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:

 

SANE


HEAR LIES

speak truth

DARE YOU


RIP Kariko we remember


DEAD MAN WALKING


Black gods take your souls


GNIHTAERB ERA UOY

FLESROUY REDISNOC

DESSELB


living life one nightmare at a time


when will the war stop?


TRUTH


I was innocent once


Sleepwalking Our Lives Away


Kill me.


FUCK THIS WORLD


Getting Money My religion.


The Truth Hurts


Lucius + Ava


LOST


Give me back my hat


STORIES


Fuck the legions


Here Lies Spearman


There are holes in this world.


TRUTH or DARE


FUCK YOU

after lunch okay?

SURE


SANE


you cant afford us


Fuck the Emperor


PAIN


Love sucks.


SLAVES


will it ever stop hurting?


LOST


where did the sun go?


Bye


Truth

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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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Fractures 2.13

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Over the following weeks I learned more than I had ever expected to know about the operation of a brothel. One of the first things, and perhaps the most surprising, was how little of it had to do with sex. The Comedy had a seemingly endless number of ways to part customers from their coin, and most of them had nothing to do with its apparent nature.

 

The process started at the door, where customers paid a fee to the doorman for the privilege of entering the establishment. The precise value of that fee varied; during quiet shifts it might be as low as a bronze penny, while when it was thronging with customers it cost ten times as much.

 

Once inside, he–or she, though there were significantly more men than women among our clientele–would likely sit at one of the tables or the bar. If he wanted something to drink, and most of them did, he would order it from the house bar. The bar was stocked with an array of liquors that made even Corbin’s old collection seem sparse, and few of them were cheap. All of them, of course, were sold at a higher price than their real value, the difference going straight into the house’s pocket.

 

If he wanted food, that was also available, from the same kitchen that served the staff their daily board. I quickly learned to be glad for that, because the kitchen produced food of the same excellent quality as I had had in my first meal in Aseoto. Unsurprisingly, they specialized in the exotic, and even the staff were allowed to order food to suit their own taste rather than being given a set meal. Whether it was exotic spices from the distant south, strange methods of preparation, or simply combinations of flavors that I would have never thought to try, I almost always had the chance to try something new.

 

While he ate and drank, he would most likely take advantage of the entertainment on offer, which changed each night. There were always dancers and musicians, as I was well aware. While these were in principle free, far more customers than I would have expected gave us tips. Sometimes this was as a simple recognition, but more often they wanted something in trade for them. A man might want a dancer to move closer and give him a personal show, or to dance in a particular style. A woman might ask for a particular song to be played. Whatever the case, the money flowed freely.

 

There were also other forms of entertainment, of course. There was almost always some sort of game being played, and on the third day of each week it went further and there were dozens of types of gambling on offer. The house, naturally, took a cut of every pot. The fifth day of each week was a masquerade, and the house rented masks to those who didn’t have their own. So on and so forth, always with an eye towards profiting the establishment.

 

A customer could quite easily spend an entire purse of coin at the Comedy and never touch skin at all.

 

The next thing I noticed, and one that was harder for me to adjust to, was how much alchemy was simply a part of life. It wasn’t just that it was everywhere, though it was. It was that it was taken so much for granted. The food was kept cold in an alchemical icebox and heated on  an alchemical stove. Many of the drinks were either brewed or prepared with some alchemical component. The light was from alchemical lights. Even the clothing that was delivered at the end of my first week incorporated alchemical materials in the fabrics and dyes.

 

It wasn’t even noticed, I thought. These people were so used to alchemy being a ubiquitous part of their lives that they didn’t even realize how extraordinary it was. The amazing became so commonplace that it was no longer a remarkable thing.

 

Anywhere else, the sheer variety of alchemy that a citizen of Aseoto used on a daily basis would be available only to the highest ranks of nobility, and even there it would be an extremely expensive luxury. Here, it could be had for a bare handful of coins.

 

In my second week in Aseoto, I allowed Lyssa to drag me out to go shopping when neither of us was on shift. This wasn’t like the trip to get clothing, which has been all but enforced by the establishment. No, this was just to pick up creature comforts to make my suite of rooms more livable.

