"You should have killed her."
My brother settled two cubes of sugar neatly in a slotted spoon suspended on the fine lip of his teacup. His gleeful attention turned to the pouring of the tea. The wrinkles on his face pulled back into a smile and a delighted giggle escaped as he watched the shapes melt and fall into each other. Unable to flee, the last remnants of sweetness collapsed under the dark brew.
"Lady Sofia will not be a problem", I said.
Stevan batted a hand in the air, annoyed. "Today maybe, but tomorrow? Emotions fester if left unchecked, sister." He looked up at me, questioning. "Better to snuff the spark before it sets the house on fire, no?"
"I have spoken to the Arvino's principal intelligencer--- "
"You intelligencers and your deals. I still say she betrayed her house and should pay for it with her life--- "
"There may come a time for that", I said, softening my tone. "But I have made the agreement. Adalbert will see she stays out of trouble. She is his responsibility."
My part in the discussion was over. Stevan leaned back in his chair with a look of begrudging acceptance and picked at the blanket laid over his lap.
"That man could use another pair of eyes installed in his head", Stevan harrumphed quietly. In Stevan's view, it was never about the pursuit of a solution, just the end result. For my brother, the fixes I doled out could make many problems in Piltover disappear. Rarely did he consider the choices leading up to those decisions.
I held my cup in one hand and let the other drift absently to my hip, taking comfort in thespooled there. Stevan was partially right. End results were nice, but I much preferred the chase.
I watched Stevan through the steam of my drink. He pursed his lips as if deciding something. The pressure whitened the skin on his chin and highlighted the age spots that crept up past the silk wrapped around his neck.
"There is something else", I said.
"Am I that obvious, sister?"
I think he would have blushed if his weak pulse had allowed it. He smiled painfully instead and pulled a folded piece of paper and a beaded chaplet from a drawer in the desk between us. Stevan rolled his wheeled chair back, coughing with the effort. On the chair, he turned small levers, the modest effort driving little cogs that drove bigger cogs, until the clockwork mechanism pushed the wheels toward me, and him with it.
"Lady Arvino's short-lived engagement was not the only thing uncovered during this mess", he said. "This was found on one of the Baron's men during the clean up."
I set my cup down in its pale saucer and took the scrap of paper and chaplet he offered. I shifted the balance of thebeneath me, and their sharpened points dug deeper into the rich carpet.
The edges of the note were charred, and a greenish hue wicked through the paper from the ragged singe. The chaplet had been well loved; the facets of the glass prayer stones were burnished and smooth.
My brother only said my name like that when he was serious. Or when he wanted something. I unfolded the note, a waft of Zaun's acrid unpleasantness rising with it. I took in the strong lines. The diagramming was neat and orderly, the flowing script precise. My eyes found the artificer's mark just as Stevan confirmed it.
"If Naderi has returned--- "
"Hakim Naderi is gone." The words fell from my mouth, a reflex.
It had been more than just years since the crystallographer had served as lead artificer for our house, it had been a lifetime.
Stevan contemplated his next move. "Sister, you know what this is."
"Yes." I looked down at the paper; the diagram mirrored the mechanical and crystalline construction that pulsed within my chest.
I held my own heart's design.
"We thought them all destroyed. If this exists, others could as well. I could finally be free of this chair", he said. "To walk about my house as the master of his clan should."
"Perhaps it is time to let another take on the responsibility of clan master", I said.
It had been many years since Stevan had been able to navigate the halls on his own. Something his own children and grandchildren never let him forget. This wasn't just a piece of paper and a string of prayers. For Stevan, this was a map to immortality.
"This is only one schematic", I continued. "You believe if we uncover the rest of Naderi's designs, our artificers will be able to recreate his work. There would still be the question of how to power it--- "
I looked at my brother. Time had not been kind to a body born frail. But his eyes, after all these years, his eyes were still like mine, the Ferros blue. That deep cerulean couldn't be watered down by age or ailment. His eyes were the same luminous color as the hex-crystals lighting the drawing I held before me. His gaze pleaded with me now.
