“She’s still not answering.” Niltar looked away from the terminal. “This isn’t right.”
Livkir paced anxiously. “This is fucked up. We need to — we need to get answers. We need to talk to somebody!”
“Who the fuck are we going to talk to?” Niltar folded her arms tightly, shivering in the cold.
“I — the Judicators? Dispatch? Someone will know!” Livkir looked pleadingly at her. “Come on, Nili, this is Cas we’re talking about, we can’t just —”
“Do you know who took her? Because I sure as fuck don’t!” Niltar leapt down from the comm booth. “If we start asking questions, they might come after us next!”
“No, no, no.” Livkir shook his head. “They couldn’t! We’re wards! We have rights.”
“Cas is a ward too, and they took her! Have you ever even seen uniforms like that before? I sure haven’t!”
“That doesn’t mean—”
“It means there’s something going on that we were never taught about, Liv! I don’t fucking—”
“What kind of uniforms?”
Niltar stopped at the sound of the quiet voice. She turned, moving next to Livkir to buffer herself against the wind. A slim boy with short, scruffy golden hair, younger than either of them, was standing by the tracks. Niltar narrowed her eyes.
“I’ve seen you before.”
“Um. Shalcas. We have Firearms together?”
“Okay. Yeah. What are you doing here?”
“I was just going home. Um. From class. I had Cooking this evening. I heard you talking.” Shalcas looked down, squeezing his wrist nervously. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you, I just — I thought I might be able to help? With whatever is going on?”
“Okay. Um.” Niltar looked around wildly. “We should find some shelter. I don’t want to be out talking in this.”
“Let’s head down to the garden.” Livkir took her hand. “It should be pretty empty at this hour.”
Niltar nodded mutely, and let him lead her to the elevator. Shalcas followed behind them, hurrying to match their longer paces.
The portway lit up green as they approached. Livkir hit the contact for the greenhouse level and the glass barrier slid closed, sealing the portway as the elevator departed.
“So. Uh. What happened?” Shalcas looked from Livkir to Niltar. “It sounds bad.”
“A... friend of ours got taken.” Niltar shook her head. “Yesterday morning. She — she still hasn’t pinged us.”
“Oh.” Shalcas’ eyes widened. “Wow. I’m sorry. That’s scary. Who took her?”
The elevator slid to a halt and the portway unsealed. Niltar took a deep breath of the warm, fragrant greenhouse air. Livkir struggled out of his jacket.
“Over there,” he said, pointing. “Nili and I usually study over there.”
A gardener tending one of the young trees gave them a friendly wave as they passed. Niltar waved back nervously.
“Do you think they’re following us?” she whispered, looking at Livkir. “They could have us all flagged. I mean, fuck, they might have gotten into our comm records! They could be following everybody Cas knows!”
“Nili. Nili, calm down.” Livkir squeezed her shoulder. “We can’t jump to conclusions like that.”
“Why the fuck not? We don’t even know who they were! We have no idea what they might be capable of!”
“You can’t even get into the records without like. Crazy high clearance. We’re talking Big Three-level here. It’s all encrypted.”
“Yeah, that’s what they tell us!” hissed Niltar. “How do we know it’s true?”
“Trust me, it’s there! I’ve seen the code myself. It’s the first thing they show you when you get apprenticed into Networking. They don’t want us getting ideas we can spy on our friends, you know?” He grinned weakly.
Niltar sat down on a bench, pulling Livkir down beside her. Shalcas perched across from them. “Look. We don’t know what they’re capable of. We have to—”
“Assume the worst?” Livkir shook his head. “Nili, if we assume the worst, there’s nothing we can do! If the Triumvirate decided it wanted to screw us over, we’d have no way to fight back. You know that. We have to trust them. Trust that they wouldn’t come after us without a reason.”
“You said you didn’t recognize their uniforms?” Shalcas interrupted.
