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"[[boy.|Boy.]]""[[come|Come]] here."you obey, slipping in from your lurking at the doorway, slipping in from outside. your [[friends]] call after you. their yells are arching, loud, wailing, all preformative disappointment, all bravado; they'd never try to keep you from <<linkappend "him.">>
[[Duke.]]<</linkappend>>warrenbabies your age, or there about, clustering about you now like loosed filings brushing past magnet. some you knew before, ran with, told stories to. they and the newcomers stick closer than ever. they look up to you. they wait for you, ask after you.
because of [[him|Come]].he watches you cross the living room of his [[lodgings]]. big man, broad bones and warpings of muscles from decades shifting rock. skin like everyone down here, homogenous from decades of closed gene pool, descended from blacks and browns and olives and golds now bleached sallow by light deprivation. Duke a shade or two darker than most, warm, reminding you of the sap the western mines weep. body softened by old age and power so that when he wants to, he can burn warm and inviting and a kind of paternal softness that extends beyond even you.
rumor says he's pushing fifty. <<linkappend "rumor says">>—
you try not to think of that near him. don't want him seeing it. don't want you seeing him seeing it. <<linkappend "don't want to see that.">>
you want this, now, this evening moment. want to see the mishapen, leaning way he smiles at you [[drawing closer]].<</linkappend>><</linkappend>>
all homes down here are supposed to be identical.
guards claim that once, they were. then work quotents went up and more bodies were needed. <<linkappend "more bodies needed more space.">> <<linkappend "space started getting tight">> and those lodgings at the edge were <<linkappend "halved">>, quartered. <<linkappend "new spaces were built">> smothered against howldoors and concave perimeters. more central structures were <<linkappend "divided.">>
living outside, on the dirt without walls, became the real estate of those <<linkappend "not strong enough to defend their claimed lodgings.">>
(most don't live that long though. the streets are for children and screamers and shinenecks, those who don't see the difference. <<linkappend "those who see a ceiling of stars.)">>
only a choice few lodgings in the centre remain in keeping with the original, 'humane' blueprints. Duke's is one of those; <<linkappend "living room,">> <<linkappend "bedroom,">> <<linkappend "bathroom,">> all seperate, all to you <<linkappend "once disorientatingly spacious.">> all [[home]] now.<</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>>you reach him. stand beside him at the <<linkappend "altar.">>
two lit [[candles]]; tealights. one suspended midair by [[the vault]], other resting on the ledge beside her [[totem]]. slow-burn [[incense]] burning in the open. [[artefacts]] arranged according to the day and time.
you expected Duke to have a cloth laid over altar, something pictorial, like you'd glimpsed in the homes of those well connected. he surprised you, just the baked dirt, [[imprinted with a dozen hundred stars]]. his whole home surprised you, understated, bordering on simple. nothing like the wealth your mother had accused him of.
the heart burns flickering amber; the tape needs trimming. he can't do it anymore, hands too large, too slow, too stilted. you watch the sputtering light. you <<linkreplace "feel its delicacy.">> kneel, taking the athame and leaning into the heart's rush-of-heat opening. you do it how she showed you: curl the wick, wait for the burn to slink down and <<linkappend "cut.">>
just like she showed you.
the flame steadies. you draw back to [[kneeling]].<</linkappend>><</linkreplace>><</linkappend>>
you sleep there half the nights, suspended in a hammock you are getting too big for above the altar. at lights out, you can lie with your head turned wall-facing and watch the smoldering crest of the incense burning down, see the light of it refracting off the artefacts like what you imagine starlight seems.
<<linkappend "wake up—">> feet dead from dangling loose, yanked awake by Duke tugging your ankle and hammock swinging, fleeting moment of threat of crossing a threshold of gravity and you falling, but you always catch yourself and he never pulls too hard, sharp jolt awake and heart racing, adrenaline half-angry half-laughter.
it's more touch than you ever knew was [[waiting for you.|Duke.]]<</linkappend>> a controlled luxury manufactured by the Church, wax drawn from the weeping of the walls in the western mines. candles are the one power-bought luxury [[Duke|drawing closer]] seems happy to allow himself. a spiderdance of wires and ties, worked thin to make the candlelight appear floating.
