In which our heroine gets an unexpected job offer
The Taste of Lies Part III
Guppy’s eyes slid their way along all five inches of a slick steel blade, past a fine boned ivory hand, and up to the hardened eyes of a woman she’d never seen before.
‘You and your friend are going to keep your mouths shut and come with me. Nod to show you understand.’ The woman’s voice was a hushed rasp in the darkness. Guppy nodded, elbowing the boy behind her to do the same. She was painfully aware that any movement she made could press her throat against that skinny blade.
‘Good. We’re heading to the granary. If you try to run, you’ll get a knife in your back.’ The tone was brutally matter-of-fact. She gave Guppy a sharp shove after her knife slid away into the dark. ‘Move.’
They set off again, the sharp clicks of the woman’s heels punctuating their journey through narrow streets to the southern-most outskirts of the town. Here the cobbles turned to dirt, and the warm lights of houses fell away to leave them coated in murk. The boy’s gasps almost sounded shrill.
The granary loomed up from the darkness, blocky shapes afloat heavy stone blocks. The woman stalked to the store at the very rear, and reached up to open the wooden door. She beckoned to the children.
Guppy held the boy behind her, shoulders back and mouth set in a defiant line. The woman rolled her eyes and before Guppy could move, that blade was back in those fine white fingers, loosely held in lazy threat.
Guppy scrambled forward and gave the boy a boost up to the doorway, shooting a scowl at the woman before hoiking herself up behind him. The store was mostly empty, save for scatterings of grain underfoot. There was a scraping behind them, and then pitch darkness as the woman closed the door.
After a moment, there was a faint scrape followed by a soft hum, and a warm yellow glow burned through the black, emitted by the gleaming glass tube the woman placed by her thigh.
She sat leaning back against one wall, long legs between Guppy and the doorway. She was dressed in greys, head to toe, including a heavy woollen cloak stained with mud around its hem. Her face was all angles, the light catching planes and casting shadows so it appeared one half of her was made of darkness. Even her eyes were grey. The eye in the light was fixed on Guppy’s face.
‘So. It seems you two managed to get yourselves into an impressive amount of trouble. That slaver you cheated is rampaging all over town. Names?’
The boy beside Guppy hitched in a breath, then said, ‘Nate, I don’t know hers, she can’t talk.’
‘Is that so?’ The woman’s shadow eyebrow rose. Guppy stuck out her tongue yet again, feeling aggrieved that today of all days she couldn’t donate a piece of her mind to all the people she’d met. The woman leaned forward, inspecting. One hand slid to a pocket on the inside of her cloak. Guppy stiffened, but the hand emerged holding a small brown glass pot, rather than a blade.
‘Take a fingerful of this and rub it over your tongue. It’ll help the swelling go down.’
Guppy snorted. As if she was going to chomp something a crazy knife kidnapper waved at her. Before the snort was over, said kidnapper was waving said knife in her other hand.
‘This isn’t a suggestion, girl. It’s an order.’
Guppy leaned forward and dipped a finger into the ruddy goop in the pot. She took a suspicious sniff. It smelled kinda lemony. Tentatively she swiped it over the tip of her tongue and then as the cooling sensation spread, she eased her finger over the rest of the swollen mass. Abruptly it became easier to breathe, as her tongue began to deflate. And the stuff even tasted nice. Neat.
The woman waited for a minute, then put the pot away.
‘Tongue?’ Guppy stuck it out again. The woman gave a sharp nod. ‘Right, let’s try that again. Name?’
‘Guppy. What’s yours?’ It came out with a bit of a sticky slur but at least didn’t hurt anymore.
‘You’ve got no need for my name, girl.’
‘Guppy, not girl.’
The woman stared at her. An eyeball thrashing had never had any effect on Guppy in the past, it wasn’t about to bother her now.
‘You can call me Grey. You’re in up to your necks. You’ve pissed off a major slaver and he’s got a good enough description of you that you’re finished in this town and probably the whole region. I’m going to do you a favour.’
