With Jason’s Adventure Society field assessment looming closer by the day, Rufus, Gary and Farrah pushed him harder than ever. As a release, they would spend their evenings exploring the night time entertainments offered by the city. Danielle Geller acted as their guide to local society, usually with her son, Humphrey, in tow.
The symphony was a revelation to Jason. The concert hall was situated in the guild district, conveniently close to their lodgings, and they enjoyed the view from the Geller’s private viewing box.
The instruments weren’t what he recognised, although many were similar, at least in appearance. It was the magic they contained that made the performance as magnificent visually as it was musically. As they played, dancing streamers of light rose up from the instruments, galloping out over the audience to frolic in consonance with the music. Harmony of light and sound came together to transfigure the performance into something unlike any Jason had experienced before.
“How often do they put this on?” Jason leaned over to ask Danielle.
“The full symphony? Once per month, although smaller performances happen all through the week.”
“Is there a membership or something I can get?”
“There’s a patronage program with the Musical Society,” Danielle said. “I can introduce you to some people from the Musical Society if that is of interest to you.”
"Please and thank you."
At an evening of ballroom dancing, they encountered the young acolyte of knowledge, Gabrielle Pellin.
“Fancy that,” Danielle said innocently.
When Humphrey failed to muster up the courage for an approach, he was left watching in horror as Jason taught her a dance from his own world. After Jason slipped the string quartet a few coins, they claimed the floor to demonstrate it in full, to the applause of the gathering.
Afterwards, Jason escorted her in the direction of Humphrey, Danielle and Jason’s friends.
“You’re quite the spirited dancer,” Gabrielle told Jason as they walked leisurely around the dance floor. “You never did tell me the name.”
“It’s called the tango,” Jason said.
“Is it well known, in your world?” she asked.
“It’s probably the most famous dance there is.”
“It was my older sister, who taught me to dance,” Jason said. “I wasn’t very interested until my father gave me some sage advice. He told me that if I wanted to be successful in love, I needed to learn three things. How to dance, how to cook, and how to keep my damn mouth shut."
“How did that work out?” Gabrielle asked.
"Well,” Jason said, "I can dance and I can cook. Gabrielle, you’ll remember Humphrey Geller.”
“Of course,” she said. “I haven’t assessed that many people for the Adventure Society, but of those I have, I think he may have been the most talented.”
“You realise you assessed me right after?”
“I do,” she said primly.
“Ouch,” Jason said, turning his gaze to Humphrey. “It seems this rose still has her thorns. Humphrey, I think I’ll leave this next dance to you.”
They both looked to Humphrey, who was looking nervous. His sheepish embarrassment could not hide the broad shoulders and chiselled features, however. He was another in a long line of annoyingly attractive people Jason was getting to know.
“I think that would be delightful,” Gabrielle said, taking mercy on him.
“What do you say, Humphrey?” Jason asked.
“That… you… I would like that very much.”
Unlike most society hotspots, the theatre district was actually located in Old City, quite close to the Fortress. It allowed members of high society to seem like they were heading to a play instead of the less-savoury delights of the city’s chief den of iniquity. Leaving a private viewing box, Jason and his companions discussed their opinions of the play.
“The stage combat was actually rather impressive,” Rufus said. “I found the plot to be a little slight, however. I like a performance with something to say.”
“It did have something to say,” Gary said. “That sword fights are great. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, the end. I liked it.”
Jason was shaking his head.
“You disagree?” Danielle asked him.
“I’m probably just misreading it because of the difference in culture,” Jason said.
“It’s not like you to be diplomatic,” Rufus said. “Just say what you really think.”
“I think it did have something to say,” Jason said. “I think the main characters weren’t the heroes; they were the villains. I think the whole play was a critique of hereditary power structures and by overcoming the antagonists, the central characters were restoring a state of oppression.”
“You think the main characters were the villains?” Rufus asked.
“I do,” Jason said.
“I don’t see it,” Rufus said.
“Don’t you have a childhood friend who’s a member of some royal family?” Jason asked.
“He does,” Farrah said.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Rufus asked.
They exited the theatre through the doors reserved for private box holders, where members of society were reboarding their carriages. Jason noticed a woman with the same silver-rank aura and physical perfection of Danielle. She broke away from her own group of ladies, making a beeline for Danielle.
“Danielle,” the woman greeted. “Always lovely to see you. Young Master Humphrey. And you must be Rufus Remore, with your erstwhile companions, of course.”
“Lady Thalia Mercer,” Danielle introduced the lady.
Thalia’s eyes settled on Jason.
“We haven’t had the pleasure,” she said. “You must be the young man people are getting so curious about.”
