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The Dark Side of Fame, The Light Side of Infamy

rated PG-13

Late spring in Stumps. A monotone drizzle painted the city a dark, unfriendly grey. Amaranthe pulled the hood of her waxed cape deeper into her face, making her way over mostly deserted streets. An accident involving two trains had stopped the trams on the line leading out toward their current hideout in a forgotten railway shed just outside city borders. Late spring was supposed to be sunny and balmy, but the cold rain took the warmth off the air and made the cobblestones treacherously slick under her boots.
     A painful cramp pulled at the scars crisscrossing her abdomen. She stopped and pressed her flat hand against her belly until it eased. The daily training sessions, restoring muscle tone and flexibility fast, had helped wonders with the residual pain, but there were three days each month when it felt like the Makarovi weren’t done mauling her. Today was the second, and she seriously considered spending the 25 ranmyas that would get her a copper tub with hot water, soap, and towels behind a thick curtain in the public bathhouse ahead. Sadly, funds were low this month. The money was needed for food and weaponry. And there was a reason why the walls of bathhouses were always covered with wanted posters: Public baths and disguises didn’t go well together. 
     Once, she’d hung up the wanted posters. Now, one of them showed her likeness over a 10,000 ranmya offer for her head, body optional. Another cramp tugged at her belly. ‘Body optional’ didn’t sound so bad right now. 
     She sighed, missing her old apartment with its battered tub that took twenty buckets to fill and never stayed hot for long, or even their last hideout. The pumping house with its limitless water supply and convenient boiler room had made hot baths possible throughout winter. There were some things a girl just couldn’t do in a lake fed with snowmelt, like easing her monthly cramps for example. 
     She ground her teeth and stubbornly continued on down the street, passing her own wanted poster beside Sicarius’s, even Maldynado’s, though the latter was well away from the others. It was hanging almost at the end of the building where the wall connected with the fence of a construction site, closed down for the night. Posters here were mundane advertisements: Jeladok’s automated steam brooms was followed by Ruskar’s cure for toe fungus and a promotion for an upcoming book release— 
     She froze, stared horrified. That was so not the kind of recognition they needed for their exoneration! 

Mobirise
copyright: Alex Baird [art], Lindsay Buroker [characters] 

