Chapter 8:

Now — Business As Usual

The Story Of Who

 My second week into the season was already looking up. It seemed that X had finally lost interest in me after making no progress during our seven day staring contest. It wasn't everyday that I was suspected for murder but I liked to think I took it in stride.Bookmark here

The last thing I wanted to admit to myself was that I missed that expressionless face of his.Bookmark here

"That's just how Renshaw is."Bookmark here

Renshaw, the name stamped out on all his official documents. A name he seemingly rejected.Bookmark here

"Ah, so you know him well?" I tried not to sound interested. The man had hardly said a word to me. Why was I so fixated on him? Because he's playing hard to get?Bookmark here

I doubted it.Bookmark here

Nevertheless, his cold face was now etched into my mind.Bookmark here

I gazed up from the wine swirling in my goblet and pinned a glare on my first patron of the day, handsome as all the rest were but with power few dared to flaunt outside of closed quarters. I took him in with all the subtlety of a bludgeoning hammer and let him know how pleased I was. "You look pretty today, Owen."Bookmark here

Not as pretty as X, I couldn't help but think.Bookmark here

He chuckled and spun around in a circle, hands outstretched—in search of me. "Stay still so I can catch you!"Bookmark here

"If I do it won't be as fun, Mister." Nevertheless, I drained my wine and did as he asked, turning around in his arms when they came around me.Bookmark here

I softened against him and let the empty goblet slip from my fingers in favor of running them up the planes of his jaw. His stubble pricked at my fingers and my mind drifted to X's hairless cheeks. "Don't these games bore you?"Bookmark here

"Nothing is boring with you, Who." He laughed into my hair and tugged off his blindfold. As usual, he was generous with his compliments. "Besides, I'm making you money. Should you be complaining?"Bookmark here

"I shouldn't," I drew my head back to enjoy how his most unassuming features crafted his innocent expression into something utterly cunning, "but you like your brats, don't you?"Bookmark here

"Ah," he curled my hair around his fingers and pressed his nose into the dip in my collar, "don't remind me."Bookmark here

"Issues with the wife?"Bookmark here

He groaned and pulled away, taking a step back to bend over the table and fish up a jug of wine. "You'll need to butter me up more than that to get that piece of gossip, honey."Bookmark here

"Do I?" I walked around the table to drop onto a cushion, feeling the burn of his gaze as it followed me. I ran my hands over the garland he had brought me, not able to get enough of it. "You forget that she is also my patron."Bookmark here

I lifted my head so that he could see my raised eyebrow, then dipped my head to examine myself in the vague reflections bouncing off the chinas' polished enamel. A face caked in makeup looked back at me; glossy red lips drawn into an alluring smile.Bookmark here

It was a stranger looking back at her. The mask she used to keep herself safe from the advances of men who could never be hers.Bookmark here

"Thank you for admitting that you two badmouth me behind my back," Owen said, drinking the wine straight from the jug. Bookmark here

"I didn't know we were supposed to do it in front of you. Are you a masochist?"Bookmark here

"A beautiful woman on my left; another on my right. How is that masochism?"Bookmark here

"You're right. We will include you in our sessions from now on." I smiled pitifully. "Don't say you regret it later on."Bookmark here

"Is this what you call buttering up?"Bookmark here

"Ah, no. Poor baby. Come, tell mummy what your big bad wife has done now." I grinned when he sighed dramatically and fell into the cushion beside me.Bookmark here

"You see, it all started like this—"Bookmark here

"By the way, do you have a mirror?"Bookmark here

"Vanity. Vanity." He sounded annoyed, but his hand was already diving into his coat in search of one. Bookmark here

"What?" I batted my lashes at him. "Do you want me to beg?"Bookmark here

"How could I make the most influential woman on the Block beg?" He popped open the case of the mirror and held it up for me. "Are you pleased with my gift?"Bookmark here

"Always." My grin this time was fueled by a true emotion: greed. "That's why you're my favorite."Bookmark here

