“Leaping Guard central line.”
“There’s been a murder. I need you to send a guard!”
“Huh. Where is this?”
“River Trade on central edge.”
“Any guild affiliations?”
“Oh. And you are?”
“Oh. Did you kill them?”
“I- what? No. Why would- no! Just send somebody, please!”
“Are you sure you didn’t kill them?”
“I am extremely certain I didn’t! Why would I break into my own shop!?”
“Oh, a break-in too…. Well who got killed anyway?”
“A river serpent, somebody who comes by the shop to say hello now and then.”
“I hear they’re tasty….”
“Wh- I don’t care what you hear! He’s dead in my underlevel!”
“Ooh, a corpse in the underway, that’s not due to be good. You should get that cleared out quickly.”
“It’s sealed off. Or- it was? I didn’t exactly inspect- look, are you going to send somebody out?”
“Maybe… we’re pretty busy, you know, and with an attitude like that…. now listen, you’re a merchant, hm?”
“Got anything good you could offer to sweeten the deal? I could maybe get a guard out to you in a week or so.”
“…. Wait, are you telling me to bribe you, but I still have to wait a week!?”
“People die every day, you know. It can wait a little. Lots of people dying. Right now, probably, even. You know, it’s pretty surprising how often these things happen. I should know. ”
“Now listen here! I know you people couldn’t give a care but I do and I need you to send a guard right now! And anyway, I was broken into too!”
“Wow you are just so rude that is incredible. Is this how you do business?! I won’t be shopping there again!”
“We only sell to other businesses so you wouldn’t shop with me anyway! And you certainly never have before! Now are you going to send somebody, or do I have to just- just- go out into the street and yell?”
“Shitty neighborhood, central edge. I don’t think we have any guards in that area. Mostly warehousing and docks, you know. A few street shops. Go ahead and yell all you want! I doubt anybody will come. You have just been so rude that I think even if you did try to offer me a bribe of, say, five hundred red crowns,”
“Are you crazy? That’s half of a bolt of northern dynasty silk!”
“I would definitely take a few seconds to think about it! So- oh! Oh! OH MY GOD HELP!”
“Are you being murdered? I hear it happens every day.”
“Guard. What’s the issue?”
“…. A murder. And a break-in. Not in that order! I think.”
“Stand outside so I can find the location.”
“Do you want something for your-?”
Saila, standing in nonplussed silence in the dark of the shop, heaves a sigh and hangs up the now dead receiver and earpiece. She clutches her hands together, looking to the front door. The windows on either side are largely blocked by samples of cloth and yarn all laid out in racks coated in a loose pattern of dust, though sun still rolls in, syrupy-golden, around the edges. She’ll have to get those cleaned up again soon, she decides, and wipes her hands nervously on her skirts.
They slide a little more easily than they should, and she bites her lip: right. Her hands are coated in- right. Right.
She looks to the back door, hanging slightly ajar like a startled mouth. With the lock panel shattered, it only gently closes before swinging, softly, open again. Forget locking, it doesn’t even close properly like this.
On any other door in the building, that would only be a matter of irritation for Saila. But behind this door is the stairway down into the underdepths, two flights down with a twist and a hop. The more modern four flights down seemed conservative when the door locked securely, but she’s starting to think, as she stands in brooding silence, that perhaps the newer builders are on to something after all.
It’s an old building, Saila reminds herself, and walks as silently as she can to the door, peering around it into the stairwell. As she looks down the old wooden steps, worn smooth in the center from years of steady use, she strains her ears. She can’t hear much—just the faint steady rush of water. She hopes that the dry sound she hears above it, like a scrape or a skitter, is just her imagination. It’s easy, she tells herself, stepping back and exhaling slowly, to get nervous about these things. Especially with a body down below.
Speaking of which… the man on the call had said to stand outside, hadn’t he? It sounded like the receiver had been handed over in a scuffle between him and the dispatcher, which was odd. Everything since coming back to the shop has been odd, though. Odd and worrisome.
Saila listens at the top of the stairs for just one more moment, just one more beat, before she pulls back her shoulders and painstakingly creeps to the front door.
Well. He’d said to wait outside. She’d better do it.
And if he wants a bribe, she’s going to remind him that he should have asked before coming.
The proprietor is easy to spot: she’s the only person out, and she’s peering up at the sky with an awkwardly sharp bend to her neck. Bastion launches himself down to the street level and hits with a barely-there clatter, a scream of metal on stone, and spray of sparks. He pretends not to notice the proprietor flinch. He’s had a fair amount of practice at that, at least.
“Guardsman Bastion here. You called.”
“You came quickly,” the merchant says, and blinks at him with luminous, candle-flame eyes.
Bastion, momentarily taken aback, blinks in return. There’s a pause as they both take a moment to inspect the other.
She’s tiny, absolutely miniature- or maybe it’s just in comparison to him that she is. He doesn’t usually hit streetside, certainly can’t recall the last time he did, so his frame of reference for civilian height is poor. Still, something about the way she stands, gathered in on herself and wrapped up tight in a shawl and old-fashioned layered dress, suggests that she’s very keenly aware indeed of her stature in the world. Perhaps her smallness is merely physical, but it’s certainly there.
Her wildly tumbling, curling hair is glossy as a crow’s wing, a unique shade of black-purple that he doesn’t think he’s ever seen before. She’s got quite a mane of it, too, some of it wrapped up in a veil coming out the back of a tight bun at the back of her head. The majority of it slithers around her loosely like seaweed around a body fresh-recovered from the Northern Sister. The merchant is pale, but with a curious cast that seems to suggest she used to have warmer skin and has been washed out, somehow, made ashen and empty. She’s got a coating of matte purple on her fingers, a smear of it on her woolen green dress.
