"It's not that I'm brave. It's just that I'm skint, homeless, and tied to a chair, so I really don't have anything left to lose."
Short story based on a flash fiction song title prompt from Chuck Wendig.
I am alone with the Owl.
She glances up at me and smiles. It isn't comforting. "There's no need to be nervous," she says. "Whatever they've told you about me, it isn't true."
"No one's told me much." My fear's mostly based on observation: everything about her is sharp, all her bones braced against her skin as though ready to burst out of her, her brows drawn together above her nose. Her eyes, so light a shade of brown they look yellow, are clearly the reason for her name.
More immediately to the point, she's heavily armed and sitting nonchalantly on the edge of a table while I'm tied to a chair.
"That makes a change," she observes. "Mostly they like to tell horror stories. One of them reached me on the grapevine recently -- apparently I actually have people ground up and turned into pellets. You know, like an actual owl. Which is gross, and ridiculous."
"I'm glad to hear it." I watch her warily. "But you are here to kill me, right?"
The Owl's eyes widen ever so slightly. "Why would I kill you?"
"Well, I figured that was why I was tied to a chair and stuck in a room with you. I was under the impression that it was your job."
She actually seems offended. "Jane, Jane, Jane," she says, in a sing-song voice; I hate that she knows my name. "I'm not an executioner -- or, stars forbid, an assassin. What an awful thought."
"But you do kill people."
"Not on anyone else's behalf. Only when I think they need to die." She watches me. "Why were you on Trevlia?"
"Seeking my fortune, like everyone else my age." I strain ever so slightly against the bonds, testing them. They're not going to break. The lackeys who tied me to this chair weren't idiots. "I didn't realise that was illegal."
"I wouldn't have thought working for Harrowven would really be the best way for a nice girl like you to make a living."
"Don't," I begin, and then bite down on my words; I'm not sure what I'm trying to say, and I'm not sure if the Owl is the person to say it to.
"Not a 'nice girl'?" she says: she's too quick-witted not to realise what bothered me. "And I suppose you're not likely to tell me whether your objection is because you're not nice or because you don't like to be thought of as a girl." I look sullenly at her, silent. "I thought not."
"Harrowven offered me a job. I needed the money."
The Owl pushes herself off the table onto the floor. In one hand she's got a knife, held loosely -- it doesn't look like she's got any plans to use it, but if she needs to, it's there. I try not to look at it. She walks towards me, all grace despite her bulky cargo pants that are at least twice as wide as her legs, and stops just out of reach. "Harrowven is a criminal."
"So are most people on Trevlia." This planet's not known for its friendliness, nor its legality. It's a place where anything goes until the patrols pass through, at which point half the world's traders take off and relocate to a moon somewhere until the danger passes. Unfortunately Harrowven had forgotten to take me with him the last time this happened, and now I'm here, answering for his failures. "He's not a slaver, and he doesn't kill people unless he has to. That made him better than most of my other options."
"And yet, my dear Jane, you had the resources to get yourself to Trevlia from -- where is it you started?"
She probably already knows, so I don't bother lying. "Cannavan."
The Owl chuckles, which catches me unawares. "No wonder you wanted to leave. Mining planet, isn't it? Not much there but smoke and dust."
Since my hands are tied I can't gesture, but I shuffle one of my legs slightly and the hem of my trousers shifts just enough for her to see it's a prosthetic, though she was probably aware of that from the beginning. "I'm not best suited to mining," I say. "Leaving was my only chance. My family helped me pay for passage but Trevlia was as far as I could get."
"You could have tried your luck on Forsyn."
If she thinks that, she's never had to live rough, and she's never known what it's like to be turned away at every door because they want someone with all their limbs. This doesn't exactly surprise me, but I would've thought the Owl would have sussed out my situation already. "The folks on Forsyn aren't ... my kind of people." I can't even shrug with these bonds. "What do you want with me, though, really? I mean, all you've done is ask me questions."
"That's my job."
"That's your job," I repeat flatly. "You're an inquisitor. The Owl, the famous Owl, is an inquisitor who spends her time asking teenage smugglers about their childhood."
"You have a problem with that?"
"Yeah. It's pathetic. I've heard so much about you and I actually thought I ought to be scared of you but you're--"
Most people have a dangerous quiet voice, one that means you'd better watch your words or face the consequences, and the Owl is no exception. "I'm what?" she says.
"You're no better than me," I say. It's not that I'm brave. It's just that I'm skint, homeless, and tied to a chair, so I really don't have anything left to lose. "You think you are, but you're not. Where did you come from, really? Vollmann? Grushin? Who were you before they pulled you out of the crowd and turned you into this, other than a skinny kid with freaky eyes?"
She slaps me. Hard, too, but at least the knife is still in her other hand. Maybe she's forgotten about it, or maybe they need me for something. I don't really care which.
"You don't want to know where I'm from," she says. "And you certainly don't want to know who I was."