D’Onfrio’s was a rare and precious thing in Garamond: a fine restaurant whose clientele was almost entirely sapiens and familiars. The food was good, the waiters didn’t sneer when they showed you to a table and the prices weren’t quite exorbitant. There was a small stage, currently empty, while a pianist skillfully played some atmospheric, if not terribly memorable, music for the patrons. All in all, one of the finer establishments in the city. Unfortunately, the prices were more than Darren could afford on a regular or even semi-regular basis, but his wallet could survive one evening here.
He found Verona easily enough; the familiar was seated at a booth with a window view of the sidewalk. She looked up at his approach and smiled; pleased to see him, but also a little wary. Familiars were always just a little on edge around sapiens – that was part of their conditioning, just like their ‘compatibility’ for invictus. “May I?” Hawke asked.
Verona nodded and Darren slid into the empty seat across the table. “This is a nice place,” he said. He looked around again, but it seemed that there were no invictus here tonight. There were rumours that the owner had offended one of the masters in some fashion. Or maybe it was too close to the human quarter for anything but ‘slumming’. Or maybe every Victor and Vickie had someplace better to be on a Friday night than a mere human hangout. Whatever the reason, Darren appreciated it.
The young woman nodded again, taking a sip from a straw of something bubbly and red. “It’s one of my favourites,” she admitted. “I know the staff fairly well. They try to keep a booth for me at the end of the week.” She took another sip, eyeing Darren cautiously. “You know I won’t say anything that would betray my service.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to,” he assured her. It would be pointless, anyways. Familiars took their ‘oath of service’ as seriously as a priest hearing confession. He might get Verona to bend a little, but if she thought even for an instant that he was trying to do something unseemly or untoward – God, if she even caught a whiff of his real allegiance! – she’d be the first one to turn him in. “I just know that I’m left wondering about that night. I’m sure you are too.”
“She said to give her regards to the Coalition,” Verona said bluntly and her features hardened. “Are you with the Coalition?”
The familiar blinked, taken aback by his response. Her immaculately trimmed eyebrows furrowed. “What’s so funny?” she demanded.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not laughing at you. I just… is that a question that you expect to get a ‘yes’ to? I mean, if I was a Coalition agent – I’d lie about it. First word out of my mouth would be ‘no’, wouldn’t it?”
The woman mulled that for a moment. “I suppose that’s true,” she said at last. “If you are, though…”
“…you’ll go directly to HSS, maybe or maybe not dragging my bruised, unconscious body behind you,” Darren put in, smiling disarmingly. “I’ve got a good thing at the theater,” he continued. “It could pay a little more, but who hasn’t wanted that from their job? I pay my taxes, I keep the Hegemony’s peace and I benefit from their protection. Why would I ever want to endanger that by throwing in with anarchists and criminals?” He was shamelessly playing to her preconceptions and naiveté now. “Trust me, Verona. If there was a Coalition agent in the theater, I’d help you haul them to the nearest police station myself. I’m just as confused about her comment as you are.”
The familiar stayed quiet for a while, until the server came to take Darren’s order. At Verona’s urging, he ordered one of the pasta dishes along with a rum and coke for himself. Verona got a refill of her cream soda. She explained that she didn’t drink, even when she was off shift; invictus might imbibe alcohol, but their enhanced bodies processed it much more efficiently than familiar or sapiens and they didn’t like the smell of it in others. She always wanted to be presentable.
“Savoy drank a lot more than I thought any invictus would,” Darren said, trying to bring the conversation back around to his reason for coming here.
Verona looked down at her own beverage. “She was unhappy,” she said. “She didn’t like the play.”
Darren nodded, biting back the counterproductive sarcasm that sprang to mind. “I know.”
“She talked a lot,” Verona said. The familiar hesitated after each admission, even when she knew that it was something Darren had been party to himself. “I didn’t think… I didn’t expect her to be… like she was. I thought she wanted… what invictus usually want. I would have been happy to do that. It’s my job and she… she was different and new and…” she trailed off.
“But she didn’t want that,” Darren pressed a little. “Did she?”
