The Cousin From Dar Tower

Mint Kang, 2009

Mint Kang reserves the right to be identified as the author of this work.

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The Cousin From Dar Tower
Mint Kang, 2009 Chapter 1 It started with the peacock slings, or at least that was what Jet de Melzaio told everyone later. Then he had to explain that peacock slings were a sort of cocktail popular in the Outer Zone, and they got their name because when they were freshly mixed, this bluish-greenish plume came curling up from the bottom of the glass and looked just like a peacock’s tail. How did it start with the peacock slings, the committee of inquiry wanted to know. Jet, who was in a very bad mood by then, growled, “Because Mirror Visterra paid someone to smash one over my head, that’s how!” In reality, Jet had no idea who had broken the glass over his head or why—it was just one of those things that happened in Outer Zone bars. You could be sitting there minding your own business nine nights out of ten, and on the tenth night someone walked up and hit you with a table. Or, in this case, a glass containing a half-drunk peacock sling. Jet was in his twenties, tall, dark and heavily built, and he did not appreciate having his own drink interrupted. He picked his chair up and hit the person who had done it, a skinny orange-haired man in a hideous bright green jumpsuit. The skinny man went down; the chair shot out of Jet’s hands and went into a group of LaLa punks who were trading pills at the next table. The punks jumped up and two of them pulled out knives. Several of the bar’s other patrons, seeing the metal flash, went for their own weapons. And just like that, a brawl started. The two LaLa punks who had drawn first looked around, saw Jet and came straight at him. He retreated behind his table, groping for another chair, and someone grabbed him around the neck from behind. The LaLaLanders grinned and came on at a run. Jet put his elbow in the eye of the person who had grabbed him, kicked someone else in the stomach and met the first blow with his armguard. The second slash split his tunic open from shoulderblade to hip and screeched off the layer of body armour below. Then Jet got loose, whipped out his own knife and lashed out with a lot of force, very little technique and not much aim. His blade grated through cloth and leather, and came to a stop in his opponent’s own body armour. And stuck.

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Mint Kang, 2009 Jet started to yank it loose, and found the LaLa punk’s knife rising towards his face, too fast and too hard to dodge. He had half a second to say a prayer—and someone else popped up between them and hit the punk over the head with a bottle. “Let’s get out of here!” the new arrival shouted in Jet’s ear. Jet didn’t bother to look and see who his rescuer was. He put his back against the other person’s, and they made for the nearest exit through a press of struggling bodies, breaking furniture, spilled drinks and blood, and a lot of shouting, cursing and screaming. Less than five minutes later they burst out of the bar’s side door, ran down the dark and smelly alley and staggered to a halt on the street, panting. Jet took stock of his injuries, found nothing worse than bruises and several scrapes on his head from the broken glass, and turned to look at the person who had—probably—saved his life. That person, in the wobbly glow of the streetlight, was a young man around Jet’s age, perhaps two or three years younger; as thin and delicatelooking as Jet was heavily built, with a pallid complexion and the look of someone who spent too much time in a hospital bed. There was broken glass in his hair and blood on the front of his tattered black tunic, and his eyes were disfocused. “Good evening, cousin,” this vision from a police morgue greeted Jet politely, and started brushing the glass out of his hair. “Cousin? Who the hell are you?” Jet said. ‘Cousin’ was the address used between members of the noble houses who were around the same age, and although the sickly face did look vaguely familiar, Jet had never seen him in the outer city before. “Mirror Visterra, from Dar Tower,” the sickly face said, licking blood off his upper lip. “And you are Jet de Melzaio, from the House of Infernarr. What possessed you to throw a chair at those LaLaLanders?” “I didn’t do it on purpose,” Jet growled. “Since when does Dar Tower come down and drink in the Outer Zone?” “If the House of Infernarr can do it, so can I,” Mirror said. “A good thing too, or your father would have one son less by now.” He blinked and rubbed his eyes with one thin hand. They drifted back into focus, and his face, to Jet’s secret relief, became a good deal less zombie-like. “I need a drink after that. Shall we find another bar, cousin?”
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Mint Kang, 2009 Jet started to say that he wasn’t going to have any drink with a walking corpse from Dar Tower, and shut his mouth. Mirror had saved his life. “I’ll buy,” he said. Half an hour later they were sitting in the Purple Rain café with two peacock slings and a paper dish of peanuts between them. Some of the peanuts appeared to be moving. “Do you always wear that when you come out to drink?” Mirror said. He was looking at Jet’s body armour, clearly visible through the slash in his tunic. “Do I look like I’m stupid?” Jet retorted. “You look like someone who gets into a lot of fights,” Mirror said, and stuck his nose into his drink. Distorted by the glass and the cocktail, his voice floated out, “…surprised your father hasn’t…” “Hasn’t done what?” Jet demanded, bristling. Jet did not get along well with his father, Lord Casten de Melzaio. To most people, this was not surprising. Bad temper and an impressive degree of stubbornness ran in the House of Infernarr, and Jet had inherited the full measure of both from his father. Mirror shrugged and put his glass down. His hand shook slightly and the glass fell over, then rolled off the table in a puddle of ice and alcohol. When it hit the floor, it bounced. The Purple Rain’s proprietor had invested in non-breakable crockery, reasoning that it cost less than replacing all the glasses every time a fight broke out. “Sorry,” Mirror said, and got up to retrieve the glass. The back of his tunic, which had been partly shredded in the original fight, fluttered open as he turned. Jet put his own glass down and stared. Mirror was even thinner than he had looked at first sight—his shoulderblades stuck out like atrophied wings, and every rib and vertebra appeared to be visible. But that wasn’t what had caught Jet’s attention. It was the bruises. There were too many of them, and in too regular a pattern, for Mirror to have picked them up in the fight. They looked as if someone had beaten him up recently and thoroughly. And interspersed with the red and yellow discolourations were long, jagged white ridges of—scar tissue? Running from his shoulders to his waist and overlapping each other, as if something had clawed him open at some point in the past. Repeatedly.
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Mint Kang, 2009 Mirror straightened, glass in hand, and caught Jet staring. He seemed about to say something, then looked away and resumed his seat. Jet, who was insensitive at the best of times, said, “What the hell was that?” “I beg your pardon, cousin?” Mirror said rather distantly. “On your back,” Jet said, leaning forward to peer over Mirror’s shoulders. “Who beat you up? And what the hell are those scars?” Mirror’s expression went flat and vacant. Then, his voice toneless, he said, “My father’s guards, both times.” “What?” “The Dar Tower guards,” Mirror said, staring into his empty glass. “He has them…do things sometimes. To amuse him.” “What the hell did they do to you?” “I tried to run away when I was fifteen,” Mirror said. “He ordered the guards to whip me. I nearly died.” A long pause. “Can we talk about something else now?” Jet thought about Lord Helios Visterra of Dar Tower, a tall thin man with a face as cruel as an exaggerated movie villain’s, and about the sickly look which all the Visterra cousins seemed to have. There were laws preventing the aristocratic families from interfering in each other’s internal affairs, but it would take someone blind and deaf to not notice that things were more than a little amiss in Dar Tower. “Your father is crazy,” was what he said out loud. “And if my father tried to do that to me, I’d break his bloody arm.” “I’m not good at breaking arms,” Mirror said. “My father and I came to a…different kind of accommodation. It took a while, but he saw reason. Eventually.” Jet started to ask what kind of accommodation Mirror and his father had come to, and sat back down instead. Even without the anti-interference laws, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the details. Several of the peanuts had crawled onto his tunic, and he flicked them off. They hit the floor and wriggled away under the table. “Are those even edible?” Mirror said, peering after the stray peanuts and then poking about in the dish with one finger. “I’m not trying,” Jet said, glad of the change in subject. “Did that one just wink at me?”
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Mint Kang, 2009 Mirror gingerly picked up the offending peanut between thumb and finger. “I don’t see any eyes,” he said, and gave it an experimental squeeze. The shell popped open with a damp crack and a puff of peppery dust. Mirror sneezed. So did Jet. “The insides are crawling,” Mirror said with a mixture of disgust and fascination. He held the peanut out to show Jet, who hurriedly leaned back. The contents of the peanut were not something he wanted anywhere near his face, let alone in his stomach. Their antics with the peanuts had attracted the attention of several black-robed people at the next table. “Fancy-pants aristos,” someone commented loudly. “Show them a peanut and they don’t know what to do with it.” Jet flushed and pushed his chair back. “What did you just call me?” he demanded. The black-robed man who had spoken stood up, grinning. His face was very pale, and his lips and eyes had dark rims. None of it looked like make-up. “I’ll call you anything I like, fancy-pants,” he said. “This is not a good idea,” Mirror said, also standing up. The patrons at the nearby tables were quietly slipping away. Jet ignored his companion, picked up his chair and threw it at the black-robed man. He dodged; the table went over with a crash; and suddenly all six of the black-robes were on their feet, grinning and holding long, curved knives. “Our Goddess’s altar runs dry, brothers,” one of them said. “Some fancy-pants blood will wet it well,” the first one replied, and all of them started forward. Jet snatched out his own knife, already knowing this would be a losing fight. They were between him and the door. Mirror, unarmed and not even wearing body armour, would be worse than no help. And while he was thinking that, Mirror picked up one of the glasses and threw it accurately at the nearest light fixture. The supposedly unbreakable glass exploded. So did the light fixture, in a searing white flash that lit up the entire café. Jet yelled in pain, dropped his knife and clutched at his eyes. Shouts and curses to his front told him that the black-robes had been blinded too.

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Mint Kang, 2009 “This way,” Mirror’s voice hissed in his ear, and a thin hand grabbed his arm and dragged him, stumbling, through what felt like every table and chair in the café until he lurched out into the cooler night air. Mirror broke into a run then, and Jet followed blindly, his free hand thrust stiffly out to ward off any obstructions. Somehow he didn’t crash into anything or fall over anything, and they finally slowed to a halt. Mirror was gasping for breath and leaning on Jet for support by then. Jet propped him up with one arm and rubbed furiously at his eyes with his other hand. His vision was slowly returning, although it consisted mostly of a huge spiky purple blotch. “Just so you know,” Mirror wheezed, “those were priests of DamniDar. They need to spill blood every night, but they’re not allowed to do it unless someone wrongs them first.” Jet did not consider himself particularly superstitious, but he shuddered at the mention of Damni-Dar, the dark goddess of death, revenge and cruelty. “Wrong them?” he demanded to cover it up. “They started it!” “But you continued it,” Mirror pointed out. “Don’t worry, though. We just need to stay away from them for the rest of the night. They forgive all the night’s wrongs at sunrise every day.” “How do you know that anyway?” Jet said. He could make out their surroundings now—they were standing halfway along a row of art studios three or four streets away from the Purple Rain café. The plate glass window of the nearest studio had something suspiciously organic-looking suspended behind it. “Dar Tower, remember?” Mirror said. “One of the Four Towers named to appease the new gods. I had to learn about it.” Jet shrugged. He seldom paid attention to religion, old or new. “My father follows the worship of Damni-Dar,” Mirror remarked. “The practice of it, anyway. I doubt he pays much attention to the moral side.” “There’s a moral side to death, revenge and cruelty?” Jet said dryly, and started down the street in a random direction. He didn’t particularly want to get caught up in a discussion of religious tenets. “Oh, there is,” Mirror said, keeping pace with him. “Death for a purpose, revenge for justice, cruelty for enlightenment. And forgiveness, compassion and honour to the dead, to balance it all out.”
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The Cousin From Dar Tower
Mint Kang, 2009 “Quit trying to convert me,” Jet said. “Let’s just find somewhere else to drink.”

They did not, in the end, get to have another drink. This was because two actors from the Temporal Artists’ Association had a fight with a junk race driver at the end of the studio row, and won. The driver was carried off by his friends; the actors strutted around bowing for a while, and then the race leader shouted, “All right, we need a replacement driver,” and flung the unconscious driver’s keys into the crowd that had gathered to watch the fight. Jet ducked. Mirror did not, and the keys hit him in the face. “Ow!” he said. “Great!” the race leader shouted. “Here’s your car, you can bring your friend along.” Jet looked at the car. The car looked back with three flat tyres, a loose bumper, a cracked windshield and a hood that appeared to have been attacked with a sledgehammer. Junk racing was a popular sport in the Outer Zone, and involved taking the worst car you could find on as many circuits as you could, as fast as you could manage, until your car fell apart. The winner—or last surviving driver—got all the other drivers’ money. “I can’t drive,” Mirror said, and backed away. “I’m not driving that thing for you,” Jet said, and turned to leave. Two of the drivers blocked his path. “You drive,” the race leader said, “or your friend drives, or we cut your legs off and throw both of you into the canal.” “I’ll drive,” Mirror said, and reached for the door handle. It came off in his hand. The car started eventually, after Jet kicked it a few times. Then it proceeded in a series of long, horrible swoops from one side of the road to the other, jolting its passengers when it turned and making dreadful grinding sounds when it went in a straight line. The other cars in the lineup were no better. “Don’t hit that car! Don’t hit that car!” Jet found himself yelling over the grinding noise. “Don’t hit that one either!”

