<I shine, I shine … broadly and brightly I shine …>
Sancia turned the rod in her hands. "What is this supposed to be doing?" she asked.
It was about the length of her forearm, mostly covered in a jumble of scrivings that all glowed faintly to her eyes. A sphere of a slightly darker metal attached to one end seemed to be their focus; that currently glowed even to eyes that didn't possess her peculiar talents.
Its creator looked crestfallen. She thought his name was Pino — one of the more junior of the Scrappers that had joined Foundryside Limited along with Claudia and Gio. "It's supposed to be able to burn things, too."
Ah — like the rod that Berenice had used to save her ass — had it only been a few months ago? It felt like years.
She eyed it with renewed interest, then pointed it at the floor, just in case. <Could you shine brighter?> she asked.
<Brighter, brighter, we shine so broadly and bright!>
The globe at the end glowed brighter, but it still looked nothing like the thin line of force that Sancia remembered searing her eyes. <Can you shine only in a single spot? But with all your current brilliance?>
The beam of light suddenly narrowed and intensified, drilling a hole into the floor that went nearly an inch deep before Sancia yelped <Thank you! That's fine! Please stop!>
Pino had jumped back, and now was staring at her and the rod both with wide eyes. "Like that?" she asked.
She held it out, and he took it a bit gingerly. "The problem isn't the amount of light, it's how broad it is," she said. "You need a narrow beam if you want to burn things." She squinted, and pointed at one particular cluster of definitions. "Also, those don't do anything."
"… Thanks," Pino said.
As he turned back to his work, Sancia glanced around the room. It was smaller than most of the places the Scrappers had worked in, but there were actual windows — a rarity — and actual fans for ventilation, and a lot fewer people.
For now, this room was just one of three general workshops, though the construction crews had promised that the next two should be ready to move into within a month. Sancia had heard a few grumbles about the current level of crowding, but not many — the novelty of having not just one stable place to work, but several, was still too fresh on everyone's mind.
Not to mention they all now had a share in a scrumming merchant house. Sancia still had no idea what Orso had been thinking — and sometimes wondered if he knew, either — but whatever it was, it seemed to be working.
Everyone else was bent over their work; satisfied, Sancia bade Pino goodbye and slipped out the door.
The rookery still paled in comparison to the grandeur of, well, literally every other merchant house in Tevanne, but Foundryside Limited was growing less broken down and dirty and more productive every day. New potential members kept showing up at their doorstep, too, enough that Orso kept bitterly complaining that he had no time to do any real work because he was too busy managing.
Meanwhile, with her new powers being more or less public knowledge, a lot of the scrivers seemed to have decided that they meant she actually knew shit about scriving. Which was weird. Then again, her only other real skills were sneaking and stealing shit, and Orso had called that "not completely off the table, but best to hold in reserve for now", and she still had no idea what "being a founder" actually meant, so. At least telling junior scrivers that their definitions were shit was more interesting than staring at a wall.
… Or watching Gregor stare at a wall.
She turned at the end of the corridor and took the stairs up three levels to a nondescript room in the depths of the living quarters, and stuck her head in. "Any change?" she asked.
Emilia looked up from her mending. "Same as ever," she said.
Claudia had introduced Sancia to Emilia when she'd asked if she knew anyone discreet who would be willing to keep a more regular eye on Gregor than Sancia had the patience to. She was a former prostitute who before going into the business had spent years nursing various older relatives, and for a reasonable fee had been happy to take on a job that mostly involved poking Gregor occasionally to see if he was still alive, and ensuring he was fed and that various bodily functions were handled appropriately.
She didn't actually have to stay with him constantly — Sancia had written a hopefully-legible letter and left it at his bedside table just in case he snapped out of his current state when no one was around — but Emilia seemed to have decided that it was as good a place as any to work on her mending.
Maybe Sancia wasn't the only one still trying to figure out how all this being a member of a merchant house business worked.
As she stepped back out into the corridor, she touched Clef briefly where he still hung around her neck, but he was also as silent as ever.
Orso had half-heartedly offered to lock him away, but Sancia knew better than anyone that being locked away didn't necessarily mean something was safe. At least if she had him with her, she'd know if he disappeared.
And … she knew it was probably silly, but she also just hated the idea of stashing him in a box somewhere. He'd spent too many years locked away in the dark already.
Orso and Berenice had promised to help her try and fix Gregor and Clef both, but they also had a brand new merchant house to run. It wasn't like when they were on the run, when they'd all been focusing all of their attention on each new obstacle because that was the only way to survive.
Survival now required more than just cracking possibly-uncrackable scriving mysteries. None of them would be able to do anything about Gregor or Clef if Foundryside Limited went under — Sancia wasn't blindly optimistic enough to believe they could dodge the full force of all of the merchant houses going after them if the meager protection of Orso's rules-lawyering disappeared.
