Fictober, Prompt 13 – “The things you make me do…”
Warnings: violence, brief, unsuccessful attempt at sexual assault, vaguely implied civil unrest.
It was all anyone could talk about. Every mansion, every tavern, every market was the same, ‘The Shadow Blade’ this and ‘The Shadow Blade’ that, and what would the Shadow Blade do next?
I was doubly glad that I’d been able to arrive quietly, without telling anyone about my encounter with the person calling themselves the Shadow Blade. Not that I could be sure…but the mere fact that I was alive and unharmed made a strong argument in favor of the claim.
“Oh, but you just came in from Astaba,” Madam Staralon unfortunately remembered as I was halfway through putting up her hair for a garden party later that afternoon. “Did you run into any trouble on the way? They say the Emperor’s men aren’t letting anyone out at all, but that’s obviously not the case if you’re here.”
“I did,” I admitted, keeping my eyes on the strand of hair I was carefully heating into a curl and choosing my words with equal care. “There has been some trouble in Astaba. I got here and am fine. I was glad to find work right away.”
“And in such a good salon, too!” Madam Staralon agreed. “But with your skill, it’s not surprising. Did Lady Torfel stop by? I recommended you to her.”
“She did,” I said, grateful for a change in topic, “and thank you very much for the recommendation.”
“But you say there is unrest in Astaba?” asked one of the other ladies perched nearby. “Have you heard anything of this Shadow Blade?”
“There is unrest.” I sighed internally, having hoped the other topic would stick. It was pointless to deny the unrest, even if the full extent of it wasn’t known here yet. Things were worst at the heart of the Empire, but that only encouraged other kinds of trouble in the outer lands. “I’ve heard of the Shadow Blade, but couldn’t say that I know much about them.”
That was a borderline untruth, but not quite over the line.
“One hears so many wild things, of course,” Madam Staralon put in, “but he does sound like quite the dashing hero!”
“If even half his exploits are true, I’d positively swoon over him!” agreed a third woman, seated at the next chair over. “They say he’s the most handsome man you’ll ever meet…if you can get a look under his mask!”
“Why wear a mask if you’re as handsome as all that?” chimed in someone else behind me, sounding skeptical. “No, I think it must be true that he’s hiding some unfortunate disfigurement.”
In my memory, light brown eyes flashed behind a dark grey mask.
“Nonsense, the mask is just to protect his identity! They say,” and this speaker lowered her voice conspiratorially, “they say that he’s kin to the Emperor himself, but now works against him, saving the innocent from the Emperor’s unjust purges!”
“No!” gasped Madam Staralon along with the others.
“Oh yes,” said the other woman. “They say he…”
I tried my best to tune the gossip out, focusing back on Madam Staralon’s hair…but it was useless, and the memories rose in spite of my best efforts.
The border was less than a day’s journey away when the squad of soldiers in the Emperor’s colors appeared around the bend ahead of me.
“Well, what have we here?” one of them jeered, seeing a woman alone but not (I prayed) anything more than that.
They couldn’t know who I was. Not this far from the capital.
But that wouldn’t save me, not if they were so drunk on (apparently) both liquor and their apparent power out here, far from superiors who could enforce discipline. I hoped that a respectful bow and keeping my head down would appease them sufficiently…
They had me backed up almost to the edge of the nearby wood when a blade flashed out of the trees, burying itself in the closest soldier’s arm as he reached for me.
Yelling with pain, he reared back, and the rest joined him as blade after blade followed the first, hitting one man after another. No injury was immediately fatal, but it was clear that the attackers didn’t care much what might happen to the soldiers later. Drunk as they were, the soldiers were not brave in the face of the onslaught – they quickly broke and ran, some pulling the knives from their bodies as they went, others stumbling away with the weapons still impaling them.
I stood frozen, too shocked at the sudden turn of events, and nearly too scared to turn and see what new fate was coming for me from the trees.
When several minutes passed with no other sign of whoever had attacked the soldiers, I swallowed and forced myself to turn around.
A single person leaned against one of the trees, the glint of yet a knife barely concealed in each gloved hand of his crossed arms. He wasn’t a big man, which explained the knives and the attack from a distance.
A dark grey cloth mask covered his face from the nose up and most of his head, though a long, braided tail of dark hair hung out from underneath it. The rest of his clothes were loose, nondescript greys and browns, and there was a mostly empty belt of knives slung around his waist, and a proper sword at his left hip.
