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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Fractures 2.10

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The meal was good. Not as good as the one Erik had treated us to, but the thin slices of meat, served in a slightly sweet and tangy sauce with the rice that was so ubiquitous here, had an appeal of their own.

 

I still struggled to keep it down as Miles and I walked to whatever it was he had in mind. All my instincts, the wariness that I had developed back in the refugee camps, were telling me to run. Everything about this situation was wrong.

 

Unfortunately, he’d been right about at least one thing. I didn’t have the luxury of saying no to an offer, no matter how suspicious it was.

 

I tried to keep track of our route, but the maze of streets and bridges were so convoluted that I quickly gave up trying. A week did not make one an expert on a city. I managed to track our general direction northwards–further from the coastline, and deeper into the city. Beyond that, though, I was at a loss for our exact direction when he turned into a narrow alley.

 

I paused and looked at him suspiciously. He seemed to sense it, because he paused and turned around with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes at all. “We’re using the back door,” he said. “Avoids the…awkwardness of going through the front.”

 

I shrugged, followed him into the alley. I was already over my head; what was a few inches more?

 

He stopped at an unremarkable spot of the alley and turned to his left. His fingers found purchase on one of the planks of the building beside us, and he pulled open a door.

 

I gaped at that. It was a masterful piece of work, that door. I’d just watched him open it and I’d still have sworn that door was a part of the wall.

 

Inside, Miles led me down a narrow hallway. The walls were a red wood I didn’t recognize, and the floor was covered in a thick black carpet. Alchemical lights cast a soft glow just bright enough that a human wouldn’t have to worry about stumbling.

 

The hallway branched once before ending at a door of some wood darker than the walls. Miles opened it without knocking and sauntered inside; not knowing what else to do, I followed him.

 

Inside, a woman who looked to be in her forties was sitting at a desk made from that same dark wood. She was looking at a heavy book on the table in front of her, and didn’t look up while we walked in. There were no other chairs in the room, so I was left standing uncertainly by the door.

 

“Go away, Miles,” she said, still not looking at him. “Some of us have work to do. You may be familiar with the concept.”

 

“Ah, but I’m here to help,” he said, with a grin that was more mischievous than his earlier smiles and just as fake. “I think I found your new dancer.”

 

At that, she did look up, quickly focusing on me. “Hm,” she said. “Changed might work. And she’s got the look for it. Can you dance?”

 

I nodded, and she gestured imperiously. Miles moved away, leaving enough open space in front of her desk for me to move around.

 

I was terrified, as I took that first step, that I would misstep or fall. That fear hung with me for the next half-dozen or so, as I hesitantly moved through the steps of a simple dance I’d learned in my youth. Most of the dances I’d been taught were intended for pairs, but I knew enough solo dances to pretend I knew what I was talking about with them.

 

After a few moments, I felt the old rhythms settling in over me. I’d expected to be clumsy at it, but I wasn’t. Once I got into the motion, the memories came rushing back. I could almost smell the sweat and pine of the dance hall where I’d learned and practiced.

 

At that point, the steps started to come faster and faster. I found, to my surprise, that it felt not only natural, but easy–far more so than it had back then. I supposed that the things my body had been put through in the years since had left me far stronger and more agile than I had been then. I’d had to be, just to survive.

 

It was several minutes before I came to a stop, sweeping a leg around and then standing up sharply. I was facing the desk, and I was surprised to find that I was sweating. And not just from the heat, either. I’d pushed myself through that dance.

 

I had a made a few missteps, I knew that. The rhythm and speed had been erratic.

 

But I’d finished the motions of the dance, and I hadn’t fallen.

 

The woman behind the desk considered me sharply, and then nodded, once. “You may have finally brought me something useful,” she said to Miles, though there was less bite in her tone than had been there before. “What’s your name?”

 

“Silf,” I said, panting slightly from the exertion of the dance.

 

“Foreign name,” she said. “Sharp. Northern?”

 

I nodded.

 

“Northern, Changed,” she said, as though to herself. “We can work with that. Where did you learn to dance?”

 

“The Whitewood,” I said simply. I wasn’t sure what the name of the studio had been, and it wasn’t as though it mattered anymore. It was gone like the rest.

 

She nodded. “I think you might have finally found someone who’s worth a damn,” she said to Miles. Then, to me, “Did he explain what we do here?”

 

I shook my head.

 

She sighed. “Typical. Well, I won’t pretty it up for you. This is a brothel. We cater mostly to people who have a certain…taste for the exotic, shall we say. Now, we’re looking to hire you as a dancer, not as a whore. Anyone tries something that’s out of bounds, you talk to me and they’ll be banned for life. You try something that’s out of bounds, and the same happens. Understood?”

 

I nodded, once.

 

“Good. Now, here’s the deal. We’re open every day, eighteen hours per day. The day is broken up into six hour shifts. You work six of those shifts per week, divided however you please. For that, you get a set of rooms here in the back, and you keep half the tips people give you. Cut that to a third of the tips, and you also get board. Any questions?”

 

I shook my head. It seemed strange that a sixth of the tips could be worth board, but I wasn’t arguing with it. Not after seeing how expensive things were here.

 

“You don’t talk much, do you?” she asked.

 

“Can’t,” I said. “More than a few words hurts.”

 

“Good,” she said. “Well, not that it hurts. Good that you have a theme of sorts. Well, if you’re ready to start, I can give you a trial night tonight. You’ll work one shift, and since it’s your first time, you’ll work graveyard. Does that sound all right to you?”

 

I nodded eagerly. If this worked out, I wanted it to start as soon as possible, before she could change her mind. And if it didn’t, well, it was just as well that I know that as soon as possible as well.

 

“Excellent,” she said. “My name is Livia. I look forward to working with you, Silf.”

 

“Have to get a friend,” I said. I hated that I was speaking in such crude syntax, very nearly baby talk. But between my throat having a particularly poor day and the foreign language, I wasn’t capable of much more. “Staying with her. Can she stay here?”

 

Livia shrugged. “If she doesn’t cause trouble, I don’t care. Hurry up, though. We still have to work out the details of your show.”

 

I nodded and turned around. I wasn’t even surprised to see that Miles was already gone.


Getting back to the brothel required more time than I’d have liked, but not as much as I’d feared. I only got lost three times, and one of them was Rose’s fault.

 

Once there, it took a couple tries to find the door that Miles had used off the alley, but eventually I managed it, and went back to the room where we’d been earlier.

 

Livia was still inside, with a heavy book on the desk in front of her. She made a few notations in the ledger, and then looked up at me. “Ah,” she said. “Welcome back. Come on, let’s get your persona together.” She pushed her chair back and stood up, walking past us to the door.

 

“This is the back of the building,” she said, as she led us back past the side door and down the hallway. “No customers allowed back here. This is where your rooms will be, same as the rest of the help who stay here. When you aren’t working you can either stay in your room or in the communal room back here. No going out to the front when you’re off shift, we don’t want them seeing you except as a dancer.”

 

I nodded, more than slightly relieved. Having a space set apart from the customers seemed like a very good idea.

 

“And this,” she said, stopping and opening a door off the hallway, “Is our closet.”

 

I gaped. The contents of that closet were…impressive, in several ways. The first was the sheer volume of clothing within it. The closet was absolutely packed with them, and it was not a small closet. The second was the expense. There were so many fabrics in there it was hard to count. Not just wool and linen, either, but silks, the thin fabric Corbin had called cotton, even a few that looked like woven metal.

 

The third, of course, was what they were intended to cover. Or, rather, weren’t. Most of them looked to be skimpy at best.

 

Livia looked me up and down with a critical eye. “We’ll want to flaunt the fur,” she said aloud, as though musing. “It should look exotic, though….ah, of course. Try this on.” She grabbed a thin silk robe of sorts off the shelf. The silk was dyed a deep blue. She handed it to me, and I started to put it on, only to be interrupted by a gentle hand from Livia.

 

“Not over your clothes, dear,” she said. “It won’t fit properly. Just undergarments underneath.

 

I flushed slightly, but did as she said, stripping almost to the skin before pulling it on. It still fit snugly, though the skirt of the robe was loose enough not to impede my movement.

 

Livia considered me for a moment, and then said, “Not quite, I think. Too dark, it doesn’t contrast with the fur. Try this instead.”

 

The next hour and a half was spent trying on different pieces of clothing, all of which were dismissed for various reasons. Most of them Livia felt weren’t appropriate, but there were a few that I rejected myself, mostly because the fit wasn’t right.

