The Clockwork Sea

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Idiots Together

Three things worried Tiguak Trimbly as he sped through the autumn streets. The first was the Professor and his immediate whereabouts. The words scribbled on the dirt told him where to go, but whether it was true or not was another matter. Tig considered the possibility of a trap as he scanned the horizon. The tallest clock ship dock in Jing Mon Ceros was hard to miss, even then as he squeezed through the alley that led him to the shrine he could see it etched against the steaming skies.

His second worry was of his companions, Gemjo, Franco and Remy. If Venezio could dispatch them back at the Hungering City with little trouble then Lemini’s success would be guaranteed. Tig would meet the Professor, save him perhaps, if only to learn the others died somewhere else. He remembered the awful rows of bodies by the Heavy Hare. That could be them. The foreigner dressed in red described by Bile flashed in his mind.

His third worry was of Lemini, of why he was here. There was no sense in it, no logic. The viceroys were below the clouds not above. So why? Tig slowed by an intersection where a bakery sat on the corner and a pawnshop ahead of it. Rows of bread lined the bakery’s display behind a glossy layer of glass. Tig spied at his own reflection and realised why Lemini was there.

It was obvious.

It was for him. Always him. Whether it was above inside a whale, above the clouds, or even empires away, his family would come for him. They, the same monsters who would carelessly destroy the lives of hundreds, would go to the same measures to keep their youngest member safe. Even if meant confining him to Verace until he learned to become one of them.

On the day he jumped he had thought he had finally escaped. The truth was he had only begun his escape.

The door to the bakery opened and Tig sidestepped out of view. A blue hatted man had come out. Tig hugged the glass panel as he considered his retreat. A few above landers glanced at him, but only momentarily. Perhaps, he thought, he had a fourth worry. Mor’de. The admiral was bound to be curious why the people he had just revealed his plan to were skulking about.

The soldier coughed.

Tig blinked, peaking briefly over the edge at the turn who was sniffing and clearing his throat. He knew that man, though not as the lapdog of Mor’de he expected.

His porcelain white face and the crack that ran through it was one of a kind.

“Charles?” blurted Tig.

Charles turned to find an empty corner and shrugged. Besides him the much plumper Pratchet stepped out of the bakery.

“You seem perplexed, Charles.” said Pratchet.

“Me? Oh that. I thought I heard something a moment ago. Do you remember that Tig?”

“The Trimbly boy. Yes.”

Giggling half turns rushed by the duo. A mechanical cat purred close by and, in the distance, a factory whistled.

Charles faced his companion, “I believe I heard him.”

“Tig?” asked Pratchet as they started down the road. “I don’t imagine him being here.”

“hmpf. Exactly,” said Charles, his voice quieting with the distance. “It’s exactly why I said I ‘believe’ I’m hearing things, you dolt.”

“You don’t have to be rude.”

“Had I wanted to be rude, I would have called you scrap metal.”

“Charles.”

“Webly’s dog.”

“Charles!”

The list of insults continued as they did, each one quieter than the last until they were gone with various turns dotting their wake.

Tig breathed softly as he surrendered his hiding spot. His moon crested eyes fixed on where the two soldiers had gone. Now he had a fifth worry. Webly was here.

The inviting fumes of red meat and cinnamon wafted down. Lights mixed with shadows as strangers walked by the still open door. And on the top of the stairs where the matron had explicitly warned not to go, Kepa, Lim and Hul, poked their heads out the wall.

Gemjo staggered back.

“This will do,” the man who smelled of death turned to his companion and spoke again, “Little one, you will stay here.”

“Here?” she squeaked in her robotic tone.

The man took another sweeping look of the place and grunted.

“Will I belong?” asked the mechanical girl.

The man tilted his head low. He was blunt, “No. Given what you are you will never belong.”

The metal girl frowned severely, “oh,” she mumbled. “I see.”

The man let off another more climatic grunt and pivoted to the door. Gemjo thought it over, the danger done. Every heavy step he took accounted for four heartbeats of hers. He had some form of blade sheathed and dangling at his hip, a gun upon the other. Both handles were worn from use and the scent of blood upon the blade was unmistakable. The steps ended. Gemjo took a breath. It was over and he would be gone.

