An Unexpected Ally
Good morning. I’ve come to retrieve my property.
For a moment, the words hung in the air. The brothel owner, who was on the large side for a pure-bred Sixer male, stood in the doorway, looking completely relaxed. There was a small smile on his face, and his tail moved lazily from side to side. He communicated a confident friendliness and ease that was in itself an insult, as if he didn’t expect any challenge to result from his blatant intrusion into somebody else’s territory.
Arrogant, Stranger thought. Stupid.
Like Stranger had been arrogant and stupid. Stupid to take the boy home, when he was somebody else’s belonging. Stupid to think that because the slaver had thrown the boy away, he wouldn’t make trouble about somebody else deciding to pick up the toy he had discarded. Stupid to bring the boy here, where Stranger’s moment of compassion would end up costing not only himself, but Warlike. It was always the same story, and Stranger had too many ghosts tied to his soul not to have seen this end coming. In an unjust world, trying to do the right thing all too often ended in conflict and bloodshed.
The silence was broken by the sound of chair legs scraping against the floor. Stranger turned his head to see the boy about to stand, but Cherry still clung to him, her tiny hands curled into fists around the fabric of his shirt as her lilac eyes filled up with tears. The boy bent his head and whispered into her ear and Cherry nodded her head, relaxing her grip on him. The boy smiled at her and placed a kiss at the top of her head, before gently lifting her down to stand on her own two feet. He stood up straight and faced the slaver, his head held at the same, defiant angle Stranger had observed, and approved of, the night before.
With a sick, falling sensation in his gut, Stranger realized he had been wrong. There was one way that this could end that wouldn’t require anyone to resort to violence. The boy had seen the peaceful solution when Stranger hadn’t, and with the same courage he had shown the night before, when he had thrown himself between Stranger and a crowd of hostile Sixers and Mixers, he was about to give himself back to the man who had owned him, and who had forced him to work in his brothel.
Stranger and Warlike had spoken at the same time, and now, they both moved. Warlike stepped to the boy’s side and put an arm around his shoulders to keep him locked to her side, and Stranger moved to put himself in the slaver’s path.
“You’re not taking him”, Stranger said. “You left him in the street to die. I could argue that in doing so, you gave up your right of ownership. But I am not an impossible man. I will give you two options, and if you are wise, you’ll choose the one that doesn’t end in blood being shed between us.”
The slaver, who seemed finally to realize he did not hold the position of power in this situation, had drawn back his lips to show fangs, and his tail was twitching wildly back and forth. For a moment, Stranger thought he would flee, but then an idea seemed to occur to him, and he grew still and confident once more. A shrewd grin split his face, and he turned to address the crowd that was still gathered in the public part of the tavern.
“Did you hear that? Did you hear this human threaten me and refuse me my legal right to reclaim my property? My brothers and sisters, I ask you to aid me against this human oppressor! Help me defend what is rightfully mine.”
Behind him, a commotion broke out as voices rose in heated argument, and Stranger cursed himself for the false sense of security that had made him leave his weapons behind in the room above. The slaver, he could have easily handled without them, but if the same mob that had been about to attack him last night came to the Sixer’s defense, Stranger would be hard-pressed to face their fangs and claws with nothing but the brute force and skill of his warrior-bred, human body.
At last, the commotion died down and a Mixer woman made her way to the front of the crowd. Stranger recognized her as the female – Serdia, Warlike had called her – who had been the mob’s leader, and he held his breath and waited to hear what she’d say.
“This is a Mixer city”, Serdia said, and the room grew quiet. She had a good voice for making speeches, smooth, rich and steady, and Stranger could see her proud posture as she stood before a roomful of people, confident that they would listen to her, and follow her lead.
“The human, Stranger, is not one of us. We have all heard the campfire stories. They say he is like the desert storms, a dangerous, powerful force that can lay waste to cities. There are those who say that he kills indiscriminately, without sparing a thought for his victims, or caring to find out whether they are guilty or innocent.”
The crowd rumbled quietly, and Stranger readied himself for the attack. But Serdia held up her hand, and the room grew quiet once more.
“That’s what they say, but this is what my eyes have seen. Last night, the human called Stranger rescued this boy from the storm. Last night, he put himself between us and this boy, who is one of us, and although we threatened his safety, he did not attack us. Warlike, who is one of us, calls this man, Stranger, her brother, and he in turn calls her and her sister his family. He is a human, and he is warrior-bred, but those things aside, he has behaved with nothing but honor toward us.”
Serdia paused to let her words sink in, and a murmur of assent rose from the crowd. Stranger could see several heads nodding, and the tense atmosphere gave way to one of contemplation. When Serdia began the final part of her speech, her voice had grown quieter, and the room accommodated her by going completely still, so her words could be heard by all.
“The law decrees that a slave is the property of its owner. According to that law, Cunning had every right to leave this boy out in the storm, the way that he did. According to that law, he has every right to demand that his property be returned to him. But by that same law, every Mixer in this room has at some point or other been somebody else’s property. This is a Mixer city. I say, to the desert demons with the injustice of the law, and if Stranger wants to save a boy from having to work in a brothel, I say we let him. And Cunning.”
Serdia turned around and met the slaver’s wide-eyed stare with a look of snarling contempt.
“You should thank whatever luck has shaped your life that Stranger seems willing to offer you a peaceful solution. If it were me, I would not be half so reasonable.”
She moved her gaze to Stranger and met his eyes. She smiled very slightly, and he bent his head in a nod of acknowledgement. She returned the nod, gave him a quick wink, and then pointedly turned away and returned to her abandoned breakfast. One by one, the rest of The Rotten Core’s guests followed her example, and the brothel owner, whom Serdia had called by the name Cunning, looked after them in disbelief as one by one, they all turned their backs on him.
All but one, and as the crowd thinned, Stranger caught sight of Hopeful, leaning her hip against the bar in a posture of studied ease. Her clothes were covered in dust, and her hair was messy. She wore a travelling cloak, much like the one Stranger had worn the night before, and it was thrown back on one side, to show off the gun riding low on one of her shapely hips. Of the two sisters, Hopeful was the calm, sensible one, and her temper was slower to flare than Warlike’s. There was nothing of her sister’s habitual bluster in the quiet way she just stood there, nothing of Warlike’s passion in the way she simply kept looking at Cunning, while her hand rested on the holster at her side.
Hopeful represented not a threat, but a promise, and the moment he met her calm gaze, Cunning showed himself to be well-named. He turned to throw one final, hate-filled look at Stranger, and then he gave a low snort, as though all of them were too insignificant to warrant his attention. Without a word, he swept past Hopeful, crossed the room, where the guests were once again pointedly minding their own business, and exited The Rotten Core.
Hopeful watched him leave, and though he couldn’t see the look on her face, Stranger thought he knew what it was. He was frowning himself, and in the quiet kitchen, it was the boy who put words to what they were all thinking:
“This isn’t over. He thinks he’s right. When he thinks he can get away with it, he’ll make trouble for you.”
Stranger thought he was probably right about that. But after what had happened today, he had the odd, unfamiliar thought that if Cunning did try to make problems, perhaps Warlike and Hopeful and he wouldn’t be the only ones to oppose him.
Click here to go to Chapter 7!