55 – Leshya

Keshena’s story gets real sad, real quick, and it doesn’t get much better by the end. The more I work on it, the more I understand the trauma of my own that I was expressing through her, and the errors in her thinking that lead to her never being able to grow beyond that. I can see how and why I dodged her fate. That’s… difficult to look at. Painful, and fascinating. I have to not give too many hours of the day to staring at it. There’s a level of self-examination that is healthy, and there’s a level that will cause you to pick yourself to pieces, atom by atom, until you are nothing but a heap for someone to move about with tweezers. I hit that second level by about nine in the morning most days.

Something for her daughter, then.

“If you always do the easy and pointless jobs, you’ll never have to WORRY about the important ones!”
(The Phantom Tollbooth is a very good movie slash book, and you should watch slash read it.)

Child of the morning, I failed you first.
Volcano’s daughter, born to sacrifice –
in that way, I guess I failed you twice.
I gave nothing; your father gave his curse.

Never did a thing in life but stumble.
When can one mistake erase all the rest?
Can’t even claim to think I did my best –
every time it mattered I would fumble.

What is it worth that I always loved you?
What does it matter, I thought it was right?
Each day you’re glad of the sky above you,
each day you don’t curse the day I birthed you,
will be a sign that I was more than spite,
that time has washed my poison out of you.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

19 – Transubstantiation

I have not yet failed you, friends! I had a very busy day today but I did manage to bang some words together. It’s about Keshena – she’ll tell this story herself in a much more straightforward way before too long. I realize it’s a little sassy to rhyme “love” with “prove,” but Shakespeare did it, and there’s a long history of people thumbing their noses at that particular slant rhyme, so I think that makes it okay. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

Taste of blood on the wind,
the sound of drums.
The wave rolls back and leaves the beached remains.
Men reduced to little more than stains
we’ve just moments before the next wave comes.

She finds what’s left of him, minus his heart
the dead men always take the hearts away
and then when the sun rises the next day
the soldiers hack their friends’ corpses apart.

She knows at once that he’s too big to move.
There’s nothing left of him for them to steal.
She knows that this sacrament is not real.
In his god’s eyes, he’s nothing left to prove.
She knows that nothing so preserved can heal.
He’d call it pride, and not an act of love.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 8

our fairweather heroine is tested, blood and promises exchanged
(ft. one unscripted costume change)

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.

Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 7

introducing the ingenue

“I see you’ve been working on your illusions.  What do you call this face?”

Keshena, interrupted in her assiduous attempt to avoid Villi’s gaze, reminded herself not to scowl.  Miss Kelly did not scowl. She curtsied instead, which brought her briefly to eye level with the imp who sat cross-legged on a table, a bowl in the cradle of her knees.  The imp always knew more than she should.

“That’s my job.”  Villi’s smile was sharp.  “And your job is to answer my questions.”

“Can’t you simply pluck the answers from my brain?” Keshena asked, her voice piping and sweet, but not devoid of sarcasm.  Miss Kelly did sneer.

“I could pluck many things from your brain,” Villi said.  “I wonder how many you would miss?”

“I have plenty to spare, Ms. Selannor.  Keshena Kelly, at your service.”

“Kelly, very well.  I wish to talk to you about religion, Kelly.”

Kelly made a sound of unfiltered disgust and flounced into a chair.  “Why?”

Unmoved, Villi stirred the bowl between her knees with her fingertips.  “Because you are in our Father’s service, whether you wish to be or not, and you will speak of Him and His with respect in my presence.”

This is not the face to wear for this… Keshena thought, frustrated, but there was nothing for it.  No changing costumes after your cue’s been called. And there was this much to be said for Kelly – she might not be reverent, but she was more than capable of matching Villi passive-aggressive jab for jab.

“As I understand it, He’s got a congregation in His service.  I hope you’re not implying that the guild should be the congregation’s martial arm.”

“Of course not,” Villi murmured with ill grace.  “That would be in direct contradiction of the guild’s treaty with the city.  However, you’ll find that you won’t progress far among the Kumani without paying Him the respect He is due.  So, do you intend to listen?”

Keshena drew her feet up and tucked them under the hem of her sundress.  Kelly dressed like the ingenue she appeared to be, which hadn’t been a problem when she was a newlywed in Capria, but it was hardly well-suited to the Reach’s brutal winters.  Even in the Kumani cavern she shivered.

“All right, I’ll listen.”

“Our Father Nieran, the Shade, does keep a congregation, of which I am the current leader.  Their purpose is to serve His will. The purpose of the Kumani is to protect this city, which is also His will.  Most houses in Lion’s Reach contain a shrine to Him, but He is not the only god worshipped here. Can you tell me the names of the others?”

“The numerologists revere the Engineer, Hadall.  The Wolves have their own gods, but…”

“The Beasts do not have names you can pronounce with a human tongue, no.  Good enough. What must one do to show fealty to our Father?”

Keshena took a long breath.  “The Shade rewards personal commitment and creativity in His devotions.  He prefers that His worshippers keep His name in their hearts as they walk in the shadow, as they listen and learn all there is to hear and know.  He thinks of no knowledge as trivial – even the smallest word in the right place can move the world.” She watched with a shrewd eye for this recitation to land, and saw with satisfaction that Villi was impressed – or at least, sufficiently moved to pretend to be impressed, which might be the best she could hope for.

“Indeed.  And in that respect, His tenets are very well-suited to the Kumani.  What are the other values He requires, that He’s passed along to our guild?”

Keshena let this question hang in the air for some time.  She was thinking about how she might get out of answering it, and her face made the process perfectly evident.  Villi watched with ill-disguised impatience.

With no escape available that wouldn’t be more trouble than it was worth, Kelly responded at last: “Loyalty.  He values nothing higher, I’ve heard.”

“Loyalty is a funny thing,” Villi answered, addressing the bowl between her knees.  “Its face changes depending on what one attaches it to. Some loyalties can be delineated easily.  But loyalties often change. Tell me – would you say a man is loyal, who changes his allegiance ten times in a year, but for each master or cause invests the whole of himself?”

Kelly sneered.  “No. Loyalty means staying loyal.”

The look the imp directed at her was utterly bland.  “What a perfect summation of a very complex argument.  That takes skill, you know. Few people have the talent to distill centuries of philosophical debate into such a thunderingly content-free sentence.  You should be very proud.”

The ingenue was proud.  Keshena felt it, and at the same time, felt the resentment and frustration she always fought in this face.  This is not a compliment, she thought savagely.  She’s laughing at me, again.  But Kelly loved the attention and the frustration both, took them as flowers tossed by an adoring crowd.

She gave back Villi’s steady, underwhelmed gaze with an insouciant grin, and for a moment, felt their wills come into conflict.  There was a tense peace, a balance between them, and for a moment it teetered, as the imp stared and the ingenue smirked.

Putting on this face felt like a crime.  The wig still smelled of funeral flowers and powder, and every time she swung it over her head, she gagged and shut her eyes until the process was complete.  But there was a kind of strength here that Keshena, in her most private moments, knew she would not possess without the ingenue and the things she had done. Kelly could face Villi.  Perhaps because they’re the same kind of person, she thought, and recoiled from the notion, dropping her eyes.

“I don’t expect that you will take me up on this,” Villi continued at length, “But should you ever wish to learn more about the one you serve – and you do serve Him, make no mistake – I will be happy to teach you.  I’m His chaplain among the Kumani.”

“Oh, does that mean you marry people?” Kelly chirped.

“I have,” said the imp.  “Perhaps it would be of value to you to investigate that question: if a servant of Nieran marries, do his loyalties change?  Would you say that man is loyal?”

