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Love Like a Knife in the Back

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They meet on the dancefloor of the quarteryear masque. It's not quite true, but it's poetic, which is truth enough for such stories. It is the first time they speak, the first time they dance. It suffices as a beginning.

Rythane's clan is hosting the masque for the first time in living memory. It needed the death of a generation, including her great-great-uncle, branded traitor in a clan war long past. He had logically predicted which side would win, and changed his allegiance accordingly. Some clans here tonight owe their continuing existence to his foresight, but he always said they needed someone to blame for the two clans now wiped from existence, the remaining former members now part of the service class.

Rythane felt resentment and a deep rage at that when she was a child, but now she is old enough to channel such useless emotion into more productive arenas, such as ensuring that this is the most impressive masque in the memories of those now living. To that end, she has activated the hall's entire power grid. Only the food, liqueurs, music, and servers are real. She has even equipped the servers with grid harnesses and herself with a grid suit. She knows which things the clans prefer to be real. Everything else can be illusion, as long as it is beautiful by some definition.

She chooses the beauty of the element with which her clan is associated, dressing the hall as an ice cave underwater, shifting blue light wavering across the ceiling, walls, and even the floor. The servers are living ice statues, their skin cold and impenetrable to the touch. For herself, she chooses to appear dressed in snowflakes and icicles, her hair a riot of frozen blue ringlets above her frosted face. It would be inappropriate for the hostess to make her flesh as inaccessible as her servers', but she lowers her own warmth to the touch. She has channeled her resentment and rage, but they are still there.

The guests, of course, can't access the family neuronet and thus the power grid. By tradition, they are limited to old portable tech for this occasion. In Rythane's experience, most of them are not terribly creative even with current tech levels, but perhaps one of the debutantes will surprise her.

That is the mindframe in which she sees Taenisene enter the hall, clad in ancient toys filled with luminescent liquid, made up of blinking lights, glitter-coated and spangle-spattered. It is not remotely dignified, not even slightly tasteful, and Rythane must dim the lights in acknowledgement of its magnificence. That's when Taenisene laughs and claps her hands with delight, already dancing in place as the proper introductions are made. Rythane doesn't hear them beyond Taenisene's name, welcoming by rote, and though she should not indulge Taenisene's breach of etiquette in keeping hold of her hand and pulling her toward the dancefloor, she cannot help it. For the first time in her life, she doesn't want to let go.

All night, neither of them do.

~*~

Naturally, the path Taenisene gives her to the family estate's neuronet leads directly to Taenisene's bedroom. If she wanted to, Rythane could force the path to extend, allowing her access to other areas of the house. It would not please Taenisene, but she could do it, if she were interested in anything other than what might happen in this room.

Taenisene enters the room, closes and locks the door, then unceremoniously strips and lays down. Her bed linens are gold with golden suns picked out in exquisite embroidery, but as always, she seems to outshine them as she stretches out, posing against the pillows and offering Rythane an intimate view of her beautiful body. Her breasts look flushed, as though someone has already been lavishing them with attention, but Rythane knows what pieces of tech can achieve the effect, and she does not think Taenisene would be opposed to their use, since the result fits Taenisene's ideals of real.

Then Taenisene runs her hands down her leanly muscled abdomen and parts her thighs like a lover. "Are you watching?" she whispers, though Rythane knows Taenisene knew as soon as she opened the path. Taenisene sighs as though she has answered anyway, and slides her own fingers teasingly just outside the folds of her labia. "I wish you were with me now, touching me like this. Your touch is so good, my love."

She could have the illusion of Rythane's touch. She could have Rythane, telling her what would happen if Rythane were there now, even showing her while making her feel it. Rythane knows that's not the point of this, though. Not for her Taenisene. The point is the other illusion, that Rythane is far away and so untouchable, unreachable at this moment.

"Shall I tell you what I would want you to do, if you were here?" Taenisene continues her rhetorical questions, pleasuring herself as she speaks. Rythane is not surprised to find she actually likes this game. It allows her the reality that she can react unobserved to whatever Taenisene chooses to do. "Shall I show you?"

Show me, Rythane thinks, carrying on her own end of this imaginary conversation. Oh, show me, my pretty flame.

Naturally, Taenisene does.

~*~

That, apparently, is all Taenisene's older brother was waiting for.

"I challenge you," he spits at Rythane at the next intraclan event, "Rythane of the clan whose name I will not sully my tongue by speaking. I challenge you for daring to think yourself good enough to look at my sister, let alone touch her."

Rythane opens her mouth to say she accepts, though nothing so barbaric as a duel, when suddenly Taenisene is there and between them.

"I accept your challenge," she says to her brother, her back firmly to Rythane.

