Alma flips through the pages of the weekly report meant for the powers that be in the Guardia headquarters. Every mention of the Rio Novo incident has been carefully treated as just another gang quarrel, alien to the Guardia in spite of several complaints by broken and maimed gang members against a person unknown matching Somrak’s description perfectly. Alma sighs. Gwydion has already told her that he will speak with the fire god personally, assured her the issue will be settled without the need for her intervention. Of course, the goddess still wants to talk to Somrak, just to enlighten him about some of the rules, but she can barely hold it against him that he has chosen to use the information about Rio Novo the way he did. Lone agents are never good team players. What he did was wrong but hardly unexpected.
She flips to the next page. She does so with her left hand because her right one is currently trapped under Lexie’s head. The forearm attached to said hand is also trapped under the furry bulk of Lexie’s body. The cat has her rump turned to Alma, tail slightly tickling the goddess’ arm, chin resting on Alma’s knuckles while the long fat cat purrs in mild annoyance at the sergeant’s insistence on ignoring Lexie in favor of such a boring, uninteresting thing as a pile of paper. Alma taps her right index finger on the wooden desktop and smirks at the way the cat’s head recoils, glaring resentfully at her misbehaving prisoner.
Another page is flipped and Alma feels the weight on her right arm begin to shift. Slowly, ever so slowly, Lexie rises, eyes fixed on Alma’s report. A large paw steps forward, then another. Slowly.
Ever so slowly.
Like the flow of the centuries.
Lexie’s ears are perked up, her body tense as she moves each paw, as if ready to react if Alma bars her way. Alma rests her chin on her left hand, watching as the cat steps on top of the paper and slowly, always slowly, sits down, then lies, paws hidden under the brownish-grey faintly striped blanket of fur that is Lexie. She lies like a sphinx on top of the report, hiding it from Alma’s view, large glinting yellow-green eyes fixed on the goddess in a wordless order of Pet me.
“I guess you’re right,” the goddess says, scratching Lexie behind the ears, which has the cat purring loud enough to be heard from the other end of the office. “You are much more interesting than any report.”
Alma had planned to have her harvests done early today in order to attend her first class with Master Pak at a sensible time, without the worry of being too tired afterwards to perform her divine duties. But her shift will be over in little over half an hour and the contractors she had been waiting for to look at the cells and give an estimate of the total cost of repair are running late in showing up. Not that there are many choices available in terms of Guardia-approved contractors (i.e. companies with slightly less flagrant tax-evasion), especially in a place like Three Rats, but the protocol demands this charade of calling multiple contractors to come in and analyse the damage and write up a plan and give an invariably wrong estimate of the time and money needed and spend a week filling out paperwork instead of actually getting any real work done.
Oh well, it is as it is… Alma thinks, moving her face closer to Lexie’s.
The cat stretches her neck forward, sniffing the air coming out of Alma’s nostrils, and soon their noses touch. There is nothing quite like the feeling of a cat’s cold, moist nose against one’s skin. It makes Alma smile.
“Sergeant Alma?” PPC Longshot hesitantly calls, head poking through the slightly open door.
“Yes?” Alma’s head shoots up, startling Lexie, who jumps off the desk and walks over to the sofa, one of her favorite sleeping spots.
“The contractors are downstairs to look at the cells,” Wallace says, opening the door fully. “I told them they could go ahead.”
“Good,” Alma replies, rising from her chair. “Thank you, Wallace.”
Longshot opens his mouth to speak again but then looks down, silent, hands clasped together in front of him, sheepishly.
“Is there something wrong?” Alma asks, concerned.
Wallace shakes his head, slowly raising his eyes to her. “No, I… I wonder if I could accompany you. I’ve always been fascinated by…you know, dwarves.”
Alma smiles. Clumsy and clueless as Longshot may be, he can also be quite adorable in his childish innocence. “Of course you may accompany me.”
She hands him the sheet with the details for this particularly company, a gesture that has him grinning in pleasure. They move downstairs, walking by Sergeant Machado, who whispers “Good luck” with a grim expression on his face. Alma nods and thanks him, slightly unsure of what prompted him to say that.
Ugh…dwarfs… Nekh grunts. Nasty little things with big mouths.
Ah, I was wondering where you were, Alma replies.
Why, missed me? the former Archon counters. Am I growing on you?
I would hope not. You already occupy too much space as it is.
HEY! Are you calling me fat?!
