by Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
“You can’t keep doing this to yourself.”
Saif’s voice came out muffled with the screwdriver in his teeth, and he pulled it out and flipped it into his other hand, instead. Key sighed, leaning his head back against the wall. His foot shifted an inch or two forward when he did, but though Saif frowned up at him, he didn’t seem to notice. “There is no need to exaggerate. The damage is not severe.”
“It looks bad enough from down here.” He plucked out the tiny screws from the panel in four twists, quick as a bird picking up seeds. The metal was dented so badly it had crumpled inward, and Key’s face and shoulders seemed to lose some tension at having it off. Saif caught his eyes lingering there, and forced them back down, to the tangle of wires and circuitry inside. “Doesn’t look like there was much damage on the inside, at least… Thick-skinned, you are.” Key snorted, and Saif grinned up at him in spite of himself, sniffing and arming stray hair off his sticky forehead. His gloves were covered in grease. “There’s one receptor terminal that’s barely hanging on, though. That’s probably what’s hurting you. I’ll have to replace it — brace yourself.”
Key blinked down at him, then scowled. “You have a very poor bedside manner.”
“Most of my patients don’t complain as much as you. Hold still, too.” Saif grabbed up the pliers and a pair of wire-cutters in one hand without looking, settling his spectacles back in place with the other. He only needed them for close work, but considering he practically had his nose buried in Key’s leg already — “I mean it, you know. You shouldn’t work for anyone who thinks of you as a doorstop.”
“It was an accident.” Saif snorted, then made the cut, quick as he could. A slight jerky jitter went through the skin of Key’s face and upper body, but that was all. You had to admire that. “And I do not work for them.”
“Well, there’s that, too. You know if Mother ever finds out, she’ll have pieces of you rusting in every fountain in the oasis.”
Key peered at him, and then made his best approximation of a disapproving sniff. “Poor bedside manner and cultural insensitivity. I should find a different physician.” That actually made Saif crack up, nearly hard enough to drop his wire stripper. He swatted Key on the knee as he sorted himself out, ignoring his cheeky grin. “Nor do I believe she would do such a thing.”
“Don’t be too sure of that.” Saif leaned back for a moment to blink his blurring eyes, then tilted back in: lips slack, full attention focused. He peeled away the plastic coating from where he’d cut, just below the receptor, with every bit of delicacy he could, and was still aware at the corners of his eyes of Key’s hand tightening on the edge of the cot-frame, hard enough around the metal to produce an alarming creak. And then he was touching the exposed end to the trailing wire of the new receptor he’d dug out of his supply drawers, clamping them in place, and reaching for his welding mask and blowtorch.
He’d come up to his workshop in the first place to work on some upgrades for the sand pumps, but instead found Key, sprawled face-down on the cot that Saif kept for when staggering downstairs to his own bed seemed like too much trouble, with one lower leg dangling mashed and mangled off the edge. Only after a lot of prodding had Key confessed how it had happened: he’d been propping open the bay door of a luxury cruise airship to let out the humans who’d hired him to help rob the ship’s vault, and it had proven too much for him — and he didn’t mind, of course, because if he weren’t the most stupidly damned noble and handsome and wonderful automaton in the entire Hallaqin Desert then Key just wouldn’t be Key. …Which were all moot points, of course, in the face of how bad it would have been if Key had been damaged too badly to limp his way up here, at least not without being caught. He couldn’t go to the main repair bay for something that had happened when he was out on a side job, after all. Too many questions.
But that was what Saif was for. He always had been, anyway.
“There,” he said, on a long breath out, when he let the blowtorch go dark again. The pain relaxed slowly back out of Key’s face, and then he started to twist his ankle and calf around, cautiously, on the bed. “Better?”
“Yes,” Key said, and smiled as he met Saif’s eyes. “Thank you, Saif. You take good care of me.”
That made Saif falter a moment, and then he ended up turning his laugh down toward the floor, fighting a blush in spite of himself. “Well, somebody has to, and it’s not going to be you.” He pushed up on his knees to put his tools away in the rolling cart’s drawers, then wobbled up to his feet, nodding at the open wire-tangled hole that was the front of Key’s shin. “It shouldn’t take me long to mold a new panel. Skin’s going to be harder, though — I’ve got some of your model in the back from last time you lost your damn arm, but I’ll have to make sure the micro-wiring’s still up to snuff. Do you have anywhere to be?”
Key shook his head. “There is no need to hurry. I like it up here.”
“Freeloader.” Key laughed, and Saif smirked, pulling off his work gloves. “Anything else I can do, while you’re here?”
And there was just a second, just one, where he thought Key hesitated — like there was something he wanted to say. But then he was grinning up again, leaning back on his hands, like nothing was wrong, and of course Saif dismissed it right away, without a second thought. For as natural as that grin looked, as well as Key had mastered it, there was still no real inflection in his eyes, or in the slight jagged modulations of his recorded voice, not like there would be from flesh and blood. You couldn’t assume that you could read emotional cues from an automaton like you could from a human, especially with anything nuanced. They just weren’t that finely-tuned, didn’t have that same connection between their inward processes and what they showed on the outside. Anything you thought you saw was more likely to be your own reflection on the surface than something moving in the deep.
“Perhaps you could give me a massage,” Key said, tilting his head up to follow Saif on his way past. Saif threw his gloves in Key’s face.
Key had been with the Family since Saif had been fourteen, a strange still point around which Saif’s growing up had revolved. He wasn’t their property or anything like that, of course; it had been almost forty years now since Saif’s father had convinced the Sheikh of Mejalejrad, with some very persuasive arguments, that it would be best to pass a law prohibiting human ownership of automata. The news that came east from the City was full of nightly machine-human riots and nigh-on civil war, but here automata could walk the streets freely, call themselves by human names, and even own property — including themselves. And, for reasons that were no great mystery to anyone, what a lot of them chose to do with their freedom was work for the Family. And no matter how much of that Saif’s father might have planned, you couldn’t deny there were worse decisions they could have made.
Key answered directly to Saif’s mother, though, which at least put him notably above the rest. He was a thief, and the thing about employing a thief was that you didn’t want to be dealing with him through a reporting structure. When she needed things stolen, he stole them; and when she didn’t, he often made arrangements to steal other things for other people. Which he was most definitely not supposed to do, but Saif had always figured that was Key’s business, and kept it to himself. …Nor, to be perfectly fair, had all of Saif’s adolescent (and adult) fantasies about Key’s smooth too-regular lips or strange light eyes or long dark-on-dark-freckled hands ever hurt Key’s case with him. But that, in turn, was nobody’s business but his own.
And anyway, it didn’t matter. He had too much to do to be distracted by anyone for long.
“Again?” he said, his eyes lingering on the sensor report printout a moment before raising again. “You know it’s probably just sand again. We’ve been through this fifty times, it’s always just sand.”
“I don’t care if you think it’s probably evil spirits or divine intervention,” his mother said back, almost over top of him. “If there’s even the slightest chance some filthy Argwani or police dog thinks he can get away with eavesdropping, I want it checked. I know you’re busy, but you’re the only one I trust — ”
“All right, all right.” He stifled his sigh, scrubbing at his eyes and then down one cheek, his beard rasping under his palm. It was overdue for trimming; much as his mother might frown when he cut it, he thought even the prophets would understand that full beards weren’t for people who worked on machinery all day. “I’m only saying. I’ll take a security detail and do a pass through the Oleander, see if we turn anything up.”
“Thank you.” She passed him his teacup, which he supposed was his cue it was all right to put down the reports. In the sole presence of her son she went unveiled, and the thick coil of her hair over her shoulders and the back of the sofa was far more silver than black these days, but with every year it just seemed to make her more imposing than ever. “Did you look into that flag from the airdrome, as well?”
Saif nodded, taking only a distracted sip before putting his saucer aside to root through his own papers. “Alim was right; it’s nothing very serious, I don’t think. Seems like more of a nuisance than a threat.” She tilted her head at him, and he passed her the registration papers. “The ship that set it off is registered to somebody named Teferi — no family name. I looked through the records, and he’s — ”
“I know who he is,” Saif’s mother said, and the tone of her voice made him look up and see the way her lips had thinned, the registration dangling from her fingertips like something distasteful. “I remember very well. A nuisance, that’s true, but a significant nuisance. You never know who a man like that is talking to.” She dropped the paperwork back on his knee, unceremoniously, and then pressed her fingers to her lips a moment as she thought. “Tell Hesham to have someone on the security band at all times until he’s left. Better too much than too little.”
He nodded again, not even bothering to argue. It was never worth it, and she’d just said why, that was her all over: better too much than too little, too tight a ship than leaving cracks for the wind to blow through. Her taking over the Family after his father had died had been, for all public purposes, just a placeholder until he and Aqil came of age, but (leaving Aqil aside) the fact that he was twenty-five now and she was still running things was good evidence of just how well she’d kept that place. “Too bad. It’s a nice ship, at least.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” But she was smiling at him, thin but true, and he answered it as he leafed through the pile in his lap again. “Have you eaten, Saifullah?”
It took a second for the question to sink in, it was so unexpected, and then he was frowning up at her. “When, today? …I don’t think so.” She sighed, and shook her head, patting his hand as she got up.
“I work you too hard, don’t I? I’m a terrible mother. I’ll have Nazli make us something, stay and have dinner with me.” He opened his mouth, then couldn’t think of a good reason to protest and shut it again. Well — a good reason besides Key, meeting him in an hour up in the workshop to make sure all his replacement wiring was working out the way it should, anyway. But he wasn’t about to say that. “What you need is a wife. A good woman who won’t put up with your not taking care of yourself.”
“Don’t you dare start.” Saif scrubbed the grimace off his face, laughing his way through it anyway. “I’ll take Nazli’s stew and lock myself out on the balcony, I swear. It’ll be nostalgic for all of us.” That made her laugh too, surprised and rare, and he found himself smiling as he stood up himself, following her toward the dining room of her apartments. The gleaming metal spires of Mejalejrad surrounded them on all sides, out the windowed walls that circled her sitting room; the view wasn’t quite as spectacular as up in his owl’s-nest of a workshop, but it was probably a lot less wasted on her than his was on him, most of the time. “How would I ever get an honest answer to a proposal, anyway? Any girl I said ‘marry me’ to would hear ‘or your family will turn up floating face-down in the river.'”
“Well, then she’d be an idiot, and you should find another,” his mother said with a wave of her hand, making him grin. “…Assuming I haven’t raised the kind of pig who would marry a foreigner. Which I must for the sake of my sanity.”
“This is what I love about you, Mother. Your open-mindedness.” She grumbled and swatted at him even as he leaned in to kiss her cheek, but then patted the side of his face as he pulled away.
“There’s no need for you to be so concerned about honest answers in the first place. You should let me arrange you a match, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Your father and I were always very happy, and nothing’s more honest than a contract and a bank deposit.”
Saif actually groaned this time, but good-naturedly enough, he hoped. “Mother, I’m serious. If you don’t stop, I’m jumping off the balcony.” She glared at him, and he sighed. “I’ll think about it. Maybe. One of these days. Are you meeting with the contact from the steel mill tomorrow, or is that me?”
She turned back to him, bending to rearrange the cushions around her table. “Both, I think. I want your eyes, you know the goods better than I do.” She paused, and then thumped the cushion at hand. “Now sit down. No more business tonight. I’ll call Nazli.”
And then she’d gone, and the sound of her voice floated back to him from the intercom, while he sat at her table and watched airships trace their lines across the sky.
The Oleander was the oldest, the biggest, and the most profitable of the Family’s four casinos. It sat on the bank of the river that had been artificially widened to create Mejalejrad’s oasis, some centuries before Saif’s father had even been born. When the Oleander had begun, it had been a nameless tent where maybe two dozen men had met nights to dice, and that particular stretch of bank had been one of the oasis’s seediest areas, backed up between two slave labor camps and overrun with con-men and pickpockets. The camps were gone now, but the thieves were still there — only now they wore tailored suits instead of rags, and they paid cab-drivers a handsome cut to deliver hapless foreign tourists into their territory, as well as a tithe to the Family for protection for their business. And the Oleander was a sprawling, dazzling confection of glass and steel and marble, a city-block wide in all directions and with piercing upturned lights dancing the sky, and there was no more fashionable place in the known world to be seen losing a fortune.
The “security detail” Saif took in with him that night was really laboring under a misnomer: they weren’t the usual thugs and goons the bottom ranks of the organization used for force and backup, but a handful of men (well, and one woman) Saif had selected from the engineering crew who helped him with his security projects around the oasis. They were all trained specifically to search for signs of explosives or listening devices, and while they all packed heat and could hold their own in a fight, that was really just a basic requirement in their line of work.
