Archive for August, 2010

August 31, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter VII

by Mallard

It felt like I sat there for two years, motionless, before a voice barked “Stand down!” and a moment later Hattie stepped forward, her face white in the glow of the flood lamps, her left arm covered in a red-soaked bandage. She stopped next to me, and stared upward at the tiny twinkling star against the clouds.

“Serah?” she said softly.

I shook my head and pointed.

“Damn that woman,” my superior said and clenched her first on my shoulder. She withdrew her hand and, a moment later, my right ear exploded in pain.

“Ow!” I shouted, stumbling to my feet. “What in the hells–”

“Do you think you’re doing?” Hattie roared, turning my own words against me. “We have no time. That damned airship is escaping, and you’re sitting here moping like a little girl. Are you a little girl, Victor? So weak, unable to do anything to stop the pirates? Casting great damned big birds at them is the best you can do, huh?”

I tried to protest, but Hattie hammered on. “And when you fail, you just sit there and cry? I thought you were a little stronger than that, Victor. I guess I was wrong.”

She turned and stalked away, and I stared after her.

(Ah, it looks like I was too late,) Kristopher whistled idly above me. I shot him a glare. (Your Hattie beat me to it.)

“Damn you both,” I muttered, then straightened up and took a good look at who had surrounded me.

They weren’t Peace Workers. Not even close. The standard khaki uniforms of the Kestral Armed Forces surrounded me, some standing in a stiff parade rest, others staring openly at the sky and the flood lamps that still glowed brightly on the rooftop.

I followed their gaze, and I could still see the tiny glowing light that was Serah’s beacon, though only because I knew where to look. In a few moments, it would be gone. Which gave me no time.

“Right,” I said, snapping back to business. I turned to Hattie. “We need to get in the air and follow them. That’s what Serah put that beacon up for, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let them just waltz away.” Never mind that, thirty seconds prior, I had been about to do just that.

Hattie nodded, but before she could speak, one of the regulars stepped forward.

“Actually, we’ll be taking over from here, Specialist Haas, Sergeant Major Morrison. You should probably get back inside and await debriefing.”

I stared at him. Who in the hells did this guy think he was? I was the one who had run to stop the pirates, who had risked his life to escape their notice. And Hattie had been shot! We had every right to be a part of any forthcoming operations, even if technically it fell under the army’s purview.

I expected that Hattie would say something along those lines, and so it was with some surprise that she said nothing of the sort.

“I don’t recall seeing any notices that this had been transferred,” she said, her voice like ice. It was the sort of voice that usually meant I was in for a dressing-down, the sort of voice that stilled subordinates in their tracks and made the recipient feel an inch tall.

The sergeant–I could just make out his rank in the shadows where he stood–stepped back involuntarily at Hattie’s tone. He opened his mouth, but Hattie didn’t let him speak.

“This started out as a Peace Worker operation. It remains a Peace Worker operation until someone higher than me–which you are not–orders me otherwise. So unless you are willing to help us, get the hell out of my way.”

Not for the first time that evening–and surely not for the last–I found myself confused. What did Hattie mean that this had been a PW operation? We had been at the ball as representatives, and true we had been the first responders, but that hardly gave us authority over it, right? And there was nothing about the situation that particularly screamed Peace Workers at me. The kidnapping of the mayor and the minister–and Serah–was a devastating blow, but still fell well within the jurisdiction of the standard guard.

Then again, Hattie has been known to occasionally bully others into getting her way, combining her personality–no mean weapon–with her rank.

To his credit, after his initial fall-back, the army sergeant held his ground. He gritted his teeth, as if unwilling to say his next words, forcing each one out individually. “I’m sorry, sir. But right now, it’s a matter of logistics. You have two people; we have ten. You just don’t have the manpower to deal with this, sir.”

Hattie gritted her teeth. “We’re coming with you,” she said by way of acknowledgement. Which meant that I didn’t have to. It was a predetermined course of action for me.

The sergeant shook his head. “This isn’t your jurisdiction. We’ll handle this. You–”

“I said, we are going,” Hattie repeated, her voice low. I took an involuntary step backward. “So unless you–”

The sergeant opened his mouth to begin arguing with her more–he seemed to have lost his fear when he won the first argument–but a third voice rang out shrill above them both.

“If she wants to go, let her go! Who do you think you are, to be bickering like children over who gets the last piece of cake? They took my husband! Your mayor! Have you no shame?”

Rachel Downing stood in the doorway, half bent over and panting with effort, one hand still held over the slight bulge in her belly. Her makeup had run, black streaks dripping down her cheeks, and her hair was matted to her forehead with sweat. She no longer looked the beautiful arm piece of the mayor, and something in her eyes had changed. She looked wild, like a caged animal, ready to rip out throats if only she could get her claws on the ones responsible. Hers had not been a marriage of convenience, and however I might dislike Joel Downing, she loved him. And he had been taken from her.

I could understand her upset.

“We’re going, that’s final, and we’re wasting time arguing about it,” I interjected smoothly into the silence that followed Rachel’s outburst. “You can always use two more bodies.” And, I almost added but restrained myself, if you keep arguing about this, I’ll blind you and make you stay behind.

The sergeant grimaced, as if I had forced him to bite into a lemon, then nodded sharply. “You will follow my commands. If you disobey or fall behind, I’ll leave you.”

Ah, the last refuge of those who know they have lost. The final exertion of what little power he had left. I didn’t bother agreeing–I half expected that I would be disobeying him before the night was out, if not in the next ten minutes–but he took my shrug to mean something, and turned to bark orders to his crew.

We turned and filed back through the doorway, past the frantic eyes of Rachel Downing. I paused in the doorway and stared back into the night sky, hoping to catch one last glimpse of Serah’s beacon. But it was gone, swallowed up in the night, and it was a heavy heart that pulled me down the stairs I had raced up so soon before.

 * * * * * * * *

The army had arrived in a convoy of three identical black automobiles, sleek and fast and fully armored. The windows were a dark glass that made the insides impossible to make out, especially in the spotty light of the gas street lamps outside the mayor’s home, and the entire vehicle was fully enclosed, the rear bulging with a hidden boiler and steam engine, only a small pipe sticking up vertically to vent. This was the only point at which the insides of the auto were exposed to the outside, and even it appeared to have a hefty one-way valve to limit access.

These were expensive vehicles, halfway between a standard open automobile and a tank, suitable for driving around in cities and protecting the occupants from the bulk of most dangers, but not something one would drive into an actual battlefield.

Each auto sat four, including a driver, and there had already been a dozen army men. So I was treated to the uniquely unpleasant experience of sitting crammed between two large uniformed men in the rear of one vehicle, straddling a recess that held their rifles. Let me tell you, there are few things more uncomfortable than sitting astride two loaded weapons and driving at top speeds through the city at night.

And we were driving fast. The automobile’s air horn blazed almost continuously, roaring our challenge to the other vehicles on the streets of Kestral, letting them know that if they did not move, they would without a doubt be flattened.

Most took the hint. Not always quickly, however, and shouts of alarm and curses filled the air as pedestrians and cyclists leapt to one side. Monowheels tilted dangerously far as they fought against their own momentum, automobiles slid and scraped against stone and wood walls, and the sleek half-tank slid through the morass, skipping through gaps that should have been impossible.

At night, the enormous cargo walkers came out, ferrying goods and equipment to distant cities, eight steel legs pounding the ground as they crept ponderously along, supporting gigantic cargo bays, vehicles, and in one case most of a small house on their backs. These walkers were not much faster than a running man, and had the maneuverability of a charging rhinoceros. It took obscene amounts of fuel to even get one of them moving, and once it had taken its first few steps, it was no mean task to stop it. The pilots had to plan turns and stops well in advance, and a careless mistake, a single sleepy moment, could have disastrous consequences. I had been witness to cargo walkers out of control before. One of the great steel beasts had taken a turn a little too sharply and simply torn the corner off a sturdy brick building, spilling desks, papers, and filing cabinets out into the dark night. No one had been inside, fortunately; one of many reasons the cargo walkers rarely moved during the day.

The walkers obviously couldn’t dodge the pseudo-tank, and didn’t bother trying. The army drivers wove their cars between the pounding legs of the giant autos, and though I knew their skills were more than up to the task, it was still sobering to feel the ground shake as a foot half the width of the automobile itself struck down just moments after we had passed.

Most automobiles can manage an easy thirty or forty miles per hour at cruising speed, and some of the more powerful ones can go as high as fifty or sixty. We must have been cruising at similar speeds through the narrow streets of Kestral, and while the army folk were strapped in and had hefty hand-holds to grab onto, I had nothing but a pair of rifles between my legs and two burly men beside, neither of whom liked me. It was not a pleasant trip.

We slowed down well before we reached our destination; an inevitable side effect of trying to reach Candlepark Station.

The station is the largest and most active transportation hub in all of Kestral, and the nearest to the mayor’s mansion. Every rail line that webs the sky runs into it at some point. Every airship that visits the city docks there at least once. The subway tunnels that had been abandoned beneath the city formed a wide hub beneath the station, and had they been completed, the underground would have swarmed as mercilessly as above.

Though the station quieted some at night, it was a relative thing. Something akin to trying to fit a great lake of water into a swimming pool, as opposed to only a bath tub. Strictly speaking, one was more doable, but practically, both were equally impossible.

The streets around the station were always congested. More than congested: stopped solid. It was the next best thing to a parking lot, and some people in a hurry tended to treat it as such, which only exacerbated matters. Only a bare fortnight ago, I had fairly flown through the crowd, as Scott Casterly had carried me in the most rickety and unstable walker I had ever had the misfortune to ride. Fast, surely. But it does no good to get somewhere quickly unless you also get there in one piece.

