“… good. I’m heading to the Ivory Spires, so send out at least three companies. ….No, don’t engage. The shop is sealed. Do you…”
Bastion is on the phone box with dispatch, hunched over in the river-slimy customs hut that serves this part of the docks. It’s not usually small-looking to her, but right now, with him compressed down in there, it looks almost sarcastically undersized. Bastion is wearing an agonized expression, his ears pinned back almost flush to his braids, as he shuffles this way and that, trying not to upset the delicate ecosystem of stacked crates and papers in the cramped space.
Saila sits on the short stone wall next to the building with ChoCho. He is, as seems habitual for him, busy chewing and nibbling on her clothing. While Saila swings her feet, she tries to avoid the stare of the customs inspector. Thomm, she recalls, based on his signature on her various forms over the years.
“Miss Saila, you with the Guard now?” He asks, his jaw working from side to side on nothing in particular. He’s standing in front of her on the rough stone of the street, hands clutched behind his back, hunched over. His eyes seem keen as always.
“I’m standing next to one right now, if that’s what you mean,” she replies evasively. He’s grizzled and old, missing a few teeth, but he’s always had a gleeful, gossipy side, and while Saila is keen to make use of that for her benefit from time to time, this is not one of those occasions.
“You in trouble now, Miss?” He asks.
“Not with the guard,” she says, pulling in on herself more.
He draws close in little shuffling steps. He smells of the salty brine of the Southern Sister with an underlayer of the slight musky damp that saturates everything riverside. He’s got a wizened, wrinkled old face made yet more shriveled from his endless years of sailing, and big, knobby, calloused hands run through with cracks like the earth in a killing drought. Saila looks down at the ground, at his left shoe, anywhere but up at the person looming up next to her.
“You jus’ point me at ‘em Miss,” he whispers with a pronounced whistle that comes from his fragmented left teeth, “and me and some boys’ll go down tonight and give ‘em a good neighborly hello.”
He cracks his knuckles.
Saila looks up at him. He’s nodding firmly, chewing on his wooden shortpipe which is currently devoid of any actual smoke. His gaze has slid up to over her head, focused on the steam-spewing stretch of cityscape industry downcity. He looks as if he’s saying the same things he always has when she’s come to inspect received goods, the same old steady script about the weather and his joints and back when he sailed and his no-good neighbors and on and on, the speech flowing in a staid, calm patter that’s always washed over her like a wave at the beach as she steadily inspected and signed her forms.
But he’s not talking now.
“I’m all right,” she says, blinking, her own hands spread out on her mostly-dried dress. He just chews on his pipe a little more, his gaze sliding sideways and down to rest on the showy, flashy guard captain crouched in his work hut like a firebird come down to the earth. Thomm raises his eyebrow, works his pipe a little faster in his mouth.
Saila gathers ChoCho up in her scooped hands, strokes his head. The bird closes his eyes after a moment, beak working contentedly against the side of one of her fingers.
“A King has come up from under my shop and is in there now.”
“Oy,” Thomm the customs inspector says, with the typical stoicism of a sailor. It’s hard to impress a man who’s spent his life working around the whims of the Sisters. “That’s a hard ‘un.” He clasps his hands behind his back, shoulders rising and falling in a slow stretch.
“And somebody broke in to the shop,” she says, still watching him curiously. “They killed a serpent that would come to visit my underlevel and they took something of mine.”
“Fucker!” He says, champing so furiously at his pipe that it goes upside-down for a moment. “You’re a good girl. You mind your nose and you let others do the same. Bet it’s an uptown snooty-skirt what did the deed. They’re merciless, Miss, you mind yourself around them. Nothing satisfies them. Hungry as a Rat King.”
“I’m sure it will be fine,” she says, hardly believing that such a cheery bit of optimism could come materializing out of her mouth, but he seems so angry on her behalf, which is such a novelty to her, that she can’t really help herself. Thomm has never asked for bribes, has always been efficient at his job, has always lived in peace and quiet behind the customs hut, ever since he came ashore and took the job in the first place. Saila doesn’t want him to be involved in whatever slow-motion mess is occurring.