Having perspective was scrumming annoying. It meant that she couldn't get mad at Orso or Berenice for not having the time to pay attention to either Gregor or Clef, beyond quick questions in passing that were usually things she'd already tried. And Sancia on her own was useless — Clef might as well be a rock, for all he responded even to her new senses, and while Gregor still felt dimly like the mass of feelings and neuroses that all humans felt like if Sancia turned her senses up too high, and she could still feel something in his head, it was frustratingly resistant to all her attempts to ask it what it was, what it did, or how to make it stop.
Berenice had also mentioned still wanting that drink — but with Orso so busy, she'd been taking on more of the work of building new designs and directing the other scrivers; Sancia was beginning to wonder if she slept, either.
… Which was a thought that led to a number of other thoughts, but Sancia preferred to lock those away as deeply as she could. She was still getting used to the idea that touching another person wouldn't make her brain dribble out her ears. Even if Berenice wasn't so busy, she wasn't sure she'd be ready to do … all that, for a while, if ever.
Sancia's stomach growled, and she eyed it ruefully. That, at least, she could do something about.
One of the first parts of the Diestro rookery to be renovated had been the kitchens, and soon after that, an attached dining hall. Sancia still didn't know if it just hadn't occurred to Orso that most people went out for food, or if he'd done it because pretty much everyone associated with Foundryside Limited might as well have a target painted on them in certain parts of town (… most of it), but either way, she appreciated the convenience.
She'd overheard people complaining that the choices were uninspiring, and the food itself mediocre at best, but after three years of rice, beans, and as little cane wine as she could get away with, she was still getting used to the novelty of being able to actually eat without suffering for hours afterward.
She still avoided meat, though. Her new powers unfortunately did nothing to eliminate entirely physical suffering. Luckily, there were generally at least a few non-meat options available, even if those options were sometimes just more beans and rice.
Today, though, was a good day — she thought she could faintly smell a particularly tasty cheese pie that one of the cooks sometimes made.
A flash of pale hair caught the corner of her eye, and she craned her head, then blinked in surprise. It really was Berenice, with a bowl in one hand and a glass in the other, standing next to one of the rough tables that filled the hall and talking to someone Sancia thought was another scriver.
(Even if she hadn't vaguely recognized the woman, that would have been her guess — most of the people joining Foundryside Limited were.)
Berenice looked up, and smiled. She said a few more words to the other woman, then started coming towards Sancia, carefully navigating past the tightly-packed tables without spilling a drop of either soup or drink.
"I hadn't realized you came down here, too," Sancia said as soon as Berenice reached her, then winced. "I mean, with how busy you are —"
This was a lot harder without the pressure of tripping from one crisis to another, too.
Berenice looked sheepish. "I don't as often as I should. Usually Orso just orders someone to go get food for all of us, but I feel bad doing that when I'm working by myself."
Somehow, Sancia was not at all surprised. "That sounds like him."
Someone pushed past Berenice, jogging her elbow and making her drink slosh; looking at it Sancia had a brilliant idea. "Hey —" she said, rushing the words out before she could have second thoughts. "Want to go ahead and have that drink now? If you don't need to get back right away?"
Berenice blinked, and looked around. "You mean — here?" she asked.
Sancia shrugged. "Much lower chance of getting knifed than most of the taverns I know in the Commons, to be honest. Higher quality, too."
Berenice laughed. "Fair point." She hesitated, looking like she was making some sort of mental calculation, then shook her head and smiled. "Sure. I'd like that. I'll go find us a table?"
Sancia eyed the line. Still a few people ahead of her. "Sounds good. I'll be there as soon as I can."
And, in fact, it only took another few minutes before she was also dodging chairs and people, cheese pie and cane wine in hand, to get to the small table Berenice had found in one of the far corners of the room. (Still weak, and much higher quality than what she used to drink before — the occasional bottle of good stuff had fallen into her possession before, but it had always been more cost-effective to sell it.)
Berenice looked up when Sancia arrived. "I hope you don't mind."
"That you started eating?" At an impressive pace, too — her bowl was nearly half-empty already. "No, of course not."
Berenice flashed a smile. "Is that the cheese pie? I've been curious about it for a while, but I've never gotten around to trying it."
Sancia cut off a small piece and held out her fork. "Want to try mine?"
She'd expected Berenice to take the fork, but instead she leaned in and ate the bite directly.
A shock of heat rushed to Sancia's cheeks, and when their eyes met, Berenice also blushed, then looked away. "Um. What have you been doing recently? The other scrivers have been singing your praises."
Sancia grabbed for the subject change with both hands. "I haven't been doing a whole lot, really — just popping in occasionally to see if anyone needs help." Berenice still seemed to be listening with interest, so she awkwardly described a few recent conversations.
