Chapter 102: The Price of Naivety
“Hot pies! Get your hot pies! Taste the flavor of desert spices mixed with our homegrown Lafearian meat! Two for one special! Come share this explosive experience with your friends and family!” The enthusiastic boy shouted outside a busy baker’s shop, where a few potential customers were already sniffing the exotic aroma appreciatively.
“Ventrayna ale! Ventrayna wine! Limited supply! Come partake in the flavors of the Scorpion’s Desert!” A liquor distributor bellowed from his wagon across the street as men rolled barrels off the back to a waiting table of wooden tankards and copper cups.
The infectious, jovial atmosphere of the market street made Ivy smile as she wove her way through the crowds, careful to keep a hand firmly on her purse to avoid pickpockets. News of the crown prince’s successful negotiation with Ventrayna had already reached the populace, and a festival of entertainment, good food, and wine, was gearing up for a joyous few days of celebration.
Ivy’s smile faded as her feet brought her towards the herbal shop. The sign and shopkeeper outside had both changed. Instead of the rude old man from before, a shrewd, wrinkled woman with speckled gray hair sat on a bench beneath the shop’s front window smoking a pipe that emitted a blue smoke.
“Well, well, a customer!” The woman smiled as her gaze caught Ivy’s, then rose to her feet with surprising agility. “What might Madam Brie help you with today?”
“I’m on an errand for my master to buy these herbs,” Ivy explained as she handed over Serilda’s list.
The shopkeeper glanced at the items and lowered her pipe as she raised a brow. “These are expensive and—not altogether legal if you take my meaning.”
“I’ll take what you can give me,” Ivy replied firmly.
Madame Brie smiled as her eyes trailed over Ivy’s cloak and garments. “Well, I suppose your master is powerful enough to get away with buying a few prohibited ingredients. I have everything here except the Black Thistle Tail, but if you come back tomorrow, I know where to harvest enough to meet your request.”
“Yes, that should be fine.”
“Then that will be four hundred crescents for the lot, including the herbs which I’ll trust you to come and collect tomorrow. I don’t do deliveries, even for nobles.”
Ivy pressed her lips together, tempted to argue down the price.
“Of course, I won’t be repeating anything of your request to anyone in the future,” the shopkeeper added with a knowing smile. “It’s dangerous enough keeping such herbs on hand with the church investigating Lafeara for witches and the like.”
“But the Witch Hunters already left Lafeara,” Ivy protested as she opened her purse to dig out the required coin.
“You’ve never experienced an inquisition before,” Madame Brie muttered as she watched Ivy’s hands. “The church doesn’t turn tail and run just because a King or Emperor tells them to. Tsk.” The shopkeeper accepted the four strings of neatly bound crescents and ran a thumb over them to measure their length. “Mark my words, girlie. Those witch dogs left someone or something behind.” Brie nodded her head at the coins and tucked them into a satchel tied to her waist. “Just wait here a moment, and I’ll get your order ready. There’s a bench if your legs are feeling tired.”
Ivy moved to the indicated bench below the shop window. She settled down to watch the bustle of passing pedestrians: commoners in their faded but clean clothes and boots; slaves in their more tattered, even shoeless attire; merchants with boots that sparkled as much as the jewels they wore; knights in their eye-catching purple uniforms that rode on prancing horses; and even the occasional noble in their veiled, gilded carriages.
‘To think that little Maura is now more important than any of these people,’ Ivy mused with a satisfied sigh. ‘Lady Maura, a Duchess. It feels right somehow, even though—I suppose I’ll be seeing less of her than before.’
Ivy rubbed a speck of dust from her eye and leaned back on the warm bench to breathe in the scent of herbs, which dangled on colored yarn from the roof ledge to dry.
‘Well, I can at least look forward to seeing my little Miss again when the orphanage opens its doors.’
A trio of men dressed in military uniforms walked past, each carrying a tankard of ale. One of them noticed Ivy seated by the shop and winked in her direction. Ivy blinked back and quickly averted her eyes as the soldier’s comrades harassed him mercilessly.
“Stop winking! Your ugly mug is scaring off every woman in sight!”
“Well, at least I don’t look like you! What bear did your mother rump to produce such an ugly, hairy bastard!”
“Shut up, you two, and let’s get back to the square. There are plenty of experienced streetdolls there who would be glad to service us soldiers for a few coins.”
Ivy breathed a sigh of relief as she took a quick peek at the trio, who had moved on towards the next street. The clip-clop of hooves pulled her gaze towards a mounted knight who glowered at the drunken men from across the street. The trio hastily slipped away into the crowd as the knight tipped his helmet in Ivy’s direction and carried on his patrol.
‘It’s probably just as well that I’m always too busy to attend the festival. I can only imagine what sorts of trouble happens down here after dark.’
