The House of Wolves

Obtaining the Seventh Mask

”My mask? ” Questioned Ardos. ”You mean those odd animal disguises that I see everywhere around here? ”

”Don play dumb with me ” snarled the voice. It had a feminine quality to it, so Ardos presumed that the individual threatening him was most likely a female.

e quite feisty aren you? Whats your name lass? ”

”Im not telling you you son of a… ” The girl paused, grappling to regain her composure. ”This is not a conversation, this is not a casual discussion. I am demanding that you give me your mask. ”

”How boring. But fine…let me tell you now, I don have a mask. I just came to this city, so youll gain nothing from me. ”

The girl sighed impatiently, before suddenly prodding the knife at Ardoss side even deeper.

e not fooling me. I know you
e one of those wealthy shits, even though you wear that stupid cloak of yours. And I know you
e not some foreigner…so where is your mask? ”

”First of all girl ” Ardos said, pretending to be offended. ”I am a noble, not a wealthy shit…and second of all, how can you be so sure that I don come from another city or even another country? ”

”Cause the bastards who do come here from other places never leave their houses, and certainly not without escorts. They
e too cowardly and too haughty to do so. ”

”And these supposed businessmen are not? ”

”Oh they are all right, but they simply care more about flaunting their looks and wealth…whilst everybody already knows how rich a noble is the moment they see em. ”

”Ahhh…I see. Thank you for the valuable information, youve proven to be very helpful ” Said Ardos with false sweetness.

The girl made a ”huh? ” sound before realizing that she was being played by Ardos.

”Im done playing around with you! Do you not realize you
e literally on the verge of death? I have a knife inches away from cleaving through your skin! Now just give me the damn mask! ”

”So profane ” Ardos grumbled with a sigh. ”First off…you
e in a public area and- ”

”Oh please…this is Corvachia. Stabbings happen all the time! Y hink Im afraid of spilling your guts here and now? ”

”Never mind then. Second of all though, Im not the only inches away from death. I advise you to look at your abdomen. ”

Right above her solar plexus was a curved blade aimed to slice through her. She would most likely get him first if things came to it, but Ardos trusted in himself to take her down with him in that scenario.

And he trusted her to calculate such a possibility. Which she decided, seeing as she let out a firm ”tch ”. Despite that she still chose to pressure Ardos.

”Thats a rather odd angle you
e holding your blade at. Its almost guaranteed that Ill stab you first. ”

”Care to test that possibility? ” inquired Ardos, with the same falsely sweet tone. The two stood there in that deadlock for several long moments, and Ardos feared she would actually go through with it and puncture him.

She could be one of those nameless assassin people after all. The kind who as long as they take down their target are content with losing their lives. But still, this person seems rather tentative. Shes not doing this to kill me, but to take the mask she thinks I have. So I should be safe….hopefully.

Thankfully, the girl lowered her knife, and at the same Ardos lowered his. He even let her place a hand on the dull edge of the blade to press it down. A sign of mutual trust, if you will. Though it can be hardly be said that either trusted the other in any way.

”Come with me ” Said Ardos suddenly.

The girl raised here eyebrows and scoffed, before pulling her dagger out again. It was a beautiful danger, very well made and despite its purpose, lacking in crudeness. Additionally, it lacked any sort of bluntness, indicating the it was very well maintained by its owner.

Thank god I was able to escape that situation. That knife would have been fatal! thought Ardos to himself.

The girl in question looked rather young. He could hardly see her face because just like him, she was wearing a cloak. Hers was far more distinguished however. It was made of smooth black leather and came with shoulder pads and all sorts of additional protective components. Despite that it had a very sleek look to it, as if it were easy to travel in.

Her eyes were a beautiful hue of purple, and her skin was a radiant copper. Almost as if she was made of bronze and not a living, breathing human being. Her eyes was raven black just like her cloak, he could tell because strands of it fell before her face. There were traces of white dye at the ends however, which only served to further intrigue Ardos.

She looked far too young for Ardoss taste however. He hardly found any interest in women anyways, and this girl couldn be older than fourteen. She was pretty, but Ardos couldn bring himself to be attracted to her and didn intend to bring himself to that point either.

Some other nobles however…most of them are far too fat to fight back anyways, but still…I shiver to think about their twisted fantasies.

Almost as if she had been reading his thoughts, the girl tightened her stance. This irritated Ardos. She had nothing to fear, and he wasn hostile, he simply wanted to talk. He was sorely lacking and this girl seemed to be interesting.

”Im just trying to make conversation, I can assure you. Just come with me and we can talk. ”

”Why would I do that? ”

”Because you
e interesting. Ive never seen someone like you before…whats the term again? Rogue is the word I believe. ”

”I don care about the generalizations you highborn scum use! ”

”Fair enough. Still, I want to talk with you. Its not everyday that you get threatened by a child. ”

”Im not a child! ” the girl exclaimed.

