More smut incoming soon ^^
This is the latest instalment of my first long-form piece, The Sayers. You can find links to every chapter of the Novel at the dedicated blog page. If you notice any grammatical errors I have overlooked, or you have any observations to make on this piece, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.
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The Sides, Gathered
Alexa stands on the landing of Darkworth's shop, separating effortlessly three interactions below.
She senses the young boy that guarded her, Junior Assistant with a customer, discussing the best combination of materials to help prevent Black Fly on rapidly-growing vegetables. Darkworth himself is in full flow, heated exchange with a supplier over requirements for the following month, and his concern that the Military were stopping increasing numbers of vital reagents at the ports. However, for now at least, it is the last pairing that interests her the most. Daniel is somewhere at the back of the shop, in a storage area, at least one hand and possibly more inside the robe of the woman he now knows is responsible for altering Alexa’s mind. Hilltop practices what he does best, deflecting the truth with physical distraction. By the level of arousal she can sense, Olivia is no wiser as to his enlightenment.
Both customer and supplier depart in short order, and Alexa makes sure Hilltop knows she’s on the move, touch to his mind that he instantly acknowledges. Then she focusses on where Darkworth stands in the room below her, before sending a simple line of Direction:
Is it safe?
Silas sends the boy to lock front door and draw blinds: when there is no more movement below, she proceeds. Descending into the shop, memories spark of the Imperial Apoth's Emporium in Tamesa, her home for so many years. Neat lines of bottles stacked on shelves, impeccably labelled and presented alphabetically: rows of aged wooden boxes sit, densely packed in hand-made displays running the length of the walls, behind a counter that has seen many spillages over the years.
There are places to sit but no tables, plus what is undoubtedly an extremely expensive and well-provisioned distillation lab that extends up and around one whole corner. The almost omnipotent smell of just-extinguished candles mixes with freshly-baked bread and pork, tonight’s meal being prepared. This area should be darker than it is, Alexa notes, certainly with blinds drawn, but there are a row of small glass bulbs that glow at the back of the shop with a brightness that is a surprise.
'Phosphorescent lights, that activate when a certain level of darkness is reached. We're the first in the arcade to be supplied.' Darkworth pronounces the advance with a touch of pride. He's a small man, Capitol-accented, but despite obvious age wears a long shock of dark hair tied in a neat black plait. He stares at Alexa with familiarity: it takes a moment to insert him correctly into her chronology.
'You used to work for the Guild's Poison Supplier, didn't you?'
Darkworth smiles, and her past again shifts into the present. This man was always decent and loyal, with an expansive heart. He never denied his eye for the ladies, several mistresses but never a wife… easy to see how he would share an affinity with Hilltop.
'You have a good memory, Assassin Greengrass.’
I already knew.
His Direction is unsurprising: less disbelief in his demeanour than Daniel, almost resigned to the knowledge his daughter is complicit in what has transpired. Darkworth comes across the shop and offers Alexa his hand, assistance with the last half dozen steps, gesture which she is immediately grateful for. As their hands touch he provides a simple, damning image. The scroll he shares is the exact same as the one she’d carried from the cottage. He’d seen Olivia hand this message to Riverman as he’d passed through the town, curious himself at the Eye Seal. Silas then grasped that morning via troop communications that the Military Assassin he’d furnished with poison was being sent east to kill her.
His duplicity, supplying both Military and Revolution, had provided the light-bulbs and his safety. Alexa lingers, taking his arm, knowing Daniel’s assertion to be correct. Of the countless players who’d chosen to stack both sides against the other, here was a man who truly did care for the right things.
I trust you.
As she Directs the room ripples, legs suddenly buckling, and Darkworth’s arm is around her waist, his junior suddenly running for a chair.
'You're suffering from the effects of an opiate overdose, it's no wonder you're feeling unsteady. Olivia is brewing what I believe is a comparable anti-nausea compound, it will not be long. Come, sit here.’
‘I am incredibly thirsty, is that likely to be a side-effect?’