“Here you are, Miss!” Madame Brie reappeared from her shop, and Ivy rose to her feet as the woman presented her with two bulging bags of herbs. “I trust your Master knows what he’s doing. I won’t be held responsible for any side effects that may arise from the use of these particular herbs.” The woman leaned in closer and added grimly, “There’s a reason they’re banned, you know.”
“Yes,” Ivy nodded, though she knew little about the herbs beyond their names. ‘Maura would probably know. Anyway, it’s none of my business. I’m sure Lord Percy knows what he’s doing.’ “Thank you. I will be back tomorrow for the other herb.”
“Just come by before dark,” the shopkeeper replied with a sniff as her gaze turned towards the clamor of the festival. “I won’t be opening my doors to anyone with all these drunk soldiers dallying about.”
“Of course, I’ll come by before mid-day if that’s alright.”
“I might still be out collecting herbs, but you’re welcome to wait if you arrive before I get back.” Madame Brie shrugged and relaxed onto the bench as she relit her pipe and drew in another breath of blue smoke.
Her business here concluded, Ivy bobbed a quick curtsy out of habit before she turned to worm her way back through the congested crowds.
Laughter, shouts, and cheerful expletives rang into her ears as Ivy hugged the bags of herbs against her chest. Someone had started a small bonfire in the middle of the street, and several street performers circled about it playing various musical instruments to the joy of the crowd.
Several pairs of dancers, most of them soldiers, swirled and whopped around the open flame. Ivy scooted out of their way and hugged the wall as she continued back towards the main street. A barrier of men in uniform blocked her path as a hand groped her ass. Ivy whirled around to glare up into the flushed face of the soldier who had winked at her earlier.
“Please don’t touch me!” she hissed and glanced about for the nearest path onward.
“Ah now, don’t be shy, Miss. You’re out here on your own, aren’t you? How’s about a quick dance?”
“I’m sorry, but I’ll have to decline. I’m here on business,” Ivy informed him coldly with a nod to the bags of herbs she held. “Enjoy the festival.”
“Shot down again, Larry?” snickered one of the soldier’s comrades.
“On your way then, girlie,” added the third soldier with a dismissive wave. “The longer you hang around here, the less these men will care for your excuses. We’ve been looking forward to good ale and rowdy women for months.”
Ivy pressed her lips together and turned around as she shoved her way with a bit less concern for the laughing, energetic crowd that, for the most part, ignored her presence.
She had just managed to break away from the crowd when a small figure rammed into Ivy’s side. She stumbled, tripped, and cried out as her knee scraped against the paved corner of the street. The bags of herbs tumbled onto the road before her. Before Ivy could recover them both, a small pair of hands seized one of the bags as the boy who had run into Ivy earlier took off with his prize.
“No—Wait!” Ivy shouted as she scrambled to her feet in pursuit. “Please, they’re just herbs!”
The boy turned around. His bright brown eyes were strikingly familiar as he pulled a finger down his cheek mimicking a tear, stuck out his tongue, and then sprinted away.
“You!” Ivy clutched the remaining bag of herbs to her chest tightly, then lifted the hem of her dress and sprinted after him, ignoring the fire that burned down her knee. “Stop right now!”
As confident as Ivy was that her long legs would help her catch up to the boy, who appeared somewhere around ten years old, Ivy soon found herself gasping for breath as the street urchin spun around a corner towards the slums.
‘Damn it. Should I give up? Following him into the slums is a bad idea. But what if he eats those herbs and—’
“Giving up so soon!” the boy taunted as he peered around the corner at her.
‘He stopped running? Why?’
“If—its money—you need—I can buy—them back!” Ivy panted as she glanced around the street warily. It was surprisingly quiet given the festival that was taking place in the capital. “Please—there is someone very ill who needs them.”
“Some rich lord?” the boy taunted as he strutted in a circle. “Must be rich if he can afford this many herbs and a maid as pretty as you.”
“Look, will you sell them to me or not?” Ivy demanded as she took a few steps forward.
The boy narrowed his eyes and edged back.
“I have coin—” Ivy reached for her purse and pulled out another string of a hundred crescents. “See? You’ll get more from this than you will a few herbs.”
The boy eyed the herbs and Ivy with a glint of temptation.
“Please,” Ivy pressed. “This is all the coin I have on me.”
The boy scoffed, glanced at the bag he held, then Ivy. “Alright, but not here.”
“What?” Ivy blinked, confused, relieved, and a little bit troubled by the boy’s demeanor.
“Anything I trade on Flea Street, I have to give a percentage to the Fox Guild.”
“You really don’t know anything,” the boy muttered darkly. “I was wondering why you followed me this far.”
“I—” Ivy glanced about the empty street and felt a prickle of unease run down her neck. “Where then?”