In response Ardos raised his eyebrow questioningly and gave a scoff of his own.

”Fine…how about, you talk with me for thirty minutes and I shall personally see to it that you get paid handsomely. ”

The girl wavered..before shakily asking how much Ardos would give her.

Ardos thought about it for a second, and in that timespan came to realize the gravity of the proposal he was making. But he was too intrigued to back away now.

”How about…thirty gold coins? ”

The girl was practically watering at the mouth now. For Ardos that was hardly anything, but for her that must have for money than she had ever seen in her life. He almost felt compelled to give it to her free of charge. But then, she shook her head and attempted to reroute the conversation.

”Ive heard promises like those far too many times before! I know what grimy nobles like you do. Even if you aren one of those lecherous masked merchants, doesn mean you
e any better! ”

Ardos adopted a puzzled expression, urging her to continue.

”Don play coy with me! We both know what men like you do! I know your real plan is to take me to your mansion and- ”

”Oy, oy, oy, oy…Im not like that, I promise. I swear it on the name of the Calastres and even the king himself. I simply want to talk with you. ”

”And what if I refuse to go with you? ”

”Well, I am offering you quite a large sum of money. I can swear that on my family name as well. But…..if we
e talking about hypotheticals here, then I could use my influence and send every armed man in the city after you. ”

The girls eye twitched, as if she didn like being threatened herself. Without thinking about it she snapped back by saying:

”Or I could kill you right here and now you stupid- ” she winced. Her hand quickly went to cover her side so that Ardos wouldn notice, but that only made her handicap more distinguishable.

”Really? With an injury like that? I can see it very well but it seems rather recent. If you were at full strength perhaps but I too am trained in combat and as you are I simply don see you obtaining victory. ”

”Shut up ” the girl snapped back viciously. But Ardos could tell she was losing her leverage, and was aware of it too.

”And besides…you look like you need to talk ”.

The girls eyes softened immediately and her lip quivered. She was still young after all, meaning that therefore she could be manipulated rather easily when put under pressure. It wasn something that Ardos enjoyed doing, but it simply came so easy to him. He was best at using his status as leverage, but he was also unnervingly good at toying with peoples emotions in other ways.

”Why would someone like you care for what I have to say. And besides, I don even have time! Seeing as you are a noble, I can get a mask from you…so I need to go. ”

”Youll find that Im a little different from other nobles ” Ardos said reassuringly. ”And additionally, it is only noon…a little discourse can be harmful…especially when there is money involved ”

They continued like this for several minutes, and before he knew it Ardos and her were on top of the roof to a rather wide building. Their legs hanging over the edge and their weapons put away.

The view they had was astounding. He could see the full scope of the market up here, every stall, every person. The surrounding architecture of the city was gorgeous as well. The looming clock towers, the pubs, the mansions, there merchants banks, even the bridges stretching across the canal were enamoring.

But yet, even with this new angle to look upon the city, Ardos still felt that hollow tinge he had felt down below.

Now is not the time for such things, Ardos thought to himself resolutely. Instead he decided to focus on his conversation with the girl next to him.

”So…who are you? ”

The girl glared at him response but after a few awkward moments of that turned her head sharply away from Ardos.

”Im only doing this for the thirty gold coins alright! And only for thirty minutes. After that I vanish and you never hear from me again. I have a job to get to, so I can afford to waste any more time on you than necessary. ”

Ardos shrugged. That was the compromise they had come to. She had been rather adamant about the conditions, but it made Ardos happy. It was rare to see someone who had been attempting to steal from him only ten minutes prior now cooperating with him and actively engaging in a discussion with him.

Yes, to do so he had threatened to send men chasing after her if she didn cooperate, and sweet talked her by taking advantage of her vulnerable age, and offered her money she most likely desperately needed; and of course pointed out the injury she had and still did try to hide…but those were all unnecessary details were they not?

The point was, she was cooperating.

”Well you have to actually talk to me to get the money. So tell me…what is this job you speak of. ”

”Im- ” she paused and frowned. ”I don really know? Im a lot of things I suppose. ”

”What is that supposed to mean? ”

”Well…I do assassin work, thieving jobs, I work as a waitress or a dancer sometimes down at the pubs. Anything I can that pays. Theres far worse but I get paid well enough so I don do that kind of stuff. ”

”You say it rather nonchalantly. How long have you been doing this? ”

”Nonchalantly ay? If you couldn tell Im terrified of all of this stuff! ”

The girl turned to Ardos and he could see indeed that her face had a rather solemn expression on it, and she was shaking her hands unconsciously whilst talking.

