featuring several sparring matches
and one costume change
It wasn’t unusual for Keshena not to see Lin for several days running, and she had been kept busy enough not to notice when a few days became a week. There was at least one other in the guild older than Keshena herself. The man who taught her to wield and conceal a dirk was called Ishin, and loose talk at the bars gave him twenty years on her one-hundred-ninety. He didn’t look it, but then, neither did she. Most ancients did not. The gods Called some men and women back from the Halls for their own reasons, some of which were served by letting them grow old, but Keshena had known a few who remained youthful well into their third century. Ishin looked as if he had been Called in his sixties or seventies, and hadn’t been allowed to accrue much in the way of wrinkles since.
He was still fast enough to pin her to the wall by the shred of her sleeve, though, and the last two hours of sparring were slowing her down. It had been a long time since she had exerted herself this way. Inwardly mourning the sewing ahead of her, Keshena tore herself free.
“Too slow. Do you want more scars, girl?”
“Yes,” she answered, readying her blades.
“You and Lin are a pair, aint’cha.” He scoffed and pushed past her to retrieve his dirk and the square inch of her sleeve it had captured. “Plannin’ to lose an eye next?”
“Did you take her eye, then?”
Ishin gestured with his blade. “If I’d a use for her eyes, I’d’ve taken both. She came that way. Actually…” The shining edge danced dangerously close to his own eye as he scratched at his beard. “First she came here, she kept it shut all the time. The stone in there came few months later. Gift from her husband, I hear.”
“What a fine man,” Keshena drawled. “And I’m not trying to become Lin. Why should I?”
“Y’could do worse. They say she’ll be Champion next ‘f she doesn’ screw it up.”
“I don’t want to be Champion. I’d have to supervise you, for a start. Why aren’t you Champion; people say you’ve been in the guild since before most of us were born.”
Ishin nudged her back into place with an elbow and faced her. He was grinning, raddled cheeks seamed with humor. “Champion’s like Lin’s eye. ‘F I wanted it, I’d have it.” Then he dipped his shoulder and aimed the dirk at her side. Keshena twisted away, bringing up her own blade, which slipped on his bracer and nearly took off one of her fingers. He slapped her hand, sending the dirk into the dirt at her feet. When she bent and reached for it, a heavy fist struck the top of her spine and laid her out.
“Thought you were a soldier! Don’ show me your neck, girl, or I’ll take away yer neck privileges!” His boot came down on her fingers, covering the hilt of her weapon, and she froze.
“Y’know why Lin lost that eye?” His tone was conversational. She gritted her teeth on an answer far too flippant to address to someone with a knife, and he continued. “Now, I don’ know the man who took it from her, so I’m just goin’ off of what I’ve seen in the years she’s been with us. An’ what I’ve seen is, Lin lets what she wants blind her t’what’s separating her from it. It’s why she’ll be Champion, like as not – seein’ the destination and damn the cost is the kind of thing people like in a leader. But you’ll find the cost always gets paid one way or another. It’s easy to see that from where I’m sittin’ now – not so easy from the top.”
Keshena curled her lip, and her fingers, slowly. “What else do you see from where you’re sitting?” she muttered, and got her knees under her.
“I see a hired sword who wants to be a spy, and I’m gonna be honest with you – I don’t see it happenin’.”
“See this?” Keshena growled, and grabbed the back of his knee with her free hand. It bent and brought them both forward, her shoulder crashing into his crotch as she rose and wrenched her weapon out from under his boot. He went down, and down came the blade after him, sinking into the earth a half-inch from his leather codpiece.
Sprawled in the yard, the old man clapped his hands to his belly and laughed at the cavern ceiling. The laugh turned into a coughing fit, and he seized her wrist to pull himself upright again. “Now that was good, girl. You’d be surprised how many people y’can get to talk while they fight. ‘S usually a mistake. Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open, you’ll be a Kumani yet.”
“Keep my mouth shut, hm?” Keshena squinted at him.
“Now’s an excellent time to start. On that subject. Pick up yer damn weapons and come into the Retreat, I want t’explain somethin’ to you.”
The Retreat was a gazebo between the mushroom garden and the sparring ground. In the eternal cool stasis of the Complex, there was no real need for walls, but the Retreat was wrapped round in tapestries older than Ishin, keeping in the heat of the brazier at its heart. Cushions and chairs were scattered around, and the place had a feeling of peace, some subtle change in the air that made itself felt like the skin of a bubble in the uncovered doorway. Fresh from the fight, Keshena immediately began to sweat, and Ishin to strip off his dusty gloves.