Verona was silent for a long time as she tried to figure out what she could – what she wanted – to say. “No,” she finally admitted. “I was wondering if I’d done something and she was angry with me, or I wasn’t what she’d thought I was. Or even that you said something that put her off.” She took another sip of her drink. “But I don’t think she was ever in that mood. I think she was curious about me. About familiars. She hasn’t been around us that much.” She looked up at him, her expression oddly intent. “She chose you,” Verona commented. “Why? You’re handsome and in good shape, but that only matters if she wanted pleasure and she didn’t. Why did she choose you?”
“I’ve been wondering about that myself.”
“I saw her,” Verona continued. “In the lobby before the show. She wasn’t comfortable. She was watching everyone. She was watching you.”
Darren kept his face completely still. He hadn’t known that.
“Sapiens talk too much,” the familiar continued. “You can’t be trusted like we can. So if she just wanted to talk, I was there. She didn’t need you. It would be embarrassing for her if you gossiped about what happened.”
And probably lethal for me, but let’s ignore that part of the equation, shall we? Darren thought, but he kept that to himself. The observation would slide off Verona’s conditioning like proverbial water off an equally proverbial duck. What mattered to her first and always was what her masters would want. “Exactly,” he replied instead. “That’s why I’m confused.”
“I see.” Verona was still watching him. It was an unsettling experience for Hawke, but he kept his best poker face on. Familiars were dangerous – unfailingly loyal to their masters and modified to be just a bit better than sapiens. The two slave races didn’t interact much. The invictus didn’t like it, even with the way they’d conditioned the familiars. Consequently, Darren had had almost as many encounters with the ‘masters’ as he had with the serfs. He’d never thought much of the theater’s stable of comfort men and women before. Invictus were arrogant to a fault and that often made them easy to read. Familiars, though…
He was starting to wonder if this had been a mistake. He liked Verona. True, since Savoy’s arrival he’d spent more time with the familiar in this week than he had in all the months he’d been at the theater before now, but she hadn’t had the I’m-better-than-you attitude that most of her co-workers had when they dealt with sapiens. The last thing he needed was for her to start thinking about how he was different than the other sapiens, particularly if the word ‘Coalition’ stayed with her. Oath of service or not, she belonged to Atlas and Garuda – if she believed that he was a threat or even a potential threat, she’d make good on her promise to report him herself.
If she got too curious, he’d have to kill her. He didn’t want to do that. Verona wasn’t a bad person, she wasn’t evil or sadistic like too many invictus were, but she was – literally – a product of the system.
“I can understand that,” the familiar said at last. “Lady Vipress is… different.”
And we’re back where we started. Darren nodded. He was disappointed, but there was only so far he could push the familiar, especially this early in the game. Verona wasn’t stupid – if he seemed like he was trying to pump her for information instead of trying to understand a very unusual event… well, back to where they started.
“Are you going to be around for The Red Letter?” he asked.
Verona nodded. “I work opening week.” The Atlas Theater’s comfort men and women weren’t solely there for pleasure. The theater was massive, one of the cultural cornerstones of the entire Eastern seaboard. The Grand Hall was where the largest, most ostentatious plays, operas and concerts were performed, but there were four smaller halls, an art gallery, several cinemas and a high-end brothel for the elite of Garamond. Verona, like her fellow familiars were expected not only to be attractive and available to any invictus who took an interest, but cultured themselves – they had to be able to converse with authority on the latest fashions and art, on the themes and values espoused in plays and movies. They were supposed to be cultured and refined, as walking, talking objets d’art. They weren’t just trophies, but living, breathing monuments to the grandeur of ‘High Human Culture’, there to stroke their masters’ egos. Whether it was through an in-depth discussion of how Alima Hussar’s use of colour was superior to artists like Monet and Matisse or simply being bent over the most convenient bit of furniture didn’t matter.
After all, what point was there in being a god if there was no one to worship you?
Every sapiens on the planet had reason to hate their masters. Some had personal reasons – dead family or friends – and others had more abstract convictions. Justice, equality. Darren had his own, but among them was the arrogance of the invictus. Even worse was that it was justified to some extent. They were stronger. They had won. They believed that that gave them the right to do anything they wanted to anyone at any time. They had made an entire race of beings that believed as they did, indoctrinated and biologically conditioned to respond positively to their presence. It was sick.
