Bile stared at him with an annoyed frown, “Aye I said red. Something the matter, Tig?”
“I need to go.”
Tig lowered himself off the carriage, “I said I need to go. But not before you tell me what I need to know. The night’s over yeah? Then I’ve kept my end of our bargain. Now I need you to do the same. Where is the orange man?”
“Just like that?” said Bile, her mouth quivering. “Not even a second thought, after my friends...” she shook you her, breathing hard. “You’d leave just like--”
Lucy had her hand stretched in front of Bile, “Rabbit Shrine. Far corner of the City. Do you remember where we met?”
“Follow that road instead of turning. As you go, you’ll see small posts with rabbits sitting on top. Follow the arrows of those signs.”
Tig made a second, deeper nod, “Thank you.”
“You’ll be back?”
Koto. She asked what he wanted to know himself. Would he? Ever since he jumped off that dock, nothing was guaranteed anymore. He could be where ever the hours wanted him to be, but he would not know until then. He knew now, however, that if he stayed their lives would be in danger.
A man dressed in red had killed dozens by himself. Tig knew what he was the moment he heard Red. That man had a name and Tig shared the last half of it.
“I will,” lied Tig, “But when I do I’ll find you, so don’t wait for me.”
He left with a running start. The figures of Lucy, Bile, Koto and the rest slowly dwindled in size behind him. He had to hurry.
While the performing troupe could be spared, his companions were in constant danger. Vene knew and if Vene knew the others of his family did to. Had his friends been deemed a distraction as Vene deemed them then their lives were forfeit, especially if a Trimbly was truly there.
The least he could do was find them and make sure they were safe before confronting whoever it was that ventured to Jing Mon Ceros.
Lucy’s retort played in his mind as he raced to the walls. She said he was accompanied by a little girl. That narrowed it down.
Had Bile said the man was big and broad shouldered then he could be certain. The man who attacked the Heavy Hare last night was Lenimi, the second son of Toklo Trimbly and Tig’s half-brother.
But why here? Why now? Why at the most inopportune time when they were all scattered?
He reached inside his robe as he ran. The soap was there. All he needed was to wet it to notify Gemjo and, with the rain, water was everywhere. Finding Franco and Remy after that would be easy with Gemjo in tow.
He nearly tripped as he closed in on the walls. He considered the opposite scenario. Lenimi was stronger than Vene despite being a year younger. If he chose to attack while they were all gathered he could conceivably decimate them. No, he thought as he passed the walls, he had to find the professor, get him to meet with others, then run. That was the only way.
He honed his plan as he trekked the remainder of the streets. He had to be fast. The streets were filling unendingly. Yawning faces populated the light touched stalls. Sandals clacked and splashed. The cleaners were gone and in their places untold umbrella fliers filled the skies. The steam drunk air had changed to smoke and spices.
He looked for the rabbit signs and found none at first, then, as he reached the same street where he met the Raibo’s Rats in, he saw the first sign. There he stopped and crouched to catch his breath.
The signpost stood half the height of a house high lamp post. There were no words written on its aged wooden frame, only an arrow that pointed further down the street. An off white rabbit sculpture sat on top.
Here, where morning lights grazed the dirt road and people had yet to awake, Tig thought of how he would admonish the drunk before pleading him to run. He practised his goodbye. He hated goodbyes. But he hated funerals even more.
Koto flashed in his head as he stood up to reassume his run. Mechanization was awfully convenient indeed.
He began his run. Awfully convenient. One step after another, he felt the pangs. His metal feet felt heavy in his boots. His wooden arms, heavier still.
Mechanization meant a never ending life, but only if the body remained unharmed. He wondered if Koto knew how unreasonable that condition was. People were reckless, hateful, they killed and would be killed. His own family was the peak of that madness. If turns could live forever why didn’t they? He didn’t understand it. He could not. And so he ran. He ran and ran, until his mechanized lungs pained him and his still fleshy heart beat like pistons. The world bounced in his sights.
Another rabbit sped behind him. That was third. Only houses remained ahead, marking the inevitable wall behind that in crooked rooves and gnarled scaffolding. Then the narrow street became constricting. What was once a proper street tumbled into a wide gap between houses and then an alleyway.
Produce and garbage littered the place he had to walk. It stunk terribly of rot through his un-mechanized nose.
“Awfully convenient indeed,” he muttered in a nasally tone.
The last rabbit sign had pointed forwards while the alley itself was dark and the end of it blindingly bright. He heard something squish under his footing as he squeezed through.
“Keep walking Tig,” he said to himself. “Keep walking…”
The alley ended and he squinted to the immediate light. He smelled the earthy fragrance of rainfall intertwined with the burn of candles and when light returned to him, he saw it.
It was a small shrine that sat upon a hill. The walls of Jing Mon Ceros towered above it and a smaller red clay wall fenced it. Curved arches made the entrance, open and marked with a sitting rabbit at its top. Compared to the rest of the red city what surrounded the shrine was green. Verdant. As if a forest could have grown there had it not been for the domineering houses that clung greedily to the hill’s base.
The trees that grew there were strange and gnarled things with bushels of mossy leaves that cast shadows over the hill.
The wind blew and several leaves brushed over the street Tig stood on.
He nodded to himself in the scatter of greens. This was it, the rabbit shrine. He traveled up the hill carefully. He thought of what he wanted to say to the Professor, of how he wanted to warn the man no matter what became of it.
