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Snippets: Before Worm

Author’s Note:  I’ve decided on the story I’m going ahead with, and need to take some time to set up the site and rewrite the first chapter.  There isn’t much use in continuing with samples, so… something else!

I started to write ‘An Über and Leet Christmas’, and it wasn’t fun, funny or Christmassy.  It wasn’t enjoyable, even.

So I was left to think about what other things might be of interest… and I consider this idea kind of a penance.  It’s penance because it’s awful and it’s embarrassing to put it out there.  A lot of it is really awful.  But I think it’s interesting to see where things came from.  I’m picking out the strongest or most noteworthy story from a given set of years.

Presenting: the (terrible) stuff I wrote in the superhero genre before settling on Worm.  Be warned, these stories don’t have endings (Worm was the first thing that did), so they sort of cut off.

There’s actually a lot of words here.  Don’t feel you have to read all of them in one sitting – you’ll hurt yourself.  For a sense of what other stories were written, and my (off the top of my head) framing for many of them, see this comment and the follow-up comments on Worm, a while back.

A bit of history, and an insight into how things evolve over the course of building a world through multiple stories.

Runechild (2002) – The first superhero story I really wrote, back in 2002.  After the bit I posted, it went onto a tangent with Faultline and never got back on track with a main story.

I personally find it interesting to note the elements that are present.  Narwhal, contrary to what I remembered, was the first canon character who was introduced and who stayed with the setting.  Runechild, the protagonist, was supposed to be a novice Doctor Strange, but wound up being a telekinetic with a few gimmicks.  There was more at play with the ‘is it magic or something else?’ question.  In the end, she was the only real character I wrote who didn’t really make it into Worm in one form or another. I would return to it once or twice (the second story featuring her helping Dragon vs. the Dragonslayers, to help circumvent the AI limitations) before deciding that magic didn’t work, and that Ottawa was a crappy place to set a superhero story.

TELUTT (2004) – AKA, ‘the events leading up to that Thursday’.

Not the first draft of TELUTT, the story switched between Faultline, the Triumvirate and Guts & Glory.  It was an attempt at tying everything in together.  I like that there’s one scene in there (At the end) that was pretty much copied exactly and inserted into Worm, even though I haven’t opened these documents in a long, long time.  The nature of Faultline’s meeting with her ‘crew’ is essentially what happened in canon.  That said, wow, are my protagonists a pain in the ass to read this early on (arrogant/annoying).  At this juncture, I was still figuring out a way to make powers interesting.  I was bored with many of them, and I was lapsing into some of the ‘standby’ powers, like tinkers without anything interesting to them.

Guts & Glory (2006ish) – Panacea and Glory Girl.  This could count as canon, almost.

Some names have changed since.  I recall that Amy would have been Annie if I hadn’t changed my mind a few minutes before Interlude 2 went live, in Worm.  The nature of the story would have involved a stronger relationship between Amy/Annie and Brett/Gallant, her finding her way, and ultimately led up to her incarceration.  It was too dark, though, and there wasn’t anything to salvage it.  All those people who talked about what would happen if Amy had gone to the wrong prison?  The other drafts (which are unfortunately handwritten) went into that, and it was ugly, with her basically going full-on Class-S threat.

The Travelers (2007ish) – See the Migration arc.

Basically any drafts I linked would be worse versions of Worm’s arc 17.  I wrote them for a while after a friend suggested I was too fond of the ‘crummy powers being used well’ trope.

Circus vs. Elite (2008ish) – Circus was a character I wrote for a while, but she doesn’t feel like she has a lot of personality, looking back.

Hey, Bitch is there, in her first incarnation!  And a variant on Bonesaw (who made it into every elite team before settling in the Slaughterhouse Nine)! Chuckles features in a fight as well.  This was around the time that I started to conceptualize what I was looking for in a protagonist.  I started to write Grue as a protagonist for a short bit before I finally stumbled on Taylor’s character.

Myriad  (2010) – Worm, second or third draft.

Oh, man, did I ever write a lot of drafts of Worm, covering a lot of bases.  Oh man, do they not feel right, rereading them.  This is going to feel really redundant, but hey.  I’ve alluded to this before, but I started off trying to emulate other serials, and I was writing too little (600-900 word entries), and it really hurts the flow.  I was still finding a voice and an identity for characters at this point.  Eight or nine drafts followed this over the months, as I searched for those voices, tried to figure out where to start my story, and struggled to find my stride.  Then I started Worm.

Sample: Boil 2

“Bear with me,” I spoke to my companion.  I struggled to manage the bulky life-sustaining apparatus.  “This is something of a puzzle.  No money, they’ll be looking for us, and I’ll need a lab if I’m to fix you up.”

My hard shoes sloshed through the shallow puddles, and the water flowed in through the gaps between sole and shoe, laces and the tongue.

“First option would be to suborn myself, put myself in league to some back-alley flesh peddler.  I imagine it would be someone like the man who bought your injured body and patched you into the thinking machine.”

He didn’t reply.  Couldn’t.  I added, “Don’t worry.  That’s not an option.  Too easy to wind up someone’s Igor, and I won’t speak of what happens when one is a young lady.”

It was cold, and I was wet, and I was getting colder and wetter.  The rain was supposed to clean the city, but it felt more like it was stirring up the noxiousness that had been content to lay flat against the ground.  A coppery smell, with traces of offal and sweat.  It was thick enough in the air that I could taste it in my mouth, as if it crept down past my nasal cavities and reached the back of my tongue.

The droplets of moisture that bounced back from every raindrop formed a kind of mist that highlighted the edges and tops of roofs and lamps.

“First priority,” I said, “Is finding shelter.  You won’t handle the cold very well, like that.  Not with the shock to your mind and body so recent.  Trust me, sir.  Give me all of your faith, relax.”

The stroke of God’s hand, I thought.  The original meaning of the term, dating back to the year sixteen-hundred or so.  For ‘thinking machines’, the lack of stimulus and motor function would inevitably lead to a critical failure in the brain, with internal bleeding and permanent damage.  Depending on how heavily the brains were crosswired, how blood supply was shared, and the complexity of the machine, the stroke could impact others, if not the entire grid.

The chances would increase with stress and fear.  It wouldn’t do me any good if my one ally in this were touched by God’s hand, so to speak.  I needed him calm.

Doctors had started lobotomizing the thinking machine operators, maintaining only the necessary functions for counting or theory.

It was more ethical.  It wasn’t an option for me.

It was also telling, I noted, that my partner here hadn’t been treated.  Was it a question of the short time he’d been in the company of the others, or had he been working on something else?  It could be as innocuous as the attempted writing of a great play by machine, where any limitations in the brains would impact the piece.  It could be a part of a larger project.

The question was, what did a back-alley doctor need with a thinking machine?

There were too many uncertainties, here, yet I needed help.  I needed to reach out to somebody, but an honest gentleman would turn me into the authorities.  A dishonest man would sell me out.

The men and women I saw in the shadows weren’t quite ordinary.  The men had thick, broad chests and muscular arms, the women had wide hips and narrow waists, many well past the point of exaggeration.  Here and there, someone had eyes that caught the light in a funny way, like a dog or a cat might.  I couldn’t be sure if they were looking at me, noting the young woman with the head, mechanical heart and jars of blood.

Injections and surgical alterations were available for pennies if one was willing to sacrifice quality or accept a side effect or two.  Those side effects might be hair that grew in thicker, a hardness in the abdomen where an organ had swelled and would remain swelled, a hunger pang for a particular food or at a particular time, to sate something that had been added or taken away.

Horror stories circulated among students in the University, of poorly done reconstructions and alterations.  A mother who ate her child, a man who went too far in reconstructing himself and began dismantling people in a mindless, automatic urge to add to himself.

Maybe they were true.  Probably true, I mentally revised the statement.  There was bound to be some note of truth to them.  Those, however, were the exceptions.  If I objectively separated myself from the student’s mindset, the real horror stories were the most common ones.  The things that ran rampant, in the midst of all this, with thousands of people handing over hard earned money for better bodies, only to pay a price after the fact.

There was the fact that people sought it out.  The University didn’t need to manipulate or leverage anything to make it happen.  They provided a path to changing one’s body, mind or overall physiology, and the people gladly took that road.  All the University needed to do was leave the door open.

All of these things required maintenance.  Chemicals or surgery that altered the body or the brain often needed to be touched up from time to time, issues corrected.

The question was, who required the most maintenance, while wanting the least attention from the authorities?

I made my way down the road, glad to put as much distance between myself and the station as possible.  I was soaked, through and through, and my arms were aching where the life support device was digging through my sleeves.  My wet stockings squished in my soaked shoes, and Dolores was clutching my upper arm tightly to leech warmth from me, until it almost hurt.

“I know where we need to go,” I said.  But we need a little luck on top of that.

I took a winding path through the city.  Part of my reason was to lose the trail, the other was out of a lack of familiarity with the area.

I saw some individuals that were dressed poorly, a little dirtier than most, boys and girls who might not have had homes to return to, one chimerical creation that had gotten loose at some point in the past and was now devouring trash in the ditch.  I was moving in the right direction.

Cities were organisms, with a heartbeat of their own.  Everything was built with some manner of chaotic logic.  Almost always, a city was founded on water.  The first buildings that went down went down near the nearest, clearest source of drinking water, and things unfolded from there.  Roads served as the concourses by which resources were distributed, as veins carried blood, hormones and nutrients.

The most essential buildings were the first to be established.  Homes, facilities, churches, essential businesses.  Less essential businesses would follow, then the least essential.

It should have made sense.  In an ideal world, it would have.  It didn’t.  Perhaps the theory didn’t apply quite so accurately as I’d hoped.  Perhaps I was making a grave error in judgement, in terms of how I classified this type of business.

I knocked, and a tense moment passed.

“Play dead,” I said.  “Better if they don’t think you have a brain, for the time being.”

There was no way for him to answer, so I had to trust he could hear.

Even on the outside steps, I could feel the force of the foosteps inside.  The door opened with such force that the lantern that hung outside swayed.  The tallow flame within cast light through the red-tinted glass, making the light around us dance briefly.

A brute of a man stood opposite me.  He had an underbite, his bad teeth spaced apart, his brow heavy.  He was broad shouldered, hamfisted, a caricature of a man.  He was dressed neat, with a collared shirt and silk vest, his hair parted.  Maybe it was meant to speak to the class of the establishment, or a way of downplaying his appearance.  Instead, it seemed to draw attention to the things that were wrong.

I’d lucked out.  Whether that was good or bad luck remained to be seen.

“I have a proposition,” I said.

“We don’t serve women here,” he said.  He looked me up and down, unashamed. “And you’re a bother to work with.  No.”

“Not that,” I said.  “Not either of those things.”

“If you’re selling that, I don’t want it.”

“Not that either,” I said.  “I need a room.”

“No space,” he said.  “And no reason to give you a room anyways.”

“Room, board, and a few things” I said, “In exchange, you have free use of my services.  I was a student at the University, a scientist in training.  I have skills.”

“I know people, I can get whatever you’re offering already.”

“For free?  In a timely fashion?”  I asked.

“Not free,” he said, frowning.  “For room, board, and whatever else you’re asking for, and no doubt my silence.  On a good night, having one more room helps business plenty, and I have enough secrets to keep.”

“I understand,” I said.  “You took a regimen of the Balfour formula?”

“Little lady,” he said, and his deep voice had a dangerous note to it, “I recommend you find another place to get dry.”

My voice caught, forcing me to stop and swallow the lump in my throat before I could try again.  I wanted to sound confident, but I wasn’t good at it.  I fell back on what I knew, instead.  “Done right, the Balfour formula makes you strong, promotes masculine features, builds muscle.  Just the sort of thing a… service provider like yourself needs to keep customers in check and employees in line.  Done wrong, it induces gigantism and acromegaly.  The pituitary dumps hormones into the body.  You grow, and if it’s done very badly, you don’t stop growing.  Eventually, the heart gives out.  It’s not hard to figure out.”

“You know your babble.  Good for you.  Find another place to hide you.  If I find you sleeping on my stoop, I’ll kick you.  Don’t think I won’t.”

“Balfour’s formula makes you more impulsive.  You’re an adolescent boy at the height of a hormone surge, all the time.  You want… company, you’re always a touch drunk, you want to fight more than you did.  Some people like it.  At first.  Few enjoy it.  Not five years after the fact, when the body still hasn’t reached an equilibrium.”

“Give the girl an apple,” he said.  “Three years.”

“I knew because of your teeth.  When you grow too fast, and the growth plates shift to that extent, your teeth shift position.  Your body can’t grow like that without getting the materials from somewhere, and your teeth are one of those places.  An infected tooth leeches calcium from the bone, and a damaged bone can leech calcium from the teeth.  I can look at it, and I can figure it’s been about three years.”

“Mmm hmm,” he said.

“It would have been excruciating, growing so quickly, so fast.  Your posture is suffering, this late in the day, which makes me think you haven’t stopped growing.  Your hands will hurt, making even holding something painful, the tissues must well.   The teeth bother you more than anything, I’m sure, since you’ll be endlessly hungry but the teeth are falling apart.”

“Everyone has problems,” he said.

I continued, almost unable to help myself.  “You haven’t had them fixed.  You’re spending the money elsewhere.  My guess?  Someone offered you the Balfour regimen, there were side effects, and now you’re still going back to them for regular care, to keep your heart going, to get calcium, and to get pain relief.  Anyone that works for you goes to him too, because it’s convenient.”

“And?”

“And… you’re under his thumb.  Maybe he’s said no other doctor would know the ins and outs of your body like he does.  Or he’s said other scary things.  If you were going to look for help despite that, the nature of your business means you don’t want people looking at it too hard.  I’m offering you a way out.”

He folded his arms, glowering at me.  “You’re saying he lied?  I could go to any doctor, and the care I get would be just as good?”

“No.  He’s right.  Any other care, it wouldn’t be as good as the care you get from a doctor who knows the full case history.  One of the best tools we have are the living ratios.  Charts and scales we memorize, or try to memorize.  Constants and patterns, across medicine and biology.  The more he knows about you, the better he can put the pieces into place, intuitively knowing the measures and doses required to fix you… except he’s the one that broke you in the first place, isn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“I just finished a year working on a project built on bone and enamel.  Give me one month and some things to start, and I’ll give you new teeth.  Give me a few months, and I’ll fix your jaw.  For as long as you keep me, I can help with the pain.  On demand, with no having to wait until this other doctor can make the time.”

“I am already irritated with you, little lady.  You’re giving me the patter I might expect from a snake oil salesman, you woke me up early enough I won’t be able to go back to sleep.  You want to overturn my unpleasant but tolerable life.  The idea of spending any more time with you is making me want to hit something.”

He’s considering the idea, then?  “I had a roommate.  I know how to be quiet and stay out of the way.  I’d prefer it, working in peace, when I’m not working for your benefit.”

He glowered at me, briefly chewing his lips, before looking away.  He sighed, heavily.

When he finally spoke, he said, “Room, you eat what they cook.  What do you need, for supplies?”

“Surgical implements, but I’ll make do with kitchen knives.  I need a voltaic horse, alive or dead, but it’s going to die, so dead is probably more convenient, cheaper.  A table with a flat surface and a chair, a bed, a hot bath and a change of clothes.  Once I have that, I can manage on my own.”

“The horse will be expensive.”

“I’m suspicious you could buy a voltaic horse every two months with what you’re paying the other Doctor.”

He turned to step back into the foyer, leaving the door open.  I took it as an invitation to follow.

I felt a thrill of victory.  I might not be able to navigate the unfamiliar parts of a city with ease, but I knew my science.

If the streets had smelled like blood and sweat, the interior had a trace odor of other, baser things.

“Stay,” he said, as we reached the sitting room.  Velvet-covered chairs and loveseats littered the area, and a small bar stood in one corner, unoccupied.

Three women, my age, reclined in the open space.  I knew them, in a manner of speaking.

‘Daisy’ was blonde, conventionally attractive with a wasp waist, though she wore a bathrobe.

Both ‘Violets’, by contrast, were brunette, more slender, with a smattering of freckles on their faces.  The freckles varied slightly in intensity and placement, but the shape of their faces and their bodies were the same.  One might have been a year or two younger than the other.

Mass produced people, also known as centuplets, despite the fact that there were more than a hundred of each.

I found a flat space near the fireplace and set my companion down.  The artificial blood pump first, then the head.

“Who’s he?” Violet asked.  Coy, mischievous, but Violets were.  They were also perpetually active, which might have explained why the two Violets were awake so early.

“Leave them alone,” Daisy said, before taking another puff of the cigarette.  I knew Daisy was more businesslike.

“Who are you, miss?” Violet two echoed her sister, smiling a little, in a way that reached the corners of her eyes.  Deliberately annoying Daisy.

She,” the master of the house said, as he appeared in the entryway, “Has no identity.  She does not exist, you do not mention her to anyone.  You ignore her, unless it’s an emergency.  She receives breakfast and dinner.  If there is a dispute, you win, she loses.  While she is here, the bedroom at the far end of the hallway is off limits.”

“Yes, sir,” the centuplets chimed, in unison.  Practiced.

“I understand,” I said.

“You leave them be.  I paid a pretty penny for them, and I won’t have you spoiling them.  They’re trained, domesticated, know everything they need to know.  Disturb my business in the slightest, and this arrangement is done.”

“I intend to stay out of your way,” I said.

“You’re dripping water on my hardwood.  Come.  Your room.”

I went, leaving the head behind to warm up.

He’d laid out a change of clothes, as well as sheets.  As rooms went, it was smaller than my room at the University.  Worse, the smell I’d noticed in the house was thicker here.

It was a place of business, after all, for those ladies of the night.

Still, I couldn’t be too picky.  He had a reason to stay out of people’s way, to avoid the authorities.

“I’m Lacy, so you know,” I said, giving a false name.

“Linus Gibson,” he replied.  “If there is trouble and you are discovered, I will say I thought you were a student that was renting this space and working from here, instead of the University.  I will be shocked and appalled to know you are not legitimate, and I will do everything I can to ensure I get no blame.  I can play stupid, and I will.  You understand?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Where is your head?”

“The head?  I left it by the fireplace.”

“If I’m supposed to ignore you, I won’t have your things lying about.  Collect it.”

“If I could leave it, just before I get my own fire going-”  I gestured at the little stove.  “It’s cold, and there could be brain-“

He gave me a hard look.

“I’ll go get him,” I said.  “Can I briefly collect your bellows, while I do?  You’ll have them back before lunch.”

The hard look intensified.  I could imagine the thoughts running through his mind.

“I expect them back in working order.  I’m going to try to rest, and you’re to be silent.  You’ll have the other things you need tonight or tomorrow.”

I hurried off, to grab the head.  Bending down and reaching, I could feel my arms and back ache with the irritation of hauling it this far.  I made my way back to the bedroom, almost tripping with the awkward burden of head, machine and bellows, and then closed the door.

Using only my hands, no tools available, I dismantled the least essential aspects of the machine, the cosmetic and the convenient things that made it so it could be carried.

The heard stared, silent, as I rigged the bellows to the series of brass gears.  It was moving slower, with the extra pull.  Was it too slow?  Less oxygen would have a negative effect, given this was already close to a minimum.

The hardest aspect was rigging the bellows to the base of the neck, where a cap of metal had been screwed into place.  There were openings, but the tube was the wrong size.  I settled for a scrap of cloth from the tie at my collar, to block the difference, wadding it in.

“I’m Genevieve Fray,” I introduced myself to the head.

The heart and the attached mechanism raised the upper half of the bellows, then slowly moved them down.  Air moved through his throat and mouth, a long exhalation.

“Will,” he wheezed.  “Will Howell.”

I took advantage of the gear’s upswing, the slow raise of the bellow’s arm.  “Do you need anything, Will?  Are you hurt?  Cold?”

“Thirsty,” he said.  He sounded more like a little boy than a man.  “I’m parched.”

Of course.  There wasn’t anything hooked up to provide hydration.  It was a temporary rig.

“I can put something together.  I’ll need to find if there are any empty jars in the pantry.”

“No.  I can wait,” he said.  He sounded out of sorts.

Well, he was a disembodied head, it couldn’t have been easy.

“Putting water in your mouth wouldn’t help,” I said.  “There isn’t a place for it to go.  I’ll need to prepare something soon.  A checklist.”

“You’re really one of them.  Good god.”

“Yes, how else did you think I would give you a new body?” I asked.  I waited for him to respond.  With him breathing this way, it would be too easy to dominate the conversation.

“N-never understood it.  I left home for three years, came back…” he paused, waiting for the bellows to come down again, he used the delay to close his eyes, hard, as if shutting out the world.  “…everything was different.  The academy is five times the size, people…”

I needed a working relationship with him.  I was patient, giving him the voice he likely hadn’t had since he was thrown from the rooftop.  I stepped over to the fire, to start it.

“…are stranger.  There are monsters, people with horns, skin as white as alabaster, and people treat them as if they were commonplace.”

Everything was already in place in the fireplace, no doubt for a girl expecting a customer.  I started it, then stood and approached Will.  “These strange things are commonplace, now.  Where did you go for those three years?”

“Detroit.  Engineering, Learning to work with hard sciences.  Not so…” his voice pitched high as he tried to rush the last words out before the air stopped.

I reached out, moving the arm away, raised and lowered the bellows myself.  My hand ran over the rest of the machine, checking.  Blood was forcibly oxygenated by natural intake and bacteria cultures, no doubt.

“Not so glamorous…  as you lot.  As the wet sciences…  Frowned on.”

I turned the head around, and then began changing into the drier clothes.

His voice had a different tone to it as he spoke.  Hollow, and not the hollowness of a lungless man speaking.  “Came home with my partner, saw my father…  He had been very traditional, but he had mailed me and told me he had two stitch servants.”

“Voltaic servants?”

“Yes.  He saw my hair, was upset when I… told him I had changed the color.”

I looked at his dark hair.

“He said I have someone else’s hair now.”

“Different genetics.  You had someone change the color by changing your own code.”

“It was inexpensive, easier and less messy than applying bootblack.  It was a lark, my friend and business partner… Hudson…”

He paused, and it wasn’t because he was waiting for air.

His voice cracked when he spoke, “N-not my friend, I suppose.  Hudson pushed… me to do it.  Couldn’t undo it and get home… in time.  Decided to brave it.  I was wrong.”

“What happened?”

“I am no longer my father’s son… not in blood, he said… even if I changed my hair back, it wouldn’t be the same hair I was born with… someone else’s blond hair.”

“He kicked you out?”

Again, the hollowness.  It was hard to listen to, enough that I felt uncomfortable, fidgety.  “Yes.  I went with Hudson… brought money I had saved, to help with his business and pay my way… he used the money for the business, stole the rest and pushed… pushed me from the roof.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I finished dressing and turned the head back around.  “Truly.”

“One of you did this to me.”

“One of us will fix it, given a chance,” I said, my voice serious.  “I will fix it.”

“Why?”

He’d uttered one word, for a long breath of air.

“Why fix it?  I need help.”

“Why break out?  Why all this?  I heard them talking…  They would have released you.”

“Would they?  I’m not so sure.  We get locked up for a time, without access to tools, while they check on us.  A lot of upper class men, several upper class ladies.  People from families with money.  Families they cannot readily offend.  But they put a lot into us.  I do not think all of us go home.  Letting too many go with their knowledge intact, it makes for competition.”

“What happens, then?”

“They give us drugs, to keep us going.  Ox, stimulants, depressants, narcotics.  Free access.  If a student dies, it’s their fault, for neglecting ratios and vital numbers.  The family receives condolences, and they do not speak of it to friends.  An accident.  Perhaps the ones that are smart enough to be problematic and too disloyal to work for the University meet accidents, perhaps they use those drugs to lure us back in, while asking if we want a different role, working for the University in a different capacity, dangling the bait of returning, continuing our work.  Perhaps there are other means,” I said.

I met his eyes.  They were green, framed by a brow that was furrowed in concern.

“Don’t believe it.  They wouldn’t…  They can’t.”

“It’s all chemicals,” I said.  “They get the body used to it, then take it away, and the body suffers, the mind craves.  Simple, really.  Except someone like me?  They wouldn’t waste drugs. If they realized my family didn’t have money or influence to spare any longer, that my father is dead, my mother in the care of her brother, they wouldn’t be kind to me.  They’re vast, you understand?  The united Universities have an influence so broad the government couldn’t hope to touch them.  I can’t help but wonder if I wouldn’t become a part of a thinking machine like you were.”

I could see the fear and pain on his expression.  Loss.

Again, I thought of the ‘stroke of god’s hand’.  I had to be gentler, until he had a full body, a way to release the pain and stress that was building up inside him.

“Unlike you, I wouldn’t have had any chance of escape, no hope of getting a body and eventually buying a vat-grown body made from my own cells.  You can regain everything you’ve lost.  Help me, and I’ll help you in turn.”

“You want revenge, too?” Will asked me.

“Yes.  No.  I… I want to answer them.”

“Answer?”

The restlessness was too much.  I stood abruptly from the bed.  I made my way to the window and threw it open.  The rain made tiny droplets on my skin and the nightie I wore, but the fresh air was nice, especially with the thick atmosphere in the room.  Cold, but the house was warmer.  They were perhaps starting up the stoves in the kitchen.

“What did you notice when you returned to the city?” I asked.  “Are they good?  The changes you saw?”

“It’s… God, no,” he said.  “L- look at me!”

His voice had pitched higher, but he couldn’t manage more volume.

I stayed calm, hoping the attitude would convey itself to him somehow, as I might act with a strange beast in the laboratories back at the University.  I shut the window.  “I know.  Besides yourself?”

“We’re making ourselves into monsters, desecrating the dead…  All in the name of vanity and greed.”

“And a share of desperation,” I added.  “A drive to keep up and compete with others who are doing the same.”

“Yes.  Everything I see, it scares me a little more… Just now, back there… the identical women.”

“The centuplets, the ladies of the gardens, whatever term you want to use.  Non-people, no rights by law, as they have no mother or father.”

His voice broke a little, “They’re terrifying.  God, I had no idea, the first times I saw them, but to hear them speak, out of earshot?”

“I know.  I do.  I didn’t like it, but I told myself that it could be better, Will.  That it would find its balance.  I lived by the pragmatism my parents instilled in me, weighing the options every time I thought about using chemicals to get ahead, and always deciding to play it safe, to take the slow and steady road.  I chose to be the turtle, and I lost to the rabbits.”

“I’m not sure I understand… I’m confused.  About everything.”

“I think I was telling myself that if I could play it safe, if I could do things the right way, without compromising, then it was acceptable, there was hope.  But I was betrayed, like you were, by a roommate, possibly by others.  They spoiled my project, and I can imagine any number of things where they have tricked and sabotaged me.  Ox never did much for me.  I wonder now if they stole it or diluted it, to set me back, or because they wanted more than their ration.”

I stopped, hearing sounds elsewhere in the house.  If Linus was going to go find out if someone was looking for me, now would be a time.  But the creaks of the floorboards were too soft to be Linus.

“You’re answering this?”  Will asked me.

Distracted, I tried to return my mind to the thrust of my argument.  “I’m.. looking at the system like I look at Linus, out there.  The owner of this… establishment.  Things have grown too fast, and they’re on the brink of coming apart.  The growth is draining on essential resources, just to sustain itself, it’s ultimately conflicting with itself.  Here, everywhere the Universities are cropping up.  Something needs to respond to it.  There isn’t anything to keep it in check.”

“One person, against that?”

“No.  Two people,” I said.  “Two people and Dolores, here.”

I worked Dolores free of my sleeve, then held her close to my body to warm her.

“Two people and a small monster.”

“And more, Will, if we can manage it.  I want to raise questions, in the public’s eye, because I know they’re aware of what’s going on, that they’re getting shortchanged in this bargain.  I know they’re scared.  I want to rally people against the University, get people angry.  To give the University a reason to slow down, to hold back.”

I could see the doubt on his face.

“There’s a lot of room for this to go wrong.  I know.  I’m not a fool, William Howell.  But what’s the alternative?  We let the University keep growing?  Until it touches everything, more than it already does, and then we watch it die and take everything with it?  We wait for one critical mistake to be made, and a plague takes us all?”

“They’ve assured us that there are counter….” Will said.  “Measures, from the moment the first person raised the idea…  Even before I left for my studies.”

“They’re lying,” I said.  “Or they’re wrong.  I’ve been there.  I didn’t study disease, specifically, but I saw.  I could describe the safeguards they use, and how a disease could spread despite them.  Give me two hours, and I’ll explain it all.”

“That’s not- no,” he said.  “I’m thinking maybe you’re crazy.  Maybe you’re lying, to get this vendetta going.”

But I could see the note of fear on his face.

One person, with a seed of doubt.  Six hundred and seventy thousand, five hundred and ninety-nine to go.

“I’m confused,” he said, again.

“You lost everything,” I said.  “I understand that.”

He blinked, hard.  I respected him by looking away.

“I think I need to wait…” he said.  “To think about it.  I’m not in…”

His voice broke, an odd sound combined with the faint whoosh of the bellows.

“…the right frame of mind,” he finished.

“We have time to discuss it, to lay plans,” I said.  “I promised you a body.  That’s going to take two or three weeks to put together, if not longer.  It depends on how quickly we get the materials.  I should unhook this from your heart, reduce strain on the device, unless you have something more to say?”

“No.  I’m tired.  I need to sleep.  Somehow.”

“Me too.  Let me get you your water, I’ll hook it up.”

I crept down the hall and begged a large mason jar from a Lily that had roused and was going about her routine.  An Eastern woman, by appearance, she was American by dialect.  Prim, proper, demure.  I liked Lilies, I got along with them.

I collected two metal cans, mitts to hold them, boiled water for one, and a length of rubber hose.  Lily was accommodating in showing me where things were, in the midst of preparing breakfast.

Accommodating on the surface.

It didn’t take long to hook up the water.

“What… would happen if you hadn’t helped me?” he asked.

“They would have interrogated you.”

“And then?”

“They would have no use for you.  Who spends the time and money giving you a proper body again, Will?  Do you truly believe a good samaritan would have stepped forward and offered a solution?”

“And you?”

“If we’d met in different circumstances… I don’t know.”

“What of this circumstance?” he asked.

“I don’t function well alone.  I like to feel like I’m a part of something.  There’s a strength in that.  Humans are social creatures.  I had my family, and then I had the University… and I was facing the prospect of having nobody at all.”

“So you take me?  I don’t know you,” he said.

“I don’t know you either, Will Howell.  But that’s okay.  So long as we’re allies in this, it’s okay if you disagree with me.  Having a wall to bounce ideas off of can help with brainstorming.  My best project was a collaborative work.”

I indicated Dolores’ can of water.

“And you’re moving on to… convince the people to join your side?  Going to war against the University?”

“Revolution, not war,” I said.  “Changing perspectives about what’s going on.  Stirring people to act.”

“Perspective is the only difference between revolution… and rebellion.”

“Are we allies in this, Will?  Can you see where I’m coming from?”

“You’re convincing me,” he said.  “But Hudson convinced me too, and I see where that led me.”

“I want a partner, Will, not a subordinate.  Not a slave.  Tell me how you want to approach this, I’ll respect your decision.”

“I- I have doubts, Miss…  I’m tired.  I’ve forgotten.”

“Fray.  Genevieve.”

“Miss Fray.  But I’ll face my doubts on my own, and decide if they need to be shared.  I think I’ll have enough time to think and do nothing else.”

“I’ll give you a body in short order, Will.”

“I know.  Thank you.  For now, do as you wish.  Don’t…” he paused.  His voice had dropped a touch in volume when he continued, “Don’t worry about me.”

“If I may do as I wish, then, can I ask how you want to sleep?  May I pick you up?”

“Yes?” he made it a question.

I answered through action.  I checked the fire, then retreated to the bed, careful of the cords and tubes.  I moved a pillow, so he had a place to rest, and laid him down, before lying down beside him and pulling the covers up.

When we had settled, his head rested in the crook between my bosom and the pillow.

“Tell me if you object,” I murmured.  “I thought perhaps a little human contact would help.”

Dolores splashed in the narrow confines of her can.

Will hadn’t responded.  His eyes were closed.  He looked a touch more at ease.

Not necessarily asleep, but it was hard to tell, when he didn’t breathe.

I needed information, to find this ‘Hudson’, and the man who had turned him into this.

I also needed information on other fronts.  The officers would be upset, after I’d sedated their guards and fled with a witness for another crime, but I wouldn’t be a threat.  Ex-students living in the periphery of the city wasn’t so unusual.

