The Soul’s Fortress – Chapter 9 – The Anvil of Fate

Venita considered strangling the sky giant assigned to inspect her sky carriage. It was true that, as a dwarf, she could barely reach his knees much less mount an assault on his neck, but dwarves were renowned for cutting mountains down to size and as she waited for clearance to leave Taughaum, various scenarios for cutting down the walking mountain in front of her played out in Venita’s mind.

“Well, if it’s not extra weight under your girdle, then you’ve pulled a bum load,” the sky giant flight officer said. “Sixty shells worth of haul weight over the manifest.”

“It’s fine,” Venita said. “Shippers always underbid the packaging. Just clear it and let me make it up on flight time.”

“Sure your steeds can handle it?”

It wasn’t a serious question. If there was a real doubt, neither of them would be talking about it. Venita would refuse the shipment and the officer would refuse a clearance for it until the discrepancy was accounted for.

Instead, in the long tradition of sentients everywhere, the officer was hassling her because it alleviated some of the boredom that came with his job. Venita was used to it, but she had never developed a fondness for banter. If she had her druthers, people would just shut up once in awhile. Maybe long enough to rub two thoughts together. That would be wonderful. Like a slice of heaven.

Rather than answering the officer’s question she settled on glaring at him.

Minutes later she was in the air, clearance papers tucked in her pack and her Wind Steeds easily forging ahead despite the extra sixty shells of weight in the wagon.

“Like the extra weight even matters,” Venita said, griping to the Wind Steeds since no one else was around to hear. “You girls could handle ten times that without breaking a sweat couldn’t you?”

“I’m glad that’s the case,” Iana said, emerging from one of the bags that Venita had assumed contained some of the Deep Mushrooms that the Sky Giants traded in.

Venita had her blade’s point resting against Iana’s sternum before the girl had finished standing up.

“If there’s anyone back there with you, they should stand up slowly or I’ll be forced to end you quickly and then deal with them,” Venita said.

“That’s going to be a problem,” Iana said.

“No, it’s not!” Yuehne said, leaping to her feet.

Venita’s next thought was that the world had suddenly flipped upside down and that someone was choking in a rather painful manner.

Also her blade was missing.

That seemed odd.

And she was sitting on a Wind Steed.

Or laying on one.

Bit by bit, she pieced together what had probably happened.

She had the first girl who popped up dead to rights. Then a second girl popped up. Venita was a practical woman but not a hardened killer, or even a well practiced combatant. She had no qualms about the idea of killing people who tried to hijack her, but actually striking a lethal blow on the spur of a moment was more challenging than she’d imagined it would be.

Also the first girl, Iana, was inhumanly fast. The other girl, Yuehne, the one who was choking and coughing out in the back of the wagon seemed to fall into the category of ‘too slow’ to avoid whatever Iana had done to her as well.

With the world beginning to make sense once again, Venita flipped herself back up to her feet. She’d lost her blade. That was bad. She was off the sky wagon and so only weakly affected by its enchantments. That was worse. And the girl who’d taken control everything was starting to look familiar.

Venita didn’t move in high political circles, but she listened to gossip like every other driver she knew.

The girl who was staring at her was clearly from the Green Council. But she’d spoken in a decent enough version of Gallagrin’s native tongue. More importantly though, her clothes were nice. Much too nice for a sky pirate. For one thing, sky pirates didn’t tend to wear enchanted tunics with the royal seal of Gallagrin sewn into the hem.

“I’m being hijacked by a princess,” Venita said.

“No, I’m not here at all,” Iana said. “Neither of us are.”

“Didn’t think I had that much Giant Brandy?” Venita said. “Though to be fair, those are seriously oversized glasses they pour.”

“Yes, that’s definitely what’s happening here,” Iana said. “One too many drinks and maybe a package fell overboard, say sixty shells worth of package to be precise, and right before you landed.”

“So, since I appear to be talking to myself here, why would a package need to fall off before we land. I’ll need to explain something about how precarious it was,” Venita said.

Iana offered her back her blade and helped Yuehne to her feet.

“You punched me in the throat?” Yuehne said.

“No. I hit you with the sword pommel. Less damage to my hand if I missed,” Iana said.

“Why not the blade?” Yuehne asked.

“Don’t want you dead, but you were in too good a position to throw me off the wagon,” Iana said.

“And I’m not now?” Yuehne said.

“Best case I’d break your leg,” Iana said. “Worst case I’d break your leg and our driver would stab you.”

“For hallucinatory sky pirates, you two are an unusual pair,” Venita said.

“We’re not here to steal your wagon or your cargo,” Iana said. “We’re stowaways, not thieves.”

“Not thieves, but killers?” Venita said. “You move like one, and she’s got a look in her eyes that says she envies you.”

“She wants to kill me,” Iana said. “I’m working on that. Unfortunately there is another group of people who want me dead too, and they’re the type who like to be thorough, which is why no one can know that we traveled with you.”

“Seems to me like the next thing you’re going to ask is that I take you to back to Highcrest where you’ll be safe,” Venita said.

“No, we need to get as far away from Highcrest as we can,” Iana said.

“Now I know I’m hallucinating,” Venita said. “Last I heard, the Queen beat a god. I’m thinking you’re going to be safer with her than you would anywhere else.”

“I’m not running to safety,” Iana said. “I’m hunting the people who are behind a year’s worth of assassination attempts.”

“By giving them easy access to you?” Venita asked.

