I couldn’t believe my rotten luck. Who would be perusing the market but Chris, the cockroach. If anyone would recognize me even with this mask on, it would be him. I don’t look much older than my old poster shot, but close enough. He was out of his element, with hardly an eye for even dividing the stalks. His guard was lowered- nothing happened in or near Wilmington, by Trockle's orders, and it had a reputation as something of a peaceful, if mildly remote, posting. He walked right past our stall, looking at the stalls on the other side first.

I noticed Chris before he noticed me. Even with his new clothes, I picked him out a mile away. I froze on the spot, unsure of what to do. The half mask leaves my hair and eyes exposed. Chris saw me nearly every day for two years, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility Chris recognized me.

He had his back to me, his eyes passed over me, and he seemed to freeze, though he was still facing the wrong way. I had time to exit the stall, if I was quick.

Chris was wading up to Adam's stall. "You!" He shouted at Adam. "Was there a girl sitting here, just now?"

"I'm sorry sir, the girl wanders off from time to time, I don't really keep track of her." Adam bluffed. I’m starting to like Adam, he’s quick on his feet. Chris started to say something, then reconsidered. It would gain him nothing to ask her name, Adam would give a fake one. Chris realized he wasn’t paying attention to the crowd, and tried to split his attention between finding me in the crowd and interrogating Adam.

I yelped in surprise, someone bumped into me. "Ack! Shit!" I lost my footing nearly slipping onto the ground. I bounced up just before I hit the ground, frozen in place. The last two people I wanted to see today were right in front of me.

Jay spun from the impact a bit, swirling the duster around so it shrouded me from Chris's vision. He ran into me on purpose, rude much. He knelt. "Oh, you're that guard. Are you alright?" He asked me, offering his hand.

"Uh.." I stammered, still caught off guard. "Yeah, thanks." I took Jay's hand and hauled myself up.

"I'm sorry but I kinda have to go…" I peeked over Jay's shoulder, trying to find Chris. He was standing exactly in front of the stall. If Jay moved, he might see me.

"Yeah, me too. If you're on lunch break, I would like to talk with you and make you an offer. I don't expect any trouble from him, and I'm sure he won't be doing anything stupid." Jay turned to his bodyguard. "Go see to it that he doesn't, will you?" His security detail had shrunk, but his insurance policy against kidnappers had insisted on keeping at least one. The man, built like a brick house with a neck as thick as a chimney, nodded wordlessly and moved past Jay towards Chris. Jay put an arm out, his sister shielding Jessie from Chris's view, if she wanted to walk alongside him to the food hut. "I uh…" Jessie tried to get a grip on herself. "I… yeah, alright. Lunch. Let's go. You got something in mind?"

"I might," he said but not expanding on it. "But first I want to know more about you. I'm not going to ask your name, but I will ask you a few other things. Do you know how to dance?"

"Not very well, but I have danced before…"

"Alright…" he considered.

"And you're a bodyguard?"

"Yup. Someone has to do it."

"They give you trouble?"

"The general population, yes. The Feds, not really. It's mostly stuff like the odd runner." I admitted. I was fidgeting with my cuffs, a bad nervous habit.

"Can't blame them, they see a sword like yours or a jacket on a cold day…" he shrugged. "But you're capable. Strong. Fit." He breathed out. Flatterer. I think he was ignoring the ring on my finger. "Alright. I want to ask you something."

I sat back in my chair. "Oh yeah? What's that?"

"I want to hire you."

Jessie raised an eyebrow quizzically. "Hire me? For what?"

"Bodyguard services….under cover. Discretion would be a plus. Do you think you could pull it off?"

"A bodyguard? For what? What's wrong with the one you have? I find it odd that you'd want to hire someone you hardly know." Jessie asked skeptically.

"Keith is not the best person for the job in this scenario. He lacks the finesse, the refinement, and certain other qualifications. As for what I know…I am sure you remember The prospective buyer who hung around the shop last week?"

"Yeah." I nodded my head. No one usually hung around longer than five or ten minutes except for thieves or swindlers, so I kept a tab on him. "He seemed different than most visitors, most people either are interested right away, or they leave. He didn't seem to care either way."

"And he watched you in action. The thief. A runner. An ill-advised mugger. He would stay in earshot. He said he was impressed." Jay’s associate must have been hard to impress, because Jay seemed to scarcely believe he was saying those words.

"You're a fed, couldn't you order an assassin or something? I just don't understand why you want a street rat as a bodyguard."

"Order an…" he snorted. "If I get assigned one, I doubt a paid assassin would help. Officially speaking, I have no reason to fear anything, and this is a social ball. I'd ask a fellow alumnae but there are regulations about that sort of thing that I’d just as soon avoid. And I’d be concerned someone simply outbid them to look the other way for a critical few moments. We at least have some history together, albeit indirectly. I do need a plus one to watch my back, and I need them to be capable.” He steepled his hands. “The last question is: do you have a dress?"