“I’m no one important,” Jason said.
“Yet, you keep important company,” Thalia said.
“I do?” he asked. “I don’t really know these people. I’m only here because I won a raffle.”
Farrah snorted a laugh, while Rufus ran an exasperated hand over his face.
“Wait, there was a raffle?” Gary asked, only to be shushed by Farrah.
“This is Jason Asano,” Danielle introduced, a smile playing over her lips. “He will be taking his field assessment for the Adventure Society when Humphrey retakes his. I assume your son will be there as well?”
“He will,” Thalia said unhappily. “I tried to convince my husband that Thadwick would benefit from additional training, but he was quite adamant.”
Thalia turned to Rufus, the man who had failed her son during the previous assessment.
"You know, Mr Remore," she said, "you rather overturned the fruit cart with how you conducted the last assessment."
“I’m sorry if you feel your son was treated unfairly,” Rufus said, “but since he had previously passed, perhaps it would have been better not to put him forward for reassessment.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Thalia said, to Rufus’ surprise. “However, my husband cannot seem to help poking his fingers into things best left alone.”
“It’s a shame you weren’t here when Thalia’s daughter was tested,” Danielle said. “Thalia oversaw her training personally, and I have no doubt she would have passed. Where is Cassandra, this evening?”
“Out in the delta somewhere, on a contract,” Thalia said. "I do look forward to introducing you, Mr Remore."
After some more niceties, Thalia excused herself and the group boarded the Geller family carriage. It was one of the ones drawn by magic rather than animals and was larger than the equivalents from Jason's own world.
“I do believe Thalia is trying to set you up with her daughter,” Danielle told Rufus.
“He’s used to it,” Farrah said.
“If she’s anything like her brother,” Rufus said, “I’d rather she didn’t. I’ve never seen anyone that incompetent undertake a field assessment before. I’m convinced the other members of his group passed because they honed their abilities covering for that idiot. It was to the point that it could be a whole new training methodology. The trick would be finding people so aggressively incapable.”
“You’ll find her daughter to be a very different prospect,” Danielle said. “Cassandra is a remarkable woman, and right about your age. Actually, she rather reminds me of Jason.”
“You’re kidding,” Rufus said.
“Oh, at a glance, they seem different,” Danielle said. “She’s more of a knife to Jason’s hammer, but they both seem to enjoy provocation as a social tool.”
“On second thoughts,” Rufus said, looking warily at Jason, “I might prefer to deal with the brother.”
Sophie and Belinda were summoned to Clarissa Ventress' home instead of the Fortress; a sprawling manor in Old City's canal district. The canal district had its own internal city wall. It was a legacy of time before the Island, when the district was home to the city elite. It had been left to those who had wealth but lacked in prestige, preferring to stand tall in Old City than go underfoot on the Island.
The two women were led through the compound, past various thugs standing guard. Centuries ago, Clarissa’s residence had been the seat of the Mercer family. The grounds were quite expansive, with more than one canal flowing through it.
Inside the house itself, they were guided by Clarissa’s hulking leonid bodyguard, Darnell. Clarissa was waiting for them in a parlour, sitting at a table with morning tea set out. Hers was the only seat in the room.
“Ladies,” greeted them. “I have good news for you.”
“I don’t suppose it’s that Sophie’s done with the fighting pits,” Belinda said sullenly.
“Actually, it is,” Clarissa said.
Sophie and Belinda both looked up sharply.
“Really?” Belinda asked.
“Yes,” Clarissa said. “She’s had her last pit fight.”
“Then what is it you want me doing next?” Sophie asked, eyes narrowing as she looked at Clarissa.
“So cynical,” Clarissa said.
“Just say it,” Sophie said.
“You two were an excellent team,” Clarissa said. “I suspect that even now, the two of you are the only ones who know exactly how many jobs you pulled for Old Man Silva. I just want you back to doing what you do best.”
“The deal was that we help you provoke Silva,” Sophie said. “Now you want us to steal from him?”
“Of course not,” Clarissa said. “I would never put you in that position.”
“Then what?” Sophie demanded.
“It is well known that for almost a decade now, the Silva family has enjoyed the services of a pair of excellent thieves. When those same thieves start robbing the social elite, right out in public, the pressure on Silva will be considerable”
"Are you crazy?" Belinda yelled, stepping angrily forward. Clarissa' bodyguard moved towards her, but Clarissa casually waved him back.
“This will be the last task I assign you,” Clarissa said. “Naturally, stealing from Greenstone’s wealthiest will get adventurers investigating. Once they realise that the Silva family’s most capable thieves are the most likely culprits, the pressure on Silva will be immense.”
