by Jaime O. Mayer
Jiasi gripped the heavy skate, her eyes flicking first to the rust-spotted blade attached to the sole, then back to Emmaline, who watched her with a mischievous smile. “Maybe this is a bad idea.”
Emmaline rolled her eyes, a chuckle escaping her lips.
They sat on a lakeside bench while dozens of Valorie City’s citizens enjoyed the wintry morning. Children raced each other across the frozen surface, giving a wide berth to a pair of young men working on a broken down steamhorse midway through a sleigh ride. Jiasi recognized the Drayden coach by sound rather than sight; there was no mistaking the shrill, nasal whine of Lady Drayden as she barked orders at the men and criticized her daughter in the same breath. “Work faster! Allianne, stop waving your arms like a drunkard.”
Allianne’s response, voice light as her straw-colored hair, was inaudible as she wobbled around in a circle, arms held out for balance.
Emmaline’s lips quirked up in a smile. “A dance routine on ice? It’s an excellent idea.” She plucked the skate from Jiasi’s hands. “We just shouldn’t have said it where the Drayden Dragon could hear.”
“What if I fall?”
“Then you’ll get up and keep going,” Emmaline said, lacing the skates. She shook her head. “Two years in this kingdom and you’ve never been skating.”
Jiasi clambered upright. “How do you move in these things?”
Emmaline led her toward the ice with tiny steps. “You’ll get used to it. Doesn’t it snow in Tunsha?”
“It doesn’t freeze like this! You’re sure it’s safe?”
“See all the lovely people not drowning?”
How comforting, Jiasi thought.
“Just enjoy yourself. Promise?”
“Promise. Unless I fall.”
They trundled around the lake, and with each subsequent lap Jiasi gained confidence. She even managed a quick wave at the Draydens, but feigned losing her balance to avoid stopping to chat.
“Time for your moment of bravery,” Emmaline said. “Leave the nest, my duckling.”
Jiasi pecked Emmaline on her wind-pinked cheek before skating away, miming flapping wings with her arms.
A performance on the ice with her dramatic long sleeves, perhaps it would be innovative enough to merit an invitation from Valorie’s Royal Theater at a mere eighteen years old. Perhaps.
A scream pierced the air, jerking her from the reverie, and throwing Jiasi off balance. Knees locking in panic, her feet slid out from underneath her. She smacked against the ice, grunting as an arc of pain shot up her backside and elbow.
Emmaline rushed toward her, pointing to the side.
To Jiasi’s right, a metallic clunk and hiss of steam grew louder. The steamhorse, freed of its sleigh, rumbled toward her. It lacked one front hoof, and without the aid of its ice-studded shoe the mechanical beast careened across the lake.
Jiasi shoved against the ice, but her hands couldn’t gain traction. She tried to regain her feet, but her inexperience with the skates coupled with growing terror left her floundering.
She cringed, eyes frozen on the erratic hulk of metal. One moment it appeared as if the horse would strike her head, but a stride away its crippled leg skidded on the ice. The still-hooved foreleg smashed down on her right knee. She screamed, arms rising in futile defense. The steamhorse collapsed on her, and her head thudded against the ground.
The sharp, jarring pain from her legs being straightened roused her from unconsciousness. Emmaline’s teary face hovered in view, and Jiasi instinctively tried to comfort her, don’t cry, Emmy love, but she couldn’t make a sound aside from an awful moan.
Someone had placed her on a sled. It began to move, the grating motion bringing a fresh wave of pain. She didn’t try to fight the buzz of unconsciousness. Through closing eyes, Jiasi saw Lady Drayden standing several feet back, the only face in the crowd lacking any shock or grief.
Jiasi awoke in a room lit by a single turned-down lamp and filtered moonlight. Pillows cushioned her legs, and a floral-patterned quilt covered them. She recognized the hand-stitched flowers; Emmaline’s bedroom in House Tembury.
Reaching to remove the quilt, Jiasi cried out; it felt like she was being stabbed by a hundred small knives along her torso. She clutched her sides, attempting to lessen the pain, whimpering in between gasps.
A loud click sounded, like a large key turning in a lock, but a glance to the bedroom door confirmed no one had entered.
“Broken ribs, dearie,” an unctuous male voice said. “Allow me.”
