The Battle of Heart and Mind 3.08

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[Wakefield Village | Lacus 23rd, 2526 | Early Evening]

Dani enjoyed being in the forest, even in the bitter cold of winter. A five-day trip to Newhaven was no problem. Getting into the city was a different experience. The Wolfpack had the means to get around unseen; passages unknown to the rest of Valcrest and those within their clan that had no need for them. They ran underground, and were accessible from a few different entry points. Dani had used them a handful of times in the past, accompanying Tom or Lena into the cities, and while she wasn’t happy to be in a small dark passage in those instances at least she wasn’t alone.

The tunnel Dani took to enter Newhaven started underneath a small village just a few hours away from the city. The entrance connected to the basement of the blacksmith shop. Dani first met the family who lived there when she was ten. Their eldest daughter was her age and their sons—ages eight and five—surprisingly remembered the last time Dani passed through. The puppy she remembered meeting on her last visit had grown into a massive wolfhound and nearly knocked her over upon arrival. They were lovely people and she would have been content to spend time with them if she weren’t on a tight schedule. If the contract went according to plan, maybe she could take the time and catch up before heading home.

Entering the tunnel, Dani took a deep breath of the fresh air before the shuttering of the hatch left her with nothing but damp air. The tunnel’s narrow passages were just tall enough for her to stand. Uncomfortably silent aside from the echo of her own footsteps, and pitch black beyond the radius of her oil lantern. With no scenery to focus on and no company to serve as a distraction, the hours-long walk felt almost unending. The tunnel’s exit was a hatch that only opened from the outside. Dani knew she was meant to knock once and wait. It wasn’t until the door opened and her fist was still raised that she realized she never stopped knocking. A hand reached through the open door to help her up and Dani emerged into a dimly lit chamber. The sound of her boots hitting stone as she stumbled out echoed in her ears and the overwhelming smell of grapes and alcohol filled her lungs with every shallow breath.

“Oy, you doing alright, Runt?”

The call just barely broke through the buzz in Dani’s ears. She shook her head and forced a deeper breath. “I hate it.”

“Ah. Not a fan of the tunnel, huh?”

“Guess not,” Dani muttered. She forced a couple more deep breaths until her sight stopped blurring at the edges and she could see that she was, in fact, standing in the middle of a wine cellar, surrounded by stone walls and large wooden casks. In the corner of the room, there was a stool with a bucket of carrot shavings and two equally filled burlap sacks. “I just need a minute. I’ll be fine.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s more common than you think. That’s why I live here now.”

Dani steadied herself and focused on the person speaking to her for the first time. The voice held a familiar teasing lilt she instantly recognized. Her mind conjured up the image of the older Wolf before her eyes had the time to properly adjust to the environment; tousled brown short hair, mischievous toothy grin, and mismatched eyes; one brown and one green. They’d been one of the first Recruits to start calling her Runt; if not the first. Dani wasn’t sure she’d call them a friend at the time, but they were a constant presence. It’d been three years since she’d last seen them. They hadn’t come back for Hourglass Night since being stationed in Newhaven and, Dani assumed, opted to take part in the city’s celebrations instead.

Seeing them now was strange, like finding new details in a picture she thought she knew. They’d grown a bit taller, carried themself differently now, but Dani still felt very much in the presence of the same snarky kid she’d known then. She wondered why they never came back, if they missed the camp at all, but decided it was probably not the time to get into those conversations.

“You’ve definitely been living here long enough. No one calls me Runt anymore.”

“Hah. You know you’ll always be Runt to me, dontcha?.” They gave her another moment to gain her bearings then pulled her out of the room by the hand. “But, since we’re on the topic, did you decide on an alias?”

“Uh… Do I have to decide right now?” Once out of the cellar Dani pulled her hand from theirs with a frown. The area underneath the Newhaven Inn was split into multiple chambers, each with a specific use. Dani wasn’t sure what most of them were. In the past she’d only been allowed to follow whoever she was with directly upstairs. “Talking freely down here shouldn’t be an issue, right?”

