“This is my nephew, Leon,” I explained, patting the small boy sitting next to me on the head. “Say hello, Leon.”
“Hello,” he muttered. He was ten years old, and actually looked it, unlike a lot of kids these days. He also looked baseline, but as the son of the murid warlord, I doubted that was completely true. I had never seen his toy receipt, but then my sister had always been quite secretive.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” Yolanda said gently, while leaning against Simon’s arm. “I know it’s hard.”
He shrugged noncommittally.
I frowned, but didn’t say anything. It had been just a little over a week since his mother died. I could let him be anti-social for a while longer.
“Is your dad still around?” Eric, the green-haired baseline we had saved from the iron-lord gargant, pressed. “Do you have anywhere to go?”
Leon shook his head again.
“His dad died a while back,” I explained apologetically. “He’s staying at the domain for now.”
Eric nodded in sympathy. “Yeah, that’s rough.”
This guy was getting a little too close. I barely even knew him; Seena and Jelena had gotten some seaweed rum from his Dagonite roommate, and then Seena started inviting him places. Maybe she was trying to get in his pants or something; damned if I knew what that vampire was thinking. She had been acting weirder than normal since around when the Composer was captured.
Speaking of Seena, she elbowed her friend in the ribs half-heartedly. “Don’t be mean.”
Green-hair seemed genuinely confused. “How was that mean?”
“You’re mocking him!”
“What!? How is that mocking?”
“Both your parents are alive.”
Everybody started a little at that. It was pretty rare to see anyone like that. I think the only person our age I knew with two living parents was…
Oh, Derek’s friend Robyn. Doctor Isaac Clarke’s daughter. Living under the wing of Artemis Butler increased your life expectancy significantly.
Eric, for his part, had the good grace to look embarrassed. At least he knew better than to complain how annoying his parents were while surrounded by orphans.
He shifted in his seat. “My parents are close advisers to Arthur Curry. So…you know…they’re pretty well protected.”
Leon looked confused, and I couldn’t blame him. That name didn’t sound familiar…
“Wait,” Jelena said after a minute of silence. “You’re a Dagonite?”
Veda cocked her head quizzically at the Glasyan vampire. “We weren’t supposed to know? His roommate’s one, I thought it was obvious.”
“He does use Dagonite curses,” Pam pointed out.
Eric shook his head. “Salt and spear—” Then he stopped when he realized what he was saying. “Ah…I mean…God dammit.” He shook his head again. “I spent three years unlearning Dagonite curses, and then by pure dumb luck, I ended up with Conway as my roommate.”
Eric seemed surprised Leon had finally said something, but shrugged and answered. “Whoever was in charge of room assignments probably did it on purpose. It’s usually a good idea to put people of the same culture together. Keeps fights to a minimum.”
“No, I mean why try to unlearn Dagonite curses?” The little murid twiddled his thumbs. “I mean…people go to a lot of trouble to learn them in the first place.”
Eric smiled a little sadly. “People…do not always stay with their culture.”
Jelena nodded. “My culture gets a lot of requests to quietly remove toys. It’s more common than you’d think.”
That caught my attention a little. I turned back to Eric. “So you’re an actual ex-Dagonite?” I had assumed his buffs were just internal, like mine.
“Well, yes, except I was never a Dagonite in the first place.”
Simon’s eyes widened. “A Rahab?”
Eric scowled. “No! Why does everyone always assume that?” He waved his hand impatiently. “Enough about me! Someone else talk.”
There was a pretty long pause.
“Steve is getting out of the hospital soon,” Simon noted.
That surprised everyone, but Pam got the words out first. “He is? When did he wake up?”
“A few days ago.”
The plain little baseline leaned forward eagerly. “Did he get a good look at his attacker? The one who killed Kevin?”
Simon shook his head sadly. “He went down in one hit, apparently. Never knew what was happening.”
Yolanda, of all people, gave her boyfriend a quizzical look. “Didn’t he get hit in the face? How could he not see anything?”
“Well, he saw the bat they hit him with, and that’s about it.”
Pam leaned back in her chair, almost bumping into the table behind her. The people there glared at her, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m still mad about that. Kevin was fun. Steve is just boring. Why couldn’t it have been the other way around?”
Seena pushed her in the arm, nearly toppling the baseline. “Don’t say stuff like that. How would you feel if you survived, and someone said that about you?”
“I wouldn’t care. I know I’m boring.”
Her midnight-skinned roommate sighed. “Not what I meant.”
Simon shrugged. “Besides, Steve is more interesting anyway.”
Yolanda took her head off his shoulder long enough to punch him in the side.
His sister nodded. “Thanks, Yolanda. And she’s right. Don’t be a dick.”
Our dirty red-haired baseline, however, seemed to take the question more seriously. “Steve’s just an errand boy. Watching Kevin play around was a lot more fun.”
The sibriex rubbed his side, eying his girlfriend warily before turning his attention back to Pam. “I considered him a friend, and he was a good roommate, but I wouldn’t call him fun.”
“I just thought it was hilarious,” she insisted. “Watching his ham-handed attempts at espionage.”
Simon blinked. “Wait, what?”
“He was a passer. A spy for the Jotuun. Didn’t you know?”
“What?” Everyone shouted at once.
“No, that’s impossible,” I insisted. Fur and fang, I had liked him. “Even ignoring the fact that he was like four feet tall—”
She snorted derisively. “You don’t really expect a Jotuun passer to have the Bigger package, do you?”
“—there’s no way he could be a giant. I met friends from his old orphanage. It was deep in orc territory, so if he’s a passer for anyone—”
“Faked,” Pam said in a bored tone while examining her nails. “Rather amateurishly, too. They paid off a couple kids to pretend to know him. It’s much easier to just say the old orphanage burned down and everyone died.”
