EDIT: To anyone who's been following this work, I'm currently taking a hiatus from Private Mind as I explore other creative projects and plan out more of this story's plot. I expect to come back to it in a month or so.
Alstroemeria: Overbearing shrew of a wizard in Thrair's War of the Final Whisper Pathfinder campaign.
Gala walked through the door and dismissed the Court slave with a curt nod and a pity that she didn't let touch her face. He bowed and withdrew, closing the double doors as he went. As with any Court slave, he would have been chosen for proven loyalty and capability. Age was upon him, and court slaves were not abused, but in his youth he would have been handsome beyond belief... and no doubt the private plaything of some prince or princess. No mark blemished his face, but Gala would not be surprised to find scars from floggings on his back, cigar burns on his abdomen... and yet, he remained loyal. An empath would have confirmed that, likely Lu. Gala couldn't understand that loyalty. After all he had suffered... why? Was he grateful to the Court for rescuing him from his previous master? Broken, somehow? A masochist? Or maybe a sycophant, someone who enjoyed royal attention no matter how abusive. Royalty seemed to attract a lot of those.
The doors opened again, and Cousin Kirin walked through. There was a certain indefinable quality about him that suggested that he wasn't him so much as They. Gala dredged through the ancient memories, trying to determine the outward signs that generated that impression. A lack of flourish, perhaps, a disregard for how his audience viewed this individual member of the Court. Kirin was a vain peacock when left to his own devices, but the Court didn't care about individual vanity. Or Their own vanity. They didn't care about fashion or etiquette or niceties. They wielded naked power, and that was the only etiquette They needed. And something -- Gala wished she knew what -- told her that Kirin was presently They instead of he.
Kirin confirmed her suspicions with Their first words. "You really should take off that contraption some time. We miss you." He was of course referring to her skullcap. It was an old invention, metal conformed perfectly to her head, which shielded her from telepathy and the Court's presence in her mind. It was hot, heavy, sweaty, and she had to keep her head shaven. It also left her mind her own, even here at the Court's heart, and that made it worth the cost ten times over. The skullcap's shielding capabilities had become public knowledge some decades ago, and they were a favored style among the discontented rabble, a sign of rebellion and disgruntlement. Usually Gala wore a wig over hers, but here she flaunted it for much the same purpose.
Gala bit back her immediate response, doing her best to keep her face polite and courteous. It would not fool Them, of course. They could read the facial tics of a clam with its shell shut. But it would tell Them that Gala was not yet in a state of outright defiance.
Instead, Gala smiled, walked over, embraced Kirin, and kissed Them on both cheeks as decorum required. "It has been a while. But I'm more useful to the Court on my own." She walked over to the couch, adjusted her skirts -- if you could even call the new style skirts -- and lay down. Her boots she propped up on the couch's arm, rather than stain the satin.
Kirin took a seat in a plush chair opposite the office's mahogany coffee table (inset crystal surface, very expensive, imported from Hawai'i, utterly worthless) and, irritatingly, refused to let the subject drop. "For the moment," They allowed. "But you're accumulating a wealth of memories and experience that the Court does not possess. You will need to come back to teach Us at some point. If something unfortunate were to happen to you before then, it would be a terrible setback for Us."
Gala couldn't entirely suppress the grimace that brought. She HAD been on her own for a while, and her experiences since then had been... rich. Incorporating them into the Court's knowledge pool would take months, possibly years. No doubt They'd also decide her time in Court would be opportune to breed another telepath out of her. At least a year, then, likely closer to two. Time out of her lifespan that would be Theirs, not hers.
Kirin saw her reaction. "Really, this radical individualism of yours is becoming quite gauche. Offsetting, really. We're starting to feel that you don't like Us."
Gala needed to change the subject. "I'm here to tell you about Olivia Adius."
"That trifle? It was a murder, of course. Adius should have been nowhere near the explosion at the sugar plant, and the tides were wrong for her to have washed up where he did. Someone decided she was a witch and burned her. But it's a matter between Ordinaries, beneath Our notice, and should be beneath yours. You should have let the police handle it."
At last a topic she could properly vent her spleen on. Gala scowled at a whorl in the marble ceiling, as if it represented everything evil and flawed about humanity. "The police," she announced, "Are arrogant, corrupt, self-aggrandizing pricks with delusions of royalty that pretend at ruling over Ordinaries and don't give a damn about solving crimes, or even finding their asses with both hands and a sextant, if it's easier to simply grab a random person off the street and accuse them of whatever wickedness they need a scapegoat." It was a statement that could be applied to more than the police.
"Exactly," Kirin responded. "And in the process, they maintain the proper air of terror among the lesser orders while presenting the facade of justice that the masses, in their terror, can grasp at to rationalize their acceptance and obedience of Our rule. Fearful people grasp at straws, and the illusion that they will be spared if they remain innocent makes such a nice straw for them to grasp at."
"But they make ****ty detectives."
"That's what We have you for."
Gala sighed, pulled a small screwdriver from her belt, and used it to clean the dirt from under her nails. Kirin immediately took attention. Nothing of import had been said up until now. Both parties knew everything before they discussed it, and it had all been signals that They knew and she knew They knew and They knew that she knew that They knew. The casualness of her present attitude told Them that she was about to spill something new, in hopes that would win an extension of her freedom. Ordinaries weren't the only ones who could grasp at straws, after all.
"Yes," she told Them after a moment. "That is what You have me for." She flicked a gummy mass of dirt onto the luxurious carpet (imported from Cashmere) and moved on to another fingernail.
"There was something more to it than a witch hunt?"
"Yes. Geoff Ferienne."
* * *
“I know that you know,” Geoff Ferienne said, as soon as Gala took her seat. The deep FOOT FOOT FOOT of the automatic steam organ resonated through the thin interior walls of the dance hall, and Gala felt a headache settling in just behind her eyes. Geoff was tall and fit, dark-skinned and grey-haired. His suit was well-tailored with a hint, in the double-column of buttons up the front, of a military uniform. Gala thought he looked like a ludicrous bellhop… except for the scar running from the right side of his mouth down to the jawline. That was the ever-present reminder that Geoff was not above wading into a fray.
“You know nothing,” Gala told him. She looked around the office with a feigned, casual curiosity. In point of fact, she was looking desperately for a signal device. The deep base of the pipe organ would drown out any call for assistance or service that Ferienne’s low voice could issue. The same for pounding on the door. But the deep rumble of the “music” was lacking in high pitches. A masculine shout would be lost in it, but a bell wouldn’t. Yet there was no bell. Nor any servant in attendance. Ferienne was not the sort to tolerate witnesses to his inner dealings. That put paid to the idea of someone secretly spying on them through a hole in the wall. Yet he would not leave himself without the means to summon reinforcements… something he could lay his hands on in an instant. Where was it?
Geoff pulled the lid off his plate; his maid had delivered dinner just as Gala had been arriving. Geoff drew a rather impressive knife, at least ten inches in length, and used it to shovel rice into his mouth. The plate had arrived with flatware. The move was designed to intimidate. Gala wondered whether serving a meal if someone he wanted intimidated showed up for a meeting had been prearranged, or whether Geoff was simply taking advantage of the timing with which dinner had arrived.
“I know that you’ve been asking the wrong questions of the wrong people,” he said between mouthfuls, pointing at her with his knife. “I know Dennis Gerhert said things he shouldn’t have about what happened to that Olivia bitch. I also know he won’t be repeating those things in any court.” Gerhert had been bludgeoned to death with a cinderblock. Whoever had done it had started with the toes and fingers and worked their way inward. “I also know you talked to a purser about drug shipments, who also won’t be talking to anyone else.” The purser, Sofie Anatova, had been torn apart by trained dogs. “So, really, you know a lot of things. But you can prove none of it. And your boss will need proof to arrest one of the biggest contributors to the pension fund. Why did he send you to ask awkward questions, anyway? Or does he even know you’re doing this?”
That was the only question he wanted answered. Yes, and someone would miss her if she vanished, and Geoff would have to be careful in eliminating her. It would come quietly, in a time and place and manner no one could connect to him, completely unpredictable… but perhaps not as certain as here, now, with the main force of his enterprise at his disposal.
“No,” Gala answered. “I’m on my own.”
Geoff stabbed a sausage and nibbled on it. “Pity.” He reached for his goblet.
Something about his grip on the knife spurred recognition Gala’s mind. One of the ancestral memories, the ancient ghosts living in her head, remembered something about the current situation and what it implied. Gala had been watching Geoff’s face, but someone else had been watching the goblet, niggling at the back of her mind about it, and an instinct that wasn’t truly hers drove her to act.
There’d been no means of summoning servants or aid in the office. No bells, no small gong on the table, no pull-cord, no speaking horns, no whistles.
Gala lunged forward and batted the goblet out of his hand before he could ring it with his knife.
* * *
"Geoff Ferienne,” Kirin repeated. “The man whose club you ran amok in last night. Four dead. Nine crippled for life, him included. Really, Gala, you do need to be more careful. It's just that sort of encounter that gives urgency to Us having you here in Court. One of those bodies could have been yours."
"I was never in any danger."
That was an outright lie. But then, They knew that she knew that They knew that she knew that They knew.
* * *
Gala turned away even before Ferienne finished slumping to the floor. The punch to the throat had left him gasping for air, and his absurdly large knife (Damascus steel, clearly overcompensation) had not been an equal to her inch-and-a-half blade. Sharp as a razor, it had slashed the tendons of the hand holding the knife, and then she’d spun past him and did the same for his hamstrings. Even now he was still gasping for air, but it would be at least a minute before he found the voice to cry out. She wiped her blade, returned it to its cuff-sheath, and tried to quell the shaking. She patted him down, removing two knives and a revolver.
If he lived through the next minute, it would be because Gala allowed it. Reluctantly, she did. He didn’t deserve to live. But he would recover enough to summon help. That would distract the guards. She needed that to escape.
The office door was not a way out. The bodyguards would be sure to glance in. They would see Ferienne. Or the blood stains. She couldn’t fight that many on their terms. She need another exit.
Her mind raced as fast as her heart, running in circles, refusing to notice anything useful. Combat always did that to her. She took a few precious seconds to calm herself, to empty her mind and still her soul. Then, she took stock of the room.
Curtains covered a window out to the dance hall. Through the gap between them, she caught sight of the garishly spinning chandelier. There were over a hundred people out there, most of them part of Ferienne’s machine. Not good.
A fireplace with a chimney. But the chimney narrowed to a pipe too small for her to climb up. Maybe she could hide below the flue… but if they found her, she would be helpless. That was a cage. A deathtrap.
