Fractures 2.22

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I ended up in the hedge maze, sitting in a pocket of it where someone had placed a stone bench. I’d been crying earlier, but now I just felt numb, and empty, and angry. I wanted to break something, or someone.

What gave them the right to judge me, anyway? To look at me like I was less than a person, just because of what was ultimately an accident of random chance? It was only chance that I’d been Changed while they lived behind wards, safe from the magic’s random depredations. It was only an accident of birth that left them the inheritors of wealth, and power, and privilege, while I was an outcast with none of the above.

How dare they pass judgment on me?

I was acutely aware of the knife next to my skin, the bits of sharp metal in a pouch under my tunic. I couldn’t kill them all, the guards would get me long before that, but I could get a few. The temptation was very real.

But no. Hadn’t I just been thinking about how they were less monstrous than I had thought? Their crime was arrogance and silence, nothing more. They didn’t deserve to die for that.

But at the same time, their crime was nothing less, either. And while they didn’t deserve to die, I couldn’t help but feel that they deserved some kind of karmic comeuppance that I was sure they wouldn’t get. After all, why should the gods start being egalitarian when it came to handing out punishments now? They’d never bothered before.

The thing that truly bothered me wasn’t what was said. I’d heard that and worse before, albeit not in such a context. It was the silence. The fact that he was going to get away with saying it, that was worse than it actually being said. What was even the point of so-called etiquette if it only applied when it came to someone who fit the mold.

It kind of made me miss the Comedy. I might be objectified and put on display like a rare breed of animal there, but at least I mattered.

I was just about to start crying again when I heard a rustling. I looked up, and Lucius walked into the clearing. He was wearing a mask that obscured his face completely, but I could tell it was him by the way he moved. He walked over and sat on the bench next to me, and for a long moment nothing was said.

“Aren’t you going to be in trouble?” I asked eventually, choking the words out through a throat that felt more choked than usual. “For missing the feast.”

“Probably,” he said cheerfully. “But you know what? Fuck those self-righteous pricks and everything they stand for. At the moment, I’m really not in the mood to pander to their little self-important world and pretend I care what their opinions are on, I don’t know, cheese or something. I’m bloody tired of acting like the most important things in the world are high society parties and the girls that get thrown at me by their parents hoping to marry into status.”

I stared. I really didn’t know what to say to that. He’d said some things that implied something of that attitude, and his disinclination to join in on the cliques had certainly suggested a certain disdain for the way Akitsuran nobility worked. But to come right out and say it like that?

“I’m sorry,” he said, relaxing a little. “The important thing is, how are you doing? It can’t be easy dealing with that kind of bigotry.”

“You get used to it,” I said softly. I hesitated, then said, “Hurts more no one cares.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “If it’s any comfort, Rien and Ryoko are planning to drug his wine with something embarrassing at the next party he attends. I’m not sure what.”

I managed a weak but genuine smile. “Helps,” I said. It was good to know that at least a couple of the people I called friends were willing to stand up for me, however subtly.

“Good,” he said. “I’ll let you know what happens if you aren’t there. Frankly, the duke has deserved that and more for quite some time – I can’t stand the man, nor can most anyone else. I’ve considered starting a betting pool for how long it takes for someone to finally take out an assassination contract on him.”

That got an actual giggle, and Lucius smiled. “Ah, there we go,” he said. “I knew that would cheer you up.”

I nodded, and we sat in silence for a minute or so, the only sound the distant music from the main garden party. As we sat, the silence took on a strange…tone, I suppose, would be the word. A feeling of quiet companionship. I suddenly realized that, in the middle of the biggest party I’d ever seen, I was for the first time genuinely alone with Lucius.

“Why?” I asked, the question that had been burning in me since the first time we spoke. “Why do you talk to me?”

Normally he would have given a flippant answer, but this time he was quiet, and when he spoke his voice was serious. “You are…atypical,” he said. “And please understand I mean that as a compliment. Almost everyone I interact with, they fit the same mold. Going along to get along, playing the game for a reward of getting to play some more. They don’t see, or think, anything outside the pattern. But you…you’re not like that. I talk to you and I can have an actual conversation. Talk about real things, things that matter, instead of acting like people are just…just chess pieces to move around on the board.”

I nodded slowly. In a way, I supposed, it made sense. It was much the same reason I kept talking to him, in a way – as a reprieve from the constant, petty squabbling and jockeying for position of high society.

I could barely stand it when I was just an occasional visitor to that world. How hard must it be for someone who was born and raised in it?

We sat quietly for a few minutes more. There was a slightly different note to it this time, though, a feeling of anxiety. I wasn’t sure why, but Lucius was feeling tense, nervous.

I found out when he said, very tentatively, “I would like to kiss you.”

A thousand thoughts seemed to flash through my head in an instant. It was a bad idea on so many levels. He was a noble, for the black gods’ sake, he was the enemy, I was trying to undermine his whole culture. There was no future here. And in the immediate sense, what if someone walked in on us? We were just in a corner of the hedge maze, it wasn’t as though there were any true privacy here. What if we got caught? They could blackmail him, they could use us against each other. And…and….

And nothing good ever happened to people who weren’t willing to take risks.

“I would like that very much,” I said, a little breathlessly.

He froze, as though he had never really considered the possibility that I might say yes. Then he removed his mask with shaking hands, and leaned in, and kissed me.

It was a long, slow exploration of a kiss, gentle and tender and clumsy and real. I raised one hand to his neck, holding him close, and was quietly thankful that I’d chosen an outfit that was easy to take off tonight. And for a time, there was no thought of war, or blood, or horror, or betrayal. Only him and me, together. For a time, I was just a girl who loved a boy, and thought that was enough.

The next two weeks passed in a blur. I saw Lucius regularly at the Comedy, now, though never in the taproom and never when I was on shift. He didn’t berate me for my work, but it was clear he didn’t feel a need to be part of it either. I kept attending the parties and balls and fetes, and it was both easier and harder. Easier, because there was a reprieve, a connection that kept me from drowning in the mindless struggle for position. Harder, because now I had something to lose.

It wasn’t a position I was accustomed to being in.

All told, though, I was almost deliriously happy. I had friends – I even told Rose and Lyssa a little about that night in the hedge maze, trusting that they wouldn’t spread it further, and they didn’t. I had a home. I had every luxury I could have asked for. And now, I had Lucius.

What more could I want than that?

But all good things must come to an end, and it was only two and a half weeks before this period of delirious happiness was cut short in a brutally abrupt manner.

My first and last warning was when I was awakened in my bed at the Comedy by a heavy pounding on the door and a voice calling out, grim and hard, “Silf! You are under arrest for treason, conspiracy to commit treason, and the murder of an agent of the throne. Open, by the order of the emperor!”

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Fractures 2.21

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I kept working at the Comedy, where I’d become a fixture. As strange as it seemed, I was now one of the more popular performers. I had regular clients who came in specifically when I was dancing, and got requests and tips every night. Money had stopped meaning anything, between the absurd payment from the brothel’s patrons and what was left of Miles’s bizarre payment. I wore silk and jewelry whenever I wanted, ate whatever I wanted, bought gifts for my friends at the Comedy, and I was still saving some in case of disaster.

Life would have been wonderful, were it not for the fact that I was also continuing work for Miles’s…less savory pursuits. And that work, well, it was not as benign as it once was. Sometimes jobs would include things like slipping something into a certain lord’s drink, planting a rumor that a given lady was cheating on her husband, or planting something in a person’s belongings while they weren’t paying attention.

Despite saying that he wanted me to know more and to be more involved in the planning of the conspiracy’s activities, he never told me precisely what these little tasks were supposed to accomplish. But sometimes I saw the consequences, and they were…well, pretty serious, a lot of the time. Things like ruined reputations, collapsed trade deals…even death, once, when a lord’s son I had drugged choked on his food during dinner and died before the medics could get to him.

It cast my actions into stark relief, highlighted the magnitude of my choices’ consequences, and I found it not to my taste. It was ugly stuff, most of the time, and while I told myself that they were nobles, that justification was wearing thinner and thinner as time went on. As I spent more time around them, I was having an ever harder time convincing myself that the nobility were really that bad.

Oh, there were some, sure, who I had no trouble with the idea of killing. There were a handful of nobles who talked quite casually about doing horrible things, things that left me stunned that they could do them, let alone talk about them in mixed company. There were nobles that were fully behind the war effort and dismissed any concerns about the feelings of the invaded nations by calling them ignorant savages who were of no consequence. Those people, I could stab in the back and never feel a qualm.

But most of them just…weren’t like that. They weren’t like my idea of them had been at all. They were just people. People with wealth and power far in excess of what I felt anyone should be trusted with, granted, but still people. They had normal desires, they wanted the same basic things from life that anyone else did. More than a couple of them, I suspected, had the same nagging questions in their conscience from what their empire did that I had from what I was doing for Miles.

And then there was Lucius, who continued to be just…an enigma to me. He was often present, always on the sidelines, always with an air of detachment from the proceedings of the noble court. It was like he was watching something but not actually a part of it. He was always willing to talk to me – hells, he seemed like he was actually happy to – but he rarely interacted with the other nobles at the balls and fetes I saw him at. He was educated on a shocking variety of topics, and clearly sharply intelligent, but he had no problems acknowledging my expertise when our talks strayed to something I knew something about.

He was impossible for me to figure out. Maybe that’s why I kept talking to him every time I saw him at an event – he was simply too tempting of a problem to work on, too alluring a question. The fact that he was a candid source of information on so many things related to Akitsuro’s history and culture was just an added benefit.

The next major event that I was to attend was a traditional spring festival to celebrate the cherry blossoms, an important cultural touchstone which had a great deal of symbolic significance to Tsurans. They were just another flower to me, but I had grown up in the north, and even the Whitewood’s plant-mages could only do so much to encourage flowers in their harsh climate. A festival celebrating blooming trees made perfect sense to me.

It was important to give thanks for beautiful things.

This particular festival was only one of many during the week that was the primary viewing period for sakura blossoms. But it was generally acknowledged to be the best of them, at least by the nobility. It was hosted by House Karesha, and it was one of the premiere social events of the year for Aseoto’s upper crust. Anyone who was anyone would be there, along with scores of entertainers of all kinds.

I was getting in as one of the latter. Livia, trading on my burgeoning reputation as an exotic dancer, had managed to get my name on the list of invitees. I was encouraged to dance or otherwise entertain the nobles in attendance, but it wasn’t required or structured, and I was attending on my own for once rather than as someone’s escort. What that meant for me was that I had a great deal more freedom to wander, pick up gossip, and be seen.

It was a masquerade party, and it had taken over two weeks for Clarus, Livia, and me to decide on the mask I would wear. It had to conceal enough to be intriguing, reveal enough to be recognizable to those who had seen me dance, and accentuate my exotic Changed features. What we settled on, after much argument, was a domino mask of silver, thin as paper and with elaborate designs cut into it with alchemical-precision tools. It revealed bits of my skin in a pattern that evoked fur without quite being obvious about it, and left my mouth and hair bare. The mask itself was set with emeralds and etched with more designs, some geometric and some continuing the almost-fur look of the cutouts.

That was going with a silk tunic and loose calf-length pants, both in a rich shade that shimmered from green to blue, and light slippers embroidered with a sakura pattern. I was wearing silver jewelry with more emeralds, and a musky perfume that brought to mind animals dozing in the sunlight.

