Chapter 3 Forest for the Trees

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Birds sang in the distance as Ticca moved cautiously along the game trail. The traps needed to be checked regularly to prevent any accidental miss, causing unneeded grief. The next trap came into view; it had been tripped, yet it was empty. Ticca paused, listening to the sounds of the forest for anything out of place. Her hearing identified many animals living and dying in the pattern of the woods. Sensing nothing unusual, she approached the trap cautiously.

Scrapes on the tree bark told the story. Laughing, her bell-like voice floated through the forest. Most animals didn’t even bother to listen. She moved in more confidently. A bear had helped itself to the bait meant to attract the large red squirrels she needed to harvest. Examining the marks on the tree, she saw that it was a half-grown cub.

Well now, I have a saboteur. Not the first bear to learn it’s a tasty treat.

Enjoying the late afternoon warmth and filtered sun, she went about moving, fixing, and resetting the trap. From her large pouch, she pulled a leaf-wrapped package containing the squirrel bait made of nuts mixed with seeds and sweet resin. Putting the remaining bait away, she jumped the twenty feet to the forest floor. Looking around a second time for signs of bears, she fished in her pouch for the small vial of grizzly musk. Her hand didn’t find it, so she was forced to pull the pouch around, holding it open with one hand while peering in and looking more vigorously. Finally, she found it wedged at the bottom under her notebook. I don’t use this too often, but it sure is handy to have. Opening the vial, she applied a few dabs of the musk on the base of the trap’s new tree and rubbed it into the bark hard, using the bearskin leather cloth she carried for that purpose. That should warn off my little friend from climbing.

Running through the trapping checklist in her head, she reassured herself she had done everything needed. I need to note where I put it; not that I have ever lost a trap. She smiled. Well, at least, none that I remember.

She sat down as she pulled out the notebook. It was a beautiful traveling journal, bound in fine leather. It was engraved with her sign on the front and back. The paper was of a strong fiber plant that made it impervious to moisture and which gave the trader’s ink a perfect surface to adhere to. Both the paper and ink were made by their respective families in town. She had made the leather cover and sewn the book together herself. She caressed it, remembering how making such a book had been used as training on strong stitching and leather preparation by her mother. However, her skills had improved, as that was her tenth such journal and the best she had made yet.

Sitting and dreaming of the past is not going to finish the day’s work.

Opening the journal, she flipped through the pages, a combination of journal, accounting log, and map book. Identifying the page for that trap, she marked out its prior position and recorded a fresh entry. She was surprised to note that was the third time she had to move that particular trap.

I have a real stubborn bear cub hereabouts, or, one with a serious taste for sweet nuts.

Reading some of her entries for the last few cycles’ work, she smiled.

At least, this is the only one for this season, so far.

She went back to the original tree and climbed up to the old location. Pulling the sweet nut bait back out, she left a small portion in the nook of the limb and tied a leaf over it to protect it from the rain.

I hope that will stop him from hunting down the new location.

With the offering ready, she said a prayer to the Goddess Dalpha to thank her for the challenge and to ask that the bear not harm itself in the trap, should it still find it. She jumped to the forest floor, jogged back to the game trail, and followed it to the next location. If she moved fast enough, she could complete the trap circuit that day.

Her energy increased in anticipation of going home after running the two-day trap circuit. The soft red pelts were tied into a tight bundle that bounced on her hips as she moved through the woods. The shadows were already long as she approached the edge between the deep forest and the open lake glade near her home. Sitting by the lake in a leisurely pose was the man her heart and soul agreed should be her life mate. She paused to observe him. Her heart was already racing, as it always did when she saw him. He was tall, even sitting. His long, silky black hair flowed in the soft breeze. He wore the simple green leggings he preferred. He sat with his legs pulled under him, so she couldn’t see if he was barefoot or not, although it was likely he was in those horrible old boots he loved so much. His figure was striking in the brown tunic with long tapered cuffs she had made for him for Midwinter’s Night.

He was gazing across the lake, to the southeast.

Always thinking and planning, as if he can alter the future to meet his desires.

He hadn’t noticed her, and he was sitting such that she could pass only a few dozen feet to the left and come up directly behind him. Smiling deviously, she moved to a better location for a stealthy approach. Setting down the satchel of squirrel carcasses and her pouch in a spot just behind a tree, she edged out of the forest. Her smile and her forward motion froze as she registered that he wasn’t where he had been a moment before.

