Kelly tumbled into the retreat and threw herself at Lin, who nearly collapsed into the settee behind her as she absorbed the momentum. In this face, Keshena had to look up to meet Lin’s eyes, but not by much. They were very nearly of a size. She squeezed the Speaker firmly and asked with a child’s candor, “Villi doesn’t think you’re very good at your job, does she?”
Lin laughed and sat down on the settee, crossing her legs. Kelly hopped up onto it herself, and mirrored the position as Lin talked.
“Villi doesn’t often think anyone is qualified, in fairness. But she’s not wrong – I’m pretty young for this position.”
“How did you get it?”
“That is both incredibly boring and not relevant to your examination.” Keshena could see that Lin, despite herself, was enjoying the slight increase in perceived authority that Kelly’s childish manner afforded her. Kelly folded her hands in her lap and sat up straighter, playing up the performance by instinct to please her audience.
“All right, I’m ready. I think.”
Lin nodded. “This examination isn’t the last you’ll take. Think of it as the initial barrier to entry among the Kumani, the one that keeps out traitors and fools.” She squinted at Kelly’s bland cheer. “Is there a reason you’ve chosen to keep up the costume-game for this?”
Keshena felt a species of pain at those words, but this time the filter of Kelly’s shameless self-absorption protected her from the worst of it. “What do you mean?”
Pinching the bridge of her nose, Lin sighed. “Never mind. We’ll do this quickly; I don’t want to fall victim of your sick sense of humor. Come on out to the yard; show me what Ishin’s taught you.”
The meticulous little ingenue stood in the black dust outside the retreat, her face not particularly flattered by the low, greenish lights that nurtured the mushroom garden. She held the whip she had been given in one hand, and the blade in the other, and looked profoundly incapable of being useful with either one. Lin, squaring off with similar weapons a few feet away, swallowed hard to keep from laughing.
“So ah… should I… defend myself?” Kelly asked, her voice trembling with meticulously pitched apprehension.
Lin’s shoulders shook, but she tightened her grip on the dirk and lunged at Kelly, who squeaked and jumped out of the way. Her arms locked at her sides, Kelly stood trembling, affording the Speaker a chance to spin on her heel and graze a shoulder with the short blade.
“Ow!” Kelly chirped, looking down at the thin line of blood on her sleeve. “Oh, my dress…”
“Gods, this is so embarrassing,” Lin muttered, gritting her teeth. The ingenue stood, rubbing at the bloodstained lace. The mingled exasperation and amusement in the Speaker’s face softened. “Oh, damn it. Did I get you good?”
“N-no! I’m fine!” Stammering all the while, Keshena turned the blade in her hand and twisted, bringing her arm around Lin and drawing the younger woman against her with savage strength. The cool edge kissed the soft hollow of the hip, and Lin hissed through her teeth in surprise.
“Y’know, this is really impressive, in its way,” she said conversationally, making no effort to break free of Keshena’s grip. “You look at me with this face and I’m surprised you remember how to breathe, but it is you, isn’t it? Not bad at all.” The tip of the blade bit her skin as Keshena’s hand trembled, and Lin shrugged out of the loosening hold. “Careful, now. No need for too much bloodshed among friends.”
“So you say,” Kelly murmured, with a cat’s grin.
“Did you meet Ishin like this?”
Keshena shook her head. “Not yet.”
With a chuckle, Lin stepped away and shook out the coiled whip in her left hand. “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. I think I’d prefer to watch, if you ever do. Did he train you with the whip at all?”
“Show me what you know.”
Keshena stepped back from herself, first in her head, and then on the stone. Her toe kicked up a puff of gritty dust, and she lifted it with an inward breath and a twitch of her fingers, blending it with an illusion that swallowed her into the cave’s deep dark. Lin grinned, her eyes wandering warily, as Keshena vanished.