[[Duke|drawing closer]] notices you watching; watches you, watching. sharpened attentive today.wood is precious down here; up there all dry and desert and trees none too common. adulthood is a right of passage to a cork of wood and into it is carved life's things. her sister is a notch to the left. Duke a spiral round the base.
she added you, three months after you began sleeping here. she sat you down before the altar, your knees together beside her knees together. she helped you carve it, her large hands guiding your small ones with the athame. two crosses, one over the other. you were aiming for a star.
her passing a year prior placed this upon [[the altar|drawing closer]]. someone to remember. [[the altar|drawing closer]] hollow, they're carved in so that the clay parting them from the heart lies paper thin. they glow when the heart burns. they glow and even now, after four years of this, something catches in your throat. produced in surplus, burned in surplus. the flammables in the offcuts grind down with the dust for the base. most scent it with vendel, weed proliferating in every dank corner people don't yet occupy. a light burn, smell of moisture and dirt and what you think grass might smell like.
[[Duke|drawing closer]] chooses carrow: low, deep burn, going on hours a cone, musky and acrid and tongue-back-throat-curling till you're used to it. comes from the rocks, a bleeding liquid dark violet. said it reminds him of when the mines were all there was for him. said it reminds him of home. he watches you as you kneel and gaze at her candle. you can feel him shift, part and open to say something, just as you feel him close and [[bury it]], shifting it aside to straighten and face the altar alongside you.
<<linkreplace "wait.">> he doesn't say it.
you try not to snap, try not to panic. you <<linkreplace "stare harder at her candle.">> <<linkappend "roll up your sleeves.">> pluck loose the craw feather and tap the spine against the carrow's cask. three times. three times it rings dully, covering the taut wire silence with weak resonance and a shiver that crawls over your exposed forearms.
you try to [[focus]] on the ritual.<</linkappend>><</linkreplace>><</linkreplace>>four.
rat skull for we, the inhabitors. placed low, as close to the heart as possible, for second longfrost, a burrowing for warmth and survival.
cask of carrow, the blood of the mine. surface reflective smooth. resting beside her totem as always. reminders of the dangers that pass.
shard of ore. gift of the mine. life source. purpose. pointing outwards to bring wealth into the household in the coming cold.
craw feather, the lifting, the escape, the surface. suspended from the vault, directly beneath the starlight. second longfrost marks the center point between the prior and next influx of surface workers. guard shifts are low in the longfrost, days short, nighthowls frequent and at times, erratic. the feather occupies a place of honour when times are due to be their hardest.
[[Duke's|drawing closer]] already moved them to their evening angles. this has been happening often. more often than usual. usual is him knowing exactly what to tell you and what to leave out. (she used to clean up the outliers, the uncertains, reenforcing boundaries. they've permeated in her absence.)
you'd like to think you're <<linkappend "growing up,">> that this is just about you noticing better. you'd like to think it has everything to do with [[your time passing]], not his. you'd like to think he doesn't watch you all the time like this like he's readying for a leaving.<</linkappend>>
you're not a child now, after all, four-and-ten and you've made it to older than half the kids you grew up with. you've always thought yourself good at noticing, but the realisation is setting in that your life has been one long run of missing. the anger burns the back of your teeth and ears every time [[he looks at you too carefully|kneeling]]. you hate that you can't tell when this started happening. unblinking, you circle the feather through the smoke of the incense, clockwise twice over. brush the tip down the skull, then back, twice anticlockwise and back to its suspension from wire. hands clasping knees, you [[start the prayers.]] you say them too quckly, not waiting for him to catch up, not trying to let him. you say them four times more than you need to, over and over, hands clenching tighter with each repitition. you bow your head like the zealots and rock in time with the chanting, mirroring the priests as you've seen them.
worshipping [[stars]].this zealotry isn't new exactly. it's not even quite real. you've been getting more and more feverent with every ritual, mornings taking close to an hour with you getting up early, before Duke even, going through motions awaiting him.
it's not about worship. it's not about martyrisation, not about the eternal glory of a hundred thousand burning fires and all that shall one day take you.
it is about surface. it is about up there. it is about somewhere impossible and unreachable and someplace where [[Duke|D2]] leaving won't condemn you.on your fevor, Duke has yet to make comment. he lets you extrapolate, turn five minute rituals into makeshift ceremonies, sits with you whilst you rock and feel the unending vertigo of [[what you're hoping for|never]]. he never leaves early. never [[interrupts]], doesn't even fidget.
you wonder if he knows what you're thinking. no one you've ever known or heard of has done this. no one save stories of the church and you believed them, you believed them for years regardless of the words of your mother but now you've spent four years with [[Duke|D2]] and even he doesn't dream of it.
you understand that stories are often just stories, powerful though they may be. "[[Elliot.]]"you freeze midsentence, mouth stuck around 'eternal' and the 'r' is buzzing in the back of your throat as it dies, your mouth <<linkreplace "open.">>pressed shut, a thin line of tension. fingers on knees curl tight, tugging fabric, bracing.
