A First Draft

May 7th, 2013  |  Published in ShoStoWriMo

I haven’t really gotten much writing done this past week. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t wanted to, but rather that I haven’t made enough time to do so (and to be fair, some of this is out of my control). In fact, as I have been consuming a bunch of short fiction, in the form of Diverse Energies, Podcastle, and Escape Pod (and then At The Mouth Of The River Of Bees and High-Tech Gothic), I have had a lot of ideas for stories, which is frustrating as I can only work on one at a time. One of the great thing about Speculative Fiction is that, once you read enough of it, the outlines of a great conversation begin to emerge (a similar phenomenon can be found in philosophy), and the more of that conversation that I see, the more I want to participate (and in the case of short fiction, the more attainable that participation is). At the moment, there really isn’t much to do about it, other than to make notes about the stories I want to write (which are great to have for when you sit down to write but aren’t able to come up with a story, by the way). But enough about that, this post is titled “A First Draft”.

Back when I first started to work on Broken Shores, while I was still figuring out how the world worked (I hadn’t figured out what to call it, if I recall correctly), I wrote a short story with the working title of “Assassination”. I liked this story, but Broken Shores went a different direction, and I shelved it. But I have always wanted to dust it off, and make it work, but every time I looked at it, I was daunted by how much would need to change (almost all of it). Well, fuck it. I’m going to make it work, and you get to see the process. Just remember that what follows is a ROUGH DRAFT, and will be full of errors (continuity, plot, grammar, and otherwise) and represents a direction that the Broken Shores setting could have gone, but didn’t. Really, I want you to go into this expecting less than nothing. If you continue to read beyond this point, you will never get those minutes of your life back, and I cannot be held responsible, so don’t bother asking. Also, although I dislike doing it, I’m going to put a page break after the first scene, which I hope doesn’t mess with the feed/email subscriptions, but if it does I’m sorry. Feedback is welcome, just keep in mind, there is much necrotic tissue that is already marked for removal. Without further ado:

Assasination (working title)

by Tom Dillon

FIRST DRAFT (“here there be errors”) / 6.27.2008 / approximately 6,200 words

“We must never forget our history, what our forefathers went through to ensure our safety.  We have become complacent, and there is nothing to stop another disaster from occurring.  My opponent insists that the time for caution is over, that the threat is past, but it is not.  If anything, it is greater than ever.”  Senator Burien’s words blended into the noise of the crowd as something else caught Devin’s attention.

The man was easy to spot, moving quickly through a crowd that seemed to sway sluggishly in Devin’s ramped-up state.   She didn’t bother to signal as she braced herself, the guards on the perimeter had already done so.  The guards on the stage with her noticed as well, and she heard a series of thunks from their crossbows just moments before a few quarrels embedded themselves in the man’s chest.

The bolts didn’t slow the man down, he kept on dodging through the crowd as one of his hands plucked the quarrels from his chest and the other drew a long knife.  The guards that were closest to Senator Burien bunched up, making a human wall in front of him.  Even if the assassin got through them, they would slow him down enough for Devin and the rest of the guards to do their jobs.

Then the assassin jumped.  His momentum carried him in a smooth arc over the guards’ heads.  He ducked his head and crossed his arms in front of him just in time for the metal plates on his forearms to deflect three or four more quarrels.

He landed to the left of the main bunching of guards, in between them and her.  He ricocheted off of them, heading straight for her.  For a moment, his face was nearly touching hers, and she could see the tinge of blue under a layer of powder.  Then she felt her dagger slide along one of his ribs.  It caught, then he shoved off of her causing the blade to snap off as she lost her balance.

Even ramped up as she was, it was over by the time she regained her feet.  Senator Burien was on the ground, the assassin’s knife protruding from his temple.  It wouldn’t matter how much Ve they pumped into him, there was no coming back from something like that.

#

“So after that, what happened?” the Arbiter asked.

“He was gone,” Devin said.  “So I assessed the damage and helped where I could.”  She felt naked, standing alone in front of the Arbiter’s raised desk.  Representatives from her firm were seated behind her.  They would offer no help, it was best to simply cut their losses.

“Gone?  What you mean to say is that he blended into the crowd, yes?” the Arbiter asked, and Devin nodded.  “Of the guards on the stage, you are the only one who got a good look at his face.  Why didn’t you go after him?”