She follows an eager Wallace downstairs, where half a dozen bulky creatures, short and lively, are already inspecting every corner of the prisoner holding area, which Alma has made sure to vacate in anticipation of their arrival. They look…talkative. Dressed in rough leathers, big and heavy work boots and yellow construction hard hats, they chatter and babble and gabber, mostly about the work ahead, it seems, but that she picks up mainly from gestures and body language, for whatever language they are speaking bears little resemblance to Urbia, the common language of the Insula. It is as if the words have no distinctive beginning or end and the sentences have no breathing pauses.
Three of them are females, clearly. Their facial features and the curves in their bodies say so without doubt. Bulky and short as they are, they are proportionate in their build and even quite attractive, with their short, frizzy hair that reveals long, delicate, membranous ears painted in swirly designs, and their full lips curved in an ever-present smile. Thick work gloves hide their hard-working hands and leather pants cover legs that are slightly thinner and visibly more shapely than those of their male counterparts. Two of them wear sleeveless shirts while the third is barechested. However, where pale skin should exist to match their pretty, sun-deprived faces, there is bare rock, veiny and rough, ochre and grey and even glinting with various minerals.
The males are not very different. Slightly taller, short-haired and clean-shaven, they mostly seem to have larger areas where rock has merged with their skin like some sort of extreme adaptation to a mostly underground environment. One of them has both rock-imbued chest and head exposed, no hard hat, his arms encased in protective leather sleeves. The other is mostly covered in leather except for large, granite-grey hands that sparkle with metallic elements. And the third and last is apparently wearing no pants. Of course, this is somewhat difficult to assess due to his smooth, basalt-black skin but the veins of rust-red oxidation that can be seen upon closer inspection are a dead giveaway. It is he who seems to be in charge of the whole operation.
Of all beings she has encountered, Alma had never experienced dwarves. She takes all of this in with amazement and without expectation. Wallace, however, looks more befuddled than impressed with the creatures he claims fascinate him.
“Is the company name really Dwarf, Dwarf, Gnome?” he asks.
The black-legged dwarf turns to look at the young PPC with a suspicious eye. “Yeah, so?”
Wallace gulps at the veiled threat in the dwarf’s raised eyebrow “Uuhh…Where’s the gnome?
Ooooh, nice save, kid, Nekh sneers.
The dwarf raises his hard hat and scratches his forehead with one hand, the other one, holding his writing pad, resting against his hip. “That’s what I’d like to know. Guy ran away with my daughter. Could at least have taken the pretty one…” he trails off. Looking at Alma with an appraising eye to quickly determine who is really in charge here, he adds, “While we’re at it, can I file a complaint?”
“Against him?” Alma asks, trying not to chuckle.
“No, against her,” he huffs. “He was my best engineer.”
Women, huh? Nekh seems to commiserate. Plague of the world, they are.
Alma smiles at the dwarf, ignoring Nekh. “I am Sergeant Alma of the Guardia Dei. This is Probationary Constable Longshot. I was the one who called you here.”
“Oh, aye! I can see why you called, too,” the dwarf says brightly, proffering a leather-clad hand to shake Alma’s. “Bruhn Dwalkee, by the way. Looks like somethin’ went boom in here.”
Alma nods, shaking his hand in what she hopes is a firm enough fashion for a dwarf. “It did. We are currently looking for quotes to decide which company to contract to repair our cells.”
“Quotes…” Bruhn waves her off. “You don’t need quotes. You got us! All you need is right here.”
“Still, I–” Alma insists.
“Look,” Bruhn interrupts, raising a hand. “I know you have to talk about the quotes and all but here’s how it’s gonna go. You call someone else that’s cheap, they come in here, pickaxe at the ready, start breakin’ stuff, measure wrong, bust some pipes, maybe awake a dragon or two. You don’t want that.” He cringes slightly at the sudden crash of a pickaxe bursting through stone blocks and turns to his workers. “Hey! Careful there!”
Turning back to Alma, he goes on, barely skipping a beat. “You hire us, we get this ready two weeks after the estimated deadline. No sweat. I’ll even throw in the bribes you’ll need to get a construction license. And a mint.”
Alma, who is still looking nonplussed at the dwarf-woman currently wielding a pickaxe against the base-holds of the cell bars can just catch the end of his rambling. “We are government officials. We cannot go around bribing – Why is your employee bursting through our floor?”
Eh eh…Break it all! Break it all! Nekh cheers on.