Jiasi blinked in surprise as a child-sized man came out of the darkness. He pulled the quilt back with care, and Jiasi saw a glint of metal around his neck.
“A Contractor, yes. A little light, I think, so you can understand why I’m here.” He went to the lamp and turned it up.
Her growing wakefulness also heightened the bright, harsh pain throbbing in her legs. Though her mind was processing at a sluggish pace, her memory returned. The lake. The broken steamhorse. The accident.
“My legs,” she whispered. Her legs burned not with the ache of fatigued muscles after a long routine, but with the fire of trauma, of breaking and tearing.
“Hence my arrival.” The Contractor gave a small bow. “The advent of steam machinery has given us quite the choice in work.”
Jiasi stared. Someone had tried to splint her bones, but noble doctors of the Major houses were too costly for the likes of her. The Tembury’s bearing as a Minor house must’ve earned Jiasi treatment, but she could see the harsh angles in her legs, feel how they remained wrong. Dried blood traced thick suture lines across her thighs, down both knees, and along her calves.
Tears welled in her eyes, and she began to sniffle, choking back sobs.
“Enough of that,” the Contractor huffed. “If you’re going to blubber then I’ll be on my way. Silly me, I thought,” he lingered on the word, “you might be interested in a contract.”
They locked eyes. She took in his long gray coat over pin-striped trousers. A silver-handled cane dangled from one hand, while the other fidgeted with one of the three dip pens hanging from a gold chain around his neck; the mark of a Contractor. Jiasi had heard of the strange deal-makers with their secret, magically binding contracts. In Tunsha they were called life gamblers, god-like creatures that appeared out of thin air with offers to change your life.
If you were desperate.
She gave her mangled legs a gentle caress with one finger, then glanced at the Contractor. “You can fix them? Make me whole again?”
“You can fix them, dearie. As for permanency, well, that depends on if you fulfill your end of the bargain.” The Contractor sidled up to the bed, drawing back the left front of his coat to reveal an assortment of inkwells and curled rolls of parchment sewn inside. “Shall I draft us a contract?”
“I don’t have any money.”
“We don’t deal in money, dearie,” he scoffed.
“Then what do you get?” Sixteen lean years in rural Tunsha pierced the hope bubbling in her chest.
“We Contractors do love a gamble. Oh, and we take whatever is at stake in the contract should you fail. A contract must have its risks.”
Jiasi knew of only one successful contract, a kite-maker from her village. His daughter had been deathly ill, and no doctor in any of the surrounding villages able to cure her. The kite-maker had taken his strongest kite and flown with his daughter strapped to his back to a nearby mountain. He retur ned alone. Jiasi had been young herself, but she remembered the serene look on the kite-maker’s face as he’d landed. Days later left the village and she didn’t know what became of him, but his look remained. A worthwhile contract, whatever the cost.
“If I do my end I get my legs? No tricks?”
“Sure,” the Contractor said as he withdrew an inkwell and a roll of parchment. “Let’s see, ah!” The middle pen with a gold nib began to glow. The Contractor unclipped it from his neck, stubby fingers giving it a happy squeeze before he spread the parchment open across the foot of her bed.
Jiasi watched in fascination as the nib seemed to glide across the parchment. Though the Contractor held the pen, it appeared to move of its own volition.
“Here we are.” The Contractor straightened, wiping the nib on his sleeve before returning his writing tools to their respective places. “Concerning the dancer Jiasi, an offer of impermanent use of repaired legs in return for twenty-five performances sponsored by a noble house, to be completed within eighteen months. Fulfillment of the contract will result in restoration of the aforementioned legs. Subject to conditions of impermanency.”
“What does that last mean?”
“That would be the gamble. I can’t show you until the contract is sealed, but I will say that the legs have limitations. But! fulfill the contract and you will have earned your perfect legs. Fail, and they’ll be reclaimed.”
Sponsored by a member of the noble houses, no less. She’d started to make a name for herself before the accident, surely she had some goodwill built. But the cost–could she afford to lose her legs completely if she failed? Weren’t damaged ones better than none at all?
“Sponsorship by a Major noble house is worth five performances.” The Contractor gave her a wide smile, revealing pointed teeth.
She looked down at the ugly, thick sutures and thought of the scars they would become, indelible reminders of what she’d have lost without even trying. She remembered the kite-maker’s smile.
“Where do I sign?”