Devin started to open her mouth, but she found no words.  She hadn’t expected praise, but she hadn’t expected this, either.

“He was gone,” she said.  The Arbiter didn’t so much as blink.  “There was no chance of me catching him, none.  And if I had caught him, then what?  He had already taken a dozen bolts, at least, my knife was lodged in his back.  What should I have done?”

“The reason, the only reason, that you had no chance of catching  him was that you failed to try.  As for what you should have done, had you caught him, you should have put another knife in him.  If it didn’t work, you should have used a bigger knife.”

Devin had no answer to that, the Arbiter’s words almost made sense.  But he hadn’t been there, the assassin had simply disappeared.  Any additional pursuit on her part would have been an exercise in futility.  The Arbiter wasn’t done, though.

He frowned, first down at her and then at the papers in front of him as he searched for a particular page.  “In your statement, you claim that the assassin was an avatar.”

“Yes.”

“Do you realize what that means?  That you are accusing one of the companies of this island of having a senator killed?”

“Indirectly, yes,” she said.

“Yet you have no proof.  It is more plausible that this was simply a detail that you invented to explain your failure,” the Arbiter said.  “Understandable as that may be, it is not excusable, and so it is this court’s verdict that you be stripped of your position.  Is that acceptable to the Leeman Firm?”

Devin heard the scrape of boots on the tile floor but didn’t look back at the Leeman Firm’s avatar as it spoke.  “Yes, your honor,” it said in it’s perfect, empty voice.

The Arbiter returned his attention to Devin.  “As there is no direct evidence of any wrongdoing on your part, no further charges will be pressed.  You are free to go.”

When she passed it, the Leeman avatar handed her a packet that she presumed held her severance papers.  She looked up at it, but it didn’t say anything.  It returned its attention to the front of the court, where the Arbiter was commencing his report on the findings of the investigation into the Leeman firm’s responsibility in the incident.

#

“So what will you do now?” Jayson asked, holding the wine bottle out for her.

“No thanks,” she said, waving it away.  “What do you think I should do?”

“If you want, I have a friend who might be looking for someone with your particular skill set,” he said.

“Who?”

“Have you ever heard of Nisfu?”

“What?  You want me to work for them?  After an avatar killed the man that I was supposed to protect?  Why would I want to protect the avatars?”

“Never mind,” he said, taking a drink before offering it to her again.  She took it this time.

“I’ll figure something out,” she said.  “I have a couple of months worth of reserves, at least.  I’ll think of something by then.”

That seemed to kill the conversation, and they sat there, passing the bottle between them, watching the distant mountains slowly drift by.  A layer of fog clung to the water, turning to haze and then fog as it neared the land, turning the coastline into no more than a ghost.  This was about as close as the Island ever got to the mainland.

“Have you ever wanted to leave?” Jayson asked.

“To another Island?  What would be the point?”

“No, I meant to the mainland.  How do we know that things aren’t different now?  How do we even know how they actually were, for that matter?” he asked.

“No one has come back from the mainland since the Island was created.  I imagine that things aren’t so great,” she said.

“Good point.”

“What I can’t figure out is how the avatar got here in the first place,” she said.

“You still think that he was an Inkerran?” Jayson asked, arching one of his eyebrows at her.

“Yeah,” she said.  “I mean, what’s the alternative?  A firm assassinating Burien?  I’d have a hard time believing that.”

“You clearly haven’t spent enough time around the firms,” he said.  “They’re not above anything.”

“Who else could it have been?  The Guard ruled out all of the other Avatars powerful enough to have pulled it off.”

“If you’re right, then he’s either already off the island or deep in hiding,” Jayson said.  “Both ways, there’s not much chance of finding him unless he attacks someone else.”

“I know,” she said.  “But that’s what’s eating me.”

“Maybe you should be asking why Senator Burien was killed and no one else?” he said.

“What I should do,” she said, “is just forget about it.  Its not my job any more.”

#

Senator Burien had been active in politics for the better part of two decades, which was both good and bad.  One one hand, there was an extensive record of his political activities.  On the other hand, that record was incomprehensible, consisting mostly of how he voted on this or that bill or which sessions and committees he attended or was a part of.  After several hours of poring over the records, Devin gave up on the Hall of Records and decided to try the Hall of Recorders.