 

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this was already as well as or better than I’d ever lived before.

 

It took hours to go everywhere she’d put on the list, and most of them were on different islands. It was the first time I’d been off of Ukiyo since I started at the Comedy. The island we spent most of our time at was closer to the mainland, and large; I saw only a fraction of it as we strolled around the streets, followed by the bouncer Lyssa had pressed into carrying our purchases. I got the impression that people mostly did what Lyssa asked. She was just too…cheerily insistent to refuse.

 

Thus assisted, we visited one shop after another, ranging from alchemists’ shops to simple furniture makers. We bought alchemical lights to cast a milder light than the harsh light of the lamps in my rooms. We bought alchemical perfumes that were unnaturally stable–Lyssa assured me that they would stay on, unchanged, through a full shift of dancing. A jeweler had some simple jewelry that I could wear without interfering with the feral look I was using at the Comedy. At the furniture shop I bought a pair of simple chairs to be delivered later, and a woven mat that I could use as a bed without hurting my back.

 

All of this I bought and paid for out of my own pocket. It wasn’t even hard. The brothel’s customers were not shy about sharing their appreciation. Bronze and even silver were beginning to seem commonplace, and Lyssa told me she had once even been tipped a full gold crown by a visiting noble from the south.

 

It seemed impossible. For most of my life even iron and bronze had been hard-won and spent only reluctantly. Here the coin flowed like water. I wondered idly whether that was where the name for the water trade had come from.


Two weeks later, I was dancing on stage. It was the night shift, easily the busiest of the three daily shifts, and the brothel’s main room was packed. People pushed and shoved to get closer to their favorite performers. There were three other dancers on the floor right now, and two musicians. One of them was playing near me, pounding out a rapid staccato beat on a large drum. The other was on the other side of the room, playing a song on her harp that seemed to weep with sadness. It was a strange pick for a brothel, but then, this was the Comedy. That was rather the point.

 

The dancers were arranged on the small stages around the room. One was a southern woman whose dance was profoundly sexual in nature, as she writhed and twisted around the pole on her stage. It was a southern dance style, though I expected the foreign nuances of the dance were mostly lost on the customers. The other woman was Tsuran, but her movements were stilted and stylized, almost alien in their stiff, strange motions. She had only one eye, with neat scars suggesting the other had been surgically removed. I had yet to interact with her, unlike the only man of the group. A comically muscular man from the eastern jungles, he was trading on exoticism as strongly as I was, if in a different way.

 

I had been dancing for hours already, and the fatigue was setting in, bone-deep weariness seeming to drag me down. I’d had another nightmare the previous night, and between that and the exertion of the dance, I wanted nothing more than to sit down and rest.

 

I didn’t let that show, though. I kept my movements energetic, ferocious even, as I danced around the stage, making sure to spend time on every side so that all the customers packed in around me could see. A man tossed a coin with the telltale gleam of silver onto the stage, nudging the man beside him with his elbow. Friends, I was guessing.

 

Another dancer would perhaps have done a pirouette for him, tantalized him with the view of skin he would never touch. I lunged at him, teeth bared in a silent snarl, coming up short when I hit the limit of the leash. I had learned what worked, and for me it wasn’t tenderness and delicacy. The people crowded in around me were there for ferocity, for the promise of a feral, inhuman appearance that was more unsettling than classically beautiful. Whether or not it was what I liked, I knew how I looked, I knew what they wanted, and I knew how to play to the crowd.

 

Sure enough, I was rewarded with another coin and a delighted laugh. I had to choke down a smile as I spun and leapt to the next side of the stage. A part of me, I had to admit, did like it. I liked not having to feel like I had to fit in with the crowd, to pretend to be something I wasn’t. I liked being able to wear my Changes openly rather than try desperately to cover it up. That man might have laughed, but he wanted me, and there was something very powerful about being wanted.

 

An interminable amount of time later, I spotted a bouncer heading my way from the bar. The crowd pressed into each other to get out of his way, opening a clear path to the stage. He climbed up with a grunt, and unhooked my leash from the pole it was wrapped around.