"You and I, we have led this house to greater success than Mother and Father ever dreamed", he said. "If your augmentation can be repeated, this success - our success, Camille - it can go on forever. This house will ensure the future of Piltover. Indeed, we will ensure progress for all of Valoran."
Stevan always had a flair for the dramatic. Coupled with his weaker constitution, it had been difficult for our parents to deny him anything.
"I am not the intelligencer for all of Valoran. I may find nothing."
Stevan gave a relieved sigh. "But you will look?"
I nodded and gave him back the schematic, but kept the chaplet, tucking the twisted loops into my pocket. I turned to leave the study.
"And Camille? If he's alive, if you find him--- "
"It will be as it was before", I said, stopping my brother before he could unearth more of the past. "My duty, as always, is to the future of this house."
The late afternoon crowds near the North Wind Commercia still swarmed in anticipation of the Progress Day revels. The people's faces were flushed with the effort of making ready for the city's annual observance of innovation. However, it was not they, but a foreign trader tottering from drink that revealed my second shadow.
"By an's frozen teat", the trader said, frustrated with the press of the crowd. He pushed away those who had stopped to assist him. "I need no help."
Piltover's worker bees thrummed around us, all except for one blonde drone at the edge of the square. I kept her in view as I leaned down to the trader in front of me.
"Then get up", I told him.
The Freljordian looked up at me. His annoyance had him reaching for the carved tusk dagger at his waist. I met his glare and watched it slip down past the hex-crystal in my chest to my bladed legs. The man released his grip on the knife.
"There’s a good boy", I said. "Now get out of my way."
He nodded dumbly. The trader backed away, and the mercantile hive mind of Piltover broke and reformed around him as he stumbled his way across the street. Only my shadow escort remained still, watching me from a distant market stall.
I continued through the crowds, the people parting easily before me. When the opportunity presented itself, I ducked into a blind alley and fired my barbed grapple lines into a high wooden cross brace above the corridor. I drew myself up into the darkness above and waited.
A moment later, my escort entered the alleyway. Her clothes were layered and nondescript enough not to draw attention in the promenade levels of Zaun, but the ornamented whip at her side said Piltover, or at least a very generous sponsor. I let her walk a pace forward into a shaft of light that would blind her. Once she was in position, I dropped in behind, the tips of my blades slipping neatly into the cobblestone gristle.
"Did you lose something, girl?" I said, letting a low growl roll over my whisper.
Her hand crept toward the black leather handle of her whip. She was tempted, but good sense seemed to win out.
"It seems I've found it." The girl raised her open hands to her shoulders. "I bring a message."
I arched an eyebrow.
"From your brother, ma'am", she said.
Stevan's drama was going to be the death of someone if he wasn't careful.
"Give it here."
The girl kept one hand up and used the other to pull a small note from her tightly cuffed sleeve. The wax seal carried the Ferros sigil and Stevan's personal mark.
"Move more than an eyelash, and I will slit your throat", I said.
I opened the note. I could feel my annoyance rise like a fever. Stevan had taken it upon himself to hire me a helper. In case my inquiry stirred up any 'lingering sentimentality' that prevented me from seeing to my duty.
I told myself he meant well, but even after all these years, it seems he did not trust me with Hakim. It was cowardice to hide these feelings behind his lap blanket and not tell me this to my face before I left.
"I should kill you for delivering the insult", I said, weighing her response. "Your name."
"Aviet." She kept her hands and voice even. She was young, not even an augmented finger.
"And you took this assignment knowing the possible consequence of my irritation?"
"Yes, milady", she said. "I hoped if I pleased you, there might be a more... permanent position within your house."
I turned my back to her and began walking out of the alley, giving her an opportunity to come at me if that was truly her intention. I could hear her exhaled breath and a raspy jangle as she brushed the coiled steel of the whip at her side. Her footsteps followed.
"Do we have a destination, milady?"
Church", I said, patting the chaplet in my pocket. "Keep up."
The First Assemblage of thewas technically still within Piltover, but only just. Here, past the Boundary Markets, the pernicious odors of the city below outweighed the celebratory smell of roasting meats and sweet cakes. The Zaun Gray rolled in like a low tide. It lapped at one's legs and condensed along soot-covered merchant awnings into puddles of clouded muck.
