I woke up to the feeling of my stomach growling. I yawned and stretched until I heard different bones and joints popped. I lit the candle right next to my bed and used it to navigate through the small vault. I used the restroom and kept stretching, getting my body limbered up for the coming days. I grabbed a can of food and set the pot on the stove. I used a long lighter to light the gas stove, heating the bottom of the pot while I opened the can. I dumped the can into the pot and found out that I was going to be eating potato and bacon soup.
As it cooked, I got dressed in the full black clothes and grabbed the jacket. I brushed my short hair before putting it back in a small pony tail. I put the wig on and secured it in place with bobby pins and hair clips. I could smell the soup warming up and filling the vault with the delicious scent of breakfast. I turned the knob until the flame died grabbing the pot off the stove. I set it down on the table, with a trivet under it. I grabbed a large serving spoon from a drawer and ate the soup on silence.
I finished eating, cleaned the pot and set it out to dry. I needed a plan but nothing was coming to me. “Guess I’m going to wing it.” I told myself. I grabbed my whip and hung it at my hip; I strapped on my gauntlets and hid them with the sleeves on my shirt. I fastened new weapons I have found, including two thigh holders with three throwing knives and a sai on each thigh. I put my boots and the jacket on, adjusting the weapons to there they were hidden by the length of the coat. I grabbed my bag and filled it with Mr. Es, waterskins, the two black envelopes, some flame resistant rope and my book.
I blew out the candle and walked out of the vault, not paying attention to the world. I turned to lock it, but decided against it, just in case I died and someone else needed it. I faced the world outside my door and saw the glint of the snow on the ground. My eyes widened at the beauty of it. I ran in glee in the ankle deep snow before falling backwards into it.
I spread my arms and legs out, looking up at the sky. A patch of blue looked down on me. I sat up, staring at the sky, “No way…” I reached towards it, though I knew that it was miles above me. I looked at my hands in amazement, “Did- Did I do that?” I scrambled to my feet as I heard voices coming towards me.
I saw a couple from the town chattering with each other as they walked where the road normally was. I smiled to them as I waved a hello. They greeted me in return and one pointed to the snow, “Have you ever seen anything like this?” The male asked, holding his lady close.
I shook my head, “No, but it’s amazing and beautiful! And there’s even a patch of blue sky!” I pointed to the sky and heard their gasps. I had to ask, “How far does it go?”
“We left town and it extended passed where we live for another few miles. The town shut down and everyone is out enjoying the crisp air.” The lady answered me, “We decided to take a walk to see how far it extends out and still haven’t reached the end of it. I speculate that the snow caused the clean air and the patch of sunlight.” She wondered out loud. They waved and continued their walk, leaving me to my thoughts.
“All this time and I could have done this to begin with?” I laughed at myself before turning to face the Capitol, growing serious as I started to walk. “Even if I could have done this a long time ago, the Darkness is still there.” I started the long journey to the Capitol.
The Capitol was only a three day walk, but it took me through mountain passes, dense dead forests, and numerous small towns. I stopped in these towns to listen to news about the people who were still fighting against the Dictator. The last little town outside of the Capitol is where I heard the grime news.
I was sitting in a tavern, the night having come early, when someone came through the doors, out of breath. “The Rebellion has fallen!” He fell to the ground as a guard pulled a sword from his back.
The guard just laughed at the man’s corpse. “The Rebellion has fallen and you were the last of those who thought that you could survive.” He looked around the tavern to see if anyone would step to help the man, but no one moved. “I’m glad to see that you are all subjects of our Supreme Leader.” He kicked the man’s corpse out of his way as he walked up to the bar.
I sat on the far end of the bar, hoping that he would not see me, but my lucky did not extend that far. He walked up to me, “I haven’t seen you here before. Who are you?”
I looked up at him, “I’m a Tracker and my client has me looking for something. I’m nobody important.”
He bent down closer to my face, as if he was trying to make sense of something. “What are you looking for?” He stood back up, “Maybe I can help you then you can help me.” He grinned and I knew what kind of help he wanted.
“I’ve already found it.” I pulled out the book from my bag. “My client wanted the diary of the Ice Queen and I found it a few days ago. I’m passing through town on the way back towards Falling Leaves.”
He grabbed the book from my hand, “Where did you find this?!” He leafed through the pages, his eyes growing with every page.
