An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

Slight of Face Shade

It only took Shade a quarter of an hour to learn everything she needed to know about whoever it was that kept passing her room. Judging from the footfalls, it was almost certainly a man. The number of strides it took him to cover the length of the hallway indicated that he was short, probably a good half foot shorter than Laird. His steps were crisp, however, which suggested military training, though she could not hear the clank of a sword or cudgel. If he was armed—and she always assumed that everyone was armed—it would be with a dagger or short knife.

Soldiers rarely approved of other forms of concealed weapons.

“He’s passing by every three minutes or so,” Shade told Laird. “And it’s taking him exactly twenty seconds to pass the hall.”

“The stairs are down around the corner. You’d have to pass him on the way out.”

“Yes, I know.”

“You don’t think that might, you know, catch his attention?”

Shade smiled deviously. “No. I don’t. Now get to the Perch. I don’t want to find that I’ve beaten you to the Fool’s Fiddle.”

Laird shook his head. “I’ll never understand you.”

“Good. Because if you did, I’d probably have to kill you. Now get going. And Laird,” she said as he reached for the door handle. “Stay safe.”

“You too.”

As he let himself out, Shade took on brief moment and focused her attention on the room across the hallway. The faint flicker of candlelight danced out from beneath the door and across the scuffed wooden floor. Occupied, she thought, raising her eyes to look at the lock. As expected, it had an identical mechanism to the one installed on her own door. If that takes me more than twenty seconds to pick, I’ll hand myself over the bloody guard.

Which meant that the only other obstacle would be the occupants of the room. Given the particular nature of the establishment, there was a good chance that whoever was in there would have their attentions in other areas, but Shade always preferred to not leave anything to chance if she could avoid it. Besides, she also knew that many of the women who worked in places like this were masters of deception in their own right.

Incapacitation is probably the best route, she decided. But first, we need to take care of a few small details. She stripped to her undergarments, knelt in the middle of the floor and pulled a few key items from her pack, including a mirror of polished silver. Minutes later, her nose appeared longer, her lips fuller, and her brow deeper. New age lines appeared etched across her face, and even her eyes seemed set at a different angle. Her black hair was expertly tucked away beneath long locks that was not her own, but which flowed like liquid honey over her shoulders. She dressed herself in a simple satin skirt and a low cut blouse.

“Hello Cerilia,” she said quietly to herself. “So nice to see you again.” The disguise was not perfect. She was missing a few key embellishments that always helped bring Cerilia to life. But what was it that Vander had said? Surprisingly effective in dim light.

She packed away her few remaining belongings, strapping several a pair of knives to her thighs, while converting the cleverly designed travelsack into something resembling the elegant satchel bags that were currently in fashion all through the western provinces. Lastly, she removed a small cylinder of hollowed bone from one of the bag’s hidden pockets. She bit off the small wax seal on each end and placed the device within her rolled tongue.

Then she waited.

Soon, the guard came walking by. Right on time. She counted off the steps, listening carefully until he had covered the length of the corridor and disappeared around the corner.

As silently as a wraith, she was through her own door and across the hallway. A simple pick appeared in her hand, as though summoned by magic. The instrument flicked quickly and efficiently in her hand. A few soft clicks later the lock gave way and she slipped through the door, closing it quietly behind her. As soon as her eyes fell upon the broad, coarse haired back, she gave a small flick of her tongue. An instant later, she was met by a soft grunt and the man collapsed.

“What the bloody hell…?” muttered a voice.

Shade was upon her in an instant, holding one polished dagger several inches from the the woman’s exposed throat—close enough to appear threatening, but not so close as to result in an unpleasant accident if the woman decided to do something stupid.

“I’m very sorry, sister,” Shade hissed. “But I’m afraid I’m going to have to interrupt. Listen very closely. I’m going to borrow a few items from your wardrobe. I’m afraid I won’t be coming back to return them directly, but if you do want them back, you can find them tomorrow afternoon wrapped in a cloth and tucked behind the rain barrel between the Ploughman’s Perch and the cobbler’s shop. Understood?”

The the woman nodded. “What am I supposed to do with him? Is he dead?”

Shade shook her head and withdrew her knife, placing it back in it’s leather sheath. “He’ll recover.”

“Not sure I want him to. Do you have any idea how pissed off he’ll be?”

“Actually, he won’t remember anything from the past few days. Just tell him he was so drunk that he passed out. If he gets too frisky, just cut him.”

“With what?”

“You don’t have a knife?,” Shade asked. Opening the wardrobe, she found an expensive-looking green shawl and a small basket of cosmetics.

“Mother Rashiva doesn’t approve of hurting the customers.”

“Who cares? If a man deserves cutting, then you should damn well cut him.”

“You don’t know her!” the woman protested. “She’d take everything I have and parade me naked through the entire place. It would be humiliating.”

Shade glanced at the unconscious, hairy brute and raised one eyebrow. “More humiliating than that?”

“At least I get paid for that.”

“I get paid too, sister,” Shade responded, applying a bit of reddish balm to her lips and a generous portion of whitening powder to her face to hide her tanned skin. “And I’m my own master.” She wrapped the shawl around her shoulders, then threaded a pair of horridly gaudy earrings through her ears. “You do know that these aren’t real gold, right?”

“They were my mother’s…” the woman choked.

“Then your poor mother was fleeced. They’re brass, mixed with a bit of dye and a brightening agent of some sort. Now listen to me. I don’t normally make an issue of another woman’s choices. It’s a hard world. I know that as well as anyone, but I’ve had a bad day and I’m a bit edge, so I’ll tell you this. We make our own way in this world, sister, and there are two ways to go about it. You can either sit back and take whatever it throws at you, or you can stand up and fight back. And in my experience, that starts with a good, sharp knife.”

Shade drew her knife again. With one expert flick of her wrist she flipped it, grabbing it by the blade and offering to the stunned woman. “Here’s yours. What you do with it is up to you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment to keep.”

“Who are you?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Shade responded quietly. “The more important questions is, who are you?” Then she opened the door again, wrapping the shawl as she strode boldly out into the hallway. As expected, the guard was just coming around the corner. Shade turned and walked deliberately towards him. She moved with the exaggerated hip sway that belonged to Cerilia, maintaining that slight air of smugness that always made her so alluring—chin angled upward, lip slightly pursed.

The guard smiled as he approached, his eyes lingering appreciatively. Deep within, Shade wrestled down the impulse to brain the fool with the butt end of a knife. Instead, she smiled and said “Well hello there, handsome.” The inflection of her voice struck a the fine balance between sweet innocence and sensual seduction, leaving the dumbfounded man visibly confused, and several seconds delayed in his precisely timed rounds.

Moments later, Cerilia was down the stairs and out the door, walking boldly the streets of Kilinshire. She attracted more than her fair share of attention as she went—including the two men who still stood watching her window. That suited her just fine. Cerilia appreciated attention. She craved it.

The small, raven-locked woman in the scarlet, silken dress had simply vanished.

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