Corruption of Azim
Orrenette Meets Gaimon
The dwarf was overly arrogant. Although very well muscled and probably well-trained with weapons and shields, he was clearly no professional brawler. The kind of no-holds-barred fisticuffs they were engaged in was proving to be a difficult style to master. At least, difficult to master quickly. Or in time. Gaimon looked at the Dwarf quizzically as he picked himself off the floor of their arena. The elf wondered why the dwarf had thought coming to a gladiator match completely drunk was a good idea. Enraged, the dwarf charged.
Gaimon spun, moving just barely out of his opponent’s path, and grabbed the dwarf’s arm. Off-balance, the dwarf tried to bring his feet under him, tried to regain some footing, but Gaimon’s knee swung up and cracked him in the chin. The shorter gladiator went down, eyes glazing over as Gaimon jumped on him, using his forearm to deliver several vicious blows to the dwarf’s head. The elf began to frenzy, smashing him harder and harder as the crowd began to roar its approval. Hands grabbed Gaimon and pulled him off of the limp form of the dwarf, where blood was beginning to pool under his ravaged face.
“Gaimon has defeated Eldric, the champion of the people, the leader of the Validran forces in this city, and the shining beacon of stalwart dwarven defense,” a voice boomed. Penumbra himself was the emcee for this particular gladiator match. The man certainly knew how to put on a show. A cleric appeared on the stage, leaning over Eldric. Gaimon sat down heavily, the hands finally leaving him after he had calmed down. “Penumbra’s Pandemonius Shadow Circus has, once again, defeated the champion of a city!” Penumbra bowed. “And our sponsor for this bout, Lady Charlison, will be donating the proceeds from this match to the police force keeping our streets safe.” Penumbra came over and grabbed Gaimon’s hand, hoisting the elf up off his seat. “Gaimon!” The crowd roared their approval. Gaimon knew his part to play. His lithe body strode forward into the middle of the cage, skin glistening with sweat and pumped his fist into the air. He took a weary bow and the crowd went wild.
But in truth, the elf was disappointed. He had let the bloodlust overtake him, and had they not stopped him he had no doubt that Captain Eldric would be a bloody heap on the ground. These bouts didn’t do nearly enough to satisfy his lust for violence. But he played his part, and whupping the local leader of the Validran forces was certainly both challenging and fun. He didn’t care who got the money, local law enforcement made their other business difficult in the short run; supporting the Validran forces would certainly make things more difficult in the long run. But it wasn’t his job to arrange the gambling and the bets among the nobles of the cities they visited. That was Penumbra’s job, and either way it served to grease the wheels so that they could return again in the future. Although it wasn’t like the Shadow Circus needed more good publicity.
Gaimon grabbed a towel and left the cage, just as a stretcher arrived to take his opponent undoubtedly back to his troops, and to his infirmary.
“Gaimon,” cooed a voice. Actually, two voices. The Slevain Sisters. He rolled his eyes before turning to look at them. Even for humans, these two were quite pretty. Both stood there, wearing low cut robes that showed, in his opinion, far too much leg when they moved about. Still, it was more clothing than they wore while performing their trapeze act. One had blonde hair, the other brunette, both slender, sexy, desireable . . . and utterly boring to the elf. “Do you need someone to help you clean up?”
“No, thank you, ladies,” he said. They walked closer, each placing a hand on one of his lithe arms. “But you look like you could use a bath. Surely we could help you draw one up.”
“Sara, Shayla!” snapped a voice. Penumbra was approaching them, a dashing figure even among the opulence of the night, his golden cloak flowing around him. “This is Richard Alderun, and he is in need of our assistance this evening. Could you please make sure he’s attended to, and I’ll be along shortly?” The two sisters glanced forlornly at Gaimon, then immediately moved to Richard, each taking one of his proffered arms and leading him away. Gaimon sighed with relief before fixing Penumbra with a stare. The old man shrugged. “Comes with the territory. I could tell them to stop, but quite frankly it keeps them sharp, trying to seduce someone who they don’t understand. It’s not a problem, is it?”
“No,” said Gaimon. “That’s not a problem. But next time, let me beat on my opponent some more.”
“Gaimon, I let you get as close as you can to killing, but you must understand, that’s not how we want things to go here.” The human placed his hand on Gaimon’s shoulder. “Working as gladiator and as a guard is all I have for you. I wish it could be more.” Gaimon nodded, but then left for his private tent.
Penumbra watched him for a moment before heading after Richard and the girls.
Orrenette shifted her cramped legs again, hoping that she hadn’t miscalculated. Sitting in a crouched position for hours was definitely more taxing than she thought it would be. The sun had set hours ago, and the halls of the palace had been quiet for some time. Hopefully her legs would respond when the time came.
She was small and could fit into tight spaces, but the loss of sensation in her lower extremities made her wonder if, perhaps, she had been a little too daring this time.
A wine casket was, after all, not really that big.
Footsteps brought her back to her cramped situation. She heard the door to the wine cellar creak open. Light appeared through the cracks of her barrel. The newcomer fumbled with the lid, and a moment later torchlight washed over her. Ray proffered her a hand, and helped her squeeze out.
“I’m fine, thanks for asking,” she whispered. He was unamused.
“Smuggling you here in one of those things was your idea, not mine.” He glanced behind him at the closed door. “Coast should be clear for a few more minutes.”
“Give me a moment,” she said. Orrenette began pacing quietly as the blood began to circulate again. She flexed her fingers, once again able to feel. Then she began to swing her arms back and forth, stretching the cramped ligaments. With one swing, she grabbed the club from off her belt and smashed it into Ray’s temple. He dropped to the ground and she was only barely able to slow his fall so there was no sound.
It only took a moment to change into his guard’s clothes. There would be fewer soldiers on guard this night, with Lord Athelstain out of town and his son hitting taverns, as usual. Looking like one of them from a distance would not be difficult, even with her slender half-elf form and carrying a knapsack.
“Sorry, Ray.” She whispered, as she tied him to one of the wine racks and gagged him. “More for me if I cut you out.” With a quick glance out to see if the coast was clear, she left the room. Moving from place to place was not simple. Getting to the front hall without being seen took a few moments of ducking and covering-even with the guard outfit Orrenette thought it best to be unseen-but she arrived at the vestibule ahead of schedule. The Captain of Lord Athelstain’s guards was nothing, if not predictable, in how he set up the guards’ rotations. A few well-placed coins and promises of alluring encounters had served her well. It was tricky, but doable.
