This is a Toria and Syri scene from the middle section of the novel that shows a lot of fun interaction between the two girls. It was ultimately cut because it didn’t do anything to forward the plot or provide any information that had not yet been covered. I also changed a bit of their characterization in my final rewrites, so some details aren’t relevant to the rest of the Steel Empires series anymore.
To check out the further adventures of two of my favorite leading ladies, remember to pre-order Steel Magic, which will be released this week on July 6!
[Please note that this section has not been edited or copy-edited. All mistakes are my own.]
Time stamp: This takes place after Toria has sprung Syri from the hospital and the two have become magically linked after they reached out to Kane. They decided to head to the Twilight Mists dance club for information next.
When Toria decided to head out for a night of dancing at the Mists, she tended to end up in just jeans, one of her many skimpy black tops, and of course, the requisite leather boots to stomp around in. Makeup, if considered, was always an afterthought. Jewelry was her vice, so she owned plenty, but Kane was more of the clotheshorse.
Needless to say, her selection of dance-appropriate clothing did not please Syri, but Toria managed to get her out of the house without too much grumbling.
Toria parked on the street down the block from the club rather than tipping their hand too soon by using the parking lot next door. “Let’s do this?” she said after shutting off the car.
“Indeed,” Syri said. “So tell me of this super-secret way you have of getting into the club.”
Toria reached over Syri’s knees for the glove compartment and removed a palm-sized leather case. “Lock picking kits are so handy, don’t you think? I hope I’m not too out of practice.”
“Dare I ask?”
“Asaron is the coolest grandfather ever,” Toria said. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
“Then explain to me how that gets us in,” Syri said.
Toria shoved the kit into her jeans’ back pocket. “Watch and learn. Let’s go.”
Without a word, Syri followed Toria’s lead in getting out of the car. Toria locked it up, and instead of heading up the street toward the front of the club, she led Syri behind the small clothier they’d parked in front of.
A selection of alleyways allowed them to avoid walking next to the club’s parking lot and still deposited them behind the building itself. Toria halted behind a large trash container, Syri stopping behind her.
Toria spoke in a whisper, almost inaudible to herself, but loud enough for elven ears, “See the fire escape?” She couldn’t help pointing.
“See the top floor?”
“That just leads to the balcony area,” Syri said. “It’ll still be packed at this time of night.”
“No, no, no,” Toria said. She pointed again. “You’re looking at the top landing. See above it?” She knew the metal ladder bolted to the second floor was hard to see against the black walls of the warehouse. It was rusted and peeling, though not requiring renovation like the rest of the commercial building’s evacuation service.
“I didn’t know there was anything above the balcony level,” Syri said.
“Officially, there’s not,” Toria said. “Just an old attic no one goes up into anymore since they renovated the offices about twenty years ago. But it used to be storage space.”
“But we can get into the club from there?”
“Do I hear doubt?” Toria said. Okay, so the plan was a bit crazy. She hadn’t been up in the Mists’ attic in almost ten years, since her mother sold the building. She hated to think of the state of that particular hidden clubhouse. But short of waltzing in the front door or trying to sneak in through the back offices—guaranteed to get them thrown out, arrested, or worse—it was her best plan.
Syri just shot her a wicked grin through the dim alley light. “Nah. Let’s do it.”
Toria scanned the area surrounding the club. Last call was an hour away, and the early risers drifted out the front door in spurts. “You have enough energy to make another of those nifty invisibility shields?”
“I told you, it’s not invisibility,” Syri said. “But yeah, I think I can pull it off. I’ll definitely need major sunbathing time tomorrow.” She closed her eyes for a moment and then nodded once.
She didn’t feel any different, but Toria knew better than to argue with Syri’s use of magic anymore. “Let’s go.”
Toria led the way out of the alley and across the back of the parking lot. They made it halfway before the back entrance to the club swung open. Syri grabbed Toria’s arm before she could dive behind a parked car. But the elven magic worked as advertised, and despite the bartender’s quick scan of the parking lot, his focus never settled on the two girls. When the back door shut behind him, they wasted no time in dashing the rest of the way to the club.
