The familiar dark tangled around her, shrouding her muted footsteps as they bounced back at her down the damp tunnel walls. The flamewyrms on the ceiling sparkled their greetings down on her, throwing down nebulous patches of dim blue light which she shifted through with the quick step of professional.
And that was what she was now, a professional. When she had left she had been an amateur, despite all the bitter words and high ambition she had spat out at them refuting such accusations, her pride stinging like a blade’s cut, brimming full with enough spite to fuel a war. She had sworn she’d never return, but such oaths were folly. They only tempted fate to interfere again, and Calli had had all the interference she could stomach.
She ran a hand upon against the clammy stone walls and a shiver ran through her that had nothing to do with the chill-infested air scuttling over her skin like spiders. The moss clung damply to the walls as it had done ten years ago. The flamewyrms sat fatly oozing their phosphorescent glow and the great brass handle sat hidden amongst the craggy tunnel walls, enrobed by the darkness, just as it had done ten, demon-damned years ago. She stared at it, and the tarnished metal stared back. Had it really been so long? She had felt the weight of every single year that had passed up there in the fresh air, the night sky and the keening stars watching her age, but down here, in the dark, she felt just the same as that furious sixteen year old, as if time had frozen in place when she had slammed the door shut behind her, apparently forever.
She closed her eyes and steeled her nerve.
I am not that arrogant child that left. I have earned my place here now. I have as much right to be here as anyone. I will not be chased off again. I will not.
The words might have brought her comfort if she had believed then, but they had echoed unconvincingly hollow in the back of her mind. She huffed out a bitter half-laugh at her own folly and reached for the handle. It sang ice-cold against her fingers and she forced herself not to tremble as she tightened her grip around it. The charm upon it fizzed as it read her, and for a moment she thought it might reject her, but then the door shuddered into being as the warding released. She let out the breath which had been trapped painfully between her ribs.
They never removed my name from the warding. They always left a way for me to come home.
She felt a surge of emotion welling up within her, and she wasn’t quite sure what it was—hope, sorrow, grief, anger. She swallowed them all and pushed her way inside, hearing the click of the warding reasserting itself on the door behind her.
Silence as thick and weighty as winter’s snow awaited her within. Six eyes turned to stare at her abrupt arrival. Well, five eyes and an eyepatch, Calli amended silently. Once this cluttered room had been full of people, a dozen of them crammed around that large sticky table in their heyday. Was this all that was left of the glory of the Rat's Nest?
She didn’t say anything, not trusting herself to break the watchful waiting, and then Gregyr spoke. His hunch-backed frame leant further forward against the chair he perched in, bird-like, and his grey eyes, the same colour as that wild mop of hair now, fixed on hers not unkindly.
“We wondered if you might come, Cal. Iris Wine?”
He pushed a cup towards her, and the night-black liquid within it rippled. She eyed the cup, hesitated for one moment more and then sank down into the empty chair at the large, round table which dominated the room, and pulled the cup towards her. The fire in the hearth crackled merrily at her as if she had never been away.
Iris Wine was always cloyingly sweet. It was also poisonous in large doses but, as it was vastly expensive, that was rarely an issue. It was an honour to spend it like this, but then, Calli could think of no other occasion more apt to waste such good coin.
“How did it happen?” she asked the inside of her cup quietly.
The other three looked at each other. Big Gristo, his one good eye darting wildly between the others, flinched at the question, and it seemed that no-one could meet her gaze for a moment. It was Hastra, lithe and willowy as a good house-breaker ought to be, who spoke first.
“Didn’t you hear the rumours, Calli?” she asked. There was a hint of belligerence under that careful tone, but Calli told herself not to rise to it.
Calli shrugged. “Of course I did, or I wouldn’t be here. But I’m not looking for rumours, I want the truth.”
There was another ripple of hesitation across the table and Calli felt her, always short, temper flaring.
“I was one of his protégés too.”