Dinner arrived. The pasta was, as Verona had promised, excellent. Darren made small talk with the woman, discussing some of the current exhibits at the Theater. He asked her opinion of some of the poetry readings she’d attended; he’d seen her hanging on the arm of a member of House Dullahan. She admitted that she found Rozik’s work overrated compared to some of his less-popular peers. Which was as close as she’d get to admitting that Andrew Rozik was a self-congratulatory hack who owed his career more to his patrons than any semblance of skill… but Darren didn’t share that bit of his opinion. He kept the tone of their banter light without trying to hurry through the meal. In the first place, he didn’t want Verona to walk away with the impression that he’d only been interested in what she had to say about Savoy. Secondly, despite how guarded she was around a sapiens, he found Verona rather engaging and amiable. And thirdly, it would have been rude. At the end of the evening, he thanked her for the invitation and the company. She blushed when he took her hand and kissed it just as any upper-class gentleman would, but she didn’t remonstrate him.
He held the door for her when she got into her cab, ignoring the glare and warning not to sully the paint job the familiar driver directed at him. Darren watched the vehicle take a corner and disappear. It was a long walk back to his place. He held out his hand. A taxi slowed, saw he was sapiens and accelerated again. That was all right, sooner or later one of them would stop. If not, then he could catch a bus. Until then, it gave him time to go over the evening’s conversation in his head. He didn’t doubt that Lily was right; nobody would ever turn a familiar. But… maybe he could see just how close he could get. It was a dangerous game, and one that almost everyone in his cell would have balked at playing, but maybe… just maybe…
The next day, the Atlas Theater received an unexpected surprise and one that Darren considered a slight vindication of his efforts with Verona. The Red Letter was opening. It was a smaller play, less ambitious and less masturbatory than The Triumph of Will. Unsurprisingly, it was one of Meredith Ransom’s. Ransom was a controversial playwright; her works tended to examine aspects of High Human Culture that the invictus would prefer not to talk about. Her most recent work was a reference to the letters of conscription that the Hegemony had sent out to gather soldiers for their army and ‘volunteers’ for their biological improvements. The losses in some theaters and from certain experiments were so high that the notices had become known as the titular ‘red letters’. Ransom’s play focused on three such conscripts and their fates.
Darren had met Ransom before. He had caught her eye while waiting on a dinner between her and a batch of producers and investors. Afterwards, she had ‘invited’ him to join her. To her credit, she had actually gone to the trouble of making small talk and even asked his opinion of her work before moving on to ‘take that off’. It had almost been like he’d had a choice. Still, she was one of the very few invictus that he hated in the general and not the specific.
There was a straggle of guests arriving for the opening – not nearly as many as had showed up for Triumph, but more than Darren had thought would attend. Normally, the hoi polloi of Garamond would not be all that eager to be ‘lectured’ on the losses that the sapiens had suffered, but there was a bigger crowd tonight than expected. Usually Ransom could be counted on to draw in a small core of her loyal ‘enlightened’ self-congratulating fans and whatever batch of self-important Victors and Vickies that wanted to see the latest ‘affront’ to High Human Culture for themselves. Ransom was too controversial to draw the crowds that panderers like Takashi and Abed did, but maybe Savoy’s presence was stirring up interest.
Darren had heard about Vipress’s actions at the Gardens of Sacrifice. From the way the rumours were going, she’d nearly taken Young Lord Garuda’s head off when the idiot had made one too many stupid comments. That was fine with Darren; the universe would be a much better place without any of the Garuda heirs in it. Trevor was a preening fool, Victoria was an airheaded slut and Sammael… the oldest Garuda child made Hawke’s skin crawl.
He ferried drinks to the guests as they milled about, chattering to each other. Most of what they were saying was gossip, but he made sure to linger on the outskirts of the more interesting conversations, appearing to be nothing more than a diligent sapiens servant. The juiciest tidbits came from Jerome Otinder, Lord Condor. He sat on the American Security Council and was currently engaged in debate with Ransom. The playwright was fairly liberal in her attitudes towards sapiens and was currently arguing in favour of easing up on security restrictions. Otinder was shaking his head when Darren arrived with two glasses of champagne. Meredith accepted the first, looking at Darren with a playful twinkle in her eyes. She mouthed the word Later to him. Darren smiled and tilted his head graciously.
