Two days after the news about the man searching for her, Cassie woke in the morning with a feeling of determination like she hadn’t felt in a long time. As she opened her eyes she seemed to hear an echo of a voice. Gemma’s voice:
“Fight, Cassie. Don’t stop fighting.”
The voice faded quickly and, though the sadness she always felt when she thought about Gemma remained, now it was joined by a steely resolve.
Gemma had always supported Cassie in her belief about the coming of the Immortals and the necessity to act to prevent the devastation and destruction she was sure they would bring. Now, Cassie was ashamed of the way she’d been acting. Yes, terrible things had happened to her and people around her, but surely they paled in comparison to what could still happen if Cassie sat idly by, sad and afraid, and did nothing.
When Jhi walked into her room at around noon, bringing warm bread and cheese for lunch, she told him of her decision.
“I want you to teach me.”
“To fight? You’re sure?”
“Definite. I know I wasn’t sure when you and Anna first mentioned the idea but it makes sense. Truly. I can’t live my life hidden away and I don’t want to either. There is too much at stake to do that and I’m lucky enough to still have a life to live. I can’t waste it anymore.”
“You know, a simple ‘yes’ would have been adequate, but it’s good to know you’ve worked all that out, anyway.”
Cassie smiled a little sheepishly. Jhi continued,
“So, you want to learn to fight. Well, you definitely can’t do that on an empty stomach. We can get started after lunch.”
Without further hesitation Jhi tore off a chunk of bread and stuffed it into his mouth along with a thick slice of cheese. Helping herself to some food, Cassie felt a jolt of nervous excitement. She was finally moving forward. In her mind Cassie could see Gemma’s face and she was smiling.
Several hours later Cassie was almost regretting her decision. It wasn’t a hot day but she could feel the sweat beading on her forehead and tiny droplets kept catching on her eyelashes when she moved, obscuring her vision. Jhi looked cool and fresh as if he’d spent the afternoon relaxing in a shady spot by some picturesque riverside, rather than drilling basic fighting techniques over and over again.
Finally, when Cassie felt she barely had enough strength to fight off an aggressive butterfly, Jhi called a halt. Cassie made to sit on the floor but Jhi hauled her upright again.
“Best stretch now otherwise you’ll regret it tomorrow.”
She nodded in mute resignation, copying him as he led her through a variety of awkward positions to stretch one muscle or another. Some of them hurt but she believed Jhi when he said the consequences of not doing them would be far worse.
As they were finishing the stretches Anna arrived, bringing dinner. Jhi frowned slightly – it was unusual to see her in the evenings as her parents normally insisted either on attending large formal dinners or holding them at their own home. They provided an excellent opportunity to showcase their other daughters to the noble families present. When he asked Anna she simply told them:
“There’s a large ball in the upper city tonight and my parents are hardly likely to notice my absence. If they did, they’d probably be thankful I’m not there to embarrass them.”
Jhi’s frown deepened at this. He seemed to get defensive on Anna’s behalf, though Anna didn’t seem to be bothered by her parents’ attitude in the least. Cassie couldn’t be sure if this was just a face Anna put on or if she truly didn’t mind. Probably it was a combination of the two.
Over dinner, which Cassie suspected Anna had taken from the ball without the hosts’ knowledge, Jhi explained what they’d been doing all day. Cassie said very little, concentrating on relaxing and eating as much as she could. Anna was as pleased with Cassie’s decision as Jhi had been and offered to help teach Cassie too.
“Well,” said Jhi, washing down the last crumbs of a meat pie with fresh juice. “Let’s get back to it then.”
Cassie groaned loudly.
“I don’t think I could do anything else tonight that actually requires energy.”
“I thought you might say something like that. So I actually had something else in mind.” He paused to flash a smile at Anna. “It’s time we took a trip to the storeroom.”
Confused at first, thinking Jhi meant a room for storing food, Cassie grew intrigued when they finally arrived in an empty corridor, devoid even of any doors.
“Welcome to the storeroom.” Anna said, with humorous dramatics, as Jhi ran his fingers over the wall until he found whatever he must have been looking for. He pressed lightly on the spot where his fingers lay and, after a gentle resonating click, a section of the wall swung seamlessly inwards. Cassie would never have noticed it. The door had been artfully constructed with the edges cut to match the grain of the wood perfectly. Through the open door Cassie could now see the beginning of a flight of stairs descending into shadow. Taking some flint from a small cotton pouch hanging at her side, Anna lit a small torch from a crate just inside the door, then started down the stairs with Cassie and Jhi close behind.
As they neared the bottom Cassie could make out another doorway through which the occasional light flashed like something metallic reflecting the torchlight. Entering the doorway and raising the torch, Anna revealed what purpose the storeroom actually served. Stacked in piles on the floor and hung along all the walls was a vast array of weapons, most of which Cassie had never before laid eyes on, and even fewer that she would have been able to name.
“What is all this?” As soon as she said it Cassie realised it was a stupid question. It was obvious that this place housed a variety of weapons for the Rat and the Mice to use whenever they needed. Jhi said as much though added that many of the weapons had been ‘permanently borrowed’ from corrupt merchants, traders and nobles or thieves and assassins who weren’t part of the Rat’s network.
Cassie had been gazing around the room in awe when she realised that the others were looking at her expectantly.
“Well using your bare hands to fight is good, but it’s not always so helpful when the person you’re fighting has more than that. You need a weapon. So, now you have to choose one.” Cassie raised an eyebrow incredulously at what Jhi had said.
“I don’t know anything about weapons, how can I possibly know which one to choose?”
“Look, you need something you’ll feel alright carrying on you at all times, not something too big or heavy, you’re just not built for fighting with a mace or anything like that.”
