Her palms scraped against stone as she collided with the wall, pushing herself into a nearby alleyway. Footsteps echoed down the alley as her pursuer kept running down the street, straight past the small silhouette shrouded in the shadows.
Azalea slowly got to her feet, looking down at her grazed knees and scraped forearms. Other than the healing gash on her leg, she had no wounds, nothing broken - just a few scrapes and bruises. As she leant against the wall, clutching the copper coin to her chest, she glanced up at the Maw stretching out above. Buildings climbed up the sides of the cavern walls, pillars of rock illuminated with crude steam-tech lanterns. At its height, a sliver of golden daylight was barely visible, the only sign of time passing above-ground.
Launching herself forward, she rushed to the end of the alley, following the sound of lapping water. The docks smelled of rancid fish and damp wood, the earth closest to the wharf coated in a thin layer of water-scum.
Azalea slipped between the warehouses, gaze fixed on the tavern sitting at the end of the wharf. Her mouth began to water at the smells wafting out of the open door; hot fish-head stew, pickled eggs, offal cakes, jellied trotters, and dark ale. Through the glass, she could see a pouch of coins pass hands, copper and silver gleaming in the lantern’s light as a mercenary began to count.
Two giant, burly men stood watch just outside the open door, arms crossed, weapons within reach. The taller of the pair was built like a brick, skin ashen and chalky, with a wide jaw and deep-set eyes. At his side lay a baseball bat studded with nails, chunks of hair caught in the metal. The slightly shorter man had thin, greasy hair, with a thick moustache and crooked teeth, a machete leaning against the wall behind him. His short sleeves revealed a tattoo inked on his upper arm, depicting a black spade with three daggers piercing its centre.
Azalea gathered herself, coin pressed into the palm of her hand, and approached the door. The guards turned to face her as one, giving each other an amused look when she cleared her throat. Before she could even attempt to cross the threshold, one held up his hand.
“Git’ lost, squeaker. This ain’t a charity.”
In response, Azalea held out her hand, revealing the copper coin. It glistened faintly in the lamplight, coated in a deep, dark red.
“I’ve got the ‘tallics. Just wanna buy some fodder.”
The men burst into laughter, one of them wiping at his eyes while the other pointed at her.
“Y’ got coin!” Moving closer, surprisingly quickly for someone his size, he snatched the coin from her hand and held it up to the light. “Look a’this shit Moray, one of the mites got rich!”
Azalea started forward, hands stretching out for the coin he held between his fingers, and falling short Looking down at her, he clicked his tongue.
“Can buy a feast wi’ that.” They both cackled. Before she had the chance to react, he’d already turned and tossed the coin into the water. A flash of copper in the light, and it was gone. “Fuckin idjit, you gonna buy a crust or what?
A hand grabbed the back of her neck, hauling her up into the air. Look here, ya pest. You aren’t allowed ‘ere.” Writhing in his grasp, she spat at him, grimacing when he just chuckled. “Yer lucky we ain’t sellin’ ya for scraps.”
Unceremoniously, she dropped her onto the pavement, the pair of them staring down at her as she scrambled to her feet. Gaze flicking to where she’d seen the coin, she barely hesitated before running straight for the water, diving in after it. Behind her, she could hear the men laughing, cackling to themselves as they returned to their post.
Azalea surfaced a moment later, choking on the putrid stench of chemical waste and rancid fish, wiping water-scum from her eyes. With a deep breath, she dived back under, her hands scraping along the silty riverbed. Stones and scales and bone fragments caught under her nails, scratching at her skin.
When she surfaced the second time, the men had already returned to their posts, the small squeaker long-forgotten. Diving back into the water, she pushed past the brush of ice-cold skin, scraping at the riverbed once again. Just as she was about to surface, something latched around her ankle, tugging her down. Her frozen fingers found a shard of glass, brandishing it like a weapon, slashing until she could surface once more.
Gritting her teeth, Azalea dove again. Finally, she felt the smooth, cold surface of the coin against her fingertips, and broke the surface of the water with it clasped in one hand. She hauled herself back to shore, collapsing on the stony earth with a small gasp of relief. For a moment, she simply lay there, coughing, trying to catch her breath. As the nausea began to ease Azalea turned her head to look at the tavern, lips pressed into a thin line.
Worth a try, but I’ll find another way. She would find a way inside the Blackjack’s Tavern, one way or another. Then, all she had to do was get herself a contract.
The lanterns cast a warm glow in the dark depths of the Pits, wooden boards creaking beneath her feet as Azalea stepped closer, eyes locked on the Tavern. An oversized coat hung off her frame, secured by a thick leather belt looped twice around her waist. The dagger at her side was strapped to her hip, almost as long as her forearm, its hilt marked with an unfamiliar design.
Two burly men stood guard just outside the tavern’s door, arms crossed. Watching them, Azalea carefully withdrew a bottle of Blackjack’s Whiskey from within her coat and opened it, tipping a small amount out onto the ground. Producing a vial from her pocket, she broke the wax seal, carefully pouring it into the bottle of whiskey.