“It was in the Capitol. But I heard she died somewhere else, so I wonder how it got all the way over there.” I grabbed the book back from the guard and stuffed it into my bag. “Well, this was a lovely stop, but I need to get going.”
The guard grabbed my arm, “You’re not going anywhere. Show me where you found this!”
I pulled my arm away from him, “I’ll just tell you, because I have no intention of going back in there. I found it in an abandoned room in a Tower.” I remembered the exact Tower I needed from reading the Death Warrant. “It was in the third tallest Tower, the seventh floor, room twelve.”
I watched his eyes narrow, as he thought out loud, “The Supreme Leader should know that it was in the Fire-Bearer’s Tower.”
“That’s who lives there? No wonder the place was empty.” I set some gold on the bar and passed the guard. “Have fun explaining to the Supreme Leader about his nephew.” I walked out the door and bolted around the corner of the building as the guard tried to follow me. I covered my face with my black mask and hid in the shadows.
“Where are you?!” He yelled out as he tried to find me. “Nobody outside of the family and a few guards know who the Fire-Bearer is!” His eyes scanned over my hiding place, but he could not make me out of the shadows. “Enough of this…” He mumbled, “I need to report this to the Supreme Leader.”
I heard him walk away, but waited a few more moments before I stood back up. The guard was gone and if he held his word, then news would spread that the Ice Queen’s Death Diary was in the hands of the Fire-Bearer. Which means that Ethon could be tried for treason again and he would be weak from the punishment. I grinned, a sweet sadistic smile. If he is too weak to fight back, then I could kill him without much of a fight and save my magic for his uncle.
I stayed in the small town until the next evening, not wanting to draw too much attention to me. I needed the darkness to shield me and to hide me. I woke up as the sun was setting in my window.
I walked towards the Capitol, when the world became night and the Capitol alit with glittering lights. I kept my face mask down and walked like I belonged there, despite my conservative attire. No one stopped me or gave me a second thought as I reached the base of the third Tower. I put my mask back on as I used my ice claws to scale the outer wall of the Tower. I found an open window and climbed into the Tower on the sixth floor.
I reabsorbed my ice claws to save them for later. I quietly opened the front door and checked for anyone in the hallway. It was completely empty as I stepped out into the hallway. The hallway created a circle, around the central stairs. I found the doorway into the center of the build where stairs that led up to the Seventh floor and carefully walked up them. I kept thinking thoughts of stealth and silence to keep reminding myself to watch every step.
I opened the door to the seventh floor and heard voices from down below me, “Take him to his room!” The sharp male voice commanded. I quickly looked for anyone and found the area clear.
I slid to a stop when I saw two bodyguards staring at me from the entrance of Ethon’s room. “You there!” One yelled, “Why are you here?”
I pulled my face mask down and bowed, “The Supreme Leader set me ahead of the Fire-Bearer to be sure that his room is ready for him.”
“Why are you wearing a mask over your nose and mouth?” The second one asked.
“It’s for health reasons. In the books I’ve read about taking care of those who are hurt, the first step is to wash hands and the second one is to protect the nose and mouth area. The Supreme Leader has charged me with making sure the Fire-Bearer is to not get infected.” I heard the stair door open and I quickly added, “I don’t the Supreme Leader would appreciate you stopping me from doing my job. Let me through.” I stepped between them and opened the door.
I ran through the main room, throwing open the curtain and window. I found that the roof was tiled, using the lights from outside to see. I quickly moved a tile and jumped into the roof area. I covered the tile just as the door slammed open, the guards turning all the lights on. I carefully made my way to where I could see what was happening. The two guards I tricked ran to the window and saw it open. “Bitch must have jumped.” They shut the window as I heard the scrambling of feet as the guards carried Ethon into the room.
I stayed perfectly still as they threw him on the bed face down. The guard I met with yesterday looked at the Fire-Bearer with contempt. “Next time, your uncle will not be so forgiving of your treasonous ways.” He then turned to the other guards, “He won’t be doing much for a while, so no need to stand at the door.” I watched as they turned the lights off and left the room.
I moved the tile and carefully jumped out of the ceiling. I landed on the floor softly as I grabbed one of the sai at my thighs. I walked over to him and raised the sai to kill him. I saw his eyes open, as he grabbed the sword next to his bed. I had counted on the punishment being sufficient enough to weaken him, but that was not the case.
