It was tempting to stay at the bar, to accept Cherry and Merri’s invitation to sleep in the room upstairs that he’d used during his week-long stint as a regular cop here in Three Rats, but Somrak had, in his haste to bring a delirious, poisoned Gwydion to Alma, left his satchel behind.
Resembling a simple leather shoulder bag, it contains his spare clothes, a fair amount of cash, and a number of pieces of equipment that he will need for the morrow’s mission. Despite having left it in a room at the Singing Cockroach, a top competitor for Worst Dive in the Fourth Ring, he didn’t have any great fear of its being stolen. The bag is enchanted in numerous ways, much larger on the inside (he had once climbed into it so that Sky could smuggle him into the headquarters of a pixie-trafficking ring – a bit cramped and quickly stuffy, but survivable for the needed twenty minutes, and as a bonus he’d found a sock he’d lost years before) and with security-minded spells to prevent anyone but him opening it. If it were stolen, he could find it without much trouble as he could remotely activate a tracking spell. But that would waste time that he doesn’t have to spare.
So after Alma and Dion had left the planning to try to rest and – he presumed but did not wish to think on – comfort each other before the morning’s danger, Somrak had bid an affectionate goodnight to the Bunnies, resisted their renewed entreaties to stay, and slipped into the dark streets of Three Rats, his identity-concealing scarf over his face. He’d taken a winding, chaotic route, randomly choosing turns to make sure he was not being followed, before returning to the tavern infested with vermin large and small that he is calling home for one final night.
On the way, on impulse, he ducks into a shop and emerges with a half-pint bottle of decent whisky. Not great, but the best the place has. It occurs to him that it might be a millennium of torture in Hell before he gets another drink. Too bad he hadn’t thought to get some from the bar. Merri and Cherry have the good stuff. Ah, regrets.
He notices the Cockroach’s pale, flabby proprietor, red hair gone grey, cheeks and nose blooming with gin blossoms, giving Somrak the eye as he enters. The bar is nearly empty, as it usually has been during Somrak’s stay. Has it always been this way, or did the Bunnies’ Burrow steal the customers away? Or is it that the sort of extra-rough trade who drink here have begun to move out of Three Rats for greener pastures?
Not that it matters. Somrak has heavier issues on his mind.
At his door on the upper floor, he pauses. There’s someone in the room – he can see the heat through the thin wall. Somrak concentrates, sharpening his senses, and sees a human shape, a pattern of varying heat across the body. She – the height, the body outline, the concentrations of heat and the pattern of clothing tell him who it is – is standing, facing the door. No surprise, as he hadn’t been quiet coming up the stairs. He unlocks the door, casually, but ready to duck.
The sight of a thrown knife tumbling through the air at one’s face is unforgettable, but this is far from the first time Somrak has had a knife – or for that matter spear, axe, boulder, chair, beer glass, squirrel (flaming), cat (mutant), or devil (three times) – thrown at him. He doesn’t flinch, as it’s not aimed at his face, but slightly to the left. It makes one and a half revolutions from where it leaves Saira’s hand to where it embeds itself in the doorframe with a thump of impact and a three-toned wheezing squeak. Somrak looks at the knife, light and sharp of point, and at the large cockroach’s remains, the upper half of the insect still struggling, the lower half falling to the floor to twitch.
Then he grins at Saira as if this is the most normal thing in the world, and calls out, “Honey, I’m home!”
Chuckling at the grimace this prompts from Saira, he closes the door behind him and pulls the knife free, and tosses it back to Saira, nice and easy. “I’ll let you clean that off. What have you got against these cockroaches, anyway? That’s two.”
Saira leans back against the wall, next to the window, pulling out a rag and swiping the blade clean before returning it to a wrist-sheath. “And you just started counting.” She glances at the opposite wall, and Somrak sees marks left by the knife here and there, with dead roaches below, or in some cases still clinging to, those holes.
“No wonder Felix was giving me the eye downstairs,” Somrak says. “Probably thought it was me playing target practice up here.”