[[you've wanted this.]]<</linkreplace>>
why do you find everything you want so [[terrifying]]? "remember lights out an hour early for longfrosts. [[you don't have long]] for night rounds."[[...]]bastard.
<<linkreplace "...">>you don't even finish the round of evocation; a betrayal that none of this is about faith in divine retribution. you stand, silent with anger, with longing, and [[try]] not to look at him.<</linkreplace>> "you seen Zimmer yet?" he's looking at you, you can feel it, like a force of gravity against your jaw but you tug back against it. you watch her candle like before.
"[[no.]]""better [[get going]] then."so you do.
you [[leave him knelt]] by her totem and the candles and the carefully positioned artefacts and you slip from the room without either of you speaking.
you want to say something punitive, but find as you hit the chill of [[outside]] that your eyes sting wet and your throat is ugly constricted. he looks unsettling, small, folded there beside candlelight with his limbs all tucked in and ceremonial. he's nothing like the man you were scared of from infancy and you miss that bridge time when he was both, still ghosting around intimidating but still slowly positioning himself as a [[father.]] not that you've ever called him that. not that he's ever asked you. it seems a line neither of you are quite steady enough to trespass.
but enough time lingering. you've got to [[leave|get going]].it's the last hour or so of evening. [[electric lights]] are constructed into the overhead ceiling.
second longfrost's approach is evident in the distant sighing, an up and down breathing funneling through the mines that echo about the central cavern. like this, they make the nighthowls seem almost [[gentle]], melodious, sedating.
without looking back, you <<linkappend "set off.">> break into a run to relieve some of the paranoia. Zimmer's lodgings are equidistant betwixt Duke's and the outskirts, a single room affair bundled atop of three other residences. you know the way like a well-trodden dream, mind elsewhere as you throw your body through homegoers and crowds of shinedrinkers, ignoring the interest of younger children [[calling after you to join them.]]
it's ten minutes till you're in the thick of the residences, [[Zimmer's by your shoulder|zimmer's lodgings]]. <</linkappend>>
a wry parody of the stars you've heard tell of. they shine dimmed for the [[late hour|outside]], ready to wink out at lights out and become replaced by candles and torches, whatever miners can afford to burn.remembering the skintorn warpbent corpse of your mother is enough to [[shake the impression|outside]].you have to use your hands and your feet to balance up the narrow steps, winding round others' homes, up, up to Zimmer's doorway, you tumbling through the [[beaded curtain]] headlong, shoved by momentumn.
Zimmer's already sitting at the table. [[they]] don't bother looking up at you and your chaos entrance. they know perfectly well [[what you're here for]]. one of the most beautiful things you've seen down here, and so strangely located for it. dried carrow resin cast into shards and beads and stars, strung up with vaultwire and it's a material that hugs onto the cold like an ice block, so that as [[it brushes your shoulders|zimmer's lodgings]] it's painful freezing and your whole body convulses with shiver.you do not know if Zimmer is a man or a woman. you asked Duke once, who shrugged and said they were just Zimmer, that they weren't either. you asked Zimmer once too, and they cuffed you over the head for your impertinence and laughed and told you your mother was a backward shineneck who didn't have you [[properly educated]]. down here people are a matter of bodies and function and easy categories for the quarterly census. that you've always felt yours misplaced you leaps up your throat every time Zimmer makes dry comment on the matter.
you've never heard anyone refer to them as anything other than Zimmer. not even nicknames. you think Zimmer might be a nickname. you are utterly fascinated but have never had the language or courage to probe deeper. Zimmer says a lot of things like this. zimmer is an exception to a rule.
[[Zimmer is from the surface.|zimmer is from the surface.]]this, you have asked about a hundred thousand times. rarely will Zimmer answer other than to tell you to shut it and stop being so [[goddamn curious]].
they are the only one you know to have come from up there and lived more than a year down here. it's nearing a decade since they appeared here; you know this more through stories and gossip than memory, too young to recall their arrival. gossip says a thousand things about them, about the surface, about their role up there. you just know that they don't want to talk about it.'goddamn'
you've asked about this too. a foreign word to you that Zimmer shrugs and dismisses as just an antiquated expression.
