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May 31, 2020 6:16 PM

Tano arrives in thatch-roofed Naleshni just as he usually does, aboard a gaudily-painted wagon along with his troupe of the moment. They set up in the public square, haul the scenery and costumes into the city hall, where they'll put on performances while they're staying here. A crowd gathers; Tano takes his turn entertaining them, juggling first knives and then anything they toss him, doing impersonations of various public figures. The short stout comedian of the group belts out their show times meanwhile.

As the most diplomatic of the troupe, Tano gets the dubious privilege of negotiating with the local officials. Mayor Timisav wants an exorbitant cut of the profits, in return for room and board and the use of the city hall (and, implicitly, not denouncing them as a menace to folk of good character and thrashing them out of town). Tano very gently disabuses him of this notion, negotiates a much more reasonable rate, and throws in a little flirting for good measure. (The mayor is repulsive, but Tano is a professional.)

Tano settles in, for whatever little while they're here. He writes his sister. He foments unrest. He catches up on the local gossip.

-- Okay, according to that last, the mayor is significantly more repulsive than he thought.

Tano is going to do something about this. Doing something about these things is Tano's specialty.


Finding a much better candidate isn't hard; Satira puts him in contact with someone local she knows second-hand, and it only takes the usual amount of coyness to ascertain that he's entirely sympathetic to Tano's cause. Everyone wants to talk with the exciting visitors, and Tano is especially charismatic; he has plenty of social mobility to buff up the man's reputation a bit. Yes, what a good, honest, loyal citizen.


Removing Timisav from his post is more of a challenge, but it's a fun one.

Tano keeps up the seduction; Timisav Meizalor is exactly the sort of grubby self-important little man to be immensely vulnerable to that, not even really out of pleasure but because he finds it flattering. 

Tano dresses in a different persona and finds some generic ruffians and malcontents, incites them to put on masks and get up to trouble -- broken shop windows, riots, scrawled graffiti -- arranged so that other people will inevitably interpret it as rumblings of civic discontent. That done, Tano arranges liaisons with Meizalor -- secretive, hidden, "so his wife won't find out," but clumsily so, people will notice the mayor sneaking around -- and, more than that, they'll notice the mayor's unexplained absence and how it just so happens to coincide with masked men knocking down the bust of the emperor. And then the next time, with masked men beating up a tax collector, leaving him bruised and unconscious in an alley with an ink mustache scrawled cartoonishly across his face. And then with masked men stealing from the city granaries; and again the mayor is mysteriously ... absent.

(The bread distributed to the poor the next day is unconnected, of course. -- No, it actually is; Tano's hoodlums aren't motivated by altruism, he had to arrange the bread separately.)


Conducting an affair with Meizalor is a tedious, repulsive business. Tano restrains the urge to stab him in his sleep and have done with it; making the man a martyr won't help anything. He has to make Meizalor a villain, a revolutionary, and let his chosen hero overthrow him in the interests of law and order.

At least it means that sneaking in and out of the mayor's house is easy; Tano just has to fuck him, and wait till he passes out, and then he has free rein of the house. He can plant revolutionary pamphlets at his leisure. (Of course he has those, off a secret press hidden in a tiny farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, cheap and flimsy and unevenly inked. OVERTHROW THE EMPEROR, they read, and then FREEDOM FROM TYRANNY, and there's an enumeration of the emperor's evildoings, and then the actually useful part, where he explains EVERYDAY ACTS OF RESISTANCE FOR THE COMMON MAN.)

This is all going swimmingly right up until the man's damn wife walks in on Tano stuffing the stupid things into Meizalor's nightstand, Meizalor himself passed out and naked and snoring flabbily on the bed.


Tano entirely fails to talk his way out of this.

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The revolutionary pamphlets really annoy people. The revolutionary pamphlets annoy the sort of people it is a bad idea to annoy.

The imperial guard search him for weapons very thoroughly before he is brought to the palace in chains.


Tano insists that he doesn't believe any of that, he was framing the mayor, you frame people with bad things, come on, this is pretty straightforward.

This does not help as much as he'd hoped it would.


Satira is going to be so worried about him.


Framing an innocent citizen for sedition is almost as bad! Doesn't he know what happens to people who are caught with revolutionary pamphlets? If not, he'll soon find out. Of course, since he is much prettier than Timisav Meizalor, he won't have quite the same set of problems...

The guards make a cursory effort to convince him to reveal where those revolutionary pamphlets came from, but considering the content of the pamphlets in question, which he has presumably read, they don't expect their false promises of mercy to move him and as such they don't try very hard.


And then, after a week on the road and a few hours in a little stone cell with a lovely view of the Lake of Gold out its tiny barred window, he receives his very first visitor!

Reihar Nirue's reputation is a little more narrowly circulated than the Emperor's, but the sort of person who can get his hands on such impressively well-informed pamphlets has probably heard of her. As such, she doesn't bother to introduce herself when she opens the door of his cell and walks in.

"Dear me," she says, inspecting him. "Prisoners are to be fed, I'm very sure I was clear about that. Someone has been neglecting their duty."


Tano knows enough of her reputation to be really really terrified.

"On the contrary," he says anyway, because short of getting other people in trouble it's going to be challenging to make his situation worse. "You have been entirely delightful hosts."


"Hm." She smiles slightly. "A charmer. I do like the charmers."

The guards were feeding him inadequately. She tilts her head and studies him for a moment, and then over the course of a few seconds she restores him to better condition with lifeshaping. It's very impressive, managing that sort of thing with lifeshaping alone, but Nirue is famously skilled with her element.