Otinder missed the exchange entirely. “-is what it is,” the man was saying. “Nonsense. I can’t believe a woman of your education would think that the sapiens can be reasoned with,” he snatched the second glass off the tray without even looking at Darren. “These acts of vandalism and sedition are proof enough of that. No, we’ve got something in the works to deal with these problems-”
Unfortunately whatever he was about to say was lost as a hubbub of excitement stirred through the guests. Otinder cut himself off and looked up at the disruption. Darren did likewise and his heart skipped a beat in his chest. Savoy was here. She was again dressed in an unostentatious but refined dress, although this one was slightly plainer than her previous outfit. She’d also forsaken the single long ponytail to let her blonde hair hang down her back. Her only real concession to vanity was a pair of matching jeweled snake pins in her hair. Vipers, no doubt. He wondered if the theme was her idea, or someone had suggested it to her.
With fewer people present, the woman seemed more at ease. She scanned the gathered patrons, taking in each face. Darren tried to slink back into the crowd, but too late. She saw him and her lips twitched slightly. Next to him, Ransom made an inarticulate squeak. Hawke couldn’t tell if she was pleased at Savoy’s presence or anxious at the thought that her work might anger the Hero of Johannesburg. Probably both.
Otinder stood, all but shoving Ransom out of the way as he navigated his way to Savoy, stepping in front of another theatergoer to shake her hand. Darren didn’t need to listen to know he was giving her the same kind of empty, vacuous platitudes that she despised. She hid it better than she had the last time she’d been here, though. It looked like she’d learned a lot from her Garuda hosts. Speaking of which, he didn’t see any of them with her. Either busy with affairs of their own, or they didn’t want to give Ransom the legitimacy of their presence. It was a coin toss.
As Savoy was caught up in gladhanding and sycophantic mewling, Darren managed to slip out of sight, taking care to keep as far from her as possible. He didn’t need her dropping the C-word amidst his coworkers or the rest of the invictus. Verona might give him the benefit of the doubt, but if the Hero of Johannesburg said ‘Coalition’ in public, he’d be out of a job before he could stammer a denial. And that would be if he was lucky.
Thinking of Verona made Darren idly scan the crowd for her, but he was able to pick her out easily. She was in the open lounge along the east wall, sitting in a younger Condor’s lap. Darren didn’t recognize the man, but he had one hand inside her tunic, blatantly groping her. He was smirking into the side of her face and whispering what he no doubt considered compliments, obviously not caring one whit that they were in public. Even for one of the entitled shits of Garamond, that was above the pale.
Darren felt his jaw tighten slightly, but he didn’t even think of intervening. Getting between an invictus and what they saw as theirs was lethal. He was about to turn back to his duties when he saw Savoy approach the pair. She stood there for a moment before the Condor finally noticed. Savoy said something, but the other invictus didn’t look up. His lips moved, probably telling her to get lost. Darren was too far away to catch the conversation, but he tried to work his way closer. Whatever Vipress said in response caught the Condor’s attention. He looked up, his cheeks flushed with some mixture of anger, embarrassment or annoyance and he opened his mouth again. Then the rest of his brain caught up and he realized who he was talking to. Darren doubted that the Condor saw it, but he caught the way Savoy’s posture shifted when the Condor came to his feet, and Hawke found himself hoping that the other invictus was going to be stupid enough to take a swipe at a primagen.
For an instant, the Condor seemed about to retort but his gaze flicked over to Otinder, who gave the younger man a minute shake of his head. Finally, he mumbled something apologetic and vanished into the crowd.