“My lady needs a bath after such a work-filled day. Allow me to assist.”

She screamed as strong hands grasped her hips from behind. Lifting her as if she was a leaf, he crossed the thirty feet to the edge of the lake in a couple of heartbeats, at a dead run. She kicked and squirmed wildly, hoping to throw his balance off.

Their speed did not abate on reaching the lake. Instead, holding her high, he jumped, carrying both of them far out over the water. Midflight, she managed to twist around and grab hold of him with both arms and legs. They held onto each other, laughing together as the cold water welcomed them into its embrace.

- - -

Sputtering for air, Ticca sat up in bed. Her heart was pounding hard.

Where am I?

Shaking her head, she looked around the dimly lit room. Sunlight was filtering in past the cracks in the shutters over the small window. The room smelled of dust, and the faint hint of a musky perfume was teasing her nose.

Sula’s perfume. I am in Llino. This is my room at the Blue Dolphin. What the heck was that dream all about? I’ve never experienced anything in it at all; nothing even close, except maybe the hunting and tracking.

Her new boots silently hit the hardwood floor and gave her a more grounded feeling. She bent over, holding her head as the final cobwebs cleared from her mind.

That forest was so real. But I have never been in it before. Those squirrels were huge. And who was that man who carried me into the lake? In the dream, I knew him, but I don’t think I have ever met anyone that looked like him before. Standing, she stretched and twisted, feeling great. Amazing, what a good night’s sleep can do.

Then she remembered the crowns.

Maybe the whole night was a dream.

Looking at the table, she sighed.

Well, some of it was real.

She reached for the new pouch, grateful it was still there and real. Opening it, she pulled out the four shiny gold coins and small glass vial. She sat back down on the bed and placed the vial on the small table, playing with the coins in the sun’s rays coming through the window.

Four crowns in one night; I am going to make it here. I proved I’m a capable Dagger. Sula is no fool. That she paid me this means I proved myself to her.

Smiling, she stood, putting the coins back into the pouch.

She went through her morning ritual stretches as best she could in the small space. Her body flowed through the movements without any complaints.

I am feeling amazingly good, considering the beating I took last night.

When she stretched her arms behind her, she gritted her teeth, expecting the sharp pain her poor shoulder should have given her. Instead, she was able to complete the back stretches without anything more than the normal slight twinges of muscles loosing up.

Confused, she took off her shirt and examined her arm, where the large bruise had been the night before. Her skin was a healthy dark olive. Stunned, she looked over every place she could get to where there had been damage. After careful examination, she couldn’t find a single blemish. All of the evidence of abuse had vanished as if it never happened. Even more interesting was that her skin was a fairer, more uniform color, as it had been when she was a few years younger, before going to the city.

I know I didn’t dream the fight, and I had dozens of bruises in the bath last night. Seriously, I should have been hurting for at least a few days.

Putting her shirt back on, she sat down on her bed, thinking through everything that had happened.

I have never healed this fast.

She looked down at the boots and thought about it.

Could these boots be magical? I’ve never heard of such. But healing boots would be practical and not likely to be suspected or taken if one was captured.

Opening the shutters, she took the boots off and examined them closely once more with the help of sunlight. They were still of the unusual fine leather, lined with a dense reddish brown fur, with the best stitching she had ever seen.

Now I know where the red squirrels in my dream came from. Dreams are funny. Oversized squirrels, instead of a bunny or an ermine. This fur is like a denser rabbit fur.

Laughing at her imagination, she looked at the threads.

I know I have seen stitching like this before. But I can’t place it.

Turning the boot over, she examined the sole’s construction. It was made from semi-hard leather that had been treated with something that made it glisten in the light. It felt tacky, like tree sap, but not so much as to pick up dirt or dust.

That is a neat trick.

The heels were not raised, but were stiffer, with some internal support under the fur. She flexed the boots and found that the front part was as flexible as her toes.

I can climb with these. With the tacky sole treatment, I bet I can climb even better with these on than off. The fact I am alive is all the magic I need for now. Magical or not, these are the finest boots I have ever seen.

Putting them back on her feet, she stood and gathered her belongings. She slipped her belt through the solid loops on the new pouch. It took a few minutes of playing with the throwing knife sheaths’ arrangement on her belt before it felt comfortable, and she was satisfied with the impression it would make. Putting it on over her shirt, she wiggled to be sure it settled onto her hips. She slipped the knives into the sheaths, trying not to look.