The illusion drank the sound of her feet on the stone. Without knowing it she stepped out of her shoes. The yellow sundress Kelly had bought in Capria tangled with the gloom, stained into a sickly smear. She felt as if she were drifting on her own breath, drawn in and out by it, and with each exhale she fluttered closer to the waiting Speaker. The whip was real and concrete in her hand, the only thing that was truly here. I am the weapon’s wings, she thought. She stretched the leather between her hands, curled around her small fingers, and then flung herself out of the shade of her breath to wrap the whip around Lin’s throat, dragging her to the ground before her face went purple.
Lin looked up at Kelly’s face, and saw a horrible transformation. The ingenue’s teeth were bared, her eyes bulging with something akin to lust. Lin grabbed at the hands that held the whip, and felt the pulse fluttering there, ragged and rapid as her own while the breath burned in her lungs and she choked. Then Kelly’s lips curled further and she shuddered. The length of leather fell loose into the dust.
Lin doubled over, coughing. When at last she recovered, Keshena was standing above her, hands shaking now in a way that was not remotely pretty. Her face was blank, empty.
“Good enough,” the Speaker wheezed at last. “Bit over-zealous, maybe.” She shook her head, trying to forget the expression she had seen on that childish face.
“I’ve got to ask you a few questions before I pass you. Shall we go back inside? Maybe get some water…”
Keshena nodded. “Do you mind,” she whispered, in a voice quite unlike Kelly’s piping soprano, “If I go change before I follow you?”
Lin got to her feet and brushed herself off. “That sounds like a good idea. Meet me back here in ten minutes, then.”
The click of hobnail boots on stone announced Keshena’s return to the retreat. Lin smiled, relieved, at Den Roth’s cruel face.
“I was just speaking to your little sister, I think,” she quipped. “She was stabbed in a horrid accident. I’m glad you’re here to take her place!”
A grim glint in her eye, Den Roth offered a slipshod salute. “I hope you buried her deep. She needs to be put out of my misery.” The mercenary dragged a chair closer to the chaise Lin had taken, spun it on one leg, and dropped into it straddling the backrest.
“I’d like to ask you some questions about this process, but they can wait until we’ve finished the official interview. Are you ready?”
“At your service.”
Lin planted her elbows on her knees, while one hand twirled her dirk point-first into the cushion. “Tell me, in your own words, what you think is the most important quality for a Kumani Defender to have.”
“Loyalty.” The way Den Roth pronounced this word had none of Kelly’s scorn, and none of the clink of chains that seemed to accompany every utterance from the imp’s mouth. “To protect this city you have to stand apart from it, and against everything else. If the trust between us fails, nothing will be left. We have to be able to rely upon one another to be professional, reliable, and loyal.”
Lin smiled. “I’ve heard that before somewhere,” she teased.
Den Roth’s lopsided smile answered her. “I had a good teacher.”
“You have no idea how good it feels to hear someone thinking. I listen to sneering young men talk about their ‘subtlety’ all day. Them, I enjoy stabbing. All right. The Kumani are not murderers or assassins, but murder and assassination are tools we use. To kill on a whim draws unwanted attention. What actions would you say fall into the category of senseless killing?”
“Well, that’s an interesting thing.” Keshena folded her arms across the back of her chair, and settled her chin on them. “See, depending on the situation, any kind of killing could benefit our work. I might be in a bar drinking, and a fellow might bump me, and I might stab the bastard, and if that made me fit in around the bar, if that was normal there – and I’ve been in some bars, y’know, where blood’s more or less the cover charge – well then, that wouldn’t be senseless.”
Lin stifled a grin and nodded.
“You have to think about where you are. The most important thing is to be aware of who’s looking at you…” Keshena continued, meeting Lin’s eyes steadily. There was a tender warmth in her scrutiny. “…And what they expect to see. Whim doesn’t come into it. I might want to do all manner of things,” she reached out and brushed Lin’s hair back from her face, “But if that’s not what I’m there to do, I need to wait, to finish the play first. If I can’t do that, I’m just a thug.”
Lin exhaled slowly. “That was very well-worded.” She glanced at her hands, the idly spinning blade that had worked its tip into the weave of the cushion, and then looked away again from the unsubtle metaphor. “Tell me about our Father. Tell me why we chose Him.”
