Welcome, one and all, to my new fic – Arcanum. This is a fantasy-based AU somewhat similar to Forged Destiny in style, though not in lore, concept or plot. It's going to be a first in many different ways, not least of all is that it won't focus on Jaune at all. It's also, I hope, going to be a story with a fair bit of world building, because the world of Remnant here is going to be markedly different from canon.
It will be updated on a fortnightly basis, updated on Tuesdays alongside Service with a Smile.
Like Forged Destiny, I'm going to try and adapt a "book style" to this, but I'll not be saying how long those will be, etc. Books might vary in size as per requirements and while some might be 80,000 words in length, others might be 120,000 or even higher. Don't worry too much about the distinction. It's more a way for me to keep my plans cohesive.
NOTE: Due to some confusion, I will explain that this is not an unexpected or out of nowhere story. It replaces "Dating what Daddy Hates" which ended one month ago. As per my modus operandi, a new story comes out to fill that slot
Book 1: Wildmage
The Merchant's Quarter bustled with activity.
Ruby watched the crowds of finely dressed people make their way through brightly-coloured tents and palanquins set up around the central fountain in the Vale market plaza. Trinkets, cloth and numerous other rare and foreign delicacies were on display. The spicy scent of some baked Vacuan treats wafted up to brush against her nostrils. The delicate crust, the black spices atop the glazing. What would they taste like, she wondered?
Her stomach grumbled piteously and she moved on, knowing that to tarry would only give her away. Ruby crept across a series of wooden beams high above the plaza, hidden by numerous shrubs, plants and climbing vines that made it into a sheltered area for patrons to rest and escape the sun. It beat down on her; sweltering midday heat.
Ruby didn't much like the heat. Her skin was too delicate, so fair that it burned easily and just as like to peel if she was caught out in it too long. Her shoulder-length black hair, tinted at the ends a crimson, protected her bare shoulders but no more. The grey button-up shirt and black trousers did little to shield her from it, but then it was too hot to bring a cloak. The city of Vale was burning, trapped in the grip of a relentless summer.
And, in truth, she was not supposed to be here.
Yang won't know, Ruby thought, creeping further along the trellis. She patted the small leather pouch on her side, content in the knowledge she'd completed her morning's work. The message had been delivered, another retrieved for her boss. Once she delivered it, it was job done. She could afford to dawdle a little and it wasn't every day a job took her out of the poorer parts of the city.
It wasn't the market or the sweet treats Ruby had come to see, however. As the sun reached its zenith, a small group appeared, as they did every day, on the western edge of the plaza. The crowds made way for them without protest, the small group cutting through the people like a fish through river water. Cowled figures, hooded and adorned in the finest of robes, gold scrolling, strange and mysterious runes and images etched into their cloaks. They moved with purpose – only three of them all – but they had the presence of ten men.
Arcanists. Wielders of magic, the arcane arts. Mysterious and powerful beyond measure, they stood head and shoulders above the men and women of the city, especially those of her ilk.
Licking her lips, Ruby took a step closer, seeking a better view. Her foot sought purchase on a wooden slat hidden by a wild bouquet of tulips. The moment she put her weight on it, the wood cracked violently and gave way. Startled, Ruby stumbled and almost fell, catching herself on a different beam before she could and hanging precariously.
Someone, a woman below, screamed.
"Oops." Ruby swung her legs quickly and vaulted back up, balancing easily atop one beam. A quick glance showed the Arcanists looking her way – along with almost everyone in the plaza. More a pressing concern, two guards were making their way through the crowd toward her, wooden batons bared. "Uh-oh."
Ruby darted back along the beam she was stood on, body held low and arms to her side to help her go. Leaping, she cleared the edge of it and slid down the cloth suspended on the back end, ignoring the startled cries of the patrons she slid by. At the bottom were several pots of flowers which she plummeted through, shattering the clay and sending soil and buds in every direction.