“You know the drill,” he said sidelong to the little huddle of them, as they stood in the arches and swirling curtains of the lobby, very conspicuously unobtrusive in their dark suits. “Khaliq and Raza, you’ve got the back offices. Zaid and Basit, the west mezzanine; Gabir and Hamid, east. Lina, you go upstairs, get the balcony and the monitor room.” They all nodded, Lina’s headscarf shifting and pooling on the shoulders of her suit-jacket. “I’ve got the main floor, with Farouk. Three hours, and then we’re all back here, and out. If anyone finds anything before that, tell security, then find me.”
“Anything like some sand caught behind a panel, you mean?” Raza asked, innocently. Lina shot him a forbidding look, but Saif just laughed.
“I know, I know. Let’s just get this done for now, and we can work on the ventilation intake next month, how about that.”
“You said that last month,” Zaid said, in a grumble under his breath, which Saif this time chose not to answer.
They split under the vast dome of the entrance to the main casino floor, the others peeling off in all directions, Farouk trailing behind Saif. The two of them wove through card-tables and dice-alleys and games of chance, in between throngs of rich foreigners in fancy dress: beardless bare-headed men in tuxedos and white gloves and brilliantly-patterned sashes, begowned and bejeweled women with uncovered hair that stood in dense coronae around their heads, or corded like sheeps’ wool. Saif’s eyes flicking all along across tables, people, the colored tiles of the ceiling, the lay of the carpets over the marble floor, the individual faces and sights and sounds blurring around the edges, the dull echoing roar of endless voices fading to the background of his consciousness. All his attention reserved for every little detail that might look wrong, and for the hand curled around the low-powered signal detector deep in his jacket pocket, waiting for a quiver.
Which was how he didn’t notice all the shouting, or the ring of patrons up ahead, until he’d blundered right into its edge — and gotten a good look at the scene in the middle.
“Gentlemen, please. I’m sure we’ll all find this is nothing but a misunderstanding — ”
The circle roughly enclosed a card-table, from which the dealer was absent, the chips and cards looking disarrayed as though a gust of wind blown through, or someone swiped at them with a careless hand. Two men had turned away from it, their seats pushed this way and that, one of them overturned; they crowded, furious and threatening, around a third, standing before them with his hands upraised, and an expression somewhere in the extremes of long-suffering patience. The two men looked like they might be from the old families of Mejalejrad, who had been here since long before the Family’s time, all slicked hair and sunglasses and white jackets over their salwar. The third was an outlander, and far more striking. His skin was not only darker than the bronze tone common in the desert but even darker than the rich brown of people from the west, a black that was nearly bluish. Even more to the point, he wore his hair shaved to the skull, and its skin — along with that of his face and hands — was heavily seamed with the paler lines of scars: one grazing the outer socket of one eye, although it had been kind enough to leave the ball intact, another intersecting his lips. He was beardless and slim, probably around Saif’s age, and dressed in a long dark coat over an impeccable suit.
“I don’t know where you come from, but here we have rules about bringing in your own deck,” one of the locals snapped, over the outlander’s protest. He let himself be cut off, and raised his eyebrows instead, all polite interest.
“Oh, I should hope so,” he said, smiling and pleasant. “As well as others, I trust, against accusing your companions of cheating without evidence.”
The two local men didn’t answer that in any clear verbal terms, but the one that Saif could see slipped a hand under the tail of his jacket, reaching behind him. Farouk made a move as though to pass Saif and intervene, but Saif held up a hand without entirely knowing why. Nobody except the onlookers closest by had noticed the two of them yet, and those had were only reacting by inching away and beginning to look nervous. They could give the scene a moment more to expand, and reveal itself.
“I don’t think — ” someone said, tremulously, from inside the crowd on the other side; Saif’s eyes found the speaker before he was cut off, and it was the table’s dealer. So that was where he’d run off to. Just as well; the last thing the Oleander needed was to be short-staffed.
“Are you calling my friend and me liars, outland?” the same local man said, deadly soft, and that was enough to send the dealer and most of the crowd into silence. The outlander, however, actually brightened, his smile broadening.
“Well, that would lend the situation a certain pleasing equity, would it not? You call me a cheat, I call you liars, now every man has had his turn and the matter can be at an end.”
“It can be at an end when we say — ” the other of the locals started, snarling — and then they were both just lunging forward, each with a long knife in hand. The outlander didn’t even seem surprised, though: just stood where he was. And then with no apparent steps in between, there was a singing of flying metal, and the local who was leading the charge cried out and dropped his knife, clutching a hand that seemed to have sprouted a bone handle from one side of its palm. The second local caught himself up short, looking uncertain, and Saif could see why: a short, brutal triangular knife with a matching bone handle was waiting in the outlander’s other hand, even as his expression still remained smiling, pleasant, and at most mildly interested.
“That’s enough,” Saif said, in that breath of pause, and stepped out of the edge of the circle with his pistol out in his hand. “Everybody drop your weapons and stay where you are.”
There was another silence, heavier than before, as all three men looked around to see who’d spoken. The local men’s faces sagged with recognition and then screwed up with loathing, but the one still holding his knife didn’t hesitate to comply. The outlander, for his part, smiled like he’d just recognized a friend at a party, and tossed his knife to stick hilt-up and quivering at his feet.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” Saif said. Farouk had come up behind his shoulder in the meantime, and Saif turned to nod to him, and then toward the outlander. Farouk nodded back, and crossed to murmur to the man with a heavy hand on his shoulder; the outlander dipped him a little bow, of all things, and then turned to do the same to Saif, and followed Farouk out through the gap that had opened in the crowd as though being led into a prince’s receiving-room. Saif turned back to the two local men, who stuck together in a dour huddle. The one with the bleeding hand had worked the knife back out of it, and was now just wrapping the hole up in the tail of his white jacket to staunch it. Which made Saif wince — but who knew, the jackass might have a whole closet full of them at home, maybe threw each one out at the end of the day.
“Luckily for you, we have an excellent doctor on call in the third floor annex,” Saif said to both of them, eyes flicking from one scowl to the other. “I’ll escort you to his station.”
“We’ll go on our own,” the uninjured man muttered, his sunglasses turned at a slight angle away from Saif’s face. Saif turned his tight lips into a smile.
“No, you won’t, because you just started a fight in my casino. Once he’s seen you, you’re leaving, and you’re not welcome back until you’ve learned to control your tempers.”
The man spluttered, and even his injured friend glanced up from his hand with a dull glitter of hatred in his eyes. “You — fucking vermin — you think you can tell us where we can and can’t go in our own city — ”
Saif’s smile spread and tightened, stretching out his face without touching his eyes. “If you feel so strongly, I’m sure Randa bint Ala bin Mufaddal al-Hallaqinee would be pleased to discuss with you exactly whose city it is.”
The man’s lip curled — although none of that scorn showed in his eyes.. “I’m not afraid of one of your peasant women you don’t even let go outside or speak — ”
“Oh, I’ll tell her you said that. She could use the laugh.”
That seemed to take the man aback, and he struggled for another moment before finally bursting out: “You should all be in prison! Executed! We built this place, stone after stone, in the middle of nothing — ”
“We built it,” Saif cut him off again, calmly. Or at least not showing any of the blood that was starting to beat behind his eyes. “We just finally found a way to make you pay us.”
He was aware of the polite bafflement and discomfort in the faces of all the foreigners around them, but it was the cold, unveiled contempt in the eyes of the dealers and serving-staff as they looked at the men in their white jackets that gave him strength. He paused a moment, gathering himself, before flicking one last look up and down the two of them.
“You know, I think your friend will be fine,” he said, at last. “I wouldn’t want to make our faithful doctor soil his hands.”
The man with the bleeding hand snapped his head up, looking green and dismayed, but the other man only purpled with rage. They both looked about to say something for a moment… and then both of their eyes tracked back, helplessly, to the gun in his hand. Finally, they both looked away, and only began to walk, the one who hadn’t been hurt helping the one who had. He didn’t move for them, made them shoulder past him to get through the crowd and away.
When they were gone — when he’d turned to follow their progress and made sure they’d gone out into the casino lobby — Saif took another breath, until he was steady again. Then he stowed his gun and bent to pick up the knives from the floor, tucking them into his suit-jacket as he straightened up and smoothed himself down.
“I apologize for the disturbance, ladies and gentlemen,” he said to the crowd, still hanging around for a last look at the scene, and bowed with his best professional smile. “As you must know, your safety is our first priority, and we don’t tolerate any violence in our establishments. I’ll send a server around with drinks for each table, compliments of the house. Please, have a seat.”
They dispersed slowly, with a rising murmur he liked to think was approving and grateful, at least. And then he moved through the few who were left, excusing himself under his breath, making his way to the service stairs at the back.
Farouk had the outlander in the nearest detention room of the upstairs security station, and Saif let himself in without knocking, closing the door behind him. Farouk greeted him with a raised hand, but more surprisingly, the outlander also lifted his head and smiled at him.
“Oh, hello. Have I warranted two interrogators? Such hospitality among you desert folk.”
“Nobody’s interrogating anybody,” Saif said, surprised and amused in spite of himself. The man had a pleasant sort of accent on top of his effusive way of speaking, round and warm and dragging on odd consonants — both very like and very unlike the lilting, fluting tones of City-dwellers. “We just wanted to separate you from your new friends out there. …Although you realize, weapons and violence are strictly prohibited in the Oleander.”
The outlander assumed a contrite expression. “Ah. Yes, I might have assumed, and I apologize most sincerely for transgressing. It’s only that I have a regrettable tendency to respond negatively to people who are trying to kill me.”
Saif blinked — and then laughed, surprising himself all over again with its force and honesty. “Well… fair enough, I guess. You weren’t hurt?” The man shook his head, smiling, and Saif found himself answering it. “Good. You have a great arm, by the way. What’s your name?”
The outlander pressed a hand to his chest, bowing slightly over it. “I’m called Teferi.”
That brought Saif up short for a moment… and then he let out a long, heavy breath. “Of course,” he said, after a pause that probably seemed a little too long. “The nuisance.”
Farouk frowned up at him at that — but Teferi, for his part, looked delighted. “You’ve heard of me? How flattering!”
Saif tried to keep both his sigh and his unwilling smile to himself, and instead turned to Farouk, lowering his voice. “Farouk, could you excuse us for a minute? Run by the bar, actually; I promised a free drink per head for the main floor, if the message hasn’t made its way there yet.”
Farouk glanced between the two of them for a moment, hesitating, and then just nodded, standing up and tugging at his suit. “You got it, boss. Both the guards are in the monitoring room if you need backup.”
“I think I’ll be all right,” Saif said; although not quite as dryly as he might if it’d been himself alone in the room with any other person. Teferi’s knives might still be in Saif’s inside suit pocket, but given the way he’d thrown them, Saif wasn’t kidding himself those two were the last two. “Thanks.”
With one last nod, Farouk let himself out. Saif waited until the door had been closed behind him for a second or two, just in case, and then grabbed the chair Farouk had been using and pulled it around to sit in it himself, facing Teferi.
“Yeah, you could say I’ve heard of you,” he said. He still hadn’t quite shaken off the man’s weird charm, but he measured his tone at least a little more now. “My mother remembered you very well, she said.”
It seemed to take a moment for that to sink in, and then Teferi’s face seemed to shift with his understanding — becoming, Saif thought, both more pleasant and more guarded. “Also very flattering, I must say. And that would mean, I understand, that I find myself in the presence of a sort of royalty?”
Saif shook his head, smiling a little. “Nothing like that. Just a son who works for the family business.” He paused a moment, considering, and then added: “My name is Saifullah ibn Malik ibn Abd-al-Khafid al-Hallaqinee. Saif, to friends. Pleased to meet you.”
“Are you?” When Saif smirked instead of answering, though, Teferi only smiled, and tilted his head. “And will we be friends, in spite of this awkward beginning?”
“I think that remains to be seen.” Teferi’s smile broadened, but he said nothing, and after a moment Saif went on. “Just out of curiosity, do you mind if I ask what you did to piss Mother off? On pilots and gamblers both we’re usually pretty neutral, so long as we get our cut. And what we’ve got in the way of written history can be… vague.”
That made Teferi smile, and he dipped his head. “Well, I do pay my dues, I assure you. I’d imagine that what she rather took issue with was the time an organization called the — Argwani, I believe? — paid me a frankly embarrassing amount of money to fly weapons into Mejalejrad for them, when they were in a certain amount of conflict with your Family. Though I promise, I meant nothing personal by it.”
“That’s not as convincing an argument as you might think,” Saif said, with all the dryness he’d spared Farouk. “…But you’re not an Argwani. You’re foreign.”
“And a free agent, with no particular allegiance,” Teferi agreed, nodding again. “I apologize if I’ve offended.” He paused, considering. “Although, of course, the time I stole an opera singer might also have something to do with it.”