He glanced over his shoulder to see that she had followed, and gestured her toward the brazier. “Y’ever come in here?”
“Not till now.”
“Well, yer welcome to. Place is yours. An’ I mean yours especially – you novices. They put it up so there’d be a warm place to gather down here.”
Keshena nodded. “It’s… nice,” she said, nonplussed.
The old man rolled his eyes. “Nice, she says. Like I brought her here t’comment on the upholstery.” He slapped his gloves down on a table and offered his callused palms to the brazier. “It’s more’n nice, girl. It’s safe. So – if you’re up in the Basilica, how safe are you?”
Rubbing her arms, Keshena frowned. “Relatively, I suppose. The Kumani are around. No one’s going to knife people in corners, unless it’s us.”
“Fair. Same down here, then? Safe as houses?”
“Safe from everybody but you.” Keshena grinned.
He aimed a finger at her face. “That’s my point. The Kumani can always find you, an’ we’re always watchin’ you, make no mistake about that. But we’re not the only ones.” The finger tilted till it pointed at the arched ceiling. “Put it this way. When you speak in the Retreat, nobody can hear you who isn’t right here with you. You understand?”
Den Roth gave him a wince. “Not… really?”
“Faugh. Never mind. Just remember, if you need to talk quiet with someone, do it here. Time might come when you’ll be glad that the only person spyin’ on you is me.”
“Who else would bother?”
“Lin, for a start, if she weren’ poorly. Know she’s been keepin’ an eye on you more’n she needs to.”
“How is she poorly? What happened to her?”
“Got in a fight with a wolf, what I hear.”
Keshena’s face showed more than she intended. Ishin leered. “Gonna rush off an’ take care of yer girlfriend? Go on, then. Said all I’ve got to say. Tell her she’s got one more day bein’ lazy before I come and tan the side of her the wolf didn’ get.”
She felt that popping sensation in her ears again as she exited the Retreat, but she barely noticed it. Ishin had inspired a peculiar paranoia with his vague drivel about being overheard; she found herself glancing around as she climbed out of the Complex to her little room. At least in this space, ten feet by ten, she knew she was alone.
Changing took a little longer than she expected. She had never put on this face before. Still blinking away the slight fuzziness from the dye in her right eye, she followed half-remembered directions through the fields to an outlying arm of the city, up against the external walls. There she found an estate, and a cluster of trees sheltering a veranda.
“Knock knock?” she called.
The Reach had never been known for its flora. At midsummer, for a few precious weeks, hardy little thorns became hardy little flowers, then were torn apart by the teeth of oncoming winter. The sheltering limbs above her head were evergreen and gnarled. This was no lush, gentle hideaway, but rather a brawny stand of ancients with their backs to the wind, forming a rough thicket. Keshena ducked a prickly limb. She was growing too used to being taller than this.
“Keshena?” repeated the weak voice from the shade of the porch.
“It’s me,” she answered, climbing the stairs. “I’m wondering again about the many desolate, secluded places you choose to meet me in.” Carefully she pitched her voice to match the one addressing her. “Although you don’t sound as if I need fear any sudden, athletic attempts at -”
There was a rustle and a groan as Lin got to her feet, leaning out to meet Keshena at the top of the steps. It was Lin’s turn to freeze, confronted at kissing range by what appeared to her bewildered eye as her own face. Keshena looked up, a little, and saw her reflection in the black gem. Lin looked down, a little. The blackness of the eye opposite hers was flat, giving back nothing. It was the only imperfection.
It was far from the first time Keshena had come face-to-face with a face she was wearing. She was prepared for a range of responses – confusion always came first; she was talented enough to provoke that. After the first unsteady moment, there was no reaction Lin could display that would not reveal her to Keshena. It wasn’t always possible or even wise to prove a face this way, but there was little better for the performance. And judging by her limp and her posture, Lin was in no shape to make Keshena regret the decision.
“W-what… Keshena?” Lin’s brows drew together with sudden fury. A rush of delight filled Keshena as she tracked the shifting expression. Anger was common, and she had anticipated just this flavor of it. Lin was young, Lin was hot-headed, Lin was thoughtless. Fear made her angry, and both made her impulsive… but there was no danger here. Neither the strength to fight nor the confidence to punish appeared in Lin’s black eye. There was only imperious rage, as tattered and transient as a summer storm.
