Chapter One: Departure
It was the dark of night – hours before the sun was to rise and the time when good little children should have been sleeping soundly.
Not many Freeportians are good little children.
The orphanage door creaked open and the soft pitter-patter of sneaking paws joined the quiet symphony of the night. Nose raised high in the air, Nis tiptoed into the dark. The young Ratonga had a bulging pack over her right shoulder and her left hand on the hilt of her sword. She was swathed in black cloth so her pale fur would not stand out against the shadows, and tiny holes in her large ears gave evidence to one of several sacrifices made of her appearance to ensure her safe passage. Her long whispers twitched as she cast her gaze nervously about the empty streets. Satisfied with her present safety, she cast one small glance over her shoulder to the dilapidated building she had called home for far too long.
She was nearly old enough to be an adult, and missing orphans were never actually missed. She stared at the orphanage and made sure she felt no regret. Everyone would wake up in the morning, she assured herself, and not notice her disappearance for at least an hour, think she would be home by sunset, and finally guess she had gotten herself eaten by a Kerra after she did not come back. She would be forgotten, life would move on, and everything would be the same. Only she would be free. By the time they thought her dead, she would be starting her new life in Antonica, working for favor with Qeynos and the fair Queen Antonia Bayle.
Karis might notice the difference, Nis realized at once with a frown. The small Ratonga had found her way to Nis's clan just before it had been destroyed, and the girl was now sister to Nis, separated only by blood. Karis was young, though, Nis told herself. She would fret for some time; there was no doubt about that. She was attached to the older Ratonga, and probably could not yet imagine life without her. The matrons of the orphanage, however, would indefinitely use the incident to teach the naïve girl some lessons, such as how one should not put his trust in another, or to degrade her more, convincing her she was worthless. The lessons would pass, though, Karis would be more able to handle life, and she would slowly forget about Nis. And when Nis had forged a new home, she would be able to take Karis and they could live in peace.
Comforted by this far-away goal, Nis gave the place a forlorn smile as she shifted her pack and looked forward again. Temple Street – she had been brought there after Luclin had lit up the sky so brightly she lost her shadow for a moment, and then nights had been dark. Not even the dark could hide the horrors Nis found in every turn of the place. She could barely remember the wilderness she had called home – that was home before a large shard of Luclin had destroyed it – but she knew it was better than this. She wanted to return to beauty, to nature, and had been promised this by a quiet man in North Freeport. She had then decided to leave Freeport – though she had been offered weeks to make her final decision, she gave her answer in seconds. She had been ready for this once she had arrive in the dismal land, and her resolve had been set long ago. Trust had been forged, plans made, and it was time to leave. She nodded and started to walk.
She had not taken three steps before a pair of hands grabbed the back of her tunic.
Seized with terror, Nis drew her sword and spun around hard, hoping to dislodge her assailant and slash in a fluid movement. She felt the hands slip away from her tunic and finished her turn, eyes settling on her opponent. The moment she saw her attacker, she had to pull back hard on her sword to keep it from hitting its target.
"Where is Nis goings?" asked the small Ratonga now cowering on the ground in front of Nis. With a suppressed curse and a quiet sigh, Nis sheathed her sword and knelt down. She put her hands on her sister's shoulders. The two could hardly be thought of as related when seen together – not only did they not share any blood; they looked as different as night and day. Where Nis had a strong, tall frame for a Ratonga and was clad in pale fur, Karis seemed to have more neutral traits – a tiny frame and dual-toned, dark fur.
These inherit differences, however, did not deter Karis from trying to look like her older sister. A patch of pale skin on her chest attested to her botched attempt to get an apprentice mage to whiten her fur – a mistake that wound up with a ball of fire singeing the fur off her chest and nearly killed her. Karis was not one to learn from her mistakes, however. After Nis had been fitted with large hoop earrings, Karis got her ears pierced, too – the result of which was her ears drooping comically under the weight of the shoddy but heavy rings. She soon got smaller hoops, but not before earning several insulting nicknames she never lived down. Nis had stopped changing her appearance after that, afraid the girl would do something irreversibly stupid next.
The girl was endearing, Nis would give her that in a heartbeat. She was too rash, though, and it worried her. She sighed again. "Karis . . ." she glanced about to make sure they were alone, then looked back down to the small Ratonga. "Can ye keep a secret?" At the girl's fervent nod, Nis took a deep breath, convinced herself that the one person who would miss her deserved to know, and continued. "I'm leavin' Freeport. Got a friend who says I can live in pretty Qeynos. Gonna try and get me a better life. When I do, I'm gonna come for ye. And then I'll get ye outta here and over there."
Karis looked up with wide, unblinking eyes while Nis explained things. When she finished speaking, however, Karis broke out into tears. "Nis is leavings Karis!"
"Brell's rings, Karis, not so loud!" Nis hissed under her breath while bringing up a slender finger to quiet the girl. She berated herself for not remembering to take the child's young age into account while explaining – Karis could hardly have comprehended all that with so little explanation, and so late at night. Nis thought of a new way to put her plan, tail twitching from side to side as she did. "No. I'm goin' . . . on a special mission," satisfied that, because the girl did so many chores for those around the township and called them missions, she would understand. "But it's a secret 'un, so ye can't tell any'un. And when I'm done, I'll . . . be given my own place as a reward. And then ye can live with me and we'll be able to take care of ourselves."
Karis shook her head immediately, pouting. "Why can't Karis comes, too? Karis good ats missions, Mister-Guy-Ats-Dock says so!"
"Because . . . because it's very dangerous, Nis. Too dangerous for you."
"Then Nis no goes!" Trying to adhere to Nis's wish for quiet, she did all her wailing under her breath, making a scratchy whisper, but could barely control herself enough to do so. "Nis could gets hurts and kills and not sees Karis agains!"
I'm just diggin' myself into a hole with her, Nis thought with another audible sigh. "I'll be careful, Karis, promise." She knew Karis could hardly be satisfied with the answer, but she was running short on ideas – and on time.
"Then Karis comes and be carefuls, too." She looked up at Nis stubbornly, making her resolve as apparent as possible by grabbing her sister's furless tail and clenching it as though it were her only salvation in the world. "Karis no loses Nis!"
Rubbing her forehead with one hand while keeping the other on Karis's shoulder, Nis stalled for several minutes. During her deliberations, Karis remained perfectly silent and almost stone still, not taking her gaze from Nis nor her paws from the other's tail. She was content to wait as long as necessary so she would not have to be separated from Nis.
Weighing ideas against each other, making mental lists of why she should and should not bring Karis. Nis finally gave a small, tired smile and swayed. "All right, Karis – but," she added quickly, before the younger Ratonga could get a word in edgewise, "under a few conditions. 'Un – ye follow me close 'less I'm fightin'. Two – when I'm fightin', ye find yerself a safe place to hide 'less I tell ye otherwise. Three – iffen I say runs, ye run. And last – ye listen to any other conditions I make later. Agreed?"
Karis put on her most serious face, let go of Nis's tail, and nodded. She would do anything to stay by Nis's side. She nodded, finally heeding perfectly the earlier order of silence. With an exasperated smile and choked down laugh at how horribly ridiculous Karis looked portraying an adult, Nis stood. She held her hand out to Karis and help her up.
"Ye ready for an adventure, then, Karis?"
"Mm-hmm," Karis replied quietly. Without any further thoughts on the matter, the two headed quietly for the docks.