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The House of the Crimson Tiger

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She was no longer certain how many years it had been since her name became “1802.” She was no longer certain how many years it had been since she had forgotten her real name. Within the walls of the prison of Utgard, frigid and desolate on an island in a northern sea, she was not given information about time. They kept her in a cell devoid of anything but the traces of sun and moon that came in through air holes high above. They did not tell her what day, month, or year it was.

Even if she had been given a hint, her jailers visited her over and over and over with small black drinks just for her. She struggled every time, but they always managed to restrain her long enough to force it down her throat. It did not dull her body to leave her vulnerable to rapes or beatings, nor was it a poison. It ate at her mind, though she did not understand how. There was only one purpose to her drink: to devour her memories and leave her nearly empty.

She retained information for basic living and understanding the world she was no longer allowed to see. It would not do if she was unable to feed herself or understand and create speech. In her cell, so dark and quiet she could barely stand to talk to herself, she wondered if her jailers thought it would be too cruel to take everything from her. Perhaps it was just cruel enough to leave her there alone after every forced drink, panicking in the dark as her memories were taken from her. More often than not, she sobbed into her knees. Many other times, she screamed, desperate and bitter and raging, until her throat was raw.

All she could keep of herself through the drinks were her most basic feelings. At first she was lost, unable to comprehend how anything she knew could land her in Utgard. Later came despair, and after that came a slow creep of apathy. It all paled in comparison to the one feeling that could not be taken from her. With an intensity that allowed her to get to her feet and pace her cell, she loathed the Reiss household. After every drink, she knew this truth and all other truths of the world, and after every drink, she swore to herself that she would take what she had and dismantle everything.

She simply did not know how. Because she did not, she told herself to wait, and to hope.

————

It came through the large, flat stone she happened to have her left foot on. Weary from screaming and sobbing, she did not lift her head much. Again, the stone under her foot shifted. She moved her foot to stop feeling the stone, wanting to curl up and sleep. Soon after this, the stone lifted up entirely, propped up by human hands over a human head.

A man squinted at her, his bald head and beard lank and filthy. When she did not react, he set the stone gently aside and pulled himself out of the floor.

“Hello,” he whispered. “Sorry to barge in.”

She said nothing.

“Sorry,” he said again. “Twenty-five years in Utgard doesn’t help your manners. My name is Dot Pyxis.”

She turned bodily away, leaning against a wall, and said nothing.

“You’re the one who keeps screaming,” he said gently.

She did not look at him.

“May I ask what they’re doing to you? It doesn’t sound like you’re in pain when you scream—you’re just cursing everything under the sky in very elaborate language.”

After a long moment of silence, she muttered, “They’re destroying my memories.”

“I see. You must have known something rather dangerous.”

She did not reply.

“Have they taken your name as well?”

She barely managed to say, “I’m just eighteen-oh-two,” before breaking down into furious tears.

He did not move to hold her, only nodding with a grieved expression. Once she had gone numb and still, he said, “That won’t do. Everyone needs a name.”

“I won’t remember it after another drink of that black swill.”

“Ah ha,” he said, smiling slightly. From the waist of his dirtied trousers, he produced a small pencil and a folded piece of paper. “My prize for good behavior. I’ll give you them so you can write down your name—one you pick for yourself—and hide it somewhere so you can find it and remember. But,” he added, “I want something in return.”

She looked at him warily.

“I want your help continuing this tunnel,” he said, nodding at the hole in the floor. “By estimates, we could get out within three years if we combine our efforts.”

Hesitating, she looked at the floor. “If I help you, will you help me remember things about myself? The name I choose?”

“On my honor as a disgraced commander of Sina’s army,” he said, smiling enough that she could see it through the beard.

“Do you think you could help me figure out why I’m here?”

“In three years? I don’t see why not.” He glanced at the heavy door of her cell, but gave no sign of hearing anything beyond it. Slowly to keep her from startling, he offered the pencil and paper. “Do we have a deal?”

She reached out and took them. “Do we start now?”

“No, I think it’s best if we start fresh after some sleep. I’ll scrape the stone in its groove three times to tell you I’m here. Knock if it’s safe.” He slipped back into the hole, but paused in lifting the stone. “Be as careful as you can with those. If the jailers find them, it could kill us both.”

