Leopold lay on his stomach on one of the beds and stared at the fire. Midas was not present, gone to fetch their belongings. Leopold had offered to come along and help, but Midas had insisted that he could get them by himself. Raven had taken advantage of the shower room to wash up, leaving Leopold with nothing to do but build a fire. Within ten minutes he had a crackling blaze started on the hearth and once again had nothing with which to occupy himself. Absently his mind had strayed back to the job at hand. They were inside the compound now, but he still needed to get to the stables undetected if he was going to kill the horse. Or perhaps he wouldn't have to. A small amount of the right poison in the beast's food would do the trick. The question then was, would he be able to get access to the horse's food? He was so lost in thought that he didn't notice Raven until she passed between him and the fire. She had obviously just finished washing and her hair was still wet. It glistened attractively in the flickering light. She wore a knee length skirt and short-sleeved shirt, though Leopold knew that with the temperature being what it was, she would be adding to her attire as soon as she was sufficiently dry.
"Come sit by me, Leo," she said as she sat cross legged in front of the hearth. She patted a hand on the ground next to her.
Leopold rolled out of the bed and sat down on his heels beside her, extending his hands toward the flames. At this distance he could definitely feel the heat on his fingers. After a moment, he sank back into a more comfortable position. Raven laid her head on his shoulder. Her hair touched his neck causing him to flinch from the cold wetness. He forced himself to not show his discomfort, and in moments his skin adjusted.
"Raven, there's something that I've been meaning to ask you," Leopold said. He had been sitting on this topic since their mission at Castle Rajikline, and it was about to kill him. "Will you tell me the story of how you met Daniel? The night before I infiltrated Rajikline, you said you would tell me later."
"I did say that, didn't I?" Raven commented. "And you want to hear it now?"
"It's later," Leopold answered.
"Very well," Raven said. She lifted her head and looked at Leopold. "It's a long story and if I only tell you the abbreviated version, you'll have even more questions for me. I think I'll start at the beginning, though if I do, there's no guarantee that I'll get to me meeting Daniel today."
"I'm okay with that," Leopold said. "Let's go with the long version."
"It starts in an orphanage down south," Raven began. "I was the daughter of the town drunk, or so I'm told. I don't know what happened to my mother; no one seems to know that. Basically, my father drank himself to death one winter night when I was less than two years old, and I nearly froze to death as well. I was saved by a kind old man, but he knew he couldn't take care of me, so he gave me to the orphanage. He always came to see me periodically and brought me gifts sometimes, even though he was quite poor. He was the closest thing to a father that I ever remember having. He died when I was five.
"The orphanage wasn't a bad place to grow up, though it was very impersonal. I had two or three friends, I know that much, but I can't remember who they were. I can't even picture their faces. It was such a long time ago, it seems though really it has been no more than four or five years since I last saw the old building."
"I could ask how old you were when you left and do the math, but I think I'll just ask how old you are," Leopold said.
"So..." Raven said after a moment. "Aren't you going to ask?"
"How old are you, exactly?" Leopold asked.
"It's hard to say because no one really knows," Raven answered. "As near as it can be figured, I'm around fifteen give or take a half a year."
"Fifteen," Leopold said thoughtfully. "You know, I'll be that old in twenty-three days."
"I know," Raven said. "But to get back to my story. The orphanage wasn't great, but it was still one of the best times of my life. I got into tussles with the other kids for sure, but it was there that I grew tough and began to develop my ability to think and plan.
"There was one boy in particular that I remember. He was essentially what amounted to the house bully. He had to have everything his own way, and if he didn't get it, he threw a tantrum. He learned quickly that no one cared about his tantrums, so he learned a different tack. Instead of throwing a fit whenever he didn't get his own way, he would bend the other children to his will. Brute force was his favorite tool, and I was no match for him in that department. For a while I cowered whenever he came around, just like all the kids in the house, but eventually I had had enough of it. I knew that I was smarter than he was and if I put my mind to it, I could beat him. The question, of course, was 'how?'
"The answer, I determined, was to get everyone else to beat him for me. If I could just get them to rally against him, he wouldn't be able to fight all of us. In a nutshell, that's exactly what I did. That was the first time that I manipulated a mob to my purposes. After that, I became a fan of the whole manipulation concept. I'm ashamed to say that I basically became as bad as the original bully except that I didn't use force."
"Wow," Leopold commented. "Less than ten and you were already playing the politics game. You were certainly an accomplished young lady."
"You could say that," Raven agreed. "I definitely learned how to use my brain while I was at the orphanage. It got to the point where I thought that my intelligence could solve any problem in the world. I was about to learn that that wasn't true and I was going to learn it the only way I knew how, in the school of hard knocks."
Raven had maintained a neutral expression up to this point, but now suddenly as if a switch had been flipped her expression changed. Her face screwed up, and she began to cry. Leopold looked on helplessly, unsure of what had brought the change. He put an arm around her shoulder and tried his best to comfort her all the while knowing he was doing a poor job of it. This continued for much longer than Leopold would have liked with Raven crying and him sitting there feeling useless.
Eventually Raven managed to calm down and wiped the tears from her eyes.
"I'm sorry about that, Leo," she said, looking at him. "I want to tell you, but it's too painful right this moment. Let me pull myself together."
"That's fine, Raven," Leopold said, giving her shoulder a squeeze. "I didn't want to upset you. I'm sorry for making you talk about it."
"No, it's good for me to talk," Raven disagreed. "I'll tell you eventually, but right now I'll just end up bawling if I say any more."
"That's fine. Take all the time you need," Leopold said.
"That's for understanding," Raven said, standing to her feet. "I think I'm going to go get back into my warm clothes."
"Yes, nothing like the feel of previously worn and dirty clothes to raise the spirits, is there?" Leopold joked.Raven barely smiled, but it was a step in the right direction. She headed to her room and Leopold stared at the fire, wondering what dark secret her past held. He had known her for long enough to know that it took a lot to faze her. Whatever it was, it was certainly bad, and he simultaneously couldn't wait to and dreaded hearing it.