“Yeah. Yeah, um.” Niltar pursed her lips. “Like. Okay. Sure. The militia’s gotten on Cas’ case before, she’s been flogged a few times, but nobody’s ever come and forced their way into the dormitories like that. Nobody ever took her before!”
“What did they look like? Can you remember how they were dressed?”
“Um.” Niltar looked at Livkir. “Leather, right? Like. Green and gray. And green armbands, with the flag on them. They just walked right past every lock like they had a right to be there.”
Shalcas’ eyes widened. “Oh. Oh shit.”
“You recognize that?” Niltar jumped up. “Who are they?”
“That’s, uh.” Shalcas went pale. “That’s the Shevran.”
“You’re shitting me.” Livkir stared. “The Shevran? I thought they were like. Really high up. Like you’d never see them if you weren’t in spitting distance of the Big Three.”
“How do you know this? Have you seen them before?” Niltar demanded, looking at Shalcas.
Shalcas nodded. “Yeah.” He looked down. “I’m not really supposed to talk about this, but I — well — I grew up in Varshal.”
“Shit.” Niltar whistled.
“Varshal?” Livkir looked at her. “I don’t get it. Where’s that?”
“It isn’t; that’s the point, dumbass. It’s what Lismad used to be.”
“Used to — oh! Wow, okay. I had no idea Lismad was a refounding. What the shit happened in Varshal?”
“It was bad,” Shalcas murmured. “The Shevran swept in and called blank slate. Confined some of the civil servants, sent the rest to reeducation. They dispersed most of us to other rantalar.”
“Wow. I’m so sorry.” Niltar sat back down. “I can’t imagine what that must have been like.”
“Like I said, I’m not supposed to talk about it.” Shalcas looked down. “But the Shevran — it’s not just corruption they go after. It’s sedition too. If your friend isn’t an official, then that’s what they took her for. They think she’s a threat to the People.”
“Cassil. Her name’s Cassil.” Niltar stared at the cobblestone path. “And she’s more than just my friend. Damn it, Cas, you should have known your big mouth was going to get you in trouble some day.” She kicked at a stone. “Damn it!”
“Okay. So this is big. That doesn’t mean we have to freak out.” Livkir took her hand. “I still say we go to Dispatch.”
“Why the fuck would we do that? If it’s this big, how can we trust them?”
“If it’s this big, we have to trust them! Come on, Nili. Be real. What can we do on our own? We have to trust somebody!”
“Fine!” Niltar pushed him away. “Fine. We’ll talk to Dispatch. We’ll probably just get ourselves taken too, but whatever.”
“Can I come with?” Shalcas piped up suddenly. “Maybe I could help.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s good. He knows the Shevran, right?” Livkir nodded. “Maybe he can help us get her back.”
“Maybe,” Niltar muttered. “I—”
“My, my. What do we have here?”
Niltar looked up sharply, her hands instinctively balling into fists at the voice. “You. What the fuck are you doing here?”
Lisuan Tegvari gazed down at the younger girl, folding her arms, the corner of her mouth rising in amusement. “I asked first, Nili dear. What are you conspiring about? I’ve never seen any of you looking so frantic.”
“Don’t call me that.” Niltar stepped forward, moving into a fighting stance. “Don’t fucking call me that. You don’t fucking know me.”
Livkir grabbed Niltar by the shoulder, pulling her back. “Hey, hey, she didn’t mean anything by it. Did you, Lisuan?”
“So, you, uh. You know each other.” Shalcas clasped his hands nervously.
“Shal! I thought I heard your voice.” Lisuan leaned back against a post, idly cracking her knuckles, long red hair drifting in the artificial breeze. “How was class today?”
Shalcas looked down. “Fine,” he mumbled.
“Good for you!” Lisuan beamed. “I guess after repeating a level three times, something’s bound to stick.”
“Lisi.” Livkir cleared his throat. “What do you want?”
