Another dream. Venezuela this time.
The naked young woman in Alexandra’s arms was whimpering and sobbing. She was clutching at her stomach, blood seeping through her fingers.
“Medic!” Savoy shouted as she stormed into camp.
A corpsman was the first to respond and pointed to an empty cot. “What happened?” he asked. “I heard-”
“Frag grenade,” Alexandra replied, setting the girl down. She didn’t even notice her own injuries. One of their auxiliaries had done it. Maybe he was a Coalition agent, maybe he’d just snapped. He’d thrown the grenade into her tent. She’d tried to shelter Yuliana, but she hadn’t been fast enough.
Roberto found her afterwards. She was bandaged across the chest and torso. The shrapnel that would have killed a normal human was only a minor inconvenience to the invictus. She was already almost fully healed. He sat down beside her, looking at the sheet that covered the girl’s body. The medics had tried to save her, but the damage was too severe. “They’re so fragile,” he said.
“Yes.” The room stank of blood. She could pick out at least three different scents. One of them was Yuliana’s.
“You and her…?”
They sat in silence for another long moment. “She was the one that handed you the flowers, wasn’t she?”
“Your first? I mean, I know that you and Jason… but she was the first one of them, wasn’t she?”
Roberto was quiet. Then: “We’re not made for this, Alex,” he said. She looked over at him. “We aren’t,” he repeated. “We’re killers, not lovers. We were made to destroy the Hegemony’s enemies, not…” he nodded towards the sheet-covered girl. “This is what happens. They’re fragile. They can’t do what we do. None of it. She thought you were pretty and different and you led the attack that liberated her town, so she thought she wanted you. She smiled and batted her eyes and flirted because that’s what she thought she wanted. When you smiled back, when you took those flowers, I bet she felt like the only other girl in the world. But that’s not the end of the story, is it? This is.”
“When you touched her, did she shiver a little? When you held her, did you hear her heart pounding? Did you smell the flush of adrenalin?”
“And each time those little things happened, you knew. You could see it, hear it, smell it. There was that fear. Because once she got close to you, once she realized what you really were, she found out that some part of her didn’t really want what she wanted. We look like them, but we’re not them. We don’t move like them, we don’t smell like them and every moment that we’re with them, some part of their brain is screaming ‘wrong, wrong, wrong’. She still liked you. She still thought you were a hero. She still wanted you to make love to her, but she didn’t know how different you really were. She couldn’t help herself. Every time she got near you, she was afraid. And if she was afraid, then what do you think all the others felt when they saw you with her?” He lowered his voice, his tone kind. “They’re only human.”
Alexandra was silent.
“You know I’m right,” Roberto pressed. “We’re not supposed to be with them, Alex. They’re like little glass dolls. Pretty to look at, but pick one up and they break in your hands. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lunatic with a grenade or that gnawing little terror in the back of their own minds. They’re too fragile. The villagers that used to cheer for us edge away when we enter a room. They whisper when they think we can’t hear. They want us here as long as we can do for them, but they don’t trust us and they never will. They’ll always hate us. They’ll always be afraid of us. Sapiens or invictus – only one of us is coming out of this war. They’re obsolete and the more we try to pretend otherwise, the more things like this will happen.”
“I don’t believe that,” she answered at last. “We weren’t just made to kill. We were supposed to be the example, to show all humanity that they didn’t have to be afraid of our vision. To show them that we could be better. What’s the point of it if all we do is kill? How can we lead, if we cut ourselves off? How can we show them we’re not monsters? You say that they’re afraid of us. How can we change that if we stay above them? How do we make them see that they can be better if we don’t even try?”
“We don’t need to try. Look around, Alex,” Roberto said. “Look at this shithole we’re in. For decades corrupt governments let their people suffer for their own vanity. The drug trade flourished. Tinpot dictactors came and went. We’re solving all that right now. No politics, no self-serving agendas or international consensus. What needs to be done gets done. We don’t have to try to be better. We are. They had six thousand years to get it right. Now it’s our turn. They ignored our makers for decades, passing laws and clucking their tongues about immoral science and eugenics, but they listened well enough whenever they could profit from it, didn’t they? They made this world what it is and they don’t deserve it anymore. We do. Because we are better. They’re not going to be like us and they never will. They’re always going to be this small, this petty and short-sighted. They don’t want us and we don’t need them. We’ll make our own world. They can live in it, or die in this one. That’s how this ends. Sapiens or invictus. One or the other.”