Landing, she rolled and was moving, darting left and right between startled figures, too fast to stop. Those that tried caught nothing, Ruby too fast and too slippery for them. It didn't stop the guards pushing through after her.
They're persistent today. I didn't even steal anything.
Not that it mattered. Someone from the poor district up in the Merchant's Quarter? No one would believe she'd come for anything other than trouble. Thievery, begging or simple loitering. All could earn a beating from the guards. It might have been worse, and often was for girls, but Ruby had the hair of a boy and the figure to match, especially with her modest breasts bound under her blouse.
Reaching the end of the plaza, she hopped up onto the marble railing that separated the quarters and looked down over the edge. A solid drop, all the way down a wall at least thirty feet high that cut off the paupers from those slightly wealthier. It was a long drop even by her standards.
"Got you!" one of the guards crowed. "Blasted gutter rat; it's the cells for you."
On second thought… With a quick breath, Ruby jumped off the wall and down, curling into a ball as she hurtled down towards the ground. Straw and manure broke her fall, exploding around her as she crashed into the midden heap. The trash was accumulated as those in the district above threw it down, passing their problems onto the district below, where it would collect and fester unless dealt with.
The foul, acrid smell of animal waste assaulted her nostrils, a far cry from the sweet spices from before. Pinching her nose, Ruby rolled out of the heap and onto her feet – staggered for a moment and then caught herself with a heavy gasp. Nothing was broken but her back was sore. Not to mention she wanted to drown herself in a river to get rid of the smell.
The guards above yelled some obscenity her way and shook their fists, but neither was about to come down. Not and sully their clean tabards in the Lower Quarter. Ruby made a rude sign with her hand and yelped when one of them drew out a crossbow. Darting out the way and around a corner, she caught her breath against a wall.
That was close. Closer than it should have been. She'd let her mind wander, a silly mistake in what Yang called enemy territory. It wasn't, but it might as well have been. That was certainly how the wealthier members of Vale saw them. They wouldn't have erected walls around the slums if that weren't the case, great big gated things that looked like the walls surrounding the city itself, yet these ones designed to keep the unsavoury elements of the city trapped in their own quarter. The other quarters were even built up higher, their waste and refuse falling on those below.
You could find a few nice things like that, scavenging what was tossed aside from above. It wasn't the best of work, but if it kept someone eating, it was worth it. Ruby winced and made to sneak away, only to freeze when a hand grabbed her shoulder.
"Ruby! Is that you? You smell like shit."
Ruby winced and spun, prepared for a mugging but presented with something far worse. A familiar face. "M-Melanie! I can explain."
"Whoah, not so close. Or at least stand downwind? Ugh." The pretty girl pinched her nose between her finger and thumb and leaned back. Short and lithe, Melanie held the dubious honour of being Junior's favourite. Favourite what, she would never say. Whore, Ruby supposed. In a nasally voice the girl said, "Yang's looking for you, along with Junior. Been waiting half an hour or more."
"I was busy."
"Busy bathing in shit? You can explain to them. Not my business."
Melanie wandered away, unable to deal with Ruby's pungent scent. She was a harsh and rude girl. Nice enough, if anyone born in the Lower Quarter could be considered nice, but only to those she cared enough about. Ruby wouldn't have been that normally, but Melanie got on with her sister, Yang having cracked more than a few heads who tried things on with her.
That was as good as she could get. In the Lower Quarter, you lived or died on how useful you were. Community spirit, Yang would say. You want food, you either pay for it, steal it or do a favour with someone who has spare. Yang stole. Ruby did favours – though thankfully not those kinds of favours. She didn't have the body for it. Too wiry, too short and too much like a boy. Not even one of the pretty boys who plied their trade and bodies on the borders of the Merchant District. Just a gangly, greasy, silver-eyed tomboy.
It kept her safe. Kept her running messages instead of spreading her legs. Or worse.