If one didn’t look closely, her legs appeared real. Jiasi gazed down at them, fingers running along their length, feeling the smooth, unblemished skin. They were real, yet they weren’t. Her “legs,” with gears for joints and metal-enhanced bone, felt stronger. When she danced, she felt powerful but controlled in a way her previous form never had. She couldn’t lose them.
“It feels wrong not to care for them,” Jiasi remarked as she unwrapped her dance slippers’ ribbon binding.
“So you keep saying,” Emmaline said. She sat at the small writing desk in their shared room at the local inn, the book of Jiasi’s commitments open in front of her.
“Should get used to it,” Jiasi whispered.
Emmaline heard. “You will not.” She snapped the book shut and went to sit next to Jiasi on the floor. “We’re so close, Jia. Five more-”
“In a week!” Jiasi threw the shoe across the room. “We’re out of sponsors.”
“There are plenty of nobles left in Valorie.” Emmaline frowned. “People love you, and they love parties.”
“The people may love my dancing, but the nobles don’t like sponsoring a ghost!”
A numbing sensation in her legs ended Jiasi’s tirade. “It’s time.”
Emmaline helped her up onto their narrow bed. She retrieved a tiny golden key scarcely larger than a sewing needle from inside her coat and handed it to Jiasi before returning to the desk and opening the scheduling book.
Jiasi turned the key over in her fingers, a weary sigh on her lips. “Impermanence.” I should’ve known. Tricky bastard.
When the Contractor had mentioned the term, she hadn’t anticipated her legs turning to metal from the knees down. Every night an hour before midnight without fail, the numbness preceded her transmutation.
Jiasi inserted the key into the keyhole that had appeared on her knee. The nightly maintenance nearly drove her to quit: fifty turns to reset the gears in each ankle, each knee. I should be grateful the contract doesn’t require toes. She didn’t understand how the legs came back to life every morning an hour before dawn, but she dared not risk breaking the frustratingly vague conditions of the contract.
It had made her return to dancing–and fulfilling the contract–unforeseeably difficult. With the support of Lord and Lady Tembury, they’d moved outside of Valorie City on the pretense of a need to recover, but lied about the severity of Jiasi’s injuries. Months were spent learning the enhanced strength and precision of her new legs, and a few more wasted performing in the background while lesser dancers had the spotlight. But her ability had garnered attention, and her appearances served to remind the nobility that she had returned to dancing with equal passion and grace.
She teetered on the cusp of earning the notice of the Theater, but the wretched impermanence of her legs threatened to ruin those aspirations.
“If I don’t make it,” she began, but Emmaline groaned.
“We’re not going over this again.”
“Promise me you’ll go on with your life.”
Emmaline’s hands clenched into fists, her head turning slightly to the side as if she was steeling herself to shout. But, Emmaline never shouted. The tension drained away as she exhaled and turned in her chair to fix Jiasi with a look.
“We’re operating a bit oddly, but it’ll be fine. Do you trust me?”
Jiasi sighed, but she gave a grim nod. If not for Emmaline’s loyalty and her brilliance at maneuvering through the social complexities of noble society, Jiasi’s return to performing would’ve guttered out like the promising stars who had flashed and died before her. Only Emmaline and her infectious good spirits could placate the bevy of displeased nobles Jiasi left in her wake when she disappeared after any evening performance. Instead of socializing with her sponsors into the wee hours, Jiasi fled to whatever private space they’d rented for the night to wind her legs.
I don’t deserve you. Jiasi no longer voiced the words. But so long as you have faith in me, I won’t–can’t–give up.
“Good, because I’ve promised at least a year’s worth of free dances with several houses once you’ve got your legs.”
“Whatever it takes.”
“I hear the Drayden Dragon is in town,” Emmaline said.
“Here to buy more appearances for her daughter, I presume?”
“Probably.” Emmaline made a note in the book. “I’ve a luncheon with the ladies of House Graf tomorrow. They should be good for at least two performances, and there’s talk of Lady Graf’s niece holding an impromptu summer party. The Dragon wouldn’t deign to dine with such lowly nobles as we, so I should avoid competing with her completely.”
“Lucky.” Jiasi ran a finger along the firm line of her metal foot. Being honest, from the few times Jiasi had performed with her, Allianne appeared to be developing into a capable dancer. The girl was timid, but having the Drayden Dragon for a mother probably had that effect.