She shook her head. “No.”
Roberto shrugged. “Believe what you want to believe. But before you start singing kumbaya, maybe you want to consider that the man who threw a grenade into your tent – the man who put your little glass doll under that sheet – was her own brother. He said he was saving her soul.”
When she woke up, she could still remember the smell of Yuliana’s blood.
Victoria carefully placed the small courier box in front of her brother, the smallest hint of an expectant smile on her full lips. “Open it.”
Trevor looked down at the parcel. It was about the size of an open hand, made from fine carved word with a competent yet unmemorable leaf pattern. There was a simple metal latch holding it closed. When his twin was not immediately forthcoming, he sighed and opened the box. Inside was a collection of ashes. He looked up at Victoria. The smirk on her face had widened considerably. “Are you going to make me ask?” he demanded. He hated his sister’s I-know-something-you-don’t-know attitude and he hated even more that she had it so often.
“What you are looking at, dear brother, is the remains of The Triumph of Will’s script. Not the original, of course. That’s still on display in the Atlas Theater, but this is the copy used for the encore presentation that Lady Vipress attended.”
Trevor sighed. “So I take it that Heinrich heard about Savoy’s comments to Ransom.”
“Artists can be so temperamental,” Victoria said. “Luckily, I intercepted this package before the servants could deliver it to our guest. I dare say that our good friend Yosef should consider himself fortunate that I did.”
The young lord Garuda shook his head, closing the box back up. “I thought he was pleased about how deeply his work had reached her.”
“Oh, no doubt he’s going to rub the emotional reaction his play provoked in the Hero of Johannesburg over the mere words that The Red Letter received in Ransom’s face at every chance he gets and forget this bout of pique in due time. Still,” the young woman’s eyes flashed with amusement. “I thought it was funny.”
Trevor grunted. “We’re going to hear more about this from Yosef’s supporters.” He shook his head. “One of us should have gone with her.” By which of course, he meant Victoria.
“If you’ll recall, I was otherwise engaged,” his sister pointed out. “That means if you were so concerned about Vipress’s behaviour, I’m sure you could have lowered yourself to partake of one of Ransom’s little dramas. But,” she paused, looking intently at her brother. “I suspect poor Heinrich’s little tantrum isn’t what you were thinking of. Oliver was by last night, wasn’t he?” Lord Condor’s nephew and Trevor were good friends.
“She nearly took his head off. Over one of the theater’s pets.”
Victoria laughed, easing herself into a chair. “As if you or I have never taken a fancy to someone else’s date and asked them to make way.” She could recall doing just that on four separate occasions, although she’d never been as… direct as Savoy apparently had been. A smile and the thanks of one of the Garuda heirs was usually quite enough. “Besides, from what I have heard, your friend was making something of a scene himself. If I hadn’t seen the video, I would have thought he’d had that poor girl stripped and splayed in front of everyone.”
Trevor opened his mouth to defend Oliver’s actions, then closed it again. “Video?”
Victoria nodded. “Someone was quite daring. They violated theater rules and managed to capture the entire incident on camera. If you search various media sites, I’m sure you can find it. It’s called ‘Snake takes down Condor’.” Her smile widened further. “Trust me, brother. Although there is disapproval for Savoy’s confrontational nature, there is also a pointed lack of sympathy for Oliver’s behaviour.” Her expression hardened slightly. “I dare say he had that humiliation coming. I know you two are close friends, but his actions were an embarrassment to Condor, to Atlas and by extension, to us. We are the Atlas Theater’s largest patrons and if someone has an issue with one of the playwrights, they are best served not attending the work in question, rather than putting on passive-aggressive displays of temper. I don’t care what form it takes.”
The young woman fixed her brother with a pointed stare. “I want you to impress upon Oliver that while the use of the theater’s familiars are there for our needs, it would be politic if in the future, he keeps those needs out of the public eye. Be sure to mention that if he does insist on acting the child, he will no longer find himself welcome at our events. If he truly deplores being forced to attend something we are hosting, he is certainly welcome to complain as much as he wants to whomever he likes as long as his displeasure is kept private.” She pointed to the ash-filled box. “Case in point.”
Trevor’s cheeks flushed slightly with anger, but he saw his sibling’s point and nodded choppily. “I’ll speak to him.”
“Good,” Victoria purred, smoothing the lines in her dress. “I’ve also received word from the Vipress demesne. There’s a bit of trouble there.” She waved dismissively. “The local sapiens are acting up in response to the imminent arrival of their new overseer.”