 

Finally, we ended up with something that we could both be satisfied with. It was much like Livia’s first idea, but the robe was a bit shorter and looser. The color was the main change–rather than blue, it was a brilliant red, almost the color of blood.

 

“All right,” Livia said, stepping back and looking me over. “Not perfect, but good enough for tonight. Now for the hard part. Like I said, we mostly cater to the exotic. That means that the dancers have to have something to set them apart. In your case, the easiest thing to work with is that you’re Changed. We want to play that up, make you seem as much beast as human. That means you don’t talk in front of customers, not ever.”

 

I laughed, just a little. As demands went, that was one I felt I could confidently manage.

 

“And then there’s this,” she said, holding out a heavy leather collar. “Try this on.”

 

I hesitated. There was something deeply unsettling about that. This wasn’t even the style of collar that a slave would wear. It was the sort of thing you would expect to see more around the neck of a hunting dog than any human.

 

The notion of wearing it, of making myself out as an animal, was…upsetting. I’d already heard more of those comments than I’d ever wanted. Anyone who was Changed heard some flavor of it. And I looked enough like a canine, with the fur and the ears and the teeth, that it was where people’s minds tended to go when they went looking for insults.

 

But we’d already established that I didn’t have the wherewithal to say no to this offer. And there was no way out but through. So I grabbed the collar from her, and buckled it around my neck. It was surprisingly comfortable; the heavy black leather was already broken in, and fit snugly around my neck without pinching or squeezing. I could almost forget that it was around my neck.

 

Almost.

 

“Not bad,” Livia said. “We’ll get you tailored clothes if you get taken on, but that should do for tonight.” She smiled a little. “Well, Silf. I think you can keep that name for the show if you want; it sounds suitably harsh, very northern. You have some hours before it’s time for your debut. You want some time to practice and get ready?”

 

I nodded. All things considered, I was pretty sure I could use all the preparation I could get before this.

 

“Excellent,” she said. “Your room will be upstairs, third room on the left. It’s unlocked. There should be enough room to practice in there without anyone interrupting.”

 

I swallowed hard, the motion making me feel the collar more strongly, and went looking for the stairs.

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Fractures 2.9

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I would not have believed how quickly Corbin’s money ran out, had I not seen it with my own eyes.

 

Money simply did not mean, here in Aseoto, the things I had grown accustomed to. The iron pennies I was accustomed to seeing in use were the next best thing to worthless, thrown around without a care; a handful of them might be tossed to a beggar without thinking, but they wouldn’t do much good. Bronze wasn’t a great deal better. A full bronze penny, a substantial coin back in Branson’s Ford, was barely worth noting here.

 

It seemed that everything here demanded silver, and often in quantities I would never have imagined.

 

It bought us some breathing room, at least. Three days in an inn, not far from where Erik had brought us. Three days of spending time with the beggars, the workers in the in, the gondoliers. Three days of learning about the strange new environment I found myself in. And it was strange, because while I was a city girl at heart, there were differences among cities.

 

The Whitewood had been a city of wood. It wasn’t surprising; it was right there in the name. But it had been more than just a city in a forest. It was a city grown into place. Buildings, streets, everything had been made from the sculpted growth of living trees.

 

Aseoto, I had learned, was a city of water. Everything that mattered here was tied to it. Travel between the districts of the city, which were scattered across a dozen or more islands, required one to take a boat. The market was held, not in a city square, but on a loose conglomeration of boats arrayed out just inside the harbor. The harbor itself was the source of Aseoto’s wealth, the center of the city’s trade. It was through the harbor that Aseoto’s fleets of trading ships returned from the northeastern kingdoms, from the lands across the ocean to the south or the west, carrying the endless stream of new goods that poured into the city. Long before it had been the seat of an empire, this city had been a hub of trade, and in many ways the latter role was still the more important of the two.

 

It all flowed on the water. It was inescapable. You could smell it everywhere in the city, the sharp tang of the ocean; within a day I had ceased to notice it. It became simply a constant part of the background of the city.

 

I hadn’t learned all the districts in the city, not yet. I knew that the one we were staying in was called Ukiyo, and was apparently one of the larger and more prosperous ones. It was the same district that Reika had told us she was staying in. In principle that meant that we had a friend here. In practice, finding a single woman–even a distinctive Changed woman–among the crowds that thronged Ukiyo with a stranger’s knowledge of the city was all but impossible.

 

Beyond that, I knew that the mainland was called Mains, and was one of the less desirable parts of the city. It had, I gathered, been a more recent expansion, built after the emperor took the throne and began carving out a space on the mainland for the city to grow into. Narrows was a morass of tiny islands and channels of water not far from the coast that was even worse than Mains. The Floating Market and the Docks were the hubs of trade, farther out from shore than anything else in the city. Between them and Narrows were dozens of islands, the names and characters of which I had yet to figure out.

 

Unfortunately, I was out of time to learn more before I had to act. I’d paid the last of Corbin’s money to the innkeeper this morning to pay for our room for the night and a decent breakfast. My own stash of coin wasn’t even sufficient to get a room for the night, not outside of Narrows, and thus far I had come up blank on ways to replace Corbin’s gift.

 

If it came to it, I could live on the street. I’d lived in worse places, under worse conditions, back in the camps. I wouldn’t be happy, but I could survive. I could last long enough to find an answer.

 

Rose, though, couldn’t. When I pictured that shy, damaged girl trying to survive out here, it was all I could do to restrain a wince. They’d tear her apart out here.

 

I wasn’t about to abandon her. Not after what we’d gone through, what we’d survived together. Which meant that we needed to get our hands on some money, and fast.

 

All of which had led to me being out here in a crowded street, at around noon, contemplating a very risky course of action.

 

I was not a gifted thief. It wasn’t something I’d ever trained for, or wanted to do. But I’d lived through the refugee camps. I had learned more than I ever wanted to know about how to survive on nothing.

 

I hadn’t received a formal tutelage in the art, if there even was such a thing. But a thief in the camps had taken pity on me, and shown me enough of the basics to survive. How to pick a mark who had enough to be worth stealing. Where people kept their valuables. How to pick the people who would just give you a cuff around the ears if they caught you, rather than calling the guard. What sort of people to avoid at all costs.

 

I’d been studying my mark for over an hour now, trying to work up my nerve. She was a street whore, one of many in Ukiyo. I had gathered that this district was the center of prostitution, as well as playing host to various other entertainments. It was the water trade.

 

This one was pretty enough to have a decent amount of income, I judged. And she had the attitude of someone who knew what she was doing. She strutted about at the corner of a busy intersection, advertising her wares as brazenly as any stall owner in the market. She had a cup set out in front of her; people occasionally tossed a coin into it as they walked past, apparently for the simple privilege of having seen her. In the time I’d watched, she had taken one customer into a back alley for half an hour before returning.

 

In short, she had money. And she had the look of someone who could get more readily enough that she wasn’t likely to do anything excessive to a thief. She didn’t seem sadistic enough to do so for the simple pleasure of it, either, though that was always hard to tell. It was one of the riskier parts of this whole thing, and one of the main reasons I’d avoided it whenever possible. You could never quite tell who would catch you and make an example of you, in various ways. It had backfired on me twice, once not so badly and once as badly as anything I’d gone through in the camps.

 

Unfortunately, whenever possible was a phrase with an enormous loophole, and I was thinking I’d come up against it. I needed money fast, and that meant taking risks.

 

I’d planned it all out in my head. Her routine wasn’t repetitive, but it involved repeated movements. Every few minutes she did a pirouette. I was going to walk up as part of the crowd as she went into the spin. I could sense the metal she was carrying with enough precision to know where her coin pouch was, and it wasn’t out of reach. While she had her back turned to do the pirouette, I would reach out and grab it before running.

 

Risky, but it was the best I could do on short notice.

 

I counted down to when she was going to start the movement. She was ahead of my count, this time, but I had been watching long enough to recognize the leadup to it. I started to take a step forward, running through the steps of the plan in my head.

 

The plan did not account for a hand falling on my shoulder right as I went to take that step.

 

I spun, not quite managing to shake off the hand, to see who had touched me.

 

A Tsuran man stood there, tall and heavy. He wasn’t fat, precisely; his build was stocky, but I thought there was a good amount of muscle there as well. He was richly dressed, though my eyes were drawn most strongly to the flamboyant feathered hat.

 

“Let go of me,” I snarled, jerking away. This time I managed to pull away.

 

“That’s not a very nice way to say thank you,” he said. In Tsuran, of course, and with no accent at all.