I turned to the girl. "You will stay here."
"I'm to follow you", Aviet said. "Your brother's--- "
"You will stay here", I said again, leaving no room for argument. My patience for my brother's game was thinning. "The Glorious Evolved are fervent believers. They do not take kindly to the unaugmented."
I looked over my new assistant, daring her to respond. Aviet shifted her weight slightly to her back foot. She still itched for a fight, to prove herself, but was unsure if this was the moment.
I smiled. "There's time enough for that later, girl."
The entry of the old building gave way to a dim foyer set back from the main hall by an iron lattice. Through the diamond patterns of welded metal, several clusters of yellow-orange therma lamps illuminated the congregation. The 50 or so people there murmured in rolling unison, giving the impression that a great machine breathed beneath them. Velveteen fabrics in dark colors were draped over the parts of their bodies that were still flesh, while their metal arms and augmented legs were exposed to the warm light. Here, high-end augmentations mixed with those of a more utilitarian function. Piltovan or Zaunite, it didn't matter to the Glorious Evolved. These designations were secondary to their higher pursuit. In the center of the group, a young woman with mechanical elbows reached out to a man with a sleek metal jaw.
"The body is frail", she said to the man. "The flesh is weak."
"The machine drives us forward", the group responded together. The words echoed in empty air above them. "The future is progress."
I hadn't come to bear witness. I kept to the shadows, ignored by the augmented flock, and continued my search.
I heard the soft gurgling of Brother Zavier's esophilter before I saw the man. His balding head was tucked down to his chest as far as his breathing apparatus would allow. He was kindling a few spark lights on the corners of the side chapel's altar.
Watching over him was an imposing figure outlined in cold lead and frosted glass. The Gray Lady, holy patron of the Glorious Evolved. The stained-glass window glowed from within, lit eerily by the arc lamps outside.
I approached the shrine. There were jars of organs. Single eyeballs floated like pickled eggs. Bundled offerings were wrapped in linen, some of it fine, some of it oily and ragged. A few flies buzzed among the discarded pieces of the congregation. One of the wrapped bundles moved. A little plague rat poked its nose out shortly after, daring me to take away its prize. The gauze of the newfound treasure caught on the edge, and the rest of the bundle tumbled away, revealing a desiccated finger. The rat scampered down, but Brother Zavier shooed it back into the darkness.
"Camille", he said. I could hear the smile in his voice underneath the wet burble. "Have you come for contemplation?"
"Information, brother." I pulled the chaplet from my pocket, the glass beads tangling with the wire chain.
Brother Zavier turned to face me. His eyes were also under glass, magnified like those in the jars, although unlike those, his darted with life. I handed him the chaplet.
"Where did you find this?" He shook his head as he inspected it and then clucked his tongue. "Never mind, I should know by now not to ask those questions."
He went back to attending his votive lights. "Several weeks ago, I met a man carrying this. He came to light a spark and ask her favor for the coming Progress Day." Brother Zavier nodded toward the figure depicted in the window. The Gray Lady's cloak was a mosaic of ash-violet glass, oxidized cogs, and blackened pistons. Her epithet was often invoked when an inventor felt at a loss due to inability or failure. Hers was a blessing that often required sacrifice.
"He had the tanned skin of the desert dwellers. Older than the usual foreign apprentas who pursue the auditions", Brother Zavier continued.
"Do you know which clan he sought?"
"He said he was staying at a pay house near Clan Arvino." The factory hum of the congregation fell away. "This evening's testifying is over. My duties call."
Brother Zavier patted my hand. He gathered his dark robes and made his way back to the main hall, leaving me to my contemplations.
Hakim had returned, but had not sent word. Not that the last conversation we shared had detailed how best to reach one another. I picked up the brittle finger from the floor and placed it back with the other offerings. It annoyed me, the idea of him petitioning like an ordinary apprenta. Hakim was spheres above Clan Arvino's artificers. Through the cut-glass triangles and diamonds of the side chapel's window, I could see Aviet standing beneath a streetlamp. She was still following orders... for the moment.
My indulgent silence was broken by a shuffling scrape, small, but much larger than a rat. I felt the hex-crystal in my chest vibrate in anticipation as I turned to face the threat.
