Lying in the dark, in the silent pitch, Rin Polan's eyes sprang open at the sound of a singular voice in the night. The whispered command of "Get up. We're going out." that left her staring at the ceiling for several petrified minutes.
Hers was a bed among many other rows in the servant's quarters, and the women around her slept soundly. Had it been a dream? No. That voice was unmistakable. She'd know it anywhere.
The last time she heard it, it said, "If I ever see you again, I'll kill you."
Like the other recent graduates of the Royal Academy, Rin was young and eager to begin her adult life. Perhaps travel, have her own apartment in the city, or maybe even go to University. But to her dismay, her father left her next to nothing in the way of inheritance. And to her delight, Kyo Bryan, her adoptive though not very fatherly father, offered her a job at the Bryan estate as a maid.
She had a job. A job that she liked very much. A job that went directly against the orders of Mao Bryan, future Crime Lord and heir to the top tier syndicate.
"Stay away from me." he had told her.
"He's going to kill me." she breathed.
When she stepped outside, the crickets chirped. It was a little before midnight, and she hugged her arms not from a chill, but from nerves. What would be waiting for her out there? A loaded gun? A firing squad? She had known people to disappear for less.
Rin had no delusions about her adopted family. She heard the screams in the night. Cleaned up ghastly things that trailed from the garden into a secret room beneath the main house. She lived among monsters, but had always been kept safe. Close, and removed just enough.
He was waiting at the end of the porch. Taller, leaner, attractive. A far cry from the pudgy boy with his face in the dirt. There was no pitying him now. Suddenly she felt very small. Pitiful, herself.
Wordlessly, he led her through the darkened estate, which was comprised of many buildings scattered from the main house. They made their way beneath its lavish entrance. Its traditional architecture reminded her of an Asian palace, or what one may have looked like before the culture was assimilated. They passed through the garden where they mowed bloody grass. Upon the deck she polished daily. Past the room the maids do not enter. The one filled with noises they pretend not to hear.
Bypassing it and instead entering the car garage, Rin remembered what he said: "We're going out."
They were leaving the estate.
Mao selected a particularly luxurious black car. One that had a creamy, leather interior and tasteful holographic dock that projected onto the windshield. When Rin paused, looking about for the usual entourage that surrounded him, Mao said, "Get in."
And they drove.
No soldiers. No suited men to protect their future leader. Nobody, but the two of them.
She twisted her body to watch the lights of the Bryan estate disappear behind the pines. It fit like an inconvenient skin and offered next to no comfort outside of the security she thought she had— but it was home. The only one she had ever known. The one she would never see again.
Mao was stoic. Silent. Contemplative. Maybe he had never killed anyone with his own hands before and only given orders to the suited terrors. Not a word was spoken until they arrived at their destination.
The Neon District.
A screaming, pounding, pulsing stretch of the Third Tier drenched in music and light. It assaulted the senses. This was the Third Crime Lord's territory. Glamorous crowds huddled near bars, dressed head to toe in the latest Atlas fashions. Dipped in gold and liquor. For a moment her fear was suspended, replaced instead with a profound insecurity about stepping outside in her jeans and t-shirt. In her haste she had forgotten to brush her hair, leaving the blonde strands in the messy pony-tail she slept in.
Rin could only take solace in the fact that this was a public place.
Perhaps she would live after all. And if that was the case, what did Mao want with her?
"Here." he said, sliding a drink her way across the bar. A clear, sugary concoction with a cherry caramelizing in it. When she refused to move, nor wipe that expression of terror from her features, he took a sip from her glass. "See?" he said, "It's not poisoned."
With trembling fingers, she took her first drink. Skewed her lips at the bitter ecstasy and asked, "What are we doing here?"
"Checking on some business interests." Mao skimmed the crowd, returning to her and changing the subject, "How do you like being a maid?"
Not sure as to whether enjoying her job was a good or bad thing, she answered truthfully, "I like it. The work is simple. The girls are entertaining. It pays well." when he went back to watching the crowd, she dared to be polite, "How do you like University?"
"I'm not going to University." he said flatly.
"Oh. I just assumed."
"Not that kind of University anyway." Mao shrugged, "I'm enrolled in Crime Lord U. Uncle says it's time to groom me for leadership and prepare me to take over the family legacy."