The floor beneath her feet sounded hollow. The dance hall was elevated above the ground by several feet. But the ground beneath it had sloped up towards the back of building, and she suspected there would be less than a foot of clearance. Even if she could pry up the heavy wooden flooring, that exit was also uncertain.
Motion drew her eye back to Ferienne. He’d recovered far faster than she’d expected, and in her distraction had reached for the goblet with his good hand. Even as she turned to face him, he brought it down on the metal corner of his desk.
A bright, cheerful ringing rang through above the din.
Gala threw herself through the window.
* * *
“Drugs?” They asked through Kirin. “Cocao? Tobacco? What do we care about those trifles?”
“Opium,” Gala answered. “Heroin. I tested a sample. Medicinal quality.”
They were silent.
“It was bound for the Grand Valley,” she told Them.
“Perhaps you are of greater use away from Us. Was it an independent operation?” the Court asked through Kirin. “Or was it set up by Grand Valley? Were they simply businessmen, or enemy agents?”
“Independent businessmen. But in business with the Grand Dynasty.”
Kirin hesitated for a fraction of a second. One thing Gala loathed was the Court looking out for her. She could fight her own battles. The Court knew it, and They knew she loathed it, and she knew that They knew. Enemy agents might have been accorded some courtesy, perhaps exchanged for some of Hillsport’s own agents. But there could only be one answer for a traitor. And by reporting that they were traitors…
“And they attacked a princess of the dynasty,” They mused. “We are surprised that you told us.”
Hatred and rage flooded through Gala. The Court saw it and understood. She wanted them to suffer. The Court understood that all too well.
* * *
The curtain wrapped around Gala as she crashed through, protecting her from the glass. Stumbled away from the flying glass and the flying body. Bouncers jumped to their feet. Gala disentangled herself from the curtain and saw the bartender reaching under the counter out of the corner of her eye.
Gala had only one advantage. She knew what was happening, and Ferienne’s gang didn’t. She pulled out a smoke bomb and hammered her thumb into the trigger.
Customers screamed and ran. In moments, no one could see more than five feet in any direction. Chaos was complete.
Gala snatched up the curtain rod and moved too, but not in any direction that could be anticipated. There were only two exits from the dance hall, three if they had a delivery door for the kitchen. All would be guarded. She needed to make her own exit. She ran for the music.
A heavyset man in workman’s clothes loomed out of the smoke, carrying an oversized plumber’s wrench. He swung overhand, trying to bring the head down on her skull. She saw barely in time to throw herself sideways, and the wrench batted the curtain rod away from her. The man didn’t even try to recover. He followed through with the arc of the swing, pulling the wrench’s head up in a circle behind him and bringing it down a second later. Gala rolled aside, trying to get her feet under her, but not having time. A solid blow from that wrench could break a dozen bones.
The man swung again… and this time the wrench struck the floor. Centuries of instinct, lifetimes of combat experience, took Gala by the spine, and she threw herself into his weapon’s reach before he could recover. He didn’t try. At twice her weight, he did the obvious. He grabbed for her.
Gala’s own hand snaked out and broke a wrist. That ended the grab. His howl of pain was cut short with a chop to his throat, and a steel-toed boot to the groin took the rest of the fight out of him.
Gala breathed deeply, trying to regain her center, and choked on the smoke. Dammit, the bomb had seemed like a good idea at the time. Trust an automatic steam organ in a place like this to be so refractory as to need a full-time engineer. Trust Geoff Ferienne to hire a brawler built like a locomotive. And trust a mechanic to have more brains and be more on the ball than all of Ferienne’s dumb muscle put together.
The customers should have fled by now. There would only be Ferienne’s men… and women, she was pretty sure she’d seen some of the dancing girls grabbing weapons rather than running for the exit… bumbling around to find her in the smoke before she escaped. And Gala herself, of course, at the back wall, by the steam organ, in the last place anyone trying to escape would be.
Now that she was at the organ’s steam engine, things proceeded quickly. Open the furnace, poke at the coal. Two pumps of the bellows. Open the water feed half a notch. Close all the output valves – the music died, she had to work quickly – pump the bellows twice more.
Dive for cover behind the bar.
She hadn’t anticipated the bartender with his shotgun. He should have been out in the smoke hunting for her, but instead he’d stayed at his post, clenching his useless shotgun and peering uselessly into the pea soup. Which, ironically, put him in place to actually be of use in catching her.
His first move was to stomp at her in panic, like she was a mouse that had popped out of the woodwork. If he’d simply pointed and shot, she’d have been dead. Gala spun on the floor and swept his legs out from under him. He went down, and the shotgun discharged towards the ceiling. It was deafening in the silence following her sabotage. She grabbed a square bottle from behind the counter and brought it down on his head.
And now she was trapped. She dared not stay here after the gun had gone off, but she dared not move. Not until…
There was the unmistakable click of a gun’s hammer being drawn back. Gala looked up. A dancing girl sneered at her through missing teeth and too much makeup down the length of the barrel.
Gala knew she was dead.
She sneered back.
The steam organ’s boiler tank burst.
Shrapnel and scalding steam flooded through the room. It burst over the bar in great billowy clouds of pure heat and enveloped the woman. She screamed in agony, as did at least half a dozen others throughout the room. The dancer fired . The bullet lodged in the floor inches from Gala’s head.
And then the wave of steam was past, and Gala was up and rushing out the hole where the steam organ had once stood.
Say what you will for improvised strategy, at least she’d managed to destroy the blasted thing.
* * *
“Leave me out of it,” Gala said to Kirin. “Leave any mention of royalty out of it. They’re traitors. That’s enough.”
They nodded, reluctant but accepting. “Since no one knows what they attempted, yes, it is. Torture and execution. You’re normally squeamish on the subject of punishment. Why not now?”
Gala’s mouth contracted to a thin line, and she pulled the screwdriver out of her fingernail. It was that or jam it all the way under. “Ferienne took a poor factory worker who’d seen too much. He wouldn’t accept her silence. He simply had her burned alive.” She could feel the screwdriver’s head digging into her palm, knew that she was clenching it tight enough to draw blood. So much for the couch’s satin. Right now, she didn’t care. “Let the punishment fit the crime. Burn them all. Let them die burning.”
Alstroemeria: Overbearing shrew of a wizard in Thrair's War of the Final Whisper Pathfinder campaign.
She’d been granted a reprieve. When she’d entered, she’d been unaware of any plans to have her recalled. As an intellectual proposition, she’d known that she’d be pulled back in eventually. But it hadn’t really occurred to her that it would happen soon. It should have, but… she’d been busy. She’d gotten caught up in her day-to-day affairs and stopped looking at the big picture, at the long term.
That was what the Court was for, after all.
And now that she faced recall, she was discovering that she really, really didn’t want to go back. Producing heirs to the dynasty was a duty that royal women had been forced to endure throughout history, going back even to the days before telepaths. But it still struck her as monumentally unfair.
She would, of course. They’d give her no choice. They never did. Wherever she ran they could hunt her. Rogue princes and princesses were not uncommon, and she knew the Court had her and every (temporarily) independent telepath very carefully watched. If she could get a week’s lead time, maybe she could bury herself in wilderness so impenetrable that they’d never track her, live off the land…
But she’d never have the week’s lead time. They’d be after her within a day, while the spoor was fresh.
Besides, Gala could never leave civilization behind. It was rotten and corrupt, all of humanity poured into a great vat and left to sour, with every vice floating to the top like scum. But it also held a dynamic wonder that the natural world couldn’t match. Some delighted in botany and zoology, but Gala preferred the modern world of invention. She could never leave it behind. No, better to serve the two years.
If she had to.
She had to.
Gala took a deep, reinforcing breath and immediately regretted it. One thing no one liked about civilization was the coal smoke, and it stung acrid in her lungs. Three centuries ago, building the Palace on the great hilltop and been a good idea, both for aesthetics and defense. Hillsport stretched below it like a so many worshiper hills kneeling in reverence before a god. But steam power and coal smoke had changed the view. Only in Gala’s inherited memories could she see from this spot the great panorama of the sapphire bay stretching south and north, the golden hills of the East Bay, the rolling emerald hills of the North Bay, and the verdant forests of the peninsula all in one sweep. Or when the fog rolled in, like it did in summer, the image of a sea of clouds, fenced in by hills.
Now it was all a sickening, choking smoke. It had been for as long as Gala, personally, could remember. And this was a good day.
She turned her eyes to the marina, and her eyes sought out Hawai’i’s reserved berths in the haze. Carrying trade was high through Hillsport – it was the best port for a thousand miles to the north or south, and the natural water outlet from Grand Valley to the East – but Hawai’i’s ships seemed particularly prolific these days. She could make out a dozen of their freighters flying their gaily colored flags, and one passenger liner. Some, she knew, worried about Hawai’i's growing power and dominance of the Yamaichikoku Ocean trade, to the point where people were starting to call it the Hawai’i Ocean, but Gala wasn’t concerned, and neither was the Court. Hawai’i had no real way to project any power save the economic, and it always made sure that its trading partners found profit in their dealings. Still, Gala envied them, more so today than ever. Hawai’i had a strong tradition of sending its telepaths abroad on trading missions, and it always granted its royalty freedom and latitude so long as they toed the line while on the Isles. They were free to leave whenever they wanted.
She turned her gaze west. The Yamaichikoku Ocean was lost in a coal haze, what little she might have seen beyond the hills to the west, but she imagined it as her ancestors had viewed it a hundred years ago, blue-green in the sun and edged with foam. Somewhere beyond it was a land where she could have said no to the Court.
She had paperwork to do. The police had already rounded up a secret church of Christians for Olivia Adius’s murder, gotten the rubber stamp of a trial, and hung the lot of them. That was their job: provide a swift, vicious, public answer to any crime, with only passing interest if they caught the right person. Her job was to track down any perpetrators who actually threatened the civil order. The Christians had most definitely not been that, but they’d been playing the role of the scapegoat ever since telepathic families broke the Vatican’s power in the late 13th century and began extracting revenge for a legacy of witch-burnings. Modern Christianity was greatly changed in its tone from the religion which at the height of its power had ruled a continent, and witch-burning was far from the mind of any secret adherents save that they might be accused of it. But why should reality interfere with an easy arrest?
Now Gala had to sort through all the old files and dress them up with the actual evidence she’d uncovered. The lie had to be made up to look like the truth, because while most Ordinaries might suspect the police were corrupt, everything on the official side still had to combine into a coherent narrative. It was the part of her job she hated the most.
Her eyes stung from the coal smoke, and with a sigh – a more careful one than last time – Gala started down towards Hillsport below. She wanted to get away from the smoke, and she wanted to get hammered, and she was pretty sure it’d be a while before either happened.