“Yes,” Iana said. “In very specific circumstances, and on a field of my choosing.”

“Still seems like a great plan for getting yourself killed,” Venita said. “At least they won’t be able to follow you to where we’re going though.”

“I’m reasonably sure they can follow us wherever she is,” Iana said, indicating Yuehne.

“And dropping her off first isn’t an option why exactly?” Venita asked.

Iana looked over at Yuehne directly, locking gazes with the girl.

“They’ll kill her.”

“You don’t know that,” Yuehne said.

“I don’t, but it’s what I would do and so far the people supporting you have behaved pretty close to how I’ve expected them to.”

“Why would they kill me?” Yuehne asked. “I’m not that important.”

“Not that smart, I would believe. ‘Not that important’ though is provably false,” Iana said. “Even if they expected you to fail, they trusted you with a difficult mission.”

“That makes me expendable,” Yuehne said. “If they knew I would fail, then I couldn’t possibly be less important to them.”

“You’re forgetting though, every other assassin they sent has escaped,” Iana said. “They expected to get you back.”

“So I’m a bigger failure than they thought,” Yuehne said.

“Are you?” Iana said. “You made it farther and got closer than any of your predecessors did. Up until you, they didn’t have a clear picture of how well I could defend myself without someone like Commander Jyl or Dae around. They may have known you would fail, and would have even planned for your capture, despite their track record of escapes.”

“How do you plan for your assassin to be captured?” Venita asked.

“You send someone who can manage to perform the mission with the minimal amount of information and you worry constantly about how much they know without being aware that they know it.”

“That is some squirrely level of thinking,” Venita said.

“Squirrely?” Iana asked. “No, only people think like that. Squirrels are refreshingly straightforward.”

“Right, you’re a Council girl,” Venita said.

“She’s wrong though,” Yuehne said. “That isn’t what they did with me. I asked to go. I pleaded.”

Iana looked at her, regarding Yuehne silently for a long moment.

“They were going to send someone close to you instead. An older sister?” Iana asked.

Yuehne stepped backward before she could control her reaction. Her face froze in place but it was too late. Her eyes were already wide open in shock.

“You didn’t know the other assassin’s escaped did you?” Iana asked.

“Yes I did,” Yuehne said, frozen expression thawing into one of defiance.

“But that wasn’t the plan this time?” Iana’s gaze was the regard of a wild cat assessing its prey. Defenses were stripped away, weaknesses analyzed and truth laid bare before the final, merciless strike.

Venita smiled. This wasn’t the sort of day she’d been expecting. It wasn’t the sort of day she ever expected. Some part of her knew that her whole life was going to be upturned by the two wild girls in the wagon with her. She should have been afraid of that. Change was miserable. Her stone solid dwarven bones told her that, as did every personal experience, and all the tales of her ancestors.

The thing was though, Venita didn’t back down from confronting misery. Not when it landed on her plain as day like this.

Her smile was less a pleased expression therefor and more a dare thrown into the face of life in general.

“You want to go another round?” that smile asked, “Let see which of us breaks first then.”

Other races spoke of the “Loom of Fate” when they talked about the invisible forces that shaped their lives. Dwarves didn’t. Dwarves called it the “Anvil of Fate”, and meant, very specifically, the cold iron of their souls that they beat their fates on, forging their lives into the shape of their choosing.

Yuehne had gone silent in response to Iana’s question, but Venita saw that silence was it’s own answer. She felt unexpectedly sorry for the young assassin and equally unexpectedly frightened by Gallagrin’s young Princess.

The Queen was, from all of the reports Venita laid stock in, a frightful presence. The bit about being called “Bloody Handed” wasn’t an insult. It was a warning, even if the Queen tried to downplay the moniker’s significance. In choosing a collection of Princesses and Princes from the Green Council, she’d struck a blow against the the factionalization that had grown up before, during and after the civil war against the Butcher King.

What Venita hadn’t considered was that Queen Alari had selected her heirs because they were as terrifying as she was, in their own somewhat unfathomable manners.

“So, I have one problem with speaking to my hallucinations,” Venita said.

“That your best option is to pitch the both of us off the wagon before we get anywhere close to landing?” Iana asked.

Venita shook her head. The young princess had a vicious mind, but something had tempered her too, giving room between thought and action when the situation warranted it. That was more than Venita could manage most days, and this did not look to be one of Iana’s better, more relaxing days.

“No, no one’s going over the side of the wagon,” she said. “From your display a minute ago, I think we all know who’d be the last one with the Wind Steeds. No, my problem is that, if these assassins are as thorough as you say, then even if I’m hallucinating all of this and I say nothing about it to anyone, I’ll probably be receiving a visit from them. Probably in the dead of night, when they can make sure the ‘dead’ part sticks with a minimum of fuss.”

“How would they…” Yuehne started to asked but Iana cut her off.

“The extra weight. Damn. They’ll know, or at least suspect, which wagon we escaped on by the shipping manifest oversight.”

“That’s not such bad news though,” Venita said. “It just means that like it or not, my two daughters and I are taking a little vacation.”

“Daughters?” Iana asked glancing at Yuehne, a human, herself, also a human, and Venita, a dwarf.

“Adopted,” Venita said. “Didn’t say I wanted to be part of this, wasn’t asked, but don’t got much of a choice, so if we’re going to travel together, I’m at least going to get to boss you around. Isn’t that right girls?”

Her smile was, again, not one of joy and sweetness.

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