Deciding to make the best of things, Bastion pokes around for some lunch. It’s about noon, their walk over having taken longer than he’d expected. Everything is a lot slower on foot.
He stops by an orange-shaped cart selling his favorite sugar-simmered seed buns. In front of the cart is a harnessed row of enormous pom poms spread out on a pile of fragrant grass. Bastion spends some time staring at them in befuddlement before he realizes they’re rabbits, big fluffy ones. They’re all gently sucking in grass to a mysterious point on their faces with a daintiness he’s coming to associate with Saila. The little old lady who runs the food cart has a face that’s so wrinkled it looks like it’s falling in on itself, and moves about as quickly as he supposed she would based on that. While he waits for her to work her way through the queue of people ahead of him, Bastion looks around.
Now that he’s spent some time walking, he’s starting to understand the current flow he’s always observed from up above. One side of the flow heads up the street, the other down. Faster walkers cluster closer to the center, browsers and meanderers falling to the sides so they can inspect stalls and shops as they go. It isn’t anything intentional, clearly, but a shared set of community rules that everybody just seems to know. How does that information get passed on? Where does it come from? Are the directions reversed in another city, or an entirely different configuration all together?
“Is this the end of the line?” Asks somebody behind him, pulling him out of his contemplations on foot traffic culture.
“Yes,” Bastion says, glancing back.
The person who’s queued up behind him is wearing a fine-woven gray cloak with an unusual cut to it. It looks like it could be something from out west, but it’s hard to place. He’s got dark curly hair of a color Bastion doesn’t care about, and a cast to his skin that he also couldn’t give five green upchucks about, because his eyes—
They’re Saila’s eyes.
Bastion turns to face forward again smoothly, feeling his heart jump into his throat. What are the chances? He’s never met a single vampire, not once in his entire life, and yet today he meets two?
Bastion fights with himself.
Just because he’s never seen a vampire before today doesn’t mean he should ask prying questions. He’s curious, though. He wishes he’d had the nerve to ask Saila maybe a little more about the whole business of being a vampire, wishes he knew if this was a ‘zucchini under the moon’ moment or a situation where she’d be happy to hear about another of her kind.
She hadn’t mentioned anything about looking for other vampires, had barely mentioned her being a vampire herself. No matter how alone Bastion thinks she seems, it’s certainly none of his business how she lives her life and what circles she runs in. He doesn’t even know, past some general hearsay, if vampires actually even enjoy each others’ company. They might have natural antipathy toward each other, like witches or cat kings.
Saila’s lifestyle clearly isn’t the kind that lends itself to making fun new friends every day, either. Her shop is quiet and shaded, tucked carefully out of the way. While her preferences shed little light on her species as a whole, Bastion can at least make an educated guess that she wouldn’t be terribly eager to hear that he saw some random stranger. She might feign interest out of politeness, but he doesn’t really want her to feel like she has to muster that up for him. He’ll leave Saila out of it, then, Bastion thinks, and just look for his own curiosity.
He flicks his eyes back and to the side just a little, keeping his face pointed forward.
The vampire’s got green flames in his eyes instead of Saila’s orange, and wavy short hair that falls in broad sweeping flicks of darkness over a hollow-cheeked, cunning-looking face. He’s got a similar color of skin to Saila’s, something like a light brown but made wan. He’s got a tightly-trimmed beard that leads into a mustache neatly shaped with the ends tipped up and dyed a pale rose.
Well, Bastion thinks to himself, at least he’s got an excuse for staring.
He’s of an indeterminate age, though obviously older than Bastion himself, and… he’s raising an eyebrow, his gaze focusing on Bastion.
“Next,” says the owner of the stall. Bastion snaps his eyes forward.
“Two please, one large, one medium,” he says, fumbling through his inventory and pulling out a green crown.
“No change,” the proprietress says, her little face pinching even tighter in on herself.
“It’s legal tender,” Bastion objects, his attention firmly fixing on the little old woman in front of him.
“No chance that’s real,” she snaps, pointing one of her two index fingers at him, the other gesturing to her chin. “I’ve had it up to here with this nonsense. You get your dirty little hands on some good clean coin and come back then!”