The moment I started working against the University, however, I’d have enemies.  They would start looking for me in earnest.

I needed information before I could find a key point for a dramatic strike against them, or a subtle maneuver that might set them back.

What means did I have?  Gossip?  Too unreliable.  Infiltrating the University?  Suicidal.  Could I go to a private investigator?

Possible.  A safe, sensible route.

A route that needed funds, before anything else.  I needed the information, I needed reputation, and a thumb on the pulse of the community.  I needed to be in a position to deliver a grave blow in a sensitive area.

I was patient, I could wait, to let it happen, but I’d leave too much room for failure if I tried to achieve it as a sequence.  If one step failed, every step that followed would fail in turn.  Without funds, we’d lack information, without information we wouldn’t know where to strike, and without a successful, attention-grabbing form of attack against the established order, we wouldn’t be able to build reputation.

I needed to achieve all of these things together.  I needed to help Will.

What I wouldn’t give for a dose of Ox.  A diluted dose, a placebo, to help the ideas click

Then I felt the piece fall into place.  An idea, turned around.

“Hey.  Will,” I murmured, half asleep.  “How would you like to become a private investigator?”

Sample: Boil 1

I reached out with one hand, and ten needles sank into the pig’s soft flesh, eliciting murderous screams.  Loud.  It thrashed against its bondage.

Sorry, pig.

“Mr. Bowles, if you please?” Mr. Hayworth spoke.  Not a question, per se.

The young student, an attractive young man in uniform, moved the turntable that the pig was caught on.  The animal’s screams continued as it continued to struggle against the arrangement of metal bars that held it in place.

The injection area now faced away from me, leaving me unable to see the progression.  I was nervous, my mouth dry.  My leg kept wanting to bounce up and down, which would have been unsightly.

Three men, only one of whom I knew, sat at the long table opposite me.  They watched me, and they watched the pig.  The thick tome of pages I had carefully typed out sat before them, untouched.

An older man without a wrinkle on his face gestured at my hand.  I held it up.  Each finger nail had two spurs of bone extending from the sides.  He nodded, then looked down at a piece of paper, frowning as he scribbled something down.

The pig’s squealing abruptly died down.  It would be dead now.  More frowns from the table across me.  They didn’t look impressed.

Had it taken too long?

Had one of the injection sites failed to take?  If I’d succeeded, then there should be five patches of flesh turning color.  This would indicate the injections had been delivered successfully.  Most settled for one injection site and a dye.  For drama, and to show the full breadth of what I was doing, I had gone for practical application.  De-oxygenization, extracellular distortion with high biliruben levels, enzymes to rebind the hemoglobin and break up the capillaries, bacteria to hyperoxidize, as well as a hemorrhagic.

I had set the bar high for myself, in this.  I put my odds at one in forty.  I’d doubled down on each dose, but even so…

Still with my hand raised, I retracted the spurs.  I clasped my hands in front of me before they could start shaking.

“You have three colors,” Professor Hayworth finally said.  He was the only one I knew on this committee.  Unfortunately.  He had light blond hair and he hadn’t even taken off his coat before sitting down, and he toyed with his fountain pen as though distracted or bored.  “Blanched blue flesh, orange with boils, purple bruising… and I believe more bruising.”

“If you’ll please wait?” I asked, even as I felt a cold hand close around my heart.  No, no, no.

“Ah.  I think I see another,” another professor said.  The youngest of the three, he looked no older than thirty.  Not that looks indicated much.  “Green, a touch faint, but distinct.”

Faint?  I’d tested the hyperoxidizer and hemorrhagic any number of times.  Was it the pig’s fault?  Was it from a different farm?  Did it have thicker skin?

“With the demonstration over, we can begin the questioning,” the older professor said.  There wasn’t a waver in his voice.  He didn’t sound old. Only his hair and a poor posture betrayed his real age.

“Yes, professor,” I said.

“What was your source material?” the youngest professor asked.

An easy question.  Something to help me get my bearings.  “Shelley’s third codex.”

“What is the mechanism?”  the old professor again.

“Telescoping series of bone, forming taps, drawn out of the body by synovial fluids in a hydraulic mechanism.  When the bone is fully extended and pressure is placed on the taps, the channel is opened to force the fluids out.”

“Mechanical, then?”

“Yes, professor.”

“You showed mechanical work last year as well,” Professor Hayworth said.  “In fact, there was a great deal that was similar to this.  Telescoping.”

“I did, professor.”

“Professor Pruitt was on that committee, if I recall.  He had a car he was fancying.  He was in a phase of fetishizing machinery, which may be the only reason that project passed muster.”

“You could be right, professor,” I said.  I was being rude, suggesting he might be wrong, but I wasn’t sure how else to respond, and I couldn’t be silent.  I wasn’t about to agree.

“Shelf life?”  the young professor asked.

I was maybe falling a touch in love with him.  He was making this easier, asking the questions I wanted them to ask.  “Lifetime.  Nothing should need replacing, barring a needle breaking in a struggle, and even then it should be easy enough.  The cartridges can be refilled by use of a syringe.”

“Where are the cartridges?” the old professor again.

“Within the proximal phalanx of the respective finger,” I said, tapping the longest bone of my middle finger.

“Show me?  The fingers, not the cartridges.”

I did, extending my hand with fingers down.  He gestured, and I turned my hand around, fanning out my fingers, then closing them.

“No scars,” the young professor said, approving.

Some young ladies were wooed by poems and flowers.  He had inadvertently targeted my weak point, my science.  I smiled a little, curtsying just a bit before I remembered where I was.  “No, professor.  I’d like to say it’s because I’m talented in that respect, but the cartridges are easy to install.”

“I imagine you still have the blemishes on your arms?”  Hayworth asked, almost casual.  As if it were a non-sequitur.

Joy squashed.  Dash it all.  “Yes, professor.  I’ve treated them.  You would have to look carefully to see.”

“Roll up your sleeve, please?” he asked.

Not the subject of this particular discussion, but I couldn’t exactly refuse.  I unbuttoned my shirt at the wrist, then rolled it up.  Stretch marks ran across my skin, only really visible in the wrong light.

The young professor looked too, of course.  I wanted to hide.  There was no need to keep my arm up this long, I’d done as I was asked.  Yet I held firm.  I had made mistakes and I would face them.

Even with everything on the line.

“I don’t have to look carefully to see,” Hayworth said.  “Don’t lie to us, Miss Fray.”

“Yes, professor,” I responded, more offended than chastised.

“This student,” Hayworth went on, for the benefit of the others at the table, “chose to demonstrate her first year project using augmentations to her own body, as she’s doing today.  There are a wealth of individuals in the lower class who will gladly serve as a test subject in exchange for some free care.  Something looked at, something removed, or perhaps some cosmetic attention.  To demonstrate a project using yourself indicates confidence.  Being wrong in the face of that confidence indicates exceedingly poor judgement.  The scars suggest your last project was poorly thought out.”

I momentarily wished Hayworth and the pig could have traded places before this started.

“Hayworth isn’t entirely wrong, we have a great many facilities at our disposal,” the older professor agreed.  “Something to keep in mind.  Let me ask, with such small cartridges, the doses must be small?”

“I used a high concentration,” I said.  “I could do the same to twenty pigs.”

The old professor’s eyebrows raised.  Wrinkles appeared in places that shouldn’t have them, with the uncharacteristic change in his appearance.

“With only four out of five doses working?” Hayworth asked.

“My tests showed all five doses working reliably,” I said.  True, but it felt like an excuse, given the situation.

“A correspondingly high chance of self-contamination, then, with this high concentration dose, and the risk of breakage?”

Could I stab myself?  Or would I infect myself with the poisons or drugs I’d loaded into the cartridges?

“The telescope structure is strong enough I wouldn’t fuss, Professor.” I said.  “The only sort of impact that would put me at risk would be the sort that broke every bone in my hand.”

“A risk, nonetheless,” Hayworth said.

“I know many students who carry volatile chemicals and pathogens on their person.  Any impact that could break a hand could break a bottle they carry.”

The older professor frowned.  “I recommend that you do not let the carelessness of other students lower your own standards, Miss Fray.”

I bit my tongue instead, taking a second.

“Yes, professor,” I finally said.  I even managed to sound proper.

“Market?” the young one asked me.

Another question I was glad to answer.  “Upper class women.  Even lower class women would find it appealing, and the turnaround to produce components is short.  It’s discreet, convenient, easily added once and then forgotten, with no maintenance.  It serves as a means of self defense when out and unaccompanied.  If accosted, they can scratch or inject their assailant.  Our nation’s spies could use them as well, if the situation warranted.”

“Interesting thought, and not a traditional direction,” the young professor said.

“Because it’s a poor direction to take,” Hayworth said.  “Proper young ladies put a priority on appearance.  What message does it send, if a young lady conceals hooks and barbs all over her person?”

“If you would allow me to speak from the perspective of a young lady…” I said.

“I would rather answer your other point.  Please.  Remember you are in a university setting, Miss Fray, and we cannot speak out of turn, or this will devolve into chaos.  You think spies should use these devices to poison America’s enemies?  When the world is on guard against this very thing, in this burgeoning new age?  An actual syringe can be destroyed or discarded after use.  If a spy was searched thoroughly, someone would surely notice the holes in their fingertips.”

An actual syringe can be found readily before use.  “The holes are miniscule, professor.”

“Miniscule holes can still be detected.  My biggest problem, Miss Fray, is the scope of this project,” Hayworth went on.  “Many of your fellow students make a term project out of something more grandiose.  Developing a new lifeform to a certain life stage, a new manner of voltaic life, a pathogen.  What you demonstrate here would be an interesting feature, a detail in another, grander project.”

“I seem to recall you stating that small things can be the most dangerous.  I believe it was in my second class ever, you were one of the professors who spoke.”

“Are you giving me lip, Miss Fray?”

“No, professor,” I said, my voice tense.  “I’m trying to argue the merit of my work.  This is the point of the annual dissertation?”

“If you’re going to be disrespectful, you can step out of the room, and we’ll conclude this without you.”

I pursed my lips.  I can’t afford to fail here.  “Yes, professor.  I’m sorry.”

“Many of our students are here from a young age.  Some exceptional students join us at a later date.  Some less exceptional students join us at a later date, by virtue of luck or happenstance.  I believe you’re one of the latter cases.”

“I only joined two years ago, professor.”

“Sometimes this happens,” Hayworth said, and he sounded unnervingly soft spoken.  “A clever student has an idea, but it’s not one they can prepare in the span of a year.  They take one small aspect of the project, then try to build a dissertation around it.  Sometimes this works.  They scrape by, some geniuses pass with flying colors, and then they stun the committee with their results the following year.  More often, it doesn’t do well because it’s a mere three months of work, when we’re expecting the sum of ten.”

The younger professor wasn’t speaking up.  He hadn’t, not since he saw my arm.

Hayworth continued.  “Tell me, Ms. Fray.  Do you have a hidden project in the wings?”

“I have three other projects that were near completion.”

“Any unifying theme?  Can you tie them together?”

“No, professor.”

“There are no extracurricular activities in your record, as I understand it.  Have I been misinformed?  Have you been working in the libraries, with sales, military, sticks, or the clean up details?”

No time.  “No, professor.”

“Is there anything to add?  Something to add, justifying your use of University resources?”

I paid tuition.  In a roundabout way.  I earned my scholarship, and that money went to you.  Money in exchange for resources.

Very reluctantly, I said, “No, professor.  Nothing to add.”

“I see.  Thank you, Ms. Fray.  If you would return to your residence, someone will be along shortly to inform you about our decision.”

“Thank you,” I responded, not feeling grateful at all.  I headed to the door, giving the table a sidelong glance.

The rumor among the students was that if at least two of the committee members went straight to the paperwork when the meeting ended, then you were in the clear.

None of them even glanced at it.

Sorry, pig, that you had to die for the sake of that.

Other students glanced at me as I strode down the hallway.  The students ranged from ten to twenty-five.  Five boys to every girl.  Dozens.  The vast majority of them had a weariness about them.  Most would be getting a minimum of sleep, trying to wrap up their projects and type out an outline that covered every base.  Some were in the company of voltaic creations or their dissertation projects.  Animals with augmentations and a handful of people with augmentations as well.

I was done.  Career over before it started.  Four and a half years of intensive tutoring with ex-students, preparing my admissions project, six months in-school bringing the idea I had conceptualized to life, two years spent here.

I couldn’t help but feel a kind of resentment over the youngest students that were milling in the hallways.  The ones with families that could afford to send them here from an early age.  They would inject themselves with ox, a way of keeping their brains flexible, free associating easily.  They had been dosing themselves with other substances to stave off the need for sleep for days, to make the most of their time.  By the time I had stepped through the front doors and faced the option of doing the same, they had been dosing themselves for so long they were immune or used to the side effects.

I had started out behind and I had never caught up.

Or, better to say, they had started out ahead.

I loved the building, with the gleaming tile floors and the brown stone walls.  It was warm and just a little disorganized in layout, like a living thing should be.  Crawling with ivy.  The residential buildings that sprawled around the foot of the University were more like the roots of the superstructure than anything else.

It was big, somehow overbearing and every few years, the work done here would touch the world beyond.

It would have been easy to use a human test subject.  I could have gone overboard, taken more risks with safety and the cosmetics of it.  It would have hurt me in terms of marketing, perhaps been a bit of a gamble, but I could have been more dramatic.  It was, I suspected, what many other students had done.

I could have, but I hadn’t.  I had seen a few too many of those test subjects coming through the University.  There was a small but noticeable discrepancy between the number who were brought in for the experiments and the number that left.  Small, only a handful each year, but still enough to note.

There was also another concern that nagged at me, but it was more abstract.  The idea that we were so eager to take risks for the sake of a successful, attention-getting dissertation and then summarily hurrying to rush our ideas out the door to potential buyers… I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of that.

In more ways than one, I had been safe.  The self-experimentation was the smallest risk I could have taken.

I returned to my residence room, and my eyes roved over the other projects.  In a tank, Dolores swam, undulating periodically.  Somewhere between an octopus and a jellyfish, she had an open ring for a head.  Smarter than most would consider.  model hands sat on another dresser, carved of wood, with various components arranged on or around them.  The one in front had sections carved and cut off to hold the other spurs I’d made.  Another had the ink reservoir in the palm, as I did in my left hand.

I rolled up my left sleeve and put my arm in Dolores’ tank.

The ring encircled my upper arm.  I withdrew both my arm and Dolores from the tank, letting her four arms wrap around my arm, wrist and hand.  My roommate, still ensconced in her bedcovers, grumbled, annoyed, at the slight splash I’d made.  She would be sleeping off the cocktails of cocaine and other substances she had used to get through her dissertation.  She had passed.

I gave both Dolores and my arm a patdown with a handtowel to dry them, then adjusted Dolores so that one of her oblong eyes were visible.

I pointed, and she reached out with a prehensile limb, seized the book, and pulled it back to me.  It wasn’t strong, and there was a floppiness to the arm that I had hoped to have corrected by now.  Not enough cartilage.

I picked a sugar cube out of a bowl and stroked it along her skin.  I pointed again.

Wrong target.  I splayed out my fingers to stop her, then tried again.  When she was right, I rewarded her with more sugar.  By the time we had a rhythm going, I didn’t need the sugar anymore.  Only an occasional stroke of her head.

If I had four more months here, I could have made a second Dolores, learning from the mistakes of the first.  Or I might have tried something more basic, surgery to restructure her internal makeup.  Shorter, stronger limbs?

I began picking up the various pieces of my room, with Dolores’ help.

“You’re back already, Genie?” Claire, my roommate,  mumbled.  She was still bundled up in her covers, with them over her head and tucked under her legs, but she’d at least turned over to face me.

“Yes.”

She was able to read things from my body language and tone.  Her voice was a little hoarse as she said, “I’m sorry.”

“I won’t hold my scholarship unless they all pass me, and they won’t all pass me.”

“I’m sorry,” she said again. “You could reach out to your parents?  One year of tuition, do better next year?”

I wasn’t sure I would, and that wasn’t an option anyways.  How nice, that she could suggest it in so cavalier a fashion.

She groaned a little.  It wasn’t for my sake, but for hers.

“Would you like anything?” I asked.  “Water?  Food?”

“Yes.  But you should ignore me.  Be selfish, Genie.  If you’re right about them not passing you, they’ll come and ask you to leave, and you’ll only be able to bring what you can pack in two minutes.  Hurry and get yourself set.”

I nodded.  “Thank you.”

She was being nice, even while under the weather.  She had always been nice.

Why did I feel uneasy, thinking that?

She spoke, but her eyes were screwed shut, and she tugged the blanket over her head.  “People are going to ask what happened.  There are a few of them who like you.  They will think I had something to do with it.”

“They have no reason to blame you.”

“What should I tell them?”

“That I love this.  The work.  The learning.  The creation.  It’s everything else that I hate.  The people, for one thing.  I like new ideas too much to stick to one for the dissertation.  That’s where I went wrong.”

There was more, but complaining about the elite students and the advantages they had from attending at a young age wouldn’t go over well with Claire.  She was one of them.

“I guess you’re going home?”

I nodded, but it was a lie.

No home to go to.  Not really.  My family’s fortunes weren’t doing so well.  I had hoped to finish over three more years and then work for the academy, taking my cut from selling research and projects to support my family.

“Can I give you a tip?” she asked.  “A big tip that you positively cannot tell anyone I gave you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Keep Dolores.  Hide her.  They’ll confiscate anything they can find, but they won’t dare touch you.”

I stared down at the little lifeform, with her pink and gray blotches.  Not my work, not entirely.  I had made it with an upperclassman who had dropped out, just as I was about to.

“Alright,” I said.

I gathered my clothes from the drawers, folding them and placing them with my luggage.

When the knock at the door came, I was nearly done.  Only my library books remained, along with some of the booklets that I’d been given when I arrived.

My uniform, too.  I had worked too hard for too long to take it off now.  Dolores lightly squeezed my arm beneath my uniform shirt.

It was the young professor.  I invited him in.

“It is entirely too late in the day for a young lady to be abed,” he said, his voice stern.  “You would do well to study at the library, if you want to maintain your standing.”

Lethargic, tense, doing a poor job of hiding her scowl, Claire rose from bed, brushed her skirt and hair into a semblance of tidiness, standing awkwardly by her bedside.

My heart pounded.

“Genevieve Fray.  I’m sorry,” he said.

I nodded, wholly unsurprised.

There was a kind of relief, mingled with frustration and anger.  I was out from under a pressure that had weighed on me since my second week in the University, but I didn’t want to be.

I had spent a full third of my life working towards this, and now I was done?

“You will need to turn in your uniform, keys, and you must leave everything behind in your workshop, to be cleaned up by other parties.  With no notes in the pathogens or invasive species files, I understand there’s nothing you need to oversee?”

“No, professor.”

“You’ve read and understand the procedures for exit?”

“Yes, professor.”

“I’ll take you to the sticks now.  You will need to remove your uniform.”

“Alright,” I said, feeling a lump swelling in my chest.

I collected the change of clothes from my belongings and stepped into the washroom.

The professor and Claire were talking in low tones.  He was stern, she was quiet.  I heard his voice drop in volume by one notch.

Confiding something?  I felt a twist in my stomach.

Of course.

I took my time getting dressed, thinking.  A white calf-length dress, a thick red belt around the waist, a blouse with a froth of lace as the sleeves and neck, and a red tie for my short black hair.

I turned my attention to Dolores, who I had placed in the sink’s basin.  I jabbed her with one of my ‘spurs’, and watched as she slowly stopped moving.

My only real friend, here.

By the time I stepped out, the professor was looking somewhat impatient.  I handed him my folded uniform.  As he took the folded garment, he could see my bandaged fingertips, a little blood marking the cloth.

“The components?”

I held out my other hand, showing him the little horns of bone.

“In the wastebin,” he said.

I did as he asked.

“Thank you,” he said.  “We should be going.”

Before we could get on our way, Claire hugged me.

I could feel her tense.

When she broke away, I was smiling.  Her eyes dropped to my arm.  I could see her brow momentarily furrow in confusion, her gaze darting to the washroom.

I smiled a little wider.  “You’ve been ever so kind.  Somewhere down the line, I’ll owe you one.”

No Dolores.

The professor was kind enough to take the biggest piece of luggage for me, leaving me to carry two small bags.

The residences were on the street level, and exit was too quick, too soon.

We passed the military building on our way through the gardens.  The color was startling, the birds garish, the flowers so bright and varied they looked like something artificial, especially with the overcast sky and light rain that fell around us.

I had always preferred English style gardens, where things ran wild, more than a little messy, but in a good way.

An distinguished building like the University deserved something more natural.  Which was ironic, given the focus.

We entered the city.  There was nothing natural about it.  A stark contrast, dingy and gray, with roads that were brown and gouged with wet tracks and holes disguised by puddles.  Shit piled in the street, here and there.

There were crowds of ordinary people, with the uncommon oddity among them.  For every thirty people, there was a voltaic man or woman.  I could safely assume that there were probably more than twice that number, given how well the more recent ones were made, with their stitches and scars hidden by hairline and clothing.

I saw a single voltaic horse, pulling a wagon, alongside the other ordinary horses and wagons on the street, and two cars.  A beast of burden that outlast even the doped horses on the streets.  The voltaic beast had flesh sown together patchwork from two different horses, at a glance, with metal studs where it might be plugged into a wall during a lightning storm.

Three ‘Roses’, two ‘Lilies’ and a ‘Violet’, alongside a ‘Hawk’ and two ‘Colts’.  The women were dressed well, considering the climate and surroundings, their immodest dresses in colors that matched their names.  Red, pink and violet.  They smiled and flirted with passerbys with painted lips while the narrow ‘Hawk’ and two hulking ‘Colts’  unloaded boxes and luggage from a wagon.

A Rose, utterly identical to her sister just as the two Lilies and two Colts matched, cooed at the young professor as we passed them.  Her sister echoed her.

The professor’s neck and shoulders were rigid as we passed.  I clasped my hands behind my back, and he glanced down at me.  “Hands in sight, Ms. Fray.”

More oddities.  Men too muscled to be natural.  People who didn’t quite look right, their faces too smooth, their hair colors one step beyond the ordinary, too red or blond.  Uncanny, more than anything.

I counted myself lucky that there were no corpse collectors.  The smell was always atrocious, and the rare scene where someone decided to sell their bodies – a dime for a pound of flesh – was grisly.  I had worked in every type of lab, but it was typically animals that screamed, not people.

“Many students start working in the periphery of the University when they fail to graduate.  Some are too ashamed to return home,” the professor said.  He gave me a pointed look.

“I can’t imagine working in some back alley laboratory,” I admitted.

“I have escorted many students to the sticks in my time as a professor, and virtually every student said similar things.  Yet the number of people performing illegal, clumsy science and medicine in the area continues to increase.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

He led me to a building I had only seen in passing, on my brief trips through town.  The station.

Officers glanced at me as I was led through the building, but I didn’t warrant more than a second look.

“That way,” the chief said, looking up from his desk.  A bulldog of a man, to look at him.  “They’re all full on this end.”

The cells.  A final indignity.

Brilliance took only the right person, the right time and place, and diligence.  Two such individuals had made places like the University a possibility.

To take that brilliance and catalyze it, stirring all of society, there was a need for war.  War to unite.  War to demand the very best.

We’d finished one war, bringing us to this point.  Rumors stirred of another, on the horizon.  Nobody spoke openly of it, but the professors told the complete story with grim silences and the odd intensity that caught them in certain areas.  The dissertations were only one such area.  Certain classes, certain departments…

An arms race, and we students were the means.  We knew it, even if we did not speak of it.

In a way, my disappointment at my failure was a disappointment that I would not be able to serve my country.  I had wanted to do what I loved, to support my mother, support my country… it had felt right.

To be locked in a cell because I knew too many dangerous details to be allowed to find my own way home was wrong.

Still, I didn’t complain as the door slid shut.

My father had always counseled pragmatism.

My father, I couldn’t help but note, had failed, gone bankrupt, and hanged himself.  There was only my mother, living with family.

“Best of luck,” the professor said.

“I never got your name,” I said.

“Donald Newall.”

“Professor Newall.  Thank you for answering.”

“I hope I never see you in front of the court, Fray.  It would be a crying shame if you were caught up in something dodgy.  We’ve had too many go down that road already.”

“I know,” I said.  I wasn’t sure what else was appropriate.

With that said, he left.  The rain was falling harder outside.

I rested my head against the bars, eyes closed, listening.

He had stopped to exchange brief words with the chief.

My suspicions were right.

As cells went, these special quarters were cozy.  Inoffensive.  Proper beds, dressers, sinks and a stall for the toilet.  It was eerily quiet, with only the occasional set of footsteps or the scribbling of a hard pen nib to disturb the peace.  None of the prisoners talked.

Everything and everyone was docile and quiet.  I remained still, ignoring my slowly churning stomach, and I trained my hearing on the footsteps, listening.

When the captain approached, I knew it was him, from the volume and the way the sound approached.

He held a syringe.

Keeping me quiet, like all of the others.  Just like the University provided the ox, the materials for tweaking our doses, so we could stay up and keep working.  Keep feeding them ideas that they could sell, feed them ideas that would give them a critical edge in the war, as the voltaic people had helped decide the first.

“For your information, you’ll be searched while you’re under.  My wife will do the deed.  I’ve run her through it enough times she knows what to look for.”

“Alright,” I said, still feeling a little uncomfortable.

Pragmatism above all else.

If I was going to rebel or argue, this wasn’t the place to do it.

“You should know the drill, if you read your material.  You step out of line once, you get dosed with something that slows you down,” he said, tapping his head.  “If they don’t outright take something out of that skull of yours.  You do something criminal or practice your work without approval from your University, same deal.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Best you remove anything offending, or tell me now, so we might take measures.”

“Okay,” I said. “Just the ink bladder.  My left palm, here.  I couldn’t remove it before I had to go.”

The lies came easily.

He nodded, following my instructions to drain the bladder of the ink.  He took my offered arm to jab me with the syringe.

I didn’t sleep, but time and reality became decidedly fuzzy instead.

He eased me down onto the bed, and I reclined.

The scenes that played out were incoherent.  The captain’s wife visited, and sure enough, a screen was erected at the cell door, and I was patted down.  What made it weird was that in my dazed state, I couldn’t help but see her as the captain, dressed in drag.  Jowls.

No Dolores, and they didn’t find the spurs in my left hand, even as they stretched and bent each finger until I mumbled in pain.

They removed the bandages on the other hand, and noted the incisions beside and beneath each fingernail.  He tried a few more times to eject the spurs.

When I was dressed once more, I couldn’t help but smile wanly a bit in my dazed state.

I’d been right.  Miniscule.  Ten sets of spurs in place.

I was not leaving without something to mark my time at the University.

It was dark when the next person was brought in.

His mouth opened like a fish on dry land.  I only caught a glimpse, dreamlike, as two officers walked by the door, carrying him.  A head with thick black hair and a standard life support rig, complete with a heart that could beat outside the body, and two jars of blood, each with a filter.  Brass gears spun in jerking starts and stops as the heart beat.

“Found him in a basement.  He matches the description you gave us earlier.”

“The tourist?”  The captain’s voice.

“Yeah.  Him.  What’s the story?”

The chief explained, “Guy was visiting home after a few years away, business partner in tow.  His family kicked him out.  We get witnesses showing up, telling us a guy hit the pavement with a spatter.  Would think it’s him taking the easy way out, but it was the Scarfellow’s place.”

“Business partner has shady connections, you think?”

The chief said, “Apparently everyone thinks, but he was gone, and so was the body.”

“Damn collectors.  We found him hooked up to a thinking machine.  They were probably signaled, because they took everything they could with them.  I thought we’d get him to the University, see if we can’t get him speaking before we tried questioning him here, but they’re too busy, they say.  He’ll keep for a while.”

“Put him at the end of the row.  He can share a cell with anyone that’s not a damn student,” the chief said.

I blinked slowly, and I counted footsteps, tracking who was coming and when.

The lights went out.

I could move a little by the late evening, though without much strength.  One of the officers on duty visited me, jabbing me with another needle, his other hand holding a dozen more.

By early morning, I could move a little once more.  This time, I jabbed myself with one set of spurs on my left hand.

The remainder of the symptoms cleared.  I retracted the spurs, waiting to hear the sound of footsteps.

I made my way to the washroom stall of my cell, crawling inside, and knelt before the toilet.

I drew in a deep breath, I used my finger to provoke my gag reflex.

It took three tries to produce anything.  Already, I was feeling short on breath.

One tentacle.  My throat caught, and I gagged for real.

“Ma’am?” one guard asked.

Don’t come in.

“They test that shit on themselves.  Changes the entire brain or body, but mostly they do it to get sleep,” a guard said.  “But there’s always going to be something ugly that follows.”

I pulled that ‘something ugly’ from my mouth and throat, using both hands.  Dolores landed in my lap.  I bent over the toilet and threw up for real, simultaneously trying to gasp for breath.

“We drugged ‘em.  How’s she up?”

“‘Bout time we re-drug them.  It will be wearing off.”

I was damp with sweat, my back drenched, where I’d been lying in the same position too long.  I had Dolores, and I had the spurs.  I had telescoping arms, but they weren’t in working order.  I’d stopped using them when a misfire had stretched the skin of my arms.

Hiding Dolores in my shirt, I crawled across the floor, then lay down on the cool tile.

Disabling the guards was easy.  A poke with a fingernail, an injection of tranquilizer.  When the second approached, I caught his leg with Dolores’ limb, then jabbed him with one of their own needles.  He shouted and fought, standing and kicking me in the stomach, but the drug took hold.

I’d counted footsteps.  But one could be sleeping.  I waited to hear a response.

Nobody was awake enough to hear.

Using the keys, I opened the door.  I staggered across the prison.  Making my way down the hall.

My roommate had sabotaged me.  I had little doubt.  She’d told me to keep Dolores and then told the professor I had her.  It had clicked the moment I’d heard her whispering.

I supposed she didn’t feel the need to be as subtle as before when I was on my way out.

I stopped by the head.  I could see his eyes, frantic, confused.

“You want revenge?” I asked.  “Blink once for yes.”

He blinked.

“Good.  I help you first, then you help me with my thing.  Something a little bigger.”

Three blinks.

“Two blinks for no.  What’s three?”

His eyes moved down, slowly roved over the machine that gave him life.

“I’ll get you a body, too.  Might be a bit crude, but it’s better than anyone else can give you.  Sound like a deal?”

He blinked once.

I hefted the life support machine under one arm, his head dangling from cords over the back of my shoulder.

Free for the first time in my life, I stepped out into the rain and the darkness.

 

Samples: Face 2

The text on the screen changed.

Night 0

One night without festivities, a prelude.

Fifteen days.  Fifteen nights.

Each night, a game.

A festival, a lark.

Prizes and favors to be won by the clever.

Punishment meted out to the dullest.

I struggled to focus, and wound up shutting one eye to clarify my view.

The numbers didn’t add up.  Twelve contestants… one removed each night, for fifteen nights?  With more than one contestant potentially being removed?

“Hey, dumbfucks!  You can’t have twelve contestants and fifteen rounds!,” another voice echoed my thoughts.

“Hey!  I don’t want prizes, I just want to go home!”  Someone else.  “Please take this mask off and let me go home!”

“What do you mean by punishment?” a woman called out.  “We die?”

“No,” I said.  I climbed to my feet, using the bars for support.  I ignored how my hands trembled as I tried to find a grip on the bars at chest-level and fumbled.  I willed it to go away.  I paused for a moment, making sure I had a grip on myself, and then very calmly stated, “That doesn’t make sense.  Unless they plan to bring in others.”

Wolf was standing by the bars, her arms sticking out straight through.  Her mask tapped repeatedly against the bars, as if she could vent that way.  She said, her voice eerily calm, “They intend to kill the losers after the winner is decided.”

That’s not impossible.

The text changed.

Night 0

We anticipate the evening’s entertainment.

Don your masks at day’s end, merry beasts,

to be whisked away to gardens and fields.

The cleverest creature will earn a favor.

To break a rule, or make a rule.

The whimsical nature of the words was at stark odds with our dingy surroundings, imprisonment, and the masks we wore.  I felt a little uneasy.  Maybe that was the point.

My one open eye fixated on the screen. In the periphery of my vision, I could see others approaching the bars of their cell.

Monkey.  He was wearing a glove with metal on it.  Almost a gauntlet.  His brown hair straight was slicked back from the edges of his mask.

A person wearing a fox mask was wearing some kind of shirt that hung well past his hands.  The eyes of his red mask were crescents, with the points facing downward.

