Over the next few weeks I attended half a dozen noble events. Several of these were balls not unlike the first, distinguished primarily by the different approaches to ostentation that the various houses took. The first, I learned, was actually rather tasteful and understated for its kind in the city. The nobility had no lack of wealth and their main occupation seemed to be competing with the other nobles at showing it off.
Others, though, were more unique. I went hunting with a falconer from House Taiko, flying Changed hawks which had been carefully designed and bred for intelligence. Though not as smart as a person or a varg, they were considerably brighter than the average bird, entirely capable of understanding a wide range of spoken commands. I was told that they had first been developed by the Dierkhlani, which didn’t surprise me at all. It had the marks of their work.
On another occasion I went riding in the countryside, which I turned out to be humiliatingly bad at. I’d never really ridden a horse before, and found that it was a great deal more difficult than it looked. There were countless things to keep track of, and the horse seemed to know when my attention had slipped from any of them, and was quick to punish me for it.
For the most part, though, I was invited to balls. Which made sense, I supposed; after all, my core selling point was that I was good at dancing. It was perfectly natural that I was primarily hired for events where dance was the main activity going on.
I saw Lucius at several of the balls, always on the sidelines. He never hired me himself, but he always made time to talk to me when he saw me. We didn’t discuss anything as sensitive or personal as that first night, but I continued to be shocked at how open he was. It seemed like there was nothing he wasn’t willing to discuss, even with a relative stranger.
About three weeks after attending that first ball, I was sitting in the Comedy’s common room eating my dinner. I’d just worked my shift, on the day shift this time, and was relaxing with Rose. At the moment I was telling her about the latest ball I’d gone to, and the things I’d seen there. She didn’t know about the real purpose behind me going to them. To her, it was just a harmless and fascinating glimpse into another world, one very different from what she’d been raised in.
I envied her for that, sometimes. It might have actually been fun doing this if it weren’t tangled up in all the context.
I was in the middle of telling her about the embarrassing missteps of a dance partner when Miles walked up, pulled another chair over to the small table we were at, and sat down.
“Good evening,” he said, his tone cheerful as ever. “How’s my favorite exotic dancer?”
I eyed him warily. I might be working with Miles, but I still didn’t wholly trust him. I still hadn’t forgotten that favor I’d done him, or just how suspicious it had been. I’d have been a fool to ignore it.
“Could be worse,” I said. “Much.” I’d considered writing it instead, but my throat was feeling tolerably well.
He smiled, the expression wide and to all appearances genuine. “Most excellent,” he said.
“What do you want?”
“I’m actually here to ask what you want,” he said. “You see, I have a meeting of sorts this evening, and I was wondering whether you’d like to sit in on it. Maybe see for yourself some of the workings of our little group.”
I hesitated. Something about this offer seemed very strange to me. If they were deliberately keeping me in the dark in case I got caught, why would Miles offer to introduce me to other people involved in the conspiracy? It just made it more likely that I would give away some piece of information that let the empire catch on to what was happening.
And yet I had to admit, I was curious. The idea of learning something about the inner workings of the conspiracy I was working to help was tempting. There was so much about this that I didn’t know. Why they were doing it, what the plan was, even what they were doing with the information I brought in. I knew next to nothing about the cause I was risking my life for.
“Why?” I asked, my tone coming out as suspicious as I currently felt.
“Well, it’s rather simple,” he said. “I think you’re deeply involved enough in this that you deserve to know a little more about it than just ‘it’s happening.’”
I paused. It was tricky to talk about this with Rose sitting right there. She would already have questions that I would struggle to answer, just based on what Miles had already said. If she heard some of the details about why this offer was so suspicious, it would just get that much worse.
“Who are you meeting?” I asked after a few seconds.
“I’ll tell you on the way,” Miles replied with a grin. “Come on, we don’t have much time to get there. Wouldn’t do to be late.”
I sighed and nodded. “I’ll tell you the rest later,” I said to Rose, who nodded. She looked a bit curious, but she didn’t actually ask any questions.
