The Aeronaut’s Dream: pt. 8

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In hindsight, Alix should have seen that things would go horribly wrong.

The first problem was Svelen’s job— cracking a safe on his own. He ducked out of the room through a big grey door. Alix felt twitchy and unsafe without him— he was her best friend, he trusted her, and he knew what he was doing. She didn’t.

There was no use worrying. She tucked her hair behind her ears and turned her attention to the rest of the room.

It was more deck than she’d expect from a Hero Of The Revolution. His whole house was vexing gaudy, sure, but she’d half-thought it would be plain inside, as bare as the houses she’d hidden in. But the bed against the left-hand wall was big enough to fit a whole family, if they liked each other enough. A curtain sagged over it in dusty beige velvet, and there was a duvet the same colour, but less dusty.

Taxasho was tangled in it like braided seaweed bread. For a second, she didn’t even recognize him, because he wasn’t wearing his aviator’s helmet. But that was his face- gaunt and angular, with pinched pale lips. It was strange to see someone she’d only seen in formal photographs asleep- with one foot sticking out of the blankets and a face squashed against a pillow. He clung to the blankets and muttered something she couldn’t understand.

Vashe knelt at the side of the bed, and Nvara crouched next to him. She stuck the electrodes to his temples; a strange hospital smell filled the room. Alix crossed her fingers and cracked the door open.

She stared down the hall. Time slowed. Every breath sounded too loud in her ears. The dark hallway was full of shadows. The shadow of a tree’s branches wagged from a window.

Something jumped at the edge of her vision. She flinched towards it, ready to hit. Then she realized it was her own shadow, and breathed out, slow and shaky.

Gods and vexing monsters. She needed to be more careful; someone could have seen her. She tucked herself behind the doorframe as much as she could while looking out.

For a long, long, long moment- thirty, fourty heartbeats- nothing happened. She heard Nvara breathing, and Vashe’s faint movements as he turned his head or raised his hand.

Then Vashe whimpered.

Alix looked back over her shoulder. Nvara shook her head, and stabbed her hand towards the door. Then Vashe cried out.

Nvara shoved her hand over his mouth and clamped down hard. Alix’s gaze flicked from the bed to the door, but nothing moved, and Taxasho didn’t stir. No one had heard them— yet.

Vashe’s arm curled in on itself. it twitched and spasmed like a dying animal. His face was queasy-grey, and sweat beaded on his forehead.

“Vashe-” Nvara said. “Vashe, talk to me.”

His eyes bugged, and he gagged against Nvara’s hand.

She ripped the electrodes off his head. For a long moment, he gaped like a dying fish. Alix bit her lip, and glanced back at the door- but the only thing outside was the tree’s shadow.

Nvara’s arms wrapped around Vashe. He slid the gloves off, slow and shaky.

“You living?” she muttered.

He nodded. His mouth still hung slack; he swallowed, hard, and and closed it.

“…..Can’t do it,” he finally said.

“What?” Alix’s hands clenched into fists.

“It’s- his head’s…” Vashe rubbed his temple. “It’s all up in the air. No ground. I panicked. Fell down. We gotta go.”

Nvara clenched her teeth.

“Fuck,” she said. “I’ll go–”

“Can’t-” Vashe retched, but nothing came out. He balanced himself on Nvara’s shoulders. “Can’t spot you. You’d be on your own.”

“Wire me,” Alix said.

“What?” Nvara blinked.

“I ain’t scared of heights,” she said. “Vashe can keep an eye on the door. You can spot.”

“You’ve never-” Nvara began.

“You want the vexing lio?”

Alix’s voice came out louder than she’d planned. She looked over her shoulder, and then back at the bed.

Taxasho stirred. For one horrible second, Alix thought she’d woken him. But he rolled over, eyes still closed. His arm dangled off the bed.

Her thumbnail bit into her knuckle.

“…Fine. C’mere,” Nvara said.

Vashe let go of her. He cradled his arm, like he’d broken it- but as far as Alix could tell, it was fine. He dragged himself over to the door and sat beside it.

Nvara stuck the electrodes to Alix’s temples, so quickly that she must have done it a hundred times. Alix pulled the gloves on and closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, it was to Taxasho’s nightmare.

