Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
Three years ago, Shane had left Crystal City on his own. He’d told his uncle that he’d drive over through the Keravara mountains and up to the House of Courage, over the course of a few days. He’d still been trying to prove his independence, even though he’d left years ago by then, and he had hoped to get himself there without government assistance. But he’d been stricken by panic the moment he’d gotten in the driver’s seat, his trembling hands clutching the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles were screaming white through his skin, the parking lot ahead a blur in his water-logged vision. In the end, he took a charter flight.
That day, the House of Courage had looked more like Dawn’s House of Loyalty, with much of its usual emerald green decorations swapped for a suffocating black. The people— the staff and his family members— were dressed in the same color, and they’d keep wearing dark clothes for a week or two yet. The mourning period had already been in place for two days before his arrival, and as Shane walked up the carpeted marble steps, the weight of the heavy and grim atmosphere felt like it was pushing him down the stairs, away from the home that was so hard to return to now.
Shane found his way to a pair of closed mahogany doors. He remembered hearing that these doors would always be open to him, back when he was small enough that the top of his head didn’t quite reach the gold of the doorknobs. However, the person standing behind them now was a different person than the one who had made him that promise, and so he knocked on the wooden surface.
“Come in, Shane.” The voice was like smoothened stone, firm but not rough or harsh.
Shane turned the doorknob and pushed one of the doors open.
The Head of House’s office almost hadn’t changed at all since he’d last been here. The flowers on the cherry wood desk were white lilies in place of the usual more colorful arrangement, but the large TV screen, tall bookshelves, and paintings were all against the wall where they belonged. A window was open, letting in the cool Eastern air that fluttered the seafoam curtains. Folders and files to review were neatly stacked on the desk to the side of the computer. Everything was as it should be, except that his uncle was the one sitting in the chair.
Shane could tell that just like him, Flint Hawking hadn’t been sleeping, when he stood up. His uncle’s movements were exhausted and slow, and his shoulders sagged when the two of them hugged. The embrace was short, and Flint pulled back to place his hands on Shane’s shoulders, standing at arm’s length. “Did you drive?” he asked quietly, though he had to already know the answer.
Shane shook his head. “No.” I couldn’t.
Flint nodded, unsurprised, as he moved back to the chair behind the desk— his uncle’s chair, very soon, Shane supposed. A thought occurred to him as he pulled over a chair of his own and sat on the other side.
“When’s the ceremony happening?” he asked.
Flint sighed, shifting in the chair like he couldn’t get settled. “Which one?”
“Either.” Shane had been asking about a particular one, but both were on his mind.
Flint leaned back wearily, his head tilted upwards to watch the ceiling with an empty gaze. “The funeral’s in two days,” he said in a low voice. He paused a long time before inhaling deeply and adding, “And my installing ceremony is in five.”
Shane stared at the lilies blankly. “I’ll stay here for both.”
Flint pressed his lips together at that, and that was how Shane had guessed his uncle wanted to talk about something, before he even parted them again to speak.
“I’d like you here for a third,” Flint said slowly, setting one hand on the desk and tapping his fingers absent-mindedly against the wood. “Yours.”
Shane felt his stomach turn. “Mine?”
Flint nodded, a little grimly. “I’m only Heir for a few days longer,” he said, saying every word cautiously. “We’ll be in need of a new one soon, and I want it to be you.”
Shane wasn’t sure how long he’d waited to speak, just that silence had stretched out in the office for a while before he’d blurted, “I can’t.”
“Can’t?” Flint repeated.
“I’m— I’m studying in Crystal City. I have most of my last semester for my four-year history degree still ahead, and grad school lined up after that. I told everyone here that if I ever took a House role, it would be after eight years of study, and not an important position.”
Flint’s voice was pitying. “Do you really think you could manage grad school so soon after this?”
“It’s always been my plan,” Shane said as firmly as he could, but a waver of uncertainty in his voice betrayed him.
Flint sighed, shaking his head. “I’m going to need you here, Shane. It’s for the best.”
He’d felt a sharp pain when he’d spoken his next words, like his tongue had turned into a razor blade. “Mom knew what was best for me, and she knew that it wasn’t forcing me to stay here.”
