While the city slept, its armies did not. Night had just fallen. The blue coats marched down the dimming streets and into clock ship towers, where a number of ships took off in quick succession. They split in unknowable directions, quickly vanishing behind increasing cloud cover.
At the same time, the personal troops of the emperor led a raid on Matron Mai’s orphanage. The turns that glimpsed out their windows and eyed the soldiers and police run down the road thought it was a matter of time. The redcoats had only rebelled a week ago.
Rumors began of an official purge of the orphanages. Those rumors gained traction as more and more turns saw the increase in soldiers around Mai’s orphanage. Rifles clamored. Orders echoed. Streets upon streets were barricaded and on the other side there was terror.
Most of the black coats did not understand the sudden mobilisation. Over the span of a night they had been made enemy of the state. There was confusion amongst their ranks and arguments more.
Scores of turns surrendered before the fighting began, and when it did, it lasted barely a night. The Emperor’s troops moved in mercilessly, many having lost comrades in the struggles against the red coats. They aimed for their heads.
Like clockwork, the fire of guns repeated throughout the night. It could be heard throughout the city.
Gemjo had been pacing in the orphanage hall. Half turns pattered above. Franco and Remy had been gone for sometime as a part of the emperor’s assault force. They fought under Capicho’s school as well as a number of other schools.
The deal Gemjo made had been a tenuous one. If Mor’de’s confrontation with Remy told her anything it was that the admiral could not be trusted. More so, the emperor let her keep the box. Now that box sat on the table, momentarily letting out commands of faraway soldiers. There was value in the box that Gemjo used as proof. It let her know what Mor’de would do and going forwards that was essential. Everything else within the city she could detect.
First there was gunfire. Then there was the smell of black powder. It engulfed the streets in the hours of the tussle and Gemjo knew it would. Tig’s scent that she so desperately clung had vanished within it. Her senses were dulled. She was blind in five ways instead of one.
When the shots silenced, Gemjo stilled. It was in these moments, these seconds captured in ice, she felt at the peak of her desperation.
Anything could happen during a fight. Anything.
The door clicked and her worry vanished. Three figures appeared by the door. It was Franco supported by Telipei and Lansha. Franco’s face was mess. Tears streamed down his cheeks and kept streaming. He signaled the other two let him down and he tumbled to a ball.
“Franco?” started Gemjo. “How did it… go?”
The grown man glimpsed at her, sniffing madly and balled, “Terrible.”
The Matron rushed down the stairs, deadfaced once she reached the last steps. “Then Ming…” she trailed, her black eyes wetting, “She’s dead?”
Telipei smiled at Lansha who shook his head. The two split to the sides and a woman walked through.
The matron wiped at her cheeks and leapt into the woman’s arms where the two embraced tightly. They spun in circles and when they stopped, they parted only at an elbow’s length and embraced again.
“Oh beasts,” sniffed the matron. “Oh Rat, oh Rabbit, oh Pig and-- and even dragon! You’re alive!”
“Sister,” said Ming. “I’m so sorry. I led them to you. Mai’s men were looking at me when that man asked his questions and they mentioned you.”
“Hello,” waved the girl.
Ming parted fully, glancing between her sister and the girl, “Oh. She’s so… small.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything,” said the matron sternly.
“Oh but Ling you must!” clamoured her sister.
“Must do what? Add another mouth to feed? I have scarcely the resources or the help to handle these eight, let alone handle a ninth.”
Ming shrugged, “What about me?”
“What about you?”
“Well the place I worked is… out of order at the moment. I could help you in return for a place to stay.”
“So then what was said is true? There was a massacre?”
“Oh Rat, bless their souls.”
“What’s a massacre?” chirped Kepa from up top.
“A bad thing,” answered Ling, “A very very bad thing.”
“Most of the turns that were killed were Matron Mai’s boys. They say she was supposed to hold the funerals tomorrow, but I don’t think they can now...”
“Never liked Mai,” muttered the Matron.
“But it’s horrible what happened to her.”
“What? The raid or the massacre?”
For a moment the two smiled at each other before hugging again.
“Missed you,” hushed Ming.
The two entered their own little world while Gemjo returned to the balling Franco. She frowned at him and decided to ask his two more sensible companions.
“Simple version?” started Telipei. “We won. Never expected the Emperor to have been so motivated in attacking Mai nor would I ask why, but his forces settled it quickly. Our people found Ming amidst the raid. She wasn’t harmed.”
“And him?” asked Gemjo, gesturing at the broken Franco.
Telipei bit his lip, “Ah that…”
“That, below lander, is what happens when a fighter prioritizes lust over his fistwork.” said Lansha.
“I met my beloved,” wept Franco,” B-but she was… she was…”
“Mai,” finished Lansha.
Franco wept even harder.
Gemjo crossed her arms and raised a brow, “You fell in love with Matron Mai? The former most wanted turn in all of Jing Mon Ceros?”
Breathing deeply, Franco stumbled to his feet and pointed at Gemjo viciously, “You wouldn’t understand true love.”
Gemjo bobbed her head, “I hope not.”
“True love,” he continued, “Is something far more pressing than any manhunt or tinker. True love is the essence of happiness. Without it we’d be—oi, you even listening?”
Gemjo recalled how he had asked that same question the day prior. She shrugged this time, “No. What about Remy? Did she find them?”
The girl in question passed through the open doorway as she said that.
“No,” she said quietly. “I searched the empty streets in the confusion just as you said to. I saw no traveling troupe.”