“Correct. Anything below ground is accessible only to Actives, Scouts, and the Innkeeper. Once you go to ground level or above, then assume any little thing you say might be compromised. Some Actives prefer not to mingle with civilians at all, that’s why we have a dormitory down here, but there’s a room waiting for you upstairs if you prefer a softer bed,” they explained. “I go by Finnley now, by the way; or just Finn. At all times. It’s easier that way.”

“Finn,” Dani repeated. “Good name, nice and simple.”

“You didn’t think about one at all, did you, Runt?”

Dani pinched the bridge of her nose with an annoyed groan. She didn’t mind the nickname; hadn’t minded it in years, but the reminder that she’d overlooked something… That bothered her. “I’ll have one in the morning.”

“It’s important to have a name in mind if you need to give one. Being caught off guard is the worst thing you can do. However…. You’re an Active. You don’t have to live here, this isn’t going to be your identity. Don’t overthink it,” Finn advised. “It’s two hours past sundown. Things are probably beyond lively up at the bar. Is there something you want to get done today? Or would you rather unwind and pick it up in the morning?”

Dani pondered the question. She wanted to see the Inn when it was in full swing, but her hands were still shaky from the tunnel and the more she stood there the more she became aware of the cold sweat causing her clothes to cling to her body. “I think I’ll stay down here tonight if it’s quieter. I’m supposed to write home, though.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Finn led the way to the opposite end of the hall. “There’s a desk in the dormitory, you can write your letter and we’ll send it out in the morning.” They glanced at her from the corner of one eye. “You were really shaken, weren’t you? Thought you’d been in that tunnel before.”

“I have. Just not alone.” Dani ran both hands over her face. “I didn’t think it’d be this bad.”

Finn clapped her on the shoulder, their tone reassuring. “It’s alright. Just take some time to collect yourself and we’ll figure out the rest tomorrow, yeah? Are you feeling better now? We’re still underground after all.”

“Yeah, this is fine. The walls aren’t…” Dani struggled to find the words, making a gesture as if crushing something between her hands and blowing out a frustrated breath. “You know.”

“Constricting?”

Dani nodded.

“So it’s not being underground as much as it’s just being in a tight space. Alright. If it’s really that bad we can figure another way to get you out of the city later. How long do you have to fulfill the contract?”

“Until the end of the month. Low risk target.”

“Five days is plenty of time, then. Got any stipulations?”

“The target’s house is off limits and the assassination method needs to simulate natural causes.”

“Hm.” Finn opened the door to the dormitory and guided her in. “We definitely have substances capable of simulating, say, a heart attack, but most of them require ingestion.”

Dani hummed. The dormitory was simple, six cots arranged neatly into two rows, each with its own bedside table, and a small office space at the end with a writing desk and chair. Dani tossed her travel bag onto one of the cots, groaning as the weight finally left her shoulders. “I’ll have a look at what you have tomorrow,” she said. “If we can only do ingestion that might mean getting a little closer than I wanted, but I’ll figure it out.”

Finn walked to the cot opposite hers and plopped down onto it. “If you’re going the infiltration route you might need to do something about the hair. People will remember seeing a redhead even if they don’t think it’s important.

“I know,” Dani mumbled. She sat at the desk and opened one of the drawers for paper and a pen. This positioned her with her back to Finn but she could feel them watching her still. “Mind if I ask a personal question?”

“I’m an open book, Runt. What is it?”

“Don’t you miss camp? I mean, a lot of Scouts come back at least for Hourglass Night, or on Creation Day, but you just disappeared.” Dani smoothed the paper against the desktop, starting to write down a simple account of her trip to Newhaven, without any embellishments or personal anecdotes; just a report.

Finn chuckled. “I’m touched that you missed me, Runt.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I’ll rephrase that then; I’m surprised you noticed.”

Dani paused her report to glance over her shoulder. “You thought I wouldn’t?”

Finn sighed. “To answer your question; no. I don’t miss camp. At least not enough to visit. I never formed the same attachments other people seem to have there, but I do have a life here I enjoy. If I’m required to; if it’ll serve the clan better, I’ll go back. If I have a say, then I’d rather be in Newhaven.”

Dani hummed, turning in her chair so she could lock eyes with Finn. “This is home to you, then?”