“Are they?” Savoy’s voice came from the doorway and Victoria nearly jumped. No one should be that stealthy, not to an invictus’s senses! “What’s happened?” The other woman was flushed and covered with a sheen of sweat, clad in a thin tank top and leggings, having come straight from the gymnasium.
“Nothing much,” Victoria assured Vipress. “Just some sapiens causing mischief. Your head of security has already settled the issue.”
Savoy let out a breath. “What kind of ‘mischief’?” she said, lapsing into the tone of an officer dealing with an unhelpful subordinate.
Victoria bit her lip, sighing inwardly before explaining the situation.
Alexandra was getting heartily sick of the Atlas Theater. To her eyes, it was gaudy inside and out. The exterior was styled and carved with Greco-Roman art (and, Alexandra wondered, why was it always Greco-Roman?). The interior was much the same with marble fountains, common rooms, foyers and galleries all filled with monuments to self-gratification. The grounds were fanatically tended by landscapers and the facility was never in less than perfect condition. Meanwhile in the sapiens quarter, she’d seen buildings that were coming apart, streets neglected by work crews. It wasn’t that there wasn’t the money for those things. It was that few people cared. Only when things were ugly enough, when the problem became an eyesore that couldn’t be ignored any longer did any real work get done.
The sapiens at the top of the steps bowed their heads as she approached, opening the doors for her. Alexandra’s eyes flitted from one to the other, but they kept their gazes downcast, just as they had every time she came here.
The last time a sapiens had refused to look at her, he had had a gun hidden in his coat. It was unlikely that either of the doormen were similarly armed, but old habits died hard.
The familiar greeter beamed widely as Savoy stepped inside. “Welcome back to the Atlas Theater, Lady Vipress. Is there anything you require?”
“A table, please,” she asked. “In the north bar.” The concierge rang a bell and an escort appeared as if by magic.
“Right this way, Lady Vipress,” the youth replied. He was freckled, with a shock of vivid red hair. If he was old enough to drive, it wouldn’t be by much. He led her to a table. “I’ll have someone by shortly. In the meantime, was there anything I can do for you?”
“No, thank you.”
The spy was here. Well, that wasn’t precisely fair, was it? He might not be one. But he had the eyes for it. The same eyes that Alexandra saw in ‘Young Lady Garuda’ as she fawned and tittered over her serfs and playthings. Alexandra had seen those before, many times over. It was a mystery how so many people could consistently miss what was, to her, so very obvious. Then again, they’d actually have to look a sapiens in the eyes to see it. It might be nothing, her now-obsolete instincts seeing what wasn’t there, just like with the doormen.
Or maybe it was something. Alexandra ran a fingertip along the rim of her glass. Nothing alcoholic, not today. Hawke hadn’t seen her yet, busy running plates out to one of the theater’s many patios. She watched him scurry back and forth. He was handsome. Fit. Attractive.
She had the urge to stalk him. No particular reason; just to see how close she could get before he realized that she was there. When she’d been a ‘neophyte’ – a fancy, more palatable word for child soldier – that had been one of the games she and the others had played. Their predatory instincts had been enhanced, to make them more efficient hunters. The Primogenitors overseeing the neophytes had called them ‘little jaguars’.
It was something that had stayed with many of them into adulthood. Even the battle-hardened men and women of her unit had done that to each other, their ‘ambushes’ growing increasingly convoluted. To someone looking in from outside, it might seem bizarre, immature and undisciplined at best. To them, it had been good-natured fun. How close could you get? Did they know you were there? Were they waiting for you? It was a game between equals.
Of course, their sapiens allies hadn’t quite seen it that way when they’d been play-hunted by invictus, even (or especially) invictus children. Very few had understood the game and even fewer appreciated that particular expression of camaraderie. One more bit of distance between invictus and sapiens.
And it seemed to be one more difference between her and her modern-day kin. That predilection for games appeared to be something that had fallen by the wayside. Sometimes as she’d wandered the Garuda estates, she’d found herself slipping into stalking mode without even realizing it. There were always people there. Sapiens, familiars – other invictus. None of them would have understood. The twins were almost too easy to creep up on and she doubted that they would have seen the humour in it, let alone been interested in partaking. Oh, well.
