The rural estate of Sandor Rezan was a symbol of his wealth and taste. Wealth, because the palatial expanse of the state could only have belonged to a man of wealth or title, and Sandor Rezan made no secret of his very common origin. Indeed, he took pride in it, inspiring resentment in every bankrupt noble he encountered. Taste, because, unlike his peers in Vulcadian society, Sandor Rezen felt no need to participate in the ostentation of urban nightlife. The elegance of the estate spoke for itself. Sandor Rezan was an inspiration to every member of his organization—living proof that being born in the streets or fields did not consign one to die in the gutters or under a taskmaster's lash.

When he had been chosen to work with Rezan's Cartel, Doral Arresius had been undyingly grateful. When he had been chosen to join the ranks of Rezan's most trusted subordinates, Doral Arresius had been unspeakably proud. There had been rumors that Rezan's inner circle dealt with fausts, unholy spirits that would trade a man power for his soul. The rumors had been true. It had not mattered at all to Doral. Rezan had lifted him from just another street thugs whose high aspiration was to be a gang captain's top enforcer. Rezan had made him respected among his peer. Doral would die for the man in an instant—or trade away part of his soul. And it had been a good bargain. The faust had made him faster, stronger, and smarter. Sandor Rezan was a man who took notice of talent, and the new Doral had risen rapidly among the inner circle of the Cartel. Now Doral Arresius was the Master of Security for Rezan's country estate.

Rezan liked to hold court at his estate, and so his allies and underlings trickled in from the city at regular intervals. It was Doral's task to ensure that all the guests were welcome. Even with the ever-changing array of faces—who was in favor among Rezan's loose network of criminal allies varied daily—it was a dull and unchallenging task. No one from the rival Cartels in Vulcadia would be stupid enough to attack Rezan while he was surrounded by his closest allies and most dangerous followers, and no one from the Vulcadian government dared meddle in Rezan's affairs. Nevertheless, he carried the task out with full diligence, matching each guest to a name and description, along with more specific means of confirming their identity.

The next vehicle to arrive at the gate was a sleek scarlet and black car of a design popular among the upper-class of Vulcadia's cities. It had the distinctive growl of a vehicle with a golem engine rather than a normal one of metaclockwork. The window dropped to reveal a man and a woman who looked strikingly similar. That was far from the only striking thing about them, Doral decided after a moment of examination. Both had red-tinged dark brown hair, an odd sight among the mostly lighter-haired people of Vulcadia. Both were also among the most attractive individuals Doral had ever seen—and he was familiar with Rezan's own sculpted looks and impeccable taste in women. The woman's dark hair fell down past her neck, while the man's was cut short, and they shared a similar athletic build. Doral noted with approval that both the woman's scarlet dress and the man's black suit were suitably tasteful—so many of Rezan's guests had an utterly crass sense of fashion, which annoyed the man to no end. He kept his approval to himself.

"Names," he asked.

"Silana and Adrian Varian," the man—Adrian—said. Doral checked the list stored in his head. Sure enough, their images appeared before him in miniature, along with a description. They were a pair of bodyguards and troubleshooters from the city that operated on the both sides of the law. Doubtless, a pair of bodyguards that were both highly presentable and skilled enough to do necessary dirty work had no trouble finding work. Their skill had attracted Rezan's attention, and tonight was their first invitation to the crime lord's estate.

"You're clear," Doral told them. The gates opened and he waved them forward. "A servant will take your car when you reach the manor house, and you will be checked for weapons. Good evening."

Silvia and Andrew Errynt stepped out of their car and handed responsibility for it to one of Sandor Rezan's lackeys. The crime lord's manor house towered above them, three floors of classical Vulcadian stone and brick architecture. Their arrival caught the attention of the security team at the entrance. They were quickly scanned and searched for weapons.

"Are you ready for this?" Silvia heard Andrew's voice inside her head. The subdermal neurovox implanted in her skull let the two of them talk without speaking, but it only worked at short ranges—no more than half a mile.