Wolf, Rabbit, Fox, Monkey, Spider, and… me.  I touched my mask again.  The short spike was positioned somewhere between where my nose touched the surface of the mask and my mouth, centered.

Was it a beak?

Sparrow?  Crow?

“Break rules?”  Monkey called out.  “What do you mean?”

But the screen changed, and it didn’t answer the question.

Night 0

Beasts slumber in daylight and twilight hours.

A safe place to sleep, to exercise talents,

to set the stage for the night’s events.

An image was displayed below the text.  An overhead view of the city.  Bold lines were drawn along the edges, the area beyond the outlined area shaded dark and blurred.  The sharper, lighter section of the image was a square, three city blocks by three city blocks.  It included stores and a small mall, apartment buildings and a tract of houses.

I recognized the area.  I could spot my apartment, in the corner at the bottom of the image.  My heart was pounding, even as I remained very still.

None of the others spoke, but I could see some of them react.  Tells, as it were.  Monkey shifted his hands, gripping the bars of his cell door a fraction tighter  Rabbit, now kneeling on the floor behind her cell was apparently pretty high strung, almost jumping as she recognized the area.  The little boy with the snake mask leaned to one side of his cell, hugging his arms against his body, stopping, then jamming hands in his pockets.  Different manifestations of nervousness.

I’d bet good money on the idea that we were all from the same general area.

“Th- they’re a-actually letting us go?” Rabbit asked, breaking the silence.

And they expect we’ll be willing to come back, I thought to myself.

Night 0

Clever creatures obey the laws of the land,

The cleverest don’t get caught.

The stupidest beasts are reprimanded at dawn,

and shan’t be invited back.

Those that lose the games or tell tales are dumb beasts,

The ones who don’t play stupider still.

But no beast is so foolish as a dead one.

The nature of this little exercise was becoming clearer.  Over and over, an emphasis on wit.  Two phases.  Night to force our hands, to use us for sport or entertainment.  Bloody, apparently, so violence was in the cards.  Then a day phase to let us rest, sleep or…

I looked around me.

We couldn’t get caught.  That wasn’t to say we weren’t allowed to sabotage each other.  If we needed our masks to enter into the Night phase, then a mask could be taken away.

There was a chance that one of these people might be capable of murder.

The day phase was when we’d search for each other, sabotaging one another to take someone out of the running and remove any need to play in the game that night.  Or, if anyone out there was crazy or desperate enough, the phase where they’d try to kill others.

Night 0

Thus ends our introduction.

A question from each.

A mask floated on the screen, rotating around so that the backside of it was shown, blank and featureless, then slowly turned to face us.  An owl.  The eyes were overlarge, the beak hooked, and the ‘feathers’ crested into points at the edges of the forehead.

There was a series of bangs as the locks for the barred doors came loose.  My eyes traveled over the rest of the crowd.  I could see everyone I’d missed.

I looked for the wearer of the mask, and I found a heavyset man with a large belly.  He wore a blue jumpsuit that wasn’t flattering to look at.

The others I hadn’t yet seen included a tall man, broad shouldered, with light brown skin wore a cat mask, orange-brown with white and black stripes.

A sheep, apparently, a girl, crossed the open space to Spider’s side.

And, finally, a woman, pale, with startlingly vivid tattoos of flowers up her arms.  Her mask was supposed to be a deer or a gazelle, at a glance, but had only stubs for horns.

As near as I could figure it, it was Owl, Wolf, Rabbit, Rat, Spider, Sheep, Fox, Monkey, Cat, Snake and Doe.  And me.

“Hey,” I said, greeting the group to my left.  Rat, Doe and Monkey.  “What mask am I wearing?”

“Does it matter?” Rat asked.  “Damn it.  I just want to get out of this getup and go home and let this stop.”

“I don’t think it’s going to stop that easily,” I said.  “The more information we have, the better.”

“Like the Wolf said, we’re not your allies,” Monkey told me.  “Figure it out for yourself.”

“Right,” I said.  Suspicion.  I could try to find leverage, to coax and wheedle, but I wasn’t sure it was worth it at this juncture.

“Alright, I’m ready to ask,” Owl called out.  “Why the masks?”

Question:  Why masks?

Answer:  To allow Clever beasts to hide in the day.

“Why attach them like this?” Owl asked, but there was no response.  The mask on the screen wasn’t his.

It wasn’t a good answer.  Or, more to the point, it wasn’t a good question.

Wolf’s turn.

“I guess you’re going to tell everyone the answer, which eliminates a bunch of options.  Fine, let’s get it out of the way.  Who are these ‘handlers’?”

Question: Who are the handlers?

Answer: Seventy individuals from twelve enterprises, to assist you and reap fame and fortune from your successes.

The screen flickered, and it showed the series of our masks, one second to each, with a series of symbols beneath, one per sponsor.  It was almost over by the time that I saw my mask, my eye traveling to the list of sponsors, recognizing Sunny, Ascent and Heart, then darting back up to only glimpse the mask itself.

A bird, after all.  A soft brown at the edges and forehead, white elsewhere, with a yellow beak.

A differing number of sponsors to each of us.  Cat had none.  Spider had fifteen.  Most had four to six.

Rabbit’s turn.

Rabbit asked, “Why do you need such clever people?”

Question:  Why do we need clever beasts?

Answer:  To find a worthy winner.

“Fuck,” Wolf said, at the same time the word crossed my mind.

“What?”

We have to be careful what we ask.  It’s going to be as vague as possible, I thought.

Think about what you ask,” Wolf said.

“It wasn’t a bad question.”

Phrase it better.”

Rat’s turn.

“Tell me all the rules,” Rat ordered.

Nothing.

“It has to be a question,” Wolf said.

“What are the rules?”  Rat asked.

“No,” I said.  But it was too late.

Question:  What are the rules?

Answer:  The rules are guidelines,

made to moderate the Day/Night cycles,

and to keep the process manageable.

“I think I’ve figured it out,” Wolf said.  “They do want us to kill each other.  Putting me in here with idiots, so I have to listen to you fuck up.”

“Fuck you,” Rat said.

Snake’s question.

Monkey spoke, “Hey, buddy.  Pick your question carefully.  We can’t keep wasting them.”

“I don’t need help,” Snake said.  “Hey, terminal.  What were the locations of everyone but me, at the time you picked them up?”

The overhead map again, with blinking lights.

It stayed there, on the screen.  I could see my blinking dot.

“Hey, kid.  Why the fuck do you need to know that?”  Wolf asked.  “This doesn’t help our situation.”

But Snake didn’t take his eyes off the screen.  He waited a few moments, then said, “Thank you.”

“You little fuck,” Wolf said.  “You’re going to try something?”

“I wanted to see if there was any pattern,” Snake replied.

A lie, probably.

The next question was Spider’s.  The sheep was kneeling beside his limp form, holding his hands as his fingers and legs periodically twitched and jerked.  They made a stark comparison, with her overdone dress covered in ruffles and lace, young, her hair a white-blonde, curly, cut to a boyish length.

He was half-dressed, elderly, with longer hair, shirtless and wearing pyjama pants.  His mask was the only one with red eyes.

Sheep’s hand swept over his hair, pushing it away from his ‘face’.  “They want you to ask a question.”

“Leave me alone,” he said, his voice weak, but it carried.

When I looked up at the monitor to see, I saw that the next face up there was Fox’s.  There were angry and stunned mutters.

“Damn it,” I muttered, along with them.  He’d passed, likely unintentionally, and we needed answers.

Fox was trying to adjust the sleeves, avoiding eye contact with the people that were warily observing him…  Observing her.  I realized it was a woman, with straight black hair.  The shirt with overlong sleeves was a straightjacket.

“For the record,” Fox said, “The straightjacket is a joke.  Not everyday wear for me.”

“Nobody asked,” the heavyset Owl said.

“Fifteen rounds,” Fox said, “Twelve contestants.  Why?”

Question:  Why?

Answer: Too vague. 

Full answer would exceed scope of this window.

Cannot supply a response.  Please rephrase.

“Why are there more rounds than contestants?”

Question:  Why are there more rounds than contestants?

Answer:  There aren’t.

Cat.

“Can we use the rule-breaking to drop out early without you coming after us to fuck us over?”

Question:  Can a favor be used to drop out

without punishment?

Answer: Yes.

Yes?  I was suspecting a catch.  Too easy.  We win the game in one round and we get to live?

It didn’t fit.  It was one aspect of a lot of things here that didn’t fit.

The Doe.  Deer or gazelle, I was going with the neutral label.

“Okay,” Doe said.  She rubbed her hands together.  “You bastards.  Let’s see… Nine hundred and ninety-nine rounds before this batch, who won?”

“The hell?” Rat asked, but the words were already appearing on the screen.

Question.  Who won 999 games prior to this?

Answer: Cannot supply answer.  Please rephrase.

“Who won five hundred games before this one?”

Question.  Who won 500 games prior to this?

Answer: Cannot supply answer.  Please rephrase.

“Who won two hundred games before this?”

Question.  Who won 200 games prior to this?

Answer: Cannot supply answer.  Please rephrase.

“Who won fifty games before this?”

Question.  Who won 50 games prior to this?

Answer: Cannot supply answer.  Please rephrase.

“Who won fifteen games before this?

Question.  Who won 15 games prior to this?

Answer: Cannot supply answer.  Please rephrase.

“Who won seven games before this?”

Question.  Who won 7 games prior to this?

Answer: Bat.  Sodusco.

Doe nodded.

“Shit,” Wolf muttered.

“I’m good at getting mileage,” Doe said.  “I think that tells us an awful lot, for a two word response.”

The mask that rotated on the screen was mine.  Looking at it in more detail, I still couldn’t guess what kind of bird it was.

Chickadee?  Sparrow?  A hawk would have a hooked beak.

“I’m not much for following orders,” I said.  “Not big on having people decide how I should live.”

“We’re birds of a feather,” Cat said.

“I know I should follow up Doe’s question with something along the same lines, weasel out information, but I’m not really up to playing along.  So here’s my question.  What course of action can we take that’s most beneficial to us and most inconvenient or damning to you?”

Question:  What path would most benefit the beasts while setting us back?

Answer:  Too vague.  Please rephrase.

“Yeah,” I said.  I felt a measure of satisfaction.  The damn thing wasn’t as easy to manipulate as my handlers were, but there were weak points.  “I bet it was too vague.”

“Just ask,” Fox said.  “Some of us want to get home.”

There was restlessness all around.  As one of the last to be asked, I was in a bad spot.  It would be all too easy for them to settle on a target to vent their frustrations at, and this was a bad, bad place to be the designated target.  Especially if this really was something that would extend two weeks.

“What’s the biggest mistake we’ve collectively made so far?”

Question:  What is the biggest mistake made by the beasts?

Answer:  Assuming that dropping out would be beneficial.

“What?” Cat asked.  “I said… fuck, I can’t remember how I phrased it.”

“You asked if they’d come after you,” Snake said.  “Which they won’t, necessarily.”

“Damn it,” Cat said.  “Hey, Monkey, ask it-“

But Monkey was already speaking.  “To come out of this ahead, what course of action should we take in the next bit?”

Question:  Best course of action for the beasts.

Answer:  Study.

You should already know your natural-born talents.

Discover the ones we’ve granted.

Know that talents vary from night to day.

Find the hints already provided to you.

“There’s a running theme, here,” Wolf said.  “But saying they’ve already provided hints?  When?  There’s been the introduction where my handlers said hi, and there was this.  That’s it.”

The last mask rotated on the screen.

“Hey.  Idiot.  Ask a question,” Wolf said.  “I’m done with this.”

“I know.  I’m thinking,” Sheep said, her voice small, as passive as Wolf was aggressive.  “I don’t see a time limit, and this might be our only chance.”

A minute passed.

Some of the others were very blatantly studying each other.  Studying me.  Trying to memorize body types and features.  Doe’s tattoos would be a dead giveaway, for one thing.

And others were less subtle.  Rabbit spoke up, “We can meet.  Right?  We all live in the same area.  If we go to the Rivermouth tea shop on Yonge, noon tomorrow, we could have a signal-“

“And you poison us?” Owl asked.  He was fidgeting, nervous.

“What?  No!”

“Idiotic idea,” Wolf said.  She was more angry than anything.  Like Marlene, in a way, channeling stress into a kind of anger.  She was more casually abrasive, though.

“We’re not friendly,” Monkey said.  “I wouldn’t mind finding a way to make it through this with everyone intact, but that doesn’t mean I trust any of you.  If anything, the fact that you’re here makes me wonder if you aren’t less trustworthy the average people.”

“That’s called projection,” Owl said.

The debate and discussion continued.  In the midst of it, I withdrew my pocket watch from the vest pocket and held it out, catching the light of the spotlight above me.  The light found the lens of Rabbit’s mask.

I saw her head turn a fraction.  I ‘dropped’ the pocketwatch, catching it by the chain, and let it swing for a moment before I caught it.

Would she get the message?

She nodded a little.  When Rat looked her way, she said, “Fine.  I get it.  No meeting.”

A potential ally.  I knew it could be a trap, but I was good at reading people, and Rabbit didn’t seem that cunning to me.  The biggest danger was that someone had caught what I was doing, or that they’d stake out the tea shop.

The sheep had apparently decided what to ask.  “How can we get through this without anyone dying?”

Question:  How to reach the end of Night 15 without any deaths.

Answer:  Don’t kill.

“So it’s possible,” she said.  She sounded genuinely relieved.

But Cat had seemingly found a solution, and it apparently wasn’t so simple.

Owl was reacting.  The eyelids of his mask had flipped shut.  He was blinded.

One by one, the eyes of the other masks closed, all the way around the circle.

The eyelids of my yet-undefined bird mask flipped shut, leaving me in absolute darkness.

Then I smelled that cloying medicinal smell, and perhaps because of drugs lingering in my system, or because the darkness was so deep I couldn’t tell when my eyes were open or shut, I succumbed faster than before.

Back in my apartment, feeling like I hadn’t slept a wink.

I stumbled, making my way out of bed.  I was wearing only boxer briefs, my usual sleeping attire, but I was ninety percent sure they weren’t the clothes I’d worn to bed last night.

Disorientation nearly overwhelmed me.  My recollection of the scene in that odd little prison was so fresh in my mind I was still adjusting from the warped vision.  It all felt surreal, in retrospect.

I had my regular eyes back.  They were the same.  No surgical alterations.

I examined myself in the mirror.  Eyes normal.  Hair a touch greasier from sweating than normal, but…

My fingertips found the points at my hairline where the mask had attached.

Caps, skin tone, were plugged into the holes.  Impossible to see without close investigation.  The spots felt more numb than tender.

I returned to my bedside and opened the drawer.  Sitting there, as though I’d put it away before turning in, was the mask.  Now complete with beak and the transition from white to brown, with tiny feathers painted onto the surface.

I tossed it back into the drawer and then pulled on slacks and an undershirt.

The names and faces were all a jumble.  Too many people at once, too many things to keep track of.

This was reality.  Quiet, still, with only two grieving children to worry about.  I made my way through the apartment, checking windows and doors.  The things I’d unplugged were still unplugged, and everything was locked.

Too many aspects of this didn’t fit.  Something told me it wasn’t necessarily them messing with our heads.  There was a bigger picture at work.

Desperate for a kind of normalcy, I set about preparing breakfast, with a tall mug of coffee, orange juice, and pancakes made from scratch.  I was chopping up fresh fruit when Marlene emerged from the bedroom.

“One minute,” I said.

“I didn’t say I wanted any.”

“Not the time for this, Marlene.”

“I said I don’t want any.  I don’t.”

“Then go back to your room and sleep in.”

“What?”

“Petulance, anger, grieving, whatever else, it’s fine.  I understand,” I said.  “But it’s going to have to wait until I’ve had my coffee.”

“Or?”

It had to be two different things, all at once.  They mingled in an ugly way.  What happened to the kids if I got dragged away at an inopportune time?  What happened if they were used for this nebulous ‘punishment’?

Except there was nowhere for me to send them.  Even if I did send them away, there was no guarantee they wouldn’t be found.

I studied her, the glower, lower in intensity so early in the day.  She was a stranger to me, a face I only knew through a few photos.  I was a stranger to her, had been until only a few days ago.  Still, I felt a kind of fondness.  She was family.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.  “I’ve never really had someone push me to the limit.”

“Never?” she challenged me.

“Not in recent memory.  I’m not saying I’ve never been stressed.  I have.  Believe me, I have.  But I adapt, I’d like to think I go with the flow, that I’m a willow that bends in the wind where an oak would break.  After I’ve had coffee.”

“If that’s true, you’re nothing like dad.  Or mom or me or Leo.  None of us adapt or flow in the wind or whatever.  Kind of the opposite.”

“It’s been a while since I was around family.  Things were ugly when I left, so I made a deliberate effort to change myself.  To put distance between myself and everything I left behind.”

“And now you’re back,” she said.

“Now I’m back,” I answered.  “Maybe at a bad time for you, and apparently at a bad time for me.  But I can face the worst the world has to offer if I move forward with confidence.”

I said the words proudly, clearly, but the memories of those men breaking into my room were crystal clear.

Just the thought made my heart do a quick double-beat.

I managed to keep the doubt off my face, my smile unflinching.  I added, “After I’ve had coffee.”

“I’ve had coffee before.  It tastes like ass,” she said.

“You can be here and be either quiet or pleasant,” I said.  “Or you can go to your room to be negative.  Those are my rules.”

She nodded, but she took a seat at the counter.  She twisted around on her stool to look at the cracked television and blinked twice in succession.  Nothing.  She did the blink again. “It doesn’t work.”

No comment on the fact that she’d been the one to crack the screen.

“It’s not you” I said.  “One sec.”

I checked that things were okay on the stove, and then crossed the room to plug it in.

It was on a moment later, and I could see the three symbols flash across the screen.  Heart, arrow, sun.

Then it returned to a regular channel.  Marlene changed it to a kid’s show.

My ‘handlers’ were there, watching.

I didn’t habitually put my lenses in when I woke up, which made me different from ninety-nine percent of the population in the first world.  I liked to shower early and then put the things in, rather than go back and forth.  I went back and got them.

I wasn’t adverse to technology, but I liked old things and simplicity more than needless complication.  Wearing the lenses often felt like a complication.  Still, I could pry my eyes open and slip them in, watching the little details I’d placed around the apartment coming to life.

Leo was sitting on a stool by the time I got back.  I greeted him, served up the breakfast, then gestured, bringing up a menu for my phone.  Anyone who was wearing lenses that looked at me would see the phone icon near my head.

At a loss for what to dial, I brought up a menu of symbols and selected three close approximations.

How closely were they looking?  How far did this extend, penetrating my day to day life?

“Hello, Wes.  Heart here.”

“Ah, so you are there,” I said.  I smiled a little at the kids as I topped off my orange juice.  “I got your message late last night.  I take it you were upset?”

“We’re not your enemy, Wes.  We’re on your side in this.”

“I don’t know what this is,” I said.  I walked over to the living room, leaving the kids in peace, and started cleaning up more of the mess Marlene had made.  “A game?”

“In a way.”

“I don’t want to play.  What if I decide to sit things out tonight?  Will you do the same thing?”

“If you make us, but then we’re in a bad spot.  You don’t understand everything that’s going on here.”

“What’s going on, then?  Clarify for me.”

“You’re not the contestant, Wes.  There’s a dynamic, there are rules you play by, we get that, but we’re the ones at the helm.  If you cooperate, we both benefit.  If you throw this, then, well, it’s thrown.  You wind up with the worst possible outcome all the same.”

I lowered my voice.  “Or I cooperate and I wind up in the midst of a screwed up situation where people are trying to stab me in the back.”

“We can mitigate that,” she said.  “You reached out to Rabbit, somewhere along the line.  Making alliances with the right people can help you weed out the dangerous ones.  Safety in numbers”

“You’re testing us,” I said.  “All of this, you’re testing us because you want us to meet a certain criteria.  Or because the people running this thing do.  Moving it all towards a singular purpose.  It’s the only thing that makes sense.  Except you’re also making us your enemies.  There are too many things here that don’t make sense.  I need explanations.  Answers.

“Damn it,” I heard her mutter, on the other end.

“What?”

“I can’t give you answers, Wes.”

I can get answers out of you, I thought.

But not now, while her guard was up.

I worked in silence, leaving the line open.

“Wes.  Are you meeting with Rabbit?”

“With the interest of covering all possible bases, yeah.  But I’m still not sure I’m putting on the mask tonight.”

“You’re proving fairly inflexible, for someone who supposedly goes with the flow, bends in the wind,” Heart said.  Her digitized voice was grating to listen to for any length of time.

“Polite of you to let me know you’re eavesdropping,” I said.  “Kidnapping, vague threats, unsolicited surgery, and nebulous promises of possible murder, or setting me up to be murdered… I think I’m allowed to be less flexible than normal.”

“If you force our hand, we’ll do the same thing we did before.”

“Well, that’s good to know.  Thank you for being honest,” I said.

A bit of anger had slipped into my voice.  I saw the kids’ heads turn.  I flashed a bit of a smile at them to put them at ease.

Heart continued, “I hope you don’t make us.  You’ll try to be clever and stop the men that come to take you in, and it still won’t work.  In the worst case scenario, you get injured in the process, and it slows you down enough that you get hurt or killed.”

“Ah, a vote of confidence from the people who picked me.  Remind me again about how you’re my best friend in all of this?”

“Even if you don’t get hurt, our hands will be tied.  We get only a few chances to manipulate things here.  We have three moves, at the start, to help you out, and we’ve used two of them.  I’m genuinely afraid for you if you strip us of any ability to help you.”

I weighed her words.  I was usually pretty good at telling whether people were being honest or not, and I wasn’t getting a dishonest vibe from her.

Then again, voice modulation, and there was the whole kidnapping thing, the invasion of privacy, and the whole laundry list of everything they had pulled me into.

“I can’t figure you out,” I said.

“If it makes you feel any better,” Heart said.  “I’ve been studying you for months, alongside a few others.  I thought I knew you, and… I don’t.  There’s some part of you I’m not getting.”

“That does make me feel better,” I replied.

“You need our help, Wes.  Once people start figuring out how this really works, it’s going to get messy.”

“That so?  I can manage messy.  Sorry, but I’m not really seeing what you can offer me.  Explain the mask thing?”

“We can’t.”

“At least ring me up when trouble’s brewing and someone’s coming my way?”

“We can’t do that either,” Heart said.

In negotiating with people, a good tactic was to ask them questions, already aware of the answer.  I was already fairly sure she wouldn’t be able to follow through.  So I could hammer her on that front.  You’re useless, you’re useless.

It was rather satisfying, in light of everything that had happened.  I wasn’t one to consider myself mean spirited, just the opposite.  But these were special circumstances.

“Then explain the ins and outs of this whole thing?”

“I can’t.  Wes-“

Here was the moment she tried to break the pattern of attack, my cue to move forward.  “You’re telling me you don’t have anything to offer me.  What are you handling, as my handler?”

Every action had an equivalent reaction.  What reaction would I generate, now that I was pressing her on this?

Would she bounce back, desperate to please, or would she fold?  I opened the balcony door and stepped outside, then closed it.

“I- that’s complicated.”

Ah.  She would deflect.

“Three hours until I need to leave for that rendezvous.  I’m willing to sit down and talk it out with you.  We’ll unravel that untangled mess.  I’ll be in a better place, and so will you.  We’ll be on the same page.”

Reasonable, calm, confident.  A steady pressure to drive the point home.  I rubbed my hands to help ward off the cold.

“It’s not that kind of complicated, Wes.”

Repeatedly using my name to try and build a kind of familiarity.

My eyes fell on the city below.  The street was choked with cars, and my lenses showed ads on every flat surface.  There were different channels,each with different focuses, from ones that would show sales in nearby stores to kids’ games that would show monsters wandering around, almost as real as anything else.

In a city this big, each channel would be choked with advertisements.  People earned pennies each time they deleted one, but there were too many automated functions and paid shills who earned more putting the ads up.

One learned to deal with the visual noise, because the other features of the lenses were too convenient, otherwise.  They were rooted in too many things, from access to buildings to phones and shopping.  One learned to look past the ads, until they reached the safety of their homes and could relax.

Which only reminded me that I was talking with the person who had invaded that home.  In more ways than one.

Could I put her off balance?  I could move to the attack.

I spoke slowly, my voice firm.  “Alright.  Let me unravel my untangled mess, then.  I’ve been thrown into a situation that isn’t sitting right, it’s vague and the pieces don’t all fit together.  You picked me for that, right?  You’re the one that’s throwing me into this situation.  Except you’re terrible at this.  You’re obviously new to it, you’re clueless, you don’t have any direction.”

All different ways of saying the same thing.  Continuing along those lines…

“You’re supposed to protect me or help me somehow, but you haven’t said what you do.  You haven’t inspired an iota of confidence.  The screen back there, last night, it said you’re an enterprise.  You’re in this for fame and fortune, but you’re doing nothing to deserve either of the two.”

She cut in.  “It… could have worded that better.  We’re here for research, to help people.  It’s amazing stuff, but we need funds, and-“

“And throwing me to the wolves and spiders and hares is how you do that?  Come on, Heart.  What is this?  You’re a couple of amoral twits with a gimmick startup idea, operating out of your friend’s mom’s garage, and someone tweaks you onto… this?  A bunch of hackers and entrepreneurs orbiting around some screwed up kind of entertainment that’s never going to poke it’s head out of the darkest, scummiest parts of the deepweb?”

“No, Wes.”

If I was completely wrong, she would have sounded more assertive than she did.  She would have been able to follow it up.

Had I struck a chord?  Landed my remarks somewhere in the right neighborhood?

“Let me give you a tip, Heart.  You’re the one that’s supposed to look after me, right?  That’s your job in this.  Scouting me, keeping me in line, whatever?  You want me to like you, but that battle’s already lost.  Change tactics.  You need to be a jerk.  Be rude, be strict.  Threaten me instead of convincing me that stuff’s for my own good.  Act like that arrowhead guy was.”

“You mean Ascent,” she said.

“Him.  Be aggressive, be assertive.  Get my respect through fear and intimidation, if nothing else.  Come on.  Give it a shot.”

“Wes…”  Her voice was soft.

“That was terrible,” I said.  “If you can’t fake your way through some jerkish behavior or come up with an actual offer you can make me, you shouldn’t be on the phone right now.  You need to be rude, even cold.  When I call you, you shouldn’t even pick up unless you’re absolutely, completely confident you’ve got things under control, with a way to strongarm me into doing what you need me to do, or something valuable to offer me.  Right?  I mean, it’s common sense.  You’re my handler, you need to take the reins here.”

She didn’t immediately respond.

Prodding her, I asked, “Do you have something to offer me?  Bait?”

I waited, thoroughly enjoying the silence.

In recommending a plan of attack against myself, the idea was to head her off.  She would inevitably realize that what she was doing wasn’t working.  By cutting her off well ahead of that particular point, I could pressure her.  I could leave her feeling lost and helpless.  I could handle the handler.

In the wake of that, I’d either see her true colors as she found a plan that did work, or at least worked better than this, or she’d fold and I would have leverage over her.  Something I could use to get information or help I otherwise wouldn’t.

“Wes, when you figure out what we set up for you, we’ll be able to work with you.”

“That’s thoroughly unconvincing,” I said, leaning back against the door to the balcony.  “I think maybe you should hang up.  Get your bearings, say something motivational in front of the mirror a couple times, maybe, to build up some confidence.  I’d love to hear a different, bolder, useful Heart the next time we talk.”

Which I wouldn’t, most likely.  Which would make her feel worse, which would apply more pressure.

I listened to a long silence.

The phone’s icon flashed and turned red.  A hang-up.

If she was capable of watching and listening in on me, I couldn’t allow myself a smile.  A lifetime of training allowed me to keep my expression neutral as I let myself back inside and served my breakfast.

“Who was that?” Leo asked.  Guileless.

“Someone who thinks she’s in business with me,” I responded.  “Now, I’m not going to make you guys go to school, given you’re still early into the grieving process, but-“

“I want to go,” Marlene said.  Too quickly.

I hesitated.

“I want to go where Marlene’s going,” Leo said.

He, at least, sounded genuine.

“You’re not going to run away on me, are you?” I asked.  “This is serious, and I’ve got a lot on my plate.”

Besides, I can’t leave the ‘safe’ territory, or unspecified horrible things will happenI can’t drive all the way to Uncle Peter’s to fetch you if you run.

“It’s been a while since I’ve gone, and it has to be better than being here.”  Marlene said.

“Alright,” I said.  “Go wash up and dress.  I’ll call the school to see if I can’t arrange a tour or a quick class assignment.”

Hopefully with enough time for me to meet the Rabbit.

I was late.  I’d dressed down, with a button-up shirt and more moderate shoes, no tie or vest, a jacket folded over one arm.  Even knowing I might have missed her, I took my time, getting in line.

Being in line let me observe.  Rabbit had red hair, but a wig wasn’t impossible.  Nor was a hat.  It was spring.  The others… there were traits I could look out for.  It was more a process of elimination, scanning the crowd.  No kids under thirteen, which removed the possibility of a Snake.  No fat men, so that meant no Owl.

Wolf and Fox were more dangerous.  Too many possibilities for who they could be, but I could scan the collection of people that crowded the tables and counters, and I could eliminate those who were in groups with others, happy, clearly distracted by their own lives and their own things.

I was pretty sure that the others weren’t that good at acting, at slipping into a role.

I found a spot at a counter by the stools, once I had my bacon sandwich and coffee.  The shop’s window showed a scrolling advertisement for the desserts and music.  I withdrew a pocket watch and spun it around with one hand, catching it before it fell.  I ate and drank with my free hand.

“You’re going to break that, if you keep abusing it,” a young woman commented.

“It’s one I keep for more rugged use,” I said.  “I’ve fixed it so many times I could repair it blindfolded.  Rabbit, I presume?”

Rabbit squeezed herself between my neighbor and me, leaning over the counter.  Her hands were trembling, despite her apparent confidence, and the corner of her lip was folded like she was chewing on it.  Her chin-length red hair was in her face, and yet she wasn’t brushing it out of the way.

“Mr. Bird?” she asked.

“It’ll have to do,” I answered.

She nodded, a tight motion.  “Hi, Mr. Bird.  You’re the only one who came.”

“I thought I might be.”

“Have you figured it out?” she asked.

“What?”

“What they did to us?”

I turned my head, studying her.  I could see the fear on her face.

“Invaded our privacy, our homes, they kidnapped us… but you’re not talking about that,” I said.  My eyes fell on her hands, which were still shaking.  “That’s not fear.  That’s a tremor.”

“I was born with that,” she said.  “I’m talking about something else.  But I can’t talk about it here.  They said they’ll punish us if the wrong person hears.”

I nodded.  “Want to go for a walk?”

She bobbed her head, another tight, jerky motion.  Under her breath, she whispered, “F- fuck.”

I took my time getting my jacket and the remains of my lunch together.  We made our way to the door.

She whispered, “Why do you sound as unafraid as I feel afraid, Mr. Bird?”

“Not to worry,” I said.  “I’m very good at faking it.  So good I fool myself sometimes.”

She nodded as we made our way onto the sidewalk.  I pointed to suggest a direction, and she turned.

“I guess that’s your particular talent?” she asked.

“A part of it,” I agreed.

“Lying so well you trick yourself.  Not being afraid when you don’t want to be afraid.  That’s a good talent.  H- how does it hold up when you’re at gunpoint?”

An odd question, odd phrasing and timing.  I glanced at her, and she glanced down, furtive.

Her hands were jammed in her pockets.  The angle, the shape of the resulting bulge…

“I guess we’ll find out, Ms. Rabbit,” I told her.

Samples: Face 1

A sharp, audible crack sounded as a flawless face struck the concrete railing.

I flinched.

“Marl…”  I tried on a warning voice.

Another crack.  The heavily made-up face hung down, limp, straight blond hair slipping from one shoulder to obscure my view.

“You do not get to call me Marl.  My parents called me Marl, and I hated it then.”

“Okay,” I said, “That’s fair.  That’s fine.  I’m going to ask you to please stop doing that, before you damage the doll.”

Or damage it further.

Marlene only glared at me.

She was good at looking angry.  At twelve, she was young enough that I could see where her parents might have felt odd about taking her to a beautician, but old enough that her thicker eyebrows drew notice.  They made the glower all the more pronounced.

