Posts tagged ‘Joel Downing’

October 28, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter X

by Mallard

I dropped to a crouch and spun, staring wildly for the shooter. Another shot sounded, echoing and pounding my eardrums. Amos grunted and fell, his leg blossoming red, landing with arms splayed across the hatch. Eager hands from below reached in and pulled him out of way of further harm, but Downing and I were too far to follow.

Pirates dropped into the tank, no longer masked, wielding pistols that roared out warning shots. I gripped my own small gun in bloodless fingers, but I knew it was a futile gesture; I would never get a shot off. One of the pirates covered us as the others descended the ladder or leapt into the tank, landing with echoing thumps. The last to enter stood and grinned easily at me.

“Victor,” he said, his voice roughened from years of smoke. He grinned through a shadow of dark stubble, that roguish grin I knew quite well.

“Ed,” I replied, my voice short, my muscles tight with fear and anger.

“You seem to be doing better,” he said, his grin belying the pistol he held leveled at my stomach. The last time we had spoken, I had been a wreck. Drunk and broken, I had confessed my reservations about the war, my inability to go on with the tasks assigned to me, spying and fighting and harming those who deserved none of it. He had nodded, in a friendly, fatherly way throughout my rambling and disjointed confession, and then he had arrested me on grounds of treason. I had been fortunate enough to escape, and I ran. Unable to face my colleagues or my enemies, I had run and hidden myself in some of the most hostile wildlands in the country.

“You seem the same,” I said truthfully. “Still on the wrong side, fighting for the wrong reasons, blind to the realities of the modern world. Just what was your plan here?”

He grinned, my words washing off him like oil on water. “Why,” he said. “We desired merely to gently convince these men and women of our peaceful intentions, and let them return to their homes.” He threw a congenial smile at Downing. “The uncomfortable lodgings were merely a by-product of the lack of vacancy in this joint.”

I grimaced. Characteristic of Ed, the same nonsense and deceit that had grown to define him in the later years of the war. He would never tell us his plans, not when he felt he had the upper hand. Though, a cursed hand it was. He had lost nearly all his prisoners, and he was surely aware of the ships surrounding us, that escape was ultimately impossible.

But of course, he still had Downing and I. Bargaining chips, small though our value might be. The water in the bottom of the tank had risen to my ankles as air bubbled out the bullet holes, and I saw Joel stamping his feet unconsciously. I shivered, my limbs leaden as my wet clothes and the icy tank partnered to leech the heat from my body. No doubt Downing was worse off, having spent the night in that icy chamber.

“Now,” Ed said, as if reading my mind. “We can either stand here all day and freeze to death, or you can climb up this ladder, let us give you some warm clothes and food, and become our hostages. Don’t worry, we’ll trade you back when your army backs off.” He shrugged. “See, I know when I’ve lost, Victor. I just aim to keep my men out of prison now. So what do you say? Warm clothes, hot soup, and no one gets hurt?”

I didn’t need Kristopher to know Ed was lying, would always lie. We would never leave the rig alive. And for me, that was a risk of the job, but Downing was a civilian. A civilian I might personally dislike, but one who nevertheless deserved none of this.

I watched as Ed and his men stepped aside, forming a short aisle for us to wade to the ladder, and as they splashed through the deepening water, a desperate idea took form in my head.

I stepped forward, between the pirates and Downing, shivering violently with every movement. I took one step, then another, and suddenly the cold was too much and I tripped over my own feet, flailing my arms and landing in the icy water with an enormous splash.

Or, at least, that was what I hoped they thought.

As I fell, I kicked out behind me, knocking Joel’s legs from beneath him. The spray from my own splash rose higher than it should have, enhanced by illusion to hide Downing’s fall. I kicked Downing again, pushing him in the direction of the hatch, then stood, shaking off the icy water both real and illusory.

And to the pirates–or so I prayed–nothing had changed. There I stood, dripping wet and shivering from a foolish fall. And there stood Joel Downing behind me, white with fear but dry…and completely unreal. The real Downing lay astonished beneath the water, now under a flickering illusion of murky water and metal tank, and I hoped he was alert enough to understand what I had done, would not give up the ruse by standing. I forced myself not to look behind me.

Ed frowned, and I shivered for good measure, only half acting. “Too gods d-damned c-cold,” I said, and trudged forward, deliberately off balance. Ed’s narrowed eyes tracked me, then his fist shot out and stars exploded behind my eyes.

“Hells!” I shouted, my surprise not faked, nearly falling into the water a second time.

Ed blinked in surprise. “So you are real.” He shrugged. “Never can be sure with bastards like you, Victor. All right then, up you go.” I nodded wearily, working my jaw against the pain, and began the climb up the ladder.

With my back turned, I couldn’t tell if he noticed the slight incongruity in the water, or if he had tested Joel in the same way, but a shout let me know he had seen through the illusion.

“Damnit!” roared Ed, all traces of false congeniality gone from his voice. I whirled in time to see him empty his pistol into the water near the hatch. I held my breath as I scanned the tank, but Downing was gone. I sighed. At least one of us was safe.

Ed turned to me, his face livid. “You think to make a fool of me,” he said. My illusion grinned at him, and continued climbing the ladder, while I sat still, looking for all the world as part of the ladder myself.

“You son of a bitch,” Ed began, just as my illusion leapt off the ladder at his head.

Gunshots rattled the air, filling the chamber with an explosion of sound and riddling the walls with holes that gushed water into the tank.

Unharmed, my illusion hit the water and ran toward one side, while in another direction, an invisible man splashed through water directly toward the hatch, the knee-high water displacing and flowing as if around legs that could not be seen.

Ed is intelligent. Extremely so. But his ego blinds him, his assurance of a thing obscuring him to its facts. I had repeatedly explained to him that I could not turn myself truly invisible, never mind the rumors that abound about illusionists. And every time, he would listen, would file the information away in his cavernous brain, and promptly forget it.