I rubbed my forehead. “No. Just…no way. He’s definitely an ex-demon. He knows way too much about their cultures to just be a random—”
“He’s a spy. Of course he knows a lot about the other cultures. Also, he doesn’t use demon curses, which isn’t very suspicious on its own, I’ll admit—”
Jelena perked up. “Oh, right! Back at that thing with the iron lord gargant, he used Jotuun curses. I thought it was weird.”
Pam rolled her eyes. “Not as weird as knowing the location of a secret Nif outpost. that’s what confirmed it for me.”
“WHY—” Simon took a deep breath to calm down. “Why didn’t you mention any of this?”
The baseline shrugged. “Like I said, I thought you knew. Besides, it’s not like it really mattered. Most of the stuff he would be searching for you told him.”
“Like the monster guarding the sibriex servers.”
I blinked. “Wait, I didn’t hear about this.”
Zusa finally spoke up. “Yeah, me neither.”
That’s it. Nothing more. She had been acting odd recently; normally she would chatter on for an hour while everyone else tried to get a word in edgewise. But ever since a week or so before school started, she had been really weird.
No one else seemed to think it was odd, though.
Simon waved his hand. “That was…I mean…”
“What ever happened with that, anyway?” Pam asked. “I don’t think you ever said.”
“Zusa and I still don’t know what it is.”
Simon ignored me. “Well, I never did manage to get in touch with MC, and once the Composer outed herself, it kind of became moot.”
“Oh, Aramazd was going to actually talk to her?” A warm and gentle voice said from behind me. “That’s really sweet.”
We all turned to the source, standing just a foot behind me. She was a tall, pale-skinned woman with boyishly short black hair and a flat chest. She wore an elegant dress—a stunning black gown with a wide skirt, no sleeves, and black silk gloves that stretched to her elbows. The entire outfit sparkled with a few conservatively-placed white gemstones, which twinkled like stars.
While we were all caught off guard by the sudden appearance of a beautiful woman with a dazzling smile, I managed to recover first. “What?”
Okay, maybe ‘recover’ is a strong word.
The woman…or girl? Her age was a bit hard to place. She raised a hand to her mouth and giggled. “Sorry. It’s just that Aramazd has always been so paranoid. The fact that he’s willing to put his own fears behind his desire to protect the city is really heartwarming.”
No one seemed to know how to respond to that.
Pam had an idea, at least. She pointed her gun at the woman’s heart. “Who are you?”
“And how do you know anything about Aramazd?” Simon added. “I never told anyone his name.”
The girl backed up a step, but she seemed more appalled at her lack of manners than the gun. “Oh! I’m so sorry. I forgot to introduce myself.” She shook her head and sighed. “My sisters and I went to all this trouble to set this up, and I fumbled it.”
I looked around, not seeing anyone other than a hundred or so people watching on the street, who seemed about as bewildered as those of us actually sitting at the cafe, listening to the woman talk.
Oh, and I saw my stupid nephew leering at her. I needed to have a talk with him, but now was not the time.
“Just talk,” Pam ordered, her gun not quavering in the slightest. There was, however, a confused frown on her face. “I know you from somewhere…”
The black-dressed woman grinned broadly. “Both of my sisters are setting up in other spots in the city.” The smile faded. “Unfortunately, my stupid cousins are probably doing the same…”
Simon stood up, pulling Yolanda with him, and started backing away. “I don’t know who you are and I don’t care. Everyone, we need to go.”
Everyone else seemed to agree, and rose to follow. Many of the other customers followed suit, walking off in every direction. Even the maintenance man installing a speaker on the corner seemed inclined to finish his business and leave as fast as possible. I grabbed Leon and dragged him behind me. I glanced back at the woman…
Only to see Pam, still sitting there with her gun pointed at her.
“I know you…”
Again, the woman didn’t seem very concerned about the gun. She seemed more upset that she was losing her audience.
“Don’t go!” she cried. “It’s not time yet!”
I scoffed. Whatever. Just some attention whore in a nice dress.
Since I wasn’t looking where I was going, I ran smack into a gargant.
I scrambled back from the beast and got a better look. It was a flesh-eater gargant, one of a trio blocking the street to keep us from passing. The beasts weren’t particularly large—more like really big dogs—but they were exceedingly dangerous. They had shark-like maws with countless razor-edged teeth, ready to tear through muscle and bone like tissue paper.
A properly buffed individual has nothing to fear from a flesh-eater. It doesn’t take more than a couple skin enhancement buffs to make their teeth more annoying than harmful, and while they were fast, they would go down in a few good hits.
None of the people here had those kind of buffs. Oh, maybe there were a few with the strength and reflex toys necessary to fight, but the lesser skin enhancements can be identified at a glance, and of the hundred or more people trapped between the gargants (there was another trio at the other end of the street), it was obvious no one had anything useful.
The gargants growled at us, forcing us to back away, but didn’t attack.
We—almost everyone at once—turned to the woman in the black dress, still standing at the cafe, ignoring the gun with a huge smile on her face.
She curtsied, first at my group, then at those on trapped at the other end of the street. “My name is Maeve,” she said cheerfully. “Princess of Wind and Frost, Maiden of the Unseelie fey.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 142)
Eric’s explanation of people learning new verbal tics is actually something that happens in real life, albeit more rarely. It takes a lot of effort, but you can change your own curses and catch phrases. Most people just don’t care enough to do so. It’s like unlearning an accent, really.
Extra update Wednesday. Not because this one (or the next one) is short; they just work much, much better closer together.