There was good news and there was bad news. The good news was that Danas was finally getting to go out on her first patrol since she had arrived at her new post in the Middle City. The bad news? She was partnered with the person who arguably hated her the most in the Fifth Tier barracks. Tereni, the brown-haired woman with the piercings she had met upon first arriving, was seemingly determined to make Danas' life a living hell, if for no other reason than because she had some sort of superiority complex. Danas supposed she couldn't blame the woman━when you were taught from a young age that anyone who lived below you was less valuable by definition, it tended to give you a bit of a prejudice. Of course, Danas did blame her, since she had never thought "I was taught to think that way" was a very good excuse for being a bigoted idiot.
The sun was just hitting its peak in the noonday sky when the two disgruntled women left the Fifth Tier barracks, hostile words just behind their lips and weapons barely sheathed. This stupid idea had been Myrtion's, of course━maybe he hoped they'd kill each other or something. As much as the commander hated Danas for everything she represented, Tereni had never been particularly well-liked in the Fifth Tier barracks either, except for maybe in the case of Cader, but Danas suspected that was just because they were sleeping with each other. And who knows how long that would last. Myrtion would be overjoyed if both Danas and Tereni never came back to the barracks, and he probably didn't even care if they decided to cut each other down in the middle of the Fifth Tier market. In the time that Danas had known the disgusting little man who led the Fifth Tier barracks, she had learned that Myrtion was overwhelmingly apathetic when it came to his work━or lack of it. He was a petty middleborn officer that didn't have much authority but was also not important enough to really have any attention paid to him by his superiors. That paradoxical combination of large-scale imprisonment and small-scale freedom made him a dangerous man for anyone below him to trifle with.
Danas shook her head in disgust as she and Tereni entered the crowd at large, their presence clearing a slight path in the normally thick soup of passers-by. Both of the women refused to look at the other, but their fingers were always near their sword hilts. This entire week had been one thing after another. After the few days of silence Danas' little fiasco with the cleaning of the barracks had bought her, Myrtion had come back down hard with the persecution. Overblown restrictions were placed on every part of her life at the barracks━her movement, habits, interaction, and pretty much anything else Myrtion could think of to tick her off. Finally, she had been let go to do a patrol in the city, after every possible excuse not to let her had worn down━but of course, not without her own personal homicidal escort.
Danas glanced at Tereni, who was gritting her teeth and walking stiffly at Danas' side. Of course, Tereni had been an integral part of her week as well. With her constant snide taunts and passing threats, the brown-haired soldier had been the thorn in her side that Danas could not pry loose, no matter how hard she tried. It seemed as if, for some reason, everything Danas did was a personal insult to Tereni, her extended family, and everyone else the soldier knew in the world. Danas looked away and tried thinking of something else. The last thing she needed right now was to be mulling over some unresolved rivalry that she had done nothing to cause. Get over yourself, Danas thought, imagining herself saying the words to the haughty woman's face. Then she sighed. Eh, I'll have time for that later.
The pair continued to break through the crowd, cutting imposing figures with the engraved weapons and tabards of the Fifth Tier barracks. Porters, merchants, and craftsmen alike made way for them, and soon they found themselves near the marketplace, which was already crawling with buyers and sellers this late in the day. They weren't going anywhere in particular--it was just a routine patrol, something Danas was already intimately familiar with from her days in the Lower City military. Soon Danas found herself at ease, engulfed in the familiar routine of a daily patrol, and she stopped being concerned that the person she walked with hated her guts. From the corner of Danas' eye, she could tell that this newfound ease and comfort had unnerved Tereni. And...point, Danas thought. She smiled and started whistling━or at least, trying to━and then grinned more broadly as she noticed the effect it had on her companion. Oh, sky above, she liked making people feel uncomfortable.