So when he saw a false me running one direction, and empty footsteps racing toward the only escape from the chamber, he saw what he wanted to see and gunned me down, emptying his pistol into nothing.

My illusion reached the far side of the chamber and vanished; the invisible legs ceased to be.

And a second later, Ed’s men turned away from the distraction to see their leader, apoplectic with rage, frozen beside a man holding a spy pistol of the Republic against his head.

“Stand down,” he hissed in livid tones, his eyes black pools of hatred.

* * * * * * * *

The standoff did not last long. The soldiers outside the tank had not been idle, moving into position once Downing had escaped and explained the situation. They had wanted to swarm in at once, but Hattie had taken over for the wounded Sergeant Amos, and ordered them to wait. As soon as I called an all clear, the tiny chamber was suddenly filled with soldiers, and the pirates surrendered without further fight.

We searched the rest of the rig, but all the pirates had apparently been in the tank with us, for the living quarters were empty. Completely empty. The chests of loot from the ball were nowhere to be found, and the pirates refused to talk. Exhausted as everyone was, no one cared enough to push. The stolen goods were either on the rig, in which case they’d be found when the dogs were brought aboard, or else they were long gone, and interrogating the pirates now would be of limited use. We had enough on our hands.

There wasn’t enough room on the submersible for the soldiers, the prisoners, and the so-called pirates. But their airship was refueled and ready to go, and with Gillespie at the helm and four more besides with rifles, the pirates were loaded aboard their own airship and set on the long flight back to Kestral.

And there, I was greeted with another surprise, as it was Serah who threw open the doors of the gondola, her dress torn and covered in oil, a grease-covered wrench in one hand and a disconnected relief valve in the other. While I stood in stunned silence and Ed glared on in hatred, Serah dropped her prize and threw her arms around me with a cry. After my moment of shock passed, I hugged her tightly back, and a great anxiety loosed itself from my mind.

“Thank Lady Autumn you’re safe,” I whispered as I held her close.

Her sabotage no longer necessary, it took her only minutes to re-install the valve, and shortly after, the black airship was off, escorted back to Kestral by two much larger army airships.

“How?” I finally asked when we had a moment alone. The submersible had surfaced, disgorging the prisoners and soldiers to warm themselves in the morning sun atop the rig and wait for the steamships to pick us up. Kristopher had darted out of the submersible the moment it opened, and he flew around us in joyful figure eights, though whether thrilled to be away from the water or because Serah was back, I wasn’t sure.

Serah shook her head, unharmed, but exhausted. We were sitting on the sun-baked tarmac atop the rig, she leaning into my still-damp embrace.

“They never found me. I think they believed someone had set the beacon, then left before they took off. When they realized they were being followed, one of them climbed up and saw the beacon was active again, and cut it off, but he didn’t actually search for me.” She shrugged. “I guess they never expected anyone would be crazy enough to hitch a ride outside an airship.”

I laughed wearily. “Normally, no one would.”

Serah glared at me in mock upset. “Are you calling me crazy, mister?”

I nodded. “Absolutely. Incontrovertibly.”

She snorted, then yawned. “Stowed away on a bloody pirate airship for you; how many women would go that far…” her grumbles trailed off into a sleepy mutter.

I smiled, and tightened my arm around her shoulder, never wanting to let her go again. And at the same time, knowing somehow that this would not be the last time she would be put in such danger because of me.

“What are you thinking?” she muttered.

(He is worried for you,) Kristopher whistled when I didn’t answer, knowing me too well.

Serah nodded sleepily. “Don’t worry, dear,” she said, resting her head against my chest, her breathing slowing. I smiled faintly.

(I like her,) Kristopher sang again, as he often has before. (She is full of fire. A pity she is not a salamander). That was new. I was too tired to pursue it though, and closed my eyes, at peace in the company of the two people closest to my heart.

* * * * * * * *

Hattie frowned at me over her desk, her arms crossed, her brow furrowed. I stood silently at attention, awaiting the dressing-down I knew I deserved.

Finally, she shook her head. “My superiors think I allow too much with you, Victor.” I said nothing, not sure where she was going. “I like you. You’re good at what we do, and you have a strong sense of justice, which is the whole reason the Peace Workers were created. In some ways, you exemplify why our organization exists.” Her frown deepened. “But you are still a soldier. Insubordination is not acceptable, no matter the circumstances. I can’t keep covering for you. I can’t keep making excuses. This is the last time, Victor. One more display like last night, no matter what, and you will be done. Am I clear?”

I nodded. “Yes, sir.” It was no more than I expected, no less than I deserved.

Hattie sighed and nodded. She was silent for a moment, then, “Good work, Victor. You probably saved Mayor Downing’s life, and he won’t soon forget that. Neither will I.” I blinked, surprised.

“It was my duty, sir.” And it had been. I did not have the most respect or liking for the man, but he was a civilian, and it was my duty to protect him. And, in the end, he was only human. He had admitted to making a mistake two years before, and that could go a long way toward mending my feelings toward him.

Hattie nodded. “I know. Dismissed, Haas.”

Serah waved at me when I reentered the lobby, and I smiled wearily in reply. We were both running low on sleep, and I wanted nothing more than to change out of that damned tuxedo and crawl between warm sheets.

A crash of wood and the shrill scream of a horse shattered the quiet.

“Oh, Winter blast it.” I muttered, somehow unsurprised. I pulled a resigned Serah toward the door as angry shouts rose from the outside.

“Are you blind or something!” a voice roared, and a shriller voice riposted in angry retort. I blinked in the early afternoon light, and scanned the square for the accident. It was smaller than it had sounded, two taxis having crashed into one another. One man lay on the ground clutching at his leg, though whether broken or just bruised I couldn’t tell.