“Wait!”

The man had just ducked under the door when the metal girl had cried after him. Gemjo shook. She found the girl’s finger levied her way, “Shouldn’t we ask for her permission to let me stay?” she asked.

Gemjo swallowed. No, she thought, no don’t do that. She prayed the man would not do that, not even consider it, but to her shock, he turned. His black eyes sifted to the seawolf and stayed there. His one biological eye squinted and opened while his mechanical one zoomed and readjusted. Terrified at first, the seawolf began to acclimate. Somehow he seemed familiar. His chin, his nose, even the gleam of his black hair made her feel nostalgic, as if she had seen it all before.

He cocked his head as if awaiting an answer, and, reminded of her circumstance, Gemjo nodded madly.

“Permission? Not needed,” muttered the man. “Whatever you want is yours. If it is your will to stay then stay. Should anyone stand on your way then kill them.”

“And if I cannot kill them?” asked the mechanical girl.

“Then follow. That is the way. That is my way and it is yours.” His voice seemed to further away as he did as ducked fully under the door and left.

His wide back blocked the street view for several seconds before he vanished with a turn.

Gemjo slumped forwards. Now it was over. She felt at her neck and felt the erratic patter of her heart. She hadn’t heard it beat that fast since she spoke to the Gatekeeper. She glared at the girl. Somehow the creature that stood half Gemjo’s height had been fully turned. Her skin was iron, her hair coal. She wore a white dress while a black cloak hung over her head and draped to the floor where it pooled. Her eyes where porcelain whites with ticking, exposed clockwork where her pupils should have been.

“You,” said Gemjo to the girl the man left behind. “Tell me, did that man kill a lot of people recently?”

The girl glanced low and nodded.

“When I mean a lot, I mean atleast more than twenty,” added Gemjo.

Again the girl nodded.

Gemjo snarled and tisk’ed to the side, “Damned monster and I let him in. I think the Chitik’s bad decision making has gotten to me.”

The girl approached her hastily, “Did you say chitik?”

With a few lazy steps, Gemjo reached the girl and pushed her back by her temple. From fingertip to shoulder, the seawolf kept the strange creature at an arm’s length, “I did yes. Is there an issue?”

“Not really no. Ah, my manners,” the girl curtsied before continuing, “We learned of this place through a local inn, the Heavy Hare. It was recommended by a maid and--”

“The HEAVY HARE!?” steps thundered as an unlikely matron rushed down, nearly tripping at the last step. She panted when she arrived at the base and when the fully mechanical girl offered to help, the matron sprang up and covered the girl’s hands with her own.

“Tell me,” urged the woman. “What happened at the Heavy Hare? Why was a man who smells of death there? And- and my sister—oh—a maid who works there. Look likes me, stunning thing, was she unhurt? Was she? Please tell me. Tell me what happened to Ming!”

“Ming?” repeated the girl. “Ming… Ming… Oh. Ming! Yes she was unhurt. For now.”

“Ominous,” remarked Gemjo.

“What do you mean, ‘for now’?” asked the Matron.

The girl furrowed and unfurrowed her brows a number of times in an archaic ritual. Gemjo could hear whirrs and clicks and rolling bearings work within the girl’s head. The sounds halted and the girl focussed on the Matron.

“My savior and I left after we learned of this place,” explained the girl in a mechanical monotone, “Between then and when the authorities arrived there were others who passed us. Their clothing seemed to match a few of the casualties and I heard the woman who led them ‘capture Ming’.”

“But who?” said the Matron. “Who would do that?”

The mechanical girl blinked and cocked her head, “The woman was dressed in yellow.”

Gemjo uncrossed her arms and let them hang. “A woman dressed in yellow?” she hushed the words. “Matron--”

“Mai,” finished the matron, lifting her head to Gemjo. “Mai and I have history. If it was her men who were killed over there she’s bound to be mad. And should she find Ming… we have to hurry.”

Gemjo shook her head, “No. Not we. Just you,” she said coldly, pacing past the matron. “My thanks for the food and the bed, but I am done solving your problems.”

