There was something nostalgic about the children of Mother Minjo’s Orphanage. Screeches intermingled with restless cries and the clatter of countless toppled things. Loud, that was it. Gemjo sat on the ‘warm’ bed she was promised and held her ears shut. Her frown was the smallest manifestation of her immeasurable misery.
“Better be a good scarf,” she muttered as another cry joined the first.
The room she was in was small, but large in comparison to the humble orphanage. It had one bed, one window at the foot of the bed, dresser placed absurdly far from said bed and a door for privacy. Suffice to say, the door had failed.
“Niss Jo? Niss Jo! Are you listening?” two girls about half her age and height stood beside the bed. Both were above landers. One was on the verge of tears while the other, the accuser, had a tongue that was sharper than a sword. Skinny, pale, with black hair and brown dresses, the girls could have been twins with different hairstyles. Sharp tongue had a short mushroom cut that ended near her ears while Quiet girl had long drooping hair that ended at her hips.
Sharp tongue had a decapitated rabbit doll in her arms. Quiet girl had the head held in hers.
Gemjo yawned and pointed at Niss Sharp tongue, “Right I think I understand. One of you owned a rabbit—”
“Exactly!” cried Sharp tongue.
“--And the other ate it.”
Both girls blinked. Their expressions became one for a moment, their slight agape mouths and lowered brows identical.
“What!” said one furiously while the other mumbled it.
Gemjo waved them off, “Eating stuffing’s unhealthy. Bad children. Go think about what you’ve done while I, uh, rest for your troubles.”
The girls stared at each other as the sea wolf stretched and rolled over. It was an awful thing that bed. Worse than rain. It was tough and grainy and cold. But a bed was a bed if she could sleep on it. And sleep was sleep…
“Niss Jo?” said the quieter one.
“Um, but sleeping turns don’t talk?”
Gemjo rolled back to them and the bed pushed her cheek up as she spoke, “Aye so why are you talking and not sleeping? It’s late…” her eyes rolled to the ceiling as she guessed at the time, “I think.”
“The Matron isn’t here,” declared sharp tongue, “we can do as we wish.”
Gemjo frowned, her cheek still mushed by the bed, “Not sure that’s how it works.”
“Anything we wish. Just not stealing!” declared Sharp tongue
“Rabbits are ugly,” said Gemjo. “Believe me when I say I’ve seen the worst of them, but if you insist on fighting over that drunk--”
“Er rabbit, then do it with a new one, not one that neither of you can repair.”
“What of justice?!” cried Sharp tongue.
“What of it?” asked Gemjo. “No amount of justice will bring back your thing. Besides you’re orphans, shouldn’t you be used to owning nothing?”
“That’s why,” said the quieter girl, clutching the rabbit head tightly. “That’s why it matters.”
Gemjo studied Quiet girl. It was the quiet ones who had the most to say. The quiet ones who had the loudest voices when it mattered. Perhaps the girl had glimpsed the truth of it. That it was the rich who owned things and the poor that lost to them.
For a moment Gemjo spied at their necks. Nothing, not these two, but she felt the need to confirm what she could.
“Did the Matron say anything about me when I got here?” asked Gemjo as she sat up on the bed. “When she whisked you lot upstairs?”
“No,” said Quiet girl. “Just that we could trust you and that you’d watch over us.”
“I see. Then know that I have a lot more in common than you then you think,” Gemjo reached out and messed the heads of both the girls. “So trust me when I say owning things will only make you sad. True, having a decently sized purse is a necessity, but only for the things you truly need. Food, place to sleep. None of this luxury.”
“So what?” bit back Sharp tongue. “You want me to forgive her for stealing my rabbit?”
“I owned it before though,” whimpered Quiet girl.
“You pawned it to me for cogs remember? You really wanted that sweet puff so I graciously lent you the money. Taking it back without paying your dues, with your owed compounded interest by the way, that’s a felony, a sin without a deed done to compensate. Three years mandatory prison or face judgement by the Arbiter upon plea.”
Gemjo stretched her frown. This girl knew her laws. With her hands still on the younger girls’ heads she turned them back to her and looked them squarely in their eyes, gold against black.
“It seems you’ve both blundered,” said Gemjo. “Aye one of you stole it, but it only broke because you, the ‘victim’, clung to it too tightly.”
“Only because she clung to it just as tightly.”