Two hours and a stolen advertisement later 

“I mean, look at it!” Maldynado puffed up his chest and flexed his biceps. “This looks as if someone stuck his head on one of my promo drawings. For all his exercising, he hasn’t got that much to show and…” his voice trailed off when he noticed Books’s expression. “I’m sticking my foot into my mouth again, am I not?” he asked in a low voice. 
     Books patted his voluminous shoulder sympathetically. “He’s right behind you.” 
     “I should check my back for cuts from his glare,” Maldynado muttered. 
     “Probably,” Books agreed with him. 
     “Artistic license aside,” Amaranthe indicated the offensive, slightly soggy poster pinned on the wall behind her. “This is the kind of material that spreads fast and forms public opinion. Even though nobody will admit reading it, the book and its advertising will affect our chances to get recognized for our achievements in favor of the empire.” 
     “I have to concur with Amaranthe,” Books nodded solemnly. “The press has to work proficuous and when the majority of their readers only want to learn about our sexual exploits—” 
     “Our?” Maldynado blinked. “Is there something you want to tell us?” 
     Akstyr, having looked up from his book at ‘sexual exploit’, asked: “Did ya really shower together?” 
     Amaranthe shook her head and sighed. “I’m going to talk with the author and the publisher tomorrow,” she decided. “I—” 
     “‘Beth Sweatroad’ is a pseudonym,” Books told her, pointing at the lower corner of the poster where the writer’s name was displayed on a curled, bright white banner. 
     “How—?” 
     “It’s frequently used for Ribald Publications’… raunchier products.” 
     “And how would you know that, Booksie?” Maldynado asked, laughing. “Do you indulge in trivial literature behind our backs?” 
     Books snorted. “Would you put your name under a text for which you may wake up to a dagger in your chest?” 
     Maldynado actually considered that. “Still, it can’t hurt to contact Ribald and—” 
     “No.” They almost jumped when Sicarius strode forward, joining them at the rickety table. “This is like court libel. If you deny it, you admit it.” 
     “You mean, when we talk to the publisher—” Amaranthe started. 
     “—there’s going to be a reprint and several sequels,” Sicarius finished for her. “We’re already lucky that they picked me.” 
     “Please?” Maldynado protested. “Certainly, the Boss can do better than—“ 
     “They won’t expect me to share.” 
     “Share?!” Amaranthe was absolutely certain that she’d just squeaked then Sicarius’s words registered. “You have experience with this sort of thing, don’t you?” 
     “Yes.” 
     “Then how did it end back then?” she inquired. “It did end, didn’t it?” 
     “Yes. Within a day.” 
     She blinked. “How?” 
     “Raumesys ordered it stopped.” 
     There was barely an inflection in his voice, but Amaranthe was certain that the late emperor’s order hadn’t been given to the gossipmongers. “To kill people over a trashy novel is not an option, if we want to obtain exoneration in our lifetimes. Sespian would not approve.” 
     Sicarius said nothing. 
     “The lawful way would be to go to the magistrate and demand a temporary injunction against the publication.” Books pushed his glasses further up his nose. “The work is certainly defamatory. Any citizen—” 
     “You forget something,” Amaranthe sighed. “We’re citizens with a price tag on our heads. They wouldn’t bother to issue a TI before locking us up for good.” 
     “The magistrate?” Maldynado snorted. “Really, Booksie. No member of the warrior caste would even consider dealing with those tedious folks. We’d demand satisfaction for our – and our girl’s – honor and be done with it!” Earnest for once, he looked at Amaranthe. “Maybe we should claim you’d be my—” The glare that hit him drove him two steps back. “Nevermind,” he hurried to say. 
     Amaranthe laid a calming hand on Sicarius’s sleeve, then – noticing what she was doing – blushed and jerked it away. Sicarius glanced at her and left. 
     “Wait, we—” Amaranthe called after him, but he closed the door behind him. 
     “Emperor, help those publishers,” Books muttered. 
     Amaranthe rested her head against her palm. “It’s a novel, right?” she thought aloud. “Aren’t they supposed to bear no reference to any real person, living or dead? Maybe the author – or even only the poster artist – was inspired too much by our wanted posters and got carried away. I’m sure I can convince them to change a few details.” 
     “But we don’t know the author.” Books reminded her. 
     “’cause I’d thump him for good!” Maldynado declared. 
     Books ignored him. “The publisher won’t risk telling us who it is,” he continued. “Not when they know about your close affiliation to—” 
     It took Amaranthe a moment to realize that her angry glare at his choice of words had cited the same effect on Books as Sicarius’s had had on Maldynado. Interesting, but it wouldn’t help her identifying the author. She nibbled on the nail of her middle finger. So, whom did they know, who might be willing to yield that information to them? Preferably without any ‘thumping’ – or more lethal actions – involved. 
     “Maldynado, do you think that press contact you mentioned might have some information about who’s behind this?” 
     “Dunno, Boss.” Maldynado scratched his head. “Deret’s a fine fellow, but he’s an investigative journalist. Don’t think, he makes his stories up.” He stopped, looking at her cautiously. “It is made up, isn’t it?” 
     “Yes!” Amaranthe threw her hands up. “It’s fictitious! The result of a sick imagination smeared on yellowed paper, pinned on a crooked construction fence!” And it was threatening whatever it was that held her team together, and her and Sicarius, and— She slumped back into her chair, furtively pressing her arm against the scars in a futile attempt to ward off the threatening cramp. Not that it helped. This was so not her day! 
     “I think I know exactly the person to talk to about this,” Maldynado beamed, excited. “There’s not much she doesn’t know in terms of gossip and entertainments. I’m going to call on her first thing tomorrow.” 
     “Tomorrow?” Amaranthe frowned. 
     “She’s a tad older.” He actually looked at the closed door before patting her hand reassuringly. “A midnight call just won’t do.” 