"Are you her?" a small voice asked.
From the darkened corner near a metal bench, a little girl stepped forward. She could not have been more than six or seven.
"Are you the Gray Lady?" she asked again. Closer now, my hex-crystal pulse slowed, lighting her face in a soft, blue glow. In one arm, she carried a bundle wrapped in gauze, all too similar to the ones stacked behind me. The opposite sleeve of her dark dress hung empty.
Balanced as I was, I towered over her. I knelt down, bringing my face to her level, and gently touched the metal bench to arc some of the crystalline energy off my fingers. The girl watched the anxious spark reflect in the polished metal of my blades.
"Did you give up your legs for Progress Day?" she asked.
The Glorious Evolved celebrated the old Zaunite tradition of sacrificing something personal for Progress Day in the hopes the next iteration of invention would be better. It was a practice that could be traced back to the old days of the city, when the people of Zaun had to face rebuilding their lives after the devastation of 'the incident'. The wealth and growth of Piltover on top of those scarred ruins served as evidence to many that the tradition had merit.
I looked at the little girl. It was not my legs that I had given up on a Progress Day long ago, but something far more dear.
"I chose these", I said. "Because they better served my purpose."
The girl nodded. The blue light between us had dimmed, but I could still see the black spider veins on the little fingers that clutched her bundle. It was rare for the blight to affect one so young in this part of the city. The Glorious Evolved often took in the sick, seeing the removal of dying flesh as a key to transforming a person's life and faith through technology.
"Brother Zavier said it gets easier", she offered.
"It does", I told her.
The physicker attending her had been remiss in his duty. The girl should have had both arms taken at once. I'm sure the surgeon explained away that lack of courage when holding the knife as a kindness, but waiting would do the girl no favors. If she did not have the other arm cut away soon, those spider veins would creep closer to her chest, eventually blackening her heart. The chances were slim she would live to see the next Progress Day.
The young girl bit her lip, hesitating before the next thought. In that moment, my eye caught movement through one of the larger stained-glass panels. I stood and watched several dark shapes approach. Aviet was no longer alone.
I stepped into the dim corridor to make my way outside.
"Do you miss them?" the little girl called out.
I didn't turn back. I knew the girl's hopeful face wavered like the row of spark lights on the altar. I knew because I remembered my own trembling doubt. So many years ago, Hakim had demanded of me a similar question. My heart? Him? Would I miss any of it? I touched my hex-crystal augment, assuring myself it still vibrated evenly. Just to the right of the Ferros sigil's angular engraving I felt a small, fluid lettering. It was the mark of Hakim Naderi.
"No", I lied.
Aviet was ready to fight, her blonde hair lit up like a halo under the streetlight. There were five men circling her like dock sharks. Their utilitarian augmentations cut jagged shapes in their silhouettes.
"Give us that pretty thing, and maybe we won't kill you slow like", the smallest one slurred loudly, eyeing the whip in Aviet's hand. All the vexations of the day compounded, from Stevan's brotherly chiding to my new unnecessary companion to the thought of Hakim having returned. I could feel the pent-up energy crackle down my spine, impatient to find release. A pompous miscreant and his dog-eared crew would do nicely.
"You didn't say please", I called out.
The mouthy one with the twitching nose looked up. "Ay, boys", he said. "No worries now. Looks like there'll be more than enough to go around."
"Nice of you to join us, milady", Aviet said.
"Yes, we was about to indulge in a little Progress Day remuneration", one of the big ones with a copper augmentation said. His twin-sized partner tugged the brim of a dirty woolen cap over his fluid-filled eyepiece and sneered. "Your Grace."
My arrival had distracted them, allowing their circle to become lopsided and a small breach to open up.
It was more than enough.
Speed and decisive thinking have always been my most cooperative allies, and I sprinted in toward the break, catching the lanky one across the shoulder with a long. My bladed leg cut through the dirty tweed, a line of darker red blossoming quickly in the cloth, but it was the arcing blue of the subsequent hex-crystal energy that knocked him unconscious.
