For the next week, my throat hurt about as badly as it ever had, to the point that I couldn’t even snarl and growl at the patrons properly, and had to conduct all my conversations by writing. It was frustrating, but not particularly harmful. The other workers at the Comedy understood the position I was in, and they didn’t make a fuss about it. The only real negative consequence was that my earnings were slightly lower; the patrons had come to expect a certain amount of snarling, and didn’t throw as much money at me without it.
I didn’t really care. The pouch Miles had so casually given me had enough in it to make it a complete nonissue. It was the kind of money that made even my earnings at the Comedy, which had struck me as so unbelievably large, look like pocket change.
I was cautious about spending it at first. I didn’t want to make anyone suspicious about how much gold a simple dancer was throwing around. But after a few days, I started to slowly spend some of it, taking the opportunity to buy unnecessary luxuries. I could, after all, always pass it off as payment from a young noble who had grown enamored with me and wanted a private showing. It wasn’t so uncommon among the performers, and I had already turned down such offers twice before.
So I bought some luxuries with the gold. A harp for Rose–she had expressed interest in learning the instrument before, and it seemed a nice gift for a friend. Similarly, I bought Lyssa an onyx pendant that complimented her hair, an elaborately decorated drum for one of the other musicians whom I often worked with, and similar small gifts for some of the other workers. For myself I found a set of tapestries and rugs in a northern style to decorate my rooms with, a set of ivory dice, an ornate dagger that I could use as an accent to my feral look when dancing, and other frivolities.
The harder part, I found, was converting the gems into gold. It took a week for me to find a jeweler who would buy them, and even then I felt that I got only a small fraction of their value. I took the offer gladly enough, and even had him set one of them–a gorgeously cut emerald that was almost the exact color of my eyes–in iron as a pendant. It would, I thought, look good hanging from my collar when I was dancing.
And all of that made only a small dent in the gold. I still had half of it left when I finished my little shopping spree.
I tried not to think too hard about what had happened with Miles that night. I tried not to worry about just what it was that I had been a part of that was worth so very, very much gold.
Some days I was mostly successful.
Eight days passed before something happened to shock me out of my routine, and it came from a direction that I would never have guessed. I was sitting in the common room at the time, eating my lunch with Rose before I went on for another night shift. I was working an extra shift that night to cover for Lyssa while she visited friends on another island. There were several other people in the room, mostly dancers and whores, eating or simply lounging and chatting with each other. When another, a pale Tsuran woman named Akiyo who worked as both, walked in, it didn’t make much of a splash until she opened her mouth.
“I have news,” she announced. “From a private party for Lord Caius’s oldest son. Apparently the Fourth Victorious Legion attacked New Dawn yesterday.”
I froze mid bite and turned to stare at her, as did most of the room. It took me several seconds to process what I’d just heard, and even longer before I realized she wasn’t joking.
I’d heard of New Dawn, of course. Everyone had heard of New Dawn, in the same way that everyone had heard of Aseoto, or Sacair across the ocean to the south. It had more of a resonance for me than those cities, though, in the same way that it had a resonance for every Changed person. It had a reputation for being a haven for my kind, more so than any other place I’d ever heard of. It was the one place where we were the norm rather than the exception, the outcast.
How could it not be? It was where the Dierkhlani made their home. Which, of course, was why it was so shocking to hear.
Only a madman would start a fight with the Dierkhlani, let alone attack them in New Dawn with only a single legion.
“What happened?” someone asked, his tone shocked and morbidly curious.
“Dead to a man,” Akiyo replied. “Well, not quite. About a hundred survivors made it out, but most of them are in bad shape.”
“Will this mean war?” Lyssa asked.
Akiyo shrugged. “Apparently the emperor is saying it wasn’t on his orders,” she said. “The legate decided to do it on his own initiative, the fool. And he’s very dead, so maybe it will stop there.”
Strangely enough, I believed it. You would have to be stupid beyond words to think that one legion could defeat the Dierkhlani in their home, and while the emperor had many, many negative qualities, he wasn’t an idiot.
In a way that made it worse, though. I knew I should be glad–an entire legion of imperial soldiers had died, after all, which could only hurt their war efforts.
But at the same time…thousands of soldiers had died for one person’s stupid choice. So much wasted life, and for what? A legate who wanted an impossible victory to his name and didn’t care what it cost?
It was…hard to convince myself that such a senseless waste of life was a good thing.
I wasn’t sure whether this city was making me soft, or I’d always been this weak-willed and just convinced myself I was more brutal than I really was.
I buckled on my collar before I went out to dance, and tried not to think that it was a symbol of something more than just a stage persona.
The next eight days passed in calm, quiet tension. People were worried, that went without saying–who could be otherwise, with the prospect of a potential war with the Dierkhlani brewing? Not even I wished that on Akitsuro. It would be like a battle between titans, with me as little more than an ant beneath their feet. Regardless of who won, the ant wasn’t likely to fare well.
But there was no news of an official war, and the unofficial news was that while relations were extremely strained, diplomacy was enough to keep things from erupting into war for the moment. Every night, when whichever worker had been entertaining a noble privately returned, everyone not on shift gathered around close to listen for any new updates. Most of the time we didn’t get any.
Eight days later, I was about to go on for a graveyard shift when I felt a very gentle tap on my shoulder. I still spun around instantly, hands raised to defend myself.
It was just a servant, one of the few that worked at the Comedy. He took a step back as I turned on him, swallowing hard. “Livia wants to see you,” he said. “She says that you have some friends who would like to speak with you.”
I frowned, thinking. I couldn’t really think of anyone who would come to see me that I would call a friend; most of the ones I had left worked here. But if she said that there were people to visit me, there wasn’t a lot I could do but go along with it. I glanced at Lyssa, who was sitting on a couch reading a book. “Lyssa,” I said, my throat making it come out hoarse and strained. “Can you cover for me?”
She shrugged, set the book aside, and stood. “Sure,” she said. “I owe you a shift anyway.”
I smiled, hoping the expression conveyed my thanks, and stood. The servant, taking this to mean I was ready, started walking through the back halls of the building.
To my surprise, he didn’t stop at Livia’s office. Instead, he kept going, opening another door inset flush with the wall that I’d never noticed before, and going into a narrow hall that I’d never been in. It was nicer than most of the back areas of the brothel, with thick carpets and wall hangings. At the end of the hall, a pair of men were standing outside another door. They had a hard look to them not unlike the people Miles had with him that night, and I instantly pegged them as thugs. They were armed with short, heavy blades, not unlike Legion-issue swords.
Naturally, that was the door that the servant led me to. The thugs tensed, but didn’t say a word as he opened the door and ushered me through before leaving.
Inside was a large room that resembled a banquet hall, with a long wooden table down the middle that was covered with a plain white tablecloth. There was no food on it now, though, and no one would mistake the crowd currently there for a typical banquet.
I was surprised by the variety. There were perhaps a dozen people, around half of whom were wearing the fine clothes and haughty demeanor of blood nobles. The rest were an even split between apparently normal people, and hard-looking men and women who were dressed not so different from the nobility. I didn’t for an instant confuse the two, though. You didn’t get that kind of attitude, or those scars, from a noble’s life. I got the impression of criminals from them, and apparently quite successful ones considering their clothing.
And then there were the people I recognized as my gaze slid down the table. Livia, unsurprisingly, was seated at the head of the table, with Miles at her right hand. And then…
My heart skipped a beat as I saw the third familiar face. No, I thought. It’s impossible.
But it was very much not my imagination when Black broke the silence. “Hey there, kid,” she said, with a toothy grin. “Did you miss me?”