Jiasi settled under the bed’s thin covers, the windings complete. Sliding a pillow under her metal legs, Jiasi tried to banish the nasal whine of Lady Drayden ringing in her head.
Leaping through the air, Jiasi landed with surety on one foot. She let her other leg unfurl in a steady line up and away from her body, the augmented joints of her Contracted limbs more fluid than when she was mere flesh and bone. She completed a pirouette, letting her ribbon-like sleeves flutter and drape around her body until they reached the floor.
Slow, deliberate applause sounded through the practice room, startling Jiasi so that she dropped to her feet with a thud.
“Court gossip is true, for once,” Lady Drayden said. She stood in the doorway, imperious in a burgundy velvet coatdress, her gray-streaked brown curls perfectly arranged beneath a fitted hat that matched her outfit. She tapped the closed tip of an ivory cloth parasol against her palm.
“I beg your pardon?” Jiasi dipped in a curtsy, acutely aware of her shabby practice wrap and threadbare tights.
“I’ve heard rumors of how wonderful your solos have been. Quite a surprise after such a horrible accident.” Lady Drayden stepped into the room, dark eyes intent on Jiasi’s legs.
“Truly, it wasn’t so serious,” Jiasi said in a rush. “Inconvenient, but I’ve been blessed to have generous patrons-”
“And a marvelous doctor.” Lady Drayden pointed at Jiasi’s legs with her parasol. “Why, it’s like magic.”
Jiasi froze. What could the Drayden Dragon know? No one knows except Emmaline. Don’t act flustered.
“I’m grateful the Tembury’s know a lovely doctor in outer Valorie. Would you like his name?” Jiasi said, hoping her voice didn’t quaver.
“No,” Lady Drayden sniffed. “Unfortunately, a doctor can’t help my daughter. She isn’t broken, but lacking in talent.”
“Miss Allianne appeared well at the spring festival.”
Lady Drayden made a disgruntled noise. “She could do better. That’s why I’ve worked so hard to find you in this,” she glanced around the drab practice room, “charming place.”
Unsure of how to respond, Jiasi said nothing.
“I have a proposal for you, and let us be frank; my daughter is no beauty and she won’t secure a favorable husband with her face. She needs dance but her performances lack confidence. She’s not receiving many invitations, and we can hold only so many balls before it appears desperate.”
“Allianne isn’t ugly-”
“She’s plain, which might as well be the same thing in our circles.” Lady Drayden gave Jiasi a challenging look. “Don’t play coy with me.”
Jiasi stared, unsure of the proper response.
“House Drayden would like to sponsor you for a dance. My only request is that you allow my daughter to co-lead with you. Your performance of Ascension features two leads, does it not?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“I’ve had Allianne practicing the roles for a month.”
“I-I must say,” Jiasi stammered. She felt heat flood her cheeks as Lady Drayden gave her an expectant stare. “This is unusual.”
“Nonsense. You are a rising star and I won’t deny that I want my daughter to benefit by association. Do you accept?”
Jiasi hesitated. Emmaline wouldn’t approve, and the prospect of having the Drayden Dragon watching over her every move left a sour taste in her mouth.
“I plan on holding the dance in five days. The invitations have already been sent. Be a dear and don’t cause me embarrassment,” Lady Drayden said.
Jiasi perked up; her contract would be complete! It was silent over the number of leads so long as she was one.
“I would be honored to accept.”
“Be at the manor tomorrow.” Lady Drayden swept from the room.
Peeking out the window of the steamcoach, Jiasi surveyed the Drayden estate. There was a cold aura to its elegance. Though her experience of Major houses was limited, Jiasi had been to several of the Minor estates for her dances, and what they lacked in overt wealth they made up for in character. House Drayden stood three stories high, with a trio of towers spaced along the rooftop. The main building was larger than many of the Minor houses Jiasi had seen, and House Drayden had two wings flanking each side connected by long passageways.
”They do seem to like their threes,” Emmaline said.
Rows of rose gardens spread out from the road leading up to the house, with a segment of manicured lawn separating each bed of flowers. The perfect symmetry struck Jiasi as imposing rather than beautiful. Nothing appeared out of place.
“I’m going to regret this,” Jiasi said, resting her head against the padded interior of their steamcoach. She would never enjoy coach rides, but their practicality had won out over her fear.
