The trio were reunited early the next morning. The torrential downpour that had accompanied the storm had turned the already muddy ground of Karasti into a churned up mess of mud and rain water, and it had fallen upon Shay to rescue Aoife from a particularly deep bank of mud that had caught her foot so tightly that her shoe was almost wrenched from her foot upon exiting it. After that, it was decided Shay would carry the young woman until they were away from the worst of it, something that did little to keep Rin’s mood turning sour. The Oracle had pointed them on their way, giving Shay another quiet warning about the crown looming behind him and thanking him for everything he had done—including advising her where to get the best price for her golden chains in Olmaea—and then they were on the road again, and the Oracle was already in the past.
Rin, knowing that they were going to be forced to venture near Olmaea, had made a point of requesting they visit the city briefly, so that he might finally have a chance to withdraw some of his savings and provide for them better sources of food and shelter, but Shay was dramatically against the idea, even going to far as to suggest they take a longer route purely to avoid the place. He hadn’t exactly made a secret of his distaste for his home city, but it wasn’t as if they were going to be in the city for long.
Shay didn’t have any idea how long it would actually take for the valley boy to obtain some paper money, and while he didn’t imagine it would take long, it was too long for his liking nonetheless. A minute spent in that city would be a minute too long. The battle seemed to be a losing one, especially since Aoife seemed hellbent on taking in every available sight on their way to wherever it was they were supposed to be going, but that slumdog charm of his came into play as usual.
He got on Aoife’s good side—not that he was ever on her bad side—and launched of barrage of compliments and flattery at the young woman until she was like clay in his hands. And when she was malleable and impressionable, he fabricated tales of seeing Eturian police heading for Olmaea, and of talk spreading around the city of a young orphan girl that had heartlessly murdered her friends and guardians. He chose his words just carefully enough until the young woman was convinced she would be arrested if she even so much as thought about setting foot in the city. Convincing her had been the difficult part. He knew Rin would never be able to deny those pleading, doe-like eyes of hers, and lo and behold their trip to Olmaea was nipped in the bud, just as Shay had intended. Of course, when questioned on the matter by the valley boy, he denied all involvement. They both knew he was aware that Rin didn’t believe him, though.
The silver Rin had liberated from the Oracle hadn’t lasted as long as the Westerner had hoped. After their diversion away from Olmaea, and more funds in the process, the three had managed to get by on Shay’s awful hunting alone. As they neared the Midlands, and by extension the Riverlands, the wildlife became more plentiful. They had passed a few shrubs on their journey, which Rin was certain were home to the last of the season’s blackberries, but they had decided not to risk picking them. The last thing they wanted was for one of their party to die of poisoning halfway through their journey.
They were surviving on Shay’s rabbit a day, but it wasn’t leaving them satisfied. Unlike Shay, who was more than used to tiny meals and going hungry, Rin and Aoife had lived far more pampered lives by comparison. At his grandfather’s, and at the Cathedral, there had always been food on the table, no matter how thinly stretched their guardians were. They had never known hunger, at least nothing beyond a few skipped lunches, anyway, and that only made the gap between Shay and Rin increase. For the pampered little middle class twat to complain of hunger when he had enough food to keep him going only managed to grate on Shay’s nerves. There had been months in the slums where neither he nor his mother had been able to eat for weeks, and even then what they managed to scrape up was little more than table scraps. Rin had no room to complain about hunger, he had never experienced anything like it.
One thing Shay couldn’t deny, though, was that the nights were getting colder, and soon enough his meager tent would no longer suffice. It was already cramped as it was, and more often than not he and Rin were forced to take turns sleeping outside, but the further North they travelled, the colder they knew it would get. If they kept up their current tactics, one of them would end up freezing to death.
With a dash of cunning, and perhaps a pinch of sweet talking on Aoife’s part, the trio managed to procure a second hand tent to help lighten the load already facing them. It was little more than a length of material and a few poles to hold it up, but it would do as a shelter for now. Even in a grand marquis with plush furnishings, they would have complained. They were not used to the cold, or to sleeping rough, and though they had been on the road for just over a week now, they were not so quick to adjust. The South was never this cold, and there was always plenty of steam filling the air to keep the place warmer. Now that they were away from the cities, and out in the open air, it became all too clear just how biting the cold could be.
With the few copper coins Rin had left from the sale of the tent, he had decided to treat the trio to something a little more filling than a few scraps of rabbit meat. It wasn’t much—a few copper pieces could barely buy more than a loaf of bread—but it was a welcome relief to eat and feel full for once. Even Shay seemed to acknowledge that Rin and Aoife’s spirits lifted after a decent meal, but that didn’t mean he was about to stop being annoyed by their whining when the opposite was the case.