Alexandra sighed. The last time she’d really played had been with Jason Ross, ‘male three-zero-zero-nine’. Both of them were from the Argentinean war garden, born in the same crèche. They’d come up the ranks together, made lieutenant within days of one another. He’d led the 169th Rifles, part of the Black Fridays, the same as her 177th. She’d hunted him for forty-three minutes before catching him off-guard and getting him in a shoulder lock, stealing a kiss. He swore he’d get her back. That had been the day before the assault on Johannesburg. She’d never seen him again. Now, he was just an engraved name. Another martyr to venerate, safely dead.
The young woman took another sip of her drink, still watching Hawke. He didn’t realize that she was here and she tamped down on the urge to follow him. If she was right, she’d have something much better to hunt soon enough.
“Hello, Darren,” a pleasant contralto said and the man’s heart skipped a beat. Savoy. She was sitting at a small table near the bar. There were one or two other invictus here, but they were keeping to themselves. He’d just finished fulfilling the ever-changing needs of a handful of Victors outside. Unreasonable demands and an insistence on why didn’t you read my mind? were, he assumed, part of a servicer’s lot in life, but invictus arrogance and entitlement made it especially difficult to deal with. Finally he’d gotten everything just the way they’d wanted.
“My Lady,” he said with an appropriately respectful bow. “I wasn’t aware you’d be visiting the theater today. Have you been looked after? Would you care for a refill?” Lesson one of in the service industry: Even if it’s not your table, never leave an invictus with an empty glass and never keep them waiting.
“No thank you,” Lady Vipress said. She was staring at him. He didn’t like it. He was used to most of the ways invictus looked at him. Contempt, disdain, amusement, lust. Savoy’s expression wasn’t like any of those. It was the same kind of evaluation she’d directed at him during The Triumph of Will. She gestured to the open chair. “Please, have a seat.”
The please was a nice formality. Darren had a few moments before he needed to check on the patio, so he took the offered chair. “My Lady.”
“You used to be a chauffeur,” she said without preamble. “For House Raven.”
“Yes, my lady.” She’d been looking into him?
“It seems you made an impression, as much as a sapiens can. Although Raven fell on hard times and dismissed you from service, you were still given a shining reference. Which allowed you to get a job here at Atlas.”
“Yes. I enjoyed working for Lady Raven.” That was true. Allison Maguire was so self-absorbed he could have walked past her carrying an armload of guns with each one lettered ‘for the Coalition’ and she’d only have told him not to dirty the carpets or she’d have his hide. God only knew how she’d managed to embezzle as much as she had without anyone noticing. “It was unfortunate what happened to the family.” That was less true. The investigation into Raven had already been underway, but he’d given it a very discreet nudge or two and helped bring Raven down. Maguire was still struggling to avoid prison and while he doubted that she’d ever see the inside of a cell, it would be years before Raven recovered, keeping Alison Maguire and her virulently anti-sapiens politics away from anything resembling the circles of power. She’d been self-absorbed, but she’d also been a true believer in High Human Culture, supporting of some of the more odious means of ‘controlling’ the sapiens population. He’d truly hated Maguire, but she’d never once imagined that her dutiful driver could have brought her down. If only every other Victor and Vickie could be that oblivious.
Savoy’s green eyes hadn’t left his face. “Before that, you worked as a concierge in the Garamond Capital Hotel. Always polite and on time. You were… what was it? One of the ‘least offensive’ sapiens that the manager had ever worked with. That was where you met Lady Raven?”
Darren nodded in the affirmative. She had been doing her homework.
“You’ve spent a lot of time working in upscale services. You must have an excellent knowledge of the American Houses.”
“Yes, my lady. I try to keep abreast of politics when and where I can.” He forced himself to breathe normally. In any other circumstance, Savoy’s comments would be completely innocuous, but his mind was racing. Was this just small talk? She’d chatted with Verona quite a bit the other night – was that what this was, or was it some kind of game? He had no idea.
“You were born in the Midwest, weren’t you?”
Darren nodded again. “Cedar Falls, Iowa, my lady.”
“My demesne encompasses part of Iowa.”
Darren knew that; her estates had once belonged to Lord Capricorn. They encompassed a large chunk of Minnesota, both Dakotas, a piece of Iowa and a small bit of Manitoba and Ontario. It was a lot of ground, but mostly empty. Of course, that description applied to most of Earth nowadays.
Alexandra tapped one fingernail against the tabletop. “How would you like a job?”
Despite all his training and experience, if he’d been having anything to drink, Darren might have just lived up to the cliché of doing a spit-take. “A job?” he inquired.