"Are you ready? It took us four months to get here," she replied silently. Four months of posing as a pair of twin freelance troubleshooters had not been difficult for them, given how much it resembled their true occupation. "We're gathering intelligence. Stick to the plan. No improvising."

"I seem to recall that last time you were the one improvising."

"That doesn't count. You just couldn't appreciate how cute he was. And the job got done anyway."

"They're clean." The security team finished searching them. "You can go in, but stay on the first floor." Most people would have been hesitant to plunge into a nest of dangerous criminals completely unarmed, but Silvia and Andrew weren't most people. The self-assured confidence on their face was no act.

"That won't do," Andrew said. "How are we supposed to learn the floor plan of this place that way?"

"It's a conspiracy to keep you from having fun," Silvia said, ascending the manor's front steps. The front chamber of the manor was certainly meant to impress. It was a double-height room, its wall studded with trophies from Rezan's art collection. Most were commissioned directly from the world's great artists. Silvia resisted the urge to flinch when she set eyes on the room's center piece—a young mother and her child, posed corpses altered with alchemy and bioccultics to retain the appearance of life.

There were only a handful of people in the room. Presumably the rest had scattered throughout the rest of first floor, socializing. This evening was nothing but a social event, a way for Rezan to show his allies who was in favor and who was not.

"Split up and wander this floor for a bit?" Andrew suggested, actually speaking out loud. "Save breaking into the upper floors for later."

"Agreed. Keep an eye out for anyone of note. You never know who Rezan has got in his pocket. We might get a bit of extra intel." They split up, heading for opposite ends of the room.

"Keep away from Rezan if you see him," Andrew said just before he left the room. "We don't know what sort of faust he's got."

"You do the same." Tangling with a faust-host without knowing what kind of faust you were up against was a bad idea.

The room adjoining the front chamber was a considerably smaller sitting room. It was noticeably fuller as well, both with furnishings and with people. Silvia swept her gaze across the room quickly. The furniture was of some expensive Altari designer in origin, the people a crowd of petty criminals. No one of consequence to Silvia's goals, merely minor gang captains and crew leaders who had gained some favor with one of Rezan's lieutenant's, a man named Sevran Asurrus, the room's center of attention. He was loyal and competent follower of Rezan, but ultimately inconsequential except. Silvia spared him no more attention than he her—a quick inquisitive glance, and then back to what they were doing. She drew longer states from a few of the men and women in the room, but even they went back to their own conversation after several moments. With no reason to linger, Silvia quickly moved into the next room.

It looked like Rezan had ordered a pub built into the ground floor of his manor—the only thing missing was a pervasive haze of tobacco smoke. Against one wall was a bar counter with a gnarled old tender behind it. There was a trio of tables in the room, including a pair of old-fashioned, circular, carom tables with balls of what looked to be genuine ivory. One table had four people—two men and two women—standing around it holding carom staffs and drinks, talking and laughing. There was an in-progress game on the table. The third table was a very modern strategos table, with an arcane projection of a miniature battlefield on its surface. A well-dressed man with graying hair sat alone at it, testing his skill against the table's intellect construct, the arcane construct that handled the table's mental functions. From the progression of the battle, the IC looked badly overmatched. Like before, Silvia did not recognize anyone she knew to be important, but she also didn't see anything to mark them as clearly unimportant. The handful of people in the pub could be alone because they were too insignificant to bother intriguing with, or it could be because they were important enough to Rezan than they had no need to curry favor and socialize with his other favorites. It would be worth investigating later if she had time.