Franco wiped at his cheeks, “Why did you say to look for the troupe again, um, Raibo’s Rats was it? Why them? Why would Tig be with them?”
“Makes sense,” shrugged Gemjo, pacing with her arms crossed, “They’re the only ones who traveled to all the places I sensed the smell. Also, had the Professor truly been with them, Tig would have a reason to follow.”
“And with the cleared streets, your best chance to find them would be during the fight. Clever girl,” said Telipei.
“Seems they’re better at hiding than I thought,” said Gemjo. “Which is why we look again tomorrow.”
They shared a nod, all of them exhausted.
They spent the night in the orphanage. Matron Ling insisted they should. The guest room where Gemjo shared half a bed with Remy was soon a crowded place. It housed not just the two girls, but also Franco, Lansha, Telipei and Chou, who arrived later. The three students of Capicho slept cross legged with their backs to each other in one corner, while Franco hogged the other, weeping softly a he remembered his beloved.
The lights were out, but Gemjo could see hints of it lining the gap under the door. She heard muted chatter of the Matron and her sister beyond that. She imagined the two had a lot to talk about after the week’s events.
They were sisters after all.
Gemjo shifted and her back pressed against Remy’s. She felt movement and sighed.
“You’re awake?” she mumbled at the soldier.
Seconds passed before she answered, “Can’t sleep.”
Gemjo rolled her eyes, “Listen, what I said about Tig, it’s not that I care what he is to you. It’s just… well you’re a liability.”
“I follow because the Professor is there.”
“Yea and I don’t get that.”
“Why not?” The sheets shuffled behind her and Gemjo turned to the sound.
They became face to face. Gemjo’s golden eyes reflecting upon her blackened goggles.
“You’re the same as Tig,” hissed Gemjo. “You both follow that drunk and it gets you nothing but trouble. Why?”
Remy shifted to her back, “I can’t say. But he owes me something I want, and I intend to collect.”
“Money? Is that it? You high society turns are all the same. You may move in the same direction as us, but don’t think we trust you.”
“I don’t expect you to,” said Remy.
Gemjo snarled and toppled back to her other side until she faced the open side of the room. She stayed silent for some time but by the breaths Remy took she could tell the girl was awake.
“We do make exceptions, I think,” said Gemjo after a pause. “I don’t like you, but if Mor’de keeps you from that side of the law, I’m sure… I’m sure that idiot over there will be the first to defend you.”
Franco snorted between sobs and snores.
She heard Remy breathe a laugh and she forced back her own smile. Then the sheets crumpled as the soldier returned back to her side. This time, Remy had gone to sleep. The light chatter outside had also hushed, the lights to. The window rattled slightly to the autumn winds and if she listened hard enough she could feel the heartbeat of the creature the city slept on.
It was like thunder slowed in time, impossibly low and quiet. She listened to it as she drifted to her false sleep. Thoughts of Tig’s disappearance and the raid and its effects filled the gaps left by her waning consciousness. What could happen, what most likely would, Gemjo felt she had a plan no matter how unlikely.
She wondered then if the others would trust her again. If that was her place in the small tribe they had assembled.
“It’s family,” spoke Remy again. “I do it for family, not money.”
Gemjo dipped her chin. When she was sure Remy was asleep, she reached up out the blanket and touched her neck. Her hand stayed there, tracing the scars. Remy’s words seemed to distract her from any plans she could concoct. It played and played on repeat. And for some reason, she smiled. Below the covers, her tail swished.
The company of six split in half come morn. Caphicho’s students, Lansha, Telipei and Chou left ahead for the school while Remy, Gemjo and Franco took to the streets.
The children gathered to wish them goodbye.
Ling and Mign stood behind them. The cries for ‘Niss Jo’ were quickly silenced by Matron Ling. Gemjo knew their’s was a momentary departure.
She nodded at them, shuffled a few heads. “If all goes well,” she said. “We’ll find Tig, the Professor and meet back here.”
“We’ll have food for you,” promised Ling.
Gemjo narrowed her eyes, titled her chin, “And answers I hope. Mostly, about where you got your money.”
“Money? What money? Ling?”
“Long story, Ming, but a story I suppose I’ll have to give when your saviours get back.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be back as soon as we can,” promised Franco. “You’re going to love Tig! But be sure to keep your distance from the Professor.”
“Why’s that, Co?” asked Kepa by the door.
Gemjo smiled at the freckle faced girl and crouched to her height. There she bared her fangs and spoke menacingly, “Because he devourers children.”
Squirms and shrieks filled room and Ming struggled to collect the children. Matron Ling remained, smiling briefly.
“You will return, won’t you?” she asked quietly.
The three glanced at each other and gave her a nod.
“Promise,” said Remy.
From the orphanage the three traveled to every point the scent led them. They began at the Royal Rabbit then traveled to southern ends of the city near the red light district. They traced the roads closest to the walls, ventured out near the boarded off remnants of the tavern Ming worked and found their way back into the middle networks of the city.
At some point, Tig’s scent seemed to half and the remaining bit had traveled all over the city. They followed its trail religiously. They saw signs of the night’s struggles, broken barricades, splintered wood, even bullets where turns worked at cleaning the mess.
A morning of searching turned into nearly a day when they came across Lion’s way. There and then, when hordes of pedestrians surrounded them in the busiest street of Jing Mon Ceros, the one trail became two.
That made her pause just long enough to realise the first trail was close to its end. Close enough to see instead of smell. She strained her eyes on the place where the scent led her and there she saw them.
Sitting cross legged on the street side were two full turn women and a half turn girl