“Protégés? Is that all we were? Apprentices? Employees?” Hastra was up on her feet, her onyx hair falling free from its knots in her agitation and Calli leapt upwards as well. This felt comfortingly familiar, too, the arguments bubbling up like a geezer from underground. The Rat’s Nest was safe from the prowling eyes of the law, but it was small and claustrophobic. When they had grown up here together, piled on top of one another, arguments had been a regular occurrence.
“Calm yourself, Hastra,” Gregyr said soothingly, reaching over and pulling the cups of Iris Wine out of the way before they got spilt over. He’d been the second-in-command for longer that Calli could remember and had always been placatory, soothing the swelling tides of rough tempers in their cramped home. “If Calli really thought she was just a coin-counter she’d not have come back. She wanted to pay her respects because she knows this is a family. Don’t you, Calli?” he added, significantly. Calli felt her cheeks burning. She didn’t say anything but sat down and snatched her glass out of Gregyr’s hand once more. She drained it in one and then turned it upside down upon the table. A challenge, like in the old days.
That had been one of his ideas. Drinking games and stupid contests, ways to win petty victories over each other without beating each other bloody. Gregyr rolled his eyes, but Hastra gladly took to the challenge, downing her own black wine and placing the cup upside down before her.
“Fine, but if you’re going to do this, you’re doing it on the cheap stuff. Big Gristo, go fetch the Harbour Red.”
The Muscle man quickly obeyed, bringing back a couple of bottles and a score of cups. He poured two more and pushed them over, one in each direction. Calli and Hastra both drained them, stacking the cup on top of the first carefully, base to base. The first to tip their stack would lose, and Calli was not in the mood for losing tonight.
“How did it happen?” she asked again, with that same deadly quiet, as Big Gristo pushed a third cup in her direction.
“Heart failure,” Hastra said. She was nursing her third cup carefully, taking much smaller sips this time, and Calli followed her lead. “He was crossing the road when he went down to the ground out of nowhere. A cart stopped to help him, but he was dead by the time they got to him.”
“Poison?” Calli asked sharply.
“There are poisons which can mimic—” she began but Hastra cut across her sharply.
“Believe me, Calli, we checked. We had an autopsy. Every last poison known to man, gods or demons. There was nothing. He was clean.”
“A spell then? A curse.”
“We went to a magewitch, too. Got them to check the body. There was no foul play of any kind, Cal,” Gregyr said softly.
“Are we drinking or talking?” Big Gristo growled and Calli drained her glass with narrowed eyes, stacking it carefully against the other two, the wide lip of the rim balancing carefully against the other rim. Her thoughts were starting to slow now, blurring at the edges. She squeezed her eyes tight shut, trying to make them shuffle themselves back into regimented lines.
“He can’t just have died. He wasn’t the type, Dryvus wasn’t—” she stuttered off hastily, aware that she had said his name aloud at last. She hadn’t said it since she’d heard of his passing. She’s barely said it since she left. She forced the words through. “He wasn’t the type to just die.”
“Aye, I guess we all got to thinking he was immortal, but the fates know better. Not even Dryvus could outfox them in the end. He gave it a damn good go though.” Calli could hear the soft, indulgent smile lingering in Gregyr’s voice all too clearly. She massaged fingers into her temples. The wine was strong, and it was starting to ache there now. I am getting older. When I lived here I used to have a much stronger tolerance than this.
“Do you remember the time he conned his way into the Duke’s gala? Picked the place clean.” Hastra slurred. I am not the only one who cannot drink as much as she once could.
“It was the first time he let me help on a long con,” Calli murmured. “He just had me doing distraction detail and petty pick-pocketing before that. I was so excited about the whole thing. I wore this grand frock, just like a real lady, flowers in my hair. Flowers.” Such dressing up had lost the lustre of novelty now, but for a street-rat from the sewer gangs, such things had been beyond all her wildest ambitions. Sometimes, even now, she couldn’t believe her luck that he had found her, dragged her in from the cold, shaped her into something…human.
“I’m sure you were no more excited than he was. Dryvus always enjoyed the hustle. It was the only thing he lived for come the end,” Gregyr murmured.
Calli opened her eyes as another cup was forced into her hands, and she raised it to her lips slowly.