This needs to be automatic and look smooth.

She took the knives back out again without looking. Practicing drawing and sheathing each knife in turn, in groups, and at random took a while. Eventually, she was sure she could make it look good when needed.

Forget the cross-belts; this is a good set-up. Now, it’s time to see if I can make these work for me.

She put all her weapons around the room and stood in the center. Slipping sideways, she stretched her foot out. Angling her boot toe under one throwing knife’s edge, she kicked it into the air. She turned around, caught it with her off hand, and sheathed it in one motion. Bending backward, she scooped another knife from the table, and one from the chair, with both hands. The knives were sheathed before she had finished turning to step over the new short sword.

Sweeping down, she picked up the short sword and then used it to flip the final throwing knife in the air and towards her from the far corner of the room. She sheathed the sword as she caught the knife. Sheathing the throwing knife, she spun, grabbed the dagger from where it lay on the floor, and brandished it in a single motion, ending in a defensive crouch with another throwing knife in her other hand. Stepping forward, she spun and sheathed the dagger and throwing knife together as she straightened.

Not bad, not bad at all. She smiled at what she imagined it had looked like. With so many knives, I might be mistaken for a Blade. Of course, with my cloak hiding some, this will do nicely.

Feeling great, she grabbed her pack and dropped it on the bed. Not much was left out. Still, it took a minute to put everything else inside. Giving the room one last glance, she checked to be sure that the new belt pouch and her pack were properly closed. She slipped her shoulder pouch over her head and let herself enjoy the anticipation. Today is going to be so much fun. I have wanted to do this for cycles.

With a wide smile, Ticca locked the door, dropped the key into her new pouch, and then went down the three stories to the common room which was already busy. Genne was talking with two merchants, and three girls were moving around the room, cleaning tables as well as serving new breakfasts with hot arit or jeel-leaf tea. Looking around the room, she saw that there were as yet no Daggers present. In fact, there were only a handful of local workmen present. Most who breakfasted there had already been and left for the docks, due to the early tide that day. The few merchants present were all locals. The tradesmen had already headed to set up their goods in the trade square.

Ticca turned and walked the short distance to the specific table she’d dreamed of sitting at for cycles. It was one of the many used by known Daggers. It was also one of the eight that could be permanently designated to a Dagger or Dagger fire-team. It was not a large table, just big enough for maybe two Daggers and a client or two to share. It had the advantage of being near the bar and the stairs, yet still commanded an excellent view of the left main room. It was close enough to hear the left room’s performing bard, which was important to keep up on the best tales, news, and gossip, and to enjoy the entertainment. It was also far enough from the bard’s platform to allow conversing with clients. Most importantly, the table backed to a shallow nook, so she could sit with her back to a wall, and no one could come up from behind.

It pays, being an early riser. I beat Hairy and Frumpy again. But today I am going to move up a notch.

Licking her dry lips, she took some deep breaths to try and slow her heart, which started racing as she approached the table. Glancing around out of the corner of her eyes, she sat down.

Even though no one looked as she sat, she was sure a few took note. Genne didn’t even stop his conversation, and she’d half-expected him to protest.

Genne hasn’t kicked me away, so he is willing to let me sit here.

She let her pack fall into the shallow contour of the wall, which meant it was out of sight from most of the room. She watched and shifted to get more comfortable; her shirt was sticking to her back.

Urd, I was more nervous than I expected.

She pulled her shirt away from her skin.

Leaning against the wall, she felt her smile grow at having taken a more prominent Dagger table.

A couple of notches higher on the Dagger scale. Now, I need to earn it.

It only took a few seconds before one of the serving girls came over and put her breakfast in front of her. “Which would you like this morning, your hot arit or the milk we got in? It’s real fresh.”

Ticca smiled at her for the courtesy of not acknowledging the significance of her chosen location. “This morning, I’ll take both.” The girl paused to see if she was going to be asked for the price of the milk. When it was obvious Ticca was not going to ask, she nodded and moved off towards the kitchens.

Ah, that got you a little curious. She let her smile turn to a smirk.

