Jason walked through the halls of the cloud palace. Far from just white cloud-stuff, the walls, floors and ceilings were marked-out in sunset shades of rich blues, purples, oranges and golds. In some areas it was startlingly vibrant; in others, soft and subdued. Everything glowed with its own light, which Emir had told Jason was absorbed sunlight the palace could store-up and distribute as needed. The floors underfoot had a springiness that was still very stable, as if a very sensible engineer had been forced to design a bouncy castle. The total effect was like walking through a fairy tale.
A full wing of the cloud palace was dedicated to guest suites and Jason walked from his own to that in which Emir had placed Belinda and Sophie. The wide door was white, with the edges marked out in blue. Next to it was a small, circular patch of gold in the wall, which he pressed a finger into. It felt like pressing into a soft, downy doona.
He heard a pleasant chime from the other side of the door, like tinkling water. A few moments later, the door became translucent, revealing Sophie standing on the other side. She was wearing dark, practical clothing and her entire posture screamed the opposite of welcome.
“You’ll want to come in then,” she said, her tone trying to convince him otherwise.
“It’s time we had a talk,” Jason said, “but we don’t have to do it here. The palace is full of places for a nice chat.”
“It’ll be nice, will it?”
“Probably not, now you ask. I brought sandwiches if that helps.”
Sophie jerked her head in a reluctant invitation and Jason walked inside. Jason's suite was larger than any place Jason had ever lived in and Belinda and Sophie were occupying one that seemed very similar.
“Terrace,” she directed him, although not heading that way herself.
He could see the terrace through the walls, which had their opacity shifted to the point of being invisible air. It tussling Jason’s hair as he walked through it.
“That’s indoor/outdoor living,” he murmured to himself as he walked over to the terrace furniture. He took out a tray of sandwiches, plates, glasses and a pitcher of blended fruit drink before sitting down.
Belinda and Sophie came out just as he was pouring drinks. Belinda was dressed in light, summery clothes. She immediately sat down and grabbed a sandwich. Sophie didn’t reach for the food, looking at it with suspicion.
“Is this bread from Pantero’s?” Belinda asked after swallowing her first bite. Pantero’s was a bakery in Old City and had the best bread Jason had found in the city.
“It is,” he said brightly. “My friend Beth told me about it. They’ve been operating there for an incredibly long time. Her grandmother used to go there as a girl when their family owned that whole part of the city.”
“You’re talking about the Cavendish family?”
“Didn’t they leave the Cavendish district the better part of two centuries ago?”
“Something like that,” Jason said. “That’s the adventuring life, I suppose. You live long enough to see history for yourself.”
The easy smile fell from his face.
“If it doesn’t get you killed first,” he added darkly, clearly talking to himself.
“Did something happen when you went away?” Belinda asked.
“A friend of mine died,” he said.
“A close friend?”
“As close as I have in this world. She taught me so much about being an adventurer.”
“She taught you to fight?” Sophie asked.
“No, that was another friend, Rufus. He taught me to fight like an adventurer. Farrah taught me to live like one.”
He smiled, sadly.
“She’d call me out when I started talking out my backside. Which you may come to find is pretty often.”
He brushed the back of his hand over his eyes and gave them a grin that was only a little forced.
“None of that matters to you, though,” he told them. “You have your own troubles to deal with, which is why I’m here.”
“I thought your clever plan collapsed in a heap,” Sophie said.
“It did,” Jason said, “but times, as the song goes, are a-changing.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jason said, waving a dismissive hand. “As it stands, I see this going one of four ways. The pair of you will have to choose between them.”
“And if we don’t like your options?” Sophie asked.
“That would be option one,” Jason said. “You put me and my schemes behind you, which is reasonable, given how they’ve gone thus far. You walk out of the cloud palace and seize your own fate. Option two is similar, but more appealing, I think. You still walk away, but we send you far from here first. Our host has someone that can send you places so far from here it’s not worth the effort of looking for you.”
“A teleporting power,” Sophie said.
“She opens portals, which is how we came and went just recently. Her name is Hester, and she seems quite nice. You can talk to her to pick out a destination, then we send you off. We’ll send you off with a fist full of cash but that is all you will have, aside from each other. I imagine a couple of resourceful women like yourselves will have no trouble starting fresh.”
“A clean slate is all we’ve been looking for,” Belinda said.
“You can have it,” Jason said, “if that’s what you choose. Option three is to upgrade who is standing between you and Lucian Lamprey. You’ve seen that my efforts haven’t worked out as well as I thought they would. Emir, on the other hand, is all the protection you could ask for.”
“Why would he help us?” Sophie asked.
“The way you fight. The way we fight. He’s interested in the origins of that style. If he finds out that you use it, I’m certain he’d fully take you under his protection. He’d want you to help him trace back its history, but I don’t imagine that would be an onerous task.”
“Is that how you know him?” Belinda asked. “You’re helping him find the history of the fighting style?”