I sighed, and began to cross the street, and nearly ran into the woman, standing in front of the entrance to the Peace Workers headquarters, as if waiting for someone. I pulled up in surprise, and Kristopher continued on toward the accident, drawn by the fallen man’s pain.

“Victor Haas?” the woman asked, and I blinked at her. She was tall, only a couple inches shorter than I, with black, almond-shaped eyes and dark, wavy hair that fell past her shoulders. Out of character on the streets, she wore a dress of crimson and sable, silver threads throughout sparkling in the sun that peeked between the clouds. A chain of silver filigree hung around her neck, dangling a tiny diamond ball that hung against cream-colored skin.

“Victor Haas?” she asked again when I didn’t respond. I glanced at the accident, but already there was a small crowd of helpers and onlookers, and they did not seem to need more assistance.

“Um, yes?” I said. I felt suddenly uncomfortable; this woman was clearly someone of wealth and perhaps influence, and I was still wearing that gods-damned tuxedo, rumpled and stained and ruined beyond retrieval. My shirt was untucked, my bow lost somewhere in the ocean, the shirt grayed from its pristine ivory white. One sleeve had lost a cuff link and hung open, listless.

The woman smiled, flashing pearl-white teeth behind dark red lips. “Mira Laski,” she said, and held out one hand, delicate fingers encased in crimson silk. I reached out to shake it, then started as Serah elbowed me in the ribs. I glanced at her, and she rolled her eyes, bringing the back of her hand to her lips.

“Oh, right,” I said aloud before I could catch myself, and bent over the woman’s hand, planting a chaste kiss on the back of her fingers.

“A pleasure to meet you at last,” she said. “I had heard so much about you from my close friends, I wanted to meet you in person before I left the city.”

I blinked. “You what?”

Mira covered her mouth and laughed, a quiet tinkle. “Oh, dear, I apologize. I should explain myself.” She lowered her hand. “I live in Mornova, and am visiting friends in Kestral. They told me such stories of your works in the army, I simply had to meet you. Martha Chorice especially had such high things to say.”

Aha, that explained it. A friend of Martha’s, perhaps visiting Kestral among the minister’s retinue. “Well, a pleasure to meet you,” I said.

She smiled and curtsied slightly. “The pleasure is mine.” She seemed to hesitate. “I…this may be improper of me, but I will be in town for a few days yet. If you have the time, I would love to talk with you at length, and hear all your tales first hand. I do so enjoy a good adventure story.” Her eyes sparkled with excitement. “Why, I heard that just recently you tangled with pirates! How exotic!”

I shrugged. “I would be happy to tell you some stories, though I warn you, they aren’t nearly as exciting as you have likely been led to believe.”

She shook her head, demurring. “Oh, don’t be modest. I am so excited. I will, of course, treat you dinner,” she added, then turned suddenly to address Serah. “That is, if you do not mind me stealing your gentleman for an evening?”

Serah laughed and shook her head. “Oh go on, I don’t mind a bit.” But she clung to my arm a little more tightly, as if afraid to let go.

Mira nodded, her delight plain in her sparkling eyes. “Would tomorrow evening be acceptable?” She looked down and took in Serah’s and my rumpled and torn clothes, and the way neither of us stood quite steady on our feet. “Or, perhaps, the following evening? It appears the two of you deserve some rest.”

I nodded in thanks. “The evening after next sounds great.” I felt Serah’s grip relax a little, and realized she had probably thought Mira meant to invite me to dinner that night; hers had not been a jealous grip, but a visceral reaction at the thought of being separated again so soon.

“Oh, wonderful,” Mira said, clapping her hands. She laughed and curtsied again. Her laugh turned into a sudden thoughtful frown. “I just remembered: I have been told you are always accompanied by a salamander of the southern fireswamps. Is it not with you now?”

I shook my head. “He got distracted by the accident,” I said pointing. “Would you like to meet him?”

Mira shook her head violently, her face pale. “No, no, oh no.” She took in my questioning glance and smiled weakly. “I am deathly afraid of fire. I am terribly sorry.”

I shook my head. “No, please, don’t be. I’ll just not bring him to dinner then, if he would distress you.”

Mira nodded thankfully. “Yes, that would be best. I am truly sorry.” As I shook my head in protest again, she glanced over her shoulder and I saw that the driver of a horse-drawn carriage across the street was waving for her attention. “I must be going now,” she said as she turned back. “I fear I am already late for another engagement. But I quite look forward to our dinner, Victor Haas! I am staying at The Parisian while I am in town. Please meet me there at six o’clock two evenings hence. Oh, I am excited!” She turned and darted across the square toward the waiting carriage, waved one last time, and vanished behind a velvet curtain.

I shared a bemused look with Serah. The Parisian? This Mira Laski was likely old money, then. A moment later, Kristopher drifted back across the square, the injured man having been removed to a safer location. I nodded at him, and then waved down a motorized taxi. It huffed to a stop before us and I helped Serah up before climbing in after.

As the carriage pulled away, I leaned back and draped an arm around Serah’s shoulders, looking forward to finally returning home. I couldn’t wait to alight at Annabella’s and take a much needed hot bath, eat a hearty meal, and fall into a deep sleep with Serah by my side.

But most of all, I could not wait to get out of that damnable tuxedo.