The chubby one and the one with the Sump accent took to Aviet, while the tall ones approached me. I let a dark smile spread across my face; after so much contemplation, this was exactly what I needed.
My two dance partners were not amused. Both had heavyset shoulders as thick as the double bells that rang out over the Iron Sand Commercia. They still had not decided who would approach first, and their indecision was my opportunity. I would take them both.
I stepped in toward the one with the eyepiece, letting my back legdown the coiled tubes of his copper-plated brother. He had misjudged my reach and scrambled to reconnect the sliced hoses to a sputtering chempump. A low rendered his partner's leg useless from the knee down. I waited a moment for the copper one to come back with his working arm. They always thought they could outmaneuver the second .
They were always wrong.
"Now collect your broken bits, and get out of my sight", I told him. His brother was already limping into the shadows, his worthless leg dragging in the muck.
The metal of Aviet's whip rang out in the alleyway. There was another wire-taut snap, and sparks rained down on the chubby one as he cowered, his face to the cobbles, tears streaking his grime-covered cheeks. That was only four.
I looked around. The rodent-faced one with the oversized ego was missing. I found him slinking back toward the Assemblage Hall.
The barb of mysunk deep in the angled stone above the hall's entrance. I in quickly on my Sump rat, tucking his and my weight together into a tidy roll.
When we came to a stop, I was on top. His fetid breathing was fast and shallow.
"Did you really think you could run?" I asked, low and even.
His head shook out a terrified no, but his greasy hand fingered a stick knife at his belt. He squinted from the blinding radiance of my hex-crystal so near his face. He was desperate to drive the knife into my thigh, anything to get me away from him.
"Go ahead", I whispered.
His eyes widened in surprise, but he didn't let my permission linger long. The tip of his knife pierced the dark leather, but went no further, stopped by the metal of my leg. Surprise registered on his face just as his hand slipped down with the force of the blow, driving the flesh of his closed fist along the edge of his own blade.
He did not swallow his scream like the others, and it rang out on the damp stone of the buildings.
I looked up as it echoed from the Assemblage Hall. The stained-glass window of the Gray Lady towered above us. A small face was pressed to the colored glass, watching.
I leaned in and let the blade at my knee almost kiss the fluttering pulse in the neck of the man beneath me.
"Hunt here again, and I will end you", I promised.
Realizing he had been granted an extra life, my prey pulled himself away in an awkward crab walk. Once there was enough distance between us, he got up, clutching his dripping red hand, and ran for some dark hole to lick his wounds.
I could hear Aviet winding the metal of her whip.
"I heard you didn't have a heart under all those mechanics", she said, her interest sparked. "Perhaps the rumors are mistaken."
"Mind your manners, girl", I told her coldly as I walked out of the alley. "Or I'll mind them for you."
The Boundary Markets and the Assemblage Hall were always steeped in shadows, overwhelmed by so much progress towering above them. But it had truly become night by the time we reached the pay house nearest Clan Arvino. After some proper encouragement, the innkeeper became quite generous with his detailed ledger, although his handwriting left much to be desired. Naderi was either somewhere in the basement or on the third floor. I left Aviet to the cellars, while agave me access to an open window on the third floor.
The small forge at the back of the room had burned down to embers smoldering under a crust of ash. I crouched through the window and stepped inside. The room was dim, with only a single lamp lighting a small desk. But it was the man asleep at the desk that caught my breath, the curls of dark hair and the desert-tanned skin. The vibration of my hex-crystal stuttered. Perhaps he, too, had stalled time for himself.
"Hakim", I called out softly. The shape at the desk moved, waking slowly from sleep. He stretched with the grace of a cat and turned. The young man wiped the sleep from his eyes in disbelief. He was so much like Hakim it hurt.
But it was not him.
"Mistress Ferros?" He shook himself more awake. "What are you doing here?"
"Have we met?" I asked.
"No, not exactly, milady", he said, almost embarrassed. "But I have seen your face often."
He went back to his desk and shuffled some papers, pulling out one that was slightly older and more worn than the others. He handed it to me.
The lines were strong, the inkwork neat and orderly, and the shading precise. It was Hakim's work, but it was no diagram. Instead, it was a drawing of my face. I couldn't recall posing for it. He must have sketched it from memory after working in the lab one night. My hair was down. I was smiling. I was a woman in love.
