Table of Contents
- Five Years Ago
- That Evening
- That Night
- The Next Morning
- The Next Night
- to be continued
Five Years Ago
Amaranth would just as soon not have been in the swamp town of Kyravasti, surrounded by miles and miles of soggy land and turbid water, moss-draped trees shrouding it in greenish darkness even in mid-afternoon. It reminded Amaranth of the home she’d left far, far behind: great place to live, if you were a land eel. It was a wonder anyone chose to work here, and a mystery what Vyruth Power & Mana was paying them to work on. But someone wanted to know, and they wanted to know badly enough that they had managed to contact Amaranth, and shown Amaranth a number with a dollar sign in front of it and enough zeros after it to engage her enthusiasm for Kyravasti, and so she and Jade were here, working out how to get the information that would make that number theirs.
She looked over at Jade, who was sitting at a table in their hotel room, busy grinding dried flowers in a mortar, gods and Jade alone knew for what. Amaranth let her gaze linger; it was a nice view. They’d rolled up their sleeves in deference to the heat and humidity, showing muscled arms from shoulders down to their ever-present gloves. Those arms were covered in a fascinating mesh of both arcane and artistic tattoos, dark lines on their warm brown skin rippling as they worked the pestle.
They said, “I can feel you looking at me, Amaranth.”
“Lucky guess. Not much else worth looking at around here.”
“I’m thinking we’ve got this VP&M facility out in the worst part of the swamp, and I don’t much feel like getting my shoes wet,” Amaranth mused. “I don’t suppose you can just magic us in and out after hours?”
Jade stopped grinding and put the pestle down across the top of the mortar. “You want the long version or the short?”
“Short. Let’s say, last time I was through a portal terminal, I was paying more attention to the cutie in front of me than the safety posters.”
They said, “There’s a lot of exciting ways to die trying, doll. We ain’t got enough intel for me to tell you yeah or nah.”
Amaranth shrugged. “All right. Thought I’d ask.”
“We’ll get that intel, then. This was already looking like we’d need an insider, so let’s go shopping for one.” She paused, curious. “What’s with the flowers, anyway? Got a potion going?”
Jade stretched, lacing their gloved hands together above their head. They smiled, picked up the pestle again. “After a fashion, darlin’. I’ve been doing my own cologne.”
She made her way down two flights of spiral wrought-iron stairs, sandal steps ringing on the metal, the only noise in the humid air. A bored-looking woman behind the front desk perked up slightly at her approach, put down the brochure she was fanning herself with. She had dark hair, braided to keep it off her face, and a nice button nose.
Amaranth smiled her broad smile and told her, “So I’m looking to unwind a little. Micrata’s had me running all over, but lucky me, got a break in the schedule for a few days. What’s Kyravasti do at night?”
The clerk said, “Well, ma’am, the Ziggurat is very popular with tourists and businesspeople. Fantastic seafood, excellent selection of wines. Short walk from here down the main road, although,” she looked Amaranth up, and down, and up, and down again, assessing, “I can ring our driver and have him take you and anyone that might be accompanying you there for a nominal fee, and they can call us and have him pick you up afterwards. Those are lovely sandals, ma’am; be a shame to get mud on them, and it’s been drizzling on and off all afternoon.”
“Aww, thank you, honey. And that was a lovely upsell. One saleswoman to another. Might take you up on it tomorrow.” Amaranth smiled again, leaned in conspiratorially, putting her elbow on the desk. “Looking to unwind a little further than that. See some local color.”
The clerk raised an eyebrow. “Ma’am?”
“Where do you go on your day off?”
“Well, there’s the Club, but—”
“This club have a name?”
“It’s actually just called the Club. It really might be a little low-rent for you, ma’am,” and the clerk leaned towards Amaranth, mirroring her. She said in a low voice, “I wouldn’t go there without my fiance, is what I’m saying.”
“Sounds perfect.” Amaranth slid a twenty over the desk; the clerk nodded happily and pocketed it. “You know what, ring that driver and tell him I’ll be ready in a half hour. Two people. Bill it to the room.”
“Yes, ma’am! Thank you! Pleasure to help.”
“Pleasure’s all mine,” Amaranth told her, and meant it. This felt like a lead, and for sure the cute little clerk wasn’t getting paid enough to put up with this heat. Amaranth believed in sharing the wealth. Especially other people’s.
Tires squelched in the mud as the black sedan pulled up to the edge of what passed for a curb in this part of Kyravasti. Mud slightly higher and more solid than the other mud, perhaps. The driver put the parking brake on, came around to open the door for Amaranth. She took his proffered hand with a smile, grateful for the assistance with unfolding herself from the back seat, which hadn’t really had enough room for a woman of Amaranth’s stature. Once vertical, she turned slowly on the wooden sidewalk, taking in the surroundings as she straightened out the rumpled pleats of her tea-length dress.
One driver, currently learning that Jade didn’t need any damn help out of the car, thank you very much. One ancient sedan, black, paint rusted and chipped around the wheel wells. Two gas-fired street lamps, each haloed with its own busy swarm of marsh insects vying to incinerate themselves. A boardwalk leading over the uneven ground of what might have been a lawn once, towards a huge house, shingled in white, faced with columns supporting open galleries on the higher floors. And the omnipresent swamp itself. It was late, the sun was setting, and it was still too damn hot.
She could hear the faint bass thump of Meridian funk; even as she listened, it was cut off, replaced by the even fainter strains of the horn section of a piece of Raoçao salsa that had been inescapable on the airwaves three years ago. Now that brought back memories. She smiled again in the twilight, but a private smile, for herself only.
Amaranth turned back to the driver and ascertained that yes, The Club had the means of calling their hotel when they’d had enough and wanted a ride home. She slipped him a ten, letting him see a few larger-denomination bills on her money clip so he wouldn’t decide to go to bed early. He lifted his cap briefly, and then he and the car made a broad arc in the street and went back the way they’d come.
She recognized the trumpet-shaped white flowers of night jessamine in the bushes around the lamps, plucked a sprig, inhaled the scent. As she braided it skillfully into her long blonde hair, she said, “Y’know, Jade, this feels like our kinda place.”
“You say that almost everywhere we go.”
“Well, it’s true. How do I look?”
The mage flicked their eyes up and down. “Tourist. With money. And some taste. How much of our last payout are you wearing, anyway?”
“Enough to look like I can buy my own drinks.” She turned in an impulsive half-spin, metal and gemstones glinting with the yellow-orange gaslight at her wrists, ears, throat. “And then a little extra for me.” She checked the white floral-print fabric of her dress, cinched the broad maroon leather belt a little tighter. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
“Yeah? How do I look?”
Jade wore black slacks with razor creases, black leather shoes polished to mirror shine, and a white dress shirt, sleeves down and cuffs linked in open defiance of the heat. Amaranth envied their ease in the tropical humidity. She’d only ever seen Jade sweat on two occasions: in bad magic trouble, holding a complex spell together with personal mana and sheer willpower, and in bed, which she was happy to take some of the credit for.
“Corporate… but not from here, and not here long. And honestly? Damn sharp, that’s how. Shall we go?”
Satisfied, they offered her an arm. She took it and let them walk her down the path.
The boardwalk ended in a garden gone to riot. More jessamine contended with wisteria, honeysuckle, true jasmine, who knew what else. If this place had been properly gardened within the last decade, Amaranth would have been surprised. The black-clad bouncer standing at an improvised podium by the front steps looked a little better groomed, but not much. He eyed them briefly over a sizable beard, waved them past without saying anything.
There were gaslamps inside too, but they were all dimmed, accentuating the darkness more than illuminating it. People passed them in ones and twos, few lingering in the entryway for long.
A huge chalkboard schedule on one side of the once-grand marble foyer listed the glories of Kyravasti after dark, glowchalk letters blazing neon in the half-gloom, the largest simply listing only the day and the hours, others enumerating a catalog of minor vices. Some Amaranth was familiar with and approved of, a few she hadn’t gotten to know yet but thought she’d enjoy anyway, one or two that she intended to pass on. “Crabnobbing” sounded suspect, for one.
At her side, Jade mirrored her thoughts: “Lot going on here.”
“Well now,” she said, “if the alternative was hanging around an office after dark in the middle of nowhere with a VP&M leash around my neck, I’d be here too. Split up and look around?”
The mage crossed their arms and gave her a dubious expression. “Split up, hells. With you looking this good, in this pit of a town?”
“Only way anyone’s talking to me. And I could say the same thing to you, Mx. Spit and Polish.” Amaranth raised an eyebrow, displayed a faintly proprietary grin as she took in the mage’s compact lines and snappy duds again. “Go. Mingle.” She waved Jade off with a grand sweep of her arm. “Try not to start anything we can’t afford to finish.”
They laughed. “We pull this off, that line won’t work so good after.”
Amaranth didn’t have to work too hard to find a bar: the carpet was worn thin on the path to a parlor further into the first floor of the enormous house. Inside, two cocktail jockeys were juggling bottles and shakers behind a triple arc of dark wood counter, bar stools, and drunks; someone had chalked up a list of specials and hung it from a half-functioning chandelier. Mixed crowd, some looking monied, some looking cheap, most somewhere in the middle, atmosphere convivial, or at least nobody seemed to be spoiling for a fight this early. She’d blend just fine. The throng failed to part at her arrival, but it didn’t seem like Kyravasti was big on queueing, so she excuse-me’d and elbowed her way close enough to one of the bartenders to catch his eye.
He smiled. “What can I get you, miss?”
“Well, hello there!” she said cheerily.
A tall man in a well-cut pinstriped vest to her left turned and inserted himself into the conversation. “Well, hey there yourself, pretty stranger. What are you drinking?”
He would do just fine to start. She smiled her broad smile, brushed a stray bit of hair back behind her ear.
“I suppose I’ll kick the night off with, hmm, help me out here? Evening like this, you think a Wildcat or a Flagship is going to go down smoother?”
This was a test; the Wildcat was a syrupy-sweet nightmare consisting of a generous quantity of cheap rum buried under enough sugar, fruit, and ice that a tourist wouldn’t notice how cheap the rum was, while the Flagship was quite a decent sippable cocktail, and also cost twice as much.
Pinstripes told the bartender, “Make the lady a Flagship, Harry, my tab.” Test passed. First one, anyway.
“Coming right up, sir, miss.” The bartender began by swirling brandy around the bottom of a snifter, which was how you started a proper Flagship. Amaranth made a note to tip the man if her new companion failed to.
She took a quick assessing glance at Pinstripes. Nice clothes. Guessed middle management, with an option on higher.
“Why, thank you. This is my first time through Kyravasti; if I’d realized the folks here were so nice, I’d have come through sooner. Whom do I have the pleasure of making the acquaintance of tonight?”
“Jason Sumont-Carmier,” Pinstripes said, as if it were some sort of accomplishment.
“Amaranth Garsan,” she lied, reaching out a hand to receive her Flagship just as the bartender finished making it. She lifted the snifter to her nose, took in the scents of whiskey, brandy, cedar bitters, found it to her liking, then made a motion with the glass in the direction of Pinstripes’ own. “To new friends and fortune. Cheers!”
“Cheers,” Pinstripes agreed. Glasses clinked. They sipped.
“So, tell me, Jason,” she began, “how did you find yourself here in Kyravasti?”
He said, “Well, it all started when the Company realized they were short on vision,” and proceeded to tell an absolutely soporific tale of what amounted to a family connection landing him what was indeed a middle management job here in the swamp: his uncle played squash with the VP&M CFO’s uncle, truly an incredible riches to riches story for the ages.
Amaranth kept him going with the occasional batted eyelash, wide-eyed “No, really?”, stunned “That’s amazing!”, practically automatic for her, while she soaked in everything he said just in case there was a single thing she could use, but it amounted to zilch. She had no use for a guy who managed the people who managed the people who managed VP&M’s paper clips, and more importantly, who apparently had no dreams bigger than his next fishing trip, which he was trying very hard and very badly to get her to accompany him on. At the revelation that this quarter he was going to get an 11-foot marlin and break his personal best, she put a hand to her mouth in faux shock just in time to cover a genuine yawn. It was time to disengage.