Saira shrugs. “Felix likes to sneak in and take what’s not his.”
“Aww, that’s sweet! You were thinking about me.” Somrak unbuckles his jacket but leaves it on, picking up his satchel and taking a seat on the edge of the bed.
“No surprise that he didn’t warn you there was somebody in your room,” Saira says. “If there’s a fight, he can always loot the bodies and sell them for pig feed.”
Somrak sticks his tongue out. “Those Bunnies have the right idea, being vegetarians. How long have you been waiting?”
She crosses her arms and turns to look out the window. “Long enough. Got acquainted with the roaches and all. How’s Prince Charming?”
Somrak as he pulls a small cube out of the bag, sized to fit on a palm and crafted of perfectly fitted-together triangles of various kinds of wood. He places it on the bedside table and presses the side of the box. A lid pops open. A crystalline bird rises from the top and hovers, spinning slowly in air, and a soft chiming tune begins to play, mournful yet sweet. “Feisty. Surprisingly so. Good thing you brought him here though. It was touch-and-go, but Alma healed him.”
Saira looks back over her shoulder at the sound of the music, and for a moment, Somrak catches the look of concern she feels about Gwydion. She knits her brow at the incongruous music box, but instead of asking about it, she says, “I thought he was dead, with that reaction. I didn’t get anything as bad as that when she did it to me. I mean, yeah, I use it to kill gods but I don’t poke’em with pins.”
“You just poke them with arrows.” Knowing she won’t ask, he tilts his head toward the music box and explains, “If the music becomes harsh and jangling, it means someone is trying to listen in from afar.”
Saira looks back out the window. “You ain’t paranoid if they really are summoning demons to to track you down and rip your guts out.”
“Anyway, there’s different kinds of demon-ichor poison. Sounds like what Dion got hit with is particularly nasty. Mind if I pay your supplier a visit when this is all over?”
Saira turns back to glare at him. “Yes, I do. Prettyboy’s already read me that sermon but I know he’s too by-the-book to break jurisdiction like that. You, on the other hand,” she jabs a finger at him, “can’t be trusted to follow the rules. Even though you’ve gone all soft and gooey inside.”
Somrak grins, lopsided, his scar pulling tight. “Oh I’m soft, am I? Well, you would know.”
Saira takes two steps toward him, which in the small room is enough to nearly be standing on his feet. “Mud bath left you cranky, did it? You actually hoping for a knife in the throat?”
Somrak shakes his head. “Me, cranky? No. Just funny, you calling me soft. After you brought me Dion like that, when you could’ve just dumped him. And the way you helped Sky and those kids before. Almost got yourself killed then. I seem to remember seeing you making decorations in the bar.”
Her voice dangerously low and smooth, Saira counters, “You mean when you were running around spreading glitter all over a certain white-haired gal? How’d that go, exactly? Did you get to confess your undying love to her?”
Somrak looks up at her, grin faded to a gentle smile. “Did I say you were wrong?” He shakes his head. “But don’t pretend you haven’t gone soft for these guys, too.” He keeps his eyes on hers until she crosses her arms again and pretends to be interested in the music box, which continues to play the same tune again and again as the little bird revolves. “So, you saw the punch-up with Dion.”
“I did,” she replies, sounding derisive. “I mean, I saw him fight you. You didn’t do much of anything there. Oh, and I heard some neat stuff too. Care to explain?” She looks back at him, her glare accusing.
Somrak lies back on the bed, crossways, legs still hanging off the side, feet on the floor. His open jacket leaves his belly protected only by a thin cotton undershirt, and he knows Saira is likely eyeing it with thoughts of where to best plunge a dagger to produce the most desirable effects. “Must be because I’m just so darned soft. Gonna start taking sugar with my coffee. Maybe wear footy pajamas to bed.” He laces his fingers behind his head, making himself even more vulnerable before her – incidentally telling her that he’s unafraid of anything she might do. In others, that might be foolishness. In his case, she knows that he is calling her bluff, telling her that all her aggressive posturing doesn’t play with him. “Well, ‘neat stuff’? I was choking on mud at the time, so I’m not entirely sure which ‘neat stuff’ you mean.”