All right, that caught Saif off-guard. “Stole an…?”
Teferi looked about to answer that, but then stopped, waylaid. “Or — kidnapped, I suppose? I forget that you’re much more progressive about automata here than in other places. Very civilized of your people, by the way, I must say.”
“Thank you.” Saif caught his balance as best he could, although his mouth seemed to start talking before he’d really gotten there. “If it was an automaton, though, it’d still be theft. Legally they’re considered property here too, they’re just their own property and not humans’.” Teferi gave him a strange look, and he just shrugged and spread his hands. “It works well enough most of the time. And like my father once said, only God should decide who’s a person and only governments should decide which things should be taxed; when they try to switch places, we’ll wake up in the morning with the city coffers empty and the poor officially declared furniture.”
“Your father was just a bit cynical, was he?” Teferi asked, after a moment’s pause. Saif smiled wanly.
“He was speaking from experience.” He let that sit a second — and then couldn’t help himself. “Why did you steal an opera singer?”
“She needed a vacation.”
And he thought of pursuing that, but in the end just decided to let this one go. “…Don’t we all. Well, at any rate, if you’re not planning to deal arms, nearly get stabbed, make a mockery of the performing arts, or drop in on al-Hallaqinee Tower for tea, I’d say you’re more or less free to go.” Teferi smiled, shifted forward as though to speak, but Saif stopped him. “I do think it’s fair to warn you, though, that you’re being monitored until you leave the oasis borders. So you might want to consider carefully what other activities to choose while you’re here, too.”
“Duly noted.” Teferi paused, and then his smile broadened. “Indeed, I suppose I’d rather counted on it.”
“Just as long as we’re clear.” Teferi nodded, pleasant as ever, and Saif started to get up — and then hesitated himself in mid-motion, pausing to look back. “You… fly one of the new Massanna models, right? The MSS-1318? I happened to take a look at your registration, is all.”
“I do,” Teferi said, one eyebrow quirking. “My lady goes by the name of Fortune, however, in less formal circumstances.”
Saif leaned in on the back of the chair — feeling himself lighting up, in spite of everything. “Does the hull design really make a difference, do you think? I’ve read up some on it, but I could never quite convince myself it was worth the loss of stability. But I’ve never actually seen one in person and all the City news keeps raving about it — have you found it really improves the speed? Oh, and the extra enclosed engines; I like that idea, actually, I’d always rather be able to get my hands on the works without being up on a scaffold, but I’m not sure how that works out in the gondola. Well, I don’t know — do you maybe even have blueprints around, actually? I mean, of course you probably don’t on you, I don’t know why you would, but — ”
“Might I make a suggestion?” Teferi interrupted him, as politely as possible, holding up a hand. “Instead of my answering any of that — perhaps you’d like to see her for yourself?”
Saif couldn’t imagine quite what his expression might have looked like at that — except that it must have been answer enough.
Teferi’s ship was docked at a private berth in the airdrome’s uppermost deck, which suggested to Saif that Teferi might have overstated his likelihood to be embarrassed by any amount of money. It was gorgeous just from the gangplank, even if he wasn’t usually most thrilled by outward appearances, enough to make his worries about stability pall: a gleaming silver bullet of a thing, the chrome-and-glass gondola under its belly glittering like a half-buried diamond. Saif took a few moments to walk around it, peering one way and the other, before they even crossed over to board.
The controls at the foredeck were sleek and dazzlingly complex, a berth of them more like the consoles he’d seen inside the airdrome’s control tower than like any of the airship steering panels he’d ever seen before. Teferi led him aftward from them only after some reluctance on his own part, but of course that was well worth it in the end. They crossed through long corridors and past state rooms, lavishly appointed in some foreign style Saif didn’t recognize, and then finally to the metal shafts that led out to the lower engines. They were massive, spirals of gleaming metal the size of Saif’s whole body laid on its side, connecting through the wall out to propellers that, up this close, had looked through the windows like flowers picked in a land of giants. In the engine rooms, though, the walls were metal, and every available inch was covered in tubing and machinery: fuel lines, control wiring, ventilators, lubricators. The pipes and wire covers wrapped up as far as the ceiling, making silver mazes over its surface before disappearing behind paneling. Saif walked between the two shafts with his feet making hollow metallic thuds off the floor, inspecting and exploring. Not to mention babbling over his shoulder to Teferi so constantly that he wasn’t really sure later what all he’d said. Not the best idea when dealing with an admitted outlander spy, but he couldn’t help himself.
He did feel more than a little guilty, just abandoning his team at the Oleander in the middle of a sweep; but he’d caught Farouk on the way out to say he had an errand to run, and left him in charge, so it wasn’t like he’d just vanished. And maybe more to the point, it was like Raza had said: the radio frequency detectors in the casino did tend to go off with the slightest provocation, and Saif’s mother’s zeal for pursuing every last false alarm hadn’t exactly proven contagious. They could surely get along without him for an hour or so — and this might well be a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone before who knew more about my ship than I do,” Teferi said, after Saif had thoroughly picked his brain about the craft’s use of fuel, although he at least looked pleased. “Let alone here in the desert. Do you fly yourself?”
Saif shook his head, his smile as he glanced out again over the machinery turning a bit wistful. “No, not really. I’m a mechanist, as far as what I do day-to-day, but for as much as my family does with tourism, we don’t own ships ourselves. You can get around Mejalejrad just fine on the ground, it’s not like the City or anything, and we’re too focused on our businesses here for much traveling. I haven’t actually even been outside the oasis more than once or twice.”
“Really? How unfortunate.” Saif looked back at him, his smile twisting up a little further, and Teferi just made a vague outward gesture. “Mejalejrad is beautiful, of course. But there’s much more.”
“I know. And I’d like to see it, one day.” He sighed a little, then made himself smile instead. “I’ve just never found the time for it.”
Teferi made a thoughtful sound, leaning back against the wall. “Where I come from, that always seemed to be a very common affliction. …Or rather, I suppose I should say, there was a general feeling that home was so pleasant that there could never be any need to see another place.” Saif raised his eyebrows at him, and Teferi met his gaze with a grin, and then a wink. “In the end I had to find myself a pair of wings, just so I might avoid the same fate.”
That made Saif laugh, even as he shook his head again. “It’s not so bad.” He paused for a moment, his smile gradually dimming as he looked around. “…Wings do sound nice sometimes, though, I’ll admit.”
Teferi eyed him, and then straightened back up, a mischievous light on in his eyes. “Then would you like to try them out, perhaps?”
“What — now?” Teferi nodded, and Saif laughed through a groan, leaning his head back. “You really do know how to lay on the temptation.”
“I like to think so,” Teferi said, watching him through amused, half-lidded eyes. His tone was much too innocent, and as he spoke his mouth curled up one side as if by its own will, feline and rakish. And that thought definitely gave Saif a moment’s pause, derailed him right off his tracks — a lot more so than he might have expected, after so short a time, honestly.
But, well… if an airship ride would be going too far already, then there were some things he definitely couldn’t risk. He knew that perfectly well.
“I appreciate the offer.” Breaking the silence, and shaping his face into a smile that carefully showed no understanding of anything but the surface of things. “I think I’ll have to be satisfied with the tour, though.”
“Are you sure?” Teferi was tilting his head, watching him with an intensity he had to look away from. “We needn’t go far. Downtown is especially beautiful at this time of night.”
Saif shook his head, firming his smile. “Sorry,” he said, and reached to clasp Teferi’s hand in friendly parting. “But I have somewhere to be at dawn.”
The streets were cool and quiet at first light, although not exactly empty. Mejalejrad might not have been able to boast that it never slept like the City, but it seldom did much more than drowse, and even now, even in one of the far less fashionable wards, there was traffic: men and women heading out to prayer or early jobs, bleary-eyed tourists being cabbed back to their rooms to sleep away hangovers, beggars shuffling along the curbs trying to get warm and find something to eat. Saif kept a stack of coins in his hand inside his coat pocket as he passed these latter, pressing them into dirty hands as he passed and accepting blessings without thinking. His mind was focused ahead, and behind, even the call to prayer barely registering in his ears.
He’d met up with his team coming back from the airdrome, and the news had been… odd. They hadn’t found any bugs in the casino, much to his unsurprise — but they hadn’t found anything else that could account for the false positive, either. The sensor enclosures had all been clean, the power and communications usage levels for the building normal, and not a sandstorm in sight. None of the mechanics had been able to do much but shrug at him, and he’d been just as mystified. Could the sensors have just tripped for no reason? They were sensitive, sure, but they’d never been that sensitive before. Or was one of them failing, and going haywire in its death throes? That was the last thing he needed. The parts for those didn’t come cheaply, and they took weeks to build — his mother would be hounding him nonstop as long as there was a gap in the array.
He was still lost in thought as he came into the mosque, and went to the basin along the wall to perform his ablutions and prepare. Once he’d begun, though, he tried to set the matter aside for now, and make his mind still for God. Some days it was easier than others. Even in this part of town, where there were more desert people than tourists or spoiled brats of the old ruling class, there weren’t many here for worship; it was mostly just him and the very pious, women with their full faces veiled and men whose beards had never seen scissors, all readying themselves to pray in their separate places. And, of course, the imam.
After the prayers had finished, Saif made his way forward at a slow, casual pace, to where the congregation’s leader was exchanging last greetings and pleasantries. He gave no sign of noticing Saif coming up next to him at first — not even when the congregants began to notice him, in his suit and shined shoes, and to shy away uneasily, excusing themselves sooner than they might have meant. They’d all seen him there plenty of times, but never seemed to get used to it; while Saif didn’t imagine any of them could recognize him on sight for who he was, it was definitely clear enough what he was. Finally there were none of them left willing to linger; and at last their imam was forced, with a tiny sigh, to turn and acknowledge Saif.
“You could show up more often, you know,” Aqil said, and he was smiling by the time he did, anyway. “It’s said that when you pray at dawn among others, it’s as though you had prayed all night.”
“I have other things to do all night,” Saif said, smiling back. “I think God understands.”
Aqil tilted his head. “Do you?”
Saif didn’t bother trying to answer that.
Finally, Aqil sighed, and clapped a hand on his shoulder. It was heavy; he’d always been bigger, and all his honest work in the factory yards and the boxing ring had just widened the gulf. “Come on, let’s go into the library. One of these days you’re going to ruin my reputation.”
The library was barely any more than a closet off the mosque’s main room, filled with old books donated by the congregation and a damp mildewy smell; but like the main room, with its threadbare carpets and hangings and dented wooden pulpit, its shabbiness was somehow homey, colored warm by care and use. Saif eyed his way down the nearest shelf as he went in first, and then turned back, smiling, when Aqil shut the door behind them. “Mother sends her best, by the way.”
Aqil snorted. “No she doesn’t.”
“Well… she means to, even if she doesn’t say it.” Aqil’s mouth stayed sour, though, and Saif gave up. “You look good. How are you?”
“About the same. Busy. Sore. Getting by. Worried about you.” Saif waved that off, and Aqil rolled his eyes. “How about you? You look tired.”
“I am tired.” Aqil frowned, but Saif shook his head, waving his hand again. “Late night. Never mind, I’m fine. I…” He hesitated, and then turned more fully toward Aqil, leaning his back against a bookcase. “I need to ask you about something.”
“Of course you do.” That came so readily that they both fell silent for a moment; and then Aqil sighed, rubbing his sturdy neck. “What is it? I’ll tell you what I can.”
“Have you heard anybody talking ringside about anything going on with the Argwani? Any moves they’re thinking of making on our turf?” Aqil shook his head, frowning, and Saif chewed his lip a moment. “Or the Shomali, maybe? We’ve just about squeezed them out completely, but…”
“If either of them are planning anything, they haven’t been talking about it near me.” Saif glanced at him, and Aqil shrugged. “There are some Argwani who bet on the matches, and they’re not quiet, but mostly they’ve just been complaining about their women, and their distributors in the City hiking up prices. I can’t say for sure what they say in private, though.”
Saif nodded, and thought a little more. “How about police? I mean, I’d think they’d know better, but I guess all it takes is a show-off in town.”
Aqil shook his head again. “Haven’t heard about anything like that. If somebody were trying to make a name for himself, there’d be talk.” He paused, giving Saif a long look over. “Why? What happened?”
“Nothing really. Probably.” He hesitated. “The detectors in the Oleander picked up a radio transmission night before last. I took a team in to check it, and we didn’t find any bugs, but we couldn’t find anything that’d be setting them off instead, either. It’s probably just a glitch, but…” He trailed off, but he guessed Aqil didn’t need him to finish that. “I just thought, if there’s somebody out there gunning for us, I’d at least know what to look for.”
“There’s not much of anybody around here who’s stupid enough to be gunning for you,” Aqil said, with a small wan smile. The you he used, instead of us, seemed like always to ring very loud in Saif’s ears. “Not anymore.”