Gemjo sighed, released them and levied a claw at the headless rabbit in Sharp tongue’s hand, “There are seams there. Signs of a recent repair. You held it where it was weakest.”
“You’re both at fault. Forgive each other and let me sleep.”
Gemjo slung back on the bed and gestured them away with a backwards wave. The light patter of their feet followed and then quiet. Well relative quiet. The others were still awake and boisterous and no doubt on the verge of seeking her council.
Gemjo yawned, made tired by the mere thought of it. It would be a long night unless the Matron returned. But it was not the door at the front of the house the half asleep Gemjo listened to while she lay there, it was the chatter of two little girls who were just at each other’s throats.
Her ears twitched. Every sound from the movement of dresses to the nervous breaths and the tightening of rabbits painted a picture in her mind. She saw through the sounds she heard and smiled.
Quiet girl sniffed. She handed the rabbit back to Sharp tongue with something of remorse pocked upon her.
The broken rabbit crumpled as it exchanged hands. Gemjo heard the hesitation in sharp tongue’s voice.
“This… I… but it’s…”
“Niss Jo was right,” said Quiet girl. “I’m sorry.”
“No… I,” hairs swished as the girl shook her head, “I’ll have the Matron repair it when she returns. Then… maybe… I’ll let you play to.”
“But you still owe me. I’ll decided the method of payment on a later date.”
Gemjo pressed her paw against her head and shook it.
“I don’t know what you mean by payment,” said the other girl. “But sure!”
Gemjo sighed. Poor stupid girl.
A pot shattered in another room and Gemjo sighed again, this time loudly as if to make a point. She sat up tiredly and shuffled back first off the bed.
She saw the two girls ogle at her she stretched to her full height.
“What?” she yawned, “Never seen a sea wolf before?”
“Oh we have,” said the Sharp tongue, “But we never thought we’d see you rise from that bed.”
The quiet one nodded zealously.
“Alright well you’ve seen it, now don’t expect it again,” Gemjo blinked, “Until I leave of course, which, hopefully, should be soon. How quick does your matron sew things?”
“Sew?” asked both girls.
Gemjo’s ears flopped, “Great. I’ve been scammed.”
Another pot shattered and her attention swapped to the floor.
“Hours, how many pots do you lot own?” asked Gemjo as she made to the door.
Sharp tongue shrugged as she answered, “Two?”
The creak of the door was quickly interrupted by a running pair of half turns, giggling madly as they sped down the hall. One tripped near a corridor and proceeded to bawl as if that outcome wasn’t inevitable, while the other watched her fallen companion, gaggling uncontrollably. Gemjo rolled her eyes as she quickly recalled the layout of the place.
It wasn’t very big, certainly not enough to delegate rooms for each child, not even pairs. There were eight children after all and only four bedrooms. The upstairs had a large dining area and kitchen with adjacent bedrooms for the matron and guest, while the lower floor hosted the two other bedrooms, a communal bathhouse and a central living space that greeted visitors.
Gemjo paused midway through the hall connecting the guestroom to the matron’s room and the dining hall. The shattering came from below. It was hard to tell at first by the old moss carpeting and brick walls but the more she recalled it the more sure she was of it. She glimpsed into the dining hall once she reached the corridor.
Looming over the still downed half-turn, she saw no signs of a mess.
“Downstairs,” she muttered to the noticeable lack of crying.
She spied at the boy who had fallen before she left and found his own constantly adjusting telescope eyes fixed on her tail.
“Your tail,” he said in awe.
Gemjo frowned, swishing her tail out of view, “Don’t touch.”
The girl who had been running with him snickered and Gemjo coolly walked to the end of the dining hall where shallow, spirally steps led to the first floor. It was dark there.
The orphanage had as little lights as it did accommodations. Glass lamps with candles flickering within lit up most of it, splashing dim yellows across the maroon walls. Some of the lanterns had died leaving considerably darker spots within the building including one of the steps leading down.
The dark of it engulfed her in one moment and surrendered to light the next. Her metal steps echoed loudly as she descended.
Even with little light, she found what she sought the moment she stepped onto the first floor.
Two boys stood in front of the scattered remains of expensive looking pottery. Gemjo stretched her frown.
The boy who had been named ‘Bahu’ crossed is his arms as she neared. Sleeves that were too long for him stretched well ahead of his hands and even as he was forced to crane his head to look upon her, the face of defiance did not escape him. Brows narrowed, frown stubborn and jaw clenched, the expression the boy named Bahu wore now did not fit his chubbier features.
