Ah, the life of a rogue is equal parts a tragedy and never-ending fun!
Being fated to walk the dark alleys and rooftops while wearing a permanent target on one’s forehead (back…chest…leg…pick a body part) is a terrible thing. No place is a safe place, no face is a friendly face, no friend is a loyal friend…
Hell’s gates, no soul is a friend!
On the other hand, if one’s idea of fun involves days that are never alike and nights that are one’s to command, then the life of a rogue is the life to live. The law is but a word and justice is at arm’s length and within crossbow’s reach.
Morals are the luxury of the weak. Principle is the safeguard of the innocent. To those to whom Life and Fate have not been kind, a caring heart is the gift of the blessed. A strong arm, a resilient mind, those are the blessings of the outcasts.
Those are the tools of the ghosts in the alleys.
Currently, however, this ghost is not feeling all that insubstantial. What should have been a minor scuffle to get rid of two former Dukaines in their house turned out to involve a rather interesting assortment of blades, chains, a salt shaker, and two iron skillets. The fight ended with two dead ex-Dukaines (one of which attesting to what grain sized, white crystals of dried-out fish bathwater and universal irony can do to one’s eyeballs) and one bruised Saira. The assassin grins under her hood. That will show the others just how unlucky it can be, spilling salt all over the place like that.
And I did acquire a great new set of toys to use next time, she thinks as she steps into the dusty old air of the abandoned schoolhouse.
She stops to smell the air again and raises an eyebrow. The still atmosphere of the schoolhouse is like soft clay on a forest path. No visitor can expect to leave it unchanged, no invader can hope to go undetected. Just breathing the ancient, forgotten air is enough to leave a mark.
Well, the footprints on the dusty floors and the faint sounds of someone trying to stick a crossbow bolt into a certain chink on the wall help as well. She enters the long-abandoned classroom to see a hulking form fighting with the crumbling plaster, trying to get the bolt to stay stuck. Her grin widens.
My, oh my, look who it is, she tells herself, removing her hood. Inspector Tuma-Sukai.
His muttered swearing covers her silent approach perfectly as she sneaks up behind him and whispers in his ear. “We need to stop meeting like this, love.”
Crouched by the wall, the Inspector stiffens and half-turns to meet her gaze with his own intense brown eyes. If the unexpected, whispered words startled him, finding Saira’s face hovering half a breath away from his does nothing to make him relax. His umber cheeks take on a lovely hint of red at her sight.
Still, he looks somewhat relieved that it is her face and not, say, a demon dog’s looking back at him. “Something has happened,” he says, turning to face her fully as he rises. “I need your help. One of the Bunnies has been taken.”
Saira cocks her head. “You mean the animals or the–” Here she places a hand on the back of his head and sticks up two fingers like fake long ears, “–kiddies?” Hell’s demons, this guy is a walking tree. She has to stretch her whole body to reach behind his head, and press her chest against his.
To her deep pleasure, his adam’s apple bobs slightly at the touch, even as he narrows his eyes at her. However, he manages to regain some composure and before he speaks again. “One of Alma’s children. Sage.”
Saira hesitates before replying. Informing the Guardia in exchange for immunity is one thing. But all these favors to the Dei are sending the wrong image to the streets. Too many of them and she will be known as the biggest rat in Three Rats. Where the will of the mob rules the streets, street rep can be all that stands between an outlaw and certain death.
“You seem to be under the impression that I actually care,” she finally says, relaxing and moving slightly back.
“It isn’t just him,” Tuma-Sukai insists. “I told you before that children have been disappearing.”
“And I have told you before that children always disappear in Three Rats,” Saira retorts. “Sometimes even on purpose,” she adds with a low, theatrical bow.
After all, I was one of them.
The joke falls on deaf ears and angry brains. Tuma-Sukai does not reply but his expression speaks volumes. His brow furrows, his jaw locks. And more disturbingly, pitch-black ink lines begin bleeding faintly through the skin of his cheeks, twisting and curling where moments before had been that delightful blush.
Still, there are nastier looking fellows out there. Longer teeth, more hair, sharper talons, the usual array of spikes and scales. Compared to them, Tuma-Sukai looks no more threatening than a one-eyed goat at a petting zoo.
His anger earns him no more than a raised eyebrow from the hardened killer, along with a slightly annoyed, “Tough audience tonight, huh?”
“This is not the time for bad jokes,” the Inspector growls. “If you want to pretend you don’t care about Three Rats, it’s all the same to me, but this is one of Alma’s children. And I can’t lose him.”
“I owe her and you nothing,” Saira hisses in return. “If anything, you people owe me. It’s one thing to be asked for help but I don’t like people throwing threats and debts in my face like that, Guardia!”
