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Ressa pulled the wrap around her shoulders and padded, barefoot, to the window. She had a fourth floor apartment that looked over most of the buildings in her neighborhood. In the winter dawn light, it was a gray view; dull square buildings under a dark steel sky that stretched away towards the distant outskirts of Affamarg.
She stood there for a long moment, leaning thoughtfully against the windowframe. Snow, late for the season, drifted in lazy flakes from the sky, failing to brighten the drab landscape.
Behind her, sprawled comfortably on one side of her bed, Yeff's even breath was not quite a snore. Ressa closed her eyes and listened to it. It was a pleasant sound, safe and gentle, and it had become familiar... but it wasn't quite right.
She glanced at the desk beside the window. In the top drawer, she had entanglement paperwork, and she knew it was time for a choice. She had been sleeping with Yeff for almost three full months now, and every time he paid her, she felt more and more guilty for taking his Imperials. It wasn't that she didn't like him, far from it! The fondness she'd discovered for him had simply awakened an unexpected yearning.
Taleffi's words echoed in her ears; "I'm just saying that you might like a little romance," the guildmaster had told her. "You don't have to find your one true love, or any nonsense, but it wouldn't hurt anything to have a little fun, maybe find a boyfriend."
Whatever she and Yeff had, he didn't feel like a boyfriend. Ressa traced a finger in the fog of her breath on the windowpane, smiling slightly. She could not deny that they had fun on their engagements, or that it was deeply satisfying to have a lover after so long. She had loved the exploration stage of their relationship; if it wasn't romantic, it had certainly been exciting.
But they had been together three months, exclusive to each other, and that smacked, somehow, of some deeper meaning that Ressa sensed was uncomfortable to both of them.
She had made an effort she recognized as token to get to know him better, but when she asked personal questions, however lightly, he squirmed, and sometimes gave her a look of such guilt and fear that she was quick to back off. She doubted he even realized how much of his insecurity he was sharing, always grateful to chase some other topic of conversation with her. He could not even explain how he came to have a sketch of her in his license pouch, stammering and blushing like he'd committed some crime, instead of the simple act of purchasing a sketch from a street artist.
Most perplexing of all was the recent turn of events; he had left her alone at the theatre with no reason, as far as Ressa could tell, and must have lost a trunk of Imperials on the cost of his ticket. When she arrived in her evening finery at the train station, asking when his train might arrive, she had been informed that it had come in exactly on time, and Yeff had taken off with plenty of hours left on the clock to meet her for the play.
Perplexed, she had walked home through the light snow. The next day, when they met for lunch, she considered demanding an explanation, but settled for a more evasive question on how late it must have been for him the previous night.
"It was very late when I got in," he had lied, showing a familiar nervousness that Ressa had always put down to his attraction to her. She knew that she had that effect on many men, and had never paid it undue attention.
She glanced back to where he was sleeping, still and peaceful in her bed. She hadn't pushed the issue, choosing instead to merely chat about how excellent the performance had been, and tease him, very carefully, about missing it. He promised to make it up to her, and did his level best, treating her to an afternoon at the local gardens, dinner out, and a late evening of lovemaking that felt almost as much like panic as it did apology.
Ressa looked out the window again, her breath stirring more fog on the glass with a sigh. Whatever professional arrangement they had, it wasn't a healthy relationship. Yeff had more secrets than a skycat, and she didn't think that being together was good for either of them. It was to that tipping point, poised to either break to something strictly professional, or take that final step to an emotional connection - a connection that filled Ressa's chest with reluctance and chagrin.
The carnal guild spent more than a few classes every trimester drilling common sense into its apprentices, careful to outline warning signs for unhealthy engagements, discussing ways to handle attempted rape and control. Her training was clear about what constituted professional behavior. This... whatever it was that she and Yeff had... was starting to cross a line that had been schooled into Ressa thoroughly, and she knew it was time to master her own mixed emotions and make a clean break. Yeff showed all the signs of being the kind of unstable client who might take a dismissal the wrong way. He would probably not accept the subtlety of a cool-down of their relationship that still allowed contact - some of his clingy and evasive behavior warned that he might be the kind to turn well-meaning stalker, and Ressa didn't want to chance that. No, she needed to make a final stop to the connection altogether. She would give him a recommendation for another joygirl rated at the same level she was, and assure him the best that she could that she bore him no ill will.
The resolution came with mixed relief and dismay. She did not relish the idea of finding another regular client any more than she liked the idea of breaking things off with Yeff, but there was an empty place in her belly that had loved having a steady partner. It was more than simply sexually satisfying, it also kept her her safely... distracted. Ressa shook her head, not wanting to follow that train of thought, and turned away from the window.
Dawn was beginning to color the sky. She left the curtains open, and went to her wardrobe to dress before the light woke Yeff.
Yeff trembled, lifting his hand to knock at the door. The card with the address was crumpled and sweaty in his opposite palm.