“Don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s as close as I’ll get, I think.” They smirked. “Food’s definitely better. Honestly, sometimes I still have nightmares about that oatmeal. It was so bland, it’s like they were doing it on purpose.”

Dani snorted softly, turning to finish her letter. “Maybe they are.”

“Does your sister still put raisins on hers like a complete lunatic?”

“I can’t get her to stop. It’s the one time I like to pretend she’s not my sister.”

Finn laughed. “For real? Because I remember Lionel saying that once and you punched him right in his—”

“No. Not for real. No one talks about my sister like that. Period.” Dani folded her report and set it aside, then pulled another sheet of paper. “Not even me.”

“You know, when I started calling you Runt, she threatened to drag me into the woods and leave me hanging by my ankles if I didn’t stop,” Finn said, their tone a bit stiffer underneath a superficial note of amusement. “She wasn’t bluffing.”

Dani winced. “I never knew about that. I’m sorry.”

“She left me there for about ten minutes, I was fine.” The cot squeaked as they stood and walked closer to the desk. “I never apologized, did I?”

“I don’t recall ever asking for an apology.” Dani shrugged. “It was out of your hands after a certain point anyway. Kids are jerks and all of that.” She looked up, offering them a smile. “A little pissed you never kept in touch, though. I mean, you have ravens at your disposal. Write sometime, yeah?”

“You don’t change, do you, Runt? Always too nice to people—”

“—Who don’t deserve it?” Dani asked. “No, Finn. I’m nice to people I decide deserve it. That’s all.”

Finn scoffed and leaned closer, resting their elbows on the edge of the desk. “Why are you drawing a chicken?”

“It’s a dragon, actually.”

“It has feathers,” they said, pointing at the sheet of paper.

“They’re scales. And it’s for Sarah, she’ll get the joke.” She added the final touches on her ‘dragon’ and set it aside. “You don’t have to write. I’m just letting you know I would appreciate it, that’s all.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Finn answered, pushing away from the desk. “There’s a washroom across the hall, if you’d like. I’m going up to help at the bar, but in about an hour I’ll send someone down with food. I assume you don’t want any of that agitation right now, yeah?”

Dani nodded. “I should feel better after some sleep. I’ll go up for breakfast.”

“Alright,” they said, walking towards the dormitory door.

“Hey, Finnley.” Dani called after them. “I did, a little. Miss you.”

“Heh, I knew it.” She could just about hear the smirk in their voice, but it softened soon after. “Can’t wait to work together, Runt.”

They closed the door after themselves with a gentle clang and the room fell uncomfortably silent. Dani searched the desk drawers for envelopes and sealed both letters into one, leaving it on the desk to be collected in the morning. Having company helped. Her hands had stopped shaking over the course of their conversation—not that it helped her artistic abilities in any way—but the more her nerves settled, the more exhausted she felt. Despite the offer of a washroom and the prospect of a warm meal, all Dani could think to do was stumble over to her chosen cot and collapse.

[Newhaven Inn | Lacus 24th, 2526 | Early Morning]

Finn woke Dani at the crack of dawn and insisted she wash up and go upstairs for breakfast. It seemed she’d been so dead to the world the night before, even the promise of food wouldn’t wake her. The aches of travel hadn’t fully left her body, but she was quick to comply nonetheless grabbing a change of clothes and grumbling, “morning” on her way to the washroom. Finn laughed as they followed her out of the room.

“Not a morning person, huh?” they asked. “Remember we talked about doing something with your hair? It’ll take a couple hours to get done and it’s a little messy, so… You might want to take care of it now.”

Dani groaned. “Right. You have a point.”

“Don’t sound so annoyed, Runt. Changing your appearance can be fun. We have some options in the supply room. Do you wanna pick something out or should I surprise you?”

“Just remember this is supposed to make my hair less noticeable, Finn.”

“I don’t think I could make it more noticeable if I set it on fire,” they grinned. “Don’t worry, I got you.”

Dani shot Finn a look of pure skepticism, but nodded. “Alright. I’m the newb, right?”

Finn sighed. “When you put it like that… I guess I shouldn’t make it pink, huh?” They grinned and made off down the hall before Dani had a chance to form a reply.

