As far as 11yo Tiff Murdoch was concerned, the Free City of New Haven was like a gigantic stew.
Specifically, it was like the stew that Tiff and her mother had once made when money was especially tight and all they had left in the larder were a few varied scraps of leftovers of questionable edibility. Deciding that there was no way to make any actual proper meal from the mess, the two had decided that the best option was to stew it all together and hope that the final product wouldn’t taste too disgusting.
The results were… interesting, to say the least.
A mix of flavours, of all different types of kinds, all mushed together into a single dish. Some of the flavours melded perfectly, others not so much, but were still ultimately edible, even if you had to hold your nose and think nice thoughts while you tried to swallow it.
Yes, the Free City was a lot like that stew, except with Gifted people instead of ingredients. Different cultures and views and Gifts all mushed together in a single boiling pot and forced to get along for a greater good and to avoid being killed, persecuted, enslaved or thrown out with the trash.
However, while most of the stew that Tiff and her mother shared was still vaguely edible, there were certain bits that were not. Chunks of bone, gristle and a weirdly-shaped pebble that Tiff and her mother weren’t entirely sure how exactly it got in there, but needed to be removed all the same before someone choked or chipped a tooth or something.
And so people were needed to dip their hands into the danger that was the piping hot stew and remove the inedible chunks of villainy. Knights of Freedom, or Free Knights if you will, who defended the sanctity of the stewpot and the freedom of people to enjoy it without potential choking hazards ruining their experience.
But sometimes those Free Knights needed help. Not with, y’know, the actually difficult or dangerous stuff. But with really minor things like making sure their armour was polished or their horses were saddled or that there was food available, aside from the stew obviously. What they needed was some child to help them, a Sidekick if you will, who could go and handle the minor things while the Free Knights were busy with more important things like stopping other people from stealing bits of the stew or-
“Okay, Imma going to stop you right there, Tiff.” Dane said, chewing on a bit of jerky. “That might actually be the worst analogy I’ve ever heard.”
“What?!” Tiff’s eyes widened in genuine and righteous indignation. “What the hell are youse talking about? My analogy was great!” She waved her arms in the air. “There were so many complex elements! And layers!”
“In a stew?” Dane pointed out. “Stews don’t have layers, Tiff. Not unless you mix them really really badly.”
“That’s not the point.” Tiff insisted. “The layers are not real layers. They’re metaphonical!”
“Metaphorical,” corrected Jormun, the third of their little trio, looking up from where he’d been absentmindedly drawing on the ground with a stick. “I think the word is metaphorical.”
“Nuh uh!” Tiff shook her head. “It’s definitely metaphonical. Trust me, I know. Andi told me and she’s read almost every book ever made.”
Jormun hesitated slightly. His scaly face seemed to light up in a slight blush. “W-Well, I guess I’ll take your word for it, Tiff.”
Tiff’s face lit up and she gave Dane a grin that was both triumphant and smug in equal measure.
“Still think your analogy sucks.” Dane shrugged, taking another bite of jerky.
The smugness vanished.
“Nobody cares what you think, Scruff.” Tiff scowled, taking off her horned helmet and running a hand through a mop of sandy-coloured hair. “You didn’t even know what an analogy was until I explained it to you.”
“Yeah, but you kept calling it an ana-loogie until Sir Daring corrected you.” Dane pointed out. “So I bet you don’t really know what one is either.” He took another bite of jerky. “And I don’t meant that metaphonically.”
“I’m not entirely sure either of you know how an analogy works.” Jormun muttered under his breath. Unfortunately, his voice wasn’t quite as low as he had intended and both heads quickly swiveled towards him.
“Does that mean you agree with me then, Jormun?” Dane said with a wolfish grin. “Do you think that Tiff’s analogy sucks?”
“That wasn’t what I said.” Jormun said quickly.
“But you’re not denying it…” Dane pointed out.
Jormun winced slightly. But he still didn’t refute Dane’s claims.
Tiff turned to him, a look of slowly dawning horror crossing her face. “Jormun… You don’t mean…”
“Sorry Tiff.” Jormun sank in on himself. “But it’s not great?”
Tiff flinched back, clutching her hands to her chest. To think she would suffer such a traitorous betrayal from her closest friend and ally!
“I mean, the beginning bit was fine!” Jormun quickly hurried to explain himself, “The stuff about the different ingredients representing different peoples and cultures was all great. …But you kinda began to lose me a bit when the Free Knights showed up. And when you brought the Sidekicks into it…”
Dane decided to sum up for him. “Basically, it sucked and you suck too.”
Jormun turned bright red. “Hey, I didn’t say that!’
“You did metaphonically though.”
“That’s not what metaphorical means!”
Tiff meanwhile, was still fuming with righteous indignation at her genius analogy being underappreciated. “Yeah, well you know the funny thing about stews? They get ruined if you put dog turds in them. Like you guys.” She folded her arms and nodded to herself. “And that’s the most metaphonical thing of all…”
“…Who puts a dog turd in a stew?”
“YOU ARE THE DOG TURD, DANE!”
The conversation quickly devolved into squabbling after that.
Now, one may be somewhat forgiven for wondering why exactly three 11 year-old children were currently sitting in the middle of a mostly empty street of huge glass houses, wearing strange costumes and arguing about metaphors and stews.
The simple answer was that Tiff, Dane and Jormund- or, to use their respective codenames of Scrapper, Scruff and Scales- were all sidekicks to various Free Knights in the city of New Haven. Which was basically the equivalent of being a squire, albeit with a fancier title and a Gifted power to boot.
As for the glass houses, that was because they were currently stuck guarding the perimeter during a Free Knight raid in the Fractured District of New Haven. Apparently word had gotten round that bunch of spies loyal to Gier’s Empire had set up a small secret outpost in the most roughshod part of the city to run their illegal deeds. Sir Daring, the Free Knight Captain in the area, had set up an operation to clear them out and the three sidekicks had been dragged along for the ride. And then deposited on the side of the road while the adults did the actual important stuff.
Okay, maybe that was a little harsh. In theory, guarding the perimeter was indeed a fairly important job. After all, years of living in the Fractured District herself (albeit on the safer border zones) had taught Tiff that the streets in this area could be dangerous and potentially prone to attack. Setting up a perimeter, both to discourage normal people away from the raid and to keep a look out for potential threats, was incredibly important.
In practice though, it was boring as hell. Especially for three kids who never exactly could be called ‘patient’ to begin with.
“Hey Tiff,” Jormun noted as the sandy-haired girl stretched out her back. “I think your belt’s coming loose.”
“Huh?” Tiff blinked and looked down. Indeed the multi-coloured leather ‘thing’ she technically called a belt was beginning to go slack and slip free. “Oh, thanks Jormun.” She frowned and pulled it tighter, before tying off the edges in a firm knot.
“You know, you really ought to think about getting a new one of those.” Dane said. “Your current belt is ancient as shit. I keep thinking it’s going to snap any day.”
“Aw, it’s fine.” Tiff waved him off. “Besides…” She grinned, held her breath and stuck her hand into the floor, phasing it through the cobblestones and wiggling it about. “Can your belt let you do this?”
“No.” Dane admitted, somewhat unimpressed. “But it can hold my trousers up.”
“Mine can do that too!” Tiff protested. She paused. “Most of the time.”
“Well, my belt is a snake.” Jormun said nonchalantly. “So I’ve got no problems there.”
That got the attention of both of his fellows.
“What, like literally?” Dane asked, giving him an odd look.
“Yeah.” Jormun nodded. He gestured to his tunic where, now that Tiff had a better look, she realised a small brown snake was indeed wrapped around his waist, keeping his clothes attached. “My father says it’s a good way of practising my control in non-combat environments.”
“Huh.” Tiff said. “I don’t know if that’s really awesome or really creepy.”
“Or both.” Dane agreed. The boy thought a moment. “Do you think I could do the same with one of my dogs?”
“Wait, you mean wear one as a belt?!” Tiff said incredulously.