I want the city to be better, Bastion had said just a little ago, and Saila feels that licking heat rising up on her again from under her heel. “Captain Bastion is going to help me sort everything out.”
“Ay, is he?” The old man cranes his neck in a manner devoid of even the pretense of subtlety; Saila suspects that level of shamelessness to be unique to the elderly. With his hands knotted behind his back, peering into the shack where Bastion is still coordinating deployments, Thomm gives an over-wrought frown and a nod. Somewhat to Saila’s dry amusement, he acts as if he hasn’t already taken in every detail of Bastion, hasn’t swallowed him down in slow sideways glances. “Huh! What’s he all slashed up for on the legs? Aren’t they supposed to be some pretty fancy sorts themselves?”
Apparently Thomm has seen the Leaping Guard more than Saila has. He’s at least familiar enough with them to know that Bastion is injured in the first place. He also doesn’t sound approving in the least, which in Saila’s mind is a bit rich coming from a man who has lichen growing up the back of his waxed river-jacket.
“He got chewed on a bit by a Cat King,” Saila says, starting to kick her feet again.
“How about that,” the old man says, shaking his head slowly, sounding as if he’s disappointed in Bastion on a moral level.
“And he treated me to breakfast,” Saila continues.
“Gotta put some more meat on both of ya’,” he mutters sullenly.
“… he wanted to name the bird Cavalcula?” Saila tries one last time. ChoCho peeps enticingly.
“Oh, he’s all right then, isn’t he? A bunch of good kids running around. Nice to have adventures,” Thomm says with abrupt cheer, and opens the gate at Saila’s side to go shuffling into the greenhouse behind the building. “You want any cabbages, Miss? How about your friend? He want some zucchinis?”
“I think he hates them,” she replies weakly. It’s her turn to crane her neck around to make sure Bastion is still delivering orders. He doesn’t seem to have heard. She doesn’t even know how to address the fact that she’s reasonably sure she’s older than Thomm.
“Sell ‘em at the air markets and get some pocket money for lunch!”
“I won’t take your money,” Saila says, wandering curiously into the greenhouse. She’s never seen inside. The glass is perpetually foggy, condensation making it opaque enough to prevent even the keenest eye from spying in.
It’s muddy and suspiciously unruly, plants sprouting up from all sorts of strange directions, but the vegetables are clearly having a good time and the ceiling is high, which she presumes Bastion might like. Thomm is growing a cacophony of flowers around the edges of the greenhouse, but the central stone beds are what catch Saila’s eyes. They’re packed, absolutely bristling, with luxuriously green vegetables of every variety Saila knows and even a few she doesn’t.
She pauses for a moment to admire the broad green leaves and sternly architectural stems of a kale plant. The broccoli is still sparkling with moisture on its verdant crowns, and water rolls down the spotted, glossy hides of the zucchinis in picturesque pearls.
Thomm, bent over an enormous sprig of sproutcabbage, picks off a wriggling worm from the underside of a leaf and offers it out in Saila’s direction. She recoils, but the bird in her hands lets out a series of enthusiastic churrups and flutters down from her hands. He is, Saila notices, getting better at landing with a thump instead of a splat.
“Oh yes,” ChoCho says, cooing in a strange, particularly soft voice, like a cat winding around the legs of somebody holding a fish, “oh yes, thank you.” He bows over a little, turning his head to look at Thomm with one eye, then the other.
Saila looks down at the ChoCho, then up at Thomm. Thomm gives her a crooked smile, one a little wider on the side of his mouth filled with broken teeth. He leans down with a groan and crack of his joints to drop the worm in front of the bird.
“Free free free,” ChoCho says, chattering his beak, pouncing and snapping down the squirming fat white grub before it can try to escape into a crack in a nearby stone bed.
“Good little pest nibbler you got there. Mind if I give him a bit more?”
Saila shrugs broadly, relieved she doesn’t have to handle the bugs. “I’m not sure what he eats, but he seems to know. Hopefully he won’t make himself sick.”
“Could do with a little pest control,” Thomm says happily, and, ChoCho puttering after him with equal glee, he starts to inspect each bed. To her amusement, Thomm seems to be inspecting the plants with the same degree of intensity she’s more used to him applying to tariff forms.