“What are you playing at? What is this?” She seized Keshena’s arm – her fingers seemed to disappear into skin their exact shade – and shook the woman hard. Hair like black silk fell into both faces. One Lin scowled, confused and afraid. The other laughed.
“What do you think? Close enough?” Keshena pulled free, gently. The grip on her arm was weak, and she did not need to show dominance now. She could see fascination warring with the first, defensive rejection in Lin’s eyes. Now was a time for seduction, for openness – to a degree. Keshena stepped back, spread her arms and presented herself.
Turning in place, she kept her eyes on Lin’s face, drinking each moment, each minute movement. The black eye measured her – hadn’t she been taller, when they stood outside the city? Yes, Lin. Hadn’t she been stockier? Yes. And the eyes – how had she made her eye look like that, as empty and solid as a gem? Keshena felt another bubble of glee rising inside. She lived for this moment, but it was so fragile. If she could help Lin see…
“This has gone far enough, Keshena. Explain yourself. You can’t go around just – just impersonating your superiors!”
“Well, apparently I can, and well enough by the look on your face.” She watched the anger peak. Lin wanted now to act, or to relent. Give her something to hold on to, Keshena thought. Give her a way out. She let her face soften, loosened the rigid expression that underpinned the illusion. She felt her mouth twist in a habitual smile. It was one she thought of as “Madame’s smile,” because it formed an essential point of structure for that ancient face. And there it was – a dimming of fear in Lin’s eyes, the familiar sight forming a structure of another kind, a bridge. The rage ran out of the Speaker’s body, and with it her temporary strength. Lin gripped the railing, pain making her light-headed.
“Lin? Ishin said you were -”
She sagged back onto the bench, rolling half onto her side. The furs she wore parted to reveal a woolen skirt, and under that, foot after foot of linen bandage swaddling her hip and thigh. She grit her teeth as her reflection knelt at her feet.
“I had a little sparring match.”
“With a wolf?”
“Well, sort of. Has Ishin been talking?” She straightened up and swallowed a grunt of pain. “Never mind, Keshena. Explain to me why you look like that. Why you look like… me.”
Keshena felt a slackening of tension in herself, a relief so powerful she too needed to sit down. Lin would listen. There was room to breathe here. She rose and took the bench nearby, giving the Speaker space.
“Well… that’s a long story. And you owe me a revelation or two, I think. Trust me when I say that I don’t mean any harm by it.”
“I don’t quite trust you when you say that,” Lin said, looking sideways at her disturbing replica. “But I do owe you. Is that how this will go, then? You’ll trade your secrets for mine?”
“I suspect that I have more,” Keshena murmured. “But we’ll know if we can trust one another before that becomes a problem.” Again the look of two wary beasts meeting eyes, again the unspoken bargain. And again Keshena felt hope, and fear of her own. She had given mercy, given Lin a way out of her anger by loosening the disguise. In silence, she begged Lin to take it. I will tell you everything if you let me… but please do not make me.
Perhaps Lin heard the plea. It was hard to tell. Keshena knew faces, knew people in general down to the ground… but she did not know Lin, not yet. Not well enough to do better than beg, or to know the reason for the mercy when it came. But she felt the Speaker relent.
“All right. For now. Since you’re, ah… borrowing it, I imagine you’d like to know where this skin comes from.” Lin reached up and smudged at Keshena’s face with her thumb. The brown blurred a little, became a little paler at her touch, and the whole face seemed to warp.
Keshena jerked back, nearly toppling Lin to the ground again. “Don’t!” One small hand gripped Lin’s wrist hard as Keshena struggled to get a grip on herself. There was a yammering inside her, instinct and instability screaming in her head as she searched for the stillness she had found with Villi. She viciously strangled the fear, retreated from herself into Lin. She concentrated on mimicking the frown on the dark-skinned face. The minutiae of the expression consumed her, and the terror ebbed. After a long, staring moment, Keshena said with quiet fervor, “Don’t ever do that, Lin. Please.”
Rubbing her fingers together, Lin felt the soft grit of powder. She felt the knife that seemed to have leapt into her other hand, and quietly slid it back into the fold of her skirt that had concealed it as she freed her wrist from Keshena’s grip. “I… apologize.” A few more breaths passed, a few more moments of slow disarmament. Keshena lowered her head.
“But yes. I would like to know where you come from, Lin.”
