“Finally! It’s like I’m out of jail!” Saira exclaims in pure joy.
Her hands interlocked, arms extended above her head, she stretches her back as she walks, glad to feel the cool night air against her face, her ears exulting at the dearly missed nightly sounds of a ward trying very hard to pretend to be asleep. For weeks, she has been stranded and trapped in her own body, in Alma’s room, in the bar, and now she finally has a good excuse to be outside without having to sneak out. Not that sneaking out is not fun. The Bunnies certainly make it a challenge, with those great ears of theirs, but there is a sense of freedom in this lifting of her captivity that she has not experienced in a long time. She knows she is not yet fully recovered but her mind demands the exercise as much as her body demands rest. She shivers in anticipation.
By her side, Somrak looks at her sideways, unable to help himself from watching her slim but now considerably less muscular frame curve as she stretches. “Remember what I said. If you feel any muscle tremors…”
Saira waves him off. “I know, I know.” She bats her eyelashes at him in mock submission. “I’ll just ask you to stop.”
This earns her a slight grimace. He has been badgering her with rules and advice since they left the station, like a scared babysitter. Of course, he has probably been threatened with all the tortures of Hell just to get the approval to bring her on this tour, something that leaves Saira mildly annoyed. For as much as she appreciates all the care put into her recovery, the general overprotectiveness of Alma and her brood’s vigilance can feel stifling to someone who has trusted her fate to the streets for years. Saira’s best judgement has kept her alive so far and against terrible odds in a world where women can consider themselves lucky if all that happens to them in a fight is getting beaten, and she would like to see this earn her at least some respect in the eye of a pretty goddess born with a silver spoon and the gift of immortality.
She looks down at her outfit, adapted from one of the older pieces in Alma’s wardrobe. Although practical, it is also a delicate thing, much like the goddess herself. The black fabric of the pants and shirt is light and flowy, the leather vest that protects her torso decorated with intricate floral patterns burned onto the surface. No cloak or hood tonight. One look at Alma’s choices in that department was enough to put that out of question but this means that her golden-brown hair, usually loose, now has to be braided. Black leather bands wrapped around her arms, forearms and thighs guard major blood vessels and provide places to carry blades or a quiver, but the patterns stitched onto them in (surprise!) obsidian-black thread glint faintly in the moonlight as if they were encrusted with tiny jewels. Saira’s old, worn sword-belt and the strap onto which her crossbow hangs clash as dramatically with the exquisite elegance of Alma’s clothing as her body does with that of the death goddess.
Taller and thinner, slender and willowy, Alma’s frame looks deceivingly frail, her body a transcendental vessel for surprising strength packed into effortlessly graceful movements. Saira is slightly shorter and, although shaped with the elegance of a dancer, motions smooth with years of practice, her curves trace well-toned muscles and speak of the force stored in flesh and tendon, efficient and deadly.
So different… the woman thinks to herself. But somehow…
She feels a connection to Alma, a shared wistfulness for the loss of fates that could have been but can never be. In this place, they call it saudade, a longing for something or someone gone, that may or may not return, and the nostalgia of days that can never happen again or even happen just once. The goddess who so often treats her like a child brings out an adult fascination in her. The differences between them seem to radiate from a common grief, like late winter and early spring bound together by the same chilly heart.
“So who is this contact you mentioned?” Somrak asks, breaking her train of thought.
Saira shrugs away her introspective mood. “Old acquaintance. It’s best if you just wait to meet him, trust me.” She glances at him. “How did you convince Mommy Alma to let me out, anyway?”
“She mostly convinced herself,” the god replies with a shrug. “I was already resigned to giving up when she finished thinking it through and saw how important it was.”
The answer somewhat surprises Saira. “Huh…”
“Saira…she cares for you,” Somrak notes grumpily, almost as a warning against any rash actions. “Very much. She did not want to say yes.”
Saira looks at him sideways. And why would someone like you care about something like that?
She knows what he is. He couldn’t hide his nature from her any more than a panther could hide from a leopard.