Miles said nothing as we left, though he exchanged nods with several of the brothel’s employees like he knew them. He had that same grin the whole time, and it didn’t get less worrying as we walked. As usual with Miles, everything about this situation was completely wrong, but i couldn’t see what to do but go along with it.
He led the way to a gondola, reminding me eerily of the night I’d killed that guard, what felt like a very long time ago. The situation was different this time, though; it was early evening rather than later at night, and the gondola was a normal one rather than the special boat he’d used last time. I still felt a quiver of trepidation as I stepped aboard, though. Miles stepped on beside me, and the gondolier pushed off, guiding the boat towards the mainland.
“Where are we going?” I asked, more insistently now that we were alone.
“Narrows,” he said cheerily.
I blinked. I hadn’t been to Narrows in my months in Aseoto, for a very simple reason. In any city, there are places that are affluent, and those that are not. But then there are those that are more than just poor. Places that, if a neighborhood could be described as depressed, would be suicidal. Places where no one in their right mind would go willingly, where only someone who had no other option would live.
Back in the Whitewood, I had never gone to those parts of town. My parents had made sure that I knew better than to venture there. But we had talked about them, and even if most of the stories had been fabrications, there was at least one thing that was definitely true: it was a place where bad things happened on a regular basis.
Narrows was that place in Aseoto. A collection of tiny islands near the mainland, it was an even worse neighborhood than the mainland itself. It was full of narrow alleys and waterways from which it got its name. The buildings were small, cramped together, and often of very dubious structural integrity. By all accounts, it was the worst kind of neighborhood, a place where even the town guard wouldn’t readily venture.
“Why are we going there?” I asked.
“Well, it’s where the man we’re going to meet wanted to have our little get together,” Miles said. “It’s sort of his place, you see.”
“Who is he?”
“He goes by Cutthroat Kariko. But you’d be better off asking what he is, the answer to which is a crime lord. He leads a fairly substantial gang which has its base in Narrows.”
I sighed. That made a lot of sense – who but a gangster would want to have an important meeting in Narrows? But it also made this a great deal more dangerous. Most people, if you made a bad first impression, were unlikely to do more than scowl and mutter about you. A gang leader had…significantly more ways to express his disapproval.
“Why are you talking to him?”
“The short version is that it’s because he’s a major player in our little group. You might think of him as a financier except that he can provide a good deal more than just money. He has resources and connections that he’s throwing behind our efforts, and which are essential to our plans. And so we have to take steps to keep him supportive, including things like meeting with him in person in the place of his choosing to discuss progress updates.”
I perked up at that. “We’re making progress?”
Miles grinned a little wider. “That we are, little Silf, that we are. Slowly but surely. Nothing about this work is ever easy, but you keep after it and things happen.”
I nodded slowly.
I said nothing after that, pondering what I had already heard. Miles seemed content to let me, and so we traveled for a time in silence.
It wasn’t that long before we reached Narrows. It looked much like I had imagined it. The boat put us off onto a narrow, cramped alleyway of a street. The buildings pressed in close around it, complete with balconies arcing out over the street and blocking out what little sunlight was left this late in the day. People were sitting on the balconies or the front steps of the buildings we passed, most of them dressed in clothes that were one step up from rags. Other people walked the street, most of them with the slow gait of people who have nowhere to go.
I felt horribly out of place in my tailored clothes and jewelry, and more than half expected someone to rob me. But Miles seemed perfectly at home here, ambling down the street as casually as if it were a main street in Ukiyo. His manner was almost aggressively casual. It was like he took it for granted that the world would get out of his way, and it just sort of went along with it. In a strange way, that confidence was like armor. It all but screamed that he knew something you didn’t, and that it would probably go badly for you if you tried anything. He wasn’t even armed and people were quick to get out of his way.
The funny thing about the place, though, was how familiar it was. I’d never lived in a district like this one, not even close. But the desperation, the hunger, the listlessness, it all reminded me forcefully of the refugee camps. I could feel that facet of me welling up just looking at it, hungry and cold and ruthless. I had to consciously make an effort to push it back down, and I could still feel it.
