implied sex, violence, homophobic slur
Table of Contents
- Winter, Eight and a Half Years Ago
- At Lights Out
- Cleaning Duty, Next Day
- Summer, Eight Years Ago
- Thirty Minutes Later
- Five Days Later, 3:43 AM
- Three Days Later and Three Countries Away
Winter, Eight and a Half Years Ago
Jade didn’t eat alone. They weren’t a hardcase, and there were a few of those here in The Blank: either big enough, mean enough, or unpredictable enough that they got their own table at feeding time. Contrary to popular belief, there were mages who could handle themselves toe-to-toe, and these, well, these were near the worst of them: the ones who merited long-term confinement. The hardcases enforced their own territory, kept themselves safe through distancing, but by Jade’s assessment, were also not going to be fit to reintegrate into society, by way of not talking to anyone for years on end. And that wasn’t gonna be Jade.
Jade was, in fact, gonna be free in about five months. They could taste it on the occasional warm day in the heavily walled, heavily warded gardens: the summer of freedom was coming, and they were gonna be ready to make friends, get that big, mouthwatering cheeseburger they’d been dreaming of, and live. Plus, they had a little… secret they didn’t want anyone to know; one that might leak out in an all-out brawl.
So Jade didn’t eat alone. Jade ate with Kvi “Teeth” Barker and his crew. Teeth was okay, as far as criminals went. Being a fire specialist himself, he thought fire was cool, which put Jade in his good books. He tended towards defensive violence, which was about as good as you could hope for, morality wise. Jade hadn’t asked what he was in for, Teeth hadn’t offered it, but people gave him the kind of space you gave someone with a reputation, so Jade figured they were better off not knowing. Finally, Teeth’s crew (inventively nicknamed the Teeth — as in, “you don’t fuck with the Teeth”) were stable. They held their own against Brigid’s Gang and the Brass Knuckles (or the Knucks) and whatever splinter offshoots flamed up and died away with the occasional new arrival. These were, in Jade’s opinion, stupid names for gangs, but voicing that was impolitic and might harm your chances of not eating alone. The important thing was, there were alliances, there was territory, there was occasional brutal violence, and the best way to navigate that was to be one of the Teeth.
These little struggles for territory, bubbling underneath until blood was spilled one sudden afternoon with half a dozen accomplices (who had never seen anything), took place in the Blank. This was the locally accepted nickname for The Terivois Institution for Imprisonment of the Magically Inclined, the oldest of the nation’s only three mage prisons, co-ed by necessity, given the rarity of institutions of its type. TIIMI, or “teemy”, had never really caught on. What all its inmates remembered was what hit them as soon as they entered the grounds. The effect of the big steel-and-rubber magic-cancelling boosters embedded in the concrete walls was, to the “magically inclined”, like getting salt water up the nose, without the water: acrid and disorienting, with a sense that some sense other than the usual five wasn’t quite working right. It took months for mages to fully get used to it, and many of Jade’s frien— compatriots complained in private about the ways it affected their sleep, meditation, card playing, or whatever else passed as quiet, personal time for them. It had, in fact, become the scapegoat for any kind of failure, gambling one of the foremost: Bad hand of cards? Blame the Blank. Fall asleep at your lunch table? Blanked all last night. Take a punch you should have dodged? If I wasn’t Blanked, I would’ve seen it coming…
Today, the food was… well, it was never big, greasy burgers with all of the fixings, but… the creamed corn was passable and the meat wasn’t actually grey, which meant the spirits around the big, grey stone cafeteria were riotous. Jade was sitting at the corner of one of two Teeth tables, spoon halfway to their lips, held there in cloth-wrapped hands as they regaled “Fuzzy” (Sharlene Vandelor) with one of their past gambling stories. They’d gambled a lot, that first year of college; the stories about winning were the proud ones, but this one was a story of a… learning experience. They grinned, their teeth glimmering against thin, dark brown lips, spoonful of lukewarm corn forgotten.
“So there— listen, Fuzzy, listen, I got the Eight through Queen of Spoons, okay? Plate is on the table, okay? And I’ve been counting cards, okay, so I know the King is out, King of Spices is out. This is a pretty good bet, right?” The nearest five heads nodded. “Okay, but you remember who I’m playing against?”
“Noddy,” Teeth volunteered. Teeth had heard this one before, but hells, they’d all heard all their stories before. You enjoyed the telling.
“Noddy Country fuckin’ Bumpkin, who did potions and nothin’ else. Easy mark, right?” Jade flourished the spoon, careful not to spill. They were not a messy person, which meant the dirt-grey wrappings around their hands called some attention.