Lord Athelstain was a collector of various objects, weapons, artifacts, symbols, and relics of bygone ages. The front entryway was a veritable museum of different pieces. But Orrenette was only interested in one-a small figurine off to the side. It was old, the rock it was carved from worn away so that its facial features were indistinguishable. The figure portrayed was clearly well-muscled, lithe . . . and had multiple arms.
Orrenette made sure she was alone before she pulled a very similar figurine from her knapsack. Her contact had supplied it, a replica near as could be constructed from memory. This man had been very patient. He had waited months to find someone who could recreate a statue, and then paid Orrenette to sneak in and switch them. This contact was very persistent, and even someone as jaded as the half-elf could sense a conniving mind when she saw it. This man was not to be trifled with. Just the way he looked at her, like she was an insect . . .
She shook her head. Get the job done. Get paid. The changing of the guard would happen in a few minutes, and she needed to be done and back to Ray’s post by then. Then she could simply slip out in the chaos of the rotation. There were a number of new guards in Lord Athelstain’s employ, a fact she thought suspiciously linked to her buyer to make her life easier.
Her buyer had warned that the statue would have unusual characteristics, but the unnatural heat it gave off as she snagged it still startled her. It went into the knapsack faster than she had wanted, but a moment later she ghosted up the stairs and waited for the guard down the hall to move, watching him through a crack in the door.
The man was assigned to guard two hallways, perpendicular to each other. He was slumping down in an ornate chair. She cursed silently. If he were asleep, that would make things slightly more difficult. She would prefer not to risk waking him. Not getting caught, that was the challenge. That was where the fun came in. It was why her buyer had made contact with her-she had a reputation for being more ghost than rogue. Killings were always so messy. And what was Ray going to do, say that he had been double crossed while attempting to double-cross his employer?
The guard snapped awake, and she let herself breathe a (quiet) sigh of relief. Realizing his lapse, he jumped up from the chair, moving through the moonlight streaming through a large window at the end of a hall. He glanced her way, but she remained perfectly still. He wouldn’t see her, hidden in the shadows. He turned away, silhouetted now against the window. He stepped into the hallway and disappeared from view. Orrenette prepared to move, but there was a small sound, almost like a head landing on a pillow.
There was a new figure just inside the window.
Orrenette froze. This new figure moved silently around the corner. She was sure she hadn’t been spotted, but what to do now that there was another present? There was a muffled thump, and the figure returned, this time holding a dagger in one hand. The figure walked to the window and made some indistinguishable hand signals, then stepped back.
More puffing sounds came, and Orrenette watched in amazement as two more figures materialized, coalescing out of thin air. The three of them moved down the hall towards her. Orrenette flattened herself against the door, scooting quickly over. She was able to quickly reverse her guard’s tunic, tossing it over her head and then silently holding it over her face and chest. Her black leather would have to do to conceal her lower portion. Hopefully these intruders would not look behind them after entering the vestibule.
The door opened, and the three of them entered silently. Had she not seen them with her own eyes, she wouldn’t have believed anybody could move that silently.
Or that gracefully.
With a closer look at them now, she could tell that two of them were women. The third was male, and he took point as the three of them ghosted down the stairs. They headed straight to the dais she had stolen the statue from and grabbed the fake. Then they all began to head back up the stairs, but all three froze.
“Hey, Austin. AUSTIN!” came a voice from behind her. Someone had found the guard. “He’s dead! Quick! Come here!” Footsteps began to sound. Orrenette turned back . . . the three figures were gone. The doors burst open and several guards came in, weapons drawn, their torchlight flooding the room. But no, there, behind that statue, and by that suit of armor . . . The intruders were still here. She just couldn’t really see them. Like her eyes kept slipping past them. It wasn’t a trick of the light. They were hiding in plain sight. Literally.
The guards didn’t stand a chance.
The man appeared silently from behind a statue, arms moving fast. Orrenette didn’t see what he had done, but two of the guards dropped instantly. The two women converged on the remaining one, who cried out in terror. His sword managed to cut one of them across the face and arm, a graze more than an actual hit, but in moments they both had daggers buried up to their hilts in his vitals. With a gurgle, he stumbled away, clearly dying. He dropped his sword, and amidst the clatter it made, Orrenette ducked out the door. She wanted no part of these people. She ran. Abandoning any pretense of sneaking or trying to slip by, she simply bolted from the room as shouts of alarm sounded throughout the dark halls. The mansion was in chaos, it was easy to get lost in the commotion once she was a few hallways away from the vestibule. Still, she was shaking. Assassins who could teleport and who were difficult to see when they were standing right in front of you was nobody she wanted to tangle with.
It wasn’t until she had managed to slip away from the mansion, lowering herself down from an open window and vaulting the fence that surrounded Athelstain’s gardens, that the thought occurred to her that these shadowy figures had come for the very statue that she was sent for.
And they had her fake.
A shiver went up her spine involuntarily. She glanced around, checking all the shadows, her mind beginning to play tricks on her, hoping that the shadows didn’t contain some nefarious assassin. She moved quickly, praying she could keep her throat from being slit while she waited for the meeting with her buyer.
Penumbra’s Pandemonius Shadow Circus. The perfect place to hide. Crowds. Noise. Animals. Cheering. Weirdos. It would be easy to hide here for a few hours during the day, and was fun times anyway. The bouncers and security Penumbra hired were renowned for their brutal efficiency. Any rowdiness was met with a swift discharge from the circus grounds. All who came knew this. Penumbra wanted folks to have a good time.
Orrenette wandered for a few hours, watching various bards, storytellers, animal trainers, and freaks perform their shows. All in all, a decent afternoon. Certainly at least it was something to take her mind off of the near-debacle the night before. It began to rain as she ducked into one of the largest tents. The famous Slevain Sisters would be performing their high wire and trapeze act, and this was something she didn’t want to miss.