"But you probably already know all this, right?" she said. "That rod — it reminded me of the one you used when we were breaking into the Cattaneo foundry. Except that one actually worked."
Berenice nodded. "It's probably similar, yes. Orso suggested I pull together designs for all the little things I'd thrown together that I thought might be profitable. He doesn't want us to have to depend too heavily on those Candiano supply deals in the long run."
"Smart." Sancia's knowledge of business mostly started and ended with what was most lucrative to steal, but being too dependent on one source was almost never a good idea, in her experience.
"But he also wants me focusing on other things, so I passed most of the designs on to Claudia and Gio, to distribute as they saw fit."
"What are you working on, actually?"
Berenice's face brightened. "Would you like to come see?"
Sancia ate the last few bites of her pie and drained her glass. It didn't seem quite in the spirit of getting a drink together to be going back to Berenice's workshop, but it would take a stronger woman than her to say 'no' when Berenice looked so happy. Besides, she was curious. "Lead the way."
They left their dishes at the counter, with thanks, and Sancia followed Berenice down the hall and up another several flights of stairs. Her workshop turned out to be a narrow room with a single window on the opposite wall. Several tables took up the majority of the floor space: one overflowed with papers, one contained what Sancia now could recognize as Berenice's tools for fabricating new definitions, and the third was pushed up against the wall and had all sorts of objects piled on, under, and around it.
Berenice took an object from an otherwise mostly-clear spot near the center of the third table and brought it over to show to Sancia.
Her eyebrows raised. "Is that a flight rig?" she asked. "I thought — the one I was wearing —"
"Was destroyed, yes, and we unfortunately haven't been able to find any other complete examples," Berenice said.
"So you're, what — reinventing it?" Sancia asked. "Isn't that really difficult?" She remembered Estelle's rig, and the thin tracery of light amongst a wealth of inert definitions.
Berenice flushed again. "Not really," she said. "Estelle figured out all the hard parts. Rebuilding what she did is — I'm not going to claim it's easy, because there was some impressive engineering that went into making it work in such a compact form factor. But it's a lot easier once you know it can be done."
"If you say so," Sancia said doubtfully.
"Actually …" Berenice looked a bit hesitant. "Since you're here anyway — I don't suppose you'd mind looking at a few things? Help me figure out if I'm on the right track?"
Sancia shrugged. Why not? "Sure."
"Great! So, first —"
Berenice put the prototype rig back down and led Sancia over to the table full of papers, already talking as she dug through one of the stacks, pulled out a sheaf of papers a couple inches down, looked around, and shrugged, then sat down on the floor, spreading them out.
Sancia crouched, close enough to feel her warmth, listened, and tried to read along.
She found that if she concentrated, she could more or less tell what the definitions meant. It was difficult, not like looking at something working, where the definitions themselves would tell her what they meant. But much like regular text, she could muddle through if she focused.
And while she'd been initially unsure that she'd have anything to add, it wasn't long before she started being able to recognize problems. Places where definitions seemed to sprawl uselessly, or even actively contradict each other. And while the junior scrivers she often helped out tended to treat her words as unassailable truth, Berenice always had questions. Sometimes asking for clarification, sometimes politely arguing, asking if she'd noticed this part of the design, over here, which clearly fed that command the information it needed —
"I don't know!" Sancia said, frustrated, at one point. "It just doesn't look right."
Berenice sat back on her heels for a moment, expression thoughtful as she surveyed both the plans — now even more marked-up with neatly lettered summaries of Sancia's feedback — and Sancia herself. "Help me figure out what you mean by that," she said, finally. "Is it this flow over here —?"
When the first rays of daylight started peeking through the window, Berenice blinked and rubbed her eyes. "Sorry — I didn't mean to keep you this late. Or early, I guess."
"Don't be," Sancia said through her yawn. "This was fun." Not how she'd expected their drink to turn out, but — Berenice in the throes of invention was still one of her favorite sights. "Maybe we could do it again sometime?"
Berenice smiled. "I'd like that."
Sancia had fallen face-first into her bed as soon as she reached her room, and not woken up until late afternoon. The thin blanket she now possessed, she'd kicked to the bottom of the bed; it was still warm enough during the day that she was more comfortable without it.
(On chilly nights, she'd grudgingly come to appreciate the extra warmth a blanket could provide, but she always, always tuned her senses up to check for bugs before getting into bed. And even knowing her blanket was safe, there was just … something uncomfortable about it.)
But now, with the haze of sleep gone from her brain, Sancia couldn't help but worry about the previous night. Had Berenice enjoyed it as much as she had?
Did it even really count?