Zimmer doesn't have an altar and Zimmer never attends public ceremonies and rites, regardless of conscription and mandatory participation. as far as you know, the guards have never quarrelled with this. as far as you know, Zimmer must have seen everything the priests preach of already.
that this excludes Zimmer from participation sets something on edge in your stomach. you're not sure what.
they still haven't [[looked at you|zimmer's lodgings]]."just finishing up."
they speak without lifting their gaze from [[what they're doing]].
"you could come [[help]] you know, instead of sitting their goggling like a damn craw." across the stone bench that dominates the room lie a half dozen pieces of makeshift apparatus, strewn in ordered chaos according to what is needed at present.
heated sand blown to fine glass composes murky flasks and decanters, reflux chambers and refraction columns. the first times you saw them, you kept a safe distance, as if standing too close would shatter such finery. later, when Zimmer let you touch these glass pieces after quiet, begrudging trust was built, you nearly dropped them for holding them so delicately.
now they seem ordinary. tools. means to an end and a job you flip between finding exciting and drudgery. you know this is a spoilt attitude, but every evening and long days of assisting them have worn you down a little on the petulant side. hormones aren't helping.
Zimmer steadies a flame under the flask, nozzle connected to the reflux chamber. thick tealight, larger than those for ritual, but a tealight nonetheless. their fingerprints are burned off from [[experience|what you're here for]]. sighing (to let them know you're doing them a favor) you pick your way through [[the mess]] of Zimmer's room and draw yourself up upon the chair that's become yours in spirit, adjacent to Zimmer. you <<linkreplace "watch them coaxing the liquid to boil.">>take the candle from them and lean in, biting tongue at the closeness of fire, swirling the flame with a practiced wrist curling and coaxing the liquid to the boil.<</linkreplace>>
Zimmer <<linkreplace "watches.">>watches you.
you dislike their watching even more acutely than Duke's heavy eye gazing. [[they lack his soft edges]]. you know they won't be gentle when they're [[speaking.]] <</linkreplace>>
dozens of orders in crates; supplies and ground rock and jugs of carrow and deadthings all stacked, the stink a unified chemical smell, alkaline, lung-searing, a smell you find echoes of [[home|help]]. they're six foot three of straight up and down, thin as a candlewick and more sallow than wax, eyes black and pit like and they feel like the rats, like nighthowls, like something always in the background waiting to catch you breaking. they're one of your favourite people, but they scare you. the way they can never stop moving their fingers scares you.
but [[playing at their assistant|help]] has been the love of your short lifetime. they've taught you words you never knew existed, long complicated names of compounds and chemical formulas that you can draw in the dirt but can't spell or read, can speak, that feel luxurious and indulgent on your tongue. you go to sleep watching the incense and listing them in order of decadence. it's a thrill up your back. it feels forbidden. it is forbidden. this isn't the work you're down here for, and you covet that like a fire in darkness."you could stay here when he's gone, you know. you've slept over before. the space isn't so bad, is it? or has Duke softened you with all that luxury?"
<<linkappend "Zimmer watches you">>, their hands racing, picking at flesh around nails and reaching up to bite flakes off when it's <<linkappend "long and peeling.">>
if you can resist the gravity of Duke's looking, you can ignore them. you have a task before you and you watch the clear liquid heat to an opaque yellow mist, floating up the glasswork to loop through the chamber. Zimmer positions the collector opposite, awaiting the drip of the purified product.
"[[he talked to you about it?]]"<</linkappend>><</linkappend>>
you shake your head no. Zimmer snorts. "fucking 'course not. coward. cowards, both of you. what you going to do then? [[join the Church]]?" shake for no again.