It was one of the most elaborate, carefully planned outfits Clarus had ever made for me. I looked at myself in the mirror one last time after putting it on, and I had to admit, it looked good. The mask really did strike a balance between concealing and showing, leaving me recognizably Changed and recognizably myself but with an air of intrigue.

It was astonishing to me the lies that could be told with simple cloth and metal.

I arrived to the party fashionably late. It was on the mainland at House Karesha’s estate, well outside the city proper. I had been assured that the way there was perfectly safe, here in the heart of Akitsuro’s empire and with the civic legion patrolling the route heavily for the festival.

I was still carrying a pouch of sharpened metal bits, and there was a knife tucked inside my tunic. Some habits don’t die, hard or otherwise.

The carriage Livia had hired was a very fine one, with rich mahogany paneling, matching black horses, and a driver and footman in the livery of a major travel service operating in the city. The ride was very smooth, but I was still a nervous mess inside, and I had to be very mindful not to muss my hair or outfit. This wasn’t really so much different from any number of other events I’d attended, but it felt far more serious. For one thing, it was a much larger party than almost any of the ones I’d been to thus far. For another, I was attending on my own rather than as an escort of some young son or daughter of a noble family.

I waited through the line, until I got to the gate, wrought iron with the shapes of tiny frolicking faeries and vargs, the designs so tiny and perfect that they could only have been made in Aseoto. The gatekeeper, a tall man with exotic dark skin in the green and gold livery of the House, checked my invitation thoroughly, then waved me through.

I continued in the carriage for a while longer, inside the estate. It was a massive plot of land, acres and acres and acres of wild growth forest before the gardens started. I got out there, and stepped out into the evening air, and smiled. Now that I was here, in the moment, it was easier. Simpler.

I walked forward, holding my hands carefully just a touch out from my sides, letting my fingers play slightly in the breeze. The party was being held both inside the manor, a vast structure that sprawled far more than the city estates could on the islands, and in the gardens outside. I planned to stay mostly in the gardens, though. The cool evening air felt good, and the openness of the gardens was appealing. I’d spent more than enough time lately in packed ballrooms and taprooms and dining halls. It was pleasant to get to be outside during an event for once.

I ran into Caius Anaai, a casual acquaintance I remembered from the falconing trips, and spent a while discussing the news of a recent attack by the barbarians of the Tears on an outpost of the legions in the far north. It had apparently been brutal, involving several tribes’ warriors backed by channelers, with berserkers acting as a hammer to reinforce any parts of the assault force that were failing. The outpost had been routed, with few survivors making it out through the mountains and the forests. Speculation was rife as to what the emperor would do as reprisal.

I was quietly thrilled to hear that the Tears-folk were putting up a good fight. I might have come to see the nobility of Akitsuro in a slightly more nuanced light, but the invasion itself? Not so much.

After I spent some time with Caius, I mingled, sipping at a glass of alchemical liqueur. It was deep violet, and tasted like blackberries and fire with an aftertaste of sweet sorrow. I talked to Ryoko Yagari, a daughter of an old House with heavy investment in alchemy and alchemical manufacturing. She was a practicing alchemist herself, apparently quite a good one – she had several designs that had gone into production at manufactories and universities throughout the city. She was also bitchy, snappish, and ethically…limited.

I enjoyed talking with Ryoko. She always had something interesting and useful to talk about, even if it rarely mattered to my actual goals. Tonight she was full of news about a serious fire that had broken out in an alchemical workshop in Narrows. I’d heard little about it – in Narrows, a whole island could burn to the ground and no one would blink an eye. Ryoki, unsurprisingly, knew more. Apparently a team of alchemists had been working with a caustic substance called frost-tar. It was called that not because it was cold, but because it had to be kept cold – it ignited at room temperature. The alchemical icebox it was stored in, though far more advanced than those used by the common folk, was also more complex, and it had been ever so slightly less than perfect. The defect had led to a crack, which led to a leak, which led to roiling, caustic, burning fog filling the workshop and spilling out into the street.

One of the things about talking to Ryoko that was both refreshing and concerning was that she didn’t trouble herself too much with the moral ramifications of events. It was all about technical and practical stuff for her. So rather than talk about how tragic it was that so many lives had been lost, she said that the defect should have been obvious, and the alchemical team working with the stuff had been far too careless. She also said something about how she was now considering using frost-tar for controlled ignition before being pulled aside by another alchemist.

After finishing the liqueur, I spent twenty minutes or so dancing before I heard a familiar voice call out. It was Rien Kanai, a noble girl a little younger than myself. She was one of my better friends among the nobles – she was one of the few younger girls who seemed to be actually inclined to pay attention to the world outside her ballrooms and manors. She wasn’t quite as shockingly outspoken as Lucius, but she still knew a great deal about current events. She was interested in foreign cultures – she’d asked me numerous questions about Skelland and the Whitewood, and even come to the Comedy a few times, always with a very…interested expression.

That talk wasn’t as fruitful as the others, in terms of actually learning something useful. But I liked to think that talking to Rien was a way to help influence the next generation of nobility.

As soon as I was done talking to her I was pulled aside by Arate Saeki, an older gentleman I didn’t much care for. HIs House was notorious for its arms dealing, producing much of the equipment used by the legions. Rumor had it that they were also supplying the northern nations that the empire was at war with, profiting from both sides of the conflict, and Arate was one of the ones most linked to those rumors. If there was anyone who had a reason to want that stupid, senseless war of invasion to continue, it was him. But at the same time, that exact factor also meant that he was in an excellent place to have useful information for the conspiracy.

Talking with him was always a delicate dance, tidbits of knowledge traded for each other and tasted for poison carefully, and this was no exception. I kept it up for about ten minutes, and then I couldn’t take any more.

After another interval of dancing, it was time for the host to properly welcome us. There was to be a toast of blackwine, as I understood it, followed by a feast. I made my way to the center of the gardens where the long tables had been laid out, along with the rest of the attendees.

Then someone shoved me from behind. Not a casual, friendly sort of shove, but the kind that almost knocks you over. I recovered my balance after a moment and spun to see a short, stocky Tsuran man with a devil mask that covered his entire face.

“Excuse me?” I said, as politely as I could, which wasn’t very.

He laughed. “Oh, shut up, and go away.” His tone was openly mocking.

“I don’t – “ I began, only to be cut off by him.

“Exactly. ‘You don’t’ have the right to eat with your betters, you fucking Changed freak. I don’t know why you’re even invited here, but I certainly won’t be sitting at a table with you. Probably lose my appetite.”

I just stood there for a moment, mouth open. I’d gotten numerous comments that expressed the same general attitude while in Aseoto, it went without saying – the Changed were not welcome here, and it was not subtle. Among the nobility, though, it had always been more subtle, barbed comments and sudden silences, veiled insults and half-heard slurs. Nothing like this. Nothing so direct, so brutal.

I looked around, in silence, and the crowd looked back at me, in silence. No one, not a single person, spoke up. Most of them weren’t even watching, were carefully not-watching in the same way one didn’t look directly at a man beating a slave, or a drunk kicking a dog. Rien, clever Rien whom I had thought a friend, wouldn’t even meet my eye.

I turned and fled, tears in my eyes.

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Fractures 2.20

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Over the next few weeks I attended half a dozen noble events. Several of these were balls not unlike the first, distinguished primarily by the different approaches to ostentation that the various houses took. The first, I learned, was actually rather tasteful and understated for its kind in the city. The nobility had no lack of wealth and their main occupation seemed to be competing with the other nobles at showing it off.

Others, though, were more unique. I went hunting with a falconer from House Taiko, flying Changed hawks which had been carefully designed and bred for intelligence. Though not as smart as a person or a varg, they were considerably brighter than the average bird, entirely capable of understanding a wide range of spoken commands. I was told that they had first been developed by the Dierkhlani, which didn’t surprise me at all. It had the marks of their work.

On another occasion I went riding in the countryside, which I turned out to be humiliatingly bad at. I’d never really ridden a horse before, and found that it was a great deal more difficult than it looked. There were countless things to keep track of, and the horse seemed to know when my attention had slipped from any of them, and was quick to punish me for it.

For the most part, though, I was invited to balls. Which made sense, I supposed; after all, my core selling point was that I was good at dancing. It was perfectly natural that I was primarily hired for events where dance was the main activity going on.

I saw Lucius at several of the balls, always on the sidelines. He never hired me himself, but he always made time to talk to me when he saw me. We didn’t discuss anything as sensitive or personal as that first night, but I continued to be shocked at how open he was. It seemed like there was nothing he wasn’t willing to discuss, even with a relative stranger.

About three weeks after attending that first ball, I was sitting in the Comedy’s common room eating my dinner. I’d just worked my shift, on the day shift this time, and was relaxing with Rose. At the moment I was telling her about the latest ball I’d gone to, and the things I’d seen there. She didn’t know about the real purpose behind me going to them. To her, it was just a harmless and fascinating glimpse into another world, one very different from what she’d been raised in.

I envied her for that, sometimes. It might have actually been fun doing this if it weren’t tangled up in all the context.

I was in the middle of telling her about the embarrassing missteps of a dance partner when Miles walked up, pulled another chair over to the small table we were at, and sat down.

“Good evening,” he said, his tone cheerful as ever. “How’s my favorite exotic dancer?”

I eyed him warily. I might be working with Miles, but I still didn’t wholly trust him. I still hadn’t forgotten that favor I’d done him, or just how suspicious it had been. I’d have been a fool to ignore it.

“Could be worse,” I said. “Much.” I’d considered writing it instead, but my throat was feeling tolerably well.

He smiled, the expression wide and to all appearances genuine. “Most excellent,” he said.

“What do you want?”

“I’m actually here to ask what you want,” he said. “You see, I have a meeting of sorts this evening, and I was wondering whether you’d like to sit in on it. Maybe see for yourself some of the workings of our little group.”

I hesitated. Something about this offer seemed very strange to me. If they were deliberately keeping me in the dark in case I got caught, why would Miles offer to introduce me to other people involved in the conspiracy? It just made it more likely that I would give away some piece of information that let the empire catch on to what was happening.

And yet I had to admit, I was curious. The idea of learning something about the inner workings of the conspiracy I was working to help was tempting. There was so much about this that I didn’t know. Why they were doing it, what the plan was, even what they were doing with the information I brought in. I knew next to nothing about the cause I was risking my life for.

“Why?” I asked, my tone coming out as suspicious as I currently felt.

“Well, it’s rather simple,” he said. “I think you’re deeply involved enough in this that you deserve to know a little more about it than just ‘it’s happening.’”

I paused. It was tricky to talk about this with Rose sitting right there. She would already have questions that I would struggle to answer, just based on what Miles had already said. If she heard some of the details about why this offer was so suspicious, it would just get that much worse.

“Who are you meeting?” I asked after a few seconds.

“I’ll tell you on the way,” Miles replied with a grin. “Come on, we don’t have much time to get there. Wouldn’t do to be late.”

I sighed and nodded. “I’ll tell you the rest later,” I said to Rose, who nodded. She looked a bit curious, but she didn’t actually ask any questions.

Miles said nothing as we left, though he exchanged nods with several of the brothel’s employees like he knew them. He had that same grin the whole time, and it didn’t get less worrying as we walked. As usual with Miles, everything about this situation was completely wrong, but i couldn’t see what to do but go along with it.

