The wide expanse of the open sea was everything but calming; raging waters and shouting sailors and a precarious drop below her feet had quite opposite the classic effect.
She sat with her legs dangled over the cliff, peering down at the docks below. Ropes were tossed and sails were blown open and boats were pushed out slowly to make their way into profitable sea.
This was normal. This was an early morning’s view.
But perhaps, with a plan in place, something would go a little differently.
On cue, from one of the smaller boats, a sailor shouted something unmistakably louder, his face scrunched up in anger, though she was too far away to hear what he said next. He waved a piece of rope above his head.
Another sailor, who Ilya knew to be his shipmate, cried out in response. Several men rushed to the man holding the rope, barreling their way towards him.
And then the boat began to sink.
The sailors shrieked, pointing and fumbling, until one evidently reached the smart conclusion that he should jump right off. The rest followed, launching themselves into what must have been frigid water, but the whole lot of them reached the docks soaking wet and otherwise fine.
The boat was nowhere in sight.
They peered over the dock, and grappled in the water, seemingly puzzled beyond explanation.
Ilya stood, proud with a job well done, and dusted off her leggings where little pieces of grass and dirt had stuck. She plucked her pouch from where it lay at her feet and fastened it around her waist, turning her back on the confused sailors, putting one bare foot in front of the other to head back down the winding path.
That part, however, did not go as planned.
The flash of a knife gave Ilya just enough warning to stiffen before a blade was at her throat, close enough only to feel the sting of it on her neck, and another pressed into the fabric just below her ribs. Her attacker stood against her back, the black fabric of an overlarge hood shielding their face.
Ilya held her breath.
“I know what you do, and if you try to open your mouth, I’ll make sure you never speak again.”
Fear constricted any words that might have come out anyway. She focused her efforts on remaining still, because the first thing she’d ever learned was that silence was the easiest way to look for a way out.
There were blades at her throat and at her stomach, and the arms holding her in did not feel like they were about to budge.
“I suggest that you do as I ask, because then I won’t have to track you down again.” Her attacker rasped a cough out. “Tomorrow, at noon. Be at the market square.”
Ilya took short, labored breaths, her neck stretched and stiff at the same time with effort not to make contact with the blade being held at it. “What do you want?” She managed.
“Noon. Market square. I’ll have a payment ready, if you require it up front.”
Ilya did not see much of a choice in her situation. She would have nodded, but then that might have resulted in a decapitation, so she chose to make a strangled noise of agreement instead. “Okay.”
As suddenly as they appeared, the knives were gone, and she was released from the iron grip. Her hand flew to her throat, and she spun around to catch a glimpse of the attacker, but all that remained was a faint indent on her skin where the knife had nudged her, and not even footsteps on the dirt around her.
She gripped the pouch at her waist. The weight of the coins in it had remained the same, so it hadn’t simply been thievery. The frightening stranger wanted an audience tomorrow.
It seemed like she would have to entertain them.
The market square was as busy as any other day, but there were odd flashes of red uniforms at every corner of every block that seemed unfamiliar to Ilya.
She didn’t know exactly why she had chosen, that morning, to do perhaps the stupidest thing she’d ever done, and show up exactly where the stranger with the knives had asked her to be, but there she was, and the sun was inching closer and closer to its apex. The market square was a big place, anyhow; there was a good chance that her assailant would never even find her. It would be their fault for suggesting such a difficult place to arrange a rendezvous.
A little boy with a snaggletooth and a ragged voice shoved a rolled-up newspaper into the crook of her arm. “News from the castle city, miss, about the war.” He said, and held out a hand expectantly, and blinked.
Ilya hesitated for a moment, but then remembered the job she’d finished the day before, and the resulting extra coins resting in the pouch at her waist. Might as well spend it on something useful. She pressed two thin coins into the boy’s palm, and he flashed a crooked smile before disappearing into the streets.
Ilya turned back to the apple cart, running a finger over the green fruit. She had a few apples on the counter back home; she didn’t need any more, but she really didn’t know where else to stand and wait.
She didn’t have to wait long.
A gloved hand wrapped around her elbow, and Ilya found herself suddenly staring into a pair of striking grey eyes. The hand tugged, and the person behind the eyes began to back away, and so Ilya followed, blind surprise overwhelming the alarms in her brain that screeched for her to stop and consider her reckless actions.
She did not stop, nor did she consider her reckless actions.
In fact, she followed the stranger to a small pawn shop a block away, then into the street beside it, narrow and empty, and only then did Ilya come to her senses. Promptly she took a few startled steps away, but the stranger seemed satisfied with their position and didn’t pursue her, opting only to lower the faded black hood, and watch Ilya expectantly.