“So I was told that you wished to know about Senator Burien,” a man man said as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes.  “I’m Recorder Nathaniel.”  A glance at the sky confirmed that she had been there several hours.

“Yes, I was hoping to find out why someone would assassinate him,” she said.

The man laughed, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes drawing together.  Although he looked old, with more white than grey in his hair, he was almost certainly ancient, probably past the century mark.

“I’m sorry that I kept you waiting,” he said, putting out a hand to cut off her insistence that it was alright.  “I had been under the impression that you were here on the  behalf of the Guard.”

Devin was taken aback by the sheer pettiness of his actions, that he would keep someone waiting just because of who they represented.  He must have read it off her face though, because he started talking again.

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t keep them waiting out of some sense of cruelty, but only because I am a busy man, and everyone must wait their turn.  I try to bump up individuals, though.  They ask more interesting questions, and aren’t getting paid to wait for me.”

“How do you know that I’m not representing a firm, though?” she asked, pulling her collar down a little to show the three interlocking circles that were tattooed on the hollow of her throat, representing the Leeman firm.

“Because of your question.  Bureaucrats are only concerned with three things, how an event came to pass, who is responsible, and what are the consequences.  There is rarely time for the question of why, and so the question rarely gets asked,” he said.  “All of this is irrelevant, however, and the answer to your question is not a short one.  Would you mind if I gave it to you over dinner?  As a way to make up for my wasting your time, of course.”

“That would be nice,” she said, and was immediately embarrassed by her stomach growling audibly.

“Good, give me a few minutes and we can leave.”

#

Devin had never been to the restaurant that he took her to.  Located on one of the terraces that was cut into the island, it was well beyond her budget, and even so was only a series of tables and a kitchen cut into the rock.  Nathaniel ordered for both of them, spiced ground lamb baked into pastry dough.

“This is amazing,” she said after biting into hers.

“Yes, but don’t tell anyone,” he said.  “I’ve seen too many good places get ruined by praise.”

By the time they had finished their food, the sun had gone down, and they were served coffee.

“As for your question,” he said, as he added sugar and cream to his coffee.  “If you hold to the assumption that the Inkerrans must be responsible, there is no making sense of it, Burien was an outspoken advocate of peace.”

“What if the Inkerrans were opposed to the idea of peace, though?” Devin asked.

“If they didn’t want peace, why would they send an assassin?  Surely there are cheaper and more efficacious ways of accomplishing the same end,” he said.  “Meaning a continuation of the war, of course.”

“So it would seem that the assassination was not the work of the Inkerrans, then,” she said.

“That is where the path of reason seems to lead, yes.”

#

It wasn’t until nearly dawn that they left the Steps, him back to the Hall of Recorders and her back towards the flat that she shared with Jayson.

In the predawn light, the only people who were up were the bakers, evinced only by the slivers of light and muffled sounds coming out of their shops.  The fishermen had already set out for the day, leaving the docks mere skeletons protruding out into the bay.

Ahead of her, a figure – she was pretty sure that it was a woman – stepped into the street.  The woman started to shout and wave her arms, running towards Devin,  her yells losing their meaning as they crossed the intervening space.

Perhaps it was because she was focusing on the distant figure, or maybe it all just happened too fast to comprehend, but she didn’t notice the man hurtling towards her from an alley until he hit her, slamming her sideways.  The force of the impact snapped her head head towards her shoulder and for a moment her entire world was a cockeyed view of a row of storefronts.  Her body reflexively curled up, and then she was rolling and skidding across the cobblestones, her senses no longer able to keep up with what her body was going through.

After what seemed like several hours of rolling, her body came to rest.  She reached down, careful not to move anything unnecessarily.  Her purse was still there, tied to her belt, and she worked at the knot with wooden fingers.  Once she got it open, she found the small pocket sewn into the lining, and the 1000 mark coin that it held.

She didn’t like the thought of using up three month’s salary, but the alternative was worse, and so she pressed the coin onto the tattoo in the center of the tattoo on her left forearm.  For a heartbeat, nothing happened, then the energy from the Vault hit her, feeling like being suddenly submerged in freezing water.  To her surprise, she was only superficially injured, and she felt her cuts and scrapes closing up, even as the coin crumbled to dust in her fingers, worthless.