“This is what’s best for the House,” Flint insisted, his words just as pained. “This is bigger than you, and Gwen wasn’t thinking about that when she promised you the choice.”
“She was thinking she’d get to live longer,” Shane retorted, and he watched his uncle’s face harden. “Can you really fault her that?”
“I want to respect her every decision, Shane,” Flint said fiercely. “But— and I’m sorry that I have to say this as plainly as possible— she’s not here anymore. And new ones need to be made.”
“I’m not the only one who can do it, surely,” Shane said, his heart starting to race. “You can choose someone she might have wanted—”
“And she’d have chosen your father,” Flint said, quietly again. “But we don’t have Ray anymore either.”
“We have cousins, relatives on the other side of the family tree that are also the right age—”
“Name one of them that you want to see in power and that you trust with the future of Aphirah.”
Shane hesitated, and when his uncle saw it, he nodded gravely.
“The House of Loyalty made a mistake, giving someone like Jasper Fairburn the position of Heir,” Flint said, like he knew he’d won the argument, but he wasn’t smug about it. “I’m just waiting for the day someone can take it from him, and I won’t be making the same mistake with our House.”
Shane’s next breath had been shuddering, the tell-tale sign that he was about to cry. But he didn’t want to do that here. He’d done it several times already in the last two days and he wanted to be done with it.
“I can let you have the rest of the semester and graduation remote from Crystal City University,” Flint said gently. “But after that, I need you here. You’re the only one who I think will make the right choices.”
The breeze from the open window fluttered the lily petals, like a breath had stirred them. Shane felt it on his cheek too— or maybe that was the soft touch of a teardrop.
Shane was getting increasingly nervous as the man— Sparrow— led them over to a table near another bar. Sparrow pulled out a chair and gestured for them to have a seat. Shane sat down next to Kaja, with the feeling that this would be a very different meeting than the one he’d had with Mayor Skender just a few hours earlier, and he guessed they’d be walking out of it after some kind of decision had been made.
I’m supposed to make the right choices, Shane thought helplessly. But I don’t trust myself with the future when all I’ve ever cared about is the past.
“How were you thinking you could help us?” Kaja asked once they were all settled.
“You’ve got to understand that the First Spell is a highly sought-after item,” Sparrow said, raising a hand. A server immediately came up behind him and placed a glass of a cocktail that smelled strongly of rum and fruit in it, without a word being spoken. He’s well-known here, Shane thought. “Everyone’s been hoping to get a hint about where it is, and there’s fierce competition.”
“And you know where it is?” Shane asked.
“I don’t, but I know who does,” Sparrow said. “There used to be four people who knew where it was found. The two thieves who stumbled upon it, the client who hired them for another item, and the artifact professor at the university who the client sent a recording of the theft to. Sadly—” He raised his eyebrows in a way that made Shane think he wasn’t very sad about it. “—the professor was found dead just minutes after he reviewed the video and spread the news that the First Spell did in fact exist, and then the client went missing very shortly after that. Never even left the Arcade. I suspect he’s dead too.”
“Saints,” Shane muttered.
“Those thieves are probably going to be dead as well before we can find them,” Kaja grumbled.
“I wouldn’t be worried about that if I were you,” Sparrow said, smirking a little. “I know them both. They’re good at everything except dying, believe me. I hear they’ve already survived one attempt.”
Shane remembered the names Favia had mentioned. “The Stormguide and the Specter, right?”
Sparrow laughed. “Oh, you’ve heard of them. They both work for me.”
Shane gave Kaja a look out of the corner of his eye. Don’t rush into anything, he wanted to say. This is a crime boss we have here. Sparrow was checking his communicator briefly, replying to a message, so he didn’t catch the look. However, Kaja didn’t seem to see it either, or she was intentionally ignoring him.
“Say,” Kaja said slowly, running a finger distractedly along the edge of the table, and Shane wanted to scream. “If we wanted to hire them to get it, would you be able to help us with that?”