“I’m aware of that.” She watched him disappear beneath the stone. Even when she put her ear to the floor, she could not hear him moving. Glancing at her door, she went to her meager bed. With great care, she turned the pallet up and tore a hole in the underside of it near where she always sat. The paper was large enough to roll around the pencil, and she slipped them into the straw inside the pallet. She rearranged a few stiff pieces of straw to stand upright where her thigh would fall, knowing it would pique her curiosity when she forgot.

This done and the pallet set down carefully, she sat on her bed to one side and stared at the floor. Without speaking, she thought of every name she could pull from her mind. None of them felt correct; nothing spoke to her. She could not fully recall where the names came from in the world, and she could not be bothered to wonder where she had been born. In any case, she did not feel comfortable wasting the paper and pencil on guesses.

She knew it had been a few hours when the small gate in her door was opened. A hand reached in for her beaten metal food bowl and her waste bucket. She sat still and silent, only moving when the gate was closed and the jailer’s footsteps were gone. It was lumpy gruel again, but there was a scrap of meat in the bowl and it tasted like meat should.

Under the sound of her chewing, she heard stone rub on itself three times. She went to the stone and rapped on it sharply. The stone lifted as she stepped back, and Pyxis smiled at her when he appeared.

“Good, good,” he said, seeing her bowl. “Fuel for you. Though you still seem strong despite everything.”

She looked at her forearm. The muscles there did not seem feeble or diminished, but she could not tell how they had been before. With a dismissive flick of her fingers, she asked, “How does this work?”

He smiled again. “Finish your meal and bring your waste bucket.”

She saw no sense in being confused, and so did as he said in short order. When she returned with the bucket, he crooked a finger to beckon her into the hole with him. She lowered herself into it and pulled the stone over her. Sinking onto her belly, she followed him as he crawled through a tunnel. It led to a hole in another cell, and she looked at the moldy books and loose pieces of paper on the bed.

“Feel free,” he said. “Words are meant to be read.”

Tentative, not sure what would happen, she picked up a book and opened it. The words inside still made sense to her; reading had not been taken away. She wondered how long it had been since she smiled.

“When they make me forget again,” she murmured, “could you please remind me that you have books?”

“Of course.” He stroked his beard as he thought. “We should hide a note for you in your bed so you can read it after your sessions. I think it’d be better than me popping up out of your floor and scaring you over and over.”

“You didn’t frighten me,” she said, voice flat. “I don’t fear very much at all anymore.”

“Does that include death?” he asked.

“For the most part.” She set the book down gently, fingers lingering on the blue cover because it felt like what she imagined sunlight was. “How do we go about this?”

“Every day, we’ll go into the tunnel and chip away at the dirt and stone. I’ve played it safe and only taken as much as a thin layer on my palm. That’ll go into our waste buckets, which will get handily disposed of.”

“And the direction you’ve chosen won’t get us caught or killed?” she asked.

He shook his head and gestured to the gate in his door. “I’ve surmised that, based on the level and angle of sunlight I can see when the jailers come with food and to mock me, I’ve aimed the tunnel to the northeast. Utgard’s design has the prison hanging over a dock to the northeast. Breaking through there will allow us to seize a boat and be gone before the jailers notice.”

She exhaled slowly. “I’d say this relies on a lot of luck, but I don’t see what I have to lose.”

“That’s the spirit,” he said brightly. He reached out to pat her shoulder, but thought better of it when she flinched and bared her teeth in a snarl. “Excuse me. I did that a lot on the outside.”

She looked away, muttering, “Try not to do it with me.”

Pyxis nodded and went to fetch his own waste bucket. “Well, shall we get started?”

“All right.” She followed him back to the hole, going first to be able to dig. Though he warned her to be careful around rocks, she did not mind their sharpness against her fingers. She knew she would likely forget the sting after the next black drink.

————

There were rules to their partnership. Pyxis was not allowed to needle her regarding her past, but she was obligated to listen to his stories about his time as a soldier. He said it would be good to know, even when she forgot, as a counterpoint to whatever good upbringing she’d had to gain her lexicon. She had to be the one to write and leave notes for herself to remember things. They could leave nothing in each other’s cells other than the paper she took to hide in her bed.