Devin hopped to her feet.  In the street, where she had been standing, two people were fighting.  She started towards them at a sprint, but by the time she had covered the short distance, it was over.  The woman was lying on the ground and the man glanced over his shoulder towards Devin.  Even with his highly ramped reflexes, there was no time for him to react, and she caught him on the ribcage with her shoulder.  He was standing firm, and although he tried to move with the impact, it wasn’t enough.  She felt his ribs snapping and giving way as her momentum carried her into the space that he was still trying to occupy.

The avatar stumbled, but didn’t lose his balance.  Then the woman who had been on the ground a moment before was up, and she ran a dagger through the front of his throat, pushing until the blade protruded from his neck.  When the woman twisted the knife, Devin could hear the blade separating the vertebrae and could see his eyes lose their focus.  The woman’s skin had the blue tinge of an avatar and Devin brought her knife out, holding it between them.

“Please, let me speak,” the woman said, her words having the disjointed quality peculiar to those speaking in a foreign tongue.  “If I had wanted you damaged, I would have just done nothing, yes?”

“Maybe,” Devin said.  “But that does not make you a friend.  How do I know that you were not using your countryman as a decoy?”  As soon as she gave voice to the question, Devin knew that it was absurd, but it was too late.

“He is no . . . countryman of mine.  Look and see,” the woman said, pulling the collar of her shirt down to expose the bare patch of skin where  her mark should have been.  When Devin looked back up at her, she smiled and turned to walk away.

Devin took a half-hearted step to follow the woman, but curiosity got the better of her, and instead she crouched down next to the body.  Unbuttoning his collar, she opened the top of his shirt.  On his neck was a symbol she had never seen before, a sinuous line that appeared to flow around a small dot of ink.  As she watched, the symbol started to fade.  When she looked up, the other woman was gone.

#

“So this is what it looked like?” Nathaniel said, holding up the scrap of  paper that Devin had copied the assassin’s mark onto.

“As close as I could get,” she said.  “I’m no artist, though, as I’m sure you can tell.”

“I’m not familiar with it,” he said, handing the paper back to her.  “Which really doesn’t mean much.  There isn’t a comprehensive listing kept of all of the minor sigils, there are probably thousands that I couldn’t identify.”

“Is there any way for me to learn who this mark belongs to?” she asked, trying and failing to hide her disappointment.  “Another Recorder, perhaps?”

Nathaniel set the paper down on his desk and set to work copying it.  “I suspect that this hasn’t really made it into general circulation, but I will see if any of my colleagues are familiar with it.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“In addition, they will almost certainly make another attempt on you, which might give you more information,” he said.

“I hope you will understand if I don’t find that particularly comforting,” she replied.  With no income, she would become an increasingly easy target, and to compound things, the past week’s events would make finding work difficult.

“Yes, of course,” he said.  “The bright side is that if the avatar who attacked you yesterday was anywhere near as powerful as he seemed to be, then whoever is behind this has lost quite a bit in the way of resources.  It will probably take them at least a week to regroup, so you should spend that time wisely.”  His estimate seemed generous to Devin, and she mentally adjusted it to three days.  Not much time.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to do something about it before then,” she said.

Nathaniel finished copying the Mark, and checked it against the original before handing it back to her.  “What I really want to hear about is the avatar who helped you.  Are you sure that it was female?”

“Beyond a doubt,” she said.  “What does it mean?”  She had never seen a female avatar before, but then again, she had never paid attention.

“I’m not sure,” he said, and though clearly there was something more there, she didn’t want to press him on it.  “I should be getting back to work, though.  I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”

#

There was still enough energy left in Devin’s system to make the hours that she waited for Jayson to get off work seem like days.  She met him at the docks when he got off work in the evening.  As they made their way back to the flat that they shared, they stopped for noodles from a street vendor.  She told him about the attack, and her conversation with Nathaniel.

“There has to be a better way than just waiting,” he said, and she was glad to hear it.  “Do you have any way of contacting the woman who helped you?”

“Not that I can think of,” she said.  “Besides, if it knew who was behind all of this, don’t you think that it would have told me?”

“Could you ask another avatar, maybe?” he asked without looking up from his noodles.

“What?  No,” she said, perhaps a bit too loud.  She couldn’t believe that he would suggest something like that to her, after everything she had been through in the past week.

“All I’m saying is that time isn’t on your side here.  Once the tide starts leaving . . .”