This was something the men in the army had also yet to learn, and though we slowed down, it was not nearly as much as I would have thought reasonable.

But then, my own stakes in this matter were as dire as theirs. Hells, more so in my opinion. Let the mayor burn; I was taking Serah back.

The vehicle plowed into the morass of autos, bikes, walkers, and just plain old people, blaring its horn and looking like nothing so much as a sleek black demon breathing smoke from its rear.

The outer edges of the mess were thin enough to allow us to progress a little, but eventually even the armored half-tank had to stop.

“Now what?” I asked. We were still some distance from the station.

“Now,” said the driver, turning and grinning. “We walk.”

The doors struck the side of the neighboring vehicle, and we squeezed out into the bare inches between us. I looked around in the suddenly brighter light of the gas lamps, no longer dimmed by the tinted windows of the auto. The lamps were thick here, lighting the place up to near daylight as a thousand fires burnt from street lamps, from lanterns within the vehicles, and from the station itself. Every window in the station was bright, every gaping maw glowing a cheery yellow and white. Red and blue signal lights burned high atop the building–less a building, and more an enormous termite colony, built and added upon as necessity demanded over the years.

We ran, threading our way between stopped cars, hand-held horns and deep-throated shouts warning those ahead of our coming. I slid through the slim space between two bikes, ran across the exposed back seat of a topless automobile, danced beneath a walker’s spindly legs. Despite my long legs, I was not used to this sort of frantic maneuvering, and the army men beat me to the station proper by several seconds. As promised, they did not wait, and I raced after them, past a congested and perpetually under construction parking space and through a pair of hanger-sized doors that led into the station proper.

Inside, the station appeared much less crowded, simply by the shear scale of the place. A great central space rose several stories high, surrounding by rings of platforms laden with travelers rushing to catch their train or to escape the incoming crush. The army men and I raced across the expansive marble floor for the far wall, chipped and stained by decades of abuse. Murmurs of confusion rose and fell amid the constant ambient echoes from thousands of travelers all throughout the station, voices echoing off thin steel walls, bouncing off decorative marble and filling the air with a low roar.

The far wall of the enormous space held a bank of elevators, constantly in motion, rising up to the various train platforms, and higher still to the levels of the airship towers. And as massive as this room was, I knew the station extended much further back than we could see, occupying the whole of the park that had once been the largest in the city, and that which had given the station its name.

The wait for an open elevator was interminable, and I wanted nothing more than to break away and race up the stairs, just to be doing something, rather than standing and waiting, letting precious seconds seep through my fingers. But the station stretched high, high above the city, and I would collapse in exhaustion long before making it to the top of the spires where the military airships awaited.

The elevator doors opened, revealing a space large enough for most automobiles, and we piled in. Just as the doors began to slide shut, Hattie shoved her way inside, her face set in a pale grimace, the stained bandage now entirely red. Kristopher circled above her injured shoulder in a slow, fiery halo, humming to himself. I opened my mouth to suggest Hattie stay behind–she looked about to collapse–but I didn’t let the words out. She would take it as an insult.

The elevator rose with speed, powerful engines driving the cables that pulled it up and up, to the base of the tower levels. The military tower was further back in the station, but this level was largely empty and for the first time we were able to run all out. My long legs gave me the advantage here, and I did not have a rifle to carry, so I had no trouble keeping pace with the army officials. Hattie again fell behind, but I couldn’t stop to wait, couldn’t risk losing these men. A second, much smaller elevator awaited us, and as we piled into it, she shouted at us, but the men ignored her. I watched her run with a grim look on her face, and I sympathized…but I couldn’t stop and wait. It was for the best, I told myself as the doors cut her off from view. She needed a doctor and rest, though she would never admit it.

When the doors opened once more, it was to a metal platform, the floor corrugated to give some traction against the frightful winds that roared this high above the city. A low fence rimmed the platform, as if that would prevent the gales from picking a person up and throwing him to the ground so far below. I kept well back from the edge. As a rule, heights don’t bother me overmuch, but there’s a difference between standing in Jedediah Millston’s office atop the university and looking out across the city…and this insane platform atop a spindly tower that seemed hardly capable of supporting its own weight. That I knew it had been designed and built by army engineers who had a clue what they were up against did nothing to alleviate my fears, primal and unreasonable.

A covered ramp led to the airship gondola, not unlike a ramp from an ordinary dock to one of the many steamers that called at the Kestral ports…except a misstep here would have far more dire consequences. Yet, people traveled like this every day. Were they insane? Was I?

The soldiers seemed to have no qualms, and led the way onto the ramp that was shockingly stable. Once on it, I could see the heavy steel cables and girders that locked the ramp to the spire, not suspended in midair as I had originally thought. Even if it swayed some as we ran across it, I could almost imagine it was just the breaking of waves rocking the ship we were about to board.

The airship broke away from the spire almost before we were all aboard, and the sergeant pulled the door shut and spun the wheel to lock it as we crept from the dock, the airship’s propellers spinning up to a whine, then a roar.

Inside, the gondola was sparse, utilitarian. Metal floors and benches, where most airships were lavish with elegantly carved wood, thick colorful carpets, paintings across the walls. Traveling was an experience, and the goal was to make it as pleasant and enjoyable a one as possible. But the army had to move large amounts of people and equipment quickly; they had no room for frills. Behind us, the great engines shivered and growled, keeping the airship moving, cruising at speed through the air, though from within I could barely sense our motion. Most of the soldiers sat, to take what rest they could before the upcoming confrontation, but I was too restless to remain still. I made my way to the forward of the gondola, where the pilot sat peering through thick glass at the darkness outside, guiding the airship by a eyesight, aided by a series of dials and gauges. It was a frightening business, at least to me. Near a port, an airship pilot could rely on a nearby spire to communicate via flashing lights, transmitting weather conditions, docking instructions, and so forth. But out between cities, an airship pilot was alone; there was no support he could call in, and if the airship went down, the lives of everyone aboard were solely in the hands of this one man, who in the end, could only do so much.

He was peering at the compass now, steering the airship toward the last place we had seen the beacon. I was surprised he remembered.; I had gotten turned around on the frantic rush to and through the station and had not the slightest idea which direction to fly. It was frightening to think that, had I been in charge, we would never have gotten past this first stage, never have a hope of catching the pirate airship.

After a few minutes, the pilot let out an exasperated sigh and spoke, his eyes never wavering from the instruments. “Look, do you want something?”

“Um,” I said. Of course I wanted something. I wanted him to be faster. I wanted Serah safe and in my arms. I wanted to sit at home with a mug of hot tea and a good book, a plate of Annabella’s blackcurrant scones fresh from the oven, Kristopher singing quietly to himself in the fireplace.

“You’re one of them, right, magic guys?” the pilot asked when I didn’t continue.

I nodded, then said “yes,” when I realized he still wasn’t looking at me.

“Can you do anything to help? Track that beacon, make us move faster, anything?”

I thought for a second. “I could…give us some light?” Maybe that would make it easier to see the pirates if we got close enough. The pilot snorted.

“About the opposite of what we need, then. You catch a glimpse of the airship before you got in?” It took me a moment to realize he was asking about the one we were currently flying, not the one we chased.

“Not really.”

“Well, if you had, you’d know it was a stealth gal. No insignia, no colors, no lights. Last thing we need is a great bright light to show the pirates exactly where we are. If they go to ground, we’re done for. Now, unless you’ve got a spyglass in that coat of yours, I’d prefer you get back with the others. You’re distracting.”

I turned to go. Then stopped. Not a spyglass, but…

“You still here?” he said, a note of annoyance creeping in his voice.

“Yes,” I said, looking past him out the window. “Shut up for a second, please.” I stepped closer to the plates of glass that made up most of the front of the gondola. I focused beyond that, to the dark air outside the airship. The night seemed to grow brighter in my sight, as my senses came alive, showing me the rays of light passing from every which way through the air and the glass. Light from below us, ambient light of the city we were still passing over; light from the stars and the moon, what little made it through the dense cloud cover; and somewhere out there, the light of that lone lantern Serah had rigged to mark the pirate airship.

I saw the rays of light, and carefully, delicately, reached out to bend them. First to converge and concentrate them, then to diverge them back to parallel. This was a much finer art than the periscope effect I had used so disastrously a few weeks previous to peer around corners at the group of terrorists who had kidnapped a little boy. Lensing was necessarily a delicate business, and it always took a bit of time to get right, adjusting it incrementally until, suddenly, the rays bent in just the right way and we had a working spyglass before us. There was nothing to see yet beyond the dark clouds, but the pilot could tell that something was different, and he spoke, a frown in his voice.

“What the hell did you just do?”

“You wanted a spyglass,” I said absently, concentrating on keeping the effect in place, scanning the sky in front of us for a pinpoint of light lower than stars, higher than a house. Vague shapes leapt out at me from the dimness: tall trees and buildings, low fuzzy stars on the horizon, and there, out in the distance, a tiny pinpoint of orange.

Hardly breathing, I stretched the lenses, pulling them larger to get more light. The focus failed, and for a moment I lost the spot entirely, but I took my time to readjust, and several seconds later it floated back into being.

I couldn’t tell how far it was, or how fast it was moving, and the image was too fuzzy and dim to see the airship itself, but at least now we had a direction.

