Summer, Eight Years Ago
This day was a special day for Jade: full of longing, highly anticipated, dreaded in its way. It was hot in a palling, breezeless way, promising thunderstorms and continually refusing to deliver them, waiting for some better moment. In the absence of weather happening, on this fly-buzzing July day, having finally finished out a seven-year term, Jade was released from prison.
Waiting for noon, the chosen time, Jade stretched the muscles of their brown, ink-marked, exercise-hardened arms, ready for the moment of release. When the doors were opened and the words “You’re free to go” were reluctantly spoken, they strode out in the ratty clothes provided for the purpose, eager to break free of the whole building. 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 the closest big city, getting a decent hamburger and 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 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.
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 someone who, it would surely turn out, really knew how to hold a grudge. 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 their generosity. It 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).
“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 sounded 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 a 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 smile of satisfaction lit her face. “We’ll see, won’t we?”
Five Days Later, 3:43 AM
Jade had been extremely impressed up to now, both with the plan and its execution. Sneaking into the depths of the Raoçao Grand Imperial Palace during visiting hours hadn’t seemed possible even before Amaranth — the 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.
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.
“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.”
“Not for a few minutes they won’t. And… I’ve got an idea.”
“Wh— what are you doing to her?”
“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. “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 on their cheek, but the red had been taken off for the courier role. Almost as compensation for this missed opportunity, Amaranth lingered there, lips near their cheek, 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. “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.”
“And for the magic wards.”
Amaranth wouldn’t be argued with. “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. “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.”
“I could build another team.”
With surprising reflexes, Amaranth volleyed back. “Bullshit. You wouldn’t know where to start planning jobs.”
Jade was still reluctant to admit weakness. They sat up fully, trying to take a better stance for self-defense in this unexpected argument. “What’s thing two?”
Amaranth leaned forward again, excitement clear in her face. “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. “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.”
I don’t know! “What do you even mean?”
“You know what I want to be when I grow up?”
“I… 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, with eyes wide open, dreamed.