To her, the most important rule was that Pyxis was not allowed to make any suggestions about her name. She did not know when she finally decided on either her first or last name. She had simply taken the roll of paper from her bed on waking at some point and found her name in her handwriting. There was a small note beneath the surname she did not understand right away: “use this house.” Turning the paper over revealed another note: “destroy reiss.”

The further they delved into the earth, the more tales Pyxis related to her. As he grew more open about exploits and his service to a noble who ferreted away his obscene wealth in secret, she found more and more notes to herself. She saw a plan that she was forming through the blankness in her mind and clung to it with all her might. On finally seeing the pattern, she spoke to Pyxis in the tunnels as she dug.

“You’re telling me all this so I can use it, aren’t you,” she said, passing a few pebbles to him.

He chuckled. “Of course. I don’t have any use for a massive hidden treasure. You, knowing whatever you do with your instincts and hate, have a perfect reason to claim it all. I’ll make you another deal regarding that wealth.”

“What?”

“I’ll give you the location of the treasure if you swear to me that you’ll use at least some of it to be happy outside your vengeance.”

“How would I do that, Pyxis?”

“Oh, you’ll figure out what makes you happy after we escape. You’re a smart woman. But you could start with a good warm meal and a fine bed.”

She managed a smile as she passed him a few clods of dirt. “I could. You have my word.” When they stopped for his weariness, he gave her another piece of paper to write down where to find her future wealth. She tucked the paper into the waist of her ragged trousers, meaning to return to her cell. He coughed feebly; she froze.

“Have you been coughing for long?” she asked.

“No, no,” he said with a wave of his hand. “It’s just dirt in my throat, you know that.”

She hesitated.

“Go on,” he said. “It’s not like they’d give me medicine for a cough. Remember—I’m in here for sedition against the holy royal family. They’d be glad I’m sick.” He urged her toward the tunnel. “I’ll be fine. I do wish I could get one last bottle of whiskey in my life.”

“We’ll get you one with gold coins,” she said. “Rest well until then, Pyxis.”

“I will. You too.” He sank down onto his bed, waving slightly as she pulled the stone over her. She hurried back through the tunnel to her cell, replacing the stone in her floor silently before finding her pencil. As quickly as she could, she added a note on the paper: “check pyxis in the tunnel.” With great unease, she hid the pencil and paper and lay on her bed.

Sleep did not come to her then, but she was unsure how much she really slept anymore. There was too great a risk in sleeping, as it left her too little time to reach if her door was opened. It was a wise decision when the locks turned and the door creaked inward. She was off her bed in a heartbeat, fighting the three massive jailers that came at her. One she gave a broken nose to; another screamed as she kicked his knee from the side to dislocate it. The third, though, swept in while her leg was still on the second’s knee, and he caught her around both wrists with heavy manacles on a chain.

She was wrenched off her feet, the man with a broken nose slamming his knees into her hips to pin her. Snarling, she pulled as hard as she could on the chain, but it was already shackled to the wall. Arms outstretched, she could not get leverage enough to throw off the man kneeling her.

“Get off!” she bellowed. “Get off of me!”

A man clicked his tongue at her from the doorway. He said, “Now, now, eighteen-oh-two. That’s no way to act to people giving you medicine.”

“It’s not medicine, you son of a bitch! Get that away from me!”

The man laughed quietly. “You’ve got a fire in you today. Let’s make it quick.”

She knew what was coming and closed her mouth as tight as she could. Two hands closed around her throat, squeezing hard. Desperately, she tried to brace against what came next. She could not keep from gagging and gasping when her neck was released and her throat was jabbed with three fingers. They caught her by her upper and lower teeth, pouring the black drink down her throat when she swallowed on instinct. She would not have been able to spit anything out when they slammed her mouth closed, but it had been timed perfectly and she could not cough the drink back up. The fury did not leave her, but the fight vanished when she understood her failure.

“There you are,” the man said as her wrists were unchained. “All better.” They left her alone as she curled up on the floor, hands on her head. Everything she knew from the previous hours disappeared, and soon after the rest was gone as well. She struggled in vain to hold onto anything, crying and shaking.

If she passed out, she was unaware of it. She eventually looked up, face sticky from tears and dirt. Looking at the door showed her that food was in her bowl. Part of her wanted to scream every curse she could think of and beat the bowl against the door until it lost its shape. She ignored it and got up, taking the bowl to her bed.

