Hannah, having never left home before, stared at the street urchin just inches from her face. His sharp odor punctured the invincible pretense of her elaborate palanquin, complete with far too many cushions, lace, and various sweet-smelling fragrances. Her head inched closer and closer to the edge, unapologetically scrutinizing the boy from head to toe.

She thought him about her age, roughly six years old, and was acutely aware that this creature was very different from her. His feet were blackened and calloused from the streets, and his fingernails looked like dirty, pitiful talons at the end of his lanky arms. His pants – the color of father’s hunting dogs – were ripped in multiple places and whereas one leg ended above the ankle, the other barely extended past the knee.

This boy didn’t have to wear a dress like Hannah was forced to; in fact, he was allowed to be shirtless! In this, they were of the same spirit. Without moving a muscle, she could feel the alien knots that wove the dress against her back and longed to feel free again.

The uneven, forward motion of her platform abruptly stopped, and she vaguely overheard some shouting ahead.

Morgan started, seeing his younger sister by five years against the edge of their cart on hands and knees. “Hannah, come away from the edge,” he said, “And close the curtain while you’re at it. It reeks out there and you know Mother would blame me if you fell out.”

“Okay,” Hannah said absentmindedly, without moving a muscle. How could she? There was a mystery here and she loved mysteries. Didn’t Mother’s attendants always praise how curious she was?

“Morgan, why do his feet look like burnt bread?” she asked with an incredulous smile that increased her volume. “And why doesn’t he wash?” Hannah looked back expectantly.

Morgan sighed and looked up from his reading. “He’s poor, Hannah. Like in the stories.” Morgan’s face was an unreadable combination of boredom and amusement. His eyebrows rose pointedly in Hannah’s direction to emphasize his words. They might have talked about this before.

“Oh, the stories,” said Hannah in agreement, returning her gaze to the street and its life-sized puzzle. She remembered the poor in stories. They were monstrous, fiendish things that always stole from good, upstanding people like her. The poor were never satisfied with what they had and always, always blamed everyone else for their problems. It was a matter of fact that the wretch just inches from her face would steal all her favorite possessions if given half a chance. Out of spite, probably.

He looked at her. As their eyes met, she instinctively retreated inside the cart until her feet touched Morgan’s leg. She was okay. She was safe. The creature, once so still he might have been a statue sitting on the ground, slowly stood up.

Just then, Hannah remembered one of her favorite stories that the nursemaids would tell her when the thunder was scary and relentless or the moon too bright to fall asleep. Once upon a time, a bad man wanted something he could not have from a good family. This good family gave him something else, and in return he left and never bothered them again. But what did she have to appease this demon?

A ha! She knew just the thing. Poking through several toys, her hands felt the familiar smoothness of a noisemaker. This was her least favorite toy that she had brought along in case Morgan needed prodding.

She grasped the toy firmly in her hand, edged closer to her would be nemesis, and tossed it as quickly as possible at his chest. The motion of the cart resumed, and his face was soon lost in a sea of angry, unwashed faces.

Hannah stood up, finding her balance slower than expected, and closed the curtains with a couple of jerks. Would one whistle be enough to purchase protection against all those mean expressions? She certainly wasn’t willing to give anything else up, so it would have to do.

“Morgan, your books and my toys and Mother’s gowns and Father’s horses are all safe. The poor won’t take them anymore!” Hannah exclaimed, beaming with pride as only a five-year-old can.

“Well done,” murmured Morgan, tussling her hair in his fingers without taking his eyes off the pages. “Heroic efforts indeed.”

Morgan was proud so Hannah was proud. She couldn’t wait to tell her nursemaids the story and then they would be proud too! Today was by far the best day she had ever had.


Kade quickly snatched the little trifle that had bounced off his face and onto the ground by his feet. It was his birthday today, and although he considered himself lucky to acquire something without scheming for it, he had no idea why the pampered brat wanted to hurt him of all people.

He raised his hand to rub his eye where she had struck him, wincing and unable to open it. After a few heartbeats, Kade slowly open his fingers around the projectile and stared at it with his good eye. In his hand was a cold, smooth device with holes on either end. It was about the length of one of Luka’s fingers and felt like better light would show fine engravings that were now invisible in the midday sun.

Unable to repress a smile, Kade tucked his fortune into a secret pocket he had painstakingly sewed on the inside of his pants. When he emptied his pockets for Luka, he wanted to ensure that his treasure was left out of the daily gift.

