Most Daring, Least Scrupulous

The little boat slunk beneath the river bridges. With its sharply cut prow, the vessel’s progress was silent and swift. Its occupants held their breath as they passed under any bridge marked with swaying guard lanterns. But the night was deep and those on watch looked towards the roads, not the inky water below them.

As they neared the city and its great, river-made moat, the smugglers shifted their shoulders and bowed over to make themselves small against the curve of their boat. Here, discovery would ensure a short drop and a sudden stop on the nearby gallows, possibly even before the sun rose. The duke’s justice was quick for those that denied him his tariffs and taxes.

But the smugglers did not turn away, and turned their boat to the grates allowing water to flow beneath the streets and the main city squares. As swift as justice was in the city, the rewards came faster, at least for those who knew their way round the trading metropolis’ winding waters.

Gruff whispers were exchanged by the grate and it was opened on well-greased hinges. They entered the city, quiet as a leaf bobbing on a creek’s gentle current.

The dark tunnels of rushing water providing a warren for the smugglers and their ilk, entrepreneurs as much as any of the fancy clothed merchant princes who dined on the bay’s pleasure barges. Here, beneath the street-side markets that pitched gaudy stalls and tents during the day, another market bloomed in the slimy dark.

The smugglers followed the greasy pricks of light that marked the sides of the underground canals, candles set and burning on the melted corpses of their waxy ancestors. The wax growths provided little real light, but guided the most daring and least scrupulous merchants to their night’s business.

When the muggy tunnel opened up to series of wide causeways set over the underground water, each one of the smugglers’ smiles flashed in the low light. Now came the easy part.

 

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Kiss of the Whip

“What are you going to do?”

That question kicked my brain into action like the kiss of a whip; forcing it to stumble forward into an answer. I turned from where I’d been pacing in the research lounge. “Go out to the site. Before they can.”

This late in the evening no sound reached us from the university walk stories below. The lounge was empty besides us. My words slapped against the solemn silence, making them angrier than I’d meant them to be.

Cinar stilled and searched my face for humor. She didn’t find any and had to force her smile, lips flowing stilted over her teeth. Two years below me in study, Cinar couldn’t come outright and tell me the idea was insane. “That seems rash.” That smile again, more steady this time, almost teasing, a little chiding.

“What else can I do?” I didn’t let her haul the reigns back. It was her question that’d flicked the idea into existence.

“Wait? They’re faculty Roshan, your adviser. They probably won’t find anything, and then you’ll just look like you are starting trouble for trouble’s sake. You especially need to pick your battles.”

It almost worked. She was right on many counts. I did need to pick my battles, they would see a midnight trip to the field site like Cinar did, a tantrum, and — I turned and stared at her. “Why don’t you think they’ll find anything?”My words were wooden, hollowed by the bite of her doubt.

Cinar held her brown eyes wide, knowing she’d said something wrong. It occurred to her and her brows wrinkled in concern. “Oh, Roshan, that is not what I meant. Just that its unlikely. You are a good scholar –”

“–but they won’t find anything. At my site. Because there isn’t anything to find.” I locked my teeth together until I could manage a calm tone. An outburst now and she’d be required to look after my delicate state. “Its okay Cinar, you’re right.”

“I’m just trying to think rationally.” She said, “its almost a compliment really.”

“Then I should be grateful.” Sharp words, a manic smile. I wasn’t convincing her so I retreated. “I’m going to go home, its–its been a long day.”

Parting words, gentle reassurances I had nothing to worry about, and a few maternal clucks about taking some time for myself. I left the lounge. Cinar wasn’t a bad sort, but she was dumb as old bricks if she thought I’d go home. There was something at my site, there had to be after two years of research. I wasn’t going to let my thieving betters find it before I did.

Portentous Star

The sun simmered red as it slunk towards the jagged horizon. Tristan opened the morning room window to the sickly gold air and leaned outside. Distant fires turned the treeline to a nebulous grey silhouette and the sun was the worst of it, a hazy swollen orb defying the prospect of rain. He frowned at the ominous star.

Behind him, three books lay open on the settee. All had failed to distract Tristan from the pinched tension between his temples. It was the smoke and ash. Even their monstrous house, impenetrable to ancient armies, civil upheaval, and seemingly time itself, could not keep it out.

An uncannily dry summer had baked the trees brown; now somewhere they burned unseen, belching black smoke into the country air like the worst factories of London. Beneath his annoyance at the ash-laden ache and ugly scenery, Tristan knew that if his neighbors estate could burn, so could his.

At the window, an itch grew in the corners of his eyes. With a fanciful but deeply ground logic, Tristan was hesitant to ignore the red portent hanging over his lands. Fate usually prepared the worst for those who willfully snubbed such signs.