As Ticca was taking her third bite, the girl came back with her milk and hot arit. Setting down the drinks, the girl left to take care of other customers. The expected familiar pair of young men came in the door and headed for her table. Seeing it occupied, they stopped and then turned, taking a different table. Ticca watched as they said something to the serving girl that made her shrug as she gave them their breakfast.

Asking if I am an ignorant merchant’s daughter, I bet. I know who you are, and I know who you tend to work for, but you haven’t been paying much attention to anyone other than the big league Daggers, have you?

After the girl brought back some hot arit for the two Daggers, they drank, and then the hairy one put a highly polished dagger into the dagger holder in the center of their table. It had a wide winged hand guard and a simple circular pommel. Its hilt was wrapped with a black iron cord.

Interesting, that is new. You two have only been doing simple patrol and guard stuff. Trying to move up to bigger jobs is risky. Especially since neither of you look like the heavy fighting types.

A soft thud announced Genne’s arrival at the table. She looked at him as he leaned back in the chair. He had taken the other Dagger chair, which kept most of his back to the wall, with only the kitchen door a serious approaching threat.

Always got your back covered, don’t you?

She smiled as winningly as she could, causing him to frown and cross his arms.

His tone was tired, like a scolding father. “Ya knows d’rules.”

Taking another bite of the breakfast, she kept smiling and chewed before answering, just to try and draw him in a little more. “Mm, been meaning to chat with you about them. I think some things need to change.”

Genne’s face scrunched as if the mere thought of a change to the Blue Dolphin’s rules caused him physical pain. Hairy was nudging his companion and indicating her direction in anticipation of the show. Genne’s voice changed to lower than normal, still calm and somehow scary as he answered, “D’rules ain’t chang’n, m’lass.”

Bait, loop, and trap all in one shot. Keeping her winning smile, she unlocked the pouch at her belt and reached in for the crowns. Instead of feeling the four coins she expected, there were a couple of small cloth bags and other items she couldn’t identify by touch. She heard her trainer’s voice in the back of her mind saying, ‘Never let them see you flinch.’ Looking back at Genne, she saw that he must have picked up on her reaction, as he began to frown even deeper. Hairy and Frumpy were smiling, seeing Genne’s obvious growing annoyance.

She tried not to sweat or look confused. One of the small bags was a coin purse and felt heavy with coins.

Oh, Lady, what has happened to me? Please be enough.

She brought the coin purse out and opened it. Trying to act casually, as if nothing was wrong, she looked down, and her heart skipped a beat or two. Shining back were more than fifty crosses, as well as some cheras, bells, pence, rings, and even three crowns. One worn crown was sitting on top, like it was the king of the bag, which it was.

Lady, thank you.

Her trainer’s voice continued on. ‘Always go for the greatest impact.’ Reaching into the purse and grabbing a crown and twenty crosses, she said, “I meant,” with deliberate motions putting the coins on the table, crosses first, punctuating her words, “changing our arrangement and my room.”

Genne’s eyes took in the purse, and she was sure he could sense the precise value of its contents. He then leaned forward and, just as deliberately, took the crown. He examined it, tasting first and then checking the heft against his years of experience handling such coins. “Well, d’night was good for you.” Looking down, she saw that all the coins had vanished. “Der is a few Dagg’r rooms open.”

“Yes, well, I want a small one, preferably not too close to the stairs or baths.”

“I’ve jus’ d’one.” Patting his pouch, which his hands had not gone close to prior, he said, “Dis will give ya three cycles if’n ya don’wan’ food, two if’n ya wants all meals with’n hyly, arit, an’ yer milk.”

Doing some unexpected counting in her head, she considered it. She knew it would likely be reasonable for the Dolphin, because Genne never inflated or cheated. Knowing it wasn’t a bad deal made her pause.

That is higher than I expected. I know the Dolphin is one of the best inns in the city and also one of the most costly to stay at. At twelveno, thirteen — crosses a cycle for the room and another seven for food, I know I’ll be eating full, hot meals as I please. But if I get some good work soon, I’ll be able to maintain that rate. If I up my fee from a chera a day to a cross a day, or six crosses for a week, I would be just under the rate of some of the best in this room. I certainly have enough here to give me plenty of time to prove I can. Looking at Genne, she saw he had a slight smile in his eyes. He’s scheming, and I’m obviously on course. I need to be sure the stable fees are in this, too.