She wasn’t sure if it was Jayson rubbing off on her or if it was having been saved by the female avatar, but she felt that she was seeing the world in a new light.  She had been conditioned since birth to simply not see the avatars existing alongside the people, but now they seemed to be everywhere she looked.  They looked more human, walking around in suits or simply carrying baggage for their wealthy owners.

#

The next morning found Devin at the office that belonged to the Leeman Firm, her former employer.  It was a squat building, several blocks away from the waterfront.  She had only been there a few times over the course of the five years that she had worked for the firm, but it seemed to not have changed from the day she interviewed there, five years ago.  She gave herself a minute outside, breathing in the chill, brine smelling air and trying to convince herself that what she was doing was a good idea.  After she had given up on that, she went inside.

“Can I help you, Ma’am?” the clerk sitting behind the counter said.  Her first time there, the clerk that had been there then had seemed much more imposing, a gatekeeper.  Now, he seemed to be just a kid sitting behind a desk.

“Yes, I would like to see Av. Leeman,” she said, a firm’s primary avatar always bore the name of the firm itself.

“Do you have an appointment?” the clerk asked, unlatching and opening one of the leather-bound books that rested in front of him.

“No, I’m a former employee, and I have been having difficulty with a reference . . .”  She had expected to have to go through this, and the prepared lie came easily.

The clerk closed the book.  “He’s busy at present, but if you have a moment, I think that Av. Klefman might be able to help you, miss . . .?”

“Tarlen,” she said.  She hadn’t realized that the firm was large enough to have multiple avatars, but in a way she was glad to not have to face Av. Leeman.

“If you want to take a seat, then,” he said, gesturing to the the benches that lined the walls of the lobby.  “It shouldn’t be too long.  I’ll let him know that you’re waiting.”

#

It ended up taking just over an hour for Klefman to see her, by which time she was sore from the thin cushioning on the bench and bored of looking at the bland art on the walls.  Then, after some unseen notification, the clerk stood up and ushered Devin into the hallway next to his desk.

“Third door on your right,” he said as she passed him.

“Thanks.”

She stopped in front of the door, pausing to collect herself.  Before she could knock she heard someone, presumably Av. Klefman, yell that he could hear her and that she might as well come in.

The room was so bright inside that she had to blink several times before she could make anything out.  It wasn’t what she expected.  The room contained the chairs and bookshelves and desk that were required for the space, but one entire wall had been covered with windows, and there were plants everywhere.  The feeling of being in a botanical garden was strange when juxtaposed with the need to get information that could save her.

Av. Klefman sat behind the desk.  He had the slender, fragile looking features that defined his race.  With such bright light, it was difficult to make out the blue tint to his skin.

“Miss Tarlen, I am told that you are having trouble with a reference?”  he looked slightly puzzled as he spoke.

“No, actually,” she said.  His eyes narrowed slightly in response, and she rushed to continue before he summoned someone to drag her out.  “The truth is that yesterday I was attacked again by the assassin who killed Burien, and I had hoped that you could help me.”

“You know that we can’t protect you,” he said.  “Besides, you seem to have come out all right.”  One didn’t need to be an Arbiter to know what he was thinking.  If she could so easily survive an attack by the assassin, why had she let Burien be murdered?

“The only reason that I’m here now is because I had help.  Another avatar saved me.  If not for her, I would be dead.”  Devin stopped speaking.  She had hoped that the mention of a female avatar would get his attention, but it did one better.  His composure cracked, his face going from calm to surprised with seemingly no intermediate state.

She remained quiet as he regained his composure.

“So you’re telling me that you were helped by the Inkeri?” he asked.  “I have no contact with them, and if I did, I would not reveal it to you.”

“I don’t expect you would,” she said, trying to convince him that he had known all along.  If an avatar gave even a hint of sympathy with the Inkeri, their existence would be ended.  No trial, no defense, no shred of leniency, they would simply be snuffed out.  “What I need your help with is this.”  Devin slid the scrap of paper across the desk to him.

He picked it up and looked at it, or rather, pretended to study it.  The Mark that she had copied was about the size of her palm, but when he looked at it, his eyes simply focused on the center.  She had first noticed people doing it when inspecting ID, no one cared who you are, so long as you looked like you belonged.

“What is it?” he asked after a few moments.

