The City of the Two Kings is a central trade hub because of its advantageous position: an island between two raging rivers going in opposite directions.
The Northern Sister is cold and ruthless. She carries in her dark arms sea serpent war parties with their expansive death-sails and krakens with their endlessly coiling hunger. Her dark sapphire waters clutch jealously at anything that falls into her grasp: jewels and artifacts, money, weapons. People, if they approach her too casually. Treasure hunters aren’t uncommon on her side of the river. Ones that last more than a year are. It isn’t just that she’s swift, and it isn’t just that she’s cold. She has a penchant for strange fogs and churning whirlpools, storms that resolve into brutal lances of lightning and hail that can easily shred even the metal decks of ice-breaker boats. She has a soft spot for the helpless, though: fat and slow merchant ships seem to pass through her as gently as if she’s personally pushing them along with a delicate fingertip.
The Southern Sister is more languid but no less treacherous, and bears in her warm belly an army of abundance: seaweed and algae and stranger fish than any land-walker knows. Her rich bloody-red waters hide too many mysteries to count, and though she’s a more comfortable swim, any man knows that something terrible-mouthed and broad-eyed could come rearing out of her muddy shallows at a moment’s notice for their youngest child. Still, the constant churn of her silty depths brings fear and fortune in equal measure: when her Northern sister grows tired of trinkets, they often surface in the mud of her warmer sister. There are a fair number of households that have gone from clam digging to finery inside of a week because of the sisterly tendency they have for hand-me-downs.
Kept fattened by the fertile red waters of the Southern Sister and kept rich by the swift blue trade channel of the Northern Sister, the city, then, is the sisters’ sweetly pampered child brother. Through the years, the city has come to specialize in countless magically-imbued trades, from woodworking to weaving to spinning, but none is more famous than the Cat King Glass Foundries, located at the very southernmost tip of the city.
Magical glass is ubiquitous in the city, employed in everything from keeping food cold to keeping houses locked. Smaller pieces, bits and bobs, are used for pettier things, but larger, grander pieces with larger, grander intentions are made too. Once finished, magical glass, like any other magically-imbued work, cannot be cut nor amended nor torn nor melted.
It can’t be burned. It can’t be broken. It certainly can’t be shattered.
Bastion stares at the shattered panel of glass set into the wall.
“Huh,” he comments. He shuts his eyes, then opens them and looks again.
“It was the lock panel,” Saila explains, unnecessarily in Bastion’s opinion, because who cares what it was for if it’s done for now?
“I’ve never seen this before,” he admits, scratching at his goatee. “I don’t actually know what could do this. I need some more details,” he muses, and when there’s only silence in response he works to keep from sighing. Right. She’s a civilian, not a member of the guard. She won’t respond to a prompt like that. “Please give me…. More details.”
Kings eat him this is awkward.
Saila shuffles her feet, the soles of her boots quiet on the gleamingly clean shop floor. “Certainly,” she says, and makes a face like a frog debating if it should eat a bug or not. Suspicious. “Um…. I came back from inspecting a shipment I was sending out and found everything like it is. Or- I mean, I wasn’t- my hands weren’t bloody yet.”
She holds them up, making a distressed face. Bastion eyes the purple coating her hand and realizes-
“The dead party is a serpent.”
“He’s a friend of mine!” She snaps, her eyes going bright as a house fire for a moment. Bastion tenses, but all Saila does is step up to him and clench her dirtied hands at her sides. Her face is set firmly towards the floor. “Wilhelm has been visiting me for a very long time. He doesn’t speak, but he is- he was….” She trails off and looks up at the thick door in front of them both, the one hanging ajar in a spray of broken glass. The sun isn’t penetrating far down those ancient stairs, so all he can see is bare stone, worn, tired wood, and the occasional smear of purple lichen clinging precariously to the walls.
Bastion is starting to find this situation creepier and creepier.
The idea that she’s lured him here to eat and kill occurs to him. He gives Saila a sidelong look. She looks small and inoffensive, but he knows better, in his line of work, than to rely on appearances for assurances of safety.
