Bright light flooding the streets caused Reil to bring an arm up to shield his eyes as the two thieves exited the alley. The crowds were already thicker than usual, even in the early morning. Two young men in dark clothing could only move so fast without drawing the attention of the Guard, but Reil and Cent made good time, having learned the ins and outs of the city years ago. They moved close to a light jog, keeping their eyes down and staying away from the busiest roads. Getting across the city could take days depending where you were headed, as it stretched over thousands of square miles. Reil had never been out of the city, but rumors were that the rest of the planet was a barren wasteland, with all its resources being exhausted building the Great Factory. As with most rumors, Reil held off on believing it, but from the expanse of the city, he could see how it came about.

          Reil shifted his coat each time they entered a new district, trying his best to match the garments of the locals so as to keep them blending in. Cent’s coat wasn’t a shifter, but it had a modern cut and was a simple black cotton material, fitting for anyone living in Feldrin nowadays. As the two friends drew close to the Franklin District in the North Central area of the city, spiraling towers covered the skies. Glass with gold, silver, and bronze worked between the panes filled in the space between the buildings. The bronze was old and oxidized, but the aged green added more to the spectacle than the original color did, at least Reil thought so. The gold gave away the age of the district, as use of it outside of weapon manufacturing had been outlawed hundreds of years ago after a man named Gill Westworth discovered gold, along with many other minerals and chemicals, could be used to make immensely powerful bombs and weapons without the horrid side effects that came with nuclear power.

          Everywhere else in the city had had its gold stripped away, either by the government for use in weapon production, or by thieves who would sell it on the black market. The fact that the Franklin district was able to keep it by order of the government, and that it hadn’t been stolen yet, was a clear indicator of the wealth that filled its streets.

           The Franklin district was one of the oldest districts in the city. When the Great Factory was first being built, the Royal Family had a section of the land set aside for when they visited, or when any wealthy families or investors wanted to visit. The goal was to build a district with such grandeur that it could make the guests forget what an industrial slum they were in. The glass roofs connecting every building held back the smog and the smells of the city, and solar film covering the glass and metalwork worked to cool the district, keeping it a comfortable temperature year-round.

          “Why did we come to Franklin? No way in Darkness we’re getting in.” Reil scratched his head before giving Cent a condescending stare.

          “You spoke to Quentin during the raid,” Cent put on his most pompous and scholarly look to combat Reil’s doubtful eyebrow raise. “And I spoke to Dan’avik.” Cent gave a small triumphant laugh as understanding found its way onto Reil’s face.

          Dan’avik was the Intel Leader for the House, his network of connections and “friends” rivaled Quentin’s. He got his start as a butler for a rich businessman who owned a good lot of factories in Feldrin. Dan’avik, known as Avi to his friends and fellow thieves, was only on duty while the businessman was in town, only accounting for a few weeks out of the year. In the meantime, Avi was to tend to the house’s garden and day to day maintenance and cleaning. Shortly after starting, he realized it was beneficial to pay his two sisters to take care of his duties while his employer was not there, and use the off time to explore the Franklin District in clothing stolen from the businessman’s wardrobe and make connections under fake names. After gaining a fair amount of “friends,” Avi began feeding the House information, having known Quentin from an earlier time in life. Eventually he was caught, but he escaped arrest with the help of the Thief House and came to work for Quentin full time.

           He was a dark skinned man of average height and weight, but both his physical and mental strength were consistently underestimated. Reil had seem him outwit scientists and intellectuals as many times as he’d seen him win a bar fight within minutes of it starting. The whole House had always wanted to see a sparring match between Dan’avik and Cent, but the two never agreed to it and never gave reasons.

          Reil assumed that since he wasn’t with them, Avi had most likely died in the raid, but he also figured the man had given Cent a parting gift. “Did he give us a way into Franklin? I thought he would never step foot in the district again after his public escape from the law ruined his aliases.”

          “Not all his connections left him after he was discovered, and quite a few saw a continued alliance to be mutually beneficial considering Quentin’s power in the city. He didn’t get to be Intel Leader by sitting around talking of old information. The man probably came to Franklin on a weekly basis.” Cent’s smile split his face in two as he reached into his backpack and removed a cloth covered object. “This is our ticket in,” his voice was a whisper of disbelief as the two friends stared at the thin card of carbon with silver inlay around the border.