“Well, that is fascinating,” she said. “I had no idea deep-sea fishing was so involved. I wish you luck, Jacob! Sadly, it’s much too late to change my travel plans for next week. If we bump into each other in the future and the uncles align, please introduce me to the CFO, but for now I plan to get the most out of the sights of Kyravasti while I’m here.”
“It’s Jason, actually,” he said. “What a shame. How about your plans for later tonight? I can have the Club ring my driver, and there will be a Dasin IV here for us in twenty minutes. No finer way to, uh, see the sights.”
“The new arcane coupe? Mm. Tempting, Jacob, but I came to the Club to see the sights here, and I’m not about to leave just yet. Please excuse me.” She turned slightly and began studying the other occupants of the bar.
“It’s…” Pinstripes’ eyes flashed with brief anger, obvious even in her peripheral vision, but then he looked around. There were plenty of other men in the room, not a lot of women, and Amaranth was unquestionably the hottest thing going tonight. If he started trouble, it’d be coming back at him fast. “Never mind,” he muttered, departing.
“Wow,” said the little bearded guy on her other side, “that guy crashed and burned, huh.”
“Sorry. Couldn’t help overhearing about ten minutes of talking about how big his marlin was. What a blowhard.”
Amaranth laughed. “Well, you know what they say. It’s not the size of the marlin…”
“It’s how you use it! Hi. Neville. Friends call me Nev.”
“Amaranth. Friends call me Amaranth. Are we going to be friends, Neville?” Amaranth smiled wide, just a little bit smug, knowing that this guy had seen someone else totally fail to impress just a minute ago, thought he had a better shot, and just couldn’t wait to take it. It was good to be her.
“It does seem possible. Whatcha drinking, Amaranth?”
“Flagship,” she said. “Wouldn’t mind another, provided it comes with a more interesting conversation?”
“Right on. Harry? Flagship for the pretty blonde.” The bartender nodded, started mixing another. “So. Sightseeing in Kyravasti. Either your travel agent is a hundred years behind the times, or you’re here on business, am I right?”
“You’re an observant one,” Amaranth said. “It’s business.”
“Oh yeah? Mind if I ask what line you’re in?”
She looked him over, scanning for any signs that she was about to take a drink from someone who got paid to be professionally observant. Khaki slacks, a rather loud patterned shirt, not much in the way of muscles, but… ah. Shoes capable of holding a polish, and yet, no polish in evidence. Good sign. In her experience, undercover security people seemed to have trouble breaking that habit. She’d keep playing this straight for now.
“Precision small parts,” she said. “Ever heard of Micrata?”
“Can’t say that I have,” he said.
Since she’d invented Micrata from whole cloth two weeks ago, she wasn’t surprised. “Give it a year. You will. Zevix already has; their Automaton Works people are good, but they needed us to even dream of making more than one mechanical man a month. But you didn’t hear that from me,” she said conspiratorially, “and besides, I’m not on the clock tonight. Although if you know anyone who works with VP&M’s technical departments that could give me the lay of the land, I sure would appreciate an introduction… and so would Micrata, you know what I mean?”
“Ah, you know, I actually am with the tech branch. But I’m not on the clock either.”
“Then let’s skip the business and talk leisure, Nev. What do you do for fun? What’s hot in Kyravasti, other than the afternoons?”
“You’re looking at a lot of it. Nightlife’s here, just a bunch of VP&M folks trying to make some human connections, mostly. But let me tell you,” Neville said, “sometimes you just gotta get out of town. So what I do for fun is poke around the ruins with some of the boys. And I’m not talking about the old marsh cotton era stuff like this place. I’m talking further out, way further back, before the swamp. Think centuries,” he said, voice dropping into a whisper. “Think black stone pyramids, get me?”
“Lizardfolk,” she said, matching him. As many superstitions about them as about her own people, but unlike the fae, they were gone, as far as anyone knew, and the accidents that happened around their remains were what kept the superstitions going.
“Ah, I could tell you were educated. Maybe them. Maybe a vassal state, don’t really know. The scalies never let any of their serfs carve themselves into the records. The parts above ground are pretty picked over from the last few centuries, but me and the boys, we find some stuff once in a while, and I got plans to go deeper, maybe find some bigger artifacts still working under the mud. And there’s a lot of carvings and such still accessible. And potentially even saleable. ‘Course, this is all extremely…” he waved his drink around vaguely. “Unofficial. So I’m scratching around with hand tools, hoping I get lucky.”
“Nev, I gotta say, I’m impressed,” Amaranth said. “Never would have pegged you for an amateur archaeologist.” She had to suppress the urge to say tomb raider. Neville seemed like he’d take it hard if she impugned his no-doubt sterling professionalism.
“Guess I don’t look the part.” Neville took a chug from his cocktail, eyed her curiously, probably working out how much longer he could hold her interest. “I could show you some of the stuff I’ve brought home.”
“Might take you up on that,” she said, leaning towards him, close enough that he could probably smell the flowers in her hair. “I got to see some lizardfolk stuff in the big museum in Stith once, sure leaves an impression.”
“I bet you didn’t get to see anything running, or some of the more out-there murals or frescoes, for that matter. I’ve found stuff that they wouldn’t dare show in downtown Stith, and I know how to work it. Worth the visit, I swear.”
“We’ll see where the night goes,” she said, lacing her voice with promise. “You ever think about making this more than a hobby? Sounds like you’re pretty good at it, Nev.”
“Oh, sure.” He took another chug. “I got a good job with the company and they keep me pretty busy, but the kind of equipment I’d need is a serious chunk of cash. Plus I don’t think the company’d take it well if I started digging around their back yard full-time.”
“You’d need to stay out of VP&M’s sights. You’d need to be clever, careful, quiet, well-funded. Sounds like you’ve got the first three down so far.” Amaranth smiled her broad smile, held it until she got a faint echo from Neville. She was absolutely sure she had his attention. “Suppose I told you I had an expense account that could make that a lot easier, provided Micrata got that introduction. Oh, but we’re neither of us on the clock, so never mind.”
The little bearded man considered it. “Suppose you did, Amaranth. Perhaps, if you did, we’d have to meet somewhere a little quieter and talk over what might be involved.”
“I’d like that, Nev. I’d like that very much.” She lifted her near-empty glass. “Cheers.”
They clinked their glasses together, a small sound in the background noise of the bar.
“Well then. Nev, would you excuse me for a bit? I’ll find you after, but I need to powder my nose.”
She’d been watching, and Neville hadn’t tipped the bartender either. She left a tenner under her empty glass as she pushed it across the bar towards Harry, and left to find Jade.
Amaranth wasn’t in any particular hurry. She slowly ascended a grand staircase towards the back of the club, taking in some of the mood on the way. A few men trudged down the stairs in the other direction, looking like they’d just bet the rent money and lost; others, seeming more hopeful, passed her on the way up.
The second floor was marginally less shabby than the first, the gaslamps brighter, the carpet still showing the original floral patterns. There were easily a dozen rooms opening onto the hallway, excited cheers coming from several. She strode past the first one, where several poker games were in progress; past a second, where she briefly lingered, trying to decipher a complex game involving dice and little figurines. Third one was the charm: she heard “Ah, hard turn, fella,” in a familiar voice, and followed it in.
She wasn’t sure what she’d walked into. It had been a drawing room once, but the posh furniture had been scattered around the room, and then someone had nailed yards and yards of complicated twisting track to the furniture and the walls, over and under, looping around and around and around the room until there wasn’t much space in it for anything else. Jade was in a small knot of very intent people, all holding hand-sized arcs of metal or bone, each one glowing with a projected glyph of a different color.
Then she saw the same colors, zipping along the track. Racing game of some sort. Didn’t take her long after that to spot the finish line, and Jade’s green glow was closing on it fast, but a pink glow seemed to have them beat. A yard from the finish, the track erupted in green lightning and the pink glow stopped dead. The green cruised past it. A bell rang.
“Well, hell. Looks like you had a card left after all,” the pink racer said. Another bell rang as his pink crept over the line.
“Mighta been in trouble if you’d still had a shield. Thanks for popping that for me, Sten. Give my regards to last place, buddy,” Jade said. They put down their control arc, shook hands with the other racers. “Oh, hi, Amaranth. Boys, it’s been a pleasure, but my good luck charm is here, and you don’t wanna race me when she’s by my side. Put you all in the poorhouse quick.”
Amaranth felt the gaze of everybody in the room as they all turned to look. Someone actually whistled. She grinned. “Hello again, Jade.”
“Ref, what am I up on points?”
“Great. Cash me out, will you? I’m gonna treat this lovely lady to a drink.”
In the hallway, Amaranth asked, “What was I just watching?”
“Oh, you ever play with racing micros? Tiny lil’ charmed models with remote controls. It’s a mage-game mostly, since the real point is to cheat as much as you can but make it look good.”
“Gotcha. So what’s your read on the local arcane talent, then?”
“They didn’t catch me splitting that lightning card so I could use it twice. Among other things. I mean, they’re competent enough for desk jockeys, there’s some power there, but no speed, no fluidity, you get me? Jesse, the guy with the pink controller, he tried to pull some gravity redirection trick last race, but it took him so long to set up that I shut that down before it really got going. Surprisingly little arcane artistry around this place. Either VP&M ain’t hiring the best mages, or they ain’t spending their weekends here.”
They paused to see if Amaranth was still paying attention; she nodded.
“The biggest piece of magic I’ve seen outside that room is the sound system. Definitely a hybrid. I could blow the whole damn thing if we need to.” They waved at a green crystal on the wall, wrapped in a spiral of brass wire, visibly vibrating to the music.
“Let’s try not to need to, Jade. You talk to anyone we might wanna talk to again?”
“Mm. Not really. You do any better downstairs?”
“One prospect. Guy named Neville with an expensive hobby and a mind to get me in bed. Told him I’d find him later.”
“I’m not hearing a thrill in your voice, Amaranth.”
“There is no thrill in my voice, Jade. Not yet, anyway.”
“We keep looking?”
“Night’s still young. Speaking of sound systems, I think the band’s live. Let’s go check them out.”
Back on the first floor, they entered an old ballroom through wide double doors. Huge mirrors made the place look even bigger. The music stopped for a moment; Amaranth heard the clack of her own shoes on the hardwood parquetry. The Club must have been quite something as a private residence, she mused. The crowd in the ballroom was sparse, a few dozen in a place that could have easily held a few hundred. There were a few scattered high tables here and there, really just places for people to rest their drinks.
There was a band platform at the other end, but no band. The left side was taken up mostly by crates upon crates of vinyl phonorecords; to the side of the crates, a skinny guy in a faded T-shirt and thick glasses managed two phonographs on a desk. A much bigger green crystal sat under the desk, pulsing visibly. The right side of the stage was empty, except for a mic stand, and a panel of blue glass hung from the ceiling.
“Guess I was half right,” she said. “Singer’s live, band isn’t. You up for some karaoke, Jade?”
“Hell, no. My low range is shit and I sound like a fuckin’ girl in high range. But I’ll watch you sing any day of the week.”
Amaranth scanned the crowd, trying to guess who would step up next. It was definitely slower in here than the bar, or the gaming rooms upstairs. People were drifting in and out, some still wearing office outfits, others down to jeans or minidresses, most holding drinks. There was a dark-eyed girl up front wearing a short skirt, booties, and an impatient expression that was her favorite for next singer.
The person who eventually stepped onto the stage was someone she’d barely noticed. He’d been sort of lurking near one side of the room, waiting for his slot, she supposed. Medium height, dark, a little hairy, short brown hair cut on the shaggy side, standing posture more of a slump. But he took the stage like he owned it, straightening up even as he took the mic, black leather jacket open and showing off a faded green logo tee over some muscles. And he grinned. He grinned like someone who belonged there. Amaranth couldn’t help but smile back, just so the guy knew, if he was looking, that someone appreciated what was going on up on stage.
The blue glass panel lit up with words as the KJ dropped the needle: “Kicked Out of Paradise.”
“All right,” Amaranth said quietly.
“I lived a good life
I did all the good things
Died and went to heaven
Earned an angel’s wings
Then last night I saw you
From my heavenly cloud
Curves like a demon
Babe I want you out loud
They’ll call me up next morning
And they’ll judge all my sins
Amaranth clapped three times along with the recorded drums, because that’s what you did when Goldwyrm was playing.