"you'd be good at it. you and your stories. assuming they don't out you for heresy that is." Zimmer takes the candle from you and waves for you to replace the damp cloth thrown over the chamber. "[[tell me the one about the smugglers again]]."
you are sore and sullen from Duke's silence, but Zimmer is by far the [[best person]] in all of the warren to tell stories to, so despite your distemper, you [[make the effort]]. this is a common occurance whereever you go now. adults do it to, yelling greetings or jeers if they're jugsoaked, [[your name echoed about crowds and doorways|outside]]. you're a novelty, see. Duke's never taken anyone in before. even four years after the fact, they're still bemused by you. you're still something that shouldn't have happened.
of course, they all know the story. it sits uneasy among them. it feels too bland, too easy. you feel the same. you're still not used to this. asking questions about the surface will get you cuffed or kicked out, but in telling stories, you'll pick up details. Zimmer will listen and on occasion laugh and correct you, point out inaccuracies or wild fabrications and <<linkappend "supply the reality.">>
'that's not how ships work' or 'no one speaks like that up there' or 'Elliot, no one can reach the Citadel in a week from the Rim, space ain't that small.'
when you next tell your stories to the children or those you deliver to, you take their reality and <<linkappend "embellish it.">> tangent for five minutes about all you've learned of the surface, of truth, and fill in the blanks with your own assumptions.
Zimmer seems to like listening, despite your not knowing. when you work together for long, long hours, without pause because the process is delicate and begs diligence, you are the one to [[fill the silence|tell me the one about the smugglers again]] with every story you've ever heard and a dozen beside that you make up as your hands keep busy. they've never asked you to stop. they even have favourites. <</linkappend>><</linkappend>>you finish the distillation before your story. as Zimmer picks out today's deliveries from those pre-prepared and stacks them with care into your bag, straps them to your legs and arms to make you less of an easy target, you keep talking.
<<linkappend "'go on,'">> Zimmer says, interrupting the tale's climax and earning a scowl. they pat you on the back, just atop the rim of your rucksack, nudging you out through the curtain. "lights out in ten. [[mind your footing.]]"<</linkappend>> flooding down the steps, you glance back for Zimmer but you lose sight of them through the curtains and dim lighting.
setting aside that litling sense of unbalance that meeting and leaving [[Zimmer always induces in you]], you focus in on [[deliveries]]. you have [[something you need to do today]]. some things that need saying. no one has made you cry as often or as long as Zimmer. you can always feel the knife of their words internal to them, even when they're quiet. you half admire them for it, fear them entirely. you want the way even Duke is reverent around them.
[[leaving them|mind your footing.]] is like remembering to breathe again. alongside helping with production, you are the feet carrying Duke's drug trade across the warrens. medicines from up there exist, but for a price that borders on comical. synthesised from whatever can be found down here, Zimmer supplies alternatives and Duke manages distribution, prices, management.
of course, it's not just medicine. Duke also runs the shine business, and harder, ghostlier substances that make screamers of people. Duke pretty much runs most auxillary business down here. it takes a lot of power, both interpersonal and physical, to keep a handle on a reign like that.
you [[wonder]] if Zimmer would do this for someone else.every ritual, every morning ceremony, every prayer, each repition has been creating space with words for you to plan each step, each aspect of how you're doing this. it's taken months of thinking and testing and feeling out, but [[you have a knack]] for gauging the tensions around you and instinct tells you the breaking point is creaking to a fever pitch. they seem both fond and disparaging of Duke in equal measure. you've never heard anyone insult him like they do, but likewise, you've never heard anyone voice concern about him as they do when trouble arises. they critique him and question him and will openly quarrel with him when it's in front of just you, but somehow this all feels tender.
it's grown distant since Duchess passed. like Zimmer is stepping to put a measured distance between them and him. they've been quieter around you too. you don't like it. you never could stand silence.
but you don't have time to think about them. you've got [[bigger plans|mind your footing.]]. you've always found people plyable, even back when you were no one. it didn't mean anything to you then, just a way to entertain others, to make yourself feel good with a rapt audience around you. it wasn't until [[Duke took you in]] that you started to understand the implications. Duke hasn't reached fifty running things down here by physical strength alone, although that helped, in the beginning. he knows what people want, he knows how to use that to bind them to him, to one another. he knows how to play ambition and need against one another. he knows how to smile and have people be more than wanting, how to have them caring and loyal. he knows how to ensure that [[betrayal]] is far worse for the wielder of the knife than for those stabbed in the back. [[what you're doing]] isn't a betrayal. what you're doing is <<linkreplace "just common sense.">><<linkreplace "what he would have wanted.">><<linkreplace "what he never could, what he never dreamed big enough to imagine">>[[surviving.]]<</linkreplace>><</linkreplace>><</linkreplace>>he's the one [[preparing]] to leave you after all. laidened with today's orders, you <<linkappend "disperse into the city.">>
you're one of the fastest of your age or any age, tall, for down here. long legs take you flowing through the crowd, making it to the outer rim just as the electric lights flicker out. this isn't a problem for you. the torchlight of people's homes and people is more than enough for you to navigate by, and even unseeing, you know the way well enough to <<linkappend "feel things out.">>
it should be dangerous, carrying this much value in the dark. it is dangerous, but you're quick and most folks know better than to fuck with Duke's network. he's taught you to fight according to how things [[run]] down here; biting and kicking and scratching and getting away as quickly as possible– pride doesn't have much value in the warrens.<</linkappend>><</linkappend>>[[you prioritise]] the medical supplies. you're supposed to work systematically, to be quick, but as longfrost approaches it reaches the point at a certain hour where your fingers are numb and you're at risk of freezing to death out on the streets without shelter no matter how quick you are. if you have to leave any to tomorrow, you'd rather it weren't those people's lives are depending on.