Ilya blurted the first thing that came to her lips: “Who are you?”
“A client.” The rasp of the stranger’s voice grated at Ilya’s ears in a sound that felt familiar, though she couldn’t place it. The woman, or so Ilya assumed from the feminine curves and angles to their eyes and lips, spoke with an accent that rounded her syllables in a way Ilya hadn’t heard in years. “And as promised, I have a commission for you. Thirty percent payment up front, and seventy after, does that sound fair?”
Ilya blinked at the stranger.
Painfully, a second of the charged silence between them passed, until the recognition flashed in Ilya’s eyes, until her jaw went slack in the same motion.
“You! With the knives!”
An amused smile tugged at the corner of the woman’s lips. “Yes.” She shifted slightly, and one of her gloved hands pushed the fabric of her coat away from her hip, revealing a sleek knife sheath. “That’s me.”
A stream of questions ran through Ilya’s head, unvoiced, mostly because if she had tried to say them out loud, the words would have tripped over each other and come out a jumbled mess.
Out loud, she managed to say, “What do you want?”
The woman clicked her tongue, and let her coat fall back into place. “Straight to business, then. Perfect. I’m going to tell you right now that what I need from you will require you to leave town for a few weeks.”
“A few weeks? That’s an awfully long time. This isn’t my main source of income, you know, I do have other work to keep up with.”
“Finances are no issue. I can compensate handsomely. How much would you charge?”
“You’re so sure you can meet it?” Ilya felt some defense of hers rise, a little voice chanting no one should be able to promise that kind of thing, but she tried so hard to force it away. Money was money, wasn’t it? And Ilya would need whatever she could get her hands on.
“I think I can assure that. Would you prefer I expand on the few weeks I’ll need from you?”
“Go right ahead, please.”
“Get me across the border.”
Ilya froze. She really hoped, really hoped, that she had heard wrong. “Excuse me?”
“The border. To Minatt. I know you know how, because you open that mouth of yours and things happen, don’t they?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, yes, you definitely do.” The woman paused, and lifted her chin a tad higher; calculating, appraising. “Siren.”
Ilya’s fists clenched, an involuntary reflex, and she felt the newspaper crumpling in her hand. “Don’t you say that again.”
“I’m right, and you know I’m right.” A serpentine smile flicked onto her lips. “Do you accept? My request?”
“That depends,” Ilya bit back the suspicion in her words, “on if that’s a threat.”
“Oh, no, never. I’m only just a client, asking for your services. I would not coerce you into it.” Something about the knives sheathed on her belt, the dark hooded cloak she had draped around her shoulders, and that destructive smile lent itself to the conclusion that she was, in fact, spouting lies. That this was, in fact, wholly a threat.
Ilya’s breath was cut off at her throat. Her heart began to strain against her ribcage with fear, her mind running through options and panicking when she realized there were so little available. She did not have an exit plan.
“Do I get twenty-four hours to consider?”
“You can have twenty-four minutes. Don’t bother trying to escape.”
Ilya stepped back. The woman did not react. Ilya pushed her luck. “What do I call you?” Because she couldn’t ask for a name; she definitely wouldn’t get the truth.
A charged pause. Then, as if it were something simple to give, she said, “Aleine.”
Something rang true, practiced, in the two reluctant syllables.
Ilya turned, choosing to let the admission hang in the air rather than give it a stuttered response. Twenty-four minutes, she apparently had, but she wasn’t sure how much of a choice it was.
She needed a way out.
She did not have a way out.
Ilya had spent plenty of late nights staring up at her bedroom’s low ceiling in the dark, contemplating all the ways her side job could get her killed. A vengeful client, a job gone awry, something, anything. But by some luck, or maybe just the small scale of her operation, none of her worst-case scenarios had ever come to fruition. She had never had to fight her way out of it.
This situation was shaping up to be the one she had never seen coming. Quite possibly, Ilya thought, as she turned to sneak another glance at the woman in the alley to make sure she was still there, the one that would end in Ilya’s demise.
If not death at the sparkling knives on her belt, if not death at trying to sneak this woman across a war-torn border, then definitely death at everything that would catch up with her afterwards, no doubt to include soldiers and their rifles, political delegates and their hit lists.
Ilya used less than six of her twenty-four minutes. She turned, braced herself on the wall, and smoothed out the now-crumpled newspaper against the bricks. The bolded words on the page began to melt into each other. Damn the war.
“Tell me exactly what you need.”