A/N: I promised this update a long time ago - about two weeks ago, almost. The sad part is that I've had this just sitting on my computer, waiting for me to finish it, for at least a week and a half, and I just haven't had the inspiration to finish the chapter. To make up for it, I'm just going to post what I have and finish the chapter after my AP Mock exams next week.

In other words, this is only about half of the chapter. The rest of it will be forthcoming. I'm introducing the second of the five heroes, the one who is arguably the least "heroic" of all of them.

Thanks go out to Aellepi for the second review, and, as always, to Lily Dooley, who is awesome and diligently reviews almost everything I write.


Squint, Chapter 2.1

Circam Manor had been as quintessential a symbol of Harlequin's industry as the coal miner's rattling cough and the pharmaceutical's twitching, speedy fingers, probably since before the city had even existed. Quaint and rustic, its ivy-covered façade and neat baroque symmetry made it look like an antique stolen right from a picture in a history textbook. It loomed on the top of its little hill, just a ways outside the municipal boundaries, one of the few buildings within sight that hadn't started falling in on itself yet. Harlequin had been built up around it, and Harlequin had built it up to be a bastion of the triumph of man over desire.

Certainly, to look upon it, one would never suspect that only ten storeys below its foundations there was a massive underground kingdom, sprawling over several miles in absolute secrecy.

A straight sixteen storey vertical plunge was all that separated the denizens of the manor from the heart of this kingdom, the central haven,. This was the Aphrodite Eleven, a swarming hive of crackling energy, lust, dominance. The undisputed capital of all underground entertainment cities, the frontrunner of society's most beloved forbidden thrall in its classiest form. The brightest jewel in the Circam family's ever-growing crown.

Rare were the days that the acknowledged king had the luxury of making the subterranean journey, for the irony was such that the cut-throat world of business and betrayal that allowed his domain to thrive kept him aboveground on most days. But today the lord, with the utmost urgency of pending business, made the descent in haste. The guards, decked in smart suits with the outlines of the latest releases in firearm technology just visible through their coats, dared not stop him to search him. The valets, with their starched brocades and perpetual smiles, did not dare stop him to card or identify him, instead nodding him through the hall immediately.

Heads turned as he wove his way through the labyrinth of tables, some with pure curiosity, most with knowing amazement. It was not every day that they got a sight of their idol in the flesh, after all. His personality, his comportment, everything about the way he carried himself, from the air of sultry secrecy to the lingering smile upon his lips to the sharp lines of his face lifted confidently into the air – it was all so magnetic to these people, and they fed their ravenous hunger for importance and immortality with every nod of acknowledgement he gave them.

He was good at that – the very best, in fact. He had to be. The company had thrived under his direction with his irresistibility, his skill in capturing the hearts of the clients and masses alike, in every way that shrewd business skills had carried his predecessors. In effect, the success of the Aphrodite Eleven had always been linked as much to the attraction of the Circam family as it had been to the collapse of polite society.

He navigated the length of the club, past the overflowing bars serving only the best of spirits, past tables where the foremost members of Gran Atlantica's most affluent or notorious dynasties dined, past the illuminated stage where a siren in a red dress and jewels that glimmered in the golden light from the chandeliers sang her audiences to sin with the shimmering timbre of her voice. The boldest of souls flocked to his side, and it was all his attendant could do to stop them from laying a hand on him. A crowd gathered around him nonetheless, and he was bombarded with a barrage of questions, compliments, comments – most some kind of flattery. He provided the most evasive answers he could come up with and brushed them away with a tender apology, knowing well the low purr of his voice was enough to carry him into their hearts.

It was only midday on a Saturday, and it seemed an awkward time for a club to be so full – but not when one counted that aboveground, on the streets, the city's shoddy attempt at a police force was cracking down on the things that were so ubiquitous here, all the liquors that flowed like water and the pleasure tablets passed around among customers. Aboveground was a battle zone, a clash of morals between the old order, still desperately (and futilely) clinging to old stigma like dying martyrs to their bibles, and the new order, that class of souls who had spurned the lies and artificialities of a "lawful" society in favour of a little bit of indulgence. And the Aphrodite Eleven had easily become the favoured haunt of these pariahs.