Scrambling around the building, Ruby made her way towards Junior's crib, avoiding the pleading eyes of beggars and the hungry ones of those about to turn from beggar to mugger, maybe killer. She kept a grip on the tiny knife on her belt – not only as protection but also to prevent anyone trying to steal it. As she got closer to Junior's turf, she relaxed. People knew her here. Knew better than to think her a safe target.
Her sister stood before the entrance, one foot up against the wall, one hand playing with a knife, picking dirt from her fingers. Beautiful and dangerous in equal measure, Yang could have been a prized girl in a whorehouse, but was, in fact, one of Junior's most dangerous enforcers. A hood covered most of her head, but her golden hair shone through. She wore a leather jerkin, sleeveless, over a dark green cotton tunic tucked into brown pants. Only seventeen cycles, she was still a dangerous and unpredictable predator in the Lower Quarter – and the only person Ruby would admit to being afraid of, if not for the reason most people were. The average person who crossed her got off with a beating. As family, Ruby had to put up with something worse – sisterly disappointment.
Yang sighed the moment she saw her. "Ruby…"
"Hey. I-I can explain."
"Yeah? Glad to hear it. Junior gave you a job, Ruby. A simple one. What the hell are you doing coming back covered in horse muck?" Yang pushed off the wall and approached, sheathing her dagger at her hip. She pushed back her hood, revealing long and luscious golden-blonde hair much unlike Ruby's short-cropped black.
"Up a horse's backside?"
Ruby winced. She knew that Yang had figured it out, the questions being more a test. Lie and Yang would get angry. Tell the truth and she'd still be angry, but at least she wouldn't get a lecture for the lying. "Off the wall…"
"And what," Yang said with an exasperated sigh, "were you doing on the wall? Last I checked, Junior sent you to the gates – not through or over 'em."
Unable to answer, Ruby shrugged helplessly.
"Damn it, Ruby. I've told you about this. You need to get your head out the clouds. We don't belong up there. We're orphans, scum. The lower quarter is our home and we make the best of it we can. That doesn't include risking your life to get a glimpse of those born lucky."
"I was just looking…"
"Yeah? And just getting in trouble for it, I imagine. You could have found a safer way down otherwise. Let me guess, you saw something that caught your eye and got caught in turn. Had to run away from the guards. How's that for a guess?"
Ruby kicked at the floor nervously.
"What am I going to do with you? Come on. At least tell me you delivered the message Junior sent you for."
"Yes!" Ruby excitedly brought her pouch forward and offered it to Yang, eager to lighten her telling-off. "And I got one in return."
"That's great." Yang leaned back. To be fair, the leather pouch was also covered in muck. "You can, uh, give that to him yourself. I think he's got another job for you." Yang sighed and caught Ruby by the hood before she could slip by. "Bath first," she grunted, dragging Ruby away. "Junior isn't going to see you looking and smelling like that."
Ruby sat naked in the copper tub with the muddy water reaching up to her neck, Yang behind, sleeves drawn back and scrubbing roughly at her shoulders. It had taken a good twenty minutes for Yang to draw enough water from the river that worked its way through Vale – even longer for them to heat the coals enough to get the water up to a temperature that wasn't ice-cold. It couldn't be called warm even now, more a tepid middle-ground. It had been a dirty brown colour before they started but was now darker. It was the best they could manage.
At least they were sheltered in the dingy wooden room Junior provided for them, a single room shared between the two of them in Junior's ratty townhouse. Their possessions numbered a bed, a large cushion with several holes in it that functioned as a seat, a table and two small wooden chairs. A chest sat at the end of the bed, locked and containing their meagre supplies. Their valuables, what little wealth they'd accumulated, was hidden under a floorboard beneath the table.
The room was lived in but spartan, lacking in any décor that gave it a sense of homeliness, but giving off the impression of being in constant use. There were little signs of their presence; a knife wound in the table, a carved picture of a horse and even a charcoal drawing stuck to the wall by a nail, showing three smiling figures holding hands. Most of that went ignored as Yang splashed more mucky water over Ruby's face.