She continued her exploration of the manor, doing her best to avoid conversation. She eventually found herself in an art room with a dead end and a handful of young men and women pretending to admire the artwork. None of them could have been less than ten years younger than Silvia—of course, Silvia's unusual condition meant she herself looked only a little older than them. It was a shame to see someone so young sucked into the hands of the Faust Cartels, but it was the their nature to prey on the young and desperate, offering them knowledge or power, at the mere cost of their freedom and individuality. Doubtless some of them had leapt at the offer, while the wiser among them had tried to refuse. Those people were drugged and tortured until the faust could simply consume their damaged soul and psyche, accelerating the loss of humanity that any faust-host would face. Silvia looked at the people in front of her and wondered if any of them had been made the offer.

One of the young men, who must have been feeling lucky or at least slightly drunk, approached her. "Good evening," he started awkwardly. A look of panic suddenly crossed his face, and for a moment Silvia thought he was going to give up. "May I ask what you are doing?"

"Merely appreciating Mr. Rezan's astounding collection of art." She considered the man. Under normal circumstances, Silvia would have been inclined to humor him for a little while. He wasn't bad looking, and it would provide a little entertainment. Tonight, though, she had more pressing concerns, and she found the thought of flirting with someone who might be faust-host disturbing. She turned to look directly at the young man. "You haven't got a chance," she said. He hovered indecisively for a moment, on the edge of a response, before retreating to his friends, his face burning with shame and embarrassment. After a few moments, she headed back out in order to continue her sweep of the building.

She practically ran into Andrew. "Done already?" she said.

"I think I got my half of the floorplan," he said. "You?"

"Yes."

"What now? A bit of socializing?"

"I think that's a good idea. It might look a little odd if all two of Rezan's new guests did was wander around and look at the decoration."

"If that's the case, I spotted a few people I wanted to talk to, see if I can find out anything new about Rezan's organization. There was this one pretty-looking blonde girl that I'm pretty sure knows all of his secrets," Andrew said, smirking.

"I've got a few people of my own I want to find out more about," Silvia said. "Start on the upper floors in an hour or so?"

Andrew nodded. "I'll be in touch."

Silvia threaded her way back through the manor to the pub room, and found it more or less as she had left it. The middle-aged man still sat alone at the strategos table, though he had moved on to a different scenario. The carom players had moved to the bar counter and were noticeably louder than they had been before. She decided to try the man at the table first. Approaching him would be less difficult than breaking into the carom players' conversation and directing it towards something useful.

"You look like you're in desperate need of an opponent," Silvia said, sitting down across from the man and nodding towards the simulation on the table. Like before, the table's IC was being badly beaten. It was not an unsurprising result—the table's IC was not powerful, and most of its effort was directed toward maintaining the illusory projection of the battlefield rather than running strategic calculations.

"Of course," he said. "I can always use a decent opponent. And it's always a pleasant surprise to find a young lady around here interested in strategos. Or anything really." He dismissed his current scenario and brought up the IC's selection interface, a foot-tall projection of a scenario list.

"Oh? What seems to be wrong with them?" Silvia asked with a smile.

"The women Rezan's crew like tend to possess the beauty and brains of an Edessan statue. Makes talking to them rather painful." He waved a hand dismissively and took a sip from a tumbler. "Enough complaining from an old man. Pick something."

"Does Cullen's Rift suit you?"

"Certainly." He took a sip from a tumbler as the scenario map rose up from the table. "You know, this game was around when I was a child, except then we played it with real maps and model soldiers. My father had thousands of them. Physius Convect," he added. "I apologize for not introducing myself."

"Then I've erred as well," Silvia said. "I'm Silana Varian. I'm afraid this is the first time I've been invited out here." The table assigned sides randomly, and Silvia found herself in command of the armies of Myreth, while Physius directed the less numerous Lysmerian soldiers. Silvia frowned briefly—she disliked the approach Myreth required, using hordes of expendable conscripts.

"I'm afraid this is yet another in a montage of painfully dull evenings that Rezan has invited me to. Sometimes, I'm sure he does it just because he enjoys annoying me. After all, it isn't like I can refuse the invitation."

"It sounds like you don't get along with Mr. Rezan. What do you do for him?"