They'd started with a drink, sure, but that part had felt as awkward and ill-fitting as her blanket, and the rest of the evening — she'd loved working with Berenice again, but they'd done that before, during those hectic first days after they met, and even once or twice since Sancia found her way here, when Berenice and Orso were wrestling with something particularly difficult or esoteric.
It just didn't seem different enough? Special enough?
And at the end of the night, when they'd said their brief goodbyes — should she have kissed Berenice then? She'd been so tired, her mind still so full of plans and definitions and the warmth of Berenice's presence that it hadn't even occurred to her at the time.
But a kiss seemed like an appropriate way to end the evening. If Berenice was still interested. Which she thought she was?
"Why is everything so difficult?" she asked.
Her room, being empty aside from herself, did not reply.
And Clef at her neck remained silent, too.
(She suspected she wouldn't have wanted to hear whatever he had to say on the subject, but at this point, she'd even take him poking into something that was none of his business, really, if it meant he was back.)
She shook her head and pushed herself out of bed. No point to just sitting around thinking in circles on the subject. Maybe she should just … go find Berenice, and ask her for another drink. And try to do it better this time.
Unfortunately, heading down to the cafeteria netted her nothing other than a lukewarm hand pie — the only thing they had available in this quiet period after the lunch rush but before dinner. It would have been a pretty big coincidence, to run into Berenice there twice in as many days, but it had been worth a try, and she had been hungry.
Next she dropped by Berenice's workroom, now that she knew where it was, but found the door closed, and no light or noise coming from beyond it.
Licking her fingers to get the last of the grease and salt off them, Sancia headed back down to the general workshop floor. Since she couldn't find Berenice, she might as well see if Pino or any of the other scrivers needed more help.
Then, coming through an open doorway, she heard a familiar voice.
"These next three definitions are primarily used in movement-related scrivings," Berenice said as Sancia approached the door and peeked inside. "So I expect that many of you will already be familiar with the principles involved.
"For those of you familiar with Michiel third-tier strings, these are, like many of the Candiano strings, less precise than what you're used to working with. This makes them more flexible if used well, though as always, there is also an increased risk of unexpected and … unfortunate interactions —"
Sancia quietly backed away from the door, a bit surprised to find herself smiling softly. She'd been there, of course, when Claudia and Gio had negotiated for the right to learn a subset of the Dandolo and Candiano strings, but there was a difference between knowing that, and watching Berenice not just hand the information over, but teach it — as far as she had been able to tell at a glance, to anyone who wanted to learn, not just the original Scrappers.
It made her feel a bit better about this whole strange venture. Orso, for all his faults, seemed to have meant it, when he said that everyone who joined Foundryside Limited — at least in these early days — would get to be a founder. And, apparently, that meant they would get to share not just in the profits, but also the knowledge that was the true lifeblood of any merchant house. (And, as Sancia knew well, far more expensive to steal.)
"— That is one of Founder Ignacio's highest priorities," she heard Berenice say, in response to a question she hadn't noticed. "The stealing of secrets is obviously a time-honored tradition between merchant houses, so there is no law against us continuing to use these strings un-modified. However — as I'm sure you all know far better than I — one of the greatest benefits to having mutually incompatible scriving systems is that even when those secrets are stolen, modifying them to integrate with your existing system is … irritating."
Scattered laughs of agreement.
"We will of course move on to studying Foundryside strings once those are available as well — in the mean time, it's likely that they will be largely similar to the Candiano strings, given the Founder's deep familiarity with them and our existing supply deals, so these lessons will hopefully be of use regardless." She paused. "Any other questions? All right, let's continue with the next in the sequence …"
Sancia pushed away from the wall.
She could ask Berenice for a re-do drink another time.
For now, she was clearly working on something more important. Maybe Sancia ought to go try and do the same.
"You're welcome to stay," Sancia said to Emilia one afternoon, several days later, "but it might be a bit … loud."
A runner had come by that morning with a note from Orso, saying that he and Berenice would be coming to Gregor's rooms that afternoon "to try something". He hadn't requested Sancia's presence in the note, but she suspected he knew he didn't have to; if there was a chance they'd finally be able to make progress, there was no scrumming way she was going to miss it.
Emilia's lips quirked upwards. "Founder Ignatio can be rather … boisterous at times," she agreed blandly. She stood, bending to pick up the basket with her mending. "If it's all the same to you, I think I may find a calmer place elsewhere to continue my work."
She paused at the door and looked back — first at Sancia, then past her to the bed. "You will let me know, if there's any improvement?"
"Of course," Sancia said.
Emilia nodded her thanks, then disappeared down the hall.
Sancia turned back to the bed, looking down on Gregor's slack face. She removed a glove — they were still more comfortable, even if she didn't technically need them anymore — and touched an exposed portion of his arm, flexing that strange muscle in her brain.