Saif answered his smile, with about as much enthusiasm. “I’d like to think that.” He was quiet a moment more, and then let out a breath, as he straightened back up. “Well, that’s really all I wanted to know, anyway. If you haven’t heard anything — ”
Aqil shook his head. “If I had, I’d tell you. …And if I do, I’ll call.”
“Thanks.” The smile he gave Aqil this time was realer, at least, and so was the one Aqil gave him back in kind. He was about the start saying his goodbyes — and then another thought occurred to him. “Hey, one more thing — you haven’t seen Key around, have you?”
“Key?” Aqil blinked at him. “No. He never comes down here unless he’s with you. Is he okay?”
“Yeah, he’s fine. Got himself hurt on a job not long ago, but I fixed him up. I was just supposed to take another look at the repairs last night, but I couldn’t make it; then I didn’t hear from him afterward, and I haven’t seen him since.” Aqil was frowning at him by now, but Saif just shrugged, dodging his eyes away a little. “I’m sure he’s fine. Probably out looking for a score, or making eyes at Lina, or something. Just didn’t think to tell me.”
“Probably,” Aqil agreed. He didn’t sound entirely easy in it, though, and Saif could understand. Key was a lot of things, but the type to just disappear without warning wasn’t really one of them. …Still, he had to remember, Key could handle himself. Better than most people, to be honest.
“Well, anyway,” Saif said, after another long pause. “I ought to get going. I don’t want to keep you.” Aqil smiled, and nodded, looking down until Saif touched his shoulder. “I miss you, you know,” he said, lower, when Aqil met his eyes. “So does she, no matter what she says. It’s too quiet in that damn tower without you charging around breaking things.” That surprised a snort of laughter out of Aqil, although his gaze dropped again, and Saif just shook his grip on Aqil’s shoulder a little. “You should come back and visit sometime. I mean it. We’d just be happy to see you.”
Aqil rolled his eyes, although he still wasn’t quite meeting Saif’s. “Yes, I can just imagine how well that’d go over. ‘Hello, Mother, just thought I’d drop by, I brought flowers! Oh, and you have some bullets for me in exchange, how thoughtful.'”
“You’re still her baby,” Saif said, after another brief pause, instead of laughing like he should have. Aqil looked at him for a moment… and then his mouth spread in a small, unhappy smile.
“No,” he said. “I’m not. It can’t work that way anymore: for her, or for me.” He tilted his head a little, peering into Saif’s eyes. “You do get that, don’t you?”
Saif took a long, slow breath, and then made himself smile. “I try not to,” he said, and leaned in and kissed first one and then the other of Aqil’s bearded cheeks. “I’ll see you later, little brother. Be good.”
“Take care of yourself,” Aqil said, softly, after him. But by then Saif was already stepping out back into the main room; out, and off, and away.
He went back to the tower while the sun came up, and after some consideration made his way up to his workshop, to work for a while on some repairs that had been piling up on him. Trying to keep his hands busy, so that his mind might clear. Instead, though, he wound up stretching out on the cot mid-morning for a nap, and slept almost until the call to prayer after midday. He made himself clean again at the sink in the storage-room, stretched out his mat in front of the cot and gave himself over to God. The peace of it was welcome.
When he’d finished, he just stood for a while, looking out into the bright desert sky with its bristle of building-spires and seams of airship contrails. Thinking. There had been something nagging at the back of his mind since this morning, the sense of something left undone, and with his soul freshly stilled by devotions he was finally able to put his finger on it: he’d never finished his sweep of the main casino floor last night. He’d been distracted by the fight breaking out, then by checking on Teferi, and then by being invited to Teferi’s ship, and though the team had gone on without him, he’d never gone back to the task. Undoubtedly Farouk had finished their piece of the sweep in his absence, and he trusted Farouk, but — it bothered him, all the same. In a case like this, an oddity like this, he just wanted to see things with his own eyes. Make doubly sure.
Saif waffled a while, thinking it over… and then just sighed, and shouldered back into the top half of his coveralls, over the undershirt he’d slept and prayed in. He’d go get changed, and even by the time he headed out, it’d still be early enough in the day that there’d hardly be anyone in the Oleander. He could satisfy himself in peace. What harm could it do? Maybe Key would even be there, keeping an eye on the gamblers who went in and out for potential contacts or marks, and afterward they could go somewhere for lunch. Not that Key ate, but he was good company.
Just a look. It wouldn’t take long.
Sure enough, the main floor was all but empty; there was a deeply hungover-looking older man in rumpled formalwear rolling dice down the alley in apparent existential despair, and two bleary-eyed women with disheveled headpieces chatting at a table in the corner, but by and large the place looked deserted except for occasional staff. Saif nodded to the ones he knew on his way in, and then settled down to work. His more sensitive short-range sensor was stashed in his pocket again, and turned up so high it was twitching even when he passed the air vents.
If he was anything, he was thorough. He worked his way back and forth across the room, starting with the draperies that hung between different sections of the floor, and then light fixtures, baseboards, vents, electric panels, any hidden nook or cranny the place had to offer. And then the sensor enclosures themselves, checking for debris or damage; but all of them were clean, as reported, and he moved on. Bit by bit he made his way down to edges of carpets, the corners of steps, inside handrails along any stairs. Each time he came up empty, he was already racking his brain for more possibilities. There was a protocol for this, of course, but by then he was already well beyond it, into the unlikeliest of places — ones that would really be too obvious or too risky or both for a spy worth his salt to use.
And yet, he was still coming up with nothing. Not a bug, not a handful of gritty sand and mica, not some janitor’s miniature cathedral radio forgotten down an access corridor. Just… nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing, grinding the frown-line deeper in between his brows with every passing minute. Nothing at all.
Finally he stood, exasperated, in the middle of the floor, arms folded and forehead dotted with sweat and indifferent to the curious stares he’d finally earned from the few guests and even the staff. It was no more than he’d known before, but seeing it firsthand this time rattled him, got under his skin. It didn’t make sense. Unless it really was just a sensor was malfunctioning, and he guessed he could start testing the array while he was here, but —
And then something occurred to him, stopping him in mid-thought.
They never checked the game-tables or chairs, for fairly practical reasons: those were so exposed, and all sides of them so plainly visible in the middle of the floor, that it was just impossible that someone could sneak a device onto one without being seen. To get something far enough along the underside of one of the tables that it wouldn’t be easy to see from halfway across the room, you’d have to practically get down on your hands and knees and crawl under it, which was something that Saif thought was safe to assume would draw some attention if it were done. And nobody working the casino the other night had reported anything like that, of course, but…
But he’d checked everywhere else. There was no other possibility. And what was more, now that he was thinking it — he had, waiting for him at the back of his mind like it had been there all along, a very good idea of which table to start with.
He went to the card-table in the middle of the main alley, right on the path back through the casino from the lobby to the security offices. The one where, looking down, he could see where the carpet had been carefully shampooed into the small hours of this morning, to get out enough of the blood that had spilled on it to start enticing players back again. The one where two men had started a fight with a third, and gotten more out of it than they’d expected.
Saif pushed aside the nearest chair, and peered underneath… and then just got down on the floor and pulled himself forward on his elbows, until he could flop over onto his back and look up. He’d made his way just about to the middle of its circle, the casino entirely blotted out of view by the table’s black underside.
In the very center of which, fixed neatly to the wood and nearly invisible against its darkness, was a small, black, metal box.
Whatever adhesive it had been attached with, it was so strong Saif almost couldn’t work it loose with just his fingers. He finally got it, though — wincing and raw — and let himself back down with a huff, scooting back out from under the table to stand up and look more closely, in the light. There was microphone-baffling over two sides of it, and a stubby little thing that might have been an antenna off the other. A small light flickered on the side of it that had been glued to the table, no doubt assessing signal strength from one moment to the next.
Saif stared at it for a long moment, nestled innocently inside the center of his palm.
“Well, that was obvious,” he murmured at last, his eyes still fixed on it. Which was how, he’d figure later, he didn’t immediately see anything, or sense any movement.
Until the point of something very sharp pricked into his lower back, up under his suit-jacket and straight through his shirt.
“I’d like you,” a low, warmly-accented, familiar voice said very softly into his ear from behind, “to remain very still, and behave very normally, and not reach for your gun.”
Yeah, Saif thought, closing his eyes briefly, and swallowing a mix of frustration and embarrassment and a bitterness he didn’t want to name. Pretty damned obvious, after all.
He did as he was told, apart from that one lapse: opening his eyes and smoothing out his expression again, keeeping his hands very carefully just where they were. The transmitter kept flickering away to itself in the one he held out, a smooth cool weight in his palm. “If I asked you where the hell you’ve been hiding,” he said in a low conversational voice, without turning his head, “would there be the slightest chance you’d actually tell me?”
There was a soft chuckle behind him, stirring his kefiyyeh and hair over his ear. “A gentleman can’t give away all his secrets,” Teferi said. He reached around Saif with his unoccupied hand, and plucked the transmitter from Saif’s lax grasp, fingertips just brushing his skin; and then he tucked it, just as quickly and neatly, inside the hip pocket of Saif’s pants. Saif gritted his teeth, with sour indignance, against both runs of gooseflesh that wanted to rise at those light touches. “That will do, for the time being. I wouldn’t want to leave that lying about for anyone to find. And now — ” The knife pressed tighter, just a little, just enough to leave a second’s sting and maybe a tiny drop of blood to soak into his shirt. “I wonder if you’d be kind enough to come with me, please? Without, of course, alarming any of your fine employees.”
“Well, I can’t exactly say no, can I?” His voice went more sour than ever, in spite of himself — but that was nothing to how he felt when, after a second’s pause, he could hear a slight smile shape Teferi’s next words.
“Mr. Saifullah,” he said, “you can say whatever you think is best.”
Which Saif supposed pretty much covered it. And what he said in the end, of course, was nothing.
They left the casino together, poker-faced, Teferi close at Saif’s back. He had to take the knife from under Saif’s jacket while they walked, of course, to keep from making a thoroughly ridiculous display, but Saif had seen enough of Teferi to consider its threat never far out of hand. In the empty lobby, Teferi made him stop and unstrap his gun, holding him at knifepoint again while he shut it in a drawer behind the manager’s desk… and then, to Saif’s surprise, made him toss away the transmitter in the garbage bin, too.
“I don’t care for being listened in on, personally,” was the only explanation he offered, when Saif turned a skeptical frown on him. “I know, I know, terribly hypocritical of me. But at least your affairs will also be a bit safer with it in there, won’t they?”
…That was true, Saif guessed, but he also couldn’t imagine how it was any concern of Teferi’s. Still, eyes on Teferi’s talented hands, he did as he was told.
Their next stop was the same private car, its sleek black mass parked in the “waiting” lot alongside the building, that had taken them back to the airdrome the night before. It followed the same course now, after Teferi had herded Saif in and then gotten in after him, sitting at his side with one knife out in hand like a pen he’d been toying with and forgotten. The driver was screened away from them, and Saif watched his oasis-city roll by over their heads and the airdrome’s vast galactic dome loom larger ahead of them, wondering why, wondering how, wondering where next and when and who and what for, getting nowhere with any of it. His mind racing, but also seeming to think nothing. He felt numb inside. Caught, was what it all came down to. He was caught, 100 percent no questions about it caught, after all these years. He wasn’t getting out of this one, and there was no telling now where ‘this one’ would even lead.
“I thought you didn’t work for the Argwani,” he said, finally, when they’d been in transit for a few minutes. He didn’t know whether Teferi would want to talk about this here or not, but he also found that he didn’t care at all. Teferi glanced at him when he spoke, and then smiled briefly. His dark eyes were hard to read.
“I don’t. Certainly not on a permanent basis, and not even at the moment.” Saif looked at him at that, eyebrows raised, and Teferi’s smile broadened, although it still rang a little false. “I’m a free agent, as I said. And currently, by my own free choice, I’m working for another client with a grudge against your organization.”
“Which one? Or would that be giving too much away?”
Teferi shrugged, his knife lifting on his hand. “It doesn’t matter to me. My services were commissioned by our very own Central Principalities Police.”
Saif felt his eyes go wide, in spite of all attempts at cynicism. “…Wait. What? The Police? The Police? The government is after us?”
“They have been for some time, as I understand it.” Saif waved that off, though, still too gobsmacked to much engage.
“Well, yeah, but — ” He struggled, then picked up his threat again. “I’d have thought they had enough problems in the City right now, without having to go looking further.”