He led the way to a gondola, reminding me eerily of the night I’d killed that guard, what felt like a very long time ago. The situation was different this time, though; it was early evening rather than later at night, and the gondola was a normal one rather than the special boat he’d used last time. I still felt a quiver of trepidation as I stepped aboard, though. Miles stepped on beside me, and the gondolier pushed off, guiding the boat towards the mainland.

“Where are we going?” I asked, more insistently now that we were alone.

“Narrows,” he said cheerily.

I blinked. I hadn’t been to Narrows in my months in Aseoto, for a very simple reason. In any city, there are places that are affluent, and those that are not. But then there are those that are more than just poor. Places that, if a neighborhood could be described as depressed, would be suicidal. Places where no one in their right mind would go willingly, where only someone who had no other option would live.

Back in the Whitewood, I had never gone to those parts of town. My parents had made sure that I knew better than to venture there. But we had talked about them, and even if most of the stories had been fabrications, there was at least one thing that was definitely true: it was a place where bad things happened on a regular basis.

Narrows was that place in Aseoto. A collection of tiny islands near the mainland, it was an even worse neighborhood than the mainland itself. It was full of narrow alleys and waterways from which it got its name. The buildings were small, cramped together, and often of very dubious structural integrity. By all accounts, it was the worst kind of neighborhood, a place where even the town guard wouldn’t readily venture.

“Why are we going there?” I asked.

“Well, it’s where the man we’re going to meet wanted to have our little get together,” Miles said. “It’s sort of his place, you see.”

“Who is he?”

“He goes by Cutthroat Kariko. But you’d be better off asking what he is, the answer to which is a crime lord. He leads a fairly substantial gang which has its base in Narrows.”

I sighed. That made a lot of sense – who but a gangster would want to have an important meeting in Narrows? But it also made this a great deal more dangerous. Most people, if you made a bad first impression, were unlikely to do more than scowl and mutter about you. A gang leader had…significantly more ways to express his disapproval.

“Why are you talking to him?”

“The short version is that it’s because he’s a major player in our little group. You might think of him as a financier except that he can provide a good deal more than just money. He has resources and connections that he’s throwing behind our efforts, and which are essential to our plans. And so we have to take steps to keep him supportive, including things like meeting with him in person in the place of his choosing to discuss progress updates.”

I perked up at that. “We’re making progress?”

Miles grinned a little wider. “That we are, little Silf, that we are. Slowly but surely. Nothing about this work is ever easy, but you keep after it and things happen.”

I nodded slowly.

I said nothing after that, pondering what I had already heard. Miles seemed content to let me, and so we traveled for a time in silence.

It wasn’t that long before we reached Narrows. It looked much like I had imagined it. The boat put us off onto a narrow, cramped alleyway of a street. The buildings pressed in close around it, complete with balconies arcing out over the street and blocking out what little sunlight was left this late in the day. People were sitting on the balconies or the front steps of the buildings we passed, most of them dressed in clothes that were one step up from rags. Other people walked the street, most of them with the slow gait of people who have nowhere to go.

I felt horribly out of place in my tailored clothes and jewelry, and more than half expected someone to rob me. But Miles seemed perfectly at home here, ambling down the street as casually as if it were a main street in Ukiyo. His manner was almost aggressively casual. It was like he took it for granted that the world would get out of his way, and it just sort of went along with it. In a strange way, that confidence was like armor. It all but screamed that he knew something you didn’t, and that it would probably go badly for you if you tried anything. He wasn’t even armed and people were quick to get out of his way.

The funny thing about the place, though, was how familiar it was. I’d never lived in a district like this one, not even close. But the desperation, the hunger, the listlessness, it all reminded me forcefully of the refugee camps. I could feel that facet of me welling up just looking at it, hungry and cold and ruthless. I had to consciously make an effort to push it back down, and I could still feel it.

It was a relief when Miles walked up to the door of what looked like a particularly seedy tavern. There weren’t very many people inside, just the bartender and a couple of people sitting at the bar and drinking heavily. Miles ignored them, heading straight for the staircase leading to the second floor.

The upper floor looked a little nicer than the taproom, but that was a low bar and it didn’t clear it by much. The floors were wood, and heavily worn; the paint on the walls was peeling. It was hard to believe that any self-respecting crime lord would be using it as a meeting place. But then, I supposed that was probably the point. Who would think to look here for him?

Miles opened the third door on the left, and I got my first look at a gangster.

Cutthroat Kariko was a large man, even sitting down. Standing he would have towered over me. He was fairly round, but I didn’t make the mistake of thinking he was fat. There was a lot of muscle there. He had numerous small scars on his face and hands, but nothing major that showed. He dressed well, about as well as i did, but with more expense. He wore quite a bit of jewelry, everything from rings and a necklace to earrings all along one ear. Even the buttons of his vest looked to be made of silver.

“Miles,” he said in a faintly distasteful tone. “You’re late.”

“A thousand pardons,” Miles said with a grin. “I was picking up my friend here. Kariko, this is Silf. She’s working with us as an information source.”

Kariko grunted. “You brought an informer here?”

“Not an informer per se,” Miles said. “Silf is working as an escort for nobility events. She hears things at them, and passes them along.”

“That is almost worse.”

“I know you’re not fond of nobles,” Miles said soothingly. “But I assure you, neither is Silf. She probably hates the upper crust of Aseoto even more than you do, if anything.”

Had he said that before I started this, I would have been confident that it was true. Now…it was complicated. I hated the nobility in general, of course I did; how could I not after what they had been party to? What they were complicit in?

But the individuals I met, well, it was more complex than that. Some of them were certainly every bit as vile as I would have thought. But there were a few, most notably Lucius, who were different.

Life was so much simpler when things were black and white.

“If you say so,” Kariko said. His tone suggested that he was deeply doubtful.

“In any case,” Miles said briskly. “I’m not here to talk about Silf’s work, vital though it is. Rather, we’re here to discuss the latest progress update. So, let us begin. House Takeo has pledged unofficial support, with of course the caveat that if we’re caught they know nothing about us.”

Kariko grunted again. “No surprise there.”

“No, but it is good. We also have a member of the emperor’s personal guard who, while not willing to wield the knife himself, has promised to give us access when the time comes to move. It will take time to move him into position, though, and it will take planning to ensure that he’s able to act when the time comes.”

“Can’t stand a traitor, but that’s a hell of an advantage.”

“Agreed, on both counts.” Miles paused. “What else, let’s see…oh, Marius is out. Seems he wasn’t willing to deal with some of the realities of our little operation. House Anaki has sent another payment, seven thousand in gold. We had to eliminate two legion investigators who were stumbling onto clues as to our little project. And I think that’s it for news this time.”

“Not bad on the whole,” Kariko said. “Things are proceeding well.”

“Agreed,” Miles said with an infectious grin. “We should be ready to move within a few months.”

I was…startled. That was a lot sooner than I’d ever really thought of this as being. Sure, I’d known that I was working for the end of bringing about the death of the emperor. And if you’d asked me, and I thought I could trust you with it, I’d have told you that.

But…it was something that had felt very far away. It was a long term goal, not anything I’d really put a time frame on. Having it be just a few months out was…something that I would have to adjust to.

“Well, Silf, I believe that is our cue to depart,” Miles said. “We wouldn’t want to presume upon our honored host’s gracious hospitality longer than necessary, after all; he is a busy man. I hope you learned something valuable from this little excursion.”

“Yeah,” Kariko said, half-grunting. “Pleasure to meet ya, Silf. Good luck with…whatever it was you do.”

I was silent the entire trip back to the Comedy. I had…a lot to think about.

Rose did not ask me where I had gone.

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Fractures 2.19

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Feeling lost, I drifted away from the dance floor, making my way back towards the entry hall. The crowd, which had been manageable just moments before, suddenly felt overwhelming, and the heat was stifling. The noise, too, was a great deal to take in now that I wasn’t focused on sifting it for useful tidbits. Conversations washed over me, too many to really absorb; I had no sooner focused on one than another was drowning it out.

I knew, logically, that the noise and heat were no greater than they had been a moment before. But they felt much greater, much more overwhelming. Before I had been concentrating on the task at hand, which made it easier not to think about those things. Now I didn’t know what to do, and that removed the support I had been leaning on.

At the edge of the hall, I paused, looking around. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I felt that I needed something to grasp onto, some distraction from what was quickly becoming too much stimulation.

I found it when someone at one of the nearby tables said, “Looking for something?”

I started, then looked for the source of the voice. It wasn’t hard to find; there was only one person looking at me. A slender man my age or a little older, he had very Tsuran features and was dressed more conservatively than most of the nobles at the ball. He was finished eating, but still sitting alone at the table, apparently just watching the crowd. Currently that meant watching me with an expression of mild curiosity.

I flushed and said, “Just feeling overwhelmed.”

He nodded. “First time?” he said, his tone kinder than I would have expected.

I nodded, and he smiled gently. “It can take a while to get used to,” he said. “I presume you’re here as an escort?”

“Yes,” I said. “Here with Lord Carus Reneko.”

“Fascinating,” he said, in a tone that wasn’t at all fascinated. “I’m guessing that you’re wondering where he went?”

“A little,” I admitted.

“I figured. It’s not something that’s intuitive at first. You see – what’s your name, anyway?”

“Silf,” I said. It felt a little strange to use my real name while doing something this secretive, but there was no getting around it; I was too well known as an entertainer, and trading on that reputation to get in.

“I’m Lucius,” he said. “Anyway, SIlf, the thing is that being an escort is all about the appearance of the person you’re escorting. And that changes with the fashion, so at any given time the expectations might be different than at another. Right now the fashion is to show up with an escort, spend enough time with them for it to be noted, and then interact with your friends alone before leaving with your escort. “

I nodded. “Why take the time to tell me this?” I asked, a trifle suspiciously.

“Honestly? Two reasons,” he said. “One, you looked rather lost and I felt sorry for you. Two, I think the practice is a touch disgusting. It makes you into little more than an ornament to be held just long enough to be seen before being cast aside, and that’s sad.”

I nodded. I wasn’t entirely sure I believed him. I probably wouldn’t if he’d just said the first, but the second reason wasn’t quite altruistic enough to be implausible.

“So,” he said, nodding to the empty chair across from him. “I happen to be alone, and you’re off the hook until Carus finishes whatever he’s doing. Would you like to talk?”

I hesitated, then sat down in the offered chair. I still wasn’t sure what to make of Lucius, but he was being polite, and I had come here to talk to the nobles. “What about?” I asked.

He smiled. “The nature of the universe, perhaps,” he suggested. “Or your favorite kind of cheese. I’m quite open, really.”

I snorted. “Why were you just sitting here?” I asked, somewhat curious. Almost all the nobles had either another noble or a hired escort with them, and clearly Lucius wasn’t antisocial. It seemed odd that he would just be sitting here alone.

“So that I could talk to you, apparently,” he said, his tone flippant. “But if you want a better reason, it’s because I only came here at the behest of my lord father. He feels that I spend too much time alone at home, you see.”

“Do you?”

“I must,” he said with a grin. “Because it costs me the chance to talk to such interesting women. Now, if we’re to be trading questions, where are you from? You have a northern accent.”

“Skelland before here,” I said. “I hope my accent isn’t too bad?”

“It’s charming, really,” he said. “What brought you south?”