Nothing — or nothing unusual, at least. Just the muted roil of activity in the distance, enough like the normal cloud of feelings to reassure her that something of Gregor still existed, but too dim and far away to touch. And a blank spot where she knew the plate in his head must be.
"How is he doing?" Berenice's voice asked from over her shoulder, and Sancia jumped, losing contact.
"The same," she said. "He's still there, but … distant. And the plate —" she shrugged, wishing she had something more useful to say.
Berenice nodded. "At least he doesn't appear to be deteriorating," she offered.
Sancia nodded. Part of her was reassured by that; part wondered if he even could deteriorate. None of them knew how he'd survived, either in Dantua or when Estelle had had him killed. They only knew that the plate in his head almost certainly had something to do with both that and whatever override had forced him back to the Mountain that night.
She looked down at the bundle in Berenice's hands. "Is that some sort of new device?"
"It's not just any device," Orso said indignantly from behind her. "I've been working on this in every spare hour I can get. Which, I will point out, is not many."
Berenice held it out to him, and he unrolled it with a flourish: a piece of cloth covered in sigils that, with her extra senses still working, Sancia half-recognized, though only in fragments that didn't seem to add up to anything meaningful. In the middle of the bundle were two thin rods made of a coppery-looking metal and four smaller pieces of that same metal, each about coin-sized.
With efficient movements, Orso took two of the copper pieces and slotted them into each of the rods with a quiet 'click', straightened the cloth so that it covered the bulk of Gregor's chest, and attached the other two pieces to a particularly dense bunch of sigils near the top. They lit up briefly, but subsided too quickly for Sancia to 'read' them.
"What does it do?" Sancia asked.
"Crack this mystery, hopefully," Orso said. "Where's —?" Berenice handed him a small jug from the cafeteria. "Yes, thanks."
He set it down on the bed beside Gregor, then touched the two rods to either side of the jug. Almost instantly, several of the sigils on the map lit up, and the lit sigils contained enough of the essence of the scrivings that they represented for Sancia to recognize them: an anti-breaking scriving, and one to cleanse the contents of impurities.
"Oh, it's one of those maps where you can tell what scrivings went into something," Sancia said.
"The principles are likely the same, I suppose," Orso said, clearly very grudgingly. "But this has much better precision than anything you've seen, I'm sure, and should function without requiring the object to be directly in contact with the detector." He grabbed the spare blanket from where it lay folded neatly at the foot of the bed, wrapped the jug in it, and applied the two rods again. The same sigils lit up.
"Since it's not like we can open up his head and extract the plate for analysis," Berenice explained.
Sancia nodded, suppressing a shudder at the thought. The only surgeons capable of a feat like that were exactly the sort of person they didn't want to let anywhere near Gregor. Or herself, for that matter.
"Well, now that we've gotten that little demonstration out of the way," Orso said brusquely. "Let's get on with business." He applied the two rods to either side of Gregor's head.
All three of them looked expectantly at the map, but all of the sigils stayed dim.
"Maybe the rods have to be closer to it?" Sancia offered. She leaned over the bed. "As far as I can tell, the plate runs from around … here, to here."
Orso moved the rods. Still nothing.
Berenice looked at Sancia. "You mentioned that you hadn't been able to feel anything from the plate in his head either, right? Maybe it has to be active?"
"Only once," she said, remembering that dusky red glow. "Wait —" she pulled the chain from around her neck, and held it out. "I still can't hear Clef either, but — he was glowing in the same way, that time."
Orso and Berenice exchanged glances. "Worth a try," Orso said.
But Clef didn't make anything light up either.
Sancia tried to tell herself that she wasn't disappointed as she put the necklace back on. It wasn't like she'd expected everything to work first try. Still …
She gradually became aware of Berenice's steady regard. "What?"
Berenice hesitated. "I can think of three potential hypotheses to explain our detection device not working. First: the commands controlling Gregor are fundamentally similar to Clef's, and beyond our ability to parse."
Occidental, in other words, which — artifacts like Clef or the imperiat popping up were bad enough, but the thought that even after having dealt with Estelle, there was still someone out there — someone with access to the highest layers of Dandolo Chartered — who had figured out how to embed Occidental scrivings in Gregor's head that actually worked …
Sancia decided she would consider the implications of that when the time came. Which was hopefully never.
"Second: we cannot get meaningful data from either Gregor or Clef because currently both of them are in a sort of stasis, and their commands cannot be read unless they're activated."
She hesitated again. "Or third: we miscalculated," Orso scoffed in the background, "and there is something unique about the makeup of the human body that is interfering with our device."
