In Exchange for a Scarf
Gemjo’s name was not her own.
A clever turn would have known that the moment they met the seawolf. For one, it was not a northerner name. Nor was it a name of any that dwelt beneath the clouds. It belonged to an above lander. But she wore it all the same as if it were a comfortable hand me down. In that regard it was hers and no one else’s. It was her one true possession and she clung to it greedily. Had she lost everything she could not lose that. Not so long as no one found out.
Good then she had not met any clever turns. Instead she knew four idiots. She gave them names as she traveled the narrow night laden street. There was the drunk idiot, the brutish idiot, the self-righteous idiot and the indecisive one. And now they had all gone searching in the dead of night in a foreign city for the drunk idiot. Clearly something was amiss.
Sure, Mor’de’s men might look for them and sure they might question them, but that was a slim and dwindling chance and, the more she considered just exactly what she had to do in this mad search, the more she grew tired of it. She considered the alternative and smiled to herself dumbly. She’d meet the others at the break of dawn and confess her fruitless effort. The city proved big and she, a small powerless seawolf, could do nothing to locate the man. She tried everything.
Everything in this case amounted to four bars, two of which tried desperately to shoo away an underaged half turn while the last two remained content. Gemjo did not linger to inquire why.
Luckily for her the drunk was absolutely terrible at staying hidden, unluckily for her he had a habit of wandering.
Navigating bars was another matter. Most had the basic layout. There were the seats by the counter intended for loners, tables for meetings, cushioned seats sections for groups and the back alleys for fights.
Knowing the Professor was a tall man who wore a blue hat made it easy. His distinctly terrible smell was also a lead. Had she truly tired perhaps she would find him.
The fifth bar stood tauntingly besides her now. It was a small place by the top of a hill. A seemingly endless street stretched into the night beyond where streets lamps failed. The nearest street lamp had long died out and in its place lights flickered behind the dirty windows of the bar. Shadows shifted there whilst a sign rattled restlessly overhead. She heard a heated argument or banter within, though it was hard to tell behind the wooden walls. The scent of it was more distinct, and yet strange. Among fried fish and liquor she smelled an earthy aroma. Then she saw the black clouds rolling in. Rain, she thought. Good. Rain would aide in her excuse.
The sky crackled and she frowned as the first droplets arrived. It picked up abruptly into a much headier downpour, which she evaded dutifully underneath the rafters of the bar.
The restless drumming turned into static. To her side the bar door creaked open and a few patrons stepped out. The two full turned men made quick sense of the situation, smiled drunkenly at each other and ran full long into the rain. Laughing and hooting and splashing followed their charge as they vanished into the rainy mists.
Gemjo yawned. It seemed her excuse might as well have been reality. Jumping into water as an orca was one thing, stepping into it in her regular form was another. Wet fur was bad, but mechanized wet fur was the worst.
Then she heard it. The slide of chairs, the rattle of plates, quick, incongruous shouts. She shifted from the doorway. Those sounds were the sounds of trouble.
Two voices played louder than the rest.
“Leave!” cried a man.
“But sir!” pleaded the woman who stumbled out.
“This is a bar not a charity.” The man’s voice had lisp to it and so it sounded distinctly above lander. His former patron begged with a much softer tone.
“But they’re half turns! Food has no meaning to your regular guests.”
“Aye not my regular ones no, but times aren’t regular miss. Lot more new faces here, new bellies still covered in flesh. Buy a meal or a drink and I’ll feed ya, but I got nothing for the coinless. Leave.”
The door shut rather loudly, prompting the seawolf to cover her ears. The woman in question, a full turn, was short and dressed as a tavern maid, complete with an apron. She was real pretty, but she had a tendency to admire the floor. She also seemed the type to inquire the aid of travellers. A giver of quests so to speak and those types always had knack for making lazy work hard. Gemjo shuffled further away.
“Young niss, what are you doing here?”
She sighed. Too late.
Gemjo shook her head, “No, uh-- What language do you speak here?”
“Yes that. No Cogspeak. Can’t speak a lick of it. Just that bit so don’t bother me,” she frowned as she turned, “That bit to.”
The woman’s voice played behind her like a set of chimes. It was melodious, high, and strangely warming, “You’re a half turn,” she said. “Are you… alone? Out here in the rain? O’Rat, it’s raining!”
Gemjo peaked at her from over her shoulder blade, “I’ve been alone for a long time, lady.”
She held her hand to her mouth. Gemjo frowned at the frills that lined her cuffs. At first glance, the woman seemed a beggar, but the cuffs among the whitel innings across her dress made Gemjo think otherwise.
“Rich people,” muttered Gemjo.
“Oh you poor poor thing.”
Her left brow twitched, “Weren’t you asking for my help?”
“I—well yes I was. I came here for food and could not find it. I’ll have to keep looking, but before I do I can’t leave the others alone. Not longer than I have at least. I need some turn to watch over them.”
“Me?” said Gemjo. “You’re asking a stranger? A half turn stranger?”
“I can’t pay you! But I can offer you a place to stay from the rain. A warm bed, food if I can get some later tonight. Promise, it’s just that I really can’t leave them alone. Especially not in this weather.”
Gemjo traced the visible outline of the street side with her eyes. There was a path clear of the rain under a passage of rafters, just barely clear but it would suffice.
She looked back at the woman with chimes for a voice. While the bed was tempting, she had no intention of watching over some half turns. Besides the room back at the inn was still there and more importantly empty.
She ducked into and under the next set of rafters and walked with her hands tucked in the sash of her robe. She thought her wordless exit would be enough of an answer. It wasn’t.
“What say you?” echoed the chimes.
The roar of rain parted the girl from the woman.
“Find someone else,” replied the girl.
That gave her pause.
Her foot had stopped mid footfall as if all of time had frozen there and then. No one noticed. Not Franco, not the Professor, not even Tig. And yet the woman who knew her only as a stranger saw the markings. The scar that wasn’t a scar that marred her still fleshy neck, she saw it.
“There are others,” said the woman. “Others there who share your story.” Her wooden sandals clacked to Gemjo. “Would you mind meeting them?”
Gemjo spun abruptly, “A scarf.” She blurted.
“I’m sure your people have those? Use it to wrap your neck, hide from the cold. Give me one and I’ll do it.”
“Hide your… Yes I think I can manage that, though it should take some time.”
“I don’t care. Do it and I’ll watch over whatever needs watching.”
The woman \ smiled widely, stepped long, and grasped Gemjo’s hands between her own soft metal fingers.
“Oh thank you. Thank you. Thank you! You’ve no idea how many times I’ve been rejected tonight.”
There, clasped in place as she was, Gemjo caught the first defined look of the woman. She was short, about her height with a face that seemed permanently apologetic. Tin whites made her forehead and cheeks, lead sufficed her nose, chin and sides. Her hair was black and puffy and curled to the tips of her tin ears.
Her eyes like pink loops pitted against black seemed almost at the verge of tears. Her nose was flat. It reminded the girl of Tig’s.
The woman sniffed, her hands warm against Gemjo’s, “You’ve no idea… oh. Sorry.”
She let go and Gemjo found herself frowning at the woman.
“Where to then?” asked the girl
“Follow me, follow me! Oh they’ll love you there,” she gushed pacing ahead of the seawolf.
“Where is there?”
“Oh, my manners. There is the happiest and saddest place in all Jing Mon Ceros, my home and that of a dozen other hearts, Mother Minjo’s orphanage.”