“Jo!” called several of the children. Gemjo ignored them, her mouth contorted in a frown and her brows lowered painfully. She convinced herself as she made out the door. This was not her problem. And no amount of false promises could it make it that way.

She had already made it a building away when the matron rushed out and called after her, “Please! I’ll offer you a place to stay.”

“Already have one,” she shouted back.

“Food!”

“That too.”

“A ship!”

Gemjo paused to that. She spied at the Matron over her shoulder. Atleast two dozen steps parted them. Turn who passed by spied at them, most leaving a clearing between the two.

“You’re a traveler, right?” continued the Matron. “Travelers need ships. Flying ships. I know a turn who can build you the best you’ll ever know. I could introduce you! Even lower the price!”

Gemjo frowned and kept moving. “Not interested,” she echoed as she waved her paw behind her.

The temporary clearing relented and a busy horde of turns filled the gap. Gemjo stared onwards, eyes half open. She cold tell the Matron had given up by how her scent had gone weak. But knowing the woman’s stubbornness, Gemjo grew sure the future gang leader would find some more formidable aid. Perhaps they would not be as smart as her, or as charming, but they would do. They would do…

Her tail moped and she cursed the thing for betraying her.

“Not my problem,” she muttered under her breath. The events the night prior, the blatant animosity of Mai towards foreigners and an admiral whose very mention was a contingency made the seawolf realise how much of a danger Jing Mon Ceros was.

Luckily she would be leaving, unluckily that departure was the longer part of a week away. She needed to bide her time, hide in safety for the remainder of it. Searching the Professor had been a mistake. Even now she kept her nose active for any signs of Franco’s fabled soap. Nothing. No Tig nor Franco nor Remy. They were still searching. She cracked a smile at the thought of an empty room. A quiet room, a room that would let her sleep for a week.

Her hands interlocked and supported her neck as she continued comfortably. The inn wasn’t very far, so she took the time to forget the orphans, forget the children with supposed scars on their necks, forget children who trusted her and followed in reverence. She decided her place was that of comfort and a well-deserved rest.

The door was shut when she got there.

The man she remembered vaguely as the owner of the place stood on the other side and grumbling. He had a crumbling lead face, purely jade eyes, and selfsame red tailcoat he wore the day prior.

Regal and shrill, his voice matched his skinny figure. “No,” he said bluntly.

“No? I am your guest.”

The man spied her from top to bottom and crossed his arms furiously, “I shall fall for no more of your deceptions, not you nor the twenty other imposters who’ve come to me in the last week. Look there.” He pointed further in and Gemjo saw a stout half turn with black hair and coat and silver jaw. From behind the glass paneling and rotary doors he looked to be a poorly outfitted Tig look-a-like.

“And there,” said the Innkeeper with a gesture at the creature who sat at Fake-Tig’s foot, “Is what you are trying to impersonate.” He frowned at her, grunted. “And poorly at that.”

One of Gemjo’s brows twitched. It was a mechanized dog with long silver hairs.

“What exactly did the admiral tell you about your guests?” she asked.

The Innkeeper snorted as if the answer was obvious, “Oh I thought you knew. Imposters these days hardly put in the effort. Ahem,” he started as he read an imaginary list. “A half turn chitik with black hair, a man dressed in blue with wild hair, a girl dressed in blue with long hair, a muscular man with sharp nose, and a silver dog.”

Gemjo ran her hand across her face, “Silver… dog?” she asked in disbelief. “Not dog. Seawolf. Report to whatever idiot gave you those descriptions and ask for clarification. Those,” she said pointing at the dull face boy and the dog who had its hind leg lifted by the counter, “those two are not even close to who we are.”

A soft trickle sounded behind the man and Gemjo pinched her nose to the stench of it. The owner had been too distracted to notice as he continued. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “The reporting officer’s been busy with some un-named search. So even if you were the silver dog—”

“Seawolf.” She corrected him a nasally tone.

“You would need to wait atleast two, no, three days before I could confirm anything you say. So good day.” He turned to that theatrically and took two triumphant steps until he realised what the other Gemjo had done and nearly fainted.

