Make a deal or kill everyone.

Not a fellow to compromise, are you?

Bravd, exiled King of Pallos

 

Mae pried a crate open and dangled her light over it.

It was full of masks, jumbled together, each one a twisted mockery of a human face. Wood knots protruded from cheeks, jaws at the wrong angle, the eyes mismatched and ringed with black. Rough swirls of paint made them hard to keep looking at, somehow, but Sarea mustered the focus from her training and kept her eye on them. No two were the same.

Mae took her by the shoulders and turned her away. Sarea stared at her scowl. “Bad magic,” Mae told her. “Don’t. Stay there.”

Mae put the lid back the way it had been, knocking on the nails in a rhythmic pattern. The sound echoed, and she heard voices.

“They’re coming,” she hissed.

“Can’t let ’em be sure we were looking at these,” Mae said back, voice low. “Thought it was bad. This is worse. Come on.” She caught Sarea’s hand, skin rough and calloused, and pulled her down the aisle. “Find a small one. Something easy to carry, looks expensive.”

“Palace section,” Sarea said.

“Hah! Good one.” Mae stopped them in front of it, hunting through the stacks and snatching up something less than two foot square and clanking. “Here,” she said, shoving it at Sarea, and took up one herself.

Shouting behind them.

Mae still jogged with her load. Sarea struggled to keep up, near-exhausted by the time they made the door. Out in the rain and cold, May said, “It’s a long way back -”

“This way,” Sarea said, pushing past her. The back of the warehouses were usually such a mess that nobody could track you, as long as you were careful. Guided by faint sunlight, she led Mae down past three of the other five abandoned, empty warehouses, and ducked into the gap between the third and the fourth.

There’d been a door here, the hinges rusted half-open. In the last seven years, it’d been replaced and locked. She shifted the box entirely onto one arm and tried it to be sure. But if Ionas could open locked doors…

She took a deep breath, told herself firmly, no one’s locked this door in months, and tried it again. It opened smooth and easy.

Mae ducked through first, and Sarea closed the door behind them.

The empty warehouse stood in pitch black silence, save their lights and breathing. Sarea said, “What are these?”

“Wine,” Mae said. “Good stuff, most like.”

“And the masks?”

Mae huffed. “A storm waiting to happen.” She shifted, nudging Sarea’s left shoulder. “Keyne and Pachin won’t tell you. Tolle might. Don’t tell them I did. The masks are ritual. They cut down a big old tree and cut a bunch of masks out of them, get ’em shipped here, use them when they sacrifice people to the pit.”

Sarea swallowed. “Mae -”

“You focus on them, they keep your attention. Great trap.” Mae flashed her a grin in the dim, shadowed light of her strange torch. “You didn’t know. We got to get moving. You know another way out of here?”

“No,” Sarea said. “Just all the doors.”

“You walked us into a cage?” Mae’s voice wasn’t accusing, though. Just curious.

Sarea shrugged. “How could we get in here? The door’s locked.” She knew, with pure certainty, that it was now. Magic. How did magicians not rule the world?
A moment of quiet. Mae laughed, bright and full. “Good one, biter!”

:-#-:

They’d be trapped here for hours, so Sarea left her crate by the door and walked across the floor. There wasn’t so much as an inch of dust there, even though there should be, and no painted lines. But she’d been here so often she knew where to go to find the old stairs up into the office.

The wood hadn’t creaked so under her seven years back. The door to the office was missing. She stepped in, hands in her pockets, and stared at the painting covering the walls.

Amisine always loved to paint, mixing water with mud and dust to find different reds and browns. One day da came home with an entire crate of paint pots, and so Amisine needed a place to practise. They’d lugged them up here one night, and the old crate was still in the corner of the room. Even if the door was gone, nobody’d bothered to whitewash the walls again, so facing the door was a stretch of finger-painted rooftops meant to be the West Side, covered in a great black cloud. Two figures stood under it, undeniably human, glowing blue and yellow.

She wandered in, turning, taking in the monstrous man in Instigator armour on one wall, a river boat on another. Mae came creaking up the stairs and stopped in the doorway, staring.

“These yours?” she said.

Sarea shrugged. “My sister’s.”

“Girl might’ve been good.” Mae padded in. Sarea ignored her, running her fingers over ridges of paint. She’d napped whilst Amisine painted, and never paid very much attention to it. What did painting matter? They were trapped in the West Side anyway. But now it was Amisine’s only legacy, surviving by the whim of some caretaker or another, anonymous and alone.

“Why’s it the West Side?” Mae said.

“Hm?” She crouched down, looking up the way Amisine had when she wasn’t standing on the crate. Her sunlight lit up the paint but the ridges left shadows, casting the monstrous Instigator in eerie light and dark.

“West Side’s in the east. East Side’s in the west. Names don’t make sense.”

This was the Instigators they’d known. Tall, shining, and dark.

“Biter?”

“The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west,” Sarea said.

A pause that might have Mae staring at her back. “So?”

“So my family ring.”

“Oh. Right.” Silence. “That’s stupid.”

“I didn’t make it that way,” Sarea said, straightening. “Will you tell me all the things they won’t?”

“All of them,” Mae said. “D’you reckon she saw the demon? That cloud.”

The cloud Ionas saw when they sailed towards Durabilis, implying there was a way to see magic. “Maybe. Why?”

“It’s creepy.” Mae huffed. “Look’t it. Blocking out the light and all.”

“No,” Sarea sighed. “Why will you tell me?”

Mae let out a surprised laugh. “Why wouldn’t I? Not right, letting the best piece in the game walk around in the dark.”

This is strange, Sarea thought, but I like you. Not the way she liked Isaye, mingled with wariness of the other girl’s openness, of her bright belief in goodness. Mae was blunt and honest, a solid thing in the world, someone putting her trust in Sarea.

“You’re, what, twenty?” Mae said. “Not a kid.”

“Sixteen,” Sarea muttered.

“Really? Don’t look it. But don’t change anything.” She scuffed her toe against the floor. “When I was sixteen, my da got taken by a demon-seed, so I killed him.”

Trust had to be returned.

Sarea said, “I killed my aunt.”

“You got demon-seeds?” Surprise gave Mae’s voice a lilt.

“No. She had…” How to describe it without needing Tineke’s book? “Growths, inside her. She asked me to. She didn’t want to linger and hurt. It was seven months ago.” Nearly eight, now.

Mae reached out, hand hovering perceptibly just above her shoulder. “Hey, Biter?”

Sarea hunched up, ducking away.

“That don’t make you bad,” Mae said. “You know that, don’t you?”

It doesn’t? Sarea wondered. She hadn’t even dared be in the cottage when Tineke died. Just mixed the right medicine and left it there, been elsewhere when someone else in her family died –

And Mae tried to tell her she wasn’t bad?

“If you choose to die, you choose,” Mae said. “How doesn’t matter. Choice does. Wanting to not hurt, not be demon? That’s not bad. Helping? That’s mercy. You get that?”

Sarea shook her head.

“Come here,” Mae said, and tugged her around gently before hugging her. A real hug, warm and open, not so tight she couldn’t get out of it. She didn’t want to. “Makes you strong,” Mae said firmly. “Not bad. Now.” She stepped back, holding Sarea’s arms. “Tell me what that thing is.”

Sarea looked at the painting on the fourth wall and smiled, somehow. “I have no idea.”

 

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