Penumbra himself stepped out to announce the act. The man, probably in his mid-forties, seemed spry for his age. She watched as he left a young woman at the ringside to enter the ring itself. His voice boomed out as his bright multi-colored cloak settled down around him.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls and friends from all corners of the world. Sadly, one of our girls had an accident the other night. A tent pole came loose and struck her in the arm.” Sighs of dismay sounded from the crowd. “Sara will be okay, but I’m sad to say that this evening you will only be privileged to see her older sister, Shayla, perform. Please join me in saying prayers to the Gods of fun and merriment that Sara will heal quickly, and join me in giving a big round of applause for Shayla Slevain!”
Shayla stepped into the ring, a slender graceful figure. She was wearing a long black cloak that radiated out from behind her as she swept around the ring, arms raised, clearly milking the crowd. It was going to be a tough sell, the audience clearly disappointed the two wouldn’t be performing together, but Shayla seemed to be undaunted. She took a bow to the applause, and as she straightened the cloak came tumbling down. Underneath she was wearing some kind of skin-tight silver fabric-looked like silk to Orrenette. It wrapped around her like a snake, keeping her covered, if only barely so.
The act was wonderful. Shayla was flexible, nimble, and certainly strong for someone her size, though Orrenette herself knew certain tricks that Shayla was using to climb ropes, balance, and flip. Still, even for a thief as skilled as Orrenette, the display was impressive.
It wasn’t until she glanced to the side of the ring that she saw something that made her blood run chill. Sara was standing there. It was easy to notice the similarity between the two Slevain sisters. However, Sara’s face had a large bandage on it. From where she was sitting, it looked like a slash had been made exactly where one of the two women from last night had been injured by the guard. Someone walked by Sara and she reached out to touch them and say something briefly, but she had to reach across her body with her other arm, awkwardly.
It was her. Sara and Shayla. It was them. They were the two females at Lord Athelstain’s last night.
Orrenette’s mind reeled, two thoughts flashing almost simultaneously.
First, would they catch her here? Unlikely. They couldn’t have identified her, and it just looked like she was here to see the show, one of thousands in the crowd.
Second, she could probably see what happened when their buyer discovered that they didn’t have the real statue. It might be hard, depending on security in the area, but she could probably trail the sisters in the crowds here at a safe distance. If the man they were with last night worked for Penumbra as well, then maybe she could identify him. Her buyer would be interested in the information she could give him on who else was interested in the statue. Maybe could wrangle more coin out of the man.
Shayla was wrapping up, dropping from a dizzying height by wrapping herself in a long ribbon, falling, swinging, and unraveling at all the same time before landing gracefully on the ground. Orrenette was already moving away before the crowd even got to their feet, a thunderous applause. Shayla and Sara were surrounded by a few guards, men who didn’t look like they should be messed with. Still, some fans trailed after, waving and shouting cheers their way. Orrenette trailed after them, keeping her distance. She managed to follow them back to their tents before she was forced to move along, lest she reveal herself. But she would stick around. Besides, word on the street was that at night the Shadow Circus got even more . . . entertaining.
Entertaining didn’t begin to cover it. The sparkle and dazzle and spectacle of the day gave way as the sun set to much more seedy types of entertainment. Ale began to flow freely as the children went home, and the tents that had housed circus performers and animal acts turned into dens of vice. Raucous laughter emerged from one tent, and Orrenette got a glimpse of a Halfling bard performing in front of a rowdy crowd, a half dressed woman at his side, clearly part of the act. From another, a crowd cheered as she heard a fight announced. Gamblers were searched at the entrance to another, being patted down to make sure they weren’t bringing in loaded dice or trick cards.
Orrenette continued to mingle with the crowd until, just after the light from the sun completely disappeared, the Slevain sisters emerged from their tent and headed towards the main tent, where Shayla had performed her acrobatics. Orrenette followed after.
Gaimon watched the half-elf detach herself from the crowd and follow at a discreet distance. He had noticed her earlier, and kept an eye on her as she circled again and again, clearly scoping out the area with the private tents of the performers. As he followed the Slevain sisters, he kept a discreet eye on her. He hoped this one would be trouble. Out while playing bodyguard and bouncer, he was not as bound by rules and regulations. His heartbeat quickened, but the half-elf did not come any closer.
“Sara! Shayla!” Penumbra swept into view from behind a tent they had just passed. Gaimon had been sure that nobody had been there. Certainly he would have seen the gold silk vest that the ringmaster was wearing. Despite having worked for the circus for several months, Gaimon still had no idea how Penumbra managed to appear out of nowhere like that. “Come with me. Your duties tonight will have to wait!” Penumbra looked frazzled, a rare occasion. Gaimon was curious, but mostly disappointed as they moved back to the performer’s tents. The half-elf was still following.
Penumbra ushered the two girls into his tent, and then ordered Gaimon and the other guards to stand watch. With the two bodyguards for the two girls, and Penumbra’s personal bodyguard there, there were three standing outside the tent. It was not difficult to hear what was going on inside, but the sound would not carry over to where the crowds were. He glanced around, but the half-elf had disappeared. His disappointment was almost palpable. Where had she gone?
“I don’t want your excuses,” someone’s voice could be heard saying in the tent. Orrenette had managed to sneak past the guards at another point and crept closer until she was right next to Penumbra’s personal tent. “Your offer to return my money doesn’t help me! I want to discover who took it!”
“Tracking such a statue will be difficult at best,” Penumbra’s voice rang out. “We have no idea how long it had been since the fake had been switched in.” Orrenette smiled. Perfect. This was going to be very useful information.
“Do you have any idea what this loss means to me?”
“We do,” came a silky voice. One of the sisters. “And we’re willing to work with you to make sure you get your reward,” came the other voice. They sounded like they were both moving towards the first.
“Get away from me,” spat the man. “Your charms don’t work on the likes of me.”
“Ladies, please,” said Penumbra. “This is a serious matter, and Inquisitor Alderun is in need of our further assistance.”
“Damn right I am. That statue was the key to my advancement in the order! High Cleric . . .”
A rough hand grabbed Orrenette by the hair and lifted her off the ground.