The singer finished the first verse:
“Kicked out of paradise
For sneakin’ you in!”
During the first solo, Jade said, “Don’t know this one. Should I?”
“It’s Goldwyrm! They’re the kings of cock rock. But no, you would have been away when they got big.”
“Eh, not really my thing, but if it gets you this excited…” They leered.
She laughed and punched them in the arm.
The singer burned through the chorus, the next few verses. Amaranth caught his eyes briefly. He was still grinning. The last verse went high, but this guy had some solid pipes. Didn’t miss a note.
He finished to scattered applause from a crowd that, Amaranth felt, did not appreciate what was going on up there.
The KJ stood, grabbed his own mic, exhorted the room to show some love: “C’mon, people, give it up for the best Goldwyrm since Goldwyrm!” A few more claps. “All right. Next up, we got Rozz.”
“Rozz? We got a Rozz around here? They’re gonna miss their spot if they’re not on stage in twenty seconds.”
Folks shrugged. Wherever Rozz was, they weren’t coming.
“Hey,” Jade said, “you wanna be Rozz for an evening? Jump the line?”
“Shush. Not yet. Haven’t seen all I wanna see.”
The singer said, “If the next act got lost, Grant, I got another one in me. Let’s keep these people entertained. Pull up A398?”
“Sure, you got it,” the KJ replied, rummaging through discs. “Okay, y’all, this is an oldie, but it’s a goodie. Take it away.” He dropped the needle. The glass flashed with the title: “White Dress, Black Skies, Blue Lips, No Lies.”
“Shit, I know this one!” Jade said.
“Yeah. Girl group called the Electrettes. Used to sing along to it on the radio back in high school,” they continued. “Damn, but that brings back memories.”
This one was a slower number. The singer’s swagger faded; he hugged the mic with both hands, as if it was the last source of heat in a cold winter. He began:
“It’s the end of everything, and the air is freezing
Winter is your favourite time of year
I promised you I’d never stop believing
You promised me that you would find me here
And now my soul is spinning with the seasons
The crowds have all packed up their smiles and cheer
The Sun goes down and I’m alone and grieving
Still at the altar, waiting for you, dear.”
It seemed it was Jade’s turn to get lost in the performance on stage.
Amaranth elbowed them. “You’re staring.”
“So are you.”
She nodded. She’d been thinking as much as staring, but she couldn’t deny the essential truth.
“Yeah, and I’m thinking if she has any more access than the last sad sack I talked to, she’s our gal.”
“She?” the mage asked. “You’re sure?”
“Jade,” Amaranth said, “I’d know.”
“Well, well, well,” they muttered. “You’d know, that’s fair. How, though?”
“First thing I noticed was the clothes.”
“Okay. Those ain’t company threads.”
“Looks like she got changed after work, huh?”
“Not everybody in here bothered. Wonder why?”
“Because it matters to her. Fashion conscious. Maybe doesn’t like the VP&M dress code. Maybe doesn’t wanna be in a suit and tie a second longer than she has to be to keep her job.”
“Mm,” Jade assented. “Leather jacket, leather boots. Likes looking dangerous?”
“Or just likes the smell, the feel. It’s a sexy material.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice, Amaranth. I remember last month.” They waggled raised eyebrows.
“Quiet, you,” Amaranth snickered. “But just listen for a bit. Check out her vibe.”
They watched. The singer continued:
“I wish you lied to me, but I know better
I know you’d rather hurt me with the truth
Now I’m left with a—”
By the chorus, Jade was singing along. Very quietly, but one of the things anyone who got close to Amaranth eventually learned was that her pointy ears weren’t just for show. She could hear a needle drop in a haystack.
…and no you.”
“Yeah, okay, she’s really going at it,” they admitted.
“More so than most of the schlubs in this place. And yet, look at the response,” she said, indicating the ballroom in front of them with a sweep of her hand, where a whole lot of nothing was going on.
“Not a lot.”
“She hasn’t made any friends, then. Want to guess why?”
“Think she’s not friendly?”
“Either it’s personality or it’s actions. I’m betting on both.”
“She seems like a fun time right now.”
“Look closer, Jade. Who’s she performing for?”
“The dance floor, I guess.”
“Not many people looking. She’s just pouring it out, and aside from us, I don’t know that half a dozen people have noticed. A lot of passion for a disinterested room. So either she’s stupid, which she doesn’t look, or she knows she’s being wasted here.”
“What, her karaoke skills?”
“This is her self-expression, Jade. This is what she’s got. She’s putting herself out there and nobody’s seeing her. Who else do you see in a fucking leather jacket in this heat?”
“So she don’t fit in.”
“And she’s not interested in fitting in. She’d rather be herself. She’s singing for herself.”
“And all this adds up to a herself? You think she knows?”
Amaranth crossed her arms and shook her head. “Yes, and maybe, in that order, and we better not tell her that we know just yet, or she’ll spook.”
“Gonna be hard, because I think I believe you. So what does this mean?”
“Means she’ll say yes, if it gets her out of this swamp to a place people can see her.”
“Assuming she’s gonna be at all useful to us.”
“Assuming that, yes.”
The song ended, and the singer stepped off the stage to a few half-hearted claps from the disinterested crowd. The impatient dark-eyed girl got on stage and started fussing with the mic stand.
“She sings so good, Amaranth. All right,” Jade said. “‘Scuse me, doll. Gonna go find out if she’s a dud or not before I get any more interested. Watch my cocktail.” They put it down on a table and started towards the stage.
“Excuse you? What? Jade—” The song must have broken them. Obviously. Unless it was the singer.
They flashed her a grin back. “I got a date with destiny, sorry!”
“The hell you do!”
Amaranth sighed. She checked her reflection in the dregs of Jade’s drink, pulled some glasses and a headscarf out of her purse, fixed her lipstick, watched her own reflection go from bubbly tourist to hardass corporate without changing all that much. It was a gift.
Then she followed Jade, who was elbowing their way up to the stage and the singer with the black leather jacket. She could already hear the mage talking as they caught up with her.
“Hey, you fuckin’ killed it up there. Anyone who knows the Electrettes is good in my book, but you landed ‘White Dress’ like Tanya Anodyne herself. Buy you a drink?”
“Liked it that much, huh?” The singer seemed curious, a little wary; not as sure of herself as she was on stage, and not sure what to make of Jade. They sized each other up.
“Liked it that much,” Jade said. They wore a manic, singleminded grin. “Like to get to know the singer. Seems like a tough customer, though. Think I got a shot?”
There was a pause.
“Yeah, I dunno. Something about you makes it hard to trust you, buddy,” she said, defensiveness as clear in her voice as it was in her arm-spreading posture. “For starters, you’re fresh; for seconds, you look like some kinda Joey Visconti impersonator, or maybe you’re doing a rum runner bit, like from an old radio play? Kinda gets me worried a bit.” She let that sink in for a moment, but continued, carrying the energy of the conversation forward. “Look, mister—”
“Ain’t no mister,” they said cheerily. “Name’s Jade.”
“Okay then. Nice to meet you, Jade,” she said, clearly skeptical of the words coming out of her own mouth. “Tell you what: I’ll let you buy me a drink if you tell me what you think comes after that.”
“Let’s say your crypto-punk look really pushes my buttons.” They smirked. Amaranth knew that smirk. That smirk led to trouble. She’d found it to be the fun kind of trouble for her, but not always for everyone else.
“Yeah, okay,” she said sarcastically. “What buttons? You trying to start something?” The singer dipped one hand into a pocket. Shit. You didn’t draw on Jade, knife or pistol or whatever. The mage had a lot of nasty tricks, both up their sleeves and under their gloves.
“Well, that’s not where I was goin’, but now you’re speaking my other language, sweetcheeks. You wanna throw down here, or do we do this outside? Seems like an outside kinda town—”
It was about time for Amaranth to intervene before somebody got hurt. She stepped up to the two, off to one side a bit, in-between seeming like a bad idea just then. She said, “Sorry about my business partner. They get like this after too long on the road. Can’t tell if they want to fight or fuck or both in either order. Tell the truth, it was actually me who wanted to talk to you.”
The singer’s expression softened fractionally as she saw Amaranth. Her hand slipped out of her pocket, empty. “Oh?”
“Ah, you’re no fun, Amaranth,” the mage said, still grinning, but the grin was fading.
“I can be,” she said warmly. “Under the right circumstances.” She turned to face the singer directly, trusting Jade would cool it. “I must admit you got my attention with that Goldwyrm song, but I honestly couldn’t take my eyes off you during ‘White Dress’. You could probably see me staring; been on the road a while myself. Just wanted to talk, is all.”
The singer’s eyes scanned over her, sizing her up the same way she’d sized up Jade, then making a second pass over certain parts of Amaranth that were hard to miss. Amaranth was used to that kind of attention, generally welcomed it, definitely used it. Not the brief expression of awe, however. That wasn’t usual. Gotcha.
“No harm done yet,” the singer said. She wasn’t the kind of girl that blushed easy, but the way her eyes were wide, the way they kept shyly avoiding Amaranth’s, that was as good as a blush. “Seems we at least share an interest in the Electrettes. Let’s say I’m still listening.”
“All right. Let me get your next. Just a drink. There somewhere we can get a table, actually?”
“There’s another bar on the third floor,” the singer said. “Quieter. We could probably get a two-person booth.”
Up on stage, the dark-eyed girl was starting her song. Spectacle, anyway. She wasn’t good. There was no possible key in which she could have been on key.
“I got your number, darlin’
I got your spectrum, babe
You’re clever burning delta white
But I’m digging you a graaaaaaave—”
“Oh, gods,” Amaranth said. “She is murdering Bitzen Pieces. Third floor sounds good.”
“I’m sensing three’s a crowd,” Jade said. “Also, this chick can’t sing for biscuits. Find you back at the company suite, Amaranth?”
“That’d be good, Jade.”
With a wave, they faded into the crowd.
“Do you mind steering me in the direction of this upstairs bar?” Amaranth asked. “You seem like you know the place pretty well.”
“Yeah, no worries.” She kept sneaking glances at Amaranth, as if afraid she was going to evaporate. “I’m here most weekends. It’s a left out the ballroom door…”
The spiral staircase was steep and uncarpeted, could have been a servants’ access originally, but after a bit of a climb, they were on a balcony overlooking the marsh at the back of the house. The night had finally cooled enough for the swamp air to be pleasant on Amaranth’s skin, and she recognized skeeterbane bushes in planters here and there. Probably they had a fancier name than that here, but call them what you would, they kept the bugs away, and they smelled nice too. A hostess seated them, pretty girl in a black skirt and white blouse. This felt like where money went, when money showed up to the Club. And indeed, the drinks weren’t cheap.
The singer ordered aizan, a cloudy white spirit Amaranth had never actually had before, redolent of citrus and spice. The upstairs bar served it chilled in thick little glasses, rime condensing from the air. They talked music, why not?
Up close, Amaranth noticed closed holes in the singer’s ears from piercings no longer worn, patches on the jacket for bands she knew, a few she didn’t, a very few faded political slogans, and two outlines of stitch holes near those, where something had been removed. The jacket had some history. So, no doubt, did its wearer.
“Like I was saying,” the singer opined, “you don’t have to be a classical arcane tenor to sing Bitzen. Just barely competent is perfect. Their first vocalist was a coal miner before the band. It wasn’t range they were selling, and it wasn’t magic either.”
“It’s all about swagger, isn’t it? Attitude.” Amaranth gestured with her glass. “Stage presence. You have it.”
“I did see you staring.” The singer was a little more at ease up here. Amaranth decided she liked seeing her like this. “You have really pretty eyes…” She sighed. “Gods, I’m such an idiot. Why are you really talking to me? Your… business partner… they said you had a company suite, but I don’t know you. Not VP&M. Vendor?”
“Micrata Custom Manufacturing,” Amaranth said, “at your service. Look,” she said, her eyes pleading, “yes, there are things Micrata would love to sell VP&M, things we’d love to pick up about business out here in Kyravasti. Maybe some other time I’d want to pick your brains about precision machine parts you need more of and the company’s plans for the future. But we can also just enjoy some drinks together, can’t we?”
