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where divers drown

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"You'd never win this city," Ambessa says. "Win over, perhaps. Like a one-eyed pup."

Over the balcony, the light can't decide whether to sidle out for the day. Inside the party's humming. The Ferros have invited every breed of human and a range of non-humans besides, all of them glowing in health or the glossy polish of a mechanist who values form at least as much as function. Inside Mel clicks perfectly. So of course Ambessa had told Mel to meet her outside, and the crowd had parted for Ambessa like her body was a hatchet.

"I don't have to," Mel retorts. "Not everyone has your compulsive need to salt the earth."

She shouldn't look down. She can't bring herself to spill the wine in her right hand; there are fights and there are fights with evidence. Her left wrist is a disappearing act: her arm runs headlong into the blunt span of Ambessa's hand, which entirely engulfs her own atop the railing. Too far up is equally dangerous. Reminiscing about blood to any Piltie who'll swirl a glass for her stories, in the sick fascination of people for whom chipping one's nails is an event, has clearly gotten Ambessa hot. She smells of castor oil and sweat. The sunset lacquers the scar running into her scalp, and in the light every drop of sweat in her hair is a cabochon.

Straight into her mother's eyes, then, Medarda to Medarda, even if Mel is shoved so tightly against some iron sculptor's wet dream she's grateful for the armor on her back, while Ambessa gets to stand over her with a carving's dignity.

Her mother can declare whatever she likes about necessity and safety. Mel knows she won't be satisfied unless children wake huddled and crying about her in the dark. Mel's been that child, more than once.

She can't be, now. She isn't.

But now in Ambessa's grip Mel can't even keep herself together. She tries to withdraw her hand. Ambessa's sword-arm crushes it. She says, "I've let you try your way here, haven't I?"

"I've done a good job," Mel says. Stop justifying, she tells herself, it's not an interview. It just slips out: "Although Leona knows I could never do a good enough job for you."

"No," Ambessa says. "Do you see what I see?" She waves her free hand—she wasn't stupid enough to be encumbered with a glass—and it comes to rest, almost casually, under Mel's jaw. "No guards. No security. One assassin could come out here, throw you over the railing, and you'd crack in your pretty streets like an egg."

"So you're here, what? To protect me?"

"Child, I want you to accept my help."

Mel says, "You don't want anything you can't take by force," and the way her mother's smile extinguishes is inevitable, because everything true Mel has ever said has always disappointed her. Nothing Mel says will change her, Mel thinks. Affection for Ambessa Medarda feels like a loan with Piltover's worst APR and a nonexistent chance of repayment. Mel's legs buckle, enough that Ambessa's strength is all that holds her up.

Ambessa has to lean over to pull Mel back to standing, so it's with Ambessa's thighs pressed against hers, Ambessa's eyes near enough to pluck out, that Mel kisses her. She tastes like the heady rush before drunkenness and her mouth parts like the skin before a cut begins to bleed. In the moment of abeyance they must make—if the Enforcers haven't successfully cleared any onlookers below—a single shape. Ambessa the sword, Mel the glint off the edge. Ambessa knows very well how to kiss. The wine in Mel's glass blurs into Ambessa's red wraps.

It's over in a second. Even Ambessa apparently still has a line in the sand, or in the family tree. But Mel's taken something she never had before: the last word. It's a start, she thinks, circling her bruised wrist with her fingers as the dark eats up her mother's stride below. Even a mountain can be dismantled, stone by stone.