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The Cousin From Dar Tower
Mint Kang, 2009 “I’m trying,” Mirror shouted back, and immediately tail-ended the junker in front of them. Their car’s front bumper fell off. The other car’s boot fell off. The car on their left jerked ahead and collided with the disembodied boot. “This is all your fault!” Jet shouted as the junker groaned and ground up the curb, then crashed back down with a bang that threw him into the roof. “Why didn’t you duck the keys?” “I didn’t see them coming!” The convoy of junkers lurched noisily and painfully onto a long, straight stretch of Palatino Road, leaving a trail of broken parts. “Draaaaaaag raaaaaaaace,” the leader’s voice bawled over the grinding and stuttering of twenty-odd half-dead engines. “Damni-Dar save us,” Mirror moaned, and Jet eyed the cars flanking them and wondered how far he could get if he jumped out now and ran as fast as he could. “Go!” the leader screamed. The cars at the back took off, forcing those in front to start moving as well or be the cause of a massive pileup. Jet clutched the dashboard with one arm, put the other over his eyes and didn’t look up again until the car suddenly veered off the road and headed straight for the nearby canal. “What are you doing?” he screamed, lurching over and grabbing the wheel from Mirror. “It’s stuck!” Mirror screamed back. Jet gave the wheel a furious yank. It came off, throwing him into the door. He met Mirror’s appalled expression over the wheel’s cracked rim, and then the car went through the flimsy guardrails, soared out over the canal and dropped like a stone. Mirror, with a remarkable display of agility for someone so sicklylooking, went out the driver’s side window while the car was still airborne. Jet, hampered by the wheel and his armour, went out through the windshield when it hit the water. The canals of Alterstar were, to put it politely, filthy. They were full of chemicals, sewage and radioactive waste from the Outer Zone power plants. And they were also infested with several mutated species of fish and reptile that had evolved to withstand the pollution. Jet, who was not at all

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The Cousin From Dar Tower
Mint Kang, 2009 inclined to become a troglodator’s midnight snack, popped to the surface as fast as he could and struck out for the nearer bank armour and all. Mirror, unencumbered by weapons or armour, had already gotten there and helped him scramble out. Jet sat down hard and stared at the bubbles still rising to the surface where the car had gone down. After a while, the bubbles stopped. “Well, we ended up in the canal anyway,” Mirror said. “But with our legs,” Jet pointed out. They looked at each other, and burst out laughing.

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Mint Kang, 2009 Chapter 2 Dawn was breaking when the two of them made their way back to the inner city—it was amazing, Mirror noted, how two bar fights and a car crash made the time pass. “I don’t do this every night,” Jet said defensively. “Anyway, the car crash was your fault.” “I told you I couldn’t drive.” “You did drive—straight into the canal!” They argued on and off all the way to the Ka Tower bridge, and there the guards stopped them. The inner city was separated from the Outer Zone by a twenty-metre-wide chasm filled with heatless bluish light, that ran in an unbroken ring all the way around the inner districts. The chasm had been there for centuries; no one really knew what had caused it or what the blue light was. Popular superstition said that it was the gateway to the place where the gods lived. Occasionally a mad poet or a fanatic priest jumped in to find out. They never returned to report, though. Four bridges at the compass points joined the inner and outer parts of the city, each one maintained by one of the Four Towers and heavily guarded. The Ka Tower guards wore blue-green insignia, and when they saw Jet and Mirror—wet, dirty, dishevelled and stinking of canal water— they reached for their weapons. “You draw that thing on me and I’ll have you in the Infernarr dungeons,” Jet growled at the nearest guard. “Open that motherloving gate!” “I need to see some identity,” the guard said cautiously, keeping one hand on the stun rod at his belt. Jet wiped his right hand on the tatters of his tunic and slapped his palm down on the gatepost’s identity scanner. There was a moment of blinking confusion as the scanner tried to sort through canal slime, dirt, dried blood and whatever was under his fingernails, then it beeped green. “Oh,” the guard said. “Sorry, sir. Er…would you like to wash up in the guardhouse?” “Go to hell,” Jet said, and shoved past. Behind him, there was an odd noise from the scanner, and Mirror said something that sounded like a bad word.

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Mint Kang, 2009 Jet turned to see a blinking orange light, an embarrassed guard with his stun rod out and a resigned expression on Mirror’s face. “He’s with me,” Jet snapped. “House Visterra.” “I’m sorry, sir,” the guard said, apparently trying to speak to both Jet and Mirror at once. “Standing orders from Dar Tower. Step that way, please.” Mirror shrugged and started to follow the guard. Jet, less inclined to let things go, blocked his way. “What do you mean, standing orders from Dar Tower?” “I’m out here illegally,” Mirror said, and for a moment his mouth twitched into something like a smile. “According to the law of Dar Tower, that is.” Jet said several things about Dar Tower which made the guard blink, and finished with “Your father can jump off the bridge. Come on! And you put that thing away or I’ll break your bloody arm.” “Sir, I have orders,” the guard protested. Jet added a few comments about orders which made all the guards cough and look away. The guardhouse captain had emerged by this time, and he coughed as well, then said in a placatory tone, “High level orders, sir. I’m afraid we have no choice but to arrest your friend and hold him for Dar Tower. You can wait with him.” “You’re out of your motherloving mind,” Jet said. “Since when do you get orders to arrest a member of the Four Towers? I said put that thing away!” Mirror kicked him on the ankle. “Stay out of this,” he said from the corner of his mouth. “Or do you want to get arrested too?” There was movement at the other end of the bridge now, and Jet recognized the gold and gray insignia of Dar Tower, coming up quickly. “I am not going to stay out of this,” he said, and felt around for his gun. It was gone, probably at the bottom of the canal by now. “This is ridiculous! You’re from Dar Tower yourself and your own guards have orders to arrest you?” “They’re not my guards,” Mirror said. “They’re my father’s guards. Now just leave, for the old gods’ sake. I can take care of myself.”

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Mint Kang, 2009 The Dar Tower guards had arrived, and all of them had their stun rods out. Ignoring the Ka guards entirely, they moved in to surround Mirror. And to top it off, the one in the lead took out a pair of handcuffs. “Stop right there!” Jet exploded. “Are you crazy? He didn’t do anything!” The two Dar guards closest to him turned immediately, moving in perfect unison, their faces as expressionless as unpainted mime masks, and swung their stun rods at his head. Jet was almost too shocked to react; then bar brawling experience took over and he dodged the first blow, catching the other on his much-abused armguard. The rod was set to maximum. Even through the insulative plating, Jet’s arm went numb to the shoulder. He scrambled aside, groping for weapons that had long since disappeared in the night’s excitement, and the two Dar guards came after him, still completely expressionless. Then the Ka Tower captain moved in firmly, his men behind him, and said, “No brawling on my watch. Move it, you lot!” And the Dar Tower guards moved it, blank-faced and wordless, Mirror’s thin figure disappearing behind a wall of gold and gray armour that in turn disappeared down the street. Jet leaned on the gate, panting and clutching his still-numb arm, too furious to speak. He could barely believe what had just happened. The Ka guards retreated to their posts, prudently making a berth around him. After a while Jet collected himself, stormed through the gate and headed home.

The House of Infernarr was not a particularly rich or powerful house. Most of its notoriety came from the foul temper of Lord Casten de Melzaio—Jet’s father, the head of Infernarr and the Director of the Health Secretariat. During arguments, Lord Casten was known for throwing paperweights, files and anything else that came to hand at his opponents, and he had once publicly challenged the Lord of Ka Tower to a one-on-one duel in language that the news channels censored. Jet was not particularly concerned with his father’s temper right now. He was too angry himself. The estate staff, who knew the signs, stayed out of his way as he stormed through the entrance hall and up the
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Mint Kang, 2009 formal stair to his father’s office. There the secretary, an Infernarr cousin two years older than Jet, ran out from behind his desk waving his arms and hissed, “You can’t go in there! Your father’s meeting with the Health Secretariat!” Jet said something about the Health Secretariat which the news channels would have censored too. The cousin grabbed his arm. “At least go and change first, you stink like the bottom of a canal! I’ll tell him you’re here—” Shaking off the other man’s hand, Jet slammed through the door of the meeting room and shouted, “Something bloody well needs to be done about Dar Tower!” An astounded silence greeted his entry. There were six people in the room: Lord Casten, the other three members of the Health Secretariat, and two pedantic-looking men who were probably the secretariat’s latest advisors. Most of them looked surprised. One dark-haired woman was hiding a smile. “What happened to you?” Lord Casten said at last. “A Dar Tower guard hit me with a stun rod,” Jet ground out. “Set on maximum!” The actual language he used was as censorable as what he had said about the Health Secretariat. The two advisors looked shocked. The darkhaired woman put her hand to her mouth to hide a smirk. Lord Casten’s chair went over backwards with a bang. “A Dar Tower guard? Hit you with a stun rod?” Jet launched into the story of how he had met Mirror in the Outer Zone bar and—skipping the tale of the second bar fight and the crash in the canal, because even through his anger he still had a grip on his common sense—what had happened at the Ka Tower bridge. “He had scars, father! It’s insane! How can they do something like this?” The silence in the room had thickened and become ominous by now. Jet’s voice trailed away into it as he finally noticed the closed look on every face at the table. Only the dark-haired woman was smiling, and it was not a pleasant smile. Lord Casten stepped over his upended chair, took his oldest son by the shoulder in a very strong grip and walked him back through the door. “One moment,” he said to the assembled secretariat, and as soon as the door
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Mint Kang, 2009 closed, he spun Jet around and pushed him up against the wall. “Stay away from Dar Tower,” he said through clenched teeth. “Do you understand me?” “Stay away—what do you mean?” Jet shook himself free with some difficulty and they stood staring at each other, two nearly-identical faces eye to eye. “If you would do some proper work instead of carousing in the Outer Zone every night, you would know about the anti-interference laws!” Lord Casten hissed, his face reddening with the effort of keeping his voice low. “I know about them, and they don’t justify what I saw today!” Jet did not bother to keep his own voice down. “You idiot! Do you even know anything about Dar Tower?” Flushing himself as his temper started to rise again, Jet opened his mouth to tell his father exactly what he thought of Dar Tower. Then he stopped, because there was a very strange expression on Lord Casten’s face. “Under the law of House Infernarr, you are my son, the heir to my position, a full member of the nobility and a titled citizen of Alterstar,” Lord Casten said. His voice sounded as strangled as his expression. “Do you know what your new friend Mirror Visterra is?” Jet started to open his mouth again, and stopped again. Subtlety tended to be wasted on him, but he was suddenly having a very unpleasant feeling about this. “The Lord of Dar Tower’s surviving elders, his siblings, his children, his siblings’ children—everyone connected by blood to Dar Tower—are not members of the nobility,” Lord Casten said in the same strangled tone. “Under the law of Dar Tower, they do not even have citizenship rights. They are his property. If Helios Visterra wants to chain his son to the wall and beat him like a dog, he can. If he wants to sire bastard children on his own sisters, he can! And no one, no one has the legal right to interfere. He could charge you in court for breaching the noninterference laws because you tried to protect that boy from the guards! Do you understand that?” Jet’s mouth opened and closed. He shook his head, mostly out of disbelief. Lord Casten took it for denial, and pushed him into the wall again. “Stay away from Dar Tower. There’s nothing you can do there except get into more trouble than I would ever be able to get you out of!”

