Isyla received the One of Keys from a man without a name. That is always how the One of Keys is acquired. That is how it always begins.
It was a normal day in Revula. Isyla slinked through the streets and plied her trade, as unnoticed by the citizens going about their chores as the stone rats who nibbled on the cobblestones, or the singing bees who hummed their songs to the flowers that grew between the stones. Today she practiced her craft on Lumina Street.
None of the other silvertips would come anywhere near Lumina Street. The people who walked there had friends and enemies and armed bondsmen woven among the crowd. It was close enough to the Illuminated Gardens that green light exposed all but the most stubborn of shadows. And it was near enough to the Bellowing that the stimulant-laced air made every who traversed it alert and uneasy. But where her fellows saw insurmountable obstacle, Isyla saw opportunity. Those with business on the street were wary of each other, not a skinny girl in a polished marble dress with ribbons in her hair. It was their words and their glances they kept clutched tightly to them. Not their purses.
Isyla slipped through the crowd as if she belonged there. She sampled a honey ant from the sweet vender. She gazed with only half-affected longing at a bracelet being sold off the wrist of a vendor wearing dozens, to show potential buyers how the golden resin gleamed against her jet-black skin. Isyla haggled with the woman for several minutes before they settled on a price. Then she called out to a mother that wasn’t there that she needed coin so she could buy the bauble, and harumphed in indignation when her cries were ignored. All part of the play. The jewelery-clad vendor merely smiled at her, and wished her luck in improving her talents of parental manipulation for next time.
All the while, Isyla slipped mercury-coated fingertips into pockets, or the brims of hats, or the space between ankle and boot. Anywhere coin or note or piece of amber might be hidden from the emerald light from above. She moved up and down the street, playing her game and filling her pouch. The fatter it got, the more difficult it was to keep the superior smile away from her lips. That smile could give up the game to a wary mark, even if her technique stayed true.
Midday passed, and she was well past her quota. But only a fool quit once they reached their numbers. Anala had shown her the math, and she believed it even though she still found it hard to work out the sums herself. So she continued, and imagined what she would buy with her surplus once she gave Silverkeeper her cut. With each tiny victory, Isyla’s daydreams grew more extravagant.
The handful of Klenkrykan coins she purloined from the fat man who smelled of firespice would buy her a new shawl to replace the disintigrating silk one that hung over her bed. The 300 gyla note she acquired from the woman with the feathers where her head should be – Makers knew what manner of creature she was – might mean Islya could finally buy herself the gemferet she had fallen in love with over at Malika’s shop. It was one of those days where Isyla’s fingers never faltered. Where every suggestion whispered by her quicksilver companion on which well dressed citizen was a rich mark, and which a poseur in borrowed clothes, turned out to be true. Where, it seemed, she could do absolutely no wrong at all.
Until she felt the cold fingers clamp around her wrist.
“Hold, girl,” said a gruff voice from behind her. It was a coarse, whiny whisper, like two pieces of rough glass scraped against one another that just barely made an audible sound.
Isyla froze in fear. The shock of getting pinched threw her so violently out of her effortless reverie and back into harsh reality that it took her a moment to realize she really was freezing. She turned and saw that the grip on her arm was made of ice. She looked up at her captor, into the nearly translucent eyes of an iceform.
“Are you trying to steal from that gentlemen you were following, girl?” he said. Isyla could do nothing but stare. She had never seen an iceform up close before. They didn’t normally walk the streets. Shouldn’t he –she?– be melting? But he showed no signs of melting, even if the sweltering mixture of sunlight and gardenlight. Maybe they didn’t really melt. Maybe that was just a thing the kids said around the well. You couldn’t believe all of that stuff. Benalin Coppermark swore that the Virisae dissolved if you threw salt on them, and Isyla knew that wasn’t true.
She was amazed how see-through the iceform was. She wasn’t sure she would have been able to see him at all, save for the metallic robes he wore and the way the green light reflected off the sharp angles of his body. And his eyes. Looking straight into them, it was easy to see the thousands of facets of his intricately carved irises.
“I asked you a question,” he said. His voice didn’t sound angry, or accusatory. Just curious. When he spoke, his jaw moved straight up and down like a wooden puppet, but his lips did not shape the words. “Were you planning to steal from that man?”
Isyla almost denied it. That was what she was trained to do, after all. Like Enam always said, “spy, lie, deny, deny deny. Anything else, you’ll do nothing but die.”