‘Indeed, dehydration is normal. Edward, go get a pitcher of water and alert my daughter that her patient is awake.’
The boy places a chair and then scurries away, leaving Darkworth to fuss, attention Alexa has no problems with allowing. He checks her pulse, chestnut brown eyes watching carefully for reaction. At the back of the shop there is commotion, sudden laughter and the sound of running water, then Edward returns, large heavy metal jug and another carafe put to instant use. As Alexa watches him pour and she drinks, Daniel’s presence appears, with another behind him. This woman is sated, warmth and comfort, revelling in the understanding she has been pleasured whilst her partner’s ex lover sat seemingly unaware, contentment radiating from one blissfully oblivious to the the reality of her situation.
Alexa looks up to meet Olivia Darkworth’s gaze for the first time, closing her mind completely. Stunningly beautiful, more intelligent than her father, she carries a small bowl that steams oddly, movements of Earth that do not seem normal.
‘I used chromatography on the residue of the scroll: I’m still not 100% sure what it was the Sisters used, so I've had to guess at what to throw into this solution. Needless to say, if it doesn't work Father has a bucket for you to throw up in, hopefully that might improve your situation regardless.’
There is no welcome, minimal consideration of respect. Her smile covers the lie with considerable skill: to an untrained mind she will appear pleasant and open, without any deceit. Alexa assumes Hilltop will not allow her to be poisoned further, that this mixture will make things better and not worse. The bowl is handed from daughter to father, then to her: she shuts her eyes, taking the liquid in one hit. There is aniseed, charcoal and something else familiar as stomach turns briefly, before the nausea settles, but refuses to recede. Olivia takes the bowl, looking back to her father, already knowing this will not be enough.
‘How do you feel, Mistress Greengrass?’
‘There is still discomfort, though that has helped. Another dose would be useful.’
‘I have brewed a complete batch, knowing it may take several hours for the nausea to completely recede. Edward, please refill this and take care to use the ladle. Do not dip the bowl into the pan as I have seen you do before.’
The boy is clearly afraid, and vanishes at speed. Now concern appears, but it is skill at question, nothing more. Olivia’s pride swells, clearly confident her ability was without equal, simple when you knew what to prepare well in advance. Pulling deeper within, Alexa waits quietly for the second bowl, making eye contact with an impassive Hilltop. She is surprised that he does not look away, but holds the gesture. Her mind focuses on the carried message, a sudden moment of unexpected clarity.
‘We will wait, and bide our time, and when the moment comes, we will be ready to return the Sisters to their true path.'
Alexa replays the elderly female voice echoing within, fragment of somebody else's past given in semi-consciousness, and there is a moment of enlightenment. She knows whose life this came from. The second bowl arrives and is taken without a thought, and nausea leaves her. The room visibly lightens as a result, and Olivia is obviously impressed at her efforts.
'Your colour is returning. I think that second dose was a good idea.'
The phantoms in Alexa’s mind shift and tickle, players in a history being noted and placed. The Imperial Physician is new: Alexa knows him from another place and his loyalty does not sit with Marcus. She asks for more water, time to consider as concern creeps into the chronology. Too many people possess divided loyalties, their own desires far greater than any cause they choose to champion. Darkworth’s daughter is not the exception, but the rule. These are not motivations for freedom, simply negotiation, material gain for no real victory.
There is also no denying her nausea has vanished. Alexa is better, more relaxed than she has been since having left home: the soup having as much of an effect on her well-being as the antidote. In fact, the warmth in her body is a pleasant surprise.
‘Both your Apoth and cookery skills are gratefully received, Mistress Darkworth. Thank you.'
Olivia's smile is genuine: for a moment Alexa wonders if they could have been friends, perhaps if things had been different this would not end up as confrontation. There is a moment that hangs but it is Darkworth Senior who breaks it, clearly focussed on more pressing matters.
'If you don't mind Olivia, I'd like the shop reopened whilst I go talk to our guest in private. The last thing we want right now is any overly suspicious activity.'