The singer frowned, suddenly back on the defensive. “We could. But you should know that I got nothing to do with purchasing…” She leaned in towards Amaranth, scrutinizing her, finally convincing herself that she’d found the trap. “And I don’t talk to press. I work on precision machinery, I know every big and small vendor on this continent because that’s part of my job, to digest those big fat catalogs, and I’ve never heard of any Micrata.”
“Aha,” Amaranth said. “Busted.”
“For what it’s worth, I was hoping I was wrong.” The singer leaned back and sighed. They finished their aizan in one slug. “Thanks for the drinks anyhow.”
“Well, hey, good news, you’re close, but you’re still a little bit wrong. Wanna talk to enough money to get you out of this swamp for good, instead?”
“Fuck is this?” Eyes narrowed, no trust here. “You another one of those twerps from the main office’s security branch? Swear you think we’re all idiots out here in Kyravasti. I get it, you’re new, you wanna make a point about leaks, you wanna get a few of us fired so it looks like you found some weak points? If this is your idea of a clever sting, I’ve seen cleverer… though you’re the first fae they’ve thrown at us. That’s a twist.”
“Ah. You noticed,” she said calmly.
“Kinda hard not to, up close,” the singer said.
“Yes, I know. Oh, I know. I hope you weren’t going to say anything rude about it?”
“Just…” she faltered.
“You think I’m reading your mind. Listen, fae learn this when we’re kids: what someone’s thinking loud enough to hear and what they’re going to do aren’t usually the same. People are complicated. The inside of someone’s head can be messy. I know mine is.”
Amaranth sighed and took another sip of aizan.
“This many people around, this many minds, it gets too loud to handle anyway. So don’t worry. I can’t hear what you’re thinking.”
Amaranth hoped this part of the conversation would end before anyone brought up fae glamor, the ability to change what somebody was thinking. She certainly wasn’t going to. “Moving on. You think the main office screwed up?”
“I think you screwed up, when you didn’t do your research. They might not take you back after, you know. Main office might leave you out here with the rest of us swamp bumpkins. You and your goon.” The singer crossed her arms with a slight creaking of leather.
“Nope,” Amaranth said, matching the attitude she was getting across the table. She smiled, but not her usual broad invitation to join her in a moment’s glee, more like a shark smiled when it knew it was about to get a mouthful of dinner. “Sorry to hear they like to mess with your heads out here, but actually, this is real simple. This is opportunity knocking. Now, you can call us in to local security, or you can call us into the main office. We’re very good at what we do. Guarantee you we’re gone. You’re automatically suspect. They might pay you a shit bonus, three months later, if you’re lucky, for being very clever at spotting corporate spies. They might cut your pay or fire you or, well, seems like there’s a lot of marsh out here. You can say no, right here, and keep doing your job, and keep coming back to this club for the next, what, ten years, knowing it’s your own damn fault for not taking an out when offered. Keep singing to rooms of people who don’t really even notice. Or, you can come back to my hotel room, we can keep talking. You help us out, you can leave this damn swamp and not have to work for years.”
Amaranth took a sip of her own aizan, raised her eyebrows in a subtle challenge. “That’s the way it is. No more bullshit, just budget. Enough budget that I get some discretion about who I drink with, by the way, and I am actually enjoying the company. Still want to check with corporate?”
The singer still looked angry, but Amaranth was sure wheels were turning in her head.
“You know what, I should just tell you to fuck yourself.”
“Yeah,” Amaranth said, interrupting before she got any further, “you could. But if I’m right about you, you’re smart enough to think about it first. Go on. Tell me if I’m right.” She took out her purse, unhurriedly rummaged through it for her lipstick, drew a number on her cocktail napkin, slid it across the table.
“That’s a number,” the singer said, taken aback.
“I’m not cheap,” Amaranth told her. “Wouldn’t expect you to be. So? Am I right?”
“You’re… not wrong.”
She was still processing. That was just fine. Amaranth felt certain that she’d come around, now that someone had laid out the facts, the likely truths of how companies like VP&M operated, and a little outright provocation. Some people needed to be pushed out of their old balance to find a new one, but they’d find the new one. Nev hadn’t seemed like anything could push him hard enough to not be fundamentally Nev, but the singer was different.
Amaranth beckoned the hostess over. “The check, please,” she said, “and if you could call my hotel and let them know, two for pickup? Appreciate it.”
The singer cocked her head. “‘Two for pickup.’ Just like that, huh? You think I’m that easy?”
“I think you want to be. Should be a few things in life that’re fun.”
The singer opened her mouth to say something. Lips parted, nothing came out. Leather creaked again as she shifted in her seat. Then, “Look, I can’t just come with you…”
“What’s stopping you?” Amaranth asked with an inviting smile.
“My better judgement!”
“So let’s convince your better judgment to go fuck off for a while. Your better judgment got you stuck here. The person I saw up on stage wanted to live a little.”
No retort, just a slightly dazed expression. Hells, the singer was as cute flustered as she was hot on stage. There was a fair bit to unpack here, but Amaranth wanted very much to help her unpack it. Amaranth’s imagination had already started going, and she let her expression surface it: dreamy, eyes wide, full of genuine interest and pleasant possibilities for them.
“Fuck,” the singer said quietly. “Okay. Even if I’m sure I’m gonna regret this.”
Amaranth chuckled softly. She’d want to remember this moment of night air, orange gaslight, the citrus tang of aizan, the singer in her punky leather armor, the satisfaction of an evening ultimately well spent, and the anticipation of the night to come. “I don’t think you will.”
“Welcome,” Amaranth said, “to my lair.” She swung open the door to the hotel suite.
Electric lights cast amber glows from the walls. Overhead, a large ceiling fan spun slowly, oval bamboo blades pushing just enough air to defeat the Kyravasti mugginess. Papers and charts covered two end tables and the coffee table, rustling gently in the downdraft. She’d pinned a few more to the walls earlier that day after running out of room everywhere else. They showed Kyravasti and environs at various levels of detail, potential entry and escape routes and their backups flagged in blue and orange arrows.
Jade’s alchemy gear and reagents took up another table. Under a big magnifying glass clipped to the edge, they had two VP&M ID badges out, lamination carefully peeled back. Full-color managraphs of Jade and Amaranth lay on an open folder nearby. The other end of the table held a polished wood case with expensive-looking mundane instruments: a military lensatic compass, an optical rangefinder, two precision chronographs, other gadgets even she didn’t recognize.
The corners of the room were stacked with suitcases and packs. An armoire stood open, showing two outfits that’d blend into the VP&M office herd: grey blazer, grey pencil skirt, grey flats, and white blouse for Amaranth, who wasn’t thrilled about all the grey; grey slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie for Jade, who she was sure wasn’t thrilled about the unflattering cut of any of it. She’d be happy to ditch them for something with a little style at the earliest opportunity.
The first job she’d pulled had involved little more than a sack and her reflexes. All in all, she was a little bit impressed with herself.
“Came heavy, did you?” the singer said, as they took it all in. “You’re serious about all this.”
“‘Course we are, sweetcheeks,” Jade said from their position reading in a corner armchair.
“Oh. You.” Arms crossed, but she didn’t go for whatever she was carrying in that jacket pocket.
“Yeah. Me,” the mage said. “But hey, we got off on the wrong foot earlier. Amaranth said I get fuckin’ and fightin’ mixed up after too long on the road; well, she ain’t wrong.” The mage put their reference book aside, stood up, echoed their grin from when they’d first met the singer, gave her a brief upward nod. “Just so you know: I wasn’t trying to fight you. Get me?”
“All right. Like I said, no harm done.” The singer returned their nod with another assessing gaze, and a question. She uncrossed her arms, a little more at ease, but clearly still feeling like she needed to land the last verbal jab, keep her pride. “So are you askin’ me if I get you, or, tellin’ me I can get you?”
“Think you know the answer,” Jade grinned. “I like this one, Amaranth. Could be a keeper.”
The singer nodded, but said nothing. Her eyes kept flicking around the room in silence, soaking in everything she could, until she’d seen enough.
She said, “You said, ‘come back to my hotel room, we can keep talking’. So let’s talk. Why am I here?”
“First, let me tell you why we’re here. It’s nothing ugly,” Amaranth reassured the singer. “Not planning on hurting people or breaking things. Just looking to learn a little. Here’s what you need to know right now: I’m supposed to copy a few files from your accounting department, and I’m supposed to take a few pictures of some machinery.”
“That all? I could probably do that myself. You wouldn’t need to go anywhere near the site.”
Amaranth shook her head. “I wish. The interested party set the condition that I have to be there myself to verify the info, or they don’t pay out. Gave me a camera charmed to ensure that I’m the one taking the snaps and in approximately the right place, something similar that puts a seal on documents.”
“Little paranoid, huh.”
“You get used to it in this life. Real high level plan is, we find a way to get there that isn’t the main road, we go in after work hours, we do what we came for, we leave the same way. Leading option is, Jade opens a portal and we skip over all that swamp between here and there, but open to others. Best case scenario, nobody knows we were ever there; second best case scenario, anyone does notice, they think we’re just good company people working late. This is what we know, layout-wise,” Amaranth said as she spread out a rough sketch of the facility on the coffee table, drawn onto a flash copy of a military survey map.
The singer came around the table, stood next to Amaranth and the map, took a good hard look, ran her finger over some of the outlines, saying nothing.
“So,” Amaranth prompted after a while, “this is when we need your help.”
“Or where I take some time to think about things.” Another glance at Jade.
“Cool it, sweetheart, I’m not gonna bust your legs for runnin’ out on us. Like the lady said, you rat us out and we’re like the sunlight over the meadows, free and easy. We ain’t gonna stop you.”
“But that means either you agree now,” Amaranth added, “or not, because we’re not waiting around on you.”
She met Amaranth’s eyes for a moment as she weighed the terms, pursing her lips to one side. Amaranth resisted the urge to tell her it was cute.
“Okay,” the singer said. “I’m in. Let me tell you what you don’t know.”
Amaranth grinned the kind of grin that gave the singer some trouble deciding where to look. “We’re all ears.”
“My name, first of all. Which neither of you bothered to ask, by the way; you’re terrible at flirting. I’m—”
“No names!” Amaranth said sharply. “Once we’re into it, codenames only. We’ll handle that before we get much further.”
“Codenames?” the singer said. “Kidding me, right? You two must listen to a lot of radio dramas. Hey, I could be Iron Tiger, Defender of Stith? Or how about Sapphire Wind, Guardian of Justice?” Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
“That’s how we always do it, that’s how we’ve always done it. Been, what, three years now, Jade?”
“Just about, Amaranth.”
“We ever work with someone without giving them a codename, Jade?”
“Not that I recall, Amaranth.”
She got a little closer to the singer, put an arm around her. “How about Violet?”
“How about no?”
“What’s wrong with it?” Amaranth raised an eyebrow.
The singer asked, “You’re giving me a girly codename?”
Amaranth thought she caught a flash of fear in her eyes, or maybe something in the voice.
“Just give it a go,” she said softly. “Something wrong with that, Violet?”
“Nuh-uh,” the singer said, frowning and shrugging out from under Amaranth’s arm. “Not doing Violet.”
“Okay. Pitch me a better one. Got something in mind?”
“Uh, you’re kinda putting me on the spot here.”
“We will enforce a coherent team aesthetic.” Amaranth grinned. This was fun. The singer was fun. Amaranth didn’t have a complete map of what she could get away with, where the hidden tender spots were, but she learned fast.
“Aesthetic.” More frowning.
“Meaning you’re not gonna give up until I have a girly codename.”
“Y’know, just lean into it, enjoy being someone else. We all have them.”
“Yeah, all two of you.” The singer was starting to crack a little; Amaranth was pretty sure she saw a smile. “Pretty ridiculous for a pair of career criminals.”
“Livin’ the dream, though, pal,” Jade said. “So: what’ll it be, Violet?”
“It ain’t gonna be fuckin’ Violet, that’s for sure.”
Amaranth asked, “You got something better?”
“What I got, I think, is you two messing with the newbie.”
“Not messing. Promise.”
There was a long pause, during which the singer’s smile faded. Amaranth considered the possibility that maybe, just this one time, she’d been wrong about when to push someone. Not wrong about whether to push. Just about when.
