The town square was crammed with people despite the rain, the mud, the cold, and the grey skies. At the loud beat of a drum, the hubbub ceased and a man stepped onto the dias in one corner of the arena. It was the Chief of legion that had been stationed at the city for the last four months, ever since war had broken out. His shoulders, usually straight with authority and dignity, were slightly bowed. He read out from a scroll with a golden dragon printed behind it – the sign of the King of Morak. A royal declaration.
“Hear, Hear, Hear! The people of Morak are hereby informed that our war with the Kingdom of Bagra has reached its end. The Royal Highness and His court will meet with the Court of Bagra and decide on the terms of Truce.”
There was a stir in the crowd, but the Chief kept going, raising his voice above it all. “It has been revealed that the heinous crime of assassinating our God-Favoured Prince was committed not by the assassins of Bagra, but by parties within the court to instigate war to sell men and weapons and fatten their purses. Your King regrets the failure of his court in being led astray by insidious falsehoods, and the death of the late Lord Counselor who was killed for attempting to expose the corrupt officials. That those responsible for our grievous losses in the war will be rooted out and punished with death is a promise your King makes to you. The transgressors are as follows: Lady Dai, wife of the late Counselor. Lord Gail…”
The crowd cheered as the list was read out, cursing the names of the conspirators. A tall man in the far corner, dressed as plainly as the rest of the crowd and in a broad-brimmed hat to keep the rain from his eyes, allowed himself a moment to soak in the news. Then he slipped into a narrow lane between an inn and the apothecary, taking a shortcut to the bridge where oxcarts pick up fares. He took one as close to the border as it would go – the war may end, but things will remain tense till the terms of peace are established – and walked the remaining few miles to the rendezvous – the last border town of Bagra.
The teahouse on the main road was bustling, no empty tables in sight. He took off his bamboo hat and looked around. A woman sat in the far corner, alone. Their eyes met for a moment before she looked away.
He headed over and slipped into the empty seat across the table from her. “It’s been declared. Names and all.”
She sips her tea carefully. “The right ones?”
“The right ones.”
She smiled wide, the scar at the corner of her eye disappearing amidst her crow’s feet. “Same here. I’ll wager we have about three more days before those dogs start hunting us. Got your coin?”
He nodded, and as she adjusted her travelling cape, got a glimpse of a heavy pouch hanging from her belt. This was where they parted ways, then.
“Where do you go from here?”
She shot him a sharp look. “Why do you ask?”
He shrugged, deciding to shoot his shot. “I don’t have much of a plan, we work well together, and you’re… not bad company.”
After a few solid seconds of staring him down with a poker face, she set the cup down, hefted her satchel over a shoulder and walked away. He sighed in regret, but he wasn’t one to wallow. He should start planning-
“I don’t travel with stragglers,” she called. He whipped around to see her waiting halfway to the door, smirking smugly over her shoulder. “Coming or not?”
Rolling his eyes in exasperation and hiding his smile at the antics, he picked up his bag and jogged to catch up. “May I inquire as to the name of the lady who I’ll be travelling with?” he tried, trying not to sound too hopeful.
With an all-too knowing smile, she held out her hand. “I’m Mei.”
He shook it, allowing himself a smile too. “Vishu.”
Seven nights ago.
The printing house was at the very end of the market street. It was little more than two rooms under a thatched roof, belying how wide a sway their weekly paper held. The place was empty in the night, except for a grey-haired woman behind a table, reading by candlelight. She looked up at the creak of a floorboard, removing her monocle with a sigh. “It’s you.”
The Viper strode over to the desk and dropped two halves of an envelope onto it. The woman went through the papers within. Her brows rose higher with every page, and when she was done, she pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Are you sure about this?”
The Viper gasped, clutching her heart. “Have I ever been wrong?”
The woman sighed, eyeing the papers like one would eye a golden goose. Precious, but utterly terrifying. “It’ll make noise. Enough to trigger an investigation.”