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Mint Kang, 2009 Finally, Jet found his voice. It came out as strangled as his father’s. “That’s—that’s beyond insane. Even the Outer Zone—I’ve never heard of anything like that even out there! How can he do it? This is a civilized place! How can something like that be allowed?” “Just stay away from Dar Tower!” Lord Casten said, shaking him by the shoulders so that the back of his head bounced off the wall. “Forget about Mirror Visterra. There’s nothing you can do for him or any of the Visterra cousins. Stay away from him and them, and don’t go near Helios Visterra!” Jet’s temper, stretched hair-thin by the morning’s events, snapped again. “Mirror Visterra saved my life last night! Twice! I won’t hear any of this—this garbage. To hell with the Dar Tower laws. Laws can be changed, can’t they? You changed the laws of our house!” “Those were the laws of our house,” Lord Casten snapped. “I can’t do anything about Dar Tower!” “Can’t? What are you, afraid of Helios Visterra?” Jet sneered. “You challenged Lhern of Ka Tower to a duel! And you threw the head of the Development Secretariat into an ornamental pond! Or did you pick the two of them because they wouldn’t fight back?” Lord Casten went red to the hairline. “Don’t throw my own actions in my face!” he roared. “You spend your days and nights brawling in the Outer Zone slums, you don’t even understand the most fundamental laws governing your own house—” “What I understand,” Jet out-shouted him, “is that you’re too much of a coward to challenge the status quo even when it’s obviously gone wrong!” Lord Casten’s right hand bunched into a fist. The next instant, Jet found himself flat on his back on the carpeted floor, his ears ringing and his jaw feeling as though it had snapped in two. “Another word out of you and I’ll change Infernarr law to reflect Dar Tower’s!” Lord Casten roared. Jet sat up. “You wouldn’t dare,” he said dizzily. From the corner of his eye, he could see the secretary hiding under his desk, eyes screwed tightly shut and hands clasped in what appeared to be fervent prayer. “You’d never—”

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Mint Kang, 2009 Lord Casten reached for a chair. Ringing ears and all, Jet made it out of the door half a second before the chair hit the floor where he had been.

In direct defiance of his father’s orders, Jet stormed to his rooms and called Dar Tower. Or tried to. There were only two numbers listed in the directory: the general line and Lord Visterra’s direct line, which Jet did not have either the authorization or the inclination to use. He spent half an hour hunting in vain for any other numbers, then gave up and went to change out of his damp and by now very smelly clothes. Bath, breakfast and a handful of painkillers later, Jet felt considerably more clear-headed. Someone had left a stack of files in his study, probably his father’s secretary hinting that he ought to read up on the laws of the noble houses. Jet poked around in them for a while. Then, rubbing the bruise growing on his jaw, he slipped out the back gate and went to call on Dar Tower in person. Dar Tower stood at the southernmost point of the inner city, looming over the bridge it guarded with as little personality as the blank-faced guards who marched up and down before its gates. The gates were very heavily barred, Jet noticed, and the walls were very high. Needle-like spikes bristled from the top of walls and gate alike. There were no windows anywhere in sight, not in the walls, and not in the bluish-gray façade of the tower itself. Telling himself there was nothing intimidating about the place, Jet marched up to the tower gates and looked in vain for the guard captain. There seemed to be no officer in charge here—just six guardsmen with no rank insignia whatsoever. “You over there!” he snapped at the nearest one. “Where’s your commanding officer?” Six blank expressions turned towards him, and turned away again. The way they all reacted in unison was sufficiently unnerving that Jet took a few steps back before collecting himself. “I asked you where your commanding officer was!” he repeated, his voice rising. Six blank expressions looked at him again and looked away again. He might have been talking to a collection of clockwork dummies.

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Mint Kang, 2009 Jet’s temper started to rise again. He stamped forward and demanded into the first guard’s face, “Do you know who I am, you bloody idiot?” “What he knows is not important,” a voice said lazily behind him, and Jet leapt right off the ground. “Turn around when I speak to you, boy.” Jet was already turning, grabbing automatically for the enamelled pistol at his belt. His fingers closed around it just as he saw the tip of a stun rod right in his face. His eyes crossed. Behind the stun rod, a pair of thin lips curved into a smile. “Are you trying to draw that gun on me, boy?” With an effort, Jet let go of the pistol, stepped away from the stun rod and made a jerky bow. “Good morning, Lord Visterra,” he said, trying so hard to keep his reaction under control that his voice came out in a barely recognizable squeak. Lord Helios Visterra did not acknowledge the greeting or lower the stun rod. Behind him, another squad of six guards had emerged from the guardhouse and spread out into a line covering the gates. It was a formation that Jet had seen in bar fights, just before a large group beat the crap out of a smaller one. In fact, he had seen it just last night, when the priests of Damni-Dar tried to corner him and Mirror in the Purple Rain café. That thought got him back into focus. Forcing his voice back to a normal pitch, he said, “I apologize if I have interrupted anything.” Over the shoulders of the guards, he could see an official car drawn up at the curb, the Dar Tower insignia swirled across its half-open door in twisting gold and gray. In his annoyance with the guards, he hadn’t even heard it arrive. “Jet de Melzaio of House Infernarr,” Lord Helios said thoughtfully. “What are you doing here, then?” The stun rod was still pointed at Jet’s face, and he couldn’t move to either side without bumping into the gate guards. “I was looking for Mirror,” he said, and then, rather stupidly, “I owe him a drink.” Lord Helios’s expression changed so swiftly and suddenly that Jet’s eyes, still fixed on the glowing tip of the stun rod, crossed again. Then it was back to normal, and in the same lazy voice, the Lord of Dar Tower said, “Keep your hands off my property, boy. And that includes my guards.” “Your property!” Jet burst out, all his anger coming back.

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Mint Kang, 2009 The stun rod moved forward like a striking snake. Jet recoiled, and the guards flanking him seized his arms. There was a moment of frantic scuffling on his part—the guards barely moved—then it ended with the tip of the stun rod so close to his face that he could feel his nose going numb. Lord Helios was smiling now. “Your father excels at shouting and throwing things,” he said. “I don’t doubt you do too. But shouting at me is not a good idea, boy. Or are you too dense to have realized that yet?” With a tremendous effort, his eyes now watering from the stun rod’s field, Jet made himself say, “I apologize, Lord Visterra,” and clamped his mouth shut before anything else—like censorable language—came out. “You seem very reluctant to do so,” Lord Helios said. He extended one long finger, as slim and delicate as a woman’s, and touched the bruise on Jet’s jaw—not gently, but prodding hard. “One of my sons used to be very much like you. Stubborn, defiant, given to physical action.” Jet was fighting an urge to cringe away by now, and not just because the prodding hurt. There was something indefinably nasty about the way Lord Helios was leaning over him, not only leaning but looking very closely at his expression. “Very much like you,” Lord Helios repeated. “Breaking him was…very enjoyable.” He stared into Jet’s eyes for a moment longer, then stepped back and nodded to the guards. With a powerful heave, they shoved Jet forward and released his arms. Jet staggered several steps forward, fell off the edge of the curb and landed on his face in the road. As he pushed himself back up, spitting out dust, he heard the car door close and Lord Helios’s voice say through the open window, “Run home to your father, boy, and enjoy the freedom he gives you…while it lasts.” The car started. The gates of Dar Tower opened to admit it, then slammed shut. Jet stood in the middle of the road and stared at the barred gates, and wondered if, in the heat of the moment, he had only imagined the sudden hate and fear that passed across Lord Helios Visterra’s face at the mention of Mirror’s name.

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Mint Kang, 2009 Chapter 3 When Jet was on bad terms with his father—which was most of the time—he stayed in an Outer Zone shop loft rented from a pair of elderly chemists. It was run-down, the roof leaked and foul smells from the laboratory downstairs came up through the floor. On the other hand, his landlords never paid attention to what he did unless the rent was late. He left the inner city by the Ka Tower bridge—the guards stared straight ahead and pretended they hadn’t seen him—and headed straight for the shop loft, where he rolled onto the couch and slept undisturbed for the rest of the day. Shortly after sunset, a piercing warble woke him up. Jet opened one eye, saw an incoming call on the multipurpose screen opposite the couch and ignored it. A few seconds later, the warble was joined by a horrible sulphurous smell from downstairs. Jet swore, sat up and gave the screen a kick, and was then astonished to see Mirror’s face on it. “Good evening, cousin,” Mirror said. He looked very tired, and there appeared to be a fresh bruise under his left eye, although the screen was so scratched and fogged that it was hard to tell. “May I ask a favour of you?” Jet leapt off the couch. “How did you—I thought your father’s guards arrested you!” “I got away,” Mirror said. “And I’m afraid I need your help now.” “What for?” “I don’t have any money or anywhere to stay,” Mirror said, “and the guards are looking for me. If you could do anything…” Jet called him a number of censorable names, and then, because the stench coming up through the floor was getting worse, he slammed out of the loft and went to see what he could do. Mirror had made the call from the Mosaic, a hole-in-the-wall bar right on the edge of the darkside quarter. The bartender was dressed in black robes uncomfortably similar to what the priests of Damni-Dar wore, and he seemed to have too many teeth; the lighting was very dim and things kept rustling in the shadows around the walls. Jet kept his eyes averted from the rustling things and the other patrons, and eventually found Mirror asleep at the end of the bar with his
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Mint Kang, 2009 head propped on one hand. Even in the dim light he was visibly the worse for wear. Not only was he still wearing the same torn and dirty clothing from last night, his lower lip was swollen and the bruise under his eye was even bigger than it had looked on screen. Jet gave him a rough shake. Mirror started up and nearly fell off the stool before realizing who it was. “Good evening, cousin,” he said faintly. “Thank you for coming. I hadn’t expected it.” “What the hell happened to you?” Jet said. His temper was starting to rise again, directed largely at Lord Helios Visterra. “I suppose you could call it a…misunderstanding,” Mirror said, turning his head to move the bruise out of Jet’s view. “I see you had one too. Who’d you get that from?” Jet rubbed his own jaw rather self-consciously. “Had a fight with my father,” he said shortly, and then, more explosively, “And your father is a bloody rooster-worshipping maniac!” “Have a care,” Mirror murmured. “Someone might interpret that as an insult to Damni-Dar, and we are in the darkside quarter.” Jet choked back several censorable comments and growled, “Let’s get out of here.” The stench in the shop loft had mostly dissipated by the time they got back, but there was still a trace of rotten eggs wafting up from the floorboards. Mirror didn’t seem to notice. He sank down on the couch and stared, glassy-eyed, at the opposite wall. After a while he said, “Sorry. I’ve been running from guards all day.” Jet stared at the marks on his friend’s face. He was not the sort of person given to imagination or empathy, but he found himself wondering uneasily what went on behind the high gates and windowless walls of Dar Tower. The bruise on his jaw throbbed—well, the entire Health Secretariat and his father’s personal assistant knew where that had come from. Who knew where Mirror had picked up that black eye? “Can I have a drink?” Mirror said. His voice was even thinner and more exhausted than it had sounded in the bar. Jet went to the pantry and dug out several cans of beer, but when he returned to the main room Mirror had fallen asleep with his head dangling over the back of the couch. His eyes were closed and his mouth was open,

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Mint Kang, 2009 and he looked so corpselike that Jet put the beer down and went to feel for his pulse, which was, contrary to appearances, present. “The hell with this,” Jet said out loud, and went off to find something more amusing than watching Mirror Visterra snore.