Kade resented calling it a gift when it was in fact an obligation. What was his was Luka’s, and what was Luka’s was doled out sparingly to the ‘benefit of the group.’ If there was any spirit of actual gift giving, it was the magnanimous way in which Luka pretended to be taking care of his Union out of charity.

At nine years old, Kade could count on one finger how many birthdays he had celebrated. Two years ago, he had come across an unattended cart filled with loads of potatoes. Wanting to get in the good graces of his new Union, Kade swiped as many potatoes as he could carry, taking his shirt off to create a makeshift bag that he could carry nonchalantly through the streets.

Today, he was no longer sure this Union even had kindnesses to be earned in the first place. Those potatoes had earned him extra shifts on lookout duty and even more riskier bag work than befit his age. With Luka, it was better to remain consistently average than show even an ounce more of ambition, capability, or cleverness than you’re prepared to commit every day thereafter.

Kade, having been too cautious to tickle any purses on this street today due to this section being overworked, thought to visit the woman he assumed was his mother and secure today’s gift. He hadn’t called on her in quite a long time, and hoped she would favor him without needing to be charmed.

The air was foul this time of day, so Kade worked through the crowd to get out of the cobblestone street and into an alley. He dexterously shifted his body weight with every careless bump or vindictive shove from an adult, keeping upright amidst what seemed like an endless onslaught. His feet knew the way, having traced these steps in his dreams from time to time questing to pose a single question that he didn’t want to know the answer to.

He learned at a young age that knowing wasn’t the same as hoping.

Stopping in front of the pristine Revery House, Kade felt a temporary moment of paralysis. His hands found comfort in his pockets, and his unharmed eye locked onto an elaborate sign above the door picturing a rooster wearing a crown and a wink: The Royal Cock.

Slowly, Kade worked his fingers and set his jaw. His gaze lowered to the sparkling white door itself, and he forced a step forward until he was moving of his own momentum again. He knocked.

No one answered. He knocked again.

A motherly looking face popped her head out the door, and upon seeing Kade, slid through the doorway and shut the door behind her.

“And how may I help you?” she asked. Her arms folded across her chest; she squared off with him in an intimidating posture that was repudiated by the amusement in her face.

All up and down the street was filth, but right in front of him was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. A vision of the Maker herself was standing in front of the only clean structure within eyesight. Whereas the rest of the world was pathetically ordinary, Revery Houses were extraordinary.

Kade cleared his throat. “Is Catherine available?” He wished more words to come out: the why, the how, the what, but none did.

“Who’s asking?” she asked tersely, shifting her weight to her back leg and tilting her head to the side.

“My name is Kade. I just wanted a few moments of her time.” His head dropped and his shoulders slumped. Recognizing the defeated movement of his body, he hoped it would play on her emotions instead of earning an outright dismissal.

He saw her foot twitch, heard air being pulled into her lungs, held for a beat, and then expelled quickly. Her arms grabbed him by the shoulders, and she bent down to look him in the eye. “Okay Kade,” she began, “You may come in and wait on Catherine. When she’s available she might come and collect you. You will keep your head down and hold my hand until we get to an open room.”

Kade nodded earnestly.

Once she opened the door, Kade was treated to a ruckus of merry sounds and warm fragrances that were familiar but alien at the same time. Like a puzzle that had been rearranged to create a different image. He knew what transpired in Reveries like these, some of his easiest marks were hasty exits from such places after all, but he wasn’t prepared for how loud it was. Loud to his eyes, ears, and nose.

His legs kept in step with hers, up one flight of stairs and down the hall to the left. A quick glance ahead showed him that the only exit was the way he came in. The familiar stench of tobacco assaulted his nostrils and quickened his pulse.

She stopped suddenly and he narrowly avoided stepping on her ivory-colored slippers that appeared to cost more than his life was worth. A door was opened, and he was pushed inside.

His one good eye scanned the room as her mouth worked without sound. This room held almost no furniture but chairs, and he wasn’t alone. In the middle of the room, next to the window, lounged a Union Steward that was no stranger to Kade.

“Be a good young man and don’t cause any trouble now,” he heard his guide say before the door clicked behind him.

Fighting the urge to run, Kade calmly walked to a decisive chair that was close to the man without being too close. He didn’t want to give the impression that he didn’t have business here, but neither did he want Luka’s Steward to turn his attention on him.