“He was a companion,” she finishes, lips coming together in a narrow press. Her eyes are tracing the door. She leans forward and pulls it open further. The sun still only hits the first few steps. Bastion realizes, with some dismay, that she has no need for lighting panels. The entire stairwell is black as pitch and will likely stay that way as they go down. Hell, it will probably get darker. “And somebody broke in here and killed him. He was… my only companion,” she says slowly, gracefully, almost as a sleeper would, before whipping her head up to look at Bastion, her expression shocked. She looks surprised, as if she’s just blurted out an epithet.
“Were you lovers?” he asks, and then has the good sense to try to feel ashamed of asking such a brazen question. This, he reminds himself, is exactly why he usually handles larger-scale busts and smuggling arrests, not smaller, more delicate cases. Individual investigations are, wow, not exactly something he seems to have the light touch for.
But to his surprise, Saila only laughs, if a tad hollowly. “No, not at all. I know serpents can take a shape like you or I, but he never actually did in all the years I knew him. Anything else aside, I’m not interested in snakes, you know. I don’t actually know if he considered me a friend. All he would do is surface in the water and gaze at me as I did my business, really. He would bask on the ledge, I think, but not when I was in the room.”
“Right. Sorry. Go on, please. You came in from inspection…” He needs to get Rampart on this. She’ll be able to interview Saila better than him. Certainly she’ll manage it without asking who she’s fucking, gods help him. What he wouldn’t give to be breaking down a door and busting a counterfeit crown ring about now. He should have just left that dispatch agent to her devices. Her corrupt, lazy devices. Her corrupt, irritating, undisciplined—
“I saw the glass everywhere and of course rushed down.”
“Was the front door locked?” Bastion asks, wheeling to look it over. He has to work to keep his claws from grabbing onto the shop floor; usually he doesn’t bother, but it’s so gleamingly clean that it almost hurts him to imagine scouring it with the metal of his feet. The whole shop is similarly immaculate. Bastion finds himself wondering if Saila does it herself or hires somebody.
“No,” Saila says, shaking her head. “I mean, almost nobody comes over to this part of the city, and anything I’d really not want stolen would be either too big or behind actual locked doors.”
“The upstairs floors are mostly warehouse space and locked, and the next two buildings going north are also mine. I largely trade in large bolts of cloth, unfinished wool, threads, so on. These days, waxed sail cloth is doing very well, but summer is coming, so I’ll probably start getting some silver flax-“
“Great,” Bastion says, cutting her off. “And the upstairs rooms weren’t broken into?”
Saila looks to a shadowed alcove behind the half-counter. Bastion had assumed it was another bookshelf, but he realizes belatedly that it’s probably a set of stairs up.
“You don’t know,” he suggests.
“I didn’t look,” she agrees, “I was so worried about downstairs.” She turns anxiously, clutching at her skirts as she does. She’s left purple handprints on the fabric, and he half wants to suggest she wash her hands, but he also doesn’t want to delay getting the hell out of here any further. The whole shop seems weary as a ghost, and he still can’t really get a firm read on Saila. Most of the time, she seems like any high-strung tradeswoman, but occasionally something peeps through the facade at him like the glittering eyes of an animal hiding in the brush.
It’s making him jumpy, and jumpiness leads to sloppy work, he reminds himself.
“Let’s look at the crime scene first,” he suggests. “Then I’ll go up with you to make sure nobody is lying in wait.”
“Thank you,” Saila says, turning swiftly as if to attack. He looks at her fiercely, but all she does is give him a frightened expression like a smile but with no eyes to it.
He should have left the damn operator alone.
Going down the stairs is exactly as horrible as he imagined it would be, even with the old lantern Saila digs up for him.
Or, correction: it’s worse.
“Are you stuck?” Saila asks with an edge of alarm. Her pupils have narrowed to barely-visible slits; for whatever reason, her lantern is powered by a magical string, one that casts a remarkably hard, blue light. It seems an awfully expensive way to power a light Saila herself doesn’t need, but it’s what she produced for him and he certainly isn’t about to complain. It only gets darker the further down they go, after all.
Bastion, trying to extricate the curved claws of his foot from an especially creaky floorboard, groans.
“Can you hold the lantern down a little lower?” he asks, shimmying his leg and feeling absolutely no give. The floor squeaks like an especially angry bird might. “I don’t want to rip up your floor.”
