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Jason tugged his bowtie into shape in a large standing mirror.

“That’s an unusual outfit,” Gary said. “A bit more snug than I like. I think the locals have it right, fashion-wise.”

They were in the lounge room of the suite shared by Rufus, Gary and Farrah. Gary was wearing evening wear that showed off all the colourful drapery favoured by Greenstone high society.

“I had Gilbert make it up,” Jason said. “It’s called a tuxedo.”

Jason enjoyed the hang of a well-tailored suit, but he found himself missing his armour. He had been wearing it almost constantly, through battles and danger until it felt like a part of him. Still, a night at the symphony involved neither battles nor danger, so perhaps it was best to feel a little different. And even if it did, his tuxedo had some strengthening treatments and a few enchantment tricks to facilitate a quick escape, if necessary.

“Not enough colours,” Gary said, still eyeing off Jason’s clothes.

“I like it,” Farrah said, emerging from her own room. “Simple and elegant.”

“Why does Rufus always take the longest to get ready?” Gary asked. “He doesn’t even have hair. I’m ready, I’m pretty much all hair.”

“I remember not having hair,” Jason said. “Didn’t care for it.”

“It’s nice to be going out again,” Farrah said. Jason moved so she could take his place to check her outfit in the mirror.

“Agreed,” Jason said. “The program was in three parts, right? A nice, long evening at the symphony will be just the thing, I think.”

"Danielle said she invited us because she thought you would enjoy it," Farrah said. "She knows you've been working hard."

“I ran into Humphrey out in the delta, yesterday,” Jason said. “We did a job off a noticeboard together.”

“How was that?” Farrah asked.

“Well, I stood there and he killed the monster immediately, so… straightforward.”

“Everyone’s ready?” Rufus asked, stepping out of his room.

“Of course we’re ready,” Farrah said. “You’re always the last one out.”

“Did you wax your head?” Gary asked Rufus.

“No,” Rufus said. “I did not wax my head.”

“Really?” Gary asked. “Because it looks like you waxed your head.”

“There is something of a sheen to it,” Jason observed.

“Maybe I rubbed in a little moisturising treatment,” Rufus admitted.

“You did,” Gary said. “You waxed your head.”

“I did not wax my head.”

“I think it looks nice,” Farrah said. “Very shiny.”

***

Unlike the theatre district, which was located in Old City, the Grand Concert Hall was very close to their lodgings in the guild district. They walked the short distance through the wide streets, the sun low, but still hanging in the summer sky. The concert hall was a magnificent, circular building that Jason walked past every day on his way to the Adventure Society campus. With two lengthy intermissions scheduled, Jason intended to take a look around between performances.

They joined Danielle Geller and her son Humphrey in their private box. When the first interval arrived, the rest of the group headed in the direction of the drinking lounge restricted to private box holders. As they left, Danielle discreetly stopped Jason.

“I have a friend I would like you to meet,” she said quietly, handing him a piece of paper. “I said you would find her during the first intermission. You won’t make a liar of me, will you?”

“You aren’t pushing me into a box are you, Lady Geller?”

“I wouldn’t dare,” she said with a sly smile.

As Danielle left him behind, Jason glanced at the piece of paper. It listed directions to a room on the second floor, one down from the Geller’s third-floor private box. Walking through the hallways was like walking through an art gallery, with paintings and recessed sculptures carefully lit with delicate magical lighting.

He found the room listed on the paper, where a plaque declared it the Edith Vane Memorial Conference Room. He frowned at the name. There was one aura that he could sense within, with the overpowering strength of silver rank. He considered knocking but just went in instead.

The conference room looked like just that, with a long table surrounded by chairs. Soft lamps hung from the ceiling, filling the room with warm light. Along one wall, windows looked out over the city. The guild district was mostly low buildings, with the Adventure and Magic Society campuses looming large, along with the concert hall itself. The sun had set during the first performance and street lamps lit thoroughfares below, lighting up the bustling nightlife.

The room’s single occupant had her back to him as she looked out over the city. She wore a formal dress in the local style; a loose draping of layered colours, cinched with flattering strategy. Chestnut hair spilled down her back, with a pair of tapered ears poking out to reveal her as an elf. Jason couldn’t have hidden his presence if he wanted to, but she gave no reaction to his entrance at all.

Jason took a bottle and a glass from his inventory, pouring out a measure of sweet, green liqueur.

“Drink?” he offered.

She held out a hand without turning around. The glass tugged itself from Jason’s grip and flew across the room into hers, without so much as spilling a drop.

“Thank you,” she said and took a sip. “This is one of Mr Norwich’s private concoctions. He’s a friend of a friend, yes?”

“He is,” Jason said. Norwich was an alchemist friend of Jory’s who had been trying to brew a drink that would get through Jason’s poison resistance. Norwich didn’t want to turn to bronze-rank ingredients, partly as a challenge and partly to prevent a bronze-rank hangover.