“Hi!” She tried to turn her head, the pain on her scalp exploding as she dangled above the ground. She had a glimpse of a well-muscled elf, one of the bodyguards, before a flash came from her left side. She spun to the ground as he released her hair. She tried to get up but he moved too quickly, kicking her swiftly in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her. The commotion drew the attention of the other bodyguards and they rushed towards the fight. Another blow from the elf hit her squarely in the jaw as she tried to get up, scrambling in the mud, but it dropped her unceremoniously on her back. A rough hand grabbed the front of her shirt and hoisted her up. A blade flashed in the other hand, and the elf grinned. But before he could stab, Penumbra appeared as if from nowhere at his side. “Gaimon! Explain yourself.”
Gaimon placed the point of his shortsword on her stomach, the point digging in, drawing blood.
“Caught this one snooping around. She’s been following the sisters . . .” who had appeared beside Penumbra somehow, “since this afternoon.”
Penumbra looked at her, and Orrenette froze. The jolly ringmaster was gone, and instead cold, cruel eyes glittered at her from inside his skull. Even as groggy from the beating as she was, her blood ran cold.
Penumbra was the man from the night before. He was the one who had joined the Slevain sisters in robbing Lord Athelstain’s place.
“I have the statue!” she blurted out. “I was the one who switched it, just before you came in. I was there, in the room when you killed the guards.”
Penumbra’s hand shot out, snake-like, and pulled her face close. He peered into her eyes as she trembled. Gaimon held her fast. The two Slevain sisters circled as the other guards finally arrived nearby.
“It’s in my bag. Right now. I swear.”
Penumbra smiled. But this time, his smile brought no warmth. “I hope, missy, for your sake, you’re not lying.” He motioned to the bag, and Sara picked it up, unceremoniously dumping the contents out. The statue lay in the mud, there for all to see.
“It’s the real one. I was the one who switched them out, moments before you arrived.” Penumbra picked it up and held it high, out of the shadows.
“I think you’re right,” he whispered. “Oldimmara smiles upon us tonight!” He turned to head back to the tent.
“Gaimon, kill her.”
The words left her mouth in a rush, coming from a place she wasn’t even aware existed, even as Gaimon dropped her raised his sword for the killing blow. “You really want to kill the woman who stole the very statue you were looking for out from under your nose?”
The sisters were both looking at her, heads both cocked inward, an odd mirror image. But she felt the implacable presence of the elf beside her, she braced for the impact of his sword.
“She is right, Penumbra,” said Sara.
“Such a one could be valuable to us,” replied Shayla.
Behind her Orrenette heard a growl, but not a rage-filled one. It was more a growl of frustration.
Penumbra glanced back. “See if she is. If not, then we’ll let Gaimon have his way with her.” Orrenette was pretty sure that Gaimon’s “way” wasn’t sexual. The elf slammed his sword back into his sheath and stomped off into the night. Orrenette shuddered.
“Come, young lady,” said Shayla.
“Let’s see what we can do with you,” Sara echoed.
The Slevain sisters on either side of her, their other bodyguard trailing-Gaimon had disappeared-Orrenette followed obediently. They made a beeline for the biggest tent, the one where she had seen Shayla perform her acrobatics. Inside, the seats had been re-arranged. No longer encircling a central ring, they were now oriented around tables, and opposite the entrance was a long stage that made a bit of a “T”, the lower part of the letter jutting out into the crowd. Scantily clad women, serving wenches, scuttled about serving ale and other delights. The stage was currently occupied by several women in various stages of undress, undulating and dancing as a small band played off to the side. Orrenette glanced up to see several platforms suspended from the ceilings. They were almost cages, bars enclosing the space as they swung back and forth. Cavorting women also danced in these.
As they approached the front, Orrenette’s attention was drawn to a young human, looked to be somewhere in her mid-teens, that was giving a lap dance to a man decked out in jewelry and clothing that marked him as a man of very considerable means. She was using a scarf to tease him, and eventually ended up sitting on his lap as he was blindfolded. Her hands moved deftly across his shirt, opening it slightly and caressing his bare skin with one hand, while the other, Orrenette noticed, was going for his money pouch.
Another patron waved a serving girl over and pointed to one of the girls dancing on the stage. Coin changed hands, and the girl was summoned down. She leaned over and gave the man a very seductive kiss, before leading him up from his chair and out a side door. Orrenette and the Slevain sisters left that same door, trailing the man and his companion for the night. She held his hand as they disappeared into a small tent. There were many such tents, and Orrenette heard sounds that needed no explanation coming from several.
“Am I to be a whore, then?” she said.
“That depends,” the sisters said in unison. They glanced at each other and smiled. Shayla continued speaking alone. “Do you want to be?”
“No!” The word left Orrenette’s mouth almost before she could think.
“You didn’t seem the type,” Sara said. “But we have other uses for someone like you. For tonight, however, we’ll stash you away with the other girls. We’ll talk more tomorrow.”
The tent they entered was clearly a tent for the many prostitutes and exotic dancers. Women walked around, some undressed, some half-dressed, some decked out in fine clothing (if a little scanty), but all beautiful. Penumbra’s Pandemonius Shadow Circus had a reputation for the nightlife, and Orrenette was beginning to see why.
“Arterus,” one of the sisters was calling. An elf woman, make-up half removed from her face, came over. “This one will be joining up. She that she has food and a place to sleep this evening.”
“And make sure she doesn’t leave,” said the other.
“Yes, Madams,” the elf woman said, with a slight bow. The two sisters turned and left, speaking briefly to a few of the girls on their way out. It was obvious by the way all the occupants of the tent gravitated towards them, moving around them in parabolas, that these two were in charge. The actual Madams of Penumbra’s whores-the Slevain Sisters.
“Come, let’s get you washed up,” Arterus said. A warm bath waited, and despite its heat, Orrenette couldn’t stop shivering. The way Gaimon had stomped off chilled her to the bone. It had been a very eventful twenty-four hours. Upon being shown her cot, and actually being chained to it, Orrenette simply lay in the dark, trying to see around her. Aside from the occasional girl coming in, there was nothing. Eventually the stress of the past day caught up, and despite her fear, Orrenette fell fast asleep, her body’s need overriding her mind’s fear.