          The card was an Identification Key. It was connected to the transmitter that created the energy fence around the district. Whoever had their DNA scanned by the Key could pass through the fence without a worry. Cent wasted no time and pressed his thumb onto the center and a green light glowed through the carbon housing. Reil did the same, unsure if the glow was a good or bad sign. “He gave it to you, so you should do the honors of passing through the fence first.”

          Cent laughed, “don’t make it out to be so honorable, Reil. You just don’t want to run into the fence and look like a fool if the Key didn’t work.”

         Reil shrugged and motioned for his friend to lead the way.

        The fence lay thirty steps away from them, shimmering in the sunlight and shifting between gold and emerald. It was opaque, but clear enough for passerby’s to look in and see the beauty inside of the fence. It ran straight up, connecting to a metal ring around the district, where it met the glass roofs. The fence was mostly covered by beautiful stone buildings and walls or vine covered metalwork, but every block there was a bronze arch with the gold and green energy field clearly seen where residents of the district could enter.

          Cent walked forward with a confident swagger about him, but faltered right before he entered. He ran a hand through his unruly onyx hair and let out a sigh. “I’ve always hated this district, you know? The barons that live here disgust me with their opulence in the heart of such filth and ruin. And still, I’m excited. I’m excited to enter Franklin and finally get a taste of what these people bathe in everyday. Does that make me a hypocrite?” Cent let out a nervous laughter that came out as no more than a huff and stepped forward once again. “I’m trusting you on this one, Avi,” and with that, the young thief was enveloped in a gold and green energy and promptly deposited safely on the other side, into the center of wealth for the planet.

          Reil’s eye widened and his confident posture staggered as he watched his friend enter the Franklin district. He had fully expected Cent to walk into a hard and possibly painful wall of energy, or even for alarms to go off and have guards crowding in from all angles. The Key had actually worked. Eyes full of excitement, Reil pushed off the concrete and ran full force toward the energy fence.

          A slight pulling of his clothes and a tingling sensation on his face were the only things Reil felt as his body was wrapped in energy and scanned by the control tower, all in an instant. Before he could register anything else about the experience, he was inside Franklin, looking up at the grandest view he’d ever laid eyes on.

          The glass ceiling domes covered in gold and precious metals dotted with gemstones took both thieves’ breaths away. Twisted beams of bronze curled from the sides of buildings and grew like vines, connecting to the metalwork of the ceiling. Small cuts of glass and crystals hung on invisible wire from the domes, giving the effect of it snowing diamonds from the sky. They twinkled as the artificial wind brushed them from side to side.

           What hit Reil first was what he hadn’t expected. Of course the view would be stunning, one could make out bits and pieces from the outside if they got a high enough vantage point. However what had never crossed his mind was the aroma. The scent was subtle, in no way overpowering, but it was there. The cobblestone street he stood on got a nice cross breeze from the wind machines off to the East side, and the wind brought with it a scent of chestnut and what could possibly be coffee, along with a few other smells.

          The sounds of Franklin were soothing and fitting for such a center of economic dominance. Many of the buildings had channels cut into the stone exterior and had small, controlled waterfalls, falling from an unseen source near the roof of the building. The water fell into a cobble-lined drainage ditch that ran the length of the city blocks and gave off a very comforting sound. Reil noticed the complete lack of moss or algae, and zero erosion from the constant flow of water, indicating how well kept the district was.

          Bronze bells hung at the front of doors and the wind jingled them in unison from time to time causing a symphony of different tones. Open top cars casually glided over the streets, their thrusters echoing pleasantly off the cobblestone. In the rest of Feldrin, cars were a rare sight, and cars with their tops open to the air simply did not exist. The air in the city was too polluted and it hurt to breath if too much time was spent outside. The rich few who could afford to drive through the city streets, or more accurately, be driven, did all they could to avoid breathing in the smog of the Great Factory.

          Reil caught himself gaping and quickly stepped backwards through the fence leading out of Franklin. Once safe from the view of any passersby, the thief shifted his coat to a brilliant red coat, almost looking transparent like a ruby. Such an extravagant look would be rough on the coat’s power source, it probably couldn’t keep the image for more than half an hour, but it was necessary if he and Cent were to use Franklin as a shortcut. Reil also assumed he could find a source that could charge his coat somewhere in the wealthy district, they had to have everything anyone could need.

          “Good catch, I was stupid. Got too caught up in my own excitement,” Cent looked down, ashamed. “What scene are we going to play here? I’ve been planning on shortcutting through here ever since Avi gave me the Key and I was too oblivious to plan out what we’d do.”

