“I suppose that was foolish,” Bastion says, trailing after her in quick little taps like the footsteps of a bird on glass. He has a good-natured tone to his voice as he speaks. Saila turns to look at him over her shoulder and finds that he’s pinked a little at the cheeks, at the fine tips of his ears, though his mouth is level as the rivers. “But I have to maintain the reputation of the Guard. It’s usually frowned upon to swear at civilians.”
“You didn’t swear at me,” Saila tuts. “It’s fine. Mind the bird.”
“Do you mind if I ask something else foolish?” Bastion paces behind her, reaching up. The bird eagerly climbs into his hands from its precarious upside-down swing off one of his epaulets. It does not bite him.
“Depends,” she says, feeling the hairs on the back of her neck rise up. She looks down at the stone rather than risk glancing up and seeing something she doesn’t like. She usually doesn’t like questions with lead-ins along those lines. They’re almost always rude and invasive and, often, cruel, either intentionally or otherwise.
“I know we use Strings for our legs and weapons, but what else do civ- hm, people, normal people, use them for?”
Saila gives a little huff of breath out. She hadn’t realized she’d held it in until just now. Of course Bastion wouldn’t ask her something like that. Of course he wouldn’t.
But that’s dangerous, isn’t it, letting something like faith spark in her? She’d best stomp that ember back down into dimness on the cobblestones with extreme prejudice.
The question, at least on its face, is easy enough to answer though.
“Usually they’re put in place for linked systems, like lighting or the phone lines, but they’re also put into the irrigation gates uptown,” Saila explains, curving her mouth down and trying very hard to emulate the grumpy old psychotoad that lives on the roof garden of her house. She sincerely hopes the King doesn’t go up into her apartments. Or… What if the murderer and thief is still up there and gets eaten? Just desserts. But wait- how would she know that they’d been eaten instead of just escaping? Ugh. It’s like a wasp vanishing in the house: unseen is worse than seen. “Some of the big department stores that have been coming up have put in requests too. I’m still deciding on those.”
“Huh,” Bastion says, sounding impressed. There’s a suspicious lump in his sash now. As if on cue, the bird pokes its head out from its new location.
“Rare goods,” the bird agrees, pulling at the sash aggressively before ducking back down out of view. Saila doesn’t know what to say. Being a Leaping Guard seems a bit more exotic and thrilling than sitting underground for hours spinning magical thread in total darkness.
“How do you keep up with that many orders?”
“I don’t, really. It would be nice to have others to do it, too, but it’s an old art. There used to be more of us, but they’re all dying off.”
“Why don’t you teach somebody?”
Saila gives Bastion a cutting look, but he looks back with serious, somber sincerity.
“I don’t want to,” she snips, holding up a scolding finger to point at him. “And don’t start chewing at me about teaching somebody, I don’t want to hear it. I have my reasons and they’re none of your business.”
“All right,” Bastion says, but there’s amusement hidden at the end of his words like a tail trailing a cat. “How about this, then: how do you manage to spin enough for even one order? It’s meters and meters, isn’t it?”
Saila, fully braced to be gnawed on some more by a bushy-tailed youth, gives him a squinty, suspicious look. It’s a good question. Irritatingly good. There’s no way she can simply not answer it.
“You don’t have to use one continuous length. You can cut it if you use scissors made from magical glass,” she says, motioning with her fingers like the snip of scissor blades, “and if it’s all from the same go, it will connect everything you run it with, as long as you attach it the right way. You can save on materials quite a bit that way. That’s probably partially what they do with your legs. Strings are sort of like magical glass in that they can’t usually be burned and whatnot, so they probably forge them right into your legs.”
“Oh,” Bastion says, understanding dawning on his face. “That makes perfect sense.”
They come to the bottom of the stairs and look out over the docks. Mist is rising from the river in the early spring morning, rising higher in some spots than others. The light is still bright and thin, washing out the scene with a sleepy haze that makes everything feel softer, gentler than it will in the rigid light of the afternoon sun. Small paddle boats are gliding in and out of the orange-pink mist, some with fine nets trailing behind them in the water like the trains of fine ladies. Saila wonders idly if netting will come into fashion again uptown this year; feathers already have.
“I wonder if you spun the strings in my legs,” Bastion muses into the quiet between them, turning his heels this way and that, wriggling his claws where they come arching up off his little note-feet. Saila bites her lip. The motion is dainty, adorable somehow. In contrast to how striking and severe a figure he is, the coquettishness of his self-inspection is made all the more pronounced.
“I didn’t spin them,” she says firmly.
He looks interested, eyes flashing up to hers.
“How can you tell?”
“To start, mine are orange, not red,” Saila says, trying to keep her own expression blank even as she feels a twist of shame, of uncertainty, the pull of an old sore wound that never really healed right. “Red is Kelvex, the one who’s out of the city now.”
“I’ll ask them to make sure to use the orange ones when they fix me up, then,” Bastion says casually, striding forward onto the docks confidently. Saila feels that ember strike up again under her heel and grits her teeth.
“My wheel needs to come back before I can make any more,” she says, trying for dismissive.
“I told you we’ll find your wheel,” Bastion says, scanning the docks curiously with one hand up at his brow shielding his eyes from the sun.
“And I told you not to make promises you can’t keep,” Saila grumbles, making the transition from land to dock in a little hop.
“I don’t,” Bastion says, eyes narrowing, his hand falling down to his side.
Saila, standing behind him and watching him start to pick his way over the docks, thinks she can feel heat licking up her ankle from under her boot.
Well. Time to drown the damn thing.