Someone started banging on the door early the next morning, hard enough to make the whole apartment shake. Jet opened one eye and stared blearily at the splintery wooden surface under his cheek for some time before realizing that he was lying on the floor. “Open up!” an unfamiliar voice shouted. “Open in the name of Dar Tower!” Swearing under his breath, Jet staggered to his feet and turned in several circles before locating the door. The light coming in through the open window was far too bright, and the inside of his mouth tasted like canal water. “Open in the name of Dar Tower!” the person at the door shouted. “They’ve come for me,” Mirror said from the couch, where he was sitting up and rubbing the back of his neck. His voice was eerily calm, and his face had the blankly lifeless expression that had given Jet the impression of a walking corpse when they first me. “Someone probably saw me coming in here last night.” The shouting and pounding had paused. Jet, now more or less awake, looked around the loft and saw nothing that could be used as a hiding place. “You’d better leave,” Mirror said. “They’ll beat you up if they think you helped me.” “The hell with that,” Jet said, and ran into the pantry, which had a small window overlooking the alley behind the shop. After yesterday’s series of run-ins, the last thing he wanted to do was get into another fight with Dar Tower guards. The alley was empty. “Get in here!” he shouted just as a heavy crash came from the door. The Dar guards had apparently decided that since knocking was getting no response, they might as well break the door down. Mirror came into the pantry, his face still corpselike. “Window,” Jet snapped.
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Mint Kang, 2009 Mirror’s thin frame got through the narrow casing with no trouble; he cleared the single-storey drop untidily, sprawling sideways and thumping into the wall. Jet paused just long enough to see that Mirror hadn’t broken a leg with the messy landing, then dived through the window himself—and stuck. His shoulders would have caught anyway, and the body armour, which he’d forgotten to take off last night, was making things worse. There was no time to stop and undress, though. The loft door was as flimsy as the rest of the building; another second and the Dar guards would be through. He ground out a number of censorable things between clenched teeth, and heaved. The entire window frame came loose from the wall, along with several bricks. Jet crashed to the ground in a tangle of splintered wood, kicked his way out of it and took off down the alley, dragging Mirror with him. Shouts came from the front of the building, and two guards appeared at the alley mouth. They were too late, though. Jet skidded out into the next street and kept running, shoving through the few early morning pedestrians with one arm and hanging onto Mirror with the other. He did not stop until they were right out of the neighbourhood, by which time Mirror was not just gasping for breath but coughing in huge doubled-over spasms that shook his thin body. “What’s wrong with you?” Jet snapped irritably. He was breathing hard himself, and had splinters in his arms from the window frame. Mirror’s legs seemed to collapse under him and he folded up on the curb, where he went on coughing for some time. Finally he raised his head and said unsteadily, “You shouldn’t have done that.” “Done what?” “You should have let them take me.” He started to cough again and managed to get it under control this time. “My father holds long grudges, and he can make things very difficult for you.” Jet said several things about Lord Helios Visterra’s grudges which made the nearby pedestrians move away from him. Then he added some comments about Dar Tower, and a wide berth suddenly opened around where he stood. Across the street, a group of LaLa punks in lurid purple latex hooted and clapped. Mirror stared down at the pavement for a while after Jet had finished swearing, then said, “The time I tried to run away…no one would help me
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The Cousin From Dar Tower
Mint Kang, 2009 because they were afraid of what my father would do. In the end the receptionist at the Southway Sanitarium turned me over to the guards. I don’t blame her.” Despite himself, Jet’s gaze drifted down to Mirror’s thin shoulders. “You don’t blame her? She knew what they’d do to you and she still—” “She didn’t have a choice,” Mirror interrupted. “My father could have had SouthSan closed down and all of the staff arrested. And people who go into his dungeons…sometimes don’t come back out.” His expression was nearly blank as he said this. Jet looked away hurriedly and, to take his mind off Dar Tower’s dungeons, said, “What were you doing at SouthSan anyway? No one goes there except crazy people.” “I was trying to rescue my sister,” Mirror said. “You were what?” Jet said, then after a moment, “Your sister? You have a sister?” “Yes.” “Wait a minute. Wasn’t there something about some girl from your House who went mad and got locked up five years ago? In the Southway Sanitarium?” “Yes.” “You mean that was your sister?” “Yes,” Mirror said again. Jet had not paid much attention to the story when it came out. There hadn’t been many details anyway—just a rumour that one of the Visterra cousins had been institutionalized. One version of the story said she had gone berserk and attacked someone with a knife, another version said she had stripped off all her clothes and tried to jump off the Dar Tower bridge. Or maybe both. “I thought that if I could get her out, we could change our names and hide somewhere in the Outer Zone,” Mirror said softly. He shrugged. It was a very small movement, and it made Jet remember the long, jagged white scars tracing the length of his back. If Helios Visterra wants to chain his son to the wall and beat him like a dog, he can. If he wants to sire bastard children on his own sisters, he can… And what would Lord Helios Visterra do to his daughter before putting her in a sanitarium?

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Mint Kang, 2009 For the second time in as many minutes, Jet wrenched his thoughts away from the path they were taking. “With a father like yours, I’m not surprised she went mad,” he said roughly. “She wasn’t mad,” Mirror said, still not looking up. “That was just my father’s excuse for putting her away.” “That’s ridiculous! SouthSan won’t take in people who aren’t really insane. It’s against the law. And I bloody well know it. My father’s the Director of the Health Secretariat!” “But my father,” Mirror said, “is the Lord of Dar Tower.” Jet drew an angry breath to say exactly what he thought of Dar Tower and Lord Helios Visterra, and was cut off by a wash of exhaust. A large, gleaming official car had pulled up right beside him, and he had been too distracted by Mirror’s story to even notice its arrival. The car bore the insignia of House Infernarr, however, and when the door slid open it was his father’s personal assistant Carrus de Melzaio who got out, followed by three Infernarr guards. Carrus was tall and dark like most of the family, and although he was neatly turned out in a doublebreasted suit and Jet was unwashed, unshaven and still wearing yesterday’s wrinkled clothes, there was a definite degree of resemblance between the two of them. From the look on Carrus’s face, he was wishing that resemblance didn’t exist. “You stink,” he said, taking a step back. Then, “And you are going to be dead if Dar Tower catches up with you. Their guards have been looking for you since last night, and they have a warrant for your arrest.” “What?” Jet roared. “Is Dar Tower out of its mind?” Carrus looked at Mirror, who had retreated to the far side of the pavement. “No,” he said, “you are. What in the name of the old gods possessed you to take up with him?” Jet flushed angrily. “It’s my bloody life and I’ll take up with any bloody body I choose. You stay out of it!” “Your father ordered me to find you and pick you up,” Carrus snapped, “and he said I could arrest you if that was what it took to make you see sense. Now leave him here and get in the car! This district is crawling with Dar guards.” “You think you can arrest me? You motherloving son of a—”

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Mint Kang, 2009 Carrus ducked Jet’s swing and fled around the rear of the car. Jet lunged after him. The guards jumped back and looked on uncertainly. “Don’t just stand and stare!” Carrus yelled at them, dodging back around the front bumper. “Give me a hand!” Reluctantly, the guards moved forward. At that point, another commotion started at the end of the street, and a squad of Dar guards came around the corner with their stun rods drawn. They saw Mirror and started forward at a run. Mirror took off down the street with surprising speed. Jet moved to follow, and the Infernarr guards grabbed him. “Sorry, sir!” one of them panted. Jet cursed and lashed out, knocking everyone off balance including himself. All four of them sprawled sideways, right into the path of the oncoming Dar guards—who, unable to stop in time, crashed into the tangle of bodies. The LaLa punks across the street saw the makings of a brawl, cheered and charged to join in. So did half the nearby pedestrians. Eventually the Outer Zone police showed up and arrested five people, including Jet and two of the LaLa punks. The Infernarr guards regrouped around Carrus, whose nose was now bleeding profusely, and glared at the Dar guards—who had started peering around as if hoping to spot Mirror in the crowd of interested onlookers. Which they wouldn’t, Jet thought with sour satisfaction, because Mirror had gotten away cleanly in the confusion and was probably at the opposite side of Alterstar by now. Finally, the Dar captain figured out he wasn’t going to get anywhere that way and turned his attention to the Zone sergeant. “We have orders to hold de Melzaio,” he said crossly. “Dar Tower outranks your corps.” “This is our jurisdiction,” the sergeant retorted at the same time that Carrus blotted his nose on the sleeve of his suit and said, “Dar Tower does not have the authority to take any member of House Infernarr into private custody.” That started another argument, which ended when the LaLa punks suddenly knocked down the Zone cop nearest them and made a dash for it. In the commotion, the Zone sergeant and his men managed to retreat into their cars with the rest of the detainees, leaving Dar and Infernarr guards running after LaLa punks and each other. Jet spent the rest of the morning fuming in a Zone station cell. At noon Carrus showed up again, gave him a deeply jaundiced look and said,
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Mint Kang, 2009 “We got Dar Tower to drop the charges. Your father is still throwing things. If I were you, I wouldn’t come back home for at least a week.” Jet said a number of censorable things about Dar Tower and his father as the sergeant let him out of the cell. “And stay out of trouble!” Carrus shouted after him as he stamped out of the station. “Or is that too much to ask?”

The Dar guards had searched the shop loft, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they had trashed it. Jet kicked irritably through the debris, which was actually not all that bad. The loft had had very little furniture in the first place, and he didn’t keep much in it except a few changes of clothing. A clatter at the door made him spin around with one hand on his pistol, but it was only one of the elderly chemists who owned the shop. “No need to be so jumpy,” the white-coated old man said peevishly. “I just came to give you the bill for the door.” He cast a disapproving eye over the interior of the loft. “If you want the furniture replaced, you’ll have to do it yourself.” Jet signed the paper with very poor grace and practically threw it back. “No need to be rude either,” his landlord sniffed. “Just because your father heads the Health Secretariat!” Jet came very close to throwing the old man down the stairs at that point. He kept his hands down with a tremendous effort, and vented his feelings with a long and unoriginal stream of swear words instead. “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” the elderly chemist said, completely unimpressed, and departed with the signed bill halfway through the second sentence. Jet continued to swear until he ran out of breath. Then he righted the couch, sat down on it and glared at the multipurpose screen. It was one of the few items in the main room that the Dar guards hadn’t managed to break, and if there were any fresh scratches on it, they blended in with the mass of chips and scars already covering its surface. “Lord of Dar Tower, my arse,” Jet said out loud. “They wouldn’t admit someone just because he said so. No bloody way.”

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Mint Kang, 2009 Even with the anti-interference laws complicating things, there were regulations for Alterstar’s few mental institutions. Jet paid very little attention to his father’s work, but even he knew that you couldn’t just get someone locked up by saying they were crazy. She wasn’t mad, Mirror had said. Even the Lord of Dar Tower couldn’t have gotten a sane person committed to the Southway Sanitarium. But the Director of the Health Secretariat might have been able to. “Damn it!” Jet stood up so fast he knocked the couch over again. He reached for the screen, fingers automatically moving to dial his father’s private line. Then he stopped, kicked the battered surface as hard as he could and stormed out of the loft.

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Mint Kang, 2009 Chapter 4 The Southway Sanitarium was located, as its name suggested, along the main south-running highway in the eastern side of Alterstar. It was run by a private company which apparently had no name, but did have a lot of money. The front building was beautifully faced with tinted ceramics depicting giant concentric rings, with spherical windows floating in the rings like bubbles. The design was weirdly hypnotic, and Jet stood there looking up at it for almost ten minutes before someone tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Can I help you?” Jet swung around and nearly lost his balance. The visual shift from the concentric rings to the real world was disorienting, and his legs had gotten stiff from standing there too long. “Nice, isn’t it?” the white-coated man behind him said. “I like to stand out here and stare at it during the lunch hour. The rings have a marvellous relaxing effect.” “Whatever,” Jet muttered. Now that he had stopped looking at the rings, a pain resembling a hangover was starting behind his eyes. “So, are you delivering or taking away?” the white-coated man said cheerily, slapping Jet on the back. “You look like the delivering sort. Or are you checking yourself in? We have this new anger management programme, special discount if you have an inner-city duelling license. Come this way and I can show you the brochure. Oh, and I’m Teneiro, by the way. Dr Teneiro. Call me Ten. All our clients do.” It took Jet several seconds to work out what Dr Teneiro was talking about, and by then he had been propelled all the way into a large, airy foyer with more concentric rings on the walls and odd, liquescent-looking sculptures standing in the corners. “Delivery, self-check-in for anger management,” Teneiro yelled to the white-uniformed receptionist, and turning back to Jet, “Now if you just scan your ID in here, and we need a signature as well, I have a pen somewhere, oh dear me it’s gone down the inside of my shirt—” “I’m not checking myself in!” Jet said, retreating from the doctor, who was now spinning in circles and apparently trying to tie his arms into a knot through his white coat. “I’m here about—about the—what’s her name—the Visterra girl.”
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Mint Kang, 2009 The last few words came out in a rush as Teneiro made an alarming leap straight up in the air. A silver fountain pen flew out from between two of the doctor’s shirt buttons, narrowly missed Jet’s ear and clattered to the floor. There was a brief silence as everyone stared at the pen except for Teneiro, who was now trying to disentangle himself from his own tie. “Oh, a visitor,” the receptionist said finally. “Visitors scan in on this one. That one’s for clients and that one’s for referrals. No, no, that one’s for staff!” The scanner felt unpleasantly damp under Jet’s hand, and it paused for a long time before finally blinking green. “You’re all clear,” the receptionist said brightly. “Now who were you visiting again?” “I’m not visiting anyone,” Jet said stiffly. “I came here to ask some questions about the Visterra girl.” He stared hard at the receptionist, wondering if she was the one who had handed Mirror in to Dar Tower five years ago. The receptionist returned his stare with a confused expression. “You can’t ask questions,” she said. “We maintain complete patient confidentiality here. If you want to visit someone, go right in. But you can’t ask questions.” “Actually, he can!” Teneiro pointed out, waltzing up on Jet’s other side and stabbing a finger at the scanner screen. “He’s from the Health Secretariat. See? House Infernarr, de Melzaio. I knew it the moment I saw him. It’s the psychotype. Absolutely unmistakable.” “Oh, you’re from the Health Secretariat?” the receptionist said, her bright manner returning. “Why didn’t you say so?” Jet started to say that he was not from the bloody Health Secretariat, and stopped himself just in time. “I just want to know about the Visterra girl,” he said shortly. The receptionist’s fingers tapped and clicked at her keyboard. “We have only one Visterra registered here,” she chirped. “Legend Visterra from Dar Tower, is that right?” “I suppose so,” Jet said. He was starting to wonder about the naming traditions of Dar Tower. “So what was it you wanted to know?” Teneiro said, throwing a companionable arm around Jet’s back. “We don’t often get people asking
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Mint Kang, 2009 about Legend Visterra. In fact, you’re the first one since Dar Tower referred her—well, the second, but the first boy didn’t count. Security arrested him at the scanner. Very eventful day, that was.” Jet shook the doctor’s arm off. “Dar Tower referred her?” he said. “Did they go through the Health Secretariat?” “Of course not,” Teneiro said, sounding shocked. “She’s a special case, you know. One of those that don’t need your department’s clearance. In fact, I don’t think your people ever got involved. Well, you do have the files on her case, but then you’ve got the files on all the cases,” and he shrugged. Jet was not interested in files. “What do you mean, she didn’t need clearance?” he snapped. “Is she mad or not?” “Well,” Teneiro said, tapping the silver fountain pen against his chin and then rubbing it up and down his shoulder as if he were playing an imaginary violin. “That depends on how you look at it. You know all these new studies saying insanity is relative—they really confuse things. But she definitely meets all the criteria for Class Seven security. That’s where we’ve got her, in case the files didn’t mention it. Straight into a Class Seven ward the day they brought her in, and she’s still there now.” “You can visit her if you want,” the receptionist said brightly. “I’ll put a Health Secretariat clearance through right away.” “Fine,” Jet said. “I’ll talk to her now.” “Ooh, I’m so sorry,” the receptionist trilled. “A Class Seven ward means no physical, aural or visual contact allowed. You can see a bit, of course, but you can’t talk to her or touch her.” “Wrong! You can talk to her,” Teneiro pointed out, emphasizing each word with a stab of the fountain pen, “but she won’t be able to hear you or see you. In fact, she won’t even know you’re there. And if she did, she couldn’t answer you anyway. You know she’s been mute from birth, right?” “I didn’t,” Jet said, and gave the glass doors a longing look over his shoulder as the doctor, still chattering on about Class Seven security precautions, put one arm around his back again and ushered him towards a large bank of elevators. The elevator smelled strongly of someone’s leftover cologne, and it did not go up. It went down, so suddenly and quickly that Jet had to grab for

