The Tools We Have

A prospective venture with a mysterious contact in pursuit of a rare book yields unexpected hurdles.

The capital city of Anaxas and the seat of the government.
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Tom Cooke
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: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
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Tue Aug 13, 2019 12:00 am

Hollow Street The Dives
Morning on the 9th of Roalis, 2719
A few hours?

Tom resisted the urge to gulp; he couldn’t even allow himself that. If – if – no. Ne, ne, ne. He stared at Binder’s face, his eyes tracing every shadow, every fear-darkened groove. Now he saw it, the delicate bounce of a muscle in his jaw, the way it ground to one side when he sucked at that tooth, the way he always sucked at that tooth – the way those blue eyes glinted, staring at Ava, whose face Tom couldn’t see.

The pinched crow’s feet at the edges of his eyes. He knew it, Tom thought. He knew how mung that’d been. Didn’t he? He had to. Was it a bluff?

And the way Ava’d posed it back at him, without a hint of sarcasm. Tom couldn’t imagine how she did it. Maybe it was the stress, maybe it was the cold sweat that was beading on his back – it was comfortable, holding himself this straight, more comfortable than his old slump, but his lower back ached; it always ached – maybe it was all that, but he wanted to laugh. He wanted to burst out into hysterics of the kind he’d never vented. He wanted to wheeze with everything that’d built up over the past few months. All that morbid humor he hid behind, so carefully-constructed. He wanted to wreck it like jackstraws and laugh ’til he wept.

’Cause it was true. He’d come back. He didn’t know how, but he thought he’d manage. Go to the Hall of Records, or whatever she’d said. What had she said? He wasn’t sure, but he thought somebody would know. He knew somebody would know. If Binder bought this baffling bluff, Tom would go straight Uptown, quick as he could, and he’d find somebody who knew their shit, even if it blew his cover, even if he looked moony. Even if he took so long that he got back too late.

That was why it was so funny. Binder didn’t know that. It was even funnier, in that shot-nerves, terrifying sort of way, seeing him work through it on his own, prodded along by Ava’s sincerity. It was when she’d said, naturally he will return for me, that Binder’s lips had pulled down, twisted, half-grim, half-helpless. He didn’t seem to know what to do or say. All the while, the gun hovered at the edges of his sight, a hazy threat in the shadows near the hem of Binder’s jacket.

When she said here, Tom saw him grind his teeth. “Flood this. Not worth it.” Binder’s throat bobbed; his mouth worked, but nothing else came out.

And Tom forced another thin, politician’s smile onto Anatole’s face, just like he’d practiced. Forced himself to think what the incumbent’d do. He let a pause stretch out and settle down, and then intoned, “Only a few hours, wherever you choose to wait. Or, perhaps –”

Now, he did move closer. He took a gamble. He could feel the edges of his field, a hazy, blurry sensation against – what he thought were – his ley lines; he didn’t think he was moving into Binder’s range, but he couldn’t be sure. He stepped up almost to the desk.

“– perhaps we could arrange something more formally,” he continued, reaching out a hand, touching the edge of the desk with the tips of his fingers. “I have said that I can offer you my protection.” He said it like he was irritated; he said it like it’d been his idea all along, and Ava’d just complicated it. He said it like she wasn’t even there. “If you choose to…”

Binder moved. It was sudden, and Tom barely had time to respond; he took a step back, half-stumbling, as the kov moved round the other side of the desk. First, the gun was pointed at Tom, then at Ava, then at Tom again. He moved round the desk, then to the other wall, then, creeping, toward the door to the hall.

Tom blinked, not daring to look at Ava for cues. He went through his options in his head, but there weren’t many.

“Don’t move,” hissed Binder, fumbling with the doorknob, his eyes still on Tom and Ava. “Don’t.” The hinges creaked; the bottom of the door scratched at the rotted wooden boards as it came open just a pina mant.

For a few heartbeats, he hung there, the revolver hovering in the air. Then he slipped out, shutting the door with a click. Tom didn’t hear his footsteps in the hall outside; he didn’t hear much of anything except the rush of his own pulse in his ears, and his breath scraping at his lungs in somebody else’s voice. They were left alone in the little room.

It was another scattering of heartbeats before Tom could bring himself to move. He wheezed, sagging. The first thing he did was sniff, then sneeze; then he moved back to the desk, grabbing the edge for support.