Maybe it was the innocent look in those diamond-eyes. Maybe it was the fact that Enam was an idiot with his stupid rhymes, and Isyla was twice the silvertip he was, even if he was nearly twice her age and experience. Or maybe she was just feeling reckless.
“Yeah,” said Ilsya. “I was trying to pull that runewatch from his pocket. Worth 500 gyla, I figure, easy.”
The iceform laughed, a sound like crystal chimes in the breeze. A surprisingly beautiful sound, after the roughness of his voice.
“I believe I could ask any question I could devise of any ten of the people here of my choosing,” he said, “and yours would be the only honest answer I would hear today.”
“Um…thanks?” said Isyla. “Could you let go of me? Your hand is cold.”
The iceform nodded, but did not let go. “You are a silvertip, I gather?” Islya nodded. “What is your name, silvertip?”
“Islya,” she said. “What’s yours?”
The iceform narrowed his eyes. A strange gesture. He had eyelids of pale blue that obscured his eyes, but his brows and cheeks were rigid and unmoving.
“We cannot be marked, and cannot be branded,” he said.
Isyla considered this unusual answer for a moment.
“So you don’t have no name?” she asked.
“So what do people call you?”
“We are not called,” he said.
“Oh.” Islya frowned. “That sounds lonely.”
He nodded. “We are very lonely.”
The frankness of the answer took her aback. This iceform didn’t talk like any person she knew, and the people she knew came in all materials and arrangements. But all of them had names. It made her a little sad, inside her in a place she didn’t use very often.
“Are you going to turn me in?” she asked after a minute.
“Do you wish me to?”
“No way!” she said. “The meta’s’ll grind my silver to powder and throw the rest of me to the root-snakes, they will.”
“Then I suppose I should let you go, then,” said the iceform.
“That would be much appreciated,” she said. Then added, “sir.”
The iceform laughed again.
“You have to promise me no more stealing,” he said. She opened her mouth to protest. “Until next sunrise,” he added.
“Oh. Yeah. I can do that. It’ll cut into my earnings some, but I’ll manage.”
“It is well, then,” he loosened her grip on her arm, and she pulled free.
Isyla rubbed her wrist. There were angry red marks where the iceform’s frozen fingers had seared her flesh. She whispered in her secret voice to her quicksilver, and it rushed towards the damaged skin and began to sooth the wound. She felt better instantly. She looked up into the iceform’s crystal eyes.
“Well,” she said, “I’d better be off then…”
“I have something else for you,” he cut her off. “Sometime aside from your freedom. So your earnings do not suffer.”
“You don’t have to do that,” she said with a grimace. She’d been playing the game long enough to know not to trust anything given that wasn’t earned. But he had already reached into his pocket, and now held his outstretched hand over hers. She opened her palm, and he dropped something in.
It was warm to the touch, and the faint sound of music hummed in her ears. She looked down at object. It was flat, like something cut out of paper. Then, before here eyes, it inflated into a small sphere, glowing faintly with white light, with a tiny spike jutting from the top. It began to spin slowly in her hand, throwing tiny specks of its light against her skin.
She stared at it.
“Thank you,” she said in a quiet voice.
“No.” The iceform shook his head. “Do not thank me. Never thank me. Not for this.” He stepped backwards into the crowed, and when Isyla next blinked, he was gone.
Part of Isyla wanted to run after him and ask him what he meant with that strange statement. But most of her wanted nothing but to keep staring at this miraculous thing in her hand. After a long time she closed her eyes, and then her palm. She went to slip it in her pouch. Then she thought better of it.
No. She wouldn’t show this to Silverkeeper. This was not part of her take. This was all hers. She whispered again to the mercury, and it spread out and formed an opening in the flesh of her arm. She slid the strange object into it, and felt its warmth as it nestled inside her skin. Where no one would find it.
Then she turned to look at the crowd. She considered going back to work. There was still plenty of daylight left, and of course the garden never set. But she told the iceform she would not, and a promise is a promise. So she turned her back to the bustle of trade and business and secrets, and headed back towards home.
That is how Isyla received the One of Keys from a man without a name. That is how it begun. That is always how the One of Keys is acquired. That is how it always begins. Isyla could not know that the first is followed always by the second. She did not know, yet, that the choice to pursue the third is nearly impossible for those to whom it is presented to resist. Would she have thrown the cursed, magnificent thing into the Hungry River, if she had known that her path to the Whispering Woven was about to begin?
She asked herself that many times, in the moments to come. She never came up with an answer.