“Nonsense. Five dances for one performance, and paid for by the Dragon! We’ll make a businesswoman of you yet,” Emmaline said with a roguish wink.
“You probably shouldn’t call her that while we’re on her lands.”
Emmaline stuck out her tongue.
The coach came to a halt a few feet away from the main building. The door opened from the outside, revealing the steward and Lady Drayden herself.
“Miss Jiasi. Miss Emmaline,” the steward intoned as he helped them from the coach. “Did you have a pleasant journey?”
“It’s a lovely ride out here. Lady Drayden, your estate is stunning,” Emmaline said.
“Yes, stunning,” Jiasi echoed, nodding vigorously.
“Indeed. How kind of you to say,” Lady Drayden said. She wore a blue gown, and tapped the same ivory parasol Jiasi had seen earlier against her leg. “Come, I will show you to your rooms before we convene for dinner.”
“That’s generous of you, my lady, but surely you have more important duties to attend to,” Emmaline said, shooting Jiasi a questioning look.
“You are my honored guests. My steward will see to your things.”
Lady Drayden strode off toward the house, leaving no doubt that she expected to be obeyed. Jiasi shrugged at Emmaline, and the pair set off a few steps behind their hostess.
They entered through the main building’s wide doors, then followed Lady Drayden through a grand entrance hall. Servants hurried about the manor, cleaning artwork, polishing silverware, or carrying decorations of silk ribbons and vases of flowers. Whenever Lady Drayden approached, the serving people ceased in their tasks to bow or curtsy as she swept past. Jiasi thought the staff looked weary. Apparently, the sponsorship had been decided on more of a whim than Lady Drayden had let on.
Jiasi’s eyes lingered on the row of geared magnesium lamps that lined the walls. No simple candle flames in House Drayden. She couldn’t imagine the cost of such luxuries. The staff resumed their work, and given the sheer amount of decorations being toted past it appeared like they were preparing for a larger gathering than Jiasi had thought.
Lady Drayden paused as the hall split into multiple directions. Using her parasol for emphasis, she pointed at each hallway in turn.
“If you go left you’ll reach the dining hall. Forward, past the staircase to the guest towers, is the passageway that leads to the practice room and the performance hall. Your rooms will be this way.” Lady Drayden motioned for them to follow her through the open doors of the right-hand passageway. “I’ve heard you appreciate your privacy, Jiasi. This wing used to be our servants’ quarters before we moved them to separate housing near the rose garden. I’m afraid it’s a bit outdated, but you won’t be disturbed.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you, my lady,” Jiasi said.
A set of wooden doors edged in tarnished silver barred their way. Lady Drayden withdrew a ring of keys from her pocket. “We lock the doors every evening. Here,” she handed Jiasi a single brass key. “This will enable you to reach the practice room at night if you wish.”
“Your estate is very secure,” Emmaline said, raising her eyebrows at Jiasi as they followed Lady Drayden into the former servants’ wing.
“Lord Drayden’s passing last winter upset me greatly. I was advised to take greater control over my affairs if I wished to ensure their outcomes.”
Jiasi and Emmaline exchanged bemused looks behind Lady Drayden’s back. Fortunately, she didn’t appear to expect a response.
When Lady Drayden opened the door to the attached building, Jiasi gasped in delight. A simple, one-level cottage opened out before them, furnished in a manner over a decade behind in fashion, and covered in a thick layer of dust. Jiasi saw only delicious privacy and more comfort than several inns she’d frequented.
“It’s lovely, Lady Drayden! You are too kind.”
“Not at all dear,” Lady Drayden said. “Dinner is within the hour. I’ll send a maid for you when it’s time.” She gave them a curt nod before walking back up the passageway.
Three days should’ve been an impossibly short amount of time to prepare Allianne for the dance, but Lady Drayden had been true to her word.
“You know Ascension well,” Jiasi commented after one morning practice session. They sat on a bench inside the large practice room, Jiasi trying not to covet the space with its line of wall-sized mirrors and magnesium lamps.
Allianne blushed, her fair skin going tomato red in a heartbeat. “Mother had my last teacher drill me on it.”
“How many teachers have you had?”
“You’re my sixth.”