Two young women seated in a corner of the room, far removed from the more common crowds, caught his gaze as he passed. He guessed, from the richness of the foods assembled on the table in front of them and the grace with which they carried themselves, that they were daughters of one of the important corporate families based in Harlequin. He gave them a snatch of a smile and greeted them with a bow of his head; they, in turn, grinned flirtatiously and waved.

He considered stopping briefly to make polite conversation with them, as he normally would. Charming the wealthiest patrons, or more particularly their wives and daughters, on his visits to the club had been a custom of his since his childhood – although the nature of his visits had changed dramatically from when he was eight to when he was twenty-five. And now, with his visits significantly more rare, they had become all the more in demand.

Just as he started to veer off in their direction, his assistant shifted forward a step and appeared at his side. "Master Rodrich? He's arrived."

He righted his course once more, angling towards a set of sliding doors on the other end of the main landing. "Ah, excellent. Where is he?" he hummed under his breath.

His assistant tapped away at a tablet perched upon his fingertips. "Conference room above the Park Observatory."

"And he is alone?"

"As always."

"Excellent," he repeated. His eyes roved about the room, from patron to patron, never resting on one face for more than a moment. Outwardly he appeared relaxed, his gait steady, his smiles easy, but a part of him remained tense, and his smiles slipped the closer he got to the doors that would carry him away from his domain and into the decaying world upon which it had been founded. "Lunch is ready?"

The waver in his voice must have been more evident than he'd thought it was, for his assistant lowered the tablet and eyed him critically for a moment. Rodrich bit the inside of his cheek to keep his face straight. "Everything is assembled."

Thankfully, his assistant turned back to the tablet then, and Rodrich let out a low breath of relief. "Good. And Ms. Shaw? Ready for her big début?"

"All ready for the camera, sir."

"Perfect." They mounted the short flight of steps to the elevator vestibule and crossed to the largest one, at the end of the hall. Ivan keyed in his entry code to the panel beside the doors and pressed the call button. The doors to the elevator slid open – the walls were made of thick glass, so here, several storeys beneath the ground, the light was on overhead and only the walls of the elevator shaft were visible. Far overhead, a square of warm daylight and rich blue sky beckoned.

Ivan stepped inside and set the controls on the panel. Rodrich, who had resigned himself to a much slower, casual pace in the hopes that it would disguise the tension in his limbs, trailed after him. The doors slid shut, and the calming thrum of the club's soundtrack – jazz, pleasant conversation, the high lilting laughter of the slightly intoxicated – faded away, leaving them in a thick silence that settled heavily upon his chest. The elevator lurched upward suddenly, and he fell back against the railing, gripping it tightly to steady himself.

Ivan's stare was sharp as knives, boring into him. He scrutinized in silence – searching for the signs Rodrich was trying his best to suppress, as he had been constantly for years. Years of dealing with the problem. Rodrich grew progressively more uncomfortable, until finally he could withstand it no longer. He looked straight at Ivan, to distract him, and asked, "Will you stay?"

"If it is your will."

"Stay, then, I suppose. I'm sure you'll lend something to my credibility."

"Master Rodrich, do you need to take something?"

Caught. Rodrich held out his hands and looked down at them. The already blanched skin was paler than usual, the blue of his veins stark against the whiteness of his skin, and there was a slight quaver to his fingers – but that was hardly anything new. That could just be the perpetual underground chill. Of course it was just the drafts. At length, he concluded softly, "I should be okay."

"I have everything in case you change your mind."

Rodrich did not reply, turning around to avoid Ivan's penetrating stare. The elevator cleared the underground shaft, and daylight flooded the cabin. From here he could see the entirety of the aboveground components of the complex arranged below him – far to his left, the old Circam Manor building. Just to the north, the gardens, both public and pleasure, linked to the beautiful aboveground Chatellienne and Rothsheim resorts. Clustered to the east the public casinos, gaudy with their bright colours and neon lights – the Octavian, the Palovino, the Empress. Behind them, the Observatory building, towering lazily into the sky in a mess of radical architecture, the golden dome at the top closed, as it had been since his childhood.