* * * * * * * *

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October 21, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter IX (3/3)

by Mallard

And slid smoothly beneath the surface, jarring but not crushing us as I had expected. But it was a short-lived relief that passed through me. The water that now surrounded us on all sides was far deeper and more menacing than any swimming pool, kept at bay only by the thin metal shell that had certainly fractured as we impacted. My eyes darted around the craft at the riveted seams, trying to spot leaks before they became too big, though there was nothing I could do. I breathed deep as the submersible sank, but the air refused to fill my lungs, and I drew harder, panting as my lungs fought to fill themselves with precious air that would bubble out and away from the craft any moment. My fingers clawed at the straps, so tight for security, but now a prison, and I could not undo the buckles with my trembling fingers–

I became aware of a gentle keening, like a street performer repeating a simple tune on a penny whistle, and my eyes slowly settled from their frantic search on the glowing orange spark that was my closest companion.

(If I am here, you are hardly in danger), Kristopher whistled gently, continuing to sing his calming tune, filling the small space. I felt a rush of relief from the men on either side of me, and realized I had not been the only one made fearful by the sudden plummet into the ocean. I ignored all else and focused on the salamander, a creature of pure fire, surrounded by cold, implacable water.

A tiny leak in the craft would be enough to take him out, end him as thoroughly as a bullet to my head would me. If he trusted this contraption, well, I could hardly do less.

At last, my mind settled, I made myself look away from Kristopher and examine the craft with a critical eye. It was designed for stealth, and had no noisy steam engine to send rumbles far out through the water, nor to spew clouds of escaped steam to bubble up to the surface. Instead, it worked on a tightly-wound clockwork system, which gave it limited range but produced next to no noise. Ballast pulled us down against the buoyancy of the air trapped inside, until the pilot of the craft released a set of levers and the craft slowed to a gentle halt. Another control, and and the strained springs began to release energy into the propeller behind the submersible, pushing us slowly toward the oil rig, dimly visible in the silt-clouded waters. It was about the size of a two-story building, most of its bulk under the surface, built awkwardly of poorly-welded I-beams, hollow sealed pipes for ballast, and a general lack of attention to reasonable principles of engineering. The lower half of the rig was all trusses and lattice work to support the drill, which was currently retracted and unmoving. Propellers spaced around the rig hooked up to inefficient engines, which rumbled and poured steam into the water, so that parts of the rig seemed to be leaking air at an alarming rate.

Of course, parts of it were leaking air, as I remembered all too well, but numerous bilge pumps kept that from becoming too much of a problem.

Above the drill sat four bulbous fuel tanks to store the oil, and the way the rig listed toward one corner told that one was more full than the others. Above the tanks sat a narrow and cramped living quarters for those who lived and worked on the rig back when it was the height of technological advancement and not a sad relic of a bygone era. Modern rigs could store this entire machine in a single tank and have ample room to spare. This was a rig designed to service a small town or naval base, and never meant to withstand the stresses that had been inflicted on it, its tired engines forced to drag it hundreds of miles up the coast where it currently sat, motoring still north at a snail’s pace.

Amos and Hattie were peering at the rig intently, and I realized they knew nothing about it. While they were trying to fathom the intent of the oddly-shaped pipes and broken latticework around the drill, I already had a good idea of where the prisoners might be. Unless the pirates had sacrificed some of the their very limited living quarters–and I had knew firsthand just how cramped they were–the prisoners would have been shuffled off to the only other open space on the rig: an empty fuel tank. Drained of oil, as they all surely were, it was waterproof and would provide ample, if not comfortable, lodging for the prisoners while they decided what to do with them.

Even I couldn’t know what that would be. Hattie had suggested public executions, but I knew these men and women. Though all had killed in the line of duty, they were not heartless murderers. They had proven to have some small scruples at the ball, the leader preventing his man from raping that poor woman.

But they had also shot Hattie without hesitation.

“What do you think, Kristopher?” I muttered.

(I do not like this,) he said.

“Me, neither,” I replied. “What do you think their plans were?”

(…Did you forget again that I cannot know all your thoughts?) His song sounded somewhat amused.

I blinked, and snorted. Of course. Kristopher can read my moods very well, and usually knows when I’ve fallen into depression or pointless self-recrimination. But he can’t actually read my thoughts any more than the men I sat next to. He had been referring to the immediate situation, as usual, discussing his dislike of the submersible and the enormous amounts of water too close for comfort. Not seeing time the same way humans do, he was always less interested in the past and future, unless I specifically asked him.

Before I could rephrase my question, Sergeant Amos was speaking, having finished his assessment of the rig. “The prisoners must be kept up top, in the living areas,” he offered. I looked at him with some surprise. Unless he was familiar with its construction, he had parsed the rig awfully quickly, understanding intuitively how it was arranged. Never mind that he was incorrect.

Before I knew what I was doing, I spoke. “I think it’s actually more likely that they’ll be kept in that tank,” I said. “There’s not enough room in the living areas to house that many prisoners without stacking them on top of each other.”

Sergeant and Sergeant Major turned to look at me, and I realized I had made a mistake. Though, my mistake had been in keeping quiet in the first place, not speaking up as soon as my information would have been useful.

“Er, can we understand that I am an idiot, and skip the recriminations for now, please? I know this rig. I…I know these people.” That hurt more than I had expected. Everyone was now looking at me, ignoring the approaching rig. I took a deep breath. “I lived on this rig, or one very like it, for over three weeks. It is small and cramped, and most of the living quarters is open common space. The bunk rooms are separated by doors that do not lock, so there is no good place to stash the prisoners. But by the list of the rig, you can tell that one of the tanks is more full than the others. I suspect they are keeping the prisoners there.”

Hattie glared at me, but Sergeant Amos simply nodded, taking the new information in stride, leaving reprimands to my superior. “Is there a way into the tanks from outside?”

I closed my eyes, trying to remember the layout of the rig. There were service hatches that led from the living areas to the tanks, but that wouldn’t be helpful. There were the pipes from the drill to the tanks, but those were sealed and at any rate, too narrow for a person to travel along. I started to shake my head, then stopped as a dim memory surfaced. “There is a port beneath the water for a ship to come alongside and transfer the oil from the rig to the tanker. It’s not airlocked, but it’s wide enough for a person to squeeze through, and is designed to be opened from the outside.”

