The corset was too tight. That’s all Vale could think about as she adjusted her mask and tried to breathe without looking irritated. Her long silver lace gloves that ran up her arms and up to her shoulders, held in place by small buckles attached to her cream-colored dress were far too itchy. Or rather one was. The other one was impossible to feel. The sole reason for why they must be worn. Having a metal arm would scare the other guests and that wasn’t the point. Not yet anyway.
Her black hair was pulled back out of her face and fell down her back in what Geo had called enticing ringlets. Something she assured Vale would distract in the way that mattered. Female allure to make people see you but not what you are hiding, Geo had said with a giggle as she forced Vale’s hair to tame to the shapes she had wanted.
Vale’s long brown heeled boots clicked across the marble floor, another unnecessary but apparently necessary female weapon of enticement. After Geo and Ace attempted to teach her how to flirt, and realized that the idea was too foreign or Vale was frankly incapable of the artform, they had landed on a visual approach. No words would be needed. She had forced them to promise that to be the case several times before she agreed to the insane plan. She felt out of her depth as she walked through the large finely carved oak doors and into the ballroom. She wasn’t stopped, her elegant look, an automatic ticket inside.
Vale had never seen anything like the grand hall. Everything looked breakable, delicate, and glistening with sparks of light from the ornate chandelier that hung above the double-sided round staircase in front of her. “Head up Lightning Bringer,” Geo chirped from her ear, no doubt watching Vale’s entrance from the crowded room below.
Vale complied, tilting her head up, allowing her face to show her awe of the room as she began to descend the stairs. She wasn’t accustomed to openly showing her emotion. Not any positive emotions. Not after fighting for survival as she moved through a world that had placed her on the Threats to the AI Directive List. Not that she didn’t deserve it after destroying one of their ships. To be fair, however, The AI’s had started it when they had attacked the ship she had been on, taking out half of the crew.
The world may depend on robots, but Vale had learned that AI’s were far from trustworthy. She had come a long way to stop the AI virus from spreading, corrupting the entire technological system that humans so blindly trusted. Humans were now hardly capable of doing anything themselves, with robots tackling nearly every profession. It was marketed as a way to allow humans to focus on the arts, giving them the freedom to lean into their creative desires, but Vale knew the mask for what it was. A thinly veiled threat to keep humans from being able to survive on their own. And when people began to question the rules, they disappeared.
The whole ordeal thus far had taken Vale’s arm and given her the code name Lightning Bringer. Vale made it down the stairs and scanned the room, looking for Geo and Ace. Both no doubt dressed to the nines in elaborate outfits, far more comfortable in this human crowd that had sold their freedom for the pleasures that the AI’s had offered than Vale could ever be. She had grown up torn between watching her mother fighting in the illegal rings and craving to find her own place in the world.
And that past had brought her here. To a room of untrustworthy people, looking for a woman who she had been told hid in plain sight. Someone she needed if she or any of the other Tradesmen were to survive the night. We’ve gambled too much this time, Vale thought as she moved gracefully over to a chair at the bar and reached for her mask again, trying to adjust it so the ridiculous feathers that covered the contraption would stop tickling her nose.
Music swirled around her, loud and delicate, reminding her of not only how everything in the room was breakable, but how easy it would be to destroy others or destroy herself. “Don’t just sit there girl, get out there, and find ’er.”
Vale nearly jumped at the sound of Mortem in her ear. Turning her head slightly to give her face privacy she spoke back. “Mortem? What are you-.”
“You’re still sitting. Never mind how I see you! Get up! And get moving!” Vale’s fingers itched to rip the communication bug out of her ear as she stood to her feet again, moving towards the dance floor. She hated how Mortem always seemed to lack the ability to do anything other than speak at full volume. It was going to cause her to go deaf before the evening was over. Mortem never came this close to land. Tonight he had decided to change the game. He must either trust us to watch his back, or he really doesn’t think we can do this on our own.
She watched as five dozen couples in masquerade masks flew around the dance floor, gowns fluttering, coat tails swirling in constant motion as they spun in tandem, giving the illusion of synchronized flight, perfect mirrors of each other. It would have been breathtaking if she didn’t feel a pair of eyes watching her from the corner of the room.
Vale reached out and adjusted her right glove and immediately heard a chirp in her ear. “Where?” Mortem barked, having spotted her tell.
“My three,” Vale murmured, doing her best to look like she was entranced by the music and not craving to turn her head to stare at her three o clock and see the person for herself. But that wasn’t her job. Her job required a bit more chaos. But until then, she had to blend.
“Ace, back corner, red dress,” Mortem continued at a blaring volume. “Geo, eyes on Ace and the target.” There was a pause. “Lightning, try to look like you want to be here,” he added before cutting off communication with everyone. It took Vale effort not to roll her eyes or give a sassy retort. Not that she could draw that kind of attention to herself by talking to no one in particular outloud. She didn’t want people to think she was talking to herself.