“You’re seriously not giving up on this?”
Ah. Amaranth had been waiting for something like this: a coded message. Don’t give me the choice, it said. Whether she knew it or not.
“I’m seriously not giving up on this. Play by our rules or don’t play at all.” She matched the singer’s stare and won.
The singer took in a breath, looking put-upon as she gave an exaggerated shrug. “Okay. Fine. If I gotta… if I gotta have a girl’s name?” She looked at Amaranth and Jade for a final final confirmation that they weren’t letting up; Amaranth nodded back loftily. “Fine. Call me Mayke.”
“Mayke?” Jade asked. “Like ‘my-kuh’? Am I saying that right?”
“Yeah, just about.”
“Mayke,” Amaranth said, rolling it around her tongue. “Mayke. Could work.”
Mayke said, “Well, it had better, ‘cause I’m not a fuckin’ flower.”
Jade looked her up and down. “Duly noted.”
“O-kay. Are we done with the silly shit?”
“For now, anyway,” Amaranth said, her quick smile promising more in the future, if she felt it was called for.
Mayke returned to the coffee table and shook her head as she studied the map again, apparently finding more and more she didn’t like. The expression on her face was doubtful, but not hopeless; that of someone mentally summing up a large amount of work ahead of her.
“You don’t know as much as you should, then. For one thing, the company works us pretty hard, so ‘work hours’ is pretty nearly all the time. I’ve been here a bit, I’m still in late more nights than not, keeping up with our performance targets so I keep my job; I know I ain’t the only one kicking around the site past midnight at least once a week. For another, at a guess, I’d say this map is a year out of date, and missing half the fun stuff. May I?” She waved a pen over the sketch.
“Sure. Like you said, it’s no good if it’s out of date.”
“Right. So. Phase II work happened over the last nine months or so. We put in new office blocks where the old security building was, the engineering areas got a lot bigger, there’s a dedicated arcana area here now, and another one close up against the main engineering area, there’s some support buildings too… that’s all details, though, because here’s the fun stuff. And by that I mean the stuff that’ll get you killed. Got any more colored pens?”
Jade handed her a fistful from a can on their work table. She sorted through them, grabbed red, yellow, purple. Started with purple.
“Great. Guard posts here, here, here, few more on the roadside, main security building’s here now. Watchtowers offset from the guard posts on the ground, big searchlights. Saw them hoisting something wrapped and big up the one near my office, and the tarp slipped off for a minute; big ol’ barrels on that beast, looked like it could probably pulp a wyvern. If you were thinking of flying in somehow, don’t.”
“Flying’s for suckers anyway. Burns an unbelievable amount of juice that I got better uses for.” Jade said.
“Okay.” Mayke’s handwriting was neat, her shapes clean. Amaranth could have watched her draw for a few minutes just to admire the work, had it not had implied more danger with every stroke. She switched from purple to red and started hatching wide areas. “So let’s talk autonomous defenses. Stuff that doesn’t need a guard to be awake to ruin your night. You’ve got the road more or less right. You’re missing the minefields.”
“Minefields,” Jade said. “Welcoming bunch, these VP&M folks.”
“Well, like they told me when they hired me,” Mayke said, “they’re gonna change the world. You step off the road after it comes outta town, your world is gonna change very rapidly, and not for the better. Near town, the minefields are marked, it’s bad press to blow up people that are just fishing in the wrong place. Out at the facility proper, not so much. They don’t exactly encourage stepping out in the swamp for a smoke break.”
She paused. “Y’know, the more of this I say out loud, the more I can’t believe I’m working here. Feels like I’m talking about a prison.”
“Nah,” Jade said. “They gave us convicts a place to smoke.”
Mayke flushed. “Uh. Shit, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Just get this right, and we’ll be in, out, and swimming in gravy before you get a chance to find out personally what it’s like on the inside. Now, I know you ain’t a mage, but suppose you let us know what you think VP&M has in place to keep ‘em out, and I’ll tell you if it makes any sense.”
“Okay. Well, first off, the place is warded to shit.” She switched to the yellow pen and shaded more area, strokes carefully perpendicular to the red hatching. “Road, swamp, most of the site proper. I can see real big wardstones along the road either side every day on my way in, look like little pyramids. Got another piece of paper?”
She grabbed a blank sheet herself without waiting for an answer, sketched out a triangular shape and started to detail a glyph on one side. Jade put a gloved hand over hers before she could add any more.
“Don’t… finish it,” they said. Mayke’s arm jerked at the touch; the pen dropped from her hand and rolled over the map until Amaranth picked it up.
“Jade,” Amaranth said calmly, “what’s happening?”
“Ah. Sorry, ladies… and gentlemen,” Jade continued in a more normal voice, “there’re a handful of glyphs that run off environmental mana. Go off on their own when drawn right, even if you ain’t got your own mana, you get me?” They let go. “Dunno this one, so, best you not finish it. You got a good visual memory, though. The ward stones, Mayke, how many sides? Five? Four?”
“Three,” Mayke said.
“Broadcast geometry. Okay. Know what they do?”
“Supposed to be an aversion aura. Security boys say it saves wear and tear on the minefield, keeps deer and gators from exploding. I know it feels like shit if you forget your company ID, like, voices in your head that you can’t make out, slowly getting worse.”
They nodded. “Keyed. That tracks. Probably doesn’t like minds without VP&M badges.”
“That gonna be a problem?”
“Doubt it. Might need a look at yours later, compare it to the ones I lifted, but keep going. Everything you know is a help.” They closed their eyes, opened them again. “How about the site wards?”
“Same deal, as far as I know, except for some buildings where we need a clean background. Arcane and engineering areas mostly. The security boys carry portable damper wards, and they’re not supposed to be in those areas without taking them off, but good luck telling them that fewer than five times.”
One More Nasty Thing
“You seem to know an awful lot about security for a… what did you say you did, again?”
“Yeah, lucky for you I do,” Mayke bristled. “As it happens, I didn’t have much to do for the first six months of Phase II because the stuff I was supposed to be working on didn’t exist yet, so VP&M, the cheap bastards, put me to work on some of the visible parts of site security. And I told her what I do: technician. Engineer, really; I have a little experience with paramechanical systems, on top of a lot with mundane machinery, but I sorta picked it up at my last gig, and without the degree, they’re not paying me engineer money. Signed on with VP&M anyway ‘cause I needed the work in a hurry.”
“All right, all right,” Jade said, raising their gloved hands in accession. “Ain’t gonna ask. We all got pasts.”
She sighed. “Appreciate it… There’s one more nasty thing I know about: y’all ever hear of a ‘portal mine’?”
“Science fiction,” Jade said. “Few years back, there were a bunch of articles in the popular magic mags about how they were going to replace skip wards for military applications, a few more in the real journals that nobody could replicate. Then nothing. I had a look at the theory; the parts I understood were fucked. Think it was just one jackass trying to pump up their consultancy.”
“Hey,” Amaranth interrupted. “Back up a sec, and pretend I don’t read arcana papers for fun. What’s a portal mine supposed to do?”
“Maybe it was one jackass. I dunno the whole arcane theory,” Mayke said, ignoring her, “but they’re sure as shit real now. They’re high-maintenance sons of bitches too: take a bunch of exotic materials that hate each other, some parts gotta be spun constantly, some parts need active cooling. Otherwise, all the bound mana leaks, and you get a can full of expensive toxic trash.”
They both started talking at once, getting louder and louder as they tried to talk over each other. Maybe it’s an occupational disease for specialists. Mages and engineers both.
“Sssh.” She held up her hands until they both shut up. “Giving me a headache. Hang on. Let’s try this again. Jade, go first. What’s a portal mine?”
“Carving a path through portal space uses a lot of mana, even more so if you want it to be shorter than walking the same distance, like with a commercial portal,” Jade said. “You don’t have the juice to completely get where you’re going, you get portal bounce; it’s hairy but usually not fatal, not if you know it can happen. Skip wards throw your portal terminus right past the warded volume and pretty much guarantee bounce. Now, the Blank just swallows any power you try to put into a portal, same as everything else, and you could easily do yourself some damage trying to push through it, but as far as anyone knows, you can’t make Blank tech smaller than a whole fortress. Portal mines, they were supposed to fold the portal back on itself, collapse it, and dump all that power right back in your face, all at once. Splorch. Takes care of whoever was trying to make a hole. Or would, if they worked.”
“Sounds bad. Mayke, your turn. How does VP&M use them? And where?”
“Everywhere. In the edges of the near-site minefields, and in the walls of every building. One can throw a field about a hundred meters across, but they don’t react to each other, so the site’s got a loosely overlapping grid. They don’t work like wards because they don’t do much in real space, so they don’t shit up the background. For my money, I wish they’d leave them out of the minefields; the in-walls aren’t too bad because they use building power and cold water feeds, but the ones in the minefields need regular maintenance: either the batteries go dead, or swamp crap clogs the cooling intakes, and then someone’s gotta wade out there very carefully and unfuck the mine before it falls apart inside. Me, for example. Like at least once a week. Like I don’t have anything better to do.”
“You seen one actually do its thing?” Jade asked, brow furrowed.
“I watched a test once, yeah. We borrowed some guy from the arcane department. Hazard pay. Put him in a bomb suit at the site dump, had him use a mini-portal wand so he wasn’t running on his own power. Guy opens up a hole the size of my pinky tip into the thing’s denial field — jet of purple fire comes blasting out of it, straight for him, and the wand in his hand blows up like a fuckin’ grenade. Good thing the wand was a cheap one, balsa and green halite, or we’d have needed a body bag. Didn’t even use up the whole mine. Got a little warm, that was it.”
“All right. There’s your intel, Jade,” she said. “Portal’s out. So much for skipping the minefield.”
“Yeah. So what do we do now, Amaranth?”
“Hey, try ‘what do we do now, Mayke’,” Mayke said, lingering over her own codename, as if it had a new and unfamiliar flavor that sat sweet on her tongue. “I got something.”
Jade said, “Oh, you do, do you?”
“Yeah. Depends on how good you are, though.”
“Top fuckin’ notch, Mayke. I could show you a few tricks.”
“All right. How do you feel,” Mayke said, smirking, “about squeezing into tight spaces?”
Oh, gods, Amaranth thought. I got another Jade on my hands.
“You got my attention, sweetcheeks. Where’s this tight space?”
“It’s a hole in the portal mine coverage. Happens there’s a familiar rock on that map. It’s familiar because it’s taller than some of the trees and I see it out my office window every day. It’s in the edge of the minefield, here, and there’s a portal mine installed right next to it, and there’s a safe path out there to it, because like I said, the outside portal mines need regular service. I tell security it’s busted, nobody’s gonna say otherwise. It’s not busted, but by tomorrow night, it will be, ‘cause I’m gonna bust it. That’d give you a landmark right next to an area maybe ten, twenty meters wide, where the fields from the neighboring portal mines don’t reach.”
“That is tight,” Jade agreed. “Don’t worry. I got careful fingers.” They waggled their gloved fingers at Mayke.
“I’m so glad to see you two getting along,” Amaranth said, archly. “You can do it, Jade? You’re sure? This is me asking.”
They nodded. “Yeah. No bullshit, I can do it.”
She picked up a ruler, checked distances. “Looks like about eleven hundred from the site. Leaves us with more than a klick of mined swamp,” she said. “Not nothing, maybe not that bad. Mayke, what do we need to be careful of, out there?”
“Mines, for one,” Mayke said. “Follow my footprints out. Don’t step away from them. I’ll try to do it as late in the day as I can; that part of the swamp’s not as swampy as some other parts, trail should hold a few hours. Then we all follow them back and get out the same way. Other’n that, you watch out for cougars, you watch out for gators —”
“I know gators. I’ll make sure Jade knows which logs not to pet.”
“— and vine vipers.”
“Oh, psh, vine vipers. They’re no trouble so long as you don’t spook ‘em or yell at ‘em. Way back when, I had one for a pet—” Amaranth caught a very odd expression on Jade’s face.
“You what,” they blurted.
“Don’t worry about it.” She did miss Greenie, once in a while. Nobody’s business, though.
“So,” she continued quickly, “once we’re near the building?”
“My office is on the third floor,” Mayke said. “I can let a rope down out the window. You can climb a rope, yeah?”