She turns away to leave, her voice bitter with resentment. “Being good is your job, not mine. And I ain’t never seen Guardia doing their job right.”
“Yes, you have! I was there. The promise she made, we kept. We’ve been doing our best and still it’s not enough! And two of my people may well burn for it, along with the Bunnies.” Tuma-Sukai’s voice issues from locked jaws, as if clenched teeth are the only thing preventing him from roaring his frustration and filling the empty rooms and hollow corridors with echoes, making the building sound like a courtroom teeming with accusations. “I have people getting stretched to their limits, underpaid and badly equipped, getting hurt because there’s too few Popula and only one Dei! And it would be so much easier to just cut deals with all the different shards and ride the wave until they pick a leader! And still, we keep our promise!”
Saira remains in silence. Alma’s promise had been to not give up on Three Rats, in exchange for the Pearl. And from what Tuma-Sukai is saying, whatever they did, these clumsy Dei, the Dukaines fell in their wake. That alone is more than any of Saira’s or anyone else’s efforts have achieved in a long, long time. Heck, every Guardia station in any neighboring ward is either a pit of corruption or just a plain pit, everyone knows that! But not Three Rats Station.
Truth be told, Three Rats is becoming known as the only place in this quarter of the Fourth Ring where anyone can hope to enter a Guardia station in search for help and actually find it. Even their household doctor has opened up a clinic to help the people who can’t afford to get sick. No matter the chaos they may have caused, these Guardia are raising hope where there was not even the strength left to despair.
Of course, if Alma’s Bunnies are to stay in Three Rats, she would have every interest in keeping the streets safe for her offspring. So maybe that’s why she promised. Yet, her promise is being kept by the others, even in her absence. Even in the face of the craziest odds.
So why do they refuse to give up? Saira wonders. What’s so special about these newbies? And why do I care?
“If you need further motivation,” Tuma-Sukai interrupts her train of thought, “Aliyah Kaur. She and Sage are very close.”
That he would think that the mere mention of Aliyah’s name would actually move her makes Saira snort. But she has to admit, there’s more to this than just a bonus shot at some former Dukaines. What more exactly…that’s something for some other time. Probably involving some booze.
I’m gonna regret this, I just know I will, the assassin thinks to herself. Oh well, time to jump!
“Very well, love,” she concedes. “I may know something about this.”
She starts walking toward the door, glancing over her shoulder to see the inky lines start to fade on the Inspector’s face.
“Follow me and do me a favor,” she adds as she guides him into the darkness. “Leave your goody good-guy act behind. I’ll bet your dear death goddess won’t be bothering with morals either when she finds out you let one of her kids be taken while she was out. Oh and…”
A loud bump echoes in the shadows.
“…mind the low doorways.”
“Where are we going?” Tuma-Sukai asks as they rush through the complicated labyrinth of the dark crisscrossed alleyways of Three Rats.
“We’re gonna meet an acquaintance of mine,” Saira replies, hushing the Inspector once they arrive at a turn in a narrow path that looks exactly like any other alley in this part of the ward. “Shh… There he is.”
“Frankie? Frankie?!” a familiar voice accompanied by eight flailing tentacles calls out. “Where da heck is that li’l bugger? I swear he spends more time runnin’ around than–”
Saira signals for Tuma-Sukai to stay where he is before taking a shortcut to the other end of the alley.
“I’m gonna rip yer walkin’ tentacles off, Frankie!” the raging cephalopod goes on as she steps out of the shadows. “See how fast you run the–”
“Hello Cal…” she says.
“Holy Cuttlefish, creepy much?!” Calamari Cal shrieks.
Saira grins. “You don’t know the half of it. And you might wanna look behind you before you scuttle back from me any further.”
She nearly bursts out laughing when Cal turns around all of a sudden only to hit the towering figure of Tuma-Sukai, blocking his way. The walking cuttlefish falls backward, squirting black ink all over the inspector’s uniform with the fright.
“Oh, for cryin’ out loud, what is this, an intervention?!” Cal yells, tentacles flailing in the effort of getting back upright. “I’ve told ya, already, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout no demon black market!”
“Demon black market?” Tuma-Sukai asks, shaking ink off a shoe.
“Focus, Guardia,” Saira warns him.
“Guardia? Whaddya mean Guardia?!” Cal cries, finally managing to get back on his tentacles. “Why’re you walkin’ around with a bluefish?”
He turns to Sky, his eyes narrow with distrust. “I didn’ do nothin’ and you can’t prove it.”
The Inspector’s eyes narrow as well but with the effort of remembrance. “You’re the one who visits Merri and Cherry’s bar, aren’t you?”