“Caring is just her first mistake,” she replies. “In this place here, caring gets you to one of two places: jail or grave… Which for us measly mortals is pretty much the same.” She adds with a shrug, “Learned that lesson a few times over.”
How many of her childhood friends have been taken to prison, never to return to their respective wards? The thought makes her reach instinctively for the butt of her crossbow, which she rubs as if it were an amulet of protection. A familiar alley looms to her right and she jerks her head in that direction. “This way.”
“This place?” Somrak inquires conversationally, following her with the casual, falsely relaxed gait of someone used to treading in dark places. “You mean the universe?”
Saira chuckles bitterly at the irony in his voice. “You tell me. My universe keeps changing sizes.”
Somrak nods, looking straight at the end of the alley. “You’re right of course. About caring. Still…”
She cuts him off, humorlessly. “You gonna tell me I need to leave the life and settle down too? I’ll be real disappointed if that’s your agenda here.”
Somrak’s lips curl in a half-smile. The side of his face that she can see is barely touched by the scar, making him look less cynical than probably intended. “You don’t see me fitting myself for an easy chair, do you? But it’s nice having someone who cares.” He looks down for a moment, his smile widens a little as he whispers half to himself. “Even when you know it’s foolish.”
Ah…so you got someone who cares too…
They reach the end of the alleyway, where two smaller alleys open their dark mouths into the night. A faint, scratching noise tells Saira that her contact is in the alley to her left and available for business. The subtle contrast of moving shadows reveals his position.
She takes a longer step and turns to stand in front of Somrak, her left hand on his stomach, forcing him to stand still. He looks at her questioningly as she draws her crossbow and loads it, so used to the movements that she can do all this without taking her eyes away from his.
“Careful, love. You’ll melt into those leathers if you get any softer,” she taunts him, voice soft as satin.
She is showing off, yes, but this is sort of the national sport of rogues everywhere and it is not every day that she gets to play the game with someone who is worth the trouble. Still looking at him, seeing a trace of concern in his eyes, she aims the crossbow into the shadows and fires. Almost immediately, they hear the cry of her wounded prey.
“Time to be tough now,” she grins into his shocked face and taps his chest before turning and strutting into the alley, crossbow resting against her shoulder. Ain’t every day you get to surprise a god!
“Squid of tha devil!” a familiar voice echoes through the alleyway. “Wha’ do I look like, a walkin’ kebab?!”
“Cal, Cal, Cal….” Saira says she travels about half of the alley between two stubby buildings, to where her contact is still grumbling.
“I’m jus’ mindin’ my own business here! Who tha Hell shoots into a dark alley, anyway?! You oughta be ashamed of yourself, shootin’ a holy priest like me!”
She nearly drops her crossbow at the sight of the terrestrial cuttlefish trying to pry the bolt from his mantle with his two longest tentacles, his eyes crossed as he tries to see the wooden shaft stuck far above his head, his body glowing bright red in anger. Laughing now would ruin her act but she can barely keep a straight face while he tugs pointlessly at the thing, body jerking back and forth under the force of each tug.
“Can’t! Get! This! OUT!”
“It’s not stuck in anything vital,” Saira states, struggling to keep a serious tone. “Besides, you leave it in there, you can really sell the martyr complex.”
“Ah, screw it…” Cal mutters, finally giving up. “You got a point there.” He takes a good look at her before pointing an accusatory tentacle. “Hey, you should be dead!”
Saira rolls her eyes at this. “If I had a half-hekte for every time somebody said ‘I thought you was dead.’ Listen, I need to resupply. When and where is the next night-market?”
Cal lifts half of his tentacles up and shrugs (insomuch any cuttlefish standing upright on its tentacles can shrug). “What do I look like, a newspaper? The Hell should I know?”
“Huh,” Saira huffs, pulling a fresh bolt from the quiver strapped to her right thigh. “Well then, I guess I could use some more target practice. Pretty sure you’ve got a few vital organs in there somewhere. Certainly not your brain…”
“Pretty tough talkin’ for someone lookin’ like the next Miss Insula…” Cal mutters. “OW!”