“This is starting to sound like a real plan,” Amaranth said. “Timing’s critical, though. Jade’s got some chronos for us. We’ll sync them, set alarms, you take one. First bell, we get moving to this quiet spot where Jade can do their stuff, while Mayke, you need to make sure the mine’s a dud as fast as you can; second bell, we portal out into that dead spot; Mayke, you get that window open by the third bell, then you wait, expect us. We’ll be ready to blend in. We get what we need, we go. You run into trouble with the mine, Mayke, we need to know about it. Go home sick, do whatever, just get back into town, meet us before second bell, or you never see a number like the one I showed you again.”
“That’s plan-shaped, all right,” Jade said, satisfied. “I’d bet on this one.”
It was quiet for a minute. Swamp quiet, anyway. Overhead, the ceiling fan continued its lazy rotation. Papers rustled. Crickets and frogs chirped somewhere in the marsh. Amaranth and Jade were comfortable with each other’s silences. Mayke, on the other hand, was starting to squirm.
“So. Uh. What happens now?” Mayke asked.
“We do what we’ve done every time we’ve thought we’ve had something plan-shaped. We take a little break,” Amaranth said, “and we see if this plan still makes sense in an hour or so. Jade, do we still have that bottle of port you got on the way in?”
“Yeah. Want I should dig it up?”
“If you’d be a dear?”
They started rummaging through luggage.
“It’s not aizan,” Amaranth said to Mayke, “but I hear a balanced diet’s important. The criminal career has led me past more than a few good bottles of wine, and this one, Mayke, you absolutely need to taste.”
She cleared some papers off the coffee table, leaving an open spot in front of the couch, and then sat down on one end, patting the middle cushion to beckon Mayke to join her. Jade returned with the fancy port and some hotel stemware. They poured three fingers of rich red port in each glass, sat on the couch on Mayke’s other side.
“To new friends and fortune,” Amaranth said, raising her glass in the standard toast. “Cheers!”
They toasted new friends and fortune.
“To Sir Stanley Edwin Vyruth,” Jade said, “and whoever he pissed off, ‘cause the next bottle’s on them.”
They toasted Stan Vyruth.
Jade and Amaranth looked to Mayke, expectant.
She shrugged, looked at Jade, looked at Amaranth, looked back at Jade. “To the black cat Trouble,” Mayke said. “May it snuggle warmly by our sides, and may our foes trip over it in the dark.”
They toasted the black cat Trouble.
“That’s a good one,” Jade said. “Where’s it from?”
“The past,” Mayke said, but she said it smiling.
A Really Good Story
Amaranth was done pushing anybody tonight, but things in the room felt like they were in a good place, and she wasn’t about to go to sleep just yet. Years of association with Jade had yielded more than a few good stories involving the mage, and Amaranth loved telling stories.
“So,” she said, “there’s past that needs to stay past, but there’s also past that’s a good tale. Got a few of those. This one in particular’s got no chance of coming back on us, not since the revolution in Ustroy, kicked over their whole moldy old theocracy, I hear. But those monks had some interesting tastes. Hey, Jade,” she asked, “you remember that damn snake?”
“Oh, gods, Amaranth,” they groaned theatrically. “I’ll never forget it.”
“Snake?” Mayke asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Amaranth confirmed. “Big old scaly thing. Jade and I, we’d gone to ground for a bit on the island of Ustroy Obros after the last job. Weren’t expecting to work. Weren’t looking for it. So, of course, one day we’re sitting down to lunch, a couple of nice tuna steaks on the table, and work finds us. There was this bunch of militant reformist monks, you see, and they’d picked our restaurant to make an example…”
The story was a long one, full of close shaves. The gist of it was that she’d talked them out of being executed and straight into retrieving an ornery living symbol of the reformists. As she told it, Jade perked up, filled in bits she didn’t remember. Mayke looked left and right, gradually engrossed. The port worked its way into all their systems, joining forces with the drinks they’d had at the Club earlier. Amaranth turned to Mayke, and Jade on her far side; noticed less of a gap between the two than there had been a few minutes ago. She grinned. Good to see they were getting along.
“…needed to get out of there before it woke up and got cranky. If they caught it and moved it again, we’d never find it. So there we were, right, on this temple island, live fire python drugged and crammed into a fireproof chrysotile sack, picking our way through their maze of a temple in the moonlight, and if we can get back outside, we’re probably not more than two hundred meters from the dock, so I manage to put my boot on a damn tripwire. Which literally trips me. I fall on my ass, it rings an alarm bell, and all the old-school Ustroy monks wake up. And they may be monks, but they do two years of guard duty before they do anything else, so, we’re suddenly in it. Let me tell you, Jade was brilliant. First wave didn’t know what hit them. Like a tornado in a sharp suit, whack, smack, thank you Jack.”
“I needed the exercise and those bozos needed naps. I ain’t just about the mana, get me?” They turned to Mayke and flexed an arm for emphasis. “Love it, love magic, but sometimes I just gotta kick an ass or two to feel complete. But so this huge fuckin’ bruiser rolls up to find out what happened to the first set of guards. Fella was like three circus strongmen in a trenchcoat, armored down to his damn codpiece. Easily twelve feet tall. And I’m outta breath and low on mana and wondering, do we run, can he run faster…”
“Meanwhile, I’m getting up and finding that the repeater bow I had slung over my back is just fucked. The mag’s busted all to bits, the bolts are everywhere all over the floor. Hopeless. I grab the first thing that comes to hand. It’s soft but it’s heavy, better than nothing…”
“So what she’s got is, she’s got the sack with the snake. And Amaranth just hauls off with it, spins around a few times, lets go, and hits him right in the face with like forty pounds of sleeping reptile. He keels over and knocks a hole through one of those funny paper temple walls they use, and this girl, this fuckin’ girl right here, she walks over to this barely conscious beast of a guard, looks down at him, picks up the sack with the snake, and she says, ‘Mine’s bigger’.”
“Well,” Amaranth smirked, “it was.”
“Are you,” Mayke cackled, “fucking serious? This really happened?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jade said, grinning. “I look like the kinda mook who can spin a yarn like that?”
Mayke turned towards Jade, wicked expression on her face. “I dunno, Jade,” she said. “I’d have to see that suit. See you kick some ass in it, then I’ll believe you. But hey. Hey. The dressing to the nines. The rum-runner thing. You always do that, huh?”
“I swear I never ran rum in my life, angel-voice. This is just me, ya know?”
“Oh yeah, sure, sure, I totally believe you. Bet I can get you to drop the accent.”
“Whatcha mean? Told you I ain’t got no accen—”
Jade’s protest was cut off when Mayke leaned over, turning and swinging one leg up until she was half on top of Jade, and kissed them full on the mouth.
Amaranth whistled appreciatively.
Mayke broke the kiss. Maybe she’d forgotten she had an audience. She looked panicked. “Shit, I’m, uh, I’m sorry, I—”
Jade reached up and seized the front of her shirt in their fist, still grinning. “Don’t be. You don’t do it again, I will.”
“You will? We have company!”
“She won’t see nothin’ she hasn’t seen before,” they said happily.
“She will with me!” Mayke protested.
“And,” Amaranth asked, “you don’t want me to see?”
Mayke looked at Amaranth with a mixture of awe and disbelief. Amaranth could hear her breathing hard, could practically taste the need coming off the poor girl. Probably had been a long time.
Amaranth sighed loudly, as if suffering, as if she was sacrificing her dignity for the sake of helping two poor sinners. “If it’d help, I suppose I could take this dress off.” She reached behind herself and tugged the zipper from her neck all the way down its track, shrugged her shoulders. The dress slowly slid into a pool around her waist on the couch, exposing one of her favorite indulgences: expensive, nearly transparent, lace-edged peach silk lingerie.
“Oh, fuck,” Mayke breathed.
“I can’t tonight,” Amaranth said, smiling. “Busy day tomorrow, need my beauty sleep. After that…” She left the invitation open with a raised eyebrow and a wide, wide smile.
“What a tragedy,” Jade said. “Best pretend she ain’t here, and… actually, just pretend like exactly this thing you started is happening, because I think you’re gonna get real into it, real fast. You want this, Mayke?”
“Yes,” she whispered, pleading.
“All right,” they said, and pulled her down into another kiss with the hand gripping her shirt. Their other hand grabbed the back of her neck, not gently.
Amaranth knew that sensation well; when Jade wanted to drive, they’d let her know the same way. She shivered. Mayke was in for a treat.
Amaranth stood up, stepped out of her dress, picked it up, and hung it in the armoire next to the office uniforms. Then she returned to the couch, watching, waiting.
A long moment later, Mayke came up again, gasping for air, long enough to shrug off the jacket and peel off her T-shirt, showing a brown, muscled, hairy chest and back. She threw her clothes at a nearby chair, barely landing the toss.
Amaranth pounced from behind, wrapping her arms around Mayke’s torso, pressing her silk-clad breasts hard against the singer, ensuring she’d feel everything Amaranth had under that expensive bra. Mmm. Warm. She reached a hand up to tilt Mayke’s face towards hers, drew Mayke into a deep kiss, tasting her, tasting a little of Jade as well. Her other hand felt its way down the singer’s body, lightly tracing the hot bulge under those tight jeans.
Amaranth hesitated. This wasn’t a move to be made carelessly with girls. She whispered, “Is it okay if I touch you here?”
Mayke, temporarily robbed of speech, nodded her head vigorously.
Amaranth ground her palm against those jeans, felt Mayke’s hips rise and thrust, so she did it again, again, again. She heard the singer whimpering, the good kind of whimpering. This joy, this sensation, the sheer pleasure of having sex with the exact people she wanted, and looking very, very good while doing it, this was part of her big dream, this was what she asked of life.
Under Mayke, Jade carefully unbuttoned their own shirt and set it aside, revealing a clean white tank underneath. Their gloves remained on, as they always did.
“Hey, doll?” they said to Amaranth, expression a friendly challenge. “We were pretending you weren’t here.”
“Oh, I’m not here,” she said, grinning, releasing Mayke from her embrace to the tender mercies of Jade. “Just a phantom. A passing ghost. You two have fun, now.”
She heard a murmured “Gods, she’s hot—” just escape Mayke’s lips, before Jade found another use for them.
Still smiling, Amaranth made herself scarce. As she closed the door to her bedroom, she took a last look: Jade was in full control now. Jade straddled Mayke with a wicked, wicked smile, and their gloved hand slowly reached under the waistband of her jeans.
As Amaranth cleaned off the day’s makeup, her keen ears picked up voices through the thin internal wall separating her bedroom from the rest of the suite.
“Hey. Stay the night.”
“I don’t come with the tour package…”
“Didn’t assume you did. But you’re damn good-looking, Mayke, and I got a balcony and some Zafir hand-rolls that ain’t gonna smoke themselves. Might be nice afterwards. You got anyone or anything better at home?”
There was a pause as Mayke considered it.
“I have conditions. One: I gotta leave around dawn, I got work, I gotta be in on time.”
She lowered her voice, intending that only Jade would hear what came next.
“Two: call me Mayke. Not ‘babe’ or ‘stud’ or ‘sweetcheeks’ or fucking anything else. Three: don’t ask why.”
By the end of her conditions, Mayke was speaking so quietly that only fae ears could have heard her through the wall.
“Sure thing, Mayke. No problems there.” Easy. Reassuring. Jade let her knew they heard it, they got it.
“Okay,” Mayke said, audibly relieved. “Keep doing… whatever that was.”
“Can do, Mayke,” they said smoothly.
The noises that eventually followed were from two people having quite a good time.
Some time later, finally finished with her evening ablutions and free of her underwear, Amaranth slipped a thin silk nightgown over her head, lay down, turned off the light. She caught their voices again:
“Oh, Mayke, just for the record.”
“Jade ain’t a girl’s codename.”
“Jus’ between you and me. It ain’t.”
“Gods.” There was a pause, a brief laugh. “Your whole deal is fucked, huh?”
“Yeah, but so are we both, so who’s laughin’?”