I could bet she saw a haircutter and not a hair stylist, judging by the state of her hair, blond hair going brown, the cut more utilitarian than pretty.  Her clothing seemed like a desperate grasp at femininity from a girl who had little idea what she was doing.  Leggings and a short skirt, a black top with a flowery collar and a denim coat I wouldn’t have recommended.

Well, not my place to say, not really.

She held the doll by the ankles, and extended her arm, touching the foot-thick concrete railing that separated the walkway from the three-story drop to the city street.  A series of apartment doors faced the railing and the gap where it looked out on the city.  Tall buildings, many of them old buildings, as well as periodic advertisements that flickered over flat spaces, covering the sprawling graffiti at the street level.

She knew she was getting to me.  She knew I was keenly aware of the damp on the wall where the melting snow and rain had left the concrete damp, that I was eyeing the texture of the concrete, where it was rougher in spots.  Even a single scuff mark-

“Your mother gave you that doll,” I said, as gently as I could.

“Do not talk about my mother.”  I could see the pain on her face.  It caught me a little off guard.  A normal twelve year old hadn’t had her heart broken, been faced with reality to the point she’d built up some emotional callus, or learned how to hide those feelings.  I needed to study up on what normal twelve year olds were like.  I’d never been one.

“Marlene,” Leo said, in a small voice.  His hand gripped the edge of his sister’s jacket, and she used her free hand to pull her younger brother into a half-hug.  He was a wisp of a kid, tiny even bundled up in a winter jacket, with a perpetually worried expression.  I wasn’t sure if that was his regular face or if it was just the circumstances of our meeting, and everything that had followed.

I’d have to learn about normal eight year olds, too.

“Can we not get off to a bad start?”  I asked, putting a little bit of effort into masking my fatigue.  Too many hours spent tending to affairs, traveling, and dealing with these two.  “I get that you’re angry.  I get that you’re upset.  It’s allowed.  But if you break that doll, you’re going to look back on it a few months or years from now and you’ll hate yourself for it.”

“It’s fucking ugly,” she said.  She turned it around to look at it, her face twisting with a kind of revulsion, and I could see a mark across the forehead.  I kept my expression placid.  The peculiarities of the style and the craftsmanship had left it with fairly… distinct features, including a flattened nose and eyes that didn’t fit the face.  It looked more like a troll doll than a little girl.

“It really is,” I agreed.  “It’s hideous.  But it’s a hideous doll that would probably go for four thousand or more.  It’s an exceptional gift for your mother to give you, and even if you don’t want to keep it, you could sell it to buy a used car when-“

She let her arm drop.  The doll’s head banged against her leg with enough force that I could hear it.

“Fine,” I said.  “If it makes you feel better, go for it.”

Marlene was doing it to needle me.  The sooner we got inside, the sooner she would be distracted.  I turned around, grabbed the handles of two wheeled suitcases and hurried to the end of the walkway.  The two kids pulled two more suitcases, but Marlene was holding it with one hand, and it kept bumping into Leo’s, slowing the pair down.

The door lock winked into existence as I approached the door.  My eye traced a lopsided hourglass figure across the dots, my gaze leaving a brief trail of light behind it.  The keypad disappeared and the door popped open.

A man’s home is his castle.  Depending on where he lives, however, sometimes a man has to settle for an apartment.

“Welcome home, I guess,” I said.

Marlene dropped the handle of her suitcase, very deliberately bumping my arm as she walked past me, into the apartment.  She threw the doll to one side.

▲ (Ascent):  He has kids?

☼ (Sunny):  Kids are a problem.

▲ (Ascent):  They’re a complication.

♥ (Heart): He’s complicated.  We knew that going in.

▲ (Ascent): We need to do something about this.

♥ (Heart): That’s my call, not yours.  We should wait, assess the situation, then we decide how to approach it.

☼ (Sunny):  Agreed.

▲ (Ascent):  Fine.

♥ (Heart):  I’ve gotta say, he’s a hell of a good looking guy in person.

▲ (Ascent): Don’t be weird, Heart.

“Your door is different,” Leo observed.  “All the other ones were the same, but yours is flat.”

“Benefits of being a long-term resident,” I said, not looking back.  My eyes were on the boxes that were stacked along one side of the hallway.  They were divided by delivery service, each with a piece of paper taped to it.  Stuff coming in I needed to look at, stuff going out.  I glanced back at the kid.  “I get to change stuff up a bit.”

“Oh,” he said.  His expression told me it wasn’t the answer he’d wanted.  Or maybe it wasn’t an answer at all, to his perception.

“Leave it open.  We can use some fresh air in here, and it isn’t too cold out.”

He nodded, then pushed his oversized lenses up his nose.

I pulled off my shoes and sat them on the rack beside the other outdoor pairs, then made my way to the bedroom, bringing one of the suitcases I’d been dragging behind me.  The room was spartan, but there was a bunk bed and sets of drawers, lamps and a single alarm clock.  “I had friends come by and set up the room for you two.  I owe someone a drink.”

One room for two of us?” Marlene asked.  “We had separate rooms back home.”

“You have one here,” I said.  I sighed a little.  “Can we just take it easy?  We’ll just roll with the situation for tonight, I’ll order some food you guys like, we’ll get you unpacked and comfortable, and I can answer any questions you guys have while we eat.”

“What if I have questions now?” Marlene asked.  “What’s with the boxes?  Why do you have more shoes than my entire family put together?  You dress like a sissy.  Are you a fag?  Why the fuck do we have to go with a fag instead of Uncle Peter?  What’s with all the shit in the living room?”

“If you’d give me a chance to answer-“

“Answer this, because it’s the only question I want an answer to,” Marlene said.  “What the fuck?”

Translated: make this world make sense for me again.

“In order,” I said, and I made my tone firm.  “You can ask questions now, the boxes are for my work, I like shoes, because they look good and we spent most of our days wearing them, Uncle Peter has his hands full, I rather like women, and the stuff in the living room is, again, my work.  I would appreciate it if you left it alone, I’ll get it out of the way soon and you guys can hang out there.”

“So, what, we’re supposed to just stay in this room, until you get around to it?”

“Please.  Look,” I said.  I extended my hand, thumb and first two fingers each at right angles to one another, in the direction of the bedroom.  The room briefly filled with barely visible white and black static.  I pointed at each of the kids, then selected from the array of words that filled the empty space around them.  I changed permissions.  “You can decorate it.”

“Decorate our prison, you mean.  That’s fucked,” Marlene said.  She stalked off in the direction of the living room.

I followed her.  “Marlene.”

Okay, there was a bit more in the living room than I’d remembered leaving behind.  Four couches, two coffee tables, bookshelves and an entertainment system were all spread out in the open space.  Two more armchairs and a loveseat were arranged somewhat haphazardly in two corners, a computer desk in a third.  Every flat surface, the seating area and the floor included, had boxes piled on them.   Two dozen or so in total, all open.  The contents were laid out, meticulously placed within the confines of the box lids, along with individual parts and whatever materials I had been using at the time.

A pair of dollhouses on one coffee table, along with the varnish I’d been using on one and the paint for another.  A picture frame leaned against the side of the table, having been touched up just a fix by the nearby bottle of varnish and brushes.  Beer bottles, too, left over from the friends who’d set up the bunk bed and other furniture.  More boxes sat on the couch nearest that table, the lids housing the furniture and dolls that went with the respective houses.

Teapots, more picture frames, candlesticks, jewelry boxes, and more than a few wooden and tin toys sprawled through the rest of that general area.

Twenty watches, six mantel clocks, three cuckoo clocks and the disassembled head of a tower clock sat on the other end of the room, and the ones that worked ticked and tocked in near-unison.  The ones that didn’t work had been dismantled, the individual components carefully removed and set out within the safe confines of box lids.

She spun around, gesturing around her.  “What.  The.  Fuck.”

“Can we at least tone down on the swearing?”

“Fuck you,” Marlene said.  “What are you going to do?  Ground me?  Spank me?  Yell at me?  Hit me?  You aren’t my dad!  You aren’t my mom!  You’re some fucking thirty year old knob who thinks they can look good wearing a vest and fucking parts his hair and owns fifty fucking pairs of shoes and paints dollhouses!  It’s weird!  You’re weird!  I don’t fucking know you!  I don’t know you and I’m supposed to live with you!?”

Her voice pitched with emotion towards the end.  She had tears in her eyes, and I felt sympathetic tears welling in my own.

“For now,” I said.  “Maybe until Uncle Peter is ready.”

And I’m twenty-five, not thirty.

“Fuck you!”  She screamed.  She turned around and shoved a dollhouse to the floor.

I felt guilty, thinking of it before I thought of her feelings, but I couldn’t help but see the profit margin on that particular piece shrink dramatically.

She kicked it.

I mentally revised my previous estimate to selling at a loss.

What could I do?  She was right.  She was right to feel disjointed and weirded out.  More to the point, I didn’t have the slightest clue on how to discipline her.  There was no bond, no attachment, nothing I could leverage.  There was nothing I could threaten to take away because she’d already lost it all.

Well, everything except her little brother, and I wasn’t willing to force her to separate from him.

I most definitely couldn’t grab her, hauling her off to her bedroom.  If I left one bruise, I had no doubt she’d go straight to the nearest authority figure, and then things would be messed up on a number of levels.

I tried reasoning.  “Hey, Marlene, listen-“

In her rampage, she’d hurled the box of dollhouse accessories across the floor.  As I made my appeal, she threw a music box, hard.  Okay.  Not so painful as the dollhouse.

“-can you think about Leo?”

She smashed a wooden train.  That one was something of a loss.  I’d spent nearly three hours at one point, trying to fix the internal mechanism without taking the outer shell apart.

“Leo’s in the next room, and he needs you to hold it together.  Support him?  He’s going to get stressed out, seeing you st-“

“Fucking shut up!”  Her voice hit the highest pitch yet, to the point I wouldn’t have thought it possible if I hadn’t overheard teenage girls screaming for some teen idol in a mall appearance.

She stalked across the room, apparently after the one place where she could do the most damage.

“Marlene!”  I raised my voice.

Television.  Go for the nice big sixty inch television.

She went after the clocks and watches.

I watched as the meticulously laid out watches and watch parts sailed into the air.  Dials, springs, levers, wheels and hammers were cast out across the room, landing among the other items, beside books on the bookshelves, on and between cushions and in the carpet.  One even landed in her hair.

I suppressed a groan, placing my hands in the pockets of my slacks, because it was better than anything else I might do with them.  Not that I would throttle her, but… I wanted to throttle her, in that moment.

Then I smiled a little.  “Alright, then.  You need to vent?  Vent.  Go nuts.  I needed to tidy up anyways, and maybe that’s-“

“Shut up!”

She threw a box lid at me, and I batted it aside.

I turned and left the living room.  Something crunched, and I did myself the favor of not looking back to see what that something was.

I stopped in to check on Leo.

“Hey, little man.”

He looked up at me.  He seemed just a little scared.  The room had monsters littering it, digitally painted.

I lowered myself to his level.  “Better art than I could manage at your age.  I was always more of an actor.”

“I know,” he said.  “They didn’t have lenses when you were my age, did they?”

Marlene did something that started a cascade of destruction.  Maybe knocking books off the bookshelf and onto the boxes below.

I winced a little.  “They didn’t.  Smart phones were about as far as it went.”

“Yeah,” he said.  He pushed his glasses up his nose again.  “Is… that okay?”

“Marlene?”

“Are we going to get in trouble?”

“You?  You’ve been good.  Marlene… well, way I figure it, you guys have a free pass for the time being.  She’s angry at this situation, and she’s frustrated, and it’s probably been building up for a while now.  I guess I’m the most obvious available target, someone she can go after without any fear of repercussion, and I guess it’s an awful lot of anger.  It’s a lousy situation, and I figure you’re free to do and say whatever you need to do or say, to deal with it.  Fair?”

“Um.”

I waited for him to expand on the thought.  When he didn’t, I prompted him, “Um?”

“If I’m not going to get in trouble…”

“For a little while,” I stressed.  I did my utmost to keep my expression calm as Marlene continued her rampage elsewhere.

“Can I say something?”

“Sure, Leo.”

His eyes dropped down to his lap, where an image of a three-eyed monster stood in his hands, looking around.  “I don’t like it here.”

“Okay,” I said, though I was a little hurt.  “That’s allowed.”

“I-“

“Wes!”  A shout from outside.

Not Marlene.  A little too abrasive.

“Do me a favor and sit tight, Leo.”

He nodded.

I stood and hurried out to the front door of the apartment.

“Hey, tit-for-brains.”  The girl standing outside my door was tall, her hair cut into a boyish style.  Her long sleeves were rolled up, and her arms had blobs of paint on them.  House paint, not canvas paint, judging at a glance.  She held a package in her arms.

“Hi Roxanne.”

She shoved the box into my hands.  “I told you, no packages left on the walkway.  You bring them inside, or the delivery guy takes them away.  I’m not burning to death because you blocked the fire escape.”

“No burning to death.  Gotcha.  Sorry.  I thought I timed everything so nothing would arrive while I was gone.”

There a muffled series of thuds.  Had the kid already tipped over everything she could tip over?  Working on the remains?

“Your fault or hers?”

“Hm?”

“The ongoing disaster at your place.  Or did it stop?”

“It stopped,” I said.  Just in time for Marlene to start up again.  Well, I was still technically right.

“Need me to step in?  I can get away with knocking a bitch out.”  She smiled, wry.

“Wouldn’t be a fair fight,” I said, smiling.

Something crashed.

I smiled wider.

With my smile, Roxanne’s face fell.  “You’re doing it again, Wes.”

“Doing what?”

“Faking.  Acting.  Bottling it all in.”

“Naw.”

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously.  When she spoke, her voice was quiet.  “This one really got to you, huh?”

“This one’s a little different.”

“Oh?”  Roxanne glanced at the empty hallway.  “Now, is she going to murder me if I get a little jealous and try to reassert my claim?”

She smiled.

“You could take her.  Should you?  Probably not.”

She placed her wrists against my shoulders.  A moment later, her fingers folded behind my neck.  I couldn’t reciprocate, as I held the package.

“Now is probably not the best time.  Not that I’m not tempted.”

“Later?  You’ve been gone for a week.”

“Later either.”

“Pooh.  Chris needs some paperwork done.”

“Chris can get real.”

She didn’t respond, but I could see her eyes travel over my shoulder.  Towards the apartment interior.

Her hands shifted position to surround my throat.

“They’re family,” I said, when I realized why.  Someone had peeked down the length of the hallway, and revealed themselves.

The grip on my throat tightened.  “You don’t have family.”

“I do now,” I said.  She wasn’t really strangling me.

“You got fucking married on me, Wes?”

“No marriage.  Their… our parents died.”

“You don’t have parents.”

“You’re right.  I don’t.  I wasn’t always Wesley.  I used to go by a different name.  I was in a few movies as a kid, dad pushed it too far, made me and everyone I worked with miserable.  Someone offered me a way out, and I disappeared.  I guess… I just reappeared.”

She stared at me.  “Jesus.  You’re completely insane.”

“Not completely.”

“Okay, let me put this into terms your atrophied brain can handle.  You cannot take these kids.  You have to give them back.”

“There’s nowhere for them to go.  Here or foster care.”

Here isn’t viable, Wes.  For a number of reasons.  Sidestepping the biggest ones, when’s the last time you stuck with a project for more than two months?”

“I’ve been working on the refurbishing for nearly six years.”

“That’s a wad of little projects, you douche canoe, and it’s not the point.  Look, name one relationship you’ve maintained for three months.”

“You?”

“I’m your neighbor.  And we go months without talking.  Someone you aren’t stuck with.”

I raised my finger to stop her, held it there for a second, and then dropped it.  “Point.”

“There’s your whole… thing, here.”  She gestured at my head.

“My thing?”

“Oh, like how you’re entirely willing to trust complete strangers, blithely walking through life like you expect everything to be handed to you.  At times you verge on… whatever the opposite of paranoia is.”

“Pronoia.  But things are handed over to me.  Very frequently.  It isn’t pronoia if the world’s your oyster.  Catch is, you have to be open to these things before it’s possible.  A long series of leaps of faith.  You believe enough, and other people do too.”

“But you need a solid steel security door?”  she retorted.

I shrugged one shoulder.  “We live in Toronto, I have nice things.  There’s a fine line between confident and being stupid.”

“You’re incapable of seeing how fucked you are in the head.”

“I see it, I have a handle on it.  It’s all under control.”

She backed away, folding her arms.  “Fuck me.  You’re really doing this.  You’re making me do this.”

“You don’t have to do anything.”

She looked genuinely distressed for the first time.  “Shit, Wes.  Do you believe everything you’re saying?”

“Sure.  Like I said, confidence.  Gotta have a little faith.  Marlene will come around, the kid’s wounds will heal, we’ll figure it out.”

“There’s no take-backs on this one.  Fuck.  Have you even thought about how your other work factors in?”

“The refurbishing?  I just realized I could rent the next apartment over, so the kids have two rooms and I have some workshop space.”

“I’m talking about the the reason you’re able to afford the next apartment over.”

Oh.  The other other jobs.  Like Chris and his paperwork.  Less than legal things.

“You’ve got a good thing going.  Don’t fuck it up like this.  There’s no reason for it.”

“There’s them.  The kids.  Family.”

“It’s all going to come crashing down, Wes.  When it happens, it’s going to happen fast, it’s going to be ugly, and those kids are going to be worse off than before.”

“Have faith?  If not in life, then in me?”  I moved the box under one arm, then reached out.

She shied away from my hand.  I let it drop.

“You’re a good friend and coworker.  With benefits, even,” she said.  “But I can’t get on board with this.  Not with kids.  You’re flying too close to the sun here, Icarus.”

“And you’re getting more sophisticated in the insults.  You’re serious,” I said.  I sighed.

“You’re still at a point where you can walk away,” she said.

“No.”

“Send them back, trust that things will work out, and pack it all up.  Move.  Because one of these cards you’ve played is going to slip, and the whole house is going to fold.”

“They’re family, Rox.”

She stared at me.  “Fuck.  Fuck.”

“Roxanne,” I said.

“I gotta think on this one.  I’ll be in touch.”

“I’m good.  You know I’m good.  I haven’t been caught yet.”

“What if you get caught now?  The only things at stake up to now have been money and you.  But now there’s two kids.”

I shook my head.

“Later, Wes,” she said.

“Later,” I said.

♥ (Heart):  Okay, gut feeling?  Kids are here to stay.  Can’t remove them from the equation at this point without fucking him up.  Nosy neighbor has got to go.

▲ (Ascent):  Agreed.

☼ (Sunny):  We need him isolated.  Priority one.  Kids are controllable.

▲ (Ascent):  They’re leverage.  Expendable.

♥ (Heart): I don’t think we should go there.  Gut feeling, and we agreed this was my department.

▲ (Ascent):  Your call, hon.  We eliminate the neighbor, at least.  Consensus?

♥ (Heart):  Agreed.

☼ (Sunny):  Yeah.

◘  (Box):  Consensus.

I stepped out of my room, buttoning up another shirt.  A thin trickle of blood welled from under one fingernail, where I’d stabbed myself reaching between couch cushions.  A thin wheel, and I had no idea which pocketwatch it went with.  I now had a thousand puzzle pieces from innumerable different puzzles, all exceptionally similar.  Some pieces matched, but the vintage and make had to be put with the right watch.  I might well be at it for months, figuring it out.

“You dress like that all the time?” Marlene asked.  “I thought you dressed like that for the funeral and forgot to pack regular clothes.”

She was standing outside the other bathroom, the one that now belonged to the two kids and any guests I had over.

A button up shirt and narrow-leg dress pants were unusual?

“I dress like this all the time,” I said.  “Go to sleep.  If we’re lucky, every day is going to suck less than the day that came before.  Maybe a very little, but less.  Sleep is your friend, because it takes you further down that road.”

“And you?” she asked.

“Me?”

“You don’t even care, do you?  You don’t feel bad, you don’t miss them, you didn’t cry.”

“I feel bad that you feel upset.  Really,” I said.  Complete and total honesty.

“But you don’t care.”

“No.  I don’t have any fond memories of those days.”

She frowned.  She wasn’t swearing and demolishing my place, which meant maybe the venting had helped.

An apology would be nice, but I could wait a few weeks, months or years for that.

“Dad changed,” she said.  “He regretted what happened, that you felt like you had to run away.”

“I believe you,” I said.  “But that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have any fond memories of them.  I forgive him, as much as it matters, but that’s where it stops.  I can’t bring myself to feel bad about it.  I’m sorry.”

She stared at me for a few long seconds, then turned her back to me, walking away.

A moment later, her bedroom door slammed shut.

Maybe being entirely honest was a mistake.

I’d cleaned up a third of the mess, roughly.  I’d left my conversation with Roxanne to look after Marlene, once she’d burnt all of her energy.  I’d hoped I could be a shoulder for her to cry on or a listening ear, but she hadn’t been willing to reach out.

The kids had their pizza for dinner, with Leo briefly breaking into silent tears that had taken me far too long to notice.  He had wanted homecooked food instead.  I’d suggested that I could call their aunt to get a recipe, which had only given Marlene some bait for another fight, insisting that no matter how closely I followed the recipe, it wouldn’t match the one she was used to.  She said it would be worse than not having homecooked meals at all, because it would be an insult.

She might have been right, but it had been one exhausting moment in another exhausting day.

I was dealing with two kids who weren’t interested in pizza.  When someone woke up shivering, drenched in sweat, that was a sign that something was terribly wrong, on a physical level, and that person was liable to find out they had cancer at their next doctor’s appointment.  Two key elements in their makeup not jibing.  When kids didn’t want pizza, that was a mental and emotional equivalent of the same.

I wasn’t sure what to do, besides give it time and work on forming a bond over time.

One day, one step at a time.  Figure them out, help them, make them more comfortable here.

I had work to do, and no energy to do it.

Compromise.  I collected some of the boxes from the front hall.

Once I assessed what needed to be done, then figure out how to pace my work over the next few days and weeks.

Keep it simple.

A Toby mug with a face on it, a fisherman, some scuff marks, a number of chips on the handle.  A doll needing restuffing, with an eyelid that didn’t close anymore.  Easy fixes.  A cane with a secret compartment.  I knew a few people who might buy it for the novelty value alone, and a handful of people who would buy it for practical use.  It didn’t screw together properly.  A problem with the threading.

I worked my way through the boxes.  It was interesting work, requiring just a little bit of knowledge in every discipline.  Old things had an honesty to them, their stories plain enough to anyone who wanted to look.  Yet people were willing to throw them away.

I came to the last box.  I’d put it off, if only to give myself a reason to work through to the end before hitting the hay.  I debated calling Roxanne first.  Same principle.  I was pretty sure I would be done for the day once I got through the last box.

No.  Too tired, and dealing with Roxanne was bound to be tiring.  Maybe even a little heart-wrenching, depending on the decision she came to.  I opted to open the box.

It wasn’t one of mine.

A mask, matte white, oval, with what looked like screwholes at the one, eleven, three and nine o’clock positions.  No mouth, no nose, no raises or bumps.  Only a gentle convex, with two eyeholes.

A mount?  For hanging something else on a wall?

It wasn’t old, either.  It was new.

I set it down on the table and rubbed my face.  I’d taken out the lenses, leaving my apartment free of the little cosmetic touches I’d given it.  Images on the walls no longer displayed, gilt vine patterns on the coffee table no longer crawled along the surface in slow motion.  Everything was very dull and static, which matched my current mental state.

“Wesley Vogel.”

I raised my head.

My television was on.  The screen had a tiny crack in it, but the crack didn’t obscure the image.  A heart, on the screen, black against white.

My computer was on, too, in the corner.  Rather, the monitor was on.  The computer itself was rarely shut down.  An arrow, pointing up.

I had to look for the third.  My music player, on the bookshelf.  A sun with rays extended.

That raised any number of questions.  If I was seeing things, it wasn’t the lenses.

“Or should I call you Soren Ellis?”  The heart on the television screen pulsed in time with the words.  The voice was masked, digitized.

This guy knows?

“I prefer Wesley,” I said.  Act calm, smile.  Look confident, even when you aren’t sure who these guys are and how they’re pulling this off.

Cool as a cucumber.

“We’re going by Heart, Ascent, and Sunny.”

Three.

“Right now, we’re your best friends in the world.  I need you to understand that, whatever happens next,” Heart said.

“I know how this goes.  Establish a rapport.  Once you’ve done that, you need to create a deadline, rush me.”

There was a pause, then laughter.  The speakers… the sun was pulsing in time with the laughter.

“He’s got you there, Heart,” Sunny said.  The voice was digitized, but the pitch was different enough to make it distinct.

“I’ve been around the block a few times,” I said.  I tried to watch all three screens at once, but couldn’t.  “I’ve dealt with some unsavory people.”

“You are an unsavory person,” the arrow spoke.  What had the heart called it?  Ascent?

“Now you’re insulting me,” I said.  “This isn’t a good start, guys.  You’re new to this.”

“No,” Ascent said.

“He’s kind of right,” Sunny pointed out.

“Quiet.”

“Wesley,” the heart told me.  “We need you on board here.  Put on the mask, and we’ll explain.”

I stood and stretched.  It wasn’t like the machines could hurt me.  It was good if I showed I was comfortable in my own skin.

“I remain thoroughly unconvinced,” I said.  “Hold up for a minute.  I’m going to get something to drink.

“This is important,” the Heart said, but I was already leaving.  “Wesley.”

Take control of the situation.

They were flustered.  Even with masked voices and no expressions to go by, I could tell I’d set them back a little.

A little more and I could turn things around.  Maybe even figure out how they got access to my belongings.

The microwave bleeped.  A sun.  Images appeared on the displays of the stove and refrigerator.  Heart and arrow.

The fridge started talking to me.  “Your life is at stake.”

I opened the fridge door, fetching a beer.

Maybe not the best idea, to dull my brain, with these guys here, but I was tired, and I wasn’t about to face down another crisis without a creature comfort.

“If you don’t listen, you could die in the next few hours.”

“I could die anyways,” I said.  “Any number of things could happen.”

Take the power away from them.  So far, all they had were words and vague threats.  If I stripped those things of their meaning, then the advantage was mine.

“The kids-” Ascent started talking.

“No,” Heart said.

With those incremental advantages, as my self-imposed adversaries got more flustered, I got information.

One was willing to go after the kids, the other wasn’t.

Was the hesitation because of compassion?

“The kids,” Ascent went on, “Could theoretically be in danger.  Their lives could be at risk.”

Or was the hesitation because Heart suspected they would be playing their cards too early?

Because they were.  Another advantage to me.

“Listen, Wesley.  Put on the mask,” Heart said.  “Work with us on this, and we’ll fix everything.”

“I have everything I could want,” I said.  Beer in hand, I left the kitchen.

They were waiting for me in the living room.  Heart said, “Your legal situation, we have access to every single document relating to you.  We can smooth things over, ensure it’s even sailing from here on out.”

Hard to imagine, but it was hard to imagine they could bypass the building security as well as my own.  I wasn’t tech savvy, I preferred old things, but I could manage, and I had enough money to hire smart men and women to put protection in place.

Were one of these people one of those smart men and women?

“If you have that kind of power, I find it hard to believe you need me.  Or if you do need me, it can’t be for anything good.  I’ll pass.”

“We could destroy you too,” Ascent said.  “Pass documents to the right people.”

I turned around, facing the computer screen.  “Do it.  You have the ability to do that?  You have what you say you have?  Do it.”

“I’m not sure you comprehend exactly what I’m threatening here.”

“I understand.  However, I also understand that if you do have the ability to follow through, to utterly destroy my life, then I’d be your puppet for the rest of my life if I acknowledged it, and I really am fond of free will.  If you don’t, then I’m calling your bluff.  Your move, arrowhead.”

I waited.

“We’ll start small.  Start with the kids, regarding-“

I dropped to my stomach by the bookshelves.  I reached behind, and found the power bar.  I clicked it to ‘off’.

By the time I stood up, the ‘sun’ had migrated to the computer monitor.

Heart was speaking from the cracked television, “You’re making a mistake.  Depending on how things go tonight-“

I unplugged the TV with no small measure of satisfaction.

The computer…

“We can take everything from you,” Ascent said.

“Then stop talking and do it.”

I unplugged the computer.

Then I grabbed the mask, opened the balcony window, and hurled it out into the street.

▲ (Ascent):  Fuck.

☼ (Sunny):  Hahahahahahahahahaha

▲ (Ascent):  Fuck.  Damn it, Heart.

♥ (Heart):  Me?

▲ (Ascent): You picked him.

♥ (Heart): You guys agreed to the pick.  I am not taking the blame for this.

☼ (Sunny): Hahahaha.

▲ (Ascent): You could have helped, Sun.

☼ (Sunny):  You guys were doing so well, though!  I’m more a behind the scenes guy.

♥ (Heart):  We’re running out of time.  I wanted to keep some in reserve, in case someone else tried to pull something, but…

▲ (Ascent):  It’s not a good situation.  What do you think?

♥ (Heart):  Drag him kicking and screaming.

☼ (Sunny):  Probably have to.  Pretty temporary solution.  We only get to make three plays, and we’ve already made one for the neighbor.

♥ (Heart): We figure it out tomorrow.

▲ (Ascent):  Alright.  Force him to come along.  Consensus?

♥ (Heart): Damn it.  Yes.

☼ (Sunny):  Not really off to a good start, are we?  Yes.

◘  (Box):  Consensus.

I woke up to see six men striding into my bedroom.  They didn’t make a sound.  Their boots were silent.  No eyeholes in their masks.  Only black, head to toe, complete with vests and leather gloves.

I reached for my drawer, hauling it open.

It was empty.  I’d moved the gun because the kids were moving in.

Firm hands seized my arm, and an elbow forced me back down onto the bed.

Strong.  Stronger than me.

One of them for each of my limbs, pressing them down against the mattress so hard I thought something might dislocate.  A hand went over my mouth.

Not that I was going to scream, if I could help it.  Bringing the kids into this wouldn’t help.

That left two.  One held the mask, and a black medicine bag.

The other took hold of my head, climbing onto the bed and pressing down on my collarbone and shoulders with one shin and virtually all of his body weight.

He took the mask and set it in place.  I could smell something medicinal, thick and cloying to the point that I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  Gorge rose in my throat as spit flooded into my mouth, and my consciousness swam.

But I wasn’t knocked out right away.  If it was meant to, it had faded in effect.  I did slip away, but not before I heard a power tool start up with a shrill whine and felt something poke me in the forehead, just above the hairline.

Someone was screaming.  A frantic kind of scream that kept trying to restart all over again, even as he didn’t have the breath.  His voice was hoarse, as if it had been going on for a little while.

I sat up, tried to look around.

My vision wouldn’t focus.  Double vision, the opposite of being cross-eyed.

I could make out a jail cell.  With a metal cot, a thin mattress and pillow, and a toilet.  Lit by a skylight.  There were iron-bar doors at two opposite sides.

Outside… darkness.

I was disoriented, my breath hot against my face.  I tried to climb to my feet, and nearly fell, cracking my face against the toilet.

Pausing to catch my breath, I looked down.

I was dressed, and not in pyjamas.  Slacks, outdoor shoes, no belt, a dress shirt and vest, with a gold pocket watch in the vest pocket.  I couldn’t make out the colors in the dim.  I removed the pocket watch and hit the button to open it, but it didn’t cooperate.  Decorative.

Which bothered me more than it should have.  Being dressed by other people, by the men who had assaulted me.

The screaming continued.

“I can make out another one.”  A woman said.

“Hello!” I called out.  I lurched over to the bars, gripping them to catch myself.  “Hello!”

“Ah, he’s a-“

“Shh.  Don’t be an idiot.  You think we’re separated like this because we’re buddy buddy?  Don’t tell him anything he doesn’t need to know.”

I squinted, but that only made the vision problem worse.

Instead, I used my hands to shield my eyes from the skylight above.  There were people.  People wearing masks, standing a distance away.  They were blurry blotches.

I moved my face closer, and there was a hard impact.

I was wearing the mask.  My hands moved to my face.

Not the same mask.  Or they had added to it.  There was a protrusion in the middle, conical.

I tried to pull it off, and I couldn’t.  I fumbled for straps.

The lights came on.  Each one was accompanied by the sound of a large breaker being thrown.  Spotlights spilled light into cells, one by one, traveling clockwise around the circle.  I shielded my eyes.

Cells, arranged in a circle, so one set of doors formed a loose ring where the lights didn’t reach.

I couldn’t make the inhabitants out.  The angle of the cell I was in and the fact that some weren’t standing by the door meant most were out of my view.