* * *
Gala had barely managed to pull the Adius file before the bellow echoed through police headquarters. She suppressed a cringe and slipped her flask into a skirt pocket. Getting hammered wasn’t an option, but what was about to followed had required at least a little anesthetic. And it made her wig itch less.
Gala’s nominative boss glowered at her from his office door. His face had almost turned magenta, his jowls and chins quivered in rage, his knuckles upon the door frame were white. Hillsport Chief of Police Ido, in all his puce glory.
“My office!” he screamed across the busy room. “Now!”
Gala forced her face into a suitably terrified visage and hustled over with an outward combination of trepidation and obedience, while inside she reviewed a fantasy of slitting Ido’s throat. Normally she’d be permitted. Royalty could get away with almost anything, after all. But Ido was a royal bastard, imported all the way from Yamaichikoku as part of the Court’s ceaseless exogamy arrangements. Not a telepath himself, but he carried the recessive gene, and thus was important to the breeding program. His semi-royal status made him a bully… or at least let him justify being a bully… and sex with so many Hillsport telepaths had given him delusions of grandeur. Gala considered the prospect that he’d be chosen to impregnate her loathsome in the extreme, and entirely too likely. The Court had been frank with her, when she’d taken this assignment, that any affairs and offspring she might have with her supposed employer would be viewed positively. He’d seemed aware of this himself, and it had taken some creativity on Gala’s part to produce a threat that would both keep his hands off her and leave him viable for the Court’s purposes. She wouldn’t have been allowed to follow through on it, anyway, but the plausibility had given him pause.
Of course, the punishment for slitting his throat would be being called back to Court and losing her independence for a while. If that was going to happen anyway…
Princess Gala Hillsport – only here she was Very-Much-Not-A-Princess Virginia Darshe – walked into Ido’s office with a mix of fury and disgust roiling in her belly. He slammed the door behind her.
Ido got straight to the point, which was always ominous. The key to managing Ido was reinforcing – as often and as rationally as possible – that outward covers aside, she had the power in their relationship, and it was entirely in his self-interest to do things as she’d planned. But threatening to grab his allowance and squeeze as if the money flow was his testes only made him mad. The problem was that appealing to his rationality only worked when he was in a rational state of mind, and he rarely was. And at the moment, he was ruled by his rage. The only question was whether he could be drawn back to rationality.
… or, alternately, pushed into attacking her. He didn’t know about the knife in her wrist-sheath. Just one toe over that line, and his blood was hers to spill.
“You’re fired,” was the first thing he said, once the slam had stopped echoing. So much for rationality.
“You’re delusional,” she answered him.
“You attacked Ferienne!” Ido screamed. “Do you know what that’s going to do to the pension fund?”
“You mean your gambling fund? Make it shrivel up like your ****. You’re still delusional.”
Ido grabbed a block of chewing tobacco and tore a bite off of it. It was a feral gesture, meant somewhere in his hindbrain to intimidate. “I hear you’re being called back to Court. You’ll see how big my **** is soon enough.”
The problem with royal bastards was that they were entirely too familiar with how telepathic Courts worked. They knew exactly how much freedom royalty didn’t have, and exactly how to hurt those who were (momentarily) apart from the Court. Was he deliberately trying to enrage her? Or, somehow, grasping for power in their relationship? If so, it was time to lay down the law. Again. “I’m not fired. You have your orders. They haven’t changed. You know what happens if you disobey them.”
Ido chewed. “The pension fund!” He seemed to be deliberately trying to produce a tobacco froth.
She looked at him as if he were a two-year-old throwing a tantrum. Which was close enough to the truth. Ido glowered at her, then sighed, spat into the spittoon, and sat down at his desk. Inwardly, Gala breathed a sigh of relief, though she didn’t let any outward sign show. Ido was coming down from his rage, and coming down far more easily than she’d expected.
“You’re still fired,” he told her.
She maintained her level stare.
“You’re still fired,” he repeated. “My orders are to give you a cover. Making you my secretary worked. You could say I had sent you to interview people, use that status to poke your nose into whatever you wanted to. But then you attacked Ferienne. If you were just my secretary, I’d fire you in a heartbeat. So if I don’t fire you, I blow your cover.”
“You don’t have the authority.”
Edo laughed. No wonder he’d been so quick to calm down. His tone, his expression, was triumphant. Gloating. “To look out for your cover? That’s exactly what I have authority to do. You’re fired. You’ll respond by setting up a private investigation firm, and some leak or another in this office will feed you all the information that you had access to here. That’s your new cover.”
Gala glared at him. The bastard had actually done some thinking on the subject. A first. “Not acceptable.”
He spat again, this time on the floor. “I don’t give a sheep’s ass whether you accept it. You should have thought about that before you attacked Ferienne. Now you’ve forced my hand. You’re fired.”
The arrangement was… workable. Plausible. Even attractive, in so far as her paperwork would become manageable and she wouldn’t have to deal with Ido again. But far from ideal. The information wouldn’t be crossing her desk on the way to Ido, any more. Rather, he would be doling it out in dribs and drabs however it pleased him. It would give him actual power in their relationship, and that would be very dangerous. And the status of his secretary, the authority it carried, how that opened doors and loosened tongues, that would be lost as well.
In every practical sense, she was about to become a lot less effective. And her effectiveness was the only thing keeping her independent.
And Ido seemed to know it. “Besides, you’re going to be called back to Court soon, and you need something to explain an absence of… oh, probably three or four years. You’re fired. Try to make it work in the private sector, or save yourself the trouble and go back to the Court.” He leered at her, and the chewing tobacco made it especially revolting. “I’ll be seeing you real soon.”
* * *
Gala left the Adius file where Ido would have a hard time finding it. She was fired, after all. Let him do his own damn paperwork. Maybe if he screwed up bad enough the Court would execute him.
Word count (as requested by Glass Mouse): 2216, though I think Word was counting some of those * dividers as full words.
BTW, I welcome comments and criticisms.
Alstroemeria: Overbearing shrew of a wizard in Thrair's War of the Final Whisper Pathfinder campaign.
“And now he’s got off-duty police harassing the only two people who’ve tried to hire me,” Gala growled to the gondola’s other companion. “Because that’s what he’d do if I was just an ex-secretary who’d pissed him off and gone private.”
The lift swayed slightly in the breeze, and Emmett craned his neck to nervously look up at the suspension cables slowly hauling them up Palisade Hill. Gala had never met the distant cousin in person, but she did have all his memories up until three years ago. That was when he’d been set free from the Court to begin learning independence, at age ten. She personally thought that was less because the Court valued independent thinking, and more because the Court didn’t want adolescence rattling around in the groupmind. Now, Emmitt was in an awkward place, thirteen years old in body and hormones, about eight years old in personal experience, and over ten thousand years old in inherited memories. Not that knowing what puberty was like in advance had ever, in the entire history of the Dynasty, made the experience any more tolerable.
One of the particularly irritating aspects of the first few years on one’s own was the disconnect between other people’s experience and one’s own. In the back of his head, Emmitt knew for a fact that the gondola was perfectly safe, but on an instinctual level he was still unnerved. Inherited experience never was the equal of personal experience, and Emmitt flushed with embarrassment as he realized he was acting silly. Gala gave him a reassuring smile that only made him flush worse.
He took a deep breath, grasped for a poise that he’d never personally possessed, and returned to the conversation. “And you need customers… as your cover. That’s right.” Another aspect of inherited knowledge was that recollection was poor unless you called it to mind several times. “So who gets blamed if he screws up your cover?”
Gala couldn’t help but grimace. “He should. But he’ll say it’s my fault for messing up the first cover he gave me.”
“And the Court will buy that?”
“Of course not. The Court will know exactly what’s going on. But They will weigh the bastard’s value alive rather than dead and then take the alternative that lets Them save face while still retaining his worth. They don’t care about actual justice, so long as They get Their way.”
Emmitt’s face screwed up. Ah, adolescence. A time for ideals and faith, a time when the Court was still the kindly, nurturing home of childhood, a time before disillusionment. Gala felt like throttling him. What did he know about yearning for freedom? He’d find out eventually, probably in a few more years, that he wasn’t as independent as he wished to be. Some day he’d know. She found it hard not to begrudge him his innocence, and yet she wouldn’t deny him his moment of naivety if she could. It would be over far too soon.
Gala changed the subject. “So what brings you to Court, Emmitt? You’ve got some years yet before They let you back into the groupmind.”
“I’m carrying reports from Quicksilver Valley,” Emmett said. “They’re confidential.”
Gala’s initial read on him was that he was proud of the duty or honor of carrying some great big important secret, almost to the point of bragging. Why else share that he had something he couldn’t share to someone whose job was ferreting out secrets? But no. She reevaluated that initial reaction quickly. He was hiding it behind a mask of nonchalance, but something had Emmett terrified. He wanted desperately to talk to anyone about it, and couldn’t.
Gala changed the subject again, this time to Grand Valley to the east and the latest set of skirmishes. The coasts and hills of the Northern Bay (both its north and south shores) were in a constant state of dispute as the two powers jockeyed for position in advance of a general war both sides knew was inevitable. The maneuvers never failed to provide topics for conversation.
In the back of her mind, Gala made a note to ferret out Emmett’s secret.
* * *
This time the Court met her in the form of Princess Riddhi. Riddhi looked about eight months pregnant, and the Court walked Their puppet carefully across the room for the greeting embrace and kisses on cheeks. Not that the Court cared for Riddhi’s discomfort; They only wanted to preserve Their tool’s usefulness.
Under other, more private circumstances, Gala might have chatted with Riddhi about her pregnancy. Gala had borne three children for the Court (she had trouble thinking of them as her own children), and while some parts of it had been uncomfortable, inconvenient, undignified, and extremely painful, much of the experience had been pleasant. Seeing Riddhi made Gala start thinking of having another, on her own terms, maybe with her own choice of lover. She’d rather keep working, but if she didn’t have a choice on the subject, it beat waiting for to be paired off with Ido like some brood mare, and… maybe, if the Court left her independent for most of her term, she could think of the child as hers this time.
Too many maybes, none of which would be permissible. And she couldn’t speak to Riddhi about it. Her childhood friend wasn’t herself today, and aside from a little freedom for nighttime sleep, wouldn’t be for another few months. A dreaming state was even more distracting for the Court than adolescence.
“I need an advance on my allowance,” Gala told Them once Riddhi was laid out on the couch. “Ido’s stuck me with some bills to pay if I’m to keep working.”
“Yes, We know,” the Court said. “And We also know that you are… less than pleased with him.”