“Except?” Maybe Fuzzy hadn’t heard this one before? She was only a year in, maybe a bit more. You could tell by the energy she had in her. Jade strove to mimic it. How long had it been, for them?
Six and a half years, that was right. Seven years was the ticket. Just a little longer.
“Except—” Jade began, and that was when someone spat in their spoon.
It was an impressive shot. The troublemaker was moving past Jade’s corner on the way to safer territory in the central cafeteria, Brigid’s turf, so they landed it on the move, from about eight feet away. Even as flecks of spittle dotted Jade’s neck, they thought, Wow.
Then, clearly audible in the sudden stony silence, a self-satisfied muttering. “Hey, fuck muncher.”
Jade stood up, but Fuzzy and Tax — another of Teeth’s crew, big on sports, hairy, low on teeth — had already gotten up, and Fuzzy was grabbing the spitter’s shirt. They hadn’t made it to Brigid’s area. They looked new. Pity that Jade had to stand up for themself.
“Nah, nah, nah, guys, let’s handle this one on one, huh? One on one,” Jade said, stepping over the bench and facing the newcomer. Scrawny white kid, wispy brown hair, young by the looks of it, some muscle, but twitchy. A fresh face — he’d appeared, what, a couple weeks ago? As Fuzzy and Tax circled around him, cutting off his escape to Brigid’s watching, but not yet active crew, half the cafeteria quieted down. Now it was an event.
Shit, I’ll probably get in trouble for this. And I’d rather not hit this idiot. Still, their reputation was on the line. Jade took their time settling themself into a casual boxer’s stance, their wrapped hands loosely tightened at the ends of well-muscled brown arms as they watched the white kid sweat. The sprawling black tattoos visible below their rolled-up sleeves were almost as good advertisement as the muscles. Jade was five foot seven; they had to be lean and fast, and after years of pushups, they’d gotten better at those two things.
“C’mon, kid, who put you up to this?” they said warmly, squaring off to prove something they’d rather not. It wasn’t that fighting was against their nature or anything; hell, they loved a good scrap outside of a bar where you got real lowlifes. The Blank had guards, though, and that was one thing to watch out for. For another, the kid was no fighter; he was a shit-disturber, but unseasoned, nothing to go on but raw attitude. He still hadn’t fully turned around — cocky, a sign of disrespect. Unless Jade was totally wrong, and the kid was hiding a weapon, this wouldn’t be a fight so much as a punishment, and Jade didn’t relish that in the least.
“Aw, c’mooonnn,” the kid finally said, drawing the word out as he sauntered through a half-turn. “You wouldn’t hit a fag, would you?” He spread his arms defenselessly, a grin on his face. “That’s practically homophobic.”
Ah, in another world, kid…
Jade sighed, dropped their arms, rolled their eyes, turned away— and then swung back with a left hook, sucker punch to the jaw. The kid dropped with a squeak. The cafeteria erupted in jeers at his fate.
“Whoever put you up to this, kid?” Jade said, stepping closer to his prone form. The interloper curled up into a ball as the Teeth closed in around him.
“They ain’t your friend. Make better friends, ‘kay?”
They returned to the table, feeling suddenly weary, and sank down onto their bench, staring down at their meal and the dirtied spoon they’d carefully laid aside. “I need a new fuckin’ spoon.”
“Jade, the story?” someone down the table wanted to know. Anther was his name, no nickname yet. Still pretty new himself. Jade tended to attract the new ones. “Noddy, right?” He was offering a gently-used spoon. Jade took it. “Did he trick you?”
Jade opened their mouth, ready to speak more, and thought, Barnes. Teddy Barnes was a scrawny shit-talker. Teddy Barnes wasn’t a bad kisser, either. Magikinetics major. Poet. I had a poem of his memorized once.
What they said was, “Fuck off. I’m done telling stories.”
“Fuck off, kids,” Teeth helpfully said from three seats down. “Daddy Jade’s done talkin’.”
Not a daddy. Whatever. Fuck it. They stirred their rice, and then forced themself to eat over the sounds of a stranger getting the shit kicked out of him.
At Lights Out
“Psst. Jade. Hey. Jade.”
That was Teeth’s whispering voice, and Jade wasn’t asleep, although they were trying to pretend to be. The bunks were less than comfortable, but they were grateful to still be in theirs. One punch had been considered fair restraint, but apparently it was still going on their permanent record, whatever that meant. Maybe they’d only get through jail with a C+. “Yeah?” they finally responded.
