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Chapter 10 - Aoife

Can emotions carry a physical weight? Something you can actually feel? The pressure in Aoife’s chest suggested it was somehow tangible, a burden that could be measured. Or she could just be out of breath. She hadn’t stopped running since the airship hit the ground. She slowed down, found a tree to lean against, and began instinctively wiping away the tears streaking her face.

Okay, so maybe it was emotion.

She could genuinely physically feel it. The whirlwind of conflicting feelings churned within her, a tempest that left her confused more than anything. She was fairly certain it wasn’t guilt over the job going sideways or the other bandits all dying. Hindsight being what it is, they were all dead the moment the plan changed. And what a misguided, stupid, careless plan it was.

Originally, all they wanted was the gold. Maybe some quicksilver if it were an easy steal. It was simple. A group of thieves break into a poorly-secured location and steal something valuable. That was it, tried and true. While casing the workshop, however, Merrick realized the gold was being used in the construction of an airship. Like a shallow epiphany, greed swept in and changed the plan entirely. Nail in the coffin.

She remembered being in awe when they first met up to discuss it. It seemed so elaborate and grand, like she was finally part of something big. Really, they were nothing more than a group of petty thugs who bit off more than they could chew. The job was doomed before it began, even without taking the Cleric’s guards into consideration.

The churn within her heaved once more with a sudden recognition.

That was it. That’s what had her hung up. The Cleric. He didn’t die because shit went sideways like the rest of her crew. He died because she killed him. Murdered him. In cold blood. What she was feeling was guilt.

And yet, it also wasn’t. His death felt right, warranted. She wasn’t crying tears of regret or shame, at least not entirely. They were also tears of joy, of vengeance. It was the Conclave’s fault Rashida was dead, so the Cleric deserved to die like the rest of them.

She may have only been a girl at the time, but she can still remember meeting Rashida clear as day. How could she not? The woman was a godsdamn hero.

Her family had been traveling on the road, heading east back to their quaint, little barren of farmers and tradesmen. They left Rotwater two days prior, having traded or sold their entire stock of produce—carrots and potatoes mostly. Harvesting Season had only just ended and already their work was done for the next four months. Her parents were always in a good mood when they left Rotwater.

“Good trade,” they’d say.

“Lots o’ mud,” she’d sarcastically reply.

Even then, with the bottom of her dress dark with muck, it wasn’t nearly enough to bring down their spirits. Her parents would always sing on the way home. It was their little tradition. Daddy sang bass, Mama sang tenor, and every now and then she and her little brother would join in. Especially during “As Before, Once More.” It was her favorite song. The whole family knew it, and would let her belt out the titular line all on her own at the end of every chorus.

Their revelry must have alerted some opportunistic ruffians nearby. Either that, or the men had been lying in wait, hoping to catch some passersby off guard.

At first, it was just one man, a bottle in his hand, slowly waltzing into the middle of the road. His scraggly, dirty hair was complemented by one of the ugliest mustaches she’d ever seen. He wore leathers and trousers that were probably nice at some point, but upkeep didn’t seem to be high on this man’s list of priorities. The dagger prominently displayed at his side was the only thing particularly intimidating about the man, at least physically. He seemed drunk.

“Oh, please, don’t stop singin’ on my behalf! Was lovely. Really!”

“I’d love to!” her father proclaimed. “But I’ve been singing all day and my throat is starting to get a bit dry. You wouldn’t mind sharing a drink with a weary traveler, would you?”

“Sounds grand! You got anything in that cart of yours?”

“Afraid not, just a few supplies. We’ve got a few days travel ahead of—”

“Awful big cart for so few supplies. You wouldn’t have happened to bring a whole lot more with you on your way west, would you?” The man had started sounding much more sober than he originally let on. “Maybe sold or traded it back in town? Made a fair amount of coin, I bet.”

Her father had played it cool, but he saw where things were headed.

“You can have the supplies, alright? Just take—”

“We got no use for your supplies. Keep ‘em.”