Lifting her fingers to her lips, she whistled sharply. A couple of squeakers appeared from a nearby alleyway, one quickly scampering onto the other’s shoulder. Adding a trenchcoat and a hat, she gave them the bottle of whiskey, eyeing them warily as they made their way across the street.
“From the boss,” the fake man said in a completely unconvincing attempt at a low voice. Grimacing, Azalea watched warily as the two guards turned to each other and laughed. If this failed, it was going to take her months to get the coin together in order to try again.
“Thanks, man.” One of the guards took the bottle, nudging the man beside him. “I was just gettin’ thirsty.”
As the two squeakers slowly made their way down the street, disappearing into another alleyway, the guard cracked open the lid and began to drink. Between the two of them, the guards had finished off about one-third of the whiskey before they started to sway.
Azalea waited patiently, watching from the shadows as the men slowly began to succumb to the draught, slumping against the wall and sliding down onto the ground. Once they’d both fallen asleep, she crept across the street, darting through the front door.
Azalea carefully made her way over to the bar, one hand on her bow and the other on her purse. She knew better than to look anyone in the eye, glancing at the other patrons as she pushed her way past, slowly moving toward the contract board she could see against the far wall. Alongside scraps of paper and crumpled notes were the infamous contract cards, pinned to the board with tarnished copper tacks.
Before she had a chance to look through them, however, she caught a glimpse of green out of the corner of her eye. Someone was slipping through the crowded tavern with ease, patrons seemingly parting for the man as he drew closer, his mass of curled brown hair crowned with a single feather.
“You lost, kid?” As he came to stand next to her, he gave her a once-over, clicking his tongue. “Bit young to be in here.”
“Looking for a contract.” Azalea watched as the man raised a single, perfectly plucked eyebrow. He considered her for a moment before chuckling, gaze flicking to the bow she had slung over one shoulder.
“Really. Any experience?” When he saw her eyes narrow, clearly suspicious, he grinned, fluffing his hair with one hand. “The name’s Greenbird. I own this joint. You want a contract, kid, you gotta go through me?”
“...Yeah. Done a few jobs, just finished a big one yesterday. Killed a couple men, too.” After a moment, Greenbird burst into hysterical laughter, chest heaving as he flapped a hand at her.
“Oh, sunshine,” he wheezed, “you gotta be fucking with me. You killed a man with those toothpicks? We got ourselves a real professional here.” Wiping a tear from his eye, Greenbird shook his head, slipping one hand down the front of his corset.
“Alright, I got a job for you. Been needing someone real special for this one.” With a chuckle, he withdrew a single card, holding it between two fingers as he extended it to Azalea.
She took the card from his hand, staring down at it with a small frown. A sketched illustration showed a small, dark silhouette hanging upside down by an ankle, five arrows piercing their chest. Beneath it, a large, dark stain marred the bottom of the card, smelling strongly of ink and copper.
“Get some kids running around here. Young ones, on the streets. The patron wants someone to collect ‘em. Just take the kids to the wharfhouse at the end of the docks, push them in the door and close it behind them. Door only opens one way, they can’t get back out, so you don’t needa worry about that. Just deliver the kids and that’s that. Patron wants at least ten, but’ll pay a bonus if you can manage fifteen.”
“What?” When it came out a little too shrill, Azalea cleared her throat, curling her hands into fists as she tried again. “...what for?”
“You know what the docks are like. Lots of workers, lots of jobs, lots of water. Maybe they’re looking for some extra hands, maybe they want someone to hold the lantern. Maybe they’re going fishing and want some extra bait.” He howled with laughter, slapping his thigh. “Who cares, kid! Make up some cute little story about them going upside to have a picnic, or being adopted by some rich family outta Metrix. Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
There was a long pause as Azalea stared down at the card in her hands, eyebrows furrowed. She looked back up to Greenbird to find him watching her, expression blank as he stared down at her.
“...and this is the only job you have.”
“Look, kid, it pays fifteen coppers. Bonus is another ten. You want some coin, this is what I got. Either take the contract, or get out.” When she didn’t immediately respond, Greenbird reached out to take the card from her hand, chuckling when Azalea immediately pulled it out of reach.
“No- no, I’ll take the job.”
“You know the warehouse I’m talking about? Good. Get it done, come back to me when you’re finished. Oh, and let those two slackers outside know that I want to see them. I don’t appreciate my men taking advantage of a chance to sleep on the job.”
With a wink, the man stalked away, smoothing out the wrinkles in his corset as he returned to the bar. Azalea looked down at the card in her hand, adorned only with a crude drawing of the warehouse door. She knew where some of the street urchins slept, with a decent plan she might be able to lure a few at a time, but-
Her hand slipped to the small bag at her side, feeling the half-wheel of cheese she’d bought just two days ago. This contract could get her even more food, maybe a decent pair of boots.
It might not be that bad. Maybe they’re just looking for workers. Dockworkers get fed, it’s got to be better than living on the streets.
Tucking the card into her waistband, Azalea exited the tavern, making her way back to the little hideout she had beneath a nearby inn. They die all the time anyway. This is no different than starving, or drowning, or freezing. I need this more than them.