It was on the eighth day of their journey, camped just outside the town of Ankora that the Oracle had mentioned, that Shay’s past came into question. The three had taken to setting up camp earlier in the day now, to grant them the most daylight to find firewood and for Shay to have ample chance to catch them something to eat. They’d thought that the closer they came to the East, the warmer the climate would be, but had failed to factor the nights into the equation. Unlike the day, when the sun beat down on the Earth, nights in the East were unbearable, should one not have ample shelter. Unlike in the North, where the ice and the snow would surely kill you in your sleep, the East had a crueler mistress. There were no symptoms, and no way of preventing it if conditions were already dire, just a slow death and incurable cold.
Ankora sat at the southernmost point of the Esterlands, and served as the dividing point between East and South. Where grass grew once before, in its place was now sand, though at Ankora it seemed more like soil than the kind of sand one might encounter further East. What was truly strange about Ankora, though, was its proximity to the land boundaries of the Riverlands. Just a few miles to the west of Ankora was more of the thick, dense grassland that made up the body of the Riverlands. In fact, a few hours journey away was the village of Deeppond, rumoured to be the very first settlement in all of the West.
Separating the two, however, was a great river that was nigh impossible to cross in the winter months. While the Riverlands was riddled with rivers, owing to its name, none was more prominent than the River Aur. The river’s source was far up in the North. Some speculated that it came from Mount Ormen itself, and trickled down the mountain as a sign of the Maker’s generosity. It served as the dividing line between East and West, but was of little use to either party now that the industrial revolution had taken over. The goldmine in Medara left the river polluted the second it entered the East, and by the time it flower out to the sea, it was so thickly polluted from the coal mines in the Aur Valley that the water ran black. It was rumoured to be so toxic that no life could be sustained in it, and the sea surrounding the Aur Valley was as barren as the Duchess of Southfair—three husbands and still no children to her name.
All thoughts of the Duchess aside, once the trio had a fire going, and a rabbit with more fur than flesh roasting in it, Rin’s curiosity—or perhaps his desire to out Shay as more of a conman than he had already admitted—would not let him remain silent on the matter. Whenever Shay’s past had come up in conversation, the Olmaean would change topics as soon as possible, all the while revealing as little information about himself as he could. It did little to settle Rin’s suspicions that Shay might in fact be a guard in disguise, but surely no one could pretend to be as dimwitted as Shay was? Not in affairs that mattered, anyway. Anyone could pretend not to be able to read, but the brutish aura that hung around both Royal and Cardinal guards—for the watch in Eturia were not instated by the monarchy, but by the church—was not so easily disguised. Shay was a beast, but not a paid one.
“Say, Shay, where did you say you grew up again?” the Westerner said, trying to keep his question as cool and casual as possible.
“Olmaea, you know that,” Shay said, suspicion already roused.
“But where in Olmaea? Cities are big places, and play host to all sorts of characters, do they not?” Rin spoke as if they were seated in some luxurious parlour, all mahogany furnishings and rich leather seats. In that moment, the young man would not have looked out of place with a glass of brandy in one hand and a cigar in the other. Much as he tried to deny it, he was every bit the middle class gentleman his grandfather had raised him to be. “I’m curious as to where would create a character such as yourself.”
Shay huffed out a laugh at that. He knew exactly what Rin was trying to do. Were Aoife not present, he might have called Rin out on it, but if she lost faith in the little bookworm, he’d be stuck with her forever. She was a sweet enough girl, but he wasn’t planning on sticking around for a second longer than he had to.
“I could just make up a place and you wouldn’t any the fuckin’ wiser, Rinian,” he said, feigning amusement for Aoife’s sake.
“Language, Shay,” the orphan cut in, but her scolding fell on deaf ears. It always did, but she tried her best anyway. Gentlemen did not curse, and certainly not as frequently as Shay did.
“I know,” Rin agreed with a nod of his head. “But perhaps that would tell me enough about you to make my own conclusions. Once a liar, always a liar.”
“If you’re gonna accuse me of something, just do it straight. Not all of us have time for your childish games.”
“I’m the childish one?” Rin questioned. “I’m sorry, but I believe I’m the only one taking this whole thing seriously. If I hadn’t thought ahead, we’d be freezing right now.”
“Oh wow, you were smart enough to steal from a penniless woman and buy a tent with it. Goodie for you, it’s a miracle you don’t have a diploma already,” Shay said sarcastically, voice starting to increase in volume as it always seemed to when he and Rin spoke for extended periods of time.