“Yeah.” Dane nodded.
“I don’t think they’d really fit, would they?” Jormun said, a mixture of curiosity and horror in his tone.
“I dunno about that.” Dane said. “I got a few strays that might be able to fit the bill.”
Tiff let out a harrumph and puffed her chest out. “Well, if you’re going to wear a dog as a belt, I’m going to go and find a grizzly bear and use that as a belt instead.”
That got her skeptical looks from both of her friends.
“Are you sure that’s wise, Tiff?” Jormun asked.
“Gotta second Scales here on that one.” Dane said. “Pretty sure a grizzly bear would crush you if you tried to wear it.” He looked her up and down. “Because… y’know, you’re really tiny.”
“I’d grow into it!” Tiff insisted. “And I’m not that small, Dane!”
“Eh.” Dane shrugged. “Matter of opinion.”
“Well well well.” A sudden voice cut through the ‘heated discussion. “If it isn’t the Three Suckers. Having a good time lazing about, losers?”
Instantly the casualness and good humour of the situation vanished. Tiff hid her scowl as she turned to face the newcomer. Or, to be more precise, newcomers.
The boy approaching was about the same age as the three sidekicks, with coal-black hair, pale skin and an irritating smirk on his face. He was dressed in a loose cloak with the sigil of a black cat displayed prominently. Four of his sycophants, regular unpowered squires close to his own age, were flanking him, two on each side.
“The hell do you want, Littleshade?” Tiff scowled.
The boy’s smirk disappeared. “That’s Swiftshade to you, Scrapper.”
“Yeah, well, it’s Littleshade to everyone else, Littleshade.” Dane shot back, resting his hands behind his head. “Got a problem with that?”
Alito ‘Littleshade’ Scuria snarled at the three of them and his mooks stepped forward threateningly. Or, you know, at least as threateningly as you could when you were 11 and ungifted and really not all that physically threatening either. Tiff was fairly sure she could beat them all with one arm tied behind her back and without using her Craftworks to boot.
“Well, it’s not my fault if your stupid worm-ridden brain doesn’t remember it, Scruff.” Littleshade scowled. “Maybe if you spent less time hanging around dogs and more time around civilised people, you wouldn’t be so dumb.”
“Hey!” Dane said with a growl, getting to his feet. “Don’t call my friends ‘dogs’!”
“Yeah!” Tiff agreed.
“Um… I’m pretty sure he was referring to your actual dogs, Dane, not us.” Jormun pointed out.
“Oh.” Dane paused. “…Well in that case, don’t insult my dogs!”
Honestly, Tiff and her trio had never really gotten along with Alito Scuria. The boy was an exile from the Dynasty of Stochelia, driven to New Haven after his family had backed the wrong side in the brief Scurio Family’s civil war and had been forced out by the new family head, Voidshade. Of course, said exiling had actually happened several years before Alito was even born, but it wasn’t like that ever stopped him from acting like he owned the place.
That said, despite not getting along with him all that much, Tiff couldn’t really say she hated Alito. Honestly, she felt more pity than annoyance towards him most days. From what she’d heard about from Goose, Voidshade had cemented his position as the Scurio Family Head firmly enough that it seemed unlikely he’d ever be overthrown like Alito and his family dreamed, meaning they’d probably never be invited back to their homeland. Alito had bravado, yes, but that was about all he had, especially since, for all his boasting of lordly heritage, he was still stuck living in the Fractured District like all of Haven’s less fortunate citizens.
That said, most of the pity she had was offset by the fact that he was still kind of a prick.
“Seriously though, Littleshade,” Jormun said, attempting to play peacekeeper. “Is there something you actually want or are you just here to be a stuck-up jerk? Because I don’t want this to turn into a fight.”
“Hah!” Littleshade puffed out his chest in a show of bravado. “You Fractured District punks think you can really take us in a fight? I’d like to see you try.”
That was certainly a tempting invitation, but Tiff managed to force down her urge to accept it. If she got into another fight while on duty, Sir Daring would ream her out so hard that her grandchildren would end up feeling scolded.
“But if you must know,” Littleshade continued, “we got ordered to help maintain the perimeter around here, while my father and the other Free Knights carry out their raid. Since Sir Daring obviously doesn’t trust you dunces to do a good enough job by your lonesome.”
More like he wanted to keep you and your minions out of the way, Tiff thought to herself. Sir Daring wasn’t fond of letting sidekicks or squires take part in important missions. Even she didn’t get to go on any serious raids with the Free Knight Captain and she was, in theory, his actual sidekick. Usually she was just sent to secure the perimeter, keep civilians from getting involved and capture any bad guys who somehow managed to slip past the initial assault.
(Not that the last one happened very often.)
While Daring had explained the logic behind it to her enough times, not wanting to risk an untrained child either getting hurt or screwing up the assault somehow, Tiff couldn’t help but feel frustrated at being forced to sit on the sidelines so often. It was just so boring, even with her friends around to lighten the burden. Besides which, she’d been in enough risky fights just growing up in the Fractured District to hold her own in a serious battle.
Still, she couldn’t just disobey an order from her liege, no matter how tempting it was. And if she complained, Daring would just find a bunch of menial tasks for her to do instead, like washing his windows or something. The Knight Captain was fairly strict and had high demanding standards for his sidekick.
(Then again, she couldn’t really complain too much. After all, the pay was good and she occasionally picked up some good fighting tips from him.)
“Alright, neat,” she said, leaning back. “You go patrol the area over there somewhereish. We’ll sit back and keep this place under guard.”
Littleshade frowned. His minions murmured among themselves. “And if I said we wanted to stay here and think that you should go off patrolling?”
Tiff shrugged. “I’d tell you to shove off ‘cause we were here first.”
“I’d second that shoving off.” Dane said with a grin.
Littleshade’s eyes narrowed.
“Come on guys.” Jormun said, stepping between the two groups, hand raised in peace. “Are we really going to start a fight over a ssstupid s-seat?”
“Maybe we are, sa-sa-sa-snake.” Littleshade said, mocking Jormun’s tone. “Getting sa-sa-sa-scared? Your little speech impediment is showing.”
Jormun blushed and his hands instinctively slapped over his mouth. Tiff’s eyes narrowed. That was a low blow from Littleshade and he knew it. Jormun had always been incredibly self-conscious about his snake-like speech impediment. He did his best to hide it, but it always poked through when he was feeling incredibly self-conscious.
“Don’t be a shit, Littleshade.” She said, stepping in front of Jormun protectively. In the corner of her eye, she could see Dane doing the same.
“Then stop calling me ‘Littleshade’, Scrapper.” Littleshade snarled back, his eyes darting between the two. Tiff could tell from the sweat on his brow he was starting to get the impression that he’d pushed a little too far. He didn’t want a fight any more than they did. But as long as his minions were here, he couldn’t back down without looking weak.
It was a tense standoff. Littleshade’s minions had begun to spread out, ready to attack if a fight broke out. Tiff could see Dane shifting slightly to face them. Fur was already beginning to spread across his body in preparation. Jormun still didn’t look comfortable with this fight, but he began to call up some of his snakes. Tiff knew that they were both just waiting for her word to attack.
Directly across from her, she could see Littleshade trembling slightly. She’d guessed right, he really didn’t want to do this. His Gift was more inclined towards fast movement and transportation than outright fighting and even with his minions, he didn’t have nearly enough people to make this an easy fight. Tiff, Dane and Jormun all had better fighting skills and more appropriate Gifts for combat than Littleshade. It would be an easy stomp.
Tiff licked her lips and felt her fists clench. She could practically feel her body shouting at her to make the first move. To plant a solid fist in his face and beat the arrogant snot until he apologised. It would be so easy and so so satisfying.
However, it was ultimately that feeling that forced her to stop. Because that wasn’t her. That was his blood talking. And listening to his blood was the last thing that she ever wanted.
Shit. Guess I gotta do the mature thing.