Running With Rats updates biweekly on the second and fourth Friday of every month. 

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The Master’s Dream: pt. 3

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“What in the vexing fuck.”

Vashe folded his arms.

“You stuck them in your belt again, didn’t you.”

“Yeah. I’m- I’m sorry, Vashe, I-” Svelen covered his face with his hand.

“Where’s the last place you had it?” Nvara said.

“Far as I know?” Svelen said, from behind his hand. “The target.”

“Meaning my- my master’s house,” Alix said.

Svelen nodded.

“Could have lost it on the way,” he added. It was a thin skin of hope over the teeth of blind panic. His fingers knotted together behind his back.

“If we did, it’s gone. Someone else would have found it by now. Taken it back to the Cathedral.” Nvara’s nostrils flared.

“It’s all right.” Vashe put a hand on Svelen’s shoulder. “We still have one glove. It’s not the end of the world.”

“It’s close,” Svelen said. He breathed out shakily.

“…You don’t need both of them?” Alix asked.

She’d gone with her master to the temple a few times and watched the priests weave lio- what common folk called dreamstuff. They used goggles to see into dreams and gloves to carry lio out of them, and their set looked just like the set the rat runners had. At the temple, they said you need two gloves, and even then, you could only get so much lio from any one person’s dream. It was hard to find, they said, and risky to go into dreams. How they did it was a most holy secret; all Alix knew was that it had something to do with the goggles and gloves.

“No,” Vashe said. “We tested that. You can only get one hand’s worth, but-”

“It’s not gonna be nearly enough,” Svelen said. He swallowed, hard. “For any of the things we were wanting to do.”

“Well,” Alix said. “We’d better go find it.”

“Wait, wait wait wait. What do you mean, ‘we’?” Nvara said.

“…Me and Svelen? Who else did you think?” Alix’s lips twisted to one side.

“You don’t get it, do you?” Nvara laughed, harsh and barking. “There’s no ‘we’ here. There’s us and there’s you. And we can’t trust you.”

“I do,” Svelen said. He took a step away from her, back towards Alix.

“Yeah, but you trust everyone,” Nvara said.

“Shut it!” Vashe pinched the bridge of his nose.

Everyone got quiet. Vashe sighed.

“Stop vexin’ dithering. It’s gonna be light soon. Not gonna be much any of us can do once everyone wakes up.”

“That’s not true.”

Alix brushed her bangs to one side.

“M- The man who lives there, he has really strict habits. He keeps everyone on a timetable. And I worked there. I know the timetable.”

She looked from Vashe to Nvara. Nvara folded her arms; Vashe’s fingers curled in Svelen’s hair. Svelen breathed out, shakily.

“It’s true,” he said. “We could maybe go in there without anyone seeing us. He goes to the Cathedral every morning at exactly nine and stays there for three hours.”

“If we hurry, we can get back in through the slaves’ door and look around,” Alix cut in. “If someone catches me, I can lie.”

“What about me?” Svelen asked.

“Any way we could forge a note? You could be there picking up something for ‘your master’,” Alix said.

“I mean, we could try, but someone might recognise me.”

“If we cover up your freckles? You’d be surprised,” she said. “Keep your mouth shut, put a hood on, no one will notice.”

“…It could work,” Svelen said.

“Yeah.” She grinned.

“Wait. Hold it.” Vashe frowned. “Before you two go swimmin’ off into the triple-vexed unknown.”

“What?” Alix asked.

“Have either of you eaten? I know you ain’t.”

Vashe nudged Svelen’s shoulder. Svelen groaned, and reached up to ruffle Vashe’s hair.

“I have too eaten. I had an entire apple before we left.”

“Ay, me. You’re gonna turn into a feather at this rate. Nvara- where’s the pot? We’re getting you fed,” Vashe said. “And slept if you can manage, but-”

His brows lowered.

“I don’t think I’m gonna be able to,” Svelen said. “Not until we find that glove.”


The Aeronaut’s Dream: pt. 7

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“Would you like to dance?” the man asked.

Alix took a step back. She pressed into the buffet table.

Fuck.  She hadn’t planned for this. She’d thought no one would want to dance with her- she was on the ugly side, and even in her ridiculous getup and with the veil over her face, it showed.