I allowed myself to relax a little, no longer needing to fine-tune the “spyglass,” and I sank into the empty copilot’s seat. The pilot said nothing, seeming to understand what I had done, and simply steered the airship toward that distant point, flickering in the blackness of night.

* * * * * * * *
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August 22, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter VI

by Mallard

Summer’s finicky luck was on our side as we ran, for the pirates seemed in no particular hurry to ascend the stairs. Laden as they were with their carefully-packed crates of loot, in good cheer and with no reason to think that anyone had escaped the ballroom, they could take their time up the stairs.

Serah and I, on the other hand, ran like fugitives.

The mayor’s mansion stood a full five stories high, each of which must have contained high vaulted ceilings, for there were far more steps between floors than there strictly should have been. The lanterns glowed every half dozen or so steps, lending a cheery yellow glow to the staircase that in no way matched my mood.

I like to think I keep myself in decent shape, but I also don’t sprint up five over-long flights of stairs on a regular basis, and certainly not in a full suit. I can only wonder how Serah managed, with her gown flapping around her feet. At least she had left her heels in the ballroom. We were both panting with exertion as we neared the roof, and when I saw Serah slow to a stop by the door to the fifth floor hallway, I assumed she was just too tired to continue. I stopped beside her, just as she opened the door and walked through, into the darkened hallway behind.

“What are you doing?” I hissed. I knew the pirates were likely still ascending the first flight of stairs, but I couldn’t help but feel that, at any moment, I would hear shouts of alarm and the cocking of guns.

“Shh,” she whispered back, and advanced several steps down the hallway. I hesitated, but she hadn’t left me much choice. I followed her and closed the door behind me, leaving us in complete darkness. It occurred to me then that the mayor lived with only his wife and his staff. Most of the latter were downstairs, so the entire upper four stories of the house must be empty. No wonder all the doors had been closed, the halls dark.

I couldn’t see anything, except for Kristopher’s faint red glow, which hardly illuminates anything. With a quick glance behind to make sure the door was firmly shut, I summoned an image of blue fire, an old and easy favorite of mine, and held it in my palm. The pseudoflame cast a pale blue light that turned the maroon carpet black, and lent an eerie cast to Serah’s skin.

Serah had her wrench in her hand once again–where did she store the damned thing?–and was advancing toward one of the cast iron wall scones, identical to the dozens we had passed on the run up. Up close, it was something of a piece of art. Planes of frosted glass settled in a delicate iron framework that formed decorative, curling vine and leaf patterns. A stiffer vine mounted the scones to the wall, blending into the leafy wallpaper. The support hid the gas line, branching out from a larger pipe within the walls. It was the fashion among the rich to run their utilities in the walls and floors, out of the way of visitors’ eyes. It made for an emptier, cleaner-looking hallway, but it was also more expensive and difficult to maintain.

Serah attacked the scone it with a vigor, loosening several cleverly disguised fasteners and pulling the lamp clean off the wall.

“Hold this,” she said, and shoved it to my hands, pushing it through my illusory flame so that the light scattered and caught in the glass, sending blue sparkles across the walls.

“And a little brighter, please,” Serah whispered, feeling with her hands along the leaf-patterned wallpaper.

“We don’t have time,” I whispered back in exasperation, still clinging to the lamp she had thrust at me. I complied, though, shifting the light to a more comfortable yellow, and hoping it would not show through the crack under the door. The mayor’s mansion was probably built well enough so that no such cracks would exist, I figured.

“What are you doing? We can vandalize the mayor’s house another time. Just name the day and I promise I’ll be there.”

Serah glared at me, then dug into the wallpaper with her wrench, tearing a jagged vertical gash.

I stared. That wallpaper, and the wood she had scarred below it, likely cost more than most of the furnishings in my tiny studio above Annabella’s. Not that I was particularly upset; if I wasn’t afraid of repercussions both political and military, I’d be all about taking Joel Downing down a notch. But Serah hadn’t my reasons for disliking the man, and she was hardly the sort given to wanton destruction. She’d take her own property apart in an eyeblink, but never someone else’s without permission.

Without any of her usual care, Serah reached out and ripped the wallpaper open further, revealing the wood paneling underneath…and a metal access panel, planted flush into the wall.

A cluster of valves and gauges, pipes and tubing filled the wall, a confusing mess to most, but Serah waded in without hesitation. She turned several valves, and corresponding needles shifted meaninglessly. A few seconds of work with her wrench, a quiet curse, and then she simply ripped out a section of rubber tubing several feet long, with complex brass fasteners at either end.

“Okay,” she said, grinning and retrieving the lamp from my arms. “Let’s go.”

I shook my head and doused my light, leaving the mess of the wall to fade into darkness. “What was that about?” I hissed, then listened against the door for footsteps. The other side sounded as empty as when we had left it, and holding my breath, I cracked it open slightly, ready to slam it shut and run at a moment’s notice.

Needless worry, it turned out, as once the door was open I could hear the faint sound of singing from below. I couldn’t make out the words, but they sounded not unlike old army marching songs. Pirate shanties, no doubt, celebrating their richness and cleverness. Which was fine by me; the longer they took in their celebrations, the better for Serah and I.

“No time to explain,” she whispered back, and pushed past me to run up the final steps to the roof. I ground my teeth and followed.

The steps ended at a plain metal door, closed but unlocked. On the near side, a heavy steel bar hung from an equally hefty chain, clearly designed to fit into a matching set of slots in door and frame such that the door could not be opened from without. No key would dislodge that sort of latch, which meant that either the mayor had been uncharacteristically lax in security tonight, or the pirates had planned this rather more thoroughly than I was comfortable thinking about. They must have placed someone–or multiple someones–in the mayor’s house staff well before this night, perhaps as early as a month ago, when the ball had been officially announced to the city. It disturbed me that something this big could have gone unnoticed for so long by anyone.

The door, though heavy steel, was balanced well and opened smoothly, without creak or protest. I let it close gently behind us, and we found ourselves on the roof of the mayor’s mansion.

The roof of Downing’s mansion was large and flat, tiled in hard white ceramic and walled in on all sides by a low ridge of stone. At the four corners, towers rose another two stories above the rooftop, housing bedrooms, attics, clock towers, or anything else the mayor deemed them useful for.

Under normal circumstances, much of this would have been dark and invisible, the only indication of the walls and towers being the dark silhouettes they made before the orange glow of the low cloud cover, the glow of a city that never sleeps.

But on this night, the entire rooftop was lit up like a carnival.

The mayor’s mansion is enormous. Not the largest building in the city, but a respectable size for a private dwelling. There was easily enough room for a decent game of football, provided shots did not go very far out of bounds. The airship was a small sort, dwarfed by the roof it occupied. The balloon was held in place by great steel cables, supporting an almost ludicrously small gondola beneath, painted midnight blue with a dark red underneath, as if it had been dipped in blood. Lights glowed from within, mostly drowned in the much larger guide lights that had been used to dock the airship.

Ladders and rigging roughened the smooth surface of the envelope, climbing ropes battling rungs and pulleys for space, tiny catwalks ringing the structure and providing a precarious mount for a brave or foolish crew member.

Shapes moved behind the lit windows of the gondola, but no one seemed to take notice of two fugitives skulking in the shadows. Black tubes snaked from the rear of the gondola, slithering to a corner of the roof where a rat’s nest of pipes and tubes marred the otherwise perfect smoothness of the architecture.

I made for this at once, hoping I could simply cut off or reverse the petrol flow without the pirates noticing. I doubted I could drain the tanks enough to prevent launch, but at the least I could create a little chaos, delay things just enough for Hattie or someone to get help.

It was only after I slowed to a stop before the snarl of pipes that I realized Serah was no longer by my side.

Neither was Kristopher, for that matter, but only because I had repeatedly warned him to stay well back from flammable fluids. He was floating serenely in the air several yards away, his soft red glow all but swallowed up by the great floodlights that still shone on the airship.

I whirled around, the pipes forgotten, and scanned the rooftop frantically for Serah. My eyes complained as they adjusted from nighttime black to the bright floodlights, and I was unable to spot Serah’s form anywhere on the roof.

(She is fine,) Kristopher said. (Remember yourself).

“Fine. Right,” I muttered, and spent several more precious seconds looking, before letting out a growl and turning back to my objective. She could take care of herself. I knew this. But knowing didn’t stop me from worrying.

None of the valves before me were labeled with anything more than the colors and symbols that any chemist might understand, but were alien to me. The mechanical connections themselves were easy enough to follow, however. This wheel opened a path through the tubes, that lever controlled a directional valve, this gauge displayed hose pressure. Familiarity with Serah’s shop helped me here, and I closed one valve, flipped a lever, and opened another, and was gratified with the sudden gurgling sound of arrested fluid, followed by a rise in pressure as the fuel began to flow the opposite direction along the tube. Soon enough, someone in the airship might notice the drainage and shut off the connection, but until then, every gallon lost was distance the airship could not travel.

I turned to look for Serah once more, worried despite Kristopher’s assurances. As my eyes passed over the airship once again, a sudden red glow lit up the night sky as a brilliant light shot upward, drowning out the orange city-light. The light rose high into the sky and seemed to hover, twinkling, before falling back down, fading out as it went.

A shout went up from the pirates in the gondola, and from the rooftop door, and I whirled in surprise. The pirates crowded out of the doorway, all sounds of singing and revel gone, and they hauled the crates across the smooth tiles of the rooftop. The light had been a signal, a call for help that I was well acquainted with, and that the pirates must have recognized as well. There was only one person who could have set that off. But why would Hattie bring a flare gun to a ball?