“Fuck. Clock-fuckin’ – Hulali’s tits. Fuck.” He squeezed his eyes shut for a space, counting the breaths in his head. “Remind me to – never play Rooks against you. You all right?” Biting his lip hard, he opened them. It was hard, bringing himself to look at Ava now, but he managed.
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Last edited by Tom Cooke on Tue Aug 13, 2019 1:02 pm, edited 1 time in total. word count: 955

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Ava Weaver
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Tue Aug 13, 2019 9:33 am

Morning, 9th Roalis, 2719
Hollow Street, The Dives
Ava knew, when Binder ground his teeth, that she had lost her play. She didn’t move; she didn’t give any sign of it. She thought it very likely that the man would go without doing them harm; it was clear what he wanted was to leave quietly, not the sort of heat that shooting a galdor would bring down on him. That was yet another reason why his bluff had been so ill-advised - even if he could, somehow, have managed to come up with a threat that would have worked remotely for what he thought was Anatole.

But they were stuck there; he hadn’t said much, and so Ava just smiled and waited. He still had that gun; she didn’t dare push too hard.

Tom stepped in, then, with Anatole’s wholly out-of-his-depth confidence. Had he stepped too close? Ava tried to picture it in her mind; tried to think of the distance between him when the edges of that frizzled mess touched you. Binder couldn’t have felt it yet; they would have known if he had. She couldn’t quite work it out, couldn’t quite tell if he’d overstepped. She could feel his field, could feel the ragged edges of it lapping at her skin.

Tom kept talking. Ava had, of course, never seen the incumbent in a situation like this, but she thought Tom had it down quite well. He had that galdori note, Ava thought, that whatever ideas you sparked for them had been in their minds all along; you were only the catalyst. Whatever you said, whatever you did - it didn’t matter. You didn’t matter.

Binder began to move. Ava held still; she held still with everything she had. Now, perhaps, her body language wasn’t the perfect relaxed note she had sustained for so long, but she managed a little depth of warmth in her smile, and tilted her head slightly as Binder went, almost like a little wave goodbye. The door closed behind him, and Ava strained, listening, until she heard his footsteps down the hall, until she was sure.

Then, only then, Ava closed her eyes. She didn’t squeeze them shut; she just let her eyelids flutter down. She couldn’t - she wasn’t sure she could look at Tom, just then. Her shoulders were tight, too tight, and she was aware of a trembling in her hands. She tried to keep her lips smiling, but they wanted to tremble too. Eyes closed, Ava told herself, and she kept her face smooth with an effort of will that seemed to ache. Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Who would she see, Ava wondered, when she looked?

Ava opened her eyes without thinking when Tom sneezed, turning to him almost reflexively. She was already fetching out a spare handkerchief, closing the space between them with a step and offering it to Tom, almost without thought. Tom. Ava felt a wave of relief sweep through her. Maybe it was the Anaxi profanity. Maybe it was his reference to Hulali, one of those Mugrobi curses he liked. Maybe even before; maybe there had been something in the sneeze. It was Tom; it always had been.

“I’ve never played Rooks,” Ava grinned at him. Her hand was still shaking, and she took a deep breath. She held the handkerchief extended for Tom, and she breathed deep as long as it took until the soft white fabric wasn’t fluttering anymore.

“I’m all right,” Ava promised quietly. “You?” She wouldn’t let their hands touch when he took the handkerchief, but she managed it without seeming to notice.

It was a few moments before either was ready again, but before too long Ava exhaled and began, thinking through what needed to be done, what options were left open to them.

“He left the ledger,” Ava slid her hand over the dusty cover. “We’d better take it.” He had practically said aloud that the answer to what he had done with the book was in it. It never crossed Ava’s mind that Tom might not still want the thing.

Ava looked down at the ledger a moment more. She took another deep breath, coughed slightly at the musty, foul air. Ava looked back up at Tom, and her eyes drifted to the opening to Binder’s little side room, thinking about all that lay inside it. She could see the vague shape of leg and dark edges spread out around it. She could see shelves and books too.

“We shouldn’t linger,” Ava knew her voice emerged a little rough. “I -“ now she hesitated, looking at Tom again. “I don’t want to leave them. The books. They’ll - they’ll be destroyed -“ Ava held her hands in front of her, letting them clasp together. She watched Tom, and held still, waiting. She wished she could have controlled her trembling, but it seemed to be a little more than she could manage. She felt as if she were holding her breath; she didn’t know why. She only knew that it mattered, suddenly, very much, and that she hadn’t known how badly it would until now.

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Tom Cooke
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: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
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Tue Aug 13, 2019 7:15 pm

Hollow Street The Dives
Morning on the 9th of Roalis, 2719
He leaned there on the desk for a few breaths, still as the dead, with the heel of his palm pressed to his forehead. His head ached; the whole of him ached, he thought.

And he could feel another godsdamn sneeze coming, breathing in this moldy air. He sniffed, and his eyes fluttered open, and he looked up – to see a hand (a familiar hand, delicate, with lacquered nails) holding out a kerchief. Raising his brows, he stared at it. The folds of the handkerchief were quivering in the air, because the hand was shaking. He stared at it as it stilled, then looked up ’til he saw a pair of familiar brown eyes. Ava was grinning at him.

