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 from 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.”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Yes.

“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.

“Keshena?”

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 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?”

“No.”

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.

Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 1

in which our fairweather heroine observes environs of Lion’s Reach

and encounters the Speaker for the Kumani

    Lumps of spine stood out on the old woman’s bent back when she pulled the cloak tighter around her.  Her filthy toenails jabbed through her worn leather shoes, which barely separated her soles from the pitted, winding track, and didn’t separate them at all from the muddy snow.  There were faster ways to get to Lion’s Reach, she thought, feeling a familiar resignation.  Doing it as a younger woman would have been chief among them.

She gained the crest of the hill and stopped to heave and hack a bit – all for show, a show with no audience she could see, but someone was always watching.  The eyes that took in the bleak, frostbitten hills were cloudy, and should have appeared vague, but ate up the view with youthful hunger.  For a moment her spine straightened, and the knotted stick in her hand hovered an inch above the ground, forgotten.  Then the old woman bent again, shriveled up again, and plodded on into the foothills.

At the start of this road the shivers had been half window-dressing, but by the time she passed the first guardpost of the Reach the snow had begun again.  She had never been this far north in her long, long life, and she wasn’t dressed for it.  That was all right.  She would freeze awhile.  Warm clothes would come, along with a fire, and maybe a place to sleep.  But in their order.  The old woman was good at waiting for her cue.

She suspected the guards were nearby long before she saw one.  As fallow farmland turned to the sprawling outer mess of a city, other travelers joined her on the track, coming and going.  They were ordinary enough – farmers with carts, peddlers, hunters, mercenaries.  The guards didn’t have anything in particular in common; there was no uniform, no insignia, not a weapon in sight.  But the old woman had worn others’ faces too long to miss the way a man moves when he plays a role, the unconscious consciousness of being watched.  A wild impulse rose in her, to reach out and twist the wrist of the sloppy young man with his foot up on the fencepost she was passing, to see how quickly and from where he would produce his blades.  She swallowed the urge, only offering him a vague smile when he looked her way.  She felt him assess her and quickly forget her, and was warmed by pride.  The Kumani, too, could be fooled.

Stone underfoot made the going less painful, but more treacherous.  Several times she slipped and staggered, or had to jab her stick into the crevice between cobblestones to keep from toppling over.  Pretending to break a hip would take time out of her day, but she’d do it if she was clumsy enough to make it necessary.  She paused in the shelter of the inner gate, and retreated into a corner to fumble a crumpled scrap of paper out of her cloak.  The guards’ eyes were on her – much more obviously now, and these young men and women did wear uniforms, green and grey and gold, and shining weapons that would probably prove far less effective than the hidden ones.  But her destination was not one of the many things she had to hide, and her other secrets would keep themselves, or not.  There was nothing to do about it now.  Once you got out on stage, you carried on with your chin up whatever happened, and never mind if your garter’d come undone.

She mumbled through the directions just loudly enough for the sharp-eared fellow behind her to hear, and his scrutiny slackened, though it never entirely faded.  The sense of being watched was everpresent.  The other citizens seemed to feel it too – this was not a city where one strolled, or promenaded with one’s head held high, although that might have had just as much to do with the vicious weather as anything else.

“North on Basilica Street, down to the end of the western atrium, then south before the last shop door…”  She shuffled off.  Great limestone walls surrounded her and hemmed in passers-by until the heat of their combined commercial exertions melted the falling snow at shoulder level.  The shopkeepers offered the same blandishments as anywhere else – clothes, candies, gifts for your lady – but these clothes were clotted with fur, and these ladies liked knives for gifts.  The old woman thought some of the candies might be poisoned.  At least one of the shiny lumps of sugar she was offered had a fat black spider entombed in it.