It was a relief when Miles walked up to the door of what looked like a particularly seedy tavern. There weren’t very many people inside, just the bartender and a couple of people sitting at the bar and drinking heavily. Miles ignored them, heading straight for the staircase leading to the second floor.
The upper floor looked a little nicer than the taproom, but that was a low bar and it didn’t clear it by much. The floors were wood, and heavily worn; the paint on the walls was peeling. It was hard to believe that any self-respecting crime lord would be using it as a meeting place. But then, I supposed that was probably the point. Who would think to look here for him?
Miles opened the third door on the left, and I got my first look at a gangster.
Cutthroat Kariko was a large man, even sitting down. Standing he would have towered over me. He was fairly round, but I didn’t make the mistake of thinking he was fat. There was a lot of muscle there. He had numerous small scars on his face and hands, but nothing major that showed. He dressed well, about as well as i did, but with more expense. He wore quite a bit of jewelry, everything from rings and a necklace to earrings all along one ear. Even the buttons of his vest looked to be made of silver.
“Miles,” he said in a faintly distasteful tone. “You’re late.”
“A thousand pardons,” Miles said with a grin. “I was picking up my friend here. Kariko, this is Silf. She’s working with us as an information source.”
Kariko grunted. “You brought an informer here?”
“Not an informer per se,” Miles said. “Silf is working as an escort for nobility events. She hears things at them, and passes them along.”
“That is almost worse.”
“I know you’re not fond of nobles,” Miles said soothingly. “But I assure you, neither is Silf. She probably hates the upper crust of Aseoto even more than you do, if anything.”
Had he said that before I started this, I would have been confident that it was true. Now…it was complicated. I hated the nobility in general, of course I did; how could I not after what they had been party to? What they were complicit in?
But the individuals I met, well, it was more complex than that. Some of them were certainly every bit as vile as I would have thought. But there were a few, most notably Lucius, who were different.
Life was so much simpler when things were black and white.
“If you say so,” Kariko said. His tone suggested that he was deeply doubtful.
“In any case,” Miles said briskly. “I’m not here to talk about Silf’s work, vital though it is. Rather, we’re here to discuss the latest progress update. So, let us begin. House Takeo has pledged unofficial support, with of course the caveat that if we’re caught they know nothing about us.”
Kariko grunted again. “No surprise there.”
“No, but it is good. We also have a member of the emperor’s personal guard who, while not willing to wield the knife himself, has promised to give us access when the time comes to move. It will take time to move him into position, though, and it will take planning to ensure that he’s able to act when the time comes.”
“Can’t stand a traitor, but that’s a hell of an advantage.”
“Agreed, on both counts.” Miles paused. “What else, let’s see…oh, Marius is out. Seems he wasn’t willing to deal with some of the realities of our little operation. House Anaki has sent another payment, seven thousand in gold. We had to eliminate two legion investigators who were stumbling onto clues as to our little project. And I think that’s it for news this time.”
“Not bad on the whole,” Kariko said. “Things are proceeding well.”
“Agreed,” Miles said with an infectious grin. “We should be ready to move within a few months.”
I was…startled. That was a lot sooner than I’d ever really thought of this as being. Sure, I’d known that I was working for the end of bringing about the death of the emperor. And if you’d asked me, and I thought I could trust you with it, I’d have told you that.
But…it was something that had felt very far away. It was a long term goal, not anything I’d really put a time frame on. Having it be just a few months out was…something that I would have to adjust to.
“Well, Silf, I believe that is our cue to depart,” Miles said. “We wouldn’t want to presume upon our honored host’s gracious hospitality longer than necessary, after all; he is a busy man. I hope you learned something valuable from this little excursion.”
“Yeah,” Kariko said, half-grunting. “Pleasure to meet ya, Silf. Good luck with…whatever it was you do.”
I was silent the entire trip back to the Comedy. I had…a lot to think about.
Rose did not ask me where I had gone.