He twirls on two tentacles, trying to see the bolt now stuck on his head-fin. “The heck you do that for?! I was complementin’!” He stops, looking at her appraisingly, like a fashion designer inspecting a model. “You’re lookin’ all flowy an stuff! Kinda like a squid but better. Not so soft about the endoskeleton.”
Somrak’s approach has Cal flashing the purplish pink of suspicion. “He who you’re all dressed up for? This a date?” The cuttlefish asks in what he probably thinks is a conspiratorial tone. “Need a table and a plate of seaweed? I can arrange it…”
Saira, her brow knitted at being compared to a squid, shakes her head, starts reloading her crossbow. “Cal, that one was in your fin. Gonna start going more center-mass.”
Cal watches her aim a third bolt at him. “You know, I liked the other guy better. You didn’ shoot me when you was with ‘im.”
Somrak’s hands start to flicker with flames. “I’m starting to feel like cooking some seafood.”
Saira sighs and shakes her head. Tough guy act… It is obvious that this is his first encounter with Calimari Cal. Anyone dealing with Cal knows better than to rush. The cuttlefish is like an old radio: he’ll work better and longer than the more expensive models but only provided you know where to bang him with the hammer. Repeatedly.
Cal is so used to this routine that the show of force doesn’t even excite his cromatophores.
“Oh, you is?” He sways back on three tentacles and, suddenly, Somrak is covered in ink. “Cook that!”
He dashes down the alley, and Saira shoots him again. “OW!” He complains after falling face first and getting up again. “I ain’t stoppin’!!”
Just as he is about to escape the narrow alley, fire sprouts ahead of him, forming a wall of flames that bars his way. Cal skids to a halt, tripping on his own tentacles. He falls belly up, flailing madly in a panic.
“Oh, Great Cuttlefish!” he cries. “Save me from tha flames! Flames is for tha squids! I’ll even start prayin’ ta ya for real! Just save me from tha flames!”
From the other side of the fiery barricade, a tiny, raspy voice yells, “Gettin’ the butter!”
“Shut up, Frankie!” Cal shouts. “Just get tha water!”
Saira and Somrak walk up to the struggling cephalopod at their own leisure. Trying very hard not to look or stand too close to the fire god as he grumbles and shakes droplets of foul-smelling ink off his tight red-and-black leathers, Saira can barely keep a shaky grin off her lips that threatens to turn into full-blown laughter as she says, “Just give us the location, will you? I have some bastards to shoot and some of them will need a little special sauce. But you…” She kicks Cal’s mantle to help him turn right side up. “I don’t need anything special to send you to meet your Great Cuttlefish.”
Cal turns, managing a grip on the polished cobblestones strong enough to straighten and rise to his feet – make that walking tentacles. His voice turns mellowy and smooth, the kind that could convince an armless man to buy a lifetime supply of lacey gloves. “Come on, Sai. You wouldn’t do that. We’s buddies, right? How long we’ve been workin’ together, you an’ me? You shoot me, I scream, give you what you want. It’s like, our thing. Don’ go an’ ruin a good thing for a walkin’ barbecue.” He wraps a tentacle around her thigh and pulls her away from Somrak and the wall of flames, glancing back at the fire god with a definite tone of I’m-gonna-getcha-see-if-I-don’t. “I’m your pal. We’ve done the shootin’ and the screamin’. Tell the campin’ stove turn off the gas an’ we’ll find what you want, yeah?”
“You try to run again, cephalopod, and I’ll cook you from the inside out,” Somrak growls but cancels flame wall.
Cal spins and lunges toward him at lightning speed, poking a tentacle at Somrak’s belly. “Hey! Who you callin’ cephalopod?” He seems to remember the meaning of the word. “Oh..right…Anyway, whaddya want, Mistah Ponytail?”