What she’d said finally took root in his head. He let out a breathless, goofy little cascade of laughter, snorting, grinning himself. He took the cloth out of her hand. “Of course you haven’t,” he replied. “If you had, half the Rose’d be in debt to you.”

Tom’s face twitched again, and he burst out with another sneeze. Groaning, he pressed the handkerchief to his mouth and nose. He tried to take a deep breath. He felt a little raw from all the hacking, but it smelled clean. Like lavender. He took another deep breath.

There were scents that reminded him of hama – patchouli, mainly, smoke clinging to old wood, sage, rose – but lavender had always been his. Black oudh and lavender. Just a subtle hint of it; just enough to be unexpected. When he could. Had, he thought: he reckoned it wasn’t his anymore, like everything else. That was another thing that’d died with him, that’d slipped away when he’d got caught up in someone else’s life.

On another breath, he sneezed a third time, growling a curse under his breath as he wiped his nose. Folding up the cloth and tucking it away for the moment, he muttered, “Epaemo,” then looked back at Ava, brow knit. “I’m alive, Circle clock it, and I think that’s good enough news for today. I’m fine.” He studied her face, serious.

They were quiet for awhile, for a time Tom couldn’t quite count or define. It could’ve been minutes; it was probably minutes. Felt like an hour, or a handful of seconds.

When she pointed out the ledger, he nodded grimly; he couldn’t help a frown. His brows drew together, and he felt himself wince before he could cover it up. He wasn’t going to argue with taking the book: after all that laoso rubbish, he couldn’t imagine just denking out of here without it. But he wanted to ask if this was really worth it, if they might not ought to dust – for good – to leave the damn thing alone, before one or both of them ended up face-down in somebody’s cramped, moldy library in a pool of their own blood.

He’d bring it up later, he thought. Damn right she was, they shouldn’t linger. Now wasn’t the time. He moved round the desk, shutting the ledger carefully to avoid another cloud of dust. He’d started to take it when Ava spoke again. He froze, fingertips splayed out on the cover, as his eyes rose to her face.

“Uh.”

This time, he didn’t even try to hide his expression. “The books?” They’d be destroyed? Who’d destroy them? What did it matter, anyway? It took awhile for the meaning of her words to sink in, and when they did, he felt oddly dumbfounded. An image of Ezre out on the ice flashed through his brain, but he shook it away. Wasn’t like Ava to do something like that. And her hands were clasped in front of her, and she was shaking, still, and he couldn’t think what to say.

Tom remembered sitting in the back room of Ava’s shop that week and a half ago. It’d been gods knew how long before he’d left, that evening. He remembered it softly, warmly, though not with the kind of soft warmth drunkenness gave you. Curled up on the couch, a pillow in his lap, fending off his headache by listening to her talk quietly – about Mantel and Saqqaf, Ezeudo and Odafe and fumimancy, then ossimancy, then an old book of Anatole’s about motifs in sixteenth century Mugrobi art. After awhile, it’d been hard for him to keep up, but he’d done his best.

It’d struck him that night how she talked about books like they were people. He’d never thought of them that way before. To him, they’d always been dead things, still things, paper covered in ink that it was hard to focus your eyes on. To her, he supposed they’d been company, once. That was a painful thought, and she’d never said so outright, but he couldn’t help but imagine so.

His mouth set in a thin line, and he thought a moment. “We can’t get all of them, can we? Not right now,” he said, hesitant. “Not just the two of us. We could find out who owns this place – all the way up, I mean – and I could try to bribe them to let me…” He shook his head. “I reckon we can get some of them, though. How are we going to do this?”
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Ava Weaver
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Tue Aug 13, 2019 8:03 pm

Morning, 9th Roalis, 2719
Hollow Street, The Dives
T
om’s laugh too, Ava took and - against her better judgment - stored somewhere inside, along with a faint soft feeling of pride. Funny, but she thought she was prouder of that laugh than all the careful banter with Binder, prouder of that little snort that came out when Tom laughed a little too hard. Maybe if she had pulled it off, if she had gotten from Binder whatever it was he hadn’t wanted to tell them - maybe she would have felt proud of that. Ava wasn’t sure.

Ava saw the wince on Tom’s face when she brought up the ledger, but she didn’t quite know what to make of it. She was tired; the thought of leaning on the desk, or better still of collapsing into Binder’s miserable, spindly chair and burying her face in her hands, was remarkably tempting. She didn’t do either, and her spine was no less straight than it had been when she had greeted him in the alley.