On sitting, she felt something jab into her thigh. Jabbing back did not break what she thought was straw, and she ate quickly to get to turning the pallet back. She discovered the pencil and the papers with notes in her handwriting. Each note was read with more urgency to work at memorizing them. When she reached the very last note on the back of a page detailing a location, she gathered all the notes and went into the tunnel she’d written of. One path led to a wall yet to be scraped through, but she had to stop short on coming to the other end.

“What do you think it was?” asked a voice above the floor.

“Body gave in from old age and all his drinking before here. How else do you explain finding him in bloody shit and vomit?”

She sank down to sit on the floor of the tunnel and stared up at the stone above. A vague sense of loss came to her, and it grew slightly when she thought of the location she’d memorized. The voices stopped speaking soon after, but she waited a few minutes before emerging. A length of canvas was wrapped around a body on the bed. She unwrapped enough to check the body’s face. It came as no surprise that she did not recognize him, but she knew his name from her notes.

The first thought that came to her was that he would be buried at sea in such a coffin. The second thought made her whisper, “Forgive me,” before unwrapping him entirely and taking him back to her cell. She arranged him on her bed, back to the door, and set her bowl and waste bucket near the gate.

As she hurried back to his cell and wrapped herself tightly in the canvas, she thought her heart was strange for not pounding. She saw no reason to complain, as she was able to go limp and still when the jailers returned and carried her out of the cell. Barely breathing, she mentally recited everything on the notes in her clothes until it was all burned into her mind.

The jailers’ boots left wooden floorboards and trekked out onto dirt and stone. She felt a hard wind through the canvas. The jailers shuffled in a turn, stopped, and began to swing her. On a count of three, they heaved her out into the air. It was a fall long enough to let her wonder why they had not put weights on her to help her sink.

Hitting the water felt as though she had broken multiple bones while her lungs seized up. A current swept her along underwater, fast and churning. She regained her senses and pulled free of the canvas. Swimming with skill she did not know she had, she came above the surface to gasp for air. It was dark overhead; there were no stars to guide her.

Panic started to creep into her. Turning back only gave her the sight of Utgard’s shadowy mass. The current continued to carry her away, and she decided to let it do so for as long as it would before swimming on her own. She floated along, head tilted and legs lifted to keep water off her face.

Hours passed, or so it seemed. The sky lightened enough with the dawn to show the iron color of the clouds below the sun. Despite the water growing slightly warmer, she was becoming aware of how much effort it was to keep afloat. There was no land in sight; she did not know if the current would ferry her to any shore at all.

Her eyelids were drooping when rain began to fall. She jerked awake at the distant roll of thunder, twisting to check where the storm was. Bringing her legs down made her body falter, and her head slipped underwater. Scrambling, paddling frantically, she got back above the surface. It became her struggle when the current grew choppier.

Over and over, she went under the surface. Coughing out the water in her throat took as much energy as getting back above the waterline. Waves came in as the storm strengthened and forced her down more often. The saltwater blinded her and stung every part of her skin. Inside her mind, she chanted the things she knew and screamed her chosen name to keep from sinking further. She grit her teeth and lunged back for the surface one last time.

Her fingers struck wood and a rope going through it. She clawed at it, grabbing it and pulling herself above the water. Eyes cleared for a moment, she saw that she was clinging to a large, thick disc of wood with a rope knotted through it to make a seat.

“Hang on down there!” a woman’s voice shouted from above. “Get on that and hold tight!”

Somehow, she managed it. As she was hauled up on the seat, she realized she was shaking violently. Hands caught her when she was in reach, pulling her over a railing onto the safety of a ship’s deck. Getting onto her feet was too difficult a concept; she collapsed onto her side to cough up more water.

“My God,” said the same woman. “Are you—dammit, Hanji! Hanji, get dry blankets before she freezes!”

When the hands caught her again, she flinched and choked, “Don’t touch me.”

“I’m not going to do anything to you except help you get out of the rain. Come on, just under the flying deck.”

She pushed herself along at the hands’ guidance, flinching again when the rain stopped. She was propped up against a wall before the hands drew back.

“All right,” the woman said. “Can you tell me what happened to you?”