“It’s an old stairway in need of repair,” Saila says apologetically, taking the lantern from his hand and obediently holding the lantern down low. Bastion squints, but the light is actually too bright: he can’t see anything in such high-contrast illumination. “Don’t worry about it. Give a good heave, I don’t mind if it breaks.”
“All right,” he says dubiously, trying to ignore the embarrassment working up his spine like the tap of a finger. He gives a pull, then another, the wood creaking furiously. He goes nowhere.
“I think I see what’s happening,” Saila says, squinting down. Something about her expression suggests pain. “Do you mind if I- shut off the lantern? Just for a moment.”
“If you have to,” he says. It isn’t as if he’s afraid of the dark. Well, not the dark of the night, anyway. Stars and city lights keep everything fairly visible regardless of the lateness of the hour. But the dark of the underlevel is another thing entirely. Stony and cold, filled with echoes and water and labyrinthine passageways that are completely unmapped, the underlevel is a realm most Leaping Guards steer clear of. They’re largely robbed of their maneuverability underground, as their spring-legs were designed for navigating a city of jutting towers and arching bridges, not narrow, tight underground passages. The stone underfoot is of a different density than that found in the rest of the city, too, and so they can’t even sink their claws in to get a good grip. He’s heard it’s like walking on glass.
Also, Bastion thinks sourly, it’s very easy to get stuck in such close quarters. He’d hate to encounter anything nasty down here.
He gives his foot one more rattle and then nods at the merchant, who has her hand on the switch of the lantern.
The way darkness sweeps up on him feels like he’s been plunged into the Northern Sister. Bastion huffs out a long breath, turning to face the ceiling, and does his best to keep his senses from wandering too much.
Rumor has it you can hear strange things in the underlevel. Rumor has it you can see them too, and if you’re very unlucky, they can see you back. The least worrisome thing about the underlevel is that Rat Kings and Cat Kings live here, and that isn’t cheering in the least: surfaceside, Kings emerging is a big deal. It’s what the Guard was formed to help people with, at least in part.
Anxiety sinks its teeth into the back of Bastion’s neck. He grits his teeth. His eyes are straining to pick out anything at all while his nerves tell him that something unseen, something major, is watching him.
Saila is here, though, and she can see, based on the way she’s shuffling around down at his feet. He doubts a civilian would be any good against anything the underlevel has living in it, but at least she might be able to warn him that something is headed their way. Assuming she has the inclination.
“Do you mind if I um,” Saila says, startling Bastion out of his thoughts, “touch your…. The…. foot? It’s caught on an old bent nail, you see.”
“Go ahead,” he says. “Just be careful not to cut yourself. The claws are sharp.” A moment later he feels her hands, cautious and gentle, on the metal crook of the very tip of his leg. A twist and pull later, Saila is straightening up and turning on the lantern, wincing as she does. Bastion takes it from her and holds it up above her head. He’ll give the underlevel this: there’s more head room for sure.
“I hope that didn’t hurt.” She brushes off her knees, and Bastion tries to crane his neck to make sure she didn’t cut herself on him after all. She just starts walking down the stairs again, turning the corner into the deeper darkness as if nothing has happened.
“Not at all,” he says, somewhat taken aback by her casual approach to the topic. Most civilians are remarkably squeamish about the legs of Leaping Guards. Bastion isn’t certain what the fuss is about, honestly. His metal legs are certainly more effective for their job than the flesh ones he and his fellows gave up. And, though he may be biased, he personally finds the slim elegance of all the swirling metal rods and spurs and springs to be quite lovely. Enough experience has taught him that this opinion is far from universal, though.
They continue down the stairs in silence.
“Your foot looked like a little musical note,” Saila comments, glancing back at him through the gloom. “It’s so small. No wonder you got caught.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that comparison,” he muses, looking down at them himself. His feet occupy about the same space a large man’s thumb might, making finding purchase on rooftops a simple affair. “I’ve heard cricket-legs and saw-springs, but not a musical note.”
“That’s terrible,” Saila says with concise firmness. “But people can be terrible, can’t they?”
“That’s the truth of it,” he agrees quietly, and contemplates the sway and dip of Saila’s hair and veil as they turn the corner and go down further into the earth than Bastion has ever been in his life.