The plan was to stay inconspicuous; if she made a scene, she’d get them all caught. She had to keep things quiet if she could keep them at all.

She stared at him without saying a word, hoping he’d get the hint.  Maybe he’d think she didn’t speak Isseranic and leave her be.

“I said, did you want to dance?” He spoke louder and slower, and held out a piece of paper crossed with signatures. “My garden still has space for such a lovely flower.”

Ugh. If it had just been up to her, she would have told him where he could shove his dance card. But drawing attention to herself would only draw attention to the rest of her friends.


Nvara swept towards Alix and grabbed her forearm, fingers digging deep into her skin. She gabbled at her in a language Alix didn’t speak, and then turned to the man.

“I am most sorry, your grace,” Nvara said. “My friend, she does not speak Isseranic. Now if you’ll excuse us, the Ambassador–”

She tugged at Alix’s arm. Alix gratefully let Nvara drag her away.

“The fuck were you doing?” Nvara muttered.

“Got cornered,” Alix said. “Where’re –”

“Vashe gave the signal. You were too busy stuffing your vexin’ face to see it.”

Alix scowled, but said nothing.

The ballroom had a set of doors at the other end. They weren’t as big as anything else in the room- especially not the outside door- but they were made of dark wood lined with stained glass panels. Each one probably cost more than Miss Kalarak saw in a chain.

Nvara glanced from side to side. No one was looking their way- the partygoers were dancing with each other, talking, or wrapped in the music. The beat rattled Alix’s bones.

She cracked the door open. It moved whisper-silent. Together, Nvara and Alix slipped through. It closed behind them with a soft click.

The hallway was almost as deck as the ballroom, but strangely shabby. The carpet was plush but threadbare, with rough matting poking out in places. The wallpaper was covered in tangling vines, but they were faded- withered like dead ivy on a fence.

“Upstairs?” she muttered.

“Unless you want us gettin’ caught?”

Alix rolled her eyes and started up. She kept to the side of the staircase- it was the best way to keep away from a squeaky floorboard.

The hallway at the top of the stairs was so narrow you couldn’t spit down it without hitting the walls. There was one door just to the side of the stairs. Nvara jerked her head towards it.

“In here. Quick.”

Alix followed.

Inside were two squat, white, boxy machines, with a motor attached to one’s side. Alix didn’t recognize their purpose. Vashe sat on top of one, studying his notebook; Svelen leaned against it, looking up at Vashe. He flinched when he saw the door open, but relaxed when he saw the girls enter.

“You made it!”

“Ay. And you scared the fuck out of me,” Vashe muttered. “Anyone see you?”

“Don’t think so,” Alix said.

“Good.” Vashe grunted. “Aight, we got here in one piece. So far, so far.”

He half-smiled, showing his sharp fangs.

“Now let’s see if we can get the goods.”