”I apologize for my insolence then. ”

”As for how long Ive been doing this….about six years or so? My parents sort of just vanished one day and so I had to do this to care for my little brother. ”

”Your little brother? ”

”Indeed. Hes an annoying little creature, but hes very innocent too. Only eight years old! Somehow Ive managed to keep him in the dark about what I do all this time ” she chuckled as if it were an accomplishment.

”Ah, what a pleasant feeling that must be….having a little brother I mean. Im the youngest in my family, but Im the only son. My father had children with seven different women and six of them produced nothing but females. ”

”So you must be the favorite child eh? Ive always wondered what that must feel like…since my parents died before I could even really experience their love. ”

Her eyes became downcast upon saying those words, and Ardos could see her curl her legs and wrap herself into a ball off sorts. In that innocent position, the girl hardly looked like a trained assassin or robber, she just looked like a sad, lonely child.

And that saddened Ardos. Which surprised him for some reason. It was as if that hollow isolation began to close somewhat upon sharing the girls sadness.

”Well actually…Im probably my fathers least favorite child ”

The girl shot him a look of confusion, which Ardos found rather amusing.

”I know, strange isn it? But yes, my father absolutely hates me. How could he not, when I killed his favorite wife, my mother, on my way out. ”

”Your mother…died during childbirth? ”

”Indeed she did, and from that point on, from the very day I was born…my father treated me like an alien. The only reason he even keeps me around is because Im a Calastre and have a duty to fulfill as his only son. And unless Im acting in a way that is fitting of nobility, he doesn even look at me. ”

”How awful? How can you even smile about something like that? ”

”Well…I have a dream, thats the only thing that keeps me going. ”

”A dream? ”

”Yes…a dream. You see, I want to be the kind of noble who actually does something. Who actually lives up to their title instead of hiding like a coward beyond their ancestors feats and riches! ” said Ardos with conviction. In this moment he felt so empowered that he rose to his feet and stood on the precipice of the rooftop.

”I don want to be like the other nobles who waste their lives away on hedonistic pursuits and entertain themselves with senseless bloodshed. And when they
e not doing that the only thing they get scared, and start conspiring to kill each other. Im surprised they haven torn each other apart already ” he spat bitterly.

”How…impassioned. ” said the girl with a chuckle. The chuckle grew into a laugh, and Ardos noticed that she had become less closed off.

Thats what I like to see thought Ardos contentedly. He liked helping people change and open up, after all how could he be a worthy noble if he didn assist those around him?

”Anyways…we were talking about something else before this to that intrigued me. Your brother I believe… ”

”What about him? ”

”You said he doesn know what you do, how did you manage to accomplish that? ”

”Well…Im just a really good liar I suppose. Everyone who does my kind of work is. But it helps that hes also a very gullible child….only ten years old. He believes anything I tell him! I feel bad about it..but its all for his benefit you see? ”

”How so? ”

”Well…if he knew what I was doing, he might just break. A-and ” her hands started shaking again, ”I don want something like that to happen to him. I don want him to know what I do or who I am. ”

”So your solution was to keep him ignorant? ” asked Ardos.

He sounded rather callous, but he simply couldn understand the sentiment. That was the very same mentality that bred the supposed nobility he had been with his whole life. He had to force himself to realize that in this scenario the circumstances were different, but still, he had trouble grasping what she was trying to convey.

”Its selfish I know…but I simply can bear to lose him. Hell have to find out when he gets older, and I can just tell hell hate me for it. But for now I want to keep him hidden. From all this shit, from the rest of the world for all I care! ” the girl was practically screaming at this point.

”Wait….does he even know about this part of the city? ”

At this point he had simply become a full on inquisitor, but he simply had to know more about this scenario. It was like reading a book, where this dynamic was like a plot point which provided more perspective on the world. He simply had to know more!

The girls interactions with her brother and her decision to keep him sheltered was not an approach Ardos agreed with, but nevertheless he found it very engaging to hear about.

”No…he doesn . If I told him about a place like this, who knows what would happen! He might get lost or even… ” she gagged ”killed ”.

It was strange to see an individual who admitted to committing murder for money be so shaken by mentioning the word killed.

Shes just a child you idiot, regardless of what shes done in order to provide for her family, it doesn change the fact that death is undoubtedly a scary concept for a girl her age.

Ardos liked this girl, polarizing as she was. Even if he never saw her after this conversation, he wouldn mind knowing her name.

”Say…girl, this is rather abrupt, but I never got your name did I? ”

The girl looked almost relieved that he was asking the question, and despite her tension only a few minutes prior cheerily said:

”My name is Aurelia. Just Aurelia. ”

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