Tom was already gathering the ledger when she brought up the books. Ava saw him freeze; she saw the stillness ripple through him, saw those painfully familiar hands, wielded with Tom’s carefully controlled clumsiness, come to an awkward stop on the cover of the book.

Ava could see the confusion on his face. The temptation was there, to give in - to explain - but she held a few moments more. If she started, she thought perhaps she wouldn’t be able to stop. There was so much she could have said, so many explanations she could have given.

Ava could have told Tom about the waste of it - she thought he would understand. They had had so few books, when she was a girl; learning to read, they had passed the same ones around over and over. She remembered them all; those precious, worn things had been a treasure to her. She could feel the softness of the pages, could still remember the spots where some had stuck together, where - if she didn’t want to miss a thing - she had needed to carefully ease them apart. She remembered warped covers, books whose lost bindings had been replaced with string, pages taped back together with all the care they could manage.

Ava could have told Tom how much books had meant to her - once. She knew he knew she had read some of Anatole’s library; she had been careful not to tell him much more than that. She hadn’t told him how long it had taken her to work up the courage to crack them open. She hadn’t told him how carefully she had put them back where Anatole had left them, utterly undisturbed, because if he knew he might not leave them with her anymore. She hadn’t told him how much it had hurt when Anatole had taken back one she hadn’t finished.

Ava could have said all that and more. Was there any of it he didn’t already know? She had given him enough by now for all of it - too much, maybe - and she couldn’t bring herself to give him more. If he understood, he understood. What difference would the details make?

Instead Ava just stood, silent - and waited, shaking softly. She could see the faint trembling of her dark curls from the corner of her eyes; she could feel it through her entire body, but she couldn’t stop. Tom’s mouth set, and Ava saw the reluctance before he’d even spoken. Something secret and painful she didn’t want him to see flashed across her face at those first words and Ava smoothed it away with a soft exhale, as quickly as she could. She eased the hurt off her face, replaced it with understanding, maybe a faint trace of humor. She stopped the shaking.

Tom’s offer to find the owner was kindly meant, if unrealistic. Ava didn’t think it would take long for the books - those lovely, expensive, precious books - to be beyond saving. It was kind of him to say it, and she thought he really would do it, if she asked. It didn’t seem worth it, not really.

She would apologize, Ava decided - she would tell him not to worry about it - it had only been - how could she say it? What line could she walk along the edge of the truth? A foolish hope? No - true, but too direct. Just a thought? Maybe. Maybe, if he hadn’t seen that look on her face. Maybe. Better, Ava thought, to apologize and say they should go; better not to mention it again. No - better to be honest. Better to say it wasn’t worth it, not really. Because she knew it wasn’t; she did know.

”I reckon we can get some of them, though. How are we going to do this?”

Ava’s eyes widened a little - a flicker - and she stared at Tom just a moment too long. “How -“ her voice caught in her throat, and Ava squeezed her eyes shut for a long moment. She was shaking now - not just her hands, but her whole body. She sniffled, once, and cleared her throat.

Ava brought her mind to bear. “The basket, I think. It won’t be many, but it won’t draw attention either.” For a moment, Ava entertained the wild thought of filling a desk drawer and taking it away but - the contents of the basket she could cover. Nobody looked twice at a woman with a heavy basket, and neither of them could afford the kind of attention walking down the streets with a drawer of books would bring with it.

“Would you go and fetch it, please?” Ava asked, quietly. “I’ll -“ she looked over at the side room, eyes dropping for a moment to the sickening corpse, and took a deep breath. She looked back at Tom, straight and dry-eyed, the shaking gone once more. This, Ava swore, she would do herself. ”I’ll choose some books.”

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Tom Cooke
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Wed Aug 14, 2019 2:49 pm

Hollow Street The Dives
Morning on the 9th of Roalis, 2719
Tom’d brought a satchel of Anatole’s, in case the deal had gone off, but there wasn’t room in there for much more than the ledger; he might be able to fit one or two more books, depending, but not enough. When he’d asked, though, by the Circle, he’d meant it. He didn’t like the idea of sticking around any more than he had to, and he didn’t quite understand – not really, not the way she did – caring whether the books thrived or rotted, but he wouldn’t’ve offered if he wasn’t willing to see it through.

When the words stuck in her throat, when she stared at him, he felt it in his heart. He met her eyes evenly, holding them for as long as she held his. His expression was still and grim as he could keep it, grim as it would’ve been if they’d been planning how to get rid of a bobber for Hawke, but the pursed line of his lips twitched, quivered a little.

The basket. Of course.

She asked him to go get it in that neat, polite way, and he couldn’t articulate – wouldn’t’ve, anyway – didn’t know how to express the feeling that washed through him; he couldn’t’ve put a name to it, or even explained why he felt it.