Toria jumped up and used her body weight to pull down the ladder leading to the fire escape’s first landing. She clambered up the rungs and perched low on the landing, keeping watch while Syri made much slower progress up the ladder. The steady bass beat of the club’s music made small tremors race through the metal of the fire escape.
She’d put a lot of strain on the elven girl tonight, and Toria resolved to make it up to her when possible. She felt better now that they were active. Despite relying on Syri for all things magical, Toria lost no confidence in her physical abilities. She would pay for ignoring her exhaustion later, but could pretend all was fine for now. The dagger in her boot and small pistol tucked in the back of her jeans reassured her even more.
She prayed they wouldn’t be necessary. She should have one or two friends left in this club, human though they might be.
Once Syri made it to the landing and rested for a few moments, Toria hauled her to her feet. They took the two flights of proper stairs up to the top landing. Entrance to the balcony area of the club from here was impossible. Even if they managed to open the door from this side, the security system had been wired to sound an alarm in that event for as long as Toria knew. She couldn’t think of any reason for the new owners to change the process in the past few years.
“Your watch,” she said.
Without a word, Syri crouched low and kept both eyes on the area around them. She tried to keep the movements subtle, but Toria still caught the way she kept one hand pressed to her injured ribs for support. The sooner they finished here, the better. Not wasting a moment, Toria swarmed up the last ladder.
Bracing her feet in the corners of a rung, Toria dug the kit out of her back pocket and set to work. The lighting was terrible, and the humidity of the evening air soon made her sweat-dampened shirt cling to her lower back.
The new owners had replaced the ancient lock Toria remembered with a newer model. But with memories of Asaron’s patient instruction drifting in her ears, Toria made short work of it.
She didn’t think the new owners knew about the other entrance.
Toria looked past her feet to where Syri still sat motionless. “I got it.” Syri waved a hand at her in acknowledgement, then pushed herself to her feet.
Both girls froze when a metallic shriek of hinges met Toria’s first effort to push the door open. But the music played on inside, covering what was such a soft sound in comparison. Once her heart stopped racing, Toria shoved the door the rest of the way open, then hoisted herself into the attic and hauled Syri up behind her.
“Close, no?” Syri said. Once inside the attic, she pressed her shoulder against the door to shut it again. While outside had been lit by a few scattered lights in the parking lot, they now plunged into darkness.
Years of habit prompted Toria to snap her fingers. She tended to follow up the theatrical gesture with a ball of mage-light bursting into life above her head, but she wrenched her mind away before activating the charm. “Shit,” she said. “Minor detail. Syri? I’m sorry.”
“You’re going to bloody well owe me after today,” Syri said. “Especially since I can see fine.” But with no further complaints, a soft golden glow surrounded the girls, illuminating the attic around them.
Despite the new lock, the rest of the space looked just as Toria remembered. Unfinished wooden floorboards reverberated with the music. The club’s soundproofing made the noise just a touch louder in here than outside.
There were the empty boxes she’d stacked with such precision to make one of an endless stream of clubhouses, now covered in a layer of dark grime. The grime was new, thanks to new rules allowing smoking in the club. But even an old band poster she’d tacked to one wall was still there, the forlorn remnant of an abandoned childhood haunt.
“Secret entrance?” Syri said, prodding Toria back to the task at hand.
Despite the earlier snack, they were both close to running on empty. Time to get to work. Toria took the lead across the low space—warehouses tended not to need extra space designated for storage. Behind another jumble of crates still bearing the markings of her amateur art, Toria dropped to her knees next to the wall.
Syri examined the wall in front of them, then looked around the attic. “This space certainly doesn’t match the size of the building.”
“Nope,” Toria said, turning her attention to the slats of wood. “There are a few different spaces, but this is the only one accessible from outside. And the largest.”
She was a lot bigger than the last time she’d done this, and the three removable boards she used to slip did not want to accommodate her grown-up figure. They pried away extra boards in order to slip through.