The Aeronaut’s Dream: pt. 6

Alix could hear the music from three streets away.
Trumpets blared, drums rattled, and piano keys jingled. A manzello wailed, high as a siren’s song.
Even through brick and steel, she could almost make out the tune. She didn’t know much about music, but even she could hum along- it was on the radio at least two or three times a day.
“Right. This is your last chance,” Vashe said. “You wanna back out, do it now.”
Alix bit her lip. No one said a word.
“Nvara, you ready?” Vashe asked.
“Born that way.”
Nvara stood up straighter and pushed her hair back behind her ears. In seconds, she looked like a completely different person. Maybe it was her expression, maybe it was her posture. But if Alix had to guess without knowing who she was, she’d say Nvara was the boss. The Vleylaander clothes fit her, hanging off her shoulders in crisp folds.
“Ayah,” she said. She sounded like a Vleylaander too, accent and all.
The four of them started for the door.
A guard leaned against the wall next to the door. He was barely older than Alix, with a pimply face; he wore the dull khaki Vravesva uniform, with no helmet or gas mask.
Well, they’d figured there’d be one. But it still made Alix nervous. She wanted to shove her hands in her pockets, but her robe covered them. She clenched a hand into a fist and rubbed her knuckles against her thumb.
As Nvara walked up to the door, he held up his hand.
“Do you have an invitation?” he said.
“My good man,” Nvara said. “We’re attachés. Ambassador Hooglandt has our invitations.”
Her voice still had the accent- the weird, lilting Vleylaander cadence, with sharp Rs and long Us. Alix tried to keep a straight face.
The guard frowned. His mouth twitched to the side.
“I can’t let you in without an invitation, pal. It’s not like I can just grab the Ambassador.”
“Do you want to be the one who caused an incident?” Nvara asked. She raised an eyebrow. Her face reminded Alix of a stern schoolteacher.
“N. No.” The guard fidgeted with the keys on his belt.
Nvara stared him down for a long, long moment. Then she grinned. Alix thought she saw every one of Nvara’s teeth.
“I can guarantee you, if you don’t let us pass, there will be one.” Nvara paused. “Now, if you’ll let us in, I’ll let the Ambassador know you helped us. If you don’t…”
The guard hesitated.
“Well. I. I guess I can make an exception,” he said. “For once. If you leave, I can’t let you back in.”
“That’s fine,” Nvara said. “We’re not leaving any time soon.”
He cracked the door open. The sound of the manzello and a doubl-hundred people talking rushed towards Alix. Her fingers curled in her sleeve.
“Enjoy the party,” the guard said.
Nvara gathered up her robes and swept inside. The others followed.
Alix lagged in the rear. She glanced back at the guard- he pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit up.
“That was easy enough,” Svelen murmured.
“Aye. Now comes the vexin’ hard part.” Vashe’s lips pressed tight together.
“Why does everyone care about the ambassador?” Alix said.
“Politics,” Nvara said. “There’s war talks on.”
“Hush up,” Vashe said.
The long hallway opened up to a ballroom bigger than a city street. Alix could see her reflection in the polished floors. The peach-gold walls shimmered. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, electric candles shedding light that shattered on the crystal arcs.
Men and women, all human, mingled on the dance floor. Most of them were from Isseran. The women wore dresses with sharp collars and asymmetrical hems, covered in spiky patterns; the men, by and large, wore suits, unbuttoned at the collar, with no ties, waistcoats, or hats. In the corner, a person who looked like neither a man nor a woman wore a short skirt and a blazer with the Quorum’s insignia pinned to the lapel; they were surrounded by admirers.
A handful of people, scattered among the crowd, wore golden Yunlin silksuits or garish Vleylaand robes (thank goodness, thought Alix; they wouldn’t stand out as badly).
“Spread out,” Vashe murmured. “When it’s time, I’ll signal you.”
He tapped his cheekbone twice and his temple once.
Alix nodded, and turned.
She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. They stung like she’d stared into a bright light for too long. It was part of her disguise- Nvara had made lenses she could wear and pass for human. But they made her eyes itch and burn.
The chandelier-light made it worse. It was too bright- electric light, yes, but white, not yellow. It made the floor and the trumpets of the brass band gleam white-bright and hurt her eyes if she caught a glimpse of it head-on.
So did the music- this close it was so vexing loud she couldn’t hear herself think. The music and the noise and the crowd of people… She didn’t know why, but all of it together it pissed her right the fuck off.
She squinted, took a deep breath, and tried to get a feel for the room.
The band was on a dias at one end of the room- all right, she’d just have to stay away from that side.
The polished dance floor stretched out in front of them, filled with small groups of people. In the centre, they danced, spinning and reeling, new dances like the pinprick and the verve. At the edges, they stood or sat in little groups, talking.
Alix caught snatches of their conversation as she walked. Half of it was gossip about people she’d never heard of; the other half was business conversations she knew were important, but couldn’t follow to save her life.
At the end of the room, though- Food!
There was a long table, with a punch bowl bigger than Alix’s head and trays tiered like a terrace. The trays were full to spilling over, covered in so much food that Alix couldn’t even tell what all of it was. There were tiny cakes, cubed pineapple, quartered moonfruit, sliced carrots and cucumbers, salmon and parsley on toothpicks with little feathers stuck to the ends, bite-sized creamhorns and lilyfingers and mintpies.
She grabbed a paper napkin and picked up as much as she could without drawing attention to herself.Why didn’t her robes have pockets? How was she supposed to hide food for later if she didn’t have them?
There wasn’t enough room on one napkin for much of anything, either, and it soaked through all too quick. The salmon leaked through the thin paper, turning it pink.
Fuck. She’d have to eat as much as she could here without drawing attention before Vashe gave her the signal. She glanced back up to make sure he hadn’t already.
As she looked around, someone tapped her on the shoulder from behind. She wheeled.
The person who stood behind her was a young man, about her age, with shaggy brown hair and eyes rimmed by dark circles. He wore glasses and a high-collared shirt under a double-breasted jacket.
She couldn’t see any caste symbols on him- not a lapel pin, not a badge, not a belt buckle, nothing. That meant one of two things- either he was a foreigner, or he was so important that no one needed to know who he was. She didn’t recognize him.
“Excuse me,” he said. He didn’t have an accent; there was something naggingly familiar about his voice, but Alix couldn’t quite place it.
“Would you like to dance?”