“That’s the point.”
Putting them back in order, the woman crouched and stashed the papers under a floorboard. “Anonymous source, as always?”
“Expect it to be out in tomorrow’s pages.”
The Viper shot her a grin. “See you around, then,” she said, before vanishing back into the market’s crowd.
Eight nights ago.
“The infamous Viper,” crowed the Chancellor. His gold and gemstone-addled fingers ran along the seams of the sealed envelope, glinting in the firelight, but his eyes were fixed on the black figure before him. “With your reputation, I would’ve expected this to reach me last night. Have you slowed?”
“The Shadow was after it too,” the Viper said. “My tracks had to be covered more meticulously than usual.”
“You beat the Shadow! To your work-” the Chancellor rose from his seat and picked up the glass set before him. Wine swirled dark against the pale silver as he raised it in a toast . “-which will ensure our victory in the war. You made sure our brave Lord Financier’s life was not lost in vain. Bagra thanks you, Viper.”
The words echoed in the hall as the half-a-dozen or so ministers in there followed his lead. The Viper bowed her head and waited for the useless praise to end before asking, voice clear through her night-black mask. “My fee?”
The Chancellor’s winning smile curled into something more cunning. “Practical, are we?” He waved to an attendant, who scurried forward with a fat pouch on a gold platter. Only years of experience kept her from wrinkling her nose at the disgusting display of excess. He hefted it, jiggling the bag so the gold inside clinked. Probably was meant to be tempting or something. “It’s rather heavy. You will forgive us if we verify first, yes?”
She clenched her hands tight behind her back, inclined her head in agreement. With a paperknife – of pearl-studded gold, of course – the Chancellor cut through the wax seal carrying the pattern of a Lotus ringed with vines, and opened it. Her heart pounded in her ears as he went through, sheaf after sheaf, passing the pages to the others as he finished going over them.
Setting down the last one, he watched her with a hawk’s gaze. There hadn’t been a staring contest she’d lost so far, and she wouldn’t lose this one. Finally, he smiled, gathering the papers and dropping them into the brazier flanking his throne. The smell of burning paper filled the room. A palpable wave of relief rolled through the court.
He tossed her the pouch of gold. “Good job, Viper. We hope you can work for us again.”
When she walked out of the Chancellor’s palace, it was with a smile under her mask and the thrill of danger singing her veins. You’ll eat your words in a day or two.
She made sure nobody followed her. Shedding the black robe and mask before entering the marketplace, she found her way to the printing house in the far end of the street.
Nine nights ago.
“So you are the one they keep talking about. Shadow.” The Counselor’s wife glanced between him and the window he’d slipped through. “Living up to your name, I see,
The Shadow bowed to her briefly before holding out the package. “The papers you requested, my lady.”
She took it from him, fingers running over the lines of the lotus and vines pressed into the waxen seal, before putting it out to him again. “If you will, Shadow.”
Such dramatics. He keeps the thought to himself and obediently produces one of the knives in his sleeve, slitting the paper open. While she pulled out the contents and glanced over them, Shadow prayed to whatever god oversaw sabotage, just in case.
“You’ve done well. Even if delayed.”
He bows in apology, heart jumping at the mention. “I had to evade the Viper.”
“So that’s who they sent…” The lady sighed and turned to him with a gentle smile, brimming with gratitude, head held high. “I’ve heard of the Viper of late. But I do not know much about these things. What I know is that you’ve been of great service to Morak, Shadow. You’ve brought me that which my husband died trying to prove. There is little left for me now, other than to finish what he started.”
The Shadow listened quietly. She turned away at the end, raising a sleeve to dab her eyes, before turning back to him. “This” -she held up the papers- “will win us the war, once the King sees it. It is what he wished for. I thank you.”