The sting was so sharp, I couldn't help but take a breath. I didn't say anything to the young man in front of me now. I couldn't.
"It could have been drawn yesterday, milady", he said, filling the silence.
He meant it as a compliment, but it just magnified the acres of time that stretched on in my mind.
"My uncle carried this with him until he passed."
"Your uncle, he's dead?"
"Yes, Hakim Naderi. Do you remember him?" he asked.
"Yes." The word stuck in my mouth and wrapped itself around a selfish question I had carried for far too long. One I was never sure if I wanted the answer to. If the pain of memory was to overwhelm me with a thousand little cuts, better to open them all at once and be done with it. I looked at the young man who looked too much like Hakim. "Tell me, did your uncle ever marry?"
"No, milady", he said, unsure if he was going to disappoint me. "Uncle Hakim said that to love your work was more than we could ask for in life."
I had wept all my tears long ago, and so there were none left to come to me now. I picked up the stack of papers and set the drawing of my face on top. The lines of ink wavered in the blue light of the machine that replaced my heart. What I was. What I gave up. All the sharp-toothed sacrifice that made me who I am today. All of it was rendered in painstaking detail. I could hold the past, but never have it again.
"This is all of it? All of the work?" My words came out a dark whisper.
"Yes, milady, but... " His voice trailed off in disbelieving horror as I set the bundle on the banked coals and blew gently. The oiled parchment ignited and quickly burned a red-orange. I watched the past bubble and darken until nothing but cinders and dust was left. It was the young man that pulled me back to the present.
Hakim's nephew shook his head slowly, his disbelief palpable; I understood how the shock of losing so much so quickly could be overwhelming. He was numb. I escorted him down the stairs to the street below. He adjusted the leather satchel on his shoulder and stared at the cobbles.
He looked back to me; the air of defeat was replaced by one of growing fear. Having been so lost in my own past, I took less notice of the shadows on the street. I barely heard the metallic jangle of wire. The lash of the whip came fast, binding my arms to my side.
"That's far enough, milady", Aviet said. Her voice was smug. I watched her look Hakim's nephew over.
"Is this what my brother paid you for?" I had suspected as much. Aviet had been watching for an opportunity all evening. My distraction at finding Hakim's nephew seemed as good an opportunity as any.
"Yes", she said. "All of us."
Two big men stepped onto the cobbles, their repaired augmentations catching the streetlight. The chubby one and his little rat-faced counterpart followed behind. They were the same men from the alley behind the Assemblage Hall. The chubby one shoved a knife at Hakim's nephew, while the other smiled his rodent smile and bound and gagged the young apprenta.
The juggernaut with the newly connected chemtubes stepped forward. His fingers twitched, eager to return the violence I had visited on him earlier.
"Mind the crystals, Emef", Aviet said. The whip tightened, and I felt metal cuffs close around my wrists. She walked around to stand next to Hakim's nephew. "We're to collect them and Naderi, or no one gets paid."
Was all of this for my brother's jealousy? I knew Stevan felt the tide of years slipping away and saw me standing near immortal in all of it. But he truly had no idea the cost of my duty to the family. Could he not see what it would cost him now?
"And the rest?" the copper man asked, smiling at me as if he were about to tuck into a Progress Day feast.
"All yours", replied Aviet.
"It was nice of you, Your Grace, to demonstrate your talents earlier", he said as he pulled his augmented arm back into a fist. He obviously felt no need to hide the telegraph when facing a bound opponent. His grin widened. "It will make this go much quicker."
The metal knuckles connected with my jaw. He expected me to fight it, but instead, I let the punch take me down to a knee. The inertia forced his heavily augmented arm to come down to the ground with me. I tasted my own blood on my lips, but it was he who was off balance for the moment. The rest of the gang's prattle went silent.
"You haven't seen all my tricks", I said as I stood.
The energy of my hex-crystals coursed through me, the power building up like a wall. The juggernaut's brother attempted to step in, bringing his own augmented fist down on the glowing buffer. Thepopped and hissed, but held. It was my turn to smile.