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Mint Kang, 2009 the handrail running around its walls. “So she’s been here for five years?” he said to cover it up. “Something like that,” Teneiro said. “She’s a most unusual case, you know, even for a Visterra psychotype. It’s absolutely fascinating how all the aristocratic houses have hereditary psychotype flaws. But then you people at the Health Secretariat would know all about that, what with Infernarr psychotypes all having anger management issues.” “I do not have anger management issues,” Jet snapped, moving as far away from the doctor as he could. All he got in return was a big, knowing wink. The display panel flashed a large 12, and the elevator came to a halt as suddenly as it had dropped. Teneiro skipped out, whistling something that might have been a two-decade-old pop song and waving expansively to the guards in the narrow chamber beyond the doors. Jet followed him reluctantly. It was a grey-walled, grey-floored chamber, with painfully bright fluorescent strips in the ceiling and little black lenses watching its occupants from all the corners, and the corridor behind it was exactly the same. A hefty metal door separated corridor and chamber—the guards only opened it after both Jet and Teneiro had scanned their ID—and there were more such doors separating the corridor into short segments, all needing ID scans to open. “This is an absolutely terrifying place,” Teneiro said happily as they went through the third one, the sound of their footsteps echoing off the low ceiling. “Did you know that the four most dangerous detainees in the Outer Zone are locked up on this level? It makes my flesh creep to think of it.” “Are you sure you aren’t one of them?” Jet said sourly, and winced despite himself when the doctor broke out into cheerful laughter that resounded deafeningly in the enclosed, disinfectant-smelling space. “House Infernarr’s sense of humour, I must make a note of that,” Teneiro declared, and straight away pulled out a notepad from his coat and began scribbling. Jet’s temper, already well strained by the headache budding behind his eyes, frayed further. “Will you bloody well stop fooling around and bring me to that girl?” he half-shouted.

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Mint Kang, 2009 “Patience, patience, my dear man!” Teneiro said. “It’s just around the next corner.” And he dived around a turn in the corridor and down a narrow side passage guarded by yet another metal door. Clenching his jaw to keep in a large amount of censorable language, Jet followed the doctor along the new passage and down a flight of steps into a small rectangular room with a large metal panel covering one wall. “Just a minute now,” Teneiro said, “they’ll open the window and you can have a look at her.” Jet waited, shifting irritably from foot to foot. Half of him wanted to stamp off in disgust and go get drunk in a good bar, one as far away from Dar Tower as possible. The other half was wondering with increasing unease what Teneiro had meant by Class Seven security and the four most dangerous detainees in the Outer Zone, and why Mirror’s sister would be down here. Then the metal panel slid down, revealing a thick glass pane behind it, and Jet forgot about bars, Dar Tower and uncomfortable questions. There was a room behind the glass pane, a smallish one, its walls lined with what appeared to be bulletproof plating. Little black monitoring lenses studded the plating, and head-sized conical metal protrusions were mounted at regular intervals all over walls, ceiling and even the floor. After a moment, Jet recognized them as riot-standard stun generators, the sort used by the Outer Zone police to break up major brawls. There was something large, squarish and blocky in the centre of the room. Jet stared at it for a long time before slowly realizing that it was a chair. Of sorts. It only qualified as a chair because there was someone sitting in it. In a way. The person in the chair was encased from neck to feet in something that could only be described as a full-body straitjacket, with a lot of padding. The only reason a human form was even distinguishable in the thing was because of the placement of the straps, and because the helmet at one end suggested the presence of a head—suggested, because there had to be at least twice as much helmet as there was head. Jet went on staring for several minutes more, his eyes making out more details—wires running out from the helmet, metal bars bracketing the straitjacket, rows of electronic locks, small blinking screens apparently
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Mint Kang, 2009 measuring vital signs. Then, his voice coming out strangled to his own ears, he said, “Is there actually someone in that thing?” “Not just someone,” Teneiro said happily. “Legend Visterra! She’s a most remarkable case, you know. Absolutely incredible! And we’ve managed to hold onto her for five years. Can you believe it? That equipment in there has held out for five years, and we haven’t had to replace more than ten percent of it! It’s a tremendous testimony to the technicians.” Jet’s stomach contracted in a way he usually associated with several drinks too many. “Let me out of here,” he said, turning violently away from the window and towards the stairs. “I say, are you all right?” Teneiro said. “You don’t look very well, and that’s unusual for your bloodline’s phenotype. I’ll just take a scan—” Jet lashed out without looking and felt his fist connect with the white lab coat. Teneiro gasped and doubled over, the medical scanner rattling out of his hand. Jet kicked it aside and bolted up the stairs, blood pounding in his ears and his stomach churning. He made it to the main corridor before losing everything he had eaten since last night. When he straightened up again, Teneiro and two white-suited guards were peering at him with identical expressions of interest. The only difference between them was that the doctor was holding his scanner, and the guards were holding activated stun rods. “Your reaction is fascinating,” Teneiro said, sounding as if it were a sincere compliment. “No, really! I’ve never heard of the House Infernarr psychotype including empathetic symptoms. It’s very unusual. Did your mother happen to be related to House Antelse? Or was your grandmother related to Ka Tower? I would love to draw up a genealogy chart, if you have the time—” “You people are sick,” Jet snarled. “Let me out of here!” Teneiro fussed, pleaded and protested all the way back to the elevator, up to the foyer and down the driveway. Then he stood mournfully at the gates and watched as Jet stamped off down the road. “You can come back any time!” he shouted. “Really, I mean it! I’ll make the time for you any day!” Jet replied with a number of censorable suggestions about what Teneiro could do with his time, but his stomach still ached too much to shout. If the doctor heard them, he didn’t react.
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Evening found Jet back in the Mosaic, sharing bar space with two unpleasantly hairy-looking men and something that kept rustling in the darkness just behind him. The hairy men kept giving him suspicious looks, which he ignored. He was too busy washing the image of that small room and the horrible chair away with alcohol. Five drinks later, he was still seeing it, and worse, he was now imagining what it would be like inside that straitjacket, strapped to that chair, shut away from light and sound and sensation—for five years. “Hey,” he said when the bartender brought his sixth glass. “You’re from the darkside quarter, right? Priests of the—the dark goddess and necromancers and all that crap.” The bartender paused midway through wiping the bar top, and nodded gravely. “So you’re not going to be shocked at this, right? I saw something sick today. Really sick.” Another grave nod. Jet reached for the glass, missed and got it on the second try. “There was this girl,” he said into the drink. “But I couldn’t even see if she was a girl, so she might have been a troglodator or a squid or anything under all that. A huge straitjacket. I couldn’t even see which end was her head. Those people are sick, you know?” The bartender kept nodding gravely, Jet kept drinking, and the story came out in long disjointed hiccups. At one point a tall pale woman in a black dress sidled up and whispered, “That sounds so sexy. Would you put me in a straitjacket like that?” “Get out of my face,” Jet snarled. “You look like the sort of man who could really wrap a woman up. I’ve got a straitjacket at home…” “I said get lost!” She leaned closer instead, her breath wafting the scent of spices into his face. “I’ll scream and fight if you want. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? I know you would…”

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Mint Kang, 2009 Jet’s stomach did a long woozy roll. The glass slipped out of his fingers. “I’m not like that,” he said, his voice more distinct than it had been for the last few hours. “I’m not like…like Helios Visterra…” And he threw up for the second time that day, right into her lap. Some time later the fog in his brain cleared to reveal the pitted surface of the sidewalk, closer to his nose than it should have been. Jet dragged his head up with some difficulty and found himself sitting on the curb outside the Mosaic. “Are you feeling better now?” a familiar voice said. Jet looked around cautiously, and discovered Mirror sitting next to him. The bruise beside his left eye had turned a bluish colour that almost resembled eyeshadow. “I saw your sister,” Jet said. “No, I didn’t see her. I just saw the thing they were keeping her in.” He shoved the memory forcefully away. “Where have you been all day?” “Here and there,” Mirror said. “I followed you from the sanitarium, by the way.” A pause. “I heard what you told the bartender.” “I don’t want to talk about it any more,” Jet muttered. “Thank you for going to see her,” was Mirror’s quiet reply. Jet pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. “I’m going to do something about this,” he said. “I’ll talk to my father. He’s the Director of the Health Secretariat. He’ll do something. He’ll have to. Even he can’t ignore something as—as sick as that.” “He won’t be able to do anything,” Mirror said, keeping pace with him. “The anti-interference laws are binding. Only the Lord of Dar Tower can reverse the order that sent my sister to SouthSan.” Mirror’s voice was quite calm as he said that, almost dispassionate. Jet stopped walking and stared down at him incredulously. Then he turned and punched the nearby wall hard enough to take the skin off his knuckles. “The Lord of bloody Dar Tower! Your bloody father!” “Yes,” Mirror said calmly. “You’re as crazy as them. How can you stand there and look so calm!” This time, Mirror looked away. “If you want to do something so badly,” he said, “you can get me in to see her. I never managed it the first time and—never mind.”
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Mint Kang, 2009 “Fine,” Jet growled, licking the blood off his hand. “We’ll go tomorrow morning!”