"Agriculture. I've been given the dubious privilege of handling his Turan production."

"Turan? What does Mr. Rezan need agriculture for?"

"Turan is the primary reagent in Ishtarine."

"The sex drug?" Silvia said, recalling intelligence briefings and a handful of personal encounters with Ishtarine. "I always assumed that it was synthesized directly by alchemists."

Physius snorted in disgust. "That's a generous thing to call it. Turan makes synthesizing it much cheaper."

"How did you end up working with Mr. Rezan, if you dislike him so much?"

"One day a crew of thugs shows up at your plantation and tells you that you're in business with Sandor Rezan," Physius said bitterly. Silvia let the issue slide and focused on the game for several minutes. A pair of the carom players, a man and a woman, came over from the bar to watch.

"It looks like you've finally met your match, Physius," the woman said after a few moments of observing. The game had been deadlocked for a while, but things were starting to swing in Silvia's favor. The woman looked over to Silvia. "Aria Madrigal, and my husband and rigger, Legato." She gestured to the weathered-looking man standing next to her, focused intently on the table. "You'll have to forgive him. He enjoys our invitations here even less that Physius."

"Siliana Varian. A rigger? You're a cargo flyer, then, I take it?"

"Aria is the captain and pilot for the best smuggler flyer in Vulcadia," Physius said. "Not the sort of riff-raff I would normally associate with, but finding interesting people at Rezan's little parties can be quite difficult."

"So there are other kinds of riff-raff you associate with elsewhere?"

"Our gracious host, for one," Physius said, his eyes focused on the table.

"What am I?" Silvia suppressed a rising wave of panic as she realized who had come up behind her. She recognized the voice from surveillance recordings. She briefly wondered how he had come up without alerting her enhanced senses, but decided she had more serious problems. Sandor Rezan was a faust-host. He might be just another slightly super-human faust-host, but he might also be a Reader, in which case her cover was about to be compromised. She couldn't run either—she was supposed to be one of the legions of criminals clambering for Rezan's favor. She twisted in her chair to see a tall man, about her height, with the inhuman beauty that could only come from the services of a master flesh-sculptor. Layered on top of that was some kind of psychonomic glamour that couldn't fail to catch the eye. Rezan clearly wanted to impress anyone who saw him, and Silvia couldn't help but feel a bit attracted to his obvious power and beauty despite herself.

"A murderer, a rapist, and a thief," Physius snarled.

"Thank you," Rezan said with a grin. "This is the reason I keep you around, Physius. Every emperor needs a fool to whisper in their ear and remind them they are still mortal."

"An emperor of criminal scum."

"Better an emperor of scum than a lackey of saints," Rezan said. He looked at Silvia. "Silvana Varian. I've heard a lot about you and your brother, and that you're beating Physius at his own game makes me all the happier that I finally get to met you."

"You're too kind," she said. At the same time, she triggered her neurovox. "Andrew, I got cornered by Rezan. I can't tell if he knows anything. Be ready to exfil if I tell you."

"Unlikely," he replied. "I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Nonsense—and don't pretend to be modest. I hate false modesty. I saw the recording of the two of you dealing with dealing with Ecyla's crew." Rezan's comment brought back memories of dealing with the group of con artists. It had been fun, but they hadn't really deserved what they had gotten. "Taking down twelve armed opponents, using nothing but blades. I don't think I've seen any killing done quite so artistically in years." He glanced over at Aria and Legato, who were both looking perturbed. He flicked a hand dismissively. "Leave, Aria, and take your crew with you," he ordered. "I think I've had enough of you for one night." Wordlessly, Aria turned and gestured for Legato to follow her. The other two members of her crew detached themselves from the bar and followed her out.

"I think I'll excuse myself, too, then," Physius said. "I'd prefer not to be in the same room with you if at all possible."

