I was beginning to like this place after all. Just when I’m feeling all depressed and out of place, what happens? Three random guys try to mug us. Quick, easy, and fun. Didn’t even have to use my power.
Other than the subtly disturbing lack of anyone other than baselines on the street, the only real problem I had with New York versus Domina was the conspicuous absence of gunfire, echoing in the background from distant parts of the city. They had the car horns and the sirens and so on and so forth, same as back home, but that constant boom of firefights was missing.
Oh well. I could survive for a week or so without running out and destroying a ghoul outpost or raiding a Nessian slave caravan or whatever. Back home, the ‘sarians would be able to handle all that just fine now that Elizabeth was locked up and all her Blackguards were dead. It was their job, after all, and they got a little miffed when I horned in on their territory.
One side effect of the fight in the alley was that I got splashed with a little blood from the big guy, probably when I smashed his face in with my knee. I didn’t see it as a real problem, but Laura had a point when she said it would make us stand out too much.
So we went to a clothing store.
I’ve always had… mixed feelings about clothes. On the one hand, there was my father’s purely practical approach to it all, saying you shouldn’t waste money on some weird designer brand that was the exact same thing as all the others, but it cost ten times as much. On the surface, I agreed with him completely. With a few minor exceptions like my ribbon and my beads, I’ve always tried to be as practical as possible.
The problem was that my mother also agreed that cheaper clothes were better. So I kind of wanted to buy expensive stuff just to spite her.
As the homeless man had promised, McMullen’s was easy to find once we stepped out the other side of the short alley. It was a wide, two-story affair that felt gigantic to me, but might have been perfectly normal here. It took about four seconds to find a replacement shirt, but we decided to stay and shop for more, just because Laura and Robyn wanted to.
“Ooh!” Derek said, pulling swim trunks off the rack. “Seventy five percent off? Score.”
Okay, maybe Derek and I were a little interested too.
“When’s the last time you went swimming?” I asked him skeptically. “On purpose?”
He grinned. “You’re remembering that gargant Lori called us to deal with, too?” He nodded. “Yeah, it’s been a while. Probably because my only swimsuit is from when I was ten.”
I glanced at a bikini—which I would never be caught dead in—before moving on to the more tasteful one-pieces. “Maybe we can visit her again. When it’s not so cold.”
Suddenly, Robyn was at my side. “No no, go for the bikini! Come on, you’re got a body like a steel whip, you can at least show off a little!”
I shrugged her off, but she wouldn’t be dissuaded so easily. “Come off it.”
She sidled closer mischievously. “You can show off for Derek…”
I was careful not to look at him; he seemed to be doing the same. “No, thank you.”
“Oh! Or that Flynn guy! He seems nice enough, right?”
This time, I couldn’t hide my blush. “T-that’s not—”
“He helped at the thing last night, right?” Her smile slipped for a split second, but it was back up so fast I wasn’t sure I hadn’t imagined it. “I mean… I missed a lot of the fight, but I know he was at NHQ after.”
“Yes, he…” I coughed to cover my embarrassment, and tried to shift the conversation back onto more familiar ground. “Yes, he was. He helped us hold the line against the fey monsters, and even finished Brannigan—I think you were unconscious for that part.”
Robyn’s smile was briefly more genuine. “That’s a polite way of saying asleep in my own puke. But yeah, I heard something about all that. He’s gonna be all right, right?”
I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could, considering. “Clarke—your dad said so. His injuries were pretty bad, but unlike Adam, at least he can get stuffed into the box and be good as new in a few hours.”
Laura sidled up from wherever she had been hiding. “He was actually out by the time we left, though he was sleeping everything off.” She frowned at me. “I’m not sure why you didn’t know that. Didn’t someone tell you?”
I shook my head.
“Huh.” She checked a swimsuit, frowned at the design, and put it back. “Weird. Well, it was a hectic night for everyone. Probably just slipped everyone’s minds.”
“Kelly and the others will keep him safe,” Derek promised me. “He’s done his part for Necessarius and the city. They’re not gonna let him die.”
Robyn frowned. “I’ve been meaning to ask—what is up with that woman, anyway? She’s an ex-Belian, and she still has all her chem glands? Judging by the fixer, I mean. My dad could have removed those for her.”
“Lots of Belians choose to keep their glands when they leave the culture,” Laura pointed out from somewhere behind me. I turned to see her comparing socks. “They just keep the fixer so that in a pinch, they can pull it off.”
“Pull it off… and what? Wait twenty-four hours for the fixer to finish cycling through their systems, and then they turn into drugged-up zombies?”