“Uuhh…damage assessment,” Bruhn answers, turning to exchange a quick word with the dwarf-woman. “Yeah, that’s it! You know what you need here? A subbasement! Add a few sofas, some throw pillows, a colorful light, maybe some fake plants. BAM! Great lounge area.”
“This is a Guardia station, not a coffee shop,” Alma retorts. “And why would I need a subbasement?”
Bruhn jerks his thumb at a point behind his shoulder. “To go with the gaping hole on the floor over there.”
Alma’s eyes widen in disbelief and she rushes to where the dwarf-lady was just working. Through a hole no larger than Alma’s foot, she can see nothing but darkness and emptiness. Impossible! These floors should be solid. Even with a pickaxe, that dwarf should not have encountered anything but clay soil and bare rock. Who would be insane enough to build a cell over hollow ground?
Gotta love civil service and cheap contractors… Nekh comments, laughing at Alma’s bemusement. Oh this is gonna be sooooo amusing…
“There weren’t any holes this morning. That cell had prisoners in it just a few hours ago,” she mumbles. “Why would you even put a pickaxe to these stones?”
“Oh, she heard a hollow sound, thought she’d investigate,” Bruhn shrugs. “To prevent any surprises later.”
“I’m not quite sure if I should be glad or furious,” the goddess says. She can hear the sound of Nekh munching on metaphysical popcorn in the back of her mind.
“Well, I always say that if life hands you a tunnel, just grab the ketchup and call it a day,” Bruhn offers, taking her hand and guiding her away from the hole. “Look, don’t worry. Bruhn is here and he’ll take care of it, rats and all.”
Alma sighs. Life in command is Hell on the Insula, it seems. “When do you think you will be able to provide an estimate of the costs, Mr Dwalkee?”
“I’’ll draw the plans and do the math and have it all ready for you to look at in a week,” he replies, soothingly. “How does that sound?”
“Thank you, I will await your estimate,” Alma says. “Shall we go, Wallace?”
“I…I do have some questions, if you don’t mind,” Longshot hesitantly states. “For Mister Dwalkee.”
“Ah, don’t be shy, then!” Bruhn exclaims, lightly slapping the tall PPC on the thigh. “Ask away! Dwarves love to chat!”
Wallace hesitates but then blunders on. “Uhm… It’s just… you don’t look like what you’d expect your average dwarf to look like.”
Dwalkee raises a bushy eyebrow. “Huh…like what?”
“Well, for starters, there’s a distinctive lack of axes here,” Wallace points out.
Bruhn snorts. “You usually need them to carve stone, do you?”
No, but they’re damned good if you’re just tall enough to chop a guy’s legs off at the knee! Nekh offers. Pay no attention to him, kid. Those nasty buggers all have axes at home.
Beyond Alma’s thoughts,Wallace keeps digging an early grave. “And if you’re a dwarf, where’s your beard? Everyone knows that dwarves have long beards.”
“Who told you that?!” Bruhn bellows, face red with sudden anger. “Any dwarf knows better than to grow a beard! Only those city-slick, surface dwellers grow beards like that makes’em ‘real’ dwarves! Hmpf, never seen a tunnel in their lives.”
“But…but…you’re a dwarf!” Longshot insists, bewildered. “It’s practically mandatory!”
“A beard?!” Bruhn exclaims. Taking a deep breath to regain his self control, he looks at Wallace as if to a particularly dense child. “Sonny, what do you think it is, an air filter? All sorts of rubbish get caught in it. Having to wash it every day, combing it, then your foot gets stuck, suddenly you’re rollin’ down a mine, droppin’ down shafts, scaring the living daylights out of some guy lookin’ for a lost temple.”
He turns to Alma. “I had a cousin who lost a kid in his beard. Went in age seven, didn’t come out until his wedding day. True story!”
“Ah, but at least I can see it’s true the women look a lot like the men,” Longshot ventures as the barechested dwarf-woman walks by.
“Nah, she’s just ugly,” Bruhn mutters.
I love this guy! Nekh coos.
“You better not be talking about me!” the female dwarf shrieks, glaring daggers at Bruhn.
“No, snookems!” Bruhn replies immediately, leaning conspiratorially closer to Alma. “Gets it from her mammy’s side, poor thing. Sweet as molasses, face like three-day-old porridge. And teeth… Will bite the nails off a wood board like it was fishbones in catfish.”