Saira leans over him, one hand on the bed on each side of him. He looks up at her face over his, her eyes narrowed. He raises his eyebrows, wondering what she’s going to do, when she answers his curiosity by putting a knee on his belly, and then the other, letting almost her whole weight press against his guts as she kneels on his stomach. Oof!
Apparently the provocation of an upturned belly was too much to resist. He refuses to react, however, keeping his hands behind his head, tensing his abdominal muscles to support her. She puts her hands on his chest and grins coldly at him. “Start with the bit about the devil and why Babyface was so angry and you can go to the lies from there.”
“The leader of the Whisper, that you call the Devil’s Left Hand, is named Margrave.” He says it simply, keeping the strain of supporting her out of his voice, then pauses briefly to let it sink in, watching her expression change, all traces of amusement fading. “He’s got a devil with him. There were some…state secrets involved, and I couldn’t tell Alma and Dion right away. He got mad that I held that information back. Nature of the job. I have to keep secrets sometimes.” He pauses again, thinking she’s going to say something, but she remains silent, studying him. He releases the hands from behind his head and puts them on the bed to steady himself. “We know where Sky’s being held. At least we think we do. We’re going in in the morning. Dion and Alma wanted to go now, but they need rest and healing.”
After a long pause, she asks only “Where?” The single word is charge with an icy rage. She seems to have forgotten she’s awkwardly balanced on him. She seems to have forgotten everything else in the world.
Somrak looks up at her, resigned, and lays his hands on her leather-clad waist, gently nudging her aside. Not letting her gaze break free of his for an instant, she complies, sliding off him and sitting on the bed, legs half folded under her. If not for the expression on her face, it would be a fetching pose. He sits up and half-turns to face her. Trying without any hope to talk some sense into her, he asks quietly, “Did you not hear the part about the devil? And plenty of demons, too. Undead servants. Insane necromancer that’s back from the dead after two centuries. Chances are high that one or more of us gods aren’t coming back from this. Chances are certain no mortal will last long.”
Saira’s voice strains to form coherent words without breaking into a scream. “Where is that sick son of a bitch?”
Som looks at her, his expression turning to sorrow, his shoulders slumping a little in defeat. “Little Falls. On Pierre à Aiguiser Lane, overlooking the river. Burnt-out shell of a house, two stories, just a couple of walls still standing…”
He trails off as Saira goes pale at the description, though her expression, if anything, becomes even more deadly. Her voice is faint, barely a whisper, but it rises almost to a shout by the end. “I’m gonna impale his skull to those walls and set fire to whatever’s left of him. That was our house. That’s where his people murdered my gang.”
Somrak’s eyes widen in surprise, then he feels his own anger blossoming within. “Location of violent death. Harvesting the twisted mana from that to save on power.” He curses in a language known to few aside from fire gods, with a sound like a knot of pitch popping in a bonfire, and looks back up at Saira. “Right, let’s go over it. Vantage points, lines of approach, all that. You know the place, and we can use all the advantage we can get.”
Saira puts a hand forward. “Whoa, buddy, not so fast. How can I be sure you’re not just gonna run off with the info and leave me behind anyway?”
He decides not to tell her that that had been his plan with Alma and Dion. Instead, he lays it out. “You’re insane to be going in with us. It’s suicide. But I promised you before that you’d get your shot. Let me just ask you one more time so I can tell Alma I tried to stop you: Are you sure you want to do this? You can walk away, Saira. You can live.”
She does not look away. “I told you before, Softie. I died way before you met me.”
Looking back into her eyes, Somrak feels it: Defiance, determination – but more than that, a complete lack of regard for her own life, and the freedom that that brings. He can only admire it, and recognize it as well, for he is the same. Again, though, he feels sorrow at the loss. She may not value her own life, but he wishes they could have served together. Perhaps after her enemy is dead, she’ll turn to the Commander. Certain situations call for mortal Popula agents in the off-blues. Though her chances of survival are practically zero, he’s seem more unlikely things come to pass. “All right then. We leave for the station at dawn, meet up with Alma and Dion, and proceed to Little Falls. Now let’s get your intel.”