Aviet grabbed the trailing handle of the wire whip, hoping to shake me free of the energy field. She yanked hard to pull me off balance. She had no idea how long I'd lived my life on a knife's edge.
My hands still bound, I leapt forward into a spinning kick, slitting the throat of the second juggernaut and coming down to impale the first. The tail of the whip snaked out of Aviet's hand. She called to the two who still held Hakim's nephew.
"Abandon the job, and I'll kill you both."
"Do you still think I have a heart now?" I asked her, her two goliaths lying dead at my feet.
Aviet was unsure, but stood her ground.
"I am the sword and shield of Clan Ferros", I told her, ice enunciating every word. "My brother seeks to kill me to extend his brittle life for a few more selfish moments. His desires have betrayed his duty and our house."
I felt the crystals pulse faster.
And you will not live to see the morning", I said.
I channeled the crystal's energy for a moment, building its intensity until the shield that had once surrounded me became an electrified. There would be no escape.
I leapt into the air, higher than before, and came down hard, shattering the metal that bound my wrists and the cobbles between us. The force of the impact knocked over Aviet, her two remaining thugs, and Naderi's nephew. The street had ruptured in a crater, and dust hung in the air. The fight Aviet had been looking for since we met, to prove herself to my brother, was not going as planned. The heels of her leather boots scuffed the stone of the street, her body announcing her retreat before even her mind had fully agreed to it. I read her fear as she stood facing me. Whatever my brother had told her of me, she had sorely underestimated. Aviet saw that any trace of the mercy I carried before had been boiled away by the full revelation of my brother's betrayal.
I stepped forward and let my back leg arc around. I leaned into the blade as it connected. Aviet struggled to keep what was in her belly from spilling out, but it was a futile effort. I made short work of her last two goons, and the alley behind the pay house was quiet again. I picked up Aviet's blood-soaked whip from the street.
The nephew of Hakim Naderi had backed himself against a wall in his panic. The young man's breath was coming in panting waves through the dirty cloth that gagged him. I approached him as you would an animal you didn't wish to startle. I untied the bindings at his wrists. I offered him my hand, and his fingers trembled at my touch. As soon as he was set upon his feet, he let go.
He had seen the violent face of my duty, what I could never bring myself to show Hakim, and I had let it happen. The softhearted woman I once was had truly been burned away, leaving only a cold darkness and gray ash.
"The tests", he said, his chin quivering with a different kind of terror. The reality of the evening was coming to bear as he realized none of this was a dream. "What am I to show the artificers tomorrow?"
"You studied under your uncle?"
"Yes. He taught me everything, but the designs--- "
Hakim's nephew knew his options, either come to work for me or give up his life's work. My position as intelligencer would not allow the knowledge he possessed to fall to another house. In his frightened eyes, I saw his innocence of the world sacrificed. I was a murderous savior and a dark protector. In this moment of cruel understanding, I had become his Gray Lady, a steel shadow to be feared and venerated.
"You will build them better tomorrow", I said.
Unable to process his thoughts into words, he nodded his head and stumbled into the night. I prayed he would rebuild his resolve before the dawn. Otherwise, there would be nowhere to run that I could not catch him.
I stood and looked out over the balcony of my brother's study. A chilled breeze ruffled the pennants that hung from the eaves of the house. The entire city stretched out before me.
The doors to the study opened, and for a moment, I could hear the preparations for tomorrow's influx of apprentas. In those voices and quickened steps, I heard the years behind me unfolding, all of them too similar to separate. All of them save two: the one where a handsome man from the Sands danced away with my heart. And the one where I demanded the same man carve it away.
How often had Hakim come here with me between those two slivers of time? The breeze that teased the pennants would catch the curls of his hair as he stood on the balcony. "Such promise", he would say as his eyes danced over the glittering towers of the city, the glow of Zaun lighting the buildings from below, "such a delicate machine, all these parts working together."
I told him what my father told me, that this was the promise of progress, the promise of Piltover. It moved our city forward, but, I cautioned, one ill-shaped gear could threaten it all. One cog that rejected its role could destroy the entire machine.
