"There are people whom one loves immediately and forever. Even to know they are alive in the world with one is quite enough." ~Nancy Spain
The Mord'Sith weren't like most of D'Hara's soldiers. They didn't demand tribute or deference. They took what they wanted. They expected fear and obedience, which they received in abundance wherever they went. Like The Sparrow Inn. They stormed in, violence in leather, scanning for resistance but knowing there wouldn't be any. The villagers huddled in tight groups, hoping they wouldn't be the ones to serve as the Mord'Sith's legendary entertainment and yet wondering what it would be like.
Dahlia didn't. She knew there was nothing to desire in a Mord'Sith. After all, she had almost been one. And although she'd escaped being trained, Dahlia had still learned a hard lesson. Everyone left.
Since then, she'd grown up staunch and true, an innkeeper's daughter, able to fend off drunks and bandits with equal roughness. She'd become tough, not beautiful—muscled from hauling kegs, her hair chopped short, her fingers callused, skin colored by the sun instead of paled by luxury. Maybe that was what drew Garren to her. When your life's work was breaking people, you appreciated a challenge.
Garren didn't flirt. She just marched up to Dahlia and kept marching, pressing her against the bar, thigh between her legs. "Do you want to feel good? Or bad?" she asked, enjoying the way Dahlia's muscles clenched with the urge to resist.
Dahlia held still except for her tongue. "I doubt you could manage either."
Garren slapped Dahlia across the face, snapping her head to the side with the violence of the blow. "How did that feel? Good or bad?"
"Like a gentle summer breeze," Dahlia replied through swelling lips.
Garren drew her Agiel. "How about this?"
"Leave her, sister." The voice was both threat and promise. Although the Mord'Sith who'd spoken weren't the tallest of the group, she seemed to tower over the others. Her leather seemed thicker, tighter, more layered. And despite the hard travel she must have endured not a hair was out of place on her braid. But most striking of all was her face. In fact, it struck Dahlia harder than Garren had, wounding her with nostalgia. For a moment, all she could think of was her childhood. "She's mine."
"Yes, Mistress Cara," Garren said, ducking out of the way.
Cara. A common enough name, but enough to make Dahlia see a resemblance between this Mord'Sith and her childhood friend. It was the eyes that convinced her how impossible it was that her Cara could ever have been made into a Mord'Sith. Her eyes were bright and alive. Mistress Cara's were like polished stones.
Cara crooked her finger, not an enticing gesture but more like a master ordering their dog about. Still, Dahlia followed. They went upstairs to the bedrooms. Cara gestured for Dahlia to select one and she did. Inside, Cara instructed her on how to undo her leathers. As she did so, Cara spoke a measure softer. "You may sleep where you wish. The bed is big enough for two, but if you wake me, I'm likely to kill you unless you can defend yourself."
"You… you're not going to…" Fear, oddly enough, turned to indignation. "What, I don't meet your high standards?"
Cara smirked at her. "It's been a long day. The Mother Confessor herself wouldn't meet my standards. I'd have to tie her up for later."
"I thought you women were always in the mood," Dahlia said.
"I'm sure they would say that." Cara sat down on the bed, occupying herself with removing the last few scraps of cloth from her body. Her skin was nastily marked from the leather biting into it, forming arcane patterns in her flesh. "But I might be a bit too preoccupied with the town I put to the torch this morning to live up to my reputation."
"Then why'd you do it?"
"Because I had orders to, you foolish girl. They were harboring the resistance."
"But you didn't enjoy it," Dahlia observed. That was what the kind of women who said Mord'Sith were always in the mood would have believed.
"I don't enjoy everything I'm ordered to do." Cara laid down, pulling the covers over her, disappointed with how thin they were. Dahlia could see her body through them as if the blanket were drawn onto her. "It's cold in here."
"There are holes in the roof," Dahlia explained. "A gar tried to get in last week."
"Then perhaps you should fix it, innkeep," Cara replied sharply, as if anyone listening were an idiot for not doing things her way without needing to be told.
It was a childish sharpness.
"You remind me of someone I used to know," Dahlia said tentatively.
"I'm sure I don't."
Then: "Why'd you save me?"
"I didn't save you. I just didn't want Garren's talents going to waste on someone who doesn't appreciate them."
Dahlia gave the bed a wide berth as she fell asleep, but she kept a seeking eye on Cara—as if the Cara who dreamed would be an entirely different person from the Cara who awoke.
Dahlia didn't see Cara leave in the morning. When she woke up, the Mord'Sith were gone—gathered up by Cara at the sun's first light and scattered to the roads. The next time Dahlia saw her was weeks later, when the event was a joke to the bar patrons and a waking thought to Dahlia. Something to be dismissed as ruthlessly as idle daydreams.
Cara came back into Dahlia's life with the same slow suddenness as a fantasy. A horse and cart approaching like any other was suddenly Cara, staring at Dahlia as if challenging her to do something about it. "Did you miss me?"
Dahlia gestured to encompass the Mord'Sith, the horse, the cart, and Cara's reappearance. "Did you?"
Cara leapt down from the cart, untied the horse, and tossed its reins to Dahlia. "Stable that. I'm going to fix your roof." Cara spoke quickly, not letting Dahlia get a word in edgewise. "It wouldn't do for word to spread that the Mord'Sith were willing to stay at substandard dwelling."