“Follow me,” the boy replied cheerfully as he sprinted past her as slippery as an eel, then ran down another street.
“Saint’s Mercy,” Ivy whined as she grabbed her skirt again and chased after him. “Must we run?”
Ivy was beginning to worry about getting lost as the boy took one turn after another. He would pause long enough to let Ivy catch up at each turn, then continue on deaf to her continued protests. The sound of the festival grew closer once more, which told Ivy they must have backtracked towards the Market. She let out a sigh of relief as the boy sat down on a boarded-up well to wait for her.
“Alright, here is good,” the boy said as he hopped down and set the bag of herbs on the wooden lid that covered the well. “I’ll leave this here, you leave your coins right there on the street, and we trade places.”
“Yeah, okay, have it your way,” Ivy muttered, eager to be done and on her way back to Hawthorne Manor.
The boy grinned, and once more, Ivy felt a strange sense of familiarity as she looked at him.
“Have we—met before somewhere?” She asked curiously as they walked towards each other and their respective goals.
“Perhaps,” the boy shrugged as he passed her.
A trickle of doubt and something that made her skin crawl shivered down Ivy’s spine, but she focused on the well and picked up the bag of herbs with a sigh of relief.
“There, thank you,” Ivy said as she turned to face the boy, who stood beside the string of crescents that he had yet to pick up. “Go on, it’s yours. There’s plenty of food and toys at the festival you can—”
“You really are too naive,” the boy interrupted with a sinister smile. “That makes you a perfect tool to crack the ice witch’s heart.”
“Wha—” Ivy choked as the boy bent over and then—grew. His arms, legs, and torso stretched as his baggy, scruffy clothes tightened around the muscular, lean body of a man. Ivy backed away, bumping into the well, as the witch shook out his dark hair and grinned at her with bright brown eyes.
‘I know those eyes—but from where?’
The sound of wood breaking behind her proceeded the cold, wet tentacle that appeared before Ivy’s eyes as it whipped around her waist tightly. She dropped the bags of herbs with a panicked shriek as a cold, webbed hand slid around her neck and turned Ivy towards the horror that had broken through the abandoned well.
Jade’s grotesque yet familiar face smiled mockingly down at her. “We meet again, little slave.” Ivy quivered in shock and terror as the witch’s jade-green eyes slid past her towards the male witch. “Well done, my son.”
“All too easy, mother,” Benjamin snickered. He dragged a finger down his cheek and stuck out his tongue at Ivy. “Mortals are easy to manipulate.”
“What—what are you?” Ivy whispered and shuddered as the tentacle continued to wrap and climb up her waist, constricting around her ribs and lungs.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you,” Jade whispered against her ear. “I just need you to carry one of my babies for me.”
“What?!” Ivy shrieked as another tentacle slid out of the well. This one carried a small black egg-like object that hovered towards her face.
“Once it hatches inside of you—well—by then, you won’t be able to feel anything.”
“No-no!” Ivy shrieked as she flailed against Jade’s grip and slapped the monstrous egg away. “Let me go!”
“No, no!” Benjamin mimicked in a taunting tone. His mocking smile faded a moment later as he whirled around just in time for a hatchet to bury itself into his shoulder and knocked the witch off his feet.
Jade shrieked with pain and rage. The witch’s fingers dug into Ivy’s shoulders as she focused on the figure of the one-armed man that stumbled into the alley, dressed in the rags of a beggar.
Ivy hardly recognized the witch hunter she had met outside the herb shop with Percy weeks ago. It was only the dangerous glint in those ice-blue eyes so similar to Maura’s that allowed her to identify him. That, and the dangerous-looking dagger held in the man’s right hand.
“Nero!” Jade hissed with disdain. The witch’s jade-green eyes glowed with malice as she rose above Ivy and leered at the swaying, pale witch hunter. “Have you come to beg for a merciful death?”
“Fuck you, Arachne!” Nero snarled as he wiped back the sticky mess of his oily brown hair. “Your threats and promises mean nothing to me anymore.”
Benjamin ripped the hatchet from his shoulder with a grunt of pain. Black blood oozed from the witch’s wound as he gripped the weapon tightly and got to his feet.
“Why interfere?” Jade hissed angrily. “In your current state, you can do nothing—”
“Just shut up and come get me already,” Nero taunted as he extended the curved dagger in his right hand. “If I’m going to die, I’d rather it be this way.”
Jade snickered as she rose up higher from the well. Long black tentacles curled over the stone wall and stretched across the cobbled street before Ivy. “Yes, perhaps it is time you served your true purpose,” the tentacle witch murmured as she turned towards her son. “Finish him.”
“With pleasure!” Benjamin snarled as he charged towards the dying witch hunter.