Saira sighs. Somrak looks just about to forget his advice about not starting a fight. “Same thing as I want. Time. Location.”
Cal turns to look at her, then up at the sky. “Hmm.. Time’s tomorrow night. Location is at the corner of Don’t Know and Can’t Tell.”
Saira stares at him, humor gone from her face. She pulls another bolt from her quiver, this time one with a yellow ring around the shaft, the mark she uses for tips laced with demon ichor.
“Too bad, Cal,” she states, reloading her crossbow and aiming it at the cuttlefish. “You know when I make a threat, I always follow through. Been nice knowing you…”
“Oh, come on, Sai!” Cal shrieks, tentacles up in the air. “I really don’ know!”
Somrak moves to Saira’s side and puts a hand on her crossbow, forcing her to lower the weapon. In response to her questioning look, he pulls out a small copper amulet the size of a stater coin out of a pocket and tosses it at Cal. “Will this help?”
Cal catches the amulet in a tentacle and looks at it under the moonlight, skin flashing bright orange and yellow in surprise. “You ‘ad this all along? Whaddya need me for? You already got the key!”
“Then turn the lock for us and we’ll get out of your…epidermis…” Somrak suggests.
Cal’s cromatophores turn his body the purplish pink of suspicion. “You got some pretty nice words for a thug…” He looks at Saira, voice low. “This one’s a bluefish too…Like the other one! You turnin’ bad, now? Betrayin’ the streets? Shame on you!”
Somrak’s hands ball into fiery fists. “Calling me a cop? You really want to see what it’s like in the grave, don’t you?”
Cal’s body starts to smoke slightly but he remains defiant. “I ain’t never been afraid o’ tha Guardia, Mistah. I just ain’t stupid either.”
“You keep calling me Guardia, you’re going to learn fear,” Somrak threatens, eyes flaring with flame. Standing by his side, Saira can feel the blistering heat rising from him. “Just because I was sent to school… Now very briefly, tell us how to use that and we can all say goodnight.”
Cal makes a show of shrugging as smoke billows faintly from his mantle and the alley is filled with the scent of cooked seafood. “Ya know, they don’t call me Calimari Cal for nothin’. Anyways…” He moves closer to Somrak, holding the amulet in front of him. “This here’s a map of these streets. All the side alleys that don’t come on no normal map. Some don’ even exist most of the time. That’s why it don’t make no sense. But if you wanna find the market…”
He extends a tentacle to slowly grab one of Somrak’s blazing fists and pull it down under the amulet. A glowing dot immediately starts glowing over one of the many black squiggly lines engraved on its coppery surface. “Put it over a flame. The spot it marks will be there when the moon is right. If you got the key on you, you’ll get in, no sweat.”
Somrak cancels his flames and reaches for the amulet but Cal pulls his tentacle back. “Lose the key, though, and you’re locked in,” the cuttlefish warns. “Or locked out, dependin’ on perspective.”
Saira waits for Cal to hand the amulet back to the god before unloading and putting away her crossbow. “If I start hearing nasty rumors about me and the Guardia, Cal, you know what’s going to happen,” she says coldly.
Cal throws four tentacles up in exasperation. “Now, why’d you have ta go an’ say that? I tol’ you, Cal’s your pal!” He jerks a tentacle at the opposite end of the alley. “Now, get outta here so’s I can go fetch some shears and get these harpoons outta my juicy self before I start growin’ spiky hair and enjoyin’ that music that sounds like a cat tryin’ ta hump a whale. Seriously! If I wanted one o’them piercin’ thingies, I’d have gone to a fishin’ contest and offer myself as a prize catch.”
Somrak looks at Saira and asks in low tones. “You sure about leaving him alive?”
Saira sighs and nods. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Yeah, she’s sure, Mistah Smiles-a-lot!” Cal echoes before turning to Saira. “Next time you come visit…bring that chick bluefish instead. If I’m gonna get all hot under the mantle, at least it’ll be for a good reason,” he tells her before walking away. “Hmm…I’m gettin’ hungry for some reason…”