Sancia had a sinking feeling that she could see where this was going. "And you think that I —"
"I don't know what sort of sigils they used to um," Berenice gestured. "You know. Nor do we know what Valeria changed, or how, when she edited it. But if there's a chance — If you'd be willing to, I won't do it if you don't want me to —"
It made sense, unfortunately. Except — "When Tomas had me captive," Sancia said slowly, "he and his pet scriver said they found me because the imperiat reacted to my presence. Because this thing," she tapped her scar, "had been scrived with Occidental commands."
The other things he'd said, she'd also carefully shoved into a dark corner of her mind where she'd hopefully never have to think about them, either.
Berenice's shoulders slumped.
"Was this pet scriver Enrico?" Orso asked abruptly. Sancia nodded. "Probably true, then. I wouldn't have trusted Tomas to know his ass from a scrived hole in the ground, but Enrico was at least borderline competent, even if the man had no spine to speak of."
Berenice looked to him. "I guess that's all we can do right now, then, sir. Perhaps next we can experiment with objects with deactivated scrivings, to make sure this device works with them as well."
"Wait —" Sancia said slowly. She felt like she ought to be feeling more reluctant to volunteer as a scrumming test subject, but if it could help them figure out what was up with Gregor … (And if it helped Berenice look less disheartened.) "I can't help if it's the Occidental thing, but — I can turn my extra senses on and off at will now. If the plate is deactivated when they're off —"
"Are you sure?" Berenice asked.
"It's just some scrumming metal touching my head, right? Just do it." Sancia took a step closer to Orso.
He nodded sharply, and touched both metal rods to her head, a couple inches to either side of her scar. They were warmer than she expected.
"Nothing," Berenice reported. "Your senses are off right now?"
Sancia started to nod, remembered the rods, and said, "Yeah. Turning them on now."
She flexed that muscle in her brain, and immediately the rods started humming to her contentedly about how good they were at finding and seeing things.
"And still nothing." Orso took the rods away from her head, looking unexpectedly cheerful. "Well, that's it for now, then. At least we've figured out some shit that doesn't work."
He and Berenice wrapped the device back up in efficient motions.
"Thanks for trying," Sancia said awkwardly.
Orso waved her away. "I want my chief of security too, you know. Pretty soon we're going to shitting need one."
"We've got other avenues we can investigate," Berenice said. "Hopefully next time —"
"Yeah." Looking at Berenice now, as she picked up the device and held it close to her chest, eyes distant as though she was already drawing up a mental list of other things to try, Sancia almost asked her for that make-up drink.
But no — not in front of Orso, even if he had made it clear he approved. Sancia still had some self-respect.
So she bit her tongue and accompanied them to the door, then turned in the opposite direction. Someone ought to let Emilia know it was safe to return, after all.
"The commands look right, but they're not talking to each other for some reason," Sancia said, and handed the pouch back to — Ines, she thought the woman's name was. "Are you using the right, um. Alphabets?" The strings felt subtly different to her, but for all Berenice's talk of Michiel being more precise or whatever, Sancia still couldn't tell what came from where when she looked at something — she just knew what it meant.
"Oh, right." Ines looked chagrined. "I think I know how to fix this. Thanks!"
She turned back to her desk, already reaching for her tools, and Sancia took a step back to look around.
A quietly cleared throat brought her attention to the door and — was that Berenice?
Sancia swiftly made her way over.
"Sorry, I don't want to interrupt if you're busy," Berenice said. She had a small pack leaning against her leg. "But do you have time now?"
"Nah, it's fine. Nothing's exploding," Sancia said. The longer she spent around all these scrivers, the more she came to appreciate that that wasn't necessarily a given. "What's going on?"
"Well, I had some time, and I wondered if you'd be willing to look at the — my plans, again?"
Her — oh, she probably didn't want people knowing about her new flight rig yet. There'd been rumors, about both Estelle's original assassins and the things Sancia herself had done, but so far they were only rumors, because the only people who knew for sure weren't telling.
And even if everyone else looked like they were concentrating too hard to be paying attention, that didn't necessarily mean anything. "Sure, let's go."
Berenice smiled brilliantly. "Great! Follow me."
Sancia did her best to do so without walking into any walls.
And once sanity had (temporarily) restored itself, she quickly realized that they were not heading back upstairs to Berenice's workshop, as she'd expected, but — outside the rookery completely?
Sancia went on high alert, visibly relaxed but keeping a sharp eye out for anything suspicious.
Well. Anything more suspicious than the usual for the Commons, at least, although the immediate area surrounding the rookery appeared to be surprisingly well behaved. She wondered if the locals were hoping that if they stayed on their best behavior, Orso would eventually roll them into his campo. That was what merchant houses did, after all — expanded until nothing was left but the dregs that no one wanted.
But soon enough, they left the Commons behind, and Sancia thought she knew where they were going. "The Gulf?" she asked in a low voice.