Sergeant Amos raised his eyebrows in surprise, clearly not having expected this bit of good news. “Can you direct us?” I nodded and squeezed forward past a glowering Hattie to point the pilot to the underside of the tank where the hatch, currently invisible, would await us.

Getting inside would likely prove difficult, but the army had not come unprepared. The pilot brought the submersible skillfully up beneath the tank, maneuvering between the latticework around the drill, coming to a rest several feet below the port. From there, things moved very quickly. A hatch in the floor of the submersible was opened, and Kristopher darted to the ceiling in fear, but the air pressure in the sub kept the water at bay so long as the sub remained level. From there, one of the army personnel went outside–just dropped in as if going for a quick swim, and reappeared overhead to work the mechanism around the hatch in the tank. It was on the bottom of the tank so that the oil would, by dint of gravity, pool in one place for the tanker to pump it from the tank. This had a double benefit of allowing us to leave the hatch open once we got inside, not having to worry about air escaping to be replaced with cold water.

The mechanism stuck and another man had to go relieve the first when he ran out of air, but slowly it began to move, and then Amos and Hattie were ushering us quietly out and up, never mind that none of us were wearing proper underwater clothing. The men carried rifles in oiled waterproof bags, and someone handed me one, not knowing that I had never been a good shot with a rifle. I pulled the rifle out and dropped my pistol in, and followed them out before Hattie could glare at me. I wasn’t sure if she was glaring because I had taken a weapon despite her fears of how I might react to the pirates; or simply because, with her injured arm, she would be more of a liability than a help in this next part of the operation, and had no choice but to remain in the sub to help the prisoners out of the cold water.

I focused on this thought, on the memory of her anger as I swam the few strokes to the tank, looking only ahead at the man in front of me and firmly disallowing my mind to note that I was dozens of feet below the water, wearing clothes that hindered my movements, and relying for survival solely on the air burning to escape my lungs. My eyes burned from the salt, my clothes and the icy water made my limbs clumsy and leaden, and if I so much as hiccuped, I would be lost.

It was not a moment too soon that my head broke the surface inside the tank and found myself surrounded by people.

Due to the tank’s curvature, the prisoners could only put so much distance between themselves and the portal, but the half a dozen or so haggard individuals within had positioned themselves as far from the hatch as they could, unsure who or what was coming up. Too late, I counted us fortunate that not a one of them had tried to play hero and given the whole thing away by beating on a member of the army trying to rescue them from this improvised prison.

I shivered as I pulled myself up, the water around the tank leeching any warmth from the air. I looked around at the seven faces around us, some with the blank looks of the defeated, others perking up at the spark of hope our appearance had engendered.

Sergeant Amos, who had been first in the room, was quick to silence the prisoners, speaking in hushed whispers and replacing speech with gestures as much as possible. I expected some resistance to the notion that we wanted them to descend into the dark water, without knowing what awaited them. But perhaps they were of the mindset that anything was better than this slow, cold death, and there was little hesitation as, one by one, the government officials held their noses and jumped or crawled out to where the sub waited.

I recognized Chorice and Downing, of course, still dressed in their finery, though stripped of jewels and gold, their clothing as rumpled as my own. They looked relatively fresh, having spent only an evening in the chamber, but others had fared less well. There was Theobald Jacks, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Commander in Chief of the Royal Army; a man whom I had never met but whose face I had much opportunity to learn while in prison, awaiting the final decision on the amnesty. I could not imagine how they could have captured him, but then, I would have thought the same of Martha Chorice. Normally, the ministers in the Council of Governors were under heavy guard, but it seemed such guard could lapse or be rotted from within, less robust than had been believed for so long.

Of the remaining four, I could place only Shorea Quill, who held no government position, but owned a number of news agencies, and whose artwork and pamphlets had formed much of the propaganda that saturated the north during the war, poisoning their minds against the Republic and its magic. Never mind that mages in the north had levied devastating attacks against us as well, raining fire from the skies, turning our weapons to rust, leeching the oxygen out of the air around an army, confusing their minds to cause them to turn against one another. This last utilized the most insidious magic of all, that of mentalism. Little good comes from studying mentalism, and I have never met a practitioner I did not disdain.

The theme of the prisoners was obvious enough: all those who had had significant effects on the soldiers of the Republic, either during or after the war. The propaganda that had turned the north against us; the man who had argued for the death of all rebels; the commander who had led the northern armies against us; and the woman who had made a mockery of everything the Republic stood for.

Distracted as I was, only three remained before I realized that none among them was Serah. A coldness gripped my gut. There could be only one explanation for why she would not be among the prisoners. Having no political influence, no importance, she would have been deemed useless, and been cast aside.

I found I was breathing heavily, panting, and Kristopher was not around to snap me out of it. There had to be another explanation. They couldn’t have killed her. Right? I had been so sure only minutes before that they were not murderers. But where, then, was she?

Scarlet colored my vision as my breathing doubled. She had to be here. If they had killed her, I would tear the rig down around them, rip the thing to pieces and destroy anyone who got in my way. Before I knew what I was doing, I had taken a step toward the ladder that led up to the maintenance hatch.

A hand on my shoulder stopped me, and I whirled to find Amos behind me, his face a curious mix of furious and confused.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed at me.

“Serah,” I panted, not caring that he didn’t know who she was. “She’s not here. She should be here.”

He blinked, but he is a smart man, and though he may not have known exactly what I meant, he understood. “Calm down,” he said. “She could be anywhere. Maybe in a different room, or maybe–”

“What if they killed her?” I hissed back, still mindful of the need to keep quiet. “What then?”