Jason took out another glass and poured a drink for himself, then wandered over to stand next to the woman. He looked out at the city instead of at her.

“Do you know who I am, Mr Asano?”

“I only really know the one elf. We don’t get along.”

“The priestess of purity.”

“That’s the one,” Jason said. “Very severe woman. Powerful, Aryan vibe. Sexy, but you know you really shouldn’t. Like an evil lady torturer.”

“You think speaking a little nonsense is going to put me off kilter?”

“You think bringing me to a room named after a family I killed half of will do the same to me?”

She turned to look at him, then back to the window.

"Forty-one contracts in eighteen days, if we count adventure board notices," she said. "You've been a busy man."

“It feels like I have a lot of catching up to do.”

“Can you keep this pace up?”

“Not unless someone makes me a magical scooter.”

“Is that some manner of transport from your world?”

“It is,” Jason said. “I think it would be nice. Riding along the embankment roads, the wind in my face.”

“I did hear about your distaste for heidels. Quite unusual, for an adventurer.”

“Eccentricity is the prerogative of the wealthy and powerful. I barely qualify for either, but I’m working on it.”

“Then you should make more lucrative investments than in a man who has dedicated his life to healing the poor.”

“I’ll muddle through,” Jason said. “Did you want anything more than to point out how much attention you’re paying, Director? This intermission won’t last forever.”

Elspeth Arella was director of the Greenstone Branch of the Adventure Society. Rufus had pointed her out, along with any number of other local notables, during their spate of social outings the month previous.

“You’ll find, Mr Asano, that these intermissions last as long as certain people want them to.”

“I see.”

“I’m satisfied with how you have been conducting yourself since joining the Adventure Society.”

“Awakening stone satisfied?”

“I would not take your self-satisfaction as a reasonable measure of mine, Mr Asano. I especially do not care for some mid-level Magic Society functionary contacting my office to request a meeting with a member of my society, one not even a month clear of assessment."

“Couldn’t they just come and find me directly?” Jason asked innocently.

She turned to give him a withering glare, her aura crushing his into the floor. He nonchalantly sipped at his drink, still looking out the window.

"Take a break from contracts for a little while, Mr Asano. You've been clearing out the backlog I use to prod some of our members who don't share your work ethic. I will see you are assigned appropriate contracts; just check the desk at the jobs hall. If you do well, you can expect to see a second star in the near future."

“You’re the boss,” Jason said.

“You don’t strike me as a man who pays much heed to authority,” she told him.

“I’m not big on abdicating moral responsibility,” he said.

She drained the glass and handed it back to him.

“You have a taste for the sweet things, Mr Asano. You drink like an elf.”

“You can knock back the plonk pretty well,” Jason said. “You drink like an Aussie.”

“I have no idea what an ‘Aussie’ is,” she said.

“I am, Director. I am.”

***

“A friend of yours,” Jason whispered to Danielle as he took a seat back in the viewing box.

“A new friend,” Danielle said, “but I think, a good one.”

***

The art-lined public corridors of the concert hall worked their way around the circular building. There were plenty of concert goers taking in the art during the second intermission, Jason included. Drink in hand, he meandered down a hallway, alone. He stopped to consider a painting of a barren desert wasteland. It was impressionistic in style, reminding Jason of his earliest days in his new world. A woman joined him in examining it. He spared her a glance before turning back to the picture.

He sensed no aura from her at all. His aura senses weren’t the sharpest, but to hide it completely meant she was probably higher rank than he was. She looked to be in her early twenties, by which point any decent adventurer hit bronze rank. Not many got a late start like Jason. She had the olive skin of a local, her delicate features an effortless, dangerous beauty. Dark hair cascaded over her shoulders to a gown that was elegance in cream silk.

“Mediocre,” the woman critiqued the painting in front of them. “They hang the superior works in the restricted lounges.”

“I like it,” Jason said. “It looks how the desert feels.”

“You’ve spent some time there?” she asked.

“A little,” Jason said. “It reminds me of parts of my homeland.”

“And where is that?” she asked.

“Very far from here,” he said wistfully.

She turned her head towards him.

“You’re Jason Asano.”

Jason kept his eyes on the painting.

“I’m not sure you understand how introductions work,” he said. “I already know who I am.”

She frowned, and he felt a bronze-rank aura blaze out to suppress his own. He had been told that was the very height of rudeness, but he kept being subjected to it. He thought there might be a lesson there, but he had no interest in learning it. Absently, he wondered if he was becoming a masochist.

“A beautiful woman invading my personal space,” he said, unconcerned. “Should I be scared or delighted?”

The corners of his mouth turned up in a sly smile.

“Perhaps,” he mused, “the most delicious choice would be both.”

“Do you want to get slapped?” the woman asked him.

He turned his head to face her.

“Would you think less of me if I said yes?” he asked.

She arched an eyebrow.