“Alright, fine.” She said, relaxing her shoulders. “We’ll go on patrol instead. You can wait here and bore your asses off.”
Like a inflated bag pierced by an dart, the tension immediately began to deflate on both sides. Jormun looked fairly happy at the idea that this wouldn’t come to blows, never having been fond of violence. Dane didn’t seem to visibly disapprove of her decision, but Tiff could tell by his posture that he still kinda wanted to bust some heads. Littleshade, on the other hand, could barely hide the relief that engulfed his little form as he released the breath he’d been holding.
“Good. Glad you could see sense, Scrapper.” He said, puffing his chest out proudly.
“Don’t know what you’re boasting about.” Tiff said, picking up her stuff with a sigh. “You’re going to be the one Sir Daring will chew out if anyone manages to get past here.”
It was a weak comeback and she knew it, but honestly she wasn’t in the mood for any further sniping. Already most of the anger had left her, leaving only a slightly numbness. She just wanted to get her friends, find a new spot and then get back to talking about stuff.
“Hah, don’t worry about that.” Littleshade seemed to be revelling in his apparent victory. “There isn’t a Gifted alive who could get past us.”
“Sure, whatever.” Tiff muttered as she shoved past him, Dane and Jormun following closely behind.
That really should’ve been the end of it. But, unfortunately, Littleshade couldn’t help but throw one last comment.
“Good to see you have more sense than your loony mother, Scrapper.”
Tiff stopped mid-step. The temperature of the street suddenly seemed to drop several degrees.
“…Oh shit.” Dane said in a hushed whisper. “He went there.”
Jormun let out a sharp hiss and ran a hand down his face. “This is not going to end well.”
Tiff didn’t seem to register their words. Instead, she slowly turned back towards Littleshade, her face almost stone-like in its intensity.
“What,” she said slowly, “did you just say about my mother?”
To his credit, Littleshade seemed to realise that he might’ve just put his foot in it. Unfortunately, whether it was down to simple pride, bravado or just plain fear, he didn’t quite have the common sense to back down and apologise, even in the face of Tiff’s glower.
“What?” He said, trying to keep the tremble from his voice. “Are you trying to tell me that it’s not true? That your mother isn’t a massive brain-damaged imbecile?”
Tiff visibly twitched. Her fists were clenched so white, you could almost see the bones poking through.
“…oh man.” Dane said, shaking his head. “It was nice knowing you, Littleshade. This is going to be such a fucking mess.”
“What?” Littleshade seemed frightfully confused at why the tension had suddenly rocketed up several degrees, higher than it had even been before. “What the hell are you talking about? I can take this brat.”
“Tiff…” Tiff could feel Jormun’s hand on her shoulder. “Maybe we should-”
“It’s alright, Jormun.” Tiff gave him a sweet smile. “This won’t take long.”
Then she threw a right hook that knocked Littleshade to the ground and shattered his jaw.
Things devolved into chaos from there.
In spite of its relative youth, the Free City of New Haven was a fairly unique thing.
For one, i wasn’t technically a city. Calling it a ‘Free Island’ would probably have been a much better description. It was located in a large circular island located not too far off the coast of the Gifted-hating Formica, of all places. Centuries ago, it had been considered completely uninhabitable for any normal civilisation. The strong tides smashed ships and boats against its rocky reefs and the ground was too rocky and untamed to consider growing crops of any kind on. The island was large, yes, and easily defensible but those were about the only advantages it had. It was certainly no place that a normal person could call home.
However, that was a theory that didn’t take the existence of Gifted into account. Nor the willpower of Leonidas, the man that people would later call ‘The Lion King of Haven’.
It was around 40 years ago that Leonidas arrived at the nameless island with a handful of Gifted that he’d befriended. Where he came from or how he got there was a mystery that the man himself kept to this day, but that wasn’t the important part. The important part was what he decided to build there.
A city. Specifically, a city for Gifted.
See, it wasn’t exactly easy to be a Gifted at that time. Or, more specifically, a Gifted of low-to-middling ability. Certainly, the big names could all largely afford to throw their weight around and do what they wanted (as long as they didn’t go far enough to draw the attention or ire of a bigger name), but the smaller Gifted? Ones who couldn’t shrug off arrows, couldn’t overpower thugs, didn’t have a power that helped defend themselves or their family? They were usually pressganged into service by whoever grabbed them first. Kings, Lords, other stronger Gifted, even normal people if they were particularly unlucky. While the big players duelled over Kingdoms, the smaller Gifted were left as mere fodder for the ambitions of others.
That was where Leonidas’s city came in. His city would be a city for Gifted, run by Gifted, populated by Gifted (and a few normals) and a place where Gifted of any kind could live their lives free and in peace and without a constant sword hovering over their heads. And that city would be called New Haven, named after the old hall where the Order of Heroes used to gather back in the Golden Age of Gifted.
Needless to say, it caught on fairly well.
Admittedly, it wasn’t solely the idea of a safe place for Gifted that made it so popular. The city had numerous other advantages to boot. The Harvest Towers provided huge amounts of food for its populace, housing was plentiful thanks to the abilities of Glassworker, who could create an entire street of inhabitable hardened glass houses within a day, the Four Pillars defended the city from any outside threat, while the Guardsman and the Free Knights diligently policed it from within. Plus the city had an entire fleet of skyships built to bolster easy trade across the continent.
It was little wonder that, in spite of its relative youth and lack of territory, New Haven was considered a rising presence in the current world order.
Unfortunately, the bigger and bigger New Haven grew, the more and more eyes turned towards it. Some considered of little importance, but many others considered it a threat or a potential treasure trove just waiting to be plundered. And while the city itself was far too fortified and well-defended to storm so easily (as the disastrous Battle of Four Pillars proved nearly 10 years previous), that didn’t stop enemies from often attempting to sabotage it from within.
After all, a city filled with Gifted was a very tempting target for some…
There were few things Tiff feared in life more than black curtains.
Well, okay, that was a little misleading. There were plenty of things that Tiff feared more than a simple pair of coloured curtains. Cutthroats, illnesses, wasps, monsters, Scruff getting fleas, Jormun’s father when he got ‘enthusiastic’ about something and so on. But one particular pair of black curtains scared her more than any others.
Why? Because those curtains hung in the study of Sir Daring, the Free Knight Captain to whom she was squired and he only ever drew them shut if he was particularly angry.
They were shut now. And, judging from the look on his face right now, Sir Daring was very pissed off indeed.
“Scrapper.” Daring said, his voice dangerously bland. “I trust you understand why you’re here?”
Tiff fiddled with the bracelets that hung around her wrist. For a moment, she considered playing ignorant, but she got the impression that Sir Daring really wasn’t in the mood for jokes right now. And quite frankly, she needed every inch of good will she could get if she wanted to make it through this meeting unscathed.
“The fight.” Daring repeated tonelessly. He leaned forward on his desk, his fingers intertwined. “Tell me, Scrapper, when I left you and your friends to embark on yesterday’s raid, what were my precise instructions?”
Tiff winced. “To help keep the perimeter. To turn any normal citizens away and out of danger. And…” She hesitated.
“And?” Daring motioned for her to continued.
Tiff reluctantly squeezed the words out. “…not to cause trouble.”
“Correct. Not… to cause… trouble.” Daring rolled the words around in his tongue. “So tell me Scrapper, what exactly do you call starting a fight with your fellow squire while others are in the midst of a sensitive and important mission?”
Tiff’s wince grew stronger. Yeah, he was definitely pissed. “…Trouble?”
“Mmhm.” Daring leaned back in his chair and fixed her with a seething stare. “That’s certainly one way of putting it.”
For a moment, Tiff considered trying to place the blame on Littleshade, to protest that it was his fault, that he had started it, but she knew deep down that it wasn’t true. Sure, Littleshade had been an annoying little shit, but it was she who had thrown the first punch. She who had fucked up. And she knew that Daring knew that just as well as she did.