Kelly wrinkled her nose, an expression perfectly positioned on dual axes of nubility and nastiness.  “Marriage doesn’t mean anything much,” she murmured. “His underlying loyalties are the same as ever; you just dressed him in a nice jacket.”

She expected an explosion at this, and awaited it eagerly, even as something inside her seethed at the pointlessly inflammatory remark.  But Villi smiled, showing tiny, pointed teeth. “Good. You are listening at last.”

Kelly sulked.  This, too, she did prettily, and she was capable of nursing an elegant sulk for up to a month at a time, but wasn’t given the chance.  The door of the library creaked, and Lin poked her head in, then followed it with the rest of her when she caught sight of them.

“Villi!  Have you seen – oh.  Of course. Keshena, is this another of your faces?”  The Speaker raised a skeptical eyebrow.

It was unwise to display too much eagerness to get away from Villi, but wisdom was not one of Kelly’s notable qualities.  She jumped to her feet and curtsied to Lin, following it up with a toss of the hair and a wink. There was a faint sound of gagging from where the imp sat, and Keshena ignored it.

“Hello, Lin!  Villi is teaching me all about loyalty!”

“O…kay then.  That’s good.”

“It’s been hard to get through to… this… as I’m sure you can imagine,” Villi drawled.  “But she’s satisfied me for the moment. Do you require her?”

“If you’re finished,” Lin answered.  “Would you say she’s ready for her examination?”

The imp looked sideways at Keshena, that eternal laughter in her wide eyes.  “That is for our fine Speaker to determine. If you say that she is ready, I will bow to your well-known expertise.”

Lin visibly contained a snappish response, putting on instead a bright, false smile that rather eerily echoed Kelly’s.  “All right, then. Keshena, come along. We’ll talk in the Retreat.”

Like an unleashed puppy, Keshena jumped to her feet and scampered from the room, followed as long as possible by the imp’s interested eye.


Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 6

ensemble dance (introducing Lt. Kaedin Calidus as… regrettably… himself)

During her years in Capria, on the eastern coast, Keshena had attended many overwrought social functions, and thrown a few of her own.  The face she had worn then had enjoyed it; with the weight of seventy years and more mistakes between them, she now found it tiring more than anything else.  With nothing else to motivate her, she would not have bothered to attend the ball Morrihm was putting on to celebrate their new treaty with Lion’s Reach. She hadn’t been in the city long enough to feel obligated to show a face at public events, and besides, she had never enjoyed the company of the dead.

But Lin had come upon her browsing weaponry in the Basilica, and before she’d left, somehow Keshena had an assignment.  In her way, Lin was an expert at inspiring others to do what she wanted them to do, even when the reason was opaque, as in this case.

“Why exactly am I going to this ball, then?”

“It’ll be good for you.”

It must be the first time anyone had ever spoken of Morrihm and good health in the same sentence, she thought.  In all her years, she had never been to the Cauldron, which was reason enough as well. The rules changed depending on the family in power, but for the most part, living souls were considered an underclass.  Even now, in this relatively progressive time, only one of the council of five was alive.

The hierarchy of mortality was an eternal controversy in Morrihm and elsewhere.  Lion’s Reach had a few prominent dead families, but the Kumani did not take recruits from among the blooded, and they weren’t alone.  The stereotype about the dead being languid and lazy, Keshena suspected, often had more to do with them being unemployable.

This tolerance of their unliving neighbors was the main issue dividing Lion’s Reach from the cities and communes of the warm south.  The dead were “redeemed” on sight in Shiel. Morrihm and Shiel had been warring over it for centuries, and both had built their economies on the slaughter, extended arms of empire up and down their respective coasts.  The war had been cold for eighty years now. The Cauldron reaffirmed its standing trade agreements with the Reach, and then threw a party for itself, knowing that the prim Northerners would largely decline to attend. It was five days’ coach journey between the cities when the weather was good, or pay a month’s wages for use of a thread.

Keshena could dress in midafternoon, step through a thread, and still have time to take a coffee in Akir before the ball began at dusk.  She picked up a scone there while she was at it. Food that the living could enjoy was hard to come by in Morrihm, unless one had gotten very accustomed to organ meats.

The road to the Cauldron from Akir was short, but Mata’s finery was worth more than the cost of a coach, so she took one.  Before the sun had fully set over the desert, the horses pulled her into the shade of the mountains, through the descending switchbacks of a box canyon until the sky was a strangled vein far above.  And then it disappeared entirely, and she was taken underground.

In the past, the dead men had played up the inescapable comparisons to the Halls.  She’d heard that this avenue was once lined with screaming skulls, or strewn underfoot with corpses.  This was a more enlightened age, or perhaps a less dramatic one. The tunnel was dimly lit and grew warmer as she descended, but it did not threaten or shock her.  She was not the only traveler alighting at the station outside the gates, and the level of fashion on display among the foreigners – startlingly ruddy beside the locals’ pallor – made her feel secure in her sartorial choices.  Mata never opened her eyes, but she gawked in her own subtle ways, feeling a prickle of tension as she passed between the heavily-armed blackguards manning the gate.

Morrihm occupied a massive cavern under the mountain called the Cauldron, but these days the terms were used interchangeably.  The mountain had erupted ages ago, or so the stonespeakers claimed, and could erupt again at any time. It was an open question what this would do to the bustling city that had sprung up in its magma chambers, but the dead men would be trapped between fire and fire on that day.  Molten rock might burn and bury them, but the sun would tear at their flesh with no less cruelty.

Up close, they weren’t so unsettling to look at.  She moved easily through the press of the crowd, enjoying the heat after months in the frozen Citadel.  The ball would be held in the fortress at the center of the city, once called the Black Manor. It seemed to have been spruced up for the occasion; she had heard that it was largely abandoned most of the year.  It had been more than a century since the Blooded families had ruled from that house. Tyranny was no longer in style. Today’s Blooded sat the council alongside the living, and though it was still nearly impossible to attain any kind of social status while breathing in Morrihm, no one visibly sneered at her or referred to her as “livestock” at any point during her approach.  The world had grown subtle, even here. Imperious dramatics were the province of the ancients, of which there would likely be several at this ball. She simultaneously hoped they would be on their worst behavior, and picked through the peerage she had once known, dredging up forms of address just in case. It wouldn’t do to die on the end of a sword because she failed to grant a Duke his due.  Much rather watch others do that.

The receiving rooms were brightly lit and full of milling guests in the first stages of a complex diplomatic dance.  The orchestra at the far end of the hall was tuning up. Keshena kept to the fringes, observing through her eyelids. As always, the canape table served to gather the outcasts and oddballs, those without chaperones or companions to keep them amused.  If she were attempting to climb this social scaffold, she wouldn’t be caught dead or alive in that crowd, but Mata was not known here, and could do as she liked. This privilege filled her with quiet joy. There truly was no greater freedom than a mask.

She browsed the offerings spread before her.  Most of the hors d’oeuvres were a breath away from raw at best, or actively dripping, but she did find a passable canape topped with some kind of greenery.  She reached out, only to find her hand intercepted by the extended hand of another. It was such a laughably cliched move that before she even met the eyes of the man standing next to her she was considering stabbing him through the wrist.  Impolite, she reminded herself. The Reach was making her paranoid.

He was taller than Mata – probably not much taller than Den Roth – and clad in the dress regalia of the blackguards.  She marked the color in his pale cheeks and the breath he exhaled as she turned up her face to regard him with closed eyes.  Living, this one. So the blackguards were still a path to legitimacy for those with heartbeats in Morrihm.

“Pardon me, miss…?”

She took his hand and curtsied.  “Mata. Keshena Mata, lately of Lion’s Reach.”