“Is it your turn now?” I challenged him, something in me suddenly angry enough for it.
He blinked, apparently surprised. “For what?”
“To have your way with me,” I spat, “like they were going to do.”
“What? No!” The exclamation came out surprisingly high. His mouth twisted into a dismayed grimace, and his voice was lower again as he went on, “Is this how you thank everyone who rescues you?”
Rescues? I blinked. “No one’s ever rescued me before.”
“Well,” he said, slipping the knives he was holding back into their sheaths along his belt, “it looked like you needed the help this time.”
I had needed help plenty of times. That didn’t mean anyone had offered. That was the whole reason I was out here on my own, heading for the border, hoping that I could safely disappear in the neighboring kingdom of Gairal without anyone being the wiser.
But I wasn’t going to tell any of that to a masked stranger, even if he had rescued me.
“I did,” I admitted, then, only a little reluctantly, “thank you. May I know the name of the one who as rescued me?”
“Hm,” he said, sauntering out from the trees and past me, stooping to begin picking up and cleaning the knives left behind by the retreating soldiers. “I guess I’m going by Shadow Blade these days.”
I blinked again. “The Shadow Blade? You?” At the grimace this got me, I corrected, “I mean…I thought the Shadow Blade was just a rumor.”
“Expecting someone bigger, were you?” he asked with wry, nearly bitter humor. “Well, you’re stuck with me.”
“I’m not…complaining,” I said, “just…skeptical.”
He shrugged, sheathing the last knife before turning and coming to stand before me. He really was quite small and slender, unusually so in a man, being not even quite my height.
His eyes were light brown with flecks of gold, bright from behind the mask, strangely captivating. “Is there any other help I can give you?”
Feeling oddly bold, and oddly breathless for reasons I wasn’t quite ready to examine, I said, “I need to get to the border.”
It wasn’t that much further, really, and it seemed unlikely the soldiers would return, but given the state of that patrol there were likely to be other dangers along the way. A guard of my own would be welcome.
“The things you make me do…” he sighed, but his eyes sparkled, and he grinned in apparent good humor. “Very well.”
He tugged off the thick grey gloves and tucked them into his belt, revealing small hands…with magic now sparking gold at his fingertips. Before I could do more than gasp in shock, he stepped forward and pulled me (somehow simultaneously firm and polite) against him.
“Hold on,” that voice, lighter again, murmured in my ear, and in the next instant the world fell away.
When things settled again, what felt like only a long held breath later, we were at the border.
Dizzy, I clung to…to my rescuer for a long moment more. Small, strong hands steadied me when I finally stepped back, still shaky, a state that was not improved by meeting those bright, brown eyes again.
“You…” I whispered, staring.
The Shadow Blade let go of my waist, only to sweep up one of my hands and bow over it. “I have brought you to the border, but you got yourself here, so I thought you might like to take the last steps.”
There was something in those words…some expression lurking half-hidden behind that mask…this Shadow Blade knew more than I would have liked.
But perhaps the feeling was mutual.
“Yes,” I said, instead of anything else. “Yes, thank you.” I bowed correctly, and deliberately turned and marched the last distance to the border marker along the road, which otherwise continued largely unchanged into the rolling hills ahead.
At the very edge, just before I stepped over, I stopped, and turned back one more time.
The Shadow Blade waited in the same place, watching.
“Thank you,” I whispered again, then tore myself away from the sudden, strange reluctance to leave. I faced ahead, stepped over the border, and went on without looking back again.
“…can’t be more than conjecture at best,” Madam Staralon was saying, and I found that my thankfully steady hands were just sliding the last pin into her completed hair style.
The other women chattered on a bit more, but soon moved on to another piece of more interesting local gossip.
“Perfect, as always!” Madam Staralon gushed as I showed her the finished look in the mirror. I thank her for her continued patronage, and she gestured over her maid to handle the payment, which came with the usual generous tip. I bowed them both gratefully out of the salon, and then gladly disappeared into the little back room, knowing that I had a bit of time before my next customer was due in to be styled for a ball taking place this evening.
I sat at the tiny table, crossed my arms on it, and put my head down on them.
Whatever else I did or did not know about the Shadow Blade, I was certain of one thing: she was not a man.
She was not a man…and I could not forget her, no matter how hard I tried. I wanted to blame it on all the constant gossip, but I did not to lie to myself. Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter, because I would never see her again.
I could not forget her.