The light came on in my cell, and it was so bright it hurt.

The last of the lights came on.  Still, the man in the other cell screamed, urgent, frantic.  By contrast, I was utterly still.

The lights went on at the opposite end of the ring.

A woman, dressed in a black tank top and yoga pants, with running shoes, wearing a gray wolf’s mask.  The eyes were black circles.  If I’d seen it in a cartoon Leo was watching, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

A girl, in a rabbit mask, complete with ears that arced over her head.  She was wearing yoga pants and a sports bra, her arms covering her chest.  The same vague, minimalistic cartoon look was apparent, with the round, unblinking eyes.

A man, a rat mask, wearing a leather jacket.

A kid, not much older than Marlene, probably a boy, wearing a black sweatshirt, jeans, and a mask of a… lizard?  Snake?

And then, finally, the cell where the man was screaming.  A shirtless old man.  His mask had too many eyes.  A spider.  He thrashed, occasionally kicking his legs.

My hands moved up to my face.  The distorted vision… I touched the slight convex bulges where my ‘eyes’ were.

I was looking through the eyes of my mask, set further apart than my own eyes were.

If that were true, then was he seeing through eight eyes at once?  Was that even possible?

It was the sort of thing that would require surgery.  The thought made me recall a memory, the whine of the power tool.

My hands traveled back up to the mask.  I tried to wedge them underneath the hard surface, but the places where I could were limited.

But there…  Below my temples, spearing into the very rightmost and leftmost edges of my cheekbones, metal rods.

Screws?

The ringing echo of the last breaker sang through the area, taking far too long to go completely away.

Twelve in total.

Thirteen.  The final light came on, filling the center of the circle.  A computer, with screens facing each of us.

Day 0 Over.

Night 0 begin.

429/432

An Introduction.

Twelve cunning beasts prey on one another.

Each with talents, natural and given.

Bloody festivity at night.  Rest during the daylight hours?

Which one deserves to live?

Samples: Peer 3

Author’s notes: At this juncture I’m fairly certain I won’t move ahead with Peer, barring a lot of sudden good feedback and/or a burst of inspiration on several fronts.  In the interest of not rushing, however, and for the sake of rounding off this particular sample properly, I’m moving ahead with the third chapter regardless.

This would probably be closer to chapter four in the story, and I’d rewrite some bits of the prior chapters if I were moving ahead, but I’m skipping ahead just a little bit.  Three would be introducing more characters we’re not going to see anything of at this juncture, as well as establishing more behind the scenes.

“Can I offer you a drink?” Juris asked.  “I assume you’re drinking during the fast?”

And eating, Caspar thought.  “Yes.”

“Hot broth?  Ale?  Wine?  I have some melchek from our Barlus neighbors.  I know your dad enjoys it.”

“Melcheck leaves a sour taste in my mouth for the remainder of the day,” Caspar said.  “I can never shake the feeling that my breath stinks of it.  No thank you.  I’m fine without anything to drink.”

And my stomach is still a mess of bruises.  Eating and drinking anything was painful.

“It’s never as bad as you imagine it will be.  Well, I’ll keep that in mind,” Juris said.  “If we’re going to continue our working relationship, I’d like to know what to keep on hand for our meetings.  What’s your usual drink?”

“Wine.”

“Wine it is.  Red, black, white?”

“Red.”

“Good, good.  Easy enough to keep some on hand.  Now, you’ve had a few days.  Have you established a rapport with our guests?”

“With Haeg Mora, I think.  With Klaros…” Caspar trailed off.  He glanced in the direction of the door.

“The Kith of Aiah are xenophobic.  He doesn’t despise you or see you as an enemy, which is enough for now.  In a matter of days, we’ll see them off.  You and I can talk at some length, then, about your position in my offices, and at the same time, if you had any insights to share on Klaros’ interests and possible approaches to take in proposing trade, I’d appreciate it.”

Caspar nodded, even as he turned Lord Juris’ words over in his head.  His lessons with his father had taught him the techniques people used to hide deception in truth.  People’s memories caught on the beginnings and endings.  Were someone to rattle off a string of numbers, listeners would inevitably recall the first and last ones best.

In a similar vein, when a liar did not want someone to focus on a particular thing, they tended to wedge it between two other ideas.  People would recall what came before and what came after.  The Aiah are xenophobic, we will talk about your position later, I would like insights on the Aiah.

Caspar suspected Juris wasn’t wholly genuine about the job he’d offered.  Had Darios, Juris’ second, said something?  Had others pressured him?  Or had he been misleading Caspar from the beginning?

“Agreeable?” Juris prodded Caspar, smiling a little.

“I can tell you now.  He’s ascetic, though that might be the wrong word, because I do not think it is spiritual.  In terms of companionship, in food, dress and other creature comforts, he abstains.  He would rather be underdressed and suffer through the cold than take the time to fold the cloth of those false wings around himself.”

“I have thoughts on the matter, but I’ll hold my tongue to hear your thoughts.  What do you think lies at the heart of this behavior?”

“I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t want to accept what we offer.  Well, he does, but there’s more to it.  If I had to put it simply, I would argue it’s about pride.  Proving something to himself, that he won’t bow to outside forces… be they weather or other cultures.”

“You think there’s more to the fact that he doesn’t want to accept more than the very basics of what we offer?”

“He doesn’t wear the clothes we offer, he eats the bare minimum, and the servants say he sleeps on the floor.”

“The Aiah who are born without wings of their own wear ornamental ones.  Perhaps he doesn’t want to wear the clothes we offer because he would have to be wingless.  Perhaps he eats so little because the tastes are alien to him.  He might well sleep on the floor because the false wings he wears are heavy and his back grows sore.  A hard flat surface can help.”

“Maybe.  Maybe you’re right on every count.  But, well,  I don’t think any of us are pretending he isn’t spying on us.”

The Lord of Letters answered that with a gesture and a small shrug, “Eh.  I wouldn’t say spying.”

“He’s doing it openly.  Taking in every piece of information he can.  Watching, as he puts it.”

“Yes.  Well, we knew he would.  You received my message this morning?”  Lord Juris asked.

“Yes, I got the-” Caspar stopped.

The door opened, and Klaros entered.  He was still shirtless, still wearing the complicated arrangement of fabric, rods and heavy feathers.  If anything, his features were more severe than when he’d first arrived.  His thin, straight eyebrows had settled into a kind of suspicious glower, his eyes narrowed slightly.  His nose was flat, broad and angular, his mouth a thin line, never curving into a smile or frown.  It would be wholly possible, if an artist were to sit down with ink and a pen, to draw the young man with nothing but straight lines and severe angles.  The Kith’s thin-fingered hands were busy tying the longer portions of his hair back into a bristling tail.

He was underweight, a result of not eating enough.

“Klaros, welcome,” Juris said.  “A drink?”

Klaros shook his head.

“We were just talking about you,” Caspar said.

Juris gave Caspar a sidelong glance.  The fat young man shrugged by way of response, “Kith value honesty, don’t they?”

And they have good hearing, if Haeg Mora is any indication.  He likely already knew.

“We do value truth,” Klaros said.  “You talk of me now, and I will talk about you when I return to my people.  This is what we are doing.”

“No arguments from me,” Caspar said.

“Haeg Mora is in the company of the Lord of Trade and his three daughters,” Lord Juris said.  “If you’ll accept Caspar’s company, at least for this afternoon, he can show you our gallery, and then the map room in the Lord of Banner’s offices.”

Caspar added, “Thus far, you’ve shown more interest in military affairs.  The gallery has an interesting collection of weapons and armor.  As far as the map room goes, Lord Juris sent me some messages last night and this morning.  We were hoping that, if we don’t open up trade on other fronts, you might consider sharing maps?”

“I cannot imagine we need your help,” Klaros said.

Caspar hesitated.  He glanced at Juris, who remained silent.  “If you’re not interested, I don’t know how we’re going to fill the afternoon.”

“We can look at this gallery.  I am content to be on my own for the remainder of the afternoon.”

Still, Juris wasn’t saying anything.  Caspar struggled.  “Surely you don’t want to visit a foreign kingdom and then ignore that kingdom for most of your stay?”

“I watch, I look.  This is enough.”

“Then watch and look as we visit the map room,” Caspar said.  “Maybe you’ll be surprised.”

Klaros only nodded a little.

“Good,” Juris said, smiling.   “Then I’ll leave you to it.  I’ve left word with the librarian, Caspar, she’ll see you any time.  If you make your way to the map room after, the Lord of Banners can meet you then.”

“The weather could be better,” Caspar said.  “Can we maybe get you a cloak, Klaros?”

The Kith shook his head.

Caspar donned his cloak, aware of how it stretched across his stomach.

They stepped outside, into the hallway and around a corner to a path beneath a shingled overhang.  A drizzle of rain filled the air, so fine that there were no individual droplets.  The ornate ‘lace’ of stone that decorated the points where the pillars met the overhang above and the railing below collected the water, and dripped down in fat droplets.

“You are still hurt,” Klaros observed.

“Yes.  I’m sure anyone with sparring experience could laugh this off, but I’m finding that hard to do.”

“I would not laugh that off.  But I do not know that the members of my Kith would fare much better,” Klaros said.  Water was beading his bare chest.  The overcast sky afforded little light, and the overhang obscured it even further.  He looked even more grim than he had before, but his eyes caught the light, oddly bright in the gloom.

“I’m surprised,” Caspar said.

“We find it best to avoid getting hurt in the first place.”

“Armor, then?”

“Quickness.  Picking the right moments to strike, then disappearing.”

“Some of your Kith fly.  Easy enough for them to do.  I can’t help but wonder what you would do?”

“I would take great offense to someone who told me that I couldn’t fly, Caspar Thorbay.”

“Yet your kind values honesty.”

“An insult is still an insult, honest or otherwise.”

Caspar nodded.  “I see.”

I can understand that.

They ascended a set of stairs, entering a tunnel between two narrow stone buildings.  Channels carved in the stone fed water into potted plants at the entrance and exit of the short tunnel.

Caspar found himself lagging behind the Kith.  Even as he worked to match the taller man’s stride, his stomach ached, and his attempts to measure his breathing and suppress the pain only left him more out of breath.

“May-” he started, pausing as he winced in pain.  “May I suggest we visit the map room first?  I know Lord Juris said to wait, but it would be more on our way, and less walking.”

“I believe the Lord of Banners is expecting us later?”

“He’s usually around,” Caspar said.

Klaros didn’t say anything more, so Caspar took the lead.

He opened the door to the map room, then stopped short.

The Lord of Banners, his second, Gared, four commanders and no less than six sergeants were gathered around a table in the center of the room.  A map had been unrolled across the table, longer and wider than Caspar was tall.  All across the surface, painted wooden pieces had been laid out, spread across various regions.  Figurines of army men with spears, arrows and horses.  Surd stood at the center, in a narrow valley with only a small handful of passages leading out, the pieces painted in varying shades of red.  Colored figurines marked the positions of other kingdoms, while figurines in white, gray, brown and black marked the neighboring Kith.  Winged men and giant birds painted black were spread out at the far west, with figurines representing the Ogden’s boors and bandits in brown at the southeast, and a handful of sheep in white in the valley itself.

Klaros entered the room, his eyes falling on the table.  Caspar watched the young man’s eyes flash, dancing over the table before Caspar stepped in his way.  But Klaros was tall, and Caspar wasn’t.

Caspar flinched at the sound of a crash.  He turned to look, and saw one of the lieutenants standing by the table, sword in hand, still in its scabbard, extended as he’d swept it across the table.  The pieces he’d struck from the center of the table continued to clatter to the floor.  Many of the soldier pieces were cylindrical, and they rolled in broad circles as they traveled across the table, before reaching the edge and falling off.

Caspar fixed his eyes on the ground, watching as more pieces continued to rain down.

The Lord of Banners, an ex-soldier with an impressive cape, a beard lining his jaw  and a stylized padded vest and leather skirt for everyday wear, maintained his composure.  “Caspar Thorbay.  Kith Klaros.  We expected you later.”

“This was on our way,” Caspar said, his voice quiet, almost meek.

“As you can see, we are presently in the middle of a meeting.  Discussing affairs and logistics that we’d rather not allow a foreigner to see.”

“The Kith of Aiah aren’t our enemies,” Caspar said, still avoiding eye contact.

“The Kith of Aiah are mercenaries when they see fit to be mercenary,” the Lord of Banners said.  “They have a penchant for attacking weakness, and they sell information.  I would rather we didn’t give them any vital information,  nor any weaknesses to target.”

Klaros spoke.  “You didn’t seem weak, from what I saw.”

“You only saw the board for a moment,” a lieutenant said, his voice sharp.

“I could recreate what I saw from memory,” Klaros said.  He glanced at Caspar.  “Like I said, we have no need for maps.”

“A word, Caspar Thorbay,” the Lord of Banners said.  He approached Caspar, setting a hand on his shoulder, then led him to the end of the map room opposite the entrance.  A man in armor opened the glass doors.

Caspar was almost thrust out into the cold and damp.  His knees buckled with pain as his arms failed to stop his forward momentum and his already abused stomach hit the stone railing.

The glass doors shut behind them.

The Lord of Banners cuffed Caspar across the head.  “Imbecile!”

“He can see,” Caspar grunted out the words.  He added, “And hear, I suspect.”

The Lord of Banners turned, looking through the glass doors at the cleared table, some figurines still rocking back and forth, at the silent commanders and lieutenants, and at Klaros, who remained in the doorway.

The commander of all of Surd’s armies closed the shutters.

“There,” the Lord of Banners said.  “That’s done.”

Caspar nodded, still leaning over the railing, trying to catch his breath.

“I didn’t shove you that hard, did I?”

“I’ve been abused these past few days.”

The Lord of Banners approached Caspar, and leaned over the railing just beside him.  he clapped Caspar on the back with one hand.  His eyes stared over the horizon.  “Not a bad act, Caspar Thorbay.  You’re not useless.”

“I’d like to think so.  Or think not?  Either way, I want to be useful.”

“Was this your idea or Juris’?”

“He knew he wanted to do something.  It’s part of why he invited Klaros.  I think he arranged that with you?”

“He did.”

“But the how of it was my idea, with some feedback from Juris along the way, to supplement.  It snapped into place when I was reading up on the Kith, and the Aiah’s keen attention to detail came up.  Speaking of these details, the figurines you added to Surd’s armies have different shades of paint.”

“We had to paint over other colors to have enough pieces, and we were rushed, doing so much since last night,” the Lord of Banners said.  He frowned.  “Will he notice?”

Caspar wasn’t sure of the answer.  Was Klaros capable of noticing?  Almost definitely, if Caspar could notice.  But was it the sort of thing he would pay attention to?  Hard to say.  The Kith had a different manner of thinking.  They didn’t deceive, by nature, and perhaps that meant they weren’t well versed in keeping an eye out for deception.  He could hope.  He took his time answering, “If it helps, I think he might say it outright if he sees through the ruse.”

“You think?  You’re not certain?”

“The other possibility is that he takes some time to think about it, and it doesn’t come up.”

The Lord of Banners scowled momentarily.  “Petty and stupid, this business.  I wish I weren’t good at it.  Leading a pretend army.  Convincing other nations, even convincing our own people that we have armies we don’t.”

Caspar didn’t answer.

“You did a good thing, helping sell the ruse.  It helps me, and it helps Surd.  Know that I have no quarrel with you, that your parentage means nothing to me until you make it mean something.  I owe you, for acting the part of the bumbling moron.”

“Sacrificing my pride and reputation is easy to do when I have so little.  But if you owe me a favor, I’ll gladly take advantage of that.  I only want security.  I have no aspirations.”

“Never easy.  Even unwashed peasants have a certain manner of pride, don’t hurry to devalue your own.” the Lord of Banners said.  “Come.  You’re wet and miserable looking enough, now.  We’ll resume the playacting, and you can get yourself on your way.”

The man ran his hand up the side of Caspar’s head, then gave him a light push towards the doors.  Caspar drew in a deep breath, then opened the shutters.  He could glimpse himself in the reflections of the glass, a distorted image where the glass was inconsistent in thickness, his damp blond curls sticking up on one side of his head, cheeks and face red.

He opened the glass doors, the Lord of Banners following right behind him, looming and ominous.

Caspar didn’t meet anyone’s eyes as he crossed the room, carefully stepping through the fallen wooden pieces before reaching Klaros’ side.  He opened the door and walked through, trusting Klaros to follow.

“I believe I was right,” Klaros said.  “Arriving later would have been better.”

“If you’ll excuse me being undiplomatic, I don’t care to hear it,” Caspar’s voice was thin.  Moving had made his stomach hurt, and he channeled that into the sound of his voice, a quiet rasp.  He avoided Klaros’ eyes.  “Would it be acceptable if we skipped the gallery?  You’ll be fine spending your time on your own?”

“I would prefer to be on my own,” Klaros said.

“I’ll take you back to Lord Juris, then.  He’ll look after you.”

They retraced their steps.

The only light in his room was candlelight.  It was dusk, and the overcast sky blocked out all moonlight and starlight.  Looking at himself in the mirror, Caspar found the orange-yellow light of the candles deceptive.  Was the candlelight obscuring the bruising on his stomach?  Was it accentuating it?  The greens, purples and blacks spread from one flank to the other.

Nothing rigid, so at least blood wasn’t feeding into something vital.  He was fairly sure.

He took his time dressing.  A heavy black coat and gray tunic, black trousers and soft shoes.

Caspar drew in a deep breath, suppressing a wince at the tightness in his stomach, and then exhaled.  He studied himself in the mirror for as long as he dared, before averting his eyes.

“My young lord,” Lizbeth Thorbay said, from the door.

He was mildly surprised to see her there, but it wasn’t unusual.  She drifted here and there, an apparition.

“I’m not a lord.”

“You’re my son.  Close enough.  You should dress up.  A ring with a jewel, perhaps.  Or maybe an amulet.”

“I don’t want to draw more attention than I have to,” Caspar said.  He neglected to mention that his mother’s taste in fashion was more… how to even put it to words?  Startling?  Crimson paint on her lips, bright colors, and ostentatious jewelry.  It didn’t help her eccentric reputation.

He looked at himself in the mirror.  Many men could and did wear jewelry, but he wasn’t one of them.  His face was too soft, his cheeks red when the temperature was even a little cold or a little warm.  He didn’t need to look more womanly.

“That’s fine,” she said.  She laid a hand on his cheek to turn his head and kissed him on the other.  “Is this what you want to do?”

This?  Looking after foreigners?  I don’t mind, but I don’t think I could tolerate it for long.”  Too much abuse in too little time.

“This research appointment.”

“I think so.  It’s just about the only thing I can imagine myself doing.”

“Your father was upset, saying you were settling.  I admit I can imagine you doing more.  Your father is exceedingly good at getting what he wants.  It takes an amazing kind of strength, to claw your way up from where he started.  From a child without parents to a street rat capable of living on his own, an enforcer, and then the Brute.”

She smiled, which Caspar couldn’t understand.  She’d heard the stories.  Her perspective wasn’t so different from Caspar’s own.  Rolf had been a fat man, shorter than average, enacting protection rackets in his neighborhood, managing a kind of peace with other local criminals because his habit of buying debts from other loaners and thugs had everyone running scared, going out of their way to pay their debts, regardless of whether those debts were Rolf’s or someone else’s.  He had been merciless, cruel and creative in going after his victims.

Yet Lizbeth Thorbay didn’t seem to mind.

“As for me, I’d like to think I’m better versed in the esoteric.”

“The abstract.”

She smiled.  “Yes.  You could have the best of both of us.”

Or the worst of you two.  Mild insanity and a slimy reputation.

“Yes,” he said, lying, “Maybe.”

“See to your duties, Caspar,” she said.  “We can talk when you return.  Perhaps I could sacrifice some manner of livestock, tonight, to help you on your way.”

He stood, then hugged her.  “Worshiping blood gods is dangerous.”

She smiled, “I know my way around these things.  I won’t inadvertently curse myself or my bloodline, don’t worry.”

“I meant it’s dangerous in terms of the wrong people finding out.  It’s against the law.”

She cocked her head a little to one side.  “Is it?  I lose track.”

“It’s always been against the law, mother.  We’ve talked about this before.  Blood gods, pain gods, death gods, and a few others are out of bounds.  Too many people have opened veins and offered a little bit too much of themselves, or whipped themselves until they lost the use of their legs.”

“Well, I’ll have to keep that in mind.”

As you did the last three times we’ve talked about it.

He kissed her on the cheek.  “Just don’t do anything unless father or I are here.  And if you want books or anything like that, we can get them for you.  Don’t go looking.”

“Of course.  Yes,” she said, as if she was just now remembering the rules.

He double checked himself in the mirror, trying to tell himself that the dark circles around his eyes were the candlelight.  Then he left his room, stopping by the little servant girl.  “Cynn.”

“Yes sir?”

“I’m having a special dinner tonight.  I might be able to bring back a treat for you, as thanks.  Can I ask you to watch Lady Thorbay, in exchange?  If she starts with something, distract her?”

“I think so.  I can try.”

“Good.  I can’t promise the treat will be any good, maybe I’ll grab a few.  An acceptable bargain?”

“I’m a servant now.  I shouldn’t bargain with my betters.”

He was reminded of the Lord of Banners’ words from earlier in the day.  “A good attitude to have, but don’t sell yourself short.  Knowing my father, he’s liable to train you as a spy, and you’ll need to learn to negotiate sooner than later.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“It doesn’t matter.  I should go.”

Cynn nodded.  “Goodbye, sir.”

He left the house, locking the door behind him.

He was careful not to rush as he made his way up to the keep.  He didn’t want to sweat, and he didn’t want to aggravate his injured stomach.

It was an inconvenient distance, not so long a trip that he could lose himself in thought, but long enough that it was tiresome.  Into the keep, past the guards, and up the first staircase to the left.  The guest quarters.

A bitter, mad kind of joke, that it required a trip up four staircases to get here.  He wondered if Lord Juris had done it for a reason.

He reached the door and knocked.

Haeg Mora opened it.

As had been the case the last time he had come here, he found her underdressed.  She wore the same silk slip, but she also wore elements of her native dress.  Dyed red cloth, varying wildly in hue as the light caught it from different directions, wrapped around her chest and one shoulder.  One edge of the cloth was sewn with a series of a hundred or more silvery ornaments.  Each was a three-pronged spike, attached by a knot of fabric, tracing and tickling the skin of her collarbone and arm as her movements made them shift.

Similar cloth had been wrapped around her waist, just long enough that it hung below the shift.  Which wasn’t necessarily that long.  The same silvery ornaments tickled her thighs.

He looked, and then felt abashed that he had.  He didn’t miss that a wrapping of cloth covered her one twisted half-foot.  She was beaded with sweat from recent exertion and the rain from a recent trip outside, her blond hair sticking to her neck and shoulders where it made contact with the wet skin and cloth.

Aromatic steam billowed behind her, and a heavy smoke made the light of the candles all the more evident.  For a moment, he could see how her people might see her as a shaman and witch.

She smiled, and the smile touched her black eyes.  “Inside.  Come.  Some small man was yapped about smells.  I don’t want to give him reason for more.”

He accepted the invitation, joining her in her quarters.  He looked around, and found the room, with its stone floors and walls, otherwise empty.  “Your servant?”

“I banished her.  She fretted and fussed, and made my head hurt.  Come.  The food is hot.  I have partaken of your culture, you take of mine.”

“Juris?  Is he not coming?”

“He is not invited.  You look after me, now I look after you.  It is… the trader’s scales balance?”

“Equivalent.”

“Yes!” she seemed more animated than before.  She moved about the room without her cane, seizing furniture for balance, lurching just a little as she crossed to the table, then stalked around it just a bit, keeping one hand on it at all times, until she was standing at the far side.  She stopped, hands on the table, and in that moment of stillness, a droplet of sweat or rainwater traced a trail down the bare skin of her arm.

He averted his eyes, looking down.  The foods were familiar enough, but they were caked in spice, virtually every dish sitting in a sea of what looked to be butter and oils.  Chickens, tubers, vegetables, both the familiar ones that grew in gardens here and foreign ones that were traded for.

“Sit.  Eat,” she said.

With a vague feeling of dread, he sat down in the indicated chair.

“My people’s food.  We like to eat.  It is good.”

He nodded.

“Eat,” she urged.

At her bidding, he ate.

On the first mouthful, he found himself coughing.  The taste was pungent, the spices filling his mouth and absorbing all of the moisture.

Tears in his eyes, he drank some of the proffered wine, glanced at her to see her peering intently at him, then tried again.

Once he found his stride, he ate with enthusiasm.

“I have only ever cooked for myself,” she said.  Her hands were empty and still.  “For us, gathering and sharing of food very important.  Most collect their own food, and we set time aside every day to do this.  Proud individuals are given food gifts, for work.  A young, successful trader or smith might have others bring meals while he works, and this means something.”

“Are you going to eat?”

“I eat while cooking.  I share some, too, with cooks who loaned me my kitchen, and with others who carry the table and the heating box I use to keep the food warm.  This is not my culture, but it is yours?”

“Close enough.  I’m sure they appreciated it,” Caspar said.  He looked down at the table.  The table sat six.  Dishes occupied the surface.  Enough to feed four people.  All of this is for me.

Would she be offended if he didn’t eat it all?

Could he eat it all?

“Our women court men by bringing them food.  A bond begins with respect.  A gift of prepared food shows this.  The man rewards her with with attentions, and eventually marriage,” Haeg Mora said.

“I think I’ve heard of something like this,” Caspar said.

“The man grows fat on food gifts, if the wife is good enough at the hunt, or if he belongs to a warrior clan where a man takes many wives.  He teaches her trade, and they become a force within their clan.  You look at one of Ogden’s people and know status by their size.  It is men who are faces of the clan, you can insult and argue with them, and they do everything they can to gain more presence,” Mora said.  She smiled a little, “It is the women that are fearsome, who you must negotiate with once the bluster is done.  The Ogden women know what they are doing, they accept no insult.  Once they have learned their husband’s trade and added their own knowledge to it, they are better than him.  This is accepted.”

“You know the story of my parents?” Caspar asked.

“I do.”

“My mother has the status, and it is her last name that my father took.”

“But he sits in the Black Chair.”

“If it was just that, he wouldn’t have lasted long.  He got a foothold here only because of my mother’s name.  People talk about her, they always have.  She was eccentric as a child, more interested in odd things than dolls and dresses.  I think she married my father as a way of repaying that.  And because she’s genuinely fond of him, for some reason.”

“I can see how she could be.  He reminds me of uncles and others I have been fond of, in the past,” Haeg Mora said.  Her cane scraped against the edge of the table as she fiddled with it, turning it around in her hands.  “I have fallen in love, when I was younger.  Short falls but still falls.  Yes?  I am saying this right?”

“Very poetic,” Caspar said.  He continued eating.  The spices kept it interesting all the way through, rather than numbing his palate or letting his mouth grow bored.  “What I was saying about my parents… it’s the sort of thing I think about when I think of the court, and the nobility, and everything else.  I can’t help but wonder why?  My parents went against tradition, in more ways than one.  My mother had the status in the first place.  I wonder why the court is like it is, and why things don’t change.  I wonder about all of it… and I wonder about your traditions.”

“I like my traditions, though I would like them better if they were better for a woman that needs cane to walk.  It is good.  Men work hard to learn from their fathers and handle their own trades, women work hard to get their husbands, the husband becomes the teacher, the roles exchange.”

“You don’t question them?  The traditions?”

“I wonder.  I have had dark moods, among the Haeg.  But I would not change them.  I accept them.”

He nodded.

“Do you like them?  Could you accept them, do you think?”

“I accept your traditions, of course.  I wonder, but I accept them.  It’s your culture, and I don’t know enough about it to say if it’s right or wrong.”

“You miss my meaning.  I am asking, Caspar Thorbay, if you would take me for your wife.”

He choked a little on his food.

“I am a cripple, but you have money, and you have… substance?”

“Substance?” he asked.

She indicated his stomach.  “You are fat.  I have brought this up several times in past days.”

“I’m… not sure I follow.”

“Then I will explain better.  With your money, your natural status, and your knowledge, me at your side, I think we can take position in clan.  As you are ambassador here, you would be ambassador there.   I cannot hunt or collect food, but wealthy members of clan have servants, as you do, and slaves.  Instead, I would teach you what you need to know about clan, my lifetime of knowledge.”

“Oh.  That’s a… staggering offer,” Caspar said.

“You have reason for concern about your position here, the others say.  I can offer you the security you seek.  Wealth, comfort, me.”

He froze, eyes on the table.

“I have seen you glance.  You know we are blunt.  So I will tell you I know.  You can reply, to tell me you are not interested, if it is so.”

“That’s not-“

“Do not be too quick to answer,” she said, and she met his eyes.  “I will be offended if you are.  I am a cripple.  I know this.  Others thought it impossible I would marry, so I became Haeg.  If you agree with them, then say so.  Be honest, Caspar Thorbay, and I will be fine.”

An insult is still an insult, honest or otherwise.

How could he say it?  That it wasn’t the disability that held him back, but her appearance?  That he didn’t want to even be that superficial, but she wasn’t wholly human.

She was being blunt, firm, intense.  Bold.  But he had too much experience with people who lied, and she had so very little experience in deception, for her to sell the lie.  And it was a lie, however much she tried to convince herself she believed it.  She wouldn’t be fine, not necessarily.

“I know every member of a Kith supposedly varies,” he said, carefully.  “In terms of the features they have.  Some are almost entirely like the named spirit animal that gave them life.  Others are almost indistinguishable from human.  But always with intelligence.  It breeds a tolerance among your kind that is… harder to find here.  Even in me.”

“You would make this a question of appearances, Caspar Thorbay?”  she asked.

“I don’t know.  You told me to think about it, and I’m thinking.  In the interest of being honest, I could do with some cool air.  Would you mind accompanying me to the balcony?”

“You don’t wish to finish?” she asked.  She looked disappointed.

“I do.  Believe me, I do, but…” he hesitated.  Then he stood from the seat.  He pulled up his doublet, showing her his bruised stomach.

“Injury.  Your father?”

“No.  Another.  Eating hurts.”

“Imbecile, not saying so,” she said.  She stood from her seat.  “It is raining out there.”

“I don’t mind if you don’t.  I could do with cooling off.”

She nodded.  “My skin feels tight.  I ache.  Too much back and forth from kitchens.  Feeling the rain would be nice.”

They stepped outside.  The rain was a light patter around them.

“To return to conversation,” she said, her voice quiet.  “You were refusing me.”

“I was…”

“You were saying that for all your talk about questioning the things that are, you would let my appearance hold you back here?”

“I-” he started.  “Find that an exceedingly good point.”

“Tell me.  Can you question this, see in a new light?  Is my being member of the Kith something you never learn to look past?  Would this bother you every moment of every day?  Or would you change, until days it crossed your mind were strange days?”

“I’m not entirely sure.  I may need a minute to think about it.”

“Then let me fill that minute with ideas of my own.  I desire you, Caspar Thorbay.  You caught my eye when I first arrived, and when Klaros chafed in dealing with this second ambassador, Darios, I suggested you.  I desired you and pursued you, as is the usual for my Kith.  Then I grew to like you more, as I spent this little time with you and heard stories.  You are the son of the brute, and I think perhaps you could understand the Kith of Ogden’s Boors and Brutes, too.  Warriors who are loud and smelly and fat because it makes them bigger in all of an enemy’s senses.  I would like nothing more than to spend my days feeding you succulent dishes, take you to bed to slather oils on that broad stomach of yours, and whisper of strategy and politics so your mind is as fully stated as your body.”

She was breathing just a little harder, now.

He wondered, momentarily, if he could tell her of his peculiar sight and his visions.  If it would end this right here and now, or if it would only draw further interest from her.

“Every woman in the kith would desire you just as you are, they would find you compelling as a foreigner, and if appearances matter so much to you, you could find some that are almost human.  I would insist on being your wife, but you could bring slaves and servants to bed as well, if you wanted.  Decorate our home with the naked and nubile, if you wish it.”

And there, in the midst of that, he could see that vulnerability again.  Perhaps not something she really wanted to concede to him, but she was making the offer earnestly, and Kith didn’t lie.

That was the moment he realized that she genuinely wanted this.  He’d received the offer, but years of telling himself he would live and die unwanted had been hard to shake off.

He met her eyes, unable to find the words to respond.

She was the one who looked away, this time.  She rubbed at the corner of one eye, turning her head so he couldn’t see.

Below them, the bells in the Alltemple began ringing.  He didn’t look to see why.