Jet’s clothing did not fit Mirror. The tunic dangled off him like a poorly-raised tent and everything, from sleeves to trouser legs to the belt, was too long. But the large, grubby white trenchcoat and the matching longvisored cap hid his face and figure completely, and that was the important thing. “Don’t expect me to help if you get caught,” Jet muttered as they made their way up the SouthSan driveway. “I’m in enough trouble with my father as it is.” “I envy you,” Mirror said. “What?” Jet bent and peered under the cap suspiciously. “Your father’s really fond of you, you know.” It was hard to tell in the shadow of the visor, but Mirror appeared to be completely sincere. Jet said a few things about his father that would have gotten him in even more trouble if Lord Casten had been there to hear them. “My father, on the other hand, isn’t even fond of himself.” Mirror did not appear to have heard Jet’s comments. His face had taken on the look that it had had when they first met—a slack, nearly vacant expression, eyes and mouth seemingly frozen. It was this expression more than his pallor that made Jet think of him as a walking corpse, and he only seemed to get it when he was thinking of Dar Tower. “Quit going on about your bloody maniac of a father,” Jet growled, glancing up and down the driveway. The journey here had been uneventful, but he still kept expecting a squad of Dar guards to show up and arrest them both. “He won’t be Lord of Dar Tower forever,” Mirror said distantly. “One day, my House will have a better head, and then all of us will be free.” And, to Jet’s relief, he ended the conversation by suddenly speeding up, so that the distance between them widened too much for a reply. “Oh, you’re back!” the SouthSan receptionist chirped when Jet pushed through the heavy glass doors of the lobby. “Is it about Legend Visterra again? You’ll need a staff member to verify you through Class

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Mint Kang, 2009 Seven, so shall I call Dr Teneiro? And please scan in while you wait. No, that scanner! And your friend too.” Jet looked at the waiting scanner, and thought of the last time Mirror had tried to scan through the Ka Tower bridge. “He’s with me,” he said shortly. “He has to scan in anyway,” the receptionist said firmly. Jet drew a breath to shout at her, and had it knocked right out of him by a heavy thump on the back. “Good morning,” Teneiro cried, banging an enormous file down on the receptionist’s counter. “De Melzaio, isn’t it? Have you come to try out the anger management programme? I see you’ve brought a friend with you. Looks like the Health Secretariat is invading! Jennifer, be so good as to wrap this up and send it to the Terrestria Psychic Studies Department with some flowers. Dead ones.” “What the hell did you hit me for?” Jet demanded. “And I told you I’m not interested in your anger management programme.” “It’s Health Secretariat business,” Mirror said unexpectedly. “Can we get clearance, please?” “It’s not—” Jet started in annoyance, then stopped. He could hardly tell them who Mirror really was. “Your voice sounds familiar,” Teneiro said suddenly. Leaving the receptionist to wrestle with the file, he leaned over and tried to peer under the cap. “My goodness! You look just like a classic House Visterra phenotype. You’re not related to them by any chance, are you?” Mirror retreated. The doctor followed, pulling out his medical scanner and bending almost double in an attempt to see Mirror’s face clearly. “Get away from him,” Jet snapped, and when Teneiro paid no attention, he grabbed the back of the doctor’s collar and hauled him backwards physically. “Calm down, calm down, my dear man!” Teneiro cried, flailing both arms around to keep his balance, and hitting Mirror in the head. The grubby white cap flew off and landed beside one of the odd sculptures. “Ow,” Mirror said in a resigned voice. “Damn!” Jet said.

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Mint Kang, 2009 “I knew you were a Visterra phenotype,” Teneiro exclaimed, trying to shake himself loose from Jet’s grip. “Never heard of a Visterra working for the Health Secretariat though. How did you manage to get permission? I’ve never even heard of a Visterra getting out of Dar Tower, in fact. Other than that boy five years ago, and they caught him in just a few hours anyway. And I say, you look really familiar. Have I seen you before?” “You haven’t!” Jet said, moving sideways to block the doctor’s view of Mirror, and over his shoulder, “Get that cap back on! We’re leaving.” “No, we aren’t,” Mirror said quietly. He picked up the cap, stuffed it into a pocket of the trenchcoat, looked straight at Teneiro and the receptionist and said, “Neither of you has seen me before.” There was a strange note to Mirror’s voice, one that was hitting all the wrong places in Jet’s head. His stomach rolled as if he had been drinking. He put one hand on the counter to steady himself, and saw Teneiro doing the same thing. The receptionist was blinking and looking suspiciously at the file in her arms. “It’s Health Secretariat business,” Mirror repeated. “Can we get clearance, please?” And almost without transition, they were past the scanners and following Teneiro into an elevator that reeked of a woman’s floral perfume. Jet blinked again and again, trying to shake the odd feeling that the two halves of his brain had become disencoupled and were floating in orbit around his head. He remembered the receptionist dropping the file heavily on the counter and fussing with her keyboard, remembered a green flash as he scanned through, remembered Mirror walking straight past the scanner while Teneiro smiled and nodded stupidly—and all the memories were distant and somehow blurred, as if he had watched them happening in a movie a long time ago rather than having just gone through them. The elevator dropped and opened. Teneiro waved happily to the guards, who waved back just as cheerfully. They went down the narrow grey corridors, through the heavy metal doors and down the steps of the side corridor. When the metal panel started to slide down, Jet deliberately looked away. It did no good, though. He could still see the image of the horrible blocky chair and its buried occupant, who might have been anything from a deformed darkside squid to a dressmaker’s faceless dummy to—and this last
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Mint Kang, 2009 image came up despite Jet’s attempts not to see it—an ordinary girl, a young woman now, just a normal young woman who had had the horrendous bad luck to be Helios Visterra’s daughter, a normal young woman who had been trapped in there for five years—and his stomach rolled over again and tried to come out through his throat. Jet took a hasty step towards the exit, and was arrested by the sight of Mirror standing right in front of the dividing pane. His hands were pressed against the glass as if he were trying to push through it, his face was so close to the slightly tinted surface that his breath was starting to fog it, and, as Jet stared, he slowly leaned forward and rested his forehead against the glass as well. There was something so weirdly tragic in Mirror’s posture, against the backdrop of the nauseating little room behind the glass, that Jet forgot about wanting to throw up and just stood there staring. Teneiro was staring too, one hand caught in the act of pushing his spectacles up, scanner dangling forgotten from his fingers. They stayed like that for minutes, or it might have been hours, and then Mirror suddenly straightened up, turned away from the window and said, “Let’s go.” When they emerged from the main building, Jet was startled to find that it was past noon. Somehow he’d had the impression that much less time had passed. Mirror had relapsed into a moody silence, head hanging and both hands shoved into his pockets, and even the voluble Teneiro seemed to be somewhere off in the clouds. He followed them halfway down the driveway, muttering, “Dar Tower! Dar Tower! By the old gods, what a psychotype!” and then disappeared into one of the side buildings without so much as a wave. “Bunch of freaks,” Jet growled. “They’re the ones who should be locked up.” Mirror shrugged. “I need a drink.” Mirror shrugged again. “Well, you saw her. Happy now?” Another shrug. Jet stopped, turned and glared down at the slighter form of his companion. “Quit doing that! You nearly got caught back there. That
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Mint Kang, 2009 goddamn doctor recognized you! If he hadn’t—” Jet paused, still not sure just what had happened. “It’s all right,” Mirror said softly without looking up. “Like hell it is. Why did you even bother to see her? You can’t do anything! I can’t do anything! You didn’t even get to see her bloody face!” “Thank you for helping,” was all Mirror said. Jet vented his feelings by kicking one of the ornamental rocks lining the driveway, hard enough that it rolled a short distance. Then he cursed all the way to the main road because his foot hurt.

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Mint Kang, 2009 Chapter 5 There were Dar Tower guards all over the Outer Zone, in twos and threes—patrolling the streets of the LaLaLand district, standing around the college campuses along Southway, lurking at Zone police roadblocks and getting dirty looks from the officers. The only place free of them was the darkside quarter, but then the darkside quarter tended to be free of normal people. “This is bloody ridiculous!” Jet shouted, yanking his own cap off and hurling it across the room. He followed it with the stained lab coat he had grabbed from a used-clothes store beside the Terrestria School of Medicine, when it became obvious that the Dar guards were hunting both him and Mirror. The coat’s sleeves, which were too tight, had already split along the seams. “You didn’t need to come with me,” Mirror said, sounding a little pained. “You expect me to leave you alone out there with your crazy father’s guards going through the whole Outer Zone?” “I can take care of myself.” “Like that?” Jet sneered, slapping his open hand down on Mirror’s shoulder and nearly knocking the younger man off his chair. He could feel the ridges of scar tissue through the thin fabric of Mirror’s tunic. They had taken refuge in a dilapidated rooming house several streets into the darkside quarter, run by a skeletally thin woman with six-inch-long fingernails and an enormous black tattoo covering three quarters of her face. There was greenish mould on the ceilings, the uncarpeted floorboards sagged dangerously and a faint unpleasant smell of rotten meat exuded from the walls. Mirror caught the arm of the chair to steady himself and blinked at the furry grey layer that came off on his hand. “I don’t want to get you in trouble,” he said, sounding as if he were talking to the dust rather than to Jet. “You already got arrested once.” “So what?” Mirror looked as if he were about to speak. Then he wiped his hand on the chair, succeeding only in smearing the dust around, and lowered his gaze to the floor. And sat there, silent and unmoving, for the next few
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Mint Kang, 2009 minutes while Jet glared at him and the odour of decay from the walls got stronger. Finally the silence became too much. Jet exploded, “So you’re just going to sit there? And wait for your father’s guards to come for you?” Mirror shrugged slightly. Jet said a number of things, very loudly and obscenely, about Mirror’s lack of common sense. He added some remarks about Dar Tower, Lord Helios Visterra and the Southway Sanitarium, and only lowered his voice when he realized that the louder he shouted, the worse the rotten stench from the walls got—and this was the darkside quarter. Mirror had remained unmoved and unmoving through the whole tirade. Even the increasingly foul smell appeared to have no effect on him. “Fine!” Jet half-shouted. “Sit there if you want. I hope the guards find you and drag you back to Dar Tower!” And he slammed out of the room, as much to get away from the unnerving stink as to keep himself from landing a punch or two in the middle of Mirror’s pallid, indifferent face. Fifteen or twenty minutes of fast walking in the clearer air outside brought him back out of the darkside quarter. There was no actual boundary, just an odd feeling that the sunlight had gotten slightly brighter and the air more fresh. Which was ridiculous, since the air of the Outer Zone was none too clean at its best. Jet halted on an overpass and glared down at the road below. There was very little traffic in or out of the darkside quarter by day—a few beat-up vans, several covered trucks, one black-painted hearse whose driver was amusing himself by leisurely drifting in and out of every lane in turn. And, coming up behind the hearse, an armoured car blazoned with the Dar Tower insignia. Jet ducked behind the battered guardrails and watched as the car turned down the main road he had just come out of. When it was out of sight he came down off the overpass at a run and headed through the side streets, trying to calculate how long the guards would take to find their way to the rooming house. There was no armoured car anywhere near the shabby little building. And when Jet burst into the stinking dust-furred room, there was no Mirror either.
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Mint Kang, 2009 “Where did my friend go?” he demanded of the skeletal landlady in the lobby. “Did—did the Dar Tower guards take him away?” “He left right after you did,” she replied in a rasping, apathetic voice. “I haven’t seen nothing of Dar Tower,” and she made a small twisting movement of one hand. It was a gesture common to darkside worshippers of Damni-Dar, and seeing it associated with Dar Tower bothered Jet more than he wanted to admit. “Where did he go?” he snapped at the woman, keeping his eyes averted from the tattoo on her face. Its design, too, was unpleasantly reminiscent of the Dar Tower insignia. “Said he went visiting his sister,” she rasped, and turned away with obvious disinterest. “Visiting his sister? We just got out of that place! That motherloving idiot!” Jet plunged back out into the street at a run. What in the name of—of Damni-Dar did Mirror think he was doing? Half an hour of searching the adjacent streets turned up neither Mirror nor any Dar guards. Cursing, Jet gave up on the darkside quarter and headed for the Southway Sanitarium. He had forgotten his makeshift disguise, and spent the entire trip dodging Dar guards—one consolation, he thought sourly, was that if Dar Tower still had so many people out, they probably hadn’t caught Mirror yet. Coming up on the entrance to SouthSan’s driveway, he spotted a familiar figure in the shadow of the gatepost. Mirror leaned on the slightly peeling surface as if exhausted, the collar of the stained white trenchcoat turned up and the cap pulled well down to hide his face. Jet was not impressed by that small evidence of common sense. He grabbed the younger man by the scruff of his neck and shook him hard enough to almost dislodge the cap. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he roared. “Your father’s people are all over the Outer Zone, there’s a warrant out for both our arrests, that crazy doctor almost recognized you this morning and you actually came back here!” Mirror hunched down into the depths of the trenchcoat and said nothing. Jet went on cursing for several minutes. “I should have left you in the Mosaic the other night!” he shouted, using language that would have kept the news channels censors working overtime. “I hope they catch you

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Mint Kang, 2009 and stick you in a straitjacket beside your crazy sister. It’ll serve you bloody well right!” Eventually he ran out of swear words, took Mirror’s arm in a rough grip and physically dragged his friend back down the road. “We’re going back to the darkside quarter,” he growled. “And if the guards stop us, I’m going to let them have you this time!”