Basilica Street became, at some indeterminate point, an actual basilica, the mottled grey sky giving way to arches and lamplit naves.  At the intersection of the atria she stopped and looked up.  She wasn’t the only one doing so – other newcomers stood to gawk, and others also had to lean on their sticks to keep the sudden vertigo from toppling them.  The great central spire of Lion’s Reach was a spiraling shell of mezzanines as tall as the mountain that supported it.  Here oil-burning lamps gave way to cantilevered constructions draped with cables, and at the end of each cable, a clouded orb emitting steady light.  Far above her, she saw a thin man climbing across to service a flickering globe, and when he reached it, he cupped the air around it and whispered to it until it began to behave.  Magic and mathematics… the major exports of Lion’s Reach, when you left aside skullduggery.

Shop doors siphoned off portions of the crowd down the western atrium.  She smelled sausage and gravy and beer, hearty northern food that made her salivate.  She couldn’t afford to get much fatter, but a pound or two of insulation wouldn’t go amiss.  The shops declined sharply in quality as she neared her destination, and the browsing first became cursory, then ceased altogether.  The old woman nearly missed the alley pinched between a bar and a blacksmith.  No one followed her when she turned down it.  No one visible, at any rate.

The Basilica had an almost geological way of blurring the line between indoors and outdoors.  The alley became a series of storerooms, with the old woman shuffling along a clean track through inches of crates and dust.  The storerooms became staircases that threatened in earnest to break her hip.  Her fingers followed the groove in the wall that served for a banister, and found ice there.  It was two sharp doglegs before she came to the first light, a greasy lantern leaking an amber streak down the stone.  Then two more flights – must be descending into the very heart of the mountain, here – and an arch guarded by a pair of guttering braziers that failed even to melt the frost at their feet.  Following her directions closely, but not aloud any longer, the old woman made three turns past forbidding halls – but what hall was not forbidding, in this place – and then the black stone opened around her.

The air was wet and chill, cavelike, and she raised her head to follow the natural rise of the ceiling into a towering cavern.  It was as if the spire above were mimicked in the earth below; as if the entire mountain were hollow.  Pale, cold lights adorned a complex built of black glass, or so it appeared.  A cascade of water fell from the darkness into a glowing lake, which itself poured off a cliff’s edge into unknowable depths.  And there were people here now, moving silently on floors that reflected the soles of their shoes.  They looked at her as she came among them, with curiosity but not much concern.  She looked in return, carefully.  There were still no visible blades.  But as well as she knew her cues, she knew that she had come to a place she would not leave.  Either she would earn her place here, or she would die.  The thought, and the environs, suited her mood.  She was glad to be cold, glad to be frightened.  It had been a long time.

The library tunneled into the cave wall, and for the first time in this city she came upon a closed door.  Air like the breath of a forge struck her in the face when she turned the knob.  Scholars bowed over books, surrounded by braziers much more carefully tended than those outside.  So much fire so near to such a mass of ancient parchment… but better than the cave’s damp.  She could see a handful of dark-clad soldiers in the war against mold, shuffling and airing old volumes.  And near one of several enormous hearths, she spied her contact, if the description was to be trusted.  She closed the door firmly and tottered into the warmth.

Her hand fell on the shoulder of the young woman by the fire.  Pale as milk and skeletally thin, the very hand of Death, it looked a fright on the girl’s dark skin.  A habitual scowl was raised to meet her greeting, and the elder smiled inwardly.  This was the right soul, indeed.  There couldn’t be two here wearing a black stone in place of one eye.

“This is a private guildhall, ma’am!” the girl snapped.

“Al-Akir, yes?” the old woman said.  “Did you not invite me?”

The girl first stared, then cast her eye around the library to squelch any other stares with a curled lip.  “Lin al-Akir, yes.”  She bounced out of her chair and offered a small brown hand.  “I’m the Speaker here.  You must be Keshena; I’m sorry, I was expecting…”

Again the touch of that withered hand, cold as the stone and trembling very slightly.  “Go on,” Keshena murmured, stepping closer.  “What is it that you expected?”

Lin pursed her lips.  “I don’t mean any disrespect, ma’am, but our discipline and training requires a great deal of physical activity, and –“

The claw tightened on Lin’s fingers with sudden, startling force, and the old woman’s eyes crinkled along well-worn seams.  “Try me before you dismiss me.  If I surprise you, I’ll surprise your enemy, hmm?”

With an uneasy frown, Lin tightened her own grip.  “…Who are you, old one?” she whispered.