“My estate’s driver recently… retired. I could use someone who’s familiar with family politics and who knows the area,” Savoy continued. “You fit both qualifications.” She tapped her finger again. “I’ll be leaving tomorrow. I’m aware that this is short notice, but I would appreciate a swift answer. If you need some time-”
“I… of course, I’ll accept,” Darren said, taking the offer before his brain could interfere. “I will have to speak to my manager to make sure…”
The woman waved his comment off. “I’ll do that.” She glanced around the bar. “Have you seen Miss Sands around?”
It took Darren a moment to reason that Savoy meant Verona. He’d never learned the familiar’s last name. “I believe she’s attending one of the art exhibits in the Cullen Gallery.”
“I’d like to speak with her,” Savoy said. “Go and get her, if you please.”
Darren nodded, then paused. He’d seen Verona clinging to a Victor’s arm. “I think she’s with someone at the moment, my lady.”
Savoy blinked slowly. “Go and get her,” she repeated. “If her companion raises a fuss, tell them who asked for her.” There was just a hint of a smile on her lips.
Darren kept his pace brisk on his way to the Cullen Gallery, trying to focus more on what he’d say to Verona and her companion than the many thoughts bouncing around in his skull. Most of them involved him immediately fleeing the theater and doing his best to disappear before HSS caught up to him.
She knew. She had to know. But how? He was no closer to that answer than he’d been the first night. Lily had checked in (fortunately without an assault on his groin) and everything seemed secure. There hadn’t been any leaks in the local network, but they were battening down the hatches just in case. So that left the original question: how? And if Savoy actually knew, why hadn’t she told anyone? What kind of game was she running?
He’d looked into Savoy’s career. The Hegmony’s invictus troopers had been organized similar to the old US Marine Corps. Savoy had led the 177th Platoon, part of the 13th Division, the infamous ‘Black Fridays’. The 13th been part of the Hegemony’s speartip in South America. Even though many of the regimes had been part of the Hegemony, the United States had kept a leash on them. Under Operation Borealis, the 13th had been sent in to cut that cord and they had, driving the US forces back to Mexico. After that, Savoy had fought mostly in the European theater, taking on strongholds and performing counter-insurgency operations. For someone who was an agent in an insurgency, that last bit had been especially fun to read.
He’d gotten Savoy’s attention all right, but it felt like a rabbit finding itself in a copperhead’s burrow. As he stepped past the archway connecting the theater to the gallery, Darren was finally able to put those thoughts to the side and focus on something he’d never gotten to do before and would likely never do again. Show up an invictus in public and get away scot-free. He’d seen that little grin on Vipress’s lips as she’d sent him on this errand. Somehow, he took a measure of comfort knowing that he wasn’t the only one that she was playing games with.
Verona took a sip of her spiced water, staying close to Sir Ying. Abraham Ying was a younger member of House Vault, a half-brother to Young Lady Vault. Vault were allied to Chimera, one of Garuda’s rivals and it rankled them that the artists they supported were forced to display their works in Garuda-owned galleries and showcases for maximum exposure. Sir Ying was here as a representative of Vault; Lord and Lady Vault were the patrons of one of the artists here tonight, but they and Young Lady Vault were attending a formal dinner elsewhere. This was a debut with several new up-and-coming artists showing off their work. There’d been no over-arching direction to the presentation, but Verona detected a theme running through several of the pieces on display. A painting showed a city consumed by flames, a single woman untouched in the middle of the conflagration. Elsewhere, a sculpture had a soldier in the uniform of the Coalition futilely struggling against a snake with a heart-shaped head, the viper seconds from sinking its teeth into his throat. There were a handful of similar pieces, each of the artists crowing about their inspiration.
The familiar took another small sip, her thoughts turning to Lady Vipress. It was probably for the best that she wasn’t here. She would have seen this outpouring as the kind of ‘fetishization’ that she despised and there would have been an enormous likelihood of an…. impolitic situation. Thinking of the invictus made Verona feel a slight pang. Word was that Lady Vipress would be leaving the city very soon. Once that happened, she would be busy with the affairs of her estate. It was doubtful that Verona would see her again and… she didn’t like that idea. Savoy was… different. She wasn’t at all what Verona had thought a primagen would be like and she found it intriguing. She’d even caught herself wondering what it would be like to be in service to House Vipress. She didn’t mind her work with House Atlas but occasionally, she found herself thinking of other possibilities.