Gemjo sighed. She stood with a locked door ahead of her and city that would have her killed behind her. And worse, with no place to sleep. Well, except one.

Nearly a half an hour later she arrived at the doorstep to Mother Minjo’s Orphanage. The door clicked and swung in to her lazy knocks. Children resounded.

“Jo!”

“Niss Jo!”

“Gemjo,” said the Matron behind several squirming half turns.

Gemjo puffed, “Not a word.”

Later that day, a man the matron hired as private investigator returned with news that confirmed the mechanical girl’s report. Ming was Matron Mai’s captive. Unharmed, but as the man reported, likely not for long.

It was evening by the time Gemjo assembled the others.

Gemjo unfurled a map on the living room table. Nine children and the Matron gathered around her. The matron had risen the table through a pair of crisscrossed metal extensions with the hope that it would keep the children away. There were two exceptions. One was the mechanical girl who the Matron held up in her arms, the other was the tallest of the children, Bahu, who whispered the goings on to those that could not see.

The seawolf pointed at a spot on the map just outside a thick outline, “Based on what you’ve told me, this must be the Heavy Hare,” said Gemjo, “And this,” she continued, drawing her finger across the map to a crowded portion of it, “is where Mimi was taken.”

The Matron nodded, shouldering the girl up as as she freed one arm and tapped the map, “Mai’s place is here.”

Gemjo squinted, “That’s awfully close to where we are.”

“This was all I could afford when I started, besides, Mai wasn’t always a problem. Why, it all began when--”

“No backstory. Please,” urged Gemjo with a raised hand. “All I want to know are the places Mai was last night and how fast she moved between them. When I know that, I can form a plan, and when I have plan, we wait.”

“Wait?” coughed the Matron. “My sister is in danger!”

“Is Mai known to kill her hostages?”

The Matron lowered her head and shook it.

“Had she saw you or your sister, would she exercise her right to murder on you?”

Again a shake.

“Does she want something from you?”

The Matron hesitated. She glanced at Toji briefly before answering.

“If she does?” asked the woman.

“Then she’ll use your sister as leverage.”

“Wait. Stop,” said the Matron. “It doesn’t make sense. She might want something from me but she does not know I have it. And I’ve gone to great lengths at that to avoid letting her know I have it. It’s not possible, ludicrous. I’ve done everything right, I…” she wavered for a moment, her chin postured on her free hand. “Last night. You took the children out last night. All the children.”

Gemjo shrugged and bobbed her head, “What of it?”

Again, the Matron turned to Toji. She pointed at the boy who had refused to leave Gemjo’s side, “Did they see him?” asked the woman.

Squinting at the child, she nodded. She remembered how the boy stayed when she directed him back.

The Matron breathed hard with her gaze held low. “Beasts,” she muttered, flipping back to Gemjo. “As I’ve said, Mai and I have history. Things happened. We fought, I left, she became the new matron of our orphanage and I found my own. She thought she won, but she didn’t. I did. I took Toji.”

Gemjo caught Toji staring back at her. The thought of asking why had crossed her mind, but it would not change her plan so she decided against it. Instead, she considered why Mai did not approach the Minjo Orphanage if she knew they had Toji.

“Why?” she voiced the question aloud. “Why? Unless,” she stared at her own paw and curled it in, “that’s why.”

“What is?” asked the Matron.

Gemjo grinned at her and thumped herself on the chest, “I am.”

Her actions the night before had unintentionally caused their newest ordeal and provided them the solution to it.

With all eyes both turned and not, Gemjo voiced her thoughts, her own eyes meeting each of the other’s, “Mai will not announce Ming’s hostage so long as I am here, but she will the moment the I leave. So when I do…”

The Matron swallowed, “I will have to choose.”

Gemjo wondered who considering the matron’s less the honorable intentions for the children. In a darker part of her mind, Gemjo thought she knew the answer. One was flesh and blood, the other a means to an end. It made her sick. And she did not know why. Only that she needed prevent it. The meeting was adjourned, the council dismissed.

The day quickly passed and bled into the next where Gemjo took to the living room as she concocted her best scheme yet.

