“Where’s your sister?” Yolanda asked as she slurped some hot chocolate through a straw. “I thought she was going to be here.”
I waved my hand dismissively. “Something about the Mals. I don’t know.”
Yolanda gave me an odd look—perhaps sensing I wasn’t being entirely truthful—but let it slide. She had been acting like she was treading on eggshells around me recently. Probably worried that I was upset she was a succubus.
I wasn’t, though. I mean, maybe I should have been worried about mind-control pheromones or whatever, but those were just stupid rumors on the net. They weren’t real.
Delphie leaned forward intently. “I think I heard her saying she was going to talk to the ‘sarians about Lizzy. She’s really worried.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, the whole thing is ridiculous. Butler’s dropping the ball on this one.” I still wasn’t sure whether or not Lizzy was the Composer, but Necessarius should be more careful about their propaganda. They knew no one thought she was the Composer, at least.
“Ah, but…” Yolanda started to say something then blushed as everyone turned to her. “I…I can see where they’re coming from. The Composer has everyone running scared. They say the murid Alpha was killed by sleepers.”
I blinked. “She what? I hadn’t heard about that.” I turned to Delphie. “When did that happen?”
“She shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable. “Sunday.”
“Huh.” I shook my head. “That’s…I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault.”
“Yeah, but…she was always so nice to me.” I smiled. “I remember she used to steal meatbuns for us.”
The tiniest hint of a smile flitted across the brunette’s face. “Yeah. And Seena kept dropping them because they were too hot. Every single time.”
“She’s the one who introduced me to Glasya,” Jelena put in. “They barely knew each other, but Plague spoke up for me and convinced Glasya to take me in.”
Veda and Yolanda looked confused. “You all…knew the Lady of the Plague? Personally?” The deer kemo asked.
Delphie brushed her hair back a little nervously. “Yeah. She’s…my sister.”
Veda’s phone snapped shut. “Your sister was a warlord and you didn’t even mention it?” she shrieked. “You knew I was looking for a patron!”
Delphie raised an eyebrow. “Veda, you’re a cherve.”
“So? I’d become a mouse for that!”
Pam snorted. “Way to show loyalty, there.”
Veda jabbed her finger in the baseline’s direction angrily. “Don’t give me that.”
The bland girl eyed the finger with narrow eyes. “You touch me, and you’re going to lose that finger.”
The dark-skinned girl continued as if she hadn’t spoken—though she also didn’t press the point and touch her. “The cherves are not a subculture. We’re barely even a quasi-culture. Census reports put our numbers at under a thousand. That’s for the entire city.”
“That’s more than the sibriex,” I pointed out. “Or the Mals.”
“Not what I mean and you know it,” she snapped angrily. “Subcultures are just big gangs. The kemo subcultures are more like cultures unto themselves. There are over ten million kemos in Domina City. That put it in perspective?”
She was way off. Of the two-hundred and forty million or so people in the city who identified as part of a culture, almost sixty million were kemos. The other five cultures were about equal, at forty million or so each. Well, the other four cultures were equal, with the angels skewing the stats quite a bit.
Still, her point was valid. Most kemos were fels, lupes, or ursas, since those were the three founders. The rest had little power, and even if they did have their own cultures and warlords, not everyone joined. There were over ten thousand murids in the city, but only a tiny fraction served under the Lady of the Plague.
“I’m sorry, Veda,” Delphie apologized grumpily. “I didn’t see the need to mention it.”
The cherve huffed. “Well, when your fang-torn sister is a fledgling warlord who needs all the recruits she can get, it’s only expected that you might mention it once or twice.”
“Um, for the record…” my girlfriend said quietly. Once again, she turned red as a tomato when everyone looked at her. “It’s just…I agree with Delphie, that’s all.” She stared into her cup. “I know I don’t always like people knowing my uncle is a senator…I’m sure being a warlord would be worse.”
There was a brief minute of silence. Veda turned away, her mouth firmly shut.
“Thank you, Yolanda,” Delphie said sincerely after a moment. “That is exactly what I was trying to say.”
The blonde demon turned even redder, if that was possible, and took a shaky sip of her hot chocolate.
Pam drummed her nails on the table, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I’m curious…your sister created the murids herself, right?” She waved her hand. “The culture, I mean, not the package.”
Delphie looked suspicious. “Yes. Why?”
“Well, that means this is the first time they’ve lost their warlord.”
“Yes, yes,” the murid snapped. “What’s your point?”
The baseline grinned like a wolf. “Doesn’t that mean you could be the next warlord?”
Huh. I hadn’t thought of that.
I guess it made sense. There wasn’t really any sort of standardized rules for this sort of thing, but it wasn’t uncommon for the title to pass to the next of kin or the next strongest in the culture. Delphie was both, so it was pretty much hers if she wanted it.
The look on the girl’s face, however, made it clear none of this had occurred to her either.
“I-I can’t lead a culture!” She stood up and started circling the table, staring at the ground. “Ratko would never accept it, and then the Arrnet twins would back him…”
When she came within reach a third time, Pam pulled her back down into her seat. “Calm down. Let’s start slow. How many murids officially followed your sister?”
“One hundred and ninety, as of last month’s census.”
Pam nodded. “Census, good. That means someone is organizing things. Your sister’s right hand, so to speak. Who is that?”
“Chuot. But he’s not…he wouldn’t follow me…”
The bland little baseline grabbed her friend by the chin, forcing her to look her in the eyes. “Then make him.”
“Pam, please,” Jelena said plaintively. “There are about a billion things wrong with what you’re saying, starting with the fact that Delphie doesn’t know if she wants to do this. Being a warlord is a massive responsibility.”