I was so fixated on this thought, and on the pirates running toward the airship, that it took me several seconds to realize what the afterimages imposed on my retina were trying to tell me.

In the red glare, a figure had shown against the night sky, standing high on the top of the envelope. A figure whose lower half blew in a stiff wind, just as might a woman’s gown.

“What the hells is she doing?” I muttered angrily, and at that moment, a light blinked on and off atop the airship. It was a faint light, dim and barely visible next to the rooftop floodlights. But were all the other lights quenched, it could be visible for quite some distance.

And I understood.

“Oh, Serah, you brilliant, clever, reckless and idiotic woman,” I whispered, half in admiration, half exasperation. “How in Winter’s hells are you going to get down?”

The beacon flickered on once more, and stayed that way. Of course, given the limited time and tools, Serah could hardly rig a remote or time-lagged trigger. Which meant that all any pirate had to do would be to look up, and the game would be blown.

It was a simple matter to reach across the distance between Serah and myself and throw up a darkness to hide her lantern. Darkness is the easiest illusion in the world, requiring no features, no skill, hardly any power.

Simple. But too late by just a second.

A shout and a crash sounded as one of the men holding the crates suddenly straightened and pointed, dropping his corner with a sound that made me wince.

“Idiot!” one of the others roared, and for a moment I thought it might all blow over in a chaos of blame and worry over the loot. But this crew wasn’t formed from trigger-quick hotheads, and after a few rounds of shouts and insults, they quieted and listened to the man.

Would that the Kestral government could function so effectively.

The man picked up his corner, and the group picked up the pace. Those not carrying the boxes sprinted toward the airship and began to swarm up the ropes and ladders, hanging off the enormous balloon like bizarre, thieving spiders. The others reached the gondola in short order and raced up the ramp, which then fell to the tiles with a clatter as it was unhooked from within.

“Shit,” I said and started to run, not sure what I was going to do, but damned if I was going to leave Serah to the pirates. Maybe I could cause some confusion, delay the launch enough for Serah to get down and hide with me…

In addition to communicating well, the pirates were apparently efficient pilots as well. Before I had covered half the distance to the airship, the ropes holding it down suddenly snapped free, whipping out, and the airship leapt skyward as the gases in its envelope strained for the clouds.

I sprinted forward, grabbing at flailing ends of rope, leaping uselessly into the air, shouting in vain for the airship to Stop!, but I could do nothing and the airship was already twenty feet or more above my head, and still rising.

“Stop, gods damn you!” I roared, and stamped my foot like a child throwing a tantrum.

Joel Downing, I could let them take. Even Martha I could live with, because I knew we would get both of them back alive, if perhaps not unharmed. But they had no reason to keep Serah alive. And she had nowhere to run. The airship was big, but once in the air, it was a tiny island, and one without a safe harbor.

I was hyperventilating, unable to focus, unable think about anything but her face, bloodied and bruised, her body dropping from the airship like a limp rag doll. These pirates would have no qualms about killing her. I knew that. They had shot Hattie without thinking twice. They would–

Kristopher whistled, louder than I had heard him before, and I clapped my hands to my ears. His song still reached me, loud and unforgiving. (Are you going to do nothing?) he said, and had he been human, a heavy note of scorn would have tainted his words.

I gulped, my mind suddenly clear, and I dug into my memories for something, anything. Darkness was easy; I blinded the airship, casting a cloud of black over every window. But they were flying in night anyway, flying by instrument; added darkness would hardly give them pause. I dug deeper, remembering stories I had heard of old sky sailors, the ones who claimed to have flown impossible distances to the east, across the mountains, across the vast desert, to lands unknown by any in Cest-Weldersheen.

In those lands far across the desert, it is said, live birds of impossible size, creatures that dwarf ships, that can swallow buildings whole. Creatures to which we are nothing but fleas. Brilliantly white, so bright that they are difficult to look upon, these rocs have been said to destroy airships by careless accident, the wind of their passing enough to knock the ship out of the sky.

This is what I threw at the pirates’ airship, an enormous white bird of prey, diving out of the sky to tear the airship to pieces. Every aeronaut’s worst impossible nightmare, a creature that would give even a man who’s never flown pause.

And it did nothing. The bird dove and on the streets below I heard shouts of horror and the screams of frightened horses, but in the sky, the airship did not so much as twitch, and when it struck the deadly razor beak of the roc, able to swallow elephants whole, it simply sailed through.

As if blind.

I screamed then, a wordless scream of rage and frustration. Anger that they had gotten away, anger that they had been too fast, and I too slow, anger at Joel Downing for throwing this cursed ball, and anger at Hattie for forcing me to attend. But most of all, anger at myself, at my own stupidity, my own snare that had caught me as neatly as if I had planned it.

I collapsed on the smooth tile of the mayor’s roof, my legs no longer willing to support me. I sat there, shivering in the cold autumn night as the airship rose slowly upward into the dark sky, growing dimmer and smaller by the second.

I hardly had time to mope, for a squadron of armed men burst onto the roof seconds later, weapons held at ready. A dozen safeties on a dozen rifles clicked off, surrounding me in a half circle. I didn’t acknowledge them; I didn’t care what they did now. I simply sat there, staring up at the shrinking speck of light that glowed atop the airship, the tiny beacon that was a testament to Serah’s brilliance and ingenuity, and my failure to keep her safe.

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August 15, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter V

by Mallard

Once the room was still, the pirates relaxed visibly, one of them lowering the enormous rifle that had made most of the noise, others shifting their weight to more comfortable positions. At any one time, though, six or seven weapons were trained vaguely on the crowd. Enough to discourage any sad heroism.

Where most of the pirates wore masks colored like a peacock’s feathers, brilliant shades that sparkled in the ambient light, the one in front wore a mask of velvet black, feathers from some exotic bird of night. At the distance he stood from us, the black feathers faded into his black suit, so he appeared as some strange creature of darkness, with bright white spots for eyes. The exotic appearance was somewhat mitigated by the sawed-off shotgun he wielded in one hand, and the speaking horn he held in his other.

I looked once again at Hattie, wishing I could leave the wall to help her. But performing the same trick with the floor is much harder, and almost always fails. I talk about pulling a section of wall over me, but of course that’s not an accurate description of what I do. Merely talk of the trade. In order to hide, I have to create an illusion in front of me that mimics the wall behind, sort of like holding up a photograph of an empty hallway in front of an apartment’s peephole to fool the occupants. This works from most angles, so long as the ones I am trying to fool do not get too close. But to mimic the floor exactly…

Perhaps you have seen the almost miraculous chalk drawings that street performers sometimes create during festivals. From a certain angle, the drawings take on incredible depth and realism, and it is easy to believe that the painter has created a physical hill or hole in the street. Being who I am, I truly appreciate these illusions, put together with nothing more magical than skill and patience. But when these drawings are viewed from any other angle, the illusion collapses into mere chalk marks on cobblestones.

Similar concepts apply in my case, and to hide Serah and myself by making it appear as if the floor we stand on is empty is not an easy task.

So I sat there, motionless, able only to watch.

Kristopher, for his part, vibrated in agitation near my head, drawn by his nature to Hattie, but knowing that to fly beyond my illusion would expose us all to danger. But his attraction to her showed that she clearly still lived, for salamanders cared little for the dead.

Hattie lay on her stomach, in profile to me, her head facing away. But her back rose and fell almost imperceptibly, and the puddle of blood no longer seemed to be growing. Her entire left side was red with blood, though darkest on her upper arm, and I hoped that the bullet had merely taken her in the bicep or shoulder. A painful wound, but not immediately fatal.

But hopes were all I could do for her now. I wasn’t a doctor or a healer, and if I showed myself, the pirates would almost certainly shoot me as well. So I forced my attention off Hattie, and looked once again toward the pirates.

They had fanned out somewhat, beginning to move among the motionless crowd. The mayor was no longer in sight, having been hustled out and away by his false security guard. Only a few seconds had passed, when the man with the horn spoke once again.

“Sorry to drop in so sudden-like, folks! I know just how much I hate when unruly fellows crash my party.” He made a big show of looking around at the prone guests, many huddled faces to the floor, a few of the braver ones turning their heads up to watch the pirates.

“Oh, dear! None of you all are masked.” He touched his own feathered mask and shrugged. “And here, we thought this was a masquerade!” He chortled roughly, and his fellows followed suit. His voice was coarse, like that of someone who has spent much of his life outdoors, or smoking, or drinking. Or, most likely, all three. It was the sort of voice I heard often enough in the army, as smoking and drinking defined the off-duty activities of many of us, living hedonistically from day to day because we never knew if our next would be our last.

The man made a big show of looking around, his hand held to shade his masked brow. “Well, no one’s coming to cart us away, so I guess we’re welcome! Pity that Downing fellow’s not around to greet us in person. Word is he’s a bit…bound up in other matters.” He laughed again, then sighed noisily.

“Well, there’s no point in waiting. You all know why we’re here. So out with it! Jewels, money, weapons. All yer valuables, and believe me, we’ll know if you’ve left anything out. No time to waste!”

A few of the quicker folks began to remove necklaces and rings, tiaras and jeweled slippers. Not enough, nor fast enough, and black powder boomed the pirates’ displeasure.

All at once, the room was a sea of activity, and small piles began to accumulate beside every prone couple, finery of every sort filling the floors. The pirates spread out then and began to roam the room at random, kicking at the recalcitrant, whose priorities seemed to waver uncertainly between a desire to keep their riches, and a desire to keep their lives. One man, I saw, actually held down his wife’s arms to stop her from removing her wedding ring, arguing in heated whispers, until one of the pirates strode up and viciously kicked him in the stomach. The man cried out and hunched up, and his wife pulled off her ring and threw it to the man in tearful haste.