“I’d heard a lot of stories about Aseoto. I wanted to see how they measured up to the reality.” I wasn’t quite lying. At least, it was as close to the truth as I could get without causing trouble. For some reason the thought of lying to him was…distasteful.

“I hope we’ve been satisfactory.”

“It’s been an experience,” I said. “Nothing like the countryside. Have you ever traveled?”

“Not far, sadly,” he said. “Most of the nobility don’t, really, unless they’re with the legions. Too many social events to keep up with. What made you decide to try your hand as an escort?”

“I’ve been working as a dancer,” I said. “It was suggested to me by the manager of the house. Do you come to these balls often?”

“More than I’d like.” His smile was rueful this time. “They’re a bit of a waste of time in my opinion, but it’s the expected thing to do in my social class. How do you find the people treat you here?”

I shrugged. “I’m a novelty. It could be worse.”

“That’s something,” he said. “I was concerned that you would be discriminated against, between being Changed and being a foreigner. Though I imagine being looked at as a novelty isn’t a great deal better, really.”

That was a little more true than I would have liked. “Have you met very many Changed people?” I asked.

“Almost none, unfortunately,” he said. “They’re rather rare among the nobility, especially the younger generation. And to be honest, the Changed tend to be…hidden away, to put it politely, here. Especially in high society. It’s part of why I’m impressed that you’re here.”

And probably part of why you’re talking to me, I added mentally. There was no real heat to the thought, though. At least he seemed willing to engage with me as a person, rather than seeing me as a freak or even just a novelty to be gawked at.

“Frankly,” he continued, “I’m also impressed that you’re willing to talk to me on any kind of personal level. I can’t imagine that we’re looked on fondly where you’re from after what we’ve done.”

I drew back a little at that, surprised. It was about as close as any Tsuran I’d talked to had come to acknowledging that the invasion to the north was anything other than a kindness to the northerners. “It took a while,” I said, matching his honesty with my own. “And I still am…not happy about it. But you’re just people, really.” I coughed. So much talking was starting to aggravate my throat.

“A commendable attitude,” he replied. “Too many people on both sides seem unable to come to that particular realization.”

“Do your people look at us as the enemy, then?”

He shrugged. “It’s a complicated situation. Some of us do, certainly, particularly those who have lost friends and loved ones in the war. But more often you’re seen as…provincial, perhaps, would be the word. Charmingly backward and desperately in need of our…assistance. Though to be entirely fair, some of the time that’s a genuine wish to help you rather than looking down on you. And I’m told that life has in many ways improved since the occupation. Were you aware that when the legions moved into Skelland, they were greeted by many as a welcome arrival? The queen herself surrendered peacefully and remained as the provincial governor.”

I paused. That…didn’t line up with what I’d heard at all. “I thought there was resistance for some time,” I said.

“Oh, there was, certainly.” His tone was earnest now. “But it was far from black and white. A good number of the Skellish people actually joined the legion as auxiliaries, and the rest were conflicted about the invasion. Now, to be fair, my information comes from the side that won the war, and I’m sure it’s biased. But some elements, like the surrender, are objective facts. You can ask around if you don’t believe me; it’s a matter of public record.”

I frowned. “I…see. Why do you know so much about the war?”

“Being a noble isn’t entirely about balls and parties. My father was a legate in the early years of the war, and he kept up on the news from the front after he retired from service. He made sure that my siblings and I were educated on the topic. In truth he would prefer that I follow in his footsteps, but it’s neither where my aptitude nor my interests lie. I take it that you didn’t know that particular detail, then?”

I shook my head. “Not at all,” I said, then admitted, “I might be biased as well.”

“Ah, but at least you can admit it. Though I’m curious how you could have come from Skelland and not known that about its history.”

I smiled a little. “I wasn’t raised in Skelland.”

“That would explain it,” he said.

“Do you have many siblings, then?” I wanted to move the conversation to less delicate topics, and that seemed like a natural continuation of what he’d said.

Perhaps sensing that I was growing uncomfortable, he didn’t try to press the point. “Two brothers and a sister, all older than me,” he said. “Yourself?”

“I had a brother, but I doubt he’s alive.”

“You aren’t sure?”

I shrugged. “He was even younger than me when the city fell. I would be very surprised if he were able to get out alone.”

“Ah,” he said. “I’m sorry for your loss.” He paused, seeming at a bit of a loss for words.

“It was a long time ago,” I said, not directly responding to what he’d said.

“All the same. I’m not particularly close to my siblings, but I know that I’d still be devastated if anything happened to them. I apologize for bringing it up; I’m sure it can’t be a pleasant memory.”

I let out a short bark of bitter laughter. “You have no idea.”

“No,” he said. “No, I don’t. I’m well aware of just how fortunate my life has really been. I’ve never been through any great hardships, certainly nothing like what you must have. All I can do is try to be empathetic and understanding, always with the knowledge that I can’t truly understand what it’s like. And to be frank, I pray that I never learn.”

I considered him for a moment. It sounded too good to be true, but he seemed sincere. And what he’d already said made it clear that he put more thought into the perspective of others than most. It was possible that he meant what he said.

I had tentatively decided by this point that I liked Lucius. Which felt absolutely wrong. As I’d thought when I was last on this island, there was an enormous difference between liking the workers at the Comedy and tolerating the nobility of Akitsuro.

Except that…Lucius was no more a direct part of what had happened than they were. He was a younger son of a noble family, who hadn’t joined the legions. His family might have supported the emperor’s orders, but he himself hadn’t even been born when this war started. He certainly wasn’t an active participant in it. Yes, he had prospered from it, but could I really hate him for a choice that he had no part in making?

Life was so much simpler when you could divide things into black and white. When you looked closer and saw all the shades of grey in between, things got…messy.

Out loud, all I said was, “I hope so too.”

“My thanks,” he said, once again sounding like he genuinely meant it. “Do you miss the north?”

I shrugged. “Sometimes, some things. Others, less so.” I paused, then continued, “I miss the people more than the place.”

“Do you think you’ll go back, then?”

I hesitated. “I don’t know. Most of the people are dead.”

He gave me a searching look at that. “Your life sounds like it has been quite tragic.”

I smiled a little. “Most lives seem to be.”

He laughed. “Too true, that. Still, I’m sorry that you’ve had to suffer so. There seems to be very little fairness in this world, at times.”

I sighed and nodded. That, too, was too true.

“Do you think you’ll do this sort of thing again?” he asked.

“It seems likely.”

“Very good, then I’ll likely see you again.”

“You’re looking forward to that, then?”

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “It’s so rare that one meets a genuinely interesting person at one of these events, you know. Quite a treat.”

“You flatter me.”

“Not in the least,” he said. “But ah! As edifying as this conversation has been, I do believe that’s Carus looking for you. Making a short night of it tonight, it seems. Before you go, I’m rather curious. What is your favorite kind of cheese?”

I smiled in spite of myself. “I don’t have one,” I said.

“You should correct that. It’s a marvelous topic when one doesn’t feel like discussing anything of import. Now, good luck, and I hope to see you again soon.”

“My thanks,” I said, standing. He stood with me and offered me a shallow bow with a sardonic smile.

Carus found me a minute or so later, standing at the edge of the dance floor in much the same place he’d left me. “Good evening, my lady,” he said, nodding to me as he walked up. “Thank you for your patience; there were some matters that needed my attention. I hope you’re enjoying the evening?”

“Quite,” I said, and found somewhat to my surprise that it was true.

“Most excellent. Would you care for another dance before we go?”

“Certainly,” I said. Only a few moments later the next song started, and we moved out onto the dance floor. As before, I made sure to pay attention to what was being said around me, filing away the most important bits for later.

We ended up dancing two more songs before leaving the ball, still relatively early. Carus offered me a ride to the shore, which I accepted, and we made small talk on the way, discussing nothing of real importance.

After parting with him, with his assurances that he would call on me again, I boarded a gondola back to Ukiyo. I was just as glad that it had been a short night. I was feeling overstimulated and overwhelmed, struggling to process all of what had happened. It felt like it had been a much longer night than it had, and I was glad to get out into the relatively cool night air.

I made my way back to the Comedy, where Livia was waiting for me to report in. I told her all the bits of information I’d overheard, as well as I could remember. She wasn’t entirely satisfied with my memory, but acknowledged that I had done as good a job as could be expected for my first night. As expected, she told me nothing about the uses my information were being put to.

It wasn’t until I was sliding into bed, yawning and glad that I worked night shift the next day rather than day, that I realized Lucius had never told me his family name.

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Fractures 2.18

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Two weeks later I found myself standing on a gondola, looking at the shore which was rapidly coming closer and deeply questioning my life choices. I was wearing the finest dress that the tailor had made me, a deep crimson gown with silver embroidery in the shape of abstract wolves and knots—a very northern motif. The crimson contrasted sharply with the emerald hanging from my neck, the stone gleaming in the light of the setting sun.

In theory I was ready for this. Over the past two weeks, Livia had been training me in every spare moment on how to behave at a noble ball in Aseoto. We’d covered everything from how to make a dancing partner look talented to what topics to avoid in casual conversation to how to eat politely, over and over again. In theory I knew how to avoid upsetting anyone better than most of the noble attendees.

Theory, unfortunately, often fell short of reality.

As the gondola approached the shore of Arashi, the same island where I’d helped Miles with his little “favor” what felt like a very long time ago, I had to consciously focus to control my breathing. If I hadn’t faced so many situations that were so very stressful, I might not have been able to keep my composure as I stepped off the gondola onto the street.

But for better or worse, I’d seen more than my share of rocks and hard places. I managed to keep my breathing steady, and even had a pleasant smile on my face as I began walking down the street. I was acutely conscious of every eye that turned to follow me, and there were plenty; it wasn’t every day that you got a Changed person walking around in Arashi, let alone one who dressed so eccentrically.

I’d been given directions on where to meet my…client, I supposed, was the word, though target might have been more accurate. We were going to meet up a short distance from the ball at what might be called a tavern were it not so expensive. That way, we would arrive together, and it would be a more suitable entrance for how much he was paying me to be his escort tonight. Money was rapidly coming to not mean much to me, between my work at the Comedy and what Miles had given me, but it still left me a bit stunned to see the amount Livia had negotiated for. Even after the Comedy took its cut for arranging the deal, it was easily enough to cover the cost of the gown and jewelry, with some left over for normal expenses for the week.

Once I was at the tavern, I took a deep breath and pulled a small mirror out of my pocket to check one last time that everything was in order. After making some small adjustments to my hair and collar, I put it away and stepped inside.

The noise of the taproom hit me like a tangible wave, and I rocked back on my heels slightly. It was a busy time of night; the room was thronging with people eating, drinking, and talking. The few conversations I could pick out of the noise were quite varied, ranging from casual gossip to a discussion of the recent attack on New Dawn.

That last was still the single biggest topic in the city. Word on the street and from the noble clientele of the Comedy was still conflicted as to what exactly had happened, but there was at least one thing that people were in agreement over: war wasn’t going to break out over it, not unless conditions deteriorated drastically. The Dierkhlani were in no rush to break their famed neutrality, and everyone who was directly involved had died in the attack.

But everyone was aware of how close a call it had been, and how delicate the situation still was. The empire hadn’t been that close to being seriously threatened in years, not since the early years of the emperor’s reign, and it didn’t leave a good taste in anyone’s mouth.