“You know exactly what it is,” she said.  She had hoped that he would have some personal reason to help her, but that apparently was not the case.

“I assure you, I do not.”

“Listen.  They will kill me.  If not this time, then the next.  Do you really think that I would hesitate to tell the powers that be that you have links to the Inkeri given whats at stake?” she asked, and he froze, appearing to not even draw breath.  “All I want is a name, that’s it.  Then I leave, and we never see each other again.”

He leaned back in his chair and regarded her.  He could have been made of stone for all that he moved, but she was sure that he was trying to find a way out.  Finally, he leaned forward, placing his forearms on the desk between them.

“The mark belongs to a group called the Rakah,” he said.  “All that I ask is that you do not name me as anything more than an avatar who cleared up some reference problem, all right?”

“Sounds fair enough,” Devin said before getting out of her seat and leaving his office.

#

Devin had thought that once she had the name of the group that was trying to kill her, things would be better.  She hadn’t known how they would improve, but she had been sure that being able to put a name to whoever was trying to kill her would make things easier.  It hadn’t.  If anything, things were worse.  Now she had to deal with the problem.

She bought some fish from the market down the street from the office and headed to Jayson’s flat.  When she got there, she found the door ajar.  Setting the paper wrapped fish down outside, she drew her knife.  She pushed the door all the way open, being careful to not be standing directly in front of it.  Inside, everything looked to be in order.  She found the hundred mark coin in her pocket and used it, bracing herself against the rush of energy.  It wasn’t much but it was better than nothing, and all that she had.

There was no one in the front room, so Devin continued to the main room.  Sitting at the table was the Inkerran avatar who had helped her the day before.  Devin froze, then went back outside to grab the fish that she had left on the steps.

“What are you doing here?”  Devin asked when she returned.

“I need to get in contact with Nisfu,” the Inkerran said.

“Why me?  What makes you think that I would help you?”

“Because I can trust you,” the avatar said.  “And because you need them as much as I do, if for differing reasons.”

Devin thought about it for a moment, trying to get around the Inkerran’s logic, but couldn’t.  “Alright, but we will have to wait for Jayson.  He’s the only person I know with any connection to the group.”  The Inkerran looked relieved, and it was then that Devin realized how dangerous her being on the island was.  “What should I call you?”

“My name is Petra.”

#

Devin and Petra waited together for the rest of the afternoon, but Jayson never showed.  The next morning Devin headed out to the docks to see if anyone at his work had seen him.  She found herself getting steadily more paranoid as she walked, staying in the middle and avoiding the less crowded ones.  When she got  back to the flat, she found Petra moving the stones on the Atrissi board around.

“What did you find?” she asked when Devin came through the door.  Since they had first met, her speaking had improved dramatically.

“Nothing good.  No one from his work has seen him since the end of his shift two days ago,” Devin said.  “It could be something innocuous.  He could be at a woman’s house, or–”

“Even if that were the case, we have to assume the worst,” Petra said.  “Can you think of anyone else who might know something?”

“I know a Recorder who might be able to help us,” Devin said.

“Then you should talk to him.”

#

“Nisfu? I thought that they had been wiped out a century ago,” Nathaniel said.

“Thanks anyway,” Devin said.  “I should get going.”

Nathaniel put a hand on her shoulder.  “I’m sorry.  Is there anything that I can do?”

“Unless you have a few hundred marks weighing you down,” she said, trying to smile.

“Actually,” he said, reaching into his pocket.  “Ever since you were attacked, I’ve been keeping some extra.  Here.”  There was a brief battle between Devin’s pride and her survival instincts.  She took the coin.

“Thank you,” she said.  “I’ll pay you back, I promise.”

“Its a gift, not a loan,” he chided her.  “Besides, they pay me well.”  He patted his stomach, which was pushing his robe out in his midsection.  “Good luck.”

She was halfway back to her flat when she realized that he had given her a 500 mark coin.

#

Petra wasn’t at the flat.  Instead, there was a note on the atrissi board, tucked under one of the stones.  The writing on it was large and blocky, but at the same time precise and consistent, like a child’s writing penned by an adult’s hand.

The people who we were looking for came.  They will have someone waiting where you first met me.  See you soon.

Hope sprung to life in Devin’s chest, but it was short-lived.  If Nisfu had come looking for Jayson, then it was almost certain that Rakah had gotten to him, one way or another.  That thought led her to the possibility that it was a trap- Rakah posing as Nisfu.  It didn’t matter though, after all, what choice did she have?