Amos’s eyes narrowed, his grip on my shoulder painful. “Then she’s dead,” he said flatly. “And you’ll do none of these living people any good if you storm up there alone and get yourself shot. I sympathize, but now is not the time to lose your head.”

“But–”

“While Sergeant Major Morrison is aboard the sub, you are under my command,” he said. “Either follow my orders, or get the hell out of this rig.”

My fist clenched. “I–” I took a deep breath. My vision wasn’t clear, my mind not thinking straight. I tasted bile. I swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

“She wasn’t brought in with us,” a voice whispered, and I turned to see Martha Chorice standing beside me. I blinked, and a weight lifted just a tiny bit. I stared at her imploringly, and she nodded. “I never saw Serah, during the flight or after.”

It didn’t mean anything, of course, but…

Joel Downing was next in line, but he hesitated, then waved Chorice ahead. A gentleman to the last. Martha’s eyes stayed on mine as she lifted her dress and slid into the water, and I let out a breath when she had gone. Joel Downing was the last in line, and I gestured him to move, my thoughts elsewhere, my motions listless. Where could she be, then?

Downing jerked back as a shot rang out, the sound deafening in the enclosed space, and suddenly water was welling into the prison through a tiny hole halfway up the side of the tank.

* * * * * * * *

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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–”

“Victor!”

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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July 25, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter II

by Mallard

I stared, and Serah laughed and flushed red. Which only made me stare harder. Serah does not blush. Or perhaps I just never notice it, as her face is ruddy from sunlight and welding, and always covered in a thin layer of grease. Seeing her freshly bathed, with her hair brushed out and flowing down her back, dressed in a midnight blue gown I had never seen before, well, it was like seeing another woman entirely.

“Are you quite finished?” she asked after I had remained silent for some time, frozen outside her door. Her face was a delicate pink up to the tips of her ears.

I coughed and blinked. “Right. Yes.”

She laughed again, a little uncomfortably. “Why, I ought to be upset, Victor. It’s almost as if you don’t normally think of me as a woman.”

“Oh that’s too much!” I sputtered, the moment of surprise broken, but she snickered and stepped forward to hook her arm through mine.

“It’s only fair,” she murmured. “You surprised me, too.”

Which was reasonable. After all, I rather surprised myself.

The suit I wore was a dark charcoal, with a lighter gray waistcoat over a pearl white shirt, finished off with a black satin bow. My hands felt strange in pristine white gloves, doubly so when I laid them on Serah’s, clad in thinner gloves of powder blue. It was strange to find two layers where normally there were none.

I couldn’t really take credit for the suit, though, and said as much. It had been Kristopher who had found the shop, tucked away in some corner where no one could find it. The tailor had been almost embarrassingly glad to see a customer, and had brought out his best work for me, performing in one evening what would have taken a busier or more popular shop several days at the least.

I hadn’t worn a tuxedo in years. Not since my college days, in fact. I just never had the opportunity. During the war, it was the uniform, unless I was traveling incognito–a euphemism we used for spying. And afterward . . . Many of the places I go just don’t lend themselves well to a suit. Imagine me, walking through Kestral’s sewer system in a silk tailcoat and a top hat. It doesn’t work, does it?

The coachman waited silently through our exchange, though the midnight steed in front stamped and puffed in impatience to get moving. It had been raining off and on most of the week, but the puddles around Serah’s warehouse had mostly dried, and we didn’t have to worry about her gown dragging in the mud. I helped her into the carriage and stepped in after, sitting on the opposite bench to face her. The coachman whipped the reins and his horse started into motion, jolting the carriage forward before settling into an even pace that sent us rumbling across the cobblestones.

Dark had fallen by now, and the lamplighters had been about their business so that shadows alternated with glowing orange from without the dark coach. An uneven emerald teardrop hung on a silver chain from Serah’s neck, and the gem caught and played with each bit of passing firelight. She saw the direction of my eye, and smiled fondly.

“It was a gift from my father,” she said. “One of the miners gave him the stone as a thank-you gift last year. It was still rough, so he polished it into this shape, set it on a chain, and gave it to me on my birthday.” She reached up and rubbed the stone fondly with her thumb and forefinger, and I couldn’t help but smile. It fit my memory of the old man perfectly. He had grown up poor, and though he now ran a profitable business repairing mining equipment on-site, he had never grown out of his old habits. Why buy a fancy necklace when he could make something unique and meaningful by hand, paying nothing but his own time? He had a creative and active mind, and it was he who had taught Serah all she knew about machines, instilling in his daughter his own deep love for them.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, and Serah glowed at me.

 * * * * * * * *

Hattie stood by the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest, tapping her foot impatiently as the carriage slowed to a stop in front of the mayoral mansion. She didn’t look happy, but then, she rarely does.

“Specialist,” came her curt greeting, which startled me almost as much as her manner of dress. Her lack of a dress, rather. Despite the evening’s purpose, Hattie Morrison looked every inch the sergeant major, from the tips of her highly polished leather boots, to her brown hair done up in a tight bun that allowed no single strands free will. Medals glittered across her chest, commemorating a dozen recognitions. I hadn’t known she was so decorated, and frankly it surprised me a little. The most I’ve ever seen Hattie do is sit behind her desk and give me orders. The military saber at her waist was the closest I had seen her to a weapon. But she wore it well, as if used to the weight, and that disturbed me more than it should have.

I suppose I knew Hattie had been an active soldier. She hadn’t gotten to be head of the Peace Workers without being someone of note in the army. I had just never thought about it. She had very possibly fought against some of my comrades in battle, and I had no doubt that she had tousled with the Patchwork Folk at least once. Anyone in a uniform during that war, whether of the Republican Guard, or one of the Royal Army’s many divisions–such as the Kestral Armed Forces–had fought against the Patchwork Folk.