 

I glared at him. “Why?” I asked.

 

“Why would you thank me?” he asked, smiling broadly. “Because I just kept you from making a very expensive mistake, young lady.” He saw my confused expression, and his smile got even wider. “Confused?” he asked. “Let me explain over lunch. You look like you could use the food.” He turned and started walking away.

 

I was confident, at that point, that it couldn’t be a good thing, but as I’d already noticed, I wasn’t in a position where I had a great many choices. And I hadn’t eaten a decent meal in over a day.

 

I followed.


The Tsuran man led me to a place much like where we had gone with Erik. They knew him there, clearly; the man standing at the front of the building nodded to him with the expression of one greeting an acquaintance, and led us back to another semi-private booth without question. Once there, he looked at my host for a moment.

 

“The Yanatsuran beef platter, please,” he said. “And chilled tea for both of us.”

 

The server looked at me, but I wasn’t going to contest the suggestion. After a moment he turned and hurried off.

 

“So first things first,” the Tsuran man said, once we were alone. “My name is Miles. Yourself?”

 

“Silf,” I said. There seemed little point in lying.

 

“Silf,” he said, as though savoring the sound. “Sharp sound, northern. You aren’t from around here.”

 

I snorted. As though the name was the only thing that could tell him that.

 

“I get the feeling that you’re used to cities,” he continued. “Not a country child the way many newcomers from the north are. That’s good; it means you might understand it more easily when I explain why you should be thanking me. You see, Silf, every city has its own unwritten rules. Things that aren’t laid down anywhere, but which people just understand are how things are done. Would you agree?”

 

I nodded. I had, indeed, seen enough of that in the Whitewood to understand what he was talking about.

 

“Excellent. Now, in Akitsuro, each district has its own set of rules as well. You almost broke one of the more important ones. In Ukiyo, you do not mess with the whores. You don’t shake them down, you don’t get in the way of their work, and you certainly don’t steal from them. They’re what brings the visitors in, you see? They’re what keeps the money flowing into the district. If someone so much as sneezes wrong at them, every gang in the district comes down on them like a sack of hammers. You understand?”

 

I nodded. It made sense. I just…hadn’t thought it through enough.

 

“Good,” he said. “Now that we have that cleared up, let’s move on to another topic. Namely, yourself. You don’t seem to be a very good thief, so I presume you only turned to that out of desperation.”

 

I tensed. He laughed.

 

“Relax, Silf. I’m hardly going to report you to the Civic Legion. And in any case, it’s not as though you did anything criminal. There’s no law against thinking about stealing from someone.”

 

I hesitated, then nodded. “Need money,” I said, hating the way my throat tightened and made it come out thin and desperate.

 

“I thought as much,” Miles said. “Is this a one-time need, to make a payment or something? Or is it more long-term?”

 

“Long,” I said. One payment would buy us time, but it wouldn’t solve the base problem of finding a way for us to survive in Aseoto.

 

“Hm,” he said. “I don’t suppose you have any useful skills? Something that you could find employment for?”

 

I shook my head. Life in the refugee camps hadn’t really done much for my employment prospect; the only things it had taught me to do were to survive and to kill, and I wasn’t going to kill for the Legions. Even my time in Branson’s Ford hadn’t been terribly helpful. Corbin’s inn hadn’t really been busy enough for me to feel confident saying that I could work in an inn.

 

“Unfortunate,” Miles said, though he didn’t sound surprised. “And you’re Changed, which cuts down on your employment prospects anyway. Too many places won’t take someone who’s Changed, especially not without experience. We’d have to find someone who was looking specifically for the Changed, and those are few and far between.” He paused, looking as though a thought had occurred to him. “I don’t suppose you can dance?”

 

I paused, then nodded. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was lying. I’d learned to dance rather well in my youth–my parents had been wealthy enough that I was expected to attend the sort of social events where dancing was a major event, and given that I was already dealing with the stigma of being Changed, they had felt it important that I be able to acquit myself well. But it had been years since I practiced. The camps had…not been conducive to dancing.

 

“Really?” he said, sounding surprised. “In that case, I may have just the thing. I think I know someone who would very much like to speak to you.”

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Fractures 2.8

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Erik knew his way around the city far better than I would have expected. The Dierkhlani led us away from the inn down a narrow alley, and then through a winding network of streets both large and small. The neighborhood didn’t improve as we walked; if anything, the square by the gate seemed to be nicer than average for this district. I had seen much, much worse, but I had also seen much better; Rose was visibly unsettled by our surroundings.

 

It wasn’t that long of a walk, though, before we reached the ocean.

 

I spent several long moments standing still and staring out over it, once we reached the dock. It was….amazing. There were no words. I had heard it described, of course, but I had never seen a body of water larger than a large lake. I’d never really grasped just how awe-inspiring it was to look out over the water and not see an end to it. Oh, there were islands in front of us, a substantial number of them, covered in buildings–the bulk of Aseoto was built on that collection of islands, it seemed. But I could see out through the gaps, and the water…just kept going. It seemed to stretch on forever, the surface of the water painted gold by the setting sun. I could smell it, salt and water and a touch of rotting meat. I could hear the constant lapping of the waves.

 

It was beautiful.

 

Erik stood patiently as Rose and I had our first experience of the ocean. She seemed to be as awestruck as I was, or more so. Her eyes were wide, and I could see tears running down her face.

 

Finally we began moving again, walking on. There were small boats, dozens of them, being rowed or poled along the edge of the water. Erik waved to one and the boatman, a thin Tsuran man with arms that were almost thicker than his legs, rowed over to where we were standing. Erik helped us in before stepping into the boat himself, his grip rock steady as usual. He spoke to the boatman in Tsuran, too quick for me to catch the meaning and with the accent of a native.

 

As he started rowing out away from the coast, towards one of the islands, I looked at Erik. “You know your way around,” I said. I said it in Tsuran, not Skellish; I was guessing that getting into the habit of using the local language was a good idea. Nothing marks you as a foreigner quite so clearly as using a foreign language, and I didn’t want to be seen as an easy mark.

 

He shrugged. I could barely see his face as a silhouette against the sunset, but I thought he was smiling slightly. “I’ve spent some time here,” he said. “There’s more business than you’d think for someone in my line of work. The wards keep most of the monsters out and the civic legion handles criminals, but there’s always something they don’t want to deal with. Or someone who wants something done with, shall we say, no questions asked.”

 

I looked at the boatman, a bit shocked that Erik would all but admit to committing crimes with a stranger right there. Apparently my expression said enough to get the point across, because Erik laughed softly. “Don’t worry about it, Silf,” he said. “No one in this city hears more than the boatmen. They know enough not to pass it along.”

 

I was still dubious, but I decided to yield to his judgment. He was, after all, the one who knew the city. It would be foolish of me to insist that I knew better.

 

The boat took us out a good ways onto the water, as the sun finished sinking below the waves. The ocean was even more amazing in the night. I could see the reflected moonlight on the water, and the lights of the city.

 

Aseoto blazed with light in the night. Everywhere I looked I saw alchemical lights gleaming bright against the darkness. Our little boat had a small but bright alchemical lamp hanging from the bow, as did almost all the other boats plying the waves between the islands. The islands themselves were fairly covered in light, alchemical lights of every color imaginable shining out from the windows of buildings.

 

I hated to admit it, but…this city was beautiful. Every bit as beautiful in its way as the Whitewood had been, before the fire.

 

The boat passed a number of islands before it pulled up to a stop at one of them. Erik stepped easily off the boat; Rose and I stumbled, not used to it. The Dierkhlani tossed the boatman a coin–I caught the flash of silver in the sanguine light of the nearest building–and walked confidently off down the street. We were on solid ground now, again, on a large island amid the waves. I could hear music coming from the windows of many of the buildings we passed, and the people passing on the street were dressed in exotic finery.

 

I was a bit surprised at the building Erik stopped in front of. It didn’t much resemble the inns I was used to. There was only a single floor to it, and it wasn’t terribly large. In the light of the silvered alchemical lamp over the door, I could read the sign that declared the building to be Komatsu’s  Silver Star.

 

Erik proceeded inside without hesitation. I followed, rather more hesitantly, and found myself in something that had only the vaguest of resemblance to the taprooms I was used to. It was superficially similar–there were tables around the room, and a bar. But it was far quieter, far more subdued. The lights were soft, many of them having the same silver tone as the one hanging above the door. The kitchen was on the other side of a closed door behind the bar, but I could smell the food, fish and meat and spices and hot oil.