A convoluted series of glass tunnels connected everything for patrons, allowing them a clear view of the gardens and direct passage from venue to venue. They sprawled across the grounds like the gossamer threads of a spider's web. At some point during his family's chaotic quest for expansion, the grounds might just have become too large – although the day he dared admit that would probably be the day his family finally disinherited him.

The elevator slowed in its ascent until it came to a full stop. Then gradually it kicked back into gear, propelling them across a horizontal shaft, away from the exit tunnel of the Aphrodite Eleven and the main complex, toward the Observatory. Ivan's tone had lost its accusatory edge. Softly, he broke the silence with, "You're thinking, sir."

"I am always thinking, Ivan," Rodrich replied with a weak smile. "In particular about how we might connect the manor directly to the Observatory. Not that I don't like a little walk through the gardens every now and then, but I almost feel bad, making our man have to wait for us like this."

Ivan rested a hand on Rodrich's shoulder and caught his gaze in his reflection. "No more building projects until the Aquarius projects have been finished."

"You're right, of course. I'm in way over my head." He rested his head against the glass and let it frost over with his breath. "Just trying to make the master proud."

"I see no reason why he wouldn't be," Ivan offered.

"You didn't know him like I did, Ivan. He was never proud of me." Rodrich let out a small sigh, his eyelids fluttering shut. "When did you become such an optimist, anyway?" he said, smiling.

"I know you, Master Rodrich. And I think you've managed yourself quite well." He chuckled, gesturing to Rodrich's hands, and corrected, "With minor exceptions."

"It's not something I can help," he countered sullenly, but his words were lost in the elevator bell going off overhead as it ground to a halt.

When they stepped out into the landing of the observatory, it was quiet except for the low hum of machinery, in the way only desertion could manage. The public had been barred from the topmost floors for years; they had been relegated for the private usage of the Circam family – though he was the only one who dared chance the forlorn halls.

The massive telescope, once the crowning jewel of the Circam inheritance, had not been touched for nearly a decade, and its lenses had gathered a thick layer of dust, its golden casing had long since lost its metallic sheen. Nobody had been sent up there to maintain it since Lord Circam, Senior, had died. Rodrich had only been a young child when it had happened, but he could still recall the miserable ceremony in which his mother, hysterical with despair, had declared the entire building forbidden. Even at this age, when he'd stopped believing in night terrors – for the most part – the dimly lit, dusty hallways still disconcerted him, for when the wind whistled through the curving, upward sloping hallways, his injured imagination conjured the ghost of his father in his last years, emaciated and deathly pale, reckless and scarcely in control of himself, falling apart at the seams, gliding his way up the hall to brood in his beloved observatory.

Though his mind was uneasy, his feet, and the presence of Ivan behind him, carried him forward, up the ramp. A shudder passed through his frame, and he felt a hand – Ivan's – press against his shoulder blade, steadying him. He reached for the railing, ghosting mindlessly up the ramp until he reached the door to the conference room.

Above them, up a flight of narrow spiral steps, was the long-forgotten entrance into the observatory. He let his gaze drift upwards and settle on the dusty door. If he opened it, what would he find? Just the forsakenremains of his father's beloved project, doomed to fail from the start? Or, perhaps, his father's ghost, locked in agony among the old gears and cogs?

The sound of Ivan's steps behind him broke his trance. Rodrich turned and reached for the handle, but stopped halfway to it. He looked down at his hands and flexed his fingers – which, he finally realised with surprise, were bare. "Ivan," he breathed, turning back to his assistant and holding out his hands.

Ivan had already withdrawn a pair of soft evening gloves from the inside of his coat and pulled them apart. He carefully lifted Rodrich's wrist, making sure not to brush bare skin, and slid the glove onto his hand, then lifted the other one and did the same.

Rodrich flexed his fingers again to fit them properly into the fabric. The calming effect was almost instantaneous. "Thank you, Ivan," he mumbled, smiling timidly.

Ivan did not reply, but brushed past him and opened the door. Rodrich stepped into the conference room and Ivan followed, closing the door behind him.