He used the sword to block my sai, using his strength to push me away from him. He sat up on his bed, turning the light next to his bed on. “Thought that a little beating would make me easier to kill?”
I did not answer, but he knew it was the truth. He stood up, ready for me. I refused to take his bait and waited for him to come to me, as I grabbed my second sai. “Come and get me, little assassin.” I backed away from the bedroom area, forcing him to follow me into the main living area. “Not so tough now that you aren’t killing a sleeping man.” I placed a couple ice spots as I stepped backwards.
My back hit against a wall and when I tried to sidestep it, he lunged at me. His foot landed directly onto one of the ice spots, launching him chaotically forward. The sword stuck into the wall as I dodged out of the way. I cut his arm with the tip of one of the sai, telling him that I was not going to give up.
He ripped the sword from the wall and tried to see what he slipped in, but the light was not bright enough to see with. He came at me again and slipped on another strategically placed ice spot. He fell and I could see the heat rising off his skin. “Trying to make a fool of me, assassin?”
I nodded, not giving him the satisfaction of getting me to talk. I did not want to blow my cover until I absolutely had to. I watched him run towards me, sword raised. He swung it downwards and I caught it with both of my sais.
He pushed down harder, trying to break through my weapons. I fell to the ground and kicked him in the stomach, flinging him over me and into a wall. He slid down the wall, but had the sword in his hand. I did not go near him, something twinging in my heart.
“Why don’t you kill me?!” He shouted as he stood back up. I tried to shake the feelings from my head, but they persisted. I stood in a defensive stance, waiting for him to come for me again. He just glared as he raised his sword again. “You’re not a very good assassin if you didn’t kill me when you had the chance.”
He ran towards me and I used both of the sais to block against his attacks. He was quick, using the blade to go for cuts and slices instead of trying to stab me. He had be backed against another wall, his strength sapping mine with each and every block I had to do. I knew that I needed to kill him, but something kept preventing me from doing it.
I watched the angry heat pour from him and into the sword. The heat was causing the air around us to wave. He thrust his blade towards me and despite moving out of the way, I was cut by the edge of the blade. My blood sizzled on the blade as I saw the delight in his eyes. He pulled the blade from the wall and tried another downward slash, but I caught the blade with one of my sai, using the other one to slash him in the same spot he got me with.
The cut just made him more furious as fire light up around him. I smiled behind the face mask, knowing how this was going to end. The fire traveled down the blade, turning it into a deep red. I twisted the sai, using the second sai as a fulcrum. The sword blade bent around my sai until it was unusable.
I kicked him in the stomach away from me, though he took the ruined blade with him. I held my sais ready for him but he just looked at the destroyed blade as the metal cooled down, hardening the sword into an unusable scrap of metal. “How?” He looked to me then the wall near him. He flicked the switched and the lights came on.
I stood there in my black clothes and jacket, holding my sais, ready for him. He circled around me, trying to find a way to get through my weapons to get to me. “I’m unarmed. What’s stopping you from killing me?”
I felt the warm blood from my cut start to scab up and if I was not careful, it would keep bleeding. I wanted to use that as my excuse, but I knew why I could not kill him. Just being near him made my heart flutter and I wanted to drop my weapons and kiss him.
His foot hit a patch of ice and I used that moment to strike. I lunged for him, but he pulled the same move on me as I did to him. He propelled his feet and launched me through the room. My back hit the window and the glass shattered around me. I used one of the sai to slam into the building, using it as I did my Ice before.
He looked out the window to see me try to hold onto the sai. I slammed the second one into the wall, using it as a foot hold. “You’re pretty resilient.” I watched his hand catch fire before he lobbed the fireball at me. I dodged the fireball by jumping both feet onto the second sai. I felt the sai move as it struggled to hold my weight. “Looks like game over for you.” Ethon threw another fireball at me, but I dropped down, grabbing onto the sai I was just standing on.
I used it as a hinge and jumped into the room below his, shattering that window. I heard a scream as the lady of the room ran from me. I ran through the room until I reached the front door. “Sorry, ma’am!” I yelled to her as I ran out the door.
I saw the stair door open and his head pop out of it. I rounded the corner, just as he looked my way. I regrew my claws and climbed up the wall as he ran to where I just was. I looked down at him as he tried to figure out where I was. I reabsorbed my claws and landed on top of him.