She blinked because her eyes burned. It was only when she lifted her head that she felt the blood running down her face. A woman with reddish-brown hair knelt before her, sodden from the rain and eyes wide with shock.

“Just hang on,” the woman said. “Hanji’s our medic and they’ll be back with blankets any minute.” Her hands rose from her knees, but she put them back down when she was scowled at. “My name is Petra Ral. You’re on board the Survey. Can you tell me what happened?”

She said nothing. Her stomach was roiling from the seawater and she could not stop shivering.

“Can you speak at all?” Petra asked.

She looked down.

“Oh, I think she can talk,” a man said in a drawl.

Petra looked up, going pale. “Captain Levi, sir. She was going to drown in the storm—we couldn’t let that happen.”

He sighed noisily. “I wasn’t aware we were bringing outlaws on board out of mercy.”

“An outlaw, sir?”

“Look at her. Filthy rags for clothes, caked-on dirt all over her, hair nearly to her waist.” He nudged her foot with his boot. “You got out of Utgard somehow, and I’d wager you rode the current all the way from there. Sound about right?”

She said nothing. He clicked his tongue and reached down to grab her hair. Too weary to snarl, she caught him by the wrist and slammed him facedown on the deck with her knee in his spine. Before she could break his arm, Petra shot forward and pressed a blade to her throat.

“Let go,” Petra said, voice low but even. “Now.”

She did so slowly, settling back against the wall once more. Levi groaned as he took to his feet.

“Well,” he grumbled. “You still have teeth, then.” He did not continue, glowering at her as she glowered right back.

A door burst open on their other side, and a person wearing fogged up glasses sprang out with a number of blankets in their arms. “Here we are, dry and ready to warm her up!” They paused when they noticed Petra’s knife and Levi’s expression. “Ah. Well. The blankets are right here.” They crouched down and set the blankets down within her reach.

She glanced at the blankets but made no move.

“Just take them, for God’s sake,” Levi grumbled. “I’m not going to take you back to Utgard.” He turned and said, “Get her to talk and stick her with the cabin boys. We can dump her at Trost.” He left to climb onto the flying deck.

Petra sighed and put her knife away. She spoke more gently from then on. “Go ahead. If the captain says you won’t go back, you won’t.”

She hesitated, but reached out and pulled the largest and heaviest blanket around herself. The shivering slowed, but she still felt sick.

“Will you let Hanji take a look at you?” Petra asked. “Or once you’ve warmed up a bit?”

“It’s all right,” Hanji said when she glared at them. “I doubt I’ll do much more than take care of that gash and see if you’re emaciated.” They considered her, drumming their fingers on their chin. “I don’t think so. You seem to have kept your youthfulness through whatever you went through in Utgard.”

Petra gaped at them. “Hanji. She’s not—”

“What, you mean the silver in her hair? No, I don’t think she’s much older than…well, maybe not even forty. How long were you in Utgard?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Did you hit your head in your escape?” Hanji asked.

“No,” she said. “They forced me to swallow a black liquid to make me forget things.”

Hanji hummed, brows rising. “That’s something I haven’t heard of in a long while.”

She wanted to feel hope from their words, but did not give in. “There’s no reversing it, I assume.”

“No,” Hanji admitted freely. “You’ll have to live from here. At least you’re not a decrepit old woman. And on the positive side, you won’t be tempted to go back to your old life because you don’t know—”

Petra reached over to pinch Hanji’s side hard enough to make them yelp. “Do you at least know your name?”

She nodded, working it out on her tongue for what she knew was coming.

“What is it?” Hanji asked.

She told them, “My name is Mikasa Ackerman.”

————

One of the two cabin boys she was sent to bunk with was breathlessly excited over her name.

“House Ackerman!” said Eren Jaeger. “The house of the crimson tiger, said to have produced the strongest warriors in the world!” He peered at her as he handed over some of his spare clothes. “You don’t really seem like it looking like that, though.”

She did not bother humming flatly, only starting to pull her rags off. The way he blushed and spun away did not make her pause. The clothes felt silken on her skin, and the rough wooden chair Eren brought for her was more comfortable than anything she knew. Sitting there in the warm cabin in real clothes, she wondered if she was dead. As her shivering continued, she figured her heart was still beating to work against the cold.

