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.