She pulled the coin out of her pocket and turned it over in her hands.  She put it back and then checked to make sure that she had her boot knife.  Finally, she went to her room and found her iron knuckles.  She hadn’t used them since her bodyguard training, but she felt that they might come in handy.  She locked the door behind her and started to walk towards the intersection where she had first met Petra.

#

Coins could do a lot, but it helped to have some energy to start with, so Devin bought a small bag of bite-sized pieces of fried bread from a vendor near her house.  She didn’t want to be hungry, but it wouldn’t do to be over-full, either.

As she drew closer to the area, things seemed to slow down.  Everywhere she looked, it seemed eyes were following her.  The feeling was similar to that of escorting high profile clients when she had still been a bodyguard.  Although her position had changed, the methods of dealing with the anxiety hadn’t.  Much of the feeling came from over-alertness, scanning a crowd too rapidly.  So she slowed down, forcing her gaze to linger here and there, to whatever her eye was drawn to, without ever stopping completely.  Things returned to normal, people glanced at her, then looked away.

She had gone a block before she noticed that someone was following her.  She kept on seeing him out of the corner of her eye.  He was a little behind her and to her left, matching her progress exactly.  She took it as both a good and a bad sign.  if the people meeting her were Rakah, it was unlikely that they would have someone also set to following her, for fear that it might tip her off.  On the other hand, she would have to deal with him.

It was another long block before she found a suitable spot, a narrow alley that snaked in between buildings so that she could only see partway into it.  It was perfect.  She made a show of looking around, letting her eyes slide around the man.  Then she walked into the alley.

There was a man in dirty clothes standing in the the alley who grinned, showing his teeth, when he saw her.  His expression went blank when she looked him in the eye, adjusting her grip on her knuckles.  She continued deeper into the alley.

She barely had time to crouch behind a stack of crates before the man who had been following her caught up.  Her hand whipped around, the knuckles connecting with his temple.  He went down.

He must have had a lot of Ve in his system, because his eyes began to twitch open almost immediately.  Her boot caught him in the head and he was out.  When she rolled him over, she found that he was holding a length of thin cord and a blackjack.

Devin knew that it would be for the best to just kill the man, but couldn’t bring herself to do it, not while he was lying there helpless, at least.  Instead, she broke his hands, if he had access to that much Ve, he would heal, although it would take a while.  Then she used the cord to bind his hands and feet, pocketed the blackjack.  After checking his clothing and finding nothing else, not even any coins, she headed back towards the meeting point.

#

Devin arrived at the intersection without any further difficulties.  By then the sun had touched the horizon and the crowd had thinned out.

She was starting to think that no one was going to show when someone tapped her on the shoulder.  She turned around to find herself facing a short man who might have been mistaken for a teenager if his hair hadn’t been grey.

“Were you followed?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  The answer surprised him, and he quickly scanned the intersection.  “The man who was following me is probably still tied up in an alley.  He’ll probably be able to get free once his hands heal, though.”

The man smiled.  “Excellent.  We should get going, though.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

#

As the two of them left the area, another man and then a woman joined them, falling in with only nods to signify that they knew each other.  None oft he three spoke and Devin followed their lead.

Finally, when they were approaching the docks, the short man spoke up.  “I’m James, and they are Silvia and Elon.”  He gestured to the other two.

“I suppose you already know who I am,” she said.  “Do you know Jayson well?”  James and Silvia both looked at Elon.

“He and I were close,” Elon said.

“Wait, are you Lo (REF)?” Devin asked and he nodded.  She broke out in a smile, but couldn’t sustain it.  “Have you heard from him?  I checked at his work, but . . .”

“No,” Elon said, his voice sounding dangerously close to cracking.

“Its too early to tell,” Silvia said.  “We just can’t know yet.”  That seemed to kill the conversation, and after that they walked in silence.

Once they were in the docks proper they made their way to an old warehouse.  It had once been on the waterfront, but as the island grew it was now several blocks from the current waterfront.  There must have been lookouts, because the door opened as soon as James knocked.

Inside twenty or so people waited for them.  Petra was among them and surprised Devin by hugging her.

“I’m glad you made it,” Petra said.

“Yeah, me too.”

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