“Welcome to the Cauldron.”  His grin took ten years off his face, and he didn’t look as if he had many more to spare.  A prickle of nostalgia ran through her as she admired his easy, youthful charm. “I do recommend the canapes.  There’s one kitchen in Morrihm that cooks real food, and it’s the best in the world.”

“What would you know about the world, child?”  Mata’s gentle smile softened this remark as she took the canape from his hand.

“More than you might suspect, Miss Mata.  But I think I’d have much to learn from you.”

Keshena knew the steps of courtly intercourse very well, although it had been years since she’d had occasion to play this game.  She let her lips close delicately over the treat. “You have the advantage of us, you know.”

He looked horrified at this misstep.  “Oh! I’m so sorry, Miss. Lieutenant Kaedin Calidus, at your service.”  A deep bow over her hand.

“A fine family.  Their scion, then?”

This only stoked the fire in his cheeks.  “So to speak. Their prodigal, perhaps, depending on whom you ask.  But I have never heard your family name.”

“Nor will you.”  She flashed a dimple at him.  “The Kumani are our family, now.”

His expression changed, acquired a sly look and a certain trepidation.  “What brings you to Morrihm, then? I understood that the treaty was set in blood.”

“So it is.  Not everything we do is of global import.  In fact, we would say that the majority of our activities are personal in nature.”

The young man looked confused.  “When you say ‘we…'”

“We refer to ourself.  Consider us, for tonight, a private citizen.”

“That’s the trouble with the Kumani – they don’t give you forewarning when they change from private citizen to spy.  Most working women hang out a lantern.”

Mata raised a delicate eyebrow at this indelicate remark.  Kaedin’s cheeks colored again, and he looked as if he wished dearly he could catch the words from the air and swallow them.

“I – oh, I didn’t mean to suggest that – or to compare you to – oh, damn it.  Please, Miss, I beg your pardon. I should… go.”

“You insult us, then scurry away?  Is that the courage of the blackguards?”  She was enjoying needling the boy. He was charming, and well-trained into the bargain, but still a child in this arena.  And his blush did such lovely things for his face.

He did know how to answer a challenge, though.  At once he offered a thin-fingered hand. “How can I make it up to you, Miss?  I will happily throw myself on my sword to cleanse the stain of my foolish tongue from your memory.”

She chuckled and took his arm.  “You may dance with us, and talk with us, and presently we will forget.”

“I’ll have to talk fast, then.”  He gave her a dazzling grin as he led her onto the ballroom floor, where the orchestra was testing their tuning with a simple pavane.  The current council was seated on the dais across the hall, along with the Advisors of Lion’s Reach, and each pair of dancers advanced, greeted the lords and ladies, and retreated again in sequence.

The shifting movements of the crowd around her, their joining and parting, filled Keshena’s head with light and made her slightly disoriented.  Mata’s form of vision had its distinct downsides. She gripped Kaedin’s arm, and felt his fingers skim over hers in reassurance. As he stepped into his own line and released her hand to let her take her place, she felt like a leaf in a stream, twirling with each eddy, drawn into a new current each time their hands met again.  He carried on a quiet discourse when she was near enough to hear, which at first was simply a litany of the important people in attendance and their relationships to one another. Without prompting, he gently took charge of the conversation, freeing her from the obligation to respond until she had found her rhythm in the dance and could return her attention fully to him.  His social skill seemed largely unthinking, a grace and solicitous kindness that could not be taught. When he thinks too much, she thought, he slips up. But then, don’t we all?

At some point during the pavane, she caught Lin’s name being announced at the door.  She nudged their path to turn in that direction, and caught a glimpse of the Speaker on a man’s arm, radiant in a bright blue sari that seemed to glow on her dark skin.

“You know her?” murmured her partner.

“Yes,” Keshena answered.  “She is our immediate superior, and also our friend.”

“I’ll have to meet her, then.  You certainly keep lovely company.”

“Are you interested in nothing but the physical charms of every woman around?” she teased.  Kaedin blushed, but kept his head.

“That isn’t at all the breadth of my interests, no… but I suppose it is the depth of them.”

“Oh, well said!”  She laughed, throwing back her curls.  “Utterly devoid of meaning. You’re good at this, child.”

“I know the steps.  I prefer to improvise a little more than they do here, though.”  He winked at her, and as they advanced down the line, he began to split the beat, trying a variation on the traditional step.  She watched carefully through closed lids, then matched his variation with another, developing the theme. By the time they were face-to-face with the councils again, their experimentation had spread down the line, and the staid pavane was developing a distinctly modern playfulness.  She glimpsed a few frowns among the older Blooded along the walls, but the young dead and living alike took the invitation to innovate with a will. Delighted by this twist in her game, Keshena felt the pulse beating hard in her throat, and in the palms of her hands as she pressed close to Kaedin.

“We’ll have to dance somewhere else, then,” she murmured in his ear, “Where you can show me the true extent of your talents.”

His color was high as he turned her around.  He squeezed her hand firmly. “If you wish, lady,” he said with a smile.  “But beware – the Blooded can hear you.”

As he said it, she suddenly sensed the attention of the dead men around her.  He was right – they could hear her heartbeat. A shiver ran through her, but she felt exhilaration too.  It had been many years since she had kept much company with drinkers of blood, but in the few decades before the war turned hot she had known a few.  She had once amused herself by keeping vague track of the tumultuous social and political movements among the families. What a breathing person could see from the outside had a quality of high drama.  The world has grown subtle, she thought again.  The families no longer squabbled and struggled quite so obviously or so easily, and the Black Manor was no longer a permanent residence for anyone.  It was only at events like this that outsiders were given a glimpse of what they were up to. Keshena drank in all she could see and hear, cataloguing it with a meticulous memory trained over centuries of mimicry.  The Kumani were only the latest to pay for this talent.

The pavane was ending.  She curtsied to her partner, and he bowed to her, and she let herself be washed away by the drift of the crowd.  Time to circulate and listen. Some of the dancers dropped out, moving toward the refreshment table or into the next room to sit down, and those remaining on the floor were joined by new partners.  A couples’ dance began, and Keshena slipped around their shifting bodies until she came to Lin’s elbow.

“You look lovely, Miss al-Akir,” she murmured.  Lin glanced at her, startled.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.”

Mata smiled.  “Ah, but we have.”  Her fingers light on Lin’s wrist, she leaned close to whisper, “Mama Keshena Mata, at your service.”

Lin’s hand turned in hers and gripped.  “Keshena? Gods, look at you. How do you do this?  You look spectacular! Is there something wrong with your eyes?”

“Nothing wrong, no.  Our eyes are perfect.  And you look perfect yourself.”

Drawn close together in their current position, it would have taken more effort not to join the dance than to obey the current of the crowd, so Keshena slipped her arms around Lin and gently took the lead.  Lin laughed.

“Well, I didn’t expect you to put on a new face for this, but I suppose I should have.  I’m glad you came.”

“Why did you want us to come, Lin?”  It was much easier to converse now than the pavane had made it, and much more private, but still she kept her voice pitched low.  The Blooded had excellent senses, and there were always spots in a hall like this one where sound bounced into odd corners. Many such halls were built to produce exactly that effect.

“Well, it’s an important political opportunity.  As Ku – as one of us, you’ll want to attend any functions you can that put you in contact with another culture or city.  It’s one of the ways we keep an eye on what everyone’s up to. But mostly… I didn’t want to be here alone.”

“We do not blame you for that,” Mata murmured.  “But did your husband not come with you? We were sure you were accompanied when you entered.”