“He’s interfering with my ability to do the Court’s work, and he’s doing it because he’s a petty bastard with delusions of bossing a Hillsport royal around.”
The court shrugged through Riddhi. “He has valid justifications. His actual reasons are irrelevant. Besides, the timing is good. We were about to recall you anyway. A firing gives you reason to disappear for a few years, before being hired back once Ido’s temper has cooled. Besides, you’ve amassed a few enemies here and there, and with the protection of the police gone it would be wisest for you to make yourself scarce.” Riddhi smiled at Gala with a maternal condescension that was entirely the Court’s. “You’re a valuable asset to the Dynasty, Gala. You, and your accumulated experience. We can’t risk losing you.”
“In other words, I’m being recalled.” The ball of tension that had been growing in Gala’s stomach ever since her last meeting with the Court dropped out of her, leaving only an empty pit. She tried to hide it from the Court, but of course They saw anyway and of course They didn’t care in the slightest for her unease. The Dynasty was all that mattered. “I thought I was useful independent.”
“You were. We’re not recalling you yet, on the off chance that you might retain some of your old value. But if you want Us to leave you outside, you will need to prove that you are still useful in your new circumstances. Rapidly. We need to see something of value by… let’s say the end of next week.”
Gala forced herself to nod. “All right. I need fifteen stones silver to get established.”
The Court shook Riddhi’s head. “We’re not about to throw Our money into an effort that We don’t think will succeed. Have your things packed and be ready to move into the Palace.”
* * *
Gala walked down Palisade Hill again, as usual.
The walk was unpleasant as always. The hill was steep and the old, ill-maintained cobblestones of two centuries ago had never been upgraded to sett or brick. The anachronism was deliberate, there to discourage traffic to and from the palace save by cable lifts controlled from above. The smoke choked in her lungs, and she was convinced that laboring up the hill on foot would have been impossible. Going down, of course, was easier, but the smoke was bad today and the occasional coughing spasm made the descent treacherous. She wasn’t likely to lose her footing, but if she did she wouldn’t stop tumbling until the hill’s base, and every bounce would be off a dozen cobbles.
She really should have waited for the gondola. But, as happened more and more of late, the car hadn’t gotten there fast enough for her tastes. Even as she thought it, she watched the carriage glide down past her, suspended from its cable. She’d have gotten to the bottom faster by waiting. But getting to the bottom hadn’t been the point. Walking had gotten her away faster; that was the objective. She couldn’t bear to be in the palace’s shadow one moment longer than she had to.
There was only one rational thing to do right now, and that was to get completely, utterly, irrevocably hammered.
* * *
The Palace Water was a lounge at the base of Palisade Hill, located to its east, directly on the route between the eastern gondola’s base station and the Dynasty’s private docks. The seats were stuffed leather, the walls were mosswood panels, the silverware was actually silver and the glass was actually crystal. A collection of the greatest modern artists in the region hung from the walls. First-string entertainers graced its stage every day, and the liquor and food was of the highest quality. Security was top-notch and provided by the Palace Guard. The Water was a bar for royalty.
Gala walked right past it.
Ten blocks away there was a basement cellar converted to a bar. It had no name and a small wooden sign saying only “tavern” had vanished years ago under mysterious circumstances, never to return. No one had bothered to replace it. In the putative privacy of her own mind, Gala called it The Hole. The current proprietress’s sister was a vintner in the Northern Bay and a few bottles of decent wine usually found its way into The Hole’s reserve collection. Otherwise, the only virtues of The Hole’s selection were alcohol content and the capacity to strip paint. Tobacco smoke from cigarettes (not the new, made-for-market cigarettes, but the contents of scrounged cigar stubs rolled into newspaper by those who couldn’t afford cigars) highlighted the lack of air circulation. The heat was oppressive, a stench of fish and whale drifted in from the street, and the shriek of the above metal shop was the only singer ever heard in the Hole. The walls were a cracked brick foundation for the shop; they looked like they’d been through two earthquakes and would not make it through a third. Seating was pine boxes, lighting was oil lamps, and the tables were salvaged cable spools. It was short on bar fights only because of the cramped quarters and the fact that its patrons were often too tired from their labors. The Hole was as far from royalty as imaginable, while still being within walking distance.
Gala had quickly downed two shots of… something, and was now nursing a third and listened to the scream of a steam-powered drill press above. Whoever was working it was managing only three drillings per minute, which might be a sign of laziness but was more likely a sign of obsolete equipment or a poor shop layout. She wasn’t here for conversation or company, and the afternoon crowd was more than happy, in a manner of speaking, to keep to their private miseries and leave her to hers. The bad liquor would soon have her to the point where her thoughts and worries were hammered into silence and she could just sit there in a dull, empty oblivion.
One more shot after this one should do it. It beat going home to her small flat to cry.
Emmitt walked into The Hole, and Gala knew that there was going to be trouble.
It was his clothes. Gala’s clothing was sensible. She wore functional boots and drab denim under the new design of functional workwoman’s leather dress (which was a cross between slit skirts, overalls, and a smith’s apron). Any working woman on any factory floor might wear the same, and her skullcap put her firmly in the “don’t cross me or I’ll stab you” underclass of experts disgruntled by the restrictions of their Ordinary caste. No one gave her a second glance. Emmitt, however, stood out. He wasn’t in full court garb, but he wore richly dyed silks and sported functional jewelry – a gold watch chain, cuff links, and subtly gemmed buttons. Everything about him screamed money and power, and this was not a safe place for the wealthy and powerful to walk into unprotected.
An adult member of the royal family would have known better. So did Emmitt. But the mind did weird things during adolescence, and recognizing dangers it knew about in the abstract wasn’t something it did well during that period of life.
He peered through the haze, his eyes adjusting to the darkness as he looked for someone, and Gala realized he must have been following her all the way from the palace. A moment later, he was coming straight over and sitting at Gala’s table. Gala grit her teeth. Even a teenager should be more subtle than this.
Then she noticed his face. He was scared.
“There’s a serial killer in Quicksilver Valley,” he told her. His voice was urgent. He was terrified. “He’s been targeting government officials. You need to stop him.”
Word Count: 2281.
As always, comments, feedback, and proofs are welcome.
Alstroemeria: Overbearing shrew of a wizard in Thrair's War of the Final Whisper Pathfinder campaign.
Thanks for the feedback, Omeganaut. It's appreciated. Hope you like this next one.
“My fee’s two-stone per day,” Gala informed Emmitt after a moment of dead silence. “Silver, not paper. Plus expenses.”
It was a ridiculously high fee, of course. But it was just the sort of thing that one of Gala’s apparent class would open with, especially with a mark this obviously wealthy and this obviously in trouble. Soak the rich. Any chance you get. There could only be one response to blood in the water.
And given the equipment she would need to buy to be of any significant use to the Court, it was hardly an act on her part. It shouldn’t work on a royal, but actual royalty was rare, and the administrative class got rich enough to dress like Emmitt. There was no police department funding her investigations, anymore.
Emmitt opened his mouth to say something idiotic… and Gala could pick up the exact instant reality caught up with him. He took in the nature of his surroundings, the plebian bar patrons, the sounds of a blue-collar district drifting in from outside, the small child who’d been begging for coin at the door a minute ago but was no longer there. The way she was dressed, the way he was dressed. Just how much trouble he was in.
Emmitt flushed bright red. “Per-perhaps we should go somewhere else to discuss business.”
Gala considered him for a moment, making him sweat. It would drive home the lesson, and he deserved it. Then she threw back her shot, left a tarnished two-cent coin on the table, and gestured for Emmitt to lead the way.
Emmitt was thinking now, and even though Gala’s skullcap was still securely in place (always, this close to the Palace), she knew exactly what he would be thinking. His self-defense training, however much he’d momentarily forgotten it, befitted a prince of Hillsport. It wouldn’t be strong on personal combat. That skillset was more a thing of muscle and spine than brain, and very body-specific, just the sort of thing that couldn’t be learned from inherited memories. The Court typically didn’t settle into serious training until after the gangly stage of adolescence was past. But he would know how to take things in, spot ambushes and differentiate combatants and noncombatants in a flash, take the measure of a woman or man by subtle cues of movement. Did they walk on the heels or the balls of their feet, did they tend to keep their stance spread and balance centered. He might also have a firearm on him, though in these tight quarters it wouldn’t be much help.
To get to safety they would have to walk at least three blocks through the warren of alleys, warehouses, canneries, and service shops that made up this section of the dock district, and that would be very dangerous. His eyes would be just as valuable in the lead as hers, but a fight was likely, and it only made sense to have the more capable combatant in the less exposed position. Besides, however much he would be the target of an assault, any assailant would likely keep him alive for ransom. Not so much a working-class woman like Gala appeared to be. It was less dangerous for him to lead.
They both knew it, though Gala doubted he’d agree with what would happen next. As they left The Hole by its back door he took up the position of bait without a word being exchanged on the subject.
“Left, then right,” Gala murmured. She’d been coming to The Hole for years, and had formed a mental map of the surrounding area as her training dictated. Emmitt recognized the order for what it was and didn’t protest, even though the path took them deeper into the slum area. Emmitt looked lost for the simple reason that he was lost. Whereas Gala’s role…
She waited until they were out of sight of The Hole, pulled her revolver from her skirts, and buried it in the small of his back. Emmitt froze. “What are you doing?”
“I’m kidnapping you,” Gala told him. “Keep moving. Sharp left.”
It was their best way out. It also went completely against all of Emmitt’s training, and there had been no opportunity to explain local conditions to him.
* * *
Their path took them to the docks, where Gala commandeered a rowboat and forced Emmitt to take the oars while she pointed the gun at him. Once they were out of earshot of the shore, Gala relaxed, uncocked the hammer, safetied the weapon, and stuck it back in her skirt pocket. “Row north, back towards the royal docks,” she instructed. “We should be safe there.”
It was actually nice on the water. The coal smoke clung to land like grease; the air turned clean a few hundred yards out. The bay was a beautiful blue, and the sky was clear save for the great flocks of birds, thousands upon thousands, that turned patches of the sky black as if from clouds as they migrated north. There were fewer every year, and Gala wondered whether their numbers were being culled by Ordinary poachers, overhunting by telepath sportsmen, or some consequence of coal smoke. The wind hadn’t picked up yet; when it did, into late afternoon, it would drive the chocking smoke east from the city and over the bay. But for now, it was just the sort of day that demanded taking a yacht out on the water, having lunch, and then napping on the deck while the sun turned your skin a luscious brown.