“We didn’t choose him, really, if what I hear is correct. He chose us to protect the Citadel. He gave us the gift of His magic, and helped to shape us in His image. What’s not to love?”
The look in Lin’s eyes was very similar to the one Den Roth wore, for a moment – it was hard to tell who was inspiring the skepticism they shared. “Good enough. Did you do the reading?”
Den Roth nodded. “There was one book that seemed mostly unrelated, though. Long nonsense about the original Blooded.”
“Tell me her name.”
“Artasz, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. And what was her role in the fall of the Lions?”
Keshena shifted her weight, on more comfortable ground with history than theology. “Artasz was trying to make herself and the rest of the Lions immortal – a life not measured by the gods, write your own destiny. She seized hundreds of children from the Reach, from the foothills, even some harpies and trolls. She didn’t find immortality, but she found a few families in the reach that carried blood magic, mortal power that didn’t depend on a god’s love.”
Lin nodded. “What happened then?”
“She started to experiment. They killed the rest of her captives trying to find ways to enhance the blood gift, but the only thing that seemed to strengthen it was keeping the bloodlines pure. So, gods help ‘em, they started marrying up siblings. When it was discovered what she’d done, the Lions threw Artasz and the first families out. They settled eventually in the mountains to the south, founded the Cauldron, and their descendants are still there. And THAT,” Keshena finished triumphantly, “Is why Nieran doesn’t allow Blooded among the Kumani.”
Lin nodded again, seeming somewhat bored by the question. “Well, aren’t we glad the history lesson is behind us? All right, last question. I saved this one because I knew your answer would be interesting. Ready?”
Keshena sat up straighter. “Shoot.”
“Nieran is the god of artifice – which, His priests often remind us, can be used to refer either to lies or to the creation of clever devices and art,” Lin said slowly. “With that in mind, tell me how artifice plays a role in your own life.”
Den Roth pondered for some time, her eyes following Lin’s brown fingers curling and uncurling around the hilt of her dirk. Finally she murmured, “I lie in every word. Every moment of every day. I take on the names others have given me because they protect me from my own.” She spoke slowly, as if discovering what she would say along with her listener. “If there is such a thing. Whoever was born in this body died a long time ago. I’ve been a hundred beautiful things since. I’ve come here to ask you to give me another role to play, another face to wear. I’ve come here to learn better ways to hide. If I can be useful to you, these people, this city, I’ll become whatever’s required and gladly. If you want my loyalty, you can have it. You can have everything I am.” Keshena spread her empty hands on her lap. “You’ll find there’s not much there.”
The complex despair in the older woman’s voice was beyond Lin’s ability to encompass. She reached out and touched Keshena’s cheek, felt the powder of cosmetics and the delicate bone structure beneath the illusion. “You’ll be safe here,” she whispered. “I swear it. I’ll make it so, Keshena.”
Something peeked out of Den Roth’s dark green eyes, like a hind in the undergrowth, the flash of something shy and untamed. She turned her cheek in to the touch, her breath warm on Lin’s wrist. Then the moment was broken. Den Roth grinned her sharp-edged grin and said, “Oh, I believe it. I’d wager between the two of us we could turn this place around. Make it goddamn livable.”
Lin drew her hand back, laughing with color rising in her cheeks. “I’ll take that bet. I don’t quite know how yet, but rebuilding the roster with quality people seems like a good place to start. And on that subject, that concludes the examination. It’s traditional and so are the books I gave you, so I apologize for that. I’m working to convince Hanna to let me change it.”
“I’ve sat through worse. Did I do all right?”
Lin smiled, running a hand through her hair. “Better than. Very comprehensive and thoughtful. And we seem to agree on what the guild should be about, which is more than I can say for a lot of the old-timers. I’m definitely hoping to make some changes around here. I think you can help me.”
Den Roth nodded. “I’m yours. Show me my mark and I’ll hit it. What kind of changes do you want to make?”