“At least I didn’t use my Punchy Punchy Gauntlets?” She said, attempting to lighten the mood.
“No.” Daring said tonelessly. “You merely broke Swiftshade’s jaw in response to a childish insult, requiring an emergency transport to a healer’s bay in the middle of a dangerous part of town and the expertise of a White Tower Gifted to fix the damage.”
Tiff winced. That really didn’t make things sound any better, did it? Daring was right, she really had fucked up badly.
“I’m sorry.” She said in a small voice. “It’s just Lit- Swiftshade… He insulted my mum…”
If she was expecting that to lessen Daring’s gaze any, she was fresh out of luck. If anything, his glare seemed to grow even more intense.
After a moment’s pause, he spoke. “You know I’d be within my rights to have you publicly flogged for this? Some would even call it a reasonable punishment.”
Tiff bit into her lip to keep it from quivering. Public floggings were rare, but she’d known a few sidekicks who had gotten the lash after fucking up particularly badly. It wasn’t really a crowd she was eager to join.
It also wasn’t an option she’d entirely blame Daring for taking. She knew how rocky his position was among the Free Knights. As the youngest to make Knight Captain in a decade, he was under particular scrutiny and his sidekick fucking things up was exactly the sort of thing that would reflect badly on him. In that regard, she could entirely understand why he’d want to go for such an obvious punishment.
Daring let her stew under his gaze for a few moments, before he spoke again.
“Fortunately for you, I’m not the sort of man who likes having little girls whipped for their mistakes.”
A relieved sigh escaped unbidden from Tiff’s lips.
“So instead, I’m going to confiscate your pay for the next month.”
Tiff’s eyes widened as the panic returned hundredfold. The words escaped her mouth before she even realised it. “No! Sir, you can’t!”
Daring paused. “…I… Can’t?”
Tiff sucked in a sharp breath. Shit, she really could’ve phrased that better. “I didn’t mean- What I meant was-?”
There was a deafening bang as Daring slammed his hands on the table, causing Tiff to jump. “Scrapper, I don’t think you understand just how badly you fucked up. If any of Gier’s men had made it onto the streets… if your fight had gotten enough out of hand that I’d been forced to pull men back… if you had distracted someone at a critical point, then people could’ve died!”
Daring took a couple of deep breaths to calm himself.
“Look, Scrapper, I know you’re young and headstrong and the Fractured District is no place for a child to grow up,” he continued, “but you need to learn that these actions have consequences. Serious ones. And, compared to a public flogging, I think docking a month’s pay is a very lenient punishment inde-“
Tiff’s voice interrupted him before he could finish. “I’ll take the flogging.”
Daring blinked, caught off guard for the first time in the conversation. “I’m sorry?”
“The flogging.” Tiff said firmly. “I’ll take that instead.” Determination shone through in her eyes. “It’s only what, 12 lashes? I can take that. I can take that easy. Hell, I’ve been in street fights that’ll probably hurt less.” She tried to hide the quaver of fear in her voice.
Daring stared at her for a moment. The anger had bled from his face, leaving only confusion. “You… You want the flogging?”
“I can take the flogging.” Tiff said. “But if you cut off this month’s pay…” Her teeth clenched. “Me and my ma aren’t doing great for money right now… I need this job so we don’t get kicked out onto the streets.” Her attempts to keep a stiff lip began to crack. “My ma… she can’t live on the streets. You know that.”
Daring’s face softened. He ran a hand down his exhausted face.
“I hadn’t realised you were in that bad a state.” He admitted, slumping back into his chair. “But you still need punishment for what you did…” After a moment’s thought, he seemed to come to a decision. “I’m still going to dock you your pay. But-!” He raised a hand before Tiff could protest. “I’ll also get you a few shifts working in the Crafter’s District. I already know you have a few extra jobs in your spare time, so that should tide you over until your next payday.”
‘Barely,’ was what Tiff wanted to say. But she could see in Daring’s expression that he wasn’t going to be moved on this and pushing harder might only convince him to take away that lifeline.
The fact was, it was going to have to do.
“Wow.” Jormun said when the three friends met up later that day. “You both look like shit.”
“Mghgm.” Dane grumbled as he held a damp washcloth to a particularly nasty looking bruise forming on his eye.
“Hmgmh.” Tiff concurred, leaning back as she went through the family finances in her head for the 30th time that hour.
“I take it Sir Daring really chewed you out then.” Jormun continued. He turned to Dane. “And you…”
“Hound Hunter beat the shit out of me.” Dane said with a casual wave of his free hand. “S’cool though, we squared things pretty good. Plus, I think I got him as bad as he got me.”
“…Uh huh.” Judging from the look on Jormun’s face, he didn’t quite seem to buy that. “Well, my father stuck me on grunt duty looking after my siblings as punishment, so I’m not going to be around too much for the next couple of weeks.” A light coloured blush appeared across his cheeks. “Honestly, I think he was slightly pleased that I was sticking up for you guys.”
“Ugh.” Tiff groaned. “Your dad’s the best.”
“So unfair.” Dane agreed.
Jormun’s blush grew slightly brighter. “Well, it’s not all perfect. What about you Tiff, what punishment did you get?”
Tiff dropped her face into her hands. “Daring cut my pay.”
There was a sharp intake of breath from both Jormun and Dane.
“Man, that sucks.” Dane said, giving her a pat on the back. “That guy really knows how to hit where it hurts, I guess.”
Tiff made a noncommittal noise of agreement.
“Are you going to be okay for the next few weeks?” Jormun asked, the concern clear on his face. “I know you were already struggling before, but-“
“I’ll be fine.” Tiff interrupted before he could finish. “We should have just enough to get through. I just need to tighten the belt a little more, you know?”
“Tighten the belt?” Dane snorted, almost looking as if he hadn’t been equally concerned a second ago. “Better be careful, Tiff. You’re already practically a twig. Tighten things even more and you might just snap in half.”
Tiff playfully jabbed at Dane’s arm. “Who’re youse calling a twig? This is all lean muscle, I’ll have you know!”
“I’ll believe the ‘lean’ part of that.”
“Why you mangy little-“
“Come on guys,” Jormun said halfheartedly as the two began tussling. “We already got into trouble for fighting before.”
“Na-ah!” Tiff protested as she tried to pull Dane into a headlock. “If it’s between friends, it’s called ‘sparring’!”
“It… really isn’t.” Jormun said. A slight smile crossed his lips. “Besides, I don’t think you’re allowed to bite in a friendly spar.”
“Hey!” Dane protested as he tried to shove Tiff’s face away with his hand. “Just because I live with dogs doesn’t mean I’m going to- Yah!” He let out a startled yelp and pulled his hand away.
Jormun’s smile grew wider. “Wasn’t talking to you.”
The friendly ‘spar’ lasted a few more minutes, only to be ended when Tiff and Dane attempted to pull Jormun into it, quite literally. The green-scaled boy, startled by Dane grabbing the back of his collar, immediately exploded into a pile of snakes, showering the two with hissing, slithering reptiles. Which rather put a damper on things.
“That was mean, you guys.” Jormun scowled. All around him, snakes were clambering up onto his body, helping it to reform into its normal human shape.
“Hey, you’re not the one who had several snakes poured down the back of his shirt.” Dane said, shaking out his clothes. “I almost sent out my guard dogs on instinct. And then where would we be?”
“Covered in dogs and snakes?”
Tiff giggled. “Well, I thought it was funny.”
Dane and Jormun both shot her an exasperated glare. Of course they’d be irritated with her. She’d avoided all the mess by switching into her phased form when Jormun’s snakes appeared. Of course, they’d evened things out by throwing snakes at her when she reappeared, but she still managed to get off light in comparison.
“Sun’s getting low.” Jormun noticed, staring up at the sky. “My da’s gonna worry if I’m not back home soon.”
“Yeah, I should probably be heading back as well.” Dane agreed. “I need to get my animals fed before it gets dark, or they get antsy.”