So he nodded once, offering her a tired smile. “I’ll go get it,” he replied.

He held himself straight, tried to move matter-of-fact-like, like he would’ve on the job; still, as he moved round the desk, his fingertips traced the edges to hold him steady, and the uneven legs wobbled. He paused when he got to the door, hand on the knob. Despite himself, the half-open door to Binder’s pina library drew his eye: he saw the jumbled, lumpy shadow of a leg, an arm, the point lying just to one side of the limp fingers, splattered with sap. He glanced from it to the set of Ava’s shoulders, frowning, then took a deep breath and left the room.

Tom shut the door behind him, taking care it didn’t scrape the floor or creak too much; he listened for the soft click. He moved quickly through the muffled silence of the hall, and he didn’t pause to think or breathe ’til he got to the top of the stairs. Then, he took a moment.

It wasn’t the same type of moment he’d taken in the room with Ava, sagging against the desk, letting out that stream of swears between his teeth. He suppressed a cough, oes, felt his sinuses burn with another coming sneeze, but mostly, he just sagged. He shut his eyes and pressed both his hands to his face. He couldn’t bring himself to think of her alone in those rooms, and not just because he knew by now she’d be edging around that corpse to save a handful of books.

They’d both been performing, but he’d seen her perform before; he’d known what it would be like, and besides, it wasn’t – but he couldn’t think of it. Ava wouldn’t want him to think too hard about it.

When he drew in a deep breath this time, he shuddered, and it wasn’t just from the effort of breathing. He reckoned he’d done a good job. Benny, even. He thought he ought to be proud of how well he’d taken her cues, of how well his practice’d paid off at such a crucial time. In the moment, there, he had been. Now, all he felt was sinking disappointment. A stain of disgust that bled through him, leaving him more tired than having a gun pointed at him ever had.

There was something disappointing, too, about the feeling of his face against his hands. Had he expected it to feel different this time? He’d taken it off in there, as best he could. She knew that; she wouldn’t’ve tried to make him laugh, or offered him that kerchief, or asked him to fetch the basket, if she didn’t. But there was really no taking it off. There’d been no scarf that time, but then, for him, there was never a scarf. He still had to be alone with it, at the end of the day.

Gods damn it, but he’d done it again. Least he wasn’t sobbing. He wiped the moisture away from his eyes, grit his teeth, and started down the stairs. At the midway-point, looping round, he had to master himself again, gripping the filthy banister with white knuckles. Then he forged on.

The hall wasn’t so silent as it’d been the first time. As he moved down it, careful not to creak the floorboards this time, he heard the muffled squalling of a baby – and again, that soft, husky sobbing, barely-audible. It was at its loudest a little before halfway down, as he drew even with another nondescript, rickety door. He didn’t pause.

It took him a moment to spot the basket in the dark, still tucked beside the doorway to the alley, still perched next to that long, smeared, questionable stain, as if pleading silently to be rescued. He bent to pick it up, stifling another wheeze. Taking the handkerchief back out, pressing it to his mouth and nose. He rose, turned, then froze.

There was a boch standing in the middle of the hall.

Could’ve jumped out of his skin. He stared at her, stiff and awkward; she stared back at him. A stained dress draped over her skinny limbs, and her dark hair was hacked fair short, messy. She didn’t say nothing, and neither did he. Just stared at him with wide eyes. He smiled tensely, starting back down the hall. She shifted out of his way without a word, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw her press herself close against the wall at the brush of his field.

Tom was back up the stairs and down the second floor hall in a short time. He only hesitated a little at the door, fingertips hovering over the knob. He went inside as quietly as he’d left, shutting the door again behind him, waiting for the click.

Then: “Ms. Weaver? I’m back.”
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Ava Weaver
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Wed Aug 14, 2019 5:06 pm

Morning, 9th Roalis, 2719
Hollow Street, The Dives
Ava stayed at the desk as Tom left the room, holding still a few moments more. The door clicked shut; Tom moved quietly, and it wasn’t more than a few steps before Ava couldn’t hear him anymore.

Slowly, slowly, Ava turned her attention to Binder’s little library. The door had been open too long; Binder, unlike Tom, hadn’t thought to shut it again, and flies were drifting steadily out of the open door, buzzing noisily into the little office, flying quick, unsteady circles and drifting back into the library, out again. Ava took a deep breath. She couldn’t, she thought, hold a handkerchief to her face while choosing books – it didn’t make sense. Better not to wait; it wouldn’t get any easier.