The Speaker stretched out her legs and spread her arms along the back of the chaise. “Well, it can’t have escaped your notice that we’re… what’s the nice way to put it. A godawful band of rejects?”
Keshena snorted. “I resemble that remark.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. You came here for a reason -” Lin aimed a brown finger at the mercenary. “Sanctuary. A place where you can place trust in someone. Feel at home in spite of everything. And you’re not the only one. Halls, just in the apprentice barracks we’ve got a former Knight who’s about half your age and thinks he’s the gods’ gift to… well, everything, a girl who might be part harpy whom we’re still figuring out how to talk to, and an overgrown lizard who’s a beast on the piano and keeps leaving fruit everywhere. And I don’t want to change that. I want to protect it.” Her face sobered. “Have you met our Champion?”
Keshena shook her head. “Not a bit. To be fair, I didn’t really expect to. Wouldn’t imagine the Champion of the Kumani would be easy to spot.”
A wry look from the Speaker. “If only she were hard to spot because she was stealthy. No, Hanna doesn’t show up in the complex much these days. She’s well-loved by the old guard because she keeps things the same, but I’ve seen her maybe three times in the five years I’ve been here. You asked how I got my job?” Lin spread her hands. “I volunteered. When I arrived, it was like there was a layer of dust on everything. There still is. This guild hasn’t been a force beyond the city for a hundred years. It’s gone to sleep, because Hanna and the rest of them have let it.”
The mercenary watched Lin’s face, the dark skin illuminated by outrage. Her passion was magnetic. Her liquid-black eye glittered like the gem in the other socket as she spoke. Keshena felt a kind of longing, but only smiled as she listened. Unlike Kelly, Den Roth could wait.
“So what do you plan to do?”
“Start with people like you, and those oddballs in the barracks. Find people of worth, people who care. Train them, teach them, with the few from the old guard who still make an effort – Ishin, Gnarlstone, even that blasted imp, at least she’s awake. We’ll work our way up, and then fill in the ranks with more worthwhile folks. Let Hanna snore. She’ll wake up to find we’ve rebuilt the guild in her absence.”
“And then you’ll have her job, eh?” Keshena grinned.
Lin’s cheeks flushed, but she didn’t back down. “Maybe. I won’t say I haven’t thought about it.”
“You should think about it,” Keshena said. “I’ll do what I can do to help. Speaking of which, what do you want me to do now?”
“Ah! Yes.” The Speaker straightened up. “Work, mostly. There are enough things going untended around the city to keep twelve of us busy. There might be some combat, from time to time.” She glanced at Den Roth’s sharp-toothed smile. “I’m sure you won’t mind. You’ll still see a lot of Villi, perhaps more than before. And you can help me work with the newer apprentices. As soon as you know anything, you get to teach, that’s what I say. Authority is as authority does.”
“Suits me. Am I your apprentice now, then?”
A soft smile from Lin, sweeter than the question deserved. “Let’s call you my friend, until we figure something else out.” She rose from the chaise with a groan. “Ugh, sitting too long still makes my hip hurt. Do you want to walk me home?”
“I can do that.”
Den Roth supported Lin’s arm with the careful solicitousness of a knight, through the Citadel and out into the stony estates. At the iron gate, she stopped. “Thank you for testing me.”
“Thank you for making it worth my time,” Lin answered. Then she paused, her hand on the iron latch. “Keshena?” she said carefully. “There’s… there’s more to you than you think. I think. And I think there’s someone in there who’s confused, maybe scared. I’d like to give that person something.”
Nonplussed, Keshena shrugged. “All right. What is it?”
Lin turned and took hold of Den Roth’s arm again, rising on her toes to put her on a level with the mercenary’s six-foot frame. She raised her head and briefly, gently, kissed the scarred mouth.
Keshena was frozen. Lin’s cheeks were afire. The Speaker took a step back, smiling, and disappeared through the gate. Some time later, Keshena raised her fingers to her lips, as if to hold the kiss there a moment longer.