“Are you really willing to risk bringing the powers from the Island down on your own head?” Sophie asked.
“It’s hardly a risk,” Clarissa said. “What they’ll find is that after conducting a series of expertly-carried out robberies, the thieves who have worked for the Silva family for years are no longer in the city. Because, having met your end of the deal, you will be far from here, as promised. With a goodly amount of money for your troubles.”
Belinda opened her mouth to snap back a response, but was silenced by a gesture from Sophie.
“Alright,” Sophie said. Belinda wrenched her head to look at Sophie as if she’d lost her mind. Sophie gave a slight shake of the head to keep her silent.
“Excellent,” Clarissa said. “Now, your first target-”
“No,” Sophie interrupted.
“Excuse me?” Clarissa asked.
"The goal is to draw attention down on Silva," Sophie said, "not to undertake any specific robbery. So, it doesn't matter what we take, or from who, so long as it's high profile and it's public. Belinda and I will choose the targets and the timing."
“Choosing the targets,” Clarissa said, “means I can meet more than one objective at a time.”
“Our deal didn’t include any other objectives you may have,” Sophie said. “So you can sort them out yourself. You aren’t staking us out as bait for some other reason, are you?”
“Of course not,” Clarissa said.
“Then we choose the targets and we choose the timing,” Sophie said.
“Fine,” Clarissa conceded. “Just make sure I’m notified beforehand.”
“No, we’ll keep you out of it,” Sophie said. “We wouldn’t want people moving attention from Silva to you, after all. We plan and execute the robberies alone, and fence the goods through Silva's people. We have connections enough for that.”
Clarissa’s mouth was smiling, but her eyes were spraying venom.
“Very well,” she said. “But I want jobs done quickly and repeatedly. If not, then you aren’t holding up your end, and there won’t be a place in this city you can hide from me. As for escaping it… if you could leave this city alive, then you wouldn’t have come to me in the first place.”
Sophie gave a curt nod, then strode away. Belinda followed in her wake, Clarissa’s bodyguard trailing them until they were out of the compound. They walked through the darkened streets of Old City at a rapid stride.
"What was that?" Belinda angrily demanded once she was sure they had cleared Clarissa’s eyes and ears. "That whole thing makes no sense. Everything hinges on people figuring out that we’re the thieves. And stirring up trouble with the Island people? They'll send adventurers after us. Is she trying to bring all that down on her own head?"
"You're right," Sophie said. "It doesn't make sense if this is still about provoking Silva. Something's changed, and somehow Island politics are involved. Ventress wouldn't risk provoking the Island unless she has some kind of backing to shield her."
“This whole plan is madness,” Belinda said.
“Yes,” Sophie agreed.
“Then why go along with it? She has to know how transparent she’s being.”
“You know how Ventress is about her reputation. She wants us to break the deal, even if everyone knows she pushed us into it.”
“Why bother?” Belinda asked. “ We aren’t any use to her except as a stick to poke Silva with.”
“I don’t know,” Sophie said. “Maybe she’s looking for an excuse to hand us over to him. Whatever she’s into now, we’ve somehow become leverage. But she can’t be seen breaking the deal.”
“Her vaunted reputation,” Belinda said.
“If we break the deal, she can openly do whatever she wants with us,” Sophie said.
“So you bought us as much time and freedom as you could,” Belinda realised.
“We need to figure out our next move. Ventress is no longer our way out of the city.”
“Dorgan?” Belinda suggested. The third member of the Big Three had been quiet since the death of Old Man Silva.
“We don’t have anything to trade for protection,” Sophie said.
“Then what?” Belinda asked. “Try and make our own way out?”
The reason they had gone to Clarissa in the first place was that escaping the city unnoticed by the Big Three was as good as impossible. They had an iron grip of the shipping trade, and there was very little overland travel.
“We may have to try the overland route,” Sophie said.
Escaping the Greenstone region overland meant one of two routes. The first was to go upriver to the Mistrun Oasis, then keep going through the desert to the central veldt. From there, south, to the more fertile lands and a port where the Big Three had interests enough that they could easily be dragged back to Greenstone. The other way was to make for the Northern territories, which means crossing the dead sands, braving monsters and nomadic bandit tribes.
“We ruled that out for a reason,” Belinda said. “Our experience and expertise ends at the city wall. If we try the wilderness, it’s a pure gamble.”
“A gamble may be all we have,” Sophie said. “For now, we do enough to keep Ventress mollified while we figure it out.”
Belinda hung her head.
“Things just keep getting worse,” she said softly.