“What if I do?” Cal asks in the perennially rebellious tones of any small-time con artist talking to the law. “That forbidden now, Guardia?”
“You must know Sage then,” Tuma-Sukai insists. “He’s been kidnapped.”
Cal’s fin wiggles nervously at the name. “Is he one a’ them bunny people? Dark skin, with the pointy tentacles on his head?”
The description makes the inspector hesitate for a moment. “Er… yes.”
Cal’s body shakes suddenly in a cuttlefishy shrug. “Nope, never heard of ’im. Sorry. If that’s all there is, I’ll be goin’ now.”
He tries to leave. Unfortunately for him, there are only two ways out of the alley and walking away from Tuma-Sukai means walking right into Saira. The tip of her dagger makes his squishy flesh flap inward.
“Talk to me, citizen,” the Inspector orders.
“I heard you were telling a story, Cal,” Saira says conversationally. “About one of your kids and some other street kids.”
“You can’t hurt me!” Cal protests, edging away from the blade, chromatophores blinking with all sorts of colors in his nervousness. “Imma priest fer tha Great Cuttlefish. He’s the one true god! So technically, you’se other gods are fake an’ I can’t be hurt on account o’ some law or somethin’. Read yer books!”
“There’s quite a bit I can do to you if I need to, and still be within the bounds of the law,” Tuma-Sukai states, his voice low and vaguely terrifying for being so calm.
“And I’m not a goddess,” Saira adds, playfully waving the dagger in front of her. “Or Guardia, for that matter. Come on, I ain’t got all night!”
“You’se need ta eat less meat,” Cal mutters. “All that red stuff makes ya grumpy.”
He looks at their less-than-amused faces before giving up. “Fine, fine, what’s in it fer me if I talk?”
“I’m sure that Merri and Cherry would provide quite a few free drinks for someone who helped find Sage,” Tuma-Sukai offers. “On the other hand, if someone knew something and didn’t share it…”
“If that’s not enough motivation,” Saira contributes, “I’ve heard you can regenerate those tentacles, but it still hurts getting ’em cut off.”
“All right, all right, I get where ye’re goin’,” Cal gives in, looking around suspiciously and lowering his voice. “So here’s the grit. Two days ago, Pholupus–”
“Pholupus?” Saira interrupts.
“Ya try ta name three hundred seventy-five kids of yer own and we’ll see how that goes,” Cal growls. “Wanna hear the story or not?”
“Keep talking,” Tuma-Sukai urges him.
“Thanks,” Cal replies, waggling a tentacle at Saira. “Just between you and me, she really needs a mate ta calm her down. Have some few hundred spawnlings ta chase around. Mebbe ya could do somethin’ ’bout that, ya two-legged critters all have weird tastes like that.”
He tilts his body up at the progressively angrier inspector. “Tha’s a nice shade o’ black, by the way. Nice smooth lines too,” he comments, seemingly unphased by the emerging tattoos. “Almost as good as one dem bloody squids. Aaaaanyway… So, Pholupus was bein’ roughed around by some two-leggies when a buncha big fellas, like big-ass monkeys or somethin’, all muscles and furry tails and long purple hair an’ all, suddenly showed up and snatched two kiddies just like that.”
“This is the first description of these child slavers we’ve received since it started,” Tuma-Sukai notes.
“Well, Phol’s no fool,” Cal says with a hint of fatherly pride. “He’s no human, neither. Dem Snatchers din’t want nothin’ ta do with him. He got outta their sight fast as seahorses in seaweed.”
“Did he see where they went?” Saira asks.
Cal shrugs again, the wackiest of sights. “Sure, he followed ’em all the way to that abandoned warehouse on the corner of Catinga an’ Sharva. Said they gotta buncha kids there.”
The Inspector looks at Saira and she nods subtly in understanding. Next stop: bad guy lair.
“Cal, thank you,” he says. “I would like to ask one more thing of you, and I can assure you you’ll be rewarded for it.”
“What am I, an errand boy?” Cal argues for the sake of things. “Fine, Guardia, whaddya want?”
“Go straight to the station,” Tuma-Sukai instructs. “Tell Corporal Cala the location of the warehouse and that I said to send a team. And then tell Merri and Cherry that your drinks are on me until further notice.”
He looks questioningly at Saira. Seems that for all his running around, the good Inspector doesn’t know his way around the maddening labyrinth of streets in that part of the ward yet. Pfffft…rookies… Saira jerks her head in the direction they need to follow and the Inspector joins her in getting out of the alley as fast as possible.
Behind them, they hear Cal. “Heh, Frankie can do that. Yo, Frankie! I swear that kid’s been practicin’ camouflage with the octopuses again! Frankie!”