“It’s more like two or three hours, but yes, basically.” The Spanish girl shrugged. “It might sound stupid, but it works. You ever fought a Belian sclav?” She looked up with a frown, as though suddenly remembering who she was talking to. “No, of course you haven’t. But they’re a nightmare. Strong as an ox, fast as a snake, and they feel no pain.”
Our red-headed little flier was unconvinced. “But what about all their behavioral conditioning? Doesn’t that get heightened by the drugs, or whatever? I’ve heard stories about freed sclavi running straight back to Phlegethos.”
But Laura shook her head. “The Big Boss is smarter than that. The conditioning fades over time, and he has psychiatrists to speed the process along. By the time they’re back in the field, they don’t have to worry about any of that, or about getting suborned by the first Belian warlord who issues them an order.”
“Well, that’s good, I guess, but I still don’t like it. Anybody who was willing to ruin their body with chems once will do it again.”
I closed my eyes. I knew what was coming.
Derek sighed. “Robyn, please, don’t make me do the rant again…”
She glared at him. “What? I’m supposed to feel bad for some jackasses who decided to shoot up a bunch of combat stims?”
“They were forced into it, Robyn…”
“Forced by what? Nobody makes them pop a handful of Buffout or plug a Jet breather. I know that for a fact—the Belians go trawling for junkies, they don’t make the chem-heads themselves.”
“Please stop parroting Kongeegen talking points, okay? Ignoring for a moment that the hags have been known to kidnap random people and physically force drugs on them, that’s not what I mean.” He shifted his weight, settling in for a long argument. “When someone has no option but drugs—”
“Stop it, both of you,” Laura said curtly as she came back, some black jeans draped over her arm. “This isn’t the time or the place.”
That’s when the rest of us noticed that the clerk was close enough to overhear our conversations. Not too big a deal, but still, better safe than sorry.
Maybe it would best to take his mind off what we had just been talking about. I sidled up to him, smiling as best I could, and managed to get a question out. “Boots?”
He seemed to understand that this was hard for me, and just nodded politely before gesturing. “Over here, miss. The sizes are underneath the displays.”
It didn’t take more than a minute to realize their selection was limited to hiking boots and some decidedly impractical high-heeled leather thing that seemed to be pretending to be something anyone would wear, ever.
I tugged on the clerk’s shirt to get his attention as he walked away. “Combat boots.” I pulled up my jeans to show him the ones I was wearing: Thick black leather with steel toes, and an ankle low enough so that I could retain most of my footwork. Gunners preferred high-top boots, since they valued stability and protection over agility, but swordsmen didn’t have that luxury.
He shook his head apologetically. “Sorry, that’s all we have. We don’t carry service boots—or combat boots, if that’s what you call them.”
I stared at him. Don’t carry combat boots? I thought this was a general clothing store, not some rich specialist place.
But snapping at him wouldn’t do any good. “Shirts.” I plucked at the wrist of the long-sleeve shirt I had already bought (and put on) to replace my bloodstained one. “With pockets.”
He bit his lip, confused for a moment, before nodding. “Right, okay, right over here.”
He led me to another rack, near the changing rooms, with a bunch of long-sleeved shirts with breast pockets. A brief rummage was enough to tell me they weren’t what I was looking for.
I shook my head at the clerk, and plucked at my sleeve again. “Sleeve pockets.”
He was clearly trying as hard as he could not to look at me like I was crazy. “Uh… miss, we don’t have any shirts with… pockets in the sleeves. I honestly don’t know what you would use them for.”
I stomped back over to Laura. “We need to go somewhere else.”
She arched an eyebrow at me. “Okay. Why?”
“This store is a joke. No combat wear, nothing with sleeve pockets.”
The Spanish girl blinked in surprise before sighing. “Right, of course. You want something you can use to hide your knives.” She shook her head. “You’re not going to find that here.”
“I know. But we can find another store—”
“No, Akane, we can’t.” She placed the bras in her hands back on the rack, giving up on finding anything reasonable that would fit her. “They don’t have that kind of thing here. At all. I told you about this, on the plane. Why do you think we had to leave our weapons behind?”
But… “Nothing? At all?”
“You can probably find combat boots and a leather jacket somewhere, but that’s it. The only armor they’re gonna sell to civilians are bulky bullet-proof vests, the kind kids wear. Nothing more specialized, and definitely nothing to help conceal weapons.”
The look in her eyes made it clear that this wasn’t a joke—not that she was known for kidding around anyway. In this entire city, I wasn’t going to be able to find any decent clothes to wear.
Okay, maybe this place wasn’t so great after all.
Behind the Scenes (scene 214)
I’m a little worried there’s too much emphasis on the minor differences between Domina and New York here, but I still wanted to put them in at some point. This isn’t the last scene with this sort of thing, but it’s the worst of them.
Also, “sclav” is simply Romanian for “slave,” with sclavi being plural.