The hair dye smelled pungent and stained literally anything it touched, but after many pairs of gloves and discarded wash cloths, Dani managed to change her hair to a medium brown. It looked oddly close to Tom’s hair color and made her skin seem even lighter by comparison. She didn’t particularly like that and wasn’t happy to hear it could take approximately two months for it to completely fade. Finn had to remind her this was just part of the job; it didn’t matter if she liked it or hated it.

As they walked upstairs to the part of the Inn open to the public, they turned to her and asked, “did you pick out a name yet, Runt?”

Dani hummed under her breath. “Calliope.”

“Fancy.” Finn smiled. “I’m calling you Calli.”

Dani rolled her eyes. “Sure. It’s just an alias anyway.”

The ground level of the Inn was empty this early in the morning, save for the Innkeeper and the kitchen staff. The front of the house was overtaken by the smells of baked goods, fry ups, cured meats and teas, in preparation for early-rising guests. James was, in fact, someone she recognized. A nice guy, although he lacked Emmett’s sheer charisma. She introduced herself by her fake name, he greeted her politely and made no remark on her hair color, but she noticed a hint of amusement tugging at the corners of his lips.

Dani sat at a corner table, watching the room from the corners of her eyes. A smiling young woman walked over to ask what she wanted to eat. A civilian, in her early twenties. Surely she knew who she was actually working for, just didn’t care. Recruiters had autonomy to hire at their discretion and the Inn paid well for servers and kitchen staff who kept to themself. It wasn’t unheard of that some of them ended up recruited into the clan down the line. She settled for bacon, eggs and a cup of tea, making sure to put down a little extra coin. Finn was known as part of the staff, so Dani assumed they ate in the backroom with the others.

Gradually people trickled into the room. Some descended the stairs; not fully awake and still coping with the aftermath of whatever excitement she missed the night before. Others entered through the front door, stopping by for a bite to eat before starting their days. Dani picked at her breakfast and casually observed the other patrons while mentally going over the contract she was supposed to fulfill. The target was a middle aged carpenter who made furniture to order and sold carvings and knick knacks from a stall in the city market. Nothing about him indicated a person who’d made any enemies in his life, still, she’d been sent there with very specific instructions. Asking these questions wasn’t a part of her job; yet there she was, considering her target’s history while observing a young woman leaning her chair dangerously back on its hind legs while humming to herself and enjoying her breakfast.

Something metallic crashed to the ground across the room, followed by a startled yelp and an angered, hissed yell; like someone trying to keep their voice down but too angered to successfully do so. Glancing from the scene of the woman nearly falling backwards in her chair from fright she saw the couple two tables over gesticulating at one another; sneers in their expressions, tension on their shoulders, eyes narrowed. She glanced from their table over to the counter and saw James watching the exchange, expression even, but alert. He seemed to be on top of it, so she returned to her tea. The young woman now had her chair firmly planted to the ground. Since her imminent fall was no longer a possibility, Dani found herself less invested in the young lady’s life and looked back down to her plate.

With the home of her target off limits, it made it difficult for ingestible poison to be administered. The market stall was far too public to tamper with someone’s food and go unnoticed. On the other hand, it made for an easy to scope location. Maybe watching the target would provide some insight on how to proceed.

The fighting couple ended their argument and parted ways, the front door slamming as one of them exited the Inn in a huff, leaving the other alone at the table. No one else in the bar seemed to pay them any mind and Dani soon averted her eyes as well. She finished her breakfast and after a brief exchange with James, returned to the dormitory. The envelope she left on the desk was collected while she’d slept last night, everything else was completely undisturbed in her absence. She collected her travel bag and hauled it over her shoulder.

“You’re gonna carry that thing around the city?”

Dani turned to Finn and nodded. “Good way to look like a tourist if I’m going to linger around the market all day.”

Finn hummed, crossing their arms. “You’re going to scope the guy yourself. Does that mean I don’t have to do anything for this one?”

Dani smirked. “Actually, if you want to be helpful, I need a list of every poison component we currently have available and their effects. You think you can manage it by the time I get back?”

Finn arched an eyebrow. “I know your sister probably taught you some expert level shit, Runt. But it’s a bit early in your career to start getting creative with poison. That could go horribly wrong.”