 

Erik walked straight to one of the tables, set aside in a semi-private booth at the edge of the room. Rose and I followed him, not knowing what else to do, and sat across from him on the padded bench.

 

“Where are the rooms?” I asked. I had been wondering since I first saw him moving towards this building.

 

He gave me an odd look, then realization dawned across his features. “This is a restaurant, not an inn,” he said. “I don’t suppose you’d be familiar with them. They don’t let rooms; they only serve food here.”

 

I blinked. It…made sense, I supposed. In a city so very large as Aseoto there would be enough people who didn’t care to cook for themselves that you could support yourself cooking without having to rely on travelers. It was just a foreign concept to me.

 

There were other people in the room, sitting at tables with food. A young woman was circulating around, talking to them or carrying plates away. I’d spent enough time doing similar work that I’d have known what she was doing instantly, even if she hadn’t been wearing a black dress with a four-pointed star embroidered on the chest in silver.

 

When she walked up to her table, she smiled the same bright artificial smile I’d pasted over my own features often enough. “What would you like tonight, ladies, sir?” she asked. Her tone was bright and bored all at once. She spoke Tsuran, of course.

 

“The grilled tuna, with rice and the house sauce,” Erik replied in the same language. I was surprised to realize that I recognized the name of the fish, though I couldn’t remember having eaten it since the Whitewood. It had been a luxury there. I couldn’t remember whether I’d liked the taste.

 

I shrugged and said, “The same,” anyway. It was as good a choice as any, and I got the impression that Erik had been here before. He likely knew what was decent.

 

“Are you staying in the city?” Rose asked, while we waited for the food. Her voice took me by surprise. From the look on her face, it had surprised her too.

 

“Not this time, I think,” Erik said. The serving girl returned with glasses of water, and he smiled at her and sipped the water before continuing. “I’m not in the mood for Aseoto. Too crowded. I’ll probably wander out east. The legions always have plenty of work on the eastern front. They don’t care to chase monsters into the jungles themselves.”

 

I nodded. I couldn’t blame them. I’d only heard distant stories of the southeastern jungles, but from what I’d heard I wouldn’t want to set foot in them myself, let alone do so in pursuit of a Changed monster.

 

I didn’t expect that the legions would, either, given the choice. But where else would they go? They’d pressed all the way out to the Tears in the north, and to the northeast. Crossing the Tears to the far northeast to reach the kingdoms on the other side was as impractical as sending the legions across the ocean to the south or the west. Clearing the jungles was all but the only direction they had left in which to expand.

 

The food came out startlingly fast, faster than I would have guessed by far. It was much nicer looking than what I was used to. The fish was cut into thin slices and seared, then spread out on a bed of white rice. The sauce was a thin red one, which smelled strongly of vinegar and almost as much of sharp spices; drizzled delicately over the fish and rice, it was a strong visual image. There was a leaf vegetable that I didn’t immediately recognize beside it, as well as half an orange which had been carefully cut into the shape of a flower. My mouth watered when I saw that. Oranges were a tropical fruit, an expensive imported luxury in the north, and I hadn’t tasted them but a handful of times in my life.

 

I managed to restrain myself long enough for the plates to be set on the table and the server to hurry off before I dug into the food, but only with difficulty. When I did, I found it to taste as good as it looked. The fish was tender, and the taste of the fish contrasted wonderfully with the hot, rich flavor of the sauce. The orange was sweet and tart and amazing, and the rice had a slightly floral taste to it that went well with the spiciness of the sauce.

 

Erik laughed, apparently amused by my enthusiasm, and started cutting into his own food, rather more slowly. “The cooks here aren’t the best with fish,” he said. “But the house sauce is good enough to make up for it.” He took a small bite before continuing. “Are you sure you want to stay? The Changed are…not always treated well in this city.” His eyes flicked to Rose, somehow making her a part of what he was saying though I knew she wasn’t even slightly Changed.

 

I shrugged. “Where else?” I asked.

 

Erik shrugged back at me. “North,” he said. “Or take a ship. There are other places in the world.”

 

“Better?” I asked, then coughed slightly as something caught in my throat.

 

Erik said nothing.

 

“I want to stay,” Rose said. “I’m tired of running and hiding.”

 

“It’s your choice,” he said. The Dierkhlani’s voice was calm, and slightly distant. “I hope Aseoto is what you want from it.”

 

The rest of the meal passed in silence. Erik seemed to have spent his store of words already, and I wasn’t carrying on a conversation myself. At the end he paid for the food, casually tossing a handful of silver onto the table. He walked away without looking back, leaving us alone on the streets of Aseoto with no idea of where to go or what to do.

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Fractures 2.7

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The next day we moved on, leaving Hasburg behind us. We got on the road at dawn, the same as usual, though some of us were clearly happier about it than others. I could barely wait to be gone, but Rose looked almost heartbroken at the thought of leaving her warm bed. Derek was clearly nursing a hangover, and had less to say than usual.

 

I showed Rose a simple clapping game, to fill the silence our driver left, which I had learned in the Whitewood, when I was a child. She’d never seen it before, and took to it with such delight that I wasn’t sure she’d ever seen anything of the sort. She hadn’t had much of fun and games in her life, I thought. Afterwards, I took a nap, making up for lost sleep the night before. I’d barely been able to make myself sleep in that inn, and even when I did manage to sleep my dreams were filled with nightmarish visions of people calling me a freak and beating me for being Changed.

 

I slept longer than I had expected to. It was evening by the time I woke up. I sat up, blinking away the fog of sleep, and felt Rose remove her arm from around my shoulders and shift away.

 

The roads were better here. It was the first thing I noticed, the first sign that we were drawing near to the Tsuran heartland. Unsurprisingly, imperial roads were better maintained closer to the core of the empire. Here the road was smooth, groomed gravel. The land to either side was clear, open grassland. It was a warm evening, with a gentle breeze flowing through the caravan.

 

Dinner that night was better than usual, with some chunks of meat in the beans, and fresh bread rather than hardtack. Olga had clearly purchased supplies in Hasburg before we set out. It was a considerably better meal than we had received in the inn the previous evening, which amused me.

 

Over the next two days, we continued to progress through steadily more settled land. We passed two small villages, both appearing quite prosperous for their size. The wards around them were expansive and well-maintained. The wooden buildings were substantially more sturdy-looking than those in Branson’s Ford had been, and larger. Most of them even had glass in the windows, and brick chimneys.

 

We were far, far further south than I had ever been before. It was more of a change than I had expected. I had been ready for the warmth–it was a common topic among travelers from the south, after all. Even with autumn almost upon us, it was warmer here than I was used to. I found myself leaving my heavy wool cloak packed in my bag even in the night, and regretting the insulation my fur provided.

 

Beyond that, though, things were just…different. The ground was far more even, compared to the hilly land I was used to. The air smelled different, warmer and with different plants. When we passed the farmers’ fields around the villages, their crops were different from what I was used to, far different. The people here took foods for granted that I had always seen as a foreign luxury–rice and maize, soy, even oranges and melons were not terribly uncommon. The people all spoke Tsuran.

 

And there were no Changed. Or so few as to make no difference.

 

It was a long few days of travel.

!!

I had been ready for Aseoto to be different from what I’d heard of it. Those tales had been told by travelers, after all, and stories tended to change with travel. Distance, like time, had a way of blurring the details of a memory, making it shift and waver and grow out of all proportion to reality. There were some features of the stories I’d heard which were consistent enough to be confident they had at least some grounding in the reality, but for the most part I knew better than to trust them.

 

I had not, however, been ready for them to be an understatement rather than an exaggeration.

 

The first I saw of the city was the wall. It was much as it had been described, but…more so. The long, smooth curve of stone was well over fifty feet tall, tall enough that it was visible as a hazy outline on the horizon for quite some time before it was in sight. It was made of stone, some dark stone I didn’t recognize, woven and reinforced with metal. Towers stood at regular intervals, looming over even the formidable height of the wall itself.

 

And it stretched…far. Very far. The long, smooth curve of stone had to cover several miles of coastline.

 

In front of us, the road passed through a large gate. It would be easy to see it as gaudy or even ornamental, but I knew better. I’d lived through a siege. I knew enough to see that the portcullis was heavy iron with what I was willing to bet were alchemical formulae of some kind worked into it in a black metal I didn’t know. I could see the murder holes, the arrow slits. It would be no easy feat to break through this gate. I could see similar gates at similar roads to either side, some ways off. Within the city, I could see a number of towers, visible even over the walls. The narrow, delicate-looking structures stretched high up into the sky, higher than seemed possible for a building.

