in which a summit is held in an uncomely place
(featuring one costume change)
Keshena had got the measure of the city from the gates. The cold was sharp, a slap in the face that drove thoughts out of her head, and she welcomed it. She welcomed the assiduous indifference of its people – they asked her few questions, and she answered fewer. She welcomed the stark quarters issued her by the Kumani when she arrived, although it made changing problematic. She’d have to look into renting a room in the Basilica. For the moment, the other novices kept their eyes down, and so did she. They weren’t much to look at anyway – the uniform went deeper than livery, as if the grey in their tunics stained their skin and shrunk them, transforming even the women into the same lean, ashen young men.
Without thinking much about it, she adjusted her schedule to leave her alone in the barracks when she was coming and going. The parts of her that wanted company were still in hiding, and for now she was more than satisfied with the attention of the guild’s sour-faced head of novices.
She knew Lin was coming into the library before she arrived, before the girl’s good eye swept over her and away without recognition. The eye noted Keshena’s nailed boots planted on the table, a victory that had driven the librarian deeper into the stacks in frustration when Keshena had merrily refused to be moved. Al-Akir slipped on past without comment.
Tipping her chair back on two legs, the apprentice eyed the Speaker upside-down, half an amused grin on the intact side of her face. When Lin turned from the shelves, it was to an unsettling mouth full of pointed teeth, filed into a bear-trap smile. Too surprised not to stare, she broke stride for a moment. Then Keshena thrust a hand backwards at her. “Nice to see you again.”
“I’m… sorry, have we met?”
The firm grip that seized Lin’s unoffered hand was inescapably familiar, though the red curls and scarred, youthful face on the other end of it were not. “Keshena Den Roth, at your service.” The voice was rough, almost masculine.
The confused child of rage crawled across Lin’s face. “Wh-what… what in the Hall?” She snatched her hand free and dropped it to her belt.
Keshena was up before her chair legs hit the floor. “What’s the problem, miss?” Her hand turned, offered its palm in wary peace as Lin’s dirk approached it. “Gonna shed guild blood in the library?”
“Is this some kind of joke? Why did you pretend to be an old lady?”
Pocketing her hands for safekeeping, Den Roth grinned again. “Did I? Or did an old lady pretend to be me? Or is someone pretending to be both of us?” Her eyes twinkling merrily, she leaned forward to give Lin the kind of confidential wink that begged a stabbing. “I’ll tell you this much for free, though: I really am a hundred and ninety.”
Lin tossed her hair impatiently. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but I’ve been swinging this damn blade at mirrors for the past hour and I’m very much ready to cut a real person, or whatever you end up being.”
“That’s what apprentices are for, aye?” Keshena spread her hands. “But let’s take it outside. I’ve already ruined the librarian’s day.”
Lin spun her dirk back into its sheath, and by the time it bit home there, her face too was sheathed in cool professionalism. “I am being inhospitable. Yes, outside.” When she passed without a glance back, Keshena was too amused not to follow.
The novicehead had shed her silks for slacks sometime in the day since they’d met, and a good thing – the path down through the terraced farmlands was a mire of icy mud. Among the broken hills they came to a place where the spires were almost out of sight, a pit thick with mist and little else. Glancing around, Keshena barked a short laugh. “Well, don’t you just know all the good spots to dispose of bodies.”
Lin turned, fumbling a flask out of her jacket. When she spun the top off, it breathed steam, clouding the black glass surface of her left eye. The other scrutinized Keshena suspiciously, and the expression looked quite at home there.
“Not killing you, friend. Talking to you. I like it here.”
Keshena snorted and reached out for the flask. “So talk. I don’t have any secrets.” Her opaque smile lied.
“Mmhm.” Though Lin gestured with the flask, she kept a firm grip on it. “Keshena is your real name?”
“Sure is. You might hear me referred to differently from time to time, but when I was born, they called me Keshena.” Another slipshod grin. “I’m pretty sure.”
Unable to keep the shadow of a child’s disappointment from her voice, Lin asked, “Are you really from Blackwall?” She looked so dreadfully young, sometimes.
For a long moment Keshena didn’t answer, looking at her interrogator across four feet of cold mud. Both faces hovering in unsteady air were used softly by time, if cruelly by fortune. Keshena saw her own sharp smile turned into a leer by the ugly scar that tore up her left cheek, all in miniature, an oilslick shadow on the surface of black glass – at this range she could examine the peculiar prosthesis in detail. It looked like a marble, perfectly smooth, not quite opaque but depthless, had been inserted behind Lin’s lid where perhaps once an eyeball had lived. Or perhaps the gods had touched her, turned her eye to stone. Stranger things happened in the Reach.