The Next Morning
Amaranth reclined on the suite’s chaise longue, reading a pulp thriller with the aid of a few thin shafts of early morning sunlight sneaking past the shutters. One of the hotel’s previous guests must have left The Draphema Conspiracy behind. She’d read it before, but this was the twentieth anniversary reprint. It was, she thought, a good try, probably her favorite Hammett Burgundy, provided you measured a novel’s quality by lovingly described explosions per page, and not by railroaded straight romances (the wide-eyed cryomancer cadette and the cynical femme fatale spy clearly belonged together, instead of fighting over the grizzled male hero), or by the plausibility of traversing the Draphema Labyrinth on foot (given how often the thing flooded with lava, her seed of a plan to rob the notorious volcano-ringed fortress above it involved some creative dispersal of emergency supplies beforehand, as well as hang gliders during).
A hinge creaked off to her right somewhere.
“Good morning, Jade!”
“You didn’t sleep, did you.”
She turned. Jade, emerging from their bedroom with mussed hair and a shirt less than half buttoned, looked a little short of their usual polish. But then, it wasn’t even eight yet.
“A little. You know I always have trouble sleeping before a job.” Amaranth waved her hands around (one of which was holding its place in The Draphema Conspiracy with a long, manicured finger) to indicate a few of the things she had prepared earlier that morning, before taking a break for tea and light reading. “How about you?”
Jade smirked. “A little.” The smirk vanished, then, “Tell me we trust her, Amaranth.”
“You have a good time last night?”
“Little bit awkward?”
“So she’s probably not a plant,” Amaranth said, “or suicidal. Security people are either too good in bed or just terrible; depends on what kind you’re dealing with. And if I thought this was my last day this side of the afterlife, I’d fuck like it. Wouldn’t worry about being awkward, believe it.”
“That makes me feel a little better.”
“That means, come the alarm going off on that chronometer, we got a date. Feel good about that. We stick to the plan, you may even get an encore with sweet little Mayke.”
“Sweet little Mayke bites, Amaranth.”
Amaranth smiled. “And you think I wouldn’t, if so, ahem, provoked? There’s ointment in the white suitcase, by the way, just in case she broke the skin.”
Jade raised an eyebrow. “You prepared for corporate security, vipers, gators, magic, and a roll in the hay good enough to draw blood?”
“Simply living the life I’ve chosen, darling.”
The mage snorted and began rummaging around for breakfast.
Amaranth decided to take the book with her, and tucked it into an inner pocket on one of the packs.
The Next Night
By the time the first alarm chimed on their chronograph, Jade’s arcane equipment had been forced into some semblance of order and then into carrying cases. The maps had been rolled up. All the boxes had been boxed, all the packs had been packed, the results surprisingly compact given the controlled chaos of the previous night’s preparation. But then, they’d gotten good at traveling light.
The two put their VP&M uniforms on, saving only the shoes for later; for now, there were tall rubber boots. The grey office worker outfit was even less flattering on her than it had been on the hangers. She’d make it work, but she wished she didn’t have to. At least it’d come off at the end of the job.
“Amaranth, never seen you look this, uh…”
“Don’t say it, asshole,” she warned, but the frown didn’t reach her eyes.
“Was gonna say ‘employable’.”
“That’s even worse!” she protested. “Employable. How dare you.”
“Hah. Think about how I feel.”
“Jade, I’d have thought you’d love the opportunity to wear a suit.”
“This thing? Look at the shoulders on this.” They tugged at one. “What kinda silhouette is this, huh?”
“A little boxy, perhaps.”
“Yeah, and I ain’t box-shaped! You’re lucky I like you so much, Amaranth.”
They took a back route out of the hotel to avoid the front desk’s notice, followed the planned path to a clearing on the edge of town that Jade had liked the metaphysical looks of. Its actual looks weren’t much; they were still very much in the swamp, and the muddy ground made her glad of the rubber boots. Insects buzzed in the still, humid twilight air.
The mage busied themself with a chart and compass, setting up bearings for the portal.
The chronograph’s alarm bell chimed, twice. “That’s a go, Jade.”
“Great,” they said. “Now we find out whether Mayke is going to screw both of us.” They bent down to inscribe a series of circles and directional sigils in the dirt. “Amaranth, get back. And get behind something.”
“What about you?” she asked.
“About two and a half seconds between when I finish this spell and when it draws full power. I got a rock picked out, and anyway, I got protection you don’t.”
“That’s fair,” she said, and after a moment’s look around in the evening gloom, found a huge cypress to take cover behind. She peeked around the side and called, “Jade?”
“Don’t be a fuckin’ hero.”
“Hah. I promise I ain’t planning on it. Get back behind that tree. Ready?”
She ducked back into cover, huddled against the cypress trunk, on the far side from Jade and their prepared portal spell. “Punch it, hot stuff.”
Jade muttered a few dozen words and then yelled three more. There was a sizzling noise, like a pan of bacon frying; with it, a bright flare of blazing purple light that shone on the woods behind her, casting a cone of deep shadow from the cypress she was sheltered behind.
“It’s all good! That’s supposed to happen! We’re clear, you can come on out.”
She emerged from behind the cypress. The clearing was filled, just filled, with a purple-white glow from the whirling cloud of light surrounding a neat circular hole in the forest. The dirt and mud underneath had been fused into a glassy platform, with a few of Jade’s glyphs remaining, filled with rippling violet light.
Jade stared through it, arms crossed, nodding approvingly at their own handiwork. “No bounce. No explosion, obviously. Solid connection, but y’know, solid as solid goes around here, still gods-damned swamp on both ends.”
“That sizzling noise? That had me worried for a tick,” Amaranth asked.
“I just needed the mud to hold still for the rest of the spell, so I glassed it. Didn’t even need a separate spell, just switched up the source, basic leaky alpha conversion, fast, cheap, and hot, so try not to step where the edges are bubbling. Switched to nice clean beta mana once the hole proper opened — anyway, you don’t care about the details, grab your pack, we got a fifth of a klick to cover on the inside, about two minutes’ walk, and I don’t intend to hold it open a second longer than I gotta. Not bad for thirty klicks on the outside.”
Amaranth had never been through one of Jade’s portals. They’d alluded to the possibility in the past, but Amaranth had so far been hesitant to factor complex magic into their plans, preferring to stick to things she understood, avoid surprises. Seemed like the deeper you got into magic, the more surprises you found.
Jade’s work here in this clearing didn’t look a thing like the cheery yellow-orange of a commercial transit portal, which she’d just step through and be somewhere else (on the occasions she could afford to use them, in jurisdictions that didn’t watch their commercial teleports too closely for career criminals). She’d never seen the glowing, whirling edges of a free-standing portal until now, hadn’t realized that portals could be built without the usual obsidian frame, without any frame.
She put her pack on, and followed Jade over the fused mud to the entrance.
“Watch the edges, don’t step there, step in. And don’t fall off,” they said.
“Fall off what?” She looked into the portal and saw a glowing violet path over a churning sea of purple darkness and confusion. Another thing she hadn’t realized was that portals could have insides. “Oh gods, Jade, you might have warned me!”
She stepped up over the edge and onto nothing much. It felt solid under her feet, but… Nope. She wasn’t going to let herself question this, no panic unless Jade panicked. She focused her attention on Jade’s back. One foot in front of the other, and never mind the lack of handrails. Welcome to portal space, she thought. Ten years ago, she’d been sure she’d never be more than a few dozen klicks from home, and now here she was, not even in the same set of dimensions. That cheered her up a bit.
Maybe halfway through, Amaranth risked a look to one side. Shapes in dense purple fog, a little further ahead on a parallel path. Familiar shapes. She was sure she could see the back of her own head. Maybe an optical illusion. She nodded. It nodded. But not quite in step.
Without turning their head, Jade said, “Just keep going, Amaranth.”
They reached the other end in what seemed like a lot longer than two minutes. Amaranth had never been so happy to see a glowing hole full of dimly lit swamp in her life. She stepped onto real ground with a quiet sigh of relief.
The exit was anchored exactly where Jade said they would put it, with the rock Mayke described hiding it, and them, from any keen eyes at the VP&M complex. It was tall enough to poke past the trees, which let a little light through the thick canopy. Jade set about collapsing the portal. It faded quietly, the glowing edges contracting to a point and then vanishing. With its glow gone, that shaft of fading light near the rock was about all they had left.
“Do you see footprints?” Jade asked. “I can’t see shit.”
“I can still see pretty well. I’ll get the biolights out.” She put her pack down, as close to where they’d come out of the portal as possible. If that ground was mined, they’d already know.
“Wish I had those fae eyes.”
“They do come in handy for walking through swamps in the dark. Even I’m not going to be able to navigate a minefield without a light source, though. And trust me, you don’t want the rest of the fae package.”
“Oh yeah? Why not?”
“Well, humans saying rude things about you when they notice the pointy ears, for one,” she told them. “But even worse is, you’d get to grow up fae, around a lot of other fae, all in each other’s heads…”
Amaranth let them ponder that while she looked in the top of her pack for her new favorite light sources. The biolights were headbands with lenses covering a reflective cavity, containing cultured foxfire fungus that glowed of its own accord, and a sponge soaked in a woody-smelling liquid that foxfire apparently liked to eat. No heat, no smoke, no fuel, no batteries, no bulbs, no mana. Practically invisible to everyone but the user. They just didn’t put out much light. Amaranth found the three, took two for herself and Jade, put her pack back on.
The third biolight was reserved for Mayke, if they needed to get her out the way they’d come in. If they did this quietly enough, she’d just go home late, like any other hard-working VP&M employee.
Jade put their biolight on. “Thanks, doll. How do you, uh, make it go?”
“It’s already on. Flip that blackout cover up.”
Eerie bluish-green light glimmered over the swamp.
“That big metal thing must be the portal mine, couldn’t see it but could sense something weird in that volume. Mayke’s footprints must be around it, but I can’t see any…”
“Found ‘em,” Amaranth said. They were all around the huge steel and brass cylinder that had to be the deactivated portal mine. “I’m taking point, Jade. Compared to me, you’re nearly blind in this murk even with a biolight. You got me through the portal, I’ll get you through the swamp.”
“Sounds good, Amaranth.”
“Just stick close behind me.”
As they followed Mayke’s footsteps slowly through the dark, Amaranth saw a familiar pattern of eyeshine in the water near the trail.
“See that log there in the water just left of us, about four, maybe four and a half meters long?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
The gator yawned, displaying about eighty teeth in the glimmer of Amaranth’s lamp.
“Don’t pet that log.”
“Holy shit, Amaranth, that thing is huge!”
“Ssssh. She probably won’t bother us. They’re lazy after dark.”
As if illustrating her point, the reptile snuffled and submerged, shedding twisting vortexes of swamp water from its powerful tail.
“You know gators, huh,” they said.
“I ever tell you much about where I grew up?”
“Can’t say that you ever did, Amaranth.”
“Well, now you know one thing: there were alligators there,” she said, leaving it at that.
Amaranth kept picking her way through the dark. Waxing moon that night. Every so often, a shaft of moonlight broke the canopy, and she could see a little more than just what intersected with the circle of phosphorescence her biolight cast in front of her. Away from the narrow path of footprints, it was all tree roots, puddles, brambles; occasionally, the dull metal of an exposed mine casing, or a suspiciously round hole. Impersonal anonymous death on all sides. It made a girl think.
She said, “Hey, Jade?”
“What? You find a new kind of thing I gotta not step on?”
“Nah. Not yet, anyway. Just, great as you were at Raoçao and at Ustroy Obros back in the day, you’ve really gotten good since. No joke. Never knew I’d be in the same room as, let alone in the same bed as, someone who could just make a portal. Can’t imagine I’d enjoy hiking thirty extra klicks of this shit.”
“Ah, you’d have found some way to get us inside. You always do.”
“And that’s the other thing,” she continued. “Yeah, I do. But hells, it’s good to know I’m not the only one in on this thing we’ve got going, you know? Not doing this alone. Been good for me. Think it’s been good for you too, hot stuff, and I don’t just mean the magic. You look good. You look sharp, and isn’t just me seein’ that — sure Mayke saw it too. You don’t twitch like you used to when someone gets close. It’s heartening, is what it is.”
“Why you gettin’ all sentimental on me all of a sudden, doll?”
“I will get sentimental over who I want, when I want!”
“You do that, Amaranth.” She couldn’t see them, behind her as they were, but she was pretty sure she could hear a smile in their voice.