 

I hated to give them the credit of admitting it. But…imperial methods were capable of great things.

 

A group of legionnaires were checking the entrants to the city, of which there were a great many, mostly trade caravans like ours. I was a touch concerned by that, but managed to reassure myself that they would certainly not think to look for me here. I still didn’t fully understand why I’d come, myself. It seemed implausible that someone else would have figured it out.

 

In the end, I didn’t so much as hear a word from them. Konrad handled whatever inspection was necessary, and they waved us through without question. I sat in the back of the wagon, trying to stay calm, and they didn’t even look at me. The wagons and horses produced odd, echoing sounds as we passed through the wall. It was so thick that it was less a gate than a tunnel, with more metal portcullises at regular intervals. Light was provided by alchemical lamps, brighter than the setting sun outside.

 

Inside, things were tight, and loud, and crowded. The gate opened into an expansive cobbled square, which was thronging with people. I had never seen such a varied crowd of people in my life. There were merchants wearing silk and jewelry, and there were beggars clothed in rags. Children, and wizened old people barely able to stand with the help of a cane. Most of the people had the fine features typical of Tsuran ancestry, but there were plenty of pale northerners, and people with the dark skin typical of the lands south across the ocean, and a handful of Changed. The din of people shouting, haggling, arguing, and begging in a dozen languages was almost overwhelming.

 

This was clearly not the nice part of the city. The beautiful, graceful architecture of the towers I had seen from outside was nowhere in evidence here. The buildings here were still tall–fix or six stories on average, I estimated–but they managed all the same to look squat and dense. The streets were all cobbled, but they were narrow and overshadowed by the tightly packed buildings. I’d grown up in a city, and I knew enough to recognize this as a poor district. Not brutally so–the people here, for the most part, had enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. It was not a slum, not truly impoverished. But it was not wealthy, not by the standards of Akitsuro.

 

On my own, I would have been lost, hopelessly so. I didn’t know where we were precisely, didn’t know where we were going. Actually reaching the city had felt like such an implausible, far off dream that I hadn’t prepared nearly enough for it. I didn’t know so much as what the city’s districts were.

 

Konrad turned off from the square, heading further into the city at a shallow angle. The street he chose was wide enough for the wagons to pass, but not a great deal more. The drivers were all moving carefully, keeping the horses to a slow pace so as not to injure anyone.

 

I didn’t know what all the buildings we passed were, but I knew quite well that the one we stopped in front of was an inn. It was much the same class as the one he had chosen in Hasburg, cheap and with little else to recommend it. The wagons pulled to a halt in front of it and we began getting out, stretching and looking around at the city. It was hard to believe we had reached our destination. It felt as though we’d only joined the caravan a handful of days before, and at the same time like we had been on the road for a lifetime.

 

There was little ceremony in the parting, for how close we had been on the road. Reika, looking perfectly at home in the city of her youth, walked up to me and gave me a quick hug; she had to bend over to do it. “I’m staying in Ukiyo, have a place lined up. Don’t be a stranger.” As quickly as that, she turned and walked off, and disappeared into the crowd. I realized that Finn, the silent northern boy with one hand missing, had already left.

 

Konrad came up to me, after Reika left, and clapped me on the shoulder. I stumbled, but managed to keep from falling. “Good trip,” he said, his tone carrying a hint of casual satisfaction. “Ugly business with the kid, but you kept your head nicely. I reckon our deal is done.” He spat into his hand and grabbed mine to shake.

 

When he let go I realized that he had pressed a silver noble into my hand, fully half the coin I’d paid for Rose and I to travel with his caravan. I opened my mouth to protest, but by the time I noticed he was already inside the inn, and I had no desire to follow him in. Not after what happened the last time I was in a place like that.

 

“He’s not as hard a man as he likes to pretend,” Rose said softly. She was looking at my hand, and I knew she’d seen the coin, too.

 

I nodded, thoughtfully, and pocketed the coin. It would have been rude to refuse it; he knew what he was doing. “What now?” I asked. I was still looking at the inn. It was a place to sleep–which we needed, given we no longer had the privilege of resting in the wagons. But I was having a very difficult time convincing myself it was worth it. I didn’t want to spend my first night in Aseoto in a dive like that.

 

“I’d appreciate some dinner company, if you’d like.” Erik’s voice was completely unexpected, coming from right next to me. By all rights I should have heard him approaching. My hearing was damned good, and he was only a few feet away. But he was Dierkhlani.

 

I considered, then shrugged and nodded. I had nowhere better to be, and he was still such an interesting enigma to me. Rose was clearly less convinced, her grip on mine tight and anxious, but she nodded.

 

“Excellent,” Erik said, smiling. “Come with me. I know a better place than this dump.”

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Fractures 2.6

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Hasburg was exactly what I had expected it to be, an ordinary enough city with no particularly impressive qualities. To Rose–and, I expected, to many of the villagers of Branson’s Ford, had they lived to see it–it was an awe-inspiring sight. They had never seen a city before, never in their lives seen such an enormous congregation of people in a single place.

 

I had seen a number of cities, the large cities of northern Skelland. And before that, I had lived in the Whitewood. I was a child of the city, raised in the urban wilderness rather than the literal one, and Hasburg had little to surprise me with.

 

Konrad chose to stop over for the night at an inn, one that he was clearly familiar with. I was, too, though I’d never seen it before. I’d seen plenty of inns on my way south, and I’d worked in one for years with Corbin. I knew what to look for, and I could see that this one was the worst kind of dive. It was an ugly place, small and dirty. But it was cheap.

 

Heinz left us when we got to the city, taking Mathias’s body with him. He hadn’t invited any of us to the burial ceremony, which would presumably be carried out under the eyes of a local priest, with appropriate offerings to gods both black and white. It seemed a bit rude of him to so deliberately not invite us to the burial when we had been the ones who cared for the boy in his final hours, while his father sat out with the other humans. But I couldn’t blame him, not really. He probably couldn’t help but blame us for his son’s death, and he would never know how right he was.

 

I would have preferred to stay out of the inn, eat our usual trail rations and sleep in the wagon. But Rose looked at me imploringly, and I gave in. The poor girl was clearly exhausted. She’d seen far too much death on the road, and that wasn’t even counting what had happened in Branson’s Ford. Between that and the simple fatigue of the road–she’d never traveled before–it was no wonder that she was tired.

 

Inside, the inn was everything I hadn’t wanted it to be. It was tight and close, the ceiling too low for comfort. There was a crowd, a busy one, but it didn’t have a good feeling to it the way inn crowds sometimes did. The people here were clearly locals, for the most part, and they weren’t from the good part of town. The taproom stank of spilled beer and unwashed bodies, with a hint of burning meat. The innkeeper was, it seemed, not a particularly good cook.

 

The fees we had paid to Konrad for the privilege of traveling with this caravan didn’t cover this, and we were left to negotiate our own food and lodging for the night. The innkeeper was more pleasant than the rest of his establishment, a large man with Skellish features and a scar on his throat that suggested he’d had a brush or two with death himself. Despite the imposing appearance, he was nice enough in a gruff sort of way. Rooms were cheap, and food wasn’t much more. I paid for them in Corbin’s coin, purchasing a jug of chilled tea with lemon and hibiscus to go with the stew. It was a very Tsuran drink, suggesting that this inn might get more travelers than I had thought.

 

I took the food and drink and carried them to where Rose was sitting at a table in the corner of the room. It was the same table I’d have taken myself by preference, tucked into a dark corner out of the main action of the inn. The girl looked overwhelmed, and I couldn’t blame her. She hadn’t, I thought, been in an establishment like this one. It was a hard sort of place to be comfortable if you weren’t accustomed to this environment.

 

The food was about as good as I’d expected, which wasn’t very. The stew was too salty and the bread was a touch burned. Rose and I devoured it with the kind of enthusiasm you can only muster after living on trail rations for eleven days.

 

We finished the food quickly, wiping the bowls clean with the bread. It was only a few minutes before I settled back in my rickety wooden chair. Rose was looking less uncomfortable, and even had a tentative smile on her face like she was trying it on to see how it felt.

 

“Thank you, Silf,” she said softly. “For everything.” Her tone suggested she didn’t just mean the food and drink.

 

“Of course,” I said. I watched her take a drink of the tea, and there was an odd sort of satisfaction in it. Something in me was happy that I was giving her something she needed. It was a feeling I hadn’t had often; I’d usually been too poorly off myself to do anything to help other people. “Would you like some more to eat?”