“Tristan.” His name came patiently, but as if it’d been repeated. Tristan turned. Arianne had come into the morning room and stood with her hands clasped in front of her skirts. A fine sheen of sweat made her cheeks shine. All else about his sister was perfectly in place.

Tristan was down to his shirtsleeves. Decorum could only survive so long in this heat. He smiled at her, “I am quite distracted apparently. Sorry.”

Arianne moved to the window and pinched her face against the thick, burnt, air. She hustled him back and snapped the window closed. With the glass between, the haze seemed even thicker, the sun bigger. Arianne went to gather the books he’d carelessly left gaping. “The doctors already been called on account of Sally. We cannot have you falling ill.”

Tristan nodded. She was right. With the fires so close, and the sky imposing down on them, he was probably expected to do… something. He went back to the window, looking out over the alien landscape that he was supposed to be lording over. “Doesn’t it look peculiar? All the strange haze and smoke– like something from Revelation.”

“Do not say such things,” Arianne said without real reproach. From another, it would be crass, from her brother it was fancy. As it always was.

Tristan’s smile acted as apology. He did not say anymore, but as he followed her from the room, his eyes slid distant across the glass of the windows and the simmering crimson sun outside them.

This post is part of the Legal Theft Project (also the Mindlovemisery Menagerie prompt here that I run). Some thieves have stolen my first line to write their own. See if any show up below: 

The way things are won…

A gentle clink of poisoned glasses, purring of low voices, the jangle of rope, harness, and coin. These are the sounds of Naleem. His one time home still stirred in the dark hours of the morning. Lark had taken the city through guile, artful plot, and patience, the way all things are won in Naleem.

His rooms were crowded now. Friends and associates, new and old, leaned over the maps there, discussing what was to be done with the rest of the continent. When he wasn’t there, or tangling up bedsheets with Dras, Lark smiled across dinner tables and ballrooms at men and women who would prefer him as an ineffectual bloated corpse.

Those well-wishers ensured Lark had someone watching the space between his shoulder blades at all times. This kept him effectual, attractively slim, and most importantly, breathing. It was also driving him a little mad. Lark did not hold this against his fellow merchant princes, nor his bodyguards, this was Naleem after all. The measures simply made finding solitude an endeavor. An endeavor Lark began with a sleeping aid slipped into Dras’ wine over their evening meal.

With the sunrise hours off, Lark left his villa alone for the first time in months. He took a path through the kitchens, avoiding maid and cook, and climbed the back wall like a rebellious child.

By his logic, this was his city and he was entitled time to get reacquainted. Not that others would agree; Lark bet on being back before anyone noticed and could imagine his name slid angrily between their teeth should he fail. Quite like when he’d been a rebellious child, though hopefully more successful in his gambles.

In the first quarter hour of precious solitude, Lark ruined his boots in the muck of an alley, dissuaded two thieves through liberal application of glare and stiletto, and laughed at a bold doxy who thought she’d have anything to offer him. He was grinning by the end of it.

Tomorrow he would dine on stuffed pheasant, sip champagne, and flatter the princes who wished him dead. That was Naleem. But so was this, Lark thought, striding through the narrow maze designed to entrap and ambush and watching flicks of shadow dart above him over the roofs. Assassins making their last visitations of the night. Mud and machinations, carnage and coin, silk and sabotage. He loved it all.

For this music challenge I made Raw Rambles write something to or inspired by Ludovico Einaudi’s Divenire, and I did the same above. 

Summer Ascendant

A sea of faces lit up upon his appearance at the door. Golden in the light from the chandeliers, smooth, and flashing white teeth, they broke into a single swell of wordless greeting. Max didn’t recognize a single one of them.

He showed his own teeth back, smiling, happy. They were here for him, that was enough. The day of his birth commenced, celebrations over several days, summer ascendant. Max stepped into the throng. He drank down the well-wishes, the envy, like champagne in fine crystal.

Painted women laughed into the curve of his side, coiffed men threw arms around his shoulders. Many times he was drawn out onto the dance floor. They celebrated the night Max, by virtue of being born all those twenty-six years ago, had given them. Max was content with that. He basked in the warmth of their once-removed appreciation.

And then a single glass among many that night raised his way. Max watched his father, conservatively tucked amidst a group of similarly somberly dressed men, toast him. His own champagne soured in his stomach. Unbidden thoughts crashed past the adorers’ rabble, had Max laughed too loud, drank too much, smiled too little, forgotten an unforgettable name.