It wasn't long before a fight broke out in the marketplace━an attempted theft that had broken out into a brawl between the merchant and the thief━and Danas instinctively started jogging towards the scene, calling out an order to stop. She was almost halfway there when she noticed Tereni wasn't with her. Danas turned back and saw Tereni through the throng of people, standing back where she had left her with her hand to her mouth in a mock yawn. Danas could feel her face turning red. What in the...? She motioned for Tereni to join her, and then yelled through the crowd when her companion didn't respond. "Let's go!"
Tereni turned her back and started walking away. Danas cursed and glanced at the scene of the fight. The thief had broken free of the merchant's grip and was just starting to sprint away to try to lose himself in the crowd. The merchant was calling after him, almost with desperation, and then turned to the people around him, begging any of them to do something. The crowd ignored him and those who had been watching the ordeal started to drift off. Danas sighed and ran after the criminal. Suit yourself, Danas thought to Tereni as she ran. I'll do my job, you just go buy yourself some jewelry or something.
Danas shouted another warning at the thief, but, of course, he ignored her. Through the crowd of onlookers, she could just barely pick him out━a relatively short man with dark hair and full beard, dressed in tight sandy-brown clothes. She reached a particularly dense stretch of people and was almost stopped in her tracks, the crowd as impervious as the wall of the mountain itself. With a grunt and a shouted order to the citizens in front of her, she managed to squeeze through into a relatively open spot and continue her sprint. Just in time, too--the thief had just turned a corner ahead on the street leading up towards the Fourth Tier. If she had been but a second later, she would have missed him entirely. She spared a glance back as she ran, and noticed the wave of confusion spreading through the crowd behind her. Some were pointing at her and speaking to those next to them. What, have you never seen a soldier chase a criminal before? How sheltered are you people?
Danas stopped looking back and focused on the chase, her frantic steps and focused breathing providing a driving rhythm to the music that was the wind in her ears. Within half a moment, she wished she was back in the Lower City. She knew that place; she could catch a criminal easily there. Here in the Middle City, everything was crowded, as if claustrophobia was a comfort the people could not afford to lose. If she had been allowed out on the streets earlier than this, maybe she would have been able to use the features of the tier to her advantage. As it was, it was only pure luck that allowed her to catch her quarry. As the man tried to lose her in the twisted streets and back-alleys, Danas decided to take a chance and cut north and then west across the main thoroughfare, trusting what she did know instead of trying to test what she didn't. She ran right into the criminal at the isthmus of several winding lanes, tackling him by instinct before she even realized who it was she was taking down.
The look of shock on the man's face as she dragged him to his feet disgusted her. "What did you expect?" she snapped as she tied his hands with a piece of sturdy rope. "That I wouldn't chase you?"
The man grunted something unintelligible.
Danas twisted his hand back until he let out a cry. "What did you say?"
"I said you're going to regret that," he said, teeth gritted.
"Sky and stones, I will," Danas snorted and shoved the man forward. "Show me where you ditched the food."
The criminal almost growled at her, but when she smacked him upside the head, sending him spinning to the stones of the street with a cry of pain, he got up a little more helpful. As the man stumbled back towards the way he had come, Danas made sure to follow as close behind as possible without overrunning him. With every step, Danas could feel the glare the man metaphysically directed at her through the back of his skull. As they left the main street, Danas caught a glance at the crowd through her peripheral vision. A large group had stopped, staring at them with perplexed looks on their faces. A thought tickled the back of Danas' mind, giving her an off-feeling about the whole situation. What is wrong here? She kept having the inclination that she should know.
After recovering the stolen food, Danas headed to the main road to retrace her steps back to the merchant, criminal in tow. She had the same grim satisfaction she always did when she did her job as an officer of the law, but she didn't flaunt her captured prey like a trophy. Instead, she set the bag of food down gently on the table making up the front portion of the merchant's stall, nodded once to the man, and shoved her prisoner forward, back towards the Fifth Tier Barracks where he would be held to face punishment.