Despite his words, Jet would probably have defended Mirror against the Dar Tower guards if they had been recognized. He never got the chance, however, because a gang of bored LaLa punks jumped them in an alley instead. There were four of them, with knives, and the first two grabbed Jet from behind before he realized they were there. “F-f-f-ancy pants arist-t-t-tos,” the third one crowed, giggling and hiccuping at the same time, and brought a knife up towards Jet’s face. The blade gleamed in the dim light of the alley. “Let’s sk-k-k-kin some f-f-fancy pants.” Jet wrenched his head sideways and kicked out as hard as he could. The knife went past his right ear, his heel connected with someone’s knee, there was a yell of pain and the punk holding his left arm let go. He spun around and slammed the other punk into the wall, getting his free arm up just in time to catch the second one’s slash on his armguard. The knife went in and stuck. Jet whipped his arm sideways, dragged the knife out of the punk’s grip and finished it with a satisfactorily heavy punch to the jaw. Then he turned—and saw Mirror stumbling back against the opposite wall of the alley, both hands pressed to the left side of his chest. There was blood gushing out between Mirror’s fingers. And there was blood on the knife in the hand of the white-spiked punk stepping away from Mirror’s collapsing figure. Jet’s hand dropped to his hip and came up holding his duelling pistol. He fired twice. White Spikes went down and didn’t come back up; the fourth punk ran for it. Swearing, Jet kicked the white-spiked punk’s limp body aside and dropped down beside Mirror. One look at the amount of blood on his

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Mint Kang, 2009 friend’s trenchcoat told him more than a dozen Teneiros with a dozen scanners could have. He pulled the trenchcoat open anyway, and reached inside to try and stop the bleeding. Then he stopped himself, because his hands and eyes were telling him two entirely different things from what he knew. The first thing: there was no wound. Jet’s fingers, groping through the torn fabric of Mirror’s tunic, found instead a ridge like an old scar in the place where he had seen the punk’s knife go in. And as he touched it, the ridge seemed to sink down into the surrounding flesh, smoothening into unblemished skin. The second thing: the flesh under his fingers did not belong to a man. Jet’s fingers froze. Then he ripped the blood-sodden tunic open and stared down at what was, unmistakably, the body of a young woman. He snatched the grubby cap off. A beautiful, pallid, unearthly and above all feminine face gazed up at him from between the lapels of the trenchcoat’s high collar, and smiled. “Who the hell are you?” Jet screamed. The young woman’s lips did not move. But he heard her voice anyway, as if someone had put a wire into the middle of his brain and then attached the other end to a telephone halfway across Alterstar. “You know who I am,” she said. The impact of the voice was hideous. It was as if an electric shock had come down the wire together with the words, and frozen every single nerve in his body. He couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe. Even when one of the punks he had knocked down staggered upright and came running towards him from behind, knife in hand, he couldn’t react. There was a soft wet sound then, and the punk’s running footsteps stopped. And at the same time, a huge hot splash hit Jet’s back and splattered over the wall in front of him: blood, dripping down, flowing into the young woman’s hair. She stood up casually and walked past him, indifferent to the blood and her body exposed under the torn tunic. Her light steps moved down the alley: three, four, five, splashing in puddles.

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Mint Kang, 2009 The paralysis gripping Jet snapped as she drew away. He lurched to his feet, jerked around, saw blood and bits of flesh splattered across the alley and up the walls higher than his head, as if the punk had—what? Exploded? “Wait,” he croaked, and then, clearing the distance to her in two strides, his hand closing on her shoulder under the trenchcoat, “What the hell is going on?” She stopped. And the world came apart around Jet, rearranging his senses, shaking him inside out, pulling his gut out through his ears and his throat down into his ankles. “Mirror says you are a good person,” her voice-not-voice slid down the wire into his brain. “I believe him.” She started to walk away again. “Where are you going?” Jet shouted after her, or thought he shouted. “To bring my father the gift of Damni-Dar,” he thought she replied. Her voice receded. Darkness.

Eventually, Jet made it to the Ka Tower bridge. He was not sure how he had gotten there, or what he was supposed to do next. He was not even sure which way was up and which was down. “Identify yourself,” he heard, or thought he heard, the guard captain saying warily, then, “By the old gods! It’s the Health Director’s son. Call an ambulance!” At some point he realized that he was lying on the guardhouse steps, and there were people rushing around him. “No, don’t move him,” someone insisted, and another person was shouting, “Good God! Look at all that blood! Isn’t the ambulance here yet?” The ambulance arrived several minutes later and screeched to a halt in the middle of the bridge, where it was nearly tail-ended by a car bearing the House Infernarr insignia. The doors of both ambulance and car flew open, disgorging respectively half a dozen white-coated medics and Lord Casten, who knocked two of them down getting to the guardhouse. “Get out of my way!” he shouted. “What’s happened to my son?” Jet got his eyes open with difficulty, and thought for a moment that he was looking into a mirror. Then he made out his father’s face,

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Mint Kang, 2009 uncharacteristically pale, and remembered something. “Wasn’t you who put her in SouthSan,” he mumbled. “Good thing. Knew you’re not like that.” “What happened to you?” Lord Casten demanded without waiting for Jet to finish. His voice was shaking. “Who did this?” “It’s not my blood,” Jet muttered. The white-coated medics had a stretcher out and were lifting him onto it, carefully, but even the slight movement was making his head spin again. Lord Casten ignored that too. “Who did this to you?” he shouted. “Legend Visterra,” Jet said, and his voice trailed off into a cold little whisper of horror as he remembered what had happened and worse, who hadn’t been there. “Mirror. Old gods and new stars. If she got out then he must be in there! She was wearing his clothes!” “Visterra? Again?” Lord Casten’s expression was starting to change from horror to outrage. “By the Four Towers, I’ll kill that motherloving son of a—” Jet knocked the medics’ hands aside and staggered off the stretcher. His legs tried to go in three different directions, and he fell heavily against his father. “SouthSan,” he gasped. “Get me there. Hurry!” “What are you talking about?” Lord Casten demanded. “SouthSan!” Jet half-screamed, half-wheezed. “Just get me there!” Lord Casten looked at his son’s white, blood-streaked face. “Get in the car,” he said. It was dusk, and the streetlights of the Outer Zone threw a ghostly orange-yellow glare over the roads, except for where they had been broken. Lord Casten had forgotten his driver in his rush to reach the Ka Tower bridge, and he took the wheel himself—too fast and too recklessly, scattering traffic ahead of the official car while the ambulance struggled to keep up behind. Jet slumped in the passenger seat, trying not to pass out again, and tried to explain what had happened. Every sentence came out more disjointed than the last. By the time SouthSan’s gates loomed up ahead, he had completely lost track of what he was saying. Visiting hours were over, but not for the Director of the Health Secretariat. “Legend Visterra,” Lord Casten snapped at the receptionist, who had apparently been staying overtime and was now wishing she hadn’t.

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Mint Kang, 2009 “I can’t let you in like that, your lordship,” she protested feebly. “You need a staff member’s verification and they’ve all gone off for the night.” “I need a staff member’s verification?” Lord Casten exploded. “You are fi—” With tremendous presence of mind, the receptionist cleared all the scanners before he finished the sentence. “Go right in, your lordship!” she squeaked. “Underground level 12, the guards will show you the ward!” The guards in the grey corridors took one look at Lord Casten and rushed to open the security doors. Jet, clutching his father’s shoulder for support, would have laughed if he hadn’t been trying to keep his legs from collapsing under him. “Now what?” Lord Casten snapped when the metal panel slid down to reveal that little room with its obscenity of a chair. “Inside,” Jet croaked. “Open that thing!” “Are you out of your mind?” one of the white-suited guards cried. “That’s Legend Visterra in there!” “It’s not!” Jet tried to shout. What came out was a sort of wheeze. “I saw Legend Visterra. She got out. She killed some guy who was coming up behind me. That’s her brother in there!” “Legend Visterra escaped?” Lord Casten’s expression had become less and less pleasant throughout the drive to SouthSan, and the look on his face right now should have turned the guard to stone. “Open it!” The guards scuttled to obey. Jet, forcing his legs to behave, staggered after them and caught up just as they opened the cell door. The inside of the room smelled like rubber, plastic and disinfectant. His stomach wrenched again, and a grey haze crossed his vision. Through it, he was aware that his father had not followed him into the cell—was, in fact, now arguing vehemently with someone in the viewing room, visible through the glass pane. “Get that thing open!” he croaked through the haze. The guards hesitated, then, as Lord Casten shook off the person he had been arguing with and stormed in through the narrow door, they rushed to the chair. Straps, bars and buckles came off in rows; tubes and wires slid out of the layers and plopped to the floor.
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Mint Kang, 2009 The enormous helmet came up. The guards leapt back, swearing. Jet took a wobbly stride forward, steadied himself on the chair and said in a voice almost inaudible even to himself, “What. The hell. Is going on?” Mirror Visterra stared blankly up at Jet from the folds of the straitjacket. His eyes were disfocused and his face seemed to have sunken in, and he looked as dead as someone could look while still breathing. “Jet?” he said vaguely. “Wha’…happenin’?” There was a long, horrible silence. And in the middle of it, the person Lord Casten had been arguing with squeezed past the guards and grabbed Lord Casten’s arm. It was Carrus, very dishevelled and more agitated than Jet had ever seen him, and he shouted, “Will you listen to me? The Lord of Dar Tower’s dead and there’s a video showing the eldest daughter did it!” Lord Casten’s expression froze. “What?” he said. His voice was barely recognizable. “The eldest daughter?” Jet said slowly. He was starting to have a very, very horrible feeling. “Do you mean—” “Her,” Carrus said angrily, pointing at the chair. “Legend Visterra. It’s going to be a disaster for the Health Secretariat unless we can prove right now that she didn’t do it, which should be fine since she’s right— here…” His voice trailed off. He stared at the chair, and Mirror in it. His mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out. And Mirror, like a corpse coming back to life, lifted his head and said clearly, “The Lord of Dar Tower is dead. I claim the title and inheritance.”

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Mint Kang, 2009 Chapter 6 Later, at the first hearing, the head of the committee of inquiry asked Jet: “Why did you attempt to assault Mirror Visterra when he spoke up to claim the title?” “None of your bloody business,” Jet snarled. “According to witnesses and video records, you accused him of having ‘used’ you. What did you mean by that?” “I never said that!” “Are you claiming that the Southway Sanitarium’s video record is inaccurate?” Jet said a number of things about the video record which got him expelled from the hearing. As he stormed off down the hallway, one of the investigators who had testified earlier fell in beside him. “You don’t seem to like video records,” this investigator, a heavilybuilt man about the same age as Lord Casten, said in a friendly voice. “Get out of my face,” Jet snarled. “Understandable,” the investigator said, “if you saw the Dar Tower security record. It put me off my food for a few days. You did see that video, did you not?” Jet had. Everyone in Alterstar had seen it by now, thanks to an enterprising reporter who took advantage of the confusion to break into the Dar Tower security centre and copy the entire video to his news channel’s uplink. And now, thinking of that video, and what had happened in the alley after the LaLa punks jumped him and Mirror—no, Legend dressed up as Mirror—had been stabbed, he shoved the investigator aside and bolted for the nearest restroom.

In the video, Lord Helios Visterra is standing on a terrace that opens onto a courtyard. This courtyard opens in turn onto a long driveway, which is only partly visible. Lord Helios is dressed formally and accompanied by four guards. According to his schedule, he is due for a meeting of the Internal Security Division, which Dar Tower funds. He is apparently waiting for his car to arrive.