“Oh!” Syri poked her head through the space and looked down. “This is the make-out cubby!” They spoke at a higher-than-normal volume now to compete with the music.
“It’s not supposed to be,” Toria said. She placed the last board on the floor behind them, and waited for Syri to remove her head from the exit they’d created. She knew that below them was a small odd-shaped corner. Curtains blocked it off from the rest of the balcony area. It was supposed to be extra storage for the upstairs bar.
To be honest, Toria had had a few make-out sessions here, too. “We have to drop down to the floor,” she said. “You gonna make it?”
Syri studied the space for another moment. “You go first so you can help me down.” She withdrew her head and gave Toria a devious look. “Your reputation going to survive leaving the make-out room with me?”
“What reputation?” Toria landed with a thump that blended in with the music around her. A few awkward moments later, resulting in scraped knuckles for Toria and a few grunts of pain from Syri, the elven girl was also down.
Sucking on the most abused knuckle, Toria poked her head out of the curtain. The balcony was not quite empty—it tended to fill up more on the weekends, and the summer looked to be following the same course. She breathed in the musk of the club, a mixture of smoke and sweat and music that, on a normal evening, would set her feet tapping. Now she just wanted to get the information they needed and get out.
She loved the Twilight Mists. Perhaps one day she would be comfortable here again. But for now, memories of her father lying in a hospital bed haunted the back of her mind.
Her knuckles stung. Time to get a move on. A quick check behind her revealed Syri finished with tying back her hair. She’d arranged the fall of the locks to cover her distinctive pointed ears. Not much could be done about her general coloring, but blonde-haired, green-eyed humans weren’t unheard of.
That didn’t help if anyone recognized them, though. This was enough of a regular haunt that they would be known on sight by most of the staff.
Syri flipped the curtain aside, and they sauntered out of the alcove.
They hadn’t discussed a plan of attack, but Toria headed for the stairs down to the main level while Syri wandered over to the smaller upstairs bar. Maybe a good thing they didn’t have an actual plan. It wouldn’t do for them to seem to be together. Their exit from the alcove didn’t seem to have attracted attention.
She picked her way down the circular staircase with care, her way lit by the strobe lights the DJ figured appropriate for the current mix. She didn’t recognize the song. Either the mix was too new, or the song was too old. Whatever. Still industrial, and good stuff, too.
Syri could harass whoever she wanted for information. Toria headed for the one person she knew would talk to her. Out of guilt, if nothing else.
She kept to the edges of the club, skirting the clusters of couches and tables with their cheerful occupants. She couldn’t scan the room with magesight, but she knew she and Syri were the only two nonhumans in the club. She could almost feel the lack, in the dullness of the life around her. Nonhumans gave Limani a spark of life and depth, creating a blatant absence in the Twilight Mists.
Toria spotted Ron by the cash register, surveying the crowd with the air of a bouncer who knows all is content within his domain. She didn’t feel at all guilty about changing that. She sidled up behind him and perched on the edge of the register table. “Good evening, Ron,” Toria said. “Or is it morning yet? Been a long night.”
His attention never leaving the dance floor, Ron registered no surprise at her presence. “You shouldn’t be here, Toria.”
“Too late,” Toria said. She watched the gyrating crowd with him, swinging her legs under the table. “I’m not planning on causing trouble. Just to ask questions.”
“Did your mother put you up to this?”
“Nope. She’s busy dealing with bigger problems than some racist woman,” Toria said. “Like an army.”
That got his attention. Now facing her, Ron said, “So the rumors are true?”
Okay, maybe if she appeased his curiosity, he would return the favor. “We don’t know yet. Mama is on her way out there with the heads of the council and the Mercenary Guild. Won’t know anything until they get back.”
Ron was silent for a moment, Toria’s affirmation soaking in. “How’s your father doing?”
Not the right question to ask right now. “He’s fine, no thanks to you.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Ron said. “It’s not my fault he got beaten up.”
“By your coworker,” Toria said. “After you kicked him out of here.”