"Why did you do this?" Danas heard the hoarse statement from behind her. She turned and saw the merchant looking over in her direction, perplexed. At first, she glanced down at her prisoner, assuming that the merchant was talking to him, but when the stall-owner repeated the question, she realized he was talking to her. She looked back up and noticed that the man was holding the bag in front of him like an offering. He was old and haggard, but there was a softness about his eyes that caught at Danas' heart. "Why did you do this?"
Danas shook her head, confused. "I was just doing my duty as a soldier and an officer of the law," she said falteringly. The man started crying, dropping the bag back on the table and bringing his hands to his face. And suddenly Danas understood.
"You're going to pay for this," her prisoner muttered. Danas turned back to him, tightening her grip on his arms. He grunted, and at first she thought he was just blustering. Then she saw Tereni sauntering over, hands on her hips and a sneer on her face. "The Ring hates interference," the man in Danas' grip said. "And the Fifth Tier knows that."
Danas swore under her breath. This had been a set-up.
"Admirable job, Danas," Tereni said as she finished her strut directly in front of Danas' prisoner. "You've just interrupted all of the politics that keep the Fifth Tier under control. I suppose you deserve a medal. Or at least a good flogging." Her last words were almost a hiss.
Danas glared at her and then spat on the brown stones of the street. "Are you telling me that Myrtion takes bribes from a group of criminals?"
"I'm telling you that the Fifth Tier Barracks has an agreement with the locals. And you've just broken that agreement." Tereni folded her arms before him. "And that's all you need to know. Let the man go, Danas, before you really muck something up."
"I don't think so," Danas said, tightening her grip even further on her prisoner. He almost squealed in pain. Oh, toughen up, breezie. "There's going to be justice done here today."
Tereni shrugged. "Suite yourself. It's your funeral." She turned and sauntered away in that infuriating way that Danas was quickly coming to hate. Her soft laughter trailed after her.
Danas fumed. She was in a very bad position right now. If she kept the man a prisoner, there was a large possibility she would be giving Myrtion the reason he needed to discharge her from service in the Middle City, maybe even the military entirely. At the very least, she would be making some powerful enemies, and further cementing Myrtion's disdain for her. That would not help her in making a foothold here. On the other hand, she was not about to just let this disgusting thief go to steal again from elderly merchants who couldn't defend themselves. She wouldn’t compromise all of her morals just to gain prestige in a system that she already despised. She would have to play this very carefully.
First, she needed to get out of the open. She was starting to gather a crowd, and that was the last thing she wanted right now. She pushed her prisoner forward, leading him off through a side-street to a more secluded overlook that gave a view of the Sixth Tier below them. Three brown stone residences cut off spying eyes from the spot, and there was only one narrow alley winding through the buildings that led here. Danas took out more rope and tied her captor's bonds to the pole of the fence acting as railing for the overlook.
"Are we just about done?" The bearded man asked acidly. "I'm going to have to relieve myself soon."
"Shut up," Danas said, smacking him upside the head and then walking over to a sparse bench and seating herself down wearily. "I'm trying to think."
"And I'm trying to pee," the man said. "One of those things is very uncomfortable to attempt if your hands are tied behind your back."
"You're a thief, through and through, aren't you?" Danas scowled, broken out of her thoughts by the man's bravado. "Stealing one man's bread with your hands while you steal another man's happiness with your blabbering mouth."
"Oh," the thief said, mockingly aghast. "That really stings. And so does the urine I'm trying to hold back right now."
Danas ignored him and tried to get back to thinking. Well, what would Tereni want her to do right now? That would be a good place to start━know immediately what she shouldn't do. Tereni obviously wanted to get Danas in trouble, and she had set this situation up so that no matter what Danas did, she was going to pay for it. If she refused to give up the thief, she would face Myrtion's wrath, and most likely, the wrath of this "Ring" as well. If she did give him up, she would hate herself, not to mention she would still have to deal with the hornet's nest she had already stirred up.