"The challenge was not to you," Rythane and Taenisene's brother say simultaneously, and still Taenisene does not acknowledge her.

"It was to me," Taenisene insists. "If you challenge who I take as a lover, you challenge my choice. I will not stand for that, Aross. You know I will not."

So, just like that, Rythane is reduced to a spectator at a duel that should have been her chance to show Aross of Clan Ordguldav which of them was more worthy of Taenisene's company.

~*~

Rythane soon learns that the duel was more disastrous even than she thought; in Taenisene's boisterous, quick-blooded clan, to lose a duel is to forfeit your place in line to inherit the family title. Thus, Taenisene has replaced her elder brother as their mother's heir.

"You must consider the possibility," her father says in his calm, measured way, "that the courtship was meant to provoke the challenge."

"Of course," Rythane answers cooly, when what she wants to do is shout that it's not true, that Taenisene would never do that. But how can she be sure?

"When it is the illusion we respond to, it becomes our reality," Taenisene had said to her at the beginning. Perhaps, in a way, it had been a form of confession. Though a woman who could plan and execute a passionate love affair for the sole purpose of claiming her brother's place in the line of familial succession would hardly feel the need to confess to her victim before her plan was even truly in place. Most likely, it was gloating. Or a taunt Rythane had been too blinded by her belief in her own intellect to see.

Whatever the case, she's not going to fall for it again. She erases the path Taenisene gave her into the estate's neuronet. She supposes she could use it for spying, if it even still works, but she has a point to make about honor.

Even if she doubts Taenisene is even paying attention anymore, despite the love letters she continues to refuse. Of course Taenisene would take the ruse too far. Of course.

~*~

They meet again at a Running. Rythane wears hypothermic blue on her lips and over her heart, though of course no one can see it there, not with her carefully selected, immaculate antique outfit. Her cousin by marriage wears a more garish selection, and came in a vehicle that looks more like it was rescued from an old-fashioned scrap heap than lovingly stored in a family vault, maintained just for these occasions. It is Rythane's private opinion that the woman must have blood of Taenisene's clan, though the husband's family has never disclosed as much. She tries not to let it be a comfort that she may not be the first to have fallen for that clan's duplicitous charms. She only hopes her cousin may learn something from her own loss of face.

She barely takes notice of the other clans' arrival, though her father has warned her about them both. Instead, her attention is riveted on the ancient tech car --not, she notes, as venerably old nor elegant as her own, much closer to what the woman who married her cousin arrived in-- that carries Taenisene to the gathering. Taenisene's headdress is typically over the top and retro, even for a Running. It looks like she might have taken it from a mouldering child's toy of centuries ago.

Taenisene has the audacity to wave, to actually wave, in greeting. Rythane allows herself to sneer at the outmoded and gauche greeting, and look away. That is when she realizes who Taenisene has brought with her. Not only her disgraced brother, who is attempting a detachment his clan has never mastered, but also the cousin that Rythane suddenly remembers won her own position by duelling, and maiming, her older sister. That cousin is in direct line for the chieftainship, but now Taenisene can challenge her, and Rythane is forced to consider the possibility that she is the victim not just of familial ambition and rivalries, but clan in-fighting.

It makes Rythane suddenly tired. Her own brother is still too young to challenge her for their father's seat, but he won't be for much longer, and she wonders how it would impact the clan if she simply abdicated in his favor. She is surprised at her own gut reaction to the idea, which is the urge to return home and explain to her brother all the ways she will hurt him if he even thinks of challenging her.

She pays for her inattention. Her hound goes down, clipped by Taenisene's, and she is forced to show the ritual sign of distress. But her train of thought has filled her with newfound resolve. If Taenisene wishes to start a personal war, it is time to show her that Rythane is a formidable foe, and if she wishes to make the personal clannish, Rythane is prepared for that too. She does not even look at Taenisene's gloating, focusing on her hound as she should have done from the beginning. Get up, she thinks, and though she has always shared her clan's disbelief in the Running tradition that ties the hound's performance to the will of the clan's main representative, she nonetheless wills her hound to get back on its feet and run.

And it does, leaping to catch up with the others as though with renewed determination. For a moment, Rythane allows herself to believe it is her determination; her blood runs hot, and she cannot help but recall that the old tech substance known as antifreeze was also vivid blue. As her hound pulls slightly ahead, she gladly participates in the ritual look of smug satisfaction at the representatives of the clan whose hound brought hers down.

Take care, she thinks as all of the clan representatives gather closer to the race lanes to watch the finish, and only a single body separates her from Taenisene. You think you know my illusion and my reality, but what will you do when you learn they have changed?

With that, she returns all of her attention to her hound, and thinks as fiercely as she can, Win.

Win.