Running With Rats updates biweekly every second and fourth Friday. 

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The Aeronaut’s Dream: pt. 5

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“Well?” Nvara said.

Alix folded her arms and stared at the mess of gleaming fabric at Nvara’s feet. Cloth-of-gold tangled around bright red and silvery-grey and a yellow so bright it made Alix’s eyes bleed.

“You sure this is right?” she said.

Nvara rubbed her nose and glared back up at Alix.

Swear to all the gods. This is Vlidwear,” Nvara said.

“Somehow I don’t trust someone who calls them ‘Vlids’ to know,” Alix said. She folded her arms.

“I mean, she’s right,” Svelen said. “Rich Vleylaanders wear this stuff.”

“But… a cape? Really?”

“Yup.” Svelen held up a jacket made of golden cloth, covered in swirling embroidery.

“Is this one for me?” he asked.

Nvara nodded. “Start getting dressed, we don’t have much time.”

Svelen shrugged the jacket on. It fit better than anything Alix had ever seen him wear.

“This stuff is fucking deck,” Alix said.

“Look at you, following the party line.” Nvara raised a shawl, looking at it critically, and tugged at the fabric. The edge of it unraveled into glowing lio. Dark blue light glowed around her hands as she shaped it; the fringe grew an inch, and tassels sprouted from the hem.

“Yeah, well,” Alix said. “There’s a difference between ‘people can’t have nice things’ and ‘this is too many nice things, put some back’.”

She put the cape on anyway. It weighed on her shoulders like a shroud. The hem grazed the ground.

“You got something for my face?” Svelen asked.

“There’s a veil.” Nvara picked it up and tossed it at him. He caught it.

“…We’re really doing this,” she said.

“Is it that strange?” Svelen wrapped his hair up in a loose turban. It was bright orange- the same shade as his freckles.

“It doesn’t feel real,” Alix said.

“Welcome to our vexin’ life,” Nvara said. She snorted.

“Oh! Did you tell Alix about the time thing?” Svelen asked.

He glanced down at the ground.

“Time thing?” Alix said.

“Forgot,” Nvara said. “We don’t have that much lio, so I’ve got to recycle what we do have. So these clothes have a time limit.”

“…You’re saying they’re gonna disappear.”

“No. They’ll turn back into lio. There’s a difference.”

“Doesn’t seem like it.” Alix frowned. This was like something right out of a fairy tale- Tattershoes running from her prince’s party as her dress turned to rags and her footmen to fish.

“It’ll last for eight hours, that should be enough time.” Nvara sounded offended. “Get dressed, Vashe’s gonna be here any minute.”

Alix unclipped the cape and grabbed a robe from the pile. It went down to her ankles and it was deep red- the same colour as her sweater. She threw it over her other clothes- there was no way she was going to trust lio-clothing to keep her warm.

Vashe opened the door.

“You fuckers get a move on,” he said. “Party starts in ten minutes.”

Alix scrambled to finish dressing. Nvara put out the fire.

The four of them left. Alix lagged behind, looking back at the bunker.

She wondered if she’d ever see it again.

The Aeronaut’s Dream, pt. 4

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Vashe set the pot down atop the fire barrel.

“Nvara. Check out back, will you?” he asked.

“On it,” Nvara said.