“Ah. Yes.” Teferi paused a second, and this time did actually through an uneasy glance forward toward the driver’s seat; but in the end he seemed to decide it was worth it, and went on, albeit in a lower voice. “Well, they do, without question, but you see, therein lies their concern about you. Given your Family’s influence, wealth, illicit activities, and friendly relations with automata in general, I understood it had been suggested that you might be helping to support the automaton uprising that continues to run rampant through the City streets.” Saif opened his mouth at that, but Teferi just went on over him. “Regardless of the truth of those rumors, of which I myself have no notion one way or the other, the Police representatives who engaged me made it clear that their highest-ranking officials were under a great deal of pressure from Parliament itself. Our government feels very strongly at present that the time has come to shut your operations down.”
“Well, they’ve thought that for ages,” Saif said, slowly. Beginning to understand, even as he worked the last tangles out aloud. “But the Police never could do it. We keep things too tight. They could never get anything on us.”
Teferi smiled — a little thinly, Saif thought, and didn’t know if it was wishful or not. “Which is where I come in,” he said.
But the car was slowing now, and he looked up and around them before he could finish the thought, peering out of the window. “Ah — but we’re here. Step out of the car first, please, and leave the door open; keeping in mind that I will be right behind you.”
Increasingly, Saif wasn’t sure what was going on here. Teferi was taking him prisoner, there was no question about that — but he wasn’t behaving much like you would with a prisoner, apart from the knife in Saif’s back. He looked tense and watchful as they passed through the airdrome, and took the lift up to the deck with Teferi’s ship, and when Saif started to make some grim comment along the way, Teferi quieted him with a swift glance around that didn’t seem fitting for a Police plant.
“So this was their big takedown?” Saif said, though, once they were inside the ship and Teferi had closed the gondola behind them, and at last Teferi let him. “To send in a single civilian pilot undercover to bug our biggest casino? That seems a little thin.”
“A little,” Teferi agreed, without much humor. “If there were more to it, however, of course I wouldn’t be at liberty to tell you.”
“Of course,” Saif echoed, souring it in his mouth. He glanced over at Teferi, after a second’s pause. “And what about you? What do you get out of it? …I mean, money, I’m assuming, but why this job?”
Teferi shrugged; he wasn’t quite making eye contact, but he didn’t even seem all that embarrassed, really. “Quite a lot of money, in the main. And… well.” He thought a moment before going on. “I have a set of skills with which the Police are well familiar — and not in a positive context. Suffice it to say that your organization isn’t the only body with which I have made myself unpopular by my past handiwork. I was monitored on my last visit to the City just as I have been here, and then, as I’ve said, a representative made contact. Apart from the financial remuneration, he strongly suggested that my past transgressions might be forgiven if I undertook this task, and my passage through the City eased… and, indeed, in the process he also painted this cause as a very noble one. Such that I would clear my own conscience as well as my good name, by helping to destroy an organization that had held this helpless oasis for far too long in a criminal, extortionary grasp.” His lips twisted up to one side, just slightly. “I must confess, I was more taken with the idea than I might have thought I’d be.”
Saif stared at him for a moment, and then blew out a long breath of disgust, raking his hands back through the long tail of his hair. “Yeah. Of course that’s what they’d say. Fuckers.”
“Oh?” Teferi’s surprise was polite, and it was with tired amusement that Saif realized he wasn’t sure how much of it was for the sentiment, and how much for his language. “How would you describe it, then? Much of your organization’s enterprise is criminal, yes?”
“Well, since you didn’t bring the transmitter… yes. Of course.” He sighed, rolling his shoulders. “I’m not proud of it exactly, but that’s a part of it. It’s money — like with you. The casinos and bars make us a lot, but nothing like the under-the-table stuff. But that’s not the problem the Police have with us. Let alone Parliament.”
Teferi cocked his head. “Then what is?”
“One — ” Saif held up his fingers, ticking them off with a grim little smile. “We have the current Sheikh in our pocket. He’s terrified of us and he’s bought, which makes for a pretty potent combination. So he does what we want, instead of what the Principalities central government wants. A lot of the time those two things don’t have much in common. Two — ” Another finger. “We get almost all of our income, legally and illegally, from rich foreign tourists, particularly ones from the City. All the fashionable business types invest here tax-free and maybe get scammed, come party here and buy drinks and gamble, and maybe get robbed on the way home or maybe pay for protection for their businesses or maybe just go on a shopping spree on our black market, and we take all that money and put it back toward our own people, where the City doesn’t get any richer off it. And three — of course — they hate how well we treat automata.” He smirked back at Teferi’s carefully guarded expression, shoving his hands in his pockets. “All it takes is one principality actually letting them have rights and be free, and suddenly they have all kinds of ideas in their heads about wanting that stuff all the time. And the next thing we know, the City has a war on its hands.”
Teferi seemed to need a long time to digest all of that. He’d put his knife away at some point, Saif finally noticed, only when Teferi turned to look out the glass door of the gondola in apparent deep thought. If he’d wanted to, Saif guessed he could have taken that moment to try to surprise him from behind, knock him out and escape. But the conversation still rung oddly, all the antagonism and contempt that should have been there absent… not to mention, even with Teferi bare-handed for the moment, he still wasn’t sure he liked his own odds in a fight.
“So with your Family pulling the strings of the Sheikh, as you say, the freedoms that automata enjoy here are your doing?” he said, finally. Saif nodded, and Teferi paused another moment before turning back to him. “Why, may I ask? It’s a strange demand for a criminal organization to make.”
“Well… the cynical answer would be that they’re a steady source of cheap labor, and anybody they’re loyal to can get a lot done. And I won’t claim that didn’t have anything to do with it.” He thought for a while, choosing his words carefully. “But that’s not the real reason. I know you’re probably not going to believe me, but — it’s really just that we believe it’s right. It’s right for them to be free. It’s right for everybody to be free. We know, my family does, what it’s like to be taken advantage of, and treated like tools to make other people money. My grandfather and my father didn’t want anyone else to go through that ever again. And neither do I.”
Teferi was looking at him by now with an expression he couldn’t read at all. He didn’t say anything for a moment, and finally Saif found himself just filling the silence instead, too uncomfortable to let it lie. “Look… do you know how Mejalejrad was built?”
“What they print on the brochures,” Teferi said, after a beat of pause. There might have been a small frown growing on his face now. “Something about the first Sheikh being a wealthy desert caravanner, who bought it as a trading post on the eastern road.”
Saif nodded. “And he built it up into an oasis city by himself. Pretty heavy work for just one man’s fortune, right? Especially if the best you can say about him is that he was rich by the standards of desert nomads.” Teferi nodded back, definitely frowning now, and Saif settled in with one shoulder against the glass wall. “Well, he didn’t actually do it by himself. He brought his whole extended family in on it, with the promise that they’d own a piece of the pie forever when the place was finished. And he’d made good connections outside the desert, running his caravans. He never had any shortage of foreign investors, and of course shipping in the materials didn’t cost him anything. And then, of course, he used slave labor to build the place. Which is known for being a really effective cost-cutting measure.”
Teferi looked at him sharply at that, and Saif let out a short sigh. “My grandfather’s people — my people — were desert people too, poor farmers in the villages way down on the southern edge of the Hallaqin. The Sheikh’s men came to them and told them there was a city being built far away to the north, and there were more amazing jobs than they could imagine opening up there: easy work, high pay, living like kings in fancy houses while their families back home were taken care of, until they could come too… The villages were barely scraping by, there were more young people than there was food and they all dreamed every night about moving to the City and getting famous, what do you think they said? They piled onto the airships in droves, and got flown up north, and then they got off and found out the work was manual labor, the pay was nearly nothing, they were sleeping four to a bed on top of rats’ nests, and they owed the Sheikh thousands just for the fuel and food they’d used up on the way here. Let alone their room and board and uniforms and anything else they could get bled dry for. And they were stranded with no other options, in a strange place, with no way home except on foot across a thousand miles of desert.”
He waited a minute to see if Teferi would say anything, but he didn’t; and finally Saif went on. “My grandfather used to tell my brother and me stories about the labor camps, when we were little. When he was sure my grandmother and my mother weren’t listening; they didn’t want us hearing it, and they were probably right.” He smiled a little to himself, although it faded away quickly. “He said that some of the workers really tried it, at first — running away across the desert. Just out of desperation. Sometimes the camp overseers went after them and brought them back. Other times they just let them go, and then a month or so later, they’d ride out on their camels with a wagon, and pick up the corpses. They’d bring them back to the camp and dump them in a ditch out back, and the family — everybody in the camps had family in the camps, everybody knew somebody — they had to crawl down into the ditch and dig around for their brother or cousin who’d run for it, just to make sure.” He fell silent a moment, thinking: hearing his grandfather spinning those already-old tales in the broad sitting room of the apartments that were now his mother’s, his voice cracked from years of dust and chemicals and not enough water. “When one project ended, what they’d supposedly signed up for, they got shunted along to another one. The contractors swapped them like equipment. They had no way of writing home; for all their family there knew, they were all dead, or had forgotten about them. My grandfather was fifteen when he was brought to the camps. By the time he finally managed to run away — into the streets, not the desert — he was almost forty. It was amazing he even survived.”
“He must have been a remarkable man,” Teferi said — his first words in a long while. Saif glanced at him, and smiled, briefly.
“He was. Basically made of iron. He could pick the two of us up one in each hand until we were ten, which was about a year before he died.” Another brief silence, and then he found his thread again. “After he escaped, he was a criminal, so he stayed one just to survive. He learned to rob houses and run con games. He hated it, it was sinful and it hurt his pride, but he did it because he needed money. A lot of money.” He glanced at Teferi, found him frowning again. “To bribe the family and friends he still had left out of debt, and out of the camps. And help them get set up, as best he could. He was determined he wasn’t going to leave anybody behind, and all the people he freed were so grateful they felt the same way. So they started working with him, or finding other jobs, or other ways of getting money — dangerous, illegal, or whatever.” He met Teferi’s eyes again, something that wasn’t quite a smile thinning his own lips. “They’d learned by then that money ran the world: if you had enough of it, you could get away with anything. So they decided they were going to make a lot of it. By any means necessary.
“And that’s still what we do now, more or less, though the scale’s gotten a lot grander since my grandfather’s time. We make all the money we can off all the rich foreigners who think this desert is their playground, and we use it to buy people who are still in the labor camps out of them — yeah, there are still camps, and there are still people in them, all that’s still going on if you can believe that, the builders are just better at hiding it now — and we use it to make sure our people are taken care of once they’re free. And that’s it. We only keep what we need to keep things running. We’re not getting rich, we’re not even making a profit that I’m aware of. We’re just helping.”
“Do the officials in Parliament and the Police who want to destroy you know all of this?” Teferi asked, quietly, after a long silence. Saif snorted.
“Are you kidding? Of course they do, I’m sure of it. Why do you think they hate us so much?” Teferi stared at him, and he shrugged. “They don’t give a damn what happens to our people. As far as they’re concerned, we’re taking their rich idiots’ money and flushing it down the drain.”
There was another silence, very long this time. Then finally, Teferi scrubbed both his dark scarred hands slowly down his face, blowing out a heavy, sighing breath as they dropped at the end.
“I was afraid it would be something like this,” he said — lightly, almost, like a remark to a neighbor at a fancy dinner. “As soon as I spoke with you last night, I began to suspect. I brought you back here in the hopes you would either confirm what I imagined of you or not; and confirm it you have.”
They were both quiet for another moment, while Saif tried to figure out how to respond to that, or even what it meant. Finally, though, Teferi just turned back toward him, businesslike and brisk. “You’re right, of course,” he said, without preamble. “The transmitter in the casino was a decoy; I was to hide it well, and you were to realize it was there, so that your time and attention would be distracted by finding it, and you thus wouldn’t suspect the real plot.”
“What’s the real plot?” Saif asked after a second or two. Still cautious, but feeling out the ground.
“A listening device implanted inside an automaton that works for your Family.” Saif jolted, and Teferi watched his eyes, for once unsmiling. “The unit was caught in criminal activity near the City, and when it was determined where it had come from and with whom it was associated, it was brought before the Police. By Western Principality law, you may be aware, units used in criminal activity are impounded indefinitely, and those that have independently committed a crime or caused harm to a human in the process are destroyed. Your automaton was offered carrying the listening device as a deal to save itself, and it was forced to agree. I was to transport it back into Mejalejrad, on my way to plant the transmitter in the casino, and it could gather enough evidence of your wrongdoing to warrant arrests.”
Saif put a hand to his cheek, then scrubbed it across his eyes. “We have hundreds of automata working for us. Not all of them go outside the oasis, but — ”
Teferi nodded, and frowned. “Well, it never introduced itself. I don’t expect it thought much of me, under the circumstances.” That won a bit of a wan smile out of Saif, at least. “One thing did stand out, however — it had an injured leg. Apparently it had been caught because it let an airship bay door close on it, to let the others robbing it escape, and then was unable to — ”
“Key,” Saif said. Fast and hard through numb lips, his eyes wide. Teferi broke off in mid-sentence, and blinked at him.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Key. That’s his name. The automaton.” He looked back at Teferi, staring with the force of his sudden recognition. “No wonder they jumped at the chance to use him — they hit the jackpot. He’s not just one of the ones who help us out, he’s a direct contact of my mother’s. A good friend of mine, too.”