I grabbed for one of the throwing knives at my thigh, but he flipped the two of us over and pinned my arms at my sides. “This was fun, but I think it’s time to end this.”
He created a fireball in his hand, but released one of my arms in the process. I quickly created an Ice claw and shot it at his hand, putting the fire out. In the instant that he was confused, I pushed him off of me and way towards the stairwell. I wanted to defeat him in his room, so that there was less of a chance of someone getting hurt by collateral damage.
I felt the heat as I barely missed being hit by another fireball. I ran up the stairs, tripping a couple time because my feet could not find the steps as well as I would have liked. I ran back into his room, slammed the door shut and cut the lights. The door slammed open, “I don’t know how you did that, but I will end you, assassin.”
I watched as he turned the lights back on and he searched for me. I crouched on top of a decorative ledge, waiting for the perfect chance to take aim. I tried to ready myself, but I still could not bring myself to kill him. I had three easy shots, but I could not get my body to fire my Ice claws. It took me a little bit, but while he was busy searching, I found an idea.
I grabbed a pan from below my hiding ledge as he went into the bedroom. I carefully and quietly landed on the floor, pan in hand. He turned just as I hit him in the head with the pan. It was hard enough to knock him out but nothing that would cause permanent damage.
I grabbed my bag from my first hiding place and grabbed the fire-proof rope. I bound his arms behind his back and his ankles together. I picked him up, using my legs and back as the main source of my strength and tossed him onto the bed. I rolled him face up and tried to find something to stuff into his mouth to keep him from yelling.
I wandered through his room trying to find something when I heard noises from his room. I grabbed a towel and ran back into the room, where he was fighting the ropes. I stuffed the towel into his mouth, before speaking, “I bound you with fire-proof ropes, so you can burn the entire Tower down and you would still be bound.”
He eyes widened as he stopped fighting against the binds. “Mmoo mrf oof?”
I just looked at him. “I’m a Tracker who was given your Death Warrant by a client. I’ve decided that I’ll come back to kill you after I kill your uncle.” I started to leave the bedroom, but something caught my eye. I lightly touched the pendant that was hanging on the wall, along with the zippo I gave him. I looked to him, shocked that he would keep them like this. It was like a memorial for me and it hurt to think about. I found bandages in the bathroom and used them to heal the cut he gave me and the one I gave him in return.
I shut his bedroom door and turned off the lights of his main living area. I opened and closed the door to his Tower room and faced a group of guards waiting for me. The lady whose room I broke into earlier screamed, “That’s her!”
“Look guys, I’m just a lowly thief and this has been fun, but…” I tried to open the door, but one of the guards put his hand on it, keeping it closed.
He leaned forward and used his other hand to rip my mask away, “You’re the bitch from the tavern?”
“Who? Me?” I shook my head, trying to look innocent, “It couldn’t have been me. I avoid places with people, because well, I get sticky fingers around them and I don’t want to accidentally steal anything important.” I held up the guard’s dagger, “Kinda like this.” I stabbed him with his own dagger before he knew what was happening. I kicked him to the side as the guards backed up a little bit. “See? This is why I don’t go near people…”
I opened the door and ran inside, locking the door. I heard them pounding at the door, trying to break it down. “Ideas…” I looked all around me, before I figured something out. I ran to the window and climbed through it, waiting until they burst through the door. I gave them a two finger salute as I pretended to fall. I used my Ice claws to climb to the side of the window. The first guard put his head through the window and I grabbed his collar, pulling him out of the window. I did not wait to see him hit the ground as I climbed to the top of the window.
The next guard looked to where I just was and did not see my foot as I stomped down on his neck with my Ice spiked boots. He fell towards the ground, but I had pierced his spinal column with my boots. I climbed up to the next floor and looked down at the next guard who was brave enough to stick his head out the window. “She’s heading for the roof!” He yelled to the other guards, as he stuck his head inside the window. I counted to ten, before I started to go down the building.
I stopped at the lady’s sixth floor room and stole some clothes, changing quickly. I stuffed my black clothes in my bag, reattached my weapons before grabbing a bright blue long jacket. I removed my wig and used some of the lady’s hair product to add streaks of color into my almost- white-blonde hair. I opened the door and saw that no one was around. I put the jacket on and stepped out of the room, acting like I belonged there.