Chastising herself, Verona returned her attention back to her companion. He was sullenly glaring at the various exhibits, a glass of champagne in his hand. It was barely touched. Abraham was unhappy at being his house’s token representative, seeing it as a chore. The familiar didn’t understand Abraham’s reticence. This was the largest showing of new work in some time and she was excited to see everything on display. Several of the pieces were quite good for new artists and showed a lot of promise. The familiar could pick out the artistic influences in each of the pieces she passed. She looked over the sculpture she’d noticed earlier. Despite the fawning nature of it, the work was quite good on a technical level and the viper seemed genuinely real, down to the last scale. Next to her, Sir Ying snorted derisively at the piece.
The familiar leaned in closer, but Abraham only shrugged her off, wordlessly gulping down his drink in one go. He’d barely spoken all evening; indeed, when he’d requested an escort for the opening, he’d simply pointed at her: “That one.” Verona had tried to engage him in conversation about the exhibits, but he’d had no interest in her opinion, telling her that he hadn’t selected her to hear her talk. Which was his prerogative, of course. Verona couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. She enjoyed art and rarely got the opportunity to discuss it outside of the theater’s other comfort staff.
With his glass empty, Abraham frowned. A man in a waiter’s uniform appeared out of the crowd and the invictus waved the glass towards him. “Another.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” the waiter replied and Verona’s head came up as she recognized the voice. “But someone else will help you. I’m here for her,” he gestured towards Verona. “If you’ll come with me, Miss Sands?”
Verona’s hackles rose at Darren’s insouciance. “I’m with a guest,” she said flatly. He should know better.
Darren nodded. “Yes, I see that. Nonetheless…”
Abraham was staring daggers at the human. “Take this and bring me another one,” he ordered. “Now.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir.” the sapiens said. “As I said, I’m here for your companion. Not you.”
“Darren,” Verona said, equal parts angry and embarrassed. “Go back to the theater. Whatever you want, it will wait.” She cast a glance at her date and felt a pang of worry for Hawke’s sake. What was he thinking?
“Oh,” Darren replied, oblivious to the increasingly incendiary expression on Sir Ying’s face. “It’s not what I want. Someone has requested your presence.”
“Tell them that they can have her after,” Abraham sneered. “As long as they don’t mind sloppy seconds. Or you can go put on a wig and pretend. You’d probably make a better a woman than this one. At least you talk less.” he slapped Verona on the backside, laughing at his own joke. “Now be a good service monkey and bring me a fresh glass of champagne. Then you can tuck in whatever sad little bits you have, find a red wig, go back and tell the idiot that sent you here that I’ve found a much better solution for them. After they’ve finished, they’re welcome to this one once I’m done. There, you see? The perfect solution. So you can pass that along with my compliments.”
“If you insist,” Darren said, reaching out to take the empty glass, then he paused. “But I will need your name.”
“My name?” Abraham snorted. “No. But I will have yours. I will speak to your manager about the disrespect and insolence you’ve shown. You’ll be lucky to have a job at the end of the evening.”
“My name is Darren Hawke,” the man replied. “And if you won’t give me your name, I’ll go back and relay your offer to Lady Vipress. She will, of course, ask who made this suggestion. Since I have no name to give her, I’m sure she will come to inquire personally.” He was shamelessly using Savoy’s reputation as a club. She’d known he’d do that. No, he wasn’t the only one that she was playing with.
Verona’s eyes widened slightly. Alexandra was here? And she’d asked for her? She bit her lip. Although the prospect of seeing Savoy again was enticing, she’d promised her service to Sir Ying and couldn’t simply leave. Not without his permission. The familiar looked from Darren to Abraham. Her companion had frozen in place. “Lady Vipress?” he repeated.
“Yes, sir.” Darren took the glass from Ying’s motionless hand. “By your leave, I’ll send a refill out to you at once and take your response and your compliments back to her. I’m sure she’ll find them very… evocative.”
The Victor all but shoved Verona at Darren. “Here, take her.” He turned away, muttering to himself. “Probably not that good anyways…”
Darren handed off the glass to another passing waiter, holding his hand out to Verona. After a second, she took it, letting him lead her out of the gallery. As soon as they were outside of earshot of the guests, she hissed at him: “What possessed you to act that way? There was absolutely no call for any of that. You were extremely rude.”
“I know, I know,” he answered. Despite Verona making her displeasure of his behaviour known the whole trip back to the theater, he still had to struggle to hide a very satisfied smile.