Well after Midnight 

Amaranthe sat on her bunk bed, her back against the rough hewn planks of the shed’s wall, and hoped that her cramps would become as tired as she was and allow her to sleep. Unfortunately, so far they were as alert as elite troops. 
     The shabby curtain meant to provide a rudimentary amount of privacy at least kept her from seeing the awful poster all night, but not seeing it didn’t mean it was gone. It wasn’t so much her ‘good name’ she was concerned about, figuring that a 10,000 ranmya bounty pretty much erased that by default. Their exoneration might clear her name, but reputation wasn’t the name, it was what people remembered by it. And in public memory she’d always be ‘the woman with The Emperor’s Edge’. If she was lucky that would translate into fame one day, or she’d be forgotten, or— be recalled as ‘the assassin’s slut’. 
     In her mind, she heard Sicarius closing the door into her words again. It hurt. ‘I care,’ he’d told her on the drive back to the city six weeks ago, but for him Sespian would always come first. She knew he was upset about the city being covered in posters showing him with the woman his son was interested in. Sespian did leave the Imperial Barracks occasionally. 
     Amaranthe leaned her head against the wall and heaved a deep sigh. She just hoped, Sicarius took her words to heart and didn’t do anything rash. 
     She hastily straightened at a faint knock against the post holding the curtain. “Yes?” 
     Basilard slowly pushed the curtain aside. ~You in pain.~ He signaled and at her nod continued, ~from your scars or from being a woman?~ 
     It took her sleep-deprived mind a moment to decode that. “The latter,” she admitted when she’d figured out what he meant. “How’d you know?” 
     ~My wife.~ He gave her a sad look. ~She also held her belly and yelled at me at those times. ~ He offered her a glazed clay cup with steaming herbal tea. ~This will help.~ She took the hot rough cup, cradling it in her hands. ~I’m sorry. I can’t help with… book.~ He actually used his signs for ‘Books’ and ‘One’, making her smile as she sipped from the tea. 
     “Thank you,” she said, heartfelt, and, raising the cup, repeated, “Thank you.” 

The next day 
The fashionable calling hour on the Ridge 

The sitting room was a symphony of deep rose-colored brocade decorated with plumes of gushing white lace and embroidery draped over paw feet furniture adorned with gilded rocaille. A tea set, continuing the rose theme, awaited the arrival of the lady of the house about to attend on her guest. 
     However, the shelf presenting the lady’s literary achievements had filled considerably since he’d been here last. He definitely had to do some catching up on his romantic advisories— 
     “Maldynado-dearest!” Lady Aleeta Dourcrest swept into the room, a voluminous tsunami in pink and roses. “So nice to see you.” She patted his arm affectionately with an ornamental fan, its ivory repeating the rose pattern of her dress. “Don’t tell me your mother’s tantrum kept my most dedicated fan off my doorstep all this long!” 
     “Of course not.” He gave her a gallant sweeping bow and his most dazzling smile and indicated the collection of her works with another flamboyantly wide gesture. “But I’m afraid being disowned put your exalting works out of my pocket’s range.” Did he say ‘exalting’? Out loud? Books was contagious! 
     Lady Dourcrest looked appalled. “You will give me your address right now,” she declared. “I shall have copies of all 256 works delivered to you.” She smiled fondly at him. “I can’t bear to see you devoid of inspiration! After all,” She cocked her head coquettish, thin white curls bobbing, as she sat down. “Say, Is that a monocle on your bowler?” She continued without a pause for his answer and filled their cups. “So, what brings you really here all of a sudden?” 
     “Besides your eternal beauty and tea?” he asked, sipping politely. 
     “Besides that, flatterer.” The look she gave him over the rim of her cup was shrewd and knowing. “I know that dashing young men with monocles on their bowlers don’t visit old women for tea.” 
     “How dare you to imply I’ve come with improper intentions?” He protested, then set his own cup down and said soberly, “There’s an upcoming book release. ‘The Dirty Assassin’—” 
     “Ah bah!” Her closed fan hit the back of his hand painfully, accentuating her disgust. “That’s for the plebs! They have no taste for the beauty of a love that leaves a woman’s honor and heart unblemished between the sheets.” 
     “Do you know whom to contact about it? A friend of mine—” He stopped, when she got up and fetched a stack of paper from the secretary in the corner. 
     “Here,” she said, giving it to him. “But don’t you dare take it as an example!” 
     It was a proof copy, the pages roughly sewn together along the long side. He skimmed a few random pages with wide margins holding comments and remarks in delicate, feminine handwriting… 
Her ravenous hands roamed the broad expanse of his hard chest, reaching lower towards… 
Why should he wish for a bath when she’d lick… 
She would not hear his ‘no’ over the patter of the shower… 

