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“What job? It’s not the Sveshon place, is it?” Svelen asked. “I told you that wasn’t gonna work-“
“Nope. It’s ballsier than that.” The corner of Vashe’s mouth twitched up.
“How can it be ballsier than Sveshon.” Svelen folded his arms.
“Simple,” Vashe said, and rubbed some of the frost off his horn. It turned to water in his fingers. “It’s the vexin’ Taxasho Manor.”
“…When you say ‘Taxasho’, you don’t mean…” Alix started.
“The one and only.” Vashe grinned. His teeth were sharp as knives.
Alix’s breath caught. Taxasho was a household name, so much that even thoughtforms and slaves knew who he was. ‘The greatest aeronaut of the age’, they called him- he’d sailed across the Wild Sea in only three days, nonstop. He’d become a hero for it a few years back; every child on the city’s streets wore an aeronaut’s leather cap for weeks afterwards.
“We’re robbing him?” Svelen’s eyes went wide as saucers. “How- what-”
“I’ll explain when Nvara wakes up.” Vashe rolled his head around on his neck. “She fall asleep, or did she go under?”
“She went under.” Svelen frowned, and glanced at the pill bottle on her bedside. “It was for a good reason, though. We’ve been teaching Alix to dreamrun.”
“Aight. Just be careful. We’re running low.”
Svelen reached out and shook Nvara’s shoulder.
“Nvaaaara. Nvara. Tiiiiime to get up,” he said.
She groaned, and rolled over.
“I’ll get some svass on,” Alix said.
It was an excuse to leave the room, but at the same time, she had the feeling they were all going to need it.
There was something peaceful about pouring out svass crystals, and letting the boiling water rush over them. They dissolved, turning the water dark brown. Alix stirred hers with a spoon handle and waited for the others to follow.
Svelen came out first. He sat on the floor, back an inch away from the fire barrel.
“You wanna burn yourself?” Alix asked.
“No,” he said. He scooted away.
Vashe opened the door, and Nvara followed in his wake. Nvara looked like she’d slept for a hundred years and hadn’t gotten one bit of rest in all that time- dark rings circled her eyes, and her hair still crackled with static. She grumbled her way to the svass and picked up a cup without saying a word.
“Right. Soooo.” Vashe said. He drew out the ‘o’ like a foghorn. “Taxasho is hosting a benefit this weekend. His kid got kidnapped, he’s raising a whole bunch of money to find the brat. We get in there during the benefit, and steal the money and the lio once everyone’s asleep.”
“I dunno, this doesn’t sound right…” Svelen said. “Money for a kidnapped kid? Do we really want to steal that?”
“The kid’s been gone for five years, he’s probably dead. Besides which, it ain’t for a charity or anything like that. He’s usin’ it to look by himself. And he’s a terrible fucking person.”
“Oh?” Svelen tilted his head to one side.
“When it was legal, he used to breed his slaves.” Vashe scowled.
“You don’t mean-” Alix started.
“Whatever you’re thinking, it’s worse,” Vashe said, and spat on the floor. “Eugenicist bastard.”
“…All right, I take back what I said,” Svelen said. His lips pressed together tightly.
“Ai, no problems here.” Alix folded her arms. “How’re we getting in?”
Vashe pulled a little leather-bound notebook from his pocket. It was a soldiers’ notebook, standard-issue khaki, with the three stars of Isseran’s flag on the front. Someone- whether Vashe or someone else- had spattered red paint over them, and it made the leather shiny.
He flipped it open. The pages- each barely the size of his palm- were covered with notes upon notes upon notes. They weren’t written in straight lines; they wound around the pages in mazy twists and turns of thought. Some of them were written in Vroxhen, the language that everyone in Isseran spoke- but others were smoothly-drawn Yunlin characters or spiky Vleylaandish script, and they tangled with long strings of numbers that were probably a code.
In the middle of this mess was a map.
It was crude- barely more than three boxes lined up- and labeled in the same jumbled way. Alix picked out a couple of words- ‘door’ and ‘guard’, and the Yunlin word for ‘bed’.