“Oh, yes, he’s here.  I didn’t expect he’d want to come, but it turns out he’s not a bad dancer.”  Lin’s cheeks flushed, and she smiled helplessly as she looked for her escort.  Keshena felt a constriction in the pit of her stomach. Troubling. But she did the polite thing, guiding the motion of their dance toward the tall, rather rotund man standing at the edge of the dance floor.  As the song tapered off, she drew away from Lin a little and brought them to her husband’s feet. He was holding two glasses of sparkling wine, and offered one to Lin.

“Wondered where you’d got to!  Hello, darlin’. Who’s this?”

He was a brawny man, easily a foot taller than both of them, and built like a barrel, stacked with muscle but softened with fat.  His hair was longish by the current standards of Lion’s Reach, straight and falling to his jawline, where it was met by a neatly trimmed black beard.  Mata turned up her face to smile at him, as proper comportment required, but found herself obscurely irked by his fumbling courtesy.

Lin began to answer him, but Keshena interrupted, “Mama Mata, at your service.”  She curtsied, and Lin moved to take the drink and her man’s arm. “We return your bride to you.”

“Nathaniel Keller, thank’ee, and she’s more’n welcome to dance with whomever she so pleases, so long’s they’re lovely girls.  This one’ve your shavora, then?” He leered as he addressed this last to Lin, and Keshena felt a quite un-Mata-like desire to see him fall into the punch bowl.

Lin blushed deeply and began to stammer.  “I – ah, well, I don’t – hm. Do you want to dance, Nat?”

“Sure!  Miss Mata, if y’don’t mind – ”  The broad man passed his cup into Keshena’s hands before she could protest, and swept Lin into the dance.  With a frown, Keshena emptied the glass.

She drifted away from the dance floor, into the next room where the lethargic and the weary sat in little groups, talking quietly.  The heat of a fire was on the side of her face as she took an armchair near it. With her head down, Mata looked quite deeply asleep, and she wouldn’t be bothered.  She could listen and think without much effort put into maintaining her disguise.

This reaction was disconcerting.  It wasn’t the environs – the dead men didn’t intimidate her.  It wasn’t the game. Dancing with that young man had reawakened some of the enjoyment she had once found in these dalliances, the little flirtations and feigned connections.  It was just her kind of thing, actually – no one at these functions expected any of it to be taken at face value, and so she was rarely required to follow through on her off-handed invitations and offers, or anyone else’s.  No, the young Calidus’s company had been entirely forgettable, entirely pleasant.

It was Lin.  She had not wanted to dance with Lin until their hands closed on one another, and then she had not wanted to stop.  It had been so long…

Over near two hundred years of running, Keshena had tried to forget.  The Called often found their lives grew blurry after the first century or so.  She had always recalled well, until the war, and the five years of occupation after… and then Capria, where everything had gone steadily, inexorably wrong.  But the game had still been there, had saved her, preserved what little there might be of Keshena. She had fed the game, nurtured it, by playing it to the hilt, by losing herself in her act and letting go of all else.  It was from the other side of that fugue that she now remembered the last time she had felt so suddenly connected.

It was a woman then, too.  The men in her life had always been problematic at best, and there had only been a few.  Most of the peace and pleasure she had known had come in those fragile moments when her head rested in the hollow of a lady’s shoulder, their hair tangled together, their whispers fervent and incoherent.  Surrounded by drinkers of blood, Keshena allowed herself to turn inward toward the softly-lit memory.

No name.  Not anymore.  She could imagine the lips moving, but the voice had been worn away, along with whatever it had said.  But she remembered the girl’s hair, strawberry blonde and a mass of tangles. A little wildling, as lost and lonely as Keshena herself had been, sitting in a bar on the outskirts of Capria.  Keshena had gotten them both swiftly, efficiently drunk. She had surrendered the last of her gold to the bartender without a thought. It couldn’t save her, little as it was. If she found some way to go on living, it wouldn’t be because she had seven gold pieces more or less.  So she bought a bottle, and shared a couch with the girl, and let their hair mingle together. She sipped from those chapped lips, kissed them raw, and in the cold, salt-tinged morning had woken to a crushing headache that somehow could not touch her sense of serenity. The curve of the girl’s breast was limned with sunlight.  She lay in Keshena’s arms, so very fragile. By the time the eaves had taken the sun, she was awake, flying around the room after her clothing, and with the first tide she was gone. A sailor, or about to become one. And Keshena lay still awhile after, feeling the peace and tenderness seep away with the warmth of her body on the cushions.  When she laid a hand there, it was cold. Everything was cold.

In the center of the volcano, Keshena shivered, and forced herself to focus on her surroundings again.  An actress who breaks character must be punished.  An actress who fails to meet her marks must be made to stand upon them through the night, so that she will remember.  She remembered.  She remembered how to play this game.

“They say he’s coming back.  They mean to refurbish the Manor.”

“Won’t the Prince have something to say about that?”

“What can the Prince say?  He’s not on the Council anymore.”

“But his daughter – ”

“He doesn’t rule his daughter.  He thinks he does, but…”

The soft intrigues around her gave her comfort.  Polite, formal betrayal, murder by letter and signature – it was all so very old-fashioned.  But the Blooded always were. Their memories were even longer than hers, and less clouded. The dead could never lose the things that chased them, except by submitting to torpor.

At least I can run.  For how much longer?

Keshena returned from the side room in a bit more control of herself.  Some interminable ceremony was going on, and she wove through the sussurating edges of the crowd until she came to Lin’s elbow.  The girl jumped at her touch, then smiled and squeezed her arm.

“Oh good, there you are.  I was a little worried.”

Mata put her chin on Lin’s shoulder to murmur into her ear.  “What were you worried would happen to us?”

“Here?  Anything.”  Keshena felt the dark skin under her chin prickle with Lin’s shiver.  The bright black eye flashed. “I don’t like vampires.”

“They don’t like that word, or so we’ve heard.”

Lin curled her lip.  “Who cares?”

“Those whose city you now trespass in, dearheart, at their pleasure.”

The Speaker took a deep breath and squeezed Keshena’s wrist again.  “You’re right. I need to be professional here. It’s just… not my favorite environment.”

Mata raised her head and looked around for the girl’s barrel-shaped escort.  “Should your husband not be providing moral support?”

“Oh, he’s got some actual business to do while he’s here… he runs a shop in the Reach and he trades a lot with the Blooded.”  Lin nodded at one of the corners of the room, and Keshena glimpsed the big man in friendly conversation with a short, pale woman.  Her green eyes had pupils narrow as a cat’s, but that was the only indication of her condition. Not many of the Blooded now bothered to make themselves up or feign a beating heart in their own city, but this one was.

“What does he trade?  Is there much market for offal in the Citadel?”

“Ugh, no.  Mostly furniture and clothing.  He’s been talking about finding the maker of this interesting clockwork tinderbox he found in a shop here, so I guess that one knows something about it.  She’s the leader of one of the Families – or, no, the daughter of the leader. I can’t keep them straight anymore; the bloodlines have been scrambled for centuries.”

“Do you not fear for him?”  Mata idly scrutinized the Blooded woman through closed lids, admiring her dress.

“Oh, no, he’s dealt with them before.  That one sells him some liquor she makes that’ll knock you on your backside in a swallow.”  But Lin’s arm under her hand was cold, and there was worry in her eye.

“Is that so?  We shall have to sample it ourself.”

As the ceremony ended, medallions and trophies apportioned to the pertinent parties and all the proper peerage dispensed, Lin turned toward her and they drifted toward the edge of the gathering.  “Why do you talk like that in this face? The royal ‘we’?” she teased.

Mata smiled.  “We try to acknowledge the entirety of ourself, the multiplicity, while conceding that we remain one self.”

“There are a thousand lives in your head, aren’t there?  How do you keep it all straight?” Lin took a settee, and Mata sat beside her.  Without thinking, she slipped her arm around the Speaker’s waist to keep them close, and Lin leaned comfortably against her shoulder.