And Tig knew he would be there. He would not have told Lucy and the others to tell him had he not intended to wait. He had to be there. He had to….
Tig paused at the last of the steps.
“Ah, a visitor.”
The voice came from within the fenced shrine. Tig placed it as the voice of the robed man who tread towards him.
His head was perfectly shaven and tin. His eyes were closed and cheerful. He had his arms crossed and tucked in his sleeves. Each of his steps were measured as he took to the boy.
“Have you come to pray to Rabbit, young one?”
Tig shook his head and glanced about as he took the first step in. “No, I’m to meet a man. He had copper for skin. Did you see him?”
“Copper? Did you say Cop—ahg!”
The tin headed man clutched his head giving Tig a start.
“What’s wrong?” asked Tig, rushing to his side. “I’m a doctor. Well apprentice, let me see!”
“Back!” coughed the man, “Back!”
Tig hesitated as long white ears sprouted out of the man’s head. No amount of the Observations on Mechanization could explain that. That was magic.
He did not know whether to run or help. The man had crumpled low now with both hands clutching his head painfully.
Then the ears vanished and with them, so did the man. Something strange and red appeared in the robes before they could fall.
Its pure ruby eyes flicked to Tig immediately.
“Tell me,” it started with a low and intelligent voice. “Why do you follow him?”
“W-W-What did you do that man?”
“You’re afraid of me,” said the figure as it rose. “But I won’t say to rest easy. Not yet.” He gestured at the chest that was not his own. “The man you saw was a medium. He’ll reappear once I go, but I won’t go until you answer my questions. Why do you follow him?”
The creature reached him impossible fast and stopped moments before gripping Tig by the collar. Its long and sharp claws curled back.
“The one you call the Professor,” he said in instant composure.
“How do you… why do you know about that?”
“His interests are my own. Answer me. Now.”
Tig dipped his head low. He felt a shiver pass him. What stood before him, unlike anything he had ever seen before, was dangerous. He had lived among killers long enough to know one. More so it was red.
“Answer my question first,” said Tig in a moment of sparse bravery. “Did you attack a small inn just outside the city?”
He frowned to that. He had hoped he had been wrong about his previous assumption, but he appreciated the answer all the same.
“We met by chance,” said Tig.
The red thing narrowed his brows, stepping closer.
“Pure chance. I was troubled and he…”
“He happened to have the ship to let me escape?” tried Tig.
The red man growled.
Tig flinched, “I don’t know, honestly,” he said quickly. “He was a stranger who had just beaten my instructor. He asked if I wanted to leave and I jumped and ever since I… by all rights I should not have followed him. He’s a perpetual drunk, caused more trouble than good and even now we’re scattered because of him. He’s given me and my companions every reason to abandon him but we haven’t. I haven’t. So perhaps there’s only one reason for it. Yes that must be it,” Tig looked the red monster in the eye, “I think I’ve taken a liking to him.”
The man surrendered a step. Then another. He kept back with head held low. For a moment he seemed to be lost in thought. Considerate even.
“Did he tell you to say that?” he said shortly after.
Tig blinked, “No?”
“Then perhaps I was wrong.” The red man fixed his robe and crouched to Tig’s height. He held out his clawed hand palm first. “I doubt you will see me again Tiguak Trimbly, but know that I am the master’s closest aide, the one he calls ‘Red’.”
Red raised a bushy brow.
“Sorry,” pipped Tig.
“He trusts you. I do not. What has he told you about himself?”
Tig stepped back to that.
“I will not harm you,” said the beast softly.
The boy swallowed, “He tried to tell me once what he was. Though he wasn’t very clear about it. Something about beasts.”
Red nodded and pointed to the rabbit sculpture on the top of the arch, “What do you know of the Twelve Great Beasts, Tiguak Trimbly?”
“That there are twelve of them,” he said honestly and with his eyes quick to the rabbit sculpture.
“Then listen carefully and only listen. Everything I tell you now you will never repeat.”
Tig nodded, his head still turned to the rabbit.
“There are Twelve Great Beasts that the people of these lands and a few others revere as divines. But unlike divines of lesser creatures, the great beasts are very real. All twelve of them. The Professor is one of them.”
Tig blinked with an immediate spin to Red, “I’m sorry, what? He’s a god?”
“Listen,” stressed the crouching man. “He is a Great Beast, the Rabbit, but to know that is nothing special. The priests here, the emperor and his court, your admiral—they all know that and I take no offense in any more knowing.”
Red squinted, “It is the second part that begs discretion.”
Before the boy could inquire, Red stretched his arms out the space around them rippled like the waves of the ocean. Something sharp and unseen cut a glowing white circle in the dirt below them and from it grew a glass-like dome that encompassed the boy and the beast. Tig saw a single leaf as it drifted beside him and outside the ephemeral wall. The leaf slowed to a still midair. The space they were in had accelerated. Tig snapped to the man before him. He knew this trick. Not only was he the Professor’s closest aide but he was also a practitioner of time magic.
“You’re aware of chromodynamics, yes?” asked the man with gesture at the frozen outside. “Then by the second law you know that I’ve just stalled you. Possibly for hours, days even.”
Tig started, “Why?”
“Discretion mostly. What I saw now, no living thing will hear. Only you,” he said pointing at Tig. “And me. So listen well. The Professor you know as the drunk, idiotic man is also…” he stalled deliberately, stretching to his full height and fashioning a grin, “The First Hour.”