“We won’t talk,” asserted Bahu, “Not without Hul.”
“Yes… yes! Hul speaks for us!” said Yin, crossing his arms in an attempt to mimic his large companion, “Hul know everything about laws, she’ll save us.”
Gemjo leaned close, glowered even.
“The law won’t save you,” she said.
“Y-yes it will!” said Bahu.
Gemjo raised a steel brow, “You stuttered.”
“I did not,” he fought back.
“Fine, not. But you broke that vase.”
“What if I did!” puffed Bahu. Gemjo fashioned a smile, stretching back to her full height, while the boy slowly, surely realised his blunder and made a wane attempt to mask it by cowering his mouth.
“Bahu, you dummy,” shook Yin.
“Look it was an accident. Yin and I were playing a game, ‘Punch that’.”
“I don’t like that game,” admitted Yin.
“It’s quite simple,” said Bahu, “You punch something soft and dare your opponent to punch something harder. First one to cry loses.”
‘Punch that’. Gemjo could not think of anything dumber, though remembering Franco she realised she had. That game and the idiocy it entailed reeked of something the muscle head would do. Relish even.
“Usually nothing breaks,” added Bahu, “but recently... well…” He pulled back his sleeves.
His fingers had mechanized into brick members with wooden joints. He curled them in and out and looked back at Gemjo. His narrowed brows relaxed, “I didn’t know this would happen, Niss Jo.”
Gemjo scratched her head and cursed to the side. She glanced at both of them then the remnants of the vase, “Does this happen often?” she asked.
“Well once before with Mimi,” answered Yin.
Bahu took a breath and patted his chest, “But I’m not scared like Mimi, Niss Jo. I won’t run. I’ll… I’ll turn myself in.”
“Bahu!” gasped Yin.
Gemjo’s ears twitched, “Run?”
Yin nodded, “Yes. Mimi, the girl who broke a vase the first time, ran away when she did it. She’s always been scared considering her dark place.”
“Dark place?” she asked, standing straight.
Yin gestured at his neck, which was clean of any marks, and Gemjo knew.
“We’re not supposed to talk about it. Matron told us so.”
“Where is Mimi now?” she asked at last.
“Her room I think?” answered Bahu.
Gemjo turned to where scarce light coloured the lone corridor in placid yellows.
“On the left,” said Bahu. “I’ll be fine, right? The matron won’t punish me, right?”
Gemjo ignored, took a step and stopped. With a turn and slight frown, she thought to ask the burning question, “What of the second vase?”
Both boys looked to each other then back to Gemjo, “Second?” they asked at once.
Whether it was out of sheer ability on Mimi’s part or the boys had been distracted, no one had noticed the youngest half turn of Minjo’s Orphanage rush out and into the pouring streets where midnight awaited.
There was a shattered vase in the room she shared with the three other girls, droplets of blood and worse, a letter of confession written hastily and out of shame. Mimi was gone.
Rain hammered against the orphanage’s rafters. One of several lights snuffed out in the living room quarters and seven children sat cross-legged by a knee high table. The three girls were dressed in dark brown dresses and the four boys in brown shorts and shirts. Gemjo paced by the other side, her tail swishing madly then methodically.
“I should go search for this girl,” she began, “BUT if I do one of you may run out.”
One of them yawned and Gemjo snapped to them, “no yawning!” she cried, feeling awfully hypocritical. “I can’t leave without knowing for certain you’ll all stay. Therefore, we’ll search together.”
“In the middle of the night?” asked Hul, thrusting her decapitated rabbit up.
“In the rain?” continued Hul.
Gemjo slowed her pace, “Yes…”
“With seven,” said the girl as she patted her chin, “well, eight half turns? It seems rather irresponsible don’t you think?”
Gemjo took a breath, “As irresponsible as it was entrusting me to watch over all of you. But here we are, tired, and left with little choice.” Gemjo had been studying the children as she paced about. None of them were particularly remarkable and she was certain the one she was most curious about was also the one that ran. Well there was Toji, the last of the children she met that night who had come out to the halls rubbing his eyes once she realised Mimi had run.
Like her, Toji wore a scarf. It was a faded red thing that hung loosely around him. For as small as Toji was, two things leapt from his image the moment she saw him. First it was his mess of black hair that doubled his head and then the scarf that doubled that.