“Blackjack!” Orrenette cried out. The wealthy merchant cheered and stood up, pumping his fist in the air, his fat jiggling with each motion. The crowd around him went wild. He had been betting a substantial amount of money in his game, to the point where the rest of the tent had largely shut down as others watched the man getting increasingly drunk and increasingly risky with the platinum he had brought. After a few rounds, he had ended up at her table. The men who ran the gambling tent usually gravitated such patrons to her table. She had a flair for the dramatic that served everybody well.
The decision to try and join up with Penumbra’s organization had been a good one, even if it had been made in the heat of the moment, and just to save her skin at that. It had been several weeks, and through close observation, Orrenette had determined that Penumbra and several other close associates, including the Slevain sisters, had the mysterious abilities that allowed them to jump from place to place.
True to their word, she was not forced to work as a whore. There were many positions, but her slight of hand abilities served her well as a dealer in one of the gambling tents. She still wasn’t thrilled at the scant clothing she had to wear, but the other girls had just laughed at her when she asked if it was necessary.
Still, this man, flush with nearly having doubled his money, leered at her as she leaned over to retrieve his cards. She could almost feel his eyes wandering over her skin, but forced herself to smile and cheer with the rest.
It certainly felt better to be leered at than to confront the malignant stares coming from Gaimon. Orrenette didn’t like to be “the one that got away.” Every time she saw the elf bodyguard, which was often, because he worked some nights as a bouncer in her tent he spent an inordinate amount of time glaring at her.
As she re-shuffled the cards, she glanced around. Yup. There he was, eyes blazing, off to the side, arms folded in ways that made them seem bigger than they were, but impressive nonetheless. Even though of average height for an elf, shorter than most human males, he was an intimidating one. The cold, blank stare unnerved her, no less because she had seen him break up a brawl between patrons once, sending them both away with broken bones, one holding his nose where blood spurted down his face.
“Well, my dear,” said the merchant. “Would you like to continue to be my lady luck, tonight? Come with me!” Orrenette’s attention jumped back to the table, eyes on the leering merchant, hands still mechanically shuffling.
She gave him her most dazzling smile. “I just work the tables, sir. But if you go to the main tent, I’m sure you can find someone who will be your lady luck for the rest of the evening.” She finished shuffling. “We have plenty of women . . .”
“But I want you!” he snapped. She gave him another dazzling smile.
“I have to finish the game with these others. Maybe I’ll be along in a minute.” That was usually enough to get these kinds out of her hair. They would go to the other tent, see some other young thing, and then be off for the rest of the night. The merchant nodded, gathered up his winnings, and left. Orrenette continued to deal cards with the remaining patrons.
It was late, bordering on early, actually, and the gambling patrons were thinning out. With the merchant gone, the crowd died down and the remaining players weren’t as enthusiastic. Quickly, there was nobody left at her table. She glanced over at the head accountants, and one of them waved her off. She could leave. A quick stop by their stand to put back her personal winnings (even with the merchant’s stroke of good luck, “the house always wins” was still true today) and she left.
It was cold in Redvale this time of year, winter not quite yet over, and spring not fully arrived. The northern climate meant that snow still stuck to the ground at night, and the cold made the ground frozen. She tucked herself closer in her traveling cloak, wrapping herself in the black wool, scurrying along through the white light cast by Azur. The night sky was clearing from the flurries earlier that evening, and the pale outline of most of the camp tents were visible despite the late hour. She buried herself, wrapping the cloak around her head as well, simply wishing to make it back to the girl’s tent. Her peripheral vision was completely obscured.
So when the fat, grubby hands came from behind to hold her fast, she had no idea she had even been followed. One grabbed her around the waist, lifting her off the ground. The other grabbed the front of her hood and pulled it down over her eyes. “I said I wanted you!” It was the merchant. She could feel him pressing against her as he lifted her and dragged her behind a tent. Her breath quickened and her skin ran cold. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t see; she couldn’t really call for help with her own cloak being jammed in her mouth; the merchant, as big as he was, was simply too powerful once she was caught in his arms. He dumped her unceremoniously on the ground before jumping down on her. She had a brief thought of trying to roll away, surely he would be too slow, but hesitated, still petrified that this was even happening. His cold hands reached inside of her cloak, finding her exposed skin, touching her as she simply stayed there, frozen with fear, unable to think, unable to respond.
“Penumbra doesn’t like his employees being assaulted,” came a soft voice. The groping hands stopped, and she felt the fat merchant get off, pushing on her chest with one hand to steady himself as he laboriously pushed off.
“I came here for women, drink, and gambling,” slurred the merchant. “I’ve got my gambling done, have had plenty to drink, and now desire the warmth of a woman.”
“Then you should have gone to the prostitutes.”
“What are you going-“ there was the unmistakable sound of a blow and the merchant began coughing and hacking. Orrenette finally was able to move, the moment gone, the fear dissipating. Gaimon was giving the merchant the beating of his life, gauntleted hands smashing into the man’s quivering belly and bloodied face, the merchant’s fine silk clothing tearing off in bits and pieces as Gaimon proceeded to beat him down. The man put up a surprising fight, rushing Gaimon and tackling him to the ground. Gaimon struggled as the huge man lay on top of him, raining ineffective, if still decently powerful, blows on the elf’s head. But the man was no brawler, just a drunk with a lot of weight behind his punches. Gaimon managed to get one hand free and grab the man’s ear. The merchant yelped and moved to the side just a bit, allowing the elf to free his other arm. Gaimon rolled to the side and delivered a quick kick to the man’s face. Small as the elf was, and big as the human was, the crack resounded through the night air and the man visibly moved. Gaimon took a step back, nursing one of his arms, the one that had been trapped longer underneath, as the merchant heavily got to his feet. The elf rushed at him again but this time the merchant pulled a jeweled dagger from under the folds of his ornate clothing. He managed one slash that barely caught Gaimon across the chest, the elf too caught up to notice the dagger until the last moment, but when the man drew blood Gaimon began laughing maniacally. The merchant tried a stabbing motion, but Gaimon deftly grabbed his wrists and stabbed the man with his own knife through his chin. The merchant toppled, and did not get up.
Orrenette stood there, terrified. Gaimon stood there over his enemy, panting with exertion for a moment. The elf glanced down at his chest, fingers gingerly touching the blood coming from it. Then he let out a triumphant yell that startled her. He raised his hands and stared at the sky, screaming some kind of primal noise. Several heads poked out of the nearby tents, looking at the unusual sight of the elf standing over the fat, vanquished merchant.