Darren had left to clear out his locker. He said he’d gotten a new job. Verona supposed that explained what he’d done; people sometimes acted up when they were leaving a position, but to an invictus? Well, at least she’d made sure that he knew that his actions just weren’t acceptable. The familiar took a moment to adjust her outfit and straighten a few wayward locks of hair before she continued, ensuring she was as presentable as possible. She didn’t want to keep Lady Vipress waiting, but she also wanted to look her best.
Lady Vipress was in Mr. Volker’s office. Mr. Volker was the theater’s manager. He was stocky to the point of being almost as wide as he was tall, with a jovial outward persona. He was also an avid horticulturist and many of the botanical displays in the theater and its associated galleries and museums were his. His prized possession was the micro-bonsai tree on his desk and despite his large hands, Verona had seen him prune whisker-thin branches with surety. She had also seen those large hands balled into fists just before sending Peter to the hospital. The busboy had been too fond of hanging around the comfort lounges. He’d had a crush on Sasha; she’d thought he was cute and flirted back, but Peter had pushed his luck too far. The familiar still remembered the sound of Mr. Volker’s fists striking Peter’s body, over and over. “You’ve got to learn, my boy,” Mr. Volker had said. “You’ve just got to learn.”
He was smiling at Verona and held out his hands, taking Verona’s in them. Mr. Volker gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Ah, there you are,” he said, all smiles. “Verona, my girl. Glad you weren’t too long in coming.”
She nodded demurely as he released her. “Sir Ying sent me along with his House’s compliments,” she said. “But I think he may want another companion.”
Mr. Volker nodded. “Yes, of course. Can’t have any of our guests feeling lonely. We’ll get Patrice over there.” He scribbled a note on his monitor screen, the text instantly sent to the upstairs lounge. “That’s my girl. Always thinking of the right thing to do. But where are my manners?” He nodded to Savoy, seated comfortably in one of the chairs opposite Mr. Volker’s desk. “You know Lady Vipress.”
“Yes, sir.” Verona curtsied, blushing a little as the other woman nodded back, smiling. “I was told you asked for me?”
“Yes, indeed,” Mr. Volker said before Lady Vipress could say anything. “In fact, our lady here has come to me with an offer.”
“An offer?” Verona asked, confused. She’d thought Savoy had wanted her company.
“I’m leaving Garamond tomorrow,” Savoy said without preamble. “When I do, I’d like you to come with me.”
Verona’s mouth dropped open, but she quickly closed it.
“It’s quite an honour,” Mr. Volker informed her. “Seems we did too good a job teaching you. Lady Vipress was quite taken with your knowledge of art and now she wants to poach you away from me.”
“My demesne is not known for its culture,” Savoy pointed out. “You have experience with the trends and fashions of the capital that I don’t. I’d like to do what I can to add a touch of civilization there.” She smiled coyly. Volker, of course, only half-believed her. He’d certainly accepted that Savoy wanted to take a bit of High Human Culture with her (who wouldn’t?), but he also clearly believed that Alexandra wanted Verona for more obvious reasons and didn’t want to admit it. Let him think that; Alexandra certainly knew she had ulterior motives. One of which was very simple: Verona probably knew more about her than anyone else in this city and she was loathe to leave that information behind. That was what she told herself, at least.
“I… I’m honoured,” Verona said at last. “But my work at the theater…”
Mr. Volker waved that comment away. “Pish-tush, my girl. I will admit a certain dismay in losing one of my best employees, but this is an incredible opportunity. Don’t worry about the rest of your shift. I’ve already signed your work release forms and had all your effects readied to go. That will give you more time to pack.”
Lady Vipress looked over at Mr. Volker. “Well,” she commented. “If she wants to go.” She glanced back at Verona. “Do you?”
There was an expression of mild consternation on Mr. Volker’s face as Savoy directed the question to the familiar. Alexandra caught it. To him, it was ridiculous to even ask. Verona was a familiar of House Atlas; she’d do what she was told, and if she was told that she belonged to someone else and was about to leave for the Midwest, well that’s just where she’d go! “Of course she does!” he blustered. “I can’t imagine why she wouldn’t want-”
Savoy held up her hand, silencing the other invictus. Her gaze never left Verona’s face. “Do you?”