The children had taken turns watching her. On this particular near evening stretch, Yin, Bahu and Toji sat on the last step of the stairs as their eyes rolled from end of the room to the next, following Niss Jo’s pace perfectly.

“She’s doing it again,” said Yin.

“Silence, let her think,” barked Bahu.

Yin rolled his eyes, “you’re the one who said we should watch.”

“Only cause Toji was doing it,” argued Bahu.

“Toji’s hasn’t stopped watching her.”

Bahu swept his arm over Yin and held him low, “quiet!” he hushed. “She’ll hear you!”

Gmjo stopped mid pace and turned to them, annoyed. “See these delightfully fluffy ears?” she said with a gesture at her strange butterfly winged ears, “they are fantastic for hearing. Also, I don’t care if one or three of you watch, I’m used to it.”

“Sorry Niss Jo,” said Bahu with a bow. Seeing Yin smile dumbly, Bahu pressed the boy’s head low and apologised again, “Sorry. Sorry!”

With that, the duo sprang up and ran up the steps, disappearing at the last. Toji remained.

“I don’t mind being watched,” sighed Gemjo, “But I’d welcome the silence.”

Toji nodded and Gemjo grimaced at the quiet creature. She had welcomed the silence but Toji’s brand of silence was unsettling. It was if he had wanted to say a thousand things but had been made mute.

“Right,” said Gemjo, speaking for both of them with a reignited pace. “We need to get back Ming and we need some form of muscle to do it.”

She had considered contacting Mor’de for that muscle, but knowing she owed anything to the man was something she knew would cause her grief at a later date.

“Franco perhaps?” she thought aloud, “No,” she shook, “Not enough.”

Squeals and laughter played above. Little steps followed then metallic ones. The mechanical girl, the one who went by the name Mira, had quickly adapted to the children of the orphanage and the children to her. They were suspicious of her at first, careful not to get close, but when they did they became fast friends. Amidst her plan making Gemjo noticed how the metal girl had begun sharing made up stories to entertain her new friends.

She spun stories of an age long past before those below the clouds roamed the streets, when the languages their peoples spoke were two. Her tale pertained to her make belief life, of how she had been a palace maid long ago and how one night disaster struck and she found herself slowly drifting. Then of a tireless black slumber and her abrupt awakening.

Gemjo listened most closely to Mira’s description of her red hatted attendant. He was a man who gave no name, but spoke highly of his half Chitik ancestry and his yearning to understand the spirits. She called him reasonable. Better yet, a dependable protector to those like her, his successful experiments.

While Gemjo had not lingered on the subject of experiments, she had recalled how adamant the man had been when it came to delivering Mira to the Orphanage. She seized her pacing for the second time that day. The man who smelled of death was also an option.

The door flung open as she thought that. Kepa and Lim stood there, panting.

“Fight,” puffed Kepa pointing down the street, “Niss Jo you should see this.”

A rush to the door, a practiced lean out. Within seconds Gemjo could see the gathering crowds a stone’s throw down the cobble street. While most saw entertainment, she saw opportunity.

She gestured at the children to her side. “Listen, a fight is something you orphans should learn to take advantage of. Get a container, a pot, a hat-- anything, and follow me.”

After a minute’s shuffle and the topple of kitchen ware, Gemjo, Kepla, Lim and Toji left to watch the fight outside.

Gemjo led the way with a cooking pot in hand. She smelled something familiar, but it was hard to place in the presence of a crowd. They pressed through that crowd with hurried apologies and when they got to the precipice of the show, Gemjo handed the pot to Kepa.

The fight had yet to begin. Brutish figures dressed in black occupied the far end, eight in total. Slender, well-toned individuals held a place closer to Gemjo and the others. This group had only four members, but by their shifting steps and careful postures, Gemjo could tell they were experienced fighters.

She nodded to that, leaning low so the children could hear her, “This is the important bit. You see, most fights have two sides to them, so there’s bound to be a victor. You use that. Have the audience bet on who they think will win and gather the funds in your collection hat.”

Hours,” cursed a familiar voice. “Gem, are you training them to take bets?”