“What’s there to discuss?” Pam asked. She seemed genuinely bewildered. “There are a hundred and ninety mice scrambling to figure out what to do, and she can tell them. I don’t see how there’s even a question.”
“Why the hell do you even care?” the mouse in question snapped. “You’re usually all about Darwinism and the strong devouring the weak and all that.”
If Delphie expected that to pierce the baseline’s armor, she was in for a disappointment. “And if you take over the culture, you’ll either devour or BE devoured. There’s no contradiction.”
“Well, I don’t feel like doing either.”
“Apathy is death.”
“Says the baseline who punched a Necessarian recruiter.”
Pam narrowed her eyes. “You did not just imply that the only worthwhile organizations are the cultures and the ‘sarians.”
The murid didn’t back down, which made me wince. She had to know this was a bad subject. I guess she was still upset about her sister. “What else is there? All the old gangs are dead. Well, except the Rahabs, but that’s a Dagonite problem.”
Veda pulled out her phone again, muttering something about how that was why the Rahabs had survived this long.
Pam didn’t seem to notice. “Most corporations aren’t owned by cultures.” She indicated Yolanda. “McDowell Guns is operated by an ursa, and doesn’t discriminate. BOB is still owned by Robert Bailey, and as I understand, he won’t hire people who are officially a part of a culture. And then there’s government work.”
Delphie spat on the ground. I couldn’t tell if she was making a point or if she disliked her coffee. “That’s all crap. The corporations and government don’t have any real power—push comes to shove, they call for a friendly culture or Necessarius.”
“You both make great points,” I interjected in the friendliest manner possible. “But why don’t we calm down and—”
“Shove off, Simon,” Pam growled without taking her eyes off her verbal opponent. “The sheltered little ojou wants a lesson in the real world, I’m happy to give it to her.”
“Sheltered?” Delphie said with false calm. Her voice might be steady, but her eyes were on fire. “I’m in this stupid city because my parents got caught robbing banks. My sister earned our fortune by killing anyone who stood in her way.”
The only baseline at our table didn’t back down. “You said before that your parents were both born rich, and they were robbing banks because they were bored. And killing anyone who stands in your way isn’t that impressive if no one stands in your way.”
Delphie stood up suddenly, sending her chair clattering back, and slammed her hands against the table. The other patrons at the cafe stared and started edging away, but the girls didn’t pay them any mind. I pulled Yolanda close, but otherwise didn’t move. I wanted to be close enough to stop the girls if they came to blows.
“Shu Zhu killed nearly three hundred people before my sister stopped him,” she said quietly, dangerously. “He was picking off murids, specifically, because they didn’t have any protection. My sister cut through his army by herself to save the hostages.”
Pam gave her a dull look. “One sociopath and his drinking buddies hardly counts as an army.”
“Butler himself couldn’t defeat—”
“One green, understaffed company does not represent the full might of Necessarius.”
“Girls, please calm down…”
Suddenly, Pam whipped out her pistol and pointed it at Delphie’s head.
Now the rest of us, including the rest of the customers, scooted back hastily. Pam was the only one armed, and none of us had any buffs that would even the playing field. Even a maintenance worker in the background, installing speakers in the corner, got off his ladder and took cover.
Again, the girls didn’t seem to notice. In fact, they both had calm, almost serene looks on their faces. It was disturbing as hell.
“Call them off,” Pam ordered in a level voice.
Delphie didn’t flinch, but she did allow a razor-thin smile to spread across her face. “Lower your gun.”
“You started this, you first. Call off your mice.”
Mice? What was she talking about?
Then I spotted something moving around her ankles, and it made sense.
While they were arguing, Delphie had used her pheromones to summon a small swarm of mice—half a dozen or so, it seemed—and prepare them to attack. Pam seemed to have noticed earlier than intended. It wasn’t quite a Mexican standoff, since the gun would kill far faster than the mice, but Delphie could at least ensure she didn’t die alone.
“All right, this has gone too far.” I turned to see the speaker, a tall black-furred kemo with the ‘sarian black and red band tied around his arm, pointing a shotgun at Pam. “Peacekeepers. Weapons down, everyone.”
The baseline ignored his order and narrowed her eyes. “Not until she calls off the vermin.”
I heard the sound of a safety clicking off, and saw the Peacekeeper’s partner, another kemo of undetermined culture (something with fluffy ears), pointing a revolver at Delphie. “Sounds fair to me.”
“Tch,” Delphie muttered. “Few minutes too late, boys.” But I heard a quiet puff of air, like when someone blows on a dog whistle, and the mice clustered around Pam’s feet withdrew. She holstered her pistol a moment later.
As Delphie sat down, Pam remained standing, glaring at the lawman with the shotgun. “We under arrest?”
“Not unless you want to be,” he replied, not lowering his weapon an inch.
“Good,” the baseline grunted, dropping back into her own chair. “Then shove off. We’re busy.”
Thankfully, the ‘sarians chose not to make anything of the comment, holstering their weapons and withdrawing. The rest of the patrons, including me, Yolanda, and Veda, slowly returned to their seats.
“Get us some shots,” Delphie called to the terrified waitress. “Some shots for a toast. In memory of my sister, warlord of the murids.”
“And you,” Pam added. “In honor of you, the next Alpha.”
Delphie glared at her for a moment…then turned back to the waitress.
“Fur and fang, why not. Two rounds.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 136)
Yes, those demographic numbers are correct. Remember that Domina is a circle with a diameter of a hundred miles. It’s BIG.