 

I could have done it myself, of course. But that wouldn’t have fit the narrative I was presenting to the crowd. I had to be feral, and that meant that a bouncer was always sent to escort me off stage by the leash.

 

He led me back to the bar, with more than a few whistles and hollers following us. No one came even close to touching me, though; Livia hadn’t been wrong about that. We reached the bar, and I walked through the door out of sight.

 

As soon as I was, I straightened and unclipped the collar, rolling my neck. The collar wasn’t unbearable, but after a few hours of wearing it my neck got stiff and sore. I was just as glad to take it off and scratch the skin under where it was.

 

“Package got here for you,” the bouncer said, before heading back out to the floor. His shift, after all, wasn’t over yet. We always staggered shift times slightly between people, so that everyone didn’t leave the floor at once. The other dancers would be coming off shift over the next half hour, as the graveyard shift for the night went out to take their places.

 

I walked to the common room, where the package would most likely be waiting for me. Either way, I was planning to sit and rest there. It was a very cozy room, all soft couches and muted colors, and I wasn’t ready to go to bed quite yet.

 

The common room was fairly full, as it often was at this time of night. Lyssa was lounging on one of the couches, and even Rose had come out of her rooms and found a seat in the corner of the room. I knew most of the rest at least by name, and I’d spent some time talking to several of them. A pair of twins were among the brothel’s actual whores, as was the Changed woman whose Change manifested in ways that were much subtler and more beautiful than mine. The only other dancer in the room was a slender androgynous man with tattoos covering much of his skin in swirls and abstract designs.

 

Lyssa hopped to her feet as I walked in. “Silf,” she said. “The rest of your clothes got here. I had them bring them to your room. But first, here, we got you a present. Close your eyes and hold out your hands.”

 

I did so, more than half expecting a prank of some kind.

 

Instead, I heard light footsteps approaching, and then something soft was pressed into my hands. I opened my eyes to see smooth black leather with gleaming steel. It took a moment to process what I was seeing and realize that it was a collar, one which made the house collar I’d been wearing look crude by comparison. The leather was incredibly soft, with a smooth, silky texture. A broad, thin band covered the neck, with a thick band around the middle to reinforce it. Steel rivets held it together, and steel loops could be clipped to the chain leash that was in my hands behind it.

 

“Try it on,” Lyssa urged. I did so, my hands shaking slightly as I held it up to my neck and slid the strap through the buckle. It fight perfectly, and once it was on it seemed almost to disappear, the leather fitting snug as a second skin around my neck.

 

She grinned and hugged me, and the rest of the workers in the common room followed suit, all but burying me. I knew that I was truly one of them, now, and I found to my surprise that I liked it.

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Fractures 2.12

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The rooms they appointed for us were far better than I had expected–better, I privately thought, than we merited. My suite was at least as large as my rooms back with Corbin, and far better appointed. Oh, it wasn’t anything obvious; it seemed to be a simple set of three rooms. One bedroom, one sitting room, one bathing room which had the same indoor facilities that I’d gotten used to back at the inn. On the surface, no more than might be expected.

 

It was when you looked closer that you saw the subtle signs of wealth and luxury. The mirror, taller than I was, and without any blemish in its reflection. The bathing facilities, using alchemical devices that I was sure Corbin would have understood, provided hot and cold water with no more than the turn of a handle, and carried away waste with similar ease. The writing desk in the bedroom was made of some dark, heavy wood I didn’t recognize, and it had colored inks as well as black, a true luxury in the north. The bed was large enough for two to fit comfortably, and soft enough that I spent the first night sleeping on the floor, because anything softer would trouble my back.

 

I couldn’t entirely wrap my head around the extravagance of my new rooms. It was as much as most nobles in the northern provinces might have, given to a simple dancer–and one who hadn’t even danced yet beyond a trial, at that. The enormity of the implications were staggering, and they weren’t lost on me.

 

If this was how a common dancer lived here, how on earth did the wealthy live? What kind of luxury did the nobles enjoy, here in Aseoto?

 

I had a feeling I literally couldn’t imagine it.