Verona was quiet for a moment, thinking furiously. The offer was as unexpected as Lady Vipress’s insistence that she answer for herself. Leave Garamond? Her home? Her friends? To go to a place she’d never been? It was a familiar’s role to serve, though. In any way that they had been determined to do so. Verona had been educated by the Hegemony, trained and studied in art, history and culture. In how to respond and what to do when called upon. Her entire life was one of service. Her friends would understand. They would even be jealous that they hadn’t been selected and it wasn’t like she couldn’t keep in touch with them. The prospect of moving to a new place was frightening, but it would be a challenge. A new way to serve. She raised her eyes, meeting Savoy’s green gaze. An excited shiver went through her spine as she saw the woman’s smile widen at that. “Yes,” Verona said, licking her lips. “Yes, I do.”
Mr. Volker’s large hands came together in an enthusiastic, startlingly loud clap. “Excellent!” the manager said. “Never a doubt you’d make the right choice, my girl. We’ve already got the papers drawn up, so all you need to do is sign and you’ll be a part of House Vipress. Just right here, don’t worry about reading all this…”
It was a cool morning, cloudless with the sun just starting to eke up over the horizon. Darren was at the Garuda estates, waiting on the edge of the landing pad, a pair of bags with him. He traveled light. He’d gotten word to his contacts. They’d take care of the apartment and get word to the cells out in the new Vipress lands so that he could make contact safely. He wished he could have said goodbye to Lily, but she’d understand. He kept himself still, letting an expression of hapless excitement on his face. This was either the best opportunity he’d ever had, or it was going to get him killed. He still didn’t know which, but he supposed he’d find out soon enough.
Verona was standing next to him, dressed more modestly than he’d ever seen. Maybe she was minding the cool spring morning, or maybe now that she had the option, she didn’t feel like being one strip of tape away from spilling out of her clothes. Like him, the familiar had a shiny new pin on her lapel, the coiled snake of House Vipress. She had four bags with her and several more would be coming later. Verona Sands, it seemed, did not travel light. The familiar had a small phone in her hand, reading about her new home and its history. As far as he could tell, she’d been studying since yesterday.
Nearby, members of the press, Garamond’s notable familiars and a myriad bunch of hangers-on and looky-loos were waiting with Savoy as her shuttle made its final approach to the Garuda estates. Victoria had taken one of Savoy’s hands and was shaking it emphatically, telling her that if she required anything to let her or her House know immediately. Trevor seemed slightly smugger than normal, probably glad to be rid of Savoy, though he was doing the smart thing and letting his sister speak for him.
Lord and Lady Halkein were there as well, offering words of thanks and support, just like every other fool who’d come out. Darren’s gaze stopped when he saw Sammael in the crowd and he looked away before the eldest Garuda offspring noticed. Until they’d cracked open Savoy’s freezer, he would have said that Sammael was the most dangerous invictus alive. Certainly he was the one that Darren hated the most. He’d been one of the ones that had to clean up the room after that monster had beaten Jessica to death. She’d told him ‘no’. You didn’t tell any Victor no, especially not Sammael Halkein. All of the invictus liked having power over everyone else, but Sammael took it further. He liked reminding everyone less than him just how powerless they were. His favourite targets were sapiens, grinding their helplessness in their faces for his own amusement.
It was supposed to be illegal to kill sapiens out of hand, yet Sammael had gotten a slap on the wrist for ‘excessive force’. He’d claimed that Jessica had come after him with a knife. It was ridiculous. Even with a knife, no single sapiens was a threat to an invictus, but the courts had bought it and Sammael was told to attend community service and conflict resolution classes. Jessica had died trying to defend herself and her killer got a scolding and a reminder of the invictus duty towards sapiens. It was a farce, but that was how much sapiens life was worth in High Human Culture.
The shuttle was coming down now; it was a decent-sized V/STOL craft, modified from carrying several dozen people in typical airline conditions to providing a much more spacious ride for a bare handful. There were two levels; one for familiars, sapiens and cargo and the other for the more exalted passengers. The craft’s wings and tail were bare grey, the old Capricorn symbols painted over. Despite the fancy new pins that he and Verona wore, there was still some dithering over the exact icon of House Vipress. Darren doubted that Savoy cared all that much, but her new underlings were each trying to be the one to impress her. Give it a shark mouth, char from re-entry and splash a whole bunch of kill markers under the cockpit. Make her feel at home.
With a soft thud, the shuttle landed on the tarmac, its doors opening. Verona, Darren and a handful of other serfs hurried to board while Savoy was still held up with goodbyes. Another lesson: be there first and quickly. Don’t make the masters wait for you. He caught a glimpse of Savoy shaking the hand of her new lieutenant governor, and then he was aboard, with his head well and truly in the noose.