Unless, of course, the Court was breathing down your neck to do the impossible instead, which seemed to be its principle entertainment and which it had done painfully well ever since Gala had emerged from her own yachting adolescence.
“What was that all about?” Emmitt asked. His silks were getting sweaty as he pulled at the oars, putting more distance between them and shore. As far as Gala cared, the clothes deserved it, for the trouble they’d almost gotten them into. “I mean, I screwed up. I get that. Sorry, by the way. But…”
“That’s all right,” Gala told him. “You’re still young, basically a child. Of course you’ll screw up by the numbers without someone holding your hand.” It was the cruelest thing she could say to him, and he flushed in shame. Then she relented. “It’s also completely normal, as you know perfectly well. I’ve been there, you’ve been there, and we’ve both the experiences of thousands upon thousands of others being there. It’s easier if you just accept that sort of thing when it happens and move on.”
He took a deep breath, and then nodded. “All right. But why did you get us out that way? That shouldn’t have worked.”
“There are three major gangs in the docks district,” she explained. “Well… sort of. One’s more like four minor allied gangs that coordinate pretty well. In any case, Ferienne’s organization – you’ve heard of him?” Emmitt nodded. “Ferienne’s organization was trying to muscle into their territory, and the three allied against him just recently. They’re at an awkward stage, trying not to piss each other off and blow the whole thing, and their members aren’t exactly on a first-name basis with each other.”
“I get it. We didn’t get grabbed because everyone in a gang assumed you were working for a different gang, and everyone not in a gang knew to stay out of their business.”
She nodded and glanced back. No signs of pursuit. Emmitt shipped the oars. The current was taking them north on its own. The tide was going out the Throat, Gala could see that with a glance at the maritime traffic steaming for the ocean, and even this far south of the main flow they were being drawn along slowly, at a walking pace. Half an hour of comfortable baking in the sun, and they’d be able to haul into the royal docks. Gala stripped off her coat – the damned thing was too hot even with a cloud of smoke between her and the sun, much less here – and then her skirts and apron, and then her shirt, leaving only her smallclothes. She wasn’t all that body-conscious in general, and the only one here was Emmitt, who like any family member had seen her (through her own memories) in considerably more lascivious circumstances than these.
Of course he was flushing and ogling while trying not to be obvious. Adolescence. “Oh, get those ridiculous clothes off, they’re more trouble than there worth, and you’ll just sweat them to a ruin in this sun” she told him. “And quit pretending you’re not staring at me, you’re not fooling anyone. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before.”
He flushed even worse and did what he was told, eventually getting down to an unbuttoned undershirt and briefs, trying to hide his consternation while neatly folding and piling his clothes under the rowing bench with the top hat set neatly on top. The obvious question weighed on his mind, and he finally worked up the courage to ask it. “Are we going to-”
His face froze, caught so comically between disappointment and relief that Gala had to laugh. “Look, you’re cute in a mostly-grown puppy way, and in a few years you’ll be outright handsome. And the Court’s been after me to give them another heir, and I’m tempted to preempt their choice of father, who I’m sure I’d loathe. You’d certainly be suitable from that standpoint. But that’s it. We just met, and unlike you, I am fortunately well-past the age where I need to hump every attractive body I see.”
Emmitt flushed again, but forced a civil nod. “Fair enough. Just… needed you to be clear.”
Gala smiled at him. “I know, Emmitt. You’re either a virgin or close enough.” He flushed deeper and opened his mouth to ask how she knew, but she plowed on. “No, of course I don’t know from your memories, the last I have from you is years old. But it’s obvious by how awkward you are. Take the advice of old age, and stop being ashamed of it. It’s one of your more attractive features.”
“It means you’re not one of those self-entitled brats who think that royal blood entitles them to rape any Ordinary who catches their eye, which at your age is anyone halfway attractive and unlucky enough to be seen.”
Emmitt shrugged, uncomfortably. “I’ve thought about it. Using my authority that way. But... I don’t know. I don’t know why I don’t. The Court says we should.”
Gala lay back on the rowing bench. “Get that Court nonsense out of your head, as soon as you can. The Court might be smarter than us, but They’re no more enlightened. They’re caught up in Western thought. Just because Christianity and Islam were trying to exterminate telepaths a thousand years ago doesn’t mean we have to brutalize Ordinaries or be brutalized in turn today. Meditate some on the Eastern philosophies.”
Emmitt evidently decided that the best way to avoid ogling her (not that she minded) was to lie back on his bench and stare at the sky. She could hear him shifting about. “You’re a traditionalist? I’d never have guessed.”
“I’m not much of anything,” she answered. “Lizbetianism’s clearly an artifice to control the Ordinary population, stitched together out of Buddhism and Confucianism with a dash of Aesgard thrown in. You’ve got the memories of the councils where the doctrines were drawn up, right? I can even recall how Fatima of Alexandria’s jowls quivered as she hollered at Lizbet the Great that they should forget about inventing a new slot for telepaths in the cycle of reincarnation, above Ordinaries, and just call themselves gods. She had a bit of grape leaf stuck in her teeth, right here.” She smiled at the inherited memory. It wasn’t a pleasant smile; their shared ancestor had not been a partisan of Fatima, and the old ancient hatred colored the memory. “It’s hard to believe that dogma is truth when you know for an iron fact that it was invented out of convenience. The best thing the Dynasty ever did was to jettison it in favor of secularism. Among other things, it got rid of a hundred myths telling us that the world worked in a way that it didn’t actually work.”
“So no, I’m not a traditionalist. Nor am I a believer in the original Eastern faiths. But I think there’s some wisdom there in how we should treat one another, and how we should treat Ordinaries. I think we discarded that too quickly when we discarded the rest. Telepaths and Ordinaries don’t have to be at each others’ throats all the time. It’s not the only possibility, not some sort of natural law. Just look at the Hindi Raj or the Zhao Empire, or even Hawai’i. They’re doing just fine.”
Emmitt stared at the aching blue sky for a while, digesting that. “I don’t think so,” he finally said. “I think we’d be treating them the same whatever religion the Court embraced. And the Ordinaries would be at our throats if we ever took the boot of theirs. No natural law. It’s just the weight of history. Too much bad blood. We didn’t have to go down this road. The Easterners didn’t. But we did, and now we can’t go back. And it wasn’t even us that took us down it. It was the Ordinaries, and we telepaths just defended ourselves.”
Gala turned to look at him. She’d been thinking of him as an idiot adolescent, she realized, but of course he wasn’t. Like any scion of Hillsport, he was thoroughly trained in philosophy and rhetoric… and perfectly capable of thinking for himself. What was more, he was actually using that capacity, and that was unfortunately very rare at his age. Gala found herself respecting him. He had the potential for greatness, she thought, with a bit more maturity and self-confidence.
“We did more than defend ourselves,” she answered. “We purged, slaughtered, exterminated, and terrorized, long past the point where Ordinaries had any hope of mounting a serious assault against us.”
“Still,” he said. “We can’t go back. History can’t be undone, and we’re stuck with its consequences.”
He had the wistful look of idealism, youth arguing about abstraction, rather than a reality faced. Gala suddenly found herself immensely irritated with him. Her scalp sweated and itched, and she longed to take off the skullcap, but of course she couldn’t with him there. Instead, she stripped off the last of her clothes and rolled off the boat’s gunwales and into the bay, bobbing in the chop and letting the water cool her. The salt would be murder to the skullcap, but she had half a dozen spare at home.
She swam for a good ten minutes, letting the current carry her along with the boat. A team of porpoises came to investigate, and she couldn’t help but laugh at their antics and how her own half-hearted attempts to shoo them away only heightened their curiosity. Emmitt stole glances now and again, and before long Gala’s amusement at his immaturity had once again replaced her irritation. She could tell he was embarrassed by her amusement, which increased her amusement further, which in turn increased his embarrassment. Of course, he could have spared himself further embarrassment by simply keeping his eyes elsewhere, or simply accepting her nudity as unconnected to sex in any way. And of course he did neither.
Finally refreshed, tired, and cold (the bay’s waters were never warm, and the ocean’s temperature mysteriously dropped during the summer months, which chilled the bay as well), Gala hauled herself back into the boat and lay out in the sun to warm herself, wearing nothing but the skullcap, which only increased Emmitt’s consternation further. At the root of it, Gala sensed, was the same old power struggle that seemed to happen whenever any two people met, and it was a power struggle that she had a very unfair advantage in. Being a telepath brought with it a level of experience that amounted to a window on the universality of the human condition. Or maybe it was just the telepathic condition. Either way, she knew that struggle always happened, with any two telepaths, and Emmitt was woefully outclassed. They were getting near to their destination, but there was time enough left for what she had planned.
“I was serious,” she told Emmitt. “Two stones silver per day, plus expenses. I need the money to get established. And it had better be important. The Court’s insisting that I prove my worth, and I can’t afford to chase after wild imagination.”
“I can afford it,” he answered. She found herself startled that she’d been expecting the answer, rather than by the answer itself. True, adolescence was the time when family loyalty was at its most strained, and the Dynasty gave Their troublesome children a free reign and a hefty allowance to compensate. The only question had been whether he’d spent it as it had come in. But she was coming to realize that whatever Emmitt’s other faults might be, hedonism was not one of them, and learning that he’d saved some of it up turned out to be no surprise at all.
Emmitt had to know how she was playing her, but quite possibly didn’t care. Given how desperate he’d seemed earlier, it was possible he wouldn’t have cared even before her display. “And it is important.”
“The Court doesn’t agree,” she replied. He looked at her face in surprise. “Of course They don’t. They didn’t even receive you, They’d have made you shave your head and put on a cap like mine if They had, and you still have your hair left. They read your reports and your theories and decided you were wrong, which is why you’re talking to me rather than heading back south with an investigative team.”
“They think I’m seeing things that aren’t there,” he admitted. “They think it’s just normal Ordinary unrest, that the murders are unconnected, that there’s no pattern to them. But they are and there is. I’m certain of it. I can’t say why I’m certain, but… my instincts say there’s a pattern, even if They can’t see it.”
Great. It was just wild imaginings. Just her luck. It was a good thing that Gala didn’t believe in karma, or she’d be wondering what she’d done to deserve this.
Eight days. Eight days to earn the sixteen stones silver she needed to purchase the equipment that modern detective methods required. That would leave her four or five days to find a case of supreme urgency, not counting travel time. She’d have to relocate to the northern bay, where intrigue and skullduggery by Grand Valley was always at the worst, and hope to stumble across some sufficiently juicy espionage to gratify the Court. It was too unlikely. Her odds would be better just heading northeast right now and hoping to catch a break with no materials but more time. She opened her mouth to tell Emmitt no.
