This is a dream, he thought. His sister couldn't actually be standing there on the other side of the stream; she'd been dead for five years. And even if she weren't, Mellie Hyrax would never wear the ragged, filthy clothes this apparition seemed to have on. When they'd lived in town, her wardrobe had been the largest in the district, and she never even left her room, let alone the house, without at least a string of pearls.
But it wasn't a dream, she really was there, now wading across to him with no regard for what remained of her shoes, or even, when the water rose high enough, her skirt. Then she was trampling over his freshly-planted potatoes (that was Mellie, all right) and throwing her arms around his neck. "Dassie! It's so good to see you again!"
"You too, sis," Dassie said, still shocked. "We thought you were dead!"
Mellie snorted. "Not quite! They almost did kill me when Mam and Dad wouldn't pay the ransom-"
"What're you talking about?" Dassie demanded. "They did pay, that's why we're living out here now – they had to sell the house to do it. And then they didn't send you back like they'd promised..."
"What? That's not what I heard. You sure they didn't lie to you?" (Yep, still as thoughtless as ever). "Anyway it doesn't matter. They didn't kill me – they sold me, instead."
"You were a slave?" Dassie exclaimed. Of all the fates...!
Mellie laughed. "Yes, you might say that! But it was only to a group of actors who needed someone to carry their sets around."
That sent shivers down his spine. You heard things about those travelling actors... sure, they were entertaining, but the things they did looked a bit too much like magic for anyone to be comfortable with them.
Mellie was still talking, oblivious. "-took the idea from one of their own plays, would you believe! Of course, we were across the sea by then, so I had to sell myself as a, well, slave if you like, but it was only temporary, and I ended up on the coast. I haven't walked all the way back – it's like five hundred miles! –"
More like seventy, as Dassie recalled.
"-but that's a boring story. So how're you? How're Mam and Dad and little Elyse?"
Dassie's eyes took on a haunted look. "Mam died two winters ago when the plague passed through. Dad was conscripted into the army to fight off the northern hordes trying to escape the glaciers. And Elyse got married and moved as far away from us as she could."
Mellie blinked. "Married? But she was only eleven!"
"Fifteen last year, which was when it happened," Dassie reminded her. "It's perfectly reasonable, we've had lots of girls getting married around here at that age."
Mellie gave him a suspicious look. "You're not married, too, are you?"
Dassie laughed. "Me? I'm eighteen, Mel, that means I go into the army next year. Who'd want me?"
Mellie gave him a shrewd look. "Why not avoid the military?" she suggested.
He raised an eyebrow. "How? They'll come into the village just as they do every year, take a census, and they will track down everyone on their list."
"Come with me," she said quickly. "I'm going to try and cut across country south to the border, they're still accepting refugees down there. If you join me..."
Dassie glanced around. No one was visible, no one watching. If he went... "I can't, sis. I've got responsibilities..."
"Which other people can do. Come on, little bro, what else are you going to do with your life? In the south, we can move back to the city, get rich again..."
"... give me five minutes." He dashed for his house.
The forest was a common playing ground for the local children, but they never went in very far. Back there, the brambles grew too thick to pass unaided, or so Dassie had always thought.
"It's really easy to spot from the other side," Mellie was explaining as she walked easily through apparently-impenetrable thorns. "It's almost like it was set up deliberately, but of course that's silly, isn't it?"
"Right, silly," Dassie agreed, pulling yet another inch-long spike from his arm. "How far is there to go?"
"Nearly there now," Mellie told him cheerfully, and then the branches seemed to flow away and they were in a small clearing. With a sigh, Dassie fell to his knees on the soft earth. Then he heard the click of a crossbow behind him, and looked up.
At least a dozen men and women, all dressed as shabbily as his sister, were watching him with a variety of weapons in plain sight. At his side, Mellie let out a breath.
"Sorry about this, Dassie, but we really do need the money."
Then she hit him, and the world vanished.
Dassie awoke to discover, somewhat to his surprise, that he hadn't been sold into slavery. Instead, there was a tall man sitting beside him, fletching an arrow. "Nice to see you're up," he said, not looking at Dassie. "Mellie was a bit too enthusiastic, if you know what I mean."