She looked away from him as her mad pace came to an end, “Honestly what is with tonight and having to search for turns!”
“You’re searching for someone else?” asked Quiet girl.
Gemjo frowned at her, “Yes, but not important.”
“Well,” said Bahu, the first to leap to his feet, “If we’re going we’ll need our outdoor clothes.”
“Oh yes. Very much so,” agreed Yin with a start away from the table.
Hul was the next to stand, already barking orders half way up, “Kepa, get the bags, Toji help Yin with the covers. Lim, you stay with Kepa and don’t cry.”
Lim, the boy Gemjo recognized as having fallen in the hallway upstairs, was sniffing even then. The girl that was with him, she realised, was Kepa.
“Long story,” laughed Kepa tugging Lim along.
“Hul,” said Yin working by the nearby closet, “I don’t think Toji will get the covers, you know how he is.”
Hul nudged her head at Quiet girl, sighing all the while, “Then hold on. Saja and I will help.”
They were off a moment later, working tirelessly at their assigned tasks. Gemjo stood still, awfully contempt with the happenings, which, to her pleasant surprise, had not involved her.
The shadows of children rushed by. The hinges of the closet yawned and jackets rustled. Little cries joined the orchestra as orders were barked from the small yet commanding Hul. The rain pressed on all the while.
“So,” started Gemjo, staring down at the one boy who had not moved. “You like scarfs?”
Toji rolled his darks eyes to her. Then he shifted his scarf until it covered his mouth. From there, he watched her quietly, expressionlessly. And she loathed him for it.
“You like words to?” she asked with a twitch of her lip, “The spoken kind?”
“Found them!” shouted Yin.
Before long the troupe of half turns returned assembled by the table, all dressed in yellow coats. Toji was the last of them to wear the murky yellow thing.
Hul, who Gemjo assumed to be the leader, offered him the jacket almost religiously and he accepted it, his dead eyes unwavering from Gemjo.
“Right, we can go then,” said Gemjo making for the door.
Brick fingers tugged at her shirt and she turned to see Bahu with one more yellow jacket under his arm.
“No,” said Gemjo, “I am not wearing that.”
“It’s bigger, and it’ll cover your expensive dress niss.”
“To be fair, this dress is not mine.”
“You stole it?!” gasped Saja.
Gemjo sighed, “Ok fine, it is mine.”
“Then wear,” he offered it again.
Gemjo eyes panned over the crowd of imps before stopping on Toji. He had that same blank face about him. His dead eyes were piercing. She glowered back and she snatched the coat.
“We’ll be quick,” she said glancing at the closet. There was one more coat waiting there. She pointed at it. “I assume that’s Mimi’s?”
They left to the backdrop of misty lights and rushing rain. Gemjo, dressed in a yellow jacket, marched ahead with two lines of six to eight year olds in tow. Two lines that started with Toji and Hul who insisted on holding both of Niss Jo’s hands.
Normally that would have been a non-issue, but Gemjo needed a way to track Mimi. That left the unfortunate seawolf with little option other than to hold mimi’s jacket with her teeth.
Worse she was certain Lim was determined to touch her tail, which left her muffled, disarmed and swishing her tail in distracted attempts to keep it safe. Worse yet, the rain had not relented. With every murky step she took the more and more she realised how much she had blundered.
The only upside to any of it was how quickly she caught Mimi’s scent. The girl smelled of jasmine and mints, a trait, as Hul told her, that stemmed from her love of the matron’s soaps. Gemjo sniffed the air by the intersection to Lion’s Way.
She was close now.
Gemjo could almost predict where she was. Three houses down, right through an alley and there. Gemjo squinted at the final spot. Tall houses blocked her path, red roofs trickling with rain water in the wetted dark.
Gemjo tossed her down the street, “Fvhat Fvay,”she muffled.
She took steps and hastened.
The children looked to each other to the abrupt start. Hul tugged at her hand, “Jo, Niss Jo, what’s wrong?”
Gemjo lowered her head. Among the odour of rain, iron, and wood she sniffed sweat. The oily sweat of full turns. Three men and a woman. It mixed dangerously with the jasmine. She was running now, the other barely keeping up, those she tugged tripping every so often.
The three houses passed by in a blitz and she dug her heels into a turn by the alley, splashing water upon stone. There she ran headlong into the narrow alley lit only by the buildings overlooking it until the silhouettes of four figures and a shorter fifth came into focus.