“He…he had this…way…” the words were coming out slowly now, clogging in her throat. She tried to wash them down with a gulp of Harbour Red, but they still choked there. She scrunched up her face. “I’ve never seen anyone just transform themselves into someone new, like he could. You’d swear it was magic, if you didn’t know better.”
“Aye,” Gregyr chuckled. “He never held with magic. Said it was cheating.”
“He thought it was unlucky to draw the eye of the fates,” Hastra added. “Said it was bad enough dealing with other people without drawing that kind of attention to yourself, too. Drink up, Calli. I’ve finished my fourth.” She gestured to her neatly stacked cups and Calli cursed, finishing her cup and balancing it unsteadily upon its peers.
“Did you give him the full rites?” she asked, accepting her fifth cup with only a little trepidation.
“Of course! Buried better than the king himself.”
“I’m sorry I missed it. I tried to make it back in time, but a storm kept us out of harbour. We only just got in. I came straight here.” She rubbed a hand over her eyes wearily, cursing the fates who had denied her the chance to say goodbye. “Did anyone else make it back?”
Silence gave her all the answer she needed and she felt a wave of rage, worse than the storm she had just faced, swelling within her.
“They ought to have been here, after everything he did. He saved us, each and every one of us. You, Big Gristo, he got you out of the noose after you deserted the navy, and you, Hastra, he saved you from being the Earl’s bed-slave. And Gregyr—”
“I am aware of what Dryvus did for me, Calli. I am aware how much I owed him.” For the first time that evening, there was a touch of cold in Gregyr’s voice. He didn’t speak about his life before the Rat's Nest.
“He made us a family,” Calli said slamming a hand down upon the table, and sending all the cups flying. She ignored Hastra’s triumphant smirk as the other woman took the victory. “They should have been here.”
“You should have been here, too. You would have been here, if you hadn’t left.”
“I had to go.” The words were hoarse, but true. Even now, with guilt and grief gnawing at her wine-soaked stomach in equal measure, she knew they were true. “I always meant to come back,” she whispered. “I just…I didn’t…” She pushed her hands against the sticky table and rested her spinning head against them. “He went so suddenly,” she murmured against the wood.
“Perhaps we ought to go to bed,” Gregyr said tactfully. “We can talk more in the morning. I’m sure there’s lots of catching up you want to do then. Your old room is still free, Cal. We kept it for you.”
She didn’t pull her head off of the table as the chairs scraped against the wood and the other three bid each other goodnight. The safety-charmed candles bobbed away with their owners into the farther recesses of the Rat’s Nest, leaving the flickering fire in the hearth the only light in the room. There was a quiet cough above her, and Calli dragged a bleary eye upwards to see Gregyr lingering silently by her shoulder. He hesitated for a moment, fished a hand within his waistcoat and pulled out a piece of paper which he lay tentatively upon the table before her.
“He told me to give you this, if you returned after he had gone. He gave it to me years ago, but he always knew you would return in the end, Calli. He never gave up hope for you. He loved you like a daughter.”
Her hands snatched for it, holding it so tightly it crumpled, and tears sprang up to her aching eyes. She could not bear to read it now. She would read it later, when the arch and tilt of his familiar handwriting didn’t slice her heart so deeply, when his voice didn’t sing out of the words breaking through the pain in her chest. She pulled it close to her, as if she could pull his presence out of the pages by sheer force of will alone, and did not reply. Gregyr hesitated for one moment more and then placed his hand upon her shoulder comfortingly.
“We’re glad you’ve come home, Cal,” he said.
Home. Despite it all, Calli smiled damply. Yes, she was glad, too.
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"Five eyes and an eyepatch" is a great line! I also really liked the details of the drinking game. Very well crafted scene. A great little fantasy story that left me wanting to know more about the world you've created.
Sure, can’t wait to read more from you.
This was beautiful!!!! Honestly I loved every minute of reading this. I’m so sorry but I’m terrible at critiquing but I can’t even anyway because it was amazing! I will for sure check out your book Remnant since I love writing and reading romance! Congrats again and can’t wait to read more from you!!
Thank you! What a sweet thing to say :)