Ava stripped off her cloak, folding it over and leaving it on Binder’s desk, and made her way across the room. She stopped in the doorway, looking down. The long point of the hem of her skirt meant she didn’t have to worry about it dragging in the poor man’s blood, meant she didn’t need to lift it up to avoid any wet spots. Looking at the floor, she could see streaks of it that were dry – whatever blood had splattered was dry, whatever blood was on the man himself was dry – but pools too, glistening – there, a fly was –

Ava felt nausea churning in her stomach. She turned away, gagging, and shuddered, cupping her face in her hands. Her skin was cold and clammy to the touch, and she was shaking again, she realized. Ava took a deep breath, in and out, closing her eyes. This, she promised herself, was only a moment; it would pass. She was stronger than this; she had born worse. There was no time to sit around feeling sick.

Slowly, Ava straightened up again, let the line of her spine come into alignment once more. Slowly, she lowered her hands from her face, and brushed them off against the brown fabric, straightening it. She took a deep breath through her mouth – the smell was much worse here – and stepped across the threshold, into the little room. She skirted the edge of the body, stepped over a leg, stepped over – best not to look, Ava told herself firmly – and focused her gaze on the bookshelves.

There were empty spots here and then; Ava couldn’t tell how full the shelves had been before, but she would have been surprised if Binder had taken more than half a dozen books with. Ava made a slow and careful circuit around the room; here and there, when she couldn’t interpret a title, she slid a book out and studied it. There weren’t that many, in truth; something like two dozen.

A few were grimoires. If Ava had had to guess, it was grimoires Binder had taken with him; she couldn’t explain the lack otherwise. She knew that Binder dealt extensively in illicit grimoires; it made sense, she supposed. She imagined that a galdor might feel more comfortable buying such a thing from a human, who they would believe couldn’t understand it or its implications anyway. Clever of him, Ava thought, if that was how he played it.

But – grimoires didn’t interest Ava, as a general rule. She didn’t have the connections to sell them, and she didn’t want to get involved in it. She didn’t want to drag anyone else from the Resistance into it either. She skimmed the Estuan-language titles of them anyway, just to check – one on clairvoyant conversation. Ava took it.

The rest of the books were academic looking, big sturdy things, mostly still focused on magic. There, Ava thought – one on perceptive conversation. She took it, tucked it under her arm. Another – living conversation. Ava took that too, even though it meant she needed to balance the three of them against her front. The books didn’t smell – not particularly, at least – and Ava hoped Binder at least kept his stock clean. She kept walking. Another book on living magic – this one illustrated, when Ava flipped through it, with things she’d have preferred not to see. She took that too.

Ava carried the four books out to Binder’s desk, and set them down. She took a deep breath, steadied herself, and plunged back in. There – another treatise on perceptive conversation. This one Ava flipped through, quickly; too much monite, she decided. It wouldn’t help her much. She put it back away again. The next one was more promising – a discussion of manipulation spells, theoretical and applied. Ava took that too, set it down on the desk.

Five books. Ava studied them, thought about the basket. Yes, she thought – one or two more, if she could manage them. She went back inside. She ignored the rest of the books on magic – there were others, but from the titles they wouldn’t be helpful anyway. Instead, she found two books that she couldn’t quite tell why Binder had had – one, something that seemed to be a secret history of Viendan politics, and a second, on Edelagne. Who were these for, Ava wondered. Who were the customers? Were they forbidden, or banned somehow? Why import them?

Ava heard Tom calling from the main room. She glanced around one last time, but – no, she thought. Staggering down the street with a too-heavy basket would call too much attention to herself too. This was enough; at least six books were saved, some practical and others merely precious, and maybe a seventh would be too. She made her way back out of the side room with the two last books, and set them down on the desk.

“Mr. Cooke,” Ava smiled at him. “Thank you,” she took the basket, and took the cloth out of the bottom of it. Careful, quick but precise, she began to stack the books inside it, arranging them carefully to fit, taking the ledger as well and fitting it in with the rest.

Ava had left the clairvoyant conversation book out. She hesitated, looking down at it, then back at Tom. “It’s a grimoire, but I thought – perhaps –” Carefully, Ava slid the book across the desk towards Tom. She wasn’t exactly hesitant; she made the movement easily enough, but there was something in the way she pulled her hand back from it that suggested – maybe – she wasn’t sure

Ava went back to the basket, adjusting the books a little more. She draped the cloth over them, tucking it in at the edges so that it might have bulged around anything, and took a deep breath, examining the effect. After a moment, she nodded, firmly. She wrapped the cloth she’d brought around her waist, thickening it – tugged the worn wedding ring on – slipped a headband over her hair, pulling it back off her face, and pulled the cloak on over it all. She settled the basket on her arm, face tight for a moment as she adjusted to the weight, then smoothing out.

“Thank you.” Ava said, again, looking at Tom. Not for the basket, this time, not exactly - at least, not just for the basket. She smiled – not a grin, this time, soft but heartfelt. She didn’t know if he could feel all the things behind it; she thought maybe he could. That, Ava thought, was enough. It was more than enough.