His daughter appears perturbed, but nods and heads to the entrance, followed by the assistant who begins to reopen blinds. Alexa moves to the back of the shop, following Daniel into the rear storage area where Darkworth is already preparing her a seat. It is surprisingly spacious, even with low-hanging beams: this will be where business for the Assassins Guild would be conducted when the shop was open. Behind the packing case used as a chair, Alexa feels a draught as she sits, understanding the space has a secret door, down to a basement she’d bet was used as a safe spot for both items and people.
Once settled, Darkworth wastes no time in addressing her.
‘Mistress Greengrass, how much of what now sits in your head are you prepared to share?’
‘This has nothing to do with willingness, I assure you. There is so much, and all intensely personal, I suspect fashioned by the Sisters to try and dissuade me from sharing it openly. My bigger concern is the presence that now exists within me. If I didn't know better I would say these aren't actually memories, it is almost as if someone else is appearing and disappearing in my subconscious.'
‘What I know of my daughter’s research into the Opiates the Sisters have been using for visionary purposes is considerable and may be of some value. For a long time if you asked anyone they'd deny the plant it was created from even existed. The work done in the Far Asias in the last decade is hugely sophisticated and far beyond anything we have here, but elements of it begin to emerge from the Capitol. Cross-propogation, polished sublimation techniques... cutting edge technology. There are several inside the Palace, spies for our cause, and they have confirmed there are areas of the Imperial Garden that survived the Military's influence. I have no doubt what was used on you is very similar to the compound the Sisters utilise to enhance their powers of Vision.’
‘There are similarities with this to other drugs I have willingly imbibed, that I will grant you. You must be aware what Marchant used to communicate over distance: it was too powerful for me to even take safely. But for him… those formulas were lost on his death. His Manual vanished, recipes taken to his grave. The Sisters tried many times to obtain his understanding and failed.’
Daniel remains silent, concern apparent without Direction. He’d shunned the drugs, refusing to be part of the teams that offered to use them, scared at how his mind would react to such exposure. Alexa had suffered for many days, sweats and hot flushes, body painful and wracked with cramps. She is aware that whatever is affecting her now has a lot in common with the side-effects from those last days, after she became Marchant’s Tether from necessity. The distinct fluidity in her lower body was unmistakeable, inhibitions softening and sensations beginning to heighten…
‘I am cautious to share anything until I am certain of all the details, but know I’ve been bought here to protect the Seed of Progression.’
Darkworth’s amazement is considerable, but Daniel already knows, she had told him unconsciously upstairs. Yet now his heart rate rises, adrenaline sparked: Alexa can sense something else at play. An oath has been sworn by her ex-lover that contains hidden meaning: his surprise at her Directed admission upstairs was not at the task she had been given.
He had already promised himself to do the same.
'What if I said the Seed didn't need protecting, that we were already taking care of it?'
Silas turns open-mouthed to Daniel, who seems only mildly apologetic at his friend in response.
'I'm sorry, I was sworn to secrecy. The Green Men have been moving for some time: since the Seed was removed from the Sayer's Chapel to the Palace three months ago there's been a plan in place to free him when they could be sure that he was not under direct Sayer influence. We created a diversion this morning, explosions and an attack planned to look as if it was a threat to the High General. If all is going to plan, they should have the Seed out of the Palace by now, and they'll move him at first light tomorrow to the home of one of Lucius' sympathisers.'
Alexa has stopped listening, languid in the warmth of the afternoon sun, drawn to a moment of her own creation. Sent to protect the Seed, she couldn't remember his name until now. Ridiculous, such small moments eluding her recall, except there is something in this man she’s already grasped. So much forgotten when she fled, all tied to the same sequence of events. A moment in the Palace, hours after Ekhert took the sword from her hands. The Tether drug remained in her system, doing strange things to mind and body. Unable to sleep, she had walked the Palace in darkness, and heard movement from the Stables. There she had found him.