Out of the corner of his eye, Kade studied the hands attached to the man on his right. Those hands were meant to encourage generosity, to provide corrective training for those too miserly, and defend the interests of the Union as a whole. In other words, he hurt people. And was good at it.

Old scars, fresh scabs, and bruised flesh starkly contrasted the smooth cylinder of tobacco he rolled between his fingers.

Bringing the sicar to his lips, the Steward deftly exhaled harsh smoke out of the opposite side of his mouth from Kade. The uninitiated might assume that their presence had been disregarded, but to Kade this was the equivalent of an outright stare.

Kade’s hands began to sweat like that of a boy whose next few minutes could be entirely decided by a coin flip. He opted to place them on top of his thighs, palms down, and remain as still as the chair he sat on. If Catherine didn’t see him soon, he might come face to face with Luka during working hours.


Garrett Fletcher hated this place. He hated his place if he were being honest. And he hated Luka most of all for bringing him here as often as his coin allowed.

Pulling out a two-finger sicar case from his breast pocket, Garrett surveyed the two options he packed earlier to enjoy after Union activities. On the left was a blonde roll of tobacco, perfect for lazy mornings deep in reflection or with his own counsel. On the right was a sicar the color of coal, more suited to his current mood and easily complimented by the sweet fire of whiskey in his other pocket.

Returning the protective case, Garrett’s fingers carefully withdrew a slender pen knife that he kept for just this occasion. Removing it from its tiny wooden scabbard, he gently rotated the edge of the knife around the top of the sicar, working in a circular motion until the cap fell off like the hat of an acorn.

He blew forcefully on the sicar where he had made an incision and then brought it to his lips. Satisfied with the airflow, Garrett pricked his little finger and instinctively signed a pact of taking in his mind. All he had to consider was what he wanted; the contract took care of the rest. In the span of a heartbeat, the tip of his blade ignited. Somewhere nearby, another flame was extinguished.

Garrett held his sicar above the flame at an angle, ceremoniously rolling it in his hand until white ash formed at the foot. Blowing on the tobacco to verify it was lit evenly, he once more placed the other end in his mouth and pulled the smoke in. A flick of the wrist extinguished his pen knife.

Exhaling, Garrett marveled at the blue smoke rolling off the end of his sicar, dancing to an unknown tune before forgetting its form. Even in moments like these, he could always find solace in this ritual.

Settling back into his familiar chair, Garrett reflected on this morning’s activities. The faces he had painted, the oaths he had defended, the decorations his fists had earned, the families he had rearranged.

He pondered the why of things often. Why did the baker decide to cheat the Union? Were his own warnings not explicit enough to avoid an altercation? Did he miss a detail when explaining, step by step, what was expected and the consequences for misappropriation of funds?

And the miner’s son – what gall compelled him to stop repaying his debt? Wasn’t extra care taken to persuade him against such terms in the first place?

Could I have been more foreboding when describing the exact penalties for breaching contract? Garrett wondered.

He didn’t think so; he prided himself on being as deliberate as an arsonist, as transparent as the wind that stoked the flames.

In fact, the more he thought about it, the more irritated he became. He never craved respect himself, but surely his reputation preceded him like the stench of death near a poisoned well. If these men thought him a liar, they were terrible judges of character.

Garrett recalled images in his mind’s eye: their faces against the cobblestones, his ravenous knife collecting trophies, a wife pleading for her useless husband, a daughter crying for her treacherous father.

So much waste. A waste of his time, a waste of their flesh, a waste of Union resources. The smell of singed hair and charred skin still saturated his nostrils. He would redouble his efforts to ensure every clause was implicit from here on out. Lawlessness was becoming far too routine these days for his liking.

The door opened, and Kade popped inside the small room with Margaret on his heels. Seeing the boy’s obvious discomfort, Garrett kept his attention on the sicar in hand while Margaret explained that in no certain terms was Kade to leave this room without an escort. When he was able, Garrett gave her a wink that was met with an abashed smile.

Shareholders of this age were notoriously jumpy, yet Kade maintained his composure in front of a Steward, at a Revery, off the clock, during working hours. Taker’s balls, that one is as cool as a Sister on the prowl.

He had half a mind to escort Kade downstairs and back into the streets, but he had long ago removed himself from other people’s destinies. Kade knew what was expected of him along with the price he would be if caught by Luka; if he figured the odds of being caught high, he would see himself out regardless of what Margaret told him.