“I had no idea Ed would go after him like that.” Ron took a step toward her, perhaps intending to be menacing, but Toria did not shrink from his advance. “You have no right to accuse me of having any part of this. Your father is my friend.”
Toria froze, her free-swinging legs now stiff and her fingers digging her into her legs. “Some friend you are. Does the term ‘collaborator’ mean anything to you?”
“Now that’s not fair,” Ron said.
“Is it? You let your own friend be discriminated against.” Mama always did say Toria had the makings of an excellent lawyer. Too bad she liked playing with chemicals instead.
“I had my job to think about.”
“So what you’re saying is that you’re happy working for bigots?”
“What? No!” Ron retreated again at that remark and seemed to hunch over himself. Casting his gaze over the club’s patrons, he hesitated a few moments before saying, “I really am sorry about Mikelos. I swear, Toria, if I had any idea what Ed was up to when he left early that night—”
Even Toria could sense the sincerity rolling off Ron. Time for a different manipulation tactic before she made the guy feel even guiltier. “It’s okay. I don’t think Dad’s mad at you. But now I need your help.”
She saw the pain in his eyes when he met hers again. “What?”
“I need to know anything you might have heard about what the Humanists’ plans are or what Emily Fabbri’s location is,” Toria said.
“You don’t ask for much, do you, girl?” Ron said. “I hope that you’re not on a crazy revenge quest.”
She gave him her one-shouldered shrug. “Not quite. There’s a theory Fabbri might be leaking inside information to the Romans.”
“Oh. Well, in that case.”
He didn’t believe her. Not good. Too bad it was true. “My mom found out about the Romans causing trouble from my grandfather. But Fabbri knew before Mama could break it to the council. We need to find out why.”
“So you promise me you’re not going to do anything stupid?”
“Me?” Toria said. “Do something stupid? Kane would kill me.”
“Speaking of which, where is Kane?” Ron said. “I can’t believe your partner would let you pull a stunt as crazy as walking in here.”
Now Toria was drawn to the dancers. In her mind, she spun among them, all these problems left behind. “He got kidnapped by the Romans.”
“Shit, Tor, I’m sorry,” Ron said. “No wonder you need information. Okay, here’s what I can tell you—”
Bright lights illuminated the inside of the club, freezing every patron. Shouts erupted from the balcony above them, followed by a shattering of glass. The music cut off a moment later, and the screaming resolved itself.
“Elf! An elf got in here!”
What the hell had Syri done? Before Toria could make a break for the stairs, a lithe body flew over the balcony. The dancers below scattered with more screams, but the body did not fall with a crash.
Instead, Syri rolled with the impact and stopped in a crouch. She held one arm wrapped around her torso, face bent to the floor. The escape she’d pulled must have done more damage to her.
The club went silent beyond a few mutterings. A clear ring of floor surrounded Syri, no one on this level willing to go near her. Ron took a step forward, but Toria snatched his wrist.
“Tell me where Fabbri is,” she said, “and I’ll get Syri out of here.”
“The club owner went to a meeting at Fabbri’s café last night,” Ron said. “That’s all I know, I swear.”
True to her word, and not wasting any more time, Toria wove through the people on the dance floor to reach Syri’s side. The elven girl hadn’t moved from her kneeling position. Toria slid to a halt and dropped to her knees next to her. “Syri? Syri?”
Her other arm wound around her torso with the first. “Ow. I hurt.”
“C’mon, we gotta go,” Toria said. She pulled one of Syri’s arms around her neck. “Can you walk?”
Ron appeared at Syri’s other side, helping Toria hoist the girl to her feet. “You guys drive here?”
“Yeah,” Toria said. “Thanks.”
“Just doing my job,” he said. “And hoping someone didn’t call the boss.”
A path cleared for the three while they made their way to the front entrance to the club. There were a few catcalls, but one look from Toria silenced them. Whispers echoed through the club, and she caught the word “warrior-mage.” Let her reputation scare them right now. Good thing they didn’t know she was next to worthless for the moment.