Instincts. His instincts told him there was something significant going on. The Court was brilliant in many ways, but one thing They didn’t do well was intuition. It was how she made herself useful as an independent, and so she’d give this boy’s instincts a chance.
“I’ll have to judge that for myself,” she told him. “Tell me about these murders.”
Word Count: 3262
Alstroemeria: Overbearing shrew of a wizard in Thrair's War of the Final Whisper Pathfinder campaign.
Chapter 5 is below. As always, comments, feedback, and constructive criticism are welcome and invited.
Gala dressed as Emmitt rowed to shore. The cold of the water must have affected her worse than she’d thought, because her fingers kept fumbling with the buckles and laces. He’d gotten himself halfway dressed, and now faced back towards her as he rowed. For once, he didn’t have trouble keeping his eyes off of her body. He wasn’t seeing her. He was seeing two dead women.
“Harriett Lanchester, and Susan Westbrook,” Emmitt rattled off. “Harriett was a surveyor, working the coastal range mostly, parceling land. Susan was a police deputy.”
“You knew them.” It was an observation, not a question.
“Yes,” Emmitt admitted. “And I know, that makes me a suspect.”
“Both administrative caste. They weren’t promoted peasants singled out as caste traitors. Go on.”
Emmitt got a puzzled look. “How did you know that?”
Gala started lacing up her boots. “The English surnames. Peasants are predominantly East- or South-Asian. Refugees from Europe stream into the New World’s east coast, or Africa. They don’t come here if given a choice. If they get past Africa they jump ship in the Raj or Zhou Empire and think they’ve found paradise.”
Emmitt frowned. “I’d never noticed that. About the names.”
“That’s because you’re a royal. The exogamy arrangements. We get names from every corner of the world, and so we don’t really notice that others don’t. Most royals don’t realize just how much race divides the common classes. It’s just one big Ordinary mélange to them.”
He shook his head, firmly. “I’m not like that,” he insisted. “Ordinaries are… well, I get along with them. But I never put all that together. Doesn’t the Court know?”
“Of course They know. Maybe They even know that They know. They just don’t care.” She finished the laces and gave her boots a solid slap. “But putting things together is my job, not Theirs. Here, let me row a bit while you get dressed. And keep talking about your Ordinary friends.”
She felt queasy as she swapped positions with Emmitt – it had been a while since she’d been out on the water – but focused on what he was saying. “Susan was a friend. Sort of. We’d go duck-hunting together when she had a day off, which wasn’t often. We… well we never really talked about important stuff. It was just the hobby, pretty much all the time.”
“Did this Ordinary sort-of friend know you’re a telepath?”
Emmitt shook his head. “My cover is that I’m attending the Academy, and that’s all I ever told her.”
“How did she die, then?”
“We were going to meet for hunting in the wetlands along the bay, near the border between the Tamien and Chochenyo reservations. Salt marsh up to the knee and grass up to your eyebrows, that type of terrain. When I got there she was face-down in the water, dead.”
Gala considered that as she stroked and he fastened his suspenders. “Were there signs of a struggle?”
“Some. Crushed grass all around like she’d been thrashing. I think… someone attacked her, held her head under.”
“None. But if she was taken by surprise…”
“She wasn’t. Tell me about Harriet.”
Emmitt gave her a look of pure frustration. “That’s exactly what… why won’t you tell me…”
Gala responded with a quelling look. “She rose to deputy sheriff – through the ranks, she’d have started out as sheriff outright if it was nepotism. That means she had good awareness, good instincts, good fighting skills. She was armed, and she was waiting for you and was no doubt listening for you coming, and I know the type of grass you’re talking about. You don’t move silently through it. No one snuck up and surprised her, and if they had she still would have gone down fighting. Tell me about the other one.”
Emmitt started to speak, then broke off coughing just as she started as well. They’d reached the coal smoke. Most days you just didn’t notice it, but it was bad today, and they’d been tasting clean air for half an hour.
After they recovered, Emmitt continued. “Harriet… I knew her. Surveyor, like I said. Her husband… widower… teaches at the Academy. I took his course on natural resource management last semester. He’s a good teacher, for an Ordinary.” That last qualification was completely unnecessary; no Ordinaries could ever hope to match the teaching and learning ability of two telepaths in a groupmind. “One of my hobbies is optics – that, dancing, and fowl-hunting – and we’d talk about gear now and then when she was in town. Not often. Four or five times at most.”
“And how’d she die?”
“That was definitely murder. Knifed three blocks from their home. Made to look like a mugging.”
They were coming into dock. Gala turned around in the bench – still queasy – as they came in to see where she was going better. “And how’d they botch it?”
“What hint did they leave that it was connected to Susan’s death?”
“No,” Emmitt said. “No, Harriet was first. I sent for Susan as soon as I found her –” that set off alarm bells, him having found both bodies “—and she was certain it was a mugging. But… it just felt wrong to me. I asked her to look more closely, and she did.”
“What did she find?”
Emmitt’s face screwed up in frustration. “Nothing. Oh, some witnesses recalled someone shadowing her. But no clear description.”
“Nothing to distinguish it from a mugging.”
Emmitt didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. He had nothing solid, just guesses. Just delusions.
Gala knew she shouldn’t blame him. He was young, raw, and he’d seen death with his own eyes. Twice. People he’d known, respected. Loved, in Susan’s case. She could hear it in his voice, even if he hadn’t said as much. Even if he had nothing to do with it, it wasn’t surprising that he was seeing some pattern that wasn’t there, grasping for straws that weren’t there, refusing to see it as the simple cruelty of chance. Sometimes, the dice just came up wrong. And if it was he who’d killed them, if he was reaching out to her in some effort to direct his own wrongdoing, or even some guilt-driven imperative to be caught and punished… it still wouldn’t end with her getting paid. And for that, part of her hated him.
Could she do it? If it was him, if he were trying to author a cover-up of his murders, would she help him? Did she want his money badly enough to construct an alibi for him?
She thought about that as they docked, as he caught the lanyard tossed by the Court servants staffing the docks. They glanced at their disheveled clothes but made no comment. They’d undoubtedly gossip later, but wouldn’t presume to pass judgment.
No, she decided. She wouldn’t. The one part of her job that brought her joy, the only pure thing in what she did, was the pursuit of truth. The worst part of it had always been authoring the false reports, the ones that took all the truths that she’d found out and twisted them to serve the previous false arrests and false convictions. She wasn’t religious. She didn’t believe in some absolute code of morality and certainly not in any supernatural order to the universe. But she did believe in Truth, and she would not betray it for sixteen stones silver.
* * *
It wasn’t until Gala attempted to walk off the dock did she realize, first, that she’d been behaving oddly, and second, why.
And she’d thought she was being clever with Emmitt! Playing with his hormones, manipulating his silver out of him by stripping down not three feet away! What a laugh! It had been nothing like a well-thought, well-laid, well-executed strategy.
She was drunk. As her staggering attempt to walk proved. And that was all there was to it.
Emmitt was there, though, putting an arm around her and helping guide her steps. The gossip would be worse for it, but no one who mattered would care. They were just Ordinaries. Sooner or later, everyone who mattered was part of the Court. There could be no secrets within the family, so there was no point in lying.
Her head swam as Emmitt guided her towards her flat. How did he know where she lived? Probably he’d simply asked, anticipating waiting for her there if he lost her on her way to The Hole. He held his tongue as they walked, not sparing a single question or word of reproof for her. She felt like an idiot, and was grateful.
It made no sense for Emmitt to have killed those women. Or rather, it made no sense for him to be acting like this if he had. Emmitt was a Prince of Hillsport and the victims were Ordinaries. Emmitt could have killed them openly, proclaimed it from the rooftops, and gotten nothing more than a pat on the head from the Court.
But that still left… two deaths with only the loosest of connections. No greater sense to it, no pattern, no case. Nothing.
“You don’t think there’s a serial killer,” Emmitt finally said, when they were just a block away from her flat. “I can see it in your face. Jing-Li thought the same thing.”
Gala shook her head. “No, I’m not seeing a pattern.” Then she stopped in her tracks, and almost tumbled to the road’s bricks as a consequence. “Jing-Li?” she demanded. “The Princess?”
Emmitt stopped while she got her balance back. “Yeah. She’s living about an hour’s ride by horse from the Academy. I’ve spent a lot of time with her. She’s something else.”
Gala got her legs back and resumed walking. Something else was right. Jing-Li was both legend and cipher. She’d pioneered modern detective work, serving in much the same role that Gala now served. Gala had suffered from a bit of hero-worship where she was concerned as a teenager, and had deliberately patterned her career after Jing-Li. Entering her fifties, her deteriorating physical fitness and loss of fertility had rendered her of little use to the Court. Normally she’d be pulled into the groupmind permanently, losing her identity for the rest of her life (save for a few precious moments allowed before falling asleep and after waking), serving as nothing more than another brain contributing to the Court’s transcendent intellect. But in recognition of her great achievements, the Court had instead allowed Jing-Li to retire to the countryside.
It was a reward seldom granted, but for which every royal strived, dreamed, longed. Freedom. It was nothing but cynicism that prompted the Court to offer it… but what a motivator it was.
“You know Jing-Li,” Gala repeated.
Emmitt nodded. “Yeah. I asked her to look into this before I came to Court. She checked on both of them… and said much what you said about Susan. No defensive wounds, so she wasn’t killed. Probably an accident. Tripped and drowned herself or something. But she didn’t do more than look. She just said she’s retired and left it at that.”
“… you’ve got Jing-Li telling you they’re not connected – Jing-Li? The woman who wrote the book on detective work? – and you’re still trying to get someone to look into it?”
“They are connected!” Emmitt protested. “I can’t prove it, but I know it. I know it! It’s… there’s something that I just can’t put my finger on, something I can’t point to exactly, but I know it’s there! I know it!”
They were at her building. Gala took a deep breath to steady herself, then took a firm grip on the rail and slowly worked her way up the half-flight to the front door. “Keep your money. Keep it and go home, Emmitt. It’s nothing. There’s nothing there but coincidence and bad luck. You’re chasing after an illusion.”
Emmitt started to say something in protest, and so she was looking at him, rather than the door to her building, when it opened. Emmitt stopped, his mouth hanging open. Gala turned.
Three men and two women were pointing various weapons at them. Four likely-illegal crossbows and one highly illegal revolver. In the darkness of the foyer behind them, she could see more lurking. There were at least a dozen in total. Of the five she could see clearly, three she recognized as working for Ferienne. One, with a blistering burn over half of her previously money-making face, had been at his nightclub two nights ago.
They looked entirely too pleased to see her.
