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“And this here’s the Moon District!” said Nalichenda, pointing a triumphant finger at the great archway leading to the homes of the city’s freefolk. “Stick with me, lady, or they’re liable to shoot you for a thief,” she added, elbowing Len Win in the ribs.

“Oh my,” said Len, silently seething on inside. Nalichenda had taken her on a roundabout route through half the Jade District, exchanging words and blows with friends and enemies all the way, and Len had had to play the part of the nervous, submissive foreigner in front of far too many people. If her reputation suffered because of this, she determined, Nalichenda would pay dearly.

“Fancy, innit?” said Nali, grinning. She spun on her heel and flung her arms wide. “You’re a lucky lady tonight; they don’t let just any foreigner into the heart an’ soul of Lemua, and that’s a fact!”

It had been more than long enough that Len was certain every trace of the brothel scents had worn off, and her own pheremonics should have reasserted themselves by now. But Nali showed no sign of calm or deference, and indeed grew steadily more insufferable they longer they walked. This apparent immunity would require probing at some point, Len decided.

A guard approached the pair as Nali led Len forward. His uniform was unimposing, a simple leather tunic that likely wouldn’t have stood up to much more than a pocketknife, dyed with Lemua’s heraldry. To Len’s surprise, he wore the silver necklace of a slave. “Evening, miss,” he said to Nali, holding up a hand. “The Southerner with you?”

Nali puffed herself up importantly. “That’s right!” she shot back. “She’s a guest of Clan Chistar, she is!” She pronounced “Clan Chistar” like it was a name that the guards should quail at.

Instead, the guard smirked. Clan Chistar must not be the hot shit Nali pretended it is, thought Len.

“Go on in then, milady,” said the guard, waving her on. “Sorry to disturb you.”

“See that?” said Nali, pointing at the retreating guard as she scampered forward. “He’s the one what would have shot you, he is! We’re real selective-like about who we let in here!”

“I see, I see,” said Len. It took all her self-control to not respond with rolled eyes and an exasperated sigh. The guard wasn't armed with anything more than a baton.

“See that there?” Nali pointed at a townhouse on the right tas they walked down the stree. “That’s where Clan Chamosandi lives! You ever met a Chamosandi?”

“I have no idea,” said Len, scrutinizing the clan jewels mounted over the gate. She hadn’t seen the pattern on anybody’s cuancamé so far.

“They’re all snakes and liars, you know,” said Nali knowingly. “Only good Chamosandi’s a dead one, y’ask me.” She spat.

Len perked up. “That’s very good to know, milady,” she said, making a mental note of Nali’s hatred for the family. Deserved or not, that was something that might be helpful to know at somepoint.

“And that over there!” said Nali. “That’s Clan Techencue! Never buy nothin’ from a Techencue if you know what’s good for you.” She made a face. “’Specially slaves. All their slaves are shit you Southerners wasn’t able to beat into shape, so the slavers was happy to sell ’em dirt cheap up here, ’s’what Gran says.”

Nali continued her lecture on the free families of Lemua as they wended their way through the streets. Finally, she came to a stop in front of a small townhouse, the jeweled emblem over the gate matching the emblem pinned at Nali’s throat.

“Here we are!” she declared, pointing dramatically at the house. “The home of the great Clan Chistar! That bein’ my family,” she added with pride.

Len sized up the mansion. Compared to the others, it was small, nestled against the city wall on a dilapidated corner. But it was a well-built home, and Len could see the love that went into its maintenance. It wasn’t a townhouse some clan had bought on a whim as a vacation home, it was... it was a place a family lived.

Len felt a pang of longing in her chest. She suppressed a scowl, furious at herself for letting herself be so easily rankled. The brothel pheremones must really have gotten to you if you’re getting sentimental, she thought bitterly.

An elfen slavegirl greeted them at the door, her leather collar marking her as somebody’s bedslave. A good sign, Len thought - at least somebody in the family was into women.

“Hi, Nali,” said the elf affectionately, unlocking the door. Her voice was faintly musical, ringing with the accent of someone forest-born, unlike the city elf at the brothel.

“We’ve got a guest!” said Nali proudly. “She’s to meet Gran!”

“That’s nice, Nali,” said the elf, patting her condescendingly on the head. Len fell in love with her instantly. “I’ll let the lady know. You go get yourself ready for temple, aye?”