perhaps, also, possibly, you may be postponing the part where you have to [[do]] what you've been building up to all these months. morality and [[working for Duke|run]], being Duke's sort-of kid taken in, is a weird intersection. he feels warm and like trust and comfort, but you remember starving in the face of his people taking what you couldn't keep, before his favor found you.
now that you're closer, you've seen the violence even more intimately. you've understood how dependancy is cultivated and pushed and reaped in a careful balance. you can appreciate the danger on both ends, and know that your own survival depends on his success.
it makes you a kind of angry where you have no clue where to put it. it makes you a kind of angry that reminds you of your mother, necked out of her mind and yelling at everything and nothing in particular. but as much as it makes you angry, it induces the urge to cover your back, to find some way to escape it.the first two dozen drop offs of medical supplies and rec drugs pass quickly; they're the same as they've always been lately, filled with inquiries and people pushing to pay less, getting cocky in testing the boundaries. it doesn't affect you, you don't collect the debts, but you've seen the consequences in how much more often Duke has to have folk lay down the law for him, straighten people out.
you leave [[the one you've been building up to|those you've been building up to]] until last.the power structure down here shifts sand quick, though Duke's remained a figure head for decades. he's had a myriad of 'second in commands' who manage everything from ration collection to distribution to enforcement to drugs, one for every speciality, each one [[feeling special]] in some way. they work for him knowing they'll get something out of it. most eventually come to want after the throne. so far, <<linkappend "all have been disposed of.">>
but now it's not just one loose end, one person running their mouth. <<linkappend "it's the whole warren.">>
see Duchess died of natural causes. of course she did. no one lives long down here, even in the finest conditions. <<linkappend "you live on recycled insects and protein and supplements for stars sake.">>
but her dying reminded people that <<linkappend "Duke is mortal too.">> that Duke is getting old. getting slow and confused on more and more frequent occasions and sometimes you find him bent over the sinkhole <<linkappend "retching his guts up.">>
stone sickness, they call it.
some kind of heavy metal in the walls. in the smoke of incense, in the touching the rocks, in the water, probably in the food.
no amount of power or violence or grit can out run it. nothing save [[getting out of here.]]
Duke has a way of doing that. of making [[you|those you've been building up to]] feel special. [[three viable candidates]] for Duke's replacement. assuming the whole system remains stable. before Duke, it was more chaos, more riots, more myriad of insular gangs all eating one another.
Duke's always taught you the importance <<linkreplace "of legacy.">><<linkreplace "of what he's built, how he's helped them.">><<linkreplace "of maintaining balance.">>of settling for what's down here.
he's never understood somehow that this can't be the end goal. that helping down here is about getting up there. that [[those gates need opening]] and you can't do it from this side.<</linkreplace>><</linkreplace>> <</linkreplace>> Rio, handles the muscle. the one who has his people go bloody you up if you're refusing payment, if you're behind, if you've said the wrong things. he's young and new to the position. his predecessor will have been the one who ordered them to drag out your mother for exposure. he's all one hot streak of temper and fury and he wants to rule everything but he'll fly off the handle. too unpredictable, but you reckon he'll fall in line if things go according to plan. <<linkappend "not your current target.">>
Xiu, supposed head of drug trade. she manages the logistics and coordination, sure, but she's nothing without Zimmer and they've made no secret of the fact that they can't stand her. she's ambitious, as is anyone in Duke's line of work, but she's too careful about it. she's fire under pressure and prone to lashing out. she'd be perfect for planning but you doubt she'd hold till its execution. if you can frame it to benefit her though, she'll follow. she's been doing it for years and she knows how to get what she wants from it. <<linkappend "not your current target.">>
Martin. relations. relations with the church, with the guards, with the ambassadors of the empire, with the people on the streets and the miners. she's been with Duke the longest and she's always despised him, though they compliment one another, she sharp and unnaturally elegant for down here, he slow-building and blunt, a hard rule to her sense that things could be curving. she has smiles like liquid charm and makes you feel like she finds you and your world, your problems, you concerns, all personal. she wants to see Duke dead and disposed of already and [[she's perfect.|getting out of here.]]<</linkappend>><</linkappend>>
you're already half-way to the warren centre, east-side, but now you scramble through in the dark heading west. guards are few and far at night, less concerned with drunkard brawls than they are with the daylight hour riots, when people are faced with another day's labour, fury exacerbated by long-set exhaustion now fuelled by a night's rest.