“I won’t know what I need until I do. If I can’t do ingestible and we don’t have something currently prepared that works via inoculation, then hopefully she taught me enough expert shit that I won’t fuck it up.”

Finn grinned. “Fearless. I like that.”

Dani snorted a laugh. “Just get me the info and we’ll work from there, okay?”

[City of Newhaven | Lacus 26th, 2526 | Midmorning]

Dani spent the next two days roaming the Newhaven market. One watchful eye on her target’s every movement as the man went about his day, tending to customers and taking the occasional custom order. She made small purchases in different stalls in order to keep up appearances, meanwhile registering the heavy presence of the city guard patrolling the squares and keeping a careful watch on the masses, especially in the busiest hours of the day. They weren’t paying attention to her, but it was abundantly clear that drawing attention could very well result in a death sentence or worse.

The target was a scrawny bespectacled man. From a distance he seemed kind in how he addressed his customers, always greeting them with a soft smile. He also fidgeted a lot, constantly in need of something to do with his hands; toying with his merchandise, his tools, biting at the nails of his right hand as well as the tip of his thumb. If it was just excess nervous energy, or something else eating away at him, she would never know. It was, however, useful.

Finn’s research yielded multiple interesting results, some substances that needed to be ingested in certain amounts to be lethal, others that needed to be injected directly into the bloodstream, some that were toxic enough that skin contact was enough to kill a person, although not without leaving obvious signs. Having Lena for an Instructor meant she did have access to far more extensive knowledge on poisons, anatomy, other things Lena had a fascination for. What Dani lacked was her sister’s memory, or ability to assimilate that much information when she’d never had a practical use for it. If Lena couldn’t find what she needed here, she could find a way to create it. Dani wouldn’t be able to do that without turning this into a gamble.

Going back to the market for a second time yielded no new information. The list of substances available to her hadn’t changed and she knew she’d wasted a whole day overthinking what she was about to do. People kept telling her to stop doing that. Stop overthinking everything.

“You want to use what?”

Finn’s shocked expression was almost worth the risk she was about to take. Dani held back a grin and repeated herself. “Death’s Kiss. It’s the best option.”

“For a low risk target? D—”

“Nah-ah, what’s my name?” Now Dani grinned.

Calli,” Finn rolled their eyes. “No one’s gonna overhear it down here, stop being a little shit. This is serious.”

“I’m not joking. I know it’s extremely dangerous, but it’s the only thing we have that will set in with a small enough amount to go unnoticed, leaves no trace, and simulates natural causes. And I need all three.”

“How are you going to administer it?”

“He’s a nail biter, all I have to do is get it on his hands.”

Finn arched one eyebrow and repeated: “How?”

Dani sighed and walked past the Scout to enter the supply room. “Are you going to tell me I can’t use it?”

“You outrank me, you know I can’t do that.” They followed her in and quickly found the requested substance. “If you have even the tiniest papercut, or the slightest tear on your gloves while handling this, you’re dead. So be careful because I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

“I know, Finn. I’ve got it.”

[City of Newhaven | Lacus 26th, 2526 | Early Afternoon]

The most important lesson Dani learned about being on the field was that it’s alright to be nervous, it’s okay to be scared, as long as you never let it show. Being in a crowded market square with a deadly vial in her pocket had her heart racing.

Death’s Kiss was an oil distilled from an odorless dark purple flower. It was originally used in the making of perfumes as a fixative until it was discovered that even the smallest amount could be deadly when in contact with the eyes or if ingested. As a result, only a couple of bottles of this perfume were ever made. It got its name after the death of a Newhaven nobleman from kissing his wife’s neck after she’d applied perfume made with the oil. In recent times, growing the flower, producing the oil, or simply being caught in possession of either was illegal in both Blackpond and Newhaven. It was harmless when applied to the skin, but as Finn reminded her, even the smallest of paper cuts could spell certain death when handling this substance. Dani checked, multiple times, that her gloves had no tears and her hands didn’t have even a minor scratch just in case something got through, and she still felt uneasy just having it in her pocket. Never mind what she was about to do.