“Um,” Eren said, seeing her shake. He looked about before hurrying to a hammock on one side of the cabin. From inside it, he retrieved a long crimson scarf. When he looked as though he would wrap it around her, she scowled at him. He paled, but offered the scarf anyway.

“It’ll help you look like you should,” he said. “Same color as your house.”

She took it slowly and wrapped it around her neck. It helped greatly; she let her spine relax. After a few beats of silence, she looked at him and asked, “What kind of ship is this? It doesn’t seem like a merchant vessel.”

“A smuggler’s ship,” he replied with no shame. “We sail this close to Utgard to avoid royal ships.”

“How old are you and the other boy to be working as smugglers?”

“Seventeen. Is, uh, that how old you were when—”

Never ask me that question or any other like it. Do you understand me?”

He winced at the sharpness of her voice and the deep fury in her eyes. He swallowed, squared his shoulders, and asked, “Why not?”

She stood up. She advanced on him, catching his shirt when he tried to back away. Natural as breathing, she knocked his feet out from beneath him and threw him to the floor to plant her elbow in his chest.

“Because if you remind me of the fact that I don’t know how long I was in Utgard, how old I am, or what my face even looks like,” she hissed, “I will smash your head on a rock until you know even less than I do. Do you understand me?”

He struggled to lift her arm enough to breathe and speak. Through grit teeth, he said, “No! You can’t just push it away! If you forget how pissed you are, you can’t fight back against the bastards who did it! Be pissed! Fight them!”

It pleased her more than she would’ve thought. Her scowl abated and she lifted her arm. Eren coughed and wheezed, tears of pain in his eyes.

“God,” he rasped. “I see you being a warrior now.” He coughed again and said, “Sorry. I won’t ask any—”

“I was prepared for people trying to dissuade me from getting my vengeance,” she said. “Why are you telling me to move forward?”

Eren looked at her with raised brows. “How the hell could I say that? You’ve got a reason to kill every person who left you to rot. And take your memories, it sounds like.”

She looked at him steadily, no heat or rage. Her eyes dropped as she went back to the chair. Quietly, she said, “That’s what happened, yes.”

He sat up properly, thinking and rubbing his chest. He said, “Hey.”

“What?”

“You said you don’t remember your face. Me and Armin, um, have a mirror in our trunk over there. Everyone does on the Survey. Do…do you want to look?”

A peculiar anxiety gripped her bones. Her throat closed up to stop her answer, but she nodded with little hesitation. Eren smiled and got to his feet to rummage in a trunk bolted to the floor. From inside it, he retrieved a mirror wrapped in thick cloaks, large enough for a person to see their entire face. She stiffened as he came closer, keeping her eyes open when he held it out for her to look.

Predictably, her eyes first went to the stitched up gash high on her right cheek. She then looked at her own eyes and felt herself smile. They were deeply gray, clear with focus and warm as she looked at herself. She did not mind that they were underscored by dark marks of little sleep. They were her eyes, her own eyes that she somehow recognized and instantly cherished.

From there, she examined her skin and the bones beneath them. She was pale, on the edge of sallowness, and the bones of her cheeks were high and made a fine arch. Most of her hair was black as ink, but it was shot through with streaks of dark silver, widest at her temples. It was a face that had lost some of its handsomeness in the dark and dirt, but she knew at a glance that she could reclaim it. It was a face that could match her name.

“Thank you,” she said.

Eren smiled again and put the mirror away. “You really look like a countess when you smile.” He sat down in front of her, but out of reach. “It’s been a long time since you’ve seen yourself, hasn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said. “I don’t know how many years.”

Hesitantly, he asked, “Did they take why you were there?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I knew something they couldn’t risk letting the world discover. Or the world the Reiss house lives in.”

“‘Reiss’?”

“You…don’t know them?”

He saw the way her shoulders slumped and quickly said, “I don’t pay attention to a lot of family names, but I’ll bet my knife that Armin knows! He’ll be back with food for you soon, so ask him, okay?”

She said nothing and found it was soothing to rub her thumb on a tail of the scarf. They waited in silence only briefly before someone knocked on the door by way of kicking at its bottom. Eren opened the door to let in the fair-haired boy she had seen before. He smiled at her and came close to hold out a large piece of bread. When she took it, she found it was heavy and the top had been cut off and replaced.

“Here,” the boy said, offering a dented spoon. “Be careful taking the top off—Sasha filled it as much as she could.”