"You need to take more care of yourself," she said, pushing Ruby forward in the tub to get at her back. She scrubbed away with a rough brush, scraping Ruby's skin a bright pink. "What do you think would have happened if you'd been caught?"
"I look like a boy, Yang. They wouldn't do anything to me."
"They'd have beaten you black and blue. Maybe thrown you back down with a broken leg for any asshole down here to rob and leave for dead. Don't take me for an idiot, Ruby."
"Sorry isn't going to cut it." Yang brought some water up between her palms and used it to soak Ruby's hair. "Not until you actually follow through on being sorry and stop putting yourself in danger." She sighed. "What did you see up there anyway? Not like you to get caught."
Ruby perked up immediately, half-turning in the water. "I saw some Arcanists!"
"Oh, great." Yang didn't share her excitement. "More assholes, this time in robes."
"Yaaang. Arcanists. Magic!"
"I know what they do, Ruby. Doesn't mean much to me unless they have a spell to wash all this shit off you. So, you saw some Arcanists. And then what? You ran down there to talk to them or something?"
"Idiot." Yang placed both hands on Ruby's shoulders and pushed down suddenly, dunking her. Ruby came back up kicking and spluttering, but Yang didn't even pay attention. She just lathered some animal fat into her hands and started to work on Ruby's hair. "Be more aware of your surroundings in future. And be especially careful of them lot. Guards you can outrun. If an Arcanist gets it in his head to bring you down, you'll go down. Maybe permanently."
"I didn't mean to slip…"
"I know. But better you weren't up there risking your life in the first place. I know you're obsessed with them-"
"It's not an obsession…"
"- but that doesn't mean it's safe. Arcanists come from the Collegium. The Collegium is for those in the upper districts only. We're slum-dwellers. Dredgers. We need to make the most of what we can, not reach for things beyond the stars." Yang sighed. "Time to rinse."
"Wh-blurbl!" Ruby cut off into bubbles as she was pushed under once again. She was held under for a few seconds before being allowed up, and she glared at Yang as she stood and dusted her hands off, reaching for a dry cloth Yang had set to heat over a simmering fire.
"I can dry myself!"
Grumbling, Ruby stood, accepting the thin cloth as it was wrapped around her body from breasts to hip. It was warm and nice, if rough and stretched thin, repaired multiple times by their clumsy sewing skills. Yang at least let her dry herself, though she took the time to push Ruby onto a ratty stool and smooth out her hair.
"Does it matter? It'll just get messy again."
"It matters," Yang said, slapping her hands away. "You've got mom's hair. You need to take care of it."
As always, the mention of Summer was enough to drive any argument from her. Ruby sat still and dried herself off as Yang picked out the knots, tangles and occasional pieces of straw. Soon, her hair was smooth and flat once more, falling down to frame her face.
"Perfect." Yang stood. "Now, get dressed and go meet Junior. He's got another job for you. Quick one, not too far. And this time, try and stay out of trouble. Got it?"
"And don't be looking into more of that magic stuff, Ruby. It's bad news."
Yang looked her up and down as Ruby hurried into a fresh set of clothes, little more than a tattered brown tunic over a pair of darker brown hose. It would take time to wash the stains out of her best outfit. With a long sigh, Yang pulled her own hood off her shoulders, placing the traveller's cloak around Ruby to keep her warm.
"Get going, you, and don't give me reason to panic again."
"Okay." Ruby shifted guiltily. Yang had a way of making her feel like that. "Love you."
Yang's ire melted just a little. "Love you too."
"Ruby." Junior sounded impatient – he always did. One of the more well-known men within the slums, Junior had a reputation to uphold, and uphold it he did. He was a heavy-set man with broad shoulders and a flat face perpetually tugged into a frown. His hands opened and closed on the table in front of him, and Ruby had once heard it was because he'd strangled an Arcanist to death and had a curse laid on him. Junior never talked about it.