“How could we not, would be our question.  Do you often confuse one memory with another?”

“Yes, all the time.”  Lin gave her an impish look.  “My memory is terrible.”

“That must be why you keep such exquisite notes.”

“Nat taught me that.  I started out as his lab assistant, a few years ago.”

The big man was still in view – hard to miss, as he stood a full head above most of the Blooded – now chatting with the green-eyed woman and a few young men whose arms she held with proprietary claws.  “Is it so? And what was that word he used to refer to us, earlier? Shavera?”

“Shavora.”  Lin’s cheeks flushed a little, her eye sparkling as she glanced at Keshena.  “It’s, ah… well, it’s his word for when women are… um, more friendly than normal?”

She could not help but raise a brow.  “Is that so rare in the Reach?”

“Y-ess… well, no, I don’t know really.  People don’t really talk about that in public!”  The Speaker colored more deeply, and seemed suddenly over-conscious of their arms around one another.

“They do seem to keep themselves well-insulated,” Mata murmured.  She turned her head, auburn curls tumbling over Lin’s shoulder as she spoke into her ear.  “So you keep company with women at times, with your husband’s assent? You don’t bring him along, I hope.”

Lin fell to stammering again, and Keshena relented, giving her a gentle squeeze.  “Never mind. This is not the place.” She turned her attention to the shifting throng, and felt the tension between them ease.  It was a strange thing – the fear and uncertainty she carried melted in the face of Lin’s own insecurity. When we need to be strong for another, we can be strong, she thought.  But to defend oneself… always more difficult.

Still…  The little woman against her side was warm, and in time talked of the treaty and the deals being done on the dance floor, and Keshena felt steady in this city of the dead.  Still… something nostalgic about this.  A dance I know, anyway. And I know how it ends.


Shadowplay: Intermission


The next day, Keshena woke with her arms afire.  She sat up and found them limp and aching.  With a disgusted grunt, she pushed herself out of a pile of cushions and clothing that only resembled a bed by the most generous of definitions, and dragged herself before the mirror.  You look like shit when you don’t wash up before bed, she thought at the stained, bruised creature before her.

Lin had been gentle, had not pushed for more than she was willing to tell at a time.  It was hard to interpret.  Perhaps there was no point in this subterfuge… perhaps they spied on her constantly.  But the habit was the thing.  The first thing she had learned in the theater that raised her was that a performance had life apart from its audience.  The repertoire that had become her patchwork life over two centuries was not put on for any particular eyes, unless they were her own.  She washed the smudged makeup from her face and hands with oil, letting it take time.  The wan sunlight slid across the floor, got tangled in clothes and flashed on stray weapons, and finally stretched across her knees like a cat.  The meticulousness of this routine was precious to her.

An audience made her game adversarial.  She didn’t mind that – she would not be the actress she had become without constant scrutiny to test her illusions.  But wearing a mask had so many social implications, communicated so much even in silence, that the pure mechanical pleasure of disguise was sometimes lost to her.  And increasingly, it was necessary for her to find it again before wearing Mama Mata’s face.  Mata was a woman of deep, resonant calm, and Keshena had very little calm these days.

With magic and makeup, she painted warm golden skin and soft, lush flesh to fill it out.  Mata’s cheeks were round, her body was heavy, her hands and feet were small.  There was such sensuous pleasure in this, and Keshena found herself smiling as she padded her spare frame with pendulous breasts and swollen belly.  It was like an embrace, the luxurious generosity of this life.

Villi had left something out of her explanation when she had demonstrated the trick of adding mass with illusions.  Lin had filled her in later, when she asked.  “There’s a degree of… what’s the word?”  She frowned for a moment, but Keshena was no help.  “Proprioception, that’s what Nat said it was.  With enough practice, you can build an illusion that stands up to touch, if not a good smack or anything.  And when someone touches it…”  And then she had, running her fingers over the illusory moss Keshena had spread on the bench between them.

Keshena had shivered, as she shivered now, running her own fingers over the flesh she invented on her hips.  The sensation emanating from a part of her body she knew did not exist… she’d heard as much from soldiers during the occupation of Shiel, mourning their lost limbs.

“When someone touches your illusion, you can feel it.  Sometimes it can be a warning, so remember that.”

The flesh done, she turned and extracted a velvet pouch from a mess of accessories at the foot of the mirror.  Her fingers felt six – no, seven – fragile pieces still inside.  Have to set aside a day to make more, she thought.  It would be hard to find the time, but Mata did not negotiate on her proper tribute.  Keshena plucked a bruised, plum-colored petal from the pouch and placed it in her mouth, where it began to slowly dissolve.  Rivulets of smoky bitterness and vegetal sweetness drained down her throat from the curled cup of her tongue, and she opened a pot of glutinous black ink.

She closed her eyes and began to paint curling symbols around her wrists and arms.  The drug had taken effect – there were greater vistas on the backdrop of her eyelids than this little room could provide, and these glyphs were nothing she had ever seen awake anyway.  Mata’s life had been a series of dreams as thick and inescapable as tar pits, punctuated by moments of piercing clarity when she was forced to act.  Only a few acts.  Perhaps all lives were like that.  Perhaps, she thought, we only wake for a few minutes between birth and death, and all our dreams in between are reflections of the decisions we make in that ephemeral day.

When she rose from her knees and whispered the patterns she’d drawn to spread over the skin that would be hidden – what a convenience, that!  This used to take her a whole morning – she let her eyes remain closed.  The lights in her head were brighter than the thin Northern sun, now.  They picked out Mata’s wig with clustered stars, showing their love and drawing her hands to it.  Heavy auburn curls fell over her shoulders and bounced as she adjusted the fit, then blended it in at the hairline.  And then the dress.

Mata dressed in finery.  Another sensuous pleasure, the feel of silk and velvet on skin more used to leather and linen.  Cost wasn’t something that concerned her overmuch; money came and went easily.  She had starved before, and sat at banquets too, in the same year.  Hunger had never frightened her so much as being caught unprepared.  Many of these garments had been gifts – from wealthy patrons, then from worshipers, and finally from husbands.  The women they had patroned, and worshipped, and married no longer existed, except in her memory.  But the clothes could make the memory live again, walk among men and earn new forms of regard.  In this dress, today.  In this face.

Finally she turned back to the mirror, and though she did not open her eyes, she did indulge herself to look.  She didn’t see what stood there so much as know.  The mirror showed a short, plump woman, bronze-skinned, russet-haired, painted with intricate symbols that seemed to shift when she moved.  Her gown seemed to barely contain her lush flesh, making the heavy velvet scandalously provocative, even though it covered her from neck to ankles.  She had an atavistic splendor, the gravity of a graven goddess.  She looked, with eyes closed, like an implacable idol, a prophetess or a prophecy.

Satisfied, Mata smiled at herself and left the room.


Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 5

in which the imp gives up one of her secrets

  “What is a thread, Keshena?”

Den Roth scowled at the back of the imp’s head.  Her clawed hands spread and flexed in the air at the edge of the balcony.  Below, the bustle of the Basilica was muted, quieter here than the sparking hum of the light-globes on eye level.  This invitation – such as it was – had come when Keshena was half-dressed, and she had not beat the imp here.  Even if she had been prepared, she suspected she would never beat the imp anywhere.

“No, you won’t,” Villi murmured, and Keshena restrained a sudden impulse to punt her.  “Would you like to know why?  Well, one reason why.”


“You’ve been in the North long enough.  You may have sensed them before.”  Villi turned and grabbed Keshena’s wrist.  The muscles in her arm tensed, but Keshena let herself be pulled forward a few steps, to the edge of the balcony.  For all the ambivalence she felt toward this tiny irritant, she had no fear that Villi might push her off the ledge.  As she was already learning, that was not the Kumani way.