you pass a guards pair leaning against wall on a street corner, talking to one another in that odd upper-side accent of theirs, half the words utterly foreign to you. your heart races as you pass them. you don't understand their speech enough to know if their talking about you, if they know what you're doing.
the paranoia makes your palms <<linkappend "itch.">>
you pass without being apprehended. they know what you're carrying, who you are. Duke has an understanding. they've even pulled shinenecks off of you a few times when you weren't quite <<linkappend "quick enough.">>
despite the late hour, you're faster than ever now, legs burning with ache as you [[slip]] to the Church quarter.<</linkappend>><</linkappend>>Martin's house [[occupies the periphery]]. it's smaller than Duke's, two rooms, but over-decorated, covered with cloth scraps and carvings and candles line the windowsills. to her credit, she balances the decadence with diligently inviting people in, hosting everyone from Duke's folks to on-the-streets-strangers every evening to share in the warmth. her home is considered a community space, a small sanctuary more popular than even the neighbouring Church spaces.
every two weeks she [[receives an order of howling]]. she's no priest, but she could have been. she's nearly as good with stories as you, but she's smarter with them, knows when to use them better.
she finds you entertaining. you know the way she smirks everytime you start <<linkappend "talking too much.">>
she thinks you're a joke. Duke's last ditch effort at maintaining a sense of legacy. she thinks you're street trash brought in as a pet. not that she's ever said as much, but you can see it in her face, you know it from the way she regards everything you say as either idiocy or you [[oversharing.]]<</linkappend>> she thinks you let too much out, too much slip. which is understandable. you've been feeding her bits of information on Duke for a year now. moments of stress, running tensions. signs that things around here are on <<linkappend "the verge of changing.">>
some truths, mixed in with the lies. you started telling her that people were starting to call for a riot five months ago. that they thought Duke was weak for maintaing the guards' order. that what they really wanted was a leader to take them in hand for <<linkappend "a rebellion.">>
you know that not only do the two of you share a love of stories, but that you want more than this. [[you both want the surface.]]<</linkappend>><</linkappend>>
you feel bad for how you're misleading her. until she smirks at you again.
you've yet to fully appreciate the depth of your pride, but it flares hot in the face of [[her|slip]] smug expressions. someone on howling can go three days without sleeping. someone on howling can do what ten men would take a week to complete in one day. someone on howling overfunctions and somehow still manages to seem level-headed, charming, and onwards.
it makes your stomach bleed something rancid and the shakes get bad with overuse, but Martin's been slow-burning it for years now. believes she has a handle on it. maybe she does. she's still going, isn't she?
you don't knock; she'll know you're [[coming]].
step in through the door.
more candles than even those by the windows, her altar alive with them. hers is enormous, taking up an entire wall. small table before it, where she has folks over and serves them vendel steeped in hot water. [[eight totems]] line the ledge of her altar.
the heat hits you, face swelling with the change. feeling returning to your toes and your fingertips. you're surprised to find her alone. cross-legged by the altar, cup of stewed vendel in hand. there's one steaming on the table awaiting you.
you don't normally expect this kind of [[welcome]]. her family used to be huge. she was a priest's daughter.
only her [[left|coming]] now."come in already, [[girl.]] you're late enough as it is. Zimmer kept you talking, I assume?"
she always talks like this. long sentences, speech half mirroring that of the guards. she sounds like a false version of [[Zimmer]], when they're drunk and keep using alien-mouth phrases.
her voice is low, almost soft, in a way that has your stomach relaxing but sets your skin crawling.
you didn't want unexpected. an unknown playing field, and you're still learning [[the game.]] you think she knows this infuriates you. you've insisted your name is Elliot, that she could at least call you by that. she half-remembers for a minute or so, then doesn't bother. you don't have the words to explain the tresspass, but you know you both understand it's there and it's bruising. you hate it. you hate it. you hate it.
when you feel bad about [[what you're doing,|welcome]] you remember this. this sensation of 'stop' crushing your bones, throat, stomach. you enter.
take the vendel and squat down beside the table, sip the boiling liquid, set it down, and start to unpack the howling. she watches, but this time, doesn't reach quickfast for it.