The man whistled between his yellowed teeth. You should take the supplies, she remembered thinking, I have a toothbrush in there. From behind the trees and brush, two more men walked out, encircling the cart.

“My friends and I here ain’t interested in your junk. But we can’t just walk away empty handed now, can we?”

It was a fairly standard road robbery. Her father was hesitant, but eventually handed over the money. The man with the awful teeth didn’t leave, though. He turned his attention towards Aoife’s mother and smiled.

“This must be the most thrillin’ thing that’s happened to you in some time, ‘ey lass? Why don’t you come hop off that cart and let Roake show you some real excitement!”

He lifted his bottle and sloshed the contents around, self-indulgently carefree. He had already taken their money. Now he wanted their dignity.

The bottle exploded before her mother could respond, sending tiny shards of glass flying. Roake closed his eyes as he was hit with a spray of debris and cheap wine. He spun, searching, until he saw her. Aoife turned to look as well. Rashida, another arrow already nocked and drawn, stood defiantly at the treeline. It may be her childhood imagination playing tricks on her memory, but Aoife could swear there was a light illuminating Rashida from behind and a soft breeze gently waving her cloak.

“Alright, alright. You’ve had your fun. Now why don’t you give these nice folks their money back and be on your way?”

“Who the hell are you?” Roake asked demandingly.

“I’m the woman that’s gonna do to your friend”—she turned her arrow towards the man attempting to slowly make his way around her—“what I did to your wine if he takes even one more step.”

Her eyes never left Roake’s gaze. For a moment, he only stood there, planning his next move. Rashida turned the arrow back on him. Try as he might, his anger couldn’t be disguised. His nostrils flared and brow furrowed, sending wrinkles across his brow.

“We was just havin’ a little fun is all! Everybody just calm down, right? All in good faith, just havin’ a laugh.”

The scowl across his face betrayed the jovial tone of his voice. He began to extend his hand out to return the coin purse, slowly, only to drop it and quickly grab towards Aoife’s mother. He reached for his dagger with his other hand as he ducked to get behind her, hoping to find cover behind a hostage. All he found was another arrow.

Aside from the shock, her mother was perfectly fine. Roake, however, was dead. Aoife had never seen someone die before. It made her feel uneasy at the time, but she came to agree the man had it coming. Actions have consequences.

The death of the cleric was no different.

While she certainly didn’t enjoy the act of killing another person, she believed she was justified in her actions. She found it difficult at first, but it wasn’t impossible to reconcile the two. If anything, the simple fact that it was difficult was probably proof of her morality. It wasn’t easy, but it had to be done.

The churn settled. She felt the guilt or dread or whatever it was slip away. Maybe emotion is a physical thing after all, but one that can only be measured by its absence.

Aoife let down her hood, the breeze flowing through her hair and cooling the droplets of nervous sweat that had accumulated on her brow. It was a comfort she didn’t know how desperately she needed. Realizing now how constraining they felt, she tore away the cowl and ripped off her longcoat, tossing them aside. She sat for a moment, waiting, then reached into her pocket to remove a folded piece of paper.

Only now did it occur to her how ridiculous it was to give every member of the crew a map to the rendezvous point. What if even one of them had gotten caught? Granted, the map was coded, but all that really meant was anybody who found the map would just have to solve a puzzle first. The whole thing sounded like the beginnings of an adventurous, little scavenger hunt.

“Thieves,” she giggled, no longer identifying as one herself, tossing the map to the wind.

She laid herself down, arms stretched wide, fully clothed yet naked to the forest. And just like that, having discarded the anchors of her previous life, her next began. With a new sense of purpose, a fiery determination bloomed where her tempest once raged. Revenge might not be the most original calling, but righting a grievous wrong was certainly a more honorable path than the one she’d been leading. While the Conclave may be gone, there were still others responsible. As before, once more, she thought to herself, smiling.

For now, she figured a little more time with the breeze and the cool forest soil wouldn’t hurt.


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