The imp pushed their hands into the air where she had been probing at evidently empty space.  Keshena felt her fingers tingling, as if her hand had gone to sleep.  Then the small hand shoved forward, and her own hand disappeared to the wrist.

Keshena yelped.  She could still feel her hand, suffused with a sensation that was both hot and cold, or neither.  She wrenched free and pulled it back to examine her skin.  Nothing.  She stared at the imp.

“That is a thread.”  Villi looked dreadfully self-satisfied.  “They allow the Kumani – and a few others we permit – to travel instantly across great distances.  This one happens to go to the port on the eastern coast.  The guild builds these passages and maintains them.”  She turned back to scrutinize the invisible portal.  “They have a number of other uses besides travel.  You can call through one by pitching your voice just so…”

On cue, a disembodied voice chirped out of the air, “Hello, Keshena!”

“Oh no.  As if you needed another way to spy on me, Lin.”

“And you can look through it at whatever is on the other end, with a little practice.”  Villi reached up as if to stroke the thread, and a brown hand burst forth, followed by the body it belonged to.  Keshena stepped back just in time to catch Lin’s arms as the small woman appeared on the balcony beside her.

“Gracious.  Hello, Lin.  You look better.”

“Much.  It’s a wonder what actually resting will do for you.”  She gave Keshena a smile, then turned to greet the imp.  “Are you teaching her to weave?”

“We have not gotten there yet.”  Villi’s manner was formal, but her eyes darted between Keshena and Lin with the air of one gathering intelligence.  “What did you have planned for this morning?”

“Archery.  But the thread to Tanor’s been damaged, so we can do both.”

Villi nodded.  “I will attend to the other end.”  She stepped forward and disappeared through the thread, leaving them alone on the balcony.  Lin glanced sideways at Keshena.

“Have you been studying with Villi much?”

“A bit.  Just the magical stuff, illusions and this.”  Keshena gestured at the space in front of them.

“Magic?”  Lin laughed.  “The illusions, maybe.  Those are a gift from Father.  But this, no.  This is technology.  Come on, the Tanor thread comes out downstairs in the East Wing.”

As they descended the endless stairs of the Basilica, Lin talked.  “My husband would be a better source for this – he’s a numerologist; he could tell you exactly how the threads work from a physics perspective.  But I know the history.”

She talked of digging beneath the Citadel, the opening of the cavern in which the Kumani now lived.  There had been labs below, endless warrens in the black stone full of prototypes and shocking secrets.  Some of them were closed off still.  Some were too full of monstrosities to salvage.  But a few had yielded the remarkable technology that had made Lion’s Reach the jewel of the North.  Lin pointed at the glowing orbs above their heads as they entered the central concourse.  “The numerologists are only just scratching the surface of what the Lions could do.  Supposedly they knew thousands of operant numbers, a whole cosmology.  Now there are only twelve.  The threads are an application of Fallo, the fourth – it describes the property of location, a point in space.  Like this one.”

They had stopped in the Eastern Wing of the Basilica, at the far end of a nave where wan sunlight filtered down from clerestory windows far above, leaving the lowest shops and apartments in shadow even at midday.  Lin poked at the empty space in front of her.  “This thread goes to Tanor, the little town you passed through on the way here, at the bottom of the hills?  It doesn’t have any strategic importance; Tanor and all the land around belong to us, so there’s no reason someone should be plucking at the thread… “  She scowled.  “May just be mischief.  Or sometimes novice numerologists damage them before they realize that the thread is supposed to be there.  Maintaining them is one of our jobs, and it’s a big one.”

Lin spread her hands flat, thumbs just touching and fingers splayed against the air.  “That’s the trouble,” she continued.  “We build and use the threads, but we aren’t the only ones who can access them.  Technology is like that – it serves any hand that holds it.  That’s why there’s always such controversy over exploring the labs below.  It only happens when the city’s relatively unified.  The last hundred years or so have been very peaceful – the Kumani have kept it that way.”  A quick flash of black eyes as she looked up from her work.  “Politics and science and religion are all very much entwined here.  I hope you can see that, because you’ll have to work around it.  Villi is a master of that game.”

It was Keshena’s turn to frown.  “I don’t like that game.  And I don’t like Villi very much, if you want the truth.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised.  You’re very alike.”

“Alike?”  Keshena wrinkled her nose.  “What would make you say that?”

“Neither of you is what you seem.”

Torn between taking offense and curiosity, Keshena softened when she caught Lin’s faint smile.  “And what do I seem?” she asked instead.

Lin considered this for some time.  Her fingers wiggled and tensed in the air, but it didn’t respond in any way that Keshena could discern.

“You seem to be playing a game of your own.”

“Well, in that case, I’m exactly what I seem.”

Lin shook her head, but interrupted herself, staring at the space between her fingers.  “Villi’s in place.  I can feel her.  Here, you can take over and help her weave the thread back together.”

Keshena stepped forward, and Lin moved to face her on either side of the nebulous space the thread supposedly occupied.  “It’s not difficult, but it requires concentration.  You mustn’t move at all.  When we have to weave one in enemy territory, it can be very…”  Lin grinned despite herself.  “Exciting.”

Lin spread her hands between them, and Keshena mirrored her motion, not quite touching.  At once she could feel the prickle across her palms.

“Keshena, can you hear me?”  Villi’s voice piped out of the air.  She felt it in her fingertips, vibrating the thread from somewhere far away.  “First, I want you to peek through this thread at where I am.  Even when it’s damaged, it can be used to hear and see from either end, remember that.  You must sever it entirely to stop the flow of information.”

Keshena nodded, and the energy sparkling over her skin faded.

Lin snapped her fingers.  “Focus.  Don’t move.  You can speak to Villi through the thread, or to me, but don’t move too much.”

“All right.”  Keshena took a breath and closed her eyes, cutting out the lights of the Citadel and the intermittent passers-by who conspicuously did not watch the Kumani about their business.  As distractions fell away, the prickling sensation returned.  She examined it, considered it.  Falling into a reverie, she found that certain patterns of thought increased the sensation.

“I’ll continue speaking to you through the thread,” Villi said.  “Find my voice with your fingers.  Follow it to where I am.”


“I am in the market square in Tanor.  It is raining here.  The merchants have little to sell at this time of day…”

The imp’s voice continued murmuring, a slow litany of inconsequential detail.  Villi described the scene before her eyes, but the sense of her words quickly faded from Keshena’s mind.  She was only focusing on the sound.  At first it seemed as if the entirety of the thread was vibrating with it, her fingers jumping and flinching with each consonant and plosive.

“You just need to find quiet within yourself,” Lin murmured, and Keshena felt inexplicably soothed by her presence.  “It’s hard – at least it is for me – so don’t push it.  Just let it come.”

It was hard for Keshena also, but for a very different reason.  Her mercenary’s body was not accustomed to peace or stillness.  Something different, she thought.  Mata.  Mata…

As she focused, her face fell slack, empty of expression, and the illusions sagged with it.  Lin watched with fascination as Keshena’s features blurred ever so slightly.  Was her skin darker?  Were her cheeks softer?

The Sleeper filled her and she sank deeper.  No sound, now, only vibration.  She could feel the thread, its shape and size.  It felt like a pillar in this hallway, a pillar standing perpendicular to every cardinal direction.  And it was damaged – not badly, but the vibrations came to her warped in some indescribable way.  She pushed through, not with her hands but with her thought, following the imp’s monotonous drone.

It was not like vision, what she saw then.  She imagined that this was how bats perceived the world – a throbbing, inconstant picture made of sound, walls and earth and people only surfaces reflecting pulse after pulse of information, showing her their shape by their resistance.