 

Rose hesitated, and then nodded shyly. I smiled, enjoying that novel sort of happiness, and went to order more stew and bread from the innkeeper.

 

It was edging into evening now, and people were crowding at the bar more than they had been, wanting dinner. I considered slipping between them, but decided it was better to wait, and stood at the back of the crowd.

 

I couldn’t see who said it, but I clearly heard someone say, “Changed freak.”

 

I ducked my head, hoping that it was just a drunken whim and the drunk in question would move on to something else.

 

No such luck. He pushed himself to his feet, moving in front of me. I could see the group of men he’d been sitting with, none of whom looked bothered by what he was doing. Likely they’d been egging him on.

 

“Changed bitch,” he said, staring at me. He was a large man, with the heavy muscles of someone who spent his time on hard physical labor. “Get out of here, you freak. Don’t want your kind here.”

 

I felt the old, familiar spike of pain go through me at the words. It was hard to say precisely what it was, hard to put a finger on it; it was too tied into tangles of old emotion and association.

 

I’d spent so much time around people like Corbin that I’d almost forgotten he was the exception rather than the rule.

 

Some of the Changed got aggressive when they were confronted like that. They tried to push back, or lashed out in anger and frustration. I could understand that. When you were singled out and targeted for something you had no control over, when you were hurt that way, it was easy to want to fight back.

 

But I’d been Changed for a long time, now. I’d learned that trying to fight back never worked. You couldn’t fix them. You couldn’t even make them see that what they were doing was wrong. Pushing back just made it work.

 

So I just ducked my head. “Not staying,” I muttered, edging further into the crowd around the bar. “Just hungry.”

 

He backhanded me hard across the mouth. “Don’t think you heard me, freak,” he said. “Get the fuck out.”

 

I stumbled back with the taste of blood in my mouth. It hadn’t been that hard of a blow, on a relative scale, and it hadn’t caught me by surprise. He hadn’t done any serious damage. But I could taste blood in my mouth from a lip that had been cut on one of my own too-sharp teeth, and it stung. Before I had experienced real pain, I might even have said that it hurt. It was enough of a hit to leave me stumbling backward, off balance.

 

I was steadied by a sudden hand on my shoulder. Erik was standing behind me, though I was sure he hadn’t been there a moment before. The Dierkhlani didn’t have most of his weapons on him but his sword was visible on his back.

 

“I think you owe my friend here an apology,” he said. His voice was calm, quiet, and deathly cold.

 

“What’s it to you?” the man asked. He sounded less drunk than I had expected. “This isn’t your business.”

 

I didn’t see Erik move. Not really. I could see him moving, but I couldn’t follow the movement. It was like watching a striking snake, an explosion of motion so fast it was hard to believe it had come out of that coiled stillness. One moment, he was standing loosely at my side.

 

The next, he had one hand around the throat of the man who had been causing trouble. The rest of his body had hardly moved.

 

The group at the table he had been sitting at stood, pushing themselves to their feet with surprised shouts. Erik didn’t even look at them. “I suggest you think carefully before you do anything stupid,” he said, his tone just as calm and cold as before. Without any apparent effort, he forced the man who had hit me to his knees.

 

The man’s cronies looked at each other, then at the man on his knees with Erik’s hand clamped on his throat. I could almost see them sizing him up, looking at the sword on his back, considering the ease with which he’d overpowered their friend.

 

Then they sat back down.

 

“Now,” Erik said, still in that quietly dangerous voice. “I’m about to let you go. You’re going to apologize to my friend, and then you’re going to get out. And you aren’t going to cause any more trouble for her. Because if you do, I will know, and I will find you.”

 

As suddenly as he’d grabbed the man, he let go. The man collapsed to the floor, then pushed himself back to his feet. He opened his mouth, and I could tell that whatever he was about to say, it wasn’t any kind of apology.

 

Erik just smiled. Whatever the drunk saw in that smile, it made him go pale. “S-sorry,” he stammered, sounding so insincere it was almost charming, and then staggered for the door.

 

“My apologies,” Erik said, walking towards the bar with me. The crowd was in a great hurry not to be in his way. “I would have stepped in sooner, but I didn’t expect him to get violent.”

 

“It’s fine,” I said. “He’ll come after you.” There wasn’t a doubt in my mind about it. He wasn’t the sort of man to take humiliation well, especially when it was delivered on his own home turf.

 

Erik just shrugged. There was no hint of concern in his demeanor, no indication that he cared at all. Maybe he didn’t consider the drunk to be a meaningful threat, or maybe he just had so many enemies that one more or less meant little to him. Given he was Dierkhlani, it was probably both.

 

I took the food back to the table where Rose was watching. All of the ease and comfort which she had developed while eating was gone, and her face was far from a smile. She didn’t say anything about what had happened, and neither did I.

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Fractures 2.5

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The next day was a long, tense one. I rode in the wagon, hunched over staring at the floor. I hadn’t slept. I should have made up for that over the course of the day, napping like I had been, but I found I didn’t have it in me. Every time I closed my eyes I saw the needle slipping into the child’s vein, over and over, in excruciating detail. Sleep was impossible.

 

I hadn’t been there when they “found” Mathias dead, apparently of heart failure while he slept. I’d heard them, though, the sharp screams and sudden activity. I’d been lying awake in the wagon, staring into space and waiting for them to find him. I’d stumbled out with the rest, pretending to be shaking off sleep, and stood at the periphery while the rest gathered around the body.

 

We had considered a burial out here, on the road. But we were only two days out from the city, where they would be able to perform an actual ceremony. Heinz had decided that was preferable, and so that was what would happen. In the meantime, the body was in the wagon with Trevor and Heinz. I didn’t envy them that. Riding with the corpse of your dead son staring sightlessly at you from across the wagon had to be awful.

 

I knew how they felt. I felt like he was staring at me too.

 

Even Derek was less talkative than usual as we traveled on, one fewer than we had been the day before. He had little to say and we had less, so the ride passed largely in silence.

 

Did he know, I wondered? Did he suspect what had happened last night? Did he know what I had done, in the dark hours of the night? Did he know about the needle in the dark, covered in black fluid too thick to be blood?

 

Probably not. Probably it was just my imagination.

 

When it came time to break for dinner, I was guilty and exhausted. I found myself looking around for an unknown threat as we sat down around the fire, paranoid and twitchy. Every time someone looked at me I was sure they knew, that they would call me out as the murderer I was.

 

But they didn’t. And by the time I was finished eating the spare meal of beans and bread, I realized they weren’t going to. They didn’t know, and while I’m sure some of them suspected that Mathias’s death hadn’t been entirely the result of the Change, they weren’t going to say so. They were too afraid, or unsure. Or they simply didn’t want to believe it. It was nicer in their world of peace and sunlight, where you never had to kill people who didn’t deserve it.

 

After the meal I found Erik and the varg, out at the edge of the firelight, and sat with them instead of the main group of the caravan. Neither of them commented on it. Erik had apparently spent his store of words yesterday, and the varg was even more a mute than I was.

 

I spent some time studying the varg, as I sat there. He was still as fascinating as the first time I’d seen a varg, body and mind alike so close to familiar, and yet so far away.

 

It was hard to say quite what the varg looked like. He was similar to a canine, certainly, his general body something like a fox but between the size of a large fox and a small wolf. But there was something almost feline about his movements, the grace with which he carried himself. His head was larger than I would expect to see on an animal of his size, with large eyes and a long muzzle.

 

I didn’t know that much about vargs. Most people–most humans–didn’t. Vargs mostly kept to themselves. Intelligent as humans, give or take, but they had little to interact with humanity. They couldn’t speak in any way that a human could understand, and they had little use for human products. Mostly, from what I’d heard, they lived in packs in the wilderness, hunting together to bring down prey far larger than they were.

 

Every now and again, though, a varg decided that she was interested in the benefits of civilization. There were many things that they weren’t interested in–they didn’t have hands to use tools, and they were too carnivorous to eat much in the way of human food. But they got as much use out of a warm bed and a good meal as anyone else. They were much in demand as ratcatchers, scouts in the army, and in any other position where their speed and small size were more important than hands. There were difficulties in their employment, of course, but commerce always found a way.

 

This one didn’t look particularly civilized, up close. He looked a great deal like the Dierkhlani he habitually sat with. The rich red fur covering his fur was marked with dozens of thin scars, one of which had removed his left ear, and he was missing several teeth. It gave him a dangerous, almost feral look.