Max pulled at his collar and looked for distraction. But the bright gold of the party reflected his thoughts back, had he acted the fool? Who’d seen him? What would his father do tomorrow about it?  He abandoned his glass on a passing tray and hurried from the center of the sunny crowd.

The dancers shifted to the floor as the opening notes floated from the band. A girl, rust hair in tendrils framing her face, cast him a heavy-lidded look through the golden light as he left. Max pretended not to see the invitation to his invitation and followed a prickle of cold air that might lead him outside. This time he was sitting out. The chill promised a dark sky untainted by sweat, perfume, and judgement.

I have stolen, as I am want to do, a line from a dear friend. I took This time he was sitting out. from a Librarian as part of the Legal Theft project. 

Dares, Dinner, Doctors

Reid skidded his bike into the yard, keeping it upright just long enough to snatch the greasy bags from the basket. He left the bike fallen beside the porch, no kid in the neighborhood would dare steal something of his, and took the steps up to the front door two at a time.

Inside, he was forced to pause. The stairs were blocked by the pear-shaped behind of the group home’s foster mother. She turned when the screen door clacked against the wall.

“Eula.” Reid greeted with insolent familiarity. He tried to take his spoils down the hall instead. Eula stopped him easily with her bulk as she stepped off the stairs, moving one hip and then the other to block his way down the dingy hallway. She looked down at the twelve year old.

“Mr. Bao, that looks like dinner. Did you bring enough for everyone?”

Stalled, he was forced to lock his arms awkwardly away from himself so the food wouldn’t knock against his legs. From the kitchen he could hear the portentous clatter and shriek of the other kids. Reid scoffed, “no. Its for Vin and me.”

Eula took a step and, as always, Reid refused to give ground.  She loomed now, large to his sharp shouldered, pre-puberty height. He’d seen her bodily haul a stocky seventeen-year-old out the back door. He eyed the space between the wall and the stairs, calculating his odds, until she spoke with a sigh, “Your brother is at the doctor today. Come have dinner with everyone else.”

“No one told me that.” Reid said and swallowed, running through accident and foul play. One of the bags slipped from his cramping grip and hit the carpet. Reid didn’t pick it up. “He isn’t sick. Why is he there?”

“Shhh. Its alright.”

Her clucking shush made sparks of red go off in his eyes, but Reid swallowed and adopted the courteous tone he used with teenagers bigger than him. “When is he coming back?” he asked.

“Tonight of course.” Eula shook her head as if the answer was obvious. It wasn’t. Children disappeared all the time from this house. Reid watched them come and go. But never with doctors.

“You should be happy for him, Reid. They think they can help him,” Eula said. He remembered Vin’s quiet signs weeks ago, the way his careful fingers had told Reid about the doctors coming to the home. One had even signed with Vin, but most had just spoken to Eula.

“Vin doesn’t need help.” Reid stated. Eula made a purring noise of acknowledgement but not agreement. She picked up the fallen bag and plucked the other one from his hand, putting an end to any argument about dinner, doctors, or Vin. In the kitchen the howling had grown louder.

“Come eat. Or don’t. Its up to you Mr. Bao.”

Reid swayed a little, debating his bike outside, but ultimately followed Eula into the kitchen. It would still be there if Vin didn’t come home.

 

Hungry and Underlit

He rolled his arm underhand and spun her keys high into the air. They arced against the black sky, catching the sliding light of the yellow streetlamp and landed unseen on the roof far above their little group. Blair followed the arc with her eyes and kept her chin angled up, fixed on the point where keys disappeared.

“Now you have to keep hanging out with us,” He said. While the rest exclaimed with surprise and gleeful outrage he wheezed a laugh. When Blair didn’t move or gasp or giggle, he leaned around, trying to draw her eyes.  The group continued without them. Their shrieking amusement received side-eyes from the native bar-goers.

The slope of Blair’s shoulders turned to iron when he dared rest a hand there. He quickly took his hand back and stepped away.  “Got a few more places to hit. This street has to have some truly revolting dives.”

Blair’s face was hardened amber in the streetlight.

“Oh, come on, I’ll just call my driver after this next place. It was a joke.” He said, voice rising. Next to her stubbornly cold silence his words came edged and whiny. Their group stopped down the way, their discomfort drawing the attention of the sidewalk smokers. Phone screens blinked to life. A blue blood public meltdown was a rare and lucrative delight whether via blackmail, tabloid news, or the sheer delight of ruining a brat’s night.

People called to others inside the dives. They appeared at the bar’s exits, the alleys, all leaning out to gawk at the now shifting teens. Recording lights blinked at phone corners, lighting up the night around them like crimson gnats.

Blair took a step backwards and the sharp heel of her boot scraped the sidewalk. Phones and faces swiveled to her, hungry and underlit.