“Villi, I think I see it.  Is there… is that a fountain?”

“I am standing by the fountain, yes.  Good!  Now… help me repair the way.”

It was like language.  It was like singing.  It was like threading a needle from a hundred miles away.  A strange exaltation filled her as she communed not with the imp who so intimidated her but with some abstraction, a person condensed to a glyph.  They passed in nothingness like shuttles in a loom, together but impossibly far apart.  She found Villi, she found herself, she found Villi again, traversing the ethereal space between them, and with each pass the imp guided her over the damaged thread.  Slowly, the vibrations began to harmonize.

The thread was whole again, in a way that felt both sudden and inevitable.  She felt her hands shake with a single pure tone, and then Villi’s voice came again, clear and quiet.

“Good.  It is mended.”  The imp was there, standing between Keshena’s spread hands.  Keshena’s eyes snapped open, and the trance died, but she felt Villi’s eyes on her shifting face even as it solidified into the mercenary’s grim sneer once more.  She froze, as if she might become invisible.

Villi smiled.  Her smiles never seemed to quite reach her eyes.  “You’ll learn to become invisible too, in time.  Not today, though.  I am tired.”  Turning to Lin, she patted the Speaker’s hand.  “Carry on with your archery.  Keshena has done well today.”  She was gone then, without warning and before her voice had quite faded from the air.

Lin chuckled.  “Good job.  It’s hard to get praise out of her.  Are you tired?”

“I’m… all right, I think.”  Keshena shook herself.  “Actually, some physical activity sounds excellent right now; I feel like moving.”

“Good!”  Lin turned and stepped through the thread, and this time, Keshena followed.  The pure note she had heard rang in her ears for a fraction of a second, and then the Basilica had vanished, and she was standing next to a fountain in the drizzling rain.  The world spun.  Lin caught her arm to steady her.

“It can be a little disorienting, but you’ll get used to it.  Soon you’ll be able to dive through four in a row without vomiting!”

“What a thing to look forward to,” Keshena drawled with a grin.  “Are we going to practice shooting the good people of… is this Tanor?”

“Yes, it’s Tanor, and no, we’re not going to shoot them.  There’s a good spot in the fields near here.”  Lin raised the hood of her cloak and moved off through the square.

“Wait, what was it you were going to say earlier?” Keshena called as she hurried after.  “You said I’m not what I seem, if I seem like I’m playing a game.”

“Oh.”  Lin shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Just a feeling.  You know yourself better, of course, but… it sort of seems to me as if your game’s playing you.”

Keshena opened her mouth, then shut it.  She kept her silence, chewing on the thought, until they’d left the town behind and come into a dull little pasture.  A cow stared at them, inert and damp.  When Lin moved to arrange a selection of small rocks on the top bar of the rotting fence, the cow’s eyes didn’t move to follow her.  Keshena wondered if cows went on chewing after they died.

“So,” Lin said.  “Two questions.  One – have you ever pulled a longbow before?  And two – what story are you going to tell me while you struggle with it?”

“I can tell you about the last time I pulled a longbow,” Keshena drawled, taking the bow from Lin and sighting down the limb.  “It’s been a while.”

“How long?”  Lin moved away from the fence with its targets, out of Keshena’s line of sight.

“Must be… ninety-five years or better.”

Lin shook her head, grinning at Keshena’s back.  Den Roth tested the weight of the draw with her fingers, then exhaled slowly as she drew back the string.  “I was – mmh! – working for a mercenary company out of Shiel during the war with the Ashen Alliance.”

“The Ashen don’t use bows,” Lin pointed out.

“No, nor did then.  But our hunters did.  We were living on wild game toward the end, after the fields burned.  I learned a little.”  The string vibrated in Keshena’s fingers, cutting across her grim, focused face like another scar.  Lin watched, amused.  Den Roth was strong, but not subtle, and her stance was masculine.

Keshena strung an arrow and pulled the bow again.  “I was never very good.  Better with a crossbow.”  The twang of release made the cow blink in dumb astonishment, but there was no answering clatter from the stone on the fence-post.  Den Roth swore and turned toward Lin, who saw the red lash of the string along her inner arm.

“That’s just poor form.  You’ll recover.”  Lin passed her fingers over the abrasion and felt Keshena shiver at the touch.  “Don’t pull your elbow back so far.  Just here.  You didn’t miss by much.  Try it again.”  She settled herself on a relatively dry rock.  “Why were you fighting for Shiel?”

Den Roth shrugged.  “They paid.  I got to like the knights I was staying with, though.  Wouldn’t have stayed to the end of that war if I hadn’t; that one went bad very quickly.”  Her tone was idle, thoughtless, but she didn’t meet Lin’s eyes, only pulled the bow again and squinted down the arrow’s back.

“I’ve read.  Shiel was occupied for five years, wasn’t it?”

“Closer to four.  I stayed through that, too.  Another mistake.”  Keshena’s brows drew together, her face tensing into harsh lines.  “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, Lin.  If I peel all the skin off my arm shooting these fucking rocks, it’ll be a gentle lesson by comparison.”  The string sung, the arrow flew, and the fence spat splinters as the broad head sunk into the rotting wood.

The fitful emotion in Den Roth’s face was unusual, and Lin kept her silence, watching it rise and then fall again, mastered.  When it was out of sight, she asked quietly, “Why did you stay, if it was a mistake?”

Keshena sighed.  “To pay for a worse mistake.  Story of my life.”  The rain was worsening, and she felt a prickling of anxiety for her disguise.  The illusion would hold in spite of the drenching, for a while, but not forever.  She took a few steps back into the lee of a dead tree, and selected another arrow from Lin’s quiver.  Turning it in her fingers, she continued, “When my company came to Shiel, they assigned us to a portion of the militia.  To keep an eye on us, I guess.  Shiel was fielding anyone they could find at that point, but they didn’t like having paid swords in the city.  So the Ashen made sure we didn’t get up to any thuggery.  At least no more than they did themselves.”

“Knights aren’t thugs,” Lin said with a child’s certainty.  It cut through Keshena’s brooding, and she smiled over her shoulder at the dark little woman on the rock.

“You really believe that.  Well, maybe here it might someday be true.  But most men sin the same ways, in my experience.  It’s only in how we choose to punish ourselves that we become different.”

“Is that what you’re doing with your illusions?  Punishing yourself?”

Keshena grit her teeth and released the bowstring.  “No.  This – mmh!”  The string flew clean this time, and the arrow sang over the rock, clipping the top and tossing it into a puddle on the other side of the fence.

“This,” Den Roth murmured, looking faintly pleased for the first time, “Is me trying not to make any more mistakes.”


Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 4

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.


Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 3

in which the history of the Kumani is illuminated

and illusions are broken

Guilded life, at least in Keshena’s experience, was about one part education to nine parts indoctrination.  She had never properly joined a guild before, but had spent a great deal of time on the periphery of several, and decided long ago that she had little use for them.  She wasn’t accustomed to having to explain her associations or activities, and had no intention of beginning at two hundred.

But the Kumani suited her.  They didn’t explain themselves either – not when she met them in the dark complex or out in the world, where they more often than not pretended not to know her at all.  They spoke tersely to each other, and though she often heard many more voices around her than she had seen faces for, there were few names.  Their conversation was circuitous, eternally self-referential.  It’s what she had expected, joining a guild that trained spies.  Counted on it, in fact.  If one sought to hide even from one’s own regard, there could be no better place.