“This is Taxasho’s place,” Vashe said. “Doors- windows- guards, far as I could make out.”
He pointed to each. His finger tapped the edge of the map.
“Main entrance is here. Master bedroom’s here.”
Alix tried to make out more of the notes, but Vashe closed the notebook and tucked it into the pocket of his big black coat before she could get a look at it. He picked up his cup of svass and blew on it.
“Looks risky,” Nvara said. Alix blinked. She hadn’t even realised Nvara was paying attention.
“Not as much as you’d think. Party’s in three days,” Vashe said. “It’s one of those vexin’ ‘dance all night’ deals. Ends at three in the morning. We get into the party, we’ve got the cash. Stay long enough, we’ve got some lio in the bargain.”
“Is the cash going to be useful? Without grease, I mean,” Svelen asked.
Grease meant a lot of things. Grease was knowing the right people- which official to slip a bribe to, which officials would listen to a sob story, which Vravesva could be trusted to help and which were in league with the people who hurt you. It was knowing which shopkeepers kept extra cigarettes or sewing needles under the counter, and which landlords had a sister who had a friend who could get you fresh fruit or real svass or record albums from Nalavra- and it was knowing what to do and say to make it happen.
“Worst case scenario, we come out of it with a bunch of useless paper and some lio,” Vashe said. “I think it’s worth takin’, though. Real money’s its own kind of grease with the right people.”
“That still doesn’t answer my question,” Alix said. “Are we just gonna walk through the front door, or…?”
“Word in Livova Vrenli,” Vashe said, “is that the Vleylaandish ambassador’s goin’ with a full fuckin’ retinue. We disguise ourselves, slip in, slip away from the party, find where they’re keepin’ the cash, steal it, get into his bedroom, steal the lio, and get out before light.”
“You mean Senna’s word?” Nvara grumbled. She half-drained her mug in one gulp, and set it aside.
“She’s been reliable so far, ai? Get the Vravesva stick out of your ass.”
“This isn’t vexin’ caste talking, Vash’. We’ll look like fools if we go in there done up like Vlids and there’s no one there, and that’s if we make it out with our heads.”
Nvara’s Vravesva? Alix thought. That would explain a lot- if she was a member of the soldier caste, it’d make sense that she was afraid of thoughtforms and especially of shapeshifters. The Vravesva used to live in the Blight, before it was the Blight.
“- ninety percent sure,” Vashe was saying. “You can look around for yourself, if you want. We got some time. But I’m gonna need you to weave us a disguise. It don’t have to be Vleylaandish. Just thought it’d be harder to notice if we fucked somethin’ up.”
“Do we have enough lio for that?” Svelen asked.
Both Svelen and Vashe glanced at Nvara. She frowned; dark bags puffed under her eyes.
“…Yeah,” she said, after a moment’s thought. “Fabric shouldn’t take that much. But I’m gonna need a picture to work off, or somethin’.”
“I could ask Professor Senvex if he has anything,” Svelen said.
Vashe nodded. “Good idea. Me n’ Alix can case the place tonight. You and Nvara go to Senvex, and see what else you can pick up on the way. News, rumours, shit like that.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Svelen said. “Nvara, you ready to go yet?”
“…Still feel like death. Give me ten minutes,” Nvara said.
“Wait, hold the phone,” Alix said. She turned to look Vashe right in the eye. It wasn’t something she did often- eye contact made her uncomfortable, and her gaze did the same to everyone else.
“You want me to go with you?” she asked.
“Well, yeah.” Vashe grinned a razor-sharp grin. “I wanna see what you can do.”
“Thought you didn’t trust me.”
“I don’t. Yet. You’ve gotta earn it.”
Vashe ran his hand down the back of his neck, and rolled his head around.
“Any other problems with this plan, or can we start workin’?” he asked.
“Works for me if it works for the rest of you,” Svelen said.
“Yeah. I’m good,” Alix said.
Nvara nodded, and pinched the bridge of her nose between two fingers.
“Right,” Vashe said. “Let’s get to work.”
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