The altercation over, the other partygoers quickly lost interest. Darren almost did as well. It wasn’t uncommon; a higher-status invictus deciding that they wanted the man or woman someone of lower station had. Or that they wanted the spouse, partner or family member of a sapiens or familiar. If it had been any other Vickie, he would have passed it off as just that and found an excuse to get close to Otinder again to see if he could collect any more tidbits on what was ‘in the works’. Instead, Darren moved towards Vipress. Savoy reached out to Verona, hesitating before touching the familiar’s chin. This time, Darren caught the tail end of what she was saying. “-you want to?”
Verona nodded, sliding off the stool and adjusting her top. She followed after Savoy as the theater doors opened.
Darren was kept busy running drinks and food out to the private boxes all evening, but he managed to catch a few glimpses of the play and, more interesting, Savoy and Verona. It was rather uncommon for a guest to bring their ‘date’ into the main theater. Usually, if the invictus in question wanted sex during the play they’d simply take a private box. Clearly, that was no more on Savoy’s mind than it had been last time. Instead, from what he could tell (albeit based on fleeting glances) Savoy had wanted a companion, not an accessory. Once he’d seen Savoy pointing something on the stage out to Verona, but what she’d been describing was a mystery. For her part, Verona was pressing herself as close as possible to Savoy, drawing back when she felt the invictus tense up. From what Hawke could tell, the familiar appeared more at ease with Lady Vipress than she had been with the Condor. Of course, given how thoroughly familiars were conditioned, that didn’t mean much.
The invictus had an arm around the familiar, idly running her fingers through her hair. Just like the first time, she didn’t seem aware of it. Darren scratched his chin. He knew almost nothing about primagens. No one in the resistance had ever faced one. They were bogeymen, gone for decades. That one was up and walking around had sent ripples through the Coalition. He shouldn’t have been avoiding her as much as he had been; his orders were to get close to her. Easier said than done, especially with her comment hanging over his head.
No risk, no reward, right?[
He’d see what he could do.
When the house lights came back up and the applause was over, the theater began to empty. Verona remained next to Lady Vipress, listening to the snippets of chatter from the other attendees as they filtered out. Not all of them had enjoyed the production and a few had even uttered comments about Vipress bringing a pet into the theater, but the familiar ignored those. When Lady Vipress stood, Verona did so as well, adjusting her uniform and ensuring that she was adequately covered. Since she hadn’t been dismissed, she followed the invictus backstage. There was a knot of actors and actresses talking about the production. Meredith Ransom was with them, giving them some pointers and notes. The conversation came a halt as they caught sight of Lady Vipress, flickers of uncertainty on their faces. Verona hung back at a polite distance, waiting to be spoken to.
Miss Ransom stepped forward, offering a half bow. “Lady Vipress.” Her expression was drawn, the rumours of what had nearly happened at the Gardens of Sacrifice running through her head.
“I was talking to Verona,” Savoy gestured to the comfort woman. The familiar straightened and offered a small curtsy. Ransom glanced over at her, as if finally realizing that she was there. “About the war. I’d heard that your work was controversial and that your views on the war were unorthodox, so I came to see for myself. I’m glad that I did. The Red Letter did what few other presentations have.
“My unit fought alongside sapiens auxiliaries on multiple occasions,” Savoy explained. “Most often in the South American campaign. Some were mercenaries, fighting because we paid more than the Coalition. Some were the conscripts you depicted, fighting because the governments that bent to us told them to. Some were true believers. The Coalition had most of the First World nations. The gear our auxiliaries had was often inferior in every way. In Bogota, a squad of American Green Berets chewed through an entire platoon of local fighters. I heard them screaming about ‘green devils’ just before they went silent.” She held Ransom’s eyes. “They were scum. Drug cartel gunslingers that chose conscription over annihilation. But they stood and fought, they held off the Americans long enough for my unit to take out the Coalition command post. They surprised me.
“Not all the conscripts did. Some ran the first chance they got, others broke the instant they started taking fire. Others were worth respecting. The ones who stood their ground, dying in droves so that we could succeed. The ones who believed in a better world. They fought just as hard as we did. They gave their lives in the millions until we were ready to take up the fight. A lot of them started with one of those ‘red letters’.” She held out her hand. “Until now, I was starting to think that that was something that the Hegemony had forgotten.”