Gaimon looked at Orrenette, a most satisfied look on his face, eyes alight, his breath slowing down, sighing as if he had just made love. “And he came after me with the dagger first.” He laughed again, and then spat on the corpse. Then he roared again, startling not only Orrenette, but the gathering crowd.
Penumbra was there quickly, assessing the situation, having some of the men move the body and taking Gaimon aside. Nobody talked to Orrenette. Nobody asked her how she was doing. Nobody inquired why she was there. Nobody wanted to know what had happened before the fight. Ashamed, haunted, feeling violated, Orrenette fled back to her tent, where she sat on her cot and cried and cried and cried.
That night, as the circus was packing up, she approached Gaimon. The elf was lending a hand with the large tent, using his not inconsiderable strength to carry some of the poles.
“Gaimon.” He glanced her over, assessed her, and then went back to his work.
“I’m busy. You’re welcome. Was there anything else?”
She paused for a moment, and looked down at her feet. “I was wondering . . . “
He stared at her, impatiently. “Wondering what?”
“Could you teach me to fight?” He laughed.
“It’s no shame you couldn’t handle that fat guy,” he said to her, moving back to the pile of poles. “He was pretty big,” he glanced her over, “and you’re just pretty.” He hefted another load up, moving over to a cart to stash them in it. “That’s what Penumbra pays me for, to handle fat merchants with daggers. He pays you to shuffle cards and look pretty. You don’t need to . . .”
“I don’t want to feel that powerless again.”
Gaimon stopped walking back to the pile of tent poles and turned and looked at her. His normally blank stare, barely containing his hunger, was not what was on his face. The skin around his eyes wasn’t as taut, and he was looking her over not as the one that got away, but as one . . . was that sympathy?
He abruptly turned back to the pile. “Meet me tomorrow morning, by the commissary. We’ll grab breakfast, then begin.” He continued working as if nothing were different.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
The long practice sword Gaimon held moved like lightning, but all these months later, he could not penetrate her defenses.
She had always carried a dagger, but had never actually needed to use it. Gaimon’s service in the elven military showed in his proficiency with basically every weapon Penumbra had for them to practice with. In the end, though, he always favored the greatsword. Elves typically favored swords, and Gaimon’s lust for violence was best sated by the style needed to wield a greatsword efficiently.
She, on the other hand, held two practice daggers in her hands. It had taken a lot of work, but she had become very proficient at wielding them with grace and speed. She preferred two handed fighting, because to her it felt more like a dance. She even enjoyed it! Even so, Gaimon was still a formidable opponent.
He tossed his head, his longer hair moving away from his face, where his eyes glittered. During sparing he fought with his shirt off. They were both aware that the practice weapons they used weighed less, allowing them to move faster than in a real combat situation. Still, Gaimon would not let her compromise her form. Each strike must be perfect or he would get angry at her.
She was wearing her own breeches, and in the summer heat, even this early in the morning, a shirt was too much. She had nothing but her leather brassier on above the waist. Even still, she could feel the sweat running down her in rivulets. She didn’t mind being so unclothed with Gaimon. It was clear he was not interested in her that way. In fact, it made her appreciate him more. Unlike some of the other guards and men would be, he wasn’t doing this to get into her pants.
As he rushed her again, bringing his practice sword downward in a vicious overhead strike, she slapped it aside with one dagger, spinning and hooking her foot around his ankle, giving it a quick yank as she spun away, her daggers whipping around. Gaimon fell hard on his back as she cracked him on the head. Blood streamed down his face as he lay on the ground. He began to laugh. Lying there on the grass, his weapon fallen from his fingers, blood running down his face and dripping down to the ground, he merely laughed and laughed. She didn’t see what was so funny. He sat up, wiping the blood away with a sweaty hand. “Penumbra wants to see you now.”
“He said he wanted to see you if you ever beat me in a sparring match.” Gaimon got up, clearly still slightly dazed from the solid hit he had taken. “Let’s go.”
“So, she beat you, did she?” Penumbra asked Gaimon. They were in his private tent where he was eating breakfast, waited on by several young ladies.
Gaimon turned to Orrenette. “Do you know how long it’s been since someone’s beat me in sparring?” “How long?” Gaimon looked at her weirdly.
“Sorry, didn’t realize it was a rhetorical question.”
“A decade.” Her eyes widened.
“Why do you think I hired him?” said Penumbra. “He’s a good fighter. Great gladiator. Always wins some money for me. Good PR to have such a man as one of your bodyguards.” He stuffed another piece of bread in his mouth, the red juice from the strawberries on it running down his goatee. “You’ve done well for yourself, Orrenette. You’ve been with us for a year, done your duty, helped us out wherever it’s needed, and have recently been training under Gaimon.” He motioned to one of the girls who disappeared back into his private quarters.
“Frankly, sir, you remember why I joined,” said Orrenette.
“I do indeed,” the man said as he got up from his chair. “But I hope by now you don’t feel as threatened as you did at first. I didn’t let you stay on out of the kindness of my heart.” The girl returned, carrying an ornate wooden case. “You looked like you could be someone of value, and to show you that I still think of you as such,” he opened the case, “I offer these as a gift.”
Inside the case were two masterwork daggers. Orrenette’s breath came fast and hard. She looked up at Penumbra, back at the daggers, then over to Gaimon, then back to the daggers. She even looked at the young lady who had brought them out. Penumbra’s smile almost split his face. Orrenette realized, again, despite his age the man was incredibly dashing. She stepped forward, almost gingerly, and lightly ran her hands across the two blades. “They’re for me?”
“Indeed, they are,” Penumbra said. “I hope they’re incentive for you to stay. We could still use a woman like you in here.” He turned to the young ladies cleaning up his breakfast now. “Girls, could you leave us alone for a few minutes?” They quickly left, but not before each giving Penumbra various glances, touches, and one girl even made sure to give him a kiss on the cheek. After the tent door closed, Penumbra’s smile vanished. “I appreciate, above all, your discretion these past months. From the beginning you were aware that our organization was more than just an entertainment venue. I think it’s high time you began working for us in a capacity more suited to your particular talents.” He stood, his eyes alight. “And anybody who can sneak in and steal a statue out from under my nose does indeed have particular talents.”