“I guess I’ll see you both later then.” Tiff said, picking herself back up to her feet. “Assuming I get time with all the stuff I’ll be doing.”
That concerned expression reappeared on Jormun’s face. “You know, Tiff, if you’re really bad off, I’m sure my dad won’t mind lending you a bit of-“
“It’s fine Jormun.” Tiff assured him. “Like I said, we’ll be alright. We’ve got enough to see us through.”
Jormun’s brow furrowed slightly. Tiff’s breath caught in her mouth. Had he realised? Could he tell she was hiding something?
Fortunately, Dane was there to break the moment with his usual boisterousness.
“Ah, you’re such a worrywarts, Jormun!” He said, grabbing Tiff around the shoulder in a one-handed hug. “Little Tiffy’ll be fine! This ain’t her first time having money troubles.”
Tiff’s eye twitched. “Hey, who’re youse calling ‘Little Tiffy’?”
“Well, you’re little.” Dane said, counting off on one hand. “And your name is Tiff. So that makes you Little Tiffy.”
“Yeah… Well…” Tiff spluttered to herself. “How about I call you Little Daney! How would you like that?”
“Well, I’d be very confused.” Dane’s wolf-like grin didn’t abate. “After all, you’re like half my size.”
“I am not!”
“He has a point.” Jormun said. “You are very short, Tiff.”
“Veeeeeery short.” Dane emphasised with glee.
“You guys are the worst friends ever!”
“What was that? I can’t hear you from all the way down there. I think you need to- Gnargh!”
“Heh. Who’s short now, Scruff?”
“Tiff… please don’t punch him there.”
Tiff wasn’t alright. Tiff wasn’t alright at all.
It was easy putting up a facade for Jormun and Dane. After all, she’d known those two since forever and could put up a relaxed, normal front for them better than almost anyone. Heck, large parts of it weren’t even a front. Despite the playful fights and bickering, she cared deeply about her two closest friends and she knew that they felt the same.
Which was all the more reason she couldn’t let them know how she really felt.
The fact was, she was in trouble. A lot of trouble. Sure, theoretically, what she’d said to Daring and to her friends was accurate, that she’d have just enough money to tide her over for the next few weeks. But what she left out was that between her squiring and her delivery jobs and the copying she’d have to do for Andi and now the night-time work she’d be needed for in the Crafter’s District, she’d only have about time for 3 hours sleep each night. And, if she missed a single one of those jobs, she and her mother would be out on the streets faster than you could say ‘financial inequality.’
(Which would probably be a while for Tiff. She had trouble with those nan’s.)
In some way’s, the shifts at the Crafter’s District, while giving enough to push her over the red line, made things even worse. Work at the Crafter’s District usually involved cleaning and collecting bits from the numerous enormous Craftwork machines that helped run the city, providing harvests, running transports and so on.
The Craftwork machines were usually kept running and repaired by the numerous Crafter Gifted who helped populate the city, but they couldn’t do everything. There were a lot of small but necessary jobs that were needed to keep the machines running smoothly. And children were usually picked for these jobs since their small hands made it easier to slip into tight gaps and cogs. Tiff had even done a few of these jobs herself when she was younger and before she was hired as a sidekick.
However, that sort of work was also dangerous. A moment’s inattention, a poor choice of footing, sometimes even just a stroke of bad luck, it could cost you a finger, a hand, or even your life. Tiff had personally witnessed some poor kid get his arm ripped clean out of its socket when a Harvest Machine went wrong. And while the King had passed laws to try and reduce these sorts of accidents, a lot of places didn’t follow said rules too closely, too concerned with profit or efficiency to care about some street rat getting injured.
Needless to say, combine that with the very limited sleep that Tiff would be getting and you could see why she was worried.
The most irritating thing was that she knew her friends would help her out if she told them what was happening. Even Dane, who was arguably just as bad off as she was, would scrounge together a few copper cubs to help her through. And he wasn’t the only one. Jormun, Andi, Goose, even Aunt Titania if Tiff knew where to find her. All of them would be willing to lend her a bit of money until she was back on her feet.
The problem was, Tiff didn’t want them to.
Tiff had a lot of good friends, there was no doubt about that. But most of her friends lived with her in the Fractured District and thus usually had enough money troubles as it was without her adding to them. Even Jormun, easily the most well-off out of the three, wasn’t exactly swimming in coin. Plus his family had two younger siblings to look after as well.
Tiff wouldn’t hurt them for a problem that was her fault to begin with.
Her fists unconsciously clenched. Just the thought of Littleshade’s smug face, his sneer, his words, all made her want to lash out and break something. That annoying little bastard, none of this would’ve happened if he’d just kept his mouth shut. Just because his father was an ex-aristocrat didn’t mean he was better than them.
But she knew deep down that it wasn’t him she was angry at.
He was an asshole, yes, and he really shouldn’t have said that stuff about her mum, but she was the one who threw the first punch. And it wasn’t even like this was the first time. More than once she’d gotten into stupid fights, fights she should’ve known better than to start, all because someone said something nasty about her mother.
That was the thing, really. Insults to herself, she could take. Insults to her friends would tick her off, but she could keep it together.
Insult her mum, however? That was when the red rage descended. No matter who it was or why, she couldn’t contain herself from lashing out, usually in a very violent way. Heck, she’d even attacked the Guardsman once (although fortunately, he’d taken it in good stride.)
The fact was, she knew it was a problem. Knew it was something she needed to fix. But no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t stop herself. His blood in her was too strong. And that only ended up making her more angry at herself.
She cut that trail of thought off before it could get too deep. She didn’t like thinking about that man. For numerous reasons. Besides which, she was almost back home. Wouldn’t do to let her mother see how upset she was. Not when she already had enough to be worried abo-
Tiff turned onto her home street and froze.
In front of her was the small, rickety Blue Glass house that she called home. And there was smoke pouring from one window.
Sprinting forward with reckless abandon, Tiff reached her front door and phased cleanly through it, not even bothering with the complex and fiddly security system they’d set up. She ducked beneath the crossbow bolt from the automatic crossbow designed to ‘discourage’ intruders and dashed up the cracked glass steps towards the room where she’d seen the smoke coming from.
Throwing open the door, she found a worrying sight. On one side of the room, a pile of rags had gone up in flame, blazing fiercely as the fire slowly spread. On the other side of the room, a woman was hunched over a desk, her back to the fire, fiddling with some tiny contraption.
Tiff acted quickly, reaching for the sand bucket that they had stationed in every room. Within minutes, the fire had been thoroughly smothered and extinguished. Not that it had been phenomenally easy, mind. Tiff had had to phase into another room to grab that room’s sand bucket, after the first one had run out. And then she covered it in a damp cloth just to make sure.
Exhausted from the effort, Tiff leaned back against a wall as the adrenaline slowly leeched out of her.
Naturally, that was when her mother turned and spotted her.
“Oh, Tiff!” Mary Murdoch’s face brightened the same way it always did when she saw her daughter. “I didn’t realise you were back already. Why didn’t you call?” She sniffed the air. “And why do you smell of smoke?”
It took Tiff a couple of moments to catch her breath enough to answer. In that time she caught the slightly glazed look in her mother’s eyes and winced. Not a good day, then.
“Ma.” Tiff said slowly. “What did we say about Crafting without supervision?”
Her mother glanced down at the tiny contraption on her desk. A guilty expression crossed her face. “I’m sorry, Tiff. I knew I shouldn’t have, but the idea was just so clear this time. I just had to try and finish before it… before it…” She trailed off as the glazed look spread in her eyes.
“…Faded?” Tiff suggested.
“Yes!’ The light returned to her eyes. “Faded. That’s the word. That’s what I was thinking.”
“Uh huh…” Tiff slowly got to her feet. “So what does it do? The contraption, I mean?”