Jiasi rushed to fill the awkward silence left by Allianne’s words. “Do you like this? I don’t mean to sound rude; you’re a good dancer-”
“I understand, people wonder, you know, because of Mother.” Allianne shrugged, a dreamy look stealing across her face. “But I do love to dance. To be the star, to hear all those people clapping just for you.”
Jiasi bit back a smile and nodded agreeably.
Allianne grinned at her. “It’s the best feeling ever.”
I’m almost going to miss this place. Jiasi mused as she prepared herself for the performance. Then she remembered Lady Drayden sitting in for most of the practice sessions, loudly tut-tutting at her daughter’s every move.
“Maybe I should become a mentor,” Jiasi said as she adjusted a pin to secure the braid coiled around her head. “I’ve had fun here. Allianne’s shy, but she’s willing to learn. Her mother, however, urgh.”
“Hard to have much spirit with the Dragon around,” Emmaline said.
“I think Allianne’s nerves may get the better of her tonight. Lady Drayden hinted at lunch that she’d be counting the errors.”
“Dancing alongside you isn’t going to do much for her nerves, my starlet.” Emmaline shook her head. “I’m off to work the nobles. Just think, after tonight, we’re free!” Emmaline clasped Jiasi’s face and kissed her.
“Go on before you make me cry,” Jiasi said with a laugh.
Emmaline sashayed to the door and blew another kiss before disappearing down the passageway.
Jiasi watched her go, a warm feeling glowing in her chest. The weight of it all; the contract, the legs, Emmaline’s sacrifice, was lifting.
Jiasi finished applying her performance makeup, then went to the space she’d cleared at the front of the cottage. She could hear the random hiss and metallic clank of steamcoaches, and the sounds of arriving nobility made her jittery with nerves and excitement. Breathing in a steady rhythm, she focused on her warmup routine, banishing her anxiety. She tested the snap and flutter of her costume’s emerald sleeves, rising up on silken shoes dyed to match her flowing dress. Absorbed in her moves, she didn’t realize the lateness of the hour until the magnesium lamps outside the window flared to life.
Frowning, Jiasi lowered from her pose on one leg. Lady Drayden had said she’d send someone to usher her into the performance hall. It wasn’t a standard practice, but nothing about the impromptu show had been ordinary.
Jiasi glanced out the window, then to the cracked longcase clock by the door. The performance was set to begin in a quarter hour.
Apologies, Lady Dragon. Jiasi tossed her coat over her shoulders. “Rude” didn’t begin to cover arriving late to her own performance, and the contract was vague with regard to punctuality.
She rushed down the passageway, thankful to see the connecting doors closed to hide her flustered approach.
Seizing one handle, Jiasi was thrown off balance when she tried to yank it open and the door remained firmly shut. She pulled Lady Drayden’s key from her coat pocket and jammed it into the keyhole. But, the key would turn only a fraction, plaintive metal clicks sounding as its teeth slipped against the pins.
“No,” Jiasi moaned. Did she give me the wrong damned key? The doors had never been locked early before, and shouldn’t be now. Not on the performance night.
Sweat broke out across Jiasi’s palms, and she dashed it away on the front of her coat.
I will not be late.
Throwing the useless key away, Jiasi dashed back toward the servants’ wing, intent on the path through the garden.
The sight of the door ajar brought her to a halt. Her heart sank. The silvery scarf Emmaline had been wearing lay draped across the handle.
Jiasi peeked around the door.
“You certainly took your time, stupid girl.” Lady Drayden stood in the center of the warmup area. “Come in and close the door.”
Jiasi complied. “What is go-”
Lady Drayden stepped to the side. Slumped in one of the rickety wooden chairs from the small dining room, sat Emmaline’s motionless form, arms bound and a cloth stuffed in her mouth. A trickle of blood ran down the side of her face.
Jiasi leapt forward. “You horrid bitch! You’ve killed her!”
Lady Drayden brayed a disdainful laugh. “Don’t be foolish. She’s just unconscious.” She lifted her parasol, withdrawing a thin dueling blade from the handle. Brandishing it with a flourish, she poked at Jiasi, forcing her back.
“I’ll wake her for you.” Lady Drayden reached out and slapped Emmaline across the face with her parasol.
Jiasi screamed, fingernails biting into her palms as Lady Drayden’s blade held her at bay. She breathed the slightest sigh of relief when she saw Emmaline twitch.