Berenice nodded, hitching her bag up higher on her shoulder. "I know of few other open places where we can guarantee being away from prying eyes," she said. "And while I would like to believe that everyone is trustworthy …"
Sancia smiled wryly. Even Berenice wasn't that naive. She'd grown up in the Commons, after all. "It hasn't rained heavily recently, so it should still be a good spot," she agreed.
They passed a handful of people lying in the late afternoon shade in the nearer portions of the Gulf, but by the time they reached the area near Claudia and Gio's hideaway, they were completely alone. Even with her extra senses, all Sancia could find was a handful of birds and the usual scattering of insects.
Finally Berenice stopped, putting the pack down and stretching briefly. "I think I have a working prototype now," she said in a normal tone of voice. "But of course it's hard to test indoors, and I wanted to get your impressions first, given, well."
Sancia remembered the wet pops after Clef had forced the rigs to misbehave, and grimaced. No, gravity wasn't something to mess with without a lot of care — or, she suspected in Estelle and Tomas' case, lack of care for the consequences to whatever underlings had been unlucky enough to get volunteered to help out.
Luckily for both of them, she could just talk to it. She held her hands out, and focused her senses as Berenice handed her the rig.
It glittered with commands, all intertwined in ways that looked simultaneously similar to, and very different from, her memories of Estelle's rig. There were the commands detailing mass size, tied to that dial; those, directional controls. And — "Safety features?" she asked, eyebrows raised.
Berenice smiled wryly. "I'm sure you could bypass them if you had to, but I'd prefer that most people wearing my rigs not be able to crush themselves on accident."
"Hah. Fair." And, in fact, Sancia really appreciated it; the attention to detail seemed very Berenice. She eyed the rig, trying to figure out which straps went where, and then started to put it on. "What, you wanted me to test it, too, right?" she asked, when Berenice looked surprised.
"Well, yes, but — are you sure it's safe enough?"
"If I can vault over the Candiano campo's walls with a hastily patched-up rig — which worked fantastically, by the way, thanks to you — then I'm sure something you've worked on for this long will be fine," Sancia said, amused.
"… I guess that's true." Berenice looked a bit pink at the compliment. "But be careful?"
Sancia nodded absently, focus already shifting to the quiet murmur of definitions, happily waiting to be told what to do. Carefully, she turned the primary dial to half gravity, and the chatter immediately increased, cheerfully discussing the mass and distance of the other weight they now sensed existing. Nothing seemed confused or distressed, so she tentatively jumped, and grinned when her ascent was unusually high and rapid, and her descent unusually slow.
"Weight adjustment seems to be working, at least," she reported, jumping a few more times, then abruptly shifting the dial another tick while in mid-air to first arrest her fall, and then send herself drifting slowly upward. "Now let's try direction."
She adjusted one of the other dials, and went zooming — faster than she'd expected — towards a nearby wall. She tucked midair, and only barely managed to get her feet under her in time to land sideways against it.
"Are you okay?" Berenice asked worriedly, rushing over.
Sancia coughed at the dust her impromptu landing had disturbed, and looked — from her perspective it was now upward, at Berenice. "Perfectly fine! I just didn't expect gravity to reset to normal when I changed direction."
She frowned. "It shouldn't have. Oh! I wonder if —"
Sancia paced back and forth along the wall, enjoying the strangely shifted perspective, as Berenice muttered to herself. And when it sounded like she'd sorted out whatever she was currently thinking about, Sancia jumped off the wall, shifted all the settings back to normal, and landed safely on the ground again.
"No other problems that I noticed," she said cheerfully. "Want me to test out the safety features, too?" She was pretty sure she'd be able to talk the rig into not squishing her if something went awry.
"No! This is fine for now," Berenice said hastily. "I want to — with the directional adjustment not working, I want to make sure none of the other dependent subsystems have problems either, first."
"It's not that it doesn't work," Sancia jumped, then quickly manipulated the dials: upwards two gravities to give her some extra lift, shift the direction forwards, shift the gravity dial to compensate, and soon she was flying in low circles around their little crevice, as Berenice watched with worry and — was that wistfulness?
Sancia manipulated the rig to slow herself to a stop right in front of Berenice, still hovering a foot or two above the ground. "It just takes a bit of extra work right now, is all."
Berenice shook her head. "It's still something that needs fixing." She looked up at Sancia. "Thank you. This will be invaluable in helping me revise the design."
"Any time," Sancia said, and she meant it. "Is there anything else you want me to try?"
She wanted the answer to be yes — wanted an excuse to stay here, alone with Berenice, away from their responsibilities and the unsolved problems that plagued them and her suspicion that all of this was just a momentary lull before something happened to upend their lives again, whether it was the other merchant houses coming after them or something much older and more sinister.