“The contraption?” Her mother blinked. “Right, well, it channels power from the sun to… to…” A slightly strained look crossed her face. “I built so it could… It was made for… “ Her expression turned to frustration. “No no, I had this…. I knew this! It was so I could…”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry!” Tiff said quickly, assuringly, before her mother could grow too desperate. “It’s fine, I’m sure you’ll remember later. You don’t need to tell me right now”
“It channels power from the sun…” Her mother muttered to herself despondently. “It seemed so clear a moment ago.”
“It’s alright.” Tiff gently rubbed her back. “It’s okay, ma. I understand.”
For as long as Tiff could remember, her mother had had… problems. Ostensibly the problem was from a head injury she received while pregnant with Tiff, an injury that was only exacerbated by her Crafter’s Gift, an ability which already often tended to make its users a little ‘funny’ in the head. However, none of the few doctors Tiff had managed to afford long enough to examine her had any idea as to the exact nature of her injury or how/why it was affecting her.
Whatever the cause, it meant that her mother’s mind was… scattered. Confused, forgetful, sometimes borderline delusional. It was something that varied from day to day. On good days, she was hearty enough to almost make you think she was normal. On bad days, she’d struggle to remember something she was told a few minutes ago and wander from room to room with little memory of what she was doing there.
On the worst days, you couldn’t even get her out of bed. She just lay there, unresponsive, not even moving to eat, drink or use the bathroom.
On the very worst days, she had the nightmares. And the less said about those, the better.
Anyway, as a result of this, Tiff had been forced to learn from a very young age to become self-sufficient. Certainly, there were people around who were willing to give her a hand, like Andi, Goose or a few of the neighbours. And Aunt Titania stopped by every once in a blue moon on her eternal travels with supplies and money. But largely, Tiff was forced to care for both herself and her mother by her lonesome.
“Oh, Tiff…” Her mother raised and gently rubbed Tiff’s head, a familiar yet comforting movement. “I shouldn’t be burdening you like this. You shouldn’t have to live worrying about your mother.”
“It’s fine, Ma.” Tiff insisted, clearing away a couple of empty plates she’d noticed. “It’s not trouble at all.”
“Such a kind girl.” A slight smile emerged on her mother’s face.
“I get it all from you, Ma.” Tiff pressed a kiss on her forehead, before moving to the washbowl. “Are you doing okay today?”
Her mother frowned. Her eyes drew to the smoldering pile of rags. “I thought I was.”
“I’m sure you’ll be much better tomorrow.” Tiff insisted. She took a shuddering breath. “Ma, I’ve got something to tell you. I… kind of accidentally started a fight at my job today.”
Her mother’s eyes widened. “My Gods! Are you okay? You weren’t hurt, were you?”
“No no, I’m fine.” Tiff said. “Completely fine. Barely a scratch or bruise on me.”
“Thank goodness.” Mary let out a relieved sigh. She paused. “You did win, I assume?”
Tiff scoffed. “Naturally.”
“That’s my girl.” Mary rubbed her daughter’s head with a fond chuckle.
Unfortunately, this affectionate action from her mother only made Tiff feel all the more guilty about what was to come next.
“The problem is Ma, that we kinda ended up doing a lot of damage…” She said, picking her words carefully. “So, as punishment…” She winced. “I ended up losing this month’s pay.”
“Oh, Tiff…” Tiff felt her mother’s hands wrap around her shoulders in a comforting hug.
“You don’t need to worry though!” Tiff quickly babbled. “I got some extra shifts at one of my side jobs, so I should be able to get enough money to pay this month’s rent and-”
“Tiff.” Mary pulled her tighter to her chest. “Its alright. We can make it through. You don’t have to work yourself so hard. Worse comes to worse, we can sell some of the Junk Craftwork we’ve got lying around the place to get us some extra change. I’ve nearly finished a couple of new holder bracelets, so it should definitely be-”
“Thanks, Ma.” Tiff had calmed down enough by now. She gently lifted her mother’s hands away. “I can cover it with the money from my side jobs.” She put on a fake smile. “We should be just fine, don’t worry. You don’t need to sell anything important.”
Her mother’s mouth twisted in a frown, the way it usually did when she suspected Tiff wasn’t being entirely genuine. “Are you sure? Because I’m certain I can get some money from the Power Gauntlet and-”
“Ma,” Tiff said patiently, “do you remember what happened the last time we tried to sell the Power Gauntlet? And what the salesman called it?”
“Bah, that man known nothing about good Craftsmanship.” Mary scoffed. “A non-functional piece of junk? Who does he think he’s kidding? Just because he doesn’t know how to use it properly. Why I ought to go back there and kick his hide into-”
“I know I know…” Tiff placed a soothing hand on her mother’s arm. “He’s an idiot who doesn’t appreciate good work. Let’s just drop it for now.”
Mary took a few deep breaths. A thought occurred to her. “That reminds me, Goose dropped by with a small crate of things from the Scrapyard. I was going to add them to the usual materials bank, but I decided to put them in your room so, if you want to, you look through them first and see if there’s anything you can use for your Crafting-”
“Thanks, Ma!” Grateful for the distraction, Tiff planted a kiss on her mother’s cheek and dashed out the door towards her workshop.
Tiff’s workshop was significantly smaller than her mother’s, which wasn’t exactly enormous to begin with. Honestly, Tiff had been in closets that were bigger. The workdesk alone took up nearly half the space, with a pile of spare junk for materials sitting by its side. But Tiff really didn’t mind. Her Crafting was never nearly as as complex as her mother’s.
Taking a moment to plant herself on the meager footstool in front of the desk, Tiff pulled out one of her first creations, an single eyepiece she had formed from a small lens of glass found in the Junkyard and slipped it on. Immediately, she felt her surroundings slip away from her as information on the pieces of junk began to light up in her vision.
The ‘Seeing Useful Stuff Eye’ (or Seeing Eye for short) was a piece of craftwork Tiff had first built when she was eight. It helped inform her about the properties of whatever material was in front of her, at the cost of losing perception on what was going on around her. Which made it difficult to use in emergencies of in a fight, but made it perfect for quiet Crafting alone.
(Although it did require a special craftwork alarm bird she’d bought from the market to snap her out of her Crafting funk.)
See, both Tiff and her Mother had what was known as a Crafter’s Gift. Effectively, it allowed them to create special objects with Gifted properties, whose effects varied depending on the restrictions of said Crafter and the materials available. Hence why raiding the junkyard was fairly common for low-level Crafters unable to gain a contract from Haven.
Tiff’s ability was what was generally known as both a ‘Traditional’ Crafter’s Gift and a ‘Personal’ Gift. The ‘Traditional’ came from the fact that there was no actual scientific logic behind her craftwork, she just painted, marked and shaped an object according to what felt right in her gut and it imbued them with whatever ability would result.
Traditional Crafters came in sorts of weird shapes and sizes. From sowing to sculpting to painting to smithing (including The Blacksmith King, the first ever Crafter from the Golden Age of Gifted, who forged enchanted weapons for the Seven Precursors), there was no limit to where a potential Crafter could come from. On the plus side, this meant that Traditional Crafting was significantly easier to pull off, even if you were poor. After all, the necessary objects could come from anywhere, as long as they felt ‘right’. On the negative side, it wasn’t really replicable by other people. Only that one Crafter could make them and sometimes were even the only ones who could even understand how to use them.
This went double for Tiff, whose ‘Personal’ aspect of her Gift meant that other people who weren’t herself couldn’t even use her craftwork items. This personally was a great source of irritation for her because it also meant that she couldn’t sell her items on the Crafter’s Market. However, on the other hand, it also meant she was significantly less likely to be kidnapped and pressured into building items for some unsavoury people and/or kingdoms, like so many other Crafters were around the world. So it wasn’t the worst thing ever.
The other major type of Crafting was ‘Complex’ Crafting. This usually involved creating a lot of fiddly bits and mechanisms and putting them all together into a single whole. It was significantly more difficult and expensive than Traditional Crafting (and rarely had as powerful an ability), but it had the advantages that a) it was replicable by normal people (even if they didn’t understand the process behind it), b) easier to repair and maintain without the original Crafter and c) easier to combine with another Crafter’s work. And even describing them as ‘less powerful’ wasn’t always accurate. There was a reason South Artisia was widely agreed to control the skies over the Copper Kingdoms, considering the sheer force and speed of their Thunderhawks.