Word Count: 2099
Alstroemeria: Overbearing shrew of a wizard in Thrair's War of the Final Whisper Pathfinder campaign.
As always, comments, feedback, and constructive criticism are welcome.
They didn’t beat her
Gala barely had time to warn Emmitt to stay out of it before the woman with the burn slammed the butt of her crossbow into Gala’s stomach. Gala tried to ride the blow as much as she could, but it still winded her and crumpled her to the stairs. They took advantage of her weakness to bind her arms securely behind her. Emmitt looked within inches of violence, but acquiesced to having his wrists bound in front of him without comment. They barely paid attention to him beyond that. Gala didn’t even dare look at him as they lifted her bodily up from the stone stairs and half-carried her into the darkness of her building.
Her eyes adjusted to the darkness enough to read faces. Many angry faces, several of them with steam burns. She was not in good company. But aside from that first blow and a bit of rough handling, they didn’t do anything to her. They looked like they wanted to beat her. Rather, they looked like they wanted to kill her. Preferably after hours of torture, no doubt involving scalding steam. But they didn’t. Aside from a curt command to remain silent, they didn’t even speak to her.
That was Gala’s first clue she was in real trouble. This wasn’t an unruly mob. She could deal with an unruly mob. This was a disciplined force with marching orders, which meant that Ferienne was still alive and free to exercise his authority. The man had few virtues, but one was that he never engaged in wanton violence. Extensive violence, intimidating violence, even gruesome violence, yes. But always violence calculated to advance a particular purpose, and pursued no further. He wouldn’t harm a fly unless it furthered his goals, and he’d drummed that same discipline into his entire organization down to the street urchins picking pockets.
Aside from some severe damage in the South Bay, the earthquake of 1868 was best known for the complete destruction of the Hillsport subway system. Plans for a new system, long in the works but never before worth the cost to implement, had been modified to run at a different depth and along different routes as a consequence of the lessons learned during the disaster. In actuality, the damage to the existing system had been minimal, and for the price of a second subway system the Court now had a network of rail tunnels throughout the city reserved for Their exclusive use, which no one else knew still existed. A secret passage – just a five story shaft and a brass pole – connected Gala’s flat to a dark corner of the basement, and another connected that corner to the subway. It was the ideal escape route. Similar options existed for most princes and princesses living outside of the Palace. It was supposed to be utterly secret.
Ferienne’s lackeys hauled her straight to the basement and into the subway system. That was her second clue she was in trouble. Not only was Ferienne behind this, but he knew secrets she’d never suspected he knew. Secrets that gave him greatly increased capacity. Secrets he’d been holding in reserve. The man was disciplined, Gala gave him that. His smuggling enterprise would have benefitted greatly from these tunnels, been a thousand times more difficult to track. But he’d kept that capacity in reserve, and it was paying off for him now, when he needed a reserve more than ever. If he was letting her see it, he would not let her run back to the Court with the knowledge that he knew Their secrets.
But a man like Ferienne didn’t take revenge. He eliminated threats, he targeted family and friends, but it was never personal. Which meant that Gala didn’t know what this was about.
That was her third clue she was in real trouble.
The leading pair lit lanterns and guided her some hundred paces to the rails. There, they had waiting a system of three hand cars coupled to a flat-bedded cargo car, a sequence of two drive cars fore and a singleton rear. It was smart, nearly noiseless and absent the smoke and steam that marked the passage of an underground train and swift enough for their purposes. They lifted her onto the cargo car, made her kneel on her knees so that she was sitting on her ankles, bound her ankles to the ropes already securing her hands, and then to two separate anchor points set into the cargo bed. It was uncomfortable, but not malicious. They inspected her bounds carefully, making sure she hadn’t clenched her muscles to force slack into the rope. They didn’t bother disarming her, and why should they? There was nothing she could do, bound like that, and it wasn’t as if she hadn’t already proven her ability to get weapons past their notice no matter how closely they looked.
Inside, Gala was terrified. The two nights since the club had been ridden by nightmares of the battle. She’d chosen a dangerous profession, but that one fight had been the worst to date… except this one promised to be even worse. Assuming she got a chance to fight at all. But that terror, however intense, was familiar. She contained it like she always did. She forced her mind to produce flip remarks and sarcastic observation, called to her face an aloof disdain and utter confidence, and clenched her abdomen muscles to keep her insides from turning to water.
It worked. Remove the physical sensation of terror, and the terror subsided. Sometimes, she wondered how much that was a thing of the mind, rather than the body. It was nearly a universal, in the ancestral memory. But then, so were bodies.
She watched Ferienne’s crew, and a sneer of disdain came to her lips. It felt natural, which meant it would look natural. Good. She was in control of herself.
They manhandled Emmitt up onto the flatbed next. Him, they’d inspected for weapons, and they’d deprived him of a set of throwing knives, but they weren’t taking him nearly as seriously. Then again, after what Gala had done to them two nights ago, she doubted they’d have taken a grizzly bear as seriously. His wrists were bound in front of him with loops of rope, but they’d apparently not brought enough to secure both of them. He was a wrinkle in their plans. Wrinkles caused friction. Friction caused breakage. If Gala was to escape, it would be because of Emmitt.
Two men had stayed behind to watch the cars, and they obviously saw it the same way she did. “Why’d you bring the kid?” one demanded of the musclebound woman (not burnt) who Gala had pegged as the team’s leader.
“Witness,” she answered. “Don’t want the alarm raised too fast. And he looks like he’s worth a ransom. Now shut up and get to your posts.”
They were already going as she spoke. They left a man and woman behind, perhaps to take care of anyone who might be following or perhaps as false witnesses to throw off any investigation. Probably both. Twelve took up positions around the handcars’ pumps, three to a car. One sat on the lip of the front car, legs dangling over the front and a lantern in hand. The remaining four (including the leader) joined Emmitt and Gala on the flatbed. The leader sat next to Gala, which made entirely too much sense. She looked like she could break Gala’s neck without a weapon, and she had no obvious ones for Gala to seize even if she did get loose. Two settled down to cover Emmitt with crossbows, and the third sat at the very end of the car with the revolver, ready to shoot them both.
The leader barked an order, and the cars started moving. West. Into the city… but no, east and to the main line would have been faster for that. They were going to loop north of the city proper, under the hills of the Neck, towards the ocean and its docks.
They went slowly at first, but then swiftly. Gala’s mind was racing just as swiftly. There was something about the clack-clack, clack-clack of the wheels over the joins that drew her mind into a similar, frenetic pace. There had to be a way to escape. She could see dozens, if only she was not bound so tightly.
Emmit wasn’t bound as tightly. But then, Emmitt didn’t have her experience, her capacity for recognizing openings, and likely didn’t have the physical training either. And even if he did, there was no way to communicate with him.
The leader barked an order. They were going too fast for their light. The drivers slowed their pumping, and the clack-clack, clack-clack slowed as well. Gala’s mind slowed with it.
And then it stopped. She had a plan.
“Ransom,” she said to the leader. “I can offer you a ransom, too.”
The woman gave her a level gaze that clearly communicated her disbelief. “Ginny Darshe. You’re from a hard-luck administrative caste family who disowned you. No husband and your former employer hates your guts. There’s no ransom.”
“I have my life savings,” Gala answered. “I’m frugal. Over three hundred stone. Silver, not paper.”
“That’s not much split across the whole organization,” the woman said. “I’d rather watch what the boss does to you.”
“Who says you’d have to split it with anyone?”
The woman looked at the other three on the car. Two were focused on Emmitt, trying to intimidate him by glaring rather than answering his questions. They’d been switching off on covering him with crossbows, as the things were heavy and keeping them leveled for more than a few minutes on time was an unnecessary exertion. The third, at the far end of the flatbed, was watching all of them carefully, the revolver in her lap. But none of them were close enough to hear the two of them over the sound of the rails.
The woman shook her head. It wasn’t much, barely a twitch, not meant for Gala’s benefit, but it was enough. Gala knew that the woman had been tempted, briefly, but wasn’t biting.
“How would I claim this ransom?” the woman asked. “Who’d pay to have you back?” But of course what she wanted to know was how to get the silver without giving Gala up at all. The exchange was always the trickiest part of the kidnapping-and-ransom scheme, and it just couldn’t be done with the kidnapped party being the one giving up the money.
“Third Hillsport Bank,” Gala answered. “The branch near the ocean docks. You’ll need the account number and my security code. I can never remember the account number so I’ve got it written down. If you want the security code, you’ll have to keep me alive.”
Ferienne hadn’t selected the woman solely for her muscle. He picked for intelligence as a general rule, and would have done doubly so in her case. The woman didn’t point out obvious holes in the plan, such as how they could torture the code out of her or bribe a bank clerk for it. She just kept pushing for information. “Where’s the account number, then? You have a checkbook in your pockets somewhere? Want me to untie you so you can get it out? Forget it.”
“It’s written inside my cap.”
The woman considered, then grunted. “Hell, you’d probably try to headbutt someone with that damned thing anyway. Hey!” She pitched her voice to be heard over the rails. “I’m getting the bitch’s headgear off. One of you get a knife on him, the other keep your bow ready. If either of them makes a false move, kill him.
The one with the crossbow on Emmitt put his down – probably because his arms were tired – pulled a knife, and sat behind Emmitt, between him and the side of the car. The other picked up the crossbow and aimed it at him.
The woman reached over, unbuckled the clasp beneath Gala’s chin, and lifted her skullcap off.
Suddenly Gala’s mind was open again. It was like being able to hear after years of going around with her ears stoppered by wax, removing the plugs only in a silent room. She could hear her own thoughts bouncing off the walls, hear the quiet, hissing whisper of the woman’s Ordinary mind, the mute sibilance that could never hope to speak. And of course there was Emmitt, dear, confused, compliant, terrified Emmitt, perfectly positioned to act but not knowing it at all.
There were two degrees of telepathy. One, far-telepathy, was nearly a conversation, though it also allowed the sharing of images, smells, other sensations, and was more a direct exchanging of concepts than a clumsy,spoken tongue. It had a range of over a mile, depending on weather conditions and telepathic strength of the individuals involved, though several feet of stone or a cap of the right alloy could block it. But like a conversation, it was a thing that passed between two separate individuals. You didn’t lose your identity in it.
For a fraction of a second, Emmitt’s mind touched Gala’s through far telepathy. He transmitted concern to her, a questioning of the wisdom of what she was obviously planning, confusion about what he could contrib-
And then there was no more Emmitt, and no more Gala. There was only groupmind of Gala/Emmitt, the two fused into One. An instant ago, they had been small, separate beings, beings confined to single bodies, victims at the mercy of their captors. Helpless. But now They were something more. Now They were a single Being. Now They were not helpless… and They were anything but victims.
