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Letter of Marque

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The ship lets off at a renegade town for fresh water and meat and a replacement midshiptroll, and you find Neophyte Redglare there waiting for you on the pier with a blandly polite expression, one arm behind her back where she'd be holding her staff of office, and the stack of mail you get delivered here.

Fucking bureaucrats.

"Saved me the trouble," you say when you reach her, watching your crew filter off the ship around you.

She comes up to your shoulder. Her face hasn't quite grown into its sharpness yet. She's not dressed in red -- not in this town, where the average troll has enough psionic power to crush your whole ship to splinters -- but grey, with only the tiniest lines of teal about the hems and seams to show her blood color.

You think she's trying too hard. If it'd been black, it would've worked; if it'd been black, she'd be dressed like you.

"Pyralsprite is off hunting." She hands you the letters. "We're alone."

You follow her, shuffling through the letters. One from your moirail, one death threat, a ten-page missive from Darkleer. You don't go unnoticed, but even in grey everything about the way Redglare moves screams legislacerator, which is more than enough to make the few trolls out on the street this soon after sunset wary.

Inside the walls, the streets are laid out at perfect ninety-degree angles, and it's a testament to how much of the town's population is ex-career military that there's not a bit of trash to be seen on the cobblestones, anywhere. "This is fun," you say, "but -- "

"I'm not going to kill you," she says. In the six perigees she's been chasing you, she's lost the nervous tremor in her voice. You'd be proud of her, if she wasn't such an inconvenience.

You put your hand on her shoulder and pick her pocket while you're at it. Lint, you feel, and an old, old coin. "Oh, good! That was exactly what I was afraid of, Neophyte."

Redglare leads you into a bookstore. You've been here with your first mate, once or twice; it's got every banned, seditious, and censored book in the system and then some. She takes you through the cramped aisles to stand before the books on law. There's black dots for seditious on nearly every spine.

"Mindfang," she says, and leans against the shelf. She says your name like a seadweller would, cultivated Academy accent drawing out the fang, and it makes you want to strangle her before she can tell you whatever she's been rehearsing for days.

"You've got a speech planned," you say. You walk the Caegar over the backs of your knuckles, then let it drop into your free hand and score a thick line into the soft metal with your claw, right through the eyes. Redglare raises her eyebrows. You've never figured out how she can see. You don't care. You just wish you were the one to have put out her eyes, and know you shouldn't want it. "We're both here for a reason, so let's flip a coin, huh," you say, "if it comes up sight-side up -- I go with you. No protests! Not a single one, Neophtye."

"And blind-side up?"

"You let me go."

"No."

"See, this is why you couldn't be a captain." You reach out and push her glasses up, so they're nestled in her sleek black hair. "Never had to haggle a day in your life, I bet."

"You're a blueblood," she says.

"Cerulean," you correct her.

"Close enough."

"Maybe my communal hivestem was a little too close to the shore!" you say, walking the coin across your fingers again. "Maybe my lusus had me picking off seadwellers as soon as I'd pupated, maybe those seadwellers weren't too happy about that."

She takes a book off the shelf and runs her finger over the embossed lettering on the spine with an intensity that makes you want to hold the thing over her head and make her jump for it, if she wants it so bad. The Law's Two Bodies. Black dot for seditious, bright red for -- you check the guide up over your head -- heretical, there's one you've never seen before. "I should burn this place to the ground," she says.

"You wouldn't make it out of the town alive." Torn to pieces by an angry crowd, or hanged in the town center, feet kicking and face turning ugly teal. Psionics can make hangings last hours and hours, you've seen it and you never want to see it again. You like the first one the best. "I bet they let you past the gates to see how long you'd last."

Redglare has a way of looking past you like you and everything you say don't matter, and even though know it's just a neophyte's put-on -- "Failing that, then, I'll have to remove this book and have it destroyed."

"Let me buy it for you, your tyranny," you say.

That snaps her out of her attempt at cool disdain. Her face says go to hell, but her mouth says, "If you do, I'll be forced to add it to the case I'm building. The list of charges is -- "

"Impressive?"

Oh, no, Neophyte Redglare's not tallying up the charges in her head right now, you'll be here all night. She doesn't want to throw the book at you, she wants to fuck you with it. You're Marquise Spinneret Mindfang, and you can handle one legislacerator's black ambitions, just as easily as you handled Dualscar's. Bait her for all she's worth, give her a good chase, then toss her aside.

So you crowd her up against the shelf. "Put it on my tab." You smack the book out of Redglare's hands and onto the ground, and grab her chin when she tries to duck away from you and pick it up. "Your tyranny's got a taste for banned literature, is that it?"

She gets a knife pressed up against your ribs before you can feel her up and take all her weapons. "You're going to let me go," she says, "you'll let me go, or I'll have this town razed."

"You don't have that kind of power, Neophyte Redglare."

The knifepoint digs into the soft spaces between your bones. "Do I?"

She wants caliginous, she'll get caliginous. Her legs part easy when you shove your thigh between them, grab her wrist and press it against the shelf. She's tiny but not fragile, and you let her put the knife to your throat when you press your mouth to hers for a kiss just long enough to leave her wanting and confused in your wake. You refuse to let her bite you, even as her hands roam over the front of your coat and you squeeze the back of her neck with your whole hand.

With a moan that, all right -- you aren't faking, not when she starts fumbling at the buttons on the front of your coat, you grab the wrist holding the knife and slam it against the hard edge of the shelf.

"Hmm," you say, feeling up the line of blood she's drawn on your neck, "I thought I heard someone coming."

Redglare scrambles to pick the book up from the floor, glaring daggers somewhere over your shoulder. Too flustered to find your face, then. Good. She says, "A corpse can't stand trial," and draws herself up to her full height, as though she isn't clutching the book to her chest in one arm like a wiggler on her way to get schoolfed.

You swipe a bit of blood off your neck with your thumb and press it against her lips, and to your horror and absolute delight, she licks it off. "A corpse can't hold one, either."

The owner wraps the book up in a piece of black silk and hands it to Redglare, putting a finger over his lips and winking at her.

You don't watch her go, not really. You watch the parcel under her arm, file it away for future reference. Everything is a weapon.