Cassie still looked confused so Anna expanded on what Jhi had been saying, “Just take a look around, see what you like, what seems to feel right in your hand.”
“So, what, do you both have weapons you carry around with you all the time?”
Anna nodded. “I have a staff. One I keep with me almost all the time. It’s not a big one, though I can fight with a full size one if I need to. But I like mine. Jhi made it for me. He saw me fight with a makeshift staff once and thought I needed one that would blend into the background better. It’s beautiful, kind of a work of art. The Mouse Hole is the only place I don’t carry it with me, but I’ll show it to you sometime if you like.”
“Is it the same with you Jhi? You have a weapon and you just don’t keep it with you here?”
“No, I have mine on me at all times. I just hide them well.”
“Them? More than one?”
“Yeah, an assortment of daggers.”
“Not even Anna knows that. I figure if people don’t know how many I have then they can never really know what to expect. Now, go choose something!”
At first Cassie just walked around picking things at random then discarding them again after the looks she received from Jhi and Anna. She knew she had to take it seriously, and it was clear they were both expecting her to, but she just didn’t know where to start. Time passed and she began to realize the sorts of things she wasn’t looking for, though she still wasn’t sure what she was looking for. Jhi was right, though; big weapons just didn’t look or feel right to her. She began looking at smaller ones, daggers like those she’d seen Jhi using occasionally. Finally she found something that really caught her eye.
Two small daggers, identical, a matching set. She reached out towards them before realising a second twin-bladed set lay beside them. It was the same design but the hilt of one dagger was cracked. Despite this, she liked the broken one better. Two thin, straight blades. The edges were sharpened and a decorative engraving in the shape of a delicate flame wove up the hilt and along the centre of each of the flat sides of the daggers themselves. Attached to the bottom of the hilt was what appeared to be a delicate silver chain, though Cassie suspected it was far stronger than it seemed. The other end of the chain disappeared into some sort of device made of leather and metal.
“This.” Cassie said, pointing. “What is it?”
Jhi walked across the room with Anna to look more closely at it. He smiled when he saw what it was. He pointed to the broken one first then the other.
“I call that one Zephyr. It’s broken but this one, Silver, is ok.” He elaborated on how he had come to have them. “I stole them from a man, a noble, four or five years ago. He had some…unsavoury associates and he purchased a number of weapons for them. One of the younger Mice found out so we relieved the noble of his new possessions before they could get into the wrong hands.”
He pulled his sleeves up, revealing two pairs of matching knives, which he removed and lay on the bench in front of them. Jhi brushed one of the blades lightly before picking up the strange device he had called Silver, and deftly strapping the sheath for one of the blades onto his now bare forearm. He did the same to the other arm, and then fixed the daggers into place on each; as he did so, the silver cord retracted silently into some hidden chamber. It now appeared that he wore leather sleeves on his forearms, holding the daggers in place.
“There is a special trigger, to release them. These two rings,” He indicated the metal loops dangling from the end of the device closest to his palm. “They go over your fingers and respond to the right amount of pressure, causing the daggers to spring forward for you to catch.”
Cassie watched as Jhi demonstrated, moving his hands almost imperceptibly. She jumped slightly when the daggers seemed simply to appear; they had moved so incredibly fast.
“From there you can use them in hand combat or you can really use them, the way the weapon was designed. Step back for a moment both of you.”
Anna was already moving. Clearly she had seen Jhi in action with this weapon before. Once Cassie was at a safe distance Jhi began. Silver left his hands, flicked into the air with fluid grace, the chain snaking behind. Then it was like a dance began. The daggers would fly out, darting in every direction, then would disappear again, drawn back into Jhi’s waiting hands. Sometimes one blade, sometimes both. It was beautiful to watch. They caught the light and reflected it, until it seemed Jhi was one of the fire dancers Cassie had glimpsed only a couple of times in her life. Now and then the daggers would come slicing towards Cassie so quickly she barely had time to flinch, then they would be gone, though Cassie could feel where they had been in the air around her as a tiny breath of air would play across her face.
A little later, Cassie wasn’t sure how long as the display had been almost hypnotic, Jhi withdrew the weapon and unstrapped it from his arms. He held it out to Cassie. She hesitated and glanced at the other set, Zephyr. Jhi seemed to understand.
“The other one calls you?” Cassie felt awkward as it seemed absurd to say yes, but Jhi leant forwards and grabbed her hand placing the unbroken dagger from Zephyr in it. Cassie smiled instinctively. It felt right. “It’s ok. I know what you’re feeling. Listen, I’ll fix Zephyr up for you, but for now take Silver?” He took Zephyr back and held out its whole twin.
Cassie drew back slightly and was about to protest that she couldn’t take it, that it was more right for him, that she would never be able to use it. Then, she saw the solemn look on both his and Anna’s faces and remembered how she had felt watching Silver in action. This weapon was the one she’d been looking for. Smiling, she took it from Jhi, who nodded approvingly.
“Good choice. I think it will suit you well. You can start learning how to use it first thing tomorrow if you like.” Anna interrupted him.
“Hold on, not everybody is as gifted with weapons as you are. Maybe learning with Silver is not the best. I remember even when you first used it, you didn’t come out of it unscathed. Cass definitely won’t be able to train with Zephyr when you fix it, if she cuts hers fingers off the first time she tries to catch Silver.”
“Ok, alright, you have a point. I’ll bind the blades with leather. It will work the same, just not as dangerous. Don’t get me wrong though, it’ll still bruise badly if you get in the way of it. Just less likely to permanently injure you.”
He began rummaging around in the corners of the large room, looking for appropriate leather bindings.
“I’ll have them ready for you by the morning.”
Anna grinned and led Cassie from the room.
“Come on, there’s plenty we can do today other than just waiting for him.”