          “I’m a young nobleman, or at least the son of one. You are my escort,” Reil reached over and uncuffed the collar of his friend’s coat, the way he’d seen private guards wear them. “Walk with your chest puffed, flex when people look our way, and always be looking around.”

          “That last order won’t be hard to follow. Did you see that place?” Cent’s voice was woven with awe.

          “I did, I can’t decide if it’s amazing or sickening,” Reil found a scowl sitting on his face. He’d never been as empathetic to the poor as Cent was, but seeing the beauty of Franklin contrasted to what he grew up in… It was enough to turn his stomach. “And besides, it’s no Taiath’Rhowar.”

          “If even Franklin doesn’t compare, I would kill to see it,” Cent looked at Reil with a short upturned smile.

          “I’d do more than kill,” Reil’s scowl fell to a frown. “Come on, my coat can’t hold this image very long.”

          Cent flushed with regret at his previous statement. It was easy to forget and say the wrong thing when someone had lost their entire home world. Reil especially didn’t care for displaying emotions, so when something got him down, it was bad. “I’m s-,” Cent shook his head, “yea let’s get going. Franklin won’t be much of a shortcut if we get arrested when your coat runs out of juice.”

          “Unfortunately, today has taken a toll on the power source already, the power is dimmer than usual. We’ll have to make finding a source to charge it a priority,” Reil buttoned the coat back up all the way to the highest button, to match the fashion of the district.

          The two thieves took moments to ready themselves for the parts they would have to play. Entering a district like the Franklin District was unlike entering any other. In the others, the price to pay was a berating lecture from the Guard and being shooed away, but in Franklin, they would be arrested on the spot, beaten, and held for Yvesu knows how long. Cent did a breathing exercise to calm his nerves while Reil said a prayer to the Mother.

          After the golden haired young man opened his eyes, Cent nodded and entered first, looking around the entire time to give the impression of checking the area for any dangers. Reil held his chin high and let his eyelids relax, assuming the most confident and arrogant posture he could manage without gagging.

         The two walked through the district, holding back awestruck gazes and amazed comments, while trying to fit in as well as possible. Reil split his attention between looking at the beautiful architecture and finding a suitable place with which he could recharge his coat. His suggestion that Cent look around like the typical hired muscle in Feldrin worked in their favor, allowing his friend to have a better lookout for a power source.

          Reil cursed under his breath at catching himself for the third time trying to walk toward an alleyway; the habit was hard to break. Is this even a shortcut at this rate? We should’ve just went our normal route around Franklin. The thief knew he was just being irritable at the slow pace, to get to Victoria’s through the usual path would have added an extra four hours to their trip, and on a day like today, it could’ve added six. It was the reason dealings with Victoria were usually three day planned trips when the House would conduct sales with her in the past.

          Cent’s gesture to a small bench relaxed Reil, it would appear they wouldn’t have to wait as long as he’d thought. Reaching the bench, Cent brought up his foot in an act of tying his boot. He used the sole of his opposite foot to untie the boot on the way up, it was a practised routine.

          “The shop across the sheet, next to the garden. The cigar porch has external outlets we could use. It puts us out in the public eye, but a rich man like you wouldn’t be questioned if he wanted a nice smoke on a pretty day like this.” Cent finished retying his boot at the moment Reil nodded in agreement to the plan.

          The pair moved slowly, as if the walk to the smoke shop was a casual decision, but inside Reil was thanking the Mother that the Franklin district had such good air conditioning, or he’d be sweating through his coat. He eyed the cigar shop and its outlet with eyes like a predator. His and Cent’s well being rested in this operation going smoothly.

          Walking up the steps, Cent moved first with his chest as large as he could manage, looking as if he was inspecting the seating porch for potential threats to his employer. He nodded once, to no one in particular and moved to pull a seat out for Reil. After Reil had taken his seat, Cent walked around the table to the opposite side, immediately setting his chair at an angle to allow him to watch the streets and the patrons of the smoke shop at the same time. He muttered something incoherent about the creakiness of the wooden floorboards and ran a hand through his hair, pushing it out of his hardened face.

          Reil removed the power disk from the inside of his coat, spinning it to charge mode and placing it on the outlet pad. It glowed gold and red, showing it was charging. He checked the backup power source on the inside sleeve of his right arm to see how long he could be without the power disk before his jacket reverted to its plain exterior.

          A pretty woman with light green and sky blue hair cut in a short bob came to help the two men who had just sat down. She looked slightly intimidated by Cent’s rugged look, but gave Reil a large smile after she’d pulled her eyes away from the gruff bodyguard.

