The Split Path
Franco studied Gemjo then Tig then Gemjo again. He came to a conclusion with his hand as a cudgel.
“Your robes,” he started, squinting at them hard. “Are they…”
“Don’t say it,” snapped Tig, catching the slightest eye of disappointment from Gemjo. “What happened?”
“He left,” she said simply. “We got back from the baths, and he was gone. The door was open, his bed empty.”
The three stood by the doorway to room twelve in absolute silence. They thought the same thing.
Tig broke the quiet, “It’s obvious isn’t it?”
Gemjo nodded, “Aye, but as to which bar is our concern.”
“Lion’s Way,” said Franco with a snap of his fingers. “That turn said it himself.”
“And passed that? He could be in any number of bars,” said Gemjo.
“You seem awfully keen to find a man you tried to abandon on several occasions,” noted Tig.
She leaned close, making Tig step back, “And who’s fault would that new found concern fall to?”
He responded with a nervous laugh. Though had he to admit it, he did feel the slightest joy in knowing how he’d changed the seawolf for the better.
“Besides, that admiral may send soldiers our way should he learn we lost the drunk. We’d be kept up all night getting questioned if it comes to that.”
Tig sighed. Ofcourse there was another reason. Then he thought on the Professor himself as the other two deliberated on how best to find the man and how Remy had went ahead to Lion’s way.
“I’ll join Niss Ricci,” decided Franco. “My new found friends in the old men of this inn have informed me much on the matter of drinking establishments. Lion’s way, from what I could tell from our short trip here, splits into two main paths leading to a spattering of pubs and bars. There are a few more bars snug in the alleys along Lion’s Way. Gemjo, Tig, I’ll have you attend to those.”
Gemjo crossed her steel arms while Tig kept his head on his hand.
“Captain’s orders?” asked the girl.
“Yes. As for me, from whichever path I take, I’ll signal you.”
“Signal?” she scoffed. “Do you intend to light a flare at the dead of night?”
He thought on that briefly before rushing into their room with the light of revelation on his cheeks.
The sound of drawers sliding followed and Tig remained ever silent as sea wolf eyes judged him scornfully.
“Look,” he started. “I did not know. Sure there were… signs on the door, thrown over chairs, the bench, but my head was elsewhere at the moment, with all that’s happened I’m sure you’d understand.”
“Oh elsewhere’s a good way to put it. Might I gander where?”
“I know you’re angry.”
“Angry? Not really. Slightly amused and willing to wield it against you. Yes.”
He shuffled. “And Remy?” he dared asking.
She puffed to that, “Ah yes, the rich one. Complete with rich tendencies that one. You saw didn’t you? Well she didn’t. Damned girl wears her goggles to the baths. It was fogged over when we left, so I doubt she saw anything let alone a--”
“Found it!” called a puffing Franco.
Gemjo and Tig looked at it questionably.
“Soap?” asked Tig.
“Lavender. What of it?” said the seawolf.
“Good you can smell it. It gets more powerful when you pour water on it. That’s what I’ll do to signal you. Think your nose strong enough for it?”
She mimicked his favorite pose and said in an albeit lower energy type of way what he would, “You’ve any idea who I am?”
It was her second attempt and a much better rendition at that. Franco had missed it on the first but surely upon the second he would… he would…Tig frowned immeasurably. Franco had his head cocked to the side and his hand poised on his chin as he deliberated upon an answer.
“Gemjo?” he tired. “Gemjo the seawolf of, uh, clan Buka?”
So close. Tig did not know whether to more disappointed in Gemjo or Franco, yet he knew what he needed to say.
“I won’t go with you, Gem. As much as it makes sense for the man to go to the nearest bar it’s also too predictable. That’s not like him.”
“What do you suggest then?” she asked him.
“I’ll go the opposite way, towards the outskirts of the city, and should I find him there, I’ll signal Gemjo to meet me. Do you have more soap?”
Gemjo yawned and rubbed her eyes, “It’s decided then?”
“Aye,” said Franco breaking his soap in half. “We’ll see this done before the night’s end.”
They left through the empty halls of the Royal Rabbit in two different directions. Tig took the longer way out, closer to the entrance. The pompous chortles of the rich and the noble covered his steps as they emanated from the various closed doors that marred the hall. He finished the hall, crossed the entry plaza and stepped out rotating doors. The moist chill of night air instantly clung to him.