Junior was dangerous and the two enforcers flanking him were just as bad – but Ruby didn't fear him. For one, she was more useful alive than dead, and a messenger with a broken leg couldn't run. Secondly, Junior wanted Yang. Wanted Yang on his payroll and, Ruby thought, in his bed. Either one would have kept her safe; both ensured it.
"Junior." She bowed nonetheless and pushed her now-clean pouch onto the table. "I delivered the message. Randol wanted me to take this back to you."
"Hm." Junior took and opened the pouch, letting both a rolled-up parchment and a small pouch of coins drop out. He nodded to the man beside him, who stepped forward, opened the pouch and spilled the coins onto the table.
Slowly and methodically, he counted through them.
"None missing. Good."
"I wouldn't have stolen any."
"Hm." Junior made a sound that could have meant anything. "Randol might have. Better late then never. Good job." Reaching into the coins, he flicked one across the table, which Ruby snatched and put into her tunic.
"Melanie said you had another for me."
"Yes." As always, Junior spoke slowly – carefully. He was always cautious, ever watching his back and quick to see treachery in others. Even quicker to dispense his own kind of brutal justice. Often times, that was delivered by Yang.
Ruby knew better than to chance it. Junior kept them fed, sheltered and safe – more than could be said of most in the slums. Also, any mistakes she made would reflect on Yang. For both their sakes, she had to play Junior's games.
"One of my old friends has been approached by a client. Mysterious bastard, or so he says. Wants to discuss a transit out of the Lower Quarter and into the Upper."
"Past the Merchant's Quarter?"
"All the way up to the next level."
That was a dangerous prospect. The tiered city became smaller and more tightly packed the higher you went, and while the Upper District wasn't the highest, it was where those on the up and up lived, gentry and lesser nobles alike. The guards were better trained, equipped and had a reputation for harsh justice. Merchants watched their step, which meant a rat like her – a Dredger – ought to think twice. Yang was already furious she'd gone into the Merchant's Quarter.
"You want me to go to the Upper Quarter?"
"No." he said – and Ruby let out the breath she'd been holding. "I need you to meet the client, though. Collect the package; discuss terms. This will be an expensive job for us." Which meant that the delivery would be handled through bribery rather than one of Junior's agents, probably a case of paying off the guards to deliver it. Safer than trying to sneak someone like her up, but expensive. "It needs to be worth our while, otherwise I'm not interested."
"I understand. What's the limit?"
Ruby whistled. A hundred? That was more than she'd ever seen in one spot at any given time. A fresh loaf of bread could cost two lien – stale about half a lien. A hundred could last someone for a long time, though it obviously meant less in the upper districts. Bribery was an expensive business, it seemed.
"Any less and you walk out. If the client causes trouble, let 'em know what that means."
You mean tell them that even if they beat me, it won't make you move a finger. Junior wanted her to go because it meant relatively little for her to be hurt. Yang would be angry, but the ire would be directed elsewhere.
"You'll be paid," Junior said, pushing three more coins onto the table. Ruby didn't reach for them, knowing he only paid on a delivery completed. Even so, three lien would be a welcome boost to her and Yang's pantry. And it wasn't like she had a choice.
"Where do I meet the client?"
Ruby slipped into the tavern and pinched her nose against the fearsome smell of sweat, urine and beer. Crowded and loud, the patrons argued and shouted obscenities at one another over frothing pewter tankards of strong barley beer. Beer was one of the few amenities the Lower Quarter had, and most came as cast-offs give to those who worked the farms outside the walls.