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Last edited by Ava Weaver on Thu Aug 15, 2019 3:50 pm, edited 1 time in total. word count: 1279
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Tom Cooke
Posts: 253
Joined: Fri Dec 21, 2018 3:15 pm
Topics: 29
Location: Vienda, but also hell
Race: Raen
: "disturbingly unheimlich individual"
Character Sheet: Character Sheet
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Writer: Graf
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Thu Aug 15, 2019 3:46 pm

Hollow Street The Dives
Morning on the 9th of Roalis, 2719
The first thing Tom noticed was how the flies’d started spilling out into the little office, wheeling about through the air in their slow, hovering way. He kept Ava’s kerchief pressed to his nose, but the scent of lavender was starting to fade, and even it wasn’t enough to overpower the pungence drifting in from the back room. By the time he came in, by the time he’d clicked the door quietly behind him, Ava was already out, holding a couple of books. There was already a stack of about five on the desk, near the ledger.

The sight made him smile, but it was a wan, flickering, guttering sort of smile. He couldn’t help but think about the way she’d stepped over the dead man’s leg. Even the dim, musty hall’d been brighter than in here, and his eyes hadn’t adjusted to the dark yet; he couldn’t make out the expression on her face for awhile. The line of her shoulders was as straight and graceful as ever, and her hands weren’t shaking, but he didn’t think that’d been easy.

As he passed her the basket, he made out the subtle shape of her smile. “Boemo,” he replied neatly, offhandedly, with half a shrug. It was funny-sounding, so he lowered the kerchief, snuffling and wrangling down a gag when the laoso stench hit him full-force. He wondered again what it’d been like, gathering up those books, maneuvering around that poor sod. Didn’t envy her that.

She took the basket to the desk, and he watched as she took the cloth out of it and started planning out how she wanted to put the books in.

Save for the glint of gold here or there, dark shapes on dark planes, he couldn’t tell much about them. He didn’t try; he supposed it wasn’t his business. But as she packed the basket fair full, sliding the last books into place, he noticed she’d left one lying out on the desk.

Tom caught the glint of her eye in the dark as she looked at him. He met it with a look of confusion; he quirked an eyebrow. She slid the book across the desk toward him, unsure-like, and he approached hesitantly. A grimoire? He peered down, squinting. “Uh – huh – oh.”

It would’ve been hard to tell his expression. He was having trouble seeing, even with his eyes starting to adjust. He fumbled in his jacket, taking out his glasses and setting them on his nose. With another sniff, he opened the cover with care, feeling the spine crackle a little; he flipped one page, then two, then studied the title page. Another little sniff and he’d turned over a chunk of pages, smoothing out the page from the middle in an oddly delicate motion.

The paper was so thin, he thought. Months ago – maybe even a month and a half ago, when he’d first met Ava – he’d’ve torn these pages with his clumsy hands. But he’d been through more books since then, and the Vyrdag’d taught him a fair manna grace with his hands, faking the swirl of Anatole’s signature over and over on paper no less delicate.

Each leaf was like the wing of a moth, and crackled as he turned it over. The noise brought a faint, warm smile to his face, and he couldn’t’ve said why.

“This is,” he started, then paused. His eyes flicked over the page. His grin was oddly delicate, too – recognition, pleasant surprise. He traced a line of Monite with his fingertip, recognizing an invocation. His lips moved, half-shaping the sounds, but he didn’t dare speak them.

There was something he didn’t recognize woven in there, something different from your usual opening of a ley channel, something – quantitative, maybe? – something focused on the witness. Then a change clause. With a start, he realized this was a spell meant for an unwilling witness. A spy’s spell. Then – there, in Estuan, underneath, were suggestions on how to temper the spell to respond to obfuscation, which was a word Tom actually knew – and then he recognized something about the amandation – Circle, but he could almost read the whole damn thing, even though he sorely needed a lexicon –

Tom started again, blinking a few times. He shut the book, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. “Er – thank you. Ms. Weaver.” He felt giddy in the strangest way, but embarrassed, too; he couldn’t quite bring himself to smile.

Not until he looked back at Ava, anyway. As he slid the grimoire into his bag, he glanced up and met her smile across the desk. It was a soft, warm smile, and there was something genuine about it that struck him to his soul. He smiled, too, soft and warm as he could manage. He hoped it came through, but he didn’t think it mattered: if she understood, she understood.

She’d padded herself out again while he was going through the book, and the scuffed-up old ring was back on her finger. “Thank you, he repeated, holding her gaze for a moment more. Then, looking toward the door, he tilted his head, hesitating. “You’ll want to go first, eh? I’ll wait a bit. There’s a flight of stairs at the other end of the hall, out there; when I go, I’ll take that one and find my way out.”