<<linkappend "she looks tired.">>
"congregation told me today that [[you've been telling people]] I'm going to be leading some kind of revolution."<</linkappend>>Zimmer calls you 'boy' on occasion. Mostly, they call you 'El', or some passing insult. Zimmer's formality doesn't feel practiced. Zimmer's formality feels like a skin they're too proud to be shirking, but one they're ashamed of in a quiet, seething way.
you're going to ask Zimmer to come with you. [[Martin's greeting|welcome]] sparks the decision within you. it's a risk, and you don't think they'll take it, but you want to. "no." you have. you have and you knew it'd get back to her sometime. you look at your feet awkwardly, and it's not hard to have yourself flushing in this heat, in this fear.
"[[be honest]] with me," she says, the way she does with those she's managing. it prickles against the nape of your neck but it's what you wanted. "they were [[asking.]]"
"asking [[what?]]""if the rumors were true. if you were really going to do it. if it was you doing the replacing. they were asking if it was you or Rio. Rio's always wanted to." you [[stare hard]] at the vendel. "I didn't want to say Rio."she's silent for a long moment. the heart's flame gutters flickering beside you.
<<linkreplace "...">>"you shouldn't have [[said that.]]"<</linkreplace>>wide-eyed, you stare at her. five months, you've been dropping in hints that this is wanted. that this is what secures her people's favor above all others. seven months you've been telling everyone everywhere stories of rebellions and uprisings, of toppling tyrants and most of all stories of Martin, how she inspires people, [[how people will follow her.]]
people are a lot more attentive to stories where [[you're not the hero.]]
wide-eyed, you try to [[show her]] you're scared and you're hopeful. both true. you pray starwards she assumes it's for different reasons. and they have done before. they've followed her for years, she keeping them in line for Duke and his operations. she's been keeping them quiet when unrest has stirred prior. rebellions are bad for business. bad for living, too, if they decide to exterminate an out of control too-large population.
[[this wouldn't work|said that.]] if you and everyone else didn't think she could do it. if this didn't stand a chance of actually happening. you used to insert yourself into every tale, every adventure, as if they'd all really happened. you've learned by now that this kind of self-fashioning has to be created through others, through rumor and story by others' mouths. like Duke does. like Duke has everyone build his own legend for him. and you're going to do the same, some day. you're going to be someone starring in others' adventures.
but first you have to [[get out|said that.]] of this place that only eats stories. "you know Duke won't survive it. [[they'll kill him.]] he won't escape the anger. he's been too close to the guards for years now."
she waits for [[your answer.]]she's saying that you're asking to kill him. that you're asking to have him gutted and beaten and strung up in a courtyard.
she's fishing to see if Duke set you up to this. you have to take care in [[your reaction|show her]] you <<linkappend "duck your head.">>
<<linkappend "take a deep breath and say,">> "[[Duke's dying.]]" <</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>>"[[stone sickness.]]""I'm scared of what to do [[without him.]]""please. I want to help. I [[want to get out of here.]]" you've been waiting so long for this. <<linkappend "for this moment.">>
and [[she's staring.]] <</linkappend>>you've never <<linkappend "told anyone before.">>
sure, <<linkappend "there have been rumors.">> <<linkappend "there have been rumours since before you were born.">> <<linkappend "plenty of resentment hoping Duke would get stone sickness.">> <<linkappend "but now here you are.">> <<linkappend "the truth at last.">>
<<linkappend "Duke is dying.">>
<<linkappend "and that truth from your mouth">> is enough to [[undo him.]] <</linkappend>> <</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>><</linkappend>>her inhale is shaking and you can smell [[her anticipation]] in the room all around you.
"i'm sorry to hear that," she says. she doesn't try much to sound genuine. it turns your stomach, but it's [[what you wanted.|undo him.]]