"As a matter of fact I do…. Why?"

"Alright. I've made up my mind. I need to hire your…services for an event."

"Not so fast, I haven't agreed yet. I want more details first. What event?"

"The Winter Ball," the man diplomatically avoided calling it by its unofficial title: "bloody ball," held at the CKDO Eastern Border if I’ve heard correctly. "I'm an emissary to their state, a token of goodwill because of certain ties."

I coughed, nearly gasping in surprise. "I… Don't think my husband would approve."

Jay kept a wince from his face. "I am not pressuring you into anything beyond your usual duties. You just need to keep an eye out." A hand waved and a waitress ducked and he seemed apologetic about it, someone still getting used to his size. "Someone slipping something into my drink, someone with a weapon making their way towards me- most socialites would freeze up or fail to spot the threat at all until I was already dead." The tall officer said sourly. "But you might actually spot something afoot, and react in time to either head them off and distract them, warn me, or worst case scenario, help me deal with it. That would be as a matter of last resort. Many might be deterred by losing an opportunity I unknowingly give them."

I looked around carefully before speaking. "If I did come to this dinner, and I'm not saying I will, if violence breaks out, things are going to get….. Messy. Get me?"

"If violence breaks out, they'll already be dead. The rules of the ball are simple. No blood is to be spilled. If it is…have you seen piranha, miss-uh, missus…?" Jay paused, then grinned a surprisingly honest smile for an Imperial Officer. "Better I not know, or can we assume an alias. Something plain. It would drive my father mad."

I thought for a moment, biting my lip under my mask. "Rose. You can call me Rose. I just want to make sure you know you're not hiring some random person with a knife. I know what I'm doing and I do my job well."

"Naturally. But in turn I need to know you can restrain yourself. If violence is…likely or threatened, it isn't the same as spilling it, for example. The rules are literal- there is no spirit of the laws. The point of the ball is practically to encourage creative interpretation of the rules, and exploit them to harm opponents in the upper echelons of power. So if someone’s stabbed me and has a bowl, and you knock it out of their hands and tackle the person collecting it…that’d be you who spilled it, and you’d die."

"I see. I suppose I could change up the regular routine… For the right price, of course."

"Name it."

"Six thousand."

At this, the Scion of the Gould Fortune blinked. "What?" Speaking before his brain had caught up to his mouth made him still do a double-take.

"Six thousand. I don't speak to anyone, no one gets close enough to me to see my face, I'm paid up front. Finally, you owe me a favour. I don't usually hire out."

"Contact can't be helped. I need to talk to others and poke my nose around, and that's when I'll need you on my arm. If I was just there to be there, I’d put myself in a corner and try to blend in. If they know you are more than just a girl hitched on the arm of an officer, they might not talk freely to me. I'll need you to pretend to be…well, a socialite, at least as long as we see there.” his voice dropped with sarcasm, showing his disdain for them. “Can you do that? We need to be seen dancing and generally pretending to not be wary. These people are predators wearing fancy dress. Looking weak and scared in front of them is a poor idea. Confidence will go a ways, but my father has angered a great many people, and it would be quite a coup to kill his eldest. Besides. Free food is a good perk. Payment will be given upon completion- with both of us alive."

"Fine, but I'll still need a mask. I can play social, and keep eyes in the back of my head. Five up front, five on completion."

"Alright," Jay said. "And this favor- I take it you'll call it in upon completion? You know my word is good."

"I might. Or I might keep you under my thumb for a little while." I giggled quietly, smiling coyly under my mask.

Jay smiled despite himself and tried to not look too flustered. He knew I was taken, but it didn't seem to change his fascination with me. Still, the beanstalk of a man scratched at his modest, seemingly accidentally grown goatee. Jay looked like he’d spent many nights staying awake, a little rougher for wear than usual. "Alright. If you violate the rules on the dance floor, though, the contract is void."

"Fine." I crossed my arms. "When is this happening?"

"The Equinox. I'll pick you up the day before, and have you made ready. Now, I know my friend’s reputation, I'll keep him busy."

"Keep him off my back, for both of our sakes." I left it at that. "What do you mean, ‘have me made ready?’"

"This may be a cut above what you're used to…" there was a pregnant pause. "You wouldn't want to stand out as a threat. They'd target you first. And much as that prospect bothers me, they have information I want and need."

"Whatever floats your boat. I can handle myself. I'm more than I look."

"For both our sakes, I hope so."

wHat hE dOeSn’T kNOw mIghT hUrT hIM


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