“Twenty-one crosses a cycle with stable, meals, hyly, arit, and milk for me and clients. But as I don’t drink much, I also want baths and,” sending up a small prayer to the Lady, she continued, “this table.”

Genne’s brows moved up and down as he thought it through. His eyes told her he wasn’t as surprised as she expected.

You’ve been watching me closer than I thought. You knew I was going to ask for this table.

Ticca had to remind herself to breathe as he thought it over. Genne was reputed to be one of the hardest men to cheat or negotiate with. Standing up, he held out his left arm. “Done.”

It took a moment for her to recover from the shock of the quick agreement. She had expected to be bartering down to the threads of the bed cloth. Standing, she grasped his left forearm with her left hand. “Agreed.” Across the room, the two other Daggers had stopped mid-bite and stared.

Genne’s large hand closed on her left forearm, and he grabbed her left elbow with his right hand and held her there. Before he released her, he whispered, “Ya done good lady. Try t’stay alive. I likes ya.” Releasing her, he started to turn to go.

“Genne, one more thing.” As he turned back to her, she pulled another four crosses and two crowns out. “Make it four full cycles.”

Smiling, he took the coins, nodded, and headed back to the bar.

Ticca knew everyone in the room was watching for sure. With a sly grin, she did the maneuver she had dreamed of doing at the Blue Dolphin since she was a child, listening to the stories the bards told. Years of practice had made the choreographed sequence seem gracefully nonchalant. As she turned and sat, she put the coin purse back into the pouch and drew her dagger. It spun around her hand before dropping into the table’s holder, where it stood boldly for all to see.

It was a slightly longer than normal dagger, polished to a mirrored surface. It had a small brass quillons etched with two packs of hounds running away from the blade, a bone hilt, and a diamond-shaped pommel. She smirked at the two shocked Daggers who sat with their mouths hanging open, staring. She admired how nice the dagger looked standing up from the center of the table.

That’s right, boys. This girl is an experienced and dangerous hunting Dagger.

In the back of her mind, she heard her uncle’s voice when he was questioned about a Dagger story he was telling: ‘It ain't bragging if you can do it. And let me tell you, Daggers can.’

Trying not to pay much attention to the room, she finished her meal. A few merchants inspected her dagger from a respectable distance, making a note in a journal or notepad before they left. She acknowledged them with a nod or smile. Some veteran Daggers came in for morning meals. She didn’t catch a single one of them inspecting her like the new arrival she was, and a few even casually acknowledged her with a nod, wave, or morning greeting. Overall, it was quiet and anticlimactic.

When she finished her meal, Ellar appeared by the table as the serving girl carried off the empty platter. Placing a square paper-wrapped package and an odd-looking key close to her hand, he said, “M’lady, for you.”

I need to figure out what in the Lady’s name is going on with this purse. Might as well inspect the room Genne thinks is right for me.

Standing, she reached out for her dagger and, in a fluid swirl, pulled it from the holder, looped it over her hand, and let it drop into its sheath. Packing up her bag and slinging it over her shoulder, she grabbed the key and moved towards the stairs.

As she left, Hairy and Frumpy stood up and grabbed their daggers. Before she realized what they intended, Genne’s voice rang out clear and loud in the otherwise quiet room. “Oi, ya c’n plant yerselves back down, lads. Dat table is Ticca’s from now on.” Hairy and Frumpy almost fell over backwards, complying. No one laughed too loudly.

I didn’t mean to embarrass them. Last thing I need is enemies right now.

She noticed a number of Daggers, merchants, and workmen looking her over.

Well, that should spread the word better than anything I could do. Bet I get something to do pretty soon.

Keeping her posture straight and casual, she started up the stairs.

“Ta da right.”

Jumping at Genne’s voice so close, she turned. “Sneaking up on a Dagger isn’t exactly safe.”

He smiled as he gestured down the hall. “Dagg’rs pay ‘tention, or dey die.”

Ignoring the obvious jibe, she said, “I thought you were dealing with customers.”

“How’d ya fin’ yer room?”

The key was more complicated than she had seen before. There were two parallel rows of teeth, and the tip was hollow on the end. Also, it had no label on it to indicate a room. She glanced up at the hall of nearly identical doors that differed only in distance between them and color. The stone hall went a short distance from the stairs and then did a gentle forty-five degree turn to the right, where it continued for some distance before ending.

