Ladiya lay on her stomach, keeping a drowsy eye on the street outside her narrow alley. The area around the Suncut Bazaar could never truly be silent, even at night, but the heat of midday managed to subdue the hubbub and bustle somewhat. Shouts of merchants selling their wares were few, and almost languid in nature. People in the street tended to meander instead of stride. Even the patrols of the Hand of Ord, in their brilliant sapphire and brass regalia, passed by her at a pace which could only be called sedate.
She would be safe here for quite a while, tucked into the tiny shadow provided by a stack of crates. It had just enough shade to be baking instead of broiling; not to mention a perfect view of her target. With a sigh of contentment, Ladi rested her head on her folded arms and settled in to wait.
The sun had just begun to tip over the top of its arc when she heard the sound of familiar footsteps, accompanied by the squeak of an old wooden wheel. They drew nearer and nearer, and soon she saw a slim man in long robe, its deep saffron color faded but not stained, pulling a hand cart past her vantage point. The man settled into the small tent-stall she’d been keeping an eye on, and began setting up his wares: crates of assorted fruit.
Ladi didn’t know this man’s name; but she always thought of him as a wily serpent. Once set up, he would wait patiently, coiled up and silent. Then, the moment someone passed by, he struck!
“My fine lady! What delicate delights I have to offer you!”
“Good sir, a juicy treat to slake your, well earned, thirst?”
“Do not think I am unaware of you, skinny street rat! Begone, before I call the Hand!”
Ladiya had often spent time just admiring his precision. Somehow he seemed to know exactly the right words to snare his prey, or warn off likely thieves. He had the eyes of a hawk and the focus of a basilisk.
There was, however, one particular time when he let his guard down. It was for that moment that Ladi lay in wait, quiet and still as a desert lizard, in the shadows of the crate stack. She waited while the Serpent arranged stacks of mouth-watering fruit to his satisfaction. Watched, as he crossed back out of her vision to collect another small crate of them. Not yet, she thought, knowing that even with his back turned those hawkish eyes would be on her the moment she poked even a finger from her hiding place. So she lay on her stomach in silence, while the shadows on the red cobblestone grew by slivers at a time.
People were beginning to fill the street again. Other stall merchants passed by with their carts. Dust and scent rose in the air even as the heat began to fade from it. Ladi smirked a little, thinking of how Pene never noticed the different kinds of heat. Too hot is too hot, she always said. Such nonsense; but then, Pene had not been born in Ank’Harel. Perhaps the measuring of heat was a Marquesian ability.
Setting up a particularly delicious looking stack of spiky koruk, the Serpent suddenly froze. From her vantage point, Ladi saw his jaw clench, his nostrils flare, and her own muscles tensed. Her heart began to beat faster as she pulled her knees up and pushed herself into a crouch. She must be ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
She could hear the sound of heavy wheels rolling by, and saw the flicker of bright red robes and a long, flowing beard. Then the Serpent struck, fangs bared.
“You dare show your face again, son of a camel-buggering sand demon!?” he hissed, stepping around the side of his stall towards the newcomer. Ladi didn’t know his name either, but she imagine he was what a big, sleepy bear looked like.
“Ah, the yapping one,” the Bear rumbled. “I see your estimable business has escaped all manner of disaster and continues to thrive, on the same tiny street where it started. My congratulations.”
Ladi crept forward, inch by tentative inch, keeping an attentive ear on the exchange as it grew more and more heated… on the Serpent’s side at least. The Bear rumbled on, half ignoring the other merchant, as he set up his own wares. How this feud had started, Ladi had no idea; but it was almost as regular as the sun, and provided her with the perfect cover to snatch a few of whatever fruits were piled closest to her.
Under normal circumstances, she would be careful to take only one or two, so as not to arouse suspicion. Today however, as she scampered back into the space behind the crates her arms were almost overflowing with crisp apples, and even a plum or two. She tucked them into various pockets and folds about her person with practiced haste, then began to shimmy and climb her way over the crates and out the back ‘entrance’ to her hidey-hole.
Soon Ladi could feel the full power of the afternoon sun against her back as she pulled herself up over the edge of a rooftop. She scrambled across at an angle and dropped into a barely shadowed alley on the other side. Her eyes darted around as she caught her breath. No sign of pursuit. For the first time in hours she breathed freely, stretched her cramped arms and legs. Then she checked on her haul. All accounted for, and barely even a bruise!