"That should just about cover your expenses."
"Food. Board. Whores."
"None of my girls were with whores."
"They treated them as such."
Cara took a deep breath and Dahlia was horrified to realize what she was doing, talking back to a Mord'Sith. But Cara exhaled calm.
"Stay with me. If you leave, I'll assume you're summoning men unfriendly to Lord Rahl." She left the rest unsaid.
So while Dahlia did her chores, never far from Cara's sight, the roof was fixed. Cara never slackened. Her hammer kept pounding away like rain. When she was done, sweat coursed out of her with each movement. She undid her leathers to let the cool air of the tavern's interior work on her. Her pale breasts shifted into Dahlia's view. The Mord'Sith was unconcerned. Dahlia brought her a flagon of ale.
"Will I have to clean your gutters for that?" Cara asked, not sounding out of breath.
Dahlia shook her head. "On the house."
Cara drank greedily. It could've been poison. But it wasn't.
Dahlia stood on the other side of the bar. "What could you have done that you would need to make up for it this badly?"
Cara set her drink down. "Children."
"I'm sorry," Dahlia said immediately.
Cara drank more.
"I know that horrible things are done to D'Haran soldiers who disobey orders."
"Mord'Sith do them," Cara replied.
Dahlia poured herself a drink, drank it. "Why'd you come here?" It couldn't be that Cara wanted Dahlia to talk her out of hating herself. Could it?
"You're not afraid of me," Cara answered. "You could never be afraid of me."
Cara's face colored. It would be no more than a slight reddening for anyone else, but Dahlia had been around her long enough to know that Cara kept as tight a rein on her face as the leather did on the rest of her body. She had said a thing she hadn't meant to say.
Cara left immediately, and Dahlia didn't call out to her until she was too far away to hear. For five months they saw nothing of each other. Dahlia let a young fisherman court her, but broke it off. Being in his arms made her feel guilty. Then one night Dahlia came home, bone-weary, and Cara was in her bedroom.
Dahlia was only surprised by her own acceptance of it. The frustration of Cara's absence suddenly overwhelmed Dahlia. She growled "There's none of your lustful sisters about for you to save me from, so what is it? Do you need someone to cuddle?"
Cara took the jibe like she would a hit in battle, ignoring it and moving on. "Lord Rahl is planning to expand his dominion into Westland. He will need additional Mord'Sith. He has ordered a recruitment drive."
Dahlia felt a sort of blank horror, like her mind couldn't come up with an emotion strong enough to serve as a reaction. "Children?" was all she said.
"Your village won't be spared. Lord Rahl has a theory that the sweetest girls, once broken, become the best Mord'Sith. I don't hold to it. If you could help me find the girls who… the orphans, the troublemakers, those who won't be missed."
Cara had been a sweet little girl once. It was a hard thought to ignore. "Spirits, Cara, do you know what you're asking me to do?"
"I know it's hard to see logic, knowing what they'll go through. But better that than growing up on the streets to end up in a brothel or a grave. They'll be cared for. They'll be content."
"Like you're content? Coming here, treating me like we're best friends—"
"You are my best friend!" Cara snapped. "I've never treated you as anything less than a friend and all I've gotten in return is hostility and suspicion! Can't you see that I just… want things the way they were."
Dahlia stared at her. For a moment, her voice had been so petulant, so… childish.
"Cara," Dahlia breathed. When she had said the name before, it had been tinged with suspicion, fear, awe. Now it held a kind of intimacy.
"Mistress Cara," the Mord'Sith corrected defensively, like she could hide behind her title.
"My Cara," Dahlia countered.
"Lord Rahl's Cara."
Swept by the fear that she would run again, Dahlia dove out to take Cara's hand. The leather glove was cold to the touch. "Tell me your name, your real name. Do it and I'll help you with the… recruitment."
"You would blackmail me with children's lives." Cara's eyes were far away. "You would've made a fine Mord'Sith."
Cara looked at Dahlia's hand on hers. She didn't take her eyes off it. "My name is Cara Mason. No one has called me that in a very long time."
And just like that, Dahlia could see it: the child Cara had been, the child deep inside the Mord'Sith. She hadn't grown up—she'd been pulled taut, covered in armor, bled dry. Sharpened, clawed at and chiseled away until nothing was left but bedrock. Hard and cold. But it was still Cara.
"Oh, spirits!" As if the child inside her had seized control, Dahlia lunged forward to wrap Cara in a hug hard enough to crumple armor. "What have they done to you?"
Cara was unresponsive to the embrace. It was as if Dahlia were holding an ancient oak and expecting to uproot it. "They made me strong. You can unhand me now."
Dahlia was crying too hard to hear. She wanted to hold Cara forever, to squeeze out the years past and all the bad in them until only her friend was left. She'd spent a childhood crying herself to sleep, waiting for this moment.
"Dahlia, let go," Cara rumbled. It was an open threat, and even more shocking spoken in a voice with the echo of Dahlia's childhood friend behind it. Dahlia released Cara and Cara pushed her back, into a chair.
"Make a list. All the unloved children. All the children without enough parents. All the children who come to school bruised or crying. I'll take care of them."