He inclined his head in thanks and waited. The smell of incense was suffocatingly heavy here. A fire was blazing in the hearth, and it was starting to get hot under the mask covering the lower half of his face. When he said nothing, she turned to a cupboard and picked out a nondescript looking pouch. He accepted it, made sure the gold was all there, and with a bow, he left the way he came.
As he crouched in a blind spot under the window’s ledge, deep in the shadow, he heard the Counselor’s wife look out to make sure he was, in fact, really gone. She went back in, reassured, and a minute later the smell of burning paper drifted out on the night breeze.
She had burnt it.
He picked his way back to town amongst the shadows.
Eleven nights ago.
The Shadow sat in the back of the dingy little shed of a pub, sipping on lukewarm tea to thaw the cold from his bones. A decade and a half of blending in anywhere, being as nondescript as possible, necessitated a calm, patient temperament. He never fidgeted, no matter how extreme the odds.
Except today. He caught himself drumming his fingers against the bamboo rim of his hat which was laid down on the table. After about two minutes of stillness, he couldn’t stand it anymore, and pulled out the shabby, roughly torn piece of paper from an inner pocket again. It had appeared, slipped under his door mere hours ago.
Laying it out on the table, he couldn’t help admiring the clever, if hasty, execution. Lines crissed and crossed and curved and wound. Ink blotches of varying sizes lay along them. It was an utter mess. And to an eye that was used to watching ceaselessly from atop rooftops, it was a fairly detailed, accurate lay of the town.
It was all in black,except for the singular blotch of rusty red in the least populous part of town, which he had followed. It had led him here, a musty old place that nobody bothered with.
Impressive, by itself. And amusing, paired with the fact that the other side of the paper was torn from a shopping list that included immense amounts of candy.
“Never thought that my first glimpse of the Shadow’s real face would be him smiling.” The woman who walked in came alone, wrapped in a thick, well worn cloak of black. The map wasn’t signed, but he knew who to expect after last night’s fiasco.
The Shadow called for another pot of tea, not making the mistake to take his eyes off her as she sat across from him. The Viper moved easily as always, the strength she was capable of barely showing, but there was something tense about it. She was never tense.
The pale scar at the corner of her eyes looked small when he could see all of her face and not just the eyes.Which now curious and sharp, fixed on him. “You came. Have you been waiting long?”
“Not at all,” he waved it away politely. “Congratulations.”
She tilted her head, puzzled.
He folded his hands on the table. “On beating me last night.”
She scowled. “The most renown spymasters in the land, and we ended up playing the worst game of tug of war with our target. I don’t think either of us accomplished anything close to a ‘win’.”
It was his turn to frown. “I’m sure you’ve already destroyed your half. If you’re hoping I’ll hand over the other without a fight, you’re mistaken.”
“I see you haven’t looked at your half yet,” she muttered bitterly, reaching into the folds of her robes. He stilled in place, tracking the movement warily.
“Relax,” She pulled something out and dropped it on the table between them. “I won’t bite.”
He would’ve said something about finding that hard to believe, but he was too busy gaping at what she’d just put between them. It was one half of a thick envelope, one edge roughly torn, rendering the slightly chipped seal useless. It remained intact, though, the shape of a lotus wreathed with vines pressed into it.
He looked up at her, trying to read what the hell she meant by this. But her poker face was infuriatingly good. She nodded towards it, like it was a plate of cookies she was offering him. “I know you won’t believe a thing I say till you read it. Go on.”
This was not making sense in so many ways. “Why isn’t it destroyed yet? Isn’t that your job?”
Her face darkened. “I was never asked to destroy anything. Only to deliver this at all costs. Unopened.”
“I was told it carries proof incriminating Bagra’s King in the assassination of our Chancelor. Why would you, a Bagran-hired spy, save it?”
With an exasperated sigh, she pushed the envelope to him. “Stop thinking so hard, you beanpole, and just read. You’ll give me another headache.”
He pulled out the half-torn pages within, skimming over them as quickly as possible. The weight in his chest increased as the implications of every half-line sank in. When he finished, he set it down and pulled out the other half, just in case. To make sure.