He took another puff of his sicar, savoring the smoke while slowing letting it escape from his lips.

But if this rabbit catches himself in a snare of his own making, it will be my hands that dress him Garrett thought warily. Godspeed, little one.


“Luka Emerson,” a bosomy attendant breathed into his ear, “you have been summoned by the Lady Catherine.”

Luka felt goosebumps sprout on his neck and forearms as she nipped at his ear and took his hand, begging him to leave his chair and walk with her. A smile formed on his lips as he took in her curves, the thin cut of fabric safeguarding her secrets, and the scents of patchouli, sandalwood, and lavender.

This hallway held wonderful memories for Luka. Every groan of the floor, each picture on the walls, and every hint of a stain on the ceremonial white carpet were his best friends. It was here that he felt most like himself. Here alone that he realized his full potential.

“And what if I should want to stay here instead? Sample the common stock for a time?” Luka stopped, grasping her hand tightly so that she jerked to a halt as well.

She turned on him with a frightful face that quickened his pulse, stepped close enough to kiss him, and grabbed his chin with her free hand. “You would do well to remember the contract, my lord. Any deviations from your purchased revery will require remediation.”

Luka cleared his throat and put his hands in the air. “Just kidding, truly. Just kidding. Please – um – lead the way.”

Her condescending smile wasn’t lost on him, but it was quickly replaced with a bow of the head. One second her face was patronizing, the next it was a demure mask with a hasty ‘my lord.’ What a time to be alive, he thought.

Stopping at an entryway, she turned once more and put her hand on his chest. “My lady requires that you bathe before granting an audience. Surely my lord will understand?” Again, her face was the perfect expression of servility, willingness to please, hope that he wouldn’t take offense, and not a small amount of desire.

If only he could share these moments with a real friend – someone that enjoyed life as he did. He often thought to bring Garrett on these escapades, but he was a square peg in a round Capitol. His emotionless eyes could suck the joy out of a room faster than the whispers of pox.

Cold as a winter storm, that man. Better left in the lobby with the rest of the furniture.

But still, it would be grand if he had a friend to confide in, share stories with, and share women with too.

Knowing what was expected of him, Luka stepped inside to the bathing chamber and let his robe fall to the floor. Naked as the day he was born, Luka strode towards the outrageously large bath drawn in the center of the room. Around it gathered more attendants, naked from the waist up, hungrily drinking him in with their eyes and whispering to each other.

He slowed his walk and struck a pose with each step. If it was a show they wanted, it was a show they were going to get! He even turned around for them in a circle, generously treating each to his finest smile.

Stepping up to the bath, a bronze beauty with dark hair took his right hand to steady Luka on the stairs. Another attendant with small, pink nipples against skin the color of milk took his other hand.

Submerging into the tub, Luka could barely hold his excitement for the next part. One by one, each of the four attendants climbed the stairs up and down until they were beside him in the water. Sponges and buckets of soap were produced from the sides of the tub, and soon he was laughing and splashing and getting washed by the Capitol’s finest ladies.

If only they could see me now! He thought. His brother with that stupid smirk on his face. His mother with her constant doting. His father with his never-ending saber measuring contests, always lecturing him about how far he had come and why Luka could never, ever accomplish as much.

Luka made sure to smile extra wide in case his father was watching from the pits of hell. Just then, he imagined what his father would say. He imagined what his father would say if he were standing right outside the tub, and felt all his excitement turn to ashes inside of him.

Sopping with rose-scented bubbles and up to his eyes in tits of every size and color, Luka suddenly wasn’t having fun anymore. “Stop,” he said, resigned. The laughing, the scrubbing, the incessant pampering did not stop.

“Stop!” he shouted, feeling his face flush. The girls froze. Shock registered in their faces.

A loud crack rang out from the door, and Luka turned round to see the prude that had led him here with her hands together. Her face wore a commanding guise now. The girls quickly exited the tub, snatched their robes off the wall, and filed out of the room.

“You’ve been summoned, my lord, to the Lady Catherine’s bed chambers immediately,” she intoned pleasantly.

“Turn around,” Luka said despondently, his finger turning a circle in the air. Once he was sure she wasn’t going to peek, Luka exited the tub and quickly donned the robe around his wilted manhood once more.

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