Considering that the river that ran through the centre of Vale came to them last, the water was often dirty – making beer a safer means of consumption, if you could afford it. Ruby had been drinking beer since before she could remember and still hated the taste. She hated coming down with gripe and sickness even more, especially when it meant she couldn't deliver for Junior and Yang had to work harder, riskier jobs or bring less food home. Medicine down in the slums was a risky business and expensive at the best of times. Those who were good at it, real healers, tended to earn enough to live in the higher districts, leaving only the disgraced, the frauds or the risktakers behind.
Most of the patrons recognised her as she stepped through the mess. Not as Ruby Rose, but as Yang's sister – an infinitely more dangerous person to tangle with. A few snorted her way and one or two looked her up and down, either checking out a young girl on the cusp of womanhood or, more likely, looking to see if she was worth roughing down. If she had any valuables. Most ignored her. Against her sister, she really didn't stand out, either in danger or beauty.
Mac was working the bar as usual; the portly man slammed a tankard against a keg, tapped it and poured out the amber liquid. He took a long drink, then put the tankard down on the counter and pushed it towards her.
Ruby cringed but accepted it, choosing to sip from the opposite side. "Thank you."
"Junior sent you?"
"For a client."
"Hnn." Mac snorted and looked to the left. "Watch yourself with this one. Came in and demanded Junior by name. Fancily dressed, armed, but no one dares touch her. Unnatural if you ask me. Ain't no one can walk through these streets dressed like that and not find a shiv in their back."
"Over by the corner. Hooded. The one in black."
Ruby looked without making it obvious, but it wouldn't have mattered if she'd stood on the counter and waved her arms. The figure was sat at a table with a dark hood pulled up over their face, concealing any features. She was facing away, leaving Ruby with only the back of her hood and the wooden stool to see.
"She doesn't look odd to me."
"Look again," Mac said with a little sigh. "That cloak is silk as far as I can tell. What good is that against the rain and wind? She wears black leather with silver buckles. See that sword at her side? Who in these parts can afford to wield a sword, and for what reason?"
"Well, she's wealthy then. That's good. Junior won't accept the job otherwise."
"Wealthy is one way of putting in. Now, ask yourself this, how does someone with this kind of wealth exist in the Lower Quarter?"
"They don't," she realised, looking again. The woman sat alone with a tankard in front of her, her back to many of the patrons in the tavern, and yet not a one had made a move towards her. Show off your lien too freely and someone would try and take advantage. It seemed impossible that no one had here, and yet there she was, unconcerned with the world around her.
"Yeah. And yet here she is, and without a set of guards to keep her safe. No guards, but alive and well, drinking in my bar."
Ruby caught the message. The woman was either ignorant, lucky or – more likely – dangerous enough to look after herself. Her stomach dropped. "Oh."
"`Oh` is right," Mac said. "Watch yourself."
`Watch yourself`, not `I'll come with you` or an offer to help. Ruby wouldn't have expected it but found herself wishing Mac had made the offer anyway. Fingering her knife, she wondered if she could call it quits and tell Junior the deal had fallen through.
Not with Mac watching she couldn't.
Something you learned early in the Lower Quarters, after learning how little the world cared, was that there was a certain pecking order. A hierarchy. Even in the most lawless part of the city, there existed rules. Unwritten rules. For one, you didn't attack or kill someone working a stall or store. After all, if you killed the baker then who would bake the bread? You also didn't make trouble with what limited guards came through every other week, because no one needed more attention – or the kind of discipline the guards dealt.
More than that, you learned who was a target and who was not. Those that learned such a lesson lived to steal another day. Those that did not? Well, it all depended on the person you chose to take on. If they were feeling merciful, you might get away with a broken hand. If not? Not everyone lived to learn their lessons.
This woman had all the hallmarks of someone not to be fucked with. Ruby knew it the second she stepped away from Mac and closer to the table. There were empty seats around her, empty space despite that the tavern was full everywhere else. A woman sitting alone should have attracted attention, but this one was the opposite. Men went out of their way not to notice her.