Since he didn't seem that excited, Rin inquired, "Is that something you look forward to?"
"Appeasing a council of dusty old men desperately clinging to obsolete traditions? Thrilled." he tossed back the rest of his cocktail, ordering another for them both. Under his encouragement, Rin finished her first drink, then the next so they could move to the next bar.
This one was bleached in only black and white. Clear plastic stools sat before a polished onyx bar. The floor alternated in a chevron pattern, which vibrated and expanded with her every breath. Rin squinted. Mao was saying something to her.
"I'll be right back." he said again, placing his hand on her shoulder.
She nodded numbly, watching him dissolve into the crowd to find another young man and shake his hand. The two spoke cordially across the bar while Rin sat, swaying and eyeing the exit. Suppose she ran. Suppose she disappeared into the dark, swallowed by the buzzing signs and beaming holograms. She'd be homeless, of course. Not knowing a soul outside of the most illustrious crime family in Atlas. But she'd be alive. For how long, she did not know.
Seconds, or perhaps hours later, Mao returned and thrust a tiny silver shot glass into her hand. "Here." he said, "Celebratory shots." The man he had been speaking to all night joined them, tossing back the liquid fire and patting Mao on the back.
"Go." said the stranger, "Before they find you. We'll be in touch, Mao." he smiled warmly.
"Indeed my friend!" the boy grinned, wrenching Rin from her stool and pulling her toward the exit.
Barely recovered from the shot, the girl stumbled. Unsure of how her numb legs were moving, she felt as if she were gliding. Floating. Bobbing and weaving through the crowd until they exited into an ally. They may have passed through a hallway to get there. She couldn't be sure.
All she knew then was that they were outside. And it was dark. And they were alone.
"This way." he said, pulling her away from the nearby busy street and further into the labyrinth of lightless bright corridors and trash heaps. Shouts managed to bubble through her garbled ears. The sound of men calling to one another. The distant bark of, "He went this way." that triggered Mao to suddenly throw her into the wall. The shock and sudden violence of it made her call out. A plea that quickly silenced by his thumb over her lips. His hand on her face. His face startlingly close to her own.
Footsteps ran past.
Her breath hitched.
When the coast seemed clear, Mao backed off, his smile slowly stretching. Triumphant. Managing just barely to miss Rin's abrupt jerk forward when she unceremoniously threw up.
"Whoa." he exclaimed, arms out and backing up. When she remained hunched, coughing, he reached for her shoulder, "Are you okay?"
"Don't touch me!" she slapped his hand, a sloppy motion that nearly sent her tumbling. To save her from the spill, Mao took her shoulders. He guided her flailing form down the path until they arrived in a small alcove, possibly the courtyard of one of the many lavish bars. One lit by tiny string lights with a railing overlooking a waterfall of buildings. The air was open here. And when he let her go she spilled onto the banister, clinging to it like a lifeline.
"Well?" she sobbed, "What are you waiting for? If you're going to do it, then just do it already!"
Mao's eyes grew like saucers. If she didn't know any better, or could see fewer than three of him, Rin would think he was blushing, "I beg your pardon?" he said.
Her lips turned in an unflattering gesture. Dogs hoped to die with more dignity than this, "You're going to kill me."
"I'm going to do what?" now he seemed even more confused.
She only cried harder, "You told me to stay away, but I like my job and I like living in your house. Well not living in it, but cleaning it. I like living beside your house. I like having a place to live. I like living. I don't want to be homeless. I don't want to die." her shoulders flinched.
After several stunned seconds, Mao snorted.
It was a soft sound that started as a giggle and escalated into a full-bellied laugh that dwarfed her sobs. Mao had to grip the railing himself to prevent falling down.
He sniffled, wiping tears from his eyes, "You thought— I took you here to murder you? In the most crowded district in the city?" he could barely catch his breath, "If that were the case, I would have ordered well liquor."
Rin, whose tear-soaked eyes had morphed from despair to anger, gave a watery bellow, "Well what did you bring me along for?"
"Fun." he shrugged, "Just. For fun." Mao smiled, "Have you seen any other people our age on property?"
She sniffled— a much louder, more disgusting sound than she intended. Rin had never been so mortified, angry, or scared, but beneath it all was an overwhelming sense of relief. And somewhere even deeper, gratitude.
He held out his hand, "Come on, Rin. Let's go home."