 

I went to bed early that night, and dreamed of bloody needles.


The next day, with the city of Hasburg looming on the horizon, we were attacked by bandits.

 

I had to appreciate the placement of the ambush. It was quite clever, really. Only half a day’s travel away from the city, most caravans would already have lowered their guard in expectation of a day’s rest in the city. They were just far enough away that the city guard wouldn’t likely get in the way, though. And between caravans, they could go back to the city to spend their loot. These people likely weren’t full time bandits.

 

The first warning I had of it was when Erik rode alongside the wagon I was in. Rose was asleep; she’d relaxed further in her sleep than she would while awake, and was leaning against my shoulder. I was holding very carefully still, trying to avoid disturbing her fragile peace.

 

Erik was very much the Dierkhlani, this morning. That long sword was strapped to his back, and I could feel the presence of other weapons as well–knives, daggers, the chain coiled at his hip. I was sure there were others, as well, that weren’t metal. He would be ready for channelers.

 

He rode up, easily keeping his seat on the horse he always rode, and looked at me. Without speaking, he beckoned slightly to me. The horse kept pace with the wagon, without any obvious instruction. It was, I thought, very well trained. He had brought it himself, rather than borrowing a horse from Konrad as I had first expected.

 

I wasn’t sure what he was doing there, but I knew better than to think the invitation was an idle one. I’d gotten something of a feel for Erik, and he wasn’t the sort to do anything without reason. So I slipped out from under Rose, delicately lowering the sleeping girl to rest against a sack of flour, and slipped over to the edge of the wagon, beside Derek. The driver was clearly curious about what was happening, but for once he was silent. Likely he was too intimidated by the Dierkhlani to ask.

 

Erik reached out his hand as I got close. I took it, and he swung me over to his saddle behind him. I barely even had to move. He had to be almost as strong as Black.

 

I wasn’t much of a rider. It wasn’t something I’d had a great deal of opportunity to do. My family hadn’t owned a horse back in the Whitewood, and riding had been a rare luxury on the trip south, one usually bought at a dear price. This saddle wasn’t ideal for it, either; it clearly hadn’t been designed to hold two, leaving me perched on the edge. Erik was rock steady in the saddle, so I settled for clinging to him to keep my precarious balance. I’m sure it looked ungainly and embarrassing, but I didn’t particularly care.

 

He didn’t explain what this was about. He seemed to prefer to let his actions speak for themselves, most of the time. I didn’t question him. I was confident I would find out what was going on soon enough.

 

We moved forward, passing Trevor’s wagon and then Konrad’s, to ride out in front. It was where Erik normally rode while we traveled, sweeping the road in front of us.

 

Once there, about  thirty yards in front of the lead wagon, we settled in to a steady walk. It was a bit easier to stay seated now that we were moving more slowly. I even let go of Erik with one hand.

 

Less than ten minutes later, I paused and looked up, away from the saddle I’d mostly been staring at. There was something…off. I couldn’t put a finger on it, couldn’t place what was bothering me about it, but there was something wrong.

 

Ten seconds later, I saw the bandits.

 

There were four of them in front of us, stepping out of the trees that lined this section of the road. They were hard-looking men, all of them, and hard-used. They wore a mixture of simple leather and Legion-issue armor. Deserters, most likely. A quick glance back showed a similar number behind us, stepping out to block the retreat.

 

A complicated wave of emotions swept through me at the sight. Rage and hate and fear melded together inside me to form something more subtle and multifaceted than the sum of its parts. It was tempered, more surprisingly, by satisfaction.

 

I was already in so much emotional pain. I felt guilty, scared, helpless. I couldn’t forget what I’d seen, what I’d done, and it hurt. There was a sick pain twisting inside me. These people, these thugs, they were…scapegoats. I could take my own pain out on them. I could hurt them without feeling bad about it.

 

Was this how the legionnaires felt as they massacred us, I wondered? Taking out their own guilt and pain on us? Trying to erase the things they’d seen?

 

I shivered, felt the metal hatchet at my back, waited.

 

“You know the drill,” the apparent leader of the bandits said. He was a tall man, narrow, with a hungry cast to his features that had nothing to do with food. A vivid red scar crossed his forehead just below the hairline, and his nose had been broken in the past and healed poorly. His stance was cocky, his walk a strut. “We go through your goods, take our pick. No need to make this any uglier than it has to be. We’ll let you carry on once we’re done, promise.”

 

Oddly enough, I believed him. It was more efficient for them to leave some, if not most, of the goods. Try to take everything, and you pushed the merchants into a corner. Even a rabbit bites if you corner it. Take too much, and you put yourself at risk–not just from the merchants, but also from the legions. They didn’t treat highwaymen kindly. As long as your thefts were small, though, they had no reason to care.

 

Not that it would necessarily be a pleasant experience. I hadn’t missed the way that his cold black eyes had lingered on me, or the fact that one of the men with him was openly leering. It was a simple reality that girls didn’t often fare well at the hands of men like this. I didn’t even want to think about what they might do to, say, Rose.

 

“Counteroffer,” Erik said. His voice was so icy it could have frozen water. “Let us pass and no one gets hurt.”

 

One of the bandits, the one that had been leering at me, guffawed. The leader, though, smiled in a vaguely patronizing way. He’d clearly been expecting something like this. “Be reasonable, mate,” he said, in a tone that sounded affable enough but had a dark undercurrent to it. “Eight of us, and only one of you. Fighting won’t get you anywhere but a ditch.”

 

The Dierkhlani dismounted. His motions were smooth and slow, fluid. I followed his lead, though considerably less gracefully. I managed to keep my feet on landing, which was all I felt I could ask for. He slapped the horse lightly on its flank, and it trotted back to the caravan.

 

“Last chance,” he said. He didn’t sound cold now. He sounded blank, analytical. The way he had sounded while determining that Mathias was dead and didn’t know it yet. “Get. Out. Of. My. Way.”

 

The lead bandit smiled. It was a nasty sort of smile. “Looks like we got a hero here, boys,” he said. He drew a sword from his side. It was a Legion blade, standard issue. Deserters for sure.

 

Erik started walking forward. He didn’t run, didn’t draw his blade. I could tell that the deserters were confused. Probably they thought he was suicidal, and they were happy to oblige him.

 

I never saw him move, not really. He was too fast to follow. One moment, he was walking towards the deserters empty handed. The next, that long sword of his was in his hand. He took two swift strides forward, getting within reach of the bandits’ leader. The other man raised his sword to block.

 

Too slow. He might as well not even have tried. The Dierkhlani flicked his sword in a tight circle, so quick and precise it might have been a willow switch. It worked around the deserter’s sword with lethal grace, the kind of maneuver that looked simple but which only an expert could perform with such speed and grace. He thrust forward, up under the defending sword and into the bandit’s chest.

 

He never even slowed down. He stepped forward and around the other man, flowing into a pirouette as he pulled the sword free. It looked like a dance, except for the part where the man he had been fighting collapsed into a pool of blood.

 

Just barely too low to have been the heart. To have dropped him so quickly, it must have hit the big vein just below the heart. Erik had gotten around the bandit’s defenses, landed a clean thrust through the ribs into a blood vessel with an anatomist’s precision, and then sliced him open inside and moved out of reach as he freed his weapon, all without breaking stride.

 

There were reasons people feared the Dierkhlani.

 

The other three standing there stood still for a moment, shocked. It had all happened so fast.

 

They recovered their composure and started moving. One closed with him, drawing another Legion-issue sword. The other two fell back.

 

I ignored the fool moving to close with the Dierkhlani. He was foolish, or else hadn’t yet processed what he’d just seen and was moving on instinct. Either way he would be dead in moments. The other two were more dangerous. They had crossbows.

 

The weapons weren’t Legion arbalests. They were nothing so dangerous as that. But they were still quite, quite lethal. They had to be dealt with.

 

The one on my left was closer to the Dierkhlani, closer to death. For no more reason than that, I focused my attention on the one to the right.

 

Metal wasn’t a common channel. You could only channel through something you had a connection to, on a fundamental level. Most people didn’t have that kind of bond to metal. It wasn’t something that people were surrounded by, immersed in, fascinated with the way they were the other elements. Earth, fire, air, those were the things people tended to be bound to.

 

Because of that rarity, people usually didn’t bother protecting themselves against us. It just wasn’t worth the trouble. Sure, metal armor left you vulnerable to someone who could channel metal. But it protected you against everyone else, and the vast majority of the time, that was more important.