Guppy raised her eyebrow in turn. ‘Does the favour involve your knife? That seemed real friendly back there.’
‘Silence.’ The woman snarled the word, moving her knife hand with gut watering speed and slamming it into the boards an inch from Guppy’s left foot.
Guppy decided she should probably shut up for now and hear the crazy lady out.
‘I’ve been keeping an eye on you. You seem to think you’re clever, child, when really you’re nothing but a petty thief. Still, a thief with potential.’ Grey frowned, pulling the knife from the board with a sharp tug. ‘You’ve accelerated my timeline a bit with your ridiculous plan – gods know what I’m going to do with him.’ Nate shrunk back from the shadowed glare.
She focussed back on Guppy. ‘Have you heard of the Cerium?’
Guppy shrugged, ‘They tried to bump the old king off afore he went and copped it anyway.’
Grey gave a slow nod. ‘The Cerium failed in their attempts on the former king’s life, but they continue to lay snares for the present king. They were nearly successful not two months ago when the king was at the Spring Palace. Their plots were discovered and the king was made safe. But they will try again.’
Guppy gave another shrug, ‘Don’t mean nothing to me. No king ever made a difference to my life.’
Grey shook her head, ‘So naive. The world as you know it would fall apart if the king fell. He has no heir, no family. The kingdom would fall to civil war, and that would certainly affect your life. And so I ask that you give something to save the king.’
Guppy stared at Grey. ‘Ask? That the kind of asking that involves that there knife you’ve been waving around? Seems to me that isn’t exactly asking.’
‘Ah, let’s say, I strongly suggest that you give something to save the king. You have a talent girl, one that the king would greatly value.’ Her eyes burned into Guppy’s. ‘You have a way with lies.’
Guppy met her eyes with straight out denial, ‘Nope.’ Her mouth flooded with sourness, stinging her still tender tongue.
Grey smiled as though she could taste the lie too. ‘Have you always thought it was just you? One girl in all the kingdom who can speak untruths without consequences? There aren’t many but those who are discovered are trained mercilessly and brought into service.’
Guppy frowned. ‘Trained mercilessly?’
‘It’s the kind of training that involves red hot pins under fingernails, mental torment, and unspeakable tortures, whilst being told to say “I’m fine” repeatedly without cease.’ Bleakness seemed to run over the woman’s features at her words.
Guppy swallowed. ‘Well, that doesn’t really sound like all that much fun, thanks and all that.’
‘You seem to have learned much without formal training, so I think we can proceed to the practical. We need people to act on the kingdom’s behalf against those who are suspected of being members of the Cerium. We need spies, Guppy. And spies need to be able to lie.’
‘And what about Nate here, he can’t lie.’ Guppy turned to the boy, ‘You can’t, can you?’ He shook his head, face pale. ‘Right, he can’t lie so he’s no good as a spy, right? I’m not about to hare off and leave him to the slavers.’
Grey tapped her long fingers against a grey boot. ‘The boy is a bit of an unforeseen problem. Perhaps we can try to teach him the skill. If not, we’ll leave him somewhere far enough away that the slavers won’t recognise him. My word on it.’
‘Riiiight. The word of someone who abducts boys and girls at knifepoint. Real trustworthy, I’m sure.’ Guppy reeled back as a ringing blow hit her left cheekbone. Grey seized her by the neckline and yanked her back the other way until they were nose to nose.
‘You’ve got lip, girl. If you keep using it, I’ll start slicing pieces off. If you try to sneak off, I’ll hack you into fish food. And whatever I do to you, I do to him.’ Grey nodded at the trembling boy at Guppy’s side.
Guppy shoved her furious response down. Time to be smart.
‘Fine. So what’s going to happen to us?’
Grey eased back. ‘Tomorrow we leave this dump and head for Casta. Get your heads down for now.’
She picked up the light tube and the glow winked out with a hiss.
‘And in case you get any ideas, you should know that I sleep with a blade in each hand.’