Looking across at her with that heavy basket on her arm, he wanted to say something else, but he couldn’t think what. He reckoned that was enough.

“I’ll be in touch,” he offered instead.
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Ava Weaver
Posts: 118
Joined: Fri Jun 07, 2019 11:17 am
Topics: 10
Race: Human
Character Sheet: Character Sheet
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Writer: moralhazard
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Fri Aug 16, 2019 12:32 am

Morning, 9th Roalis, 2719
Hollow Street, The Dives
Ava tried not to stare at Tom as he looked down at the grimoire. She remembered what he had said, when he had brought out his little journal, when he had traced his fingers over the different parts of a spell for her, when he had tried to explain what it meant to him. I’m trying to learn. She didn’t want to call attention to it, to the parts of him that she didn’t think either of them were entirely comfortable with, but it seemed foolish to her to pretend otherwise. They had a hard enough battle to fight; any tools they had were tools meant to be used.

Tom squinted at it at first, and Ava felt a faint sinking in her chest. She busied herself with arranging the books, because looking at him wouldn’t help anyway. When she glanced over again – naturally, easily – it was to see Tom turning the pages, slowly, his glasses settled on his nose, a warm little smile on his face.

Ava busied herself with the rest of her preparations, the cloth, the fabric wrapped around her waist, the wedding ring, the headband, and smiled at Tom when he thanked her. She thanked him, then, and he thanked her again, and the smile on his face –

It was Anatole’s face. Ava knew that; Tom knew that. There was no getting around it, and there was no pretending otherwise. But Tom smiled, and for once – if Anatole’s years of smirking and sneers, of faint thin, amused smiles, of clever scoffs – if all that history pulled Tom’s face in a different way than he’d intended, it didn’t matter in the slightest. There was a warmth in those flat gray eyes that he wore, a softness to the turn of his lips that was almost more touching for how hard it had to fight.

Ava started to say something – started to tell him that he’d look through the ledger, that she’d let him know if – when –

Tom made his offer before she could. Something faint and wry quirked at the edges of Ava’s lips, and she nodded. “Of course. You know where to find me,” she said, instead. Ava adjusted the basket a little more on her arm, looking at Tom again, then turned and made her way out of Binder’s dreadful little office, away from the softly buzzing flies and the smell of death, away from the guns and galdors and corpses, letting the moment become a memory. She paused at the door a moment, and glanced back over her shoulder with a smile. "Have a good day, Mr. Cooke."

Ava made her way through the moldy, mildewy hall, down the stairs, past the strange, grasping stain on the ground, and pushed open the small door into the dingy, narrow alleyway belong. She stopped there just a moment, breathing deep the fresh air, then pulled her cloak up. Her walk shifted as she made her way along the alleyway, her free hand coming back to rest delicately against her stomach, the other carrying the basket with the familiar ease of someone used to it, if not with what could have exactly been said to be grace.

Ava blended herself into the edges of the crowd and moved with them, back towards home. The books weighed heavy on her arm, and Ava thought, as she walked, of their secret weight. She wondered, too, what weights those around her bore, the ones she could see and the ones she couldn’t.

Ava stopped, once, twice, with awkward, hurried smiles, to buy eggs and vegetables, lining the top of her basket with them, bright colors and rounded shapes peeking out.

But in the end, Ava thought, all she could do was to keep going, to walk through Hollow Street and back through the Dives until, at the Painted Ladies, she could duck back into the alley where she had made her transformation, could thread back through the ribbons that needed to be threaded, to hide the extra fabric and the wedding ring and shake her hair free of the headband. The hat was gone, no surprise, but it seemed to Ava a fair trade.

Ava settled back into her life, then – the last of her disguise gone, stripped away, leaving her in only the one she called home. She found her stride away, her smile, and made her way back towards Woven Delights, stopping here once to say hello to a storekeeper, there to chat for a few minutes with Rosie as the woman hung laundry from her line, again to buy a loaf of bread just down the street. Finally, Ava climbed the steps to her shop, opened the door and went inside. She locked it behind her, set the basket down on the counter. For a moment Ava held there; she checked her hands to see if they were shaking, and was pleasantly surprised to see that they weren’t.

Then, smiling, Ava unpacked the basket, put away what needed to be put away; the books she found a secret, safe place for, one dry and free of mold and mildew, safe from sunlight and anything else that would seek to do them harm. She melded back into the day, and left the rest of it behind, at least for now. She didn’t forget; she never forgot, but there were other things to do, chores for the shop, changes to make to her display, and at least for a while, Ava let it all go from the forefront of her mind. At least for a little while, Ava promised herself, she could just – be.

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