Maybe the pirate had been drinking, or was just drunk with power, but he wasn’t satisfied with the small concession. He ignored the ring and leaned down, cupping the frightened woman’s cheek in one hand, leaning his feathered face close to hers. I couldn’t hear what the said, but I could guess his intent, and my suspicions were confirmed as the lady’s face turned white and she scrambled away, trembling.

“Victor!” Serah hissed at me, and I looked at her helplessly, knowing that if I did anything, we would be revealed, and probably killed. I looked toward the terrible scene, thinking furiously. Maybe I could make the woman’s face and bosom sag with age, or make some bright light to catch the corner of his eye…

A shotgun roared, and a window shattered, dropping shards of colored glass to the tiled floor and the gardens outside. The lead pirate, his weapon held casually against his shoulder, strode over to his crew member and the terrified woman. He glanced down at the woman, and barked something. She froze, then slowly laid down on the ground beside her prone husband, gripping his hand tightly, trembling from head to foot.

Then the pirate captain turned to his crewman, regarded him for a moment, and casually backhanded the taller man with an audible snap of flesh on flesh.

“We’re here for two things, and this ain’t one of them,” he said loudly, and turned away toward another slow couple, as if having already forgotten the altercation. I half expected the other man to shoot him, or tackle him, but he did nothing, standing motionless, fists clenched, before turning and stalking toward yet another pair.

Aside from that one mishap, the pirates were remarkably well organized, and it wasn’t much longer before the piles were complete, and the pirates began to collect their prizes. I was a little surprised at the care with which they gathered the jewelery; rather than sweeping it all into sacks and running away into the night, they brought out several large wooden boxes and carefully sorted through each pile, completely ignoring the silent guests. The more delicate pieces–those of thin wrought gold or fine crystal–were folded in tissue paper and placed carefully in dozens of small boxes, which were then loaded into the wooden crates. The more durable pieces were simply wrapped and arranged into yet another crate. They took their time, examining each piece carefully before sorting it into its appropriate container. These pirates, for all that they had said there was no time to waste, were very fastidious about keeping their loot in a top condition. If they hadn’t been toting weapons and wearing masks, it would have been not unlike watching laborers load important cargo for shipment to another city.

With every extra minute the pirates took, I expected a squadron of police to barge in, perhaps led by my friend, Scott Casterly. But no one showed, and in retrospect, I wasn’t really surprised. Who could have escaped to warn them? If the pirates had truly infiltrated the house’s security staff, they had likely restrained or killed anyone who had had a chance to leave the premises. They surely had men outside the house, masquerading as security, to stop anyone from entering or leaving the mansion. I couldn’t help wondering just how large their operation was, and more importantly, how they had gotten in the mayor’s supposed “fortress.”

Eventually they had collected and stored the last pieces of wealth–and coerced a few lingering fragments from some of the more recalcitrant guests–and I expected that to be the end of it. But they continued to take their time, reorganizing some of the crates in a seemingly unnecessary manner, walking among the prone guests and gesturing with their guns, making their presence known and feared. Their masks glimmered all the more now that they were the only things in the room left to sparkle, and somehow that made them all the more ominous.

“Why are they waiting so long?” I whispered aloud after several minutes of this, unable to comprehend their motives. I had been more a spy than a thief, but I had always thought the first rule in covert operations was speed: get in, do what’s necessary, and get out before anything has a chance to go wrong. But it seemed like these pirates were in no hurry to go anywhere. Almost as if they were waiting for something.

Beside me, I heard Serah gasp.

“Fuel,” she whispered in sudden realization, her voice as low as mine had been. “They’re refueling.”

I frowned. “Refueling?”

She nodded excitedly. “They must have come in an airship; it’d be much easier to get past the security staff that way, since they would all be on the lower floors with the guests. But they couldn’t carry enough fuel for the return trip, so they’re pulling from the mayor’s reserves.”

I nodded slowly. It made sense, put that way. The pirates would not have come in trucks or walkers, since without invitations, they could not enter the mansion. And though I may not like Joel Downing, he is a cautious man, and in saying his mansion was a fortress, I don’t believe he was exaggerating. At least, not intentionally. But perhaps he had not secured it quite so well against an attack from the air. “Right. How long do you think they have left?”

She shook her head. “Depends on the airship. It can’t be much longer, though.”

I nodded. “I’ll go take a look. Wait here.” I made as if to stand, and Serah grabbed my arm. I looked down at her, and her face was full of determination.

“And what, get discovered when your illusion fades? Remember, Victor,” she hissed. “Kiss or clobber.” I winced. I really didn’t want her involved. She didn’t have a gun, and full of dislike for them as she was, she had never learned to handle one. Not that I was armed either, but I was at least more familiar with this sort of situation than she. Wrench or no wrench, it was too likely that she could be hurt.

But she had a point. I couldn’t leave her, and she knew a lot more about airships than I ever will. Despite my misgivings, I’d probably need her.

“Come on, then,” I whispered, and couldn’t keep a displeased frown from my face.

The entry staircase to the ballroom was between us and the pirates, but unfortunately, so were a number of tables, chairs, prone guests, and other obstacles that would make hugging the wall difficult. If we went too quickly, the pirates might notice a sort of ripple effect on the wall as my imperfect memory botched the edges of the illusion. But if we went too slowly, we wouldn’t make it before the pirates themselves left.

“On the ground,” I hissed, and Serah obeyed. Her shoes clicked on the tile as she got on her hands and knees, and I froze, but the pirates were too far to hear anything. Quickly, Serah pulled her shoes off and set them with exaggerated care on the ground, pushed up against the corner where the floor met the wall. I did the same. Hopefully the pirates would not notice two pairs of shoes suddenly appearing out of nothing when we moved away.

I took one last look at Hattie’s still form, and gritted my teeth. There was nothing I could do. She still breathed, but had not moved since she had fallen. Whether her lack of movement was out of pain or a desire not to draw attention to herself, I couldn’t tell. I could only hope it was the latter.

“Winter take it,” I hissed, and began to crawl behind Serah toward the stairs, moving as quickly as I could, while hugging the wall as closely as possible.

Lady Autumn’s grace and Sir Summer’s luck both must have been with us, for we made it to the stairs without mishap. And though I couldn’t breathe for the fear, we were able to ascend the stairs and pass through the carved teakwood doors, moving in short bursts when the pirates were looking elsewhere. As I’ve said before, the great power of illusion lies in the fact that no one expects it. The pirates were confident that they had everyone at their mercy on the floor, and it was through this flaw that Serah and I were able to slip away.

Once in the hall, I dropped the illusion and we stood, taking just a moment to stretch cramped muscles. Then the two of us ran headlong down the hall, toward the dark staircase I knew we had passed on the way in. It was no longer guarded by a black-suited security man, and no longer dark. Elegant wrought-iron lamps lent a soft yellow glow to the narrow stairwell, lighting a path to the higher floors. Circumspect, these pirates were not.

As we turned into the stairwell, the faint amplified tones of the captain floated down the hall to us. “Gentlemen and ladies, it has been a pleasure! But we’ve taken enough of your time. We’ll take our leave now, with these fine gifts. And, since they seemed so eager, just one or two guests will be coming with us. Off to attend a fancier and grander party elsewhere. A good evening, all!”

At first, I took it to mean only that Serah and I had no time now, and that we had to run. We did so, rocketing up the carpeted steps, past gaily glowing wall scones and darkened doorways. It wasn’t until we had reached the third floor that I realized the full extent of what the pirate had said.

One or two guests. They had taken the mayor, of that I had no doubt. Who else would be important enough to spirit away? Who else indeed, but a woman whose position was as high above Joel Downing’s as his was above mine?

“Serah,” I said, slowing to a stop. She stopped a few steps higher up and frowned down at me. “Did you see Martha in there?”

Serah frowned in thought, then her face slowly drained of color. “No,” she whispered, and shook her head. “I didn’t see her at all.”

Behind us, though I could not yet hear them, I knew the pirates would be walking out of the ballroom and down the hall, lugging their laden wooden crates. And more importantly, their numerous weapons.

“Winter take it,” I cursed again, but as before, there was nothing I could do. So we ran up the stairs, praying that we could reach the airship before the pirates and, though I knew not how, to prevent its launch.

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August 9, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter IV

by Mallard

We weren’t the flashiest dancers on the floor, either in dress or in skill, but I doubt either of us cared. We were at a ball, so we danced, and Kristopher darted above our heads to the amusement and surprise of the other guests. The clockwork band kept perfect time, and I led Serah around the floor to half a dozen tunes that I barely recognized. We were oblivious to the rest of the guests, caught up as we were in our own world of spins and steps, lights and music, the enormous ballroom blurring past as we twirled and forgot everything.

And, as usual, Hattie found a way to ruin my fun.

She at least had the grace to wait until between dances, when the operators of the golem quintet were readjusting strings and positions in preparation for the next piece. I was leading Serah by one sweat-dampened glove to the drinks table for a quick refresher, and a heavy hand suddenly clapped on my shoulder.

I admit I overreacted. I don’t normally like to think of myself as jumpy, but I was in a good mood, with not a single unpleasant thought in my head, so I was quite startled by what felt like unfriendly contact.