Gemjo frowned. Of course he would be there. Fighting in the street in a foreign state with no hope of bail was the pinnacle of stupid. And Franco Cantinio stood above that pinnacle. He was dressed the same way as the smaller group. Folded white silk covered his torso, glossy red pants hung loosely below. Beads of sweat rolled down his temple, and his eyes, alit and relived, fixed tightly of Gemjo.

“Franco,” she said, peaking at the pot then Franco, “This… This is exactly what it looks like.”

“Friend of yours?” he said, gesturing at Toji. Gemjo glanced at the steely eyed boy and saw that the other two had already been making the rounds. She could hear cogs dinging even from there.

Gemjo shrugged, “More of a charge.”

“The Professor?” he asked quickly. “Did you find him?”

She shook her head, “And neither have you. I take it fighting on the street isn’t a means to that either.”

“Bets!” cried a happy Kepa as she navigated circle of turns. Lim followed her, nervously tugging along.

Franco half smiled at Gemjo. “Nor is teaching half turns to take bets,” he said smugly.

“Right right, ok,” puffed Gemjo. “So we’ve established that neither party has done what we set out to do.”

“Oh but we got close!” chirped Franco.

Gemjo lowered her brows, “We?”

“The Professor is most likely with some performing troupe, um, Raibo’s Rats. And if not them, then I know of a very attractive woman who might have seen him.”

“Attractive?” questioned Gemjo in a monotone. “Please do continue.”

Franco blushed to the invitation. He smiled dumbly and let his nostrils flare, “Where to begin?” he said in a manner that made Gemjo gag.

“Please don’t,” spoke one of his companions. Gemjo leaned out to see him. He had a strong build, stout and plump. He was in a stance as were two others.

“Lansha’s right, Franco,” said a taller and thinner man besides the stout one, “Well he was rude, I think, but still right. We have a fight on our hands.”

The third man grunted. Bandages covered most of his body, including his mouth, leaving his clean shaven head and face bare and clearly wooden. He had glass spectacles for eyes.

“Aye that we are,” straightened Franco, jogging to the front of the group. “Lansh, Telipei, Chou, with me!”

Gemjo stepped back with Toji as the four men ran violently and suddenly into the group of eight others. Their enemies had scarcely readied themselves when Franco’s team crashed into them, giving cause for confusion and instantaneous defeats as the crowd roared in ecstasy.

It played in the manner of any roadside tussle, above the clouds or no. Both sides were unarmed. One outnumbered the other, but the difference in skill was painfully noticeable. Franco and his men kept form, his opponents did not. They moved in a well kept circle, their backs to each other. What resulted was a weird display of footwork. When one man stepped right, so did the others, leading to strange turns which swapped one enemy for another and back again.

When eight enemies turned to five, and five to three, Franco grabbed the man Gemjo assumed as the leader and landed a blow to his gut that was heavy and audible. The crowd silenced in the instant after and when the two others fell low, they cheered again.

Gemjo saw Kepa nearby and pulled her close.

“How many more betted on the eight man side?” she asked the girl.

“Twice as much!”

“Good. Then double the bets on the four man side made and keep the rest.”

Kepa nodded, “Will do Niss!”

Gemjo let her go and faced the oncoming Franco. He kept to a steady pace as he approached her, waving and smiling at his newfound fans on his way.

“You see that, Gem? I know, I know, I’ve gotten much stronger.”

“And clearly more humble,” she quipped and frowned. “You’re bleeding. You stink. You got sweat and dirt and grime smeared all over you.”

“Tis a scratch,” waved Franco.

Gemjo sighed, “Come.”

“Hah!” laughed Franco. “While I appreciate the offe—hey!”

Gemjo had pulled him by the arm. She cut through the dissipating crowds and he quit all resistance once she gestured at the orphanage.

“We need to talk, but only,” she said with a snarl, “after you bathe.”

Sounds of kitchen work played loudly from above. Dishes clanked, water ran and knives chopped. Gemjo waited on the lower floor with the three men who Franco chose as companions.

The moment she stepped into the orphanage with Franco and the others in tow, the matron had insisted on making them lunch. Now, while they waited, Franco could be heard singing folk songs from within the bath-house. He butchered the lyrics to most songs and hummed in places he didn’t.