          “Hello, good master. Will it be a Pelicar special, or a Lionheart? And can I offer you a complimentary coffee or beverage with your cigar?”

          In his mind, Reil chose Lionheart, but in truth, only because the name sounded cool. He had not a smidge of knowledge of cigars. Before he could answer however, a long legged woman in a daringly short dress woven from gold and silver colored threads sat down in the open third seat and answered for him.

          “We’ll have 3 cigars from the Rhowaran cask; uncut and unlit. These boys look like they could use some coffee, and I’ll have a stagroot ale, on the rocks. Thank you, little missy,” the woman handed the waitress a card and flashed a flirtatious smile.

           “Oh Madame Victoria, what a pleasure to see you again. I hope all is going well, we here got worried when we didn’t see you last Fallday. I’ll be right out with your cigars and drinks,” the vibrant haired young woman beamed with delight and ducked into the shop.

          “Oh she is a sweetheart, and cute too,” Victoria said while hiding a laugh at the surprise evident on the two thieves’ faces. “Don’t be so surprised to see me. I’m here every Fallday of every week, at the same exact time, barring last week as Kelli pointed out already. I’m the one who should be surprised. What are two street urchins like yourselves doing in Franklin? Quentin’s not the gutsy type, and sending two alley rats in here is as gutsy as it comes. Be straight with me or I’ll call for help, and not even you’d be able to handle the Franklin guards.” Her last comment was directed at Cent, she didn’t know his name but she was one of a few people who’d seen his true fighting prowess in action before, and it wasn’t something anyone ever forgot. Cent’s grunt was followed by an eye roll, and Reil began to explain their situation.

          “We were actually on our way to see you, Vicky, er, Madame Victoria. We’ve got quite the news story for you, but it may not be the safest conversation to have in public,” Reil gave an overly cautious look around, which only worked to make himself look more suspicious.

          Victoria nodded and raised her hand in the air, snapping his fingers twice, then paused, then once again. A black-haired young man in a waiting suit jumped from his seat and pressed a button on the wall to his right. At the button, an ephemeral wall much like the one surrounding Franklin descended around the table.

          “Completely soundproof. And not a bit suspicious, rich folk are constantly discussing important and classified business operations, not to mention illegal ones. Now out with it, Erinfife.” Erinfife was a character from a popular book of poems famous for his hair that was made out of pure gold. Reil thought about giving the woman a glare but thought better of it. Now was not the time nor place for his usual sarcasm and wit.

          “I’ll get the more important of the news out first; Quentin is dead and the House is destroyed. Hired guns, probably from a bad connection of Quentin’s, raided and destroyed the place yesterday around noon.” Reil could see the shock on the black market dealer’s face but continued, “Cent and I only know of ourselves as survivors, though I can confirm the death of Quentin and a few others for sure.”

          “To say I’m shocked is an understatement. You have my sympathies. Do you know for sure the deaths of either Don’avik or Nicholi Olivirin?” Victoria’s face was like stone. “I do not mean to be so cold, but certain losses of life could be very dangerous to my own.”

          This time it was Cent who spoke up, “I am not sure about Olivirin, but his laboratory was hit by a clearance bomb. Again, I can’t be certain as I didn’t see a body, but there is very little chance he lived. As for Avi, he took his life with a caperoot pill. He was injured by the clearance bomb and knew he wouldn’t make it far without the protection of Quentin’s power, and he knew too many secrets to ever allow himself to be captured. It was an honorable death for an honorable man.”

          The slump in Victoria’s posture showed a mixture of relief and sadness. “He was an honorable man indeed, and a wonderful friend,” she stopped to wipe a tear out of her eye. “But his suicide guaranteed my safety. If Nicholi is dead, I may lose a great deal of money in investments, but money can be regained. These deaths rip at my Heart, I’ve known Quentin since I was going through puberty, Don’avik since his first day in Feldrin, and Nicholi for over twenty years.”

          “I know how you feel, Quentin raised me like his son and every member of the House was part of my family. I’m glad you will be safe though, Avi’s move was a brave one.” Reil lowered his head in reverence for the dead.

          “Quentin was like a father to you, you say? So you must be the little thief he had talked about so many times. If it makes you feel better, he loved you. He really did. There wasn’t anyone else he talked about with so much pride in his voice and joy in his laugh. You must be Reil, am I right?” Victoria reached a hand to lay it on Reil’s shoulder.

          “Yes, and thank you,” Reil’s voice was a somber whisper. Before the conversation could continue, a light tap on the energy wall around the trio alerted them to the return of the waitress.