 

Rose, at least, was able to simply enjoy her new status. I found that I got more pleasure from seeing her in her new home than I did from my own. She’d never once lived in anything more luxurious than a simple hut at the edge of a failing farmer’s village. She’d spent weeks on the road, and then most recently in a cheap room in a cheaper inn.

 

If I’d had my doubts about this arrangement before, seeing the pure, childlike delight in her eyes as she explored her rooms settled it. I couldn’t say I liked this arrangement, on a number of levels. But it was worth all the mental discomfort, all the worry and distaste, just to see that.

 

The next morning found us on our first assignment–which proved, somewhat to my surprise, to be an entirely agreeable one. Livia had met with me in her office shortly before noon, and explained that while the dancers were allowed to use clothing and props from the brothel’s closet, it was also allowed to have one’s own. She’d further told me that she had a tailor who often did work for the brothels and was familiar with our needs, and that the house would front me a loan to purchase clothes and jewelry if I wanted.

 

I knew how to take a hint. I’d promptly replied that I would go immediately, and had the reward of seeing a slight smile on Livia’s face. Yes, I knew how the game was being played here. The right kind of suggestion was better than a command.

 

Thus I found myself, feeling somewhat bemused at this rapid turn of fortune, at the tailor’s, some time between noon and evening. I had an escort, at least, another dancer to show me what to do. Rose was on a similar trip to a luthier and another tailor, escorted by a musician.

 

The dancer’s name was Lyssa, a northern name to go with her northern features. Despite this, I knew she was a Tsuran native, born and raised in Aseoto. Even if she hadn’t told me so herself, I could have told from the thick accent she had when she spoke Skellish. Even living in an area for a long term didn’t give you that sort of heavy lilt on every word.

 

“I’m classically trained,” she explained, as we walked to the tailor. Her tone was friendly, with none of the suspicion I might have expected towards a newcomer. “It’s what makes me a novelty–a northerner dancing in the classical Tsuran style. It’s not as much to work with as most of the dancers, of course. You have to make yourself a novelty to last long at the Comedy, and I’m not nearly as exotic as most of the dancers. But I make it work.”

 

I nodded, noting the name she’d spoken–the Comedy. Presumably that was the name of the brothel I now worked at. This was the first time I’d actually heard it.

 

Aside from that tidbit, the talk on the way to the tailor was fairly inconsequential. Most of it was gossip about other workers or customers whom I, of course, didn’t know at all. I mostly nodded along attentively, and tried to keep names straight so that I would know something about the people when I met them.

 

“We’re all glad to have you, of course,” Lyssa said, as we approached what was clearly the tailor’s shop–the bright clothing visible through the large window in the front of the building gave it away. “It’s been weeks since Anna left, and we’ve all been working extra shifts. There were a few people who tried out, but none of them could dance worth anything. I’m pretty sure they were just whores who were tired of bed work.” Her tone had a hint of disdain to it.

 

Ah, so that was why she was so friendly. I wasn’t taking their work, I was filling in an empty position. I could easily see why they weren’t keen to work the extra shifts, as well. With room and board covered by the six mandatory shifts per week, extra shifts only earned them the partial share of the tips that they were entitled to.

 

Lyssa opened the door of the tailor’s shop without knocking, and proceeded in with the confidence of someone who had been here many times before. The shop was brightly lit, a pair of alchemical lamps complimenting the sunlight coming in through the window. It was lined, wall to wall and floor to ceiling, with clothing and the materials to make it. There was more variety of fabric than I’d ever seen in one place, everything from rough-spun wool to silk and cotton.

 

More remarkable, at least to me, were the colors. White gods, the colors. It seemed everything was dyed, in a rainbow of colors that I’d never really thought about seeing in clothes. There were reds as rich as flowers, rich as blood. A blue-green silk resembled the ocean’s waves as it rippled in the breeze coming in the door as we stepped in. Violet that I’d never seen in anything but a flower, and rarely there. Even fabric that looked to be woven of molten gold.

 

I stopped and stared, and in the time I was standing the tailor appeared. A short man of stooped years, he had the sort of face that would make someone trust him on sight. His fingers were stained, indelibly stained, with colors that had a strong resemblance to the fabrics on display.