His smile softened like I suspected it would. He tugged the garland off my head and leaned in closer until his lips were pressed against mine.Bookmark here

"I could give you finer things than this," he whispered as he pulled back. "Gold, silver. Real jewelry."Bookmark here

"Owen," I made myself sound breathless as his hand drifted up my leg, willing my heart to remain unaffected, "that's against the rules. The matrons are always watching."Bookmark here

"I don't care about them, just you."Bookmark here

"I don't think your wife would appreciate—" When his fingers grazed the wounds I had been hiding, I faked a flinch and pushed my face into his shoulder.Bookmark here

His hand fell away immediately. "Are you hurt?"Bookmark here

I took time savouring the panic that tainted his words before shaking my head. His hands wove a path through my hair till they formed the leash he used to tug my head up so he could see me cry.Bookmark here

"Sorry," I whispered, feeling a tear slip down my cheek, "it's nothing, I—"Bookmark here

"She hit you." His fingers left my hair to cup my face; he kissed away every tear that fell. I allowed myself to tremble at the touch of his lips against my skin, feeling control fall back into my hands.Bookmark here

"No." I objected as soundly as I could manage while choked up with sobs. "No, she didn't touch me. Don't worry."Bookmark here

"Why do you protect her?"Bookmark here

"She is the only one I have." As I lied, I clung to him, my fingers digging into the rumpled folds of his uniform. X would have never worn something so wrinkled. "If something happens to her… What if someone who hates me replaces her? I'll be sent off to the slave markets first thing the next day!"Bookmark here

"Who, she hates you."Bookmark here

"She doesn't. She just doesn't understand—"Bookmark here

A knock sounded on the door; a soldier stepped in and saluted. "Sir, you are wanted at the base. It's urgent."Bookmark here

"Who..." His emotionless eyes contrasted with the plea in his voice. It was moment like these that reminded me that I was just a toy in a game he enjoyed playing.Bookmark here

"Owen, I'll be fine," I let him brush away the wetness on my face, "but the empire won't if you stay here."Bookmark here

"But…"Bookmark here

"You have been here for two hours already," I told him slowly and pressed my lips to his cheek. "Go."Bookmark here

He took my hands and kissed them. "I won't be long."Bookmark here

"I'll be waiting." The smile I wore while escorting him out was a soft one—the kind of anxious, tear-filled smile his wife sported when she raved on and on about the women that he mingled with at the emperor's soirees—the smile of someone waiting for their heart to be broken. And once no one was there to see, I reset my expression in preparation for the next patron.
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***Bookmark here

"...and I just can't handle it."Bookmark here

Madam Wang's voice was accompanied by the chirp of the cicada she carried around for good luck. It hung from her neck now, in a cage of golden bars. An extravagantly kept prisoner. With it, I could sympathize. Her, on the other hand...Bookmark here

I pressed a handkerchief into her waiting hand. "I stitched the prayers myself," I told her, putting myself in the shoes of a woman who knew the type of man she was in love with and still married him in hopes of the impossible—changing him. "Hearing your plight… it really touches me."Bookmark here

"Why can't men be faithful?" she sobbed.Bookmark here

"There is more to the story, I'm sure." It had been hours; it was getting hard not to yawn, but like I had just told Owen, his wife was also my patron and she paid more for my time than he ever did.Bookmark here

"He came here today, didn't he?"Bookmark here

I nodded slowly and pressed my index finger to my thumb. "You missed by just this much," I said, though he had been showing his face less and less since Matron Elsa jacked up the cost of my services.Bookmark here

It tickled me that so much of their family's finances was being spent on me. If every cent of it went into my pocket I would have been able to redeem Bess myself. Bookmark here

It was almost criminal that I couldn't.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

Escaping from the Block was decidedly easier than killing everyone in it. The addition of jasmine and sage into the incense meant that Joy fell asleep quickly—without need for my intervention—and my recent trip to the matron's office afforded me the opportunity to ease the Block's new shield-codes out of her tightly-guarded mind.Bookmark here