Ladi grinned, and headed off further down the alley at a normal walking pace. Worth the wait, no question. And all this bounty would definitely convince Pene that she was right. No good would come of staying in that empty house, alone. For one thing, it probably wouldn’t stay empty much longer. Pene would be kicked out, no matter how many errands she ran; or she could even be swept up by the Hand. Who knew what the guard really did with orphans anyway?
The grin became a tight-lipped look of determination, as the girl slipped into a busier street at the end of the alley and turned her bare feet towards home. Today would be the day. She’d stash some of this where it would be safe, then go bring the rest to Pene and finally get her friend to see reason, come live with her.
Moving around wasn’t too difficult in the slow-building afternoon crowds, and Ladi’s home wasn’t far in any case, so she made excellent time. Although ‘home’ was a bit of a stretch. It was more like a nest, tucked into the converging corners of two buildings. There had been a solid wall there once; over time it had crumbled just enough for a slight girl like Ladi to squeeze through. She had to chase rats out of it occasionally. Still, her little cubby was pretty cozy and safe. Squeezing another person in would make it a bit snug, but also a lot warmer at night.
A little smile crept back onto her face. It faded abruptly, as she rounded a corner and saw something more than a little unwelcome.
Near the entrance of another narrow alley Ladiya often used as a shortcut to her home street, a girl stood, leaning against the wall. Like Ladi, her clothes were faded and patched discards; but her figure was fuller, more well-fed, and her long dark hair was tied up in a blue scarf. A single braid dangled down the side, bound with a bright red ribbon.
Fera. Ladi made a face as she dodged back around the corner she’d just turned.
The other girl seemed at ease, idling her time away by twisting the ends of the red ribbon around her fingers. As she watched, Ladi saw her scanning the crowds and casting furitive glances at the cross-section of streets and alleys nearby. Hmm, not just loitering or looking for a mark. She’s looking for someone.
The Silks were the ones who wore red badges around here. A rather uppity bunch, Ladi had had run-ins with them before. Too many, honestly. This area was a little outside their normal hunting ground. It didn’t seem too off to assume she was the one Fera was trying to spot out there.
Well, it was a busy enough area; no real places to get cornered. And if they had someone stationed here, it meant that they still had no idea where her hidden nest was. Maybe it would be better to just find out what was going on, and get on with her day.
Ladi stepped back out into the thoroughfare, let that rat-brain Fera see her, and then retreated back down the side-street she’d come up a few minutes ago. It was empty for the moment, so she cast about quickly for a good hiding spot. A line of large jars seemed perfect. She hopped over them, and ducked down in the tiny space between them and the wall. A minute or two passed, and she heard the soft sound of sandals padding towards her. Peeking through the spaces between the jars, Ladi spotted the other girl easily. She waited a beat or two more, then poked her head a bit over the top of the jars, the way a Thordak-brained Silk might do.
Of course, Fera saw her.
“Skulking around as always, Lizard?” the Silk girl said, with a smirk. “No use hiding, I know you’re there.” She gave one of the jars a little kick. It wobbled a bit, with a sloshing sound, but Ladi braced it as she stood up.
“Why should you care, basilisk breath?” she asked, with her best sulky face. It was actually great luck that Fera had been stationed here. She was dumb, and a gloater. Easy enough to get her talking if she thought she had you over a barrel… or a jug, in this case.
“Don’t suppose you came to say sorry, after you lot of idiots scuttled my mark the other day?” Ladi continued, before the other girl could respond to her first question. Fera flicked her red ribbon over her shoulder and flashed a poisonous smile.
“Why should I apologize when we did it on purpose?” she sneered. “You think you’re so smart, but you couldn’t figure that out?”
‘Figure out’, as if it hadn’t been painfully obvious. Subtlety wasn’t exactly a common Silk skill.
“I’ll take that as a no then.” Ladiya rolled her eyes. “So, what do you want?”
Fera somehow managed to make a shrug look insipid. “I’m here to offer you another chance to join the gang.” she said.
Ladi didn’t bother to hide her grimace.