She paced back and forth, ignoring the grunts and snarky comments from her prisoner. She did it for so long that she felt as if she was pacing a trench in the stone beneath her as she went. The more she walked, the more she started to despair. How was she going to get out of this? Eventually she just stopped, leaning against the railing and putting a hand to her forehead. Maybe she would just let him go. How much was one stopped robbery worth?
No, she chided herself. Don't think like that. You're not going to compromise the moment someone pushes you down. Get back up and trust your gut. She stared at her thief with eyes like agates as she stalked back over to him and untied the rope from the fence. "Get up," she ordered him. He did not look happy, but he obeyed. "Go relieve yourself over there." She pointed to a scraggly bush a few feet down the fence. "And don't even think of peeing over the side of the cliff. That's just disgusting." She had seen that sort of thing done quite a bit since coming to the Middle City, usually by children, but sometimes by full-grown adults who had sick senses of humor. It was an immature show of superiority, urinating down on a tier lower than you. And the lowest tier just did it off the cliff into the Lower City. She had wondered how many times she had mistaken a wetness on her face to idle raindrops.
The thief laughed but did as he was ordered, peeing into the bush with a grunt of satisfaction. After he had finished, Danas grabbed him again and shoved him forward, back towards the Fifth Tier barracks. "You taking me back to the market to get me something shiny?" the thief asked as he was roughly led along. "An apology of sorts?"
It was Danas' turn to laugh, though it felt forced in her ears. "Right," she said with a twist of his arm that made him cry out in surprised pain. "And I suppose you want me to go steal back the merchant's food for you as well and just send you on your way with a kiss?"
"Well," the thief said. "If you insist, I won't object. Never have kissed a lowborn before. Does it taste any different than kissing a prosti--ah!" His last words were caught off as Danas deliberately tripped him and sent him sprawling into the side of a building. He slid down with a groan.
"You're disgusting," Danas said, spitting on to the stones next to his sprawled body.
"That's a yes, then," the thief said, nodding to himself as he shuffled to a sitting position. He had a difficult time of it, his hands tied behind his back and all, but Danas made no move to help him, so after a minute he leaned against the wall, letting out a sigh of pain. His nose was bleeding, but otherwise he looked unfazed.
"I," Danas began with a fiery lilt to her words. "Am going to bring you to the barracks just like I said I would. You are going to stand trial for theft and I will see that you get the punishment you deserve. Do you understand now, idiot?"
The thief just looked at her with a pitying expression. "Good luck with that," he said. "I hope you don't die before I get to kiss you. I'm still curious."
"Shut up," Danas snapped. "And get up."
"Well, I wouldn't be on the ground if you hadn't decided to trip me," the thief said scathingly, pushing with his legs up against the wall of the building to make his way to his feet. "Shall we continue this lovely stroll of ours?"
Danas jerked her head forward and the two of them left the alley for the wider market. She gripped him firmly by the arms from behind, ordering the normal market-goers to get out of the way as she waded through the crowd. After a few minutes, they were out of the main throng and back on the street that led towards the Fifth Tier Barracks. Danas hadn't seen any sign of Tereni. She had probably gone back to the barracks and reported in full to Myrtion of Danas' little escapade. She couldn't wait to get back.
How I love my wonderful little home, she said, sighing inwardly. With all of my wonderful family and friends waiting to greet me. At that moment, she dreadfully missed Nast, Mikis, and Pohn. And Atheor. And then she stopped missing any of them and just focused on the man she was holding in front of her and the street below her feet. Focus.
She entered the barracks with no fanfare or applause. Not that she had been expecting any. Everyone seemed to be avoiding her gaze, trying to focus on doing what they normally did━be lazy. At least they had kept the floor relatively clean since she had been gone. Wait, no, that’s a puddle of beer. Sigh.
"It's quite the party here," Danas' prisoner said, eyeing the room━and some of the female soldiers━with interest. "You should invite me around more often."