The knock sounded too loud even to his thundering ears and Yeff had enough time before it was answered to consider bolting away. Maybe he could buy a new identity from one of those shady characters that the monitors didn't have enough evidence to detain, and escape off the train on his next trip. The man with the shaded eyes couldn't follow him to another town, could he? The door opened before he could explore the idea, and was ushered by a labor-class man who reeked of alcohol to a surprisingly lush little office that was at odds with the poor neighborhood and ramshackle building facade. The man who had first ushered him into the odd role he was playing was sitting behind a wide desk, an expression of pure malice across his face. He was looking down at the gray rag before him, and a thin pocket knife was stabbed into the surface of the desk through one of the etchings.
Yeff, a thread of fear turning his blood to ice and making the sweat on his body turn clammy as he stumbled forward, just had time to see a title about new council member announcements before the knife had been deftly returned to a pocket, the gray rag was whisked away and an expression of innocuous and inviting curiosity had replaced the snarl of rage so completely that Yeff actually doubted his eyes.
"Yeff! Our rail driver!" The man's voice was practiced; as clear and perfectly modulated as a master in the theatre guild. "How are you enjoying your new career? And your lovely joygirl? I trust she is worth the Imperials we're paying for her?"
Although Yeff never informed anyone of his scheduled appointments with Ressa, somehow, every tenday, the funds to pay back her fees arrived in an envelope at his door, as regular as clockwork. Sometimes, they even arrived with small gifts, which he passed on to her without comment or question, always dodging her own questions with less grace than he wished.
"Ah... I..." Yeff was reduced to stammers, and gratefully took the chair the man gestured him to; his knees felt weak and like jelly.
"Is something wrong?" The man's eyes were actually kind, and Yeff was even more off-balance for it.
"She broke things off," Yeff blurted. "Ressa, I mean. She said she'd had a good time, but needed some space for a while. I asked her to stay... begged... she gave me a recommendation... said it wasn't negotiable..." Was he expressing how desperately he had tried to get her to stay? This facade of the man before him certainly looked sympathetic, but he could not help remembering the way he'd looked when Yeff walked in, or the little, unmistakable hints that more of his life was in this man's control than he could even imagine.
"My condolences," the nameless man said sympathetically, rising from his chair, and Yeff actually believed him. His hand squeezed Yeff's shoulder warmly and the railcar driver looked up at him plaintively.
"I'm... sorry?" he offered.
The man's smile was a little sad. "Of course you are, but it was to be expected."
While Yeff was wondering how, exactly, to take that strange statement, the man stepped back.
Something in his stance spoke of dismissal, and Yeff staggered to his feet. "You aren't... upset?"
The laughter of the man was rich with humor. "Not at all, Yeff. Not at all. You did exactly what you needed to, and you did it very well. I'm very happy with you!"
Awash in confusion, Yeff wrung his hands. "That... was all?" he asked.
"There is one more thing," the man said, suddenly sober.
Yeff stiffened. The card that was thrust at him was innocuous enough; an address in a fine neighborhood near the center of Affamarg.
"Go to this address tonight at twenty bells."
Yeff continued to look at him with question, and the man chuckled. "That's all, I promise. Just go to that address."
Yeff stammered a mixed-up paragraph of thanks and parting phrases, not at all sure what was required for politeness, and the assistant ushered him back out into the snowy road.
A pang of guilt and fear made him wonder about Ressa suddenly. He had often wondered what role she was meant to play in this drama he had gotten swept up in; he didn't doubt that she was some intermediate pawn in the whole affair, and was thoroughly convinced of her goodness and generosity.
He was afraid for her.
He walked for nearly a block before resolve overcame him. If he reported the strange man and his manipulations... maybe there was no chance for him to escape unscathed, but perhaps Ressa could be protected. He quickened his steps as he turned the corner towards the city center, and collided with the monitor coming around towards him.
"Whoa, Citizen!" the monitor said, in a big cheerful voice, taking him by the shoulders to keep them both from toppling. "What's the hurry?"
It took two gulps for breath before Yeff could organize his words, and when he did, they all came tumbling out - every suspicion he had about the strange man, every odd coincidence that didn't look like a coincidence on retrospect, his fear for his mother and for Ressa, backtracking to fill in details as they occurred to him. As he stumbled to a close, he wondered how incoherent he sounded, and searched the monitor's face for disbelief, or amused tolerance. To his relief, the monitor's expression was grave and attentive, through the entire delivery, and although he was shaking his head at the end, it was not dismissively.
"It was right of you to bring this to the Empire's attention," the monitor said soberly, when Yeff had finally wound down. "There's decidedly something amiss here." He frowned at the address card Yeff gave him.
Yeff tried not to sob in relief. "Should I come to the monitor house and give a statement?"
"No need, Citizen Yeff," the monitor said quickly, reassuring. "I've got the details now, and will file the report myself."
"Should I go to the address?"
The monitor nodded emphatically. "Not alone, of course," he added. "This might be our best chance at actually catching this mastermind."
Mastermind, Yeff thought. That's what that man was: some kind of criminal mastermind. And he, Yeff, a simple little nobody, was going to help take him down. It was as exciting a thought as becoming a railcar driver had been. The thought buoyed him the rest of the way home.