This was originally meant to be a one-shot, but it just…grew, I guess. I still don't know what it is, or what I did here, or why. If you can figure out a method to the madness that I have yet to translate for myself, please tell me.
As you can see, I also drew some crappy cover art. Sorry for the bad lighting; my scanner hates me.
Disclaimer: I don't own Princess Academy. It belongs to Shannon Hale, not me.
Title from a quote by Pittacus Lore.
Lyrics from 'How Far We've Come' by Matchbox Twenty.
What We Didn't Do
Waking up at the start
of the end of the world
But it's feeling just like every other morning before
Now I wonder what my life is gonna mean
if it's gone
If I had a chance to do this all over again, I would not have chosen this life. Then again, I didn't exactly have a choice.
So were my thoughts as I stumbled up a mountain with a loaf of bread stuffed inside my shirt and twenty very ticked-off bandits at my heels.
I didn't speak the language of the northern countries very well, barely enough to get by in fact, but their shouted messages were clear enough. They weren't happy. "Weren't happy" meaning "wanted to run me through with something sharp and painful".
It was this kind of thought that encouraged me to keep running.
I was faster than most of them — being skinny and small has its advantages sometimes — and soon, I'd pulled far ahead. Their shouts still echoed off the rocks and through the trees, and when I glanced back, I could barely see their tiny figures through the sparse greenery. I smirked. This was a mistake, though — glancing back meant that I was no longer focused on what was ahead, and completely missed the steep valley that I found myself tumbling down a few moments later.
Every curse I knew left my mouth as I bounced and rolled down the hill, and I even made up a few new ones in the process. It wasn't a very graceful fall and ended with me lying facedown at the bottom, moaning, winded, and bruised in quite a few unfortunate places. The bread which I had gone to such painstaking lengths to steal was completely squished.
I eventually managed to get to my feet and stumble away from the place, and after shaking my head a few times to help me figure out which way was forward, I was running again. Gravity is faster than any pair of legs and it had given me a good head start, but not good enough. My time recovering at the foot of the hill had subtracted from it somewhat.
I could hear them shouting as I ran, but soon their voices faded and I could hear them no more. Panting from the unplanned race, I slowed down, circled behind a tree, slumped to the ground, and began gnawing on my stale piece of bread.
I was surprised that it'd taken them so long to catch me. Every day since I'd started following the bandit group, which added up to about six days, I had stolen a small loaf of bread from their stockpile. It wasn't too hard either. For the majority, they were a slow and stupid group and had this nasty habit of never posting a guard at night, and if they did, it was a guard who couldn't stay awake.
But this night was a bit different. I was careless. I hadn't known that the man who guarded the men's packs was awake. His eyes were closed, yes, and his breathing even, but it seemed as if the bandits had gotten the hint and finally set a trap for me.
It had all gone smoothly until my hand, with the stolen loaf of bread in it, accidentally brushed the man's arm and his eyes flew open.
That was when I decided it would be wise to run.
I have no idea why I wanted to follow the bandits in the first place. I guess I was hungry, that was all, and I wanted a bit of fun for a few days. From what I overheard, they were traveling up Mount Eskel to kidnap a prince. Needless to say, I wanted to see that. And who knew? I was a thief. I might be able to help.
But here I was, panting like a dog and hiding behind a tree. The moon was full that night and it was surprisingly warm for late fall. This was good; I had left my winter jacket and only pair of shoes back at the small cave I had claimed as my lair. Really, it was no more a lair than a hole in the ground, but it was all I had and it was home.
I finished the last crumbs of my bread and sighed. The familiar tight feeling in my stomach was still there, only a bit lessened. Dejected, I opened my bag and looked for my small canteen of water. It was there, but almost empty. I trickled a few drops down my throat but left the rest for later — who knew when I might find a source of water again in unfamiliar territory?
I looked up at the night sky. I saw the stars scattered across the navy blue sky in all their brilliant glory, not hidden by the dust and smog of the cities. Here on the mountain, they seemed closer than ever.
Then I saw the malicious shine of moonlight on metal out of the corner of my eye, and realized that there was a very sharp blade just underneath my chin.
"Don't move," a quiet, calm voice said in the language of the northerners. It might have been described as a "not unfriendly" tone of voice had there not been a weapon ready to sever that relatively important thing that attached my head to my body. Hence, I will not describe it as such.
So I replied in the same language and same calm tone, "I wasn't planning to."
"Stand up," the voice continued, never once wavering from its calm monotone.
"You just told me not to move." If he, whoever he was (and I knew exactly who he was simply from the voice) was going to best me, I was going to make it hard for him.
"I amended my orders."
Oh. Acerbicism. If I had even the slightest twinge of doubt that this was Shade, that doubt was erased.
I must admit that the idiot bandits were not all idiots. The leader, who went by the relatively inconspicuous name of Dan, was angry, clever, and willing to go to all ends to get what he wanted. I'd seen the way he had just killed a merchant after demanding information about the princess academy. Dan wasn't particularly smart, but if I were to come face to face with him in battle, I am not sure if I would be able to escape.