His eyes didn’t leave Haeg Mora.  He could see her image distorting.

In a matter of seconds, he could see the specter that loomed behind her.

It was her, younger, smaller, without all of the majesty of her Haeg persona.  Wholly human.  Not the prettiest girl, but not unattractive either.  The image was dressed in a slip like the one Haeg Mora wore, her hair and clothing clean and dry.

It was only when the image knelt on the floor of the balcony that he saw the rest of the image.  The figure draped herself over the back of a large female boar.  The beast was young, but ugly, gnarled, and covered in the scars of years of abuse and mistreatment.  Scratches, scuffs, scrapes and scabs were still healing.  When the girl shifted her weight, hugging the beast, it nearly lost its balance, moving one forelimb aside to maintain it.  It was missing a leg, with only a red, puckered, infected looking wound where the hind limb was supposed to be.

He looked away, feeling as though he was seeing something he shouldn’t.

Yes.

Yes, he wanted this.

Yes, he was willing to make this leap of faith, to throw himself after this possibility, to find something beyond mere security.

Yes, Mora.  Yes, yes, yes.  You don’t have to be Haeg anymore.  I don’t have to be the son of the brute anymore.

But the words wouldn’t leave his mouth.

The bells continued to ring.  He glanced away, only to see people running from the keep to the alltemple, carrying torches.

Something was happening.

Did it matter, compared to this?

He had every reason to say yes, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it.  His reasons for refusal were all reasons he could work around.  His mother, he could find a place for her.  Even his father, with some cleverness, could be escorted from the city.  If Haeg Mora was right, then he could be successful enough to look after them.

Why couldn’t he bring himself to agree?

Yet when he thought about refusing, the words spilled forth from his mouth.  “I’m sorry.”

Haeg Mora lowered her hand.  There was blood on the fingertips.

“Mora,” he said.

She turned her head, and he could see the look in her eyes, completely unrelated to the tear in the skin by her eye.

Unrelated to the gash that appeared in the side of her neck as she turned her head.

“No,” he said, numb, confused.  “What?”

He reached out, to place one hand over the wound.

She raised her hand to hold it over his own, and he could see more gashes appearing in the skin.

“Stop moving,” he said.  “You’re-“

She saw the blood, and she reacted, drawing back, a momentary look of accusation in her eyes.  The movement of her legs opened up more wounds, blood running down bare skin.

Then, a moment’s realization, and she reached out to him, gashes continuing to appear, across shoulders and elbow, and down the lengths of her arms.  She opened her mouth, and blood poured out.

She collapsed, and he caught her.

He tore off his coat, trying to use it to staunch the flow of blood, but it only opened more wounds.

Her skin was like the driest parchment.  It only took the lightest abuse before it was as good as dust.

The specters of the pig and the girl faded.  Not so unusual.  He knew in his heart that she was gone.

The bells continued tolling.

It was only then that he realized the meaning of it.  It wasn’t just the Haeg.

Numb, he found his feet, his stomach aching as he stumbled away from the balcony.

Time seemed to pass excruciatingly slowly and with a surprising suddenness.  He found his way to the hallway, with no memory of passing through the Haeg’s living quarters.

Darios appeared, running, knees and shins of his hose slick with another’s blood, his hands and arms soaked up to the elbows.  He stopped when he saw Caspar.

“The Haeg is dead,” Caspar managed.

“So is the Lord of Letters.”

No sooner were the words out of Darios’ mouth than the young man had fled, making his way to the staircase.  By the time Caspar reached the top, Darios was far enough down that he was out of sight.

He ran, as best as he was able, even as the pain in his stomach reached a fever pitch.  He ignored it, ignored the way it jiggled so much it hurt.  The warm memory of the Haeg’s promise was gone, now.  He couldn’t even conceive of this world where everything was warm and safe.

Here, it was cold, dark, wet, and bloody.  A chill had settled in the core of his body and mind both, leaving him disoriented.

There was a crowd at the entrance to the keep, as time seemed to pass too quickly, and he found himself on the ground floor.  The numbness that permeated him dulled the pain, made him feel stronger than he knew he was.  With it came a kind of frantic alertness, the knowledge that this momentary strength would fade and he would be unable to do anything when it passed.

“Lord Emerick is dead,” a man pronounced.  “Dark magics.”

Dark magics?

“A prayer reached the wrong god,” someone else said.

Wrong gods.

“The Lords of Banners and Bludgeons are dead,” someone else said.

“Stay inside the keep’s gates!” a guard roared.  A spear blocked the crowd from passing.

Chaos, disorientation, confusion.  It wasn’t just him.

“The High Priests-“

“Caspar!”

The high voice stirred him from a daze he hadn’t realized he was in.

“Cynn!” he called out.  He pushed through the crowd.  People recoiled when they saw the blood, and he used his weight to force his way.  He only stopped when a spear touched the fabric of his tunic.  He dimly realized he’d left his coat behind.

Cynn was behind the guards, being held at bay as much as he was.

He only had to see her to know.

“My parents-“

He saw the indecision and fear on her face.

“Both?” he asked.

“All the Magistrates,” someone said, behind him.  “Even the Black Chair?”

“I… they just died,” Cynn said.  Tears streaked her face.  “They started bleeding.”

He opened his mouth, and then closed it.  So short a time ago, things had been normal.

“I don’t know what to do,” Cynn said.  “They won’t let me in.”

He found his voice.  “Is mother presentable?”

“What?” Cynn asked.  Shock had her too.

“Is the house in order?  Or is it a mess like it was the other night?”

“It’s… a mess,” Cynn said.  He could see the thoughts turning over in her head, as she realized his meaning.

“Look after it.  Put her books away, I think there’s one on the stand.  Get it presentable, so that it’s all proper for when people come to examine the body.  My parents would want it that way.”

“I don’t, I don’t think I know what to do.”

“I’ll be along shortly,” he said.  “As soon as they let us by.  Go.”

She ran, like she must have run to get from the house to here so quickly.

Others were forcing their way past him, to confront the guards.  He let them, and stumbled backwards out of the small crowd.

He didn’t want to be a part of this crowd.  He wanted to be alone…

A thought connected.  He thought of something.

Darios.  Where was Darios?

There, at the far end of the crowd.

“Darios!” he hollered.

The young man turned around.

“Where is Klaros?”

“He’s in the keep.  In his quarters.”

“Is he alive or dead?” Caspar said.

“He was alive when I stopped by, on my way down,” Darios said.

Alive?

“Did you lock him in?”  Caspar asked.

Darios only gave him a funny look.

“We can’t let him slip out!  If he passes on word-“

“He’s in his quarters,” Darios said, again, maybe not aware he was repeating himself.

Caspar ran, ascending the stairs with nearly the same speed he’d descended.  Up one floor only…

He entered the hallway, and he could see Klaros at the end of the hallway, walking.

He ran, and his footsteps made noise.  Klaros turned to see him, then bolted.

The young Kith soldier was fast.

Caspar wasn’t, but he had a short-lived strength born of desperation.  He followed, pausing at each floor to check the hallway and make sure Klaros hadn’t tried to disappear down one hallway or another.

No, he could hear footsteps above.

By the time he reached the top of the tower, the strength was fading and his legs were giving out.

Klaros wasn’t at the top of the tower.  He’d crossed the length of the keep’s roof, where it peaked, and walked on the cold shingles with bare feet.

“Klaros!”  Caspar bellowed.

The Kith spun around.

Then the Kith reached back, gripping the complicated cape he wore on his back.  He thrust his arms out, and the rigging of rods and cloth extended to either side.  Not just decorative wings for a bird Kith that couldn’t fly.

Before Caspar could move, Klaros was sliding down the slope of the roof with his bare feet.  The false wings were extended to either side, catching the wind, and Klaros ran, feet barely touching the roof, then not touching at all.  He slipped into a nosedive, spiraling viciously for a moment before he righted himself, this time with his legs on a part of the rigging.

He rose, catching the wind, no longer falling.

The lack of diet, the low body weight, they were something Klaros maintained so he could do this.  So he could fly by false means.

The propensity for injury he’d talked about – did the Kith of Aiah have hollow bones like a bird, to make this sort of thing easier?

Caspar hurled himself at the side of the tower, searching.  There, on another tower, across the roof, lower, soldiers.

“Shoot him!” Caspar screamed the words.

Heads turned, but they didn’t raise their bows.

Caspar pointed.  Again, he screamed, “Shoot him!”

One cadet raised a bow, but his superior pushed the weapon down, and the cadet relaxed the string.

“Shoot!  Assassin!”  He said.  He wasn’t sure.  He was pretty sure the Kith wasn’t the assassin, but it was the only way to stir them to action.

Or not.  “If we shoot, arrows will land in the city!”

“Shoot!  Or we all die!”

The Kith of Aiah prey on weakness.

They were weak.

And the flying soldier passed out of a bow’s reach.

Evil magics?  A dark god?

No.  Assassins?

Did it matter?  The kingdom had been built on lies and deception, and now the world would know the truth.  They wouldn’t survive the year.

Samples: Peer 2

Haeg Mora stood before him, dressed in only a silk slip and an unbelted robe.  One of her hands gripped the heavy wooden door, the other held the doorframe.  With the way she was leaning forward, she was inadvertently treating him to a view down the front.

She made a low, guttural sound, and then hung her head, sagging a little.

A servant girl hurried to her side, ducking under Mora’s arm to put herself between Caspar and Mora, closing Mora’s robe and tying the belt.  She was quick and efficient, even with a wooden bowl tucked under one arm.

The servant girl gave Caspar a sharp look, and he turned his back.

He hadn’t quite expected Haeg Mora to be the one to open the door, much less in that state of dress.

“An empty bowl?  You joke me?”

“In case you need to… if you’re ill, madam.”

“I will not be ill.”

There was a pause.  “Yes ma’am.  We’re well behind in getting ready for the morning.  If master Thorbay would be willing to wait, I think we can get you respectable.”

“I will get myself respectable.  I paid attention as I was dressed yesterday, I will dress myself today.”

She’s in a mood, Caspar observed, but he kept his back turned.  “I can wait.  Take your time.”

There was a clatter, and Caspar momentarily thought Mora had fallen.  When he turned, however, he saw that she’d taken a chair and was using it as a makeshift cane, crossing to her bedside to get her stone cane.  She crossed to the other corner of the room where clothes had been hung up.

His eye fell on her right foot.  It wasn’t a human foot, but a cleft hoof, twisted with nubs of flesh partway up.  She leaned on the cane not because the foot wasn’t strong enough, but because the limb was bent at a right angle, towards her left foot, with nothing to set firmly on the ground.

The servant girl got in his way once more, protecting the modesty of her charge.  “My apologies, Master Thorbay,” she said, not sounding terribly apologetic.  He could forgive her the attitude.  She couldn’t have had the most pleasant morning.

“May I have a word?” he asked her.

“With her?”

“With you.  She doesn’t seem in particular need of assistance just this moment.  Please?”

The girl frowned, but she stepped out of the room and closed the door behind her.  He made sure to lead her a distance down the hallway, to be sure they were out of earshot.

“She’s ill?”  He asked.

“The Lords and Ladies are fasting, the kitchen was closed to everyone but servants, and the Lady Mora-“

“Haeg Mora.  They don’t have lords and ladies.”

Haeg Mora was hungry.  I asked around, and Lady Theda’s maid suggested I take her to the kitchen and see what she wanted.”

“And?”

“The servants were curious, and she was friendly enough, answering questions and asking them in turn.  We invited her to eat with us, it was something of a celebration for us anyhow, with the lords and ladies fasting and the kitchen staff free to make something for themselves.  A spread,” the girl said, smiling.  She seemed to recall who she was talking to and added, “Modest, I assure you.  We wouldn’t rob the Lords and Ladies who employ us.”

“I’m not interested in getting anyone in trouble, I only want answers.”

“She ate until she was ill.  It was grim,” the servant girl said, whispering that last word, “seeing her slowly and steadily eat well past the point of being full or enjoying the food.  I thought she might injure or wound herself, even.  Once we realized, we weren’t sure what to do.  We couldn’t take the plates away without upsetting her, but she ate because the food was there.  We thought of sending for the Lord of Letters, but he was in council the moment the day started.”

You could have sent for me.

“It’s not your fault.  I should have left better instructions, or the Lord of Letters should have.”

The girl  seemed to be upset and relieved at the same time.  “La- Haeg Mora looked as though she might be… suddenly ill, and I walked her over to the stairwell by the kitchens, just in case.  The staff that hadn’t already fled the table saw fit to clear the table while I had her distracted.  When we returned, I thought she might club me with that cane of hers, seeing the food gone.”

“She didn’t?”

The girl shook her head.  “But she has been irritable since.”

“You’ve done well.  Next time, send for me if you can’t get the Lord of Letters.”

The girl looked just a touch sullen as she nodded.

A sad reality, Caspar thought to himself, that anyone who knew who he was had no love or respect for him, by virtue of his background alone.  This young servant knew he was the son of Rolf Thorbay, and even after he’d left her the order, he couldn’t be sure she would hurry to follow his instruction.  Or would she sabotage him, even?

“It would be appreciated,” he said, for emphasis.  He held her gaze, waiting, hoping she would look away before he had to.

She nodded, her eyes dropping.  “Yes, of course.”

She turned to leave.  He remained at the end of the hallway, waiting, while Haeg Mora finished dressing.

She emerged, surprisingly put together.  Her hair was combed, though with a laurel of wrought silver to pin her hair back around her ears.  Her dress was a simpler one than she’d worn the day before, in green with a short cape of silver covering one shoulder and a thin belt of metal leaves that matched the laurel, more decorative than supportive.  It was perhaps not the best choice of belts, making her swollen stomach more apparent rather than less.

He habitually averted his eyes.  Rude, for one thing, to stare at a young lady.  Problematic for other reasons, as well.  He’d woken to find the half-armored knight who wore his father’s face was gone, which was a burden off his shoulders.  He didn’t want to slip and invite another vision to follow him for the day.

“Good morning, Caspar Thorbay,” she said.

“Good morning, Haeg Mora.  Can I compliment you on how well and quickly you’ve put yourself together?”

“You can,” she said.  There was no smile or curtsy to accompany the statement, nothing demure in her body language.  It put him off guard, just a touch.

He found his bearings quickly enough, “Would you prefer to walk with the cane or my arm?”

“The cane,” she said.  “Which way?”

He extended a hand, then fell in step beside her.

“Did the servant help you with the final touches?” he asked, conversationally.

She frowned.  “I need no help.  Talking and eating with these servant people, I keep getting feelings that you all think Ogden’s Kith are savage.  We are stupid, we are clumsy, we dress in skins.”

“Cultural differences, nothing more.”

“Anyone can make themselves pleasing to look at if they know the rules.  Failure in knowing and following these rules means any can be ugly and undesirable.  You know this.”

She gave him a pointed look, her cane striking the stone underfoot.  He declined to respond to the casual insult.

“We worked metal before you did.  During the War of Tears, we had the greatest towers and thickest fortresses.  When the thirteenth people fought us, they would steal the weapons of the fallen because they preferred them to their own.”

He held his tongue.

“No?”  She asked.  “You frown, Caspar Thorbay.  What would you say?”

“Better to avoid diplomatic incident,” he said.  “The Lord of Letters would be a better one to discuss this with.  Rest assured, I don’t think you are savage.”

They made their way to the gardens in the center of the keep.  The buildings had been arranged to frame open walkways and a series of fountains, trees and flower beds, growing more ostentatious, exotic and elaborate towards the center, where the shade was heavier and secluded benches more common.

“If you insist on being silent, I will insist on thinking you want to say the rudest, most offensive things I can imagine.  Do you think I am the daughter of a beggar?”

“What?  No.”

“You accuse me of rutting with all manner of dumb beasts?” she asked, raising her voice.

He could see other nobles in the gardens were glancing their way.  “No.  Please, be quieter.”

“I take time to learn Surd language, am tutored from moment I join Haeg, I come here and dress like you dress, follow custom.  Yet you do not meet me anywhere.  I say honesty is important, but you lie with your silence.”

“Because saying the wrong thing can be worse than whatever you’re imagining I might say.”

“Ah.  I heard your father once made a man blind himself in one eye, because he failed to pay debt.  Perhaps you seethe with this kind of malice for me?” she pressed.  “My imagination is good.  I have heard other stories.  Do you wish to scalp Haeg Mora and wipe your-“

“Enough,” he said.  “Please, Haeg Mora.   I am not my father.”

“You have his blood, as I have Ogden’s.”

He sought to change the subject, knowing he was bowing to her manipulations.  “What I was going to say was that the War of Tears was two hundred years ago.  Some things have changed since then.”

“Ah!”  She smiled, and he could see how one of the teeth on the bottom row was longer than the others, sharp, positioned below where she had the scarred cleft in her lip.  “You butt heads with me?”

“Different connotations, Haeg.”

“Connotations?”

“That turn of phrase means different things to the Kith than it means to us.  We borrowed some terms from your language, in the past, but turned it to different meanings in times of war.  To butt heads is to stubbornly argue to the point of being stupid.”

“It is to contest with each other, your thoughts against mine, bludgeoning each other with them until the other submits.”

Debate would be a better way of putting it.”

“The…” she said.  “How do you say?”

“Debate,” he repeated, for clarity.

“Two hundred years ago, we were better in many ways.  We were made better, each Kith with different knowledges.  That was then.  Now we are still better at things.  Our cloth, our oils, our rich desserts.  We were better then, we are better some ways now.”

“Yet your army is little more than common thugs, carrying out the bandit raids without care.  When people here think of the Kith of Ogden, they think of unwashed men in bloodstained armor, robbing our wagons and carrying off anyone young to enslave.  So long as the raids continue, it will always be this image that appears first in our minds.  Thieves and slavers.”

“We sell our own as slaves too.  Our stupidest, slowest and weakest give back to the tribe that raised them by bringing in this slave coin.  My tutor in all things Haeg was a slave once, released when she was too old.  There is… the weights are even in this.  We give, we take.”

“Dealing in buying or selling slaves is seen as savage, here.  There isn’t a balancing of the scales to make it right.”

“But you buy slaves.”

“The underclass buys slaves.  Those of us here in the court discourage it, for the most part.  It makes for too much coin passing through the wrong sorts of hands.”

“Like the hands of your father.”

“If you want to, as you put it, bludgeon me into submission with your words, bringing things back to my father over and over again is a good start,” Caspar said.  “If you want to discuss and learn, even be friendly, perhaps we could avoid that topic.”

He led the way onto a different path.  The gardens had buildings on three sides, and a complicated arrangement of stone stairs spilling down from the fourth.  They now made their way towards an overlarge set of double doors in the narrowest building, the middle of the three.

“Yes.  We can avoid this.”

“Thank you,” he said.

He was about to launch into fresh conversation, to pave over the awkwardness, but a figure caught his eye.  Between the building to his right and the court where the magistrates gathered, there was a gap, and he could see a young lady striding away.  Her hair was black and piled high, held in place with bands that had been painted red, her neck and arms were long and thin, her ankle-length dress deceptively simple, black silk belted behind her neck and waist, leaving the whole of her back bared.

A massive three-fingered hand rested momentarily on the small of her back as she approached the stairwell that would lead her down and out of Caspar’s sight.  As the young servant had tried to obscure Caspar’s view of Mora, another figure obscured his vision of the young lady.  Half again as tall as the tallest man, he nonetheless stooped over, a slouch encouraged by years spent in buildings built too small for him.  His skin was dark brown, his eyes pale, and where an ordinary man might have body hair, he had thick auburn wool.  When he walked, thanks to his disproportionately large arms and small legs and the slouch that bent him forward, he had to periodically use one hand for balance.  His curling horns seemed large and heavy, forcing his head lower.

“Kith of Barlus,” Mora observed, following his gaze.

“Yes,” Caspar said.  He watched as the gigantic Kith made his way down the stairs, his shoulders bobbing with each careful step.

“Rare, to see one outside of his family.  They are clever and strong and fearsome as a group, craven and stupid when alone.”

“So the texts say,” Caspar said.

“Rarer, too, to see one of Barlus’ children with that color, here.  Red wool?”

“He’s not from here,” Caspar said, simply.  He stepped forward to open the double doors.

There was no time for further conversation, their destination too close.  They passed statues and walked to one side of a forked staircase that branched around a great stone statue.  A naked man, twenty feet tall, bristled with muscles, leaning over one end of a great maul, a shaft of wood with an oversized gauntlet lashed to one end.  The base was an inarticulate but artful mass of flesh from any number of different beasts, with an opening in the middle for the magistrates to pass through, leading to the inner chambers.

Slaying the mad god, Caspar thought, as he and Mora laboriously made their way up the curved staircase.

The statue had originally had a base, complete with assorted members of Sur’s retinue at the edges.  In time, as the court had been remodeled, the individual statues had been removed, the various members finding homes in alcoves in the library.  Only one had remained as part of the base, and that had been removed by one of the previous individuals to sit on the black chair.

A cutthroat and con artist who hadn’t liked entering the hall and seeing the high priest in the throes of despair as his patron god had its head caved in.  She’d taken a hammer to it, and she’d hung from the gallows for the offense.

He imagined it, the statue, as crested the top of the stairs.  He’d seen illustrations in books, and similar images in art.  One strike, to end one reign and begin a new one.

He pushed the door open so Haeg Mora could pass through.

The meeting took place on a lower level.  Each of the Magistrates sat in pairs and trios at various tables.  One table for the Lords of City and Capitol, one for the three Lords of Sun, Moon, and Star, respectively, and so it went.

Lord Rolf Thorbay sat alone, at a table smaller than the desk in Caspar’s bedroom, no papers on his desk, but for a small leather-bound book, a pen and ink.

A small audience had gathered in seats around them, beneath where Caspar and the other seconds had gathered.  They stood looking down on the floor, behind a series of railings that roughly matched the width of the tables below.  Behind each of the seconds were tables where books, papers, scrolls and maps had been laid out.

The Lords of Sun, Moon and Star had the floor, and their respective seconds were listening intently.  The religious leaders of the three religions that had the majority of the public backing them.

The priest with the golden mask and blades extending from the edges was talking.  Though his mask might have made him a better fit for the sun chair, the empty chair behind him was engraved with a crescent moon.

He was saying something about ceremony and the limits on tithing, and hearing him speak, Caspar realized he recognized the man.  Bardolf Wickim.

“…If I may take a moment to reference my records of tithes received,” Bardolf paused.  His second turned, moving one book to seize another, and swiftly descended the staircase that led down to the floor, bringing him the tome.  She placed it deliberately in his hands.  She remained at his side.

He did not open the tome, however, but tapped it for effect, “I’d like to illustrate that the upswing on days of good tithing counterbalance period of drought.”

“When you speak of your records,” the elderly Lord of Trade said, “Do you speak of the religion you presently head, or is it one of the other five you’ve put to rest in recent years?  Six religions total, in the last twenty years, hasn’t it been?”

“I confess I do not know what you’re talking about,” Bardolf Wickim replied.  “What a crass idea.”

Emerick Suvain, the Lord of Capitol, was very similar in stature when compared to the musclebound hero who was showcased in the court’s lobby.  Though armor made up the bulk of that, he had the natural strength to wear it.  He was arguably the most powerful man in Surd.  When he spoke, everyone listened.  “You want the limits released, arguing the averages will put your earnings at an even keel with respectable businesses, even if the exceptional periods of growth seem… grandiose.”

He wasn’t restating the obvious for the benefit of argument or for Bardolf, but for the people in the benches around the floor, who would be reporting the details of the meeting to others.  Laying it out in simple terms.

“That is the thrust of the matter,” Bardolf said.

Emerick’s voice was deep as he spoke, “We founded this nation on the death of a god.  The people have a certain attachment to the idea, perhaps we even romanticize it.  Every few years, a church closes its doors, there is fanfare, celebration, a brief-lived mythology comes to a close.  A god dies, a messiah perishes, hope is offered or taken away.  Surely you acknowledge this occurs.”

“I do,” Bardolf said.

“My question is, if we removed the limits, how many more gods and religions would die in the next twenty years?  More than six?”

“The rise and fall of gods is the province of gods and the godly, nothing more,” Bardolf said.  “Not of coin.”

“Yet coin can be the province of the godly as well?  Or have you changed your mind about why you are addressing us, High Priest of Larva?”

“No need to be specious, Lord Emerick.  We all need coin to feed ourselves and keep up the churches.”

“I’ll abstain from voting,” Emerick said.  “You’re right.  But consider… if we encourage the charlatans in robes to raise and slay false gods, will the people not tire of it?  Will the balance be upset?”

“You lack faith,” the man in the golden mask said.  “The gods will make it right.”

“I have changed my vote,” A woman in a black robe said.  The Lord of Stars.  “I am sorry, High Priest of Larva, but there are gods of ugliness and darkness out there.  I do not trust them to keep a balance.  What we have serves.”

“Agreed,” a man with a painted face said.  The Lord of Sun.  “Let’s put the matter to rest.”

Bardolf let the tome drop to the table with an impact, then found his chair.  The other two lords of religion removed themselves from the floor as well, sitting in their respective seats.

Emerick spoke, “The next matter on the docket is marked as the woodsbridge dead stag concern.  I would suggest Capitol and Bludgeon for the floor.  Objection?”

The various lords at the tables held out hands, flat and parallel to the table.

Only Rolf didn’t.

“I would take the floor,” Caspar’s father said.

Emerick didn’t look particularly surprised.  “Objections?”

There were none.

The lords of Capitol, Bludgeon and Black made their way to the open space inside the broken ring of tables.

Caspar was distracted by the approach of three others, who were keeping far enough away from the railing to be out of sight of the assembly that had gathered to watch proceedings.

Darios and Gared, seconds of Letters and Bludgeon, respectively, leaned over the railing.  Glances were cast in Caspar’s direction.  Klaros, in the company of the second of banners, didn’t even try to be surreptitious about it.

“-no less than twelve times,” Emerick said.  “This is a subject for concern.  The woods are reserved for the nobility, and even there the hunting is strictly controlled.  Should illness, incident or drought bring a particular species to the point of extinction, the woodsbridge is a means of carefully replenishing it.  Not possible when it is being overhunted.”

Rolf spoke.  “I became aware of the matter when it was entered on the docket.  I’ve seen to it.”

“So easily?” the Lord of Bludgeons asked.  “Too easily?”

“Do we have to undertake this charade every time?”  Rolf asked.  “Many of the people in the audience have seen it often enough.  Yes.  You are exceedingly surprised that I still have contacts from my less than illustrious past.  We must repeatedly hammer in the idea that I do not truly belong here, and every criminal act that occurs must somehow be my fault.”

“If you are restless, Black, we can give your chair to another.”

“If you do that, the reserve will be hunted to extinction.  I passed on word to wholly legitimate individuals, who passed on word to less legitimate businessmen, who passed on word through the low streets and gutters.”

“You warned the poachers,” the Lord of Bludgeons said.

“I told them I was aware and I would be displeased if it continued, and my reputation did the rest,” Rolf said.  “It’s done.”

“Except,” Lord Emerick said, “You forget the matter of the stags that have already died, and the poachers escape without paying for their crime.”

“Not to mention,” the Lord of Bludgeons spoke up, “The woodsbridge is guarded on both ends, and the poachers somehow found their way through.  This is worrisome, and demands investigation.”

“A security threat to our castle and nation, even,” the Lord of Banners joined in, from the sidelines.

Rolf bowed his head a little, as if the pressure the others were applying was a physical force.

Caspar could imagine what the shadow his father had cast might look like, if he could see it now.  However calm Rolf Thorbay appeared to be, his real attitude could vary.  Was he just barely suppressing his rage?

Was he laughing at them?

The man straightened, raising his head, brushing at a lock of dark curl to get it away from his eyes.  He spread his arms.

Caspar didn’t get to hear.  Gared, son of the Lord of Bludgeons, spoke to Darios, his voice low, but somehow audible.  A trick of the acoustics in the room, with every part of the layout encouraging sounds to travel and reach?  “One day, the brute is going to hang.  My father says he will be the one to personally see to it.  He has a rope that needs stretching.”

“I know,” Darios said, his voice calm, sounding more disinterested than anything.  “I’ve eaten at your table often enough.  He’s made the joke so many times I’ve gotten sick of it.  I can’t imagine how you feel.”

“I see the stretched rope in my sleep,” Gared said.  He grimaced.  He looked at Caspar, but Caspar was already averting his eyes, trying not to be obvious that he was overhearing.

“I said I would not bring up the subject again,” Mora said. “But…”

“I know,” Caspar said.  “They’re speaking about my father.”

“I see.”

Caspar frowned.

Gared went on, “I feel sorry for his wife.  Born a little spotty, according to my aunt, and she gets taken advantage of by a thug twice her age.  When the brute dangles from the gallows, what happens to her?  She has no nobility worth speaking of, no coin, no stipend from the black chair, and none would be the one who takes the brute’s wife to bed… She winds up in the low streets?  Mad enough to be unable to look after herself, sane enough to know how bad her situation is?”

“Caspar is seeking employment with the Lord of Letters,” Darios said. “As a lowly researcher.  He could look after her.”

“No.  That won’t do.  I mean, I don’t wish the woman ill.  She can’t be faulted for her frailty, but you’ll have to fire him.”  Gared asked, eyebrows raised.  “It isn’t right, that the black chair leaves any permanent marks in the court.”

Darios shrugged, noncommittal.

Gared frowned.  He looked at Caspar, but Caspar was watching only through his peripheral vision.  “Fat Caspar can’t be too clean, if he interacts with his father.  My father could bring him in on suspicions of conspiracy, and I’m sure we’d find something.”

Caspar was suspicious they could.  If they searched the house, they’d likely find any number of incriminating details.  Worship of blood gods was technically forbidden, after a spate of cults had sprung up here and there, and there hadn’t been two straight days where the house had been utterly clean of anything suspicious.  Letters to the wrong people, texts on poisons that wouldn’t be found in the library here, for teaching Caspar, Caspar’s juvenile ideas from when he’d been a child and hadn’t yet seen his father’s madness for what it was.  Were some still around?  Did his father keep them as mementos?

Rolf was smiling a little as he debated matters with Gared’s father, the Lord of Bludgeons.  Criminal and judge, opposing one another on the floor.  Was part of that arrogance because he was envisioning Caspar’s note, tucked away in some secret drawer somewhere, an eight year old’s crude ideas on how to systematically murder the various magistrates?

Darios leaned forward, and his voice was barely audible.  “Perhaps we can discuss this later, over a drink?  Some of us don’t have positions guaranteed by blood.  I’d hate to lose my appointment because Klaros got the wrong impression.”

Klaros, a distance away, glanced at Darios, but didn’t reply.

“Ah well,” Gared said.  “Soon enough.  My father has taken to appointing guards on the brute, and he hasn’t said anything about why.  He must anticipate something.  The criminals always get more restless when they know their turn at the gallows approaches.”

“Do you hear what this boy says?”  Mora asked.

“Yes,” Caspar answered.  He pointed down at the floor, where the Lord of Trade was taking the floor, along with the Lord of Banners.  “But I think you should listen.  Ignore this and pay attention to the discussion of trade.  It’s at least part of the reason you came, isn’t it?”

“I understand you better, now,” Mora said, her voice quiet.  “We have warlords take power, sometimes, and they do not have the ability to keep power.  They rarely go silently.  I see it in him, and I think you see it to.  You seek security, but you fear it is already too late.  It probably is.”

“This isn’t what a diplomat should be talking about with a guest,” Caspar said, his voice more tight than he would have liked.

“Take it from one who has watched this play out again and again.  Few find that security, when they desperately search for it as the water runs down the glass.  You must take a risk.”

Caspar sighed, relenting.  He met her eyes for a moment, then looked away, turning his eyes back to the floor.  “A risk?  What do you think I could do?”

An axe for one, a poison for another, to make him shit himself to death.  Bleed another in their bathtub.  So on and so on, down the list.  

The scrawlings of a boy with the characteristic unquestioning adoration for their father, too young to know better.

Had it ever been more than that?  Or were they just pretendings, for his father to cling to as he knew his time would run out.  He would become too restless, push something too far.  Or he would grow too comfortable and predictable, and he would no longer have a role in things.

“You know this world better than I do.  But I do not think you should go quietly,” Mora said.  “I have ideas, but-“

“Forgive me,” he said, interrupting her.  He had a sick feeling in his gut, knowing he was burning a bridge, setting himself back in this feeble attempt at rescuing himself from the doom that was about to befall his father.  “I… don’t feel well.  My breakfast didn’t sit well.  I need a moment’s fresh air.”