There were twelve doors in the hall — four on the left towards the rear, city-side of the tavern and eight on the right towards the front, wharf side. Each door looked solid, with a smooth surface, no handles, and each had an inlaid square brass plate in the center. Four parallel sliders moved horizontally, centered just above an engraving shaped like a keyhole for the key she held. The only exception was the door to her immediate left. That door didn’t have a brass plate. Instead, the whole door was a glossy iron-colored metal with five sliders and three engraved circles around the keyhole engraving. Confused, she looked at Genne who had stood there watching her with a proud little smile.

“You have a point.”

“’Tain’t all dat hard. Yer key is fer d’purple door.” He indicated the second door on the right. “D’sliders is a secon’ lock. I’ll hel’ you t’set it. Den only you an’ I will know it. I’ve a few keys t’each,” he continued, gesturing at the row of doors. “If’n ya rent due an’ ya don’ come ba’ n’six cycles, I call d’key, store everyting n’ secret place. If’n ya don’ come ba’ n’fifty years, it’s me family’s clear. If’n ya come ba’, ya owe six cycles’ rent plus a chera a cycle for safe store. Ya know how safe it is here, an’ mos’ Dagg’rs pay ‘tention for udder Dagg’rs. Still, we ain’t responsible if’n a thief gets inna ya room.” Looking her square on, he added, “An’ if’n ders a fight cuz o’you,” he pointed a finger square at her chest, “yer ta pay fer damage. Clear?”

The price I agreed to is for more than what I thought. It was for a small Dagger room. We already agreed, and nothing here will change it. It is an interesting arrangement. I wonder if anyone has come back within fifty years.

“Clear.” She said.

Running the new information through her mind, she looked at the doors again. She studied the door on her immediate left that appeared to be solid metal. If it was painted, it was the best job she had ever seen. But the locking mechanism wasn’t a brass plate, and something else was different.

Pointing with her chin, she asked, “Whose room is that?”

Genne didn’t even look. “Damega’s. He’s paid up clear for nodder few ‘undred years. An’ glad I am. I don’ wanna be d’one ta try an’ open it. Ta be honest, I dou’ we’ll ever try ta claim it. See, he is d’one who designed d’locks an’ some of our udder features.”

Her eyes focused on the door, stunned as if it was a mythical monster come to life. Taking the key from her limp hand, Genne stepped up to her door, moving the sliders to different spots. He waited a couple of seconds, and then a soft click came from the panel. An interior cover slid out of the way, showing that the engraving was a real keyhole, but with some kind of tight-fitting internal cover. Genne stuck the key in and turned it to the right. A couple of clicks came from the door, and he pushed it open. As he removed the key, another snap came from the lock as the sliders all returned to the far left, and the interior cover slid back into place, turning the keyhole back into an engraving on the panel.

Stepping in, he motioned for her to look at the back of the door. Edging into a much larger room than she expected, she turned her attention to it. There was a handle in the middle of the plate, which had another slider that moved vertically next to it.

“Ya c’n keep d’door open by mov’n dis up,” he said, indicating the vertical slider, which was all the way down. “Up, an’ anyone c’n come in. Down an’ it’s locked. Ya don’ need d’key ta get out.” He paused, and she nodded that she understood the basic workings. Genne pulled a different key from another pouch and moved the sliders again to open the keyhole. He stuck that key in and turned it hard to the left and held it there. “Move dese how ya wan’ dem t’open d’key’ole.”

She changed their positions and made sure to remember it. When she nodded to Genne, he turned his key back and withdrew it from the door. Again the sliders all returned to the far left, and the keyhole snapped shut. Closing the door, he handed over her key. “Le’s see ya open it.”

It took a couple of attempts to get the hang of the lock, but she eventually passed some level of competence, because Genne grunted. “Ya’ll do.” He gently put his hand on her shoulder. “Ya moved up a notch taday, lady. Dagg’rs are m’family’s tradition an’ trust. I thin’ yer ready. Ders an ancient Dagg’r say’n from afor dey came here.” He indicated Damega’s door with his head. “‘Heroes get remembered, legends live forever.’ It’s yer turn ta add ta da Dagg’r legend.” He looked her in the eye, and then nodded as if she had made the mark. “Drop d’udder key off when yer don mov’n.” He turned and went down the stairs without another word.