From what Livia had let slip, in fact, it was what had motivated several of the more important conspirators to join the conspiracy. As they saw it, either the emperor had gone mad and ordered a pointless, foolish attack, or else it really had been the legate’s own decision, in which case the emperor’s control of his own legates was in serious question. In either case, something needed to change, for everyone’s safety.

I could understand that reasoning. I didn’t think it would have been enough to move me to consider assassination myself, but then, I also had far less of a stake in the matter than they did.

I still knew next to nothing about the other conspirators. Aside from Livia, Miles, and Black, I didn’t even know their identities. It was, Livia had explained, safer that way. You couldn’t betray information you didn’t know. I hadn’t argued; I was not so naive as to think that I would be able to keep my teeth together under torture.

I was aware of the implication, of course. If I was being kept wholly in the dark so that I couldn’t give away secrets I ought not, it meant the risk outweighed the value of having me informed. It meant that I was being treated as disposable.

If that was what it took to be a part of this, I was all right with that.

Inside the taproom, I didn’t even look for the man I was here to meet. I stood out from the crowd far more than he did; it would be easier for him to find me than the reverse. I just stood, a short distance inside the door, and waited.

Less than a minute later, a young man in fairly typical nobleman’s clothing walked up to me, smiling broadly, and nodded to the door. He offered me his arm and I rested my fingertips on it as we walked outside. The air outside felt cooler and cleaner than the crowded interior of the building. a welcome change in the warm tropical evening.

I knew very little about the man I was escorting for the night. He was a young noble, a regular customer at the Comedy, and not associated with the conspiracy. Livia had felt it best to avoid having any clear connection between me and the few nobles who were part of our little group. One less vulnerability for someone to follow up on if they compromised me—or, I supposed, the reverse.

Once outside he smiled at me, and bowed over my hand, his lips brushing along my knuckles. “My lady Silf,” he said, his voice smooth and cultured. You could practically hear the classical tutoring in his words. “You look radiant this evening.”

“Flatterer,” I said with a laugh, though I was careful not to put any real sting in my tone. He smiled, a pleasant mask-like sort of smile, and led me over to the edge of the street. A carriage pulled up moments later, driven by a man in servants’ livery. The young nobleman helped me up into the back, climbing up himself a moment later, and pulled the door closed. We’d barely settled into our seats when the horses were in motion again, pulling the carriage down the street at a surprisingly good pace. The whole thing took only a few moments; the driver was clearly quite practiced.

“Have you done this sort of thing much?” the nobleman asked, leaning back in the cushions of the bench.

I shook my head. “First time,” I said.

He smiled, the expression surprisingly warm. “I feel honored,” he said. “I confess it isn’t exactly my first time, though of course never with someone quite like yourself.”

I wanted to call him a flatterer for that, but didn’t want to repeat myself, so I settled for a smile in return as I settled back into the cushions and looked around. The carriage interior was relatively plain, with little ornament beyond ornate trim in the colors of his noble house, though everything was of high quality design. It was a subtle statement of wealth, rather than the gaudiness I had half-expected. It wasn’t until you looked closer that you saw the expensive exotic woods, and the understated artistry of the design, and realized just how expensive it really was.

“Have you ever been to a ball like this before?” he asked after a moment, after it became clear that I wasn’t going to respond further.

“First time,” I said with a wry smile. “Only been in the city a little while.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding. “I trust you know the protocols and etiquette?” His tone was even and calm, suggesting that he actually did trust that.

I nodded. That much, at least, was true. After Livia’s lessons I was likely as comfortable with the details of expected behavior as the average escort was, at least in principle. “Been practicing,” I said simply.

That seemed to satisfy him, and he settled in to wait without further question, looking out the window of the carriage. He made casual conversation as we rode, mostly gossiping about various nobles. It meant little to me; I knew of some of them by name, but many not even that much, and none more than that. I nodded along and made interested noises at appropriate intervals, while filing away the relevant details of what he said.

The carriage wasn’t traveling quickly, but it was still only a few minutes before it was pulling up to a stop in front of one of the great houses of the city. It was an enormous building, easily seven or eight stories tall. The walls were stone blocks, each large enough to make me wonder how it had ever been transported there,, and elaborately painted. The carved sculptures on the upper level, each carefully lit by an alchemical lamp, loomed over us as the carriage coasted to a stop.

“Ah, we’ve arrived,” he said, redundantly. “Welcome to House Takeo,” he said, waiting for the carriage to stop completely before standing. A servant, moving with remarkable speed, was already at the door opening it before the noble had reached it. He climbed out and offered me his own hand rather than letting the servant do so. It was the fashionable thing to do, and I played along, taking his hand and stepping down out of the carriage smoothly, though I hardly needed the help.

Once I was outside looking up at it, the mansion was even more impressive, towering over us. The sun had set, but it hardly mattered. The exterior of the building was bathed in colorful light from more alchemical lamps than I could readily count, with more light shining from within the expansive windows. It was such an immense building that it was hard to conceptually grasp that it was a man-made structure; it had a sort of quiet assurance to it, as though the notion that the city could exist without it was laughable. Immense stained glass windows lined the walls, backlit by the alchemical lamps

A part of me seriously questioned the sanity of what I was doing, right about then. It wasn’t just the size of the building, though that was part of it. It was the artistry of it, the way that every detail of the structure was planned and coordinated with each other. There was no question that all of it, every last detail, had been carefully planned and arranged. The sheer amount of labor that had gone into it was intimidating as hell.

And this was just the outside of the building.

As that thought occurred to me, a servant in green and black livery walked up to us, bowing deeply. “My lord, my lady,” he said, his tone respectful without quite crossing the line into subservient. “If you will follow me, I will show you inside. May I see your invitation?”

“Of course,” my escort said, not seeming to find the question at all rude, though I had half-expected him to take offense at the implication that he might not be invited. He produced an elaborately decorated sheet of paper for review, holding it out for the servant to inspect. The servant looked at it for an instant that seemed far too short to actually see it in any meaningful way, and then nodded and walked up to the main doors of the hall.

Inside, the nobleman I was withhis name, I remembered after a moment, was Lord Carus Reneko‒proceeded with perfect confidence through the hall, leaving me to trail behind him uncertainly. The crowd inside pressed in as tight as at any market, though the social class of those present was obviously far higher. They were dressed well enough that my own gown was, if anything, rather plain by comparison, and I was wearing considerably less jewelry than most of the women. Some were there in attendance with other nobles, but others were alone, and more than a couple had hired escorts such as myself. In fact, I actually recognized a few of these last; they weren’t workers at the Comedy, but I had seen them around Ukiyo.

The entrance hall of House Takeo was impressive beyond the capacity of words to describe, at least to someone who had never been in a noble house before in her life. It was all white marble and precious metals. Pillars lined the walls, all elaborately carved with floral and geometric designs, though I was sure they were also quite functional supports for the ceiling far overhead. The stained glass cast gorgeous light across the hall’s floor, brilliantly colored and impossibly detailed. The crowd milled around, all of them nobles except for the liveried servants of the House.

I barely had time to pay attention to any of it as Lord Carus led me across the entrance hall and into the main hall. It was much like the entrance hall, but larger and somehow even more elaborately decorated. The stained glass, mostly geometric designs in the entry hall, was instead marked by scenes I recognized from Tsuran folktales.

Carus led me up to one of the balconies overlooking the dance floor, following another servant who had been assigned to show us to our table. It was a smaller table, suitable for a couple dining alone, and tucked away in a corner out of the center of the action. I suspected this last was a commentary on the status of my date, who wasn’t exactly a part of the highest ranks of Tsuran nobility, but I was just as glad; it was more than busy enough for my tastes.

The food was much the same as I had grown to expect, first from eating at the Comedy and then particularly from my dining etiquette classes with Livia. It was still a bit overwhelming, but at least I knew what the various dishes were and how to eat them, and the flavors were familiar enough.

More surprising to me was the assortment. There wasn’t just one dish served to us, or even a few. Rather, the fashion seemed to be a large number of small servings, one dish after another presented for us. The flavors were highly varied, ranging from shrimp in a citrus sauce through various breads to sauteed vegetables and beef with rice. I was quickly glad for Livia’s warning that I shouldn’t eat all of even the small servings presented to me as a lady; there were simply too many. I ate a few bites of each, no more, and it was still enough that I was feeling quite full when there were still a good many dishes to be served.

I had been warned to expect this, as well, and didn’t hesitate to lay my fork and knife across my plate, signaling that I was finished eating. Lord Carus was still involved with his meal, having eaten more slowly than I even though I was making a conscious effort not to eat too quickly, which gave me the chance to look around in more detail.

Perhaps inevitably the dancers were what drew my eye, and I found myself evaluating them, judging the quality of their performance. For the most part, I found myself surprised and impressed. They weren’t, generally speaking, as well-trained as most dancers at the Comedy, and there were only a few styles of dance on display, none of them terribly exotic. But within those bounds, they actually weren’t half-bad. The nobles moved more smoothly and gracefully than I had expected, though perhaps that was because my expectations had been unfair. It had not occurred to me that balls were how the upper nobility spent a large portion of their time, and in their own way they had just as much riding on their performance as I had on mine.

Finally, after several minutes longer, Lord Carus laid down his silverware and dabbed at his face with his napkin. “Shall we dance, my lady?” he murmured, already rising and offering me his hand. I took it, not having to feign relief, and rose as well. I was feeling more than a little overwhelmed by that point, more than a little out of place, and the opportunity to get back onto familiar territory was a welcome one.

At least with dancing I was confident that I knew what I was doing.

He led me down the stairs to the dance floor, where we stood at the edge of the floor and waited for the current song to finish. We didn’t have to wait long; the musicians were making sure to pause frequently for dancers to join and leave the dance floor. Before long they struck up a waltz and I allowed Lord Carus to lead me out onto the dance floor.

I was most confident in my skills with solo dances, but I had first learned to dance so that I could take part in events not so dissimilar from this one. I was comfortable enough with waltzes that I didn’t have to focus too hard on the motions of the dance, and was free to pay attention to the other dancers as well as maintaining casual conversation with my partner. This last proved a rather easy demand to meet; Carus was not as comfortable with the dance as I was, and mostly focused his attention on the forms of the movement.

But he danced the song without making any mistakes obvious enough to be embarrassing, which was what mattered, and we flowed easily into the next song as well. With this, at least, I felt confident, and the feeling of fear and of being exposed which I’d had since I first met up with Carus finally faded a little. I was still afraid, but I wasn’t terrified, and I was finally able to relax enough to pay more attention to the conversations around me, which were the real reason I was here.

Livia had explained this to me in some detail. I wasn’t the sole source of information that the conspirators had; not even close. But aside from the handful that were themselves noble (and none of them were from the upper ranks of the nobility), they were getting their information from paid informants. Mos t of those got their information by bribing servants.

In principle, that was fine. Servants heard more than anyone really knew, and their masters and mistresses didn’t pay them so well that they all felt the need to keep their teeth together.

The problem was that the nobles weren’t idiots. They knew that information about them was bought and sold in dark alleys as much as it was in brightly lit ballrooms, and they knew perfectly well that their servants weren’t all completely trustworthy. Important conversations were often held away from prying ears as a result, and even the best informants struggled to get access to them. Bringing the nobles themselves in on the conspiracy would be ideal for getting around that, but it would also be extremely risky. There was a reason that people were brought in only with great caution, and even then given the absolute bare minimum of information they needed to do their jobs. The more people knew about something, the greater the risk that the information would get out. And given that we would all lose our heads if the authorities found out what we were planning, that meant that telling even a single person was an immense risk‒they would never have told me even what little they had without Black, Livia, and Miles vouching for me.