Danas ignored the man's chatter and took him down the hallway towards Myrtion's office. She wasn't entirely sure what protocol was with thieves--the only criminals that had been brought in since she had been at the barracks were a few citizens arrested for brawling. They had been brought before Myrtion before being thrown into the holding cells, so Danas figured she would do the same. It would have been helpful if someone had actually explained to her how she was supposed to do this job, but of course, she had just been left adrift to figure it all out for herself. Like she had been since day one.
Myrtion already had his eyebrow raised before Danas could get all the way through the door with her catch, holding the man before her like a hot iron. "What do we have here?" he said, wasting no time with any sort of formalities. He drew a breath from the long, curved pipe he held to his mouth and blew a cloud of smoke out from his nostrils as he looked her up and down.
"A thief, Commander," Danas said, assuming she was safe to be as straight to the point as he was being. At first she had assumed that any assumptions made where Myrtion was concerned were dangerous. Then she realized that assumption was the dangerous one. Best to play it by ear and do as he did. That seemed to be the most healthy option. "I...Tereni and I caught him stealing in the main market from a food merchant. I thought I should bring him to you, sir, to see what you would like done with him." Be calm, she told herself, taking in deep breaths. Act like this is the most normal thing in the world. If he gets angry, maybe I can play it off as just doing what I expected a soldier should do and he would have to buy that.
"Really?" Myrtion said, drawing from his pipe again. He coughed and the cloud of smoke swirled around his face randomly. "I haven't heard of this. Tereni came in twenty minutes ago and said that there had been no sign of any crimes today. The only thing unusual was that you refused to come back with her when she told you the patrol was over."
"I do not know why she told you that, sir," Danas said, grating her teeth. "But it is not true. Tereni and I were both in the market patrolling when this man was attempting to steal food. I left to chase the man down while Tereni ignored the entire situation and left me alone."
"Oh, going straight to the accusation, are you?" Myrtion said. "Very brave. What proof do you have besides your word that this is the case?"
"No more than Tereni does," Danas said, wanting to scowl but forcing her face to maintain a neutral expression. "And that amounts to just her word as well."
Myrtion smirked and set his pipe down on the table. "You have a point," he said, setting two of his fingers on the table as if they were the legs of a tiny man and walking his fingers across its surface. "I do not have much affection for Tereni━probably as much as I have for you, so I think I'll let you both settle this one on your own. I may want to warn you, however," he paused and brought his two walking fingers up to waggle them at her. "You're entering a dangerous little box here. I'm not sure you want to know what's inside."
"I understand that, sir," Danas said, a little surprised at how calmly the man was taking all of it. "I'm willing to accept the consequences." Was she?
"Fine," Myrtion chuckled softly and picked up his pipe again. "Throw the thief in one of the holding cells. I leave the investigation and prosecution of the man up to you. When you have your evidence and your witnesses, talk to me and I will get you in to meet with the courts. Dismissed." He took one more long draw on the pipe as Danas turned to leave. "Oh, Danas? One last thing."
"I'd like to remind you of something━though I'm sure Tereni told you this. The Ring is a powerful enemy and I'm not sure a little girl like you wants to go up against them. The criminals and the soldiers of the Fifth Tier have an understanding, and you're going to be upsetting the balance I have worked long and hard to achieve. I will not stop you, but I will give you one more opportunity: Let the thief go and drop your accusations, or you will be on your own in this."
Danas turned to him with steel in her eyes. "I'm sorry, sir," she said, tightening her grip on her prisoner. "But I will not stand down on this. Everyone in this barracks knows that this is the right thing, even you. You're all just too greedy and pathetic to admit it."
There was a moment of icy silence.
"Sir," Danas added, though her giving of his title had nothing whatsoever to do with respect.
"Get out," Myrtion said, his face as dark as the smoke that puffed from his mouth.
Danas gladly obeyed.