The same paper, complimentary patterns of tear. They fit together perfectly.
The Viper looked at him, the most honest she’d been so far. “I’m sure you don’t appreciate being lied to. We can help each other.”
He took a few slow, deep breaths to keep his calm, and arranged the two halves’ pages till they were whole again. She pulled her chair around to his side and started reading with him, and really, what reason did they have to suspect each other anymore? They’d both been duped.
“They told me it’s proof that your lot killed our Financier,” she said with a scoff.
“By ‘they’, I presume you mean the corrupt faction of your Bagran court which is fueling the war to sell arms to both sides and fill their pockets. The ones who killed our Counselor for gathering all this evidence against them.”
She laughed coldly. “There’s more than just them in these papers. What about the leeches in your court? They had your Prince assassinated and had everyone fooled, blaming Bagra for it and instigating the war. They’re lining their pockets with profit too.”
They sat in silence for a moment, glaring at each other. He cracked first, still reeling a little from the barrage of new information. “Why are we acting like we actually belong to either side? There’s dogs on both sides of the fence.”
“It’s enough, right?” She asked abruptly, reaching the end of the last page a few lines earlier than he did. “Enough to kill all these dogs. To end the war.” He watched her carefully, recognising the fierce determination, feeling it in his own bones. It was not cold or calculated. It was burning. “We can help each other,” she insisted, hopeful. “I have a plan, and your past skills in forging seals will be of use.”
He blinked. “How do you know about that?”
“I know everything,” she answered with a wink, and he shook his head. Hopeless.
“We’re spies, not heroes,” he reminded her.
With a smile that had no right being as excited or challenging as it was, she bumped their shoulders together. “Are you admitting you can’t manage both?”
Well, he’d always been bad at turning down a challenge.
Three months ago.
“Why is it that we always meet on rooftops?”
She smiled to herself and relied on her mask to hide it. “Shadow,” she greeted curtly.
“Viper.” He usually sounded ludicrously calm and peaceful, for someone who’d probably just sabotaged an entire battalion’s battle plans. But there’s an edge to his voice today.
“What’s got your goat?” she asked, taking him in more carefully with a sidelong glance. Nondescript black clothes, topped with that ridiculous bamboo hat as always. His mask was the slightest bit askew, though, and he hadn’t righted it. Hm.
Just when she thought he’d never answer, he asked, “Have you ever seen a battlefield?”
Ah. “I was in one. Years ago.” After considering it for a bit, she turns to him properly. “Was this your first time?”
He said nothing, which was answer enough. They watched the city lights in silence till he spoke again.
“If one side wins, it ends, right?”
“That’s one way to do it.”
“We could work together,” he said, not quite looking at her. “Help one side and make sure they win.”
She shook her head. “I work for the highest bidder.”
“How can you know how war is and still stay aloof?” he asked, voice stinging cold as ice. She had a feeling he did that only to keep it from shaking, but it was presumptuous enough to annoy.
“I never pick sides,” she replied, amping up the careless breeziness of her voice in the way that always annoyed him. “It’s too much responsibility.”
There was silence while she waited for him to quietly storm off.
Instead, he said, “Can you do me a favour?” His voice had gone back to the usual, placid tone.
“What do you want?”
“In case… In case our paths never cross again–” He hesitated for a second and she saw what he really meant. If the war takes one or both of our lives. “Will you tell me your name if I tell you mine?”
She stared, thankful for her mask because it hid how her mouth dropped at the question. It’s strange, how the moment he said it, she understood why. Nobody would know or remember them. They might as well do it for each other when they could. Before it was too late.
But she had never been one for tragic goodbyes.
“Ask me again the next time we meet without a war to survive,” she told him, walking backwards along the ridge of the roof, away from him. “Maybe I’ll tell you then!”
With that, she dropped off the edge and vanished into the night.
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