“Why you wear the hand wraps, anyway?”
Ah, this old chestnut. Jade liked to tell stories about that, when they were in a good mood. Everything from “implanted brass knuckles”, which was not that far off, to “terribly disfiguring burns”, to “secret nipples on there” (that was Tax’s favourite story, actually).
Tonight wasn’t a good night for stories. Tonight was haunted.
“You wanna know, Teeth?”
There was silence, but its flavour changed noticeably, if you were accustomed to silences and to people. Jade was both. First, the silence was surprised; then, it turned to the silence of a man savouring the anticipation of its breaking.
“Yeah,” was Teeth’s final response. “Yeah, of course.”
“You ever see me take those wraps off? That means I’m really angry.”
Another silence, this one brief, a digestion of what truths had been told and what hadn’t. “What, you got some kinda bombs in your hands?”
“Wanna find out?” Jade was feeling testy. There was no way for them to reach Teeth in his cell, but a good threat could put an end to any conversation. It usually did, with Teeth, as often by impressing him as by deterring him. But this time, just as Jade was sure he was asleep, he responded.
“I’ll talk to you tomorrow, tough guy.”
“Not a guy,” Jade responded. Oh. Good. That part of me still works.
Fuck, what am I saying? No more falls, Jade. Last winter, Jade. One more spring, out in the summer. Keep it together. Get some sleep.
They did get some sleep, in the end. They had practice at that.
Cleaning Duty, Next Day
The mop stank of mold and old food, but Jade appreciated the chance to clean out the kitchen anyway. Everything felt better tidy. They’d given up on their hopes of trading for shoe polish, but cleaning the caked-on grime after a week or two of cooking helped make the whole place feel cleaner, so they always volunteered for kitchen duty.
Today, unusually, so did Teeth and Tax. Something was up.
Tax was on perimeter duty, apparently, sanitizing the sides of counters and coldboxes aggressively enough that everyone else on kitchen duty gave him a wide berth. This left Teeth and Jade in a weird-feeling inner sanctum, and it wasn’t long before Teeth broke the silence.
“So Jade,” he finally muttered, voice low, apparently focused on the seam between two sinks, detergent bubbling across the area. The guard stationed at the kitchen door focused on Tax, who seemed liable to cause a minor crisis at the best of times, let alone when equipped with cleaning chemicals.
“Out with it, Teeth, I can’t stand the tension,” Jade responded, focused on what they were sure were crushed coffee beans ground into the floor. Waste of good coffee, they thought idly.
“I got… let’s say, an opportunity for you.”
“Mmhmm?” Jade responded, pointedly not looking at him. Teeth’s idea of an “opportunity” could be anything from a traded baseball card to a very, very bad idea.
“I got a brother.”
“You got a brother?” This actually caused Jade to glance at Teeth’s ratty shoes before they remembered to be covert. “Six years and you never mentioned!”
“Yeah, I keep quiet about him,” Teeth responded, his voice still low. “Thing is, he’s real smart, right? He’s got his hands on some good stuff…”
Oh, no. Jade’s second, third, and fourth lines of mental defense all went up at once. The first line… never really went down.
“Oh, yeah?” they said casually, buffing out the coffee bean stains like they’d done dozens of times before.
“Don’t say nothing, but yeah. Arcstones. Unapproved, but good material, lotsa different elements. From Uvix, couple from Merradonne. Whole stock of it.”
I bet they’re great quality. “So?” Jade kept it light.
“So, he’s real good at getting stuff, but he’s a wimp. No backbone. Afraid of being on the street, right? And I’m stuck in here a little while longer…”
“So what do you want from me, then?” Jade responded, refusing to connect the dots for him.
“Come on, Jade!” Teeth moved onto the faucet, his murmuring voice distorted softly by the metal basins beneath him. “I need someone to move this stuff for me. You’re real good with people. I know I can trust you, bud. Plus, it’s steady work, low overheads. You don’t have better plans, do you?”
“Mm. Dangerous.” This was a difficult situation for Jade to balance. They did not want to piss off Teeth, who was at the moment their best ally; and, yeah, they didn’t have any plans fresh out of jail. On the other hand, a repeat offense could mean prison for life… and that wasn’t considering the dangers inherent in staking out territory on a street corner or back-alley for illegally hawking off-market magical components.
“Yeah, but you can look out for yourself! Remember yesterday?”
Jade remembered yesterday.
“Yeah… “ How do I let this guy down easy? “Lemme think about it, okay, pal?”
Teeth stopped cleaning. Bad sign.