The splash of her steps ended with seven others. She let go of the children.
“Go,” she warned them, waving them back, “I’ll get you later.”
“Later?” said a woman from ahead of them. She tapped to them with high backed shoes, appearing only within the alley light when the last of the children, save Toji, had fled.
The woman was tall and beautiful, a model up lander. A silk dress graced her form in splendid yellows marring Gemjo’s own murky ones. A tapestry of black hair snaked over the dress, stretching from her breasts to a well-kept head. Yet from there, where one would expect a face sublime to match the body rested a scowl that ruined it all. As if her visage were an ink stain on parchment, her face seemed drawn, villainous, cruel.
The woman postured herself with one hand on her hip, the other hanging loosely with draping sleeves covering it whole. Lights from the buildings above reflected brilliantly off her porcelain skin.
“Later will be a lot longer than you think, dear heart,” her voice sounded groggy as if she had just woken up. “You are to come with me.”
Gemjo cocked her head, “I don’t think so.”
To that, the villain gestured behind her and three men Gemjo had smelled vividly stumbled into the light. They were burly and mechanized into the same brick and wood compounds that Bahu was starting to turn into.
One of them held a weakly thrashing tangatta girl in his arms. Toji started to that and Gemjo sniffed. The strong scent of jasmine confirmed.
Yet then came the surprise, the one she had not smelled. One of the thugs had tugged on a rope hard and to that footsteps sounded.
Gemjo narrowed her eyes when the other end of rope came to light. It was a blue coat, one of Mor’de’s men and one gagged with more rope. Something, amidst the constant downpour of rain, buzzed upon him but it was faint. She doubted the man’s captor heard it.
“Two?” muttered Gemjo with her head tipped down.
“Were you expecting less?” said the woman. “One you chased and the other chasing you.”
“What do you want for the girl?” asked Gemjo.
The woman cocked her head, “You. Specifically what you know. What you’re hiding. This soldier you see, he doesn’t like talking, which is a problem because he seemed very interested in you. Now why is that?”
Gemjo shrugged, “A pervert perhaps.”
The man snorted aggressively, making the three larger men chuckle.
“Silence you three!” shot the woman. “I am trying to negotiate our next pay.”
The three grumbled a nigh simultaneous apology, “Sorry Matron Mai.”
“Matron?” hushed Gemjo.
“Look,” said Mai. “It is an easy question and, Beasts be damned, a question regarding foreigners that I’ve all but lost the patience talking to. All I wanted was to see my darling Bile. What I got? Needless intoxicated flirtations from foreigners, a damned conspiracy, and babysitting. So if you refuse to go with me then tell me and tell me now, why are these men after you? And why should I be interested?”
Again Gemjo shrugged, “Don’t know honestly. Best bet is that it has something to do with Mor’de and his pl—on second thought I do know, but that information may cost me my life.”
Mai flashed a dagger under her sleeve and smiled devilishly at Gemjo, “We can make you talk. Half turns are easier to convince after all.”
Gemjo remained un-phased. She glanced behind her and saw what her nose already knew. Two more men had blocked her exit. The rain drummed on.
“While you do have a point miss,” started Gemjo as she stepped forwards, “I have a feeling I would not be so easy to convince.” The light of the overlooking buildings was brightest where she stood now. Nothing was hidden. Not a hair on her head nor a scar on her flesh. She pointed at her neck making Mai and her follower flinch. Even Toji showed some concern at the mark she now brought attention to,
“Turns like me you see,” continued Gemjo, “we’ve been through a place that would make your convincing a happy break. I’m sure you’d understand.”
The tangatta whimpered, “Niss Jo…”
“So should you truly want answers I’d say you found your man,” said Gemjo with a claw outstretched at the blue coat, “Him.”
Mai dipped her chin towards the tangatta, “We could just as easily kill the girl.”
“I see. So I haven’t convinced you then,” said Gemjo holding her arms to her side. “Well then there is another matter. Right now, you are at my mercy.”
Mai crossed her arms, “And why do you say that?”
“Mor’de is watching me. I am his guest. While he is a soldier, easily replaced. If I choose to tell him of this transgression you are done. Matron Mai was it?” Gemjo started paced to one wall and back again, her eyes remained fixed on Mai. “Alternatively, if I end of up slain or tortured you are still done. Don’t think an admiral of the Imperial Navy would lack the resources to solve a simple murder. But,” she said with a stop, “should you free the girl and let us go, I can overlook this,” she turned to the man still confined and squirming, “All of this.”