Well, I wanted to be a Dagger, and I am. Honor, courage, and commitment will win, just like you said, Uncle. She heard her uncle’s voice. ‘Nobody ever drowned in sweat girl, so dig in and work hard.’ With a nervous glance at the metal door across the hall from hers, she stepped into the room and closed the door.

I just rented the room across the hall from Damega’s, in the biggest trade city of the realm. Uncle, you wouldn’t believe this in a million years. Lady, forgive me, I don’t believe it myself.

She checked to be sure the door was locked and stepped over to the large bed, which was in a small alcove, with an armoire on the right. Turning, she felt giddy, taking in the magnificent room she could call her own. It was larger than she’d expected, with a dining or planning table filling the recess to the left of the doorway. She stepped over to the street side window and brushed her hand along the empty bookcase next to it. She plopped into one of the four overstuffed chairs in front of the bookcase and enjoyed the feeling of her own space.

There was a door behind the entry. Ticca stood up and opened it. She was shocked that she had a private toilet with a clothing storage room big enough for dozens of outfits, with room to spare.

Wow! I have running water in my room, and I don’t have to use the communal toilet. I’m not even going to try to explain this to Uncle. If he comes, he’ll be shocked silent.

Wandering over to the window, she gazed out onto the street in front of the tavern. Merchants and workmen moved back and forth along the wharf road. Large carts were being pushed or pulled in every direction imaginable. She noted that the window could be opened inward and had outer shutters. The view was amazing, and the glass was almost flawless. Something about it made her look closer, and she found that the frame was made of metal, and the glass was an unbelievable inch thick. The security of the window was made even stronger by a set of inner shutters made of iron, which could be closed and bolted shut.

Turning around, she took in her new room from the window.

Now, I know why the rate was higher than I expected. This is more than I ever imagined. To think this place has been here for hundreds of years.... I wonder who has used this room, and if I ever heard of them in a bard’s tale. She laughed. I wonder what the bards will do with a name like Ticca.

She shook her head. I have things to do, and I need to get back down there to get work to keep this place.

She found a place for most of the stuff in her pack. Then she took off her belt and pulled the mysterious pouch off of it. Laying her belt out on the bed, she took the pouch over to the table and sat down in one of the stuffed chairs.

Oh, Lady, these are comfortable.

She leaned back and enjoyed the feeling. Then she noticed a low stone table, just the right height for a drink…or her feet. She put her feet up on it, finding it solidly in place. Holding the pouch with both hands, she examined it again, more closely.

It seemed a simple, medium-sized pouch.

You know, this is just the right size for a small travel book. And the package the Knife handed over in the Night Market would have fit in this perfectly if nothing else was in it.

Opening the pouch, she discovered that it still had the coin purse and other items, which she pulled out. There was a flint pack, some string looped so it could be pulled out easily, a small red wax candle, a high-quality mirror in a silk sleeve, three circular stones that looked like fat coins, but which stuck together, and a second purse of brown silk that held five gems. Taking the cloth coin purse, she emptied it and counted thirty-two crosses, six cheras, nine bells, sixteen pence, and five rings.

The gems have to be worth at least fifteen, maybe twenty crowns. Lady, that wasn’t just any simple Knife! He had thieves’ tools, was carrying as much as a noble would, and was wearing magical boots.

She turned the empty pouch over. It was well-made, but there was nothing extravagant about it.

Where did that vial and my shiny four crowns go? This is the stuff I saw in it when I took it from him.

That thought gave her pause.

This means that no one got into my room, but somehow, the items vanished and reappeared. She noticed that the clasp’s inscription was circular. It had an inner and outer ring that split what was already a nice geometric pattern. She ran her fingers across the clasp and noted that it was smooth. The geometric pattern had five distinct outer areas, and in each of them, there was an invisible deformity in the surface. Her fingertips could feel slight indentions in each of the five areas, and each section had a unique feel to it.

It must have something to do with these patterns.

Feeling along the center section shifted it under the pressure of her finger. Sitting up, she looked closer. It was almost imperceptible, but the center of the pattern could rock back and forth, and it locked into position, requiring specific pressure at the top or bottom to shift it into the other position. Looking into the pouch with the center section pressed on the top or bottom changed nothing.

Why cut the pattern in half with a circle?

She realized that if she rotated the outer portion of the clasp, each of the five outer areas, where the circle cut them, would still interconnect, making a different, but complete pattern. The pattern would be complete, but slightly different, in any one of five points if the outer portion was rotated.

