Sybil chewed Aisling and Anastasia up one side and down the other, healed both just enough that they’d be able to sleep that night, and told the pair to get out of her sight. Anastasia helped with it as best she could, but the two still had scrapes and bruises when they met on the roof of the Protection Racket hours later, with the moon rising on the horizon. Aisling had a small flask with her, while Anastasia had brought a small pan of cinnamon rolls that still steamed gently into the night.
The two sat on the sill of Ana’s window, their feet on the tile with Shatterdown sprawling below them.
“I, um. This isn’t to share, I brought this for you,” Aisling said awkwardly, handing over the flask.
“What is it?” Ana asked curiously, a grateful blush touching her cheeks.
“Chilled coffee. Cream, honey, no poison.”
The paladin looked in disbelief at the flask and, slowly, opened it. She gave it a cursory sniff before tasting a swig. Anastasia closed her eyes with a contented expression on her face. Aisling gave her a sideways smile while the paladin’s eyes were still closed before turning her face to look out at the city.
“So. You wanted to know about the ears. You sure about that, Ana? It’s not a nice story. I’m not really the hero of it either. Frankly…” Aisling sighed. “Frankly I used to be a hell of a lot worse.”
Anastasia put a hand on Aisling’s shoulder. “Yes, I do. I won’t hold your past against you. Whatever you were, you’re…” the paladin trailed off. “You’re Shatterdown’s hero, now.”
Aisling looked away firmly so that Anastasia couldn’t see her blush.
“Okay,” the Scarlet Princess said at last. “So. Born an elf, just to make that clear. My mother was an elf, my father was an elf, there was a confluence of genitals, I got born at some point after that. I’ve got a sister, Kestrel, who’s, like, maybe eight years older than me. Pretty small gap for elves. I don’t remember them very well.”
Aisling shifted in her place and took a cinnamon roll; she ate it quietly, her eyes distant while she gathered her thoughts.
“I was fifteen when we went to Asheholm. There was an alley, in the Dark District, and they died. I don’t remember how. There was a blur of motion, a flash of metal, and then blood everywhere. It got on my face, in my eyes. I screamed so loud. Kes grabbed me and ran and the next thing I remember is waking up in the orphanage already. Kes told me that the city had decided it would be ‘burdensome’ to return us to elven lands. That’s what we were to them. A burden.”
Aisling threw the other half of her roll at a building across the street, petulantly. “I swear to you, that place was a living cliche from fucking penny dreadfuls. Corrupt staff, casual abuse, cruel children. Elven lands are really far from Asheholm, and Kestrel and I got treated without pity. If you’re wondering why I don’t have an elven accent, that’s why – I spent almost a century in that festering shithole of a city. Kes and I ran away from the orphanage early on, went out onto the streets. Killed my first man for a warm meal when I was forty. He begged for his life. He suffered.”
Anastasia moved to touch Aisling, but the Scarlet Princess flinched violently and shook her head.
“We caught the attention of this gang, the Dark District Mourners. They took us on board, fed us, sheltered us, had us trained in the sword. Kes looked so stupid with that claymore of hers until she grew into it. I always liked the saber. Made me feel like a pirate. Stupid, right? Here I am, ruining people’s lives, killing fathers, daughters, extorting the innocent, and I’m worried about fucking fashion. But that was me. I was a stupid kid. Kes and I always said we’d get out of Asheholm, but partly thanks to us the Mourners start doing really well. We crushed our rivals, started taking over chunks of the city, getting real coin flowing. We blew it all, of course. Wine, pleasurable company, petty amusements. I got a parrot for awhile. Trained it to tell people to fuck themselves.”
“What happened?” Anastasia asked, softly.
“We were fuckin’ idiots is what happened,” Aisling said bitterly. “Kes and I woke up one morning and someone had torn through the Mourners like a burning sword through a paper wall. Four people survived, and we scattered as fast as our feet would take us. My sister and I hit a bunch of stores for ready cash and got out of Asheholm, made a beeline for elven lands. We almost died on that godsforsaken journey. We didn’t know how to pack supplies, we didn’t know about travel hazards or weather or fucking bandits. I’m pretty sure we got through on sheer hate and grief, at the end.”
Aisling’s voice choked with fury, and her next words were barely a whisper. “Then they threw us out.”
“Why?” Anastasia asked, horrified.
“For being ‘too human’!” Aisling snapped. “Because we talked funny and didn’t know the culture! Because we didn’t treat a year like a disposable unit of time or know anything or any one. They put up with us for almost a year before some pissant priest asks us to please stop disturbing the fucking tranquility of the place. I killed him for it. I broke his arms and hung him from an ash tree, and I stayed to watch him choke. Kes wasn’t happy with that, but she didn’t stop me. Then we ran again. I wanted to find a new place, start a new gang, start over. Kes says no. Says she’s going back to Asheholm, for some fucking reason. We have this big huge fight about it, and she walks off. I haven’t seen her since. Fuck her anyway.”
“And that’s why I’m not an elf. They wanna say I’m not good enough for them? Fine. I don’t need their fucking approval. I don’t need anybody’s approval. I can do what I want and if anyone has as problem with it they’re welcome to try and stop me.”
The look Aisling gave Anastasia was almost defiant, and the paladin met it with quiet peace. Ana reached out and took Aisling’s hand; the Scarlet Princess tensed, but didn’t let go.
“Thank you for sharing, Aisling,” Anastasia said, at last. “…There’s nothing I can say that wouldn’t be an insult to what you’ve gone through. But for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
“I appreciate it,” Aisling answered, looking away. “…The stars are coming out.”
Anastasia leaned her head against Aisling’s shoulder, and the two of them watched the night sky come slowly alive with points of light.