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Mint Kang, 2009 In the video, the guards suddenly turn in unison and reach for their stun rods. What they are reacting to is not in the frame yet. Lord Helios is slower to react. But when he, too, turns and sees what the guards are looking at, his expression undergoes a horrible change. His eyes bulge, his mouth is agape and distorted, the edges of his face seem to have been pulled out and up in every direction. There is no sound in the video, but there is no need for sound. The Lord of Dar Tower is screaming. A young woman enters the frame, walking across the courtyard. It is not clear where she came from. She wears a long trenchcoat that appears to be red with white splotches, and as she draws near to the camera, the resemblance between her face and Lord Helios’s is obvious. She is smiling. In the video, the guards rush forward, throwing their armoured bodies between Lord Helios and the young woman. Their stun rods glow and spurt sparks as they open fire. The young woman’s smile does not change. Her pace does not falter. And incredibly, horribly, the guards come apart. They fall apart at the joints, like mannequins whose screws have all been pulled out at once. But these mannequins spurt red, huge gouts and sprays and washes of red, so that the roof and pillars of the terrace turn the same red as the young woman’s trenchcoat in one burst. The young woman is still smiling, still walking forward. The terrace is awash in blood, scattered with pieces of the guards, limbs and torsos still clad in their gray armour. Blood pours down the single step and floods into the courtyard. Lord Helios is covered in blood. He is backing away, hands out, mouth working. His outstretched hands go first, dissolving in a spray of red like a special effect from a horror movie. His arms follow, and by then his legs are dissolving too, not the neat dismantling that took the guards apart but a bloody disintegration that rains red drops and red fragments from one end of the reddened terrace to the other. Last of all, his face disintegrates. And the young woman stops at the terrace’s single step, ankle-deep in the red flood, and placing her palms together before her lips makes a deep obeisance. Those who are familiar with the ways of the darkside quarter will recognize the gesture as that

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Mint Kang, 2009 employed by the priests of Damni-Dar when they have shed blood for the night. She turns. She walks away, leaving red footprints. And halfway across the courtyard, between one step and the next, she is no longer there. All that remains is the spreading red flood of Helios Visterra and his guards.

At the second hearing, Lord Casten testified for the Health Secretariat and—inevitably—got into a tremendous argument with the committee. They were audible all the way down the hall. Jet sat on a padded bench as far away from the hearing chamber as he could get, wondering what it would take to get the Director of the Health Secretariat expelled from the room. Throwing a chair at the committee head? And while he was thinking that, another set of doors halfway along the hall opened and a group of people came out, talking in hushed voices. In the middle of the group was Mirror Visterra, with a large file under his arm. Jet had not seen him since SouthSan, and almost didn’t recognize him for several moments. He was dressed normally, for one thing—expensively, even, and on his finger was a ring bearing the signet of Dar Tower. And he looked alive. He was still too thin, and his face had the pallor of a terminal patient, but he moved and spoke with more expression than Jet had ever seen in him. Jet stood up and stepped out into the middle of the hallway. The group saw him, slowed, and came to a stop with Mirror at the front. “Good morning, cousin,” Mirror said gravely. “How goes the hearing?” Jet hit him in the mouth, and then in the stomach. Mirror dropped his file, doubled over and sat down hard. His companions leapt aside with exclamations of outrage. “You bastard,” Jet said. “You set me up from beginning to end. You used me. Admit it, damn you!” Mirror tried to get up and failed. His lower lip was bleeding. He gasped for breath, then said from the floor, “I did. And I’m sorry.” Jet thought of the video again. Of the horrible cell in SouthSan. Of the scars on Mirror’s back. Of the look, the pale and sickly look that all the Dar Tower cousins had.
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Mint Kang, 2009 “I’ll explain,” Mirror said. “I promise. Just…not now. Please?” Jet’s shoulders were shaking with the effort of not hitting the younger man again. He looked away from the blood running down Mirror’s chin; picked up the file and flipped through a few pages at random. “Citizen ID applications,” Mirror said. He tried to stand again and made it this time, steadying himself with one hand on the wall. “For my brothers and cousins.” “What about you?” Jet said. “If the hearing goes in my favour, I won’t need an application.” For a moment, a faint flicker of amusement seemed to pass across Mirror’s face. “The Lord of Dar Tower’s status won’t be in doubt.” Someone took the file from Jet and the whole group moved on, leaving him standing in the middle of the hallway. After a while, he unclenched his fists with a great deal of difficulty.

From the records of the investigation into the Lord of Dar Tower’s murder: “I repeat: why did you accuse Mirror Visterra of having ‘used’ you?” Silence. “I remind you, the issue is murder. Also at stake is the succession to Dar Tower. I repeat my question: why did you—” “It was the bloody drinks, all right?” “Excuse me?” “He never pays for the drinks. He owes me a hundred dollars’ worth of bar tabs. That was what I meant. Happy?” “Do you expect this committee to believe that you were thinking of bar tabs at such a time?” “I’ll think what I want to think at any time I want!”

Two weeks later, Mirror Visterra was confirmed as the Lord of Dar Tower. His first official act was to revoke all of Dar Tower’s internal inheritance, property and citizenship laws. The news channels plastered his face over all the screens, together with racy features on his father’s murder
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Mint Kang, 2009 and long speculative debates on whether Legend Visterra would ever be caught. Jet went to the Mosaic, which didn’t have a news screen, and got drunk on peacock slings. When he woke up the next morning feeling as if the peacock had used his mouth as a toilet, there was a message waiting on his personal line. It said, “I owe you an explanation. Meet me at Dar Tower. Please?” It was unsigned. Jet threw the phone across the room and went in search of a hangover remedy. Then he went to Dar Tower. The sound of demolition was audible half the district away. Clouds of dust enveloped the bluish-gray needle of Dar Tower and created a haze over the entire street. Jet stopped opposite the bridge and stared. The high, blank, spike-topped walls of Dar Tower were gone, reduced to huge drifts of gray rubble. Trucks rumbled up and down the street, carting the rubble away, and more dust billowing out from the tower’s base hinted at some serious remodelling going on inside. The revealed grounds surrounding the tower were as bleak as the walls had been—stretch after stretch of empty gray courtyard, fenced off into separate sections and watched over by guardposts—which the demolition crews were busily removing at that very moment. After a while, Jet crossed the street, dodging a couple of trucks, and went cautiously up to where he thought the gates had been. A narrow path had been cleared through the rubble and he made his way along it, keeping a sharp lookout for any guards. There were none in view, however, and now that he thought of it, there hadn’t been any on the bridge either. Eventually he found his way to what had been the entrance portico. Most of it had been removed, leaving the tower lobby open. Through the dust hanging over everything, the interior looked as uninviting as the grounds had. There was a familiar thin, black-clad figure standing in the lobby, holding a stack of papers and surrounded by hard-hatted crewmen. Jet walked slowly into the lobby, gravel crunching under his feet. The group looked up at the sound. “Good morning, cousin,” Mirror said gravely. “You’re up early.” “What’s going on here?” Jet said.

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Mint Kang, 2009 “I am…remodelling Dar Tower,” Mirror said. Then he sneezed. “Excuse me. It’s rather dusty here.” “I noticed,” Jet muttered, then, more loudly: “You said you had an explanation. It’d better be a good one.” Mirror glanced at the crewmen standing nearby, and although he said nothing, all of them bowed and slipped out of the lobby. Several of them nearly collided with a boy who was hurrying in through the main doors at the same time, clutching an armful of rolled diagrams. He looked about fourteen or fifteen years old, with the characteristically sickly appearance of a House Visterra cousin, and when he saw Jet he lurched to a halt with an expression of sudden terror on his face. “It’s all right, Kaleion,” Mirror said, his voice taking on a peculiarly gentle quality. “This is my friend Jet de Melzaio, from House Infernarr. Remember? I said he’d be coming by today.” “Yes, my lord,” the boy whispered in a tiny, half-strangled voice, and held the rolls of paper out with a stiff jerky movement of his arms. Mirror sighed. “My brother,” he said, turning back to Jet. “Halfbrother would be more precise, but I haven’t had time to work out who’s related to who yet. None of us have birth records.” “The hell with your birth records,” Jet said. “You set me up. I don’t care what you told the committee or what they ended up believing. You used me to get into SouthSan, you used me to get your freak of a sister out of there and you used me to get your father killed!” That last came out in a shout that echoed around the lobby and out onto the rubble-strewn gray courtyards. Mirror winced. Beside him, the brother or half-brother did more than wince—he cringed, hunching down, the expression of terror returning to his face. Several of the diagrams slipped from his arms, and so did a fist-sized metal cube which had been hidden among them. The papers rolled across the floor. The cube bounced once and landed beside Jet’s foot. A look of brief pain went across Mirror’s face. “Kaleion, I said you don’t have to be afraid of my friend—don’t pick that up!” His last few words had been addressed to Jet, who reacted by picking the cube up and turning it over suspiciously. “What’s this thing?” “Don’t put your finger in it,” Mirror said hastily, and too late. There was a small, deep hole in each of the cube’s faces, just wide enough to insert
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Mint Kang, 2009 a finger, and Jet, prodding at the thing, had just stuck the index finger of his right hand into one of the holes. Something clicked inside the cube, and a stab of excruciating pain shot through the tip of his finger. Jet tried to yank his finger out, and couldn’t. His fingertip felt as if it had been skewered in place. “What the hell is this thing?” he shouted, shaking his hand furiously up and down. “One of my father’s little amusements. Stop waving your hand around.” Mirror caught his wrist with an effort and did something to the cube. The skewering pressure eased, and Jet snatched his finger free to find a perfectly round hole in the ball of the fingertip, matched by a crack in the middle of the nail. Blood ran down his hand and into his sleeve. “Amusements? What kind of bloody maniac finds that amusing?” he exploded. Instead of replying, Mirror reached over, took one of the boy’s hands and held it up. There were round white scars on all five of Kaleion’s fingertips, and his fingernails were dented and deformed as if they had been repeatedly and forcefully broken. Jet stared, speechless. “Go back to the office, Kaleion,” Mirror said after a moment, his voice dropping into the same gentle tones he had used earlier. “If you find any more of these, please remember to give them to me.” “Yes, my lord,” the boy whispered, and retreated with a jerky cringing walk. For a few minutes the lobby was silent. Even the sounds of demolition outside had paused, except for several crewmen shouting something back and forth across the courtyards. Mirror broke the silence finally. “In certain ways,” he said, “my father was a genius. He invented this device. And he—enjoyed, you might say, using it on selected members of the family. Among other things.” Jet still could not find his voice. “Dar Tower will never have walls and guards again,” Mirror said, “and no lord of House Visterra will ever be able to do what my father did again. I’ve made sure of that. It’s in the laws now, and I made it so that can never be changed.” Silence.
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Mint Kang, 2009 “I owe you a great debt,” Mirror said. “And a great many apologies.” Jet drew a breath, did not know what to do with it, and let it out again. Mirror, having apparently run out of words as well, stared down at the metal cube in his hand. The cube began to sag between his fingers, solid metal deforming like soft dough. There were a few clicks and snaps as the mechanism inside gave way. Slowly, it melted, becoming increasingly liquid until there was nothing in Mirror’s palm but a puddle of something like mercury. Mirror opened his hand, and the remains of the cube splashed to the floor, where they trickled away into nothingness. “You never did ask me how I escaped the last time,” he said. Jet stared down at the wet patch in the dust. A number of things came to his mind, went round and round behind his lips and then went away again. Finally he said, “The hell with all this. I need a drink.” Mirror looked up at him, and unexpectedly, for the first time since Jet had met him, he smiled. “My turn to buy,” he said.

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Mint Kang, 2009 Afterword The Cousin From Dar Tower was written in 2009, and it took me the better part of a year to edit it to a point where I found it more or less satisfactory. I originally thought of it as a short story, but quite a few people pointed out that at 20,000 words it’s more like a novella. Cousin as it currently stands represents the latest point of evolution of its setting. I’ve been playing with this setting, an original dystopic creation loosely inspired by Harrison’s Viriconium, for the better part of two decades now and my latest efforts in its direction involve de-Sueing it. The two main characters of Cousin, Jet de Melzaio and Mirror Visterra, started out as bit-part players in one or two other novels I completed about this setting. They were quite two-dimensional—in Jet’s case all he did was walk on, piss off the main character and die—and in Mirror’s case, a real Gary Stu. When I started Cousin, I had no real idea how it would turn out, other than that I wanted to take a closer look at these two minor characters. The initial draft was so stodgy I nearly ditched the whole project. Then I remembered that Alterstar is a violence-riddled, drama-filled setting and that Jet had a habit of slumming in the Outer Zone, and suddenly things flew. Cousin will most probably be the benchmark for future Alterstar stories. It’s the truest so far to my initial concept of the place, and has the most realistically developed characters. As to the previous Alterstar manuscripts, they’ve since taken up residence in the junk pile. A peek into the future: Mirror’s half-brother Kaleion will grow up to have the same inclinations as their father, except that he’ll control himself enough not to hurt anyone. Instead he’s going to open his own law firm and become an anti-abuse advocate. Carrus will eventually marry a woman with as bad a temper as any House Infernarr cousin, and they’ll spend the rest of their lives fighting like cats and dogs. Dr Teneiro’s daughter will one day become one of the most notorious bounty hunters in the Outer Zone. And Jet de Melzaio will marry Legend Visterra and their two oldest children will inherit Dar Tower and House Infernarr respectively, because Mirror will never trust any full-blooded Visterra with the inheritance.
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