Word Count: 2289
Alstroemeria: Overbearing shrew of a wizard in Thrair's War of the Final Whisper Pathfinder campaign.
Chapter 7, in which we finally get to see why telepaths are so frigging scary. As always, feedback, comments, speculation, and constructive criticism are welcome and invited.
The leader of Ferienne’s team was holding Gala’s skullcap up to the bad lantern light, trying to make out non-existent writing. She had no way of knowing just how much had fundamentally changed. Her mind was as blind to the fusion of Gala/Emmitt as Their mind was to hers, or would have been to telepaths of another family. The only difference was that the Ordinaries were as isolated from their allies as they were from their enemies.
The Gala/Emmitt Being took a moment to center, to take stock of Their combined resources. These included:
Gala’s combat training, which was momentarily neutralized in her body and a poor fit to Emmitt’s. A cache of weapons and other devices which Gala had in the various pockets of her skirts, which were also temporarily neutralized. Emmitt’s ballet training, which neither she nor he had contemplated as an asset but which made him agile, lithe, coordinated, and acrobatic. The ropes which bound her, the ropes which bound him, the knife at Emmitt’s throat, the dozens of weapons They had spied currently in the possession of others, the very bodies of their captors, the pattern of vibrations that their separate positions made clear, the railway car itself…
Their collective mind expanded, sped up, refined beyond anything an individual human mind was capable of. Gala’s drunken state, which she hadn’t realized was affecting her judgment, was suppressed. So too was Emmitt’s terror. They took in the entire scene from two angles, and there wasn’t a single thing They couldn’t use. Opening after opening that both had missed as individuals now became crystal clear.
In the two seconds that took, the woman was starting to realize she’d been had, though she hadn’t figured out how. Three seconds ago, Gala would have thought that was fast. Now, the Ordinaries were hopelessly outclassed.
It was time to act. They locked Gala’s eyes on the man with the knife at Emmitt’s throat, and They screamed with her mouth.
For a split second, everyone’s attention was focused on Their Gala-half. That left the Emmitt-half, with a knife to his throat, free to act. They threw his weight backwards, into the man holding the knife on him and away from the blade itself. The man’s reflexes were too slow to kill Emmitt instantly, and They had Emmitt’s bound hands up and grabbing for the knife in time.
The man with the crossbow fired too late, a split second after both of them went over the edge. A moment later the car jerked as it ran over a body.
The leader cursed, looked at the empty spot where two men had sat a moment ago, then looked at Gala. She suspected something. But she didn’t guess the truth. The Gala-half watched her face, watched the facial tics with the heightened intelligence of a groupmind, and identified the exact moment she drew the logical conclusion that Gala had screamed because she’d seen Emmitt about to jump.
“Stop the cars!” the leader bellowed. Again, logical. They’d need to recover the bodies, or the Dynasty would know that someone was sneaking around in the royal tunnels. Besides, one or both might have survived. The woman was the worst type of intelligent, the type that noticed implications. That made her dangerous, for an Ordinary.
Braking levers were thrown, and the four-car train slowed to a halt, even as the Emmitt-half wedged itself into the flatbed’s undercarriage and cut away his bonds with the captured knife. The leader tossed the skullcap aside and went to consult with the men on the rear car. The woman with the revolver covered the Gala-half of the groupmind while the man reloaded his crossbow. Neither needed orders. The rear car decoupled, and the three men and one woman on it started pumping backwards, slowly, headed towards where the bodies would be. The leader returned to Gala, looking cross.
The Gala-half of the groupmind didn’t need to feel the knife reach up through the bed’s slats from the car’s undercarriage and cut her bonds. It did so in slow, straight, silent strokes. There was time.
The leader made a realization and looked about for Gala’s skullcap. She spotted it where it had rolled after she’d dropped it, off the edge of the bed and to the rails below. The Emmitt-half finished cutting the Gala-half’s bonds, and started padding towards the front of the flatbed car. The leader hopped down for the skullcap, and though she was nearly silent the Emmitt-half of Their fusion pulled himself back up into the undercarriage just in time to avoid being spotted. The woman pulled herself back up onto the car with the skullcap, and the Emmitt-half was immediately in motion again.
Things were moving faster than expected. They needed to act quickly. The woman peered into the skullcap, looking to confirm that there was nothing written there. After a moment of trying to deal with the bad lighting, she pulled out a matchbook and struck a light. Then, having confirmed that Gala had lied, the woman started thinking. The truth of royalty pretending to be a slum-girl made good was so absurd, the implications so ill-understood, that even a bright woman like this one would be working off of half-remembered tales and vaguely-realized possibilities.
The groupmind suppressed visceral squeamishness and severe moral qualms in the Emmitt-half, reached up from under the car, and using Gala’s knowledge planted the blade at a precise point in the woman-guard’s spine. She stiffened, but remained sitting exactly where she had been, not making a sound.
The leader finally made the necessary connections. She opened her mouth to scream, probably something useless like “Telepaths.”
The Emmitt-half put a bullet straight through the crossbow-man’s brainpan. The leader’s head whipped around at the gunshot, and in an instant the Gala-half had cut the woman’s throat with her tiny knife.
The men in the forward cars had been loafing around but jumped alert at the gunshot. The Emmitt-half fired two more shots their way and they dove for cover behind their cars, even as the Gala-half drew a grenade from her skirts.
None of the Ordinaries even noticed it roll beneath the handcars.
From the moment the first gunshot had been fired to the moment the last Ordinary present died, less than fifteen seconds had elapsed. Most of that time was used to slaughter those not quite dead yet. The grenade had ended the fight. It had had a four second clockwork fuse, and had been thrown within one second of the gunshot. Surprise had been total.
If the four members of the gang who’d gone back for the bodies had any brains between them, they’d just keep on going, but They didn’t feel like taking chances. They left Gala’s other grenade under the leader’s body. Two minutes later, as They sprinted down the tunnel away from the wreckage, They heard the blast. The groupmind suppressed reactions of guilt, sympathy, and mercy that might cause Their host bodies to do something stupid like go back to check for survivors, or hesitate, or even look back.
What ran through the secret tunnels of Hillsport that evening was a two-bodied god. Their victims had only been Ordinaries. Sheep. Beneath Their notice, beneath Their skills, and beneath Their contempt.
* * *
They remained linked as They returned to Gala’s apartment. There was no sign of the two who’d remained behind. Either they’d learned that the mission was bust, or they’d accomplished their part in it and left. The Gala-half kept watch while the Emmitt-half packed her suitcase. It wasn’t much; just a few changes of clothes, some weapons, what portable equipment she owned in her own right, and a couple of blueprints. Then They left, not even bothering to lock the door. Why should They? One way or another, Gala would not be coming back.
Gala’s personality was the stronger of the two, so her needs dominated the groupmind. The moment the Court heard about this attack they would pull her into the Palace’s walls and lock her down tight for three years at least, for her own safety, and this flat would cease to be hers. Only there wouldn’t be a her any more to keep safe. Or she could run, and this flat still wouldn’t be hers.
They hadn’t talked about it. They hadn’t needed to.
There was code to how many royals could merge into a groupmind outside of Court, and where, when, why, and for how long. Pressing danger featured prominently in that code. Maintaining groupmind for its own sake did not. Aside from a few momentary unions here and there, the Court was to be the only game in town, the only place a telepath could go and not feel small and impotent and mortal. With her flat being dangerous territory, Gala/Emmitt had remained linked, but as They boarded the evening train to the South Bay They put Gala’s skullcap back on. Then they were no longer Them, just them.
It hit her then. The guilt over what she’d done. Repulsion of what she’d become. Gala had no love for Ferienne or those who did his bidding, especially not when they’d come to kidnap her… but they were still people. She thought back to the deaths and recognized the pain, the terror, and the helplessness they had felt. She understood them, because she’d felt the same way. Killing them had been necessary, but regretting it was also necessary, because you lost a piece of your humanity if you didn’t. You became a monster.
Sometimes she felt there was something… wrong in the groupmind. Twisted. Distorted. As if being in it meant forgetting what it meant to be human. You didn’t feel sympathy for people anymore, because you weren’t a person anymore. Sympathy requires common ground.
The booby trap had been completely unnecessary. The enemy had taken over seventy-percent losses in under a minute. The survivors would not have mounted a credible pursuit; battlefield morale just didn’t work that way. But the need to punish, that had been very, very real. That was what the second grenade had been about. The groupmind had just wanted to hurt the Ordinaries.
No. Gala was deluding herself. That had been her. She curled up on the seat in Emmitt’s private cabin, leaned into him, and cried into his vest. She could feel him shaking; whether it was silent sobs of grief over the slaughter or shuddering at the memories that would haunt his nightmares for years, she didn’t know. She guessed that at least a part of it was guilt. She knew him now, in a way that no Ordinary could ever hope to know another person. She recognized the kindness that was the core of his being. His mind and lineage might be royal, but in his heart Emmitt was a born servant. He wanted nothing more or less in life than to make others happy. Killing people was not a part of who he was.
There was also a code to how much freedom of movement Gala was allowed, and she had very few options under it. But pursuing a new case was one of them. By now the Court would know she’d been preparing to travel to the North Bay, and while They would have realized that Emmitt meant to appeal to her directly, They would never guess that he would succeed. In time They’d be able to track her through witnesses, but that wasn’t the way the Court thought. They were always five steps ahead, which worked when They knew her next five steps, and They always did.
But this time They didn’t. This time They were five steps ahead in the wrong direction.
They had dismissed his concerns about a killer in the South Bay just as Gala had, just as They knew Gala would. But They hadn’t touched his mind. They hadn’t seen what Gala had seen.
Emmitt hadn’t been imagining things. Gala had long ago learned to tell the mental differences between imagination, hypothesis, instinct, and recognition. That annoying intuition that told her some part of her mind had discovered the truth, even if the rest couldn’t catch up.
There was a pattern to the killings. Emmitt had recognized it. Not imagined it, or guessed it, or felt it. Recognized it. His subconscious had latched onto it and was worrying it like a bone. It cut into his sleep over the past weeks even worse than the loss of his friends had. He was haunted by the knowledge that there was something more, absent the knowledge of what.
And the obvious suspect? The one who’d known both victims, had been their only real connection so far as anyone could tell? He was off the list. More soundly than she’d ever eliminated any suspect in her entire career, Gala had determined that Emmitt was not the killer.
All in all, it was a good start.
Alstroemeria: Overbearing shrew of a wizard in Thrair's War of the Final Whisper Pathfinder campaign.