by Serena W Sorrell
As far as final words went Janus very much thought her mother’s had to be among the most befuddling and wasted— “The menagerie skeleton is in the locket.”—this, Triv had shouted as a sword had run her through. Her mother’s back with a blood streaked metal blade poking out was the last Janus would ever see of her mother, and the seven weird words the last she’d ever hear in her mother’s voice. Janus had only escaped murder herself by the grace of Triv’s fast thinking and quick hands. And at the destruction of their small malasadas stand. As the sword had plunged into Triv’s breast she shoved Janus backward to scramble through the tangles and swoops of silk and brocade wares the stall to their rear had on elaborate display. Her mother had screamed the cryptic phase and upturned the boiling oil onto her killers. One had escaped with only burns on his hands. The other bastard taken the brunt of the oil and was left to die, gargling in his blood. The disruption in the quiet seaside market (as quiet as markets came really, it was still terribly noisy) had created enough mayhem for Janus to race through the zigzag maze of streets only a local raised there one’s whole life would be able to navigate at such speeds. Fast as her life depended on it (Janus was quite sure her life did indeed depend on it) she ran back to the small room where she lived with Triv, now late mother.
Janus tried not to think of her mother in the past tense just yet. It would bring tears, then weeping, and become a noisy and messy affair. For the present, she tucked away the pain and grief to pull out later, when she was sure she would not be sharing her mother’s fate at the end of a sword. There was, after all, at least one more person who had come to their stand. And they had come for some whispered purpose, which had escalated to curses and spitting, and ended in deaths. If Triv had not given them whatever it was they had wanted of her, Janus reasoned, it would be a short time before the murderers would ransack their home. Janus had seemingly beat them by way of a local’s knowledge. She changed out of her sweaty shop clothes, smelling oily-sweet of cinnamon and sugar, into the common fashion of layers of dull greens and blues. Janus covered the sun bleached white gold hair she shared—had shared—with Triv, and pulled the front of her turban low over her brow to shadow her sea green eyes. Janus looked like everyone else in the market, she looked like no one. Chameleoned now Janus took a deep breath. What would she need? She had maybe minutes to decide. Their savings kept under an old floorboard. She desperately wanted a memento of Triv. The old sword her mother had taught her to use the thing hung on the wall. A sword would be welcome company if she was going to be followed by murderers. Her mother’s sword it was to be then. Although, in truth, it had belonged to Janus’s father’s. But if her mother was to be believed, he was dead too. More likely some seafaring bum had come to port fourteen years ago and knocked up a barmaid, giving Triv the gift of Janus. Regardless, Triv had kept the sword. And now it was Janus’s. How well Janus would fare against any enemy remained to be tested. She hoped to keep it that way. Janus looked at the half off‑hinged door she’d come through at least twice a day with her mother every day of her life.
All the freedom of orphan life, all the world, waited beyond that small door. Without any other choice—and knowing time was short—Janus left her home for the last time. Janus had never particularly craved freedom. She had enjoyed her simple life of making pastry with her mother, now having independence thrust upon her without any say in the matter was certainly not the way she would have preferred to gain it. But it was hers now and perhaps it would exhilarate her later, when survival was certain and her sorrow salved by time. Before any of that could happen there were decisions to make, namely, what to do; where to go; how to do it? Janus left the old building that had homed her home through the back door as these questions danced through her mind. If possible, she would like to honor her mother’s final words by finding the skeleton menagerie, or the locket, or whatever the words had meant her to find. Whatever their meaning they had been serious enough for Triv to use her final breath to say them, which made them important. So, Janus would find the skeleton menagerie in the locket. It was decided. Bollocks though, where did one look for such a thing exactly? And how?
Questions two and three proved more challenging than the first. But a terrible crash from the room she had lived in shook the riddles from the immediacy of needing solving. They, whoever they were, had found her house, as past tense as her mother. Janus put aside her search for answers; she swallowed the fear, the sorrow, and the terrible confusion and walked away from the murderers turned looters. She disappeared in the throngs of people in the mercantile and shop area of town. In just a blink, Janus was a drop among a sea of turbaned heads. Although, to a low and keen eye, the long scabbard poking from the bottom of one of her trouser legs would perhaps draw attention. In an ambling pace Janus left the seaside town where she had been born and raised and its stifling humidity behind. The town where her mother had been murdered in front of her and no one had said a word or batted an eye. That was the world Janus was free to explore now. As she wandered the streets in as nonsensical a pattern as she could concoct Janus seared each sight into her memory. She would never come back here. But she wanted to remember each place she had been with her mother. Just there, beside the bakery, Triv had reminded Janus for the umpteenth time to seek out the Monastery of the Black Iris if any trouble ever found her. Trouble had. Janus could not fathom anything more troubling than this trouble. So it must have been the kind of trouble her mother had meant when she had taught the way to the monastery so many late nights until Janus could recite the way there, on command, any time her mother prompted. The monastery might be her best lead to find the locket. At the very least, it might provide some sanctuary from her mother’s killers.