A feeble lie, drawing inspiration from the one he was lying to, of all people.  Someone who detested lies, no less.  Her expression, as cryptic as her eyes might be, left no doubt she knew he’d told a falsehood.

He might have made excuses, tried to shore it up, but he stepped away, instead, abandoning her and his duties.

The gods had brought him this far.  A whim, a chair for a criminal, because it recurred in the myths enough times.  But as the gods died, so did this whimsy.  Maybe Gared was wrong, and Caspar’s father would occupy the Black Chair for years to come.  Maybe war wouldn’t break out, necessitating that Rolf vacate the position so a warlord might occupy it.

But time would pass, and it would all come crumbling down.

He made his way down the stairs, then strode through the double doors into the gardens.

The air was crisp, even though it was summer, a result of the keep being based in the mountains.  Vertical distances marked the paths between cities and settlements as much or more than the horizontal distances, roads zig-zagging down the cliff faces, framed by the aqueducts that controlled the flows of cold mountain water.

He turned left, passing between the court and the archives that framed the gardens.  Stairs and patios were laid out along the cliff’s edge.

He traced the path, heading down, below the foot of the archives building, and around the corner.

Clusters of trees offered privacy here.  It was an out of the way spot, originally a place for Lords and Ladies who worked in the court and the archives to share meals, it had fallen out of favor as new areas were set up and a wing was added to the archives, casting the patios in darkness at any time beyond early morning.  Here and there, stairs were cracked, and weeds grew up and out of the way.  Trees were tended, but leaned toward the overgrown.

The Lady with the open-backed robe and the Kith companion was on one patio, sitting in deep shade.

Caspar felt his heart thud in his chest.

“Lady Esmenet,” he said.

She turned her head, surprised.  The surprise wasn’t diminished with recognition.  If anything, she looked more confused.  “Caspar Thorbay?”

He nodded.  “May I approach?”

“I was enjoying a moment’s quiet,” she said.

No, then.

He approached a step, and the Kith moved, his arm catching a railing, helping to shift his position.

Every step of the way, people bar my path, try to keep me from seeing.

“I’d hoped to talk with you,” he said.

“I can’t imagine we have any reason to talk, Caspar.”

“If you could ask your Kith to leave-“

“A silly notion,” she said.  “My father bought him for me on the day I was born, so I’d never be without protection.  You want me to dismiss him?”

Caspar glanced at the Kith.  The man glowered at him, in turn.  An ex-slave.  But he’d been a child when he’d been ‘freed’, no connection to a distant clan that had been wiped out and enslaved in entirety, no coin, no means of acquiring food or shelter, beyond the basest options.  He’d been offered a position, food and shelter, a bodyguard.

A slave, only without any obvious collar or shackles.

Caspar approached, and he raised a hand, placing it against the Kith’s forearm.  “Rest assured, I don’t think I could hurt her if I tried.”

The Kith didn’t budge.

“Let him through, Linos.  He’s no threat to me.  If he insists on disturbing the quiet, we might as well get it over with.”

Linos backed off, and Caspar advanced, approaching the railing, so Lady Esmenet was behind him.  “You abandoned your post.”

“My father doesn’t trust me to actually carry out the duties of a second,” she said.  “His third sees to the job.  I’m expected to stand there, be regal, and learn.”

He gazed out at the valley below.  “You’re absent from the Alltemple, you’re absent from the court meetings and your duties as second.  The only person in your company is Linos.  People wonder.”

“Let them.”

“They wonder what you do.  I found myself wondering why.  I think we’re kindred spirits, in a way.”

There was no reply.  When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw Lady Esmenet exchanging a glance with her bodyguard.

“Sorry,” Caspar said, “If that’s taken as an insult.  But… you let your reputation degrade, you skip events.  I think we’re very similar in our feelings towards all of this.  The ambition, the lies, the deception, the way the board keeps on shifting, one player or one piece being exchanged for another, but nothing ever changes.   So much hinges on appearances, and there’s so very little substance.”

Still, there was no response.

“I despise it all.  I loathe it, and I think you do too.  Your father is Lord of Capitol, the highest position in the court, if someone wanted to argue there was one.  My father is the Lord of Black.  The lowest position, undeniably.  Generations go by without one proposal being acknowledged or accepted from the Black Chair.  My father has played along, so some of them humor him, but others wait for the day they can remove him from the chair and finally get around to hanging him.  We stand at opposite ends of all this, and we’re the same.”

“So?” she asked.  “I’m not saying that I agree, but what does it matter?  We might be soulmates, destined for each other, or we could be mortal enemies tomorrow.  What does it matter?  What would you have me do about it?”

“Every day, it seems, you try to escape this.  You seek refuges like this one, abandon your duties.  I… I suppose I seek my own refuge.  A stupid notion of being a researcher for little pay.  I want your help.  I want to ally.  We want the same things, we can help each other accomplish them.”

“I’m to help you become a researcher?” she asked.

“No,” Caspar said.  He clenched his fists.  He was talking too fast, stumbling over his words.  There was so much he wanted to say, but he couldn’t get it out in the right way.  The more he tried, the worse it got.  “In other things.  Getting to the heart of the matter.”

“We can shake things up,” she said.  “Undermine the court, force a change.”

They were the sort of words that he had wanted to hear.  But the tone…

He turned around, and he could see how her expression mocked him.  Sarcasm.

His gaze dropped to his toes.

“Where’s your fire, Caspar?” she asked, and the tone was too similar.  “What do you really want?”

He didn’t dare answer the question.

“Fancy words, about me being your soulmate, about the stagnant disease at the heart of the court, the lies and masks we all wear so comfortably.  And you frame it all like you want to rescue me.”

“You can’t deny that you hate this.  That being in the court is like being in a cage.  You dress a certain way, you act a certain way, and every time you do, you know you’re shoring up a system that you can’t stand.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” she said.  She stood from the bench and brushed at the petals that had settled on her dress.  “Shall I buck the system?  Try to shake free of the restraints?”

He sensed a trap, but he’d walked into it.  “As you wish.”

“A lady must be dainty, you understand,” she said.  “Linos, come closer.”

The Kith approached.

Caspar tensed.

“A lady must be demure,” Esmenet said.

“Yes,” Caspar said.

“Every week, I entertain suitors.  Every time, I must find a way to deflect their advances.  Over and over.  I must be polite, sparing their feelings, and I can never be forceful.”

She pushed a branch out of the way as she approached Caspar.  It swung, and emerald petals showered down behind her.

“So I can never refuse a suitor entirely.  I deflect, they advance again and again.  It’s a farce.”

“So I was right,” Caspar said.  “You hate this.”

“Yes.”

“And yet you’re going to reject me now, like you could never deflect your suitors.”

“Yes.  Rest assured, Caspar Thorbay, the idea of befriending you or joining you in this inochate venture of yours makes the gorge rise in my throat.  The idea of being associated with you, with being similar to you, it makes my skin crawl.”  She extended an arm.  “Look!”

He looked away.  She was too close.

“No, look!  Really!  Goosebumps.  I don’t have any little hairs on my arms, because my servants wax my arms and legs, but they would be standing on end.”

“I understand,” Caspar said, just a little disgusted, unsure if that disgust was with himself or with her.  “A no would suffice.”

“Ah, but I feel so much better!  You’ve interrupted my peace, tonight, and I’ll shudder when I recall the comparisons you drew, but I finally got to act.”

There was a note of anger in his voice, when he spoke, “Where do you wind up, five years from now?  Still unable to act?  Doing the same thing?”

“Where will you be, Caspar?  It won’t be in a position as researcher or anything like that.  There are rules.  If you’ve moved one step from where you are, it’ll be to the gutters or the gallows.”

He would have responded, even retorted with an angry word or two of his own, but Linos loomed close, fully capable of dismantling Caspar if he had a mind to.

He let himself meet Lady Esmenet’s eyes.  They were dark, glittering with anger.  Her features, flawless, were so tight that it looked like she wore a mask.

“Fine,” Caspar said.  “Fine.  Then I’d like to make a request.”

“A request?” Esmenet asked.

“There are other terms for it, but I’m going to keep to the politest one.  Your family has been investing in the merchant nobles.  Your father will have given you some papers, teaching you the accounting and the details of investment.  Patron’s notes, I imagine.”

“What does it matter to you?” she asked.

“You’ll give me some.  Not many.  Five papers will do.  For any of the businesses your family is overseeing.  Sign them over to me.”

“I think you’ve gone mad,” she said.

“Or I’ll let slip that I saw you and your bodyguard fucking,” Caspar said.

Linos tensed.  He spoke in a low rumble, his words clumsy.  “I can throw him over the edge.”

“They’ll wonder why you were willing to kill,” Caspar said, speaking just a little too fast.  His eyes darted between them, so he couldn’t start to see things.  “I imagine they’ll take it to the most obvious conclusion.”

“Many people have raised the idea,” Esmenet said.  “It’s a scandal that’s never borne fruit, and people are tired of it.”

“People saw you leave the court, people saw me leave.  One of those people was Haeg Mora.  Kith don’t lie.  If I or someone else ask her for the details, Haeg Mora will give a definitive answer.  That she saw you going this way with your bodyguard.  It only takes a nugget of truth to get them thinking, and the Haeg can offer that truth.”

“So you’re just as slimy as everyone thinks you are, Caspar,” Esmenet said.  “But perhaps you’re right.  Perhaps I loathe the court.  I haven’t cared about the scandal now, why should I care if it comes to life?”

Caspar glanced between the two, “That scandal, given enough fuel, would separate you from your bodyguard.  You grew up together.  He must be like a brother to you, I imagine.”

“I could break him,” Linos said.

“Same issue as killing me.  It’ll get people thinking.”

“As blackmail goes, this is flimsy at best,” Esmenet said.

“You could maneuver around it,” Caspar said.  “Turn things back on me, even.  But you won’t.  Because I’m right.  You want peace and quiet, before you’re married off to someone to further your father’s interests or keep the inner court in the hands of the inner court.  It’s easier to sign over the notes.”

“Giving you an escape route, if things go sour?”

“It’s something,” he said.

“Linos?” she asked.  She gestured, but he was too slow to see what the gesture was.

Linos struck him.  A fist larger than Caspar’s head sank into his broad stomach.  He doubled over, and Linos caught him before he could fall.

“I suppose I have to accept,” Esmenet said.  “Again.”

He flinched, but it did no good.  Putting his arms in the way of the incoming strike only served to get his arms bruised, very nearly getting them broken.

“You showed your hand.  You’re desperate enough you can’t leverage your threat against me in retaliation.  Again, Linos.”

Caspar managed a choked scream before Linos hit in a third time.

“I’ll send the notes to you by courier tonight,” she said.  “Is that fine?”

Caspar nodded quickly.

“Very good,” Lady Esmenet said.

Linos propped him up against the railing, then used a large thumb to wipe at the dribble of spit that had leaked from the corner Caspar’s mouth.

Caspar hadn’t even caught his breath when Linos hit him again.  He doubled over and tumbled to the ground, in too much pain to even groan.

“I didn’t order that one,” Esmenet said.  She sounded further away.  She was leaving.

“That one was mine,” Linos commented.

Caspar picked himself up.  Twice, in the process of getting to his feet, he was utterly frozen by the wrenching pain that gripped him.

He did what he could to dust himself off, moving with a glacial speed, and then made his way up the stairs.  He couldn’t bring himself to move at a regular pace, leading him to raise one foot to a stair, then raising the other foot to that same stair.

He was halfway up when he saw Klaros.

“Advice for you,” Caspar managed, huffing.  “If you’re going to spy, you don’t want to be seen by the one you’re spying on.”

“I do not spy.  I watch.”

“Very good,” Caspar said.  “How much did you see?”

“Enough.”

Caspar nodded.

“You love this girl.”

“In the spirit of Kith honesty,” Caspar grunted, “I do and  have.  For far too long.”

“Yet you coerce her?  Threaten her?”

Caspar shook his head.  He couldn’t explain, because it hurt too much to talk, and because he wasn’t sure he could explain it.

He’d blackmailed her because he cared.  The note went both ways.  If she signed it over, it made it clear a transaction had taken place.  He could leverage it, both the date she signed it and the date he received the courier’s scrip, to show that he’d been in Esmenet’s company.

It took a note of truth to get a scandal going.  A note of truth could stop one.  There were enough days where Lady Esmenet wasn’t where she was supposed to be, where he’d been absent too.  When she wasn’t at the Alltemple, he was on the balcony, placed well out of sight.

He had evidence they’d met and interacted, the rest of a fiction could be spun from there.  If someone leveled slander at her, accusing her of an affair with her Kith bodyguard, Caspar could refute it.

More would need to be done, to make it more solid, and to ensure it worked, but he was quietly confident.

He couldn’t get her out of the cage that trapped them both, but he could maybe act to save her nonetheless.

Stupid, reckless, when he couldn’t necessarily save himself.  When she didn’t want to be saved.  But he’d once believed in what he saw when he looked at someone too hard, and as a young boy in love for the first time, he’d turned it on Esmenet.

He’d stopped believing, that day.  If only because he didn’t want there to be any truth in what he’d seen.

Samples: Peer 1

“So much effort devoted to worshipping nobody in particular,” Caspar murmured.

Below the balcony, the Allchoir’s song echoed through the temple, the deep voices of men and beats of drums mingling with the high, sweet voices of children.  Around the stage, six deep alcoves held the priests and followers of a dozen religions, still but for the movements of their singing.  They were dressed up, gaudy in ornamentation, masks, robes and costume.  No expense had been spared.  One even wore a mask of gold, molded to the appearance of a man’s face, with narrow, foot-long spikes radiating out from the edges.

“Subversive words,” a voice responded.

Caspar stood from where he’d been leaning on the railing, surprised but not startled.  “Lord Juris, sir.”

Lord Juris was taller than most, going prematurely gray in a way that didn’t match his unlined face.  His eyes were sharp and dark against his pale skin, his light gray hair had been slicked back with pomade, but curls had torn free in an artful way that didn’t make the man look any worse for it.  The tall collar and the straight, narrow lines of the ankle-length garment he wore made him look even taller than he was.  He carried a funny stone rod with blunted spikes running along the four sides, out of place and too short to be his cane.

The Lord of Letters.  In appearance, he was almost Caspar’s opposite.

The man that kept Juris company was close to Caspar in age, but otherwise just as dissimilar.  He had bearing, with a sharp chin, a black jerkin and leggings with cloth shoes that were more decorative than anything.  He had a pronounced widow’s peak to match a sharp chin, and narrow eyes that flickered over Caspar in harsh judgement.  Darios Nath.  He knew Darios, in passing.

Caspar glanced between the two, trying not to stare too much, while at the same time working to keep from looking furtive.  It was a balance he’d never learned to strike.  His hands… it was hard to know what to do with his hands.  There was nothing to hold, and he couldn’t clasp them in front of him without his arms framing his prodigious stomach.  He settled for folding his hands behind his back, trying not to look like he was trying to sort himself out.

Some would take offense, hearing you talk about their religion in such a manner,” Juris rebuked him.

“Yes, you’re right.  I’m… used to spending time with only myself for company.  It was uncharitable and inaccurate.”

Juris smiled, then chuckled.

Caspar waited.  As much as Juris was displaying sudden warmth, Darios wasn’t.  The young man’s eyes were almost colder and angrier, as Juris finished.

“Not to worry.  We intruded, after all.  I’m not offended.  I just finished speaking with your parents, they’re waiting outside.  I’d hoped to talk to you.”

Caspar felt an uneasy feeling stirring in his gut, butterflies giving birth to more butterflies.  He’d anticipated this would happen sooner or later.  No escaping it.  But to have no warning, and to have it be the work of the Lord of Letters, it was the nightmare of just about any young noble.

“Of course,” was all he could say in response.

“Is here alright?”  Juris indicated the balcony.  Curtains kept the balcony out of sight and out of earshot of the balconies on either side, and the height and position of the balcony kept it out of sight of the rows of seats below.

Someone who didn’t know better might think the balcony was a place of prominence.

The singing was dying down.  In moments, figures would be stepping out of the alcoves to make their own entreaties.

“If the noise doesn’t bother you.  Would you like to sit?”  Caspar indicated a chair.

“I’ll stand, if you don’t mind.  I’ve spent too much time lately hunched over my desk, writing to this foreign lord and that one.  My back is a ruin.”

Caspar nodded.  He would have preferred to sit, but he couldn’t when the Lord had deigned to stand.

“Do you have plans, Caspar?”

Did he?  His father had plans for him, but they were vague.  “No, sir.”

Prospects?”

Caspar felt his stomach plunge, the butterflies doubling in number.

“No.  No prospects.”

“Then I would like to make you an offer.  Your father says you’re well read in a variety of areas.”

“Yes.”

“A result of spending so much time on your own, as you said earlier.  That’s good.  Then you’ll know more of other countries and cultures?”

“Yes,” Caspar replied.  He could feel the pressure closing around his throat.

“I would offer you a temporary position, then.”

It took Caspar a moment to process the words.  He coughed, half laughter and half sputter.  The singing had stopped below, and the sound felt painfully loud, in the silence as one of the religious leaders made their way up to the front of the stage.

For a moment, Juris’ composure failed him, confusion and concern marking his otherwise serene face.

“Are you alright, Caspar?”  Juris asked, lowering his voice out of respect for the man on the stage who was now speaking, a song that was spoken like prose, or poetry set to music.  Something between the two.

“Beg pardon.  I thought you were going to marry me to someone,” Caspar admitted, matching Juris’ tone.

He didn’t miss the look of disgust on Darios’ face.  He ignored it.

Juris smiled as the pieces came together.  “Is that so bad?”

“To marry someone far away?  I know I’m not a catch.  A token marriage, to someone I don’t know…”  Caspar trailed off before he could self-depreciate too much.  Knowing that I wouldn’t be any woman’s ideal, and that it would be a marriage of suppressed resentment.  If there was even any chance of anything to begin with.

I’d rather be alone.

“Well, not to worry.  What do you know of the Kith?”

“There are a number of types.  Can I ask which?”

“We’re concerning ourselves with two.  Ogden and Aiah.”

“I know some,” Caspar replied.  He stopped before he could say anything more.  As if speaking the names were permission enough, two people approached, accompanied by Caspar’s parents.

He’d glimpsed the young woman that morning, but she hadn’t been dressed like this.  Kith of Ogden.  She had her arm around Caspar’s father’s.  She’d been given someone’s old gown, one that was now two years out of date, judging by the green color with silver trim.  The fashion of wearing weapons had been new, then, and the dress was made to accentuate a dagger at the waist.  Someone had altered it to put a scroll case there instead.  Whatever the case, it fit her well in both color and style, and it didn’t billow much below the hips, while still being floor length.  The dress showed off her decolletage, only to join back together into a high collar.  Her pale blond hair had been styled, pinned out of her face by a modest tiara.  In that, she was every inch the young lady looking for a suitor.  A foreign princess, even.

But she wasn’t human, not wholly.  Her nose was upturned beyond the point of being a snub nose.   The wrinkles and folds along the length of it were all the more pronounced with the addition of what must have been wishbone-shaped forks of metal, penetrating the folds with only a short spike each of the four folds.  Her upper lip, joining the bottom in a firm line without any color, had a cleft in it, surrounded by faint scars of varying age.  Her rounded ears had no rigidity, and folded over, though attempts had been made to hide them with her hair.

The second of the two Kith had made no attempts to dress in the local style.  He was shirtless, but wore a scarf and a complicated arrangement of a dun brown cape with a collection of wooden rods and feathers.  The idea was to give the illusion of wings, neatly folded behind his back.  His bare chest was muscular, but the arrangement of muscle and bone alike were different.

The man looked like Darios, with that casual arrogance, but more like a warrior than an aristocrat.  His brown hair was cut short, and his nose was as broad as two of Caspar’s fingers put together.  It was so flat and vertical it seemed more more an extension of the forehead than a protrusion.  His mouth was a thin line, but it wasn’t a matter of expression so much as a lack of lips.

His eyes, though, had enough expression to make up for his otherwise featureless face.  The expression wasn’t so different from Darios’, but the disgust and judgement weren’t directed solely at Caspar.

“Haeg Mora,” Lord Juris said, indicating the young woman.  He gestured to the shirtless Kith, “And Klaros, son of First Wing Vodan.  Please allow me to introduce Caspar Thorbay.  I do believe I’ve already introduced Lord Rolf and Lady Lizbeth Thorbay.”

No ‘lordfor me, Caspar noted.

When Mora spoke, it was with surprisingly good diction, “You are son of the brute?”

The question elicited just a little bit of shock from Juris and Darios both, as well as a small chuckle from Caspar’s father.

“I think I like her,” Rolf said, smiling a touch.

The brute.  Caspar glanced at his father.  His father didn’t fit the nickname.  Shorter than Caspar, just as heavy, he had a pencil thin mustache and a line of beard drawn from lip to chin.  His dark hair was unruly, standing out, and he wore an outfit similar to Darios’s, if somewhat heavier.  The only nod his father paid to the old title was the rapier he wore, a year after wearing blades had gone out of fashion.

The woman on his arm, Caspar’s mother, was tall, dressed in the black and red that was the style, with the scrolls and scroll cases that were so popular, conversation pieces as well as a kind of frail affectation, easily damaged by anyone who wasn’t careful.  She had sandy brown hair, and wore a great deal of color on her lips, painting them a startling crimson.

The brute and his wife.

“I believe you’ve picked up on an unkind rumor,” Lord Juris said, as gently as he was able.

“Unkind?” Mora asked.  It was hard to read her gaze, the black orbs giving away nothing in terms of where she was looking.

“To call someone a brute, well, it might make you enemies here,” Juris said.

“Where Mora comes from, brutes are… proud?”

“Respected,” Caspar offered.  “The word comes from your Kith in the first place.  Bute, I think?”

Bute,” Mora responded, nodding.  She turned her head Caspar’s way, “Someone who can be proud and feared as a ferocious warrior and leader.  You know these words?  Boor, shob, ohv?”

“We have very similar words, but those words aren’t compliments here, either,” Caspar said.  He had to avert his gaze, and he saw his parents looking on intently.  It was just as bad as meeting her gaze.  As if to try to get things back on track, he added, “They’ve been twisted in meaning over the years.”

“A line of discussion that could lead to hurt feelings,” Juris cut in, interrupting.  “Though I’m glad you seem to have some grounding, Caspar.  Perhaps this will work out after all.”

“This?  The job you mentioned.”

“The Kith tend to appreciate honesty, if in different ways, so I’ll be blunt,” Juris said.  “We invited Haeg Mora here because we’re hoping she will call off the bandit raids her people are launching against our traders at the southeastern pass.  It’s custom that one never deal with one group of Kith, unless the dealing is very personal, so we invited Klaros here as well.  The Kith of Aiah occupy a great deal of territory to the west, and while there is no animosity, the Lord of Trade thought we could open discussion about sharing between the groups.  It was my hope that we could…”

He paused, searching for a phrase, then settled for, “…Solve two problems with one stroke.”

Klaros didn’t react in the slightest.  Silent, he only watched, his eyes darting from one person to the next.  From the way he held himself at attention, there was no doubt he was a soldier.

“Can I ask where I come into the picture?”  Caspar asked.

“I’d hoped to leave the duties of welcoming them to Darios, but there was friction between him and Klaros.  I assume, Klaros, that you’re not offended if I say this?”

The shirtless Kith shook his head.

“I would ask you to please look after the pair for the next week or two.  Keep them entertained, ensure they’re comfortable, show them what we have to offer, and maintain an open dialogue on the issues I mentioned.  If you need more grounding in those issues, I could put you in touch with the Lords of Trade and Treasury and the Lord of Banners, and take over while you talk.  I would handle this myself, but I’m afraid I can’t make it a full time thing, with my other responsibilities.”

If there’s a failure, I take the fall.  If there’s a success, it’s your success.

“I’m… unsure,” Caspar admitted.

Juris raised his eyebrows, clearly surprised.  “I didn’t think you had any other obligations.”

“I don’t.  But…” he trailed off.

“But?” Juris asked, archly.  “I’d hoped my relationship to your father would be good enough.”

Caspar drew in a breath, not so deep that his chest and belly would swell, but deep enough that he could center himself and say what he needed to say.  “If my father asks me to, I will.”

Juris glanced at Lord Rolf.

“I won’t ask him to,” Rolf said.

“I thought we had a good working relationship, Black.”

“We do.  Making a good offer to my son would be a good way to maintaining that relationship,” Rolf said.

Juris nodded slowly, as if considering the idea.  He turned back to Caspar, “I could make you my third, if everything went well.  There wouldn’t be many responsibilities, but you would draw a modest pay.  You could expect periodic travel, likely at the most inconvenient times for your romantic and social life, and more than a fair bit of researching old documents.  When it came time for Darios to succeed me as Lord of Letters, the natural progression would be for you to become his second.”

The idea was a heady one.  The inner court was insular one, and there was a penchant for the magistrates to give their seats to sons and family members.  Excluding Lord Juris, there were only one or two individuals who didn’t have children, and who would be reaching out to other families and nobles to assign their seconds and thirds.

Caspar glanced at his father.  His father had a seat, as well, but it wasn’t one he was free to pass on.

He shook his head just a little.  “To be frank, Darios doesn’t like me.  It’s generous, even kind, but the appointment doesn’t get me any further in the grand scheme of things.  He’ll dismiss me the first chance he gets.”

Juris glanced at Darios, who nodded just a little.  Acknowledging that Caspar was on target.

“What would you want, then?”  Juris asked, with a measure of exasperation.  “And maintain eye contact, please.  You look like a kicked dog.”

Caspar met Juris’ eyes.  “That same modest pay, a job as a clerk or researcher, and Darios’ word that he wouldn’t dismiss me.”

Darios spoke for the first time.  “My word?”

Caspar nodded.  “You don’t like me, fine.  Put me somewhere you don’t have to see me, a tower would be preferable to a basement.  Give me something to do, and we won’t need to interact.  I’m not looking for confrontation or status.  I’m more interested in security.”

“You’re not putting yourself in a good light here, in front of our guests,” Darios observed.

“I was asked what I want, and this is it.”  I think.

“And if I say no?” Darios asked.  When Juris shifted his weight, Darios added a somewhat reluctant, “In theory?”

“Then I’ll ask Lord Juris to make me his third, and you’ll see me every day,” Caspar answered.  As much as he wanted to stare Darios down, he was the one to break eye contact first, glancing down at the stage.

Darios frowned just a little, a line appearing between his eyebrows.  “Doesn’t matter to me.  I have no objection to the clerk job, provided you do a passable job here, and you have my word I won’t interfere with the station.”

“Excellent!”  Juris said, clapping his hands together.  “Haeg Mora, Klaros, I’m leaving you in the care of Caspar here, unless you object?”

Klaros shook his head.

Mora, for her part, ignored him.  She let go of Lord Rolf’s arm and reached for the railing.  One step, then a hobbling limp forward, and she caught the railing for balance.  She made her way forward, one step, one more step that looked like it might fail her.

Haeg.  ‘Hag’ in common parlance.  An unkind word to use when referring to a teenage girl, but the Kith of Ogden could be brutal when they needed to be.  Many Haeg were the unmarried, old with nothing to occupy their time.  They became ritualists and lorekeepers, to mask what they really were.  Outcasts.

Mora would be the other kind of Haeg.  She was a cripple, and while she still had time to find a husband, there was no expectation she would.  She was the unmarriable.

Even so, Mora’s back was straight and her jaw set as she looked down at the noble lords and ladies, dressed in their tenthday finest for the Allchoir.  There was a girl on the stage singing, but her voice didn’t carry well.  Once or twice, she faltered.  Probably a peasant with a good voice, recruited by one of the smaller churches who now found herself out of her depth.

Juris extended the stone cane for Caspar to take.  The thing was heavier than it looked.

“I’ll be in my office this evening.  Bring them to me, and I’ll show you where their rooms are, and you won’t need me as a middleman thereafter.”

Caspar nodded.

With that said and done, Juris and Darios left, passing through the curtains to the hallway behind the balconies.

Caspar could see his parents.  His mother was smiling, sincerely happy.  His father…

The look was one of disappointment.

He had different aspirations for himself than his father had for him.  Caspar deliberately looked away, turning to Klaros, “Would you like to join us?”

Klaros shook his head, still rigid, standing by the curtain that Juris and Darios had passed through.

Figuring him out would be an issue.

With nowhere else to go, Caspar joined Mora at the railing.

“So much effort, for nobody particular?” she asked, her voice quiet.

He startled a bit at that.  “You heard?”

She raised one hand, to flick the tip of her ear where it flopped over, angled horizontally.  It wobbled momentarily at the impact.  “We hear better than you.”

“It was only an idle thought.”

“Explain this idle thought?”

He watched the young singer on the stage struggle.  Nobody offered her any assurance, and the result was that the scene was more painful than it needed to be.  A part of him ached to whisk the girl off the stage.  Except it would only make matters worse, an awkward interruption, doubly so if it was him.  Because he didn’t fit here, and he looked ridiculous.

He had little choice but to watch.

She was supposed to speak for her god, and now she’s kind of a sacrifice.

Caspar explained, “The Allchoir is an entreaty to the gods, an attempt to maintain a connection to them.  An invitation to partnership, if you want to call it that.”

“Partnership?  To spirits, perhaps, but we are mortal, they are gods.”

He couldn’t agree, pointing out the flaw in the idea, so he said, “It’s how things work here.  The gods we worship change from year to year, and there are a great many small churches, so the Allchoir is a compromise, for all worshipers, to all gods.  No two entreaties are permitted to be the same, so they invent new songs and rituals for every tenthday.  For the churches in small villages, they’ll usually play music to some recitation of the week’s events or something tame like that.  The idea is that some element in the works will strike a chord with some god and they’ll accept the entreaty with a big display.”

“Worshiping nobody particular,” Mora said.  “I see your meaning now.”

I don’t know that you do, Caspar thought, but he didn’t elaborate.

He couldn’t stand to look at the girl on the stage, who had at least managed to avoid breaking into tears, despite the increasing number of mistakes and the pressure of two or three hundred members of the upper class staring at her, but he didn’t want to turn around and face down his father.  He wasn’t sure what to say to Mora, and Klaros wasn’t up to conversation.

It was a little daunting, to think that the next one or two weeks would be like this.

“You waste your time,” Mora said.

“With?” he asked.

“With me.  Your ambassador sends a man to my people’s camp, and he asks for a guest to come here.  When they send me, it is… chortleg?”

“Chortleg?” Caspar asked.

She affected an attitude, acting, “Ho, ho, ho, thirteenth people now feed and shelter our Haeg with bad foot, bow and scrape.”

“Joking.”

“Yes.  Joking you.  I am Haeg.  We have power.  If our Kith fights other Kith, enemy hold their weapons back rather than strike us, will wait quiet while we hobble here or there, old women and a cripple like me.  We tend to the hurt and hold hands of the dead, carry last words for wives or mothers.  But we are not proud.  Not big in the eyes of others.  If I tell the great chiefs to stop stealing your wagons, they will nod, they will tell me they will consider it-“

Caspar finished.  “-and the raids will continue.  You have power, but not status.”

“Yes.  You take job, but you can not make me stop them because I cannot stop them.  You agree to get Klaros to accept trade for Aiah art and goods, but Kith of Aiah are above dealing with others.”

When Klaros spoke, his voice was imperious.  He had a strong accent, the ‘s’ sounds almost whistling, though sharp enough to not be a lisp, and his vocabulary was stronger.  “Piglets should not speak of things they do not understand.”

“I was not speaking ill.  Only truth,” Mora said, her tone terse.  “And I am too old to be considered a piglet, even if you are joking me.”

“Would you prefer swine?” Klaros asked.  Mora bristled.  “I might call you a sow, but swine that will never breed-“

“Enough,” Caspar cut in.

The pair fell silent.

At least they listen.  Caspar exhaled slowly.

“I am done with this,” Klaros said.  “I will be outside.”

Caspar frowned.  “You’ll stay close by?”

“Yes.  I will.”

The young soldier from the Kith of Aiah stalked out.

“You took this job, and you are doomed to fail,” Mora repeated herself for emphasis, very deliberately turning herself away from the door.

“Probably,” Caspar admitted.

“You do not sound surprised.”

“I’m not, not really.”

“But you took the job.”

Caspar nodded.  He gazed out at the assembled crowd.  The young girl had finished, but she seemed so flustered she wasn’t sure where to go.  It was the priest in the golden mask with the rays that approached her, ushering her off the stage.

One more performance.  He knew this one was typically shorter.