“Why are you late?” Hattie asked after I had helped Serah out of the carriage. My superior’s eyes roved over my suit and her mouth turned down in a frown. “And why are you not in uniform?”

I blinked. “It’s a ball, Hattie,” I said. “You don’t wear a uniform to a ball.” I paused. “Well, you do, I guess, but–”

“It’s ‘sir,'” she barked. “Show some respect, Haas.”

I frowned, and felt Serah tense beside me. “What’s going on, Hattie?” I asked slowly. “Have I done something to upset you?”

Her frown remained in place for several seconds, then she sighed and glanced skyward. “I apologize, Victor. I’m a little nervous tonight.”

I didn’t laugh. I truly didn’t. But it was a close call. Hattie Morrison, nervous? Of a fancy ball, of all things? Don’t get me wrong; I was nervous too. But that was largely because I haven’t been to such an event in years, and because I had this beautiful creature on my arm who claimed to be the same Serah Villifree I had led around a machine shop just the other day, but who couldn’t possibly. After all, I’m supposed to feel comfortable around Serah.

Hattie glanced at me sharply. “Is something funny, Victor?” At least she was back to calling me by my first name.

I shook my head quickly. “No, sir.”

“Good.” She paused and fixed me with a stern gaze. “And inside, for the sake of appearances, you should continue to call me sir. Or at least don’t act so damned familiar.”

“Me, familiar with my superior? Never.” I kept my voice as deadpan as possible, but still earned a glare from Hattie.

“Better not be,” Serah muttered by my side, and I blinked in surprise. I’ve never heard Serah express any hint of jealousy or annoyance at my interactions with other women. It was as if the gown, in addition to changing her appearance, was also changing her attitudes. If she started simpering, I would probably have to leave.

Hattie nodded once, turned sharply, and stalked inside, her heavy combat boots striking a loud beat upon the tiled entry hall. A butler in a finer suit than mine greeted us at the door and directed us down a short hallway. It was lit brightly with ornate gas lamps, and richly carpeted in some thick red fabric that I imagined would feel amazing were I barefoot. Several doors led off the hallway, all closed, brass handles shining in the gaslight.

The hall ended in a cross hall, but another butler stood there to direct us past a darkened staircase, around another corner, and through an opened set of teakwood doors, carved into abstract patterns of swoops and swirls. Through the doors, and suddenly we were standing at the top of a short entry staircase to the ballroom, and everything else paled to insignificance.

The ballroom must have taken up most of the rear of the enormous mansion. The ceiling soared to the skies, and I could have thrown a rock and still not hit the far windows. The walls were carved much as the doors had been, some depicting scenes from myth or history, others merely space-filling trifles. Filigreed glass doors lined the far wall, leading out into the garden, lit by further lamps outside. Music filled the air, and I looked to one side to find a string quintet of golems playing on a low stage, mechanical fingers dancing delicately across strings and keys, small puffs of steam escaping in time to the music. I glanced at Serah, certain her eyes would be upon the musicians, but she as staring at the floor with an expression akin to panic. I looked quickly to see the cause of her alarm.

Large as the room was, it seemed almost too small, crowded to the walls with elegantly clad figures. Various shades of gray and black intermingled with brilliant colors and patterns. Gowns sparkled in the bright yellow ambient light, some long with flowing trains, others slim and short. Lace and ribbons, silk bows and feathers adorned every woman in the room, accenting jeweled tiaras and exotic precious stones hanging from chains of gold and silver.

I felt Serah step back in astonishment at the sheer display of wealth and extravagance, and her gloved hand rose to finger her own single emerald. Next to many of the women in the crowd, her dark blue gown looked plain and poor, her necklace cheaply made, and I could well imagine what she was thinking. I said before that Serah does not care about appearances. But it seemed the gown had worked its wiles on her once more.

“How . . . excessive,” she whispered, but I could see her face fall ever so slightly.

I forced myself to laugh heartily, and Serah turned a stricken eye to me. “Absolutely,” I agreed boldly. “Extravagant, excessive . . . and unnecessary. If you had dressed like that, why, I wouldn’t be able to find you amid the perfumes and lace. Besides, you don’t have to worry. I’m the one who will have to deal with every man’s jealousy when he turns his head our way and spies the midnight-clad beauty on my arm.”

Serah rolled her eyes, but she smiled and tightened her grip on my arm, and her eyes lost their frightened cast. Behind us, I heard a gagging sound.

“I thought we were being professional tonight, sir,” I said without turning.

“Yes, well, it’s hard to be professional when you’re pouring sap down my throat, Haas. Now move your bulk out of the doorway; you’re not the only ones trying to get in.”

Serah and I stepped forward and descended the short flight of steps to the dance floor proper. No one was dancing just yet, as the ball had not officially begun. Many were simply milling around, or standing in clusters of friends and acquaintances. I recognized several members of the army, though none were Peace Workers and only a handful bothered with the full uniform like Hattie. There were also several members of the Mayor’s cabinet, though I didn’t know their names, and many of the most influential or wealthy merchants in the city. It wasn’t the sort of crowd I tend to associate with socially, but I could still recognize many of them by sight. The Peace Workers interact with all manner of people, from the beggars on the street to the wealthiest men and women, and I’d spoken with more than a few of the guests at one point or another.

Several of these glanced my way and waved or nodded, but most didn’t acknowledge me. Which suited me fine. Though, there were a few who I would have preferred to leave me in peace.

“Oh dear, surely it isn’t Victor Haas? Please, assure me you are not here to protect the mayor’s home and assets. I fear none of us will survive the evening if that is the case.”

I rolled my eyes and turned. “Evening, Jedediah.”