Stevan's chair creaked along the carpet. My fingers ached for the curls of Hakim's hair or even the solace of the chaplet's polished glass in my pocket. Instead, I coiled Aviet's whip into tighter circles in my hands. Hakim so wanted to draw me out of this darkness, only realizing too late that my work, my duty to my family, was something I could no more cut away than my own shadow.
I said nothing, unable to tear my eyes from the fragile view and my even more fragile thoughts of the past. The clockwork mechanism ticked, and the wheels of Stevan's chair brought him up behind me.
"You've returned", he said. "Aviet?"
I tossed Aviet's whip on the woolen blanket laid over his lap.
"She served her purpose", I said.
"That being?" For having sat so long in that chair, my brother was an artful dancer. He plucked at the wire of the whip.
"To remind me of mine", I said.
"Your purpose?" Stevan's initial nervousness slipped into agitation. He knew he would die tonight. He had been caught, and he couldn't run, especially from me. His only consolation was to try and wound me just as grievously before his time expired. Bound as he was by his frailty, the only weapons left to him were words.
"Your duty is to me", he said. "Just as it was to our father."
Duty. My father. The right words could cut more deeply than a knife.
"You are here to serve me", he growled.
"No, I swore to serve this house." The oath I had taken pricked fresh in my mind, the oath of all intelligencers. I repeated it now without effort or remorse. "To this house, I will be true and faithful, putting its needs before my own. To this, I will commit mind, body, and heart."
They were the same words I told Hakim the night I had ended things between us. I could not be his, for I had promised myself to another.
"That duty of intelligencer was meant to be mine." Stevan's voice wrenched me back to the present. He gripped the arms of his chair until his knuckles whitened. "You swore an oath to our father, and what did you do? He died because you were not strong enough. And then you nearly deserted this house. For what? Love? Attention? Where was your duty then?"
He spat the words in the space between us. These spider veins, this blight, I had let it fester far too long. What kindness had I shown this house in ignoring his madness?
"I cut out my heart for the family. For you, Stevan", I said. "I have given all that I am. After all these years, can you say the same?"
Stevan sputtered like a wet spark, desperately trying to flare to life, but knowing there was little left to catch fire.
"Father just gave this to you, but I was the one who spent my entire life proving to him I deserved it", he said. Disgust weighed on his words. My brother's anger ran faster, the toxicity poisoning the air like a chem spill. "You may see me as your betrayer, but you are the one responsible, sister. If you could be trusted to make the right decisions, I would not have to step in."
I had let him become this monster. I tolerated his grim plots and motivations all because I was unwilling to face a future without him, a future where no one remembered the woman I was. If I had been stronger in my resolve, I could have ended this years before. I had chiseled away parts of myself, but in all that time, I never had the courage to cut away the piece I knew would blacken our house.
"That night, I would have run away with Hakim if you had not made the effort to remind me of my duty", I said.
He had come to me, bloody and broken, forcing me to confront a reality where I had abandoned my charge. Even when I discovered the truth years later, that he had been behind his own attack, I had been relieved. On the brink of a decision clouded by sentiment, my brother had given me the hard push that let me separate honor from emotion. I knew that, without it, I might have given up who I was meant to be. It was his dark encouragement that let me take on fully the mantle I wore now.
I moved toward him and let my fingers rest on his shoulder. I could feel his aged bones beneath the rich silk and parchment skin. The vibrations in my chest built. Stevan looked up at me, the blue of his eyes hardening like chips of broken glass as the energy around my augmentation grew.
"You have always been my responsibility, brother." The chill in the air entered my words. "Stevan, I will fail you no longer."
I could feel the charge electrifying the hair at the back of my neck. I let my hand drift from his shoulder to the edge of his face. The boyish lock of hair that fell over his temple had thinned and disappeared years ago. The spark arced through my fingertips and enveloped Stevan.
It didn't take much to push his heart over the edge, the atrophied muscle that drove my brother to such dark places finally seized in his chest. His eyes closed, and his chin sagged in my hand.
The vibration of the crystals in my chest slowed to an even rhythm. I turned back to face the city. Tonight's cold would settle in her metal bones, but tomorrow, she would continue to push forward, to pulse with life. To progress.
Such a delicate machine.