 

“Clarus, this is Silf,” Lyssa said, nodding to the tailor with a friendly smile. “She’s just starting at the Comedy, and Livia wants her to have a basic wardrobe.”

 

“Of course, a pleasure,” Clarus said, nodding. He looked me over, and it was the strangest sort of gaze. I felt like he was undressing me with his eyes, and yet there was nothing lascivious about it. It was more like a merchant assessing livestock, or an artist looking over a blank canvas. “She will want to emphasize the fur, I assume.”

 

“Yep,” Lyssa said brightly. “We’re going for a Changed theme with her, especially since she’s northern. Oh, she can’t talk much, I’m afraid, so I’ll mostly be talking for her.”

 

Ah. That would be why I’d been sent with an escort, then, or part of it. I wasn’t sure whether to be touched or insulted.

 

“Excellent,” Clarus said. “I have some things that I can adjust to fit her for the moment. Others will take some time, as I have to make them from whole cloth. Give me a moment to look over my stock.” He walked back into the depths of the store, through a door behind the counter that hadn’t been readily visible until he walked through it. The curtain covering it blended in remarkably well with the fabric draped all around the room.

 

“Clarus is excellent, you’ll like him,” Lyssa assured me while we waited. “Some tailors don’t like working for us. They can get really nasty about it, in fact. But Clarus just sees it as a challenge. He’ll love working with you, just for the novelty of a really tricky job.”

 

I smiled. “Thanks,” I managed, hoping to convey shades of meaning in tone that I couldn’t in words. Apparently it worked, because Lyssa smiled back at me and nodded before turning her attention back to the door.

 

Several minutes passed before the tailor emerged from behind the curtain once again, this time carrying an armload of fabric. “Come here, please,” he said. “Behind this screen, yes. You’ll have to strip, I’m afraid, and we’d rather you weren’t in full view of the street, wouldn’t we?”

 

I didn’t particularly care–I’d been seen in worse circumstances by worse people, before. But I did as instructed, stepping into a corner of the store hidden from the main area by a tall rice paper screen. Lyssa followed me in, while Clarus sat on a wooden stool just beside us.

 

“Down to your underclothing, please,” he said, setting the fabric down beside himself. I did as instructed, trying to conceal the uncomfortable feeling I still felt at disrobing in front of strangers. I would have to break that habit, after all.

 

“Excellent,” Clarus said, once again looking me over. “Strong colors will suit you, I think. Crimson, gold, deep greens…I think also violet and some blues. Pastels are in fashion now, but stronger tones suit your coloration better, and to go against fashion is not a bad thing in your profession. It will make you stand out better than slavishly following the masses without consideration for your own assets. So, let us begin.”

 

What came after that was another round of dressing up, though it was far more to my taste than the one I had endured with Livia. For one thing, I wasn’t forced to constantly put on and take off clothes. Mostly Clarus seemed interested in color and fabric, and held up swatches of one after another to check against my skin, my fur, my eyes. He seemed particularly taken with these last, and tried several green fabrics before settling on one that complimented their shade.

 

“Like emeralds,” he said, once he was satisfied. “Remarkable in their shade. Your condition is not easy to bear, I am sure, but neither is it without its rewards.” It was the first thing he’d said directly to me in some time, though he and Lyssa had kept up a steady stream of gossip through the process.

 

I managed to restrain the comment that came to my tongue after he said that. He meant well, I reminded myself. He just…didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, the implication of what he’d just said.

 

I estimated that an hour passed before Clarus was happy with color selections, and the next stage began. This part did require me to try on clothing, because now that colors had been settled on, he was deciding what styles and cuts fit me well. He had me try on seemingly everything, from vests with breeches to long gowns, scandalously short dresses to floor-length robes. After each one, unless he dismissed it out of hand as unsuitable, he had me stand, turn, and perform some simple movements to see how the cloth moved with my body.

 

I rejected some few as being too restrictive myself. I was supposed to dance in these, after all, not just to stand around at a party. I had to be able to move freely.