Keshena’s colorless lips stretched around a grin, and for a flickering second the eyes went pale and sharp – and then the clouds of cataracts rolled in again.  “You may never know, dearheart,” she whispered.

Shock kept Lin still, both hands clasping the old woman’s as one would cup a live moth.  Then with a blink, surprise retreated, masked beneath reserved courtesy.  “Right.  Feel, ah… free to sit, if you wish.”  She took her own seat again, folding her legs beneath her, and leaned over the arm to retrieve a small lute from her satchel.  Keshena took the nearest chair with clear relief that was only half feigned, and watched the girl’s fingers travel the strings aimlessly.

The meandering music calmed Lin’s nerves, and at length she found her way back to her usual line of questioning.  “Where are you from, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Keshena let the question lie there for a moment.  She kept the smile off her face, but amusement bubbled up inside her – the privilege of age was to inconvenience the young, and she always enjoyed it.  “Ah… Blackwall.  Once upon a time.”

“Blackwall?” Lin gasped.  “Gods, that must have been… it was before my time.  My father claimed he grew up there.  I hardly believed the city was real.”

The old woman sat almost unnaturally still, her tremors gone with no fidgets to replace them.  “It was stinking and cold,” she said.  “I lived there a long time… kept pigeons on the roof.  Then the plagues came.  When the downstairs neighbor died, I thought I’d best get out ahead of it, hmm?”

Confusion returned to Lin’s eye.  “But that was just a story – the plagues and all that.  It was a war, wasn’t it?”

Again the rattling laugh.  “Hard to say what’s a story anymore.  So let it be a story, then.  In this story, I kept pigeons on the roof, and a plague killed the old ladies and old men when I was… I was… forty?  And I left.  And then there were swamps and ruin where the city had been, and my house was gone.”

“There has to be more, then.  I mean, with all due respect, ma’am, I can’t see what would make you come up north.  This climate – and this city…”  Her tone became detached, respectful by habit but dubious by nature.  “I mean, it’s clean here, and very lovely, in a dark sort of way.  But the people here, they’re as filthy as the pictures of Blackwall in books.”

Keshena rolled her shoulders with a creaking that sounded as if she might need putting back together afterward.  “We all have our reasons, Miss al-Akir.  Perhaps we’ll trade sometime.”

The touch of a hand on her arm caused Lin to look sharply after the old woman’s, but both were in plain sight and behaving themselves.

“Miss al-Akir?”

A young man held out a sheaf of notes, nearly striking her in the nose with them as she turned.  Snatching them out of his hand, she spread them across her knees, keeping her good eye half on Keshena all the while.

“I feel as if I should be asking about you, but I don’t know quite what to think,” she confessed to the ancient.

Keshena tilted her head.  “Why’s that, d’you think?”

“It’s sort of my job.”  Lin turned over another page, frowning.  “But you… it feels rude to interrogate you.”

The old one closed her eyes, her thin lips bending slowly.  “You’re too young for your job, and I too old for mine.  You needn’t hesitate, girl.  I barely remember my first century, so you couldn’t intrude there if you tried.”

A page fell to the floor, sending the student to his knees to save it from the fire as Lin gaped at the old woman over his head.  “Gods…”  She clapped a hand over her mouth, her cheeks coloring at her own rudeness.  “I-I’m sorry, but… how old are you?”

Keshena eyed her with deep amusement for a moment.  With sudden clipped precision she said, “One-hundred ninety-three years old.”  Then in her former wandering tone, “Or… thereabouts.  Give or take.  You know.”

Lin shook her head slowly, stammering with exaggerated courtesy.  “Well, we have few near your venerable age in the guild, ma’am, but I’m honored.  The guild, that is; we are.  I, ah, hope you like it!”  The student fumbled his notes back into her lap and she scrambled to gather them as Keshena rose laboriously to her feet.

“Like it already,” she answered.  The words it would have taken to stop her from straying away were one too many things to hold onto.  A practical creature, Lin kept her grip on the pages in her hands and the comprehensible world, letting the ancient novice totter toward the door with only a speculative glance to chase her.