“Just doing my civic duty, to make sure you three misfits aren’t planning a revolution.” Lisuan grinned. “But you can’t be, can you? Not without Cassi. Where has dear Cassi gone, anyway?”
Niltar tried to wrestle free of Livkir. “You bitch. I bet you called them, didn’t you? I bet you’re the reason they took her!”
Lisuan’s expression flickered and for a moment she looked genuinely confused. Her composure returned quickly. “Nili, dear, you really should see your counselor. These paranoid delusions — they’re not a good look on you.” She leaned forward. “Not like that bare waist you love to flaunt, not at all.”
“Let go of me, Liv!” Niltar bared her teeth. “Bitch, I am going to—”
“—calm down and be civil, right, Nili?” Livkir finished frantically. “Lisi. Please. This isn’t a good time.”
Lisuan sauntered slowly forward until her face was an inch away from Niltar’s. “Is that right, Nili?” she murmured. “Am I being a bother?” She took Niltar’s chin between her thumb and forefinger. “Should I leave you alone to mourn your precious girlfriend?”
Niltar spat in her face, and pulled away, yanking her robe taut to cover up as much as she could. “Fuck you. Fuck you both. Get bent, Lisuan. I hope you die. I sincerely hope you die.”
Lisuan tilted her head and smirked, casually wiping away the spit away on her armwrap. “When I do, it’ll be in the service of my people. I’m sorry you can’t say the same.” She raised a hand in farewell. “I won’t intrude further on your evening. I do hope Cassi finds her way back from… wherever ‘they’ took her, if only for your sakes — I certainly can’t imagine the two of you accomplishing much without her.” She glanced at Shalcas. “As for you — I’ll be curious to see what your new record is tomorrow,” she purred, and winked. “Later, boys~”
“Why the fuck wouldn’t you let go of me?” Niltar punched Livkir in the shoulder, and he stumbled back. “The fuck is wrong with you? I was going to break her smug fucking face!”
“She would have kicked your ass, Nili!” said Livkir, backing away. “She’s at the top of our cohort for UC. I saved you a beating.”
“Saved me a—” Niltar shook her head. “At least I would have stood up to her!”
“You can’t solve everything with violence—”
“And you can’t solve everything by laying down and spreading your legs!” Niltar spat at his feet. “Not that it stops you from trying. ‘Lisi,’” she added mockingly. “How long has she owned you, huh?”
“She isn’t— I’m not—” Livkir raised his hands. “Nili, why do you have to be this way? It’s like you go feral when Cas isn’t around — I don’t know how she keeps you under control!”
“I’ll show you feral!” Niltar’s fist moved with ferocious speed and Livkir recoiled, clutching at his stomach. “You’re unbelievable! First you want to lay down for the Shevran, then you want to lay down for Lisuan fucking Tegvari, what’s next, huh?” She slapped his cheek with enough force to send him stumbling. “The Empire? You gonna crawl on all fours and beg the Empress to flog you?”
“Guys—” Shalcas tried feebly to interject. Niltar ignored him.
“She’s a bully, Nili!” Livkir dodged a third blow and grabbed her wrist. “What do you think she was doing? She came over looking for a fight!”
Nili tried to break Livkir’s grip. “And I would have fucking given her one, you wet fucking doormat—”
“You were going to give her exactly what she wanted! You can’t beat her at her own game!” Livkir caught Niltar in a headlock. “You’re not going to hurt her with your fists — even you did, she’d probably enjoy it!”
“You’d fucking know, you’re apparently her bitch now—” Niltar dug her nails into Livkir’s arm. “Let go of me!”
Livkir winced. “Not until you calm down!”
“She’s gone, Liv!” Niltar’s voice started to shake. “She’s fucking gone and that bitch did nothing but smirk and run her bitch mouth and I— and I—”
Niltar started to sob.
Livkir glanced at Shalcas. “I’m sorry about all that,” he murmured.