“Well, you could at least use… You know, the armor? A proper helmet?” Wallace suggests hopelessly.
“Laddie, you have a fundamental misunderstandin’ of the underground,” Dwalkee chuckles.
“Oh yeah, then why is that guy not wearing a hard hat?” Wallace asks, looking in fascination at the dwarf with a stone-inlaid head.
“Oh him?” Bruhn asks conversationally. “He doesn’t need one. His brains is made of hard rock.” To Alma, he adds, “Blunt as a pebble but real good for demolition. Him and the one with no gloves.”
Suddenly, I’m wondering what their approach is to battering rams.
The image Nekh sparks in Alma’s mind has the goddess blushing bright red. “Oh dear…”
“Hey, that guy doesn’t look like a dwarf!” Wallace suddenly cries, pointing at an exceedingly tall worker that has just entered the basement. Unlike his considerably shorter counterparts, he does not immediately join in the endless banter but merely grunts a hello. All clad in leather, no apparent rock inlays, sheepish expression reinforced by eyes that bear little intelligence in them, he looks suspiciously like a very tall, somewhat dimwitted human.
Dwalkee looks at him, then shrugs. “You’re just saying that ‘cuz his head keeps hitting the doorways. Discriminating on the basis of height.” He glares at Wallace, accusing finger pointed straight at the young man. “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Longshot’s eyes widen in sudden panic, his face turns red, purple and all colors in between. He looks at Alma, then back at Bruhn. “I am soo sorry, I didn’t mean–”
Bruhn laughs heartily and slaps Wallace’s thigh again. “Nah, just kidding. He’s adopted.” He raises his voice so all his fellow dwarves can hear. “Just don’t tell’im. We wanna break it to him easy.”
The whole of the dwarf population bursts into laughter, except, of course, the poor tall dwarf-adoptee, who looks around with a vacant expression like someone trying to grasp the concept of a joke. Alma cannot help but feel bad for the poor soul, even as Nekh laughs in her thoughts.
Oh, come on! That was a good joke! Nekh says, still laughing. Gotta learn to laugh at your average idiot.
That is only because you have never been the one being laughed at, Alma replies, remembering sadder childhood days and cruel older brothers.
She feels a sudden urge to bound up the stairs and leave this place. “Wallace, we should leave these people to do their job in peace,” she says.
Longshot looks a little disappointed. “May I…May I ask just one last question? Please?”
Alma sighs. “Go ahead.”
Wait for it…Wait for it…
Wallace breathes deeply. “So…is it dwarves or dwarfs?”
BAM! I’m out! Nekh announces.
The seemingly simple question has Bruhn scratching his head again. “Ah, that timeless question. You see, to answer that, we’ll have to go back to the dawn of dwarf civilization.”
“Eh, dawn of dwarfs, dawn of dwarfs,” the barechested dwarf lady grumbles as she walks by carrying a long wooden ruler. She stops just by Wallace. “Look, honey, both forms are right. Just use whichever–”
“I’M SORRY!” Bruhn cuts her off, hands balled and thrusted against his hips. “And what kind of an expert is Mrs Dwalkee to–”
His words earn him a blow to his hard hat with the wooden ruler even before he finishes his sentence. “You raise that voice at me again and you’ll be doin’ the dishes for a week!”
“But, honeycakes…” Bruhn whimpers.
“If I may be so bold to intervene…” one of the barearmed female dwarves starts.
Please, don’t, Alma wishes in thought.
“As if anyone wants to hear your theories, Clothil!” the male dwarf with the stone fists calls out. “It’s dwarves! Everyone knows that!”
“As if that isn’t what I was gonna say!” Clothil harks back at her co-worker.
“No, it’s dwarfs!” the other female states. “On account of that agreement signed after the Second Great Dwarf War!”
“Yeah, but then the Third War happened so we ripped that damned agreement!” Bruhn counters.
“You can’t prove that! No one ever found proof of that war!” the female dwarf insists.
“Doesn’t matter what your mammy says, Guidde, the war happened!” Mrs Dwalkee barks, bare chest thrust forward at the girl-dwarf in dissidence. “I was there with my pops selling memorabilia!”
“Wow…” Wallace murmurs. “You had a war just to decide what the plural of dwarf should be?”
“Oh, and that’s not even the half of it!” Mrs Dwalkee exclaims, holding a hand up. “Sonny, you wanna know about dwarves? I’ll tell you about dwarves!”
And, much to Alma’s dismay, she does.