They are awfully nice-looking vegetables, Saila admits to herself. She’d definitely buy them if she was out for a shop.
Saila wanders about quietly while they work. She spends some time admiring the climb of the berry vines along the trellis on the west wall, then looks at the flowers with some curiosity: she isn’t a big flower person, but usually she knows enough. Not here, though. Thomm must be an avid flower and vegetable man, because she doesn’t recognize half of them.
The old man and the little yellow bird are halfway through the garden’s rows before, with a curse and a bang, Bastion’s outline can be seen through the glass. He spends a moment looking around before Saila calls out,
He crouches and walks into the greenhouse.
“All right?” Saila asks, abandoning her inspection of the flowers to come greet him.
“Just hit the doorframe in the hut,” he mutters, rubbing at his forehead. He straightens up gratefully in the warm greenhouse, looking around with open curiosity. “Everything’s all set. They’re setting up a barricade at the entrance to your islet to prevent anybody from going in. I’m not sure how we’ll figure out if the King is gone, though. It’s too risky to go in and look around.”
“I can ask my postmaster.” That, at least, is easy. The postmasters with their nimble paws and fine-tuned senses arrived when the Kings did, back in the tent days. Saila has always been fond of them, and grateful for their willing aid in cases like this.
“Do they talk?” Thomm asks, having made his way around one of the central beds in a loop to come inspect Bastion with a suspicious up-and-down stare.
“Are you eating bugs? Is that what I’m seeing?” Bastion breaks in suddenly, crouching down to talk to ChoCho. Saila doesn’t know if he means to distract from the topic or not, but she’s grateful. She doesn’t want to explain. “Are you serious? You’ll eat bugs but not fatfish steak? You’ve got your priorities all mixed up.”
The bird fluffs himself and sets into a dead run, settling at Bastion’s feet with an adoring chirp. No mystery who his favorite is, Saila thinks dryly. Bastion doesn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to pick him up, though, not with a spindle-legged spider only halfway down his gullet.
“Nice of him to help an old man.” The customs inspector rustles the zucchini plant in front of him fondly. “These beauties’re my pride and joy!”
“They’re very nice,” Bastion says with the air of a man complementing a piece of art he rather amicably doesn’t understand. He does give the zucchini plants a long stare, though.
Thomm looks at him expressionlessly. Bastion looks back, just as expressionless.
Saila, standing between them both, feels a tickle of exasperation.
“Customs Master,” she breaks in when it becomes clear that neither of them will make a first move, “do you think you could do me a favor, perhaps, after all?” Stepping forward in mincing little advances until she’s in the space between them without either of them having noticed it yet, she twines a curl over a finger, pushing some of her hair out of her face with her other hand.
“Hm,” Thomm says, bringing his thumb and forefinger up to rub at his smooth chin. He tries to look at Bastion again, but Saila reaches up to check the alignment of her bun on top of her head and that calls his eyes back down to her. “What’d you like me to do, Miss?”
“Would you mind keeping the bird with you for the day? We have some errands to do, and like I mentioned to you, I can’t settle him in my home. Of course,” Saila says, stepping up again, until Thomm has no choice but to look at her unless he wants to simply stare over her head, “if you have some errands we can run for you up near the Spires, we’d be happy to.”
“Mmm,” Thomm mutters, gnawing on his pipe. He glances up at Bastion, then looks back down at her again. “Well, if ya’ want, it might be good of ya’ to go on and pass some of my zucchini to the lady Terabeth if y’would.”
“We’d be happy to,” Saila says warmly, spreading her skirts out in her hands just a little. Like this, she knows how she looks: eager and friendly, pretty and sweet, ready to spring into action.
“Bring back her payment when ya’ come home to pick up the little bird again, can ya’,” Thomm says thoughtfully, “and don’t mind the hour of the day or night. Now I have a pack here somewhere, can’t let you try to hang on to my big ol’ veggies with just your little soft lady’s hands….”
He wanders off further into the garden, behind the corner of the customs hut. He’s still muttering.