Jack was sitting on the bench of his cart. Now that he was alone he was having a hard time bringing himself to function enough to take the reins and go back home. So instead he sat with his elbows on his knees, absently playing with his knife. He traced a thumb along the silver inlay in the blade. Then he slid the thumb down to the edge, and let the minor pain give him something to focus on. Slowly, achingly, the panic faded. It was just him, in his cart, alone, and safe. When he heard the woman’s voice, he didn’t understand the words at first. It was the second time that he heard a “Hey,” and turned his head. The woman speaking to him was a dragonian in a modest dress, with piercing eyes framed by dark hair.
“Yeah?” Jack responded once he had full control of his speech again.
“Got room for one more up there?” the woman asked.
Jack shrugged. The woman took that as her invitation and climbed up into the cart. They sat together in silence for a moment, the woman looking around and Jack looking at the floor of the cart.
“So,” the woman began, “It must be nice out here in the middle of nowhere. No one to bother you, no one to come looking for you for your past mistakes. Just nice, peaceful anonymity.”
Jack had gone very still. His pulse was racing, but he could not make any movements. He could only stay staring down, petrified with fear as the woman continued to speak.
“Yeah. I wish I could just get away from it all. You’re a very lucky man, Jack. Very lucky indeed.” She looked over at him, and when he did not add anything to the conversation, she seemed disappointed. “Nothing? Not even a ‘who are you’ or ‘what do you want?’” The cart rocked slightly with the force of her throwing her head back. “And here I thought I’d at least pique your interests a little bit with that speil. I rehearsed it and everything.”
Jack slowly lifted his gaze from the floor. His heart was still pounding, but the edge of the terror had softened. “Explain yourself,” he said. He was impressed that he could still muster a steady voice out of himself, though it did not come out as strong as he would have liked.
The woman gave a smirk. “That’s more like it,” she said. She straightened up and looked Jack dead in the eyes. She spoke quietly, but firmly. “There is a growing group of us in the city who are building a resistance. We plan to take down the Naga oppressors and rise up to rule the land that was once ours. We have already infiltrated the palace, and are planning the final upheaval of the crown. All we need is a secret weapon, and a powerful symbol to rally behind. We need you, Jack.”
Jack blinked once. Then again. Then he set his jaw, sat fully upright, and said, “Get out of my cart.”
The woman’s bravado deflated instantly. “What?”
“You heard me.”
“But…but we need you. Y-you’re the-the-the…” With her carefully rehearsed lines gone, she was fumbling at putting together a coherent sentence. She patted bits of her dress, looking for something as she stuttered and sputtered, all the while becoming increasingly frantic. Jack was counting to ten and taking very deep breaths while clutching his knife just a little tighter than before. Then she quietly exclaimed “Ah!” and the sound that followed was the tinkle of a chain.
Jack opened his eyes and dared a look. At the end of the chain hung a clear jewel in a gold setting. “You stole it from her,” he said in a flat tone.
“It’s yours. It has always been yours. Jack,” she pressed, “do you know what this even means?”
He just shook his head. “No. Not particularly.”
Now she was just agitated. “How were such a skilled thief if you’re so dense?”
“I call it talent.”
“I call it,” she whacked one of his wings with her hand, “the fact that you can still bloody fly.”
Jack quickly looked around. No one was near them that he could see. “So what if I can?” he murmured. “Nothing unnatural about that.”
She just stared at him incredulously.
“Look, miss. I understand where you’re going with this, but-”
The woman moved toward him. Jack moved defensively, and she reacted in kind, leaving them inches from each other with drawn blades clashed together.
“I don’t have a lot of time to be doing this dance with you, Jack,” she said in nearly a whisper. “We know it’s the stone blocking whatever magic they have keeping us grounded. We know there are more of these out there. If you refuse to join us, you will at least tell us where we can get more of these. Otherwise you will wish that the royal guards had found you.”
Jack grabbed the woman’s hair with his free hand and yanked her down to the floorboards of the cart. In the same motion he positioned himself straddled on her waist as they went down. She flailed with her knife and cut him across the base of his neck, and blood began pouring out onto her. Jack grabbed the arm that she was wielding the blade with and pinned it to the floor. With his other hand he held his blade to her throat. The rocking startled the horse, who gave a shake and whinney.
The woman stared in shock as the knife wound began knitting itself back together in front of her eyes, stopping the blood flow but currently leaving the wound open. She could see tendons and muscle move as he spoke very concisely to her.
“The royal guard have already found me once. You will never be able to recreate that hell.” With the last word, one of the freshly reattached blood vessels reopened, and blood leaked down his neck in one slow, red line. Jack took his knife hand away from her throat and used it to tug his shirt up. He watched her face evolve from horror, to confusion, and back to horror as she processed what she was seeing. “Do not threaten the man who has danced with demons.”
The woman brought her gaze up to his eyes. Then she gave an almost silent “I understand.” Jack let her up and sat back on the bench. “You should change,” he said. “People will ask about the blood.”
The woman looked down at the dark spots littering her torso. She silently rose and sat back on the bench next to him. “All of my clothes are in the fishing town,” she said absently.
Jack looked a long time at her. Fully stipped of her act, she was fragile and afraid. He guessed that she worked in the castle her whole life, which would have saved her from the roughness of the slums. Then again, he couldn’t expect anyone to really be able to handle seeing that.
“I should have something you can wear in the meantime,” Jack finally said. He took the reins and spurred the horse into motion down the road.
The woman looked around. “Why?”
“It’s my blood. It’s my cart. It seems to be my responsibility.”
They rode in silence the rest of the way to Jack’s shop.