Shalcas looked shaken, but he nodded. “It’s okay. Take your time. I’ll just— I’ll just be over here.”
Livkir started to let go of her, but she clung to his arm. “She’s the f— the first p-person who’s lasted more than— more than a month.”
“I know.” Livkir gently guided Niltar back to a bench. “I know, Nili.”
“I never thought— after everything— I never thought—”
“And now she’s gone too!” Niltar wailed. “The first person who stayed and they took her from me!”
“Shh. It’s okay.” Livkir hugged her tightly. “We’re gonna get her back, Nili. We have to.”
“I’m so sorry!” Niltar blurted out. “I got so angry, and I— I never meant to— please, don’t you leave me too—”
“Hey, if I left every friend who threw a punch at me, I wouldn’t have any friends left.” Livkir took her hands in his. “I mean it, Nili. We’re gonna get her back. And I’m not going anywhere, okay?”
Niltar buried her head in his chest. “I don’t deserve this. After everything I’ve done—”
“You’re my friend. You’re always going to be my friend, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. And you know how much Cas loves you.”
Shalcas sat down next to them. “Can I ask— I don’t mean to intrude, but—”
“Hurting people is all I’m good at.” Niltar sat up, and looked at him through tear-stained eyes. “Everyone hates me. With good fucking reason. Everyone but Cas and this idiot.”
“Are you and her together?”
“We’re a lot more than that.”
“Cas took care of her when the rest of our cohort wouldn’t,” murmured Livkir. “They wrote her off as damaged goods, wouldn’t go near her.”
Niltar nodded. “One of the counselors asked her to look after me. I don’t know why she agreed.” She wiped her eyes on Livkir’s sleeve.
“I wanted to kill myself. So many times. I would have, if it wasn’t for Cas.” Niltar kicked a stone savagely. It bounced off the bench opposite them. “I tried to, once. Took a month's worth of pain pills in one go and drained a glass of whiskey. If she hadn’t come by to check on me…” Niltar shook her head. “She called a medic, they pumped me full of antifent, I woke up in the fucking MEC cuffed to a bed the next morning.
“And she was there. She slept there, all night, in a fucking folding chair some medic dragged out of a supply closet, just to be there when I woke up. Fuck, I was so mad at her. I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t just let me die. I told her I’d break her fucking face if I wasn’t tied to the bed. You know what she did next?”
“What?” Shalcas asked quietly.
“She picked the lock on the fucking handcuffs.”
“I… I never really knew Cassil very well,” said Shalcas, looking away. “We worked on a project together once, that was about it. For Geography.”
Niltar laughed quietly. “I bet she whipped you all into shape pretty fast.”
Shalcas nodded. “One guy in the group tried to take charge and she just steamrolled him. I was honestly terrified of her.”
“She’s pretty fucking terrifying,” said Niltar. “And… hot. Like, fuck she’s hot. And I’ve never known anyone so passionate. There was so much shit she thought was beneath her but she gets so fired up when she finds something worth her time.” She looked down, her face red. “Or… someone. I guess.”
Shalcas pursed his lips. “I’ve never… I’ve never really had any friends? Not since Varshal, and I mean — that place was a disaster zone. I don’t think any of us were really friends there. More like… allies. And since they moved me— I don’t know. It’s been easier to keep to myself.” He ran his fingers through his hair distractedly. “My counselor isn’t too happy about it, but.”
Livkir put a hand on his shoulder. “You do now. You sat through a genuine Niltar breakdown, that makes you one of us whether you like it or not.”
“Fuck you!” growled Niltar.
Shalcas looked up at Livkir. “Really? That’s— just like that? Everybody else is so— the cliques are so hard to get into here.”
“You’re helping us get Cas back. Of course you’re our friend now. Are you shitting me?” Niltar glared at him. She stood up abruptly, wiping the last of her tears off her face. “Come on. Let’s go talk to Dispatch and kick their asses until they tell us what they did with Cas.”