Shade was almost a polar opposite of Dan but just as dangerous, if not more so. While Dan was a veteran warrior of fire, arrogance, and wrath, Shade was little more than a boy made of shadows, silence, and shards of ice. He was small, slender, quiet, and couldn't have been past twenty years of age — which would have been instant turnaways had he not been so skilled with the slim sword he wore on his back in a black sheath. He, living up to the alias the other bandits had given him, was a figure made of darkness — shaggy raven hair and forbidding black eyes; his skin was an unhealthy shade of milk white in comparison.
From eavesdropping on the bandits' conversations throughout the week, I had learned that Shade had not been a part of the outlaw group for very long. They had originally had him as a target for thievery, him being what they thought was a weary traveler with a nice-looking weapon on his person, until he had knocked out half of their number with the same sword they had wanted to steal. (This in itself was not a particularly admirable feat — nasty and sly the bandits might have been, they were sadly out of shape.) With admittedly nowhere else to go, he had joined them shortly after, and many of them had held a wary grudge against him ever since.
I did not doubt this story. Nor did I doubt Shade's abilities — small as he was, he was still bigger than me and probably stronger. And, after all, I was a thief, not a fighter.
So, with few other options, I slowly rose to my feet while being careful of the blade at my neck. I felt Shade move around the tree and, to my surprise, place his hand on my shoulder. His thin hands were callused and cold, and though I could not feel them through the battered leather of my vest, his thumb brushed the side of my neck with a kiss of ice. He said nothing, but the message was clear — walk where I want you, do as I tell you, and do not make a sound. You might have a chance at living.
So, going blindly as he directed me, I turned around and began walking back from whence I had come, which was the bandits' camp. Neither of us said a word as he steered me through the sparse trees, which seemed almost to deceive the eye with their deep and shifting shadows in the contrast of the bright moonlight.
I busied myself by watching the sword that could take my life, and the hand that held it. It was a fine, expensive weapon, unlike the cheap ones that the other bandits carried. Also unlike the bandits' swords, it was slender and polished, more like the swords carried by the royal guard of Toscana. The hilt was wrapped in black leather and had a pommel to match the crosspiece, which if I was not mistaken was black iron. The hands that held the sword and my shoulder were thin, but strong. His palms and wrists were wrapped with coarse black strips of fabric, which most likely served to help him keep a grip on his sword.
This man likes black too much, I mused somewhat moodily as I reflected that the rest of his dirty wardrobe was also, as you might guess, black.
After a long time of our nearly blind hike through the forest, which felt like hours but was in reality a lot less, I finally caught a glimmer of orange light in the distance — firelight. So maybe I had not been so far away from Dan's idiots. I thought again of the cold hand that rested on my shoulder, and added to this. Maybe at least one of them was smarter than I gave him credit for.
And now I would pay the price for it.
It seemed to me that Shade's very presence was either usually ignored or overlooked, for when he and I entered the camp with his sword blade at my throat, every bandit jumped and whirled around with weapons raised. I must admit that I flinched, but just a little bit.
(If you expect me to describe the bandits and their states of civility and cleanliness, then you've picked the wrong narrator. Honestly, they were no cleaner or better dressed than I was, and if you think these guys were bad then you have obviously never visited Gallica and the wonderful prison in the capital city. The inmates there would make these bandits look like prim and proper noblewomen.)
Dan, easily recognizable from the rest by his distinctively broad shoulders and towering build, was the first one to recover. "Shade," he said with something of an amused smirk on his face. "I'm surprised. Nice work."
Shade did not move his sword or his hand. "She's arrogant," he said in his low, faintly accented voice. "She let her guard down. She had only these." Out of my peripheral vision, I saw him throw my satchel and my dagger to the ground. My hands flew to my hips and I realized that yes, Shade had stolen them. I hadn't even felt him take them off me. I swore, but only in my head. I didn't like being without a weapon; it made me feel vulnerable and naked.
Dan mostly ignored Shade and frowned, staring at me. "She?"
All right, I admit that I'm not the most womanly of females — my clothes concealed most of my figure, admittedly — and definitely not the type to take tea and wear dresses the size and weight of the average cow, but such a simple question was an actual blow to my pride. "Excuse me," I said sardonically, "but if you doubt my gender, feel free to check."
A wry smile twitched at the edge of the bandit leader's lips. "No my lady, I am convinced enough."
"Good," I said.
The smirk on his face started growing larger, into a hideous leer, as he stepped towards me and scanned me over. "Just a girl," he marveled. "And she managed all that trouble. I like her already."
I said nothing but I did not take my eyes off his.
(I've heard it said that locking gazes with me is about as comforting as locking gazes with a wolf.)
But Dan wasn't intimidated easily. He reached out, probably to caress my face in a way that I would definitely not tolerate, but before his fingers could come in contact with my skin, I opened my mouth and clamped my teeth over air. It was threatening enough, and Dan yanked his hand back in alarm. Shade's grip on my shoulder tightened to an almost painful degree and the finely honed edge of his sword touched against the soft skin of my neck in a clear warning. I stopped moving.