As a result of this, Complex Crafters tended to be more favoured by a lot of groups, including Haven. Traditional Crafters could help provide a short-term boost in power, but Complex Crafters were capable of much greater things given sufficient time and resources. There was a reason it was mainly Complex Crafters who lived in the city’s exclusive Crafting District, under the watchful supervision of Red Cog, one of Haven’s Four Pillars (the name for the four strongest Gifted under Haven’s rule). Even as impressive as her craftwork could be, Tiff had no chance of getting a place there.
Her mother, on the other hand? Well… let’s just say there were difficulties there and leave it at that.
Honestly, her mother’s Crafting speciality had always been a bit of a puzzle to Tiff. Sometimes there were elements of Traditional Crafting, sometimes there were elements of Complex Crafting and sometimes were there elements of neither or things that were just plain weird. Like for example, her Sticking Fluid, a liquid that had been designed as a cheap alternative to glue, but was a little too… viscous, meaning any attempt to spoon it out usually ended up with the spoon getting stuck in the jelly-like liquid. Or her Crack Repairer, a device designed to repair the cracks in the glass walls. Which technically it did do, if you ignore the fact that it made about a dozen other cracks in the process.
Of course that wasn’t to say Tiff’s inventions were perfect either. After all, there was a reason neither of them were allowed to do Crafting or Testing without someone else in the house. Not after that one time Tiff accidentally stopped her own heart, testing out an invincibility charm.
Tiff continued sorting through the materials in front of her. She’d identified at least three objects that she could feasibly use in her Crafting and was currently in the midst continuing of one of her long-term projects, a necklace of some sort. She wasn’t entirely certain what said necklace would do, the best she could get out of it was a feeling of quiet or stealth. But she thought a quiet option would be useful in combination with her phasing bracelet. Especially since her Punchy Gauntlets were awesome, but not exactly stealthy either.
However, no matter how much she tried working on the necklace, it just didn’t feel like something was clicking. Or, to be precise, it didn’t feel like something was clicking with her. No matter how hard she tried to concentrate, Littleshade’s smug face kept coming back to haunt her. No, it wasn’t that which was haunting her. It was that feeling of rage that overwhelmed her every time she thought about it. That bubbling boiling anger deep below the surface that she could barely comprehend, let alone control.
And that frightened her. It frightened her that she could feel such a thing inside herself. It frightened her that it might be signs of him. That he was still part of her. That no matter what she did, she would always be-
The sound startled Tiff. She slipped her Seeing Eye off and looked down to see that one of her tools, a thin metal thing that she used for light engraving, had snapped in her hands. Tiff stared at the broken object for a moment. Then she let out a deep sigh and pushed the anger back down.
She really didn’t need this right now. Especially since this was probably the last night she’d have free for Crafting for at least a month.
“Ma!” She shouted, as she headed for the door. “One of my tools just broke! I’m going down to the market-” -junkyard- “-to buy-” hope I can stumble upon- “-a replacement. Be back soon!”
“Alright!” Her mother replied. “Do you want me to make dinner?”
“No no!” Tiff said quickly. “I’ll sort it when I get back.” Fortunately, the larder was at least somewhat full, so starvation wouldn’t be too much of a problem.
“Okay.” Her mother said. “Don’t be out too late.”
“I’ll be fine.” Tiff insisted, pulling the door open. After all, she was certain it wasn’t too late in the day to-
Oh wow. That sun was looking awfully low. Apparently she’d been crafting longer than she’d thought.
…Dang it, she was going to have to search in the dark, wasn’t she?
As Tiff walked down the slowly darkening streets, taking the very familiar path to the city’s public junkyard, she took the time to think upon her day. Obviously, her frustrations with Littleshade and Daring were chief among her concerns, but she was deep enough in thought that it took her a moment to slowly become increasingly aware of something odd. Odd and potentially dangerous.
Someone was following her.
Tiff instinctively stiffened a little as she made her third unexpected turn down a random alley and the cloaked stranger mimicked her, still keeping himself a few dozen paces behind her. However, she made no attempt to turn around or use any other overt movements to suggest she’d noticed her tail.
Strange events and worrying stalkers were something you naturally had to watch out for when travelling in the Fractured Districts, even in the safer border zones. The Fractured District was the most lawless area in Haven by far and it wasn’t uncommon to hear of women or children being snatched off the streets by vagabonds. Tiff had even had a few worryingly close encounters when she was younger, most of which she only escaped via use of her phasing belt. According to her mother, a group of slavers did actually successfully snatch Tiff when she was three, only for the Free Knights, along with her Aunt Titania who insisted on coming along, to successfully storm the place and rescue her and the other hostages less than a day later.
(Aunt Titania would never let Tiff forget that, when she and the knights finally reached the room where the prisoners were being kept, they found little Tiff fast asleep, having apparently napped through the entire encounter and subsequent rescue.)
(Tiff didn’t find this odd at all. After all, she was certain that, had she been awake, she would’ve kicked everyone’s asses.)
(Titania concurred, with a grin.)
However, Tiff knew that not every encounter ended so cleanly. And if this guy was following her then that meant he wanted something. It was knowledge enough in the neighbourhood that Tiff was a sidekick and that usually meant she was safe from those smart enough to not want the Free Knights coming down on their heads. But not everyone was so smart. Or as keen to keep their head down. Or-
She’d just turned onto a street to find two new men waiting at the other end. And judging from the look on their faces, they’d been waiting for her. They began to approach, spread out enough so that she couldn’t simply dart past them. And, judging from the sounds of the footsteps behind her, her tail was doing the same.
Tiff shifted her posture slightly, ready for fight or flight as necessary. Three on one was poor odds, especially since she didn’t have most of her craftwork on her. She’d even left the bracelets with her Punchy Gauntlets in at home, damn it. She still had her phasing belt though, so if she went for one of the houses and kept running…
“You Scrapper?” One of the men said with a dull, gruff voice. This guy was big, with a large bushy beard, with streaks of white running through it. Tiff imagined he’d probably dyed it or something, but it just looked more like a bird had crapped in it than anything else. She inventively chose to label him ‘Crapbeard’ in her head.
“Who’s asking?” Tiff said.
“Our boss wants to talk you.” Thug number two said in the same dullish voice as his comrade. Unlike Crapbeard, this guy was relatively clean shaven. However, he also had two of the bushiest eyebrows Tiff had ever seen sitting on top of his face. Seriously, some of Dane’s dogs weren’t even that hairy.
Tiff raised her own more-sensibly-sized eyebrow slightly. “And if I don’t want to talk to him?”
Neither of the thugs reacted. “You’ll have to tell him that in person.”
“Gotcha.” Tif nodded, before bending her knees slightly. If she went for the house on the left and phased through it, it would take them time for the two goons- make that three, she could see her stalker peeking around the corner- to catch up. By then, she could head towards Celebration Street and onto the Rotor Road. The Guardsman should be patrolling near there, so if she could find him and get his help… “Well, as charming as I’m sure your boss is, I’m afraid I’m a little busy tonight, so-”
Tiff dove out of the way as a slim masked figure dropped from the nearby rooftop. Before she could react, long rope-like tendrils extended from his fingers and wrapped themselves around various roof-edges and street lanterns, slowing the man’s fall until he landed on the ground with a gentle footstep.
Tiff, meanwhile, managed to roll back to her feet and quickly backed away from the mysterious Gifted man. Her eyes darted around like a cornered animal, taking in every detail. Whether it was deliberate or not, the man had managed to cut her off from both sides of the street with his tendrils. She could still escape by phasing through the house behind her, but who was to say that they didn’t have anyone else waiting there for her?
