“Are you all right?” Saila asks, straightening up again. She’s got a cut on her face, probably from the door exploding, or maybe the stairs being shattered, but she looks otherwise unharmed. Really, she just looks worried.
“You saved my life,” he says, mentally working through the past few minutes. “You really, really saved my life.”
“They’re cute,” Saila says by way of an answer, nodding, until suddenly she’s shaking her head, all of her hair swaying behind her, “and then they’re not.”
“There too,” Bastion says, shaking his own hair out and relishing the spring breeze on his face. He can feel the spots in his uniform where he’s sweated straight through it in fear. “But on the stairs, you could have left me, but you didn’t.”
“I could never,” she says, and the candle-flame of her eyes, gone pale in the morning sun, flutters like a votive at a shrine.
“You could have,” he corrects, brushing off the dust and wood splinters from his uniform as best he can, “but you didn’t. Thank you.”
“I’m sorry about your legs,” she says, turning her face down and away. She’s gone shy suddenly, has her hands knotted in her serpent-bloodied skirts.
“They can be fixed,” he says, and jumps as the door rattles. “Let’s-“
“Yes,” she agrees, “let’s not linger,” and snatches up the round ball of bird she somehow managed to keep ahold of through all that. Bastion feels rather like he’s learning a lot of lessons today, and that he’s lucky to come away from all of them so unscathed.
He follows Saila slowly, testing out how his legs work mangled as they are. There’s a rigidity to his walk now, a certain stiffness. He can’t find it in him to complain given the circumstances.
They pause on the other side of the street, which is a sheer drop overlooking a pitiable, sandy patch of dirt that might have been a flower garden, if there were any flowers in it, or plants.
Their distance seems to make them less attractive to the King: Saila’s door rattles less and less, then not at all.
“So now what?” Saila asks, frowning in concentration. She’s unwinding the knot tied to keep the halves of the wicker ball together.
“I need to call a guard perimeter up,” Bastion says, looking about. “To make sure nobody accidentally stumbles across the King locked up in there.”
“He can’t get out,” Saila says firmly, and Bastion thinks of a golden key for a golden lock, one made by a god so long ago his parents probably weren’t even alive, whoever they were.
“Even so,” Bastion insists, looking down at his legs, at all the red exposed metal and twisted bits. “It’s procedure. At least somebody can keep watch and see if he goes back down under. And I’ll need to get my legs repaired… Can’t really get reinforcements like this.” It’s a good thing the door had held, he realizes. He’d have had no way to keep Saila and himself safe after all, not with how his stilts have been shredded.
“We can’t use my telephone in the shop, of course, but there’s another call box down by the docks,” Saila says. The ball springs open in her hands. “We can do it from there.”
“Thanks,” Bastion says agreeably, and leans down to inspect the animal that’s been revealed. Saila was cautious and sensible enough about the King; he trusts her judgement with whatever this is, too.
Saila turns it this way and that; the bird huddles in a little yellow and green bundle, heaving up and down in bodily terror.
“Poor fellow,” Bastion comments. “It was bad enough to go through that at our size. Imagine how it must have been for him.”
“Maybe it’s a girl,” Saila says snippily. “Do you think she’s hurt?”
He spends about half a second thinking about pushing back, but then he thinks about her screaming in the face of the King for him, her hands pulling desperately at his, and he shrugs. He thinks he likes this better anyway. The eager-to-please nervous merchant bit isn’t to his taste.
“Probably just terrified,” he says hopefully.
“Free,” the bird whispers tentatively.
“What kind of merchant gives things away for free?” Saila says with scorn.
“Free,” the bird insists.
“It’s cute,” Bastion muses. “Hopefully it won’t eat us.”
“FREE!” the bird yells, fluttering up, and promptly lands with a disappointing flutter on the cobblestones below.
“Oh, her wings are clipped, poor girl,” Saila comments, crouching down to rescue the bird. It promptly bites her. “Ow!”
“What kind of bird is this?” Bastion asks. “Wait- wait, so this isn’t your bird.” He’d been right in assuming the killer dropped it. Hm. He’s still got good instincts after all.