Ransom took Lady Vipress’s hand, smiling. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Savoy managed to pry her hand out of the playwright’s grip. “No, thank you.” She tilted her head in a gesture of respect, taking her leave. Behind her, the actors were already fawning over Ransom and celebrating the praise they’d gotten from the Hero of Johannesburg.
Verona hurried to match Lady Vipress’s long-legged strides. “Speeches,” the invictus said. “I hate making speeches.”
“I thought you were very eloquent. Miss Ransom and her cast seemed pleased, too.”
“I know,” Alexandra sighed. She slowed her pace, letting the familiar catch up. There was something about her that intrigued her. Maybe it was just that Verona was the first familiar that she’d had anything approaching a real conversation with. Maybe it was just because Verona had been the one to witness her reaction to the The Triumph of Will. Maybe it was a simple biological quirk and the girl was more ‘compatible’ with a primagen-strand invictus. She was still a familiar, with the same physical and psychological submissiveness to Savoy and every other invictus. That never failed to make Alexandra’s skin crawl, but with Verona it wasn’t as bad. The familiar seemed to recognize her discomfort, coming closer and (more importantly) backing off when needed.
Now wasn’t one of the latter moments. “Thank you,” Verona said, stepping closer. She approached the invictus carefully. More than once during the play, she’d felt Lady Vipress tense up at her touch. Others might have taken that as an invitation to make themselves useful, but Verona had recognized the difference between being uncertain and uncomfortable and responded accordingly. It was just as she’d said to Darren; Lady Vipress wasn’t used to familiars. The ones in the Garuda household were probably trying too hard to please her.
Savoy blinked. “For what?”
“For taking me to see the play,” Verona replied. “For explaining things. I enjoyed hearing your perspective on the Final War. It’s different than what I’d heard.”
Lady Vipress snorted derisively. “I imagine. You don’t have to thank me for that, though.”
“Yes, I do,” Verona insisted. She touched Lady Vipress’s arm and her smile became a fraction wider when the invictus didn’t pull away. “Spending the evening with you was pleasant. I’m glad that I got the chance to do so.”
“Rather than spending it with that puffed-up little shit?”
Verona’s expression went blank. She kept herself from touching her breast. There were bruises from where Oliver had groped her. “I… I am glad I got to spend the evening with you,” she repeated carefully.
Lady Vipress looked down at her. There was something in her expression. Something sad, something kind and something that was certainly not either of those things. She touched Verona’s cheek gently. The familiar leaned into the touch, half-closing her eyes. “I am too,” the invictus said. Both of them paused a moment but finally Savoy let out a breath and drew back. “It’s getting late. You should go.”
Verona licked her suddenly dry lips. “If you would like-” she began to offer, but Savoy shook her head.
“No.” That came out quicker and stronger than she’d intended and she struggled to soften the refusal. “Not tonight.”
The familiar felt a pang of disappointment. “Will you be coming back?” she asked, as Savoy walked away.
Lady Vipress paused. “Perhaps.”
Verona heistated, then asked a question that had been on her mind. “The cartel conscripts – you said they were scum. Why did they fight so hard against the Americans? Why didn’t they run like the others you mentioned?”
Lady Vipress’s expression turned distant. “I asked one of them that after the battle. He was bleeding out. The doctors had determined that he was too badly injured to save. He struggled just to say four words. They were the last thing he ever said. ‘For my children’s future’. I think that was when I truly realized that it wasn’t just our war.” Then she was gone.
As it turned out, despite his efforts, Darren ended up missing Savoy on her way out. It seemed Ransom had gotten a good review and she was very eager to celebrate. She’d tittered and gushed for nearly an hour about the Hero of Johannesburg along with several new ideas before she’d finally wound down enough to be amorous. As it was before, the liaison wasn’t unpleasant. Judging by her enthusiasm, Ransom appeared to agree. When Meredith was finally sated, he collected his things and left. She purred her appreciation on his way out, thanking him for the evening. He smiled, kissed her hand and assured her that he was glad she’d enjoyed herself. Meredith Ransom was attractive, fit and personable. She had a nice laugh and a gentle touch. Everything any man or woman could ask for in a partner.
And if he told himself that enough, it was almost the same as having a choice.