 

Finally, after easily another hour and a half, Clarus was satisfied. Now that I had grown thoroughly bored of the initially-amazing array of fabrics and colors within his store, it was finally time to collect measurements. He measured my body with the smooth, professional detachment of a carpenter measuring a board. Even when he had to press the tape tight into my crotch, or wrap it around my breasts, there was still nothing untoward in his behavior. It was simply work, the same as any other.

 

“Excellent,” he said, once he’d finally finished that. “Now, it will be some time before the full wardrobe is ready, as I said. Probably several weeks, as I have some other orders that have to be completed first. Some of these will fit you already, though, so you can leave with a handful of garments today. Others will require only minimal alterations and should be ready within the week. For the full set…two and a half silver lilies.”

 

I gaped. Two and a half crowns–or lilies, as he’d called them, for the insignia on the reverse of the coin–was an absurd amount of money. A bit of quick arithmetic suggested it was over five thousand iron pennies. It wasn’t just more money than I’d ever seen in one place, it was more money than likely everyone in Branson’s Ford had ever had put together.

 

“A pleasure doing business,” Lyssa said, reaching for the coin pouch she was carrying.

 

I grabbed at her hand. “I can’t pay that,” I said.

 

“Don’t worry,” she said, though she didn’t shake off my grip. “It’s a loan from the house, remember?”

 

“Can’t make it back,” I said. I had no intention of them using this “loan” to force me into virtual slavery.

 

“It’ll be easier than you think,” she said. “You aren’t used to Aseoto. Things are expensive in the city. Now, let me make you a deal. If you haven’t made enough to pay it back by the time the last of the clothing is in, I’ll pay the loan off for you. Deal?”

 

I hesitated, and then let go of her hand. I wasn’t sure I could believe her, but…she was right. I still wasn’t used to the city. I’d noticed that things were more expensive, of course, everything seemed more expensive than I was accustomed to, but…that was still half of a gold crown. An absolutely enormous amount of money.

 

But there was a sort of calm certainty in her voice that convinced me. Lyssa absolutely expected me to be able to pay off that absurd sum of money in just a few weeks.

 

She passed the money over to Clarus, and we began bundling the clothes that were ready today up for travel.

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Fractures 2.11

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Most of the Changed, those who could, learned to hide their nature as best as they could. You covered up the fur, drew attention away from inhuman eyes, whatever it took to mask the Changed features. It didn’t work, of course, but it reassured people.

 

The outfit Livia had provided for me didn’t so much hide the Change as flaunt it. The scarlet robe I wore left the fur exposed. The ribbons woven through my hair drew the eye to my canine ears. The collar said I was less a woman than a beast, and the leash they clipped to it to lead me out said I was one as much controlled as tamed.

 

Oddly enough, it reassured more than it upset me. In its own way, it was no different from what I normally did. It was all about the show, the spectacle. It was about telling them that I understood what they wanted from, that I was what they wanted me to be. It was just in the opposite direction from what I normally did.

 

The man who led me out was one of the bouncers, a heavily muscled man head and shoulders taller than I was. His head was shaved, which only made the bristling beard and bushy eyebrows more pronounced. He had smiled at me kindly before we emerged from the back, but in the front of the building he was all business, grim and glowering. He had his own spectacle to put on.

 

I had been in no uncertain terms informed that if any unpleasantness broke out, I was to leave the resolution to him and his fellows. I was working as a dancer, not a bouncer; if a fight broke out, I was to let him do his job and quash it. Similarly, if anyone gave me trouble, the bouncers were the people I was to go to for help.

 

When the door opened, from the back into the front, there was a good deal of noise coming in. It was a riot of noise, music and raised voices and movement. It was a bit like Corbin’s inn had been, on its very busiest days, but more so.

 

The door into the back of the brothel was behind the bar, which was huge, semicircular, and made of polished steel. It had as much resemblance to the bar at Corbin’s as a rowboat did to the vast seafaring ships I’d seen out at the harbor of Aseoto. Within the bar was an island of relative calm. Everyone was wearing the black and silver uniform of the brothel. Servers hurried back and forth with trays of food and drinks, while bartenders poured the latter in a seemingly endless stream.