“No. I met Emir because he’s a friend of a friend. He doesn’t know that either of us can use the style, but I’m of little use to him because I learned it from a skill book.”
“You learned that from a skill book?” Sophie asked, her expression turning curious as it broke out of stern suspicion for the first time since he arrived.
“I’ve fought people who used skill books before,” she said. “Fighting you didn’t feel like that.”
“I’ve had additional training to fully incorporate those skills,” Jason said. “Unless you learned to fight from a skill book too, turning to Emir might be a good option for you.”
“Why haven’t you told him already?” Sophie asked.
“Not mine to tell.”
“You expect us to believe that?”
“No,” he said, giving them a smile instead of trying to convince them further.
“What’s option four?” Belinda asked.
Before answering, Jason picked up a sandwich and took a generous bite, chewing thoroughly before swallowing. He washed it down by emptying his glass, then slowly poured himself another.
“Really?” Sophie asked and he flashed her a grin.
“I got this from a guy who makes blended fruit drinks here on the Island,” he said. “Not cheap, but what is on the Island?”
Belinda sipped at her glass curiously, eyes going wide at the sweet, pleasant taste. Sophie glared at her, leaving her own glass untouched.
“There was meant to be an auction while I was gone,” Jason said. “All the big spenders were away, though, so they ended up cancelling it. That means the brokers have a few essences and awakening stones available for relatively reasonable prices.”
“Why are you talking about essences?” Sophie asked. “I don’t care how reasonable the prices are; they’re way beyond what we have. We weren’t stealing for the money and margins were slim because high-end jewellery and the like is easy to trace. After expenses, we were barely breaking even. Are you offering us a loan?”
“Option four,” Jason said, “is the original plan. I take you, Sophie, as an indenture. That eliminates your fugitive status, meaning that with a couple more essences, you can sign on to the Adventure Society. You’ll be shielded from Lucian Lamprey and Cole Silva for good. At least, for the purposes they originally intended. Nothing I’ve heard about either suggests they are above petty revenge.”
“You didn’t answer her question,” Belinda said. “How are we meant to afford essences?”
“A loan would not be an inaccurate characterisation,” Jason said. “Joining the Adventure Society would offer you many protections, including from me, but the indenture would still stand.”
“You want me to work it off,” Sophie said.
“Exactly. And once you're an adventurer, you'll find opportunities abound. If you're willing to work for them.”
“What does that mean?” Sophie asked.
“I’m not entirely sure, to be honest,” Jason said. “There is some kind of competition coming up, organised by our host. He has told me that there are essences and awakening stones to be had. Even if you don’t get three for your friend, here, you’ll still be an adventurer. It would only be a matter of time.”
“How would that even work?” Belinda asked. “I thought indenture was off the table.”
“I told you earlier: times are changing. You probably didn’t hear, shuttered away like this, but the big expedition went wrong. Very wrong. A lot of adventurers died, which is why we left to help.”
“Were you any help?” Sophie asked.
“Sophie!” Belinda scolded.
“You seem too weak to help a big adventurer expedition,” Sophie said, unrepentant. “You barely caught me.”
“You’re right,” Jason said. “Mostly I just told people where to put up tents until some silver-ranker got rid of me.”
“So what does this expedition have to do with the indenture?” Belinda asked.
“Because it went wrong,” Jason said, “there's going to be an inquiry. There's a Continental Council that oversees Adventure Society business continent-wide. After the mess that happened, they're sending a team here to conduct some kind of audit on the whole Adventure Society branch.”
“I get it,” Sophie said. “People will actually have to follow the rules for once.”
“At least for a small window of time,” Jason said. “It’ll be back to business soon enough but until then, the director won’t be able to sell out the Society’s legal agreement with the city. Which means I can ‘recapture’ you and the indenture hearing is back on.”
“Why?” Sophie asked. “Essences, indenture hearings. Why would you do any of that for us? Are you trying to tell me that Jory is such a good friend to you that you’d go this far over some girl he likes?”
“You know I’m sitting right here,” Belinda said.
“I’m not sure you’d believe me if I told you why,” Jason said. “I’d guess you believe maybe one word in ten coming out of my mouth.”
“If that,” Sophie said. “Tell us anyway. You learn a lot about a person from how they lie.”
Jason chuckled, leaned back in his chair and took another long drink. The amused half-smile he used to mask his emotions was replaced by a slightly sad, sober expression.
“When I first came here,” he said, “I was lost. More lost than you can imagine. I knew no one; nothing made sense. I was tired, beaten and had people trying to kill me, all while doubting my own sanity. My friends helped me get on my feet. They taught me, supported me. Put up with me. They helped me take control of my life.”
He paused for a long time, looking out at the ocean. Sophie was about to say something, but Belinda gestured to wait.
“One of them is dead now,” he said. “I think she would like me trying to do the same for someone else. Or maybe she’d yell at me and tell me to sort my own problems out before looking to someone else’s.”