“My name is Cassandra Mercer,” she said.

“Ah,” Jason said, turning back to the painting. “Now I see.”

“See what?” she asked.

“Everything.”

“Oh really?”

“If Thadwick had sent you,” Jason said, “then this would be an alley and you would be much less pretty. I imagine you are here at your mother’s behest. You strike me as someone very good at satiating urges of curiosity.”

“If I struck you, Mr Asano, you’d know all about it. And speaking of my mother, I’ve heard you said some unkind things in her regard.”

Jason turned again from the painting to give her a sheepish smile.

“For that,” he said, “please convey my unreserved apologies. I didn’t know who your brother was at the time, and he actually asked me if I knew who his father was. You don’t walk away from a line like that.”

“A man of dignity would.”

Jason let out a sinister chuckle.

“Yes, I imagine one would.”

“I did make some discreet inquiries about you,” Cassandra acknowledged. “There was enticingly little to find. You have me at a disadvantage.”

Jason raised his eyebrows at that claim.

“Miss Mercer, you have power, influence, connections, wealth and knowledge. What possible advantage could I have over you?”

“Mystery,” she said. “Isn’t that the greatest advantage?”

“Mystery is an illusory shield,” Jason said. “The moment the veil is pierced, your vulnerabilities become exposed. And there is only one arena in which vulnerability becomes a weapon.”

“And what arena is that?” she asked.

His face showed disappointment.

“It’s truly a shame you have to ask,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me, I believe the intermission will end soon.”

He left without looking back. She watched him walk away, a contemplative expression on her face. She left in the other direction.

***

In their family’s private booth, Cassandra sat down next to her mother. Thalia Mercer looked more like her daughter’s sister than her parent, the age-defying power of her silver-rank essences.

“Well?” Thalia asked.

“He’s dangerous,” Cassandra said. “Don’t let Thadwick anywhere near him.”

“Thadwick isn’t the problem,” Thalia said. “The problem is how much trouble your father will cause to salve your brother’s pride. You know how he is about his male heir.”

“That could be a concern given Asano’s connection to Rufus Remore,” Cassandra said. “Have you found out any more about his background?”

“I have confirmed that Remore is training him,” Thalia said, “with no small amount of dedication. As for where Asano came from, it’s like he fell out of the sky.”

“I’ve heard something else,” Cassandra said. “I wasn’t going to say anything until I confirmed it.”

“Oh?”

“You’ll recall that Remore and his companions undertook an expedition out of the city,” Cassandra said.

“The Vane problem,” Thalia said. “I always disliked Cressida.”

“They went at the behest of the Church of Purity. Took one of the church’s healers along with them. A girl from the Lasalle family.”

“You know her?”

“I do. Anisa. Zealous girl. Dangerously committed.”

“What does she have to say?”

“I can’t approach her directly,” Cassandra said. “She thinks I comport myself in a sinful manner.”

“I should hope so,” Thalia said. “That’s where all the fun is.”

“What I’m hearing from my sources in the church of purity,” Cassandra said, “is that Anisa left Remore’s group after some stranger with dark powers joined them.”

“Interesting,” Thalia said. “That fits with something I heard about Remore believing he bungled the contract. That he would have failed if not for the intervention of someone else.”

“I heard much the same,” Cassandra said, “but how could that be Asano? I’ve already confirmed that he came to the city with no skills at all. Remore and his companions trained Asano for weeks just to get him to a minimum standard.”

“You said dark powers,” Thalia said. “Asano is an affliction specialist.”

“Certainly enough to put a priestess of Purity right off,” Cassandra said, “but there are still incongruities. My instincts tell me there’s more to this.”

“Trust your instincts, dear,” Thalia said. “Find out what you can.”

“Of course. Steps have already been taken.”

“For the moment,” Thalia said, “is it worth you taking the time to beguile him?”

“It might be worth the effort,” Cassandra said, “but not worth the risk.”

“Oh?” Thalia prompted.

“He treated the full suppression of my aura like it was the pleasant cool of the evening.”

“That’s certainly unusual,” Thalia said. “And you aren’t normally so crude as to use your aura like that.”

“I was trying to throw him off-balance,” Cassandra said, “but there’s something strange about him. It’s like he lives off-balance. Talking with him feels like teetering on the edge of something I don’t understand.”

Thalia glanced at her daughter from under an arched eyebrow.

“What?” Cassandra asked.

“Nothing, dear,” Thalia said, turning her gaze to the stage, a slight smile playing across her lips. They sat in silence for a few moments before Cassandra spoke again.

“Mother?”

“Yes, dear?”

“When does vulnerability become a weapon?”

Thalia chuckled, quietly, prompting an irritated look from Cassandra.

“Vulnerability is a weapon of seduction, dear,” Thalia said. “Tricky to use, but devastating, if wielded well. Perhaps Thadwick isn’t the only one I should keep away from this young man.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mother.”

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Shirtaloon

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