I flinched and spun, letting go of Serah’s hand and stepping between her and whoever had laid hands on me. Before I could register that it was merely my boss, illusory flame burst into being in my hands. A mere distraction, of course, but effective, even when people know that I am an illusionist. Knowledge of the mind is weak and slow; knowledge of the eyes and the instincts is something else altogether. Seeing a person’s hands burst into brilliant red flame that crackles and sparks and burns the cuffs of his sleeves is enough to give anyone pause.

Gasps of fear and amazement sounded around us, and suddenly we three were standing in a wide, clear area, none of the guests eager to get too near the crazed fire mage.

Hattie Morrison was not impressed.

“If you’re quite done making an ass of yourself and our entire organization,” she snapped, her arms crossed over her medaled chest. “I need to talk to you. Alone.” She added this last with a glance at Serah.

Well. That was embarrassing. I extinguished the false flames at once, and made a show of brushing off my sleeves, keeping my eyes averted from the onlookers. I realized, far too late, that as a representative of the Peace Workers, I was not exactly doing my job well. Look at this man, reformed soldier of the Republican Guard, perfectly safe and diligently working for the further safety of this city. Watch, as he attempts to burn to the ground a woman clad in the uniform of our own Kestral Armed Forces. Feel safe yet?

“Sorry,” I muttered. Normally I don’t care too much about embarrassing Hattie, but I had possibly blown the entire reason I was even at this ball. That was a bit much, even for me.

“Now,” Hattie said and turned to push her way through the crowd. She didn’t need to bother; it parted like water before her.

“Go on, I’ll be fine,” Serah said and gave me a little push. Then I felt her press up against my back and whisper into my ear, “Impressive, by the way. Stupid, but impressive.”

(But mostly stupid,) Kristopher agreed. I ignored him, but couldn’t help a tiny silly grin as I felt Serah move away.

I followed Hattie, and noticed with a mix of amusement and chagrin that I had a much wider corridor to walk through than she.

I expected the first thing Hattie would do would be to berate me, but she limited herself to a mere, “You’re a damned idiot, Victor. You will hear more about this.” Which worried me. What would make her delay a well-deserved dressing-down?

“I just received a message,” she said. “Via the optical telegraph.”

Which was a little surprising. The optical telegraph was the primary method of transmitting messages across long distances, using brightly lit towers that mimicked old semaphore flag movements. Actually, only the older towers truly mimicked semaphore. Newer, more complex towers, have up to four arms and utilize a bastardized form of sign language, allowing faster and clearer communication, though requiring much more training on the part of the operators.

The fact that Hattie had received a message on it meant that, not only had someone from another city contacted her, but the message was important enough to warrant interrupting her during a Peace Worker operation. Admittedly, a political and social operation rather than a true mission, but not something to be lightly intruded upon, all the same.

“We have reason to believe that there might be a raid here tonight,” Hattie continued, and my eyes widened in surprise. “Pirates.”

“Pirates?” I asked. Why would pirates come here, to the middle of the city? Then I thought back to my first sight of the ballroom, of the sheer dazzle and wealth of the guests, and I began to understand.

“How do you know?” I asked. “Who sent you the message?”

“Never mind that,” she said. “I need you on alert. I have the mayor’s security on the lookout for anyone not on the guest list, but with so many people here, it is almost impossible. I want you to stick to the mayor. The pirates will most likely go after his wealth, and hold him ransom against our good behavior.”

“His capture would hardly affect my behavior,” I muttered.

“Soldier!” Hattie growled, and I snapped to attention without conscious thought. “I don’t care your personal opinions of the man. I gave you an order, and you’ll damned well follow it. If I say stick to the mayor, you stick to the winter-blasted mayor, and when I say keep your smart-ass mouth closed, you’ll do that, too. Understood?”

Maybe it was because I only rarely saw Hattie in full dress uniform, or maybe it was the way she let me get away with numerous little misdemeanors, but I had never felt this sort of authoritative power from her. I fought down my instinctive response, and simply nodded.

“Yes, sir,” I said, and after a moment, Hattie nodded in return.

“Good. And keep this to yourself, of course. We don’t need a panic among the guests.” She frowned, as if she had bitten into a bad fruit. “And I’m sorry to ruin your evening like this, Victor. But–”

I nodded quickly. “I understand, sir. Duty first. Only, this might be difficult to explain to Serah if I can’t tell her the truth.”

Hattie pressed her lips into a thin smile. “You never seem to have trouble coming up with quick explanations when talking to me, Victor. I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”

“I don’t want to lie,” I insisted, though I knew I should drop it. That’s one thing that I try to stick firm to. Whatever mistakes I still make, however badly I might sometimes backslide, I do my best not to lie. Lying is the first step on the steep staircase down to Winter’s hells, and that strict old man does not easily forgive.

Hattie snorted. “What is this nonsense? Victor, you lie like a…” She stopped suddenly and frowned in thought. When she spoke again, it was in a slower, almost surprised tone. “No, you don’t, do you? Stretch the truth, insult me to my face, and all around disrespect any semblance of authority. But I will admit, you have never lied to me, Victor.” She sighed and shook her head. “Do what you must, but don’t let anyone overhear. Like I said, the last thing we need is widespread panic.”

I nodded. “Understood.”

“Good. Stick to the mayor, keep your eyes peeled, and let me or one of the security staff know the instant you see anything suspicious. You see a man or woman standing alone and looking around, you see someone sticking to the wall instead of dancing, or even a servant carrying drinks whom you didn’t notice before, you let me know.”

I nodded again, and Hattie dismissed me, vanishing into the crowd. Or rather, moving into it. Clad in full dress uniform as she was, she stuck out like a sore thumb in the sea of tuxedos and gowns. Wherever she went, the pirates were likely to be elsewhere. Which made for a simple search strategy: look everywhere Hattie wasn’t.

I snorted to myself and turned back to search for Serah and Joel Downing.

The former was walking toward me, a pair of champagne glasses held in her gloved hands. The light caught her teardrop necklace and sparkled, and for a moment I simply stared at my lady, as I had when I first saw her that evening. She smiled at my expression and handed me a glass before hooking her arm through mine.

“Trouble?” she murmured, keeping her voice low. The music had started up while Hattie and I were speaking, and the crowd had mostly lost interest in me. But a few furtive glances still found their way to me, and I answered in kind.

“Hattie doesn’t like me much.”

Serah snorted into her bubbly. “So, it was nothing serious?”

I hesitated. “Um.” I scanned the crowd for the mayor, and spotted him after a moment standing by the drinks table, chatting with some men I did not immediately recognize, but who were no doubt quite influential. His wife stood at his side, a plastic smile fixed on her face.

Serah frowned and pulled away from me, following my eyes with her own. “There’s something going on with the mayor?” she asked.

“Possibly not,” I hedged. While Hattie had as much as said to go ahead and clue Serah in, on second thought, I wasn’t sure I wanted her anywhere near this. I wondered if I could get her to go home if I promised to explain in the morning.

Serah sighed. “Kristopher?” she asked, looking above my head where the salamander had settled into his usual circle.

(He is telling the truth, and he is not,) Kristopher said, and reversed directions.

“Victor,” Serah growled, and I started.

“You can’t understand him!” I said.

She rolled her eyes. “I’ve known him as long as I’ve known you. I understand enough to know when he doesn’t agree with you.”

(I like her,) Kristopher said, as he has many times before. Usually, I find it encouraging.

“Right,” I said to both of them, and started forward toward the mayor. Serah pulled against me for a second, then gave in and walked with me.

“Victor, tell me the truth. Are you…working now?”

“Of course I am,” I said, keeping my eyes on Downing. “This whole evening is work for me, remember. I’m here to represent the Peace Workers and all.”

(And a fine job you have done of it,) Kristopher agreed.

“Can’t you do anything useful?” I grumbled up at him.

(No,) he said simply. (If your pirates are untroubled and uninjured, I cannot find them for you.)

“You know what I mean,” Serah insisted. She handed off her glass to a passing server and stepped in front of me, pushing both hands against my chest. “I may not be a Peace Worker, but I’m not a helpless bystander either,” she said.

I stopped. “I know. Believe me I know,” I insisted. “But I really don’t want you involved.”

Serah sighed, and looked up at the ceiling. “You know, I’ve helped you out before.”

I said nothing. It was true, so what could I say? I hadn’t wanted her involved those times, either.

“This is supposed to be a wonderful night out, Victor. It is becoming less so by the moment.” She fixed me with a glare. “I hope you remember that I’m not some helpless lady, like every other woman here. At the end of this evening, I’ll either kiss you for an exciting night out…or clobber you for a miserable one. Your choice, buster.” She held up a crescent wrench that I was sure had not been in her hand before, and wagged it in my face. I frowned.

“Why do you have–”


I sighed. “All right, you win.” I hesitated, then hastened to continue as Serah’s eyes narrowed. “Hattie got a tip that, uh, pirates might attack tonight,” I said, and in the brightly-lit hall, surrounded by beautiful gowns and well-tailored suits, it sounded a little ludicrous. I coughed. “And, uh, they might be after the mayor.”

Serah’s eyes widened. I took her arm, pulling her toward the group around Downing.

“Oh,” she said after a moment. “Well. That was unexpected.”

I laughed. “A pirate attack? Unexpected? Nonsense.” I noticed that the wrench was no longer visible, and I couldn’t help but wonder how she had snuck it in.

We neared the mayor and I hovered in the background, scanning the faces of the group he was speaking with. I didn’t know all of them by name, but I could remember seeing most of them when we had introduced ourselves earlier in the evening. Unless the pirates had been there from the beginning, these were probably off the suspect list.