The conference room was long and narrow, like a wide train car. Once they'd sealed off the observatory, he'd had it converted from a conference room into more of a lounge, a brightly illuminated and secluded parlour far removed from the activity and clamour of the club or the mansion. Where no one would dare look for him when he wanted to escape. Perfect for a secret and most likely illicit meeting.

A mini bar had been assembled on a low dais in the back corner of the room, but it hadn't been replenished in ages. The long table in the centre of the room had been replaced by a smaller one, now set lavishly with two places for his lunch with his guest. In the front of the room, two leather couches faced the wall opposite him – which was less a wall than an enormous window, overlooking the complex and the land beyond it.

His guest stood at this window, clutching a glass of wine in his hands and staring in awe out at the land arrayed before him. He turned when he heard the door close, his eyes falling on Rodrich at once.

The surprise must have shown on Rodrich's face, for the agent subtly gripped his glass tighter. His wasn't a face Rodrich had seen before – he was young and hale, and his face still held the confidence that could only be found in the youth these days. The agent who had come last year – who had been coming for the last sixteen years – had been a grizzled middle-aged man, all sunken from obvious drug abuse and portly, attesting to how easy it had been to buy him over. But this new agent had the light of intelligence, or at least cleverness, in his eyes.

That was a first for an Aerocorps agent. He wondered idly how long it would be before this one cracked under all the offers, pressures, threats of Harlequin's worst.

Rodrich quickly composed himself, mustered his winning smile, and crossed the room with swift strides. "My apologies for the wait. I hope I didn't keep you too long." He extended a gloved hand.

Shifting his wine glass to his other hand, the agent took the outstretched hand and shook it firmly. "Not at all. Vinic Dersam."

"Rodrich Circam, at your service."

"A pleasure to finally meet you, sir. Your rivals have told me so much about you."

He laughed – this one was amusing, for a change, and his mental clarity was refreshing compared to his predecessor's slovenly manner and inability to think past his stomach. "None of it particularly charitable, I imagine?"

"The oh-so-high price of infamy and wealth, Mr. Circam." The agent turned back toward the window. "Magnificent view, by the way – though heights aren't really my thing. Almost makes me dizzy."

"It's incongruous, isn't it?" he said lowly, gesturing toward the complex. From their vantage point they had an excellent – perhaps unfortunate – view of the filthy, dismal streets of the city of Harlequin, a short ways beyond the complex walls. A perpetual aura of gloom lurked in the thick, virulent air, ravenously consuming any who dared chanced the dangerous streets. Compared to the rich colours of the casinos, resorts, and clubs below them, the high rises were stained black with soot and coal dust, and most of them were partly destroyed and crumbling. It was one of the rare days when the sky was blue, and they looked even more out of place, even more decrepit underneath the pristine skies.

"It's a wasteland out there, a catechizing display of the worst humankind has to offer – rape, murder, theft, the lawlessness that becomes more ubiquitous as people try to ignore the fact that their world is literally crumbling around them. Harlequin is a husk of what has once been and what will never be again." He rested a hand against the windowpane. It was cool beneath his fingers and it was sturdy, and indeed, with the thick layer of glass under his hand, the little observatory room felt like a world apart from the horrors of Harlequin. As if he were only viewing it through a screen. "Who can blame them for frequenting these kinds of places? For wanting to indulge themselves a little in a world that never stops trying to eat them alive? It's the only place where they feel like they matter. It's beautiful in here, it's peaceful in here, and in here they are invulnerable to society's demise."

Vinic's chuckles were breathless. "A bit dramatic, but I guess that's to be expected of someone like you. Besides, when you're raking in the kind of profits that you are, Mr. Circam, who can fault you? If I weren't a noble man, I might even try it myself."

"And were I not a noble man, Mr. Dersam, perhaps I'd try being a tax collector of illegal corporations for Aerocorps. There's little room for 'nobility' these days, be it in blood or virtue. It's just about making a living. This is the new age, where gravity, not infamy comes to those who can best cater to the people's fevers."

Vinic's hazy grey eyes glittered with delight. "True, I suppose. I haven't made my rounds of the crime families yet, so I can still fancy myself a civil servant."