She was particularly vulnerable when reveling in her masochism. A few swings of her cane was enough to get her completely unhinged and when she saw my blood spill, all her imagined plots against me bubbled to the surface for me to scrutinize and manipulate at will.Bookmark here

I had learned early on that nothing safe for a complete mind-wipe would get her to like me and by that point she would have noticably been reduced to an invalid.Bookmark here

Sometimes, I considered it.Bookmark here

The streets outside the Block were unassuming when you considered the sort of revelry that went on behind its walls. Normal people walked down the road, dressed for a winter that was due any moment now. Peddlers yelled the prices and names of their goods, competing with each other for who had the loudest voice.Bookmark here

It was easy to blend in, in an old dress whose red had faded to rusty brown, and a scarf wrapped high enough to conceal the lower half of my face. Without the glamour of the red curtains and the exorbitant fees, I was just an ordinary woman—and no one was interested in ordinary women.Bookmark here

I followed the flow of traffic, allowing passerbys bump and move me along, away from the massive shadow of the Block until I ended up ten minutes away in front of the Information Guild or as the locals liked to call it "Whistleblowers Union".Bookmark here

The doors were opened for me once I reached them and no one paid me any mind as I stole deeper into the building. There were too many sketchy women coming through these doors daily for anyone to care. To be a business that openly bought and sold information, your employees needed a certain level of awareness—what happened in the guild stayed in the guild.Bookmark here

I walked past some curtain girls, ones who had permission from their Matrons to leave the Block on good days. They laughed and giggled as they slipped pieces of paper through a hole in a glass booth and got small pieces of gold pressed into their dainty palms by its attendant. If I looked close enough, I would have recognized them, even closer and I would have known what secret they had traded.Bookmark here

My head pulsed with the weight of everything I already knew, the whispers wanting men and desperate women shed in the company of someone who couldn't run away from the monsters they hid behind their smiles.Bookmark here

I shut my eyes and rubbed the ache away. There were too many people here; their thoughts pushed hard against me, tempting me to ignore the consequences and take a look. Just one look. I couldn't know who had paid to fortify their mind until I tried to break into it. I didn't know who was wearing a Sensitivity Reader until it caught me reading the mind of someone in their vicinity.Bookmark here

In recent years, it had become too dangerous to dig into every thought that came my way yet the urges only grew stronger as though my power wanted me to get incarcerated for prohibited use of "mental sway".Bookmark here

Someone grabbed my arm and pulled me into a room—a space that smelt of blood and sandalwood. "Looked like you were about to pass out in front of my office."Bookmark here

I peeled my eyes open, even though I didn't need them to know who stood in front of me. I had known it from the moment our hands touched. "Margo."Bookmark here

"Did you come to exchange information?" She grinned, her teeth sparkling in the blue light that rained down on us from an opening in the ceiling. "You know what would happen to me if you're caught in my building? Flayed on live television. This isn't like the old days, you're government property now. You have to be more careful."Bookmark here

"I've always been."Bookmark here

"Well, now they actually care about," she said. "Heard that you're going up on billboards soon, Miss Celebrity. The new face of government-sanctioned degeneracy."Bookmark here

That was news to me but there was no time to dwell on it. "Did you also hear that I'm being investigated for murder?"Bookmark here

"I heard. X is always investigating someone for murder. You shouldn't worry unless you did it."Bookmark here

She was still holding onto my hand. When she noticed, she let go of me in favor of sitting on her desk.Bookmark here

 "And how many people he charges with murder end up getting convicted?"
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"All of them actually." She paused to angle her head in my direction. "But you didn't do it... Did you?"Bookmark here

I stayed silent. Nothing good would come out of me answering that question, not when there was a chance our conversation could be bought—for the right price.Bookmark here

"Holy shit." Her eyes widened as the realization hit her. "How in hell's blazes did you get from HVSS Mariposa and back in one night, without getting caught?"Bookmark here

"I'm going to need all the information you have on X." The real reason I had taken the risk to come here on such a busy night. "I don't care how much it costs. I need it by tomorrow."Bookmark here

Real Aire
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