The Arcade always welcomed its own back.
Not so obviously, of course. A den of crime couldn’t give itself away by pretending that it knew its regulars, but Cyrin and Mireya were familiar with the subtle language of others in the know. They knew what it meant when someone moved out of their way, stepping around the gambling tables that the casino front used. They recognized what was intended by the person on the other side of the hall who tilted their head in the direction they were moving in. Like the Arcade, the secret and silent communication was right under the surface of what seemed nonchalant, placed in plain sight but wrapped in careful deception. The cover had been pulled away for Cyrin once, and he’d been able to see underneath it ever since.
He and Mireya wove past gambling machines and card tables before coming to a stop by the wall around a corner of the bar, where the bartender hardly gave them a glance. The wall hid them from view as Cyrin smoothed out his hair— he hadn’t had time to properly brush it since they’d gotten off their direct flight to Crystal City— while Mireya reached into her coat and pulled out the Glory Ring.
“Ready to be professional?” she asked with a grin.
“What?” Cyrin pressed a hand to their chest like they were taken aback. “Do I look like an amateur?”
“I’m kidding. You’re so professional that you’re no fun at all.”
“That’s worse,” he grumbled, and Mireya laughed.
“I’d say that we can get this over with right now and then I’ll be out of your way for a while, but we’re actually supposed to meet with Clarity tonight,” she said.
“I’d forgotten,” Cyrin said, rubbing his eyes and letting out an exaggerated yawn. “Stupid time difference. We left at night in Storm City, but it’s barely evening here, and now I have to hang around you for another night so close to the last one instead of getting some sleep and a break from you.”
With a playful roll of her eyes, Mireya nudged them with her shoulder. There was hardly any force behind it, but Cyrin leaned backwards on purpose like she’d knocked them over, even widening their eyes in fake shock for effect. Their back passed through the Projection wall as they fell backwards, and the rest of them followed. Her grinning face disappeared from sight when their head passed through the barrier.
Cyrin caught the railing they knew was behind them at just the right moment so they didn’t truly fall. Behind them was open space, extending above and below, that the entirety of the hidden section of the Arcade wrapped around and looked over. It had always looked like a mall for criminals to them. Neon signs in the shape of symbols marked the areas belonging to a gang or group. People moved between areas and levels, on their way to make a deal or purchase gear. The Arcade, a place for scoundrels to have their fun, was alive with unlawful purpose.
Mireya stepped through the wall illusion, joining him and only giving the expanse a short glance. It stops looking exciting and awe-inspiring after the first few hundred visits, she’d told him once. “Clumsy,” she remarked jokingly. “Are you sure you get hired for your acrobatic talent?”
“I could have turned that into a somersault if I wanted to,” Cyrin said, shaking his head and waving her along as he walked away. “Don’t say that in front of our client, or he’ll find a way to pay us less.”
Mireya tugged at the sleeve of their black coat to slow them down, and they felt the sting of a static shock when her knuckles bumped their wrist, but they ignored it. “In all seriousness,” she said, speaking words they didn’t hear from her much. “Are we all ready to just go in there and get it done?”
Cyrin nodded. “I took all identifying elements out of the footage, and I let Clarity know where we are and what we’re up to, just in case. You’ve got the ring, so we should be good to get our payment.”
“No need to wait then. Let’s get that money.”
The two of them made their way towards a cluster of game tables that were similar to those out front, in the casino cover business. This level of the Arcade was neutral ground, but these tables still had different rules than the ones outside. Without a law to do the enforcing, disagreements were often solved by fights, and it was on you to bring whatever backup you needed if you wanted to win. Negotiations, trades and deals were also made here. Three days ago, Cyrin and Mireya had met with a client around a table to discuss a risky job where they were to venture into the depths of the Permafrost’s Fall and retrieve a treasure not seen in centuries.
Now, they sat down in the same seats as then, ready to close the deal.
The person sitting across the table leaned forward with interest, his dark gaze glimmering when he got a look at the ring that Mireya set down. Cyrin only knew him by the name of Zachar, and was unaware whether it was his first, last, or entirely made up. Likewise, he only knew their aliases. Despite the measures to stay anonymous, he learned a lot about this man when he saw the flash of greed in his eyes.
“You have it, then?” Zachar asked, gesturing to the Glory Ring. He had perfectly manicured nails and the smooth, soft palms of someone who did little labor, if any, Cyrin noted. They’d had hands like that too once. Their nails were still kept cut and clean, and their fingers were still slender like a pianist’s— or more like a thief’s— but they had calloused palms and knuckles from their work now, like old wealth rubbed away.
They much preferred their hands clean of that.
“The very thing,” Mireya said, holding up the ring so that the purple gem could catch and reflect the light.
Zachar smiled. “Most wonderful. I’m glad that someone recommended the two of you to me— you were just right for a job like this.”
Cyrin pressed his lips together at that while Mireya slid the ring over the table and Zachar used his communicator to wirelessly transfer the payment. A moment later, the devices on their wrists buzzed. The transaction was smooth and scripted until their client spoke again.
“So, what else was there?” Zachar asked, tilting his head to the side curiously. “What was it like being down there?”
Cyrin could have said a lot about it. His senses had been tingling with excitement just from being around that much magic, not even from handling or using it. Picking up one of those artifacts had felt like power flowing through his veins, spreading from his hand to the rest of him. The magic had been almost begging to be released after being contained for so long, and he’d wanted to try it out, set the flood free and see what happened. But he wasn’t about to share those thoughts with a wealthy Aphiran who had no right to reach into that well of old magic and cultural heritage and claim something from it.
“I’ll send you the footage of it,” they said instead, quickly sending the video with a few taps on their communicator. Zachar barely nodded, already sliding the Glory Ring on his own finger and smiling admiratively, and Cyrin thought, Ah. Not exactly a deep or ulterior reason for wanting it.
A pair of messages from Mireya in the Ren language popped up on their screen. She liked using it in written communication with them sometimes, since the chances of it being understood by anyone else were slim. Cyrin had trouble deciphering it at times, since they mostly had a classroom knowledge and she kept using slang terms that they weren’t familiar with, but these messages were simple. They almost laughed out loud when they translated them.
now *that’s* what i call expensive vanity
also is it just me or is he looking kinda fine now
definitely just you
“Pleasure doing business with you,” Zachar said, finally looking up from his newest treasure. “I better remember you both. The Specter and the Stormguide, wasn’t it?”
Cyrin could only nod stiffly, and Mireya stood up, pushing in her chair. One leg scraped against the floor noisily, sending a signal to him— we can go now.
“Enjoy your artifact,” she said as he rose from his seat, and with that, the two of them quickly left the gambling tables behind.
“We should stop doing business with people that he recommends us to,” Cyrin muttered to her as they walked. “It keeps happening, and it’s sending the message that we’re okay with it.”
“We can’t turn down the deals we get because of him yet, or we’ll end up without options and desperate again,” Mireya replied. Her tone was light, like she was trying to soothe them, but they still found a note in her voice that said she was just as frustrated as them. “We have to make a name for ourselves first.”
Even though he had to agree, it felt bitter to acknowledge the slight defeat the two of them had been dealt. Biting his tongue, Cyrin glanced over his shoulder to see Zachar watching the footage he’d taken of the heist, his eyes trained on the screen. He saw the man whisper something to a person standing behind him, maybe a bodyguard to ensure his safety. Cyrin turned away, holding back a sigh.
The price of what he called freedom had been high, but he wasn’t even sure that the two of them were living and working on their own terms yet.