Dassie stared, peripherally noticing that his hands and feet were tied. "What...?"
"You've got a choice," the man said, finishing the arrow and shoving it point-first into the ground. "Either, like the girl said, we sell you and take the money, or you join us, and help feed us that way."
"What... who are you?" And what are you doing with my sister?, he didn't add, because the answer was very, very obvious.
The man shrugged. "We're the ones who've seen what's coming. The northern rabble outnumber our armies a hundred times, and the southerners are just waiting for us to weaken enough for them to strike. We don't want to be in so-called civilisation when that happens, so we left. Now we scrape a living doing what we can."
"Like selling people into slavery?"
"It pays," the man said bluntly. "You decided yet?"
Dassie sighed. "I'll join you," he said. What choice do I have?
It took about five hours for Dassie to hate his new life, but six weeks for him to find a way out. As it happened, he was out hunting – he wasn't the best hunter in the group, but he wasn't quite the worst, either – when someone fell out of a tree onto his head.
Rolling as he hit the floor, Dassie managed to get up onto one knee and aim his short bow at the young woman who had dropped on him. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"Pleasedon'tshootme!" the girl squeaked. Dassie rolled his eyes.
"I won't shoot you unless you tell me why you were following me." That wasn't egotism talking, there really was no other reason for someone to be out this far and this late.
The young woman coughed. "Can I... sit up?" Dassie nodded, taking care to stand himself as she did so. He noticed that her clothes – some sort of black material – were far neater than his own, which was hardly surprising, and had a picture of some sort of purple leaves stitched onto one arm, which was pretty odd. But probably not important.
"Well? Who are you, and what were you doing?"
The girl coughed again. "I'm, uh, Agent Traf Elosia, PPC Department of Intelligence. I'm scouting out your world to see whether we're going to need a presence here."
Dassie frowned. He hadn't understood more than one word in three. Or rather, he had, but they didn't make sense together. "Why were you following me?" he asked instead of trying to make sense of it. Unthinking, he lowered his bow, which he wasn't really happy about using anyway."
"Um. It's sort of easiest if I can bring someone back with me, that way I don't have to look through the whole world myself. I sort of thought, you look well travelled yet dissatisfied with your lot in life, maybe you'd... like a job?"
Dassie stared. "A... job? What, back in the cities?"
The girl shook her head impatiently. "No, at the PPC. It's... look, it's easier if I show you, all right?"
"Show me?" He really wasn't making a good impression, but honestly, the girl – Traf – didn't make any sense. "We're miles from anywhere, how are you going to – ack!" He jumped backwards, waving his bow like a blunt instrument, not taking his eyes off the glowing blue rectangle that had just appeared in the air. "Magic!"
"Not at all," Traf said, standing up and showing him a metal device. "Just sufficiently advanced technology. Please step through the portal."
Dassie shook his head adamantly. "Not a chance. That stuff's dangerous. I've seen the damage it did to the castle back home, it-"
That was when someone pushed him through the 'portal'.
Agent Elosia, Agent Apple, perhaps you could be a little less precipitous in future?
"He was going to go through in the end anyway!" Sam Apple insisted. Traf Elosia nodded firmly.
"We can do this, Sub Rosa. We've done it lots of times."
The Head of Intelligence sighed. All right. You'll be glad to know, then, that your recruit – Dassie Hyrax, his name is – has decided to become a member of the PPC. An Agent of the Department of Intelligence, even. Hopefully he will better live up to the title of Spy than you two. Falling out of trees, indeed!
"It was deliberate!" Traf tried to insist, but Sam grabbed her arm.
"We're very sorry, ma'am. There will be no more falling from trees, right, Traf?"
It's perfectly all right. Now, Agent Elosia, you will be assigned to help with our new Agent Hyrax's training. Agent Apple, your request for a transfer has been approved. The Poppy is waiting for you in her office. I hope you enjoy your new life as an Assassin.
Sam took a deep breath. "So do I, ma'am. So do I."
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