Three chimes sounded from the chronograph, somewhat muffled by the pocket of her pack.
“Damn. Just as I was getting warmed up, too. Think we’re not far, I can see something out there that’s not moonlight or foxfire. I’m gonna pick up the pace a little. Keep up, Jade.”
It wasn’t long before they came to a fence. Not much of one, really, just a few metal diamonds strung on chain between short concrete pillars. Yellow electric light shone from a few windows of the low, blocky building on the other side.
“This thing warded?” she asked quietly.
“Not so I can sense it. We started catching the edge of what must be the site wards a minute ago anyway; those fake IDs are holding okay for the moment, but these ain’t wardstones anyway. Think it’s just a weird-lookin’ fence.”
“All right, going over… hah.”
“Well, now that I’m standing here, it makes more sense, what with the way these signs say ‘DANGER: MINEFIELD’ on the other side. Guess there’s no point in painting both sides of a sign with that on it. Anyway, this must be Mayke’s building.”
“She said third floor… south, I think. Should be to our left.”
They rounded the corner of the building, and there she was. Dangling upside-down at the end of a three-story rope, arms crossed, looking mischievous.
“Yer late!” Mayke said. “I don’t have all night to hang around.”
Amaranth gave Jade a look, like, hey, can I pick ‘em or what. “Good to see you again.”
The technician’s flip and dismount from the knotted rope was as precise as any gymnast’s, despite the confines of her uncomfortable-looking vest and slacks. Amaranth almost clapped.
Jade reached for the rope.
“Uh-uh,” Mayke said to them. “Wipe your damn boots first, you slob.” She said it smiling, and her smile implied all the safety of a mouthful of razors.
Amaranth knew right then and there that Jade and Mayke would get that encore.
Mayke’s office was small but neat. Window at one end, door at the other, one wall taken up by a drawing board, with an assortment of tech pens and drafting tools in metal tubes alongside, walls covered in drafts and blueprints of various mechanical parts: gears, pistons, rotors, a few more exotic — Amaranth recognized the interlocking rings of a gamma driver because the one in her first car had broken just about monthly, but the gadgets to its sides were unfamiliar. A well-used workbench equipped with small but expensive-looking machine tools took up the entire other wall, with a few complex assemblies of parts under construction or repair. Notes on a chalkboard in the technician’s neat handwriting referred to other parts being worked on in other shops.
Amaranth noticed the total absence of anything personal to Mayke in the room. No band posters, despite her relationship with music. No managraphs of family or friends or pets, no postcards, no birthday cards, none of the stuff that office people put in offices. Hell, she herself had stolen a family picture the night she ran away from home, just in case she started to forget their faces, hoping they’d come for her. Hung it in her first cubicle at her first temp gig. They hadn’t come. They hadn’t cared. She’d burned it a week later.
“You really just work here, Mayke. I thought that might be the case,” she said, softly.
Mayke shrugged. “Honestly, I’ve just worked anywhere I worked, except for — don’t worry about it. But if you hadn’t shown me a believable golden ticket out of VP&M in that hotel room, I’d probably move on soon anyway. You were right, up in that third floor bar: I wasn’t planning on coming back to the Club for the next ten years. This job didn’t ask a lot of questions, but hells, there are other jobs that don’t, maybe even with people I’d bother talking to.”
Amaranth had a position in mind already, with Mayke’s name at the top of the unknowing applicant list, but she’d get to that chat once they got what they came for, got clear, and got paid. Out loud, she said, “Here’s what you need to know now. We’re going to make three stops, not necessarily in that order: fuel depot, accounting, and… the nearest ladies’ room.”
“Now you gotta piss, Amaranth?” Jade asked. “Again? I keep telling you, dollface, go before we go.”
She stuck her tongue out at both of them, ladylike as any duchess.
“There’s one on the second floor,” Mayke said.
“We’ll need to leave our packs and outside boots here. No call to be traipsing around the facility with all our gear, not if we’re supposed to blend,” Jade said.
“Yeah, no worries,” Mayke assured them. “Stick ‘em under the bench; security won’t notice if they make a round.”
Amaranth slipped out of her boots and into grey flats, checked her office uniform for mud, checked her VP&M badge for ward key integrity. So far, still there. She pulled a large purse out of her pack and headed out of Mayke’s office and down the hall.
The purse was probably bigger than the average female employee’s handbag, but she had more than makeup and a few bills in there. In fact, besides the camera and document seal provided by her contact, she was also carrying a fake bug: an electric chimera, basically nonfunctional, transmitting on a frequency on which no station was listening, soldered together half-assedly from parts made on two different continents, and covered in rust and grime to make it look like it had been there a while. Her own private addition to the equipment list, not provided by the contact.
She found the ladies’ room in a few minutes. Amaranth picked an empty stall near the back, sat to pee, then took the chimera out of her purse and glued it to the back of the toilet.
If VP&M noticed they were here, and they were halfway competent at investigating a security breach after the fact, they’d find the chimera eventually. Should keep VP&M busy for a while as they tried to attribute it to a competitor or government, and also figure out how long they’ve been “bugged”. Mayke didn’t need to know about it. If she and Jade had to leave her behind, she couldn’t very well get fingered for a bug she didn’t know existed, in a bathroom she wouldn’t have used.
The lighting and mirror in the bathroom were nicer than expected, so Amaranth took a minute to touch up her makeup before returning to Mayke’s office. Looking good, but not too good. Subtle, in character for VP&M accountant Anya Harper.
Back upstairs, she opened the door on an argument in progress.
“Look, we have a big mana-conductive puddle, practically begging for a harmless little jolt that’ll look real bad for a minute—” Jade said, slapping the workbench for emphasis.
“Not if the decomp fumes trip the fire alarm!” Mayke interrupted, a pained expression on her face. “We gotta pull ’em off the job without drawing more attention.”
“Next stop?” she asked Jade and Mayke, pointedly.
“I was just telling Jade,” Mayke said, “fuel depot has a bit of an extra issue.”
“Something you didn’t tell us about the security?” Amaranth asked lightly, her friendly tone concealing a slight shift in position that would let her get to the less friendly baton strapped to her thigh, or the positively rude throwing knife on her other thigh, in the event she needed either.
“Something I didn’t think of. It’s not even security,” Mayke said, embarrassed. “It’s that we don’t want to bump into the cleaning crew. See for yourself.” She handed a piece of paper to Amaranth.
Amaranth skimmed it out loud: “Memo, all personnel working in or near Building 44, blah blah blah, please be advised that level one haz-mag cleanup will be in progress tonight due to blah blah blah. For your continued safety, Buildings 44, 45, and 47 are off limits to staff not involved in the cleanup until the start of regular business hours.”
“47 is the fuel depot,” Mayke added. “I don’t wanna be wandering around taking pictures while the night cleaners are working anywhere near it. They might take it personal enough to call security.”
They didn’t seem worried. “I’m not worried about the cleaners, I figured a way around them already. So the haz-mag shit is, some wood-for-brains genius dropped a whole flask of osmium pethium cyanazide oil suspension in the reagent shed right next door, leaked out the door, onto the walkways too. Shit’s a good beta guide, but it gets everywhere, it stinks, and it’s bad for ya — if you breathe it all day, which we won’t be. Mayke and I are just having a friendly professional disagreement over how to get the cleaners outta there so we can get in the depot next door without any gawkers.”
“Yeah, OPC oil makes a great beta guide all right, yeah it’ll carry a glow charm just fine, but if it’s carrying anything significant and exposed to air, you get breakdown and a lot of pethium nitride smoke! There’s a reason we only use the shit in sealed assemblies. I say we go the other way, find a fusebox, start putting out lights until they either send someone to Maintenance or give up for the night. We get the window we need, easy. You can’t just zap one end of the spill and expect propagation without decomposition—”
“Pretty sure I can, buddy, won’t take all night either—”
“In that case,” Amaranth’s tone of authority overrode them both, “accounting’s our next stop. Figure the fuel depot out on the way. Not too loud, please.”
“But nope. We are professionals, after all,” she said, twirling the “Anya Harper” ID badge around on the end of its lanyard, then jerking it into her hand, photo side out, with a neat quick motion. “Follow close behind me, don’t say anything unless I ask you a direct question, and Jade? Look like you enjoy wearing that suit.”
By the time she walked through the door to the small accounting building, Amaranth had a good idea of what the imaginary Anya Harper was like. The grey shoes had stiff leather soles, which clacked authoritatively on the tiled floors in this end of the VP&M facility, and they were flats, because she didn’t need any extra height. The blazer was cut to minimize her bust, but it unbuttoned, and the blouse underneath was similarly decorous, but only by default. Plus, Anya wore Amaranth’s favorite lingerie under all that, a solid foundation. Anya took no shit, feared none of her coworkers, and thus could afford to be friendly and even a little flirty. Amaranth liked Anya.
Good luck, too, because the cleaners weren’t the only VP&M personnel working late. The accounting building was basically a bullpen, full of small desks and cubicles, at least a half-dozen of them occupied. She scanned the room quickly to see if anyone she’d talked to at the Club was here. No sign of Pinstripes, because of course he of the hyphenated last name wouldn’t dirty his hands working late. Clear.
Amaranth surreptitiously unbuttoned a few strategic buttons, hung her ID badge where everyone would see it because they’d be looking where she’d unbuttoned, then marched right up to the nearest likely candidate for her charms and smiled her broad friendly smile.
“Hey, working late again, Gary?” Amaranth teased. “Next audit cycle’s not for a while yet.” She leaned toward him, showing her fake ID and no small amount of cleavage.
He clearly looked at both, just as clearly missed her accomplices behind her. “Oh, hi, uh. Anya, right? Have we met?”
“Main office, I think, forever ago.”
“Oh, Anya Harper!”
“Yes! I’m surprised you remember me! Hey, I’m new here, though, just transferred from the main office last week. Gonna be in orientation most of this one, they haven’t even given me a desk yet, but the boss told me to get an early start on CapEx projections for next quarter anyway. Mind pointing me towards last quarter’s CapEx reports?”
“Yeah, no problem!” Gary said. Cheerful. Probably made his night. “Upstairs in the local files. We’ve got like a few concentric rings of shelves around the second floor stairs for the newer stuff? Think you want cabinet AG or AH. Shouldn’t be too far from the flash copier.”
Amaranth climbed a steep, narrow wooden staircase, located last quarter’s capital expenditure reports right where Gary had said they’d be. First sheet in the flash copier, the thin carved nephrite seal from her purse on one side of the document, place your hand on the copier’s mana feed plate, think of bright light… The paratech devices were new, but so common and so well optimized that anyone could use them. Flash. Next sheet, flash, etc. She returned the seal to her purse, and picked up the stack of hot flash-prints from the output hopper, waving them back and forth quickly to cool them without hurting her hand in a way that any office worker anywhere was starting to find familiar. Original CapEx reports back in cabinet AG. Time to go.
Her accomplices rejoined her as she came down the staircase. She left the building, waving and calling to Gary, “See you once they give me a desk assignment!”
Outside, Mayke asked, “How the fuck did you do that?”
“Do what?” Amaranth asked back, genuinely puzzled.
“You’ve never been here. You’ve never met that guy. You just fooled him into thinking he knew you, and pointing you right to what you wanted, and now we’re just walking off with it.”
“Oh,” she said, mildly disappointed in Mayke, especially after the little discussion they’d had over aizan the previous night. “You mean, did I use my creepy fae mind powers on him?”
“Yeah. Did you?” Mayke looked a little sheepish about it, but stood her ground on the question.
“Fuck, no. I saw his nametag, and I’m very, very good at improvising. Plus, nobody here is actually from here, and all offices are basically the same anyway,” Amaranth said. “Not exactly a hard mark to read or a hard scene to play. You come in, you look right, you know one common accounting term, it’s all good. Listen, Mayke. In general, but especially in situations where I have the advantage, I don’t have to use any fae abilities, I don’t need to, and I don’t even want to. That’s just how it is with me.”
“But why not?” the technician asked.
“Point of pride,” she said.
And then to keep Mayke’s head going the direction she needed it, Amaranth asked, “So, Mayke, Jade. Getting into the fuel depot without being seen. Do we still have a problem?”