“You’re… you’re bluffing,” cried Mai, pointing at Gemjo then turning to the others, “She’s bluffing!”
“I could be,” said Gemjo. “But if I’m not…”
Mai stumbled a few steps back. Scrunching her nose and biting her nails, she peered nervously into wooden walls around her.
“Damn,” she swore after a second’s thought. She snapped her fingers and the man holding the Tangatta let her go. Splashes echoed as the matron spoke on, “Fine. Fine! Take your damned half turn. But if you’re lying.”
Gemjo welcomed the girl in a one armed embrace, “What if I’m lying?” asked Gemjo.
Steam escaped Mai’s ears and she waved them off, “Leave. Go! I’m done with these ridiculous games. I don’t want to see you or any other foreigner you hear me?”
“Yes yes I hear you. Well sort of.”
Mai groaned, “What?”
“A gesture of good faith if you will,” lied Gemjo pointing at the device buzzing on the man. “That there is a tracker. See how it buzzes strangely? Low land technology that. It’s the sort of thing that works off of, uh, clock engines. So long as you keep it on you, the admiral will learn of your position.”
Gemjo paused hopefully. It was an absurd and one easily undone if the matron knew even a splinter of how clock engines worked, which Gemjo did not.
Mai narrowed her eyes at the sea wolf. Gemjo smiled. But it wasn’t enough. The woman had grinned and held her hand as if she saw through this the sea wolf’s true bluff, “You really think I would fall for--”
Squirming. All eyes fell upon the man who had begun squirming the moment one of Mai’s men had taken the device.
Moments passed to the soft trickle of rain as the cut throats held a quiet conference. Their suspicious glances and worried expressions said it all. They could not afford to take the risk.
So Mai grumbled and grunted at the man to toss it over. And when he did, Gemjo caught it easily.
“Leave!” shouted Mai.
Gemjo gave them a bow and turned simultaneously. She grabbed Toji and Mimi by their hands and ran out. The other children saw them in their mad retreat and joined in a joyous ruckus as they rushed down the street and the next, stopping only when they arrived at the orphanage.
All nine of them flooded in, clamoring for air, laughing then clamouring for more. Yet once again Toji remained the exception.
“You did it Jo, you did it!” bellowed Bahu.
“A days’ worth of cheers for Jo!” demanded Hul.
“Jo! Jo! Jo!”
The spattering of eight, seven and six year old celebrated in a flurry of mad laps, jumps, cheers and even tears while Gemjo found refuge at the foot of the stairs. There, she fixed on the Tangatta girl who Saja had been attending with careful bandages. Gemjo squinted at the tangatta’s neck.
There were no marks upon it.
“Don’t run,” she warned the girl.
Mimi nodded, “I won’t. I promise. It’s just the vase… I heard a noise and I… I.. backed into it. I didn’t mean to… I only… meant—Jo,” she sniffed, “I’m sorry, niss Jo! Please. Please forgive me!”
“Look, not my vase,” said Gemjo. “Maybe the Matron’s but she doesn’t seem the type to punish.”
“Exactly,” said Bahu, flinging his arm around Mimi. “You’ll be fine Mimi.”
“I… hope,” she trailed.
A few of them snickered to that, then more followed until the lot of them were hooting again.
Toji ended it, “Why?” he asked in his strange unpracticed voice. “Why did you leave him?”
Gemjo yawned into her palm. Toji, the boy who seemed so adamant in not talking, seemed ready for a fight the moment he did. If so, he would not win it.
“Because I valued my life and yours above the servant of my enemy,” said Gemjo.
“That’s not right!” cried Toji.
“Toji…” hushed Hul.
Toji scrunched his brows and spoke on, “No. We left him to die. I know what convincing is. I’m not a child.”
Gemjo shook her head, “And here I thought you were the mature one. You are a child,” she said sternly, “as am I if you’d believe it. That man and the one he serves are not. They are greedy, full turns, and if they choose to endanger your life then don’t let them.”
“You’re making me tired with your stupidity. I think I deserve a rest,” she decided as she stood up, “As do all of you. Go to sleep and when we awake we’ll handle this mess, understand? And you.”
Toji grumbled at her designation.
She spied at him with edge of her eye, “We already had one runaway tonight. Should you do the same, I won’t save you.”