She did as he said, finding the bread was a bowl holding a thick stew. Her mouth watered the moment the scent reached her nose. Swallowing, she started to eat. The seasoning was remarkable, and she took pleasure in the fact that should could name a few of the spices. As the level of the stew dropped, she picked off bits of the soaked bread. She held them on her tongue to savor the taste of real food.

Halfway through the bowl, she noticed that the blond boy was watching her closely. Without looking up, she said, “It’s Armin, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes ma’am, Armin Arlert.”

“Why are you watching me?”

“Just thinking, I suppose.”

“About what?”

“The state of the Ackerman house if their daughter was condemned to Utgard like that.” He sighed softly. “I wonder what you knew.”

“Something about the Reiss house,” she said. “Eren said you might know who they are.”

He blinked, brows going to his hairline. “Reiss? That’s—that’s strange. I’ve only known them as another noble house. Dukes and duchesses. Very, very odd that they’d do that to another noble house.”

“That makes sense to me,” she said. “I must’ve known something that would’ve disrupted their power.”

“Figures,” Eren grumbled. “Nobles are always like that. Know anything about them and that’s it for you.”

“What is the state of the Ackerman house without me there?” she asked.

Armin looked down as he thought. “I’m not entirely sure. We don’t get news of them almost at all.”

Her brows dropped. “I see.” She exhaled slowly. “I’m not sure how I’ll get there with no money.”

Armin tilted his head. “Ma’am, may I ask you a question?”

“I’m certain you’ll do it even if I tell you ‘no.’”

Quietly enough that only she and Eren could hear him, he asked, “You’re not really an heir of the Ackerman house, are you?”

Eren went pale and dragged Armin well out of her reach. “Don’t ask her that, you dumbass!”

She looked up, leaning against the back of the chair. Her frown was faint, as was her voice. “Why do you think that?”

“You don’t seem to be comfortable with your name. And I don’t think the jailers would’ve left you with your name if you were part of a powerful and respected house. They would leave you with nothing to make sure you couldn’t work against the Reiss family.”

She picked off a large piece of bread and chewed it to think without speaking. She swallowed and said, “You’re too smart for your own good. It’ll get you killed at some point.”

Eren gaped. “You—wait, no, what?”

Armin shushed him. “Not so loud. I don’t want to expose her.”

“And why’s that?” she asked. “It would save your ship food if you threw me back into the sea.”

“Because I think you’re trying to do something righteous,” Armin said. “I don’t want you to get stopped right when you start.”

“Do you have a grudge of your own against the nobles?” she asked. “It would explain your current profession.”

They both blanched. Armin muttered, “Um, well…more or less.”

“I assume ‘more,’” she said. “What is it?”

Eren frowned and rubbed the back of his head. “We’re from Shinganshina. It was a small port city for ships going between Liūtas and Sina. Ever since we were kids, the nobles kept raising our taxes and tariffs, but not what our merchants could get paid.”

“And so your city revolted,” she said.

“Yes,” Armin said with a nod. “The nobles quelled it with violence and a compulsory draft into the military. Shinganshina was abandoned. We signed on for the Survey three years ago to smuggle things out of Sina to undermine the nobility and the crown.”

She felt the urge to laugh and allowed herself to smile. “Not the most effective way to do that.”

“And what are you gonna do with no money and a fake identity?” Eren grumbled.

“It’s not fake at all,” she said easily. “It’s who I am now. While I did not exist before, I am Mikasa Ackerman and that won’t be changing. My poverty, however, will change.”

“How’s that?” Eren asked.

“I don’t think that’s any of your concern,” Mikasa replied. She gave him the bread. “You can split the rest if you like.”

Eren scowled, cords rising in his neck, but Armin gripped his shoulder to keep him where he was. Armin swallowed hard and asked, “What if we make it our concern by helping you?”

“I fail to see how I need your help,” she said, brow raised.

“We could help you get to the Ackerman estate,” Armin said. “And help you appear as a noble.”

“How?” she asked. “Are you offering to be my servants?” She smiled again. “I suppose it wouldn’t be much of a change from your lives now.”

“That would work, don’t you think?” Armin said. “You wouldn’t have to try and hire anyone straight away, and going into society with servants who know you in some way will improve your image.”