Dan gave me a withering glare. "You're right," he said, probably to Shade, "she is arrogant."
"It gets worse before my monthly messes," I told him.
He narrowed his eyes, then came dangerously close. "Listen, girl," he hissed, spraying spittle into my face, "and listen closely. I want nothing from you. I will do nothing for you and you're lucky if you make it out of here alive. How you respect me determines on how high your chances are of being released."
I raised an eyebrow and felt my lip twitch in the beginnings of a smirk, but I said nothing.
"What?" Dan snapped.
"Oh, nothing," I said lightly, almost singsong in the tone of it. "I'm just wondering what the chances are of you releasing me if I told you, say, that I know about your plans for the prince and have, oh, I don't know, a warrant from the king to find you and a promise that if I don't come back from today's 'thievery', he would know that you were somewhere in the area and would send people to wipe you out, or something like that…"
Dan's eyes were now barely slits, and I could tell that he was trying to decide whether to believe me or not. He had plenty of reasons to do both. Obviously the first of the two, my knowledge about the prince, was true, otherwise I would have never mentioned it. But the "warrant from the king" idea was a complete lie. I am a very good liar, you see, and I am familiar with other people's thought processes. There was no other probable reason for me to be following Dan's bandits (except for the improbable reason of "I wanted some food and fun" that happens to be the truth) and a paranoid man's mind would instantly be up and alert.
I could almost see him ticking off the three clinchers: means, motive, and opportunity. I didn't exactly look like an advisor of the king, in fact I might have seemed somewhat disadvantaged with my poor provisions and outfitting, but I could easily be a paid mercenary. Hence leading up to the second: motive. Also easy; just get me a fat purse of coins and I'd be in. Finally, opportunity — I had stayed unseen most of the time as I trailed them, so it wouldn't be unthinkable that I could leave for a time and report to a trailing sentry or a scout.
"Impossible," Dan finally spat as he turned away, sounding only half convinced. "She's a liar and a thief, and — "
"But what if I'm not?"
The entire camp went silent as sixteen bandits stared at me with wide eyes. Somehow I managed to stay completely straight-faced.
"What if I'm not lying?" I asked them again. Then I stopped and decided to switch tactics. "All right, never mind that. I knew that you might not believe that from the beginning. But consider this," and here I gave the wolfish smile that typically came with my wolfish eyes, "what are the chances of my survival if you were to find out that I will kidnap your prince for you and sell him to you for my freedom and a certain sum of money?"
"Never!" shouted a bandit before Dan could even open his mouth to reply. This man's most prominent (but definitely not the least appealing) feature was a scar stretching from the side of his mouth to his ear — he was called by the others as Dogface, for obvious reasons. "A liar and a thief! She can't kidnap the prince, not in a thousand years!"
"Yeah, well, in a thousand years I'll be dead," I told him. "Best I do it now, when I'm young and lithe."
"She has a point," a lanky bandit, who was known primarily as Bob for reasons unknown, said.
"My problem," said Dan above the mild racket that was beginning to ensue, "is not if she could do it. I know her type and I don't doubt it. My problem is whether or not we can trust her."
"Hey, I'm standing right here," I said irritably. I would have waved my arms had I not been restricted by Shade and his stupid sword. "You don't have to talk about me like I'm not within hearing range, sheesh!"
Dan looked up at the sky, as if telling some greater being, This is my life. He didn't seem like the religious type, though, so I will leave it "as if".
"Your answer," I continued, "is no. You have no reason to trust me and I have no reason to trust you. So, by this agreement of mutual distrust, we should have sound basis that we do not trust each other and therefore have no ground against the other. Am I making sense?"
"Not really," replied Bob.
"I understand," said Dan in a low voice. "I…don't know how your logic makes sense, but I think it's worth a try. All right, I agree."
This raised protesting voices throughout the camp until Dan raised his hand. They all went silent. "Now," he said, "we have less than a day's travel until we reach the princess academy, and that's if we're fast. I say we let the thief go when we're about three hours away, so that we're far from the danger. But — " he raised his hands again to quell the protests that were already rising " — I am not a fool. I will not let her go alone. Shade, I would like you to accompany the thief and keep her from running off before her job is finished."
Shade's grip on my shoulder had loosened and the space between the sword and my throat had widened, but at this I felt the subtle stiffening of his hands. "Yes, sir." The words sounded almost forced.
This fielded even more protests, but like clockwork, Dan's hand flew up again and silenced them all. "Good," he said. "And, since you've done a wonderful job guarding the thief so far, I would like you to guard her tonight."
Even Shade couldn't hide the sigh that slipped from his lips. I didn't feel like hiding it so I turned it into a full-blown moan.
"I'm blaming you," I told Shade, more to annoy him than anything else.
The sword blade was removed from my neck and slid back into its sheath, and Shade spun me around. I did not have to look up very far, but when I did, I met his gaze and found myself trapped in the depths of his pitch black eyes.
"Just remember, thief," he said coolly, "you were the one to strike first."
And so my name, to the bandit group and for the duration of my time working for them, became Thief.
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