“I remember you,” Ekon says, folding his arms across his chest while leaning against the countertop. “The man with the beard. Akil.”
Other than Ekon, two enforcers and Akil, Akil’s restaurant is empty. The moon has barely risen. Outside, a few people walk on what is left of the sidewalk. On this side of the street, everything is pretty much intact. Across the street, it is ruin and debris. Ekon has not begun cleanup of the area he had demolished for his forthcoming castle.
Besides a glance, Akil has not looked at