“Nope,” she replies, trying to capture the bird back into its ball with a grumpy scowl on her face and a finger held spitefully aloft. The animal runs to Bastion and flutters pathetically at his feet, trying to leap up and catch purchase on his legs. The metal is too slippery, though, and it keeps falling off. “Whoever killed Wilhelm probably dropped him.”
“Wait, why is he a boy suddenly?”
“Because he’s rude,” Saila says, and manages to secure the bird safely into its ball again. It immediately starts squawking violently. Its tiny hooked beak stabs out, clearly trying to nip at Saila’s fingers again. Bastion holds his hands out for the wicker ball. She hands it over carefully, making an alarmed gesture as she does.
“That’s sexist,” he insists, and opens the ball. The bird stops yelling and hops out onto his arm. Much to his relief, it does not bite him.
“Sorry,” Saila replies brassily. She puts her hands on her hips and tips her head. “All right, that’s not why. He bit me when I called him a girl, so I assume he’s a boy.”
“Reduced,” the bird comments.
They spend a quiet moment looking at the bird. It starts working its way up Bastion’s uniform until it’s firmly perched on one of his epaulets, then leans down and nibbles experimentally on one of the braids.
“Let’s make that call to the eyrie,” Bastion says, tossing Saila the wicker ball. “And then follow a lead.”
“What lead?” she asks.
“This guy,” Bastion tells her, starting to walk toward the docks. He gestures at the bird, who is happily trying to pull out the stitching of the braids. “Neither of us know what it is, so he’s rare. Time to visit the Ivory Spires and squeeze the academics until they give out a little drop of knowledge.”
“I think I’ve had enough adventure for one day,” Saila protests, but she takes off at a fast trot after him.
“Oh, right, of course. Are you about to go take a nap in your house?” Bastion asks. “Lie down and sleep a little?”
The King takes this moment to scream again. It sounds frustrated.
“Ugh,” Saila grumps, pulling her head down into her shawl until she looks like a miffed turtle. “I suppose I will need to book a work order with the Spire to get the glass locks replaced.”
“Is that how it’s done?” Bastion muses, slowing down a little so she doesn’t have to work so hard to keep up. The day is crisp but warming slightly. As they approach the docks, he can catch the briny scent of the Southern Sister. And, when he turns and looks back at the city, he can see smoke and steam starting to rise, birds and winged snakes starting to fly, and here and there little creeping movements on buildings, across roofs, along cables and bridges. Those are probably postal mice driving to and fro in their miniature vehicles, starting the morning rounds. “We usually just send our needs directly to the Foundry.”
“The privilege of power,” Saila says, sighing. “We common plebes need to submit our work requests the long-winded way, O great captain of the guard.”
“Tell you what,” Bastion says, stretching and feeling the last finger of fear lift from his back, “how about the captain of the guard treats for breakfast.” His legs are clicking oddly as he walks and he’s got a funny jittery stalk to him streetside that he doesn’t have when he’s bounding roof-to-roof, but he’s alive, and right now, that’s more than enough to bring him cheer.
Saila goes quiet at his side. When he looks over, she’s looking at him speculatively. That narrow, sharp glint is back in her eyes, and he finds that he likes it, likes the abrupt fluctuations in her features, from sweet to feral and back again. He’s never met anybody like that before, somebody who approaches every situation with whole-hearted intensity. It reminds him a little of the Cat King they just saw, the way it changes and flexes to seethe over everything in its way.
“Thanks,” she says simply, and he shrugs.
Candle-flame eyes or not, a member of the Leaping Guard knows to treat comrades with warmth.
“I’m sorry about your serpent friend,” he tells her, thumbing through his inventory. Hopefully the cost of the call isn’t too high. He doesn’t usually carry many crowns on him- unlike many of his fellow guards, he prefers to eat at the mess morning noon and night. “I promise you we’ll figure it out, and find your wheel too.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” she says, working her fingers through her long hair. She doesn’t sound mad, just chiding.
“You’re a wealth of good advice,” he says, instead of promising her again.
“I’ve lived a few years,” Saila says evasively, but she smiles at him a little, and the edges of her eyes crinkle just the slightest.
Bastion smiles back at her.