“You guys are so dead.”
The words hung in the air for a moment and Stranger hoped they would not prove to be prophetic. Then, at the back of the crowd, people started shifting about, and a couple went flying with startled yelps when they didn’t get out of the way quickly enough to suit the tastes of the tiny commotion that went there.
“No”, a new voice said, and the music abruptly stopped playing. “If anyone’s getting killed here tonight, it will be because I killed them. Bardhak, Serdia, put your claws away. And Stranger, for the love of the ever-fucking gods, do endeavor to keep the rest of your clothes on.”
The hostility seeped out of the crowd, like the air from a punctured balloon, and they parted before a small woman with frizzy, dark purple hair and eyes that glowed brightly red in the murky light of the bar. Warlike sashayed – there was really no other word to describe her hip-shot, provocative gait – through the thinning, grumbling crowd and stopped right before Stranger. She had to tip her head back, but her scowl was fierce, and the look she gave Stranger was anything other than friendly. Only the way the corners of her eyes crinkled slightly betrayed any pleasure she might have experienced at the sight of him.
“Stranger”, she said. “You would do all the world a great kindness, if you changed your name to Trouble. That way, they would know what was coming the moment they crossed your path.”
“Warlike”, Stranger said. “Your hospitality is impeccable, as ever.”
“Don’t give me that”, she said, rising onto her tiptoes to give him a kiss on the cheek and a brisk slap on the unscarred side of his face. “If you’d give warning before dropping by, I could take steps to ensure things like this didn’t happen.”
“Yeah, well, the next time the desert demons come out to play, I’ll have to remember to tell them to give the caravan masters fair warning. That way, I’ll know when I have time off, and will be able to give you proper notification.”
“That’s nice”, Warlike said, her flighty attention having already fluttered on to the shiny, new object among them. “What’s this?”
She reached out to flick the boy’s hair away from his forehead, then quickly pulled back when his sharp teeth nipped at her fingers. She shook her hand violently, sending droplets of scarlet flying, before sticking her fingers into her mouth, like a little kid. Her next words came out dampened by obstructing digits, but Stranger managed to make them out nonetheless.
“You know what they say about petting strange dogs”, Stranger said, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder, as much to discourage him from any further attempts at violence, as in a show of support. “The same applies to children, particularly ones brought up to be brothel slaves. I found him thrown out on the street.”
“And you brought him home? You, who barely takes time to visit your own sisters, brought home a foundling?”
Warlike had removed her fingers from her mouth, and her eyes were wide with disbelief. Stranger didn’t blame her. He was a loner, and the closest he had ever come to being anyone’s savior was what he’d done for Warlike and her sister, all those years ago. But then, they had saved him first, becoming a ray of light in a life that had been too filled with darkness, and he had been a softer man, then. It was Warlike and her sister, Hopeful, not he, who had since made a habit of picking up things that were broken, and trying to fix them.
“There’s a storm, in case you haven’t noticed”, he replied with a clipped voice. “Would you prefer I had left him out there to die?”
Warlike gave him a look that chided him for his gruffness, but because she knew him, she took pity on him, and turned to the boy with a smile.
“And what’s your name?”
The boy shrugged, looking sullenly through his bangs at her, but saying nothing. Warlike glanced up at Stranger, who found himself mirroring the boy’s shrug.
“Might be he has no name”, he said, and turned to look down at the boy, who was busy staring at his feet. They were filthy from walking through the sand, and the painted nails stood out from the mottled dust-brown like drops of fresh blood. “Do you have a name, boy?”
The boy looked up, meeting Stranger’s eyes.
“They called me Red”, he said. “I didn’t like it.”
“Then we won’t call you that”, Warlike said, and the boy blinked, looking over at her. “My name is Warlike. That big lug you’re hiding behind, his name is Stranger. He didn’t like his first name, either, so he changed it. It’s a good story. If you ask him nicely, he might tell it to you some day. For now, why don’t you go upstairs? Stranger’s room is to the right, at the far back, and the room across from it is empty. You can stay there, if you like.”
The boy looked up at Stranger, who gave him a nod and a light shove toward the stairs. The boy, used to being ordered around, went without another word. He didn’t look back, even once. When he was gone, Warlike turned to Stranger, crossing her arms.
“He attacks my guests, bites me, and has no idea how to interact with people. Poor kid. You’ve only had him one night, and already, he’s decided to take you for a model.”
“First of all, his lack of manners is due to having spent his formative years as a slave. He’ll do better. Secondly, I didn’t attack your guests, and I wouldn’t have, unless they attacked me first. And I don’t bite.”
Warlike laughed a little at that, and Stranger smiled back.
“So. Can we stay?”
“Of course. You know I never turn my back on family.”
Their family, was what she meant, the odd little clan the three of them had formed, after Stranger got Warlike and Hopeful out of Hahn, forfeiting his birthright to do so. To some, the inheritance of a city might seem a substantial thing for a fifteen-year-old boy to give up, especially for the sake of a pair of Mixer girls, with no name, and no powerful, important connections.
But Stranger’s mother had died giving birth to him, and the girls’ grandmother had been his nurse. When he was little, she had been the one to tuck him in at night and read him his bedtime stories. When he got hurt climbing trees, or came home bruised and bloodied by the fists and claws of his childhood tormentors, Granma Cherished had tended his wounds.
She had been the closest thing he had had to a mother, a friend, and to his younger, more innocent self, she had been the most amazing person on the face of the planet. That she was Sixer, and he human, hadn’t mattered to him in the least. He had loved her, and she had loved him, and of all the people in the palace, Grandma Cherished was the one who knew best how truly lonely his life had been. It had hurt her heart to see it, so on the days when they were alone together, and could leave the palace grounds without anyone following them, she had taken her young charge out of the confining formality of his father’s palace, and introduced him to her granddaughters.
Stranger found it terrible, and deeply ironic, that it had been her innate capacity to care deeply, even for the true-bred son of her human oppressor, that had eventually led to her doom.
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