“Ah. Indeed.” Teferi thought for a second, and then drew himself up, straightening his jacket. “Well, leaving aside whatever sort of a name ‘Key’ is, if anything is to be done about this situation, we need to find this fellow. He’s the real connection with the — ”
“There is no need to find him,” a familiar, deep voice said from off in the dim corridor beyond both of them: slightly tinny and with the occasional odd modulation between phrases. “He is already here.”
Over Teferi’s grumblings about “running some sort of a hostel, and how did you even do that, anyway” (“He’s a thief, Teferi,” Saif finally said, exasperated; “he’s an automaton thief, more to the point, do you think he looks at a locked airship and just gives up?”), Key admitted that as soon as Saif had repaired his leg, he had come back here and let himself in to hide in Teferi’s airship. He “wished to avoid the company of his employers for a time,” and that was the most he would say about why he’d done it; and the very roundaboutness of the way he was talking about it finally started sliding the last piece into place for Saif.
“Key,” he said, when Key had finished, crouching down to meet him eye-to-eye. Key was seated on one of the plush benches in a state room by now, Teferi leaning on the wall beside and hovering over them. “Is what Teferi said true? Do you have a bug on you?”
Key’s face seemed to tighten, meeting Saif’s gaze. The light behind his own eyes, that pulsing glow you could sometimes see from the visual array behind an automaton’s more cosmetic eyes, seemed to be flickering very fast. “I cannot tell you that,” he said, after a fractional pause that somehow still seemed very long.
Teferi frowned, turning toward him. “Certainly you can,” he said. “I already have. Even if they’re listening in now, you’ll be in no worse shape.”
Key started to say something — but Saif shushed him with an understanding hand on his shoulder, looking up at Teferi. “No — I think he really can’t. If he could tell me any of this, he would have by now. There are ways you can block off neural pathways in an automaton, to keep them from being able to talk or even think about certain subjects under certain circumstances. It’s a really horrible, disgusting thing to do to someone, but if there’s anybody I wouldn’t put it past right about now — ” He turned back to Key, gripping his shoulders now with both hands. “Is that what it is? They put a block in you too?”
There was another flicker in Key’s expression, stronger this time — almost like pain. “I cannot confirm or deny that,” he said, and sounded like it was through closed teeth. Saif sighed, and scrubbed at his face.
“Okay… I’m gonna assume that’s a yes.” He thought for a minute, his head dropped forward, and then raised it to look at Key again. “So I’m guessing you can’t tell me where it is.”
“I cannot discuss anything related to this matter,” Key said, with a faint indefinable air of resignation. Saif sighed again, and sucked air through his teeth.
“Can’t you just look everywhere?” Teferi asked. Saif glanced up at him, with a touch of sour amusement twisting his mouth.
“For something that’s implanted inside his wiring? You know how much of that there is in an automaton? Sure, if I wanted to take a week reducing a good friend of mine to component parts.” Teferi nodded his concession with a slight smile, and Saif turned his attention back to Key, considering. “Can you tell me where your body has been opened recently? Where on your body has someone operated lately?”
“You opened my leg to repair two pieces of crushed paneling and replace nerve receptors,” Key answered, much more readily. There was a long pause, and then more tense, pained flickering in his skin, the pulsing light behind his eyes faster than ever. “I cannot discuss any further operations.”
Saif let out a disgusted breath through his teeth. “Shit. Okay. …Um.” He thought a while longer, chewing his lip. “Can you… drop hints? Tell me a riddle that has something to do with it, or something? Make a code I have to crack?”
“Not with conscious intent to share the information,” Key said. His voice sounded as blandly pleasant as always, but an automaton’s voice always sounded like that; there was plain, clumsy misery in the way he shaped his expression. “Not if I am aware that you intend to learn the answer from it.”
“Right.” …Something about that rang weird, though, and it took Saif another beat or two to put his finger on it. “So… if I didn’t know that there was anything to know — when I didn’t know that there was anything to know — then, you could have dropped hints? If you didn’t expect I’d pick them up?”
Key looked at him sharply: a new, alert glint was in his eye. “Yes. That is correct.”
Saif’s mind raced. “Now that you mention it — you didn’t have to come to me to get your leg fixed. If you just meant to double back here and hide out, it wouldn’t matter if you had a limp or not. Sure, it’d hurt, but not enough for how risky coming to the tower would be.” Teferi was standing up straight now, listening, looking as excited as he felt. “Is that what you were doing, buddy? Coming to drop hints that I’d maybe be able to figure out if I found out later?”
“I cannot… confirm or deny that,” Key said — but so out-of-breath, strained with effort and pain, that Saif thought there would have been sweat standing out on his forehead if he’d been human. Trying so hard to answer, and just not able. Saif’s chest ached with pity, but he also couldn’t help but clench his fists on his thighs in triumph.
“Okay. Okay. Let’s go through this. When you were in my workshop and I was fixing your leg, what happened.” He rubbed both his hands over his face again, steadyingly, then looked upward and into space at nothing, straining to remember. “I came in and you were lying on my cot — face-down, I remember, it was a little funny. Sorry.” He straightened up again to pace, hands locked behind his head. “I got you to sit up, you were favoring your leg, of course — you turned around to put your back up against the wall, so I had to work from the floor. I fixed you up, you were kind of quiet, didn’t really say much I remember — I guess trying not to drop anything that sounded incriminating…” He trailed off, reviewing silently again.
And then suddenly dropped his hands to his sides, and stared at Key. Dropping back to his crouch in front of him so fast his knees popped.
“A massage,” he said. “When I was done, you asked for a massage. Face-down until I was there, then keeping your back up to the wall, a massage — it’s in your back.”
“I cannot confirm or deny that,” Key said, as breathlessly as was possible for him, and grabbed Saif around either side of his head to plant a fast, firm kiss on his mouth.
He took off his shirt and stretched out on his stomach on the bench, and Teferi brought Saif what tools he had for maintenance, and Saif made due the best he could. At least the closure of Key’s skin was at the back, so he didn’t have to cut it open like with the leg; he could just separate and stretch out the silicone, pinning it out to each side like a grotesque of a dissection. Then he started removing the segmented covering along Key’s spine, a bit at a time, revealing the metal skeletal structuring and the forest of wirework and cabling.
It took him maybe about twenty minutes to find it: near the top of Key’s spine, clipped into the bundle of cables that ran between his neural network and the rest of his body, another little black box sitting among them like a fat spider in a web. He very carefully freed it, resetting all of the connections in his wake, and finally handled the transmitter to Key. Key took it, and then made a quick, tight, crunching fist. When he opened his hand again, fragments of metal and plastic spilled out over his fingers and onto the richly-carpeted floor, leaving bloodless cuts behind in Key’s false flesh.
After Saif closed back up his spine, Key’s head was next, and that was both more delicate work and a little easier. With his skin still open at the back Key just stretched it out and ducked his head down out of it, revealing the alien metallic skull-shape of his inner head, a silver lozenge with no recognizably human features, just the long horizontal line of his visual array glowing blue near the top, and the round black hole from which his speech issued. Saif carefully separated the top half of his skull from the bottom, and rooted through the circuitry at the front of his cranium with the most endless care and gentleness he could manage. Anything he dislodged or tipped out of balance in there could mean permanent damage; he hated having to do it without the proper tools.
Finally, though, he found the foreign matter: a tiny, round ring of metal no bigger than the last joint of his pinky, something that looked almost like a lugnut except for all the connections nestling it into Key’s brain. Saif undid them all and put them right with utmost care, firmly ignoring all of Teferi’s — and not to mention Key’s — obvious impatience with his slowness. Nothing else could matter while you were messing around in someone else’s brain, except that you did it right.
No sooner did he have the block out, though, and was leaning away to put it down, than Key moved — much more quickly than Saif would have liked, honestly, under the circumstances. Lunging forward, his head still naked and wide open, grabbing at Saif’s shoulders. His voice more flatly metallic than ever without his skin, as he talked as fast and loud as he could.
“I planted one of my ears in their headquarters.” He turned his head, showing Saif the empty socket on one side where there was a small receptor dish on the other. “Turnabout is fair play. The signal breaks up sometimes but I am hearing them now — they heard us. They know you found the transmitter. They have no more time. They will come tonight by airship. It does not matter if they have evidence. They will assault the tower and find what they need before it can be hidden and make their excuses for moving prematurely later. This is all being planned right now. We must stop them. I must go to the tower control panel, now.”
“What — ” Teferi started, but Saif interrupted him: grabbing onto Key’s arm and hauling him back in.
“Are you sure?” Key nodded, which was more than a little disconcerting with his metal head showing and all its wiring showing inside it. “Then we’ll go. Hold still. Let me put your head back on.” Saif looked up at Teferi, and whatever was in his eyes caught Teferi’s gaze, and held him silent and waiting. “Teferi. Can we trust you?”
“Certainly not,” Teferi said. Almost, if not quite, cheerfully. “What do you take me for?”
That actually managed to surprise Saif into laughing, in spite of everything — and that was good. In a way, that helped focus him. “Okay, fair enough. Then can we just get you to fly us to the balcony on the 60th level of my Family’s central tower, at a really ridiculous speed?”
Teferi looked startled — and then his scarred mouth cracked in a broad smile. “That, my dear Mr. Saifullah, I can much more readily promise.”
“I am sorry, Saif,” Key said, when they were alone again: the engines roaring around them, Teferi lifting them out the opening in the top curve of the airdrome. They’d fastened his skin back in place and he’d dressed again, and they sat side-by-side on the bench now, recovering themselves. When Saif looked over at him, Key’s shoulders had slumped, in that oddly awkward mechanical version of misery. “Are you angry with me?”
Saif frowned. “What? No. Of course not, why would I be?”
“I am responsible for all of this.”
“No you’re not. It wasn’t your fault.” Key didn’t answer, and Saif clapped a hand on his shoulder, looking him in the eyes. “Don’t you beat yourself up about this. You had nothing to do with it. You’re the one who got kidnapped and opened up and junk put into your brain; you should be mad at them, if anybody. I sure as hell am.”
“Your Family is my family,” Key said. He touched Saif’s hand, and when Saif clasped it, took it in both of his. “I call you my home. I cannot forgive myself for having been the instrument of your betrayal.”
Saif squeezed his hand, feeling the metal inside its skin. “You didn’t have a choice. They would have destroyed you.”
“Then I should have permitted myself to be destroyed.”
He was looking down again, and Saif caught him around the side of his head, pulling it back up to face him with rough affection. “If you’d done that, I would be angry at you,” he said. “Furious.” Key ducked his head in acknowledgement, and Saif gave his head a brotherly scruff before dropping his hand away again.
“I would do anything for you,” Key said after a moment, simply. “I would go to any length.”
That gave Saif pause for a moment… and then finally he made himself smile, and just squeeze Key’s hand one more time before dropping that too. Thinking, in spite of himself, of all those stray thoughts: longing to have those hands on him, Key’s lips and strange metal mouth.
“I know you would,” he said, quietly. “That’s why there’s a lot of things I would never ask.”
Key looked into his eyes again — and smiled, after a second. “And that is why I would do it.”
Saif answered his smile, and then leaned in: to leave only a brief, chaste kiss on Key’s forehead. “You’re a pretty soppy sentimentalist for somebody made of metal.” Key swatted at him as he pulled back, mock-scowling, and Saif grinned. “We should be there soon,” he said, and got up from the bench, with one last pat on Key’s shoulder. “Any word from our friends in government?”
“No. I have lost the signal.” Key looked up at him, hands folded, the plaintive look on his face eerily human. “I am not certain we will be able to make it in time.”
“Well… we’ll see, I guess.” Saif sighed, and then nodded. “In that case, though, I think I’ll excuse myself. It’s been a busy day and I’ve gotten behind on things, and I want to catch up before we get there.”
Key tilted his head. “What sorts of things?”
Halfway to the door already, Saif turned back, a little half-grin sitting uneasy on his lips. “Praying,” he said. “Mainly.”
“Bringing an unfamiliar ship right up to the main tower, we’re probably gonna get a pretty warm welcome, so get ready,” Saif had told Teferi as they all stood gathered on the foredeck, making their approach; and sure enough, he winced and hissed a curse under his breath when they got close, and he saw panels between the windows of the upper tower start to slide open, revealing the barrels of anti-aircraft artillery. Saif’s grandfather and father had built the tower with some very specific purposes in mind, and they just got better and better upgrades every year.