“Are you serious? How many times I gotta say that I’m not joining your head-case support group? I can take care of myself!” she snapped, watching the other girl’s reaction to her words and dismissive tone.
“Haf seems to think you’d be useful to us. Not sure why, but this is a golden opportunity for a raggy little dirt-wallower like you. So, why don’t you do the smart thing for once?” Fera said. Her smugness seemed unaffected so far.
“You wouldn’t know smart if it bit you!” Ladi felt a flare of real anger underneath her display. “Gathering up in big numbers like that? You all are just asking to get grabbed up by the Hand; or worse, the Stalkers!”
Fera scoffed, rolling her eyes dramatically.
“Gods, you really have a lizard’s brain! Haf says the Stalkers are just stories spread around by the Hand to keep us kids from organizing. And the stupid Hand’s never gonna catch us! We’re the top dogs in this area, and once we expand into the Suncut Bazaar we’ll be untouchable!”
Ugh, could she be any more fawning and inane? She wasn’t giving up any useful info either. Ladi decided to poke her a little more.
“I’ve heard it all before,” she said, with a diffident shrug. “From a lot of kids that no one sees anymore…” She gave Fera a side-long look. Then she lowered her voice, shrunk down just slightly so that the other girl had to lean over a bit to hear her.
“Think you’re the first gang around here who thought they had it all figured? Think you’re special? You aren’t even the first ones to wear red!” Ladi spat the last word. “Don’t go babbling to me about what Haf thinks he knows. I suppose he also told you you’d be feasting in the Cerulean Palace by next year? Might as well change your name to the Wools, cause you’re certainly a right bunch of sheep!”
Fera’s normally placid face crinkled around the edges, and Ladi saw a flush begin to grow on her cheeks as the Silk girl leaned further forward. Got her! Ladi felt a rush of triumph, even as she instinctively ducked away. Fera liked to go for the eyes.
But just as the usual blustery blabfest was about to begin, the Fera paused. She just stared for a moment, while Ladi’s mind spun astonished circles and backtracked itself. There was something more going on here. Something she’d missed.
She watched a slow, spiteful, smile spread across Fera’s face.
“You’ve got an awfully big mouth,” the other girl drawled. She reached toward Ladi, who dutifully cowered back, using the movement to ready herself for a spring. The Silk girl didn’t grab her by the hair or clothes, to drag her over the jars as Ladi had expected; instead she dipped a hand into one of Ladi’s more obvious pockets and pulled out an apple. Then the Silk eyed her knowingly. “I wonder, is that why you decided to get your hands on such a big haul of fruit?”
“Stockin’ up,” Ladiya muttered, dropping her eyes. Fera actually snickered. It was the weirdest thing she’d ever heard, and it gave her an uneasy feeling, right in the gut.
“I suppose you think we don’t know about your little friend?” Fera said. “You know, I bet she has better manners and sense than you. She’d probably jump at a chance to join the Silks.”
“Leave her out of this!” Ladiya forgot her submissive posturing for a moment, puffing up a whole inch taller with indignation. Fera seemed taken aback, at least a step; but she recovered quickly.
“Too late for that,” she said, “Haf’s recruiting her right now. Unlike you, a sweet bit like that is actually valuable.”
Ladiya sprang, not waiting to hear any more. She leapt over the row of pots with a growl, sweeping her leg out as she landed next to Fera. The Silk landed on her ass with a yelp, and Ladi bolted for the alley exit. She heard Fera yelling and swearing behind her; pointless bleating. She was already gone, lost in the maze of the crowd.
Ducking, darting, and dodging her way through the streets, she sped onwards while her mind raced. That son of a mephit-ridden dog! Where would she find Pene right now!? She had to find her friend before that mob got hold of her. Idiots they may be, but there were too many, and she was too weak, to plan a rescue from the dung-hole they called their fortress. Out here in the city, this was her terrain, her bastion. Get there first, and the Silks would never find them.
The Suncut Bazaar seemed like a good place to start. Pene liked to hang out there, looking for odd jobs to run. Ladi was adjusting her path to suit her thoughts, when a swoosh of a sapphire cape in the sun up ahead gave her pause.