 

Most of the time. Not all.

 

I opened myself to the magic, invited it in, and it flooded in to fill me. There were no wards here, no protections against people like me. It came easily, a raging torrent of power rushing into me. Through it, I could feel the metal all around, sparks blazing against the darkness. I found the bandit’s armor, the hodgepodge of chain mail over the leather, and I let the magic pour through me into it.

 

I couldn’t push him over, or at least not easily. Probably I could have managed it had I really tried; I had, after all, done much more during the escape from Branson’s Ford.

 

But why do things the hard way?

 

The push, the sudden unexpected shove, knocked him off balance. He stumbled, then straightened, looking around in confusion at what had happened to him.

 

As he straightened, the blast of coins took him in the face. They weren’t very precise in their placement, several of them going past him entirely.

 

But the ones that hit were more than enough. Blood sprayed into the air, droplets flying from the holes in his cheek, his shoulder, his throat. Caught in the moment, the magic, time seemed to stand still. I could see the individual drops as they fountained out. I could see him begin to fall.

 

I could see the Dierkhlani. He had his sword in his left hand, in a high guard. He had just parried the bandit’s sword, it looked like.

 

His other hand snapped out, impossibly fast, and grabbed one of my coins in flight. He continued the motion, turning it into flipping the coin.

 

While it was in the air, as time was beginning to return to normal for me, he burst into motion. He ducked under their crossed swords, putting both hands on his weapon, and brought it into a slash across the bandit’s back. It severed the spine, and the man fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

 

The Dierkhlani kept moving, spinning, sword snapping up in front of his face. It intercepted the crossbow bolt flying at him from less than five feet away, deflecting it harmlessly aside. The momentum of the spin flowed seamlessly into a slash, putting so much force behind it that it carved the crossbowman almost in half.

 

In the sudden silence that followed, I could hear my coin hit the ground.

 

Unbelievable.

 

I was still gaping when he was turning, running back towards the other end of the caravan. He was fast, faster than he had any right to be. I wasn’t entirely sure if he wouldn’t have been slower if he were still on horseback.

 

I followed at a dead sprint, still losing ground fast. He crossed the distance in a blink, reaching the back of the caravan at about the same time as I reached the front. He turned the sprint into a lunging thrust, his body rolling to the side of the guarding spear at the same time as his sword slipped over it into the throat of the man wielding it.

 

I realized that I wouldn’t have time to get anywhere near them before the fight was settled, and instead turned towards the wagon next to me. I was a fast climber; it only took a pair of heartbeats before I was on the top of it.

 

In that time, the Dierkhlani had dropped another of the bandits. This one was a woman, the only one in their group. She was missing a head. The next bandit was more skilled, or luckier. He crossed blades with the Dierkhlani twice. On the second parry, though, Erik swept his blade out and around, taking off the other man’s hand and then on the backswing slashing his throat.

 

And then another voice shouted “Freeze!” from my right.

 

I turned to look at the source of the shout. So, I expect, did everyone else. Even leaving aside the unexpectedness of it, there was a sort of commanding quality to it. It demanded attention.

 

Another man swaggered out of the trees, where he’d evidently been waiting through the initial ambush. Between that and the air of command he carried himself with, I was guessing this was the actual leader of this group of highwaymen. The one who’d spoken earlier had been a decoy.

 

He had an arbalest–an actual arbalest, not one of the lighter crossbows his men had used. Also unlike them, he wasn’t pointing it at the Dierkhlani. He was pointing it at one of the wagons, the last in the row.

 

“You can dodge bolts,” he said to the Dierkhlani. “She can’t.” Which told me who he was aiming at–it wasn’t me, Reika was on the other side and closer to the front of the caravan, and Rose was still under the cover of the wagon, so it had to be Olga. “And I can pull the trigger before you reach me. So put the bloody sword down.”

 

Erik carefully lowered the blade to the ground and let go of it. I gaped.

 

“Smart man,” the arbalist said. “Damn good with a blade, too. Shame we’re on opposite sides.”

 

Erik said nothing. His head turned, very slightly, to look at me.

 

Ah. This would be why he’d brought me with him, then.

 

I considered for several heartbeats. In principle I was fairly confident that I could do what he wanted. It seemed like a simple enough application of my talents. It was nothing I hadn’t done before, really. Doing it with someone’s life so clearly in the balance, though…that made it harder.

 

But she was as good as dead if I didn’t. I had no illusions there. The bandits might have been planning to leave us alive. But with six of their number dead in the dirt, the need for revenge would outweigh the fear of the legions. He had no intention of letting any of us leave alive.

 

In a way, that simplified things. It meant that whatever I did, I wasn’t making things worse.

 

Again I opened myself, and again power flooded through me in a rapid, intense flood. I focused, feeling forward.

 

The arbalist had clearly put a lot of thought into this. He’d planned this ambush very carefully, even planning what to do if an eight-to-one advantage weren’t enough to decide things.

 

He hadn’t thought to use a nonmetallic arrowhead.

 

I hit it with a carefully focused, extremely intense spike of magic. It was challenging, affecting something so far away, but it was small and I had practiced. The arrowhead jerked violently upward, dragging the rest of the bolt with it. The arbalist reacted quickly, pulling the trigger, but it was already too late. The bolt was well out of alignment, and it went far wide. I didn’t even have to try to stop it. It soared harmlessly into the trees.

 

I was guessing that he’d thought having the Dierkhlani lay down his weapon had bought him a modicum of safety. If so, it had been a foolishly misplaced sense of security. The Dierkhlani didn’t need a sword to slaughter them. Probably he didn’t need anything but his hands.

 

Being a practical man, he instead used knives.

 

The first of the bandits hit the ground before the bolt had vanished from sight. Erik had produced a dagger, a narrow stiletto, and thrust it to the hilt into the bandit’s skull. Before the body hit the ground, he had produced a knife and flung it at the bandit leader.

 

The man dodged, and the blade glanced off his Legion-issue armor. He had been an officer before he deserted, I thought. He was certainly fast enough to dodge to suggest that he was a veteran.

 

It didn’t matter. He hadn’t even gotten back on balance before the Dierkhlani was on him. A quick slash and he was on the ground, bleeding out from a slit throat.

 

It couldn’t have been a minute since they first attacked, and nine people were dead. I was reminded, as I looked around, that I’d killed one of them. I could still see so clearly the droplets of blood spraying from the holes in his face, his throat.

 

I knew the memory would fade, just as the memory of bloody needles in the night would. I’d killed so many. What was one more?

 

Moments passed in stunned silence in the wake of the attack, broken only by the soft whisper of Erik retrieving his sword. He wiped it clean on one of the fallen bandits and then returned it to its sheath.

 

Underneath me, Konrad was swinging down from the wagon. “Seems you were a good investment,” he called, clearly speaking to Erik. The caravan master’s voice was cool and casual. You would never guess from listening what had just happened. Perhaps he’d been ambushed on the road so many times that it had ceased to matter to him.

 

“What should I do with the bodies?” Erik replied. His voice didn’t suggest any particular reaction to the violence, but then, he wouldn’t. He was Dierkhlani.

 

“Leave them for the ghouls,” Konrad replied dismissively. “They’d have done the same for us if they had half a chance. Come on, let’s push forward. We should be able to make it to Hasburg by nightfall.”

 

I opened my mouth to protest. Something about it seemed so wrong. I knew I shouldn’t care, that they had tried to kill us. But the memory of Branson’s Ford was too fresh and sharp in my mind. I had seen the monsters get enough people for a lifetime.

 

I closed my mouth a moment later. I didn’t know what to say, and anyway, the wagons were already starting into motion. The horses looked disturbed, but the drivers were experienced, and managed to soothe the beasts enough to get them moving. They would forget soon. It was a luxury I wished I had.

 

I leapt down from the wagon and went to stand by the edge of the road. It seemed easier to wait for my normal wagon to catch up than to walk back to it. As I stood there, I walked up to look at the man I had killed. It seemed the least I could do. I had, after all, ended his life. I owed him the respect of at least facing what I had done.

 

He had been a legionnaire. He’d murdered before. He’d attacked us. I tried to convince myself that meant he’d deserved what I had done to him.

 

I saw a coin lying in the road, its iron surface stained bright crimson with the blood it had been covered in. It had landed facing tails after the Dierkhlani had flipped it, and the stylized flower was still visible through the blood.

 

I looked at it for a moment, and then picked it up and put it back into my pouch.

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