Downing caught my eye and gave me a polite nod, which I returned, but I made no move to approach him. Hattie or his staff had almost certainly explained the situation to him, though if I hadn’t known something was amiss, I would not have discovered it from his face.

The clocked ticked onward, and the group eventually dispersed. I approached Downing and he nodded again.

“Mr. Haas, it is good to see you again. What may I do for you?”

I frowned. “Your security staff spoke with you, I trust? About, um,” I glanced around us to see if anyone was nearby. The mayor cut me off.

“Of course, of course. The pirates. Be at ease, Mr. Haas. It may not look it, but this house is rather a fortress. I am not terribly worried. But I trust you and Sergeant Morrison are on top of the situation, in any case?”

I hesitated. “On top” would be overstating things.

Before I could respond, a man clad in the black velvet of the house staff stepped up behind Downing and tapped him on the shoulder. The mayor turned and leaned close, and the man whispered into his ear. The mayor frowned, nodded, and turned back to me.

“It appears I spoke too soon,” he said through a tight-lipped frown. “Please excuse me.”

The man stepped to the side and addressed me. “Mr. Haas. We have positively identified at least four individuals who are not on the guest list, all of whom show evidence of being armed. We are to escort Mayor Downing to a secure room, and evacuate the premises as quickly and quietly as we can.”

“I’ll come with you,” I said. It was my orders after all.

The man shook his head firmly. “Sergeant Major Morrison told me that you are to report to her at once. The guests will need protection if the situation gets out of hand.”

I frowned. I hated to abandon the pirates’ prime target, but it made sense. Only the mayor was likely to be in physical danger, but he had his own staff to protect him. The guests stood to lose both wealth and dignity, and possibly far more if they had the admirable, but idiotic, courage to stand up to armed pirates. I nodded.

“Keep him safe,” I said unnecessarily, and let the security staff lead Downing away, while I scanned the crowd for Hattie.

She was not hard to find, as she was running toward me, shoving rudely through the crowd. She waved her arms wildly and shouted in anger, though I could not hear her over the music and the crowd noise.

“That was one of the pirates,” Serah whispered in sudden understanding, and I stiffened. Of course. What better guise for a kidnapper than a member of the very staff that is to protect the mayor? I could well believe that Downing did not know all his men’s faces by heart.

I turned toward where the man was still leading Downing away, readying in my mind an image of a an enormous blaze to block his path. Given my earlier gaff, he would likely believe it. Not for long, but enough for Hattie and I to catch him. I cursed myself for not bringing my pistol, but there was nothing for it now. I readied myself to release the illusion.

A shot from a black powder rifle rang out, cutting off the music and shattering my concentration. Several voices screamed, and fell into shocked silence a moment later as a second shot sounded, destroying the face of the enormous bronze clock.

“Everyone on the floor!” an amplified voice rang out. “Now!”

Hattie whirled, faster than I have ever seen her move, and a hidden pistol appeared in her hands as if I had cast it there.

As fast as she was, she could not immediately tell which direction to face and shoot. Before she could catch her bearings, a softer pistol shot echoed and Hattie spun around, then laid down on the floor, as if suddenly taken in a faint.

“Hattie!” Serah shrieked, and I shoved my hand roughly against her mouth, pulling her down and sinking back into the wall.

I had hardly enough time to pull a barely-remembered image of the wallpaper over us, before a third shot from the rifle boomed.

“On the floor!” the voice roared. “Or we’ll put you there and you won’t be gettin’ up!”

The guests fell to the ground, and in seconds the room was motionless, save for the group of seven figures clad in black suits, each with a brilliantly-colored feathered mask hiding his face.

I stared in shock at the pirates, at the guests on the floor, and most of all at Hattie and the puddle of red spreading slowly beneath her. I felt utterly helpless, and could only watch in horror as my boss and friend writhed in agony on the floor, unable to do anything to stop her pain.

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August 2, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter III

by Mallard

A cool silence descended between the two officials, an island of tense calm amid the sea of conversation that filled the ballroom. Mayor Downing was no longer smiling, his lips pursed in a displeased expression. Martha Chorice kept up her polite facade, unwilling to let her mask slip. She was a Minister of Cest-Weldersheen’s Council of Governors, of which the mayor was also a member, though on a lower tier. And though she was newer to her office than Downing, she had seemed to enter the role fully developed for it, bringing vigorous change to the incumbent government at the time they most needed it.

The silence stretched, and at last it looked like Downing would give. He sighed, but before he could speak, Hattie moved in smoothly, stepping between the two and addressing the Minister of Internal Affairs. The move that surprised me, as it could be taken as a deliberate slight to the mayor. In a similar manner actually, as her showing up at his celebratory ball in full uniform. It was nothing that he could reprimand, of course, but it was a slight nonetheless. I found I was suddenly feeling a little warmer toward my superior.

“Minister Chorice,” Hattie said, her voice soft and respectful. “May I have the honor of introducing to you one of our most talented agents? This is Victor–”

“Haas,” Chorice finished Hattie’s sentence and turned to me. Her voice was not very feminine, low and almost gravely, but it was a voice that one would not rashly go against. She spoke with a carefully measured cadence, as if the language was not her native tongue, and she had forced herself to learn it perfectly, if not colloquially. “I have indeed heard of you, Mr. Haas.” She turned back to Hattie and gave a much warmer smile than she had graced the mayor with. “It is stories such as those of Mr. Haas, and of your entire division in Kestral, that give me cause to believe I argued for the correct side.” She glanced significantly at the mayor. “Against heated opposition.”

Mayor Downing frowned, and shifted his weight uncomfortably. “That was two years ago, Martha. Times have changed. I have changed. I will freely admit that I was wrong, if that will please you. I, too, have seen the results of our local Peace Workers, and I am in a position to know well the state this great city might be in without them. Please do not think that I, for a moment, regret the success with which you argued in the Council two years ago.”

Minister Chorice raised a thick eyebrow, then nodded once. “Perhaps you have changed,” she acknowledged. She paused, then, “I have heard that Kestral has had some minor financial difficulties in the past year. Nothing serious, I hope?” It was a minor concession, a willingness to speak to the mayor on cordial, if not friendly terms.

The two fell into talking politics, moving from the state of the city’s economy to trade routes and crime rates, and Hattie’s smile began to look forced. I edged away half a step, then another, pulling Serah with me. She came willingly, no doubt eager to distance herself from the most powerful man in the city, and one of the most powerful women in the entire nation. Perhaps we could sneak off just for a moment, on the pretense of getting drinks…

A loud gong made me jump as an enormous brass clock on the wall began to call out the twenty-first hour. Nine loud booms echoed in the enormous ballroom, swallowing conversation, stilting laughter, and turning all heads toward the dais underneath the clock. Mayor Downing excused himself quickly and led his wife in a quick not-quite-jog to the raised podium. I slumped in relief that he was gone, and turned to lead Serah away. I really could use a drink.

“Mr. Haas,” the minister’s voice called. “Please stay for a while. I would very much like the opportunity to speak with you.”

I winced, and glanced at Hattie, who nodded firmly. Of course. The reason I was there, after all, was to represent the Peace Workers. I glanced at Serah and shrugged apologetically. “Sorry.”

Serah rolled her eyes and steered me back toward the minister and my boss.

The final gong sounded and, as the brassy notes faded into silence, the mayor’s voice, amplified through some device, sounded from all corners of the room.

“Friends and associates, citizens and visitors, welcome! I am Mayor Joel Downing, and it pleases me beyond all measure to have you here this evening. Tonight is a special night for me, as I celebrate a change in my life, and that of my wife. One we have desired for many years. Long have I worried that I would not have a child, that I would not have an heir to the Downing estate. But today, I lay to rest all such worries! Today, we celebrate the most proud news any husband has ever had the pleasure to express.”

He gestured to Rachel, and his beaming wife joined him on the stage, handing him a glass of champagne. He took it and pulled her close to him, folding his arm protectively around her shoulders. “Today, we celebrate the pregnancy and impending birth of Joel Downing Junior! Or perhaps Joanna! It’s too early to tell!” A polite titter rippled across the crowd, and Downing’s grin widened.

“Tonight, let all barriers of birth and wealth, station and responsibility vanish. Tonight, we celebrate the most basic emotion of any couple, of any father: pride at the addition of a child to his family. A toast!” he raised his glass, and crystal sparkled across the room as hundreds more joined his in the air. “A toast to the miracle of birth, a toast to the great city of Kestral, and most of all, a toast to Mrs. Rachel Downing, the most magnificent and beautiful woman I have ever known!”

In one gulp, he drained his glass and gestured grandly at the mechanical quintet, which started up at once, filling the air with lively notes. Downing led his wife down the steps of the dais to the center of the dance floor, which cleared before him. It was not a gentle and slow dance, and gasps filled the air as Joel lead his wife around in a wild waltz. Fans of rich paper and colored feathers fluttered as the mayor and his wife stepped, whirled, leapt, and bent backwards almost to the floor, stepping up the tempo until, following a resounding crescendo, the music vanished and Downing kissed his wife deeply. Cheers and laughter filled the air, and the two broke apart, beaming. A few moments later, the music began once more, and couples began to file to the dance floor to join the mayoral pair.

I was sorely tempted to join them, but I held myself in check, turning instead back to Minister Chorice and Hattie Morrison, the former of whom was, to my surprise, chuckling freely and waving a glass of white wine through the air.