And there created another question! Those people had looked suspiciously like disreputable sailors, bluntly put: pirates. How did her mother know any pirates, or they her? Why would any have any quarrel with either of them? Janus wondered at these more than she wondered at the other questions, and almost as much as she pondered Triv’s last words. It was not that Janus was not upset by her mother’s murder. No, far from it. She was devastated, but her mother had taught her to keep a level head in crises and with the questions banging around her skull there remained very little space for emotions as of yet. Of all the things to say as one died though! The menagerie skeleton is in the locket. What in the nine seas was a menagerie skeleton? How did it fit in a locket? Had her mother meant a skeleton menagerie? Janus did not fancy this morbid translation or imagery of a menagerie of animal skeletons any more than she did the frustrating sentence. It also seemed unlikely her mother had any such menagerie. Where would she have kept such a thing, living or skeletal? A skeleton menagerie it was not. So how did one fit a skeleton of any sort in a locket? It would have to be a locket of considerable size, even if it was a menagerie of but a few fish. This presented yet another problem, neither Triv nor Janus had any locket. Her mother had worn no jewelry at all. Janus had only seen shiny lockets in expensive jewelry store windows where grubby girls like her were not welcome and turned away quickly with a ‘thank you very much and good day, madam’. At any rate, she could not simply gallivant through every town and city shoplifting every bloody locket she came across. Perhaps the locket was at the monastery where she was heading anyways and her first quest would be over quite soon. After that she would hunt down her mother’s killers and avenge her mother as any loyal daughter ought to try to do. Most likely she would die. A worry she would confront after she had the locket and skeleton menagerie safe in hand.
She had answers, vague though they were, to what she would do and where to go. How to do it would be simple enough. People took pity on a poor orphan whose father had drowned at sea and whose mother died of a broken heart and gave her scraps to appease their own conscience. It was not entirely the truth, but not quite a lie. Her father had died on a ship, and it had been in port, which counted as the sea as far as Janus was concerned; and her mother had died of a broken heart, being cut with a sword. The fact the two deaths were unrelated were irrelevant so long as it got Janus a piece of bread or a bowl of soup and perhaps a bed of straw for the night. The life of an orphan was easy enough for now. At night, alone and staring at stars through gaps in old barns beside sleeping sheep, Janus went over her questions and answers like a mantra to keep her emotions at bay. At the end of the chain Janus only knew she was an orphan and no one would answer her questions. Certainly not her mother.
Janus crossed through four towns in her pathetic begging way before she was certain she was being followed. At first the feeling of being watched scratched along her spine and she chalked it up to escaping murder. When the scratching curled up and purred at the base of her neck she was certain. She gathered food in towns still but she stopped sleeping in them. Janus began sleeping along the roads, but not within sight. She was always tucked behind a bush or in a tree’s branches. It was a lie to say she slept much at all in actuality. She was waiting. Either the beast of panic would uncurl and leave her or she’d see, and kill, whoever was tracking her. In towns Janus never hastened her steps or jumped at shadows. Her mother’s sword was tucked just inside her pants. Janus had been taught enough to use the blade for protection. It wasn’t long before she devised a plan while she trekked and begged scraps. Janus would forge a chance for her follower to make a move. She would smoke them out and repay them in kind for breaking Triv’s heart. The setting would be key though. Days dragged on as Janus let her follower follow as she searched for the best place to end their following. This took longer than she cared for. She worried her quarry would make contact before she had prepared for them properly. But to rush would be a dead giveaway that was aware of their presence. Self‑determination drove her to keep a pace which would not draw suspicions. On the ninth day after Triv’s murder, only another two days from the monastery, Janus found the stage of her counterattack.
It was not a remarkable place, which was made it remarkable. A single tree, half undressed by the climate and season, spread branches and mediocre shade over a boulder. The boulder itself was only barely large enough to hide Janus. It was the boulder she’d been searching for really. But what really clinched the whole setting as perfect was the pit on the lee of the stone. Well, not so much a pit as a somewhat deep hole. One an adult would at least have to scramble out of and by the time they had a knee back on the ground above Janus would have a blade at their throat. Her plan very much revolved around there being only one person following her. Should there be two—well, she would simply have to improvise. Her mother had always praised her quick thinking, so Janus would have to rely on the trait Triv had seen in her. Although Janus had never quite seen it in herself. Janus thought of herself as more of a slow planner than a quick thinker. Tonight she would try to be a bit of both, for her mother’s sake.