There was a small, warm weight on his chest and it wriggled impatiently, tugging Stranger out of the depths of his dreams. A twinge of alarm quickly came and went as his disoriented mind scrambled to let him know that he was safe in his room. He was not in a tent in the desert, and his unexpected visitor was no rover, looking to kill the people he was guarding so they could scavenge their cold, dead corpses.
Last night, he had helped Warlike get rid of those of The Rotten Core’s guests who could safely go home, and gotten the rest of them bedded down in blankets on couches and floors, and then he had gone upstairs. Warlike was safe in her room, and so was the boy. So was Stranger. He was safe. He was home. And he had really been looking forward to a good, long rest, but that didn’t seem to be happening. The warm weight started jumping up and down, making a long, high-pitched chant of his name:
The heavy, comfortable blankness of sleep had started to drift away, but Stranger tried to hold onto it. He grumbled in response to his living alarm clock, and rolled over onto his side. A low thump as his visitor fell off the bed was followed by an indignant screech, and Stranger forced his eyes to open, finally resigned to the idea that he wouldn’t be getting any more sleep this morning. Leaning onto his elbow, he peeked over the edge of the bed, and found a small Sixer girl with wide, violet eyes, staring up at him. Her skin was the color of damp desert sand and a silvery mane of hair fell all the way down to her waist. Her tail, with its bright silver tuft, twitched violently from side to side in evidence of her indignance.
“Cherry”, he said. “Good morning, sweetheart. And where’s your Aunt Warlike this morning?”
“Breakfast!” Cherry announced, jumping up, and without another word, the little girl ran out of the room. Stranger rolled onto his back and lay smiling up at the ceiling, listening to the sound of Cherry’s footsteps, as the little girl raced down the hall. When he could no longer hear her, he rolled out of bed and went to wash up, before obediently making his way down to have breakfast.
When Stranger descended the stairs, it was to the sound of silver wear scraping against plates, and the voices of several guests from last night, engaged in quiet conversation. He caught the occasional whispered mention of his name and knew from experience the kind of things they would be saying about him. He had a reputation out here, in the Lawless Lands, that was entirely beyond his comprehension. With a loose basis on half-truths, taking root in his status as an outlaw and branching out to include his abilities as a true-bred warrior, gossip had taken the stories of a few of his exploits as a caravan guard and, as gossip tends to do when it has its way with a story, it had blown them out of proportion.
Depending on who you listened to, rumor might have it that the man known as Stranger was the son of the demons of the desert, who would strike unwary travelers down left and right, as heedless of their evil or virtue as the desert herself. Or he could be a heroic vigilante for justice, fighting crime and protecting the innocent, while using his powers over the sands and the storms to strike back against the human oppressors that had birthed him. Either way, the manner of his arrival last night, with the storm at his heels, wasn’t likely to dismiss any of those rumors, and he resigned himself to the probability of a new chapter being added to his already overblown legend.
The talk ceased abruptly when he entered the room, and about a dozen eyes turned to look at him with varying degrees of suspicion, amazement and awe. Stranger didn’t stop to talk, just waved a semi-friendly greeting at the crowd and walked swiftly through the public area, ducking back behind the bar, to the kitchen.
There, he was met by the sweet, buttery smell of pancakes, and the scent of sizzling bacon, and his stomach started to grumble. Warlike was at the stove, and at the counter, the boy was seated, looking at once disgruntled and reluctantly pleased when Cherry, who had crawled into his lap, picked up a pancake and tried to feed it to him, the way you might feed a baby, or a favorite pet. Stranger found himself grinning, but quickly wiped the smile away when the boy looked up and saw him, and gave him a withering glare.
“Good morning”, Stranger said. “I see you’ve met Cherry.”
“Yeah”, the boy said. “You should have told me you’d force me to babysit. I might have taken my chances with the storm.”
Warlike reached out and, without looking, whacked him in the back of the head.
The boy jumped, whipped his head around and transferred his glare to Warlike, who serenely ignored him, in favor of loading up a plate with bacon and pancakes, and passing it over the counter toward Stranger.
“Eat up”, she advised him. “Hopeful will be over any moment, and if you haven’t finished by then, you know you’ll have to fight her for scraps.”
Stranger’s stomach growled, and he reached out to pull the plate closer. When the first bite made rich flavor explode on his tongue, he closed his eyes. After months of nothing but the dried foods and nutrient pills that kept men and beasts alive in the vastness of the desert, it was an effort not to groan in pleasure at the taste of real food. He opened his eyes when he heard Warlike laughing at him, and caught the boy watching him with a small, cagey smile on his face.
“Yeah, that’s what I looked like when I took my first bite”, the kid said. “I can’t believe you have actual bacon. There’s some fancy foods in the brothel, for the customers who can afford it, but even there, I’ve never seen anyone eat pork, if it hasn’t been grown in a lab.”
In the Mixer cities, few people had. The colonies had been formed by freed Mixer slaves, but had become places to run away to, and now, housed all of society’s rejects. Runaway slaves, mixed species couples and criminals made up most of the population, and then there were people like the brothel owner, who owned a legal business, but one that would have been frowned upon in the civilized havens that were the great Cities. What the kid was trying to ask without asking was: If they could afford to buy real pork, what were they doing living in a dump like this?
Stranger chuckled, shaking his head. “We’re not rich, if that’s what you’re asking. But Hopeful – that’s Warlike’s sister – is a bounty hunter. She caught a band of poachers a few years back, who’d been picking off a pig farmer’s herd. She collected the bounty, and figured she’d done her job. But a few weeks later, the farmer showed up with a wagon loaded up with bacon, sausages and ham. He still comes by a couple of times a year, to show his gratitude, and every time, she tries to tell him he doesn’t owe her anything. So far, he disagrees, and that’s where the bacon comes from.”
He didn’t add that the farmer’s insistence on expressing his gratitude made Hopeful feel guilty, or that it filled Stranger with an odd, quiet joy. The farmer was proof that there were still good, giving people in the world, and some days, it gave Stranger hope that the existence of people like that might be enough to balance out all the pettiness, hatred and greed. The boy leaned forward in his seat, covering Cherry’s ears, and said, in a low whisper:
“Then it’s not true, what they’re saying about you? I know you’re from a warrior clan – that much is true. But you’re not on the run from the law? They’re not looking for you so that they can drag you back to the City and kill you?”
The boy was frowning, and the concern was clear on his face. Stranger, who had years of experience reassuring his clients, leaned forward and looked him steadily in the eye.
“Don’t worry”, he said. “You’ll be safe here. No one will come looking for Hopeful and Warlike, because nobody knows they’re alive. They sometimes come looking for me, but so far, they haven’t come looking for me here. And Hopeful has an ear to the ground, thanks to her bounty hunter buddies. If anyone ever hears a whisper that connects me to this place, Hopeful will know it, and I won’t come back. You’re safe here. Cherry’s safe here. If you decide to stay around, I won’t get you caught in my crossfire.”
The boy’s eyes had grown wide, and he opened his mouth to say something, when there was a commotion from the front room. There was the sound of a door being thrown open, followed by raised voices and snarling. The boy’s hands fell from the sides of Cherry’s head, and Stranger was just turning around when the kitchen door was thrown open, and a stocky, Sixer male walked inside. His eyes took quick stock of the room and the people in it, before fastening on Stranger. He wrinkled his nose, showing a quick flash of fangs, before rearranging his face into a reasonable approximation of a friendly grin.
“Good morning”, he said. “I’ve come to retrieve my property.”
Click here to go on to Chapter 6!