The Hand, they were out patrolling in larger numbers by now. Fera and the other Silks might talk big, but they were still wary of the Hand. That they would go after Pene where she could easily catch the attention of the guards seemed unlikely… or was it?
Ladiya moved off the street, scooting behind a small cart of furniture, and just stood for moment. Leaning up against the wall in the scant shade, she wiped sweat from her face and closed her eyes. She had to settle down and think. There was no time to get this wrong. She took deep breaths, taking in the unique mingling of spices and less savory city aromas that permeated the streets around the Suncut.
Haf. Haf was the key here, not Pene. He was the one who’d set this up. Haf was clever, but was he equally arrogant? Would he actually dare the guards at the bazaar? Or would he pick somewhere quieter, with less attention? Fera’s words held no clue. The bitch had probably been sent to keep her distracted. Most likely she didn’t even know anything important.
Ladiya swore, opening her eyes and pushing herself forcefully away from the wall, as if it were to blame for her lack of answers. No use puzzling, no time. She would have to trust her instincts. As much as she despised him, Haf was clever, cautious despite his arrogance. He wouldn’t risk taking Pene in any place too public.
She slipped back into the street, heading north. The home Pene had shared with her parents was empty, on a quiet street, and everyone in the area knew she was still living there…
“Gods, let me be right.”
She couldn’t really say she felt relieved when she saw a Silk, with that easy-to-spot red badge, casually inspecting a drape of fabric decoration near Pene’s home. She supposed it was technically better than finding the place empty; but the thought didn’t make her feel better.
He looked far too relaxed, for one. And was this lanky boy a guard, keeping an eye-out for Haf’s arrival? Or for the Hand? Hard to tell at the moment.
Ladi walked past where the Silk stood, her movements masked by a couple of students carrying koruk fruits. As she watched him, another of his type slipped out of the courtyard entrance and called out something she couldn’t quite hear. The lookout turned, laughed, and strolled back with the other Silk.
Despite the afternoon heat, Ladi’s blood ran ice cold. With an exchange like that, they could very well have caught their mark already. She had to get in there, now! But, she couldn’t just run in behind them. She needed a better vantage.
Darting past the fruit-laden young men, Ladi began to follow the wall of the place until it broke into an alleyway. As usual, there were enough barrels and jugs and things stacked there for her to easily clamber up onto the roof. From there she kept as low as possible, slinking across the roof like a sand-colored cat. She’d done this a few times before, just for fun.
Pene’s home had a modest courtyard outside of it. No fountain, just a space where cloth had once been draped to offer shade and a cooling breeze. Most of the cloth had fallen now, so it was open to the sky. If the Silks had grabbed Pene, they would have to take her out through there. From here she’d be able to get a good look at how many there were, maybe come up with some kind of plan. She hoped.
Ladi scooted up to the sculpted edge of the roof and peeked over; then almost immediately dropped back behind it. Silks! Five of them? She edged back up cautiously. Yes, five, and not one of them looking up. Their eyes were trained on something in her direction, but well below where she lurked. They were ranged about the courtyard with little care, elbowing each other in the ribs and guffawing as if whatever they were watching was pretty amusing.
Five’s too many for me, what do I do?
Barely daring to breathe, Ladi listened. She could hear voices, mumbles really, one low and the other with a higher pitch. She pulled back from the edge, laying her head against the warm sandy stone.
She knew who the higher voice belonged to, and cursed herself as she heard the edge of fear in it. Pene! Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes. She felt empty, sick. Too many. She had arrived too late, and now… One against six? What could she possibly do? They were stronger than her. They would just corner her too, and then… then…
As her throat burned with shame and anger, and tears made dusty tracks down her cheeks, Ladiya heard the lower voice swear loudly. Then she heard a yelp and a chorus of laughter. Time seemed to freeze for a moment, as something inside her gave way. Anger burned in her heart, surged through her like a hungry flame, and Ladi found herself scrambling to her feet before she knew what she was doing.
The stupid Wools still weren’t looking up. Haf walked into her view, a bunch of long golden hair gathered into his fist. All she could see of her friend were a pale set of hands: one clutching at Haf’s wrist, the other pounding on his arm. Haf gave Pene’s hair a vicious upward jerk, producing another pained yelp, and gestured to his lackeys with his free hand.
“Garun, Virl, come help me with her.”