She caught my eye and her own twinkled, forming wrinkles at the corners that reminded me of the woman’s age. “Is it not odd,” she said, rotating the glass in her hands, the crystal catching and throwing the light in brilliant sparkles. “That Mayor Downing speaks of breaking down barriers between class and wealth, yet not a one here is from the streets or the docks? Every man and woman at this soirée are from the upper class of this city, and the only class barriers that can be ignored are those between the merely rich, and the obscenely rich such as himself.” She shot a smile at Serah, who started. “Be proud, Ms. Villifree. You are the sole representative here of the working class of Kestral.”

“I–” Serah started, and Chorice shook her head.

“No, no. Swallow whatever formality you are about to say, my dear. While I do not agree with Downing on many things, his words, at least, sound good. No barriers tonight; speak to me as you would any other woman.”

I coughed, and Serah elbowed me in the ribs, glaring. “Of course, Minister Chorice,” she said.

The minister’s smile turned almost wistful, her eyes a little less cheerful. “It is not possible, I suppose. It is a trapping of power that I have never learned to enjoy: the erection of impassable walls between those who wield the power, and those who are affected by it.”

She turned back to me. “I did not exaggerate when I said I know of you, Victor.” She paused. “You are a curious case. You are one of the few Peace Workers who came to our side of your own free will, before the amnesty. It was you who helped convince me to stay true to my course of action, rather than give in to pressure. It was a close thing, you should know. I was young and new then, and had not the fortitude I have now.”

That was a sobering thought. The minister had spoken with such passion two years before, when she had argued boldly for a general amnesty of all members of the Republican Guard. She had faced violent opposition, including numerous threats to her life and loved ones, for the last months of the war had been charged with tension. Those of Cest-Weldersheen held no compassion for the traitors, as they called the Republic. The civil war had been bloody for both sides, as the magic of the south battled against the great steam tanks of the north. In the end, the war machines of the Royal Army had conquered the smaller nation, tanks the size of small factories rolling through all opposition and razing entire cities to the ground.

It shouldn’t have been like that, of course. The Republic had not been formed with an intent to wage war against its parent nation. It had been mostly symbolic, in the beginning. A protest against the power-mad and out-of-control army.

You already know that I played a part in the war, a role I regret deeply. I joined the army shortly after the Patchwork Folk invaded, seeing it as an opportunity to escape from the monotony of the printing press where I had worked. I had been stationed near the city of Sainted Isles, some distance south of Kestral.

Cest-Weldersheen had profited from decades of peace, and the army had been minuscule when the Patchwork Folk landed and began their march of terror, and the Council of Governors had responded with a draft, putting thousands of poorly trained and unwilling soldiers into the field. Taxes had risen alarmingly, especially in the rural south, as the government took more and more resources to support the growing army. Drunk with power and lacking in discipline, the newly conscripted soldiers began to take what they felt was rightfully theirs, stealing from and terrorizing the very people they were charged to protect, committing crimes that the Council refused to acknowledge.

Eighteen months into the war, Sainted Isles had seceded, and having lived through what they had, I went with them. They formed the first city in the Republic, a child nation that had been meant only as a symbolic and temporary protest.

The Council had responded by withdrawing armed support, and for a time the city knew peace, far enough behind the front lines to be out of danger from both the Patchwork Folk and the Royal Army.

But as more cities followed suit, and as the Council continued to withdraw support, the danger became more pronounced. Eventually, it became too much and several cities banded together and bartered with the savages to allow them safe passage into the greater nation of Cest-Weldersheen in exchange for immunity.

This act of treachery brought the Council’s attention back with a vengeance, and at once we of the Republic found ourselves fighting a war on two fronts.

The false moniker of the “Mage Wars” was purely propaganda by the north. The Republic consisted of mostly agricultural communities, and had none of the industry of the greater nation. Thus, our greatest weapons were those of magic, to combat the fierce beast-like forces of the Patchwork Folk, and the powerful war machines of Cest-Weldersheen. Magic became the curse to pin the blame on, and the Republican mages became the cursed.

When the Patchwork Folk were finally driven from our shores, and the Republic was crushed, many of the Council of Governors–including Mayor Joel Downing–had argued for mass executions of the soldiers of the Republican Guard.

I fought on the side of the Republic throughout the war, at first out of solidarity for their plight, and later out of necessity, for I would be hunted by both sides if I left. But I could not make myself as hard as was required to fight my own people, and in the final months of the war, I ran. I left behind both the Republic and Cest-Weldersheen, and made my way to the fireswamps of the southeast, there to hide among the flames that fit the intensity of the crimes I had committed.

Kristopher found me there, and without him, I truly believe I would have died. He rekindled my desire to live and to atone for my sins. He led me to safety, beginning the long and seemingly impossible process of healing my broken psyche.

Thus, in the final months of the war, I became an agent of the Royal Army, feeding them what information I could in order to end the war as quickly as possible, to reduce the number of men and women who had to die.

Even so, I would likely have been executed with the rest, if not for the newly elected Minister of Internal Affairs, an inexperienced but passionate woman named Martha Chorice, who had the courage and charisma to argue for a general amnesty for those who would accept it, and imprisonment rather than death for those who would not.

As I said before, nearly all of us in the Peace Workers owe Martha Chorice our lives.

“I am honored to be known to you,” I said, and it was the absolute truth. I freely admit I don’t hold much respect for authority, but Martha Chorice is one whom I would do anything for. “Though,” I added. “You’ll have to thank Kristopher as well if you thank me; without him I would never have made it back.”

The minister nodded and glanced at the salamander, who was orbiting in lazy circles above Serah’s head. Martha opened her mouth, but rather than speaking, she whistled a tune in a crude imitation of Kristopher’s song.

Kristopher wobbled and nearly fell out of the air.

(Who is this woman?) he demanded, just then taking notice of her. Of course, to him, a government official is no more interesting or meaningful than a statue.

Chorice blushed slightly. “Did I say it wrong?” she asked me. I was staring open-mouthed at her, never having heard salamander song from a human throat before. Even I can’t duplicate it, though I’ve never been praised for my singing voice.

(She said nothing,) Kristopher said, flying in agitated arcs back and forth, causing Serah to glance up nervously, and crouch ever so slightly. She has good reason: when Kristopher is excited, he tends to forget which things are flammable, and has been known to singe hairs.

(But it was a greeting, nonetheless,) he conceded, settling back into an orderly circle, though moving more rapidly than before. (She both said hello and expressed gratitude.)

I frowned up at him. “I thought she said nothing?”

“Oh dear,” Martha said, covering her mouth with both hands. “I did do it wrong. It has been so long.”

(To me, she spoke a greeting,) Kristopher said. (To other salamanders, she has said nothing). Which, after I thought about it for a moment, made sense. As I’ve said, I don’t actually hear Kristopher in words, but in ideas. Martha had simply expressed an idea, but so crudely that no salamander could tell what she meant. But Kristopher, who has spent the last two years constantly surrounded by humans, could understand her gist, as I understood his.

I relayed his message as best I could, and Chorice laughed delightedly, like a young girl.

“I have heard so much of you, and your friend,” she said. “But not of how you met. Most of what I know is from after the war. Please, I would like to understand you, one of the few who not only switched sides, but did so out of conscience rather than fear. You may not be aware, but because of your actions, the war may have ended as many as two or three months earlier than otherwise.”

This last I hadn’t known, and I found I didn’t know how to respond. Emotions welled up in me: the old shame and grief, but colored now by a silver outline of relief and pride. Pride that, despite all I had done, I had in the end made a difference. I blinked furiously as my eyes watered, blurring the room.

Serah must have seen some of this on my face, and she tightened her fingers around my arm and leaned in just a little. I took a deep breath, and nodded.

Martha listened in silence as I told my tale, speaking slowly and carefully, omitting enough to progress the tale quickly, but making sure to include the important details. Serah already knew my past, but it was still gratifying that, rather than pulling away when I described my time in the Republican Guard, she pressed in closer, a silent comfort.

“I don’t like what you did, or who you once were,” she had said to me when I first told her the story. I had been full of fear back then, that she would leave me once she knew the truth. “But I know who you are now, who you have become, and I do very much approve of that man. I…think I might even love him.” It had been the first time she had said that to me, blushing and looking down at her overalls, and this memory helped me make it through my tale this second time.

Martha nodded once I came to the end, her face grave. “Thank you, Victor. I have watched the Peace Workers closely since I first established them two years ago. There have been many problems, many backslides, and at times I began to lose faith that it would work. It is those like you who give me the strength to believe I have made, and continue to make, the correct choice.”

She smiled suddenly, and like the sun, it chased the shadows from her face. “Enough now of the distant past. Neither of us are great fans of Mayor Joel Downing, but what a shame it would be to waste such a party, would it not? You are young, and you have a beautiful woman on your arm, Victor. One who is very patient to have sat through all this. Go, dance! I would like to opportunity to speak with Hattie Morrison, and I’m sure you have no desire to listen to more dreary talk.”

That wasn’t strictly true, but I was experienced enough to know when I was dismissed. It took me a moment to shake the shadows of the past from my head, but the bright colors of the dancers, the gentle music of the golem quintet, and Serah’s dazzling smile were quite enough.

“Well, then,” I said, turning to Serah as Martha began to pull Hattie away. I took my Serah’s gloved hands in mine. “May I have this dance, fair lady?”

Serah laughed, her blue eyes sparkling in the bright lights of the ballroom. “Of course, good sir,” her grin was addicting, and I felt my own lips lift upward as Serah pulled me quickly toward the now-crowded dance floor, Kristopher streaking above our heads like a shooting star.

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