it."

He didn't answer--he was the quietest man she'd ever met!--and she continued to snug the linen around his arm. She smootheed it across his shoulder, over his collarbone, and then paused, her hand resting near his throat. She could feel his pulse, beating hard and strong beneath her fingers, and the sudden heat in his skin. He had caught his breath in his throat, and now he turned to look at her, his colorless eyes on hers, wide-pupilled. His arm turned on her shoulder, and his fingers found their way through her hair to the nape of her neck. For a moment, they were both as still as deep waters.

But she knew what the stillness hid: what he wanted was as plain as the fire she could feel building in him. And when she finally moved, she did none of the things that would, she knew, have stopped him: didn't say, Hold still, or Stop that; didn't pull away, or push him; didn't even shake her head and finish tying off the bandage. Instead, she leaned towards him, met his lips, and was lost.

She did tie off the bandage, and when his fingers fumbled with the laces and fastenings of her clothing (whatever he was used to, it wasn't the jerkin, shirts, and bands of a working thief) she pushed his hands aside and undid them herself while his hands found other occupation, to her bewildered delight. She'd never had a lover, only men who ignored her while taking her. But Hunter was gentle, almost tentative, and acted as though he knew there were two people in the bed.

Afterwards, they slept. She woke in the night, and lay still, trying to tell what had woken her. The lamp was burning very low, giving almost no light. The skies must have clouded over, as nothing but dark showed through the window. It was quiet, but not still: if a sound had woken her it hadn't disrupted the normal night life around the hostelry. Then she did hear something--a soft sound, almost a moan, from Hunter. She touched him, and he came awake in an instant, tense, wide-eyed, reaching for his knife. She froze, meeting his stare and finding no recognition in his eyes. Then, all at once, he breathed out sharply, closing his eyes; turned his head away; and licked his lips, relaxing. He looked back at her, almost smiled, and reached out an empty hand to her cheek, his thumb against her lips. "It's you," he said, and she almost jumped, it was so long since he had spoken.

She looked at him, feeling quite suddenly, and quite profoundly, as though whatever she was going to say next would be the most important thing she would ever say in her entire life. She found herself waiting to hear what it would be, and when she did hear it, it was almost banal in its simplicity. "Yes, it's me. Just me." In the dimness, his eyes looked very strange--the pupils large and dark, the iris vanished altogether...something teased at her memory about those eyes and then vanished altogether when he smiled, and his eyes became no longer strange, but only welcoming. He took his hand back and waited, very still. She swallowed and spoke to calm herself more than anything else. "What woke you?"

"I don't know. Nothing. Don't remember," he shrugged lightly. It was almost as if he were offering her a choice.

She reached back in her memory and said to him what she remembered Malcolm saying to her when she woke in the night: "Then you should go back to sleep now."

He smiled again, and lay back down. Almost tentatively, he rested his head on her shoulder again, as he had when he had fallen asleep the first time; she could feel the strain in his muscles; almost, it seemed, he was waiting for her to do something. So she did: turned slightly and wrapped her other arm around him. He sighed softly and relaxed, and in a moment his breathing was even.

She stroked his hair and closed her own eyes. Truth be told, she liked the feel of him against her, even the slight scratch of his cheek. What have I got myself into? she wondered briefly, and then, as his hand tightened slightly on her hip, she gave it up: whatever it was, she was in it well and truly.

Even if, for him, it was only a road trip.


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