Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Maverick is Born (Part 1)

Hello. My name is Racquel. I have a secret. Two secrets, actually. One belongs to my master, and one to my mistress, and I am sworn to keep them, even each from the other. It is not what you might think, though. They are not unfaithful to each other, but to the Empire. You see, they are Shardlings...

Martinique swore again (though a sailor would hardly have thought so). Ordinarily, dancing was the only thing in this world that could keep her happy. Phillipe was spending another night on the town, squandering what was left of the family fortune in the name of “building relationships.” Well, “squandering” was perhaps harsh. The family certainly seemed to enjoy more wealth than Acnev's cursed taxmen could account for. Still, the thought of feeding the household on gambling galled her.

And now, even the complex and demanding moves of grande nefleur could not hold her attention. Consequently, she could not keep pace with the music, and had nearly hurt herself trying. This would not do. She needed to get out, get away. If Phillipe could slum it with his friends, she could indulge herself as well. Despite her husband's stern taboo, the low theater called to her.

She gathered herself together and retreated to her chambers. Summoning her maid, Racquel, she changed quickly. “Now, Racquel,” she spoke sternly. “You know your part. If anyone asks for me, say I have pulled a muscle dancing and must lie down. Sneak my dinner out of the house and give it to a family in need. Most especially, keep my husband away. He must not learn where I have gone, and most importantly how I got there.”

Racquel sighed inwardly, but the perfect face of a lady's maid never wavered. “As you command, my lady,” she replied. She laced up the vest of the peasant dress of her mistress' disguise. With only a couple more touches, no one would think Martinique high class. Middle class, certainly, she was not that skilled an actor. But that was enough to render her nearly anonymous.

With a final flourish in front of the mirror, Martinique was satisfied. With a smile at her wickedness, she gave a brief nod to her maid and stepped to the side...

Martinique appeared nearly a mile away, in a tiny apartment she kept for just this reason. There was no pop, no flash of light. Simply a young woman standing where empty space had been only a moment before. A brief look in the mirror, and she was off. With no way to connect her to her house, she didn't even need to worry about who might see. The freedom was heady. She just wished she could something more with it than attend acrobat shows.

The circus was only a brief walk down the riverside. The music already drifted out into the night, along with tantalizing smells from the food carts. She blended into the crowd, moving steadily on her pilgrimage.

The circus was all it ever was. Exotic animals, fire jugglers, mages conjuring impressive illusions, funny clowns. There was one particularly gifted trickster that Martinique had not seen before. And, her favorite, the glorious acrobats. Some would twist their bodies into impossible shapes. Others would fly with unreal grace dozens of feet above an unforgiving stone plaza. The tumblers would bounce and spin across the plaza, looking for all the world like they had extra legs to help them along and no crude spine to get in their way. When she was younger, she tried to teach herself to tumble, much to her dance teacher's mortification.

As usual, the circus grew hot and close as people crowded in to see the spectacle. Martinique removed herself to a nearby alley to catch a clean breath. She was careful to not stray too far from the light and bustle, as there were predators who lurked in the shadows. Indeed, she could just barely hear some poor soul who had run afoul of a small pack around the corner. He sounded like he was begging for mercy.

Then one of the pack stepped out of the shadows, and Martinique was taken aback. The gaslight from the street caught the silver braid along a sash of the city guard! She couldn't be seen here. She must fly away. Just before she stepped, though, she caught one snatch of conversation. The wretch who was being worked over screamed out, “But I have no Shard! It's just trickery! It's not even magic!”

The leader of the guard shouted back, “Shut yer hole, Shardling. We saw yer act, an' yer no human. Ye know the penalty fer Shards is bein' shipp'd off ta one o' His Lord Emp'ror's private islands.” The captain lowered his voice, and Martinique strained to hear the rest of his words. “But, ye seem a harmless sort. I figure ye turn over yer ill-gotten coins from tonight, promise t' mend yer ways, and we can let ye leave town.”

Martinique understood what was happening now. One of the performers from the show was being taken advantage of by the guard. One of the people she had come to see was unlikely to live to see morning. In a strange flash, all thought of flight left her mind. In its place crowded the names that had filled parlor conversation for weeks. Scarlet. Feathered Serpent. Black Cat. Phalanx. Shardlings, like herself, who had chosen to take a stand against the Empire. Who fought the corruption she was hearing now. Who had fired her imagination to the point that she now contemplated the impossible.

Still, her identity could not be known. She “stepped” to a stall on the other side of the circus. Before anyone could even notice her, she snatched up a harlequin mask off the counter and slapped down a few coins in its place. She “stepped” back to her location at the mouth of the alley. A second to tie the mask in place, and another to turn her cloak inside out, exposing the blue satin instead of the rust-colored wool. She hoped her disguise was enough, because she couldn't spare time for more.

She stepped to the far end of the alley, and grabbed up the spear one of the guards had left leaning against the wall. She stepped again in front of the guard who had moved away from the pack, and drove the butt of the spear into his gut. Surprise had barely registered when he went down, with not enough air to even call out in pain. She whirled to face the other three. While her father had taught her the basics of using weapons, she knew that any one of these guards could take her in a fair fight. But, then, she didn't plan to fight fair.

Music began to play in her head, and her feet began their dance. She would twist, then twirl, then “step” a dozen feet away. The guards had no idea where, or what, she was. She rapped wrists with her spear to force them to drop weapons, and struck heads and bellies to try and incapacitate them before they got their wits about them.

Two more down, and Martinique felt glorious. This was better even than tumbling! Her body practically vibrated with the excitement. Her mind hummed with the release of more of her Shard than she'd ever dare use, even in the privacy of her own rooms. But, for all that, she was still an upper-class girl out of her depths. She twirled one too many times, and the last guard tripped her. She fell hard, the spear skittering across the paving stones.

The guard leered down at her, and almost lazily drew his sword. Now that the spell of seeming invulnerability had been broken, Martinique's courage broke with it. She suddenly knew her life was at an end, one way or another. She could do nothing but stare up at the approaching doom.

Then there was a flash of reflected light at the guard's throat. A knife blade flickered, and vanished. In its wake, it left a streak of blackness. The streak widened, spreading down the front of the guard's shirt as his hand jerked up automatically to stem the rush of blood. It was far too late, though. His life was pouring out, and he fell forward onto Martinique's sprawled form.

As she lay there, stunned, the trickster came over. He had the knife in his hand, still dripping with the guard's blood. He leaned down and touched Martinique's shoulder, asking if she was all right. After blinking heavily twice, a tiny part of her brain woke up. That part screamed, and stepped.

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