The Directed whisper invades both men’s minds, compulsion that silences everything except their focus on her, drawing combined psychic strength into her own being. This compound is clever, sophisticated yet subtle, and now Alexa concentrates, boosting her range with those who surround her, task at hand far simpler. This mixture Olivia has provided has not reduced her potency, far from it. Consciousness is further heightened, understanding that what been drunk is actually improving the ability to locate her target…
'Just Max, the rest is a mouthful.'
The man stood, quietly grooming a grey mare. It had struck her as odd that the husband of the High Sister would be doing something so menial, but it had been apparent even without her ability that the simple process of brushing helped him relax, feel safe. She found herself envious, in that moment, of his serenity and calm, how unaffected he could be by the Earth, that to be so was an ability she could only attain beneath the surface of the water.
Then he’d attempted to start a conversation. She'd been rooted to the spot, desire suddenly beyond overwhelming, even though fraternising was forbidden. She hadn't cared then and she didn't now.
The past and present tug insistently, attempting to connect. Passion is what drives her, pleasure from control in all its forms, giving her vision an extra potency upstairs with Daniel. Her future, theirs, tied to two men, making body stutter with undoubted anticipation. Giving into her own arousal from the journey and now, she lets the World around her collapse, concertinaing to a single point of connection.
Max’s mouth is on hers with a force that takes her breath away, brutal kiss reducing the world to a small square of red paper, fluttering quietly away on the warm summer breeze...
'Alexa, can you hear me?'
Daniel is talking, out of direct field of vision, not part of what has taken her brain. She holds up her hand and tells him to wait, except they aren't words from her mouth or Direction but something entirely separate, enough to make Darkworth and Hilltop react simultaneously with incredulity. The command forms in the air, 'Wait' spelt with letters and meaning drawn in the shafts of sunlight from the high, uncovered windows.
In Alexa's mind she still stands in the Stables, oblivious to everything but Max.
The cartographer’s world is parchment, elegantly annotated sheets of facts and figures, folding onto itself: in and out, over and back. Drawings in a folder become living, breathing people, figures in a chase, the taste of adrenaline in her mouth transferred from his kiss, transformed back to her body. His voice, quiet and still, drawing anger away, sliver of calm in the moment of greatest terror.
‘I will always be inside you.’
The Imperial Summer House explodes, massive eruption from basement to roof, unconfined fireball which effectively destroys the entire structure in seconds. The stench of gunpowder is in the air, chaos as she stumbles and falls except she's not her any more, she is him.
Max and her are escaping from the Palace as one.
He's being helped to his feet by a woman, deceiving in serving robes, hand in his as both run towards a low cart, horses scared and impatient. Whoever she is he trusts her, that is apparent, but Alexa needs to see a face, to confirm an identity. Making him slow, holding back, the woman is forced to turn and see why, tugging on his arm, before there is a second of disorientation.
Alexa’s brain takes the present and inserts the past, missing pieces in a puzzle, allowing this woman’s history to interleave with her own. The story of a now-familiar face, their life and times is rapidly drawn, history illustrated, years of shared chronology coloured and illuminated. They had begun as students, together, until one day Alexa had become the teacher…
The air stretches around both women, present moving to past in a breath and it is early morning in the Guild’s Training Yard. Alexa is pulled towards her pupil, through and around, suddenly and decisively at her back with a blade strapped to each hand, beating her again in the simplest of drills. The apprentice has failed to intercept from behind because she refuses to focus. There's no way the teacher is ever going to change this woman's mindset if she won't concentrate on the basics...
'It's a setup.'
'One of the team, those you you sent in to free the Seed from the Palace. They're not allied to the Green Men. They're a double agent, working for the Military.’
The world falls back into place around Alexa's body. She exists fully again in the Storeroom, at least for now. Only a heartbeat is needed to assess everything she's just seen, and the path is clear. This is a direction to follow, points to join. Instinctive understanding, the Green Men's plan is flawed. She puts hands to head, palms hard against temples, willing back recall. Needing to convince Daniel of her sincerity, and it is always the names that fail her. Her mind throws a prompt: conflict after the Coup, smashing of china and glass, anger unbridled and unrestrained, a woman who wanted something she could never have. Whispers from everywhere that she was not to be trusted in those last days, already freelancing for the highest bidder, regardless of their affiliation. A mercenary, without honour or respect.