“Why? Why invite all those people only to hold us hostage?”
“Contractual obligations,” Lady Drayden said, a malicious gleam in her eyes. “A Contractor did advise me to take more control of the things that I wanted. I want my daughter to join the Royal Theater and win herself a husband, but a commoner from a rural backwater has been stealing all the attention. My Contractor whispered of the details for your bought legs.”
“You’d sacrifice my legs for a supposed husband?”
“Yes. I already sacrificed my husband and his financial security,” Lady Drayden said, her lip curling with disgust. “What was left of it. I want a son-in-law with the means to take care of the both of us, but wishing got me nowhere. A contract gave me control.”
Faint music drifted through the walls as the orchestra began to warm-up in the performance hall. Without her.
Jiasi tensed, legs quivering at the sound.
Lady Drayden made a tsk-tsk noise. “If you try to leave, I’ll skewer Miss Tembury.”
You wouldn’t dare. Would you? The Major houses got away with much in Valorie, but surely not murder.
Emmaline wriggled against the ropes, but another slap from Lady Drayden’s parasol quieted her.
“They won’t go on without me. Allianne won’t.”
“Hear the music? My steward has orders to direct them to perform without you, and my daughter will dance. She does love applause.” Lady Drayden chuckled to herself.
The dreamy look on Allianne’s face burned in Jiasi’s memory.
“Ascension is a duet.”
“I’ve hired a wonderfully deplorable understudy,” Lady Drayden said. “All those noble houses here to see you, but my daughter will steal the show and you’ll have spited everyone. Not that it will matter after tonight.”
Jiasi could feel the onset of the numbness that preceded her legs turning to metal, but this time it bore a cold edge of finality.
No! she thought with ferocity, picturing the Contractor. I haven’t failed yet.
She took a step toward Lady Drayden, letting the blade’s tip prick her chest. “Why me? We both could’ve gotten into the Theater. You have the influence. What did I do that you’d get a contract against me?”
Lady Drayden smiled. “You got in my way. The contract ensures my daughter’s future if I remove her competition. That I get to remove a commoner from mingling with the nobility is a bonus.”
“Go!” Emmaline’s muffled voice sounded around the gag.
Lady Drayden scoffed. “Run along, trade her life for a contract.”
Jiasi froze, mind racing over her memory of the parchment signed long ago with a nib that glowed gold. The key to her legs, given with precise terms. The numbing sensation paused, and she could hear the Contractor’s slippery voice in her head make an inquiring noise. The tingling in her legs didn’t retreat, but rather felt like it was waiting.
She met Emmaline’s eyes. “Do you trust me?”
Lady Drayden waggled the dueling blade. “What are you-”
Winding a fistful of material from each sleeve in her hands, Jiasi sprang at Lady Drayden, blocking the blade with her hands. The sharp metal tore at the fabric, but couldn’t prevent Jiasi from grabbing onto the blade, and Lady Drayden was no fencer.
With only her arms bound, Emmaline made an awkward lunge at Lady Drayden, sending them both and the chair tumbling to the ground with a crack as the wood splintered apart beneath them.
Jiasi loosened her grip as Lady Drayden went down, letting the sword slip free. She took a clumsy step forward, her partially numb legs jarring against the floor. She stamped on Lady Drayden’s hand and kicked the blade away as Emmaline pulled free of the weakened remnants of the chair. Together they pounced on Lady Drayden, pinning the woman to the ground, and trussed her.
“Have you any idea the trouble you’ll be in for this?” Lady Drayden snarled, a mess of once perfectly coiffed hair around her face. “If you kill me-”
“No one’s dying today. We’re not like you,” Jiasi said. “And don’t threaten us; you kidnapped a member of the nobility.”
“A Minor house.” Lady Drayden spat at them. “I’ll have the constable after you. How far do you think you’ll get dragging those metal legs?”
“My contract was specific,” Jiasi said, clearing a space in front of Lady Drayden. “And vague. Twenty-five sponsored dances. You’re my sponsor. The size of the audience is immaterial.”
Lady Drayden paled. “No, that can’t be.”
Jiasi backed up and swept one leg out in front of her. Arching her feet, she rose onto her toes. Shrugging out of her coat and handing it to Emmaline, Jiasi let her ribbon-like sleeves drape across her body. Springing lightly into the air, she began to dance for her legs.