He smiled sadly, but genuinely, his eyes twinkling with moisture. He wiped them and stood up.
“I’ll leave the lunch,” he said. “Talk over what you want to do and tell me when you figure it out. Or vanish and tell me nothing. Up to you.”
He headed through the invisible wall of their suite and made for the door.
“How long do we have to decide?” Belinda called after him and he stopped.
“As long as you can convince Emir to have you,” he said. “If you want to be an adventurer, the sooner the better. I’m not the only one who spotted cheap essences, and the next Adventure Society intake is in nine days. We need to have the indenture hearing, pick out some essences and shove them into you before that.”
He left Belinda and Sophie sitting at the table with a bunch of sandwiches and blended fruit drink.
“If he’s a liar, he’s a good one,” Belinda said.
“He is liar,” Sophie said. “And he is a good one.”
“You think he’s playing us? I don’t see what he would get out of that.”
“Some political game we don’t know enough to see.”
“I don’t know,” Belinda said. “Jory and Clive aren’t like the people we usually deal with. Maybe he isn’t either.”
“Does he feel like that to you?”
“No,” Belinda said. “Those two are easy to read. Asano is more like dark water. You see things in there, but you can’t tell if what you saw was real.”
“I’ve seen people like him before,” Sophie said. “They know you won’t believe what they say, so they tell you five stories and let you figure out which is true.”
“And how do you do that?” Belinda asked.
“That's the trap; none of them are.”
“So those options he gave us. You don’t think they’re real options?”
“Maybe,’ Sophie said. “Maybe he wants us to think they’re our only options.”
“Our current options are to leave or hope we don't get kicked out,” Belinda said. “If you have something better than what he's offering, I'm listening.”
“You know I don’t. But I don’t trust him.”
“At this point, we have to trust either him or fate. It wasn't fate that put us in a magic castle. It was him.”
“That’s what he wants us to think,” Sophie said.
“Maybe we can talk to some of the other people here,” Belinda said. “Get a better sense of him.”
“That’s a good idea,” Sophie said. “Information isolation is our biggest weakness right now.”
“That’s our biggest weakness?”
“The biggest one we can do something about. Press Clive about him, next time he comes by. In the meantime, we can find out who else in this place knows him.”
Jason was leaving the cloud palace when he ran into Emir and Constance coming back. They stopped to chat halfway across the platform connecting the cloud palace to the shore.
“Did you talk to my other guests?” Emir asked.
“I just came from there.”
“My guess would be they choose to get sent far from here.”
“The adventuring life not tempting?”
“They don’t trust me,” Jason said. “Probably a smart choice. My first plan didn’t exactly work out.”
“You need to work on that,” he said. “I wasn’t happy to find the camp I put you and Rufus’ friend in charge of being run by some imbecile.”
“You didn’t put us in charge of that camp,” Jason said. “It just kind of worked out that way. Until it didn’t.”
“Are you sure?” Emir asked. “It feels like I put you in charge.”
“You’re the only gold-ranker here,” Jason said. “It probably feels like everything happens because you wanted it to.”
“He’s right,” Constance said. “You didn’t put them in charge.”
“Well, if Constance says so, it must be true. What are you up to now?”
“Does no one believe what I have to say, today? I’m off to see Elspeth Arella. I’m going to explain why the indenture hearing is going to go the way I want.”
Constance, who was normally a detached professional, creased her brow in confusion.
“You know you’re still an iron-ranker, right?” she asked.
“I do,” Jason said.
“And you're going to march into the office of the silver-rank branch director of the Adventure Society and tell her what to do?”
“Which, if I understand correctly, is exactly what you did last time. After which, she immediately played you for a fool.”
“That would be an accurate summation, yes,” Jason said.
“I hope you aren’t going to be throwing around Mr Bahadir’s name.”
“I have a little more decorum than that,” Jason said. “I have my own levers to push, thank you.”
“Very well,” she said, her expression still a warning.
“We’ll let you get to it,” Emir said. “Good luck.”
They parted ways, Emir and Constance returning to the palace. Out of sight from outsiders, Constance’s posture became more relaxed.
“Rufus was right,” Constance said. “That boy is mad.”
“That’s the things about climbing mountains,” Emir said. “The first thing you need is someone foolish enough to try it.”
“I never saw the point of that as a recreational activity,” Constance said. “Putting a suppression collar on yourself and clambering up an edifice? If they’re that keen on danger, why not fight monsters, like regular people?”
“The point is that they are challenging themselves to do what others think can’t be done,” Emir said.
“That man Koenig who used to work for you when I first started. He liked to climb mountains, didn’t he?”
“He did, indeed,” Emir said. “He was quite the enthusiast.”
“What happened to him?”
“He fell off a mountain and died.”
“Don’t a lot of people die trying to climb mountains?”
“Yes,” Emir said. “Yes, they do.”