Desperately Alexa dives deeper, last fateful days at the Palace: an argument, heated and intense, fuelled by desire that went beyond professional appreciation. Marchant’s last and most promising apprentice had told her there was no future in independence, that teamwork was the most pointless of fallacies. Even at distance the venom in her words was obvious, simple focus on one thing alone: herself. Selfishness is a great path to destruction. Alexa knew then that Marion was trouble.
'There is no way I could possibly know who the Green Men had sent to do this job. Two days ago I was dead, no-one knew where I was. Except, it appears, the Sayers. They found me, and sent me a message, because the Seed was being used as a way to allow you to lead the High General straight to Lucius Brown. They understood I'd have an affinity with the spy: after all, I helped train her. Darkworth sent Marion Woodgrove to the Palace to work with Rudge.’
All colour suddenly drains from both men's faces.
Darkworth reacts first, anger exploding from his mind, body struggling to contain the detonation of disbelief and upset that radiates from him unchecked. Alexa needs no explanation: this deception from Woodgrove was different. His daughter’s duplicity in assisting the Sisters had come as no real surprise to him, but Marion had crept into his head, used the older man’s weaknesses as strengths to deceive. His own desire had ultimately undone him. All this she processes in seconds, understanding the drug is doing things to her mind she is increasingly unhappy with maintaining.
‘I’ve known her family for twenty years… I believed her when she said she’d changed, that she wanted to help. Her Direction was sincere…’
‘You were right, Daniel. Only this man can be trusted. Everybody else is complicit.’
Alexa’s statement is a prompt, focussed at Hilltop: suddenly guilt bursts from him in a wave. Grasping her hand he sends her an image: too obsessed trying to locate her, he’d failed to check Darkworth’s choice of personnel. There had been an assumption that Rudge would have raised an objection to her if there’d been one… but now Daniel too grasps revelation. If his loyalty is not for the Iliad…
He moves for the Sisters?
Alexa shows Daniel her past, contact with Rudge outside of the Palace, position as Physician at the Priory north of her village before moving to the Capitol. He had come for herbs, and she closed her mind whenever he did. Every card in this deck seemed stacked, yet the Sisters had failed to anticipate her ability to look beyond the carefully placed chronology. Again these connections weren’t clever, they were clumsy and opportunist.
With all she now knows, this travesty could be exposed for all to see.
Alexa grasps both men’s hands in her own and focuses, willing the room around all three to blossom open, walls peeling apart in effortless removal of the restrictions of the Earth. She pulls the past to her from their memories in the shop and from the Capitol: recalling their plan and placing within the damning positioning from Rudge and Olivia of them both. In a blink there is the future, echo of Riverman before, as Marion’s ‘predicted’ death at Alexa’s hands becomes reparation for treatment of various Sayer sympathisers, using Greengrass to balance the scales.
Max himself sits at the centre, life important above all else. Except, deep within Alexa’s soul, there is a beat that remains, untouched by anyone. The possibility of defiance: Max and Daniel, together.
‘We will always be inside you.’
She holds one close as the other protects, entangled together in lightening dawn, calmness without comparison, minds combined making her ache. What she is pales against their strength.
What they are together everyone will fear.
‘There is no magic in prediction, only the present to be manipulated.’
Alexa lies without thinking, muscle memory recalling the skills to hide what she knows is inevitable but yet cannot accept. They both pulse inside her, coming to rest, orgasms hard and brutal: the future lives untouched. This will happen, and she alone will bind the three, together.
The sides, finally joined.
‘Now I know why what Olivia was brewing smelt familiar. She’s Tethered you to Max.’
When his eyes meet hers Alexa wants to kiss Hilltop, hard and long, ignoring both the situation and Darkworth’s barely contained anger. That had been her problem with the Tether compound the last time, why Marchant had told her to avoid it. It was acting as an aphrodisiac she really didn’t need. The manipulation makes her angry and this will remove the desire, and that too is a reaction that the Sisters had anticipated. Her hatred for those behind this was an issue she would soon need to address.