The sword at her side was a danger, but the way she sat with it, comfortably and yet in a position where she could draw at a moment's notice, told Ruby the weapon was no idle threat. This was a killer. Ruby had seen her fair share, but always from a distance. Yang had been a natural at distinguishing who was safe to approach or not, and although she wasn't as good, she could pick out the little details once they were pointed out to her.
Swallowing, she stepped up and stopped a small distance away. Close enough to be noticed, not close enough to be mistaken as a threat. She coughed for good measure, shuffled her feet and waited.
"You're one of Junior's?" The voice was low, feminine, soft. Ruby nodded, and then realised the woman couldn't see it.
"I am. I'm a messenger. Junior sent me to deal."
The figure nodded. "Take a seat."
I'd really rather not, she thought. Sitting at the same table would leave her all kinds of defenceless, not to mention out of knife reach but within that of the sword. Still, she knew her place and knew refusal wasn't an option. Stepping forward, Ruby drew out the seat opposite the woman and sat down. She placed both hands atop the table, in view.
The woman wasn't that much older than her. Possibly Yang's age, maybe older, she had an angular and smooth face that seemed exotic and out of place in the Lower Quarter. Dark hair fell on either side, swept back into her hood, and light bangs reached down to dark, amber eyes. The hood was peaked slightly atop her head, hinting at inhuman ears beneath the cloth.
A faunus? I thought they all died when Menagerie disappeared.
Apart from her black hood and cloak, the woman wore a dark leather cuirass with criss-crossed belts and buckles, a pouch on her hip, another to the side of her right breast and a corset that reached down to tight, leather trousers and knee-length boots. All of it in shades of black, grey or dark brown. Mercenary, Ruby thought immediately. She had the look of someone hired to kill.
From the looks of it, business had been good.
"You're the messenger Junior intends to use?" The woman looked her up and down and frowned. "You're young."
"I-I'm a messenger, but not the one." Swallowing, she composed herself. "Junior would need to bribe some people to get your package higher. I'd only be the one to take it to the people he needs to pay."
"Unacceptable. This must not leave trusted hands."
Then why are you giving it to us? You can't trust Junior or me anymore than a crooked guard.
"Getting into the Upper Quarter would be almost impossible for one of us," Ruby tried to explain, biting back the fear the woman's piercing eyes brought. "I can get into the Merchant's Quarter by climbing the walls, but the walls to the Upper are guarded and protected by Arcanist's spells. I'd be killed."
The woman's fingers drummed on the table top. "I was assured Junior was the best."
"He is. We are. But what you're asking just isn't possible."
"I'm prepared to pay."
"It's not an issue of coin. It's-"
"Two thousand lien."
Ruby's mouth fell open. She fell back on her seat, the strength stolen from her body. Two thousand? That – That was ridiculous. Insane. It was enough to buy a property in the Merchant's Quarter. It would be enough for Yang and her to move to the Merchant's Quarter. They could escape the slums.
"T-That's a lot, but it's still an impossible job. The Arcanists-"
"I can provide a way around their protections. All you would need to worry about is the guards."
"It wouldn't be me who did this."
"No. It has to be. It will be." The woman's hand snatched Ruby's and drew it across the table. Ruby gasped and reached for her knife, only to feel her entire body lock up. She couldn't move a muscle – and not because she was frozen out of terror. Looking down to her hand, Ruby saw a faint, grey mist connecting her skin to the woman's. Spectral, ghostly chains wrapped and coiled about her arm, digging into her flesh without pain or tactile sensation.
Ruby's breath caught. Her words came out a frightened whimper. "Arcanist…"
Amber eyes stared into her own. The woman didn't nod, but her eyes – and the shadowy chains – more than confirmed it. No mercenary; something far more dangerous. Someone who could, at a whim, kill her right here and now.
"The protections of other Arcanists will be of no concern for me – or for you. I will shroud you in shadow and see you through. If you agree to deliver my package yourself."