“I know what ‘let me think about it’ means, Jade. It means ‘no, but I don’t wanna deal with you right now’. So fuckin’ tell me yes or no, but do it now.” Teeth was staring now, and Jade risked meeting the stare as a sign of respect. It meant risking the guard noticing what was rapidly becoming a showdown, but Teeth would take looking away very badly. Shit. Shit. Shit.
They tried a rueful smile, one they knew was usually charming. “Sorry, Teeth… I’ll always have a place in my heart for ya, but I gotta go straight after this one. As hard as that will be for me, trust me.”
Teeth finally broke the staring contest just as the guard was beginning to take notice, looking back down at his sink and breathing heavily. Jade gladly got back to their mopping, resisting the urge to look back at the suddenly unpredictable crew boss. “Fuck. Shoulda known you’d weasel outta this alliance in the end.”
This sounded bad. Jade did what they could to alleviate the tension. “C’mon, Teeth, haven’t I been with you for six years, bad and good? You can’t fault me for tryn’a get outta the crime game in the end, huh? Fuck, if I’m in a place to get you honest work after this, or your brother, or vice versa, sure I’ll have a spot for you, you’ve been loyal as hells!” That was true, to an extent; Teeth was… reasonably loyal. Up to when it didn’t make sense to be loyal anymore.
“Yeah, don’t do me any favours, Jade. I was counting on you,” Teeth seethed.
“Yeah, well…” Jade threw a few words into the uncomfortable silence. “Maybe you still can.”
They cleaned, Tax still giving them their few metres of privacy.
“Huh?” Jade sounded more surprised, more uncomfortable than they would’ve liked then. A show of weakness. That wouldn’t have mattered in front of Teeth an hour ago, but now…
“Don’t fuckin’ play dumb, Jade. The hand wraps. What you got under there?”
Jade hesitated, weighing the benefits. Six— no, five more months. Long enough that a fragile alliance might be worth it. If I let him in a little…
“Yeah, okay,” they finally said. “You deserve to know.” Although fuck, they’d done enough to keep this hidden for the past six years, this felt like a waste. At least it was only Teeth, and Teeth could be trusted with a secret.
“Arcane tats. You heard of Arcan-Ink?”
Teeth’s cleaning sounds slowed a bit, maybe a good sign. “Shit, yeah, actually. My brother told me about it in one of his letters. It as good as they say?”
“I dunno, haven’t used it in about six years.”
“Huh.” Quiet cleaning. “What enchantment?”
Another pause for quiet cleaning. “But… if they’re arcane tats… aren’t they Blanked?”
Jade shrugged. “Probably.”
“So, why then, if they don’t work?”
Jade smiled, their flair for gab coming back to them. “They probably don’t, Teeth, but this shit’s new, ain’t it? How many fancy academic papers you think been written on how Arcan-Ink interacts with Blank tech?”
Jade slowed down their speech a little; they had been getting a little over-excited, a little whimsical. “So let’s say I take the wraps off and deck someone. What happens?”
“…they don’t work?” Teeth was being deliberately obtuse, because Jade knew for a fact he had the arcane knowledge to put this together, but Jade didn’t rise to the bait.
“Maybe. Or, maybe they do work, some unlucky sucker gets blasted into the wall, I get upgraded to solitary and no time off for good behaviour.”
“Or, and this is possible, maybe they explode and oops, no hands left for Jade. Which might also mean,” Jade felt obliged to add for self-preservation, “no head left for the other party.”
“Huh. Yeah, that’s tough.”
“So I keep the wraps on. Better safe than sorry.”
Jade let the silence of revelation settle between the two of them, focusing on the satisfying image of their strong, dark brown arms drawing the mop back and forth. Maybe that secret was worth peace, huh, pal?
“Can I see?”
“…okay, but no touching, and this stays private, okay? This is because I trust you.”
“If you say so,” Teeth said easily, putting both hands on the soapy rag at the sink’s bottom as he leaned forward to see. It could have meant anything.
Five more months, Jade thought, unravelling the grey wraps. This had better be worth five more months. Then they’d never have to have anything to do with any of the opportunists in this desperate place again, Teeth included.
Guess I’m gonna weasel out of this alliance after all.
Summer, Eight Years Ago
It was hot in a palling, breezeless way, the air settling heavily on windowsills and tabletops. The trick knees and attuned waters of the prison promised thunderstorms that the gods continually refused to deliver, waiting instead for some better moment according to their divine judgment. In the absence of weather happening, on this fly-buzzing July day, having finally finished out their seven-year term, Jade was to be released from prison.