Gaimon straightened from where he had been standing, back against one of the poles keeping the tent up. “If you’ll not be needing me, Penumbra.”
Penumbra waved his hand, dismissing Gaimon. “We’ll be in town by nightfall, I hope. You best be ready for your gladiatorial work.” Gaimon executed a quick bow, then turned and left.
Penumbra turned to Orrenette. “So . . . where to best use your talents.”
A few days later, Orrenette slipped back into the main tent. The sun had just set, and the crowds for the day were gone. The crowds for the evening’s entertainment had not yet arrived. The stage and other paraphernalia for the dancing girls hadn’t even been set up yet. The ropes and trapezes and rings for a group acrobatic act were still up. The tent was empty, except for Shayla, who stood upon seeing Orrenette. “Well?”
Orrenette slipped a piece of paper into the woman’s hands. “I made contact, and he does indeed have a job for us.”
“Excellent. You’ve done well . . .” A small dart appeared on Shayla’s neck. “Ow.” She pulled it out, looked at it, then whirled, hand reaching for a hidden dagger. She never finished looking around. As she turned, her eyes rolled up into her head and she collapsed onto the floor. Orrenette also spun, and watched as several men appeared from the shadows. “Hello, Orrenette,” said a man. He stepped out into a circle of light given off by a torch. She recognized him, and goosebumps appeared all up and down her back.
“Hello, Ray.” A whisper.
“I don’t suppose you know who it really was who hired us to steal that statue?” The men were all circling around her, cutting her off. Ray and four others, all with weapons they should not have been able to sneak into the circus.
“He was a worshiper of Hextor.”
“So?” She began moving herself, jockeying for position, trying to keep them all in her field of vision.
“They’re more organized than I thought. Apparently the statue was wanted by two men who wanted advancement in their unholy church.” He drew his longsword. “One hired us, the other hired someone else.” He began shaking. “Do you know what followers of Hextor do to those who betray them?”
Orrenette’s foot hit something. She had reached the wall that separated the bleachers from the performing ring. She would either have to stay and be trapped, or turn to grab the wall to hoist herself over it, putting her back to the men and exposing herself to attack. Ray continued. “They don’t just come after you. Indeed, the man who hired us wasn’t able to find you at all. So he came after me.” He took a step closer. “And they came after my family!”
“You have family?” Orrenette was surprised-it’s why she had picked Ray for a partner; he was a loner.
“Not anymore.” And with that, he lunged towards her.
Orrenette jumped to the side, drawing both daggers from her hips, moving towards the man she thought least threatening. She took him by surprise; he wasn’t expecting her to attack him, and she managed to get two good blows in before spinning past him. He dropped like a rock, his shortsword clattering to the ground.
Four men left. But now she had an opening. “Help!” she yelled, as she bolted for the door. A whip snaked out from one of the men, wrapping itself around her legs and she hit the ground, hard. One of her daggers went skittering away. She turned and used her other to neatly slice through the cords. In moments she was on her feet, but her next opponent was upon her.
He, like her, held a pair of daggers, but was not nearly as good as she was. She dropped back, using her remaining weapon to weave a blinding net of defensive moves that this remaining man was unable to penetrate. He glanced up at her, surprised, and she slashed at his face in that moment of distraction. Her blow landed just below his chin and he dropped his daggers to bring his hands to his throat. He wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
Three left. She leapt forward, right into the opponent she had just dispatched as he dropped to his knees, but was too slow. A burning sensation hit her right shoulder as Ray’s sword bit into it. It didn’t do much damage, but she could feel blood begin to trickle down her back. She landed and came up in a roll, already sprinting away, angling herself away from the other two men, but all three were closing fast. Somehow one had gotten a bit ahead of her, and they were converging on her in the center of the ring. All that was there was a long scarf, hanging from a ring suspended by ropes tied to each column holding up the large tent. A few feet above that, was the tightrope between two large platforms.
She put her remaining dagger into her teeth and leapt at the scarf, climbing it with all the skill she had learned from all those years of thieving. The man who had flanked her jumped at her with his rapier, and she felt its point enter her leg just below the knee, again drawing blood, but he did no unendurable damage. She continued to climb and reached the ring in moments. But a tug below her made her look down.
Ray was also climbing. Though not nearly as limber as she, he was making progress. But this was a simple enough problem. Once he was halfway up, she merely slit the cloth, and he dropped ten feet to the ground with a thud. Ray motioned to the other men and they all moved over to the pillars. “Cut her down,” he barked as he ran to his.
Rapier-man drew a very short knife, and all climbed the rope ladders on the pillars. Orrenette moved quickly, positioning herself to the side of the ring she was holding onto. The third man, he had a shortsword, was the first to cut the rope suspending the ring. The ring dropped a bit, but Ray and the other man were still a few feet from their ropes. She still had a few seconds; in that time she placed her foot where the two remaining ropes held the ring, the only place with any stability, and jumped up, catching the tightrope with her hands.
A cry sounded, and she glanced over at Shortsword-man, who was merely watching the remaining events. Hands at his side, weapon pointed down, he never even saw Gaimon’s blow coming. Apparently the elf had picked up the dropped longsword from Orrenette’s first victim. Rapier man dropped to the ground, drawing his sword and rushing at Gaimon. Gaimon stalked forward, flexing his hands and arms, preparing for the duel. The man raised his rapier in a quick salute before closing the distance. But Orrenette could not continue to watch. Her hands were beginning to cramp. There were many tricks to staying up on ropes and cables, but merely holding on was not one of the more effective ones. She grabbed the tightrope with her legs and began clambering towards one of the platforms. Ray was on the ground now, and he ran to climb to that same platform. Her arms rapidly losing strength, she continued, gritting her teeth. She would arrive about the same time as Ray, but then would be trapped there with him.
They both clambered up onto the platform simultaneously, and he drew his sword again as she drew her dagger. The entire platform was about ten feet by ten feet. It was used for the larger group acts, so there was a bit of space to maneuver. “Been looking forward to this for a long time,” he said.
“It’s taken you that long to track me down?”
“Now that you work for the Shadow Circus, I’m surprised that I found you at all, but another of Hextor’s followers thought it best to help me find my revenge.” They began circling each other.