Two small apples, from various hiding places about her person, found their way into Ladi’s hands. Using the skill she’d honed by chasing rats from her own lair seemed particularly appropriate…
Whap! Whap! The pulpy projectiles struck in quick succession; one against Haf’s shoulder, the other in the back of his head. The rat-bastard dropped his hold on Pene, who promptly kicked him in the shin and scuttled backwards. Ladiya had never felt so satisfied in her entire life.
She had very little time to enjoy that satisfaction, however. The Silks might be stunned for the moment, but they’d soon recover and spot her easily. Haf was already turning, spouting curses. She had to put more distance between him and Pene. Options ranged from ill-advised to utterly stupid; but she had no time to weigh them properly. What she did have, was the flickering of an idea.
She leapt down from the roof, crashing into Haf before had fully turned around. They went down together in a heap of tangled limbs, yelps, and cursing. A brief struggle took place on the dusty stone of the courtyard. She managed to sink her teeth into what she thought was an arm; but was quickly kicked away.
Rolling with the kick, Ladi let out a loud cry and clutched her side as she struggled to her knees. She could see Haf rising as well; but it was the sight of the other Silks rushing up behind him that made her stomach flip over with a lurch. Oh gods, suddenly her plan didn’t seem all that great.
Then she felt two small hands, like little birds, slip under her arms from behind.
“Ladiya,” Pene’s voice caught a bit as she helped her friend to her feet. Ladi squeezed the little hands, keeping her eyes on Haf.
The leader of the Silks had regained his feet already, and held up a hand to stop the lackeys running to his aid. His black hair was mussed, dirt streaks on his face, and clothes all askew. He smiled, what would have been a terribly charming smile if it hadn’t been suffused with the level of smug that only an asshole with goons at his back could muster.
All of her fruit was bruised and squashed now, but Ladiya thought it would be pretty effective slammed into the bastard’s face. Were her aim and speed enough to hit all the Silks though? Probably not. Her eyes flickered around the courtyard, taking in likely escape routes.
Haf stood with his hands on his hips, not bothering to close the distance Ladi had put between them. The other Silks were a little more tightly packed than before, and yet they retained their haphazard arrangement. They still weren’t taking this seriously. They were waiting on their mighty leader.
That could give her a slim opening. For what, she didn’t know yet. She’d have to keep her wits about her.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite lizard!” Haf said, around that smarmy smile of his. Ladi wished he had a cracking, wobbly voice like most of the boys around her age, but he didn’t. It was smooth and had an air of authority, charisma. Just the thing for leading sheep. Ladiya tried to keep her face as blank as possible, merely narrowing her eyes in response to the way he said ‘lizard’, affectionately… like a weirdo.
She scooted back a couple of steps, pushing Pene behind her.
“I must say, I’m very surprised to see you here,” Haf continued, making no move to follow her. “Tell me, have I over-estimated Fera’s ability to distract you, or your intelligence? Perhaps both?” He laughed, and the Silk lackeys chortled along with him.
Ladi said nothing. Despite the outer calm, her mind was whirling like a sandstorm. Haf seemed so pleased with the sound of his own voice. Could she and Pene move slowly towards the door of house, if she kept him talking? Then barricade the door, go out a window, and disappear?
She tried another step, inching her way back, and almost tripped over Pene’s feet. They must be closer to the wall than she originally thought. There was no time to turn her misstep into a sideways scuttle either, because Haf had closed the distance between them with two large strides, now that she had nowhere to go.
Ladiya made no move as Haf took another step, into her space, lording over her with his superior height. She swallowed her distaste, trying only to make her eyes as round as possible as he leaned down towards her. His minions hadn’t moved yet. Maybe she could still salvage this.
“Seems like you’ve let yourself get cornered this time. You may be quite clever, but there won’t be any worming your way out of this one,” he said.
The frightened expression on her face was only half feigned. Ladi thought her heart would beat itself right out of her chest, her whole body was so tense it was painful. She only had one shot at this. If she messed it up…
Ladiya took a quick breath and flicked her eyes downward, away from Haf’s basilisk gaze.
