Maple and Rook

The woman’s face is white, white and silent.  Lips, shuttered eyes, and brows – three delicate, rising and falling lines, frozen in an attitude of petulance.

“You should not be surprised when you are never visited again by any of my House, considering the shocking way you have treated me.  My father will be the first to hear of it, nor will it stop there! I will personally ensure that the Ladies’ Club of the Second Spire never again graces the dingy carpet of your disgusting facility with their bootprints!  I will – ”

She goes on in this way for some time, growing more shrill with each breath.  The two men on the business end of her tirade are looking increasingly uncomfortable, as if they are only now realizing they have a tiger by the tail.  They make several attempts to break in, but she fluidly arches her tone and raises her brows another inch.

By the time her ire has reached their children, and their children’s children, they are no longer even pretending to attend the specific nature of their doom.  They are glancing at one another and the door, contemplating whether actual suicide is preferable to the political variety. To lock this woman up would clearly be the kind of sin that would resonate in the empty halls of this resort for generations… but to set her free will certainly cost them both their jobs, if only to satiate the young woman’s taste for menial blood.  Damnation? Or the sword?

Eventually they obey the most immediate pressure and let her go.  At no point in the minutes upon minutes she has been ranting did the woman’s face pinken or crease.  At no point did she display a single expression that was not perfect. Her expression now, as she marches down the hall ahead of her would-be interrogators, is triumphant.  The low light shines off the teeth on her back, the wings across her shoulders – her embroidered kimono laughs at the two men in her wake, laughs with a dragon’s voice.

They do not follow her all the way out to the lobby.  She clearly knows her way, and they have an appointment to make – their formal execution for this decision.  They look rather pale themselves, as they climb the stairs, one last act of penance on their way to their supervisor’s office.

She stalks a perfect line in the carpet, her platform heels flashing with fiber-optic.  She enters the elevator – no penance for this one – and stands in the center as if given a mark to hit.  The doors close before she reaches out to touch her desired floor. When she does, it is not “L” for lobby, but “B2,” for “MGMT Only: Vault.”  The screen requests a thumbprint, and she provides one, from a finger tipped with matte black polymer. Even that finger is exquisitely manicured, of course.

The woman regards herself in the gleaming mirror of the elevator’s door.  Examine her too. Go ahead. I will permit it this once.

You see her eyes first, not because they are beautiful – though they are – and not because they are large, and green, and surrounded by stark lines – though of course they are – but because her stare is magnetic and irresistible.  This is a queen in the body of a child barely out of her teens. She awaits her kingdom with serenity and certainty.

Her hair is black, sculpted into a sharp-edged edifice above her head.  There is an arsenal in that updo, though it could pass through a metal detector and an x-ray without ruining the evening.  It is also perfectly in the style of the moment in every detail for a woman this age, in this year, in this city.

She is tall, statuesque, perhaps eight feet from heels to hair.  Her arms and legs are too long – this too, is bleeding-edge a la mode – and when she exits the elevator on floor B2, sinking into the grey carpet does not ease her need to bend almost double out of the doors.  Though the resort is well-equipped to handle most fashion trends – as it must, or perish – this affectation is only about a week old, and the management areas will be the last to be renovated, if they ever are.

She has to bow her head as she walks down the hall, though she would do that anyway.  Her hands are folded peacefully before her, and to an undiscerning eye, her kimono matches perfectly the white and grey retinue of the maids in the hotel upstairs.  The resemblance was interpreted as the cleverest, most vicious joke at the party upstairs. This woman is known for her clever, vicious jokes, of which her walk down this corridor is the best of the night.  Like all her best jokes, I will be the only one to hear it.

The vault is sealed with two doors, both locked with biometric recognition scanners.  In this age of body modification, biometric scanners like it and the one in the elevator are rapidly being upgraded to genetic readers, although Slipsoul technology will put those out of use too before long.  Later tonight, the Spire of the Yellow King will discover that their vault has been looted, and next week, that scanner will be replaced. This woman occasionally jokes that she is a freelance security auditor, helping corporations improve their systems.  “And then I extract the fee that I feel is fair,” she says. “All without ever bothering them to shake my hand. They should be thanking me.”

They do not thank her, at least not directly.  This is the fourth robbery of a high-fashion destination in as many weeks – or will be, in about two hours – and the city is talking about little else.  She likes to hear herself talked about. She listens to her friends wonder about the identity of the thief, and smiles. The best current information suggests that the thief is a derelict-turned-proletarian hero, attempting to strike at the bourgeoisie by bankrupting the places where they mass and breed.  This is her favorite of the stories going around. It makes her feel powerful.

She reaches the end of the hallway and applies her polymer finger to another scanner.  This gets her into the anteroom of the first vault door, where she turns to find, in addition to the facial scanner, an honest-to-goodness human guard.  This was not in the security brief she skimmed before leaving home tonight. It’s still not – I’m looking at it right now, and there’s no internal indication that they’ve changed the staffing procedures in this area.  Must be a new, gung-ho manager hoping to catch the People’s Bandit.

The guard is awake, for a wonder, and armed.  He seems about as surprised to see the woman as she is to see him, but she is better at hiding it.  He opens his mouth to demand her identification, and then he chokes as a bolus of gleaming ichor lands on his tongue.  She recoils against the door behind her, eyes rising to the ceiling, where something soft and wet has begun to seep through the tiles and drip onto the man below.  By the time she looks at the guard’s appalled face again, his eyes are running with greenish slime. He gurgles around the mass in his airway, and slumps to the floor, pouring the same slime from every visible orifice.

She stares in frozen silence as the ichor pools around her feet.  She knows that there is no exit behind her – the plan dictates that she go on, deeper into the vault, to find the shaft that will eventually return her to civilized society.  This is not in the plan.

The slime laps at the sides of her platform sandals, then climbs them to crawl across her toes.  She wiggles, and suddenly her imperious stoicism breaks. Her cry fills the cell.

“We don’t have time for this!  Do you know WHY we don’t have time for this?  Because you’re late.”

The slime climbs her body, twining around her ankles and up her legs, and she gasps and wrenches away.  “We definitely don’t have time for THAT. Please? Maple, can we go? Don’t do this…”

Her resistance wavers.  The slime touches her thighs, spreads like wet webbing across the lace of her garter, and finds bare skin.  She exhales and closes her eyes briefly, lingering a moment longer.

Then the pool of green retracts its pseudopodia with a SCHLUP!  The bits of it still on the ceiling or taking up vital parts of the guard’s breathing apparatus rejoin the larger mass, which rises and fills out until it is a vaguely translucent humanoid figure standing before her.  It’s taller than her, and broader, and it picks up the woman and cradles her in its forming arms. As the apparition acquires lips, she kisses them. She tastes like wine and smoke. She tastes like mine.

“Hello, Rook,” I whisper against her mouth.  “Sorry I’m late.”

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