Lin’s face around the false eye was twisted by the curved surface of her flask, the dark, squinting little face of a desert imp. In unison both women tilted their heads, a habitual gesture that cast a sheaf of fringe – red curls, black silk – over the damaged half of each face. Keshena grinned again, real warmth fighting the sneer and winning by a hair.
“Yeah. I am.”
“So then… what ARE you?”
Laughing, Keshena thumped her chest with a small fist. “Human. I bleed when you stick me, aye? I’m an apprentice with the Kumani Defenders as of last afternoon. I don’t think I’ve ever been to the Reach before, but like I said, I don’t remember my first century all that well.”
Lin’s frown had softened a little. “I want to be able to trust you.”
Keshena’s fear had gone, what little had trespassed. She had been ducking her death a long time, and now she was certain that whatever else Lin might be concealing, all of the blades were on the outside. “You’re Kumani, I’m Kumani. From what I understand, distrust is kind of how we get along, right?”
Keshena regarded her with a raised eyebrow.
Gesturing emphatically with the flask once more, Lin took a step forward. “Not anymore,” she said, “We’re professionals, not mercenaries. We’re Defenders. We are goddamned Knights, Keshena.”
Keshena took the flask from her with a careful hand. “Knights,” she said, keeping her interest and skepticism both pitched low.
“I don’t blame you for the impression. I mean, a few of us are old – a very few older than you, if what you say is true.” Lin began to pace, circumnavigating the worst of the mud. “The old guard is slow to change, and they were given appalling license not so long ago. The Kumani have always run Lion’s Reach, sometimes openly, more often not. That’s not going to change. But the city could change, could grow, if we didn’t have to spend so much time policing our own. I… I don’t mean to rant at you; it’s just that this is so rarely expressed. If we can’t trust our family, who can we trust?” She glanced up, smiling faintly. “You can’t live like that.”
“You can’t live like that,” Den Roth echoed, squinting into the flask, then sniffing at it.
“I don’t need anything from you that will make you vulnerable, Keshena.” Lin ran her fingers up into her hair, exhaling slowly. “I just don’t want to see you become another problem. There are plenty – too many who are past their trials and ought to know better – who take our training as tacit permission to act like thugs.”
The stuff in the flask was bitter and hot enough to burn. Keshena rubbed her numb tongue against the roof of her mouth a moment as she thought. As if on its own initiative, one hand crept up her face, plucking at her temple where the deep gash began. Her fingernails seemed about to cut into her flesh, and then the scar peeled away to leave a paler streak across her skin that ended in an unharmed mouth. She held out the remains to Lin. Between her fingers was a little shred of painted cloth and the wooden bit that had held her lips in their perpetual sneer.
“All right,” she said quietly. “I’ll try to be someone you can trust.”
The apartment was cheap, and cold enough to frost under the door. Keshena ducked her head to miss a hanging line of clothes, then pushed through two more before she stopped shivering. From here the door was out of sight. The bare stone floor, covered everywhere else in piles of clothes and ephemera, in this back corner was exposed to the wan sunlight that seeped through the slit window. On her right, a softer pile still held the imprint of her body. On her left stood the only thing of real worth she owned: a triptych mirror large enough to reflect every inch of her as she began to shed her clothes, and then her skin.
The woman who had entered the room was six feet of grim, scarred mercenary. Keshena Den Roth – the name on the rental agreement – dressed in black leather and linen, and the man who had watched her skeptically as she moved in crate after crate of mismatched clothing had thought her a woman not worth questioning, so long as her money stayed good. He hadn’t been watching when she came home this afternoon, or he would have noticed the absence of the ugly scar that had cut her left cheek from temple to lip. It was in her pocket; Lin had been interested, but hadn’t touched it.
She stepped out of her boots, down from six inches of cleverly concealed built-up heel, and kicked them aside. The armor went with more care onto a shelf, and then the under-armor. She glanced up, but her eyes avoided the mirror as she ran her hands into her red hair. Sighing, she closed her fingers, as if to tear at the curls, and gently tugged the wig free. It went on a bare wooden head on the half-buried mantel, next to a hirsute row of others.
The woman who stood before the mirror was not much over five feet, and slighter by far than the burly mercenary, but she didn’t scrutinize herself. She kept her eyes down as she poured water from a pitcher into a basin, as she shivered through a cursory scrub with a cloth that brought away more cosmetics than dirt, as she peeled away scar after scar. They lined up on a tray, little shreds of cloth and putty. And then, without once meeting the eyes of the woman she’d revealed, she opened a box of paints and began to bury her again.