Teferi said nothing, but the way his eyes narrowed, Saif knew he had seen it too. He just kept flying, though: his hands locked on the steering column, expression calm, full attention focused. Saif found himself admiring him all over again.
And no matter how close they got, the guns didn’t fire. Just a display of power, Saif guessed, which wasn’t great news but better than ‘shoot first and ask questions later.’ But he wasn’t at all surprised when, when Teferi pulled the ship up alongside the balcony and Saif and Key banged open the gondola door to jump across the slight gap over its rail, the first thing they saw was a solid pack of suited muscle, and a bristle of guns from every direction pointed directly at them.
“It’s us!” Saif was already calling, even as the door opened — even as Key was jumping over and then turning, ready to catch him if he missed his step. “It’s us, it’s me, nobody shoot!”
Nobody did, at least for the time being, and he jumped just to get it over with, Key’s hands catching his shoulders and bringing him in. And then he was standing steady on the balcony, and the small army of burly security guards that had all crammed out there were moving back, parting; and standing behind them, coming forward with tommygun held level in both barely-visible hands and draped to the floor in her most formidable burqa, was his mother.
“What in the world is going on?” she hissed at him, keeping her voice low for him only. She kept striding right up to him as she did, until they were toe-to-toe, her glaring up the foot or so to his eyes through the black screen that only just showed her own. “Where have you been? What are you doing with him?”
He didn’t have to follow the stabbed line of her finger back to the airship’s deck, where Teferi was still visible through the open door. “It’s a long story, and we’re going to have to tell it very quickly,” he said, and caught out at Key’s arm. “While we’re getting Key to the control panel as fast as we can.”
Her eyes widened behind the screen for a moment, and then they’d hardened again, and she nodded. She took a step back, but before any of them could take off running, she shifted her gun into one hand and swung the other arm out at the airship. “Have the men tether that ship. And bring the pilot. When there’s time, he will make a full accounting for himself.”
“Mother, he’s helping us,” Saif burst out, unable to help it in spite of their audience. “He’s not — ”
“You brought him here.” Her head snapping up, eyes hot and sharp. “Now he doesn’t leave again until he has our permission. Tether the ship.”
Saif started to open his mouth again — and then just closed it again. No time, no choice. He bit his tongue, and then turned outward and started calling orders.
Teferi didn’t exactly have a gun to his head as they all raced down the corridors, into the heart of the tower, but he was ringed thoroughly by armed men and seemed to understand his situation quite well. For all of that, though, he’d waved off Saif’s whispered attempts to apologize, and from time to time when Saif glanced at him he could swear Teferi was actually enjoying himself. Well, he guessed that to be the sort of person who let the government pay you under the table to go spy on the Principalities’ largest criminal organization, and then changed sides on that arrangement halfway, you probably did have to be at least a little crazy.
The “control panel” was a very modest name for what they had at the core of the tower by now: it was actually a vast, octagonal room with banks of consoles and machinery on all sides, periscopes to the outside of the building jutting down here and there, and a massive, square column at the center, with a metallic depression in the middle of one side that was shaped like a spread-eagled human figure. They all swarmed inside: Saif rushing to the consoles with the members of his team he’d been able to get on such short notice, Teferi pulled up against the wall alongside him, everyone else spreading out and making way for Key and Saif’s mother to stride in together. Saif already had his full attention on his work by the time they did, and wasn’t even really aware of them approaching the column until Teferi leaned toward him a little, under a guard’s watchful eye.
“And what happens now?” he asked, in a murmur. Saif glanced up at him, and then over his shoulder at the center of the room, where his mother was turning her back on Key; and then he just turned back to his work, even as he answered.
“Now, because I’m a very stupid person who gets people involved in things they shouldn’t be,” he said, just as low, “you’re going to find out what sort of a name Key is.”
And before Teferi could respond to that or even question it, Key began unbuttoning his shirt, and then stripped matter-of-factly out of his clothing from the top down. Saif didn’t turn to see any of this, but he knew what was happening, every step of it: the neat folded piles on the floor Key left his clothes in, the way he reached back to the closure of his skin next and stripped out of that too. And then how, all gleaming metal and fully naked, he stepped backward into the recess in the column, fitting his limbs into all of its lines.
Saif worked the controls, and his team followed suit; and metal bands slid out of grooves in the depression, wrapping around Key’s wrists and ankles and waist and throat. Needles and wires extruded from their inner curves, plunging into the docks in Key’s metal body, and the joints where its pieces fit together. A stream of values and information began ticking out of the small paper spool by Saif’s console, which he glanced up at to check Key’s status every few seconds or so. It was very quiet in the room, apart from the sounds of keyclicks and machinery being manipulated, the scritch-screech of the printout. No one said anything for a while.
“System engaged,” Key said, at last, into the quiet. His voice sounded oddly doubled when he did, as always when he was plugged in. There was a soft chime from a speaker in the ceiling above his head, and then a crackly, more mechanical, female voice responded: “Permission granted. Sounding: first warning.”
Sudden music erupted from outside the hallway to this room, making Teferi jolt and surprising no one else at all. A singing voice, specifically, recorded and warbling but strong: a call to prayer, ostensibly. Or rather, indistinguishable from one to anyone who didn’t know what they were listening for — and, to anyone who did, a call of a different sort.
Come to the tower. Get inside. There’s danger, and we’re closing.
It was the waiting after the first warning, Saif thought, that was always the hard part. It was no more than half an hour between the first call and the last alarm, and he was busy through all of it; but it still seemed like much more, like hours or even days.
Finally, though, the voice spoke up again from above Key: “Sounding: final warning.” Klaxons blared, appearing to startle Teferi again, and this time even Saif winced; they were even louder in here than they were outside, he thought.
They finished quickly, though, and in the ringing silence, Saif said, “All clear on the ground?”
“All clear,” Raza said, from a console across the room. Saif nodded, and reached across the console to uncover and pull a switch.
“Shuttering in progress,” said the crackling female voice and Key, in unison. And then the entire tower shuddered under their feet.
“What’s happening?” Teferi asked — at least sounding more curious than alarmed. Saif glanced at him, then nodded toward the nearest periscope, going unused beside an unmanned console.
“Take a look,” he said. “You’ll want to see this.”
Teferi glanced at the guard standing nearest to him, who looked too tense to really object, and then did as Saif had told him. Saif couldn’t see what he was seeing, but he’d seen it enough times before to understand Teferi’s hiss of indrawn breath. The thick nest of silvery steel scales, spiraling up out of the tower’s needle and then unfolding itself. The scales — each taller than two men — unfolding themselves in a long, neat slide down the outside of the building, like a rigid tent building itself from the top down. Arcing out on all sides of the tower into a rough dome, all the way down to the street, and then planting themselves into actual grooves in the concrete itself — easily mistaken by passersby on ground level for trolley-tracks, or parts of the sewer.
“It’s armor,” Teferi breathed, and then raised his head to look back at Saif again instead. “Isn’t it? You armored the whole tower.”
“Sort of. A blast shield on a large scale, I’ve always thought of it as.” Saif’s eyes were still on his work, but a tiny, grim smile was working its way onto his mouth, all the same. They were in time; they were going to make it. Who knew what would happen next, but they were going to make it. “I could tell you a lot about the impact resistance that probably wouldn’t mean much to you, but suffice it to say, it’s a lot. And it covers not just the tower, but the courtyard at the bottom, and a fair bit of the surrounding block. We can fit about 10,000 people inside it. And we have our own food and water supplies, enough to help out our people if they need it, so… with rationing, that many people could probably survive for about two weeks under here.”
“Incredible.” The admiration in Teferi’s voice was real enough to widen Saif’s smile a bit. “And now you can just… wait?”
Saif sat back from the console, finally, and nodded even as he was scrubbing his hands over his face. “And hope they give up before we have to.”
Teferi didn’t seem to have an answer for that. And finally the room fell quiet again; and they were all just sitting, waiting, listening for the sound of engines overhead — and the shudder of impact.
In the end, though, the assault didn’t last long. There were a few tremors, some rattling in the walls, and then a gradual quiet; and then one of the printouts whirred into life again, spouting off a long stream of paper that Raza caught and began wrapping as it came.
“It’s a telegraph from the Sheikh’s office, ma’am,” he reported, over his shoulder to Saif’s mother. “He says that he sent out ships from his own personal guard to hail the Police ships, and ask what they were doing to his city and whether they had a warrant before attacking a private residence. They didn’t respond at first — so he called the Palace and reported them.” There was a murmur through the room at that, and not a little bit of suppressed, unkind laughter. “They lost what element of surprise they had, and they’ve been recalled to the City, probably for some tough questions. We should be all right.”
“For now,” Saif’s mother said — cutting off the impromptu cheer that had been starting to go up before it could make much progress. Her voice was heavy, and the room quieted again quickly. “They’ll only have to go through a few more proper channels, and they can be right back, and not so easily dissuaded.”
“I beg your pardon, madam,” Teferi said, “but I believe I can help you solve that problem.”
That silenced the room quickly. Saif’s mother turned on him slowly, and Saif couldn’t quite imagine how Teferi didn’t cringe from it — just from every line of her posture, not quite disguised by her veil. He didn’t, though; just stood his ground, looking mild and pleasant and ready.
“And how do you propose to do that?” she asked, finally. Her voice icy.
“Well, the Police do, at present, have a bit of evidence that might implicate your organization,” Teferi said. “For which I earnestly apologize.” In spite of all of their conversation, Saif wasn’t surprised to see, that did nothing to warm her. “However — given your son’s impressive technological prowess, I expect he might be able to alter a transmitter to make it seem as though it had been tampered with? As though, for example, an unscrupulous free agent had falsified some recordings of damning evidence, solely for purposes of cheating the Principalities government out of money he had been hired to earn via espionage?”
A long silence was all that met that at first. Finally, when it didn’t seem like his mother was ever going to answer, Saif said, barely hiding his growing smile: “I think I could probably figure something out.”
Teferi nodded, beaming. “Well, how fortunate! There is still a transmitter discarded in a trash bin in your casino, which could be altered to just such a purpose. And since the only other device with which you were being observed was destroyed, if that one were to be returned in its altered state, it would cast doubt upon all of the evidence collected on your organization in this matter. Which would, I believe, effectively reduce the Police back to their previous state of possessing no evidence with which to make arrests.”
There was another very long, very tense silence.
“Saifullah,” Saif’s mother said, finally, at the end of it, and gave him a crisp nod. “Release the outlander’s ship. Go with him and do what he suggests.” The netting that marked her gaze turned back toward Teferi, and held there for a long, cool moment. “And then see him to the airdrome and on his way. And make it very, very clear to him that he is not encouraged to return.”
“Yes ma’am,” Saif said, as humbly as he could. While trying, for all he was worth, not to grin.
“Do you think you’re going to be all right getting this thing back?” Saif asked, back on the deck of Teferi’s ship, as he dropped the altered transmitter in Teferi’s palm. Teferi grinned as he pocketed it, and nodded.
“Fly-by-night deliveries are something of a specialty of mine.” He eyed Saif for a thoughtful moment. “And will your Family be well?”
“We get by. One way or another.” Saif hesitated a moment, and then added more seriously: “Thank you, Teferi. I really can’t thank you enough. This might have been it for us, without your help. I’m not sure what made you change your mind, but — ”
“Oh, come now. A nuisance I may be, but I’m not a monster.” Teferi waved his hand, still smiling. “I could hardly betray the most ludicrously high-minded and philanthropic criminals I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet, out of loyalty to a government.”
That actually surprised a laugh out of Saif, although it faded quickly. “Well, I mean, though… we are criminals. I don’t really want to hurt anyone, but… I have to admit, it does happen. And as hard as we may try to keep our faith, it has a lot of really specific things to say about the kinds of things we do.” A small, wan smile crossed his lips. “As I’ve had certain people try to tell me.”
“I wonder if it’s not so much my opinion of you that worries you,” Teferi said, quietly, with only a touch of his smile left. And at that Saif just looked down, and didn’t answer.
“Well, good luck, anyway,” he said after a moment, raising his eyes back to Teferi’s and forcing out a smile. “And if you’re ever feeling up to braving Mother’s wrath — I’d love to talk airships with you again sometime.”
“As would I.” Teferi stretched out his hand, and Saif shook it, and then they both just stood clasping them together. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Saifullah.”
And it was probably only a few seconds that Saif paused — but it felt like a long, long time. Like dangling over the edge of a precipice, looking down, when every second that counts off seems like an hour. Because you can’t think about anything, while you’re there, except the drop.
“Call me Saif,” he said, at last. And then with the grip of their hands he reeled their bodies together, and kissed Teferi, hard, on the mouth.
He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but what he got was welcome: Teferi’s mouth opening to his, arms slipping around his back and hands smoothing across it. Saif wrapped his arms around his neck and seized Teferi’s head in his hands, letting his fingers run over the thick lines of scars. His mouth was soft and hot and wet, tongue doing sweet intricate things through the parting of Saif’s lips. It was better than he’d thought; better than anything.