However, while she was plotting, the Gifted man was moving. He raised his hands and called back his tendrils. They slithered and whipped back into his fingers, like elastic. Then the man turned to Tiff.
“You must be the young Miss Scrapper?” He said in a surprisingly cultured voice. “I’m sorry if my men startled you.”
They weren’t the ones doing the startling here, Tiff thought to herself. She put on her best serious face. “Who the hell are you and give me one good why I shouldn’t I beat the hay out of you and your creep patrol.”
“My, rumours of your… scrappiness certainly weren’t overestimated, were they?” The man chuckled. “As for my name, you can call me…” he flicked the fingers of his right hand out towards the ground. Immediately a tendril shot out and impacted the flagstone with the distinctive crack of a whip, making Tiff jump slightly. “…Lash.”
Tiff was silent for a moment. “…Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a distinctly friendly name. I think I’m gonna take my leave, if you don’t mind Lashy.”
She away turned towards the empty house, watching Lash’s movements out of the corner of her eye. If he or his thugs were going to make a move to attack her, it would be now.
So imagine her surprise when Lash did nothing of the sort, instead pulling a small brown pouch from his belt and tossing it towards Tiff. It landed before her feet with a dull clinking sound.
“And what exactly is this?” She asked.
“A reason for you to stay and hear me out.” Lash said with an infuriating smile.
Cautiously, keeping careful watch for any kind of a trap, Tiff nudged the bag open with her foot, before tipping it on its side. Immediately, bright silver coins spilled out, clattering along the cold stone flagstones. Tiff’s eyes widened.
“Eight silver lions.” Lash said. “All yours. No catch. Should be the pay equivalent of about a week’s work for someone like you, I’d imagine?”
Tiff didn’t reply, too busy scooping up the coins into her palm and inspecting them carefully. They certainly looked genuine. And that much money was closer to a week and a half’s work if anything. Not enough to completely end her worries about money troubles for this month, but enough to give her and her mother some room to breath.
“You say no catch…” She said slowly. “But there’s still something you want me to do, isn’t there?”
There was a sparkle in Lash’s eye. “You catch on quick.”
Tiff scowled. “Spit it out already. I don’t got all night.”
Lash’s smile didn’t fade, but there was now a new look in his eyes. A dark one. “I want you to do a job for me. It won’t be anything complicated or dangerous and I can assure you, I will compensate you significantly.”
“How significantly?” The question was out of Tiff’s lips before she could even think about it, causing her to wince at her own impulsiveness.
“Enough money to deal with all your rent troubles for this month.” Lash said sweetly. “And next month. And probably the month after that as well.”
Tiff licked her lips in spite of herself. A payday like that… Something that could keep them in the black for the next few months… It was certainly tempting. She could even use some of the extra to buy some professional crafting materials for herself and her mother.
“What’s the job?” She asked.
Lash’s smile widened. “In two days, your Sir Daring has scheduled your for a nighttime shift working in Harvest Tower 7, correct?”
Tiff nodded slowly. The Harvest Tower 7 was one of the numerous food supplying towers in the Crafting District and in the city. She wasn’t entirely certain how it worked, but via use of a ‘Master-Seed’ created by the famed Crafter Harvest (for whom the towers were named), it created constantly growing fields of corn and other plants, which were harvested by enormous complex threshing machines. She was supposed to be helping pushing the threshing machines in the right path, making sure they didn’t clog up and personally harvesting any significant bits of corn they missed.
With that said, how did this guy know that? She hadn’t known she was working in the Harvest Towers until Daring had organised it only a few hours ago. There was no normal way that Lash, whoever he was, should’ve had that information.
“While you’re working there, I want you to retrieve something for me.” Lash said. “A new experimental Master-Seed being put into use that my bosses have taken an interest in. It should be being testing on the night that your shift starts and, with your phasing abilities, you should be able to pull it out with little trouble.” He shook his hand casually. “You don’t need to worry about anyone noticing it going missing. Harvest Seeds naturally vanish once their use is finished, so it’ll likely be written off as little more than an experimental failure rather than foul play. Just retrieve the seed and bring it back to me here in two days and I promise you will be rewarded generously.”
Tiff’s eyes narrowed. “Funny. You keep saying you want me to ‘retrieve’ this seed. But, from the sounds of things, I think you mean ‘steal’.”
Lash shrugged. “I’m not a scholar, I don’t really care about the precise terminology. All I want is that seed.”
Tiff scowled and folded her arms. “I’m not a thief.”
“Of course not!” Lash threw his hands out. “You’re merely retrieving payment that you are rightfully owed from your kingdom. After all, Haven ‘stole’ the payment for your hard work, didn’t it? And all because of the actions of a noble little turd living in the lap of luxury, who likely won’t even be punished a fraction as hard as you were.”
“That was that. This is this.” Tiff hated how uncertain her voice sounded.
“Is it?” Lash asked. “Or maybe they get a benefit out of keeping people like you in the dirt. After all, for all that Haven paints itself as safe and happy place for us Gifted, you and all the others in this Fractured District suffer just as bad as anywhere else, don’t you?”
Tiff ground her teeth. “I get by.”
“So you say.” Lash said. “But maybe you should be allowed to do more than get by. Maybe you should be allowed to flourish and bloom, just like all the other sitting in their ivory towers.” He extended a friendly hand. “And I’m giving you just an opportunity to do that.”
Tiff didn’t take the hand. “And if I refuse?”
Lash’s smile dimmed slightly. “I’d rather you not. I would like a positive working relationship, after all.”
Tiff didn’t budge. She repeated the question. “And if I refuse?”
Lash sighed and his smile vanished. “Well, you do have a mother, don’t you? Living alone all day in that old glass house, with barely any kind of defenses outside that crossbow by your front door. Why it would be a pity if someone were to break in and-”
Tiff’s fist lashed out instinctively. However, before she could hit anything, the fingers on Lash’s still outstretched hand burst into action, stretching out into whip-like shapes engulfing themselves around Tiff’s arms, legs, torso and neck and binding them in place tightly. Tiff stood, fist still outstretched, but barely able to do more than move and squirm in her bonds.
“Now now now.” Lash said carefully, tapping Tiff’s fist with his hand. “You need to keep a handle on that fierce temper. After all, that’s what got you in this mess to begin with.”
Tiff felt the whip around her neck slowly begin to tighten.
“Oh, and before you ask, yes, I know how your phasing works.” Lash said, gently stroking Tiff’s hair. “And I know that you can’t phase through anything you’re already touching when you activate it.” He leaned in with a sneer. “I know lots of things you don’t. Because I’m an adult and you’re only a child. And, like a good little child, you ought to do exactly what the adults say, understand?”
Tiff’s glare was filled with hatred. The whip around her neck tightened enough that she could barely even breath. She struggled harder and harder in its grip as the other whip tendril tightened as well, digging deeper and deeper into her skin.
“I said. Understand?” Lash repeated with an almost-demonic growl.
For a moment, Tiff thought she was going to pass out. But, in her panic and desperation, she managed to bring up enough energy to quickly nod her head a few times. Immediately, the pressure on her neck and limbs vanished and she was left to collapse onto her knees on the cold flagstones, gasping and panting as she did.
“Very good, child.” Lash said with that same faux-friendly smile, as the whip-like tendrils retracted back into his fingers. “Bring the seed back to this street three days from now.” He turned away and began to walk to where his associates were waiting. “Don’t try any funny business. I’ll know if you do.”
Tiff didn’t have the energy to speak. She only had the energy to glare furiously at the man’s stupid costumed back. She wondered how smug he’d be if she called down Sir Daring on his infuriating ass. Or-
“Oh, and child?” Lash glanced back at her. “Don’t bother trying to tip off your dear captain. I have people working for me inside Haven’s court to tell me of such things. Your mother will be dead by morning.” He smiled brightly. “Until we meet again.”
Tiff’s teeth clenched so hard she thought they might crack. The only thing she could do was punch the flagstone beneath her in frustration…