“What’s out back?” Alix asked.

“Food. Monsters sometimes. Nvara’s best at dealing with that stuff.” Svelen leaned against the wall, and rubbed the back of his neck. “What’re we making, Vashe?”

“Stew.” Vashe glanced at the door. “I think we stole some meat. And we got onions n’ potatoes n’ nvoro root.”

“No meat,” Nvara announced. She slammed down a net bag of potatoes and onions, followed by a sack of purple nvoro. “This is what we’re workin’ with. And the flour.”

“We can manage. Sve-”

Svelen pulled a knife from his waistband, and picked up the net bag. “I’m on it.”

He began slicing potatoes. Nvara took a cleaver from a hook on the wall.

In the corner of her eye, Alix saw something move. The bag of onions jiggled unpleasantly.

At first she supposed they were just settling, but they started rattling like plates in a truckbed. She jolted back, just as a black tentacle tore through the mesh.

The tentacle was thick and grooved like the surface of a brain. It split in two, and writhed, and split again. A low growl came from inside the bag. Something inside it burst, and the stink of petrol filled the room. Alix gagged.

Something that had probably once been an onion tore its way out. It bore unblinking, slit-pupiled eyes, and four black tentacles wriggled from its sides.

It started hovering, squealing like a tea kettle.

Vashe screamed, and ducked behind the fire barrel. Nvara tried to get between him and the onion-monster. Svelen raised the knife, but his hands were shaking.

“What-” Alix began. A tentacle curled around her wrist. The onion dragged her close. It split down the middle, and a maw with spatially-impossible teeth snapped at her.

She did the one thing that made sense- jabbed it in the eye with two fingers. It screamed like a dying engine.

A flash of silver arced through the air. Alix ducked just in time. The cleaver sliced the onion clean in two. The tentacle around her wrist went limp, and the onion’s eyes glazed over.

Nvara came over, pulled the cleaver out, and stabbed it again and again. Black goo oozed from it, and melted into the ground.

“Vexfucked Blight.” Vashe breathed out. He picked up the bag gingerly, as if something else inside might explode into a monster. “…We’ve got to go somewhere else.”

“Like where?” Nvara said.

“Is this place really safe either?”

Alix jostled Svelen’s elbow.

“I think if we’re quick-” she said. “We can go down to the docks. There’s a bakery down there, if you ask nice enough they give you their old bread. It’s sxote, but -”

“That don’t bother me.” Svelen pocketed the knife.

“Vashe- We’re gonna, uh, get out of here for a minute.”

“…Can’t blame you,” Vashe said. “Come back safe.”

Svelen nodded.


The streets, this time of night, were almost silent. At three in the morning, only shrimplings and farmers were awake. Mist pooled around Alix’s knees and wet her face.

Once, a motorcar drove past, slow and silent. The Warrior caste sigil- a looping knotwork pattern- shone from its side. Alix ducked into a side alley, pulling Svelen with her, and hid behind a wastebin. The car’s headlights glinted off the bin’s metal, but it passed them without notice.

“Vexing strikers,” Alix muttered.

Svelen nodded.

They stuck to the shadows after that. There were laws about slaves and thoughtforms wandering around at night- unless you had a note from your master, you were doomed. And it was blatantly obvious that Svelen was a thoughtform- freckles like his, the colour of grapefruit, just didn’t exist in nature.

Luckily, they didn’t run into more. They got to the docks pretty easily. Frigid water churned as an icebreaker ship’s horn howled in the distance. It smelt like shrimp and seaweed, but Alix had grown up with those scents.

“Through here,” she murmured.

Vari’s health, the bakery’s lights were still on. She knocked on the wall. The door opened; a bell on top jingled. A tall person, wearing a long shapeless dress and a veil, opened it.

The person was a shrimpling. You could tell even without exposed skin, if you knew how to look- the tell-tale sign was the wriggling. Tiny, vestigial legs ran along their chests, Impossible to fully hide.

“…Alix?” The shrimpling’s voice clacked.

“Yes. Can we come in?”

“Of course, but-” The veil wavered. “Where have you been hiding? I thought you were dead.”

“It’s… a long story. My friends and me need food, Miss Kalarak.”