Their lips parted on a natural break, and Teferi pressed his mouth just under Saif’s earlobe instead, the feeling of his grinning lips on the skin obscene. “Ah,” he said, just a breath of it into Saif’s ear and making him shiver. “I see none of my first impressions of you were mistaken.”
Saif hesitated a second, and then let out a laugh that was mostly breath — though he didn’t have a lot of that to spare right now. “What… exactly are you referring to? Or should I ask?”
That won him a rich laugh that blew back from the inside of his ear, and made his knees weaken. “I’ll let you decide that. But it is definitely — ” Teferi interrupted himself to dart his tongue along Saif’s ear, surprising him into a gasp — “a positive development.” He kissed Saif’s ear this time, and then kissed his mouth again, his arms cradling Saif’s hips close to him in a way that was going to betray him very quickly. They reeled around, up against part of the machinery that controlled the ship, its metal bulk vibrating gently against Saif’s back. The feeling didn’t exactly do anything to calm him down.
He moaned out loud when Teferi kissed down his neck, made Teferi purr by running his hands down over Teferi’s neck and the exposed V of skin at the opening of his collar. Teferi’s hands curled around him, coming forward from his back and settling on his hips, and he bit his lip and leaned his head to one side, his legs straddling out with unconscious want and hands catching in fistfuls of Teferi’s shirt. Teferi leaned forward with one knee leading, pressing it between Saif’s thighs in more a gentle offer than any kind of insistence, and Saif made a soft broken sound like something dying and ground forward into it, welcoming it in. He felt like a teenager, hard so fast, wanting so much, but he couldn’t help himself. He always was too busy for anybody to distract him for long.
They kissed again, faster, fumbling at each other: getting shirts haphazardly partway open and groping greedy swipes over random parts of bodies. Teferi teased long fingers over the front of Saif’s pants, scars making a slight rasp off the fabric, and Saif hitched in a gasp and pulled Teferi in by a firm grip on his ass that made them both laugh breathlessly. They ground together, kissing sloppily and wetly, Teferi grabbing at Saif’s hair and Saif at the curve of his skull, and then Teferi was sliding down his body, kissing open skin through the gaping shirt under Saif’s disheveled jacket, catching a handhold on his belt.
“You are definitely,” he murmured from around Saif’s navel, beaming up at him with a cat’s grin as he undid Saif’s pants, “the most interesting person I have run across in a very long time.”
“I’ll — ” Saif had to stop there, and swallow, and collect himself before trying again. His hands splayed out on the bulkhead behind him, searching out a drowning grip. “I’ll tell you… the same thing in a minute, when… wh-when I’ll seem less biased.”
That won him a laugh, pressed against the region of his lower belly. And then Teferi had freed his pants and was pushing them with his underwear down his thighs, and Saif just had to shut his eyes, and concentrate on breathing.
The wet heat on his cock made him close his hand between his teeth just for something to focus on. He didn’t care about being quiet, though, and the next second he’d released it again to groan, hard, as the touch of Teferi’s tongue turned into the full embrace of his mouth, enclosing and sliding down his shaft. His other hand stayed braced on the bulkhead for a while, then lifted to absently, tremblingly stroke Teferi’s head and the back of his neck and his shoulder, earning a humming purr of contentment that actually made Saif’s eyes water, under the circumstances — and then he needed his hand back on the bulkhead, just to keep him from losing his balance and sliding off to one side. He was going to embarrass himself, at this rate, just go off like a kid with no warning at all. But fuck, it was good: hot, and slow, and sweet, and then speeding up and turning little by little hotter, hotter, hottest.
He held on for a while, concentrating on his breathing, his ears full of the slow cycle of the idling engines and the wet rhythmic slip of Teferi’s mouth. When he felt the orgasm beginning to build up, though, there was finally just no way he could resist it; it was coming, regardless of his will, like a storm or a natural disaster. His fingers arched cramping on the metal, his hand dropping from his mouth to Teferi’s shoulder, to cup his cheek. It was shaking in its fingers, sweaty and slick.
“I’m — ” It came out not even a whisper, just a rasp of air. He swallowed, throat convulsing, pushed as hard as he could. “I-I’m, I’m — ”
Teferi understood, anyway. His lips flexed gently where they stretched around Saif, as though trying, just slightly, to smile… and then he had wrapped both hands hard around Saif’s hips and pulled him in and taken him deep, hard and sucking and deep, seeking for the edge with a sudden shocking ferocity that threw Saif over it like he’d been hit in the back by a high wind.
He shouted, in full voice, his head craning back. His eyes squeezed shut so tight they watered, and in spite of all the restraint he barely had the presence of mind to cling to, his hips tried to push forward, to strain into Teferi’s mouth. He came so hard it seemed to white him out for a moment, to make everything go away, into a void of light.
And then he came back to earth to find his hands cramped, his legs trembling, his hair sweaty and sticking to his neck, and Teferi still drawing, lazily, on his softening cock: trying to lick and nudge every single last shiver out of him.
It was all good. It was all fine. He sank down the bulkhead, Teferi letting him go with grace as he did, and ended up in a heap on the floor, staring out with bleary eyes at nothing. Teferi had leaned back to allow him room, and now pushed in again, smirking, to perch on his lap and kiss him. After a dazed moment, he roused himself and kissed back, for no reason a little sheepishly surprised to taste himself in Teferi’s mouth. But it was all right. He thought he had absolutely no complaints right at this particular moment.
“Right,” Saif said, breathless, after a second, and Teferi pulled back to meet his eyes with a curious gaze. “Um. Very interesting person. Whatever you said. That.”
Teferi looked puzzled a second longer — and then burst out laughing, and rewarded him with another kiss while his shoulders still shook with it. “How interesting, may I ask?” he said at last, grinning, when he released Saif again. His breath was heavy through his lips, and there was an insistent heat prodding at the base of Saif’s belly. Somehow, even in his current state, Saif managed a smirk.
“You definitely have my full attention,” he said, low; and urged Teferi by his shoulders and hips up fully onto his knees, even as Saif sank down to recline more deeply on the floor. By the time he’d started working Teferi’s own pants open, their fastening was more or less on eye level, and as he leaned in to take Teferi’s long, dark cock between his own lips, he found he didn’t mind the awkward position one bit.
Sometimes you just met someone who taught you new things about yourself.
“Come with me,” Teferi said suddenly, some time later as they lay tangled together at the foot of the bulkhead, their bodies and clothing all in an ungraceful disarray.
Saif lifted his head off Teferi’s chest to blink up at him, his eyes squinty and dim; he was a little embarrassed to realize he’d been almost asleep. “…What?”
“To the City. To defraud the Police and then fly off into the sunset.” Saif blinked a bit more, and Teferi grinned at him. “Have you ever been to the City?”
“No.” He let a bit of a smile out across his face, although it was much more cautious than Teferi’s. “I’m not sure from the air while on the run from the government would be a good way to do it for the first time, though.”
“Oh, on the contrary. It would be the best way.” That won a tired laugh out of Saif, and Teferi joined him, tucking a stray bit of sticky hair away from his forehead. “We could go other places after that. Explore every bit of the known world.”
Saif’s smile was turning wan, but he kept it, even as he lowered his head back onto Teferi’s chest. “…You know I can’t.”
Teferi made a low, thoughtful sound in his chest, that made it rumble against Saif’s cheek. “I could kidnap you. I do have experience, as you may recall.” Saif snickered again, and burrowed his face in deeper. “What could you possibly do then? Your Family would just have to find ways of soldiering on without you. For the best for everyone, really, in the long run.”
There was a long silence: Saif leaning on Teferi’s chest, smiling to himself, Teferi holding him in. The airship humming in its sleep around them.
“I really do want to,” Saif said, softly. “More than anything, I think.”
Teferi was silent for a moment, and then sighed, his breath just barely passing over the top of Saif’s head. “For someone who speaks so passionately about freedom, you know,” he said, voice touched with gentle amusement, “you seem to enjoy very little of your own.”
“Well… that’s how it works, I think.” Saif shifted position, turning more on his back so that his head still rested on Teferi but he could gaze up at the metal ceiling. “That’s — you know. Responsibility.”
“Ugh.” He craned back his head just in time to catch, upside down, Teferi making a face. “That. Dreadful stuff.”
Saif smiled as he looked back upward, although it melted away gradually as he thought. “…I think maybe you were right, the first time we met. At least a little.” Teferi glanced down, curiously, and Saif glanced up at him and then turned his eyes away again. “Maybe it is a little bit like being royalty. Or some kind of government, at least. Not because I think I’m that lofty and important, or anything, I definitely don’t, but… because there are people that need us to look out for their interests, and make sure things are fair for them, and protect them when they need protecting.” He chewed his lip for a moment, and then added, much softer, after a long pause: “Maybe… when I look at it that way… it really isn’t so bad.”
Teferi didn’t answer that, and nor could he have, really, Saif guessed. But his hand lit on Saif’s shoulder, after a moment; and began, in slow deliberate twists, to wind a strand of his hair around one finger.
“So that’s it,” Saif finished, and spread his hands. “We’re back where we started, I guess. Live to fight another day.”
Aqil nodded, thoughtful and serious. “Good. I’m glad.” Saif gave him a skeptical look, and he smiled a little. “Think what you want, but I really am. I do worry about you.”
“Well… me too, I guess.” He pushed forward off the bookshelves, letting out a breath. “Anyway, I just thought you’d want to know. You missed some real excitement.”
“I’ll try not to be too disappointed,” Aqil said, with a touch of that old dryness that made Saif grin. “…But thank you. I’m glad you came back.”
Saif nodded, turning up the collar on his coat as he got ready to go… and then turned back, just as he reached the door. He wasn’t sure quite what he was going to say until the words were out of his mouth. …And then, when they were, he thought he might be more startled by them than anyone.
“What was it like, when you left the Family?” he asked. “How did it feel?”
The words fell very heavily between them, and Aqil looked pretty damned taken aback himself. Then his face relaxed, slowly, and he seemed to really think about the question — to give it a long, serious moment, to turn over in his mind.
“Like dying,” he said, finally. “It was like facing my own death. I was leaving behind everything I had ever known, and walking forward toward something beyond my comprehension, that no one would ever be able to prepare me for. And while I knew that I should only trust in God, and not be afraid… I was, anyway. Of course I was.”
He stopped there, and they were both silent for a long time. Letting that sit in the air, and considering it from every angle.
Then finally, Saif just nodded, and turned toward the door again. “Mother sends her best,” he said. And then hesitated, and added: “I’ll send her yours too, just in case.”
“Please do,” Aqil said, softly, behind him — startling him into stopping with his hand on the door. “That’s all I wish her. And you.”
Saif hovered where he was, for a moment; then he turned and looked back at Aqil again, and smiled. “I’ll be back before too long,” he said. “Be good.”
“You’re always welcome. Everyone should seek to pray in the company of others, even criminal masterminds.” Saif snorted, and Aqil’s smirk spread after a second into a rarer, true smile. “Take care of yourself.”
The air was brisk when he stepped out of the mosque, and he took a moment to just stand and breathe it in, the bone-dry chill of desert dawn. Key was waiting for him in a slouch against the wall of the next building over, more shadow than not in the barely-there light; when Saif came toward him, though, he straightened up, and met him halfway.
“You were inside for so long I became concerned,” he said, with a smile. “I thought perhaps you had decided to make funeral arrangements.”
There was something so charming about the sheer awkwardness of an automaton attempting to make a joke that Saif never had to pretend to laugh at them to be polite. The one he let out now was real enough, and with it he slung an arm around Key’s shoulders, in spite of the slight distance upward that he had to reach. “No, nothing like that,” he said; but he was still thinking, all the while at the back of his mind, about royalty and responsibility. About running off, or staying behind. Keeping your hands clean and feeling better, or getting them dirty to build something for someone else. And which was more important, really: your own freedom, or everybody else’s?
Well, of course it’s going to seem obvious, if you put it that way, he could almost hear Teferi sniffing at him in his mind, half-smiling. But Teferi wasn’t here anymore, of course. Teferi was long gone.
But that was all right. Things came, and they went. And if you hung in there long enough, sometimes they even came back.
“I’m not ready to die yet,” Saif said, smiling, and squeezed Key around his shoulders, winking. “Come on, let’s get back to the tower. If we play our cards right, maybe I can even get Lina to do a little maintenance on you.”
And they kept walking, as Key made those furious clicks in his speech that were the best approximation an automaton could make of stammering in embarrassment, and Saif laughed, and they held on to each other against the cold that only one of them could feel; and the sun came up slowly over the oasis of Mejalejrad, to bathe her for one more day in light.