To that the boy hid his snarl underneath his scarf and stormed into the boy’s room. The door to it thundered shut, signalling, as Gemjo thought, his response to her command. Gemjo made up the stairs and finished them with a final glance at her makeshift rescuers. The mood had sufficiently been squashed and perhaps that was for the better.
By the time she retreated to her bed and laid in it exhausted, she could already hear the sounds of half turn wishing each other good night and the rustle of blankets. In a matter minutes the restless Minjo’s Orphanage became one of complete silence.
With her yellow coat reutilized as a blanket, Gemjo drifted.
But only half so.
She watched over them in half sleep. It was after all the power of sea wolves to always maintain guard. She saw the night rush into dawn, the rain fade and the shadows of the matron below the door as she paced down the hall. There was the cheerful reception of turns that got up to early, the sizzling of something fried and delicious, the sound of rushing water as baths were had and little by little came the static of the town outside.
She heard couriers reporting of outrageous stories, of an inn struck by marauders, she listened to the whistle of steam from hundreds of houses, the rattle of wheels from passing by wagons.
The lone window she had in her room betrayed her when morning came. It let in light and the shadows of turns that flew under umbrellas. She turned restlessly to that and soon morning became noon. But Gemjo wanted to rest all day. A week even.
But of course that was not going to happen.
“Jo. Jo! Niss Joooo!”
“What!” barked Gemjo.
One of the children sat on the other end of the bed. Kepa. Gemjo somewhat remembered her from her frizzled brown hair and smattering of freckles. She sat over the seawolf ’s legs with her hands over Gemjo’s stomach.
“I suppose,” shrugged Gemjo, frowning at where the half turn was sitting. “Soon as you get off me.”
“Haha, but you’re so warm.”
“No fun,” she pouted, before leaping off cheerily. She laughed and giggled and called after the others who cheered ever louder as she ran out of the room to where they waited.
The door she had so rudely left open, let in the many conversations of children and matron that left Gemjo unable to rest.
She stretched surrendering to her awakening. The Matron was bound to have questions. As had the seawolf for her.
She had not forgotten the title the cutthroats had for their leader. Matron. Had it been a coincidence, it was a damn good one. She stretched one arm then the other.
Just as she slid one leg out of bed the device she had cleverly stolen started up in stuttered breaks.
“Bargaining chip found at ter—one tower—requesting—aide—”
Gemjo cocked her head at the device. She knew what it was the moment she heard it go off the day prior. It was a communication device. One that was far advanced than the current written version. The sound had been dialed extremely low, most likely, she gathered, by the soldier once he realised he had been caught. Gemjo had reversed that change before she slept and now it seemed to be paying off. Mostly.
“Bargaining chip?” she queried aloud. She thought on the meaning. It had to have been a code of some sort. A thing? A turn?
The clamour of utensils and a practiced chant of her name interrupted her thoughts.
“Jo! Jo! Jo!”
“Little cretins,” she mumbled with a snatch of the device. She shook her head, leapt off the bed and met the demands of her roaring crowd.
Yin was in the hall leading to the dining room when Gemjo arrived. He nearly jumped when he saw her and she surmised he was the ‘scout’ the others sent to spy on him. She grabbed him by the back of his shirt collar before he could run off.
“Niss jo?” he asked nervously.
Gemjo leaned close, “You said Mimi had her dark place. You pointed at your neck.”
“Well yes her dark place. That’s where her body’s turned completely to flame. You know? How Tangattas mechanize to fire and slowly vanish once they complete their turns?”
“Ah,” she said releasing the boy, “That.”
No. She did not know that.
Yin scampered off with a bow and Gemjo found herself shaking her head and following after him.
She nearly tripped when she got there. When the Matron promised a feast, she meant a feast.
Plates upon plates of fried fish and pickled greens conquered the long dining table. Scents of garlic, cinnamon and hint of sage assaulted her senses. It led to a seat opposite to the Matron who sat at the head of the table. All the others seat had been taken by happily chatting half turns. The moment she sat down, carefully sweeping her tail to the side, Bahu slammed an already picked plate in front her and she swallowed to the sight of it.
White rice, fried mackerel, pickled cabbage, a side of steaming green soup and slices red beef awaited her.
Kepa introduced a finger long stick of taffy to the platter as a dessert and pointed at Lim who a little ways down the table close to the Matron.