‘You’re right, I am Tethered. She has placed many things inside my head I could really do without.’
‘You need not worry, I will provide you with an effective antidote, Mistress Greengrass. It is time my daughter's work be given to a wider audience.’
Darkworth moves with grim determination, crossing to a part of the storeroom filled with Alchemical Texts. Without ceremony he pushes a book backwards and there is a click, small drawer appearing under the row of shelves. He reaches inside, and pulls out a slim notebook, before handing it to Alexa.
‘I believe you will find within this book the formulas for both Vision and Tether compounds, delivered by a Priory Sister a week ago to my daughter. She asked for Rose Oil and Menthol two days later. I had assumed it was medicinal. Suddenly many things make a great deal more sense. I am pleased to see my decision to call on assistance now was not misjudged.’
Having temporarily dropped from the Tether bond, Alexa is only now aware of raised voices in the shop, undoubted sounds of an altercation, and Darkworth is gone, moving purposefully. About to follow, Daniel stops Alexa with a hand to her arm, and she understands this is not her fight. This is why he used arousal as distraction. Once Olivia’s complicity was confirmed, the only logical response became immediate action. Silas had called for help, and is dealing with one traitor. Now she and Daniel must confront the other.
With the drama in the shop, speech is at least possible, and voices drop to whispers.
‘The plan is to smuggle him out in the daily delivery cart, yes? The one that leaves from the main Stables? The attack was at the bottom of the south west wall close to where Marcus has his Summer House?'
‘All that from fifteen seconds of shared mind is impressive even for you.’
‘This is far more sophisticated than any Tether compound I ever took. He’s in my head now, under canvas, in a cart heading East. Where’s he going?’
'They're moving him to one of three possible locations on the North shore overnight, depending on how much military traffic is present. I don't know which one she’ll favour, that's Marion's choice. In the morning a courier’s being sent with details of where to go next. It’s considered too dangerous for Lucius to remain anywhere currently for too long, he could be at any one of half a dozen locations. I can arrange for someone to intercept him at first light-’
‘There’s no need. How fast can we get to the north shore?’
‘I already have people preparing what’s required. What I need to know is how capable you are of communicating with Max when the time comes.’
‘I think I’d like a canteen of this enhancement compound to take with us. With your ability for me to draw on and the reduced distance to Max it should be very effective at securing a quick and dirty bond.’
‘I’ll get Edward to bottle it for us once our traitor is dealt with.’
‘What will happen to her? Will Darkworth treat her well?’
‘She is a conspirator with the Sisters, who are not our immediate enemy. However, she cannot be allowed to be privy to anything now that transpires, we don’t trust anyone except ourselves and Silas. He will deal with her. She may yet prove useful if willing to co-operate.’
‘And your feelings for her?’
‘I would be lying if I said my devotion had laid with her for some time. You must know that.’
There is no time left for further emotional distraction, at least until such time as the Seed is secured and safe. In her mind the man is uncomfortable and hungry, but vastly relieved at being freed from the Palace. In time she is convinced she’ll find a way to use Direction to ascertain more.
‘I can work on forging a bond with Max as we travel north. Don’t worry, when the time comes, I know exactly how this plays out, and where. We’ll need to take the Ferry at Cross Keys. I’ll also need Darkworth to provide some specific anaesthetics before we depart… oh, and I could use a blowpipe. Because you know, old habits die hard.’
‘I think that’s all doable. Anything else?’
‘I would like a chance to talk. To you, unhindered.’
Daniel’s mind shifts as she appraises him, events being subtly reordered, and she knows he won’t respond: not simply does he have no idea where to start after five years, there are echoes from the message that she carries splintering throughout his consciousness. What she’s shared affects other parts of his brain, causing reactions he’s trying his best to suppress in her presence. Their intimacy is not at an end, that much is already apparent, but what happens after that is no longer dependant on the other.
Hilltop is acutely aware the Seed ties all three of them to each other.
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