"By all means, Physius. It'll be nice to not have you drinking my best whiskey." Rezan took Physius' seat as he left and pulled it around the table. A gestured dismissed the bartender as well. Another wave of panic rushed through Silvia. Being alone with the leader of one of the Faust Cartels was not how she had foreseen the night going.

Silvia started to rise. "If that's the case, I promised I would meet my brother after this game was over."

"Stay," Rezan commanded. Silvia immediately dropped back into her seat and her panic evaporated. Andrew could wait. He could handle himself, and nothing catastrophic would come of just talking with Rezan. "I hoped you've guessed my name by now."

Silvia nodded. "Sandor Rezan." She couldn't think of anything else to say.

"I've been watching the two of you for some time. I've watched the recordings of you in action, over and over again. I find you fascinating—both of you, but especially you, my dear Silana. The two of you are like a pair of bloody angels, violent and beautiful. You are so similar, and yet subtly different in your art. So appealing, but in two entirely different ways."

What is he talking about? Silvia wondered Following Rezan's train thought was nigh impossible for Silvia.

He noticed her expression. "You look puzzled. Wondering why Sandor Rezan has chosen you to pour forth his mind to—trying to guess the nature of my game. Let me explain. The gods cast me into the gutters when I was born. Wherever I looked, I saw that the world was full of things I did not, could not have. I saw a king sitting on his throne, and I asked, 'why does he rule instead of me?' I see a man like Adrian Varian, dangerous and competent, and I ask 'why does he not obey men?'" He leaned forward with a look of intensity on his face. "I see a woman like you, deadly and beautiful, and I ask 'why does she not love me?' I traded what little I had to offer so I could have these things. That is the nature my game. I want to sit on the throne of a god. I want to be obeyed. I want to be worshipped. I want to be loved."

Her skin tingled as he put a hand on her shoulder and he started to lean in, his lips close to hers and—

"What the fuck is going on, Syl?" she heard over her neurovox. Out of the corner of her eye, Silvia saw Andrew enter the room with a look of confusion. Something snapped in her mind at his words. What was she doing? She had spent the last minutes listening intently to the ravings of Sandor Rezan and was on the brink of kissing him. She slammed a palm into Rezan's chest, her bioccultic-enhanced muscles sending the crime lord sprawling a several feet. Her mind raced, trying to figure out what could make her like and obey someone she knew to be a faust host.

Rezan staggered to his feet and glared at the two of them for a moment. He propped himself up against one of the carom tables. "What is going on here?" he demanded, looking at Andrew.

"The Errynt Rangers Special Forces are infiltrating your estate with a pair of undercover operatives in order to gain information on the floor plan, so they can execute a raid next month in order to kill or capture you." He looked at Silvia with horror as soon as he finished. "Why did I just say that?" he neurovoxed.

Silvia remembered the different varieties of abilities that fausts granted their hosts. One of the rarer ones was the ability to lay compulsions on a single individual at a time. "Rezan is a thoughtsmith." She rushed the crime lord, aiming to take him out before he do anything else.

"Kill him," Rezan stammered, just before she reached him. Every thought she had was suddenly shunted aside, overridden by a rage, a need to kill the other man in the room and protect Rezan. She ran past Rezan and toward Andrew, who was closing in from the opposite direction. Both were homunculi, artificial humans, tailored from conception to birth as both a work of art and as physical superiors to humans. Both could hit far harder and Andrew deflected the first strike Silvia made, and then twisted around and let the second one hit him. It knocked him towards Rezan, and in an instant he rolled back to his feet and moved to grab the crime lord. He twisted again to interpose the crime lord between him and Silvia, and started to crush the man's throat.

"Stop," Rezan gasped. Andrew froze, releasing his grip. Rezan relaxed, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. Silvia snapped his neck. The whole fight had taken maybe half a minute. She looked at the dying crime lord and shuddered in revulsion. Then she picked him up and dumped him behind the bar.

Andrew looked over at her. "This spoiled in a hurry."

She nodded. "I think it's time to leave."