The bell rang, and the door shut with a bang that made Nyx wish once again that she could pad its edges. "Well," she said, looking over at her cousin, "what do you think?"
"Not a chance," Tia said. "She's from out of town – couldn't you tell?"
"They all look the same to me, them and their fancy clothes." Nyx indicated her own rough dress. "How would I know which ones are local?"
"It's not what she's wearing," Tia pointed out, "it's what she said. She wanted the lace for her serving maid. Do you honestly think anyone in Drabiv has a maid?"
"I know someone who has two," Nyx retorted, waving one hand at the door into the back where old Grandmother Else was presumably sleeping.
Tia stuck her tongue out. "That's not the same, Nyx, and you-"
The bell rang. This time the customer was local, and was only after enough cheap fabric to patch her daughter's dress. Tia asked after her family – her eldest son was off in the city, she explained earnestly, getting an education - while Nyx took her money, and then the bell rang again, and they were alone once more.
"Sometimes I think every woman in the town has been through that door," Tia commented.
"All except one," Nyx agreed. "Grandmother Else thinks it's a sin to walk through the front of your own shop, didn't you know?"
"Grandmother Else thinks it's a sin to set foot in your own shop, at least while you've got anyone else to do it for you," Tia added with a grin.
"Grandmother Else," said a crackly voice behind them, "definitely thinks it's a sin to gossip about her like a pair of chattering hens."
Nyx and Tia exchanged a horrified look, and turned together to look at their grandmother. They knew by now that, if she was in a bad mood, excuses would be worthless – she'd proved time and again that she was willing and able to turn them over her knee for their sins. Fortunately, though, her eyes were bright, and her wrinkled mouth was stretched into a grin that showed all her remaining teeth.
"Now then, dearies, how have you been getting on today? Not too busy gossiping to earn your keep, I hope!"
So Tia showed her the money they'd brought in, from the woman looking for patches, the woman with the serving maid, the woman making the cushion, and all the rest. At the end it seemed as if Grandmother Else's grin had grown even wider. "Lovely, my dears, absolutely lovely! I do believe we're finally going to be rich!"
The girls avoided each other's eyes. They'd heard those words all too many times before, and knew perfectly well that it wasn't going to happen. But it made Grandmother Else happy, for a while, at least.
The day passed, as days tend to. Grandmother Else went back to sleep, but woke up again at the end of the day to give the girls the money for their work and send them off home. Then they were out, walking through the streets of Drabiv as the sun set.
"It's so much nicer now it's summer," Nyx commented as they wandered across town. Tia laughed.
"You mean, now we're not wading through snow to get home? Yes, you could say- oh!"
The "oh!" was not, of course, what Nyx could say – she, in fact, was staring with her mouth hanging open at the same thing that had provoked the "oh!", which was a strange blue shape that hung in the air in front of the two. Her jaw dropped even further when first one, then another woman in black – with trousers! – stepped out of it, dragging between them a women in a very sparkly pink dress (definitely from out of town, Nyx decided with a hint of hysteria). One of the women was speaking as she appeared.
"-tell you, it's a far better place to dispose of her than-"
"-a small town in Eastern Europe, perhaps?" the other interrupted. The first one looked around, her face settling into a frown.
"... maybe I got the date wrong?"
The other woman snorted. "If you think there was ever a time that-"
Tia could stand it no longer. "Look," she said, walking forward, "just who are you, and what are you doing... appearing in our town?"
The pair looked at her, startled, but it was the pink-dressed blonde who answered, in a panicked tone. "I am Princess Aubergine of the fabulous land of Alinsenee," she squeaked, "and I implore your aid!"
"Oh, stow it," the first woman said, slapping her casually. "They don't want to hear about that."
"Or maybe we do," Tia said stubbornly. "Maybe you've kidnapped her, and I should call for the town guard!"
One of the women took a step towards Tia, clenching her fists. "Look, you little- ack!"
For the one in the pink dress had taken the chance to break away, running down the street with an awkward gait, straight towards Nyx. "Stop her!" the other woman shouted, and Nyx...
... did, although she wasn't sure why. She stuck out her foot and the blonde tumbled face-down into the mud of Drabiv. Her beautiful – or sickening – dress was instantly covered, which made Nyx cringe, for she could tell how expensive it must be. Then the woman who had been threatening Tia had jumped on her, pinning her to the ground. The other woman, her partner, looked at Nyx thoughtfully. "Spirited thing, aren't you? Want a job?"
The casual offer took Nyx by surprise. Tia, however, overheard, and was horrified. "Don't do it, Nyx!" she cried. "They'll only drag you around like they are the Princess!"
The woman in black snorted. "Not likely! We only drag 'Sues around like that."
"But her name is Princess Aubergine," Nyx pointed out carefully, "not Suze."
"No, I said- oh, it's too complicated to explain. Look, do you want the job or no? We've got things to be doing, either way."
"Don't do it, Nyx!" Tia cried. "You know what your father always says about-"
"I don't think those men can appear out of nowhere, Tia," Nyx pointed out, and, "Will I be allowed to come home?" she asked the woman, who shrugged.
"If you want to. Are you coming?"
Nyx nodded, and, ignoring Tia's protests, stepped through the blue door.
She only went back once, and it was years later. She was dressed in Assassin's black by then, and no one even recognised her. Some cautious questions established that Grandmother Else had died peacefully during a particularly harsh winter, and that Tia had taken over the shop. It was apparently quite successful... but Nyx, though she looked at it for a time from across the street, didn't go in. Instead, she went home. HQ was waiting.
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