“Excuse me miss,” a voice said from behind her, standing far closer than she was comfortable with, especially since she had about five weapons tucked into her bustle alone. Vale fought the urge to glare as she gracefully turned around to see which stranger dared to invade her personal space.
She was met by a pair of familiar green eyes. One’s she hadn’t seen for sixth months. Not since she had left his ship, leaving Sky in his care. The sight of Dash, the young doctor who she had threatened with a sword on more than one occasion as he stood in front of her, a knowing smile on his face, sent her eyes wide in shock before she could catch herself. He knew he had surprised her and looked quite pleased with himself.
Dash looked immaculate. His tux elegant, trimmed in a dark blue pattern, with silver cufflinks that were polished to a shine. His ink black hair was slicked back out of his face, accentuating his strong jaw. A dark blue mask sat across his face, framing is eyes like a breathtaking portrait.
Vale’s red painted lips scrunched together at her attempt to stop a smile. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. He glanced down at her and held out his hand.
“I was told you needed to blend in?” He asked with a raised brow.
This time Vale did smile. “Ah yes. Apparently I don’t look like I am enjoying myself,” Vale replied giving Dash her hand.
“Then it’s a good thing I found you,” Dash said, bringing her hand up to his lips, playing the part of a man thrown back in time to the days of masquerades, introducing himself flawlessly. “And don’t hate me too much for what I am going to do next.” He kissed her hand gently, sending a strange jolt of flutters through her chest and then pulled her towards the dance floor.
“What are you-?” Vale protested.
“Trust me. You really do suck at blending in. At least if you are twirling around, no one will see how unhappy you are to be here.” Dash placed his hand around her waist, bringing her other hand up and before she could protest, they were gliding around the room, a mirror of the others around them. Vale glanced down at the ground, watching their feet, afraid of tripping, of falling in the center of the room.
“What?” Vale asked, bringing her eyes up to look at him.
“I’ve never seen you look so terrified. I promise to keep you from falling over,” Dash said with a grin as he spun her out and back into his arms, keeping his hand steady on her waist as they came back together.
“What are you doing here D-.” She stopped herself before saying his name. She had nearly forgotten the first rule. Your code name is your only name now. He was not Dash to her. He was- “Healer?”
The song changed and Dash moved Vale into a dip, tucking both arms around her waist. “You don’t seem thrilled to see me?” he said as he looked down at her, amusement glittering in his emerald green eyes.
“Not the best timing. Kinda in the middle of something.” Vale responded as Dash brought her up and spun her around the room again.
Dash grinned. “Ah yes, tell me, how many weapons do you have on you?”
“That depends.” Vale said, chancing a glance in the corner of the room. Ace, the seventeen year old nurse whose face always seemed to be set in an easy grin wore a large black hat adorned with blue feathers, a blue suit and grey vest. He sat next to someone in shadow, his head thrown back in laughter, clearly enjoying his conversation. Vale suddenly wished she could trade places. The dance was making her dizzy.
“Depends on what exactly?” Dash asked, surprising her with a new spin, bringing her back and lifting her into a twirl. Vale caught sight of Geo, her closest friend and eighteen year old doctor who had a reckless bent, first to volunteer for any challenge. She sat several tables away from Ace, her dark red hair billowing down her shoulders and onto her deep blue dress. She had gone for a low cut dress that made for easy access to any weapons she had managed to hide at her navel.
Dash brought Vale back down. She moved slightly closer to his body to answer his question with more privacy. “Would you classify my arm as one weapon or twelve?” Vale offered him a cheeky smile. He knew how deadly she was.
When Vale moved to take a step back, she felt Dash’s hand wrap tighter around her waist and offer her an eye roll. “Don’t be ridiculous. Anyone would be a fool to count it as anything less than an army. It is far more than twelve. But let’s call it one so I can keep track.” He gave her a once over, analyzing her for a long moment. His green eyes seeing far more of her than she was prepared for. I hate this dress.
They began to spin again and Dash moved close to her ear, his breath tickling her neck as he continued. “My guess would be thirteen weapons.”
“And what do I get if you are wrong?” Vale asked.
“A free doctor’s visit?”
Vale shot him an annoyed glance. “All of my visits have been free.”
Dash chuckled as he dipped her again. “Remind me to send you a bill. You owe me quite a lot.”
Vale scoffed, and did her best to keep her face composed. Dash had a way of getting under her skin. She was hardly acting “lady like,” as the masquerade strongly demanded of each girl who attended. She hated throwback events that kept traditions that felt strange in play. Why did she have to act like a demure creature when every person was so different? She hardly expected each man to walk around with a handkerchief, to pat down his well groomed mustache. It was all ridiculous.