The front entrance slammed open when they were within a few feet of it. A short woman strode into the club, her furious presence diminished not in the slightest by her lack of height. Toria recognized her, though just through short glimpses from afar. The Twilight Mist’s new owner did not frequent her own club except when necessary. They’d almost made it out. Almost.
Ron stopped short, dragging Syri, and therefore Toria, back with him. “Ms. Newborn,” he said, “I was just escorting these two out.”
“Meghan called me when she first saw the elf upstairs.” Newborn made no move to leave their path to the exit. “How did they get in, Ron?”
“It’s my fault completely, ma’am,” he said. “I was talking with someone when they came in and paid, I didn’t take a close enough look at their faces.”
Toria owed Ron a lot more, now. He might think he just repaid her father, but this was far more than she’d hoped for when the club’s owner appeared.
The woman studied them for a moment, and Toria held her breath, prepared to grab Syri and make a dash for it. Syri never even looked up. But Newborn just said, “It appears there was a fight. Is anyone else injured?”
“No, ma’am,” Ron said. “She was hurt before she got here tonight. This is from the…incident the other night.”
“Then there’s no reason to alert the police if they’re already leaving,” Newborn said. She stepped toward Toria when they passed. “I don’t care who your parents are. If I ever catch you in my club again, you will regret it.”
With the threat echoing in her ears, Toria shoved open the door and pulled Syri out behind her. The fresh air would do the elven girl wonders—the scent of a clean breeze calmed the vibrating harp strings of Toria’s nerves.
Ron let them go, staying in the entrance, not letting the door shut with him outside. “You guys going to be okay?”
Syri placed an awful lot of her weight around Toria’s shoulders. Toria raised the girl’s chin with one finger, searching her eyes. “Syri?”
Her answer was soft, but strong. “I’m fine. Just need to rest for a bit.”
“Okay, I’ll get you to the car in a second.” Toria gave Ron one last hard look. “You think we should check Fabbri’s café? It’s probably already been searched.”
“Your best bet that I know of. Be careful. And don’t tell your father I put you up to this.”
“You didn’t, we did,” Toria said. “Mama’s busy. This I can fix.”
“You’re crazy, girl,” Ron said. “Both of you. Take care.” He disappeared back into the club.
Nice to know they had some support, at least. Toria led Syri back to the car and sat her in the passenger seat. She drove a few blocks through downtown, deserted so late at night, parking next to the council building. Safe a place as any to recover from this little misadventure. Toria hit the car’s automatic locks before she shut it off anyway.
Syri pressed her seat all the way back, lying as flat as possible. But her breath had a steady rhythm, and didn’t seem painful. Toria didn’t have an eye for medical stuff, but that, at least, she could tell.
“Better?” Toria said.
“Much,” Syri said. “Want to spare some power?”
Toria pressed her hand into Syri’s. “I’m not using it for anything.” It was a crime to be so powerful and not put it to any use. If it helped her new ally, all the better.
The two girls sat in the darkened car in silence. Toria clamped down on her automatic instinct to manipulate her power toward Syri. For all she knew, the effects of the curse might spill over to the other girl, making her even worse. Instead, Syri just pulled power from her. It was a bit like Syri scooped out power with cupped hands when Toria could have just picked up the bucket and poured a steady stream, but it was all they could manage for now.
Damn curse. That was next on her list of problems to solve. Save the city first, then herself. Mama would be proud.
“Okay,” Syri said after a few minutes. She released Toria’s hand and stretched her arms and torso. “I’m not much of a healer, but that’s a hell of a lot better.”
“Your own damn fault for jumping over the balcony,” Toria said.
“It was either that or get a chair to the head. You pick.”
Toria turned the key in the ignition. “No, I’m definitely with you. To Café Lizzette?”
“Let’s,” Syri said.
“You realize we might get into an actual fight this time?”
“You’re looking forward to it, too.” Toria would have closed her eyes and groaned, but that would be counter-productive while driving. “This is such a bad idea.”