They had been fully searched. They had been paperworked, a process that apparently took hours of them waiting in a little room and occasionally confirming the street they grew up on (Betterment Avenue), their first pet’s name (never had one), and their legal last name (given reluctantly and repetitively — “can you leave it blank” was poorly received, but they wanted nothing more to do with the Axlewrights, and the feeling was mutual). They had been, humiliatingly, presented in front of the rest of the inmates in an official ceremony about the bettering power of the criminal justice system, despite their probable C+ grade for nasty behaviour. Apparently, as they said back in college, Cs got degrees.
At the moment, they sat in a nice wooden room on a bench between two armed guards, another two present at the doors. One forward to freedom, one back to prison. Why do you need to guard that one? Jade wondered, mouth dry, watching the clock tick forward in the silent room. I’m not gonna want to go that way. And for that matter, are you gonna arrest me for leaving ten minutes early?
But they probably would. Best not to risk it. Best to sit here, in these stupid, threadbare jeans and this awful green t-shirt (with its slogan, READING IS FOR ALL, emblazoned in eye-watering blue against a cool vest-wearing pigeon), and watch the grandfather clock in this needlessly ornate room tick forward, as the warden watched you from the desk specially built for the purpose, all speeches having been spoken, and…
As the clock’s bell rang for the third time, the warden looked up from some other paperwork and offered, “Well, you’re free to go. Don’t let me see you back here again.”
And that was it. They were. They stood up, stepped away from that uncomfortable guard-shoulder sandwich, moved toward those big double doors, and nobody stopped them.
Even as they approached the exit doors, though, they were aware of the contradiction in terms.
Free to go… where?
The obvious answer, the one they were trying to avoid as they pushed the doors open and left behind one of the hardest things they’d ever done, was nowhere. There was no life left to go back to. No friends to visit. No family to speak of. Certainly no job waiting. That kind of thing could lead to depression, which was why Jade was planning on taking a bus to Batton City, finally getting a decent hamburger, feeling the sun on their face as a free bird, and seeing where the world took them from there. Getting a haircut. Watching squirrels in the park.
None of this ever happened. Or at least, not in that precise way.
This was because there was someone there, standing in visitor parking in the empty prison parking lot. She was holding — as if she was standing in the middle of a crowd at an airport; as if worried that between the two of them and the security guards, they might miss each other — a white posterboard sign that said “JADE” on it, surrounded by two big pink markered hearts. She was a towering, long-haired blonde with a tight pink dress, a wide, confident smile, more than a little fae blood (judging by the pointed ears and the big pupils), and an air about her like she’d just gotten off the highway and in another hour she’d be back on a yacht.
She was also a total stranger.
Even with their suddenly re-awakening magical senses pushing their judgment to recklessness, Jade wasn’t stupid, and seven years’ prison time had honed the edge of their suspicion. They knew how to smell a trap, and they absolutely were not getting in that orange convertible to be ferried over toward Teeth’s brother, who hadn’t gotten the message and was really counting on them… or else someone who, it would surely turn out, really knew how to hold a grudge. Looking back at their past, there were options for that last one. So no. They were passing by the too-pretty stranger who knew too much, they were getting the bus and the hamburger. They were getting the new life.
Thirty Minutes Later
Jade still wasn’t stupid, and yet they were sitting passenger, a crinkle-wrapped drive-through burger in their hands, listening to the blonde woman get to some kind of dreaded point, and they had caught themself nodding from time to time. Surely a defense mechanism against the loss of their first burger as a free person: smile, nod, don’t make her change her mind about her generosity. It had helped that the first several minutes of conversation had been small talk, including: how do you feel to be out (good, rather be out than in), got plans for the next while (maybe), how’s your burger (good thanks), mind if I turn off the radio (no, this music is garbage). Jade had been listening very carefully for the words “Teeth”, “Kvi”, “Barker”, or “brother”, but none of these had been forthcoming.
“So there’s this topaz,” the mysterious blonde finally said, alert gaze flicking between the vast unspooling highway and Jade, “once owned by the Grand Minister November, that has been charged with arcane energy once per day by every minister of note in Raoçao and never depleted. It’s called Life’s Endeavour, considered both a national treasure and an art piece.”
“Mm.” Nod, nod. This was totally new; Jade had never been involved with anything political. It had always been small-scale. It also sounded like it was leading up to something bad. The burger was good. Jade ate faster, so that when the bad part came, they could bail with a full stomach.
She continued on, apparently unperturbed by Jade’s lack of contribution. “So, what I’m thinking, is we get you some proper clothes instead of those secondhand jeans.”