“Certainly.” Sparrow nodded. “I would have to persuade them first, but I’m sure I can get them to meet with you and make a deal.”
“Why the need for persuasion?” Kaja asked. “Can’t you just assign them this job and have them do it?”
Sparrow sat back in his chair, taking a sip of his drink. “Because they like to think they don’t work for me,” he said after a moment. “They used to be mine, and they became independent after they left my employment—” His expression soured on the word independent, as if there was too much lemon juice in his cocktail. “—but the truth is, I’ve sent almost every client they’ve had since then their way on a recommendation.”
“So you’d be able to have them agree to a meeting,” Kaja concluded.
“I’m sure I can arrange it, yes.”
Shane cleared his throat. “This isn’t necessarily committing to a deal or anything, is it? Just a conversation with them.”
“The negotiations would be up to you to handle with them,” Sparrow agreed. “I can’t set the terms on their behalf. Of course, they’ll probably charge you a high price— they are quite good, and they’re the only ones who could do it. They could ask you for whatever they want and you won’t be in much of a position to barter if you really want the First Spell. But you both look like you have the money for it.” He swirled the contents of his glass. “So, do you want me to talk to them?”
To Shane’s surprise, Kaja was watching him just as intently as Sparrow, waiting for him to deliver his opinion. He appreciated that, but it was making his thoughts swirl into a panicked mess.
Make the right choices.
It’s just a meeting. I’m not promising anything to anyone. We aren’t committing to anything just yet.
“There’s three more of us here right now,” Shane said slowly. “If it can happen tonight, some of us will meet with them.”
Sparrow smiled. “I’m sure you won’t regret it.” He pointed to his communicator. “I’ve heard from someone who actually works for me where they are, so I’ll be on my way. If you or someone with you will meet me back at this table in a half-hour, I’ll take you to them.”
“Excellent,” Kaja said with satisfaction.
“Excellent,” Shane echoed. His voice rang hollow with uncertainty to his ears.
“If you ever need me after this, I’ll always be around the Arcade,” Sparrow said, tipping his head to indicate their location, which cleared up any lingering doubt Shane had about what this place was named. “Just go to the Fortune and enter the same way you got here.”
He suddenly remembered the comment that the bartender outside had made about the name of the casino. “The Fortune, like the term for luck?”
This made Sparrow frown, as if he’d said something wrong. “No,” he said, shaking his head and laughing like it was a dumb joke. “The Fortune, like the money that’s to be made here.”
Shane didn’t see why that was a better name, since both meanings worked, or why it was so obvious, but he wasn’t going to comment on it any further. “…Okay.”
Sparrow’s face turned sly as he rose from his seat. “Oh, and… Who should I tell them you are?”
Shane exchanged a glance with Kaja, who also didn’t seem to know what to say.
“Tell them we’ll keep our employment secret,” he said finally. “Just let them know we have the money for it. If we reach a deal, then they’ll get to know more about us.”
But not everything. They wouldn’t be allowed to disclose that they were Heirs.
Sparrow smirked. “I’ll tell someone to leave this table open for your group.” He took a few steps away, then turned back again. “And some parting advice— try not to become a target yourselves.”
As he walked away, Shane and Kaja turned to each other, her face just as bewildered as his.
“What in all the Saints are we going to tell Leilan?” Shane asked in a low voice.
“What we agreed to,” Kaja murmured. “No commitment to anything, just a talk. We can walk right away from it if we aren’t interested or if he won’t let us do it.”
“He won’t like it.”
“All we’ve actually got to do is convince him why we need it,” Kaja said. “You know how he is. He hardly trusts the Houses to do their job of protecting Aphirah, but he knows something needs doing. If we got the First Spell, it’d be up to the five of us to decide what to do with it, and we’ll get to keep it out of the hands of anyone with bad plans for it.”
Shane sighed, standing up with her. “I hope he’ll see it that way, or else it’ll be just like the time—”
“We’ve all been involved individually in a political scandal some way or another, Shane. You don’t need to name them all.”
Shane shook his head as they walked back towards the point where they were supposed to meet with Kasumi, Dawn, and Leilan again. “Looks like this is our first one as a group.”