Guards passed me, a couple even warning me of a dangerous female roaming around. I thanked them for the warning and told them that if I saw someone who did not belong that I would let them know. I walked out of the Tower and stood in the street.
People were hustling and bustling around the street, the night being busier than I thought it would be. I blended in with the crowds and exchanged friendly greeting with the people that I passed. I will admit that I felt pretty ballsy and invincible.
I stopped at a restaurant and ordered something that did not have meal in it. My food came and it was a bunch of green things on it, and it made me think of Enki’s garden. I took a bit and found that peppers were the main green in it. They were sliced up, so I did not recognize them, but that taste… I would never forget that delicious sweetness. I drank the water and was surprised that I could not taste much radiation in it. I wanted to ask the waiter how they did it, but I did not want to stand out. I paid for my dinner and walked outside.
I walked towards a patch of greenery and found someone working. “Excuse me?” I asked.
The girl cringed and walked over to me, “Yes, milady?” Her voice was like silk.
“What kind of plants are these?” I asked touching a tall green tree with waxy leaves and red berries.
“This is a Holly tree.” She answered, not sure about this Capitol lady who kept asking her question.
“A holly… Can people eat the red berries?”
She shook her head, “No, milady. They are toxic and will cause stomach sickness.”
I looked at the girl, “Are you an elf?” I could not figure out a polite way to ask.
She touched the tips of her ears gently, before trying to hide them in her long silver hair. She was slightly taller than me and extremely lean. She answered, though I could tell she was embarrassed. “Yes, milady.”
“How do you get the plants to stay alive when there is not a lot of sunlight?”
“Elves are given magic over plants from our ancestors. We convince the plants to grow, even when they don’t wish to.” She leaned in, “Milady, why are you asking so many questions? Most Capitolers are pleased with the results of our labor, but not with us.”
I put my hand out to her, “My name is Eirlys and I actually come from the wastelands. The last time I saw plants this green was on a friend of mine’s mountain. He was growing a garden and gave me some seeds. But I can’t coax them to grow. Do you know who can help me?”
She shook my hand, “Laurana.” She then put her hand right back by her side as a Driver stepped up to us.
“Is this slave giving you trouble, milady?” He asked with a gruff voice.
I shook my head, “No, she was teaching me about these beautiful trees.” I looked up at him, “Actually, you might be able to answer this. I have a small garden that I believe that she could help grow. How much do elves normally go for?”
The elf just looked at me in disbelief; her light green eyes filled with panic. The Driver looked to her than to me, “I’ll sell you this one for fifty gold.”
I took a breath, “Forty.” I tried to negotiate. “She’s pretty short for an elf and look at her arms, she isn’t worth fifty gold.”
He looked at Laurana closer, “Forty-three and that’s my final offer.”
I looked at her, not sure if it was worth it. “Forty-three.” I pulled the coins from my bag and handed them to the Driver.
He handed the key to her shackles to me. “She is yours.”
“Actually, do you have a male that I could buy as well? I believe she could be a good breeder.” I leaned into Laurana, “Is there any that you suggest that you would pair nicely with?”
She looked at me, wondering how I had the gall to even ask that sort of thing.
“You might be her slave, but you are still a slave, so answer your master.” The Driver growled loudly.
Laurana answered me, “The slave named Lokin. He is strong and if you want to use me as a breeder, he would make a good stud.”
The Driver scratched his chin, “Lokin may be strong but he is defiant, milady.”
“I will take that into consideration. How much?” I asked sweetly.
“He is only worth thirty and I suggest keeping him shackled at all times. I’ll go get him.” The Driver walked away.
Laurana turned to face me, “I don’t understand.”
I smiled to her, “I actually need your help, but we can’t discuss it here. Please, trust me.” I turned to face the Driver as he dragged a male elf towards us. I handed the Driver thirty gold and he gave me the chains to Lokin. The male elf was taller than the rest of us, his silver hair cut to just below his shoulders, though it was tangled. He had muscles that I was not expecting from what I read about elves, but he was not huge with them. His copper eyes were full of hatred and loathing.
“Have fun with him!” The Driver laughed as he walked away, toying with a gold piece.
I turned to Laurana, “Where is a good place to find privacy?”