"The second you step inside Saccopo turf, you'll be feeling as filthy as the rest of us, guaranteed." He turned away from the window, waving a hand toward the table. "Come. Let us have lunch and talk a bit."

He made his way to the seat facing the window, gesturing to Ivan, who had waited patiently by the door. The smile momentarily dissolving, he exchanged a tense glance with Ivan. The planes of the bodyguard's face were rigid, wrought with unease and underlying concern. Removing his gloves, Rodrich tried to send him his most reassuring look in the fleeting moment, but when Ivan settled into the seat on his right, he was still tense.

The attendant in the room broke away from his post at the wall to pour water from a large silver pitcher into their glasses. "Mr. Dersam, we are joined today by Mr. Aberforth, chief of staff for my family's manor, and Ivan Kralkov, who has been my personal attendant since I was a child. Both are descended from families who have been loyal servants of the Circams for many generations, and both I would entrust – have entrusted, I daresay – with my life." He nodded his thanks to his manservant, then turned a knowing smile back on Vinic. "In other words, we can speak freely in here."

Vinic watched eagerly as Aberforth laid out the meal. "That's good, but I'm supposed to tell you right off the bat that Aerocorps is getting tired of doing all these favours for your kind, that they're not going to tolerate this scrimping and dodging and bribing any longer. I've already had to turn down offers from the Baptistes that were practically ten times my yearly salary, and I swear I would have lost my life if I'd stayed any longer."

"Ah, but I'm sure we can work something out that will benefit all of us."

Vinic didn't reply, serving himself from a plate of raw fish cuttings before him. The hesitation was apparent on his face, however, in his scrunched brow and pursed lips. Rodrich let out a low sigh and picked at his own plate of greens. Lunch wasn't usually part of his schedule unless it was, like now, with a client, and right now he was too concerned with properly navigating Vinic's reservations to have much of an appetite.

He had to keep the conversation flowing. "Might I make an inquiry regarding the situation of your predecessor?"

Vinic flinched, his fork scraping noisily against the plate. "Dead. Got caught dealing Magellan for the Chambers a little bit after collection month last year. Must've been given it as enticement to lower the Chambers' dues. Come to think of it, that's probably why Aerocorps is cracking down this year."

"Ah, that explains why Chambers suddenly started waving his shares in my face. Can you believe that he had the nerve to ask to buy out Westhill from underneath me?" Rodrich shook his head. "Though I have no sympathy for Magellan users, it's still a shame about Mr. Duncan. I liked doing business with him," he lied, grinning mischievously at Ivan.

Vinic snickered. "Aerocorps was glad to get rid of him, that's for sure. They'll tolerate a lot, but the second there's even a hint of Magellan involved..." He shook his head.

Rodrich hummed in agreement. "No matter how lucrative a trade it becomes, the dealing of Magellan is something in which Circam Industrial will never involve itself. I have watched too many lives be destroyed by that dreadful drug."

"Well, I suppose that is pretty noble of you. But then, your family has had some problems with it before, haven't they?"

Rodrich froze, his fork halfway from his plate. Tension suddenly unfurled between them, frigid and thick enough to be cut. Ivan stiffened beside him. Pain rimming his eyes, Rodrich looked at him and shook his head slightly. "If you'll excuse me, that's a still painful subject for me," he mumbled, without taking his gaze off of Ivan.

Mystified, Vinic looked between the two of them. "Of course..."

A painfully awkward silence descended upon them, punctuated by the rhythmic clinking of cutlery against the plates. Rodrich gave up on forcing himself to eat and settled back in his chair, folding his hands into his lap and closing his eyes. His throat seized, and his breathing became laboured and deep as he tried to force his stuttering heart and shaking hands to calm. He felt two quick taps against his knee, and when he looked down to acknowledge them, there was a little white capsule perched upon it. With trembling fingers he seized it and his water glass, waited for a moment when Vinic's attention was elsewhere, then popped it in his mouth and downed half the glass in one go.

Vinic glanced back up not a second after, looking between the two of them. For all intents and purposes, he seemed at least partly aware of the wordless exchange that had gone on between the two of them. But if he knew, he remained tactfully silent, keeping his gaze trained on his plate.