And she’s got those big orange eyes lit from the inside out like a glass lantern.
Hm. A vampire. Bastion can’t say he’s met many. Any, now that he thinks on it. They’re rare since the Great War, or so he hears. Given that he’s met none so far, he’s inclined to give the idea some weight.
“Is the body inside?” he asks, leaning down to latch his legs to cover his discomfort. The springs are good for bounding over the rooftops, but when it comes to walking, it’s best to keep them locked. He can feel a familiar itch starting in his bones but shakes it off. He’s always hated going streetside. He hates the loss of mobility, the way he has to stay contained, restrained.
“Yes,” she says, her voice quiet. “In one of my work areas.”
The way she speaks has a certain quality to it that Bastion can’t quite put his finger on. He can’t decide if she sounds like she’s tempered herself into a knife with a blunted edge or a spoon with too-sharp edges.
“Down in the underlevel.” She gestures with her stained fingers.
Bastion, stuck in the middle of working the stiff latch on his left leg, looks up at her.
“Not a fan?” she asks, her mouth quirking up just a little. She’s got her eyebrows tweaked up in curiosity. Something about how small she is and how sweetly sympathetic her expression is reminds him of a noble’s fluffy little dog, one of the ones that wafts along pillowed in a servant’s arms its whole life. He imagines those dogs have bitten more than their fair share of skinny orphans’ fingers simply because they can.
“It matters little to the Leaping Guard,” Bastion replies, instead of agreeing. She gives him a sidelong look, and the way the light of her eyes shivers as she turns her head, like the tip of a flame rattling in the wind, makes his heart tremble in an unusual fit of nerves. He’s read plenty of useless penny romance rags while lounging on a roof waiting for something to happen. The ones where the main character discovers that their would-be paramour is a secret vampire suddenly seem utterly impossible.
Once again, reality disappoints.
“That’s very efficient of you,” the merchant says, turning on her heels neatly to click over to the double-door of her shop. She pulls the door open, a tiny crystal bell at the top of it tinkling and shooting iridescent rainbows out as the sun hits it. Bastion gives his leg another awkward pull, and to his relief the latch finally swings up and clicks into place. He stands up, dusting off his hands, and steps after the merchant. “But please let me know if it becomes too much. It goes down quite far, and some people can find that disturbing. The building is very old, you see.”
Everybody in the city always wants to brag about how old their building is, but in this case he actually finds that he believes her: Bastion has to duck to get inside, and once in he can’t really straighten up much.
There’s a small half-counter made of weathered wood that has a stool behind it with footprints on it that Bastion assumes would match Saila’s boots. Every wall is lined with enormously thick books, though he suspects they’re filled with matters of trade rather than casual reading. There are a few islands in the middle of the store, too, and on them enormous stacks of yarn are piled. Bastion wonders if they’re supposed to look like fruit displays or if Saila simply put them that way by accident. It’s busy-looking, but it has the air of an accounting office rather than a lively shopfront.
Still, the place is remarkably well-illuminated by the early morning sun, chasing away some of the glumness of the place. Light streams across the clean wooden floor in a comet-splash of color, and when Bastion turns his head he sees that the color is from a section of fused glass set into the door that holds the city’s older flag, the one from back when the city was a middling collection of refugee tents and a larger collection of dead bodies.
He whistles before he can stop himself, then has the grace to duck his head and look embarrassed.
“Sorry,” he says, as the merchant tips her head at him. Bastion mentally slaps a big pair of fluffy ears on her and then has to give himself a mental shake. “Just- you know, everybody says that. I sort of believe it, here, though.”
“This building has been here from the city’s founding,” the merchant explains, her mouth pulling into a funny, sharp half-smile less like a little dog’s and more like a fox’s, “and its original owner started the shop a season before the battle of the Two Kings started in earnest.”
“Oh!” Bastion says, and he’s so startled that he stands up straight and almost brains himself on an exposed rafter.
“Please don’t kill yourself,” she says, fluttering over to him and looking up anxiously. “It was hard enough to get you called in, I don’t want to know how difficult it might be to get your death looked into too.”
“Probably easier,” Bastion grumbles, reaching up and rubbing at his head. “Though more difficult for you at the end of things. I’m the new captain.”
“Of the Leaping Guard?” The merchant asks, tipping her head again. This close he can see smaller details: the fineness of the weave of her dress fabric, the darkness of the circles under her eyes.
“Yeah,” he says, straightening up more carefully. He can feel the very edges of his bound-up hair touching the ceiling. His thighs ache with the effort to stay coiled down, and he feels a tinge of envy toward the merchant, who probably couldn’t touch the ceiling if she jumped.
“You’re Bastion!?” She seems shocked, her hands up before her almost defensively.
“Yeah,” he says again. He supposes that she might not run into members of the Leaping Guard very often. She must not, or the brilliant gold of his sash would stand out like a sore thumb. Yet another thing to look into, now that he’s captain: the poor state of patrol routes in the city. “And you are? For the record.”
“Saila, no family or group name,” she says, her expression caught somewhere between amazement and anxiety. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to- you must have more important things to do, and this is probably pretty- oh. Oh?”
Bastion, already weary of the topic, has slouched over to inspect the little square of charmed glass set next to the door at the back of the shop.
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