"But I don't think I have time for you, more's the pity."


Well that little casual display of power is gratuitous amounts of terrifying.

"You're a busy woman; I understand," he says, with the maximum graciousness he can summon.


"Yes, it's clear that you do. Where did you get those pamphlets?"


"A man on a street corner told me they would change my life."


Amused smile.

"Would you like to reconsider that answer?"


"What, didn't you like it? I must be losing my touch. I have one about a man and a dog, too."


She laughs.

And then Tano is abruptly disconnected from his senses. He has no awareness of his body, no vision or hearing or taste or smell, absolutely no sensation whatsoever.

There were rumours about this. It's something Nirue does to anyone who's going to be an imperial pet, so they can be easily controlled if they cause trouble. Hard to make someone's life difficult when they can turn you off with a thought.




He recognizes what's happening, after a moment. It doesn't really calm him down.

He can't deliberately relax, can't steady his breathing.


Tano has a perfect memory, courtesy of his light-mage sister. He calls up the most beautiful performance he's ever seen -- If On A Winter's Night, with the full seventy-two-dancer chorus, by lamplight -- and remembers it, in perfectly vivid detail. Starting at the beginning.

(It helps. A little.)


Halfway through the memory, he starts getting his senses back, one at a time in brief glimpses before she takes them away again. A flash of hearing - Nirue humming to herself. A flash of touch - he's lying on a cold stone floor. A flash of sight - his eyes are closed but there's light visible through the lids. He doesn't have time to try opening them before it's gone again.

When she's cycled through all of them over the course of a few minutes, she lets him have them all back at once, but keeps his ability to use his body shut off, so all he can do is lie there and experience things. His eyes are still closed, but everything else suggests he's lying on the floor of the same cell where he started, wearing the same chains.

"I really wonder what the creators of these pamphlets think they're doing," she says conversationally. "All they ever accomplish is getting people in trouble. When I meet one, I like to thank them for maintaining Siurek's supply of political prisoners. He's like a child, you know, breaks all his toys and then throws a tantrum because there aren't any more."

After a lingering pause, she allows him to move again.


Tano ascertains that he can move again, and then lies still anyway for another few seconds, in the pettiest possible show of defiance.

"So that was a no to the man and the dog," he murmurs, without opening his eyes.


(Benefits to being a perfect actor: he doesn't have to let his voice waver, no matter how scared he is.)


"I am really very tempted to keep you," she says. "You're so charming."


Tano suspects this is not a desirable outcome.

(He's heard the stories about the Emperor. But Nirue is inventive.)

On the other hand, he also suspects that any attempts to prevent it will just make it more likely to happen.


"I really can't be properly flattered by that when you haven't even seen me perform," he says, opening his eyes and sitting up. "I believe we have a matinée tomorrow, if you're interested."


She laughs. "I believe you're mistaken about that."


"Am I? Alas. A loss to the artistic world, I assure you."


"I believe it. You're a marvel," she says. "Though I find I can usually improve on the work of nature if I try."

She extracts a key from her sleeve and unlocks his chains.

"Follow me, dear."


Well, fuck, she just gets scarier, doesn't she.

Following her sounds like a terrible idea. Not following her sounds worse.

Tano pulls himself upright -- resists the urge to rub his wrists, in favor of adjusting his shirt minutely and flicking an imaginary speck of dust from the lapel -- and follows her.


She leads him up out of the dungeon, ignoring the ambient screams and whimpers as they traverse the more active sections, and into a much nicer part of the palace. In fact, this is likely to be Nirue's own palace suite.

Adjoining the cozy sitting room is a room with a huge enchanted bathtub, assorted soaps and towels, a full-length mirror next to an enchanted washbasin - the height of luxury. She gestures invitingly to it. "Take your time getting cleaned up, and then I'll decide what you're going to wear."

She sits in one of her comfortable chairs and picks up a book.


...among all of the various inventive things he'd heard of Nirue doing, this is not, in fact, something he was prepared for.

Tano briefly considers cutting to the chase and curling up in a ball on the floor screaming.

Instead, he heads to the bathroom as instructed. He doesn't bother closing the door; if he doesn't take advantage of the illusion of privacy, she can't take the chance to shatter it. Besides, two can play at this game: if Nirue wants to make a point that she doesn't have to try to keep him in her power, Tano can at least tell her that he knows perfectly well what she's doing. It's all staging, at the heart of it, after all.

Tano strips -- with remarkable efficiency; he spent weeks practicing this, getting his costume change times down -- folds his clothes neatly, and sets about figuring out the enchanted bathtub. (And the soaps. Why does any one human being need this many soaps.)


He emerges half an hour later, cleaned and dried and his hair combed. He leaves his towel and clothes folded in the bathroom: she is, apparently, dressing him, and he's spent his life in the theater, he's genuinely unbothered by nudity.



She finishes the page she was reading, bookmarks and closes the book, and looks up to study him thoughtfully.

"Not bad," she concludes. "Almost worth presenting as-is. But I can think of a few improvements."

And - she's doing something to him with lifeshaping, some subtle process that only barely causes any discernible sensation, the lightest possible not-quite-touch on his skin -


Gah that is intensely unpleasant -- much more so than the sensory deprivation -- Tano is trying to tell his muscles to stand still and relaxed, trying to hold his face in calm, but they're not where he expects them to be -- he doesn't know what she's doing but he is not happy about it.

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