 

Past that was chaos. The room was absolutely packed. There were a scattering of tables, and the bar, and a great many more people crammed in standing. Every sort of person was represented somewhere, it seemed–men and women, old and young, of every ethnicity and every style of dress. They mingled, jostled, and shouted over each other to be heard.

 

The only pockets of relative stability and sanity in the crowd were the other workers. There were a number of them that I could see, out in the crowd. Most were clearly dancers–standing on elevated platforms, performing routines as varied as the crowd that watched them, they were unmistakably trained dancers. I would have liked to have watched them for a time–there was a great deal to be learned, I thought, in watching dancers from traditions and teachings other than my own. But the bouncer was leading me forward with the leash, and I had no time to stand and watch.

 

The crowd pressed in tight around us, clearly ogling me, though none of them tried to touch me or stand in our way. Clearly the severity of breaking that rule had been impressed upon them as thoroughly as it had upon me. There were no interruptions on our way to one of the raised platforms which was currently empty. It had a tall steel pole on it, which I could see was screwed into a recessed hole in the platform. Clever, that; it meant that they could simply unscrew it and cover the hole when the platform had a dancer that didn’t require it.

 

The bouncer clipped the leash around the pole, putting me on a fairly short tether. That was good, in a way. The challenge of having the tether, of having the pole itself in the way, would give me something to focus on. Added difficulty made it easier to not think about the crowd of people pressing in around, the noise, the heat.

 

I got the distinct feeling that not thinking about that was a very good idea right now.

 

For a second I froze, staring out at the crowd, my throat locked up so tight that the rule against me ever talking out here was self-enforcing. I had never in my life danced in front of a larger group than the class I had studied with, certainly not in a context like this. And never with anything like the stakes that were riding on this performance.

 

When I took the first step forward, I wasn’t sure whether it was to dance or to run. But the second foot followed, and almost without thinking I was flowing into a dance, one that I had learned in childhood. It was quick and light, suitable for the rapid tempo of the drummer near my platform. I’d seen him when I walked up; he was hard to miss. A shirtless dark-skinned southerner, his impressive muscles glistened with sweat as he hit his massive drum with an equally oversized drumstick, as much a visual display as an auditory one.

 

My instructor had always taught us that when we were dancing, nothing else mattered. Not the people watching, not the fatigue we felt, nothing. Nothing even existed but the dance, the movement, the beat.

 

I’d never really been able to reach that state before today. But now I was feeling it, riding the wave of the moment without worrying about the trough. Step followed step, flowed into pirouette into leap into snarling spin, and it all felt easy. I could barely even see the men and women staring at me, let alone anything past them. The world outside my platform was blurred and distant, unimportant.

 

At some point I heard the music change, and the steps of the dance were slower now, fitting the new music. It was slower, sadder, a violin played in a way that brought out all the wailing sorrow the instrument was capable of. Each step was a shudder, now, a story. Every leap left me about to fall, every step seemed about to make me stumble. This dance told a story, one of sorrow and survival, every moment on the edge but never quite falling.

 

I knew, in some distant part of my mind, that I had never danced this well in my life. Call it luck or fate or simple necessity, I was making movements that I’d never thought myself capable of, and it felt easy.

 

Finally, with a last, drawn-out wail, the song shuddered to a stop. My dance came to a close the moment after, as I swept seamlessly from a leap around the pole into a low bow. Then I stood up, feeling dizzy, blinking against the light. Now that I wasn’t moving the fatigue hit all at once, my legs all but trembling with the difficulty of holding me up.

 

A few seconds later, I had to work to keep the shock off my face. Rose was sitting beside my platform with a violin cradled in her arms, and a man in the black and silver of the house stood beside her, looking bemused. Her expression was almost guilty, and when she saw that I was looking at her, her eyes dropped to the floor. “I, I’m sorry,” she said, though who she was speaking to wasn’t entirely clear. “I saw it and…I haven’t played for so long….”

 

“Well, well,” Livia said, materializing out of the crowd as swiftly and unexpectedly as Black had been able to appear from the forest. “It looks like I found two entertainers today, and not just one.”

 

The cheer from the crowd was deafening.

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