Finding a reasonably comfortable position against the bench, Lin glanced through the trees before she began to speak. “My mother was a concubine in Akir. Logic would dictate that that makes me the daughter of the caliph there, but truth be told, I look nothing like him.”
“I’ve seen him,” Keshena offered. “You don’t have his bone structure.”
With a faint grin, Lin nodded. “Or personality. Or girth. No, I don’t know who my father was, but that long ago stopped being relevant, because I acquired a new one. You know Akir well?”
Keshena shook her head. “I was unconscious the last time I was there.”
Lin squinted at her, then shook her head and laughed. “I swear, you do this on purpose. For as cagey as you are, you want me to ask you questions, don’t you?”
Startled, Keshena considered it, watching the shape of Lin’s mouth in her amusement. “Yes,” she murmured at length. “Just… slowly.”
Another nod. The laughter on the dark face turned to a gentle frown. “A lot of people come to us fleeing something else,” Lin said slowly. “If you truly mean no harm, this city can be a sanctuary for you.”
Keshena took a long breath and let it out. “I know. I’ll work on it, I promise.”
“Then I’ll try to go slow.” Lin’s mouth twitched and she continued, “I used to go along with the caliph’s trading caravans, to help unload. We’d traded with this man, Smokestone, for decades, but I had never met him until I was eleven. I caught his eye, I suppose. He asked my price, and they gave him one.”
Lin laughed again and rolled her shoulder. Keshena picked up on her ease. “So did he… A man who buys a young girl like that usually means to use her.”
“Oh, no. I wasn’t really his type. Not to say that it wasn’t a little lively onboard, some days. But he taught me to use a knife, and most of the sailors left me alone. Smokestone taught me to read and do sums well enough to trade for him.” Lin smiled at the past. “I loved that. Being a little businesswoman. I worked for him for eight years.”
“And you’re how old now?”
Lin eyed Keshena, amused. “Twenty-two, thank you. Only about a tenth your age, right?”
Keshena waved the question away. “Don’t look at me like that, I didn’t ask to be stuck on this plane. So why did you leave? I’d have thought you’d want to take over captaining when he retired.”
“I would have liked to.” Lin’s smile sagged, tinged with regret, a bitter cordial in her throat.
After a long moment’s silence, Keshena ventured a guess. “They say your eye was damaged when you arrived.” Then, gently: “Did he do that to you?”
Lin nodded slowly. “Yes. But I earned it.” She frowned down at her hands. “He had this chest, a treasure he’d bought or found… I don’t know. It was the only thing on board I wasn’t allowed to look at. I wanted to.” She glanced up at Keshena, who saw the ravenous, treacherous curiosity in the lonely black eye. Keshena could feel it at once, knew the shape and taste of that greed all too well. Impulsively she reached out and touched Lin’s wrist with light fingers. It drew the Speaker’s eye down again, and she continued.
“One day when we were in port, and he was out drinking, I went into his cabin. I opened the chest. It was all cloths, not folded, a mess in there, and something…” The train of thought faltered. “I don’t remember. I can’t have been there long, but it seemed like hours. I couldn’t move. Then I heard him coming back. When he saw me kneeling by the chest, he – “ Lin exhaled hard. “His face! He was so… afraid. He grabbed me, slammed the chest and me on top of it. He took his boot-knife…”
Lin swallowed, her face taut with fear. Her fingers flickered, and in the air between them Keshena saw a grim and mercurial face, dark-skinned, dark eyed. Between the mustache and the neat little beard his mouth was twisted with wrath, but his eyes were cold with terror. Then the knife swam into view, huge and bright and growing larger every second until it touched –
The illusion shredded itself to nothing as Lin shut her lids with a grimace. Keshena held her hand – when had that happened? – and waited. A few slow breaths brought the Speaker back to the present, and she relaxed.
“He put me ashore then and there. My face… I must have been a fright. I washed, but it rotted in there, whatever was left. By the time I got here I could barely think for the pain. I found a scientist, a numerologist from the Upper Spire. He cut it out and gave me this.” Lin’s hand gently broke from Keshena’s to gesture at the black gem in her eye socket, then returned with a grateful grip.
Keshena winced. “He probably saved your life. What could Smokestone have wanted to keep secret so badly?”
“I don’t know. But he didn’t want to hurt me, I could see it in his face. He thought he had to.” Lin shook her head. “It was my fault.”
It was hard to argue with this logic, but the fatalistic tone in the voice of one so young made Keshena frown. They both looked at their twined fingers, so perfectly alike, for some time.