The short, wood-skinned man had drifted to sleep slouched on the living room table. Kepa and Lim snored on either side.

From where Gemjo leaned by the wall with the stairs and Toji besides her, she kept her eyes fixed on the remaining two standing across the room.

They swapped from Gemjo to Toji and back again

“Your tail,” began Telipei in an attempt to end the silence.

“No,” shot Gemjo.

Telipei laughed, “Then your relation to Franco. Are you—”

“No.”

Telipei smiled nervously, “I didn’t ask anything.”

“I didn’t want you to.”

He laughed again, urging Lansha to step in with a telling look. When Lansha did not, Telipei sighed and gestured at the corridor that led to the bath house, “I understand you let Franco bathe here since you know him, but couldn’t we do the sa--”

“No.”

Lansha shook his head and grumbled, “She won’t answer any question, Telipei. Nor is she obligated to do so. What happens between Franco and his sister are none of our concern.”

Gemjo titled her head. Somewhere down the hall, the shower knob creaked shut and wetted steps slapped out.

“I’m sorry,” said Gemjo. “But did you say sister?”

Silence as Lansha delayed from answering. Toji glanced between Gemjo and Lansha and then at the corridor as if to confirm the resemblance when Franco got out.

“Well aren’t you?” said Lansha.

“No!” she spat gingerly. “We aren’t even the same species.”

“Oh,” said Lansha. “Adopted then?”

Telipei nodded stupidly and snapped his fingers, “I can see that.”

“How?!” cried Gemjo.

“See what?” asked Franco as he stepped out the corridor. He was dressed in one of the Matron’s pink bathrobes, which seemed to stretch far more than it was intended to. A white towel had been wrapped around he pointed hairdo.

“Why are you wearing that?” asked Gemjo, her eyes on his pink robe.

“Oh it’s fine dear,” echoed the Matron from above. “I let him!”

Franco dug at his ear as he spoke, “You heard her.”

“Right. Ok,” she sighed with a stretch, “Now that you’re here--”

“Food’s ready!” called the Matron.

Franco slapped his stomach, “Wondrous timing. I could eat a whale right now.”

“That’s culturally inappropriate,” said Telipei as he pushed himself the wall.

“A cow?” questioned Franco on his way to the stairs.

“That to.”

“Stop,” said Gemjo, “All of you just stop.”

Steps ended. A towel flopped to the floor. Franco, Telipei and Lansha paused on the stairs, then all of them, including Toji, swatted their eyes from Gemjo to the corridor Franco had come out of.

Gemjo took a breath and shut her eyes. She convinced herself that there was nothing that could make that moment more absurd and infuriating than it already was. Thinking that, she turned.

She frowned harder than she had her entire life.

Remy Le Rici stood at the mouth of the corridor. A dirtied red scarf hung from her neck.

With glance at the front door and back again, Gemjo asked the question they were all thinking, “How did you get in here?”

“Through the bathhouse window,” she answered quietly.

“Why—no I don’t want to know.”

She answered anyways, “Security. I had to survey this locale before intruding it. Standard military protocol.”

“You’re an idiot,” said Gemjo, soon turning to Franco, “He’s an idiot, his friends are idiots and I…” she sighed, “Am also an idiot.”

Franco pressed his brows down sincerely, which seemed a bizarre gesture considering how he was dressed. “Gemjo…” he hushed.

“But this idiot needs to talk,” continued Gemjo, rotating till she stopped at Remy, “with all of you.”

“Alright, go on then,” said Franco.

“No, you first,” she urged him.

“It’s a long story.”

Gemjo plopped to a cross-legged seat and crossed her arms, “We have time,” she insisted.

“We really don’t,” said Toji.

“Shut up.”

“Where to begin?” mused Franco. “Well, I’d say it started when I met the most beautiful woma--”

“Skip that part,” said Gemjo.

“But--”

“Skip.”

Franco settled to his own seat on the stairwell steps, “Fine fine. It began when I had just barely lost to Master Capicho. Why not a day passes by without me recalling the sting of his punch. And funny story that, because only a day has passed by. Now where was I? Ah yes, the pledge. It started with the pledge.”

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