There was an Arcanist in front of her, an actual Arcanist. Ruby's heart beat so fast she thought it might burst. She had questions – so many questions – but the look in the woman's eyes said such would be fatally unwise. Arcanists were dangerous. This woman had been intimidating before, but now stood on an altogether different level. She could very easily destroy Junior's entire gang, Ruby and Yang along with them.
"Do we have a deal?"
Yes. No. Two thousand lien. Junior would kill her if she tried to take it for herself, but if the money was contingent on someone delivering it personally, Junior might refuse the contract anyway. If he failed and lost whatever was worth that much, this Arcanist might come looking for answers. One did not court the anger of someone with the power to destroy everything you held dear. Safer to say no and let the woman keep her coin.
But if that happened, if Junior refused, then what was to stop her trying it? If she could earn that kind of money, she and Yang would be set for life.
"W-What if Junior wants it to be someone other than me?"
"Then I shall refuse. It must be you." The woman's fingers stroked her wrist, tracing an ice-cold pattern across Ruby's skin. A strange, curved shape appeared on Ruby's inner arm, a tattoo of some kind. "This will ensure it," the Arcanist said.
Ruby pulled her arm back the moment it was released and cradled her wrist. It still felt like she'd dunked it in the river on a mid-winter morning. Her thumb touched the tattoo, which did not budge. It didn't look alive, nor magical. It looked like any other image inked into her skin, except of a strange flower-like symbol.
Even so, fear crept up her. An Arcanist could do anything they put their mind to – or so the legends went. Some said they could control minds, others claimed they could bring back the dead or summon demons from another plane of existence. Creating tattoos was within that realm, but she dared not imagine that was all this was.
"What did you do to me?"
"It is a precaution. Nothing more." The Arcanist reached into her cape and produced a beautiful box made of varnished oak. It was small, hardly five inches on either side. It had the same symbol as was on her arm carved into the wood. "It will ensure that this remains with you at all times, even should someone try to take it from you. You will not be able to give it away. Not until my recipient relieves you of it."
"B-But I didn't agree to take the job…"
"I can remove it, of course." The woman leaned back. "I shall remain here for another two days. Take this to Junior and make to him my proposal. Should he refuse and should you decide it not worth the risk, return and I shall lift you of the burden. I assure you, the enchantment is as safe to remove as it was to apply. For now, consider it a warning to your employer, a warning not to betray me."
"He wouldn't. That's bad business."
"Perhaps. But for two thousand lien, any man will turn on another."
Ruby rubbed her arm to work some warmth into it. The box sat on the table, innocuous and yet somehow threatening at the same time. "You just need it delivered to the Upper City? Where to? Not the Arcane Collegium, surely. Even I can't get in there."
"Not the Collegium. Upper Quarter; a small store of antiques known as Vincent's Antique and Curiosities. Vincent is an Arcanist like me and will be able to remove the enchantment. It is he who will pay you."
"And if he doesn't?"
"Then I shall not be pleased and will pay you myself, then take the difference out of his flesh."
Ruby believed her. "That's it, then? Take this, deliver it and that's all? He'll remove the mark?"
It wasn't, Ruby knew. If something looked too good to be true it probably was, but opportunities like this didn't come around twice. They rarely came the first time. Nervously, she thought about the job – and then thought about what two thousand lien could do for her and Yang. A home, fresh food, safety and a chance at a better life. A chance of making it past forty.
She took the box.
Here's the first chapter. Welcome to the world of Arcanum, where things aren't going to get explained early on and there will be a fair bit of confusion. I hope I did Ruby okay for people, even if she is definitely a lot more cautious and grounded in this story than canon thanks to her lifestyle. I tried to have her be different and yet similar, with little bits of her canon curiosity and excitement showing through (towards Arcanists, like she is with weapons in canon) while still having her be a bit grittier and less naïve as a result of her life here.
Next Chapter: 7th May
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