“Mm…” Another big bite of burger. This was too much carrot and not enough stick.
“And I take you back to my place…” Far too much carrot, but at this point they were going to choke if they tried to eat any more burger before swallowing. Or carrot, come to that.
“And we talk about how to steal it.”
That’s what I thought you were gonna say.
In a hurried voice, muffled by fast food, Jade gave the readied line: “Mm, actually, you’ve been wonderful, but this here’s my stop, so if you don’t mind—”
“We’re going sixty-five on the highway, and you haven’t given me a fair listen yet.”
Jade laughed through their mouthful. “Lady, you’re a sight for sore eyes, but you are not convincing me to commit crimes against any state on my first day out of jail.”
The woman acknowledged this with a brief nod, pursing her red-painted lips for a moment’s thought. “Am I welcome to try?”
In what they both later agreed was a pivotal moment, Jade paused, unsure of which answer to give. The blonde didn’t let them think.
“You’re getting food out of me, you’re getting clothes, and I haven’t pulled a weapon on you yet. I want to hire you, not kidnap you. Hear me out?”
She glanced over again, her gaze lingering. She did have real big eyes, and, well, it had been a long time since anyone had looked at Jade like that. A very long time.
“Fair’s fair, you can talk, but I’m gonna say no.”
A satisfied smile lit her face. “We’ll see, won’t we?”
Five Days Later, 3:43 AM
It had taken some convincing. Jade had a lot of edge to wear off.
First of all, the plan apparently involved sneaking into the depths of the Raoçao Grand Imperial Palace during visiting hours, which was way beyond Jade’s pay grade. They had said so, and been confronted with the fact that the pay would change to suit the work completed. Still, the heist hadn’t seemed possible even before Amaranth — the name they’d been given by the confident blonde woman, apparently the lone mastermind behind this scheme — had presented the intricacies of the challenge. Overlapping guard shifts and patrol patterns, careful accounting for all guests, the layered arcane wards around any item of value — let alone the skull-sized Life’s Endeavour — and some old, but still functional, physical traps in private corridors made the whole idea look ridiculous.
That had all changed when Amaranth pulled out a larger sheaf of documents and detailed the plan. There were, for one, details. She seemed to have thought of anything, and Jade took a couple of days to find all of the possible ways it could fail, determined not to be convinced. Strangely, this only seemed to encourage Amaranth, who had organized folders, maps, and prepared presentations detailing their route in and out. Eventually, the argument fell to role-playing guards, and after two several-hour sessions, Jade finally had to admit that Amaranth was dependably good at giving them reasons to excuse and overlook her being somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be.
Slowly, Jade found themself believing she could pull it off, if only she had someone to deal with the net of arcane wards around their goal. Luckily, Jade’s education extended toward magical issues of all kinds, and while their arcane senses were dulled from years of under-use, a little practice every day and Amaranth’s triple-checked pilfered map of the compound’s ritually maintained legacy wards combined to make the whole thing seem…
To be honest, Jade was extremely impressed, both with the plan and its execution. It had taken almost two hours to evade the tour group’s guards and find the specific hiding space, but thanks to the blueprints and Amaranth’s uncanny depiction of an overly enthusiastic tourist (repeated for every new guard they encountered), they had found themselves in the spare storage space behind a small staircase. Given their suite of tattoos, Jade could thank Amaranth for not only camouflaging their strangeness into just another tourist, but also for buying a fashionably cut suit to do it. Following a surprisingly well-forged package of memos hand-delivered by Amaranth (this time in the guise of an inter-departmental courier), three guard shift changes were called fifteen, twenty-three, and twenty-seven minutes early, leaving a twenty-four minute gap for the two to infiltrate. The next stage was Jade’s specialty and presumably the reason they’d been sought out.
Except one guard apparently hadn’t gotten her memo.
Jade massaged their right hand, hissing out a breath and ignoring the crackles of static as the knuckle enchantments reacted to touch. Well, on the plus side, they thought, watching the shallow movements of the unconscious guard’s chest, that enchanter wasn’t lying: looks like that Arcan-Ink stuff really doesn’t wear off. They glanced up at Amaranth, who, credit to her, seemed only mildly surprised, and pronounced the obvious.
“This is bad.”
“Salvageable.” She didn’t at all seem perturbed, calmly assessing the situation.
“We should go.” Jade glanced toward the doorway that they had thought would be unguarded. “Round about now.”
“You’ve got some wards to defuse.”
“They’re gonna miss her, Amaranth.”