“You’re working for someone who had your family killed?”
“Inquisitor Byron thinks there are better ways to foster evil than killing innocents.”
“Did you ever think that it’s playing right into their hands to continue to seek revenge?”
“Hextor’s followers.” Now she was by the ladder, and he by the tightrope. He hesitated for a moment. But just a moment. “I don’t really care anymore.”
“I don’t really either,” she shrugged. Then she crouched down into a full en guarde defensive position. It didn’t quite work with a dagger, and he had a longsword. This was going to be interesting.
But then Ray’s chest suddenly moved forward, and the sword fell from his nerveless fingers. A point jutted out from his clothing. He looked down at it, then at her, a small rivulet of blood coming from the corner of his mouth. Without a sound, he toppled off the platform to the ground forty feet below.
Shayla stood on the tightrope, Orrenette’s lost dagger in her hand. Somehow the woman had appeared forty feet in the air and managed to stab Ray in the back. She looked down at the body, and then to the three others. Gaimon was wiping his sword on Rapier-man’s shirt, but Orrenette did see him incline his head, as if saluting a worthy opponent.
“Care to explain, Orrenette?” Shayla’s tone was casual, as if she hadn’t just assassinated someone and wasn’t still standing on a tightrope.
Orrenette took a deep breath. “My old partner, for the job of stealing that old statue. The one you were also hired to steal.”
Shayla was looking at her differently as she stepped onto the platform. “And you got up here, by way of the ring, and the tightrope, not the rope ladder.” Orrenette nodded. “Very interesting, indeed.” She reversed the dagger, and offered it back to Orrenette. “I believe this is yours.” Penumbra was on the scene by then, accompanied by several bodyguards and Sara, his usual cadre of attractive young women conspicuously absent. Orrenette had to explain herself again, after reaching the ground, but overall Penumbra and the Slevain sisters were satisfied. Servants came in to remove the bodies and bring in buckets of water to clean the blood away. The Slevain sisters pulled Penumbra aside and the three of them disappeared.
Gaimon approached Orrenette. “Are you alright?”
She nodded, and a smile crept across her face. “Yes. Yes I am.” She looked over to where Ray and his accomplices were being loaded on stretchers. “That was . . . satisfying. The Rapier-guy didn’t give you too much trouble?” Gaimon shrugged. “He was pretty good. Clearly a duelist of some sort.” He looked at her quizzically. “Why was it so satisfying?”
She looked at Ray’s body as they covered him with a blanket and began to pull him out. “Killing people always seemed so . . . unnecessary. There are other ways to beat them.”
He shook his head. “Killing is the ultimate victory.”
Orrenette paused for a moment, biting her lip. Then she shook her head. “I don’t think so.” She turned to him and smiled. “But it is a victory.”
He nodded once. “Yes. Yes it is.”
Orrenette left the tent, but Gaimon followed her back to where the whores and other girls were getting ready for the evening’s entertainment, breaking off as she entered their large tent. Immediately the women clambered around her, begging for information, making sure she was okay, and expressing admiration that she had survived an assassination attempt!
“Ladies,” came two silky voices. The women parted almost instantly. The Slevain sisters stood there, already decked out in their finery as Penumbra’s Madams. “We need to speak to Orrenette alone,” said Shayla. “You have work to do,” said Sara.
A chorus of “yes, Madams,” could be heard, but the crowd was reluctant to part. But part they did as the two sisters approached.
“Come with us,” said Sara. “We have a proposition for you,” said Shayla. They both slipped their hands around Orrenette’s arms and escorted her to their private part of the tent. Their other bodyguards were there, arms folded. It was obvious they didn’t want to be disturbed.
“Wine?” asked Shayla, as Sara sat Orrenette down in a comfortable chair.
“Please.” Shayla handed over a goblet of thick red liquid. Orrenette sipped at it. “I never said thank you.”
Shayla waved a hand. “Let’s cut to the chase. You’re probably wondering how I got up on the tightrope so fast.”
Orrenette’s eyes widened. Really? Were they about to reveal their secrets? “The thought had indeed crossed my mind.”
“It must be obvious to you that we are much much more than a circus. You’ve already begun working for us in a more . . . “ Sara paused to find the right word.
“Seedy?” offered Orrenette.
The sisters laughed. “Why not?” said Shayla. “Seedy capacity,” continued Sara. “But your performance today made me realized something else about you, and I think we could indeed make you an offer that you would find most enticing.”
“The poison from the dart wore off rather quickly,” said Shayla, but she did rub her neck where a small red welt had appeared. “I’ve built up an immunity to most of the common ones, so I was able to see you climbing up to the tightrope. You are a woman of singular talents.” Orrenette began to get excited. “Not so talented as you, I’m afraid.”
“Not yet,” said Shayla. “Orrenette, what would you say if we asked you to join the elite ranks of Penumbra’s Pandemonious Shadow Circus,” she smiled, “as a shadow dancer?”
A huge smile split Orrenette’s face. “So that’s how you do it!” she said. She stood. “This is what I’ve been hoping for since I first realized that something more was going on here.” She explained how she had identified the two of them, and Penumbra, and how she had joined the circus of necessity, but now wanted to stay permanently.
“Well, if you could figure out so much, that just solidifies our offer even more. You could find a place here, Orrenette,” said Sara.
“Of course,” said Shayla, “you’ll still have to help out with the circus. As for your skills, dancer or acrobat would more suit our needs.”
“I’d rather not be an exotic dancer.”
“There are other ways of incorporating dance, which you will have to learn,” said Sara.
“And Orrenette,” said Shayla. The two sisters glanced at each other. “You’re probably going to have to come up with a new stage name.”
Orrenette laughed. “My simple-minded mother named me after my father, Orren, an elf merchant. Adding ‘ette’ to the end was her way of showing me that she had wanted a handsome young half-elf boy.” Her smile disappeared. “And now you know one of the reasons I’ve left her.” The two sisters approached her. Both extended their hands. “Welcome to the real Penumbra’s Pandemonious Shadow Circus.”
Orrenette took their hands one at a time. “Glad to be a full partner. This is going to be fun.” The two sisters broke into smiles, mirroring Orrenette’s grin.
“Yes,” they said simultaneously.