She exhaled through her nose. “I’d be better off with no one who knows me.” Thinking, she drummed her fingers on her knees. “Then again, I wouldn’t have to worry about you two letting it slip if you were in my employ.”

“I could hit people for you,” Eren said. “So you don’t have to. And—and Armin could help you plan things.”

“You’re strangely eager to get out of your service on this ship. Why is that?”

“I’m sick of still being a cabin boy after three years,” Eren said. “And I think you’ll do more to fuck with the nobles than smuggling military hardware.”

“I intend to.” She looked up and to one side to consider a thought. “Military hardware is your trade to ply? This isn’t a very large ship for that. How much does your captain struggle with money?”

Eren blinked and turned to Armin. “Does Commander Smith even pay Captain Levi with more money than our wages?”

“No, it’s just our wages and supplies for expeditions.”

“What would your captain do if I offered him a bargain?” Mikasa asked. “You two enter my service and I become a patron of his crew. An alliance for the future.”

“I…think he’d agree,” Armin said. “He gets frustrated enough with Eren to threaten to throw him overboard. Daily.”

“Then we may have a deal easily enough,” she said. “How much do you two have stored away?”

“Enough to get us to the estate if we port in Trost like we’re scheduled,” Armin said. “Is that where you’ll find money?”

“It is.” She waved her hand slightly. “Go fetch your captain, please. I’d like to strike our deal as soon as possible.”

“But we won’t reach land for nearly a week,” Armin said.

“Why on earth should I wait for that?” Mikasa asked. “I want to make the offer now. Please bring your captain here.”

They looked at each other before Armin said, “Yes ma’am,” and quickly left. With nothing else to do, Eren devoured the rest of the stew and the bread. It was not long at all before the door was thrown open and Levi stormed in.

“I see the rain has stopped,” Mikasa remarked, seeing Levi’s cloak.

“What makes you think you can make any offers to me when my crew pulled you out of the sea?” Levi said in a low, dark voice. “Especially when you were there after breaking out of Utgard.”

“Because I can become a patron of yours and provide you with a supplemental income,” she replied. “Do you doubt the wealth of my house?” She smiled. “And if you’re concerned about losing two sailors, I’m certain you could entice new hands with the money I’ll give you.”

“Are you carrying this money in some magical invisible bag?” Levi asked, sneering.

“Of course not. Give me one month to put my affairs in order. After that, you may send an envoy to my estate to claim your first payment. I promise it will be worth your while.”

His sneer grew heavier. “This coming from the woman who tried to break my arm?”

“In my defense, you tried to grab me suddenly. You must forgive me. I’m used to people destroying my mind when they grab me. I’m learning to suppress the defensive urges I feel in that situation.”

He said nothing for a time. His brows lowered further. “I expect unmarked gold.”

“Of course,” she said. “Better to launder.” She held out her hand. “Do we have a bargain, Captain Levi?”

He caught her hand and shook. “Take the shitty brats and get off my ship when we get to Trost.”

“As you wish, sir,” Mikasa said. “I look forward to funding your work.”

He clicked his tongue before leaving and slamming the door behind him. Eren and Armin stared at it anxiously a moment longer before turning to Mikasa. She took off the scarf and set it gently aside.

“Eren, you said you had a knife, correct?” she asked.

“Yeah, I do.”

She lifted a lock of her hair. “I’d like your assistance with this before we reach the port.”

“Oh, sure. Wait, we’ve got scissors in the trunk. Sit back.” He retrieved the scissors as she relaxed. “Okay, how much off?”

“Leave enough for a short tail I can tie back, if you would.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said cheerfully. He set to work, cutting and trimming. Mikasa sat by with her eyes closed, breathing slowly. She only opened her eyes again when Eren touched her shoulder. Armin stood by with the mirror. She examined the cut carefully, smiling at the relief of the removed weight.

“Thank you,” she said. “This is much better.”

“Get the right type of ribbon and you’re one step closer to looking like your house,” Armin said, smiling. “You’re already well on the way with how well you speak.”

“Small fortunes, I suppose,” Mikasa said. She chuckled as she put the scarf back on. “It’s an excellent beginning to rebuilding my house for myself.” Her smile lost all human warmth as she murmured, “And I will make the Reiss family suffer while it crumbles under my foot.”