“Not for a few minutes they won’t. And… I’ve got an idea.” Amaranth strode decisively toward the female guard and kneeled beside her.
“Wh— what are you doing to her?” Jade wasn’t used to losing their composure, but things were getting weird.
“Don’t pay attention to that,” Amaranth said, her voice an alarming mixture of confident and dismissive. Jade peered closer.
“Are you stripping her? Gods, Amaranth!”
“Pay attention to your job, that I need you for,” Amaranth continued breezily. She drew the black shirt over the guard’s head, already kicking off her comfortable courier’s shoes.
Jade refused to pay attention to their job, again looking around and expecting danger. One guard meant, very probably, more guards. “You’re going to get us both killed.”
Pants halfway up her thighs and held in one hand, clothed only in silky black underwear, Amaranth leaned toward them and — before they could react — left a kiss on their cheek. Jade was hit with a shudder of arousal at the idea of her lipstick mark left there, but the red had been taken off for the courier role. Almost as compensation for this missed opportunity, Amaranth lingered there, her lips brushing their face, whispering, “I’m going to get us both rich. Now work your magic for me.”
Jade swallowed. “Fuck me.”
This was apparently the right thing to say, because Amaranth was already buttoning the shirt, heading for the door, and thence toward the guard post. “See you soon…”
Jade allowed themself a moment of fervent hope that they would, before delving wholly into the intricacies of poison magic and what turned out to be a clever adaptation of Bleylock’s Uncertain Participle.
Three Days Later and Three Countries Away
This safehouse, which Jade had never visited, made them wonder about Amaranth’s past. It was well-hidden and well-stocked, with a small book collection, a supply of arcane reagents big enough for a small contractor, and the most comfortable toilet Jade had ever sat on. It also had a big, comfortable bed, which was at this point in time crewed by two happily exhausted people and more sweat than clothing.
“What are you doing after this?”
Jade stared at the ceiling, considering the sudden possibilities. “Uh. Dunno.”
“Wanna stay with me?”
They gave a chuckle, happy to entertain the fantasy for now. “Are we gonna do that every week?”
“We’ll do maybe one or two a year. Depends on what we want. I’m not trying to build an empire here—”
“Yeah, about that.” Jade propped themself up on one elbow, an itch that had been bothering them finally coming to the front of consciousness. “What are you trying to do? Destabilize a country? Warmongering? I’ve been wondering.”
Amaranth sat up, facing Jade down, her face serious for the moment. “Fuck no. And for the record, they’ll be just fine without their gem. They haven’t used it for four hundred and eighty years anyway. If they fight about it, that’s all sore-loser politics.”
“So.” She stared at them, a smile slowly blooming across her face.
She let the smile linger long enough that Jade got tingles down their spine. It was hard not to watch her mouth when it moved. “Have you ever had a dream, Jade?”
Jade was not prepared for the question, nor ready to improvise. “I mean—”
“Don’t say something stupid.”
They both let a silence affirm Amaranth’s seriousness.
“A dream. Something you wanted more than anything else. Haven’t you had one?”
Amaranth continued, overriding their hesitation. “I think you have. I think someone without a dream wouldn’t look or act like you. That’s why I chose you: I thought you’d understand.”
Jade sat up to meet Amaranth’s eye level, rallying. “And for the magic wards.” Despite themself, Jade was looking forward to this sudden argument. The ones before, when they’d been questioning her plan, had always ended with both of them smiling, a kind of foreplay that neither of them admitted at the time, and hell — Amaranth was smart. She was confident. This was fun.
Amaranth wouldn’t be defeated so easily.. “I needed an expert for the wards. You were the right expert.”
Jade tried to reel the conversation in. “So what am I understanding?”
“Suits, tattoos, agreeing to a heist straight out of jail…”
This was an uncomfortably apt summation of Jade’s current state. “Yeah?”
“Isn’t there someone you wanna be, Jade? That maybe you can’t be anywhere else?”
Jade smiled a thin smile, the roughness of the last seven years not having rubbed off in a week’s time. “You fulfill your part of the deal and give me my full cut, I can be whatever I want wherever I want.”
“You can’t be two things.” Again, Amaranth seemed unexpectedly prepared for this argument.
“First thing. You can’t do this. You can’t be a part of this specialized team.”
Memories of the last few uncomfortable, mistrustful months as one of the Teeth rose to Jade’s mind. “I ain’t exactly big on teams.”
With surprising reflexes, Amaranth volleyed back. “I think you are.”
Jade heard themself scoff, the sound more surprised than anything. “That assumes a lot.”