They did train her.  There were no classrooms, no tests.  At odd hours – sometimes while she slept soundly, and jerked awake with her heart hammering the tattoo of an ancient war when her door rattled under a fist – they would call her out, to a copse or a crossroads or a pit like the one she had stood in with Lin.  At first it was always a grey-clad functionary like those she saw every day, novices training novices.  Their thin hands were covered in fresh nicks and cuts.  She watched their hands move as they talked quietly about the minutiae of stealth, ways to remain unseen in plain sight, ways to soften one’s footfalls.  Some of it was familiar; an actress is half a spy already.  But there was more magic here than in the art she had learned as a child.  The Kumani were truly gifted, and she came to believe that the story she had heard about their history was true.

They protected the Reach, and always had, but folklore held that they had done it as simple farmers once, had defended their wintry land with pitchforks, hammers and horsewhips.  The Kumani had been an underclass, indentured by the Lions, a vicious and powerful civilization that had left its prints on every stone of the Citadel and surrounding country.  Diggers still unearthed artifacts of their centuries of rule, and the story of their fall was told in tapestries on every wall.  Hubris.  They tried to overreach the gods, tried to pierce the Halls of Death with their mines and the Walls of Haven with their spires, and so the gods set them against one another in a bloody war that ruined the land and loosed pestilence on the world.  And when they fell, a handful of laborers stood against them, preserved what they could of the city and its common people from the shrapnel of the Lions’ civil war.  It was said that one god, the god of shadows, had looked kindly upon this stubborn devotion.  He had seen them and walked among them, touching one and another and another on the hand, and one and another and another disappeared from the material world, shrouded in sudden shade.  “You shall be My children, and you shall call Me Father,” He whispered to them.  “You shall defend this city against all who would destroy her.”

He had given them tricks and talents, and slowly, one at a time in a way that sometimes seemed accidental, they taught Keshena.  A young girl showed her the passageways about the city that the citizens didn’t know.  An elderly woman with great white wings taught her to conceal small objects and summon phantom lights and sounds.  A burly, brash man was delighted to find her already somewhat practiced as a pickpocket, and eagerly refined her skills in the city’s market – always requiring her to put back what she had taken.  “We don’t steal from our own,” he said firmly.

“But we do spy on them?”

He aimed a finger at her face.  “We do what we must to protect them.  That’s our charge.  Stealing their pocket change isn’t part of that.  Sometimes spying is.”

Illusory lines.  Meaningless, she thought, but then, so were the rules she lived by.  Meaningless, but necessary.  So she returned handkerchiefs and trinkets to pockets as stealthily as she had removed them, and earned his praise.

She twitched in the crowded hallway, but the reaction came too late – she didn’t catch the hand that slipped the note into her pocket, or the arm it was attached to.  Spreading it between her fingers, she read, “Mushroom garden, now.”

Because a fucking request would be so boring.  She rolled her eyes and changed course, with difficulty, redirecting through the Basilica toward the guild caverns.  The complex was home to little life – the Kumani cultivated rather more than the usual amount of paranoia, and beasts could be ruled by any human hand.  But the phosphorescent fungus native to the obsidian caves was allowed to proliferate, and trained into places where its light would be of most use.  On the eastern side of the complex, around the retreat, they grew to prodigious size and formed an eerie forest that shed pale light.  It was a romantic spot, if one’s sense of romance included mushrooms.

Keshena sat on a bench at the edge of the garden, overlooking the waterfall that poured from the distant ceiling into the pool at the center of the cave.  She used the time to perform a quick inventory of her tools and weapons, and attend to their maintenance.  Most things, she reflected, squinting at herself in the blade of her dirk, are habit.  Skill comes with repetition, and so does mastery.  The habit is the thing, and Keshena was good at acquiring habits.

She became aware of the imp all at once, and late.  How long had she been there?  The woman was small, standing under the gills of a hip-high mushroom, but she was clearly no child.  She was as nondescript as a person could possibly be, the goal to which the monochromatic novices aspired.  The face was middle-aged but not old, the short hair dark but not quite black.  But she had those eyes, like Keshena’s eyes – the shadows of centuries passing and filling her head.  Those ancient grey eyes watched Den Roth oiling her dirk, and after a little while, Keshena watched her back.

“It’s good to take care of your things,” the imp said at length.  She detached herself from the mushroom and crossed the lichen carpet underfoot to rest her elbows on Keshena’s knees.

Keshena tensed – she wasn’t over-fond of being touched, these days – and meditated on the self-assurance of a woman who would place her eye within inches of a naked blade while intruding upon a stranger’s personal space.  “Who are you?” she asked with careful courtesy.

“Villi Selannor.”  They shook hands.  Keshena’s were barely any larger, oddly small on this tall frame.  She never could disguise her little hands.

“I can teach you that,” Villi offered as she boosted herself up onto the bench.  Keshena stared at her, ice running through her stomach.  How could the imp be eavesdropping on her thoughts?

“You can teach me to make my hands bigger?”

“Yes.  Among other things.”  Villi’s gaze was steady, almost rude in its staring focus, but it met a similar scrutiny in the mercenary’s green eyes.  Slowly the imp opened her hands, and Keshena watched the fragile fingers grow, the palms plump and spread.

“Of course, there’s no need to show the intervening stages if you have no reason to.”  Villi shook her hands and the illusion shredded like smoke.  Then she turned them over, and in the blink of an eye they were three times larger, looking absurd on the ends of her arms.

“You do this by thinking it?”  Keshena reached out to touch the oversized knuckles.  They felt real enough.  She pressed harder.  Blood moved under her fingers, the skin went a little paler, and the illusion held.

“There are some words, some… patterns of thought that will help, at first.  You won’t need them long.”

She shook the illusion off, and Keshena found herself gripping Villi’s hand.  The grey eyes met hers, full of laughter in a solemn face, and Keshena released her as if stung.  Then the imp did laugh.

“Come, then.”

With whispers and gestures, the little woman wove the eerie light into new shapes that had the weight of reality.  She showed Keshena how to build an illusion that would be stable, to tie it to existing structures, to an expression or a mask or a movement.

“When you lie, never simply lie,” she murmured.  “The truth gives lies life.  Our Father teaches us to reshape the world to match our lies, not the other way ‘round.  Even the simplest support – this, for instance – “  She deftly plucked a long scar from Den Roth’s arm.  The tiny pain of the adhesive coming away was lost in the flood of fear and rage as Keshena grabbed her wrist.  Those laughing eyes met her again, dared her… and she froze inside and out to hide her thoughts from the imp.

A child’s irritation at having her costume work disrupted had bloomed over the centuries into something more closely resembling a compulsion.  The glimpse of pale skin where the scar had been made her bite down on terror, as if it might spread like contagion, a plague that would leave her naked and – no.  No more.  There was nowhere else to run.  She could not fight, and she could not flee.  There was a third way, a way of stillness.  She must let this vile imp teach it to her.

“This, for instance,” Villi continued, knowledge of her victory clear on her small face, “Will hold up a much stronger illusion than you can conjure from thin air.”

It took everything Keshena had to release Villi’s wrist and allow her to lay the scar back in the pale place on her arm where it had lain.  The tiny fingers smoothed the cloth and wax back into place, and as they did so, weaved the fungus’s dim light into the false flesh.  The wound – a masterful piece of costuming, no question – rose from the skin, acquired the taut sheen of scar tissue.  The edges of the prosthetic disappeared, blended with her coloring more perfectly than cosmetics ever could.  When the imp lifted her hand away, Keshena breathed… and saw an illusion she could not discern from reality, even having seen it built.

Animal terror and sudden greed for this knowledge – this knowledge she needed so badly – fought for her face.  Neither won.  Stillness.  She held herself silent inside and out until she could properly command her voice.

“Take your time to speak if you have to,” said the imp.  How did she always know?

When at last Keshena owned herself again, she looked up at Villi.  “Show me more.”


Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 2

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.