(Or both. Both was unfortunately also always a possibility.)
But Berenice was shaking her head. "You've already tried everything I was going to suggest," she said. She looked back the direction they'd come from, and — maybe Sancia was imagining it, but she thought she looked reluctant, too. "I guess we should head back?"
It would be easy to just turn the rig off and drop back to the ground. Walk back together and return to their normal life.
But Sancia weighed the wistfulness she thought she'd seen earlier, and her own desire to stay, and — well, Berenice had said, all those months ago, that she liked Sancia because she was "refreshingly uncontained", hadn't she?
She extended her hand. "Want to take one last whirl before we head out?" she asked.
"What, together?" Berenice asked dubiously. "The rig's only made for one person."
"People wearing it might need to carry things sometimes," Sancia said. "It's important to test how that affects the rig, too."
Berenice crossed her arms. "That's an excuse."
"It is," Sancia agreed easily, hand still outstretched.
"And anyway, as it is not a core use case, clearly it's not something that —" she sputtered to a stop and laughed suddenly. "You're supposed to deny it, you know."
"I didn't feel like coming up with a lie that you'd just see through anyway," Sancia said, now grinning. "It's worth trying, isn't it?"
Berenice shook her head and placed her hand in Sancia's. "Oh, all right. Don't let me fall."
"Trust me," Sancia said, touching back down to the ground.
Berenice smiled softly. "I do."
Sancia pulled her in closer, trying to distract herself from the heat suffusing her cheeks. Unfortunately, feeling Berenice tucked up against her side, one arm wrapped around her waist as she wrapped both around Sancia's neck, just made it worse. Berenice's closeness filled her brain until it was hard to think of anything else, and only forcing herself to focus on the cheerful whispering from the rig allowed her to remember what she was actually trying to do.
She turned the dial — twice normal gravity in an upwards direction — and jumped.
Berenice clung tighter as they rose, then gradually started to fall. Sancia frowned and fiddled with the dial some more, until finally Berenice's pull back towards the ground was sufficiently counteracted that they began to rise.
The sun was well on its way towards setting, the western sky a vivid display of pinks and oranges as the brightest of the stars began to peek through the darkening sky above. Sancia followed Berenice's awed gaze upward, but she could only look at the sky for so long without remembering those flashes of memory from Clef. She kept looking at the empty spaces in the sky and wondering if they had always been so empty.
"It's beautiful," Berenice whispered. "I'd forgotten —"
So she looked at Berenice instead.
"It is," she agreed.
As they neared the rim of the Gulf, Sancia slowed and then halted their ascent. For a while they drifted, Berenice looking around in delight while Sancia was mostly content to enjoy having her there, glowing as brightly as when she'd just worked out the solution to a particularly difficult problem. But eventually, much as she tried to ignore it, her arm began to tire.
So she adjusted the dial once more, and let Berenice's weight drag them slowly back to the ground. For a long moment after they landed, Berenice just stood there, arms still around Sancia's neck. Hesitantly, Sancia wrapped her free arm around Berenice's waist, as well.
"Thank you," Berenice said. "That was …" she shook her head.
"If you build a second prototype, we could go up together," Sancia suggested, imagination suddenly filled with the thought of them flying, hand in hand.
"I don't know," Berenice said, but she was smiling slightly.
She laughed, and glanced back up at the sky. "Good question. All right — let's."
"I'll hold you to that," Sancia said, mostly jokingly.
But, "Please do," Berenice said seriously. "I'm sorry I've been so absent, these past — months, really. I keep meaning to, I don't know, at least get another drink sometime, but —"
"It's fine," Sancia said. "Truly." She scrunched her face up, trying to figure out a way to put it into words. "I've seen how hard you work, you and Orso both, to try and make this wild idea of his a success. And I know that it working is the best chance for any of us to survive. What kind of asshole would I be if I got mad at you over something like that?"
"Yes, but — I want this, too. And I want it now, not when everything's settled down, if that ever even happens. But if I can't even make time for a drink without getting distracted halfway through and dragging you off to my workshop —"
"Who needs the scrumming drink, anyway?" Sancia interrupted, and blinked, surprised to realize she meant it. "That night in your workshop was some of the most fun I've had all month. I like watching you work — you get so excited, it's like you're glowing." She stopped, feeling that traitorous warmth in her cheeks, again.
"… I think that's one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me," Berenice said, her voice strange. She leaned in — or maybe Sancia did — and while this kiss did not burn, hard and fast, the way their first had, it sent a tingling wave through Sancia's body anyway.
Berenice stepped away and coughed, her cheeks as red as Sancia's felt. She extended her hand. "Would you like to, um. Come back to my workshop and watch me work some more?"
Sancia grinned, and took it. "I would love to."
They could sort everything else out later.