Thus, the tradition of hired escorts being used as spies. We were, in some ways, better than the nobles themselves at it. We were close enough to them to be part of conversations that ordinary servants were excluded from, while being close enough to the servants to be overlooked. We had fewer complicating loyalties and connections to the rest of the nobility. And should it come to it, we had less to gain and more to lose by betraying our employers.

So I listened. As the second dance flowed into a third, I listened to the conversations happening around me on the dance floor. There were quite a few of them, and I was shocked at the content of some; Livia had, it seemed, not exaggerated the degree to which the nobility was willing to talk in this setting. There was everything from casual gossip to trade negotiations going on around me.

I wouldn’t remember everything. My memory was good, but it wasn’t perfect. But I would remember the most important things, and at the end of the day, whatever information I got was more than Livia had without me.

I was actually feeling confident that this wasn’t a waste of time and risk by the time we finished the fourth dance.

Naturally, that’s when Lord Carus excused himself, leaving me alone at the edge of the dance floor with nowhere to hide and no idea where to go next.

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Fractures 2.17

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It was several seconds before I managed to get my thoughts together enough to respond. “What are you doing here?” I said, somewhat coarsely. “I thought you wanted nothing to do with Aseoto.”


Black just shrugged. “What can I say,” she said. “A friend of a friend sent me a message, and I just couldn’t resist the opportunity.”


“Sit down, Silf,” Livia interjected, gesturing at one of the few open chairs at the table. “And close the door.”


I obeyed, feeling a bit numb as I settled into the chair. It was more comfortable than it looked, but I barely noticed; I was too fixated on trying to figure out what was happening. What would bring this group of people together? And what on earth was Black doing here when there was a bounty on her head that made the one on mine look minor?


“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” Livia said. “They’ll be answered in due time, but first I have to make something clear. Whether you choose to be a part of what we’re planning or not, I need you to swear that you will say nothing of what you see or hear inside these walls to anyone but myself and Black. I cannot overstate the importance of this – or the consequences if you fail to abide by that agreement. Do you understand?”


I nodded. “I swear,” I said, my voice tight. It wasn’t something I did lightly – I took my word seriously. But I had to know what was going on here, and I could tell that she wasn’t going to budge on this.


A bit of tension seemed to run out of the room as I said it, as though everyone had released half a breath. They were still holding the other half, though, and it wasn’t hard to see why. An oath was nothing but empty breath if it was spoken by someone who didn’t care, and they had no way of knowing whether I did or not.


“Excellent,” Livia said. “Oh, and so you know, this isn’t how we would normally go about this, but several of us are already familiar with you. Black, in particular, vouched that even if you don’t wish to participate in our plans, you won’t betray us.”


I glanced at her and then nodded my understanding. I had no idea why Black would have vouched for me on the basis of the handful of days we’d spent together, but I was willing to wait and see.


“Excellent,” Miles repeated. “Now, as you might imagine, we’re gathered here for a reason. Specifically, we’re here to discuss whether our fair city mightn’t be a little bit fairer were it not for a certain and rather prominent member of it’s government.”


I stared at him for a long moment before it clicked. Then I stared a moment longer as I tried to grasp what it was he was saying.


“You’re talking about assassinating the emperor,” I said, my voice sounding shocked even to myself.


“Assassination is such an ugly word,” he said, his tone mocking. “We prefer removal.” He didn’t, however, tell me that I was wrong.


“It’s a better fit for what we need, anyway,” one of the noble-looking women said. “It doesn’t really matter whether he’s dead or just removed from office. What matters is that he not be in a position of power or authority.”


“So you say,” one of the ones I had pegged as a criminal growled back. “Personally I’d rather see him dead after just in case….”


“We’ve been over this before,” Miles interrupted, inserting himself smoothly into the exchange. “No need to drag our girl here into that business, now, is there?”


The criminal looked at him with a combative glint in his eye for a moment, then relented. I spoke up in the ensuing silence, having finally recovered my wits enough to string words together. “Why tell me?”


“Well, my dear, it just so happens that we could use someone of your skillset if you were so inclined as to assist in our little venture,” Miles replied.


Not as an assassin,” Black interjected, perhaps guessing where my mind was going. “We have people to do that. What we need is information.”


I snorted. “What do I know?”


“It’s what you’re in a position to learn that we’re interested in,” Livia said. “You see, we have relatively few contacts among the upper nobility, and they aren’t particularly prominently placed. And it’s not as though they can ask all that many questions without it seeming rather suspicious. You, on the other hand, are well placed to transition from being a dancer into also being an escort and private entertainer to the nobility. There’s a long tradition of such people being used as spies in Akitsuro, and for good reason – people tend to overlook them. It’s very easy for a person in that position to pick up all sorts of tidbits.”


“Not to mention that it’s lower risk than the actual assassination,” Black said. “I’d prefer not to expose you to more danger than necessary.”


“Oh, don’t let her fool you,” Miles said, his tone remarkably casual for someone talking about getting caught committing high treason. “If the imperial inquisition catches us, we’ll all die together. And in such creative ways, too.”


Black rolled her eyes, but what she said was, “He’s not wrong. I won’t tell you this isn’t risky, and I’d prefer you not to have any part in it. But you’re an adult, and I knew you’d want to at least have the option after what the legions have done to you in the past.”


I thought for a long moment. Then I pulled out a chair and sat down. “Tell me what you need,” I said.

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Interlude 2.z: Selected Graffiti

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Selections of graffiti from an alley in the Narrows, Aseoto:



speak truth


RIP Kariko we remember


Black gods take your souls




living life one nightmare at a time

when will the war stop?


I was innocent once

Sleepwalking Our Lives Away

Kill me.


Getting Money My religion.

The Truth Hurts

Lucius + Ava


Give me back my hat


Fuck the legions

Here Lies Spearman

There are holes in this world.



after lunch okay?



you cant afford us

Fuck the Emperor


Love sucks.


will it ever stop hurting?


where did the sun go?



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Fractures 2.16

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For the next week, my throat hurt about as badly as it ever had, to the point that I couldn’t even snarl and growl at the patrons properly, and had to conduct all my conversations by writing. It was frustrating, but not particularly harmful. The other workers at the Comedy understood the position I was in, and they didn’t make a fuss about it. The only real negative consequence was that my earnings were slightly lower; the patrons had come to expect a certain amount of snarling, and didn’t throw as much money at me without it.


I didn’t really care. The pouch Miles had so casually given me had enough in it to make it a complete nonissue. It was the kind of money that made even my earnings at the Comedy, which had struck me as so unbelievably large, look like pocket change.


I was cautious about spending it at first. I didn’t want to make anyone suspicious about how much gold a simple dancer was throwing around. But after a few days, I started to slowly spend some of it, taking the opportunity to buy unnecessary luxuries. I could, after all, always pass it off as payment from a young noble who had grown enamored with me and wanted a private showing. It wasn’t so uncommon among the performers, and I had already turned down such offers twice before.


So I bought some luxuries with the gold. A harp for Rose–she had expressed interest in learning the instrument before, and it seemed a nice gift for a friend. Similarly, I bought Lyssa an onyx pendant that complimented her hair, an elaborately decorated drum for one of the other musicians whom I often worked with, and similar small gifts for some of the other workers. For myself I found a set of tapestries and rugs in a northern style to decorate my rooms with, a set of ivory dice, an ornate dagger that I could use as an accent to my feral look when dancing, and other frivolities.


The harder part, I found, was converting the gems into gold. It took a week for me to find a jeweler who would buy them, and even then I felt that I got only a small fraction of their value. I took the offer gladly enough, and even had him set one of them–a gorgeously cut emerald that was almost the exact color of my eyes–in iron as a pendant. It would, I thought, look good hanging from my collar when I was dancing.


And all of that made only a small dent in the gold. I still had half of it left when I finished my little shopping spree.


I tried not to think too hard about what had happened with Miles that night. I tried not to worry about just what it was that I had been  a part of that was worth so very, very much gold.


Some days I was mostly successful.


Eight days passed before something happened to shock me out of my routine, and it came from a direction that I would never have guessed. I was sitting in the common room at the time, eating my lunch with Rose before I went on for another night shift. I was working an extra shift that night to cover for Lyssa while she visited friends on another island. There were several other people in the room, mostly dancers and whores, eating or simply lounging and chatting with each other. When another, a pale Tsuran woman named Akiyo who worked as both, walked in, it didn’t make much of a splash until she opened her mouth.


“I have news,” she announced. “From a private party for Lord Caius’s oldest son. Apparently the Fourth Victorious Legion attacked New Dawn yesterday.”


I froze mid bite and turned to stare at her, as did most of the room. It took me several seconds to process what I’d just heard, and even longer before I realized she wasn’t joking.


I’d heard of New Dawn, of course. Everyone had heard of New Dawn, in the same way that everyone had heard of Aseoto, or Sacair across the ocean to the south. It had more of a resonance for me than those cities, though, in the same way that it had a resonance for every Changed person. It had a reputation for being a haven for my kind, more so than any other place I’d ever heard of. It was the one place where we were the norm rather than the exception, the outcast.


How could it not be? It was where the Dierkhlani made their home. Which, of course, was why it was so shocking to hear.


Only a madman would start a fight with the Dierkhlani, let alone attack them in New Dawn with only a single legion.


“What happened?” someone asked, his tone shocked and morbidly curious.


“Dead to a man,” Akiyo replied. “Well, not quite. About a hundred survivors made it out, but most of them are in bad shape.”


“Will this mean war?” Lyssa asked.


Akiyo shrugged. “Apparently the emperor is saying it wasn’t on his orders,” she said. “The legate decided to do it on his own initiative, the fool. And he’s very dead, so maybe it will stop there.”


Strangely enough, I believed it. You would have to be stupid beyond words to think that one legion could defeat the Dierkhlani in their home, and while the emperor had many, many negative qualities, he wasn’t an idiot.


In a way that made it worse, though. I knew I should be glad–an entire legion of imperial soldiers had died, after all, which could only hurt their war efforts.


But at the same time…thousands of soldiers had died for one person’s stupid choice. So much wasted life, and for what? A legate who wanted an impossible victory to his name and didn’t care what it cost?


It was…hard to convince myself that such a senseless waste of life was a good thing.


I wasn’t sure whether this city was making me soft, or I’d always been this weak-willed and just convinced myself I was more brutal than I really was.


I buckled on my collar before I went out to dance, and tried not to think that it was a symbol of something more than just a stage persona.

The next eight days passed in calm, quiet tension. People were worried, that went without saying–who could be otherwise, with the prospect of a potential war with the Dierkhlani brewing? Not even I wished that on Akitsuro. It would be like a battle between titans, with me as little more than an ant beneath their feet. Regardless of who won, the ant wasn’t likely to fare well.


But there was no news of an official war, and the unofficial news was that while relations were extremely strained, diplomacy was enough to keep things from erupting into war for the moment. Every night, when whichever worker had been entertaining a noble privately returned, everyone not on shift gathered around close to listen  for any new updates. Most of the time we didn’t get any.


Eight days later, I was about to go on for a graveyard shift when I felt a very gentle tap on my shoulder. I still spun around instantly, hands raised to defend myself.