Blackness. The nights were dark upon the whale city. What clouds that would have populated the ether were now hours below him, the few remaining were black and barely visible. He saw the heavens, clear as the sea on a calm day. Even as he followed the cobble path down the way he came he kept flipping back to the blackened scape.
He thought it odd after trying to abandon the Professor on every occasion he got that he and his friends would be scouring a foreign city for the man. Though the man himself was no longer a drunk or self-proclaimed Professor. He was a mystery, a man who refused to be half as charming, and the one who made him jump.
Yet despite the chaos he brought with every action, Tig found comfort in the Professor. And now even as he was missing, the boy felt little urgency in locating the man. As if that drunk would turn up any moment, unexplained and caught in another antic. There was peace in that thought. He settled into the sleeping city with it and the air that bit him felt no longer chilly.
Stragglers, drunk and laughing, walked the widening road sporadically. Most of the city lights had been dimmed from tiredness, but there were those that remained open. The street side house or two, with jovial shadows painting the paper doors, or the stall still selling wears to those wishing to feast the night away. Yet those lights were still sparks amidst the ash, little flares that refused to snuff out. The further he went, the less that proved true. More sparks quenched, more eyes shut. Black surrounded him. In that darkness he saw shapes.
First there houses then the outlines of pagodas behind them. The city seemed larger than it was. He felt as if he could wander for ever and ever, and had he walked off the edge of the whale he would not know. If he was lost, he would not care. The city could swallow him whole.
Yet as his eyes adjusted and stars conquered the skies, he began to see the city for it was and clear of the day’s noise. It was ancient.
Newer buildings hugged the roads greedily but behind them and below, he noted the remnants of older works. The air stunk of its oldness. It was of mildew and stone after a downpour. But the oldness was nothing new from his time in Verace, a city as old as kingdoms. It was the city. It was old and yet new.
He had entered another world. Here, where the buildings were made of hollow wood and towers seemed several houses placed atop each other, he became unique. The off looks he got were not the same as those below. Here he was outsider, but not a chitik, not a Trimbly. Just Tig. A traveler, an explorer, a boy whose business was of no concern to the average turn.
He was a nobody in a world of nothing. There was peace in that thought to.
His silent musings came to and end with the road split. He took the path that led him further from Lion’s way. He wondered as tread that road into a downwards path if he could stay, if he could forget everything and start anew.
The cobble stone shifted to steps and the steps a narrow passage past many looming overhead houses.
Up-landers idling on their porches watched him pass by. He saw a cat or two prowl around, and he deftly avoided a half turned dog that yipped at him furiously as it tried to escape its tethered leash.
At the end of the steps he saw another narrow street with brimming red lanterns. Voices of laughter, mixed of men and women echoed from it and suspicious perfumes wafted low.
He went the opposite way where more households awaited him. It was quieter there. He enjoyed the quiet. But when those old houses gave way to newer ones and the street expanded extraordinarily, he knew had chosen the wrong path for what he enjoyed.
He came upon a place where lights and people and laughter gathered. It was a beacon that lit all in its confines with dozens of turns blocking the view.
Then he heard music, the thunder of drums, the pluck of twanging strings and at last the flute. He was drawn to it. Absorbed as the melody that played made him anticipate the next verse then the next, until at last he was enthralled.
He realised dumbly that it was an orchestral rendition of a famous song from below: Give Thanks to Metal.
The song reached it’s last verse and he mouthed the words that were not said.
We’ll find the cure…
We’ll find the cure…
And until that…
The final note played to resounding applause. Whistles and hoots followed.
A voice boomed above the crowds. It was woman’s, a merchant’s and a commander all, “Thank you, thank you,” she rasped. “Our traveling chorus will be at Ming’s Plaza next. Please, turns of all kinds and ages attend us there. See to this our penultimate performance, and if not, know our name. For we are…”
She paused as the other performers made to her side making three in all.
The name left something to be had, but among those who said it, he recognised a voice. Curious at first then jittering and terrified he pushed to the front in a wash of emotions. There he gawked at what he feared most. He hoped to all the Hours that his ears did not flare and, especially, that she did not see him. But ofcourse, she did. She even waved.
The performer with the stringed instrument, now gathered with her fellows, eyed him with a smile. That prompted a few of the onlookers to stare his way as they dissipated. She seemed the model up-lander by her looks. Black hair cut by her shoulders, tempered beige skin, and black eyes underneath uplifted brows that made her seem constantly at ease. Not a hint of a turn upon her, nor, as Tig hesitantly recalled, the rest of her.