“I don’t take orders from no slave!” Nali pouted, poking the elf in the stomach.

“Well, your sister does,” the elf shot back. “She’s so obedient when you get her pants off —”

“Ew!” Nali made a face.

“She really likes it when I tell her t—”

“Stoppit, you’re being vulgar! What’d I tell you about being vulgar?”

“Unless you want me to tell you her favorite positions, you’d better go get ready for temple,” said the elf, poking Nali’s nose.

Nali stuck out her tongue. “I’m telling Gran on you!” she yelled as she ran from the room.

The elf waved impertinently at her departing back, and turned to Len Win. She bowed gracefully. “Milady,” she said. “Welcome to Cuenache Manor. I am Hayochi. I do hope the young mistress was not too difficult?”

Len returned the bow. “Not at all.”

“Please, come in,” said the elf, stepping to the side and beckoning Len inside. “We so seldom have visitors these days. If I may ask—”

She turned quickly as the door to the stairwell clicked open. An elderly woman with a mane of white hair, rosy cheeks, and spectacles stepped out of the stairwell, followed by a younger woman. “Miladies,” she said, bowing. “We have—”

“A guest?” finished the elderly woman. Her voice was kindly, warm. “Yes, dear, I gathered that from Nali’s squawking. Where is the little devil, eh?”

“I sent her off to dress for temple, mistress,” said Hayochi.

“Wonders never cease,” said the woman, chuckling. She turned to Len. “Do forgive my terrible manners, they are a tad rusty. I am Chistar ar Marichescua, and this is my daughter Aleguarda.”

“Milady,” said Len. “I apologize for intruding at this late hour—”

“Nonsense!” said Marichescua, sitting down in an easy chair by the fireplace. “Company is always welcome here. And if it makes you feel any better, you gave me a lovely excuse to put off some depressing accounting, my dear.”

“I’m pleased I could be of service.” Len smiled wryly. “Milady, I am Luang Han Ti le Len Win, formerly of Vau Shan.” She bowed. “I chanced to meet your granddaughter—”

“—at the brothel, I’d imagine,” said Marichescua with a grin. “Isn’t that right?”

Len affected mild embarassment. “It is, milady.”

“Told you!” Marichescua smirked triumphantly and poked Aleguarda in the ribs. “Didn’t I, daughter dearest?”

“You did, mother,” said Aleguarda, with a sigh.

“She suggested,” Len continued, “that your clan might have some use of my skills, and naturally I thought to offer my services.”

“As a trained Shan sage, eh?” said Marichescua.

“Oh, is that what she is?” said Aleguarda.

“It’s the staff,” Marichescua said, pointing at Len’s staff. “Isn’t that so, my dear?”

“It is,” said Len, smiling. “I take it you are familiar with my profession?”

“Quite well, in fact,” said Marichescua, winking. “Would you like a cup of tea, my dear? Ale, fetch the nice lady a cup of Rosamár Red, will you? Red’s all right with you, yes?”

“Thank you, yes, that sounds lovely,” said Len.

“So,” said Marichescua, reclining in her chair as Aleguarda scurried from the room. “You’ve come all the way up from Vau Shan by the look of it.”

“I have, milady,” said Len. “A pilgrimage, of sorts. I wished to experience more of the world than you might find in the South.”

Marichescua nodded approvingly. “A good experience for any young woman, that is. I did the same in my youth. So.” She leaned forward, clasping her hands. “What do you propose, young sage?”

“A simple arrangement of patronage, milady,” said Len. “All I seek is home and shelter while I reside in Lemua, and in exchange I offer my services as a counselor and - well, you’re acquainted with my order, you know what I have to offer.”

Marichescua beamed. “My girl, you are too good to be true,” she said. “The talents of a Shan sage at our command in exchange for nothing more than room and board? I’d be a blind fool not to accept your offer. Tell me, tho,” she added, pausing to take a sip of tea. “What brought you to our little clan? It can’t have escaped your attention that we’re not exactly one of the wealthier families in Lemua.”

“I follow where the whims of fate lead, milady,” said Len, letting a mischievous lilt into her voice.

“Spoken like a true sage.” Marichescua nodded. She extended a hand. “Welcome to our little home, Len Win. We’d be happy to have you.”