The dean of KAMA smirked and stuck out a hand, which I took with some trepidation. “And you must be Ms. Villifree,” he said, turning to Serah and holding out his hand once more. She reached for it, but he twisted her wrist deftly and brought the back of her glove to his lips. “A pleasure to meet you,” he murmured. “Your beauty rivals that of the Lady Autumn herself.” The dean is likely old enough to be my grand-sire, but he’s still a charmer.

Serah flushed and I quickly stepped in. “Jedediah, have you met Hattie Morrison? Head of the Peace Workers division of the army.” I gestured and Hattie stepped forward, though she shot an irritated glance my way.

Jedediah nodded and reached for her hand, repeating his previous routine. “A pleasure, Ms. Morrison. I’ve heard quite a lot of your work, and you have my utmost admiration.” He glanced at me and frowned. “Though your boy here causes me no end of headaches.”

“Jedediah Millston,” Hattie said, nodding in recognition. She paused, then her mouth curved up in the tiniest of smiles. “Believe me, your headaches are nothing next to mine.” The two shared a loud laugh at this, and even Serah sniggered quietly in a very unladylike fashion. I rolled my eyes again.

“Truly good to meet you, but I am probably keeping you from the mayor,” Millston continued, to which Hattie nodded. “Then I will bid you a good evening.” He turned and looked me up and down once, then nodded. “It’s good to see you doing better, Victor,” he said, before turning and meandering off. The last time the dean had spoken with me, I had been nearly passed out, covered in soot and smoke, chafed by manacles, and worn out emotionally and physically from having narrowly escaped death in the basements beneath his school. It was nice to know that the old bastard cared, in his own gruff way.

The mayor and his wife were not hard to find, surrounded as they were by a knot of well-wishers and friends, both political and social. His wife hung on his arm, practically glowing with pride and pleasure. Her pregnancy barely showed, pushing out her belly only the slightest bit through the thin fabric of her gown, but it was enough. She stood half a head shorter than her husband, who was on a level with me: a tall thin man dressed in a white suit, with his black hair slicked back behind his head. He was in his middle forties, but could have passed for someone quite a bit younger. His wife was at least a decade his junior, but she held herself regally beside him, her hair flowing in waves down to her waist. One hand rested on her husband’s arm, the other on the tiny bulge in her belly.

Hattie didn’t bother to stand in line to congratulate the mayor, but stepped confidently to the front. The party-goers separated before her, unsettled by her manner and appearance, and Serah and I stepped easily into the gap behind.

“Ms. Hattie Morrison!” the thin man said in a delighted voice, always deeper than I expect from his thin frame. “A pleasant surprise!”

I found that hard to believe, but said nothing. The mayor bent his tall frame over Hattie’s hand and kissed it delicately, as he had no doubt done a hundred times already during the evening. He straightened up and pulled his wife a step forward. “I believe you’ve met my wife before. Rachel, you remember Ms. Morrison, I trust?” The tall woman smiled and greeted Hattie warmly.

“A pleasure, as always,” she said in a soft voice. “I have heard much of your activities from my husband. You are quite the inspiration to the women of this city.”

Hattie smiled thinly. “It pleases me to hear you say that.” She turned back to the mayor and motioned me forward with one hand. “Mayor Downing, I would like to introduce you to Victor Haas. A reformed member of the Republican Guard, as are many Peace Workers, and one of our top agents. He was very recently involved in foiling a plot to destroy our great center of learning in Kestral, as you may recall.” Mayor Downing smiled and nodded, and I stifled a snort. It had not been a Peace Worker mission–as I had been reminded when I had submitted a reimbursement request–but I was not surprised to see Hattie take credit all the same.

I stepped forward, unsure whether I should bow or shake the mayor’s hand. I didn’t particularly want to do either, but he made the choice for me, sticking out his hand and grasping mine with a surprisingly firm grip. He shook my hand vigorously for several seconds, and I withdrew the instant he let me. I wanted to rub my palm on my pants to clean it, but admonished myself not to be so petty. “Victor Haas,” Mayor Downing said. “I have indeed heard much of you, especially after this incident at the university. And this must be the infamous Kristopher the salamander.” At this last, he reached tentatively for Kristopher, but the salamander darted out of the way.

(You do not like this man,) Kristopher observed. I smiled. “He says it is a pleasure to meet you, sir,” I said.

The mayor laughed. “I am glad to hear it. And please, don’t bother with ‘sirs’ and ‘madams’ this evening, Victor. Call me Joel. And please, allow me to introduce you to my wife, Rachel.”

I had nothing against Mrs. Rachel Downing, and my smile was honest as I greeted her and congratulated her on the pregnancy. She took the compliment with the tired smile of one who has heard the same thing a hundred times already, and not for the last time, either.

The mayor opened his mouth to say something further, but nothing came out. His eyes focused on something in the distance over my shoulder and they lost some of their sparkle. “Oh dear,” he sighed, and motioned to the crowd to make way. I turned, unable to help myself, though it was probably poor etiquette. At first I saw nothing out of the ordinary, and was about to turn back when the woman stepped into view, and I wondered how I had not seen her before.

She was dressed as extravagantly as the richest of the women in the room, but it was coordinated well, and suited her perfectly. The lace about her neck was complimentary rather than gaudy, and the pearls of her necklace were of a pleasant sheen and tasteful size.

She was shorter than I by a good foot, but she held her head high, curly blond hair framing a face full of good humor and relentless determination. It was a face I knew very well. All the Peace Workers did. Without it, most of us would not still be alive.

I smiled warmly, as the mayor recovered his own mask.

The woman stepped forward and nodded at him, and though her lips were turned up in a smile, her eyes were cold. “Mayor Downing. A pleasure to see you again.”

“Likewise,” the mayor said, his expression no more genuine than hers. “It is always a pleasant surprise when Mrs. Martha Chorice, the Minister of Internal Affairs, graces my home with her presence.”

* * * * * * * *
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