“Know him?” began the center stage woman.
He dared a look and found a curt nod.
“Why yes, at the bathho--”
“Bathhousestore,” spoke up Tig. “Store.”
The centerstage woman was a tall turn with long ebony locks that flowed passed her hips. She let down to an athletic landing and stood towering over the boy. Puffed slacks and top hung from her lithe form loosely. Her clothes were dark and green against her. Her face was of a tin alloy. Wrinkles creased by her cheeks from excess smiling.
“Didn’t know they had a store for that,” she said, squinting at the boy. “But if you’re a friend of Koto’s, I will not doubt you. Me? Hah,” she jabbed her chest. “Call me Madam Lulupalalusevot.”
Tig struggled as he attempted her name.
“Or just Lucy,” said a woman besides her.
That was much easier. Tig nodded, “Yes, um, Miss Lucy--”
“Niss. Still a half turn. Want to see where I’m still fleshy?”
A wood-sandal clad foot pressed her head down as the woman who called her Lucy loomed overtop, “Mind not her debauchery, lad, she’s a strange one. Stranger still in these parts. As are you from your looks. Not from around here?”
Tig shook his head, “Verace,” he said to her slow nod.
“Never heard of it. Well too many places to hear of these days.”
“Aye,” pipped Lucy. “Best to visit them all. One at a time. So how is it a boy from Verache--”
Tig frowned. He had found Franco’s other half.
“…come to know our lovely Niss Koto Tet?”
“At the inn I stay in,” said Koto before he could. “That place I told you about. Apparently they thought I was a companion of some admiral so they let me stay.” She tapped her chin. “Though they seemed cross about it. ’Said more and more are trying the same trick.”
Rantsu’s irate nature finally made sense.
“Koto,” spoke the yet unnamed woman, “You’ve got to stop wandering into random establishments.”
“Because… because it’s not right is all. You’ve no idea how many complaints I’ve gotten of our twynet player wandering into people’s homes.”
“Some offer free food,” noted Koto.
“Aye and the others complain. Just,” she sighed. “Just stop, or the very least knock?”
“You know what I do with drums. Do they not have knocking in your country?” said the woman.
Koto, seeming aloof at the question, turned to the sky without warning and held her arms out, her twynet tucked between her arm and chest. The instrument was a double headed lute with a convergence of string in the form of a ‘v’ near the hollow base.
“It will rain soon,” she said.
“Right we lost her. You, call me Bile. Pleasure.” She pressed down on Lucy’s head as she leaned to shake Tig’s hand.
Tig accepted the gesture, scarcely glancing away from Bile’s exposed fleshy leg, which her low silk robe did little to hide. Other than that, Bile had a peculiar appearance. Her hair covered much of her face and mechanized that way, so it stayed stiff as she moved. It covered both her eyes and ears but left her silver mouth exposed.
“Bile,” said Lucy. “Foot?”
Bile smiled and shuffled her foot before removing it, leaving Lucy’s composed hair in disarray.
“Do you have a name?” asked Lucy.
“Tig,” he answered before saying anything else. “Just Tig.”
“Tig?” said Bile.
“Tig.” echoed Lucy.
The two turned to each other, and repeated his name in a third, resounding rendition.
“Yes that is my name.”
“Apologies.” Continued Lucy. “But if I may, Are you the acquaintance of full turn orange man with a black hat?”
Tig started. “You saw him?!”
“Who’s to say we did?” said Bile. “Who’s to say we’re willing let you know?”
Lucy grumbled a laugh, “Aha! And who’s to say we’ll let you know exactly what he told us to tell you for free?”
Bile sighed, “You’re really bad at this.”
“You,” pointed Lucy. “Just Tig. Work for us here and now in setting up tonight and we’ll tell you what you need to know.”
Bile firmly replanted her foot on Lucy’s head, prompting a ‘gwah’ from Lucy as she did so.
“Our regular helper’s been out with sickness,” explained the more sensible of the two, “and the crowds have been busy of late. We need any help we can get, so we’ll tell ya where to find your full turn friend, aye, but not before you help us. Deal?”
Tig turned to Koto who had returned to her senses. She seemed to be passed how they met. He wanted to thank her for that. If anything, he owed her for his earlier stunt at the bathhouse. He blushed briefly.
“Alright,” he said. “Deal.”