Just like in her previous visits to the market, Dani roamed the multitude of stalls, stopping now and then to inquire about an item, feigning interest in what the merchants had to say and pretending to consider their pitches before swiftly moving on. As she approached the target’s stall she watched his eyes lock on her, wide with anticipation, a kind smile forming on his lips as he prepared to greet her. His demeanor was as pleasant as it seemed to be from a distance, though the nervous energy was even more apparent up close. He asked for her name and she introduced herself as Calliope. She kept her hands in her pockets as they talked; it was a sunny afternoon, but the ever-present chill of winter justified it. As she feigned interest in the figurines on display she uncorked the vial in her right pocket, letting the oily substance coat the palm and fingers of her glove. The wooden sculptures were nicely crafted from different types of wood, painted different colors, most of them depicted people, a couple seemed to represent Sun and Moon, or the city’s White Knights. The kind of thing she assumed people who were born and raised in the city would have no interest in buying.

Dani focused on a sculpture of Moon: a tall, slender, feminine figure carved from dark wood. Featureless; it’s face obscured by a hooded cloak that flowed past her feet, sparkling with a multitude of stars, methodically drawn in silver paint, her arms outstretched, cradling a pale silver crescent above her head. She pulled her hand out of her pocket and took the piece in her hand under the guise of examining it. The entire time she examined the sculpture in her gloved hands, coating it in oil, she asked the man about his work. Kept him talking and focused on what to say next to try and push her towards a purchase. When she was done, she held out the statue for him to take. He took it off her hands, disappointedly questioning whether she was sure she didn’t want it. Dani pretended to think about it until he lowered the price to only two silver. The man criminally undervalued his work. She placed the two silver on his open palm and took the tainted statue back, storing it in the same pocket as her now-empty vial.

Purchase made, she strolled away to the next stall, and then the next over, without looking back. She lingered by a jeweler’s stall, examining some of the delicate pendants on display there. Listening.

A shallow gasp.

A cough followed by a harsh wheeze.

Another vain attempt to seek breath was drowned out by a spectator’s panicked shout for help.

Only then did she turn around and look. The man braced himself against the stall, chewed up nails scraping the wood. His eyes widened in shock and fear for a brief moment before rolling back as he lost consciousness and collapsed against the display. The stand broke under the deadweight and the sculptures scattered on the ground.

The crowd broke into an array of simultaneous reactions; some screamed for a Healer, others for the guards, some simply moved closer in morbid curiosity. Dani stood still as the crowd moved past and around her, trying to make sense of what they’d witnessed. And just like that, without any effort on her part, she faded into the background.

[City of Newhaven | Lacus 26th, 2526 | Early Evening]

The walk back to the Inn was a blur. Dani kept her hands in her pockets the entire time. Upon arrival, her gloves were discarded as well as the coat that came in contact with the poison. The statue she’d purchased was meticulously cleaned of any poison and now Moon stared at her from the desk as she lay on the cot.

“Why’d you bring that?”

Dani hummed, looking up at Finn distractedly. “I didn’t want to leave it for someone else to touch.”

“Huh. Makes sense.” They plopped down on the cot opposite hers with a tired sigh. “It’s nice looking. Are you going to keep it?”

“Not my style. Why? Do you want it?”

“Sure. It’ll liven up the place a little.”

Dani managed a weak chuckle. “You’d need more than one decoration to do that, Finn.”

“You gotta start somewhere, though.” Silence lingered and they followed up with “are you doing alright, Runt?”

Dani nodded. “I feel fine. Just ready to go home.”

“You planning on leaving early?”

“After breakfast, I think. Why?”

“Well…” They sighed. “I was talking to James earlier about how to get you out of the city and he said that it’s gotta be the tunnels right now. Because of the Hunters and all of that, can’t afford to not be safe about stuff. I was thinking, if it’ll help, I could walk you to the end and then come back.”

Dani looked away from the statue to stare at Finn. “You’d do that?”

“If it’ll help. Yeah, sure, why not.” Finn shrugged.

“That would help, thank you.”

Finn mumbled in response and left the dormitory, heading upstairs to take care of their work for the night. Dani thought about the nice family on the other end of the tunnel and decided not to linger there. She’d go back and visit some other time. All said and done, she just wanted to go home as soon as possible.

Go home and wait for spring.

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