Maybe it is meant to rotate.

She tried to turn the clasp without success.

Dang, I thought I had it.

She sat back, staring at it, and then an idea came.

A rotating lock?

She pressed the bottom half of the center section. It rocked into place. Grabbing the outer ring, she found it resisted moving at first, but then moved easily. She turned it one-fifth of a turn. It snapped into position, leaving the geometric pattern complete, but somewhat altered. If she hadn’t been studying it, it would seem unchanged. She opened the pouch and looked inside. The pouch was no longer empty. It held five vials with liquids in a wooden holder that had three empty slots, an assortment of cloths, and a set of quills tied with string.

Lords and Ladies, this is amazing!

She tried to turn the outer ring, but it wouldn’t move. Closing the pouch, she tried again, and it moved as easily as the first time. Opening the pouch revealed it was full of papers. She pulled them out and found none of them made any sense.

I know I am not great at reading, but I don’t recognize anything here.

She spread the papers out on the large table. She could tell there were four separate authors by the handwriting. Beyond that, there was not much she could read. The only item she could read was a set of five rough maps drawn in an elegant hand. Two of the maps had reference points she recognized. One was of an area a long way west in the neighboring kingdom, and another map was of the part of the great forest to the north.

She stacked the papers and set them aside on the table, and then closed and turned the latch. It was still empty. Not sure if anything had happened, she repeated the process. She opened it and sighed with relief. There were her four shiny crowns, the vial of poison, and the key to the upper floor room.

This is going to make carrying everything I need a lot easier.

Taking out the vial of poison, she scooped some of the coins back into the purse and put the purse and keys into the pouch. Turning the clasp to the next point, she put everything back in, except for the poison and notes. Then she turned the clasp to the next point and added the vial of poison to the other vials in one of the empty slots.

No reason to leave them behind.

Turning the clasp to the next position, she put all the papers back inside. Finally, she turned it back to the position with the coin purse and the keys.

With a large smile, she slipped the pouch back onto her belt and put the belt back on. Confirming the pouch was still holding her coins and keys, she pressed the center of the clasp on the top. With it locked into position, the outer ring would not turn.

I was rotating that outer part by accident. Lady, thanks to you for this good fortune.

She felt the indentions in the uppermost section.

These indentions are to tell which section is open without looking. I need to get three identical coin purses and maybe a pair of identical journals. I can keep different, reasonable amounts of coins in each purse, but have one special one with the large value coins. With two journals, I can have one that has bad notes and hard-to-read maps of no value. I could pair it with one coin purse with a few rings and pence in it and leave that where the pouch is locked normally. If I get captured or robbed, they’ll get what they may have seen me with, but it will be worthless. I can shift this to the more valuable purses or journal when I need to. With this, I need give nothing away, even if captured.

She thought back to the Knife.

I hope not every Knife is so well equipped.

With that thought bouncing around in her head, a shiver passed through her.

I really got lucky, killing him the way I did. Now the world has one less Knife in it.

Feeling less remorse over her first kill, she stood and went to the door. Stepping out of her room, she made sure the door closed behind her. Glancing at the metal door opposite, she thought, I really have bumped up to a new level. First, I’ll do some shopping, and then it will be time to earn some more coin and prove I really belong here. She walked down the stairs and entered the main room. There were more Daggers present, and a few acknowledged her directly. She returned the same courteous acknowledgements, which drew the attention of some other Daggers. Hairy and Frumpy were gone. Hope they do well on their first fighting Dagger exercise. She placed the upper room key on the counter near Genne, who nodded to her, took the key, and continued his conversation.

“...can tell ‘em jus’ what I said. I ‘aven’t seen Vestul ‘n two days, an’ his stuff is still up der, an’ I’m clear ta nex’ cycle.”

The man Genne was talking to was not taking the news well. In fact, he looked rather sick. “But he missed the meeting. Are you sure he didn’t come back?”

Genne’s look hardened, and the shorter man caved in on himself. “Right, right, I got it. He went up for the night and left in the morning, didn’t return, and isn’t in his room.” He pushed away from the bar and went out the door, mumbling, “Oh, Lords, he isn’t going to be happy. He really isn’t going to be happy.”

Missing customer. That can’t be too unusual. I need to find some coin purses. With that thought, she stepped out onto the busy main road and turned left to head for the market.

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