          “Come in,” Victoria nodded to the woman quickly, averting her eyes to hide the solemn nature of their conversation. The waitress placed down a three-pronged cigar stand in the center of the table and laid 3 uncut cigars on the rounded spaces, before returning Victoria’s card to the woman. She gave out the drinks and bowed, with an extra large smile for Victoria, and left to reenter the smoke shop’s interior. “Well I hadn’t known who you were exactly when I ordered, but I’m sure you will especially enjoy the specialty cigars, Reil. They are from your home planet. Allow me to cut them for us.” The distractingly beautiful woman took turns cutting the ends of each of the cigars with a small blade that rested in the middle of the cigar stand, which acted as a sheath for the tool.

          “Yes, thank you. I didn’t know it was possible to still get anything from Taiath’Rhowar. These must cost a fortune,” Reil stared at the honey brown leaves that had been grown and harvested on his own home world. Grinir leaves were possibly the most traded commodity in the Galaxy, enjoyed for their aromatic smoke, calming effects, and long held tradition of smoking in almost every culture. Taiath’Rhowar’s grinir was considered to be some of the finest ever grown and fetched top shelf prices. That was before the destruction of the planet by the Federation, Reil could not imagine what they cost now.

          “No need to worry about the price, I only gave Kelli my card to leave a tip for her. The shop owner of this place owes his life to me four times over for all the political messes he finds himself in. In exchange, since that rash fullop of a man could certainly never save my life, I come here once a week for a free cigar and drink.” Victoria passed around a lighter after lighting her own cigar and taking a sip from her drink.

          Reil accepted it with a smile, noting the beautiful copper scrollwork on the side of the lighter. He lit the cigar with a bit less mastery than Victoria, he’d only smoked a handful of times in his life, and passed it to Cent. The smoke’s taste reminded him of his childhood home, specifically the kitchen, and the smell reminded him of the Alvennis. To top off the unexpected treat, Reil eyed the coffee in front of him with the most joy he’d felt since before the House fell.

          “Now, on to why you are in Franklin of all places. I’m still not quite clear on that part,” Victoria took a large, unladylike puff of her cigar. In fact, smoking in the first place was considered unladylike, but that didn’t appear to matter to the well-dressed woman. With her gold and silver dress cut in a fashion made for dancing, a slight country accent, stunning beauty, and a thick Rhowaran cigar in her hand, Victoria Delgado appeared to live only to challenge societal expectations. Her being one of the four Pirates of the Underground, the leaders of the black market in the Sovon System, made her pile of confusion into a mountain.

          Cent took two content puffs on his cigar and chased the smoke down with coffee. “Well, before escaping the House, I took it upon myself to clear out part of the infirmary, leaving enough for any potential survivors who might find their way in there after me. After saving Reil, I gave him some megs to help his wounds, and we set off to find you. Without the Thief House we have no income nor a place to stay. I figured selling you some of the medications I, er, borrowed, was the next logical step.”

          “But why Franklin?”

            “Feldrin is a dangerous city, I think you know this quite well, Victoria. Sleeping on the streets is asking for a fight, and though between the two of us I’m sure we could handle our own, it’s not a risk I like to take. Without cutting through Franklin, our journey would have had us sleeping in the alleyways tonight. Using this district as a shortcut would allow us to reach you by nightfall.” Cent finished his explanation with a big puff, matching Victoria’s.

          “And I assume Avi gave you his Identification Key, then?” At the end of her sentence, Vicky looked off behind Cent toward the sky with a confused look. A small tremor ran through the ground and up the floorboards of the cigar porch.

          Reil moved his chair to see what she was looking at. At first, it appeared nothing was out of the ordinary, but the more he looked, the more he could see through the shimmering energy field of the city. In between gold shimmers, when the field was green, Reil thought he saw smoke, and large amounts of it. Not that smoke was out of the ordinary for the Great Factory, but it was in any district even close to Franklin. “What do you think th-”

          Before he could finish, the entire city shook violently. The wood of the smoke shop creaked angrily and the support beams sounded like they would give way. The trio immediately stood up and ran into the street to get a better view. Smoke like a tsunami washed over the energy field from the West, blanketing the district in darkness. The smoke, filled with red sparks looked menacing, but could not harm the citizens in the district. Reil thought to speak again, asking what the plan was, when massive columns of concrete began pounding against the energy field, breaking into millions of pieces at the collisions. Entire skyscrapers must be falling, Reil thought.


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