She pointed to a small inn across the street from where we were standing. I started to walk towards it, but Lokin’s feet were planted to the ground. I sighed, before turning to face him. Laurana touched my shoulder gently, “May I?” I handed the chains to her and stepped away. Lokin glared at me but looked at Laurana with love. She spoke softly to him, in their native language. He looked to her then to me and back to her. He nodded once and she kissed him on the cheek. She handed the chains back to me, “Lead on, milady.”
We reached the small inn and I bought us a room for the night. I led them up the stairs before using the key the Driver gave me to release the shackles around Laurana. I realized that the Driver did not give me the key to Lokin, but I touched the lock, creating an Ice key to open the lock. “When was the last time you both ate?” Laurana shook her head and Lokin just stared at me like I grew another head. “Feel free to use the shower and I’ll order some food.”
“We don’t eat meat.” Lokin blurted out, his voice rough.
I nodded, “Then I’ll find something without meat in it.” I walked to the door before I remembered, “Please, don’t try to escape. I really do need your help with something and if it all works out, then I’ll find a way for you to be free.” I walked out the door and closed it gently behind me. I walked down the stairs of the inn and made my way to the bar. “Two large plates of vegetables.”
The barkeep just looked at me, “Are you sure you want to feed them that much? It’s a waste of gold, if you ask me. They can share a plate to themselves; after all, they are just slaves.”
I smiled sadistically sweet, “Then it’s a good thing I did not ask for your opinion. They are my slaves and I will treat them how I see fit.” With a gruff, he put the glass he was cleaning and its cloth on the counter. “And if I catch any hint of meat near their vegetables, I will level this inn without a second thought. Understand?” I warned.
He gulped and nodded, “Yes, milday.”
A few moments later, a lady came out with the plates and handed them to me. I paid her and walked upstairs. I knocked on the door with my foot and Laurana opened it. I handed her a plate, shut the door with my foot behind me and gave the other to Lokin. “I told the barkeep that if meat came near your food then I would level this inn, so please let me know if he did not heed my request.”
Laurana took the first bite, “It’s okay; he heeded your warning.”
I smiled and sat in the chair while they ate on the bed. I waited until they finished and Lokin asked, “Why are you being kind?”
I looked back on the memory, “Multiple reasons. One, I was a slave for a short time and escaping almost killed me.”
“What happened?” He asked.
“I helped others escape then collapsed the mine we were in on top of the Foreman, his Drivers and myself.”
The two of them just looked at me like I was insane, which was closer to the truth than I wanted. Laurana asked, “Why do you need our help?”
“I wasn’t lying when I said that I couldn’t get a garden to grow.” I turned the back of the chair I was sitting in towards them, before sitting down in it again, using the back of the chair to lean into. “So, my name is Eirlys and I am the Ice Queen. I’m here to kill the Dictator and hopefully stop slavery at its source. How many elven slaves are there?”
“There is about three hundred of us.” She answered. “Do you think you can really kill him? Other humans have tried and they couldn’t make it passed the barrier.”
“What barrier?” I asked her, wanting as must information as I could get about the Dictator.
“The Dictator has some sort of magic barrier that changes people when they enter his palace. It’s not a mind manipulation, because it’s more subtle. It’s like he changes your hatred towards him into adoration. All humans who can’t do mind magic are changed when they pass it.” Lokin told me.
“I’ve never heard of that magic before… Is there anything else I should know?”
They looked at each other, before Laurana answered, “He keeps his two generals close to him, one manipulates Fire and the other Darkness. How do you plan on stopping the slavery?”
I tried to think but had to admit, “I don’t know yet. Buying you two felt dirty and buying all of you would just enrich those who started it. Do you have any ideas?”
“The only I can think of is to convince whoever the heir is to stop the slave trade. If you kill him, how are you going to prevent the next person from following his footsteps? Power corrupts and how can you guarantee that the next person won’t be as horrible as he is?” Lokin demanded of me.
“Truthfully, I don’t know. I never really thought that far, but I would have to say that I will kill anyone who oppresses people and demands that the general populace bow before them. I was reading a book where all of the people chose their future leader through voting. All people had their voices heard and I want to bring something like that back.” I answered him the best I could. “Do you know how to defeat this barrier?”
Lokin grinned, “I do, but you’re not going to like it.”
I winced from that grin, but answered, “Teach me.”