Alix clasped her hands behind her back.

“Friends? How many of you are there?”

“…I was going to bring food back to them,” Alix said. “It’s four of us. We don’t have any ration books, it’s-”

Her face flushed.

“…Come in, then. Close the door, you’ll let the wet out.”

The smell of bread lingered in the shop. A small humidifier on the counter, next to the ration-book stampers, purred out smoke. The air was nearly as damp as the fog outside.

“You’ve gotten yourself into trouble, haven’t you?” Miss Kalarak said.

“Yes’m.” Alix’s fingers twisted behind her back. “Sorry, ma’am. I only came here because I thought-”

She felt the words wither in her mouth.

“I didn’t want to have to steal,” she said. “And you helped Mama when she needed it.”

“That’s fair.” Miss Kalarak polished one of her claws on her sleeve. “But you realise without a ration book, my hands are tied.”

“But-” Svelen began.

Alix dug her elbow into his ribs.

“All right. We’re sorry for the trouble,” she said.

“…I can give you food waste, if you keep it to yourself,” Miss Kalarak said. She turned her back to them, bending down under the counter. “No one’s going to miss day-old things. Especially if they’re not what humans eat.”

“Thank you.” Alix breathed out.

“For your mother’s sake.”

It was hard to tell where shrimplings were looking at any given time- their eyes were beady and black, just like Alix’s. But she could feel Miss Kalarak’s gaze on her.

“…I’ll do what I can to shelter you, but that isn’t much.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Alix said. “For now, I – I think we’re okay. We just. Needed some food. It was an emergency.”

She shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.

“All right,” Miss Kalarak said.

She passed her a bag the size of a toolbox, and closed the hatch under the counter.

“I’d prefer not to have the Vravresva on my doorstep,” she said. “So if you’re going to stay….”

“We’re not,” Alix said. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

She bowed, as best she could while holding the bag.

“You’re welcome. …Be safe.”

Svelen glanced at the door. Alix patted him on the arm.

“Time to go,” she said.

They left, and took the back way home, twisting up through Torova Vrenli, the Bureaucrat Quarter. All the buildings here were short, grey, and drab, laid out in a neat grid.

“…How do you know her?” Svelen asked.

“I ought to be asking you the same question,” Alix murmured. “Your friends, I mean.”

“Oh. I mean – is there that much to tell?” Svelen shrugged his shoulders up.

“Maybe, maybe not.” Alix shrugged. “…Miss K was my mother’s friend. I don’t know that much about her. You know how it is.”

“You can’t understand them unless you are one,” Svelen said.

Alix nodded.

“What about you?”

“…I met Vashe after they sold me off,” he said. “He had this plan to get out. I listened.”

He smiled, shyly, and stuck his hands in his pockets.

“Nvara- she’s been his friend since the sun first rose. She helped us get out through the sewers. We stuck together after that. It was Vashe’s idea to go to the Blight, because no one would look for us there.”

Whenever he said Vashe’s name, the corners of his eyes crinkled up into a smile.

“How long ago was this?” Alix asked.

“Coming up on two chains,” Svelen said.

“Half a year! Why didn’t you – I don’t know, say something? Find me?”

“He said it was a risk we couldn’t take. And at first- he was right. We had no friends, nowhere to run to. We’d get caught. And you know what happens to thoughtforms who go rogue.”

“You get… unmade. Right?” Alix scuffed her boot against the pavement.

“Right. …Let’s not talk about that?”


The silence hung in the air like a feather made of lead. Alix wanted to stop there, for fear of hurting Svelen.

They headed towards the Blight through the market. The neon lights overhead flickered, blotting out the stars.

At this hour, the streets were scattered with insomniacs, oxa-breathers, and the odd whore. Alix was careful to avoid them all- she didn’t want to be seen, and oxa-breathers were crazy anyway.

Before long, the artificial glow was replaced by the strange purple fog that filled the Blight.

“Svelen?” She could barely see him through the mist.

“I’m here.” He took her hand. “C’mon, it’s this way.”

He led her forward. It was hard to tell direction through the fog, but Alix saw the destination- a long concrete tube, the kind that belonged in a sewer, rising from the ground like a ramp. Alix followed him through it, down into the rat runner’s home.