“Would you two stop fighting?” Aoife said, exasperated, voice raised in a way that was most unbecoming of her. In all the time the three of them had been together—in fact, in all the time Rin had known her—she had never been known to raise her voice.
The two men were left in a stunned silence, both of them staring at the young woman in shock. For such a meek little lamb to bleat so loudly was a strange experience indeed. They knew they bickered far too much, it was why they tried to avoid speaking at all costs, but they had no idea it bothered Aoife so greatly.
“If you can’t be civil to each other, then I’ll have to separate you, like naughty children,” she said, a frown on her brow as she kept scolding them.
All that did was serve to make the two men sulk, much like the children they claimed not to be. To be scolded, not only by a girl, but a girl younger than the both of them? It felt as if they were her nursemaids, and she was chastising them for playing make believe wrongly. Each blamed the other for the situation, and reluctantly they accepted Aoife’s command, moving one of the tents further away from the one Aoife was resting in. They had both expected her to ask Rin to stay with her and for Shay to take the other tent since she seemed more comfortable in Rin’s presence when it came to sleeping arrangements, but much to their surprise she asked it of Shay instead.
“Why don’t you ever talk about your past?” she asked, once they were settled.
Shay had been forced to assist Rin with the tent, and with lighting another fire to ensure he did not freeze in the night, though Shay would rather be rid of him. Despite the fire crackling away outside their own tent, the exposure to the night air had left Shay chilled to the bone. Luckily for him, however, it was a chill that could be remedied with a blanket and a moment by the fire.
“I don’t see the point in talking ‘bout things that don’t matter,” he shrugged, hoping his lie would land without issue.
“Of course your past matters, Shay. Our pasts are what makes us into the people we are today.”
“You’re gonna drive me mad sayin’ stuff like that.”
He’d heard enough talk like that from the mystics and the loons in Olmaea to last a lifetime. He didn’t need it from a girl like Aoife, who at least seemed to have her head firmly on her shoulders half the time. Sure, his past had shaped him into the man he was, but surely that was all that mattered? It wasn’t the process, it was the outcome that mattered.
“It’s true, though,” Aoife insisted, but her pleas would fall on deaf ears, as usual.
It wasn’t that Shay didn’t listen to her. When he was a child, he’d made it his business to listen to everyone, and it was a habit that had never quite left him. His refusal to succumb to Aoife’s pleas were not a result of his inability to listen, but rather his stubbornness to reveal anything about himself. He had always been a secretive man, but it had never been more evident than it was now. At its simplest, the Olmaean simply didn’t like putting himself in the limelight. There was too much criminal activity in his past for him to feel comfortable drawing attention to himself. He’d lost count of the amount of times the city watch had been at their door, either for his misdeeds or for his mother’s soliciting. More often than not, it was his dear mother’s trade that spared them life in a cell.
“You can tell me things, Shay. It’s not like I have anyone to go whispering about it to,” Aoife said, trying a softer approach.
Much like her Western counterpart, Aoife was equally lacking when it came to the art of persuasion. Oh, what Shay would have given to teach her how the slum girls persuaded men to do their bidding. He had seen girls ensnare rich lords and pompous aristocrats with little more than a flutter of their eyelashes. The ample bosom they kept on display certainly helped them along, but it was that seductive charm that won them favours. While Aoife’s virginal status might win them points with the more depraved—or pious—members of society, it certainly didn’t grant her any purchase with Shay.
“Not even Rinian?” he asked, already knowing the answer. The two of them gossiped about figures in ancient history like a pair of old maids. “Just leave it, Aoife, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Why not?” Aoife demanded, frustration mounting once more. “What are you hiding, Shay? What great secret do you have that’s so terrible you can’t even tell me?”
“I’m not hiding anything,” he said defensively. “Even if I was, why should I tell you? You’re not exactly anything to me, are you?”
The words were out in the air before he even realised he’d said them. Sure, he didn’t care much for Aoife, and for the most part he was just using her as a means to an end, but after almost a week and a half of shared—albeit forced—company, she was starting to feel more of a friend than just a tool. The look of hurt on her face stung him like a wasp, and even his icy heart felt the tiniest pang of guilt at the sight of it.
“No, I suppose I’m not,” Aoife said quietly, her gaze icy though it did not linger on the Olmaean for long.
Shay let out a sigh. “Aoife, look, I didn’t mean it like that. I just—”
“No, Shay, you made it perfectly clear. Don’t worry, I won’t trouble you again.”She didn’t give the Olmaean a chance to speak again, angrily retiring to her makeshift bed, and though Shay knew she was only pretending to be asleep, he elected to join her in the pretense and save his words for the morning.