It was just a servant, one of the few that worked at the Comedy. He took a step back as I turned on him, swallowing hard. “Livia wants to see you,” he said. “She says that you have some friends who would like to speak with you.”


I frowned, thinking. I couldn’t really think of anyone who would come to see me that I would call a friend; most of the ones I had left worked here. But if she said that there were people to visit me, there wasn’t a lot I could do but go along with it. I glanced at Lyssa, who was sitting on a couch reading a book. “Lyssa,” I said, my throat making it come out hoarse and strained. “Can you cover for me?”


She shrugged, set the book aside, and stood. “Sure,” she said. “I owe you a shift anyway.”


I smiled, hoping the expression conveyed my thanks, and stood. The servant, taking this to mean I was ready, started walking through the back halls of the building.


To my surprise, he didn’t stop at Livia’s office. Instead, he kept going, opening another door inset flush with the wall that I’d never noticed before, and going into a narrow hall that I’d never been in. It was nicer than most of the back areas of the brothel, with thick carpets and wall hangings. At the end of the hall, a pair of men were standing outside another door. They had a hard look to them not unlike the people Miles had with him that night, and I instantly pegged them as thugs. They were armed with short, heavy blades, not unlike Legion-issue swords.


Naturally, that was the door that the servant led me to. The thugs tensed, but didn’t say a word as he opened the door and  ushered me through before leaving.


Inside was a large room that resembled  a banquet hall, with a long wooden table down the middle that was covered with a plain white tablecloth. There was no food on it now, though, and no one would mistake the crowd currently there for a typical banquet.


I was surprised by the variety. There were perhaps a dozen people, around half of whom were wearing the fine clothes and haughty demeanor of blood nobles. The rest were an even  split between apparently normal people, and hard-looking men and women who were dressed not so different from the nobility. I didn’t for an instant confuse the two, though. You didn’t get that kind of attitude, or those scars, from a noble’s life. I got the impression of criminals from them, and apparently quite successful ones considering their clothing.


And then there were the people I recognized as my gaze slid down the table. Livia, unsurprisingly, was seated at the head of the table, with Miles at her right hand. And then…


My heart skipped a beat as I saw the third familiar face. No, I thought. It’s impossible.


But it was very much not my imagination when Black broke the silence. “Hey there, kid,” she said, with a toothy grin. “Did you miss me?”

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Fractures 2.15

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There are certain moments in life that nothing can really prepare you for, days you can’t really understand until they happen to you. The day you pass out of childhood, for instance. The day your parents die. The day your first child is born.


Or, in my case, finding out that you’re aiding and abetting a capital crime with a group of people who won’t hesitate to kill you if you get in their way.


I could have done without understanding.


They were professionals about it, I had to give them that. They’d killed the guards quickly and efficiently, with as little fuss and bother as possible. It didn’t make the situation less terrifying, but it did provide a kind of assurance. If I’d thrown my lot in with a bunch of hardened killers and I didn’t even know what they were killing for, at least they weren’t stupid killers.


Still, I couldn’t keep myself from staring at the bodies as the others readied for the next ascent. Had they deserved to die, I wondered? A part of me certainly thought so. They were imperials, after all, and ones who worked for a high noble family at that. It wasn’t like my friends at the Comedy. Odds were quite good that the people who lived in this manor had participated in the planning and execution of the attack on the Whitewood. They supported an emperor who was responsible for the deaths of countless people, the suffering of even more.


And yet, a part of me couldn’t quite believe that. About the nobility, yes, but these men hadn’t been nobles. They were just guards. Just…normal people doing their jobs. They hadn’t done anything to deserve death, and even if they had, it had nothing to do with why they were killed. Miles and his people had killed them just because they were in the way.


I was grateful when Miles beckoned me over, the rope already dangling from the higher balcony.


I scurried up it with the rest, finding an identical scene at the upper balcony. The strangled guards were already lying on the stone, twitching and gasping for air in their final moments.


“This way,” Miles said, without waiting for the guards to finish dying. He strode to one of the doors facing onto the balcony, a small one made from some dark red wood I didn’t recognize. Imported from the south, perhaps, or more likely the eastern jungles. It wasn’t native to Akitsuro or Skelland, that was for sure.


Built for style, not defense. Who could blame them? Five stories up, with guards posted every night, this door was hardly somewhere that you would worry about an intruder gaining access from.


In fact, the door wasn’t even locked, a fact Miles proved when he simply turned the handle and pushed it open. Inside was a wide hall, paneled in rich walnut and with statues and paintings at regular intervals. The floor was covered in a deep red carpet so thick it felt like walking on a bed of moss. The light was cast, not from simple wall sconces, but by chandeliers of alchemical lights.


This was clearly a part of the mansion frequented by those of high birth, and I found myself relaxing a bit at the realization. Apart from the guards, anyone we ran into here would be someone I could see dead without weeping.


Miles seemed to know his way, and proceeded into the manor at the kind of pace that covers ground without actually appearing to hurry. The others followed him in a tight grouping, weapons at the ready. They had drawn long knives now rather than garrotes, and I found myself rather glad to see it. Not only was I better equipped to defend myself against knives if it came to that, but it meant that they weren’t planning on killing more people in here.


In any case, we followed him deeper into the building. He took one turn after another, before finally ducking through a door that looked like it was a closet. Instead it opened into another, very different, hallway. This one was narrow and just slightly too short for comfort, with walls and floor and ceiling of simple whitewashed stone. More mundane alchemical lamps lit it uncomfortably bright with all the white, and made the stains and dirt all the more apparent.


A servants’ hall, then. Meant to get people who were meant to remain unseen by their betters from place to place. Likely they ran throughout the building. Something like a set of secret passages, hidden by the way that people chose not to look at their occupants.


My dislike of the nobles that lived in this manor was growing.


The servants’ hallway twisted and turned, but eventually Miles opened another door, this one leading into a grandiose hall much like the one we had been in minutes earlier. “This way,” he said, turning right and continuing briskly forward. He turned his head, looking at us. “The study is just ahead.”


With his head turned, he didn’t see the guard step out of a door just ahead. No one else was close enough to reach him before he shouted a warning.


I didn’t think. The rational, cognitive part of my mind didn’t get involved at all. It was all instinct and reflex and fear. Before I’d even properly registered what I was seeing, my hand was coming up, holding a handful of sharpened triangular pieces of metal. A quick throw, a quicker twist of magic, and they were shooting forward. One of them very nearly clipped Miles on the way by, but my aim was good for once, and all of them struck home.


The guard collapsed, blood rushing out from the ragged holes in his head and face. He never had time to scream. Miles didn’t even flinch. “Excellent shot, Silf,” he said, turning back and continuing on. “With that amount of blood, I believe we’re better off counting to speed and luck to prevent detection rather than trying to hide the body. Quickly now, ladies and gentlemen, the clock is ticking.”


And as simply as that, we were continuing down the hall, moving somewhat faster now.


I barely registered it as we walked past more fine art pieces, now garishly splashed with blood. I was too busy thinking about what I’d just done.


I’d killed before, more times than I liked to think about. But it had always been…different. I’d been defending myself, or someone else. Even when I’d made the deliberate decision to kill Hideo, I’d done so with the intent of protecting the residents of Branson’s Ford. I’d killed, but I’d never murdered.


That man hadn’t intended me harm. He’d just been doing his job. We had been the aggressors here, we were the ones invading this manor. I couldn’t really call his death anything but pure murder. Not premeditated, or even deliberate–but murder all the same.


And I’d done it without a second thought. Hell, I’d done it without a first thought.


I wasn’t sure I liked what I was turning into.


The next thing I was really aware of, we were pushing through a sturdy wooden door into another room. Some sort of study, it was simply furnished with a desk, a padded chair, and several bookshelves. More art was on the shelves and on the walls, but it was less ostentatious than the rest of what I’d seen in this place. The enormous window behind the desk looked out over a smaller building towards the ocean. I could see the glimmering of countless alchemical lights blazing bright against the darkness, a web of light that looked like jewels scattered across the night.


Aseoto was beautiful at a distance.


“Excellent,” Miles said as one of his people closed the door behind us. “Now would be where you come in, Silf. I have reason to believe that there’s a safe in this room. Find it.”


I stared for a moment, uncomprehending. I felt like I was in a daze. Then the meaning of the words–and the implicit threat backing them up–reached me, and I nodded hastily. He’d already said that we were in a rush, and while I might not have been precisely a willing participant in all this, I somehow doubted that the law would see it that way if we were caught.


At least I understood why he had brought me now. I closed my eyes and opened myself to the magic again, shuddering slightly as I remembered how those pieces of metal had torn though flesh….


But I wasn’t using the magic for anything like that, not this time. I just opened myself, letting the energy flow through me and heighten my connections to the world around me. I could feel the metal in the weapons my associates were carrying, and once again had to repress a shudder.


At first I thought it wasn’t going to work. Then I realized that I was just thinking about it wrong. The whole reason that Miles had brought me was that the safe wouldn’t be in an obvious place. It wasn’t going to be behind one of the paintings or something equally silly. They would have put it somewhere that no one would think to search.


I focused my attention downward, and felt a large deposit of metal just below the desk. It was hard to be sure without seeing, but it felt roughly like a cube, and it was hollow.


“It’s in the floor,” I said. “Behind the desk.”


“Excellent work,” Miles said. “That does present a challenge, however. How do we get to it?”


“Chop a hole in the floor?” one of the men asked, fingering a heavy knife.


“That would take too long,” Miles said. “We need in quickly. Perhaps fire-oil….”


I barely paid attention to what they were saying. There was more metal there, I could feel it, and I traced its course away from the safe itself. It was harder than finding the safe; the metal was smaller, and more deeply buried. But I eventually followed it to where it ended at an unremarkable spot in the wall.


I walked over, ignoring their discussion, and tentatively pushed against the wall in that spot. It didn’t move–nothing so obvious–but I felt something shift under the pressure.


A small hole slid open in the floor, so smoothly that it had to be an alchemical mechanism. There was a black metal safe inside.


“Ah! You prove your worth again,” Miles said brightly, stepping forward to the safe. “Thank you kindly, Silf. I’ll take it from here.”


I would have expected opening the sort of lock that a noble this wealthy would put on their private safe would be difficult, that it would take some time. It seemed natural. Whoever owned this place, they could afford the best, and they wouldn’t have bothered with such an intricate method of concealing it only to skimp on the lock.


Miles had it open in under ten seconds.


I saw him reach into his jacket, likely stowing something from the safe away out of sight. More than likely it was what this whole thing had been about, though I still had no idea what it was for. Then he began grabbing handfuls of the safe’s contents, and dropping them into small leather bags from his belt.


“Here’s your bonus, ladies and gentlemen,” he said as he finished, tossing the bags to his thugs, one each.


Then, much to my surprise, he tossed one to me. I barely managed to catch it, and found it considerably heavier than I had anticipated. I glanced into it, more out of curiosity than anything, and then very nearly dropped it in shock.


The bag was full of gold coins, gold crowns, over a dozen of them. Each one was worth more money than I’d ever seen before starting at the Comedy. Under them, I could see the glimmer of gemstones.


It wasn’t just money. It was more money than I could possibly have hoped to earn. Money enough to make many of life’s problems simply….go away. I wasn’t used to dealing with numbers this large, couldn’t rightly process what the value of that bag even was.