Vashe was still inside, warming his hands over the fire barrel.

“We got food,” Svelen said. “Where’s Nvara?”

“Tryin’a do the same vexin’ thing.”

Vashe half-smiled, and glanced at the bag Alix held.

They made supper for the second time. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as the first, for the better. Miss Kalarak had provided a loaf of seaweed bread, a few half-stale cheese pasties, and a single cream horn, as big as Alix’s fist.

She’d also slipped in a small jar of svass crystals. Alix would have to thank her later.

Vashe reignited the fire and heated up water in the old pot. Svelen took some mugs from the chest in the corner. All of them were chipped or cracked. Alix poured the crystals into the bottom of each, and set the pastries over the coals when the water boiled.

When everything was ready, Vashe perched atop the chest, and Svelen and Alix sat by his side.

“So. Your crazytalk plan,” Vashe said. “What exactly are you gonna do?”

Alix looked at Svelen. Svelen shrugged.

“I- You’re better at explainin’ this stuff, Alix…”

She rubbed her eyes. It had been a long night, and it was going to be a long, long day. The svass would help.

“… Fine. The plan.” She stared into her mug as if it held an answer.

“My- old master’s house, it was built before the Revolution. There’s servants’ corridors in the walls- so that the rich old farts don’t have to see you, yanno?”

Vashe nodded, but his eyes narrowed. Svelen’s hand drifted over, resting on top of Vashe’s.

“There’s one back door- it’s by the kitchens- it’s always, always, always unlocked. Cook keeps it open because she smokes like a house fire. We sneak in when she’s not working and take the staff elevator to the fourth floor. Mas- His bedroom and his study are both on that level. It’s gonna be in one or the other. We sneak around in the staff corridor, go in, find that glove.”

“What if someone catches you?” Vashe asked.

“It’s not likely. At nine in the morning, M- my old master’s at the Cathedral. So guess where everyone else is?”

“They still have that valaxa game?” Svelen’s lips twitched.

“Yep. They keep raising the stakes, too. Last time the coalboy bet Cook his entire weeks’ work and won. She ain’t too happy about that. — Point is, everyone’s gonna be in the servants’ parlour. Playing or watching.”

Alix took another bite of her pastry. The sharp cheese burned her nose.

“And if someone runs into us- if they haven’t noticed I’m gone, which is possible, I can say I was running an errand. We can forge Svelen a note from his ‘master’. We get in, get the glove, get out before he comes back from the Cathedral.”

“If they do notice you’ve gone?” Vashe asked.

“Lie like crazy. If that doesn’t work, run like crazy.”

“Sounds like too much of a risk.”

“No, it could work,” Svelen said. “Alix’s good at slipping out of sight. She- she likes to read.”

Alix winced.

“He has a sizable library,” she muttered. “Lots of rare books. It’s easy to get lost in there.”

The excuse fell out of her mouth, and her shoulders hunched up. Svelen breathed out.

“… Calm down.” Vashe’s voice was as growly as ever, but his tone was gentle.

“So what you’re sayin’ is, you could get in and out, and if someone noticed you they’d figure you were just sitting around suckin’ your thoughts instead of doing what your job.”

“Basically,” Alix said. “It’s a long shot, but I think it’s worth it.”

“Me too,” Svelen said. “It’s the best chance we’ve got.”

Vashe’s brow furrowed, and he bit the side of his finger.

“Sve-” he said. “Can you take the pan out?”


Svelen squeezed Vashe’s hand, stood up, and grabbed the pan. The door closed behind him.

Vashe turned his head towards Alix. His gaze burned.

“Listen up.” His nostrils flared.

“I don’t know what the fuck you want. But Svelen trusts you, and that counts a lot for me. You say you can get it back, he says you can get it back? Fine. I’ll bite. You come back with it, and with him, you’re one of us.”

“But?” Alix stared back at him through her bangs.

“But if you get him hurt or killed- I will find you. And if you sold him out, I’m gonna break every bone in your body, and break the splinters.”

His lips parted in a snarl.

“Are we clear?”

“Clear as ice,” Alix said.

“Good.” He stood up.

“Get some sleep. Or make more svass. You’re gonna need it.”



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