“Ma’am,” Bastion tries, mentally taking a slow, deep breath to leash his immediate flash of temper. Counterfeiting. Of course. He’d been working on breaking into a pretty large ring of it prior to this whole mess with Saila’s shop coming up. He should assign somebody else to take that over. Maybe Mansard, if she’s up to it. He can’t leave it completely unchecked, not if it’s eroding public faith in currency so quickly.
“Next,” the lady snaps, and Bastion flicks an annoyed look over to the man behind him. The vampire’s eyes flicker between the woman and Bastion uncertainly; Bastion hasn’t moved and he doesn’t look like he’s ready to try to muscle Bastion out of the way. One of the patrons gathered around the side of the cart sprinkling salt on her rice dumplings looks up at the commotion, looks down at her food, and then looks up again in a quick double-take.
“Oh wait a second,” she says, as Bastion contemplates with grim fatalism how embarrassing it would be to run back to Saila and have her change his money, “uh, ma’am, this is, you are, right?” And she leans over to Bastion, her red eyes wide and her cheeks puffing out.
“Sorry?” He asks, trying to hide his exasperation as the old woman grumbles rude words at him just under her breath.
“You’re the new captain of the Leaping Guard, aren’t you?”
“That’s me,” he agrees, and feels everybody around him immediately reorient themselves to stare at him.
“Wow,” the other patron says, her eyes huge, her spiny cheeks puffing out even further in excitement, “um, yeah, I don’t think he’s going to leave you with a counterfeit bill.”
“Never do know,” the stall owner says, her eyes finally emerging from her shriveled face on stalks like those of a snail. Bastion mentally gives a little scream but maintains an appropriately stoic outer expression. “Well, well, look at this! My apologies, my lord, didn’t expect to see such a handsome, fancy young man down here on the dirt puddles with the rest of us. On the house, my goodness. Captain Bastion at my stall,” she says, her eyes receding back into her face like the hand of a drowner in brackish water.
Bastion, feeling a little faint, shakes his head.
“I can pay. If you’ll take it.”
“On the house, Captain. An apology for an old lady’s foolishness.” She grins at him toothily. She clearly has a double row behind the first.
“What brings you down here?” asks the patron who had called him out, eating her dumplings in big sharp bites.
“Official business,” he says vaguely, feeling more than seeing the abrupt emptiness at his elbow and slightly behind him.
The vampire has fled. Interesting.
By the time he manages to extricate himself from the questions of the eager woman from the cart, he’s heard the chimes twice.
Milne was from one of the local news circles, and while he’d done his best to avoid her kind at all costs as a general guardsman, he feels rather like it’s his duty to talk with the news folk now that he’s the face of the guard.
She had been eager and friendly, her gills flapping enthusiastically as she pencilled out notes on some riverweed paper she ‘borrowed’ from the food stall owner. She’d wanted to know about the guard’s focus under his leadership and his personal history. He’d been cagey about the latter but open about the former, and on her part, she had taken notes on whatever he was willing to talk about with such intensity that he was concerned she was going to rip her paper in half at multiple points.
He’d watched her as he picked up a few extra supplies he’d thought of while eating, but she never did ask what they were for, and barely even seemed to notice he’d bought them. She had seemed wholly and deeply focused on his aims for the Leaping Guard. All the better— he doesn’t know what’s happening with Saila’s wheel, but he has the distinct feeling that things will only get more complicated, and doesn’t want anybody outside the Guard to get wind of anything funny quite yet.
They’d finally parted ways when Milne heard the second chime and realized the time. She’d run off urgently, barreling down the middle of the slower outside lane of walkers to Bastion’s mingled amusement and horror.
So much for the absolute rules of society, he reflects, and turns toward Terabeth’s stall.
As encounters with the news circles go, that one had felt… refreshing, he decides, making his way back up the stream of people in a decidedly less bombastic fashion. It would be nice to get some positive word of mouth going about the changes he wants to make.
Still, he’ll hold back judgement on the newswoman until he sees, or hears about, the end story. Kings know his goals for the guard haven’t been popular with some of the major merchant guilds uptown.