The half-pint flask of whisky – not the rotgut that Somrak keeps in the room just for the look of things, but the whisky he bought on the way over – is down to a half-half pint, the bottle, corked, lying on the bed next to Somrak, the shot glass that had been resting upside down on the mouth of the bottle of rotgut on the bedside table, next to the music box. Sitting side-by-side on the bed, the fire god and the assassin, mortal by nature and mortal to her enemies, have creased sheets of paper scattered all over the bed and their own laps, with drawings and notes covering them. Dawn is only three hours away by this time.
“Told you, you don’t have an angle from there,” Saira insists. “Unless you’re planning on a frontal assault, that’s a stupid place to hide.” She shoots a glare at the music box. “Porra, I know this thing is for safety, but doesn’t it know any other songs?”
“Sorry,” Somrak replies with a yawn. “I barely even notice it anymore.” He leans forward and touches the spinning bird, which bounces slightly and changes color, from a pale blue to a soft green, and the tune changes to something almost like a lullaby. “Well, maybe we’ve got it all pinned down. We should get some sleep – it’s only a few hours to dawn.”
Saira yawns, as if she’s caught it from Somrak, and her eyes look suddenly droopy. She shakes her head hard, the locks of her light-brown hair flying as she tries to bring herself back to full alertness. “Sure, I’ll let you get your beauty sleep. You need all you can get, anyway.” She tries to stand, but only makes it halfway before she sits back on the bed. “Ugh… I did not drink that much.”
“Hey, whoa…” Somrak steadies her with a hand on her shoulder, keeping his voice soft and soothing. “What, are you planning on jumping out windows like that? Sleep here. I’ll take the floor. More comfortable than a lot of places I’ve slept. Besides, I don’t want to have to come find your hideout if you don’t show up on time.” He begins collecting the papers from the bed.
She flaps her hand lazily at him, waving him off. “I’ll be fine. Just need some fresh…” Her eyelids fall shut and she slips into unconsciousness.
Somrak catches her so that her head won’t hit the wall, and gently lowers her to the bed, turning her so her head rests on the pillow. As he stands, the sleepy look on his face disappears without leaving a trace behind. He lifts her legs and puts them on the bed, letting her lie on her side. He briefly considers removing her boots, but decides that could be going a bit far.
The box’s blue song does nothing magical, but the green song induces a deep sleep in mortals, though it has no effect on gods. He will leave it playing through the morning, so that Saira will slumber through the attempt to rescue Sky. He knows she’ll never forgive him, but there is betrayal and there is betrayal. Does he betray her by leading her to certain death, or by taking away her chance at Margrave? He chooses the latter.
The decision rankles. It is a broken promise, and furthermore he has already chosen to take Gwydion and Alma with him into danger, their dedication to Sky and desire to take down the necromancer being the justification. So why not Saira? But they have a chance of success; she does not. Bringing her would be murder. Even then, he almost decided to do so. What right does he have to stop her? She is right. She is a bolt shot from a crossbow, and this is the trajectory of her life.
But she can make another life. Let her join the off-blues. Better yet, let her sell fruit, or become a tour guide, or a zookeeper, or anything but what she is. Let her have a shot at something besides death. Is it arrogant for him to make that choice for her? Hugely. But he is a god, and she is a mortal, and in the end, pretending that they are on an equal footing is not justice to either of them.
He carefully adjusts the position of her head so she won’t wake up with a stiff neck, then tenderly touches her hair, brushing it away from her eyes. He whispers, “Yeah, you’re right. I’m a big softy. Sorry, kid.”
He sits down on the bed next to her legs and reopens the folded sheet with the map on it, lines drawn and redrawn. Laying it on his lap, he retrieves the half-empty flask and takes a swig from it, taking what pleasure he can from the burn of the whisky.