And he’d thrown one to each of us.


Black gods, what was in that safe that was worth enough that he could afford to give this out as a bonus?


“Excellent work,” Miles said, sounding well satisfied. “Now, I believe I hear screaming outside. Shall we make our exit?”


The thugs nodded and moved towards the window. Within seconds it was shattered and we were climbing outside. We were above the balcony, but not far, and I jumped down with the rest of them. It hurt my legs, but I was used to pain.


A quick descent down a rope and we were out, running for the docks. The thugs vanished along the way; I was too deep into shock to notice where they went. All I knew was that they were gone when we reached the edge of the island, where the same unlit boat was waiting for us. Miles stepped aboard casually, while I scrambled onto it.


“Thank you kindly,” he said as the boat started moving back towards Ukiyo. “I know that was stressful for you, especially on such short notice. I do appreciate your help, though; that would have been awkward without you.”


I nodded, feeling numb and lost. What had I just been a part of? Did I even want to know?

He dropped me off on Ukiyo, leaving me to stumble back to the Comedy on my own while he vanished from sight over the water. I kept the bag hidden on the way; that much common sense, at least, remained to me.


But not much more. Once I got back, I stumbled in the back entrance and went straight to my room, where I laid on my bed and did not sleep. The next morning I was exhausted and terrified, and apparently it showed; Rose brought me food in bed, and Lyssa offered to cover my daytime shift.


None of us ever said a word about what favor I had done for Miles.

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Fractures 2.14

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Roughly two months after starting at the Comedy, winter had set in. Or, at least, what passed for winter in these southern climes. There was no snow to speak of, and the temperatures were as high as I was used to feeling in early autumn. I was often forced to hold in laughter as Tsurans complained about how bitterly cold it was and how they wished spring would arrive sooner. Between my fur and being accustomed to the bitter cold of the north, I didn’t even bother changing my dress, a fact which Lyssa found astonishing.


“I don’t know how you do it,” she said to me, as we sat together in the staff common area. I’d just gotten off of the night shift, while she was about to go on for graveyard. We both had plates of food in front of us, chicken in a spicy curry sauce served over rice with flatbread. Curry had been very much an acquired taste for me–the stuff was very strongly flavored, and in ways that were nothing like what I’d grown up eating. After a month or so, though, I had grown to quite enjoy it. “I swear you must have ice in your veins.” Lyssa shook her head, sipping at a glass of sweet alchemical liqueur.


I shrugged and reached for the tray of sand they had started setting on the table. It was easier for me than talking, and cheaper than writing with ink or chalk. It’s not hard, I scrawled with one claw, feeling grateful for how much more compact Tsuran writing was than Skellish. A moment later I felt guilty for that gratitude, for how much I was enjoying the food, for enjoying being in Akitsuro. Black gods, I was starting to like this city.


I felt like I was betraying my homeland, like I should hate every minute spent in imperial lands. But…I was living better here than I ever had in the north. I had enough to eat every night, and I could pick and choose what I ate, at that. I could afford to buy things just because I wanted to. I had a comfortable room and work that I had grown to like a great deal. I had friends in Rose and Lyssa and I liked most of the other workers I interacted with.


If this was wrong, why did it feel so good?


“I hope I’m not interrupting,” a familiar voice said from behind me. I recognized it, but I couldn’t place it until I’d turned around.


Miles was standing just behind me, wearing black silks as light and airy as my own violet silk robe. He was smiling sardonically, and while he wasn’t visibly armed, I could feel the metal hidden under that silk. He was carrying daggers, an impressive number of them.


Lyssa glanced at me, then said, “Not at all. I’m about to go on shift anyway.” She took one more bite of chicken with flatbread, then stood and hurried off.


“Excellent,” Miles said, dropping into her recently vacated chair and putting his feet up on the third chair at the table. “So, Silf, I trust you’ve been enjoying your time here? Things are going well between you and the other dancers, I hope?”


I hesitated, then nodded cautiously. I didn’t like his manner. He was too confident, too jovial. He had the feel of a man who knew something I didn’t, and that made me nervous.


“Excellent,” he said. “I’m glad to hear you’ve been settling in well. And I hear you’ve made quite a name for yourself, as well. At the rate you’re going it won’t be long before you’re invited to dance at private parties for nobles and the like.”


Why are you here? I scrawled in the sand, not looking away from him.


Miles sighed heavily. “Can’t I simply want to check on your welfare?” he asked. “I did set you up with the job, after all. I feel responsible for you.”


I snorted, and didn’t respond.


“All right,” he admitted. “So I might have other reasons for checking in on you tonight, specifically. I have a certain…task to accomplish, Silf, and I think you might be just the person I need to help me with it. And as I see it you happen to owe me a favor. I did, after all, set you up with this position.”


Why should I help you? I wrote, more to see what his response would be than anything else.


“Three reasons,” he said promptly. “One, I helped you, and you strike me as the sort who doesn’t like to let her debts go unpaid. Two, you already know I’m on good terms with your employer. Three, well. If you owe me a favor, who knows who else might?” He smiled, a crooked and predatory sort of smile.


I hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. I didn’t like the implied threats he was making, but then, I was the person who had made the conversation turn adversarial.


And he wasn’t wrong. I didn’t like to be indebted to people.


“Excellent!” he said brightly. “Now, you’ll want to change into something a bit…sturdier before we leave, I expect, and grab whatever you need for an adventure. I’ll wait outside the back entrance.” With that, Miles stood and sauntered out. I could all but see his smirk in the way he walked.


I grimaced and went to get my things.

A few minutes later, I was dressed in a dark leather outfit I’d gotten in case I needed something more practical, or I wanted to look more feral and less delicate while dancing. I’d grabbed my bags of metal things, and a knife, and after a moment of hesitation the hatchet that Black had given me. I still had my collar on; over the past weeks I’d come to find its presence on my throat comforting.


Plus, the leather and steel was heavy enough to have a chance at blocking a knife.


“Ready, then?” Miles said. “Good. Follow me.”


He led me down one alley after another, staying away from the main streets, until we reached the edge of the island. A boat was moored there, though it didn’t quite look like the usual gondolas that carried passengers between the islands of Aseoto. It was sleeker, for one thing, designed to move swiftly and silently through the water without carrying many people. For another, it had no lamp to tell other boats where it was.


The boatman was already waiting, a tall man shrouded in black. Even his face was obscured behind a mask.


I hesitated before stepping onto the boat. “Where we going?” I asked.


Miles glanced back at me with a smile. “If I told you,” he said, “and you didn’t like my answer, would you have the luxury of opting out of this little task?”


I sighed and stepped aboard with him.


Evidently the boatman already had his directions, because as soon as we were on the boat he started rowing, carrying us quickly and silently further out from the coast. I’d never had cause to set foot on the island we were heading towards, though I’d heard a fair amount about it. Called Arashi, it was where the majority of the noble houses had their manors, as well as the location of the imperial palace itself.


I was starting to get a very bad feeling about this favor.


The crossing was made in silence, but as we docked at Arashi Miles spoke up. “Welcome to the home of the rich and powerful,” he said, gesturing expansively as he stepped off the boat. “Trust me, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”


Privately, I had to agree. Oh, the noble manses were beautiful, there was no denying that. Even from the outside, they were astonishing. One had a tower that stretched up so high it seemed it must touch the sky, with a subtle spiral that I could just make out in the alchemically lit night. Another had its whole face covered in alchemical lights that shifted color and intensity to make changing patterns and pictures across it. Yet a third had a pair of enormous statues carved from ice in front of it, intricately carved into the shape of rampant lions.


And yet the extravagant beauty had a sour feeling to it, an ugliness. It was so clearly not beauty for its own sake. It wasn’t meant to be enjoyed. It was a weapon, aimed at the reputation of the houses next to it. It wasn’t about good, it was about being better than. It was like everything had to be perfect because any weakness, even in something as simple as their mansion’s outward appearance, would be capitalized on ruthlessly.


In a strange way, this land of the absurdly wealthy reminded me forcefully of the refugee camps where people had nothing. It had the same harsh feeling to it, the same sense of predators waiting to pounce. And it was, as well, a place where anything that wasn’t deemed good enough was excluded, forced out to create this place of artificial perfection. The numerous patrolling guards were enough to make that very clear.


“Right this way,” Miles said, sauntering past the mansions like he walked these streets every day of his life. He stuck to the back alleys, because even here, there were back alleys. We passed a handful of rag-and-bone men out collecting their living, picking through the refuse of the wealthy. They didn’t pay us any mind, though one had a dog which followed us with her liquid brown eyes until we passed out of sight.


This was, however, quickly forgotten once we reached our destination. It wasn’t hard to tell when  we had, even before Miles stopped. There was a small group of people outside, three men and a woman, all dressed in black leather and carrying metal.


“Guard patrol in the alley every fifteen minutes,” one of the men said as we walked up. His voice was harsh and raspy, like he’d had a throat injury in the past and never wholly recovered. “Eleven minutes from now. Four guards at the top outside, couldn’t get a look inside.”


“Excellent,” Miles said calmly. “Hiroki, keep watch in case the guards show up earlier than expected. Everyone else, prepare to move.”


One of the men, not the one who had spoken, nodded sharply and turned to watch the alley. The rest stretched, moving with a smooth fluidity that spoke of long training, and turned to the building.


We were behind one of the larger mansions, which spoke volumes. We were, after all, on an island. Space was at a premium, and this house had a good bit more than most of its neighbors. It was built tall, at least five stories, and made all of stone. The front side had been decorated with rows of statues and alchemical lights, but here where the poor made their living, it was blank stone. Above, a balcony went around the third floor and another around the top. Once my sight had adjusted to the relative darkness of the alleyway, I could make out guards standing at each corner of the balcony, looking out into the night. They didn’t have torches, which was clever of them. In the dark, torches would just have gotten in the way, destroying their night vision and highlighting them to any watchers.


The man who had spoken was already pulling a length of thin black rope out from his bag, along with a heavy metal hook. I knew what a grappling hook looked like–what child of a siege didn’t?–and shuddered a little as I saw it. Part of it was remembered horror from the war, but mostly it was simple fear. I had a feeling I knew where this favor was going, and the notion terrified me.


“Breaching,” he said, and threw the grappling hook up. It landed on the railing between the two sentries, without any sound. I was a little startled at that, since the clangor of metal on stone should have been loud enough to alert all of them.


“Alchemical silencing,” Miles said, as though he was reading my mind. “It absorbs the energy of the impact, so there’s no sound.” He gestured to the rope, and they began climbing, one after another climbing hand over hand up the rope.


It was clear that I was intended to follow, so I sighed and stepped up to the rope after them. I didn’t ascend it nearly as gracefully as they had, but my claws made it easy to get a grip on the rope, and I was strong enough to make it up in what I felt was reasonable time.


It was long enough that by the time I made it, all of the infiltrators were already up and waiting. The guards hadn’t seen us yet, that I could tell, but it was clearly only a matter of time.


Apparently they knew that, too, because by the time I was up they were already moving. The woman and one of the men both pulled out lengths of wire and slipped over to the corners.


I could feel the metal of the wire as it bit into the guards’ throats. They strangled to death, slowly, unable even to scream as they were lowered gently to the floor. It was so smooth and precise that it was horrifying, because you didn’t get that smooth without practice.


Lots of practice.


This favor had suddenly gotten a great deal more dangerous.

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