“You?” He looked up, horrified. “You’ve written something this… tasteless?”
     She shrugged daintily. “What can I say, the warrior caste has the manners, but these days the plebs has the money. And manners won’t pay for Wilthur’s recent lack of luck at the races, I’m afraid.” 
     “I can’t believe you of all people would intentionally hurt a young woman’s reputation for money!” 
     “Oh please!” Lady Dourcrest snorted. “She’s hardly an innocent with that bounty on her head, even when you belong to her group of misfits.” 
     “And what if I told you, she’s my girl?” 
     “Now, now, Maldynado-dearest.” Lady Dourcrest patted his cheek affectionately. “We both know that you’re one of my most avid readers and gifted disciples, but when I saw her wanted poster and read her age, I knew it wouldn’t be you in her bed. I’ve had tea with your mother. I know about Tia. So stop trying to take this old woman for a ride. My Wilthur wouldn’t approve of it.”

At the same time in downtown Stumps 
in front of Ribald Publications 

No, Books decided. They couldn’t postpone anything until they’d found the author. For Amaranthe’s sake. If she was believed to have had a licentious affair with a notorious criminal such as Sicarius, she’d never be able to work in her profession again, exoneration or not. That just wasn’t right, that— 
     He pushed through the doors into the foyer. “Excuse me,” he said to the receptionist. “I’d like—” 
     “Did you see that dashing enforcer corporal?” she said to a colleague with ink stains up to her elbows. “Lev, Flev—?” 
     “Jev,” the other woman provided. “And yes, that’s one sexy uniform I wouldn’t mind stoking my furnace.” 
     The receptionist laughed. “You really ought to convince the old man we need more enforcer themed novels on the program! Just think of the effect when all that starched grey cloth comes off and—” 
     Books, flustered, cleared his throat with emphasis. “Excuse me, madam,” he snapped. “I intend to speak with your editor-in-chief regarding the upcoming release of ‘The Dirty Assassin’. It will be in his best interest to hear me out.” 
     “Oh, sir.” The receptionist blinked, surprised. “You haven’t heard—?” 

Two hours later 

Amaranthe retied her bun a second time, catching even the last wayward hair before pinning on her bland little hat. She critically studied the result in the mirror shard she’d scavenged off the bulk trash. Her business costume was all stern lines in plain brown. It had taken Basilard’s strength and the threat of a third stair running session every day to keep Maldynado from immediately ‘shopping for something more suitable’. Yes, even Sicarius and the most austere of her former teachers at Mildawn would approve; though the latter probably not to the stiletto sheathed at her calf. She closed her hand around the name and address a chagrined Maldynado had given her and straightened her shoulders. Time to go and inform Lady Dourcrest, how erroneous her assumptions— 
     The door banged open and Books gasped, “The book release is stopped!” He took a few deep breaths, stuttered an apology about running all the way here from the tram station, and continued, “Apparently, this morning both – the editor-in-chief and the owner of Ribald Publications – were informed in no uncertain terms that the empire still frowns upon the glorification of its wanted criminals. The posters are being taken down as we speak.” 

The End 

Note: 
In case you didn’t figure it out: the answer to who stopped the offensive book release can be found in Deadly Games chapter 6. He didn’t say whose clothesline it was! 

Copyright:
The Emperor’s Edge series is copyright Lindsay Buroker, who kindly allowed derivative fiction of her works. The embedded art is copyright Alex Baird, with the displayed characters belonging to Lindsay Buroker. This story is licensed internationally under
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0: CC BY-SA by Ann-Kathrin Kniggendorf (AKK). 

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