“Lim cooked. Try it won’t you? It’s really good,” said Kepa.
“Suppose I will,” said Gemjo before grabbing the nearest beef slice and ripping into it. The children leaned in to see her eat as if it were spectacle, ’ah’ing and ’ooh’ing all the while. Toji and the Matron did not.
The boy had his arms crossed and he had barely touched his meal while matron seemed content with watching her guest eat.
“Is it good?” asked the woman.
Gemjo nodded and spoke with a mouthful of beef. Meaty shrapnel fired from her mouth, “Exceptional.”
“Fantastic,” hummed the Matron. “Think of it as thanks for what you did for little Mimi.”
Mimi shied away from the unwanted attention. Gemjo spied at the weak flames that flicked from her neck.
“Oh,” mumbled Gemjo flapping a slice of beef at the Matron. “That reminds me. The villains who captured her also called their leader ‘matron’. Why is that?”
The matron smiled, coking her head slightly as she kept her eyes very narrow, “Because we are the same.”
Gemjo swallowed, “What?”
“We are the same,” she repeated cheerily. “You must be unawares to how our country works so let me explains to you the basics of it.”
“Spare me the tutorial,” waved Gemjo.
The Matron pressed her mechanical fingers together, “Alright then here’s the short of it. In this land you can commit as many sins as you do good deeds. So you may steal a loaf if you give a loaf,” she said with a hand held out, the other soon to come, “Kill a man if you raise a child.”
Gemjo focussed on that second hand as if held the weight of what she just said. She wondered if the matron’s wrist would snap from such a load.
“Hold off,” said Gemjo, “Do you mean murder is legal here?”
“For those that are parents, guardians and matrons, yes. That is why organizations such as this often become successful in the years to come.”
The implications disturbed her, bittering her food. That table of eight happily chomping half turns could someday turn into a criminal organization. The sea wolf bit into a mackerel and waved the other at the matron accusingly, “That’s twisted lady.”
“It is balanced. Land is limited above the clouds but our mechanized lives are not.”
“Nay, twisted. But who am I to talk? Or care,” she glanced at Toji who looked away. “I’m here for a scarf after all.”
“And a scarf you shall have,” affirmed the matron.
Knocks intruded the meal and when a score of the half turns clamored to get it Gemjo and the matron both pushed out their chairs and stood. The half turns quieted, their eyes ogling up to the giants.
“Please,” said the matron, “You are a guest. I insist you--”
“You said murder is legal did you not? Then know that the man awaiting on the other side, though he might be innocent in this country, still stinks of death.”
The matron held her breath. With eyes thrust at the stairs then back at Gemjo, the matron spoke hurriedly when she released the bated thing, “Children, do not go down,”
Gemjo made for the stairs.
“That means you to, young niss,” ordered the matron.
Gemjo grinned at her from the top of the stairs, “You lot are really unlucky aren’t you?”
“As will you be should you answer that door!” cried the matron.
“Someone has to,” said Gemjo. “I doubt a turn who smells so heavily of killing will settle for ‘no’.”
“You said it yourself, he stink of death.”
Gemjo shook her head and started down, “Aye, smells of death,” she called back at the bottom, pacing to and soon facing the door where the outline of a broad shouldered man darkened the fogged glass door, “and of Verace.”
She turned the knob and the broad figure outside became defined and red. He towered above her. His head as bulky as his hidden body, but chin sharp and chiselled. He had the skin of chitik girl, not quite dark yet not quite fair. While beside him stood an actual girl, one around the age of the half turns a floor above yet completely mechanized.
The man took a step forwards forcing Gemjo back. His red hat, which had been too tall to enter, flattened against the door ceiling even as he crouched to enter. He dusted his box like shoulders and glanced around.
The girl who had nervously followed tugged at his coat but Gemjo barely noticed her. It was the man who smelled of Verace and death that held her unflinching attention. Half his face had mechanized to an intricate apparatus of dark metal clockwork while the other remained untouched, and eerily veratian. His crooked hawk like nose served as the unholy marriage between flesh and metal, where his humanity ended and the machine took hold.
And when he spoke, she shivered. He had a deep artificial voice. In it there was menace and lethargy all at once, a rumbling melody. It buzzed and churned. Gears could be heard clicking where the jaws moved to let whatever it was within his unknowable mouth articulate his words. Gemjo stepped back.
“This,” he said knowingly. “This will do.”