Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright February 12th, 2018
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
“Let me do the talking.”
Ellyn glared. Nathanius stepped in front of her and knocked. Ellyn stepped back around him.
“She doesn’t even like you.”
“How do you know that?”
“It was obvious.”
Ellyn grumbled. They had a job to do here. Squabbling over who would take the lead wasn’t going to help anything.
“Look. She gave it to me. I’ll use it.”
Nathanius hesitated. Finally, he took a step back.
“Fine. You remember what we need?”
Ellyn took a long breath, arresting the urge to punch him in the face.
They waited. The door had a little window in it about halfway up. It slid open and a face appeared. His tone was one of forced geniality.
“Good evening. What brings you to the House of the Red Silk Curtains?”
Nathanius opened his mouth to answer. Ellyn stomped on his foot and held up the favour. The coils of silk and gold turned in her hand, glinting in the warm light streaming out through the porthole in the door.
The man’s eyes went wide.
She held it closer.
The port snapped shut.
The sound of a heavy bar sliding met their ears alongside the clicking of uncountable locks. Ellyn turned to Nathanius.
“I thought you said they were open all winter?”
“I never said they were wide open. There’s food and safety here for anyone who can pay. Rich prey if they didn’t take precautions.”
Ellyn frowned. So much talk of the night. It was a long time coming. According to the others there were only a few days left, and those days would be short indeed.
No calendar was kept well enough to be certain exactly when it would begin. It arrived like a last, weak breath, a final gasp of light from the invisible disc of the sun from well below the horizon and then…shadow.
The door opened. Six tall men in red leather armour stood inside in the once-inviting foyer, armed with heavy steel cudgels, also painted red. They stood in polite and stoic silence against the wall. Ellyn regarded them calmly. A guard was a guard wherever he was to be found. There were many in her own history.
The doorman put out his hand to take the favour. Ellyn pulled it back.
“This is worth more than an open door.”
The doorman frowned.
“What do you want?”
Ellyn straightened up.
“I need to speak with the dominaa.”
Asterious started to laugh.
“We’re going to distract them with a party?”
Polly creased a smile. Azarelle was filling them in on the plan. It was Nathanius’s idea. He always seemed to be full of them.
Full of something, anyway.
“It’s actually not such a strange idea. The Blind-Deaf Ladies throw a soiree every year at the beginning of the long night. It’s a point of pride. The syndicate could hardly refuse an invitation.”
She turned to Azarelle.
“But they weren’t going to do it this year because of the invasion. It’ll be here in, what…days?”
Asterious shook his head.
“Nobody’s sure. Before we got thrown out of the house I got some information out of the guards. It could be days; it could be hours.”
Azarelle cut in to explain.
“The party’s still cancelled, but the dominaa owes Ellyn a favour. She and Nathanius went to convince them to hold a smaller gathering instead, and to invite the Jaspers. Ellyn will be on the invitation as the musical host for the evening. The Jaspers will guess that they’re sheltering the rest of us. They’ll show up figuring they can convince the ladies to hand us over, meanwhile—”
“Meanwhile, we’ll be robbing them blind. I like it, but won’t the Blind-Deaf Ladies be angry that we used them?”
“It’s a risk we have to take.”
Polly clicked her tongue in her cheek. The plan would certainly get the Jaspers out of the house, along with most of the guards, but Asterious was right. It was one-hundred percent traceable back to them. Once the truth got out they would be at the top of every hit list in town.
“Well, let’s just hope the Jasper brothers really do have a plan to get out of the city, because if this works, we’re going to need it.”
Azarelle helped Polly to a sitting position against a crate. Azarelle had laid out a broad piece of leather and some writing materials. She gently took up the quill, dipped it, and handed it over.
“We’ll figure that out later. For now, we have less than a day to plan the heist.”
Polly stared at the quill. Talk about a rush job.
We’re all gonna die.”
The dominaa sat quietly at her desk, cheek scrunched up, tapping her finger gently against the closed face of a red leather ledger. Nathanius stood across from her with Ellyn.
He tried to keep a straight face.
There was no reason to carry on with the party, even in a reduced capacity. Further there was no reason to include them in it even if they did. An ulterior motive was obvious, and a woman as cunning as the dominaa would hardly fail to noice. On the other hand, a favour was a favour. The honour and integrity of their organization was at stake.
On the other, other hand, this close to the long night, she could have them both killed right now and no one would ever know.
She leaned back in her chair. The favour was on the desk. She regarded it coolly. Ellyn had presented their request—or more accurately, their cover story—in eloquent fashion: their companions were dead and now the two of them were in need of shelter for the long night. She had already been offered a place, and a debut performance would serve to introduce her to their resident patrons. As for him, while he couldn’t play music, his intellect could surely be put to use.
The dominaa turned to him.
The question carried more weight than the simple word. Nathanius maintained his level expression. He didn’t enjoy lying to her. The memory of the Blind-Deaf Ladies was long and lasting. Once it was discovered—and it would be discovered—this betrayal would not be soon forgotten.
It was a shame. They had come so close, but with the threat of invasion looming it would have been foolish to leave their fate to the simple outcome of a battle. The dominaa and others like her could protect themselves; they could not. It was time to leave, and this was the only way out.
He looked her straight in the eye and answered,
“We have nowhere else to go.”
She tapped her fingers rapidly for just a moment before she replied, sweeping up the favour. She opened a drawer and tossed it in abruptly.
“Never be said that the Blind-Deaf Ladies do not honour their word. Nathanius, you will receive a room in the hotel. We’ll find something helpful for you to do.”
She turned to Ellyn.
“We’ll send out the invitations and tomorrow night you will play for our honoured guests.”
Nathanius bowed low.
“Thank you, dominaa.”
She turned to him and raised a coy eyebrow.
“I’m not finished. There is a condition.”
He straightened up.
She turned back to Ellyn.
“You will be inducted into our order forthwith. Tonight you will play for our masters so that they can assess your abilities before you meet with the tattooist and take the oath.”
Nathanius’s eyes widened at the words as Ellyn’s glance snapped around to face him.
He hadn’t expected this. He stared back at her dumbly.
No one left the order of the Blind-Deaf-Ladies. Their organization was founded upon an implicit promise: absolute confidence. They couldn’t afford the impression that the secrets that so regularly passed before them might ever chance to leak. Every member took an oath of secrecy and allegiance. The punishment for breaking it was death. Ellyn would have to stay with them. If she didn’t, the agents of the ladies would stalk her the rest of her days, but if she declined, the dominaa would know for certain that they were up to something and neither of them would even make it out of the room.
But Ellyn didn’t know that.
The dominaa came around the desk, her sunny disposition suddenly clouded over with dread gravity. Her grace loomed. She stood before Ellyn, staring down at her imperiously, all traces of the warmth she had once shown both of them grown cold and dark.
Nathanius kept quiet.
The dominaa spoke with calm authority.
“Is there a problem?”
Ellyn took a long breath, a note of resignation couched in her resolved expression. Nathanius’ heart caught in his throat as he awaited her reply. He didn’t know Ellyn well, but as was true of all of them, the book of her life surely contained a few dark pages.
How far would she go?
What was the strength of her resolve?
Ellyn lifted her eyes, a hard look steeling on her face that flashed away to a calm smile in an instant. She shook her head, curtsied daintily, and answered.
“No, dominaa. No problem.”
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