“I…” she murmured, with a little hitch in her breath as she trailed off. She glanced up through her eyelashes, then quickly down again. Was that a look of triumph or greed? Either way, Haf began to lean even closer to her. She could feel the heat of his breath on her ear and neck, heard the snickering of the other Silks; but all she could think was, just a second longer! Just another moment or two, and Haf would be so off balance. Wait. Wait.
“Just be a good lizard,” Haf whispered into her ear. “Cooperate, and there’s no reason we can’t share the profit from the girl, just you and I.”
Ladiya caught her breath again, as another burst of anger surged up from her chest, nearly choking her. Calculations and plans, they were all washed away by a red mist as she brought her knee up into Haf’s groin with a vicious smash. The leader of the Silks let out a high-pitched yipe and crumpled against her. Ladi shoved him backwards, sending him sprawling on the ground.
This would be where she grabbed Pene’s hand and ran, before the minions gathered the few wits they had. But the pained expression on Haf’s face was all she could think about. It wasn’t enough. She wanted to hit him again.
Ladiya heard the blood singing in her ears, mingling with a strange high-pitched whine, as she lunged for her prone enemy. She didn’t get far, brought up short by two little bird-like hands that pulled her back sharply. Pene shouted something; but it was lost in the thunderous CRACK as a speeding object struck the ground right between Ladi and her intended target.
A wave of force followed the impact, kicking dust into the air and staggering her. She coughed and rubbed her eyes. What in all the hells?
The dust cleared quickly to reveal a wooden javelin, still quivering, stuck nearly upright in the cracked cobblestones.
A moment of utter silence passed as the entire group stared at the mysterious weapon. Haf’s lackeys had all frozen midway through their run to his aid. Now some cast frantic glances towards the roof of the courtyard. Others looked at each other. No one moved, but a few seemed ready to bolt.
They think it’s the Hand, Ladi realized, her thoughts breaking through her anger once again. Shrugging out of Pene’s loose hold, she strode up to the javelin. Haf was still recovering, crawling to his knees, and the Silks were uncertain without his guidance. She pulled the javelin out of the ground with no resistance from anyone. It hadn’t so much as splintered, amazing!
There was movement at the edge of her vision and Ladi immediately whirled, brandishing her new weapon like a staff, in the direction of whoever had stepped towards her. One of the Silk minions, surprisingly enough.
“Do you really want some of this?” she growled, with as menacing a stare as she could manage. The Silk backed up a bit.
“She can’t beat all of us!” said a wheezing voice from nearby. Haf, staggering back into the helpful arms of two lackeys as he got to his feet. Ladi could almost see the thoughts going through their heads. They were wavering, losing their anxiety as no reinforcements arrived to back her up.
She couldn’t allow that.
Ladiya swung the javelin down across the courtyard stone with every inch of her strength, and was rewarded by another resounding crack.
“I don’t have to beat you,” she declared. “All I have to do is make enough noise to bring the Hand down on ALL of us!”
Haf sneered. “She wouldn’t do something so-”
“Stay behind me, Penelope!” Ladiya yelled at the top of her lungs, brandishing the javelin again. She didn’t have experience with a staff, but if she could keep them off balance…
She felt a strange tingle go through her fingers, saw shock and a little terror blossom in the Silks’ collective faces. Even Haf took a step back. And it was only then that Ladi glanced down at her weapon and saw the crackling purple sparks crawling across it. Her first instinct was to drop it. Yet, whatever sort of magic this was, it wasn’t hurting her. Even as she gripped it, white knuckled, it barely even tickled her skin.
With a grin full of wicked glee, Ladiya turned back to her enemies. A couple of minions had already backed off, running out of the courtyard. She leveled the crackling javelin at the remainder, and their not-so-fearless leader.
“So then, Haf,” she drawled, eyes alight with anticipation. “How do you want to do this?”
Acknowledgements: While all of the characters in this story are mine, the story itself was inspired by events in Episode 66 of Critical Role and is set in the world of Exandria, created by Matthew Mercer. A huge thank you to the whole cast for their excellent characterization and creativity; but particularly to Matt, whose world-building and storytelling is seriously top notch. Thank you! Also, a thousand pardons for anything I spelled incorrectly…
This story was a great spark of inspiration when I was in a dark place last year. I really had a ton of fun writing it, cheesey ending and all, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. ^-^