Dash gave her hand a squeeze, pulling her back to the present as he brought her back up and into another spin. She narrowed her eyes slightly as they came back together. “It’s hardly wise to try and bait me when I’m fully armed.”
He laughed. “I’ve missed you. No one quite threatens my life on a regular basis like you do.”
Vale smiled. “And that’s a desirable quality?”
The song ended and Dash dropped Vale into a final dip. His eyes turned dark, taking on a mischievous quality as he held her there, locking their eyes for a moment. “Of course. A little danger is good for you.”
“Noted,” she said, trying not to blush at his flirtatious smile.
“Lightning Bringer, get ready,” Mortem growled in her ear, causing her to jump slightly.
Dash brought Vale back up from the dip. She moved away from him, watching his hands fall to his sides as he let her go. Vale gave a small curtsy. “My time is almost up.” She took Dash’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “You won’t want to be around for this next part.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek as the next song started, surprising him. “Tell Sky I’ll be back at The Ignis in the next few weeks.”
A guarded expression crossed Dash’s features, causing warning bells to go off. Something was wrong.
“Lightning Bringer, get into position,” Mortem spoke again.
Vale searched Dash’s face. “Why are you here Dash?” His presence had seemed odd. He was the captain of The Ignis. A ship that kept itself tucked away, hidden. Dash was a healer, not a fighter.
He offered her an uneasy smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m not just here to help you blend in. Although it was a nice bonus.”
“Lightning!” Mortem barked.
Vale ignored Mortem, her body glued in place, her focus on the ink haired boy in front of her who had transformed into a vault of secrets. “What is it?” she asked, stepping closer, her grip on Dash’s hand growing tighter, treating it like a lifeline as fear gripped her.
Dash looked away, avoiding her gaze. “It’s classified.”
Vale took a step back, suddenly angry. She fell back into an old pattern, knowing full well it wouldn’t change his mind. “Don’t make me threaten you in the middle of this stupid mascarade. It will really blow my cover.”
“I beat you the last time,” he responded, his eyes unreadable.
“I was injured the last time,” she said with a scoff. “Besides…” She scanned him from head to toe, ignoring the way he looked in his suit made her heart beat strangely and instead focused on all the ways she could make him talk. None of them kind. “I am fully capable of taking you in this dress.”
A glint of amusement entered Dash’s expression. “I have no doubt. But I’m not the one you need to worry about.” He leaned close, his green eyes suddenly ablaze. “You need to trust me. I would tell you if I could.”
The last time Dash had kept secrets, he thought she was under the AI’s power, a spy. Whatever caused this level of secrecy, it was not something she was going to like. “Dash? You’re freaking me out.” Her tone was oddly gentle, vulnerable in her sudden fear.
His eyes softened, his posture relaxing slightly, seeming to lose his resolve at her words. He sighed. “Sky, he’s missing.”
“What?!?” Her heart slammed wildly in her chest. Gone? Where? Did the AI’s get him?
Vale heard Mortem let out a set of curses in her ear. “Move now!” he bellowed.
Vale winced and took a step away from Dash. She couldn’t think about Sky. Not when she was supposed to send the room into chaos. Not when everyone else’s lives depended on her next move.
She shot Dash a pleading look and forced herself to take another step away from him. Away from her answer to a thousand questions. “I...”
Dash nodded. “Go. I’ll find you.”
Vale pulled him into a hug, and whispered into his ear. “You were wrong.” She leaned back, managing a wicked grin. “I have fifteen weapons.”
Dash’s brows shot up. “Beautiful and dangerous. Terrifyingly stunning combination.”
“Goodbye Healer,” she replied, pleased by his surprise but ignoring his strange compliment. She hardly found herself beautiful.
He gave her a sharp nod. “Goodbye Lightning. He’ll be okay. We’ll find him.”
Vale took in a deep, unsteady breath and ran, no longer needing to pretend to be graceful, or delicate or demure. She was powerful, clumsy and dangerous. She sprinted up the stairs, hiking up her dress as she moved, ignoring the shocked whispers of the other guests at her suddenly terrible manners. Vale stopped at the top of the staircase and raised her metal hand, watching as the lace ripped away revealing the steel underneath. “I’m in position,” she said out loud.
“Gim ’em hell Lightning Bringer,” she heard Mortem’s smirk in her ear.
“With pleasure Captain,” Vale grinned as her metal hand began to glow, cracking wildly with lighting as she aimed it at the chandelier at the center of the room. She waited a beat until the energy in the room changed, all eyes on her. Everything quiet. Then she transformed her metal arm into a pulse gun and shot the chandelier, sending the room into chaos.