“From what I said before, you might have realized I don’t have an overabundance of faith.”

“Surely, seeing Kith in person, you recognize that spirits and gods have some power,” she said.  “Or do you think that boars with the faces of men and men with the faces of boars are made by accident?  That there are reptiles with the torsos of men sprouting from the neckhole because of sheer fortune?”

I would not call it fortune, whatever the case, he thought.  He bit his tongue.

“I understand that there are powers out there,” he lied.  “But I don’t ascribe to any one in particular.”

She mused on that for a few seconds.  “I see.”

“Then the question remains, why am I here?  I attend service every tenthday, I do not sing.”

“You have nothing to do with your time,” she said.  “You’re a layabout.”

He was almost offended, but he was able to stop and tell himself that the Kith were honest to a fault, and the Kith of Ogden were especially prone to bluntness.

“I work for my father most days.  Odd jobs, he doesn’t like paperwork and I have a good writing hand.  No, the reason I come here is to watch people.  Can I trust you to be discreet?  I’m not ashamed of what I’m observing, but others might take offense.”

“I do not like to lie.”

“I’m not asking you to lie.  Only to hold your tongue rather than speak of this to another.”

She paused.  “The Kith of Ogden understand a lie can still be a lie if it is silence.  Better to speak, let it be known.”

They’re going to eat you alive here if I’m not careful.

“You’re not only Ogden’s kith.  There’s human in you.”

“I am Ogden’s.  One drop of his blood makes me a member of his Kith, and I have more than one drop,” she said.  Her dark eyes settled on Caspar.

“What if the truth does more harm than a white lie?”

“It does not do this often enough,” she responded.

He nodded.  Have to be careful what I say, then.  “Alright.  Look.  Just in front of the stage, the benches just past the aisle.  An empty space.”

“I see it.”

“More powerful people sit closer to the front.  Right there, that’s the Lord of the Capitol.  The empty space is reserved for his daughter.  Others note her absence, and they make up scandals involving her and her bodyguard.  I try to pay more attention to the pattern.”

“Pattern?”

“Are you not sure what the word means, or are you asking what it is?”

“The second.”

“I can’t divulge all my secrets, because you won’t respect them, but I don’t think the scandals are right.  I think it has more to do with context.”

She frowned, but he couldn’t be sure if it was at the ‘respect’ comment or just confusion.

She finally said, “This ‘context’ is a word I don’t know.”

“The situation, Haeg Mora.  The surroundings, and the other people involved.”

Mora nodded.  “It is not what most people think it is, that makes her seat so often empty.”

“I don’t think so.  Now, because I’m pretty sure I know what that reason is that she doesn’t show up to service, I can figure out that this ‘reason’ might be afoot anytime I see her seat empty.  It works both ways.”

“Yes.”

“When you look at the rows further back from the stage, you get the lords and ladies of lower status.  Merchant nobles who bought their nobility with coin, the disgraced, and the ones who have little left but their names.  Less powerful individuals.  Do you see the tallest man there?”

“The fat one?” she asked, blithely.

Caspar winced a little, but he didn’t comment.  “Lord Mansel.  Unmarried, he’s… looking lonely.”

He’s spending a lot of time staring at the young ladies in the rows in front of him.

Caspar continued, “I know which district I can probably find him if I want to catch him tomorrow.  It’s just a question of having someone let me know when he leaves town.  I can maybe call in a favor or buy him a drank, and get some perspective on your Kith’s bandit activity that the Lord of Trade and the Lord of Treasury wouldn’t necessarily give me.”

“You watch all these things.  You seek advantages.”

“I watch,” Caspar said, closing his eyes for a moment.  “Taking this job, I don’t expect to succeed, though I’ll certainly try.  But it gives me another perspective.  Conversely, I don’t have anything to lose, in terms of status.  Because up here, on the balconies, we’re separated from all the rest.  We’re lower than even the penniless lords and the disgraced.  You cannot fall when you are on the bottom rung.”

“Who are you, then?”

“My father is the brute,” he answered.  He glanced back and saw his father’s eyes on him.  The man was listening in, though not interjecting.

“I do not understand.”

“It’s an explanation for another place and another time.  I’m thinking we should go.  The service is wrapping up, and the hallways will be crowded.”  And there isn’t always a lot of love for Kith, here, especially among the merchants nobles who your people have been inconveniencing.

“As you wish,” she said.

He stopped to bend down and give his mother a kiss on the cheek.  Still sitting, she took his hand and squeezed it.

“Best fortunes,” she said.  She smiled.

“Thank you,” he responded.

His father, though, looked more pensive.  Lord Rolf Thorbay made eye contact with his son.

“There’s no need to get into it.  I know what you’re going to say,” Caspar said.

“Those things you know I’m going to say can wait,” his father answered.  The short, fat man glanced at the Kith woman, “Haeg Mora, could I beg a moment’s privacy with my son?”

“You could,” the young woman said.

“I’ll join you,” Lizbeth said.  She offered Caspar a little smile.  “Mustn’t leave our guests without any company.  We’ll take a bit of a walk, maybe we’ll bring Klaros.”

Caspar smiled back, watching as his mother led the young Kith woman away.

When they were alone, his father spoke, “For now, a question, a brief explanation, and maybe a bit of a riddle.”

His father was in a mood, Caspar observed.  “Sure.”

“Question.  You don’t think you have anything to lose?”

“Admittedly, I have a lot to lose.  I’m fond of my health and my life.  But no, I don’t think I’m going to lose either, looking after the Kith.”

“Let’s hope.  Fine.  You don’t think you’re at risk, here.  Our status is low, we have no friends to speak of in the nobility.  Just the opposite.  But the Lord of Letters knows this.  Why didn’t he admit this outright?  You have nothing to lose, it could have been a bargaining chip for him, not only that you lack any obligations beyond the assistance you give me, but he could argue you stand to gain a fair amount and you don’t have very far to fall if you fail.”

“I can’t say I’m too worried on that front,” Caspar responded.  “Given the choice between telling the truth and lying, nineteen out of twenty people in this court will lie, and the remainder are children and lunatics.  The Lord of Letters let that detail slide because he could.  Besides, I didn’t ask for very much.  Why leverage a bargaining chip and risk offending me when he could just give me what I want?”

“Your compromise with Lord Juris is something we can most definitely talk about tonight.  Will you at least acknowledge that this may be more of a challenge and more of a danger than it appears to be on the surface?”

“You told me to assume that in every dealing in court.  Yes, of course.”

“Good.  Now for the explanation.  How much do you know about the Lord of Banner’s activities?”

Caspar thought back.  The magistrate hadn’t been at the last two Tenthday assemblies.  Given that he was tasked with overseeing the army…  he felt a moment’s fear.  “He’s been busy.  Imminent war?”

“Possible imminent war.  Nothing too serious, but Eter’s armies have been seen moving eastward and westward south of the passes.  Nothing indicating they’re coming in our direction.  Still, armies at our borders are armies at our borders, and there’s a reason the Lord of Letters is as tired as he is, with his sore back.”

“He doesn’t know what’s going on, not fully.”

“On any other day, he would be looking after the Kith.  Failing to reach terms with the Kith of Ogden means one less avenue to bring in supplies and break sieges.  We’re rooted in a narrow valley with only so many exits.  The boars are blocking one.  If it comes to war…”

“The stakes are higher than it first seems.”

“There’s my boy.  Now for the riddle.  Why you?”

“Why did he pawn this job off on me?  Because I’m available?”  Caspar suggested.

The Allchoir finished the final hymn.  The Alltemple started to fill with noise as people rose from their seats, breaking into conversation.

“I said it was a riddle, not a question.  What’s the difference between the two?”

“The question demands an answer, the riddle demands thought,” Caspar said.  A line from a lesson with his father, years ago.

Think about it.”

Caspar turned to leave.

Why me?

There were any number of potential nobles who would be fit as an ambassador.

The things that set Caspar apart were unflattering.  For one thing, he was expendable, one of the few individuals that could be turned into a scapegoat without making any meaningful enemies.

He passed through the curtains and entered the hallway on the outside edge of the Alltemple.  Tall panes of glass were protected by meshes of iron, set between elaborate pillars, with shutters folded back at set distances.  Beyond, the morning sun cut through the mist that had settled on the mountains.  smatterings of white dots in the distance marked the goats that littered the landscape.

This particular view was both a benefit and drawback of being up in the balconies.  The other nobles were treated to a more awe-inspiring view of the temple’s south, overlooking the deepest valley from the vantage point of one of the structures set highest in the hills.  There were no sheep or fields, but an abundance of mountains and a precipitous drop.

Illusions.

He’d assumed that Klaros would be here and his mother would be somewhere with Haeg Mora, or that they’d all be absent.  He hadn’t anticipated that Klaros would be gone, the two women a distance away.

“Where is he?” he asked.

“He wasn’t here when we arrived,” his mother said.

He’d already lost one of them.  “He said he’d stay put.”

Mora spoke up, “Some of Aiah’s children have different ideas of place.  You ask him to wait here, but here can vary in size from one pair of eyes to next.”

“You tell me this now?”  He glanced around.  “Mother-“

“I’ll continue my conversation with Haeg Mora.”

Caspar ran.

Well, ‘run’ was the wrong word.  His ‘running’ was another man’s ‘march’.  In terms of the effect it had on him though, the result was the same.

The Kith of Aiah were supposedly touched by the greater bird spirits.  It was a long shot, but he made his way up the nearest flight of stairs.

He arrived on the roof the moment before the bells started to ring.  Sending off the nobles.  In moments, his mother and Haeg Mora would be indunated by a tide of nobles in fine dress.

This was inconvenient.

He’d found Klaros.

Klaros spoke in that odd accent of his, his voice a growl, “It is inane.  All of it.  I will lose my mind before this time tomorrow.”

“We can find a solution,” Caspar said.

“I do not need your help.”

“Okay,” Caspar said.  He paused for a moment.  “If you want solitude-“

“-This is not the way to give it to me.”

Caspar paused.

Leave, bastard son of Ogden.”

Son of a pig, Caspar thought.  There was a reason he avoided people as a whole.  The Kith were honest and open as a rule, holding little back.  Every barb that they casually threw in his face had more weight because he could easily imagine that each insult the Kith were willing to say was evidence of ten or a hundred that they didn’t.

But he held firm.  He didn’t want much, in the grand scheme of it all, but he was willing to endure this much to achieve it.  He stared out at the horizon, in the same general direction Klaros was looking.  “I’m leaving.  You’re coming with me.  If you want quiet-“

The bell rang.  Caspar flinched, while Klaros remained upright, unmoving.

“-If you want quiet, we can find a better place for it, until I take you back to Lord Juris, tonight.”

Klaros stared at him.  He turned his head to meet Klaros’ eyes for a moment.

“Thank you,” Caspar said.  Please was too much.

Thank you worked.  The Kith nodded assent.

When evening did fall, Caspar staggered back to his father’s house.  In the capitol, there were neighborhoods where the houses were available to those of noble birth only.  Moats and walls separated each section of the castle from the next, meaning the gently curved path to the house was a nice one, shaded by trees with a river running along one side.

If this keeps up, I might actually lose weight, he thought.

Too many nights had been spent with a book or his father’s paperwork, his food catered to him.  It was more comfortable indoors than going out where he had to deal with people.

Home was where he could let his guard down.

Not always, but often.

Tonight, it seemed, wasn’t one of those nights.

He unlocked and opened the door to find the Brute in the middle of a conversation with two others.  A man and a woman.

They tensed at the sound of the door opening, then relaxed when they saw him.

“Fume, Hatch,” he said.  Too tired for politeness, he settled for acknowledging them, using the only names he had.

Fume was tall, her hair pulled back into a ponytail that was perhaps a little too lowbrow for the quality of the fabric and the cut of the clothes she wore.  As disguises went, it was a bad fit, and her obvious discomfort in wearing it was even more telling.

The man, Hatch, didn’t even try.  He was dressed like a laborer, and his knuckles were the scabrous ruin of someone who got in a lot of fights.  His hair was long and greasy, his cheeks covered in scruff, his eyes heavily lidded.  Simultaneously dangerous and someone who could get disappear on a crowded street in any other neighborhood.

Cynn, Hatch’s daughter, was on the other side of the room, stoking the fire.  She’d been brought into the household as a favor to his father’s old friend.  Even as a servant, it was a better life than she’d stood to have otherwise.  She was just old enough to have had a taste for life on the streets, not quite old enough to be even starting on her road to womanhood.  Beyond that, Caspar couldn’t begin to guess her age.  Malnutrition had stunted her growth from the outset, and she was thin even now.

“It’s not a problem with the pressure,” Rolf told Fume.  “It’s a question of the people who are buying the meat.  Take my word for it, back off, hunt in pastures that aren’t so green.”

Fume’s lips twisted into something resembling a scowl, but she didn’t respond.

“So that’s all?”  Hatch asked.  His voice was gravelly.

“This is more than enough,” Rolf said, his voice calm.  “I told you.  Days where I give you a little tidbit should be few and far between.  But you show up one month, you ask a question, I give an answer.  You show up the next month, two favors this time, and I answer.  Six months later, I do you three favors, risk a good thing to throw you a bone every time I do it, and oh, Rolf’s slacking now.  Rolf’s being a greedy old bastard.”

“Didn’t mean it to sound like that,” Hatch said.

“I know you didn’t, but sometimes we all need a dose of perspective,” Rolf said.  “Stop by sometime, maybe, and consider sharing a drink, instead of all the other nonsense.  I’ll bring the drink, you just bring yourself.  Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Hatch said.  He clenched a fist, then rubbed at the back of his damaged knuckles.  It wasn’t an aggressive gesture.  More contemplative.

“Same goes for you, Fume.  This isn’t a one way relationship,” Rolf said.

Fume nodded, looking more than a little sullen.

“Cynn!  Here!”  Hatch ordered the girl like she was a dog.

She scrambled to get things set aside so the fire wouldn’t escape the fireplace, then hurried to her father’s side.

He placed a filthy hand on top of her head, moving her head back so he could see her face, first one side, then the other, like he was appraising an animal.

“They good for you?”

She nodded, silent.

“You can tell the truth if they aren’t.”

She ducked her head.  “Used to be, maybe there was something to look forward to once a week.  Apples from the orchard on the way back from the temple at the crossroad.”

“Yeah?  Happy memory?”  Hatch asked.  He smiled a little, showing bad teeth.  “I’m glad.”

“Every day, now, there’s a couple things.  I like every meal, just ’bout, and the tidbits we get summa the time, and after everyone’s had their baths and I can have mine, I can dry off and climb into the softest bed ever, I think that’s the best part.”

She spoke like she was almost ashamed of it, as though there was a bigger, meaner person waiting just behind her to snatch it away just because she’d admitted it.

“That’s good,” Hatch said.

“I feel-” she started.  Then she looked up into his eyes and changed her mind mid-sentence.  She fell silent.  “It’s good.”

Hatch nodded.  He looked at Rolf, then put a hand on Fume’s shoulder and led the woman out.

The door shut.  Caspar locked it.

“Old business?”

His father frowned.  “Just old friends needing a little guidance.  Go see to the fire, Cynn.”

The girl hurried over to finish her task.

“So.  Your new task,” Rolf said.

“Things got a lot easier when we started meeting people.  Klaros could talk to two of the Lord of Banner’s newphews, and Mora was open to talking to anyone, even if her speech is a little clumsy.  The day went quickly.  I watched, I answered some questions, and I made excuses when Klaros got fed up with people and stalked out.”

“Just Klaros that got fed up?  Most time you’ve spent around people in the last ten years, easy.”

Caspar frowned.

His mother chose that moment to enter the room.  Caspar had to look twice to verify what he was seeing, then wished he hadn’t.

Naked from the waist up, the woman stood in the doorway to the cellar, her posture ajar, arms limp at her side.  A wildcat’s skull sat on her head, strapped in place with leather thongs, and she, the skull and the simple cotton dress she wore were drenched in blood.

“Lizbeth,” Caspar’s father said.  He sounded exceedingly unsurprised.

“Perhaps too much in too short a time,” his mother said, her voice dreamy.

“My dear,” Rolf said.  “You’re dripping blood everywhere.  Into the bathroom with you.  I had Cynn draw you a bath.”

“I’m not sure I can walk,” she said.  “Hold me.”

Rolf did.  He didn’t flinch at the blood that was smeared on his doublet and head.

Shielding his eyes, Caspar crossed the room, approaching Cynn.  The waif stared, slack-jawed, even as he barred her view of his parents.

“Cynn?”  Rolf called out.  “See to it that the floor is mopped up.  Leave the carcass for me to dispose of.”

With that, the bathroom door closed.

Cynn looked up at Caspar.

“Mother has peculiar interests.  It seems the latest trend is blood magic or blood gods.”

Cynn’s eyes went wider.

“Rest assured, she’s done nothing except amuse herself.  No gods invoked, no spells worked.  I promise,” Caspar said.  Nor have any of the priests or priestesses we’ve seen in the last year, the last decade or the last few centuries, but I can’t quibble.

The girl hadn’t moved.

“Do you want help?”

“My job, ‘sn’t it?” Cynn asked, but doubt was clear on her face.

“Good girl,” Caspar said.  “I wouldn’t be much use anyways.”

He collected a burning taper, abandoned her to the task of scrubbing the floor and retreated to his room.

Gods and lunacy.

Yet he couldn’t hate it as much as he wanted to.  It was the reason they were here, and not in the gutters with Hatch and Cynn.

The room was dark, and smelled of old smoke and dust.  The book he’d picked up on the War of Tears found its place on his desk, while he settled into the chair.  His candle was already lit, and had been waiting for him for an hour, placed beneath a cover that let the air in and the smoke out.

He used it to light another, taller candle, and opened the book.  The alleged origins of the Kith, insights into their natures and peculiarities, and-

The knock on the door interrupted him before he’d found the first page.

Rolf entered without waiting for a response.

“Do we have to?”  Caspar asked.  “I have a headache.”

“I think we should.  I’ve been slacking, and so have you,” his father responded.

“It’s cliche.  When something’s so common and obvious that people joke about it from the gutters of the city to the highest office, I don’t think the obvious path is to make that joke a reality.”

“No?” Rolf asked.  He drew a dirk from his belt, then turned it over, letting it catch the candlelight.  Short and heavy as he was, he made for an imposing figure, sitting on the edge of the desk, lit only by candlelight from below.  “They joke because they worry.  That worry is a good thing.  I like to think it’s a reason the Black Chair exists.  Because they need some doubt.”

The black chair.  When the magistrates met to elect consuls and discuss matters of governance, there were eleven chairs with titles, the backs worked with icons for each of the respective appointments.    City and Capitol, Treasury and Trade, Letters and Lore, Bludgeon and Banners, Sun Moon and Star.  So it had been, according to myth, since the beginning.  A hero had slain a mad god, then founded a kingdom on the bloodstained land.  He’d granted one appointment to each of the people who had fought alongside him or helped him along the way, ten seats in total, then took the seat as the first Consul and ruler of Surd for himself.

And one seat, not titled, but painted black so others would know what it was, had been given to his enemy, the high priest of the mad god.  In other stories, in history, the seat had been filled by villains, by murderers and raiders.

In myth, it had been at the god’s whim.  The annals of history described others in a different light.  Some were set up to be poisoned.  Others were pacified by a life of luxury until their old allies were disposed of.

Others, like Caspar’s father, had played along, being inoffensive enough that the magistrates were content to keep them in place rather than worry about the bad luck that struck when the seat was left empty.

Rolf ‘the brute’ had complicated matters further by surreptitiously romancing and then marrying an eccentric young woman from the nobility.

Superstition, mad faith.  It rankled, but Caspar could accept it.

What his father spoke of was something else entirely.

The man moved the knife between his fat fingers with a surprising dexterity.  He stabbed it into Caspar’s desk.  The candles rocked back and forth for a moment.

Caspar removed the knife from the desk, then rubbed at the gouge, picking away a loose bit of wood.

“Consider this a thought exercise,” Rolf said.  The angle of his head made the divide between candlelight and shadow even starker.  “What if you had to?  What if you wanted to?”

“Killing a magistrate.”

“Or supplanting them.  Or ruining them,” Rolf said.

“I’d make a godawful assassin,” Caspar said.  “I’d be just as bad as a turncoat or a saboteur.”

“Which means they aren’t expecting you,” Rolf said.  “They’re expecting me, so it would fall on your shoulders.  Aren’t you angry at the state of things?”

Caspar leaned back.  He considered.  “Not angry enough.”

“One day you’ll have a child, and you’ll want more for him.  For him or her.  You won’t be able to give that child what you crave to give them if you’re a clerk or researcher.  Status, power, self respect.  That’s all I ask of you.  To keep your eyes open for an opportunity.  Ten or fifteen years from now.  A dagger through the ribs, one act, clean and untraceable, from someone nobody expects.  Poison their wine.  One magistrate and their second are removed from the picture, and things change.”

“I go to the gallows.”

“Not if you’re clever, and you do have a cleverness about you, my Caspar.”

Caspar sighed.  He moved the knife between his fingers, sliding it into his sleeve with one hand.  He extended his hand, turning it over with fingers splayed, and then reversed the gesture to draw the knife.

“I know you intended that for dramatic effect,” Rolf said, “But you used to be twice as fast.”

“I used to care, because I didn’t know any better.”

“I’m asking you to keep an eye out for opportunity, nothing more.”

“You’re asking me to be amoral.  To gamble everything I have, everything we have, on a chance at climbing one step up a ladder.”

“Your mother and I have given you everything we can.  I would like to think my grandchildren will be better off than my children were, and my great-grandchildren better than them.”

Caspar clenched his fist.  He met his father’s eyes, and this time, he didn’t look away.  He knew the reputation he got, being furtive, not making eye contact.  It was a simple thing, but it made all the difference in conveying attitude, in forming a rapport with others.

“You took away as much as you gave me,”

Rolf didn’t respond, staring into his son’s eyes.

Caspar could see a shadow behind his father.  It distorted the longer he looked, like the air shimmering above a hot flame.

Ten seconds of eye contact, and he could see it.  A reflection of his father, a man that was tall, partially dressed in uneven, lopsided armor adorned with wicked spikes.  The features were the same, if far leaner, but the other Rolf looked wilder, more restless, unshaven, barely repressing his anger.   Blood flecked his face and covered his gauntlets, a testament to the many times he hadn’t repressed his anger.

The visual of the gauntlet being clenched was so clear he could imagine the metal-on-metal sound.

“You’re seeing something,” Rolf said.

“I see nothing,” Caspar said.  He looked away and blinked a few times, trying to banish the visual.  Some blinks seemed to reinforce it, while more made it fade.  It resisted, remaining in place.

“Nothing.”  Rolf watched as Caspar’s eyes tracked the figure’s pacings.

“Mother dragged me into the woods and poisoned me until my mind broke.”

“She would say your mind opened.  Her intentions were good.”

“I don’t see much of a difference.  Her intentions might have been good, but we both know she’s imbibed a few too many experimental poisons herself.  It was up to you to protect me, and you stood by while she did this.  You had Fume stake me down so I couldn’t get away.”

“I got your mother and her title, the cost is indulging her fancies from time to time.”

“Then you need to accept that this little indulgence cost me something.  I don’t think I can ever be around people.  Marriage and these children you want are impossible.  I used to think I saw people’s inner selves, then I realized I really don’t want that to be true.  It’s insanity, and that’s sad and scary in its own right.”

“Your mother says you could train it.”

“Train what?  It’s my eyes making up moving pictures when I let them idle.  A form of madness bestowed on me when the poisons riddled my brain with holes or ulcers or some other sickness.  Hardly a second sight or power.”

“Then train the madness,” Rolf said, his voice low.

Speaking from experience?

“If I let myself start seeing things, it’s hard to stop.  I’m content to avoid starting.  A glance here and there, nothing more.”

“Yet you accepted the job.”

“Because it’s how I can get what I really want.  And because I needed to test myself, to see if I can really endure people on any level.”

“Yet if you succeed, your reward will be the freedom to lock yourself away from everything.  Your failure… it leaves you right back where you started.”

Caspar lowered his eyes.  His fists clenched.  “I wanted two things.  I was in a rush to take them.  Nothing more.”

“I’ve taught you much of what I know.  You had good teachers, and a good enough mind to find out what the couldn’t teach you,” Rolf said.  He stood from the desk’s edge.  The afterimage of the half-armored thug glimmered behind him.  “Your mother’s gifts to you were her blood, and this, I suppose.”

Rolf gestured in the general direction of Caspar’s head.

“If you want something out of all of this, then take it.  Understand?  But I don’t expect you to settle.”

With that said, Rolf left the room.  The door closed with more force than necessary

The other Rolf remained behind, chest heaving with anger and frustration, the blood still dripping.  More unsettling, still, were the tears that streaked his face, as he snarled, white teeth bared.

Caspar disrobed and climbed beneath the bedcovers, turning his back on the specter, hoping it would be gone when he woke.

The End

Note:  I went ahead and started Pact.  Click the link to visit the next story.

 

Fade to black.  Roll credits.

Alright, that sounds pretty damn pretentious.  But Worm is over.  It’s been in motion for two and a half years, two updates a week.  Readers have joined, hopping on from forums, wiki-walking their way in from TV tropes, getting recommendations from other authors.  For most, for many, reading Worm became something of a routine.  As serials go, there’s been a lot of material released at a fast pace.

For me, well, I’m a little spooked at the idea of what happens when you’re at the helm of something like this and it stops.

This isn’t about me, though.  There’s room for talking about that later.  It’s about you, the reader, and the continuation of the reading experience, and it’s about Worm, and the continuation of that.


The Reading Experience

The Tuesday-Sat Schedule continues.  I went into this in the FAQ, but not many read that, and the plan has changed just a smidge.

For the coming few weeks, I’ll be previewing the works I’m thinking about writing.  I listed a wad in Worm’s FAQ, and I’ve pared down the list to the ones I feel most confident about.  Keeping in mind these are placeholder titles, the stories are:

Peer (Fantasy)

Body Boil (Biopunk)

Face (Thriller)

Pact (Horror/Modern Supernatural)

With 1-3 chapters previewed of each (I’m aiming for 2, but will go for 3 if pacing demands it, and will stop at 1 if the reaction is negative enough), I can expect to wrap up around the New Year.  If it’s required, I’ll take an update day to get the site for the new story set up.  For the most part, however, I want to keep to my schedule (acknowledging the family difficulties that make writing hardest around Christmas).  It’s just how I function best.

Stories will be previewed here, to keep Worm sacrosanct and unpolluted.  The next story will be set up on a different site altogether, once it gets underway.

Pay attention to this blog to see the previews.

Worm, Publication

So let me start out by saying I have no idea what happens in the coming few weeks.  This is subject to change.  This is a beast of a thing, really, considering Worm is ~22 conventional books in length and the degree of support/involvement from outside parties can really determine how this might go.

To put it succinctly, there are a few hurdles here.

Editing is the big one.  I’ve never done anything like this, so I hesitate to make promises.  This is all estimation.

I’m estimating that Worm will take two and a half years to edit.  That’s perhaps a little conservative.  I know how much free time I have, I know I want to keep writing instead of stopping to go back and fix stuff up (people who’ve read about why I started serializing in the first place may understand this), and I know from being in a writer’s circle roughly how long editing takes me.  I did editing for the first third of a circle-member’s book, and it’s surprising just how difficult it can be.  I’m a fast reader and a prolific writer, but editing is a different beast altogether.

Two years and six months, but that will change depending on the amount of free time I have.  I don’t want this to sound manipulative or greedy, because I don’t think I am manipulative or greedy like that…  I’m more interested in putting all of the cards on the table; the amount of donations I have received and will receive will affect how long it takes to get a published version of Worm out there, because it makes the difference in my being able to write and my having to go find/do work in another job (and consequently having less days to write).

The estimate presumes I can find roughly two days a week to go over old material, to read comments and refresh myself on what people thought, find typos I missed, restructure and rewrite.  I would be aiming for roughly an arc a month.  That’s on top of 2-3 days a week spent on the actual writing.

There are three major areas where I feel like I want to rewrite and restructure in a major way, and there are a few underlying problems I want to fix.

  • The Timeskip – I’m thinking I’ll rewrite it wholesale.  Events will remain the same, but Taylor’s story really demands more focus on this point in time.  The fundamental problem with the story arc was that we jumped ahead 1.5 years and it was rushed.  It was jarring due to the switch from a day-to-day focus to skipping months and weeks over the course of six or so chapters.  I’m thinking I’ll break it up into two new arcs.  One would likely consist of interludes (many of the same events of Taylor’s story, from the perspective of her teammates/superiors), to help the timeskip segue.  More involvement with her new team, and more focus on her and her changes (or lack of change).  This would mandate some time being set aside to put the new chapters together.
  • The Beginning – I was a different author when I started Worm, with less experience and knowledge.  Worm is widely seen as having an ‘ok’ start and a ‘great’ middle (and end?  Feedback is mixed on that).  I want to pick up the pace and address some of the issues people have had where they got turned off very early on.
  • The Bumps –  Writing a serial, you have good days and bad.  A few bad days in a row, and you get a piece of the story that you look back on and you cringe.  I won’t get too into this here, but there are chapters people have grumbled about, ones they didn’t think were as good as they could’ve been.  I’m hoping to redo these things.
  • Outside of the topic of individual chapters/arcs that didn’t ‘take’, I’m hoping to reconcile the tempo of the story.  Too much happens in too short a span of time, and I’d like to make it so that the story covers a wider span of time without breaking up the events or the tension.  If that makes the story a bit longer, maybe I can cut out redundant stuff to compensate.  If it allows for just a bit more time focused on Taylor’s time in Brockton Bay, just before she leaves, then that isn’t bad either – I’d like to explore that just a little bit more.

There’s a lot to do.  Worm is first-draft stuff, and thinking I can get away with only a second draft may be reckless.  I’d rather do it right than do it fast.

If there’s interest, I’d be open to play-by-plays; using this blog, perhaps, to reopen discussion on a particular arc, revisit it with fans and discuss the weak points and strong points, so I don’t lose sight of the core of it.  I can’t promise to show off the polished chapters as they go up, but if people want to get involved, I can show snippets to those individuals to get feedback on the rewrites.

Beyond the editing, there are other questions in terms of where to end books (which is sort of editing) and in terms of finances (which isn’t).  On the former front, I have ideas, but that’s a tricky thing to hammer out.  On the latter, it comes down to reader support, outside parties and possibly kickstarters to get stuff going.

There will, barring exceptional circumstance, be an ebook.

Print books are harder, in the order of tens of thousands of dollars to get stuff going.  But I had ten thousand readers at Worm’s peak , roughly, so perhaps that’s doable.

A special limited-edition run is, if enough interest is shown, very possible.

Worm, Follow-up Works

I’m hoping and planning to do a Worm sequel down the road.  I can’t say much more than that.  I want to take a break from it, so the original Worm can have an end, and so the sequel can have a beginning.  Too close together, and they start to blend into one another.

That said, it’s very possible that I could offer bonus material, side stories and chapters, depending on what happens with the next book(s) I write.  Feedback matters, here.

I can’t say much more than that at this point, because that’s about all I know.

Staying in Touch

With that, we’ve pretty much covered the bases.  Maybe you won’t like the genre or focus of the next work.  Maybe you were dissatisfied at the end, and you were just holding out until the last chapter to be able to say you finished it.  Hopefully that isn’t the case.

I’m spooked at the idea that some of my readers are going to walk away, and my next story won’t have quite the same number.  I accept it, though, and I can only do my best and hope that I keep getting support and recommendations.  Thank you, to my critics and fans alike, for sticking with the story this far.

If you do want to keep following along, then that starts with checking out the sample chapters.  Thank you, and I look forward to seeing you in the comment section.

If you don’t aim to keep following my work, but you remain interested in what happens with Worm, note the subject line below and email me at Wildbowpig [at] gmail [dot] com, filling in the symbol & punctuation mark appropriately.  (I have to write it that way to help confuse the bots that trawl WordPress for emails to spam).

Include the subject line ‘WormSequelNews’ (all one word) if you want to be notified when things are underway with the sequel.

Include the subject line ‘WormPublishNews’ (all one word) if you want to be emailed when the ebook/print books are out, for kickstarters or anything of the sort.

Include the subject line ‘WormNews’ (again, one word) for both.

I’ll also have any news and updates on this blog and in the comments of my new stories.

So.  Yeah.

End of an era, it feels like.

I can’t think of a graceful way to wrap this up, so let me say thank you.  Thank you for your support.  Thank you for reading.  I never could’ve done this without you.

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