Amaranth’s newly-painted nails landed on the bedspread, planting to emphasize her counter-argument. “You love talking with me. You like telling stories, you like picking apart what I say looking for weakness, and it gets you off a little bit when I win anyway. You followed a strange woman into a car in a prison parking lot, and that was in part because you were lonely. You’re gonna need a team to bounce off of.”
Well, we both knew she was good at this. “Okay, say I want a team. I could build another one with this kinda money, easy.”
“Bullshit. You wouldn’t know where to start planning jobs.”
Jade was still reluctant to admit weakness. They leaned forward, unwilling to give up momentum. “So what’s thing two?”
Amaranth leaned forward in response, excitement clear in her face, almost close enough to kiss. “You’d lose me.”
Jade felt their thin smile reappear. Ah. It was admittedly very nice to be crushed on, but somehow, they’d expected this sophisticated, intelligent woman not to be this… self-centered. “I mean, this has been great, but…”
“Jade.” Amaranth’s expression had lost all its joy and laughter, had gone solemn and serious without losing any of her energy. “I know you just got out of prison, and things are hard for you, but do me a favour and think before you get cynical on me, please? It’s hurtful.”
Jade hadn’t expected to feel guilty. “Okay, so, why you, then?”
“I am also someone pursuing my dream. And if you stay with me…” Her face blossomed into a grin, a reward for Jade’s remorse, the whiteness of her teeth visible in the low light. “You get your dream. A hundred percent. Whatever you want. Whoever you want to be. No matter how weird, no matter how vulnerable. You get your wish to come true.
“Because it’s not just the money, Jade. You have the money now. I couldn’t hold that over you, and I wouldn’t try. It’s the company. You can’t buy that, can you? You can’t buy the team, or the people. You can’t buy people to believe in your dream for you.”
This felt to Jade like too long a chain of reasoning, and chains had holes in them. They found one. “I could interview people.”
Amaranth’s grin gained a saucy tilt. “Uh-huh. Jade?”
“What’s your dream?”
“Me? Uh…” A burger seemed an inappropriate response, and during the endless weeks of prison routine, Jade had just about been able to dream of being freed and having junk food. They cast back to their high school years for something more substantial. What had they wanted then?
“I dunno, become a doctor…”
Amaranth’s effortless reading of them was starting to irk Jade. “Okay, what’s wrong with being a doctor?”
Her long, red-nailed fingers closed on Jade’s chest, gripping their collarbone. Jade smiled despite themself. It was very nice to be touched like that again.
“You don’t want it.”
The contrarian impulse rose further, fuelled by flirtation. “What if I do?”
“You telling me,” she squeezed here a little for emphasis, “that you want to work on sick patients for the rest of your life? Then why aren’t you in med school? Why did you go to jail for arson for so long, if your true dream was to be a doctor?”
“I will not fuck off. You need to listen to me!” The sharpness in her voice was shocking. “I am offering you the chance of a lifetime! You have your ‘fuck off’ money, you can go fuck off yourself if you want, but you aren’t going to, because your tattooed ass just got rich and you need to respect that, of the two people in this room? I know what the fuck I am doing. Are we clear?”
This silence felt a little deeper.
“Okay.” Somehow, Amaranth had returned to her balance of playfully flirtatious and utterly serious. It was compelling, and also, somehow, disorienting. “One more time, cute stuff. What’s your dream.”
Maybe I don’t know! “What do you even mean?”
“You know what I want to be when I grow up?”
“I, uh… I dunno?”
In a tone of deeply treasured, almost pornographic revelation, Amaranth confessed, “I want to be the prettiest girl in the room. I want to be the one everyone trusts with all their secrets. I want to be able to tell everyone anything. I want to do big, dramatic heists and then live without working. I want to have a lot of sex with the exact people I want, and I want to look very, very good when I do it. I want to drink decent wine, and fuck when I want, and go fuck over the aristos when I want, and I never want anyone to stop me. That’s a dream, Gemstone. Forget the job you wanna work five days a week. Tell me what you dream about. Because me? I’m getting mine.”
The third silence was loud.
“Good. You’re thinking. I’m encouraged.” She kissed them on the mouth this time, leaving the ghost of the red stain that Jade had been hoping for, and watched them reel with possibility.
And after an incredulous minute, Jade fell back onto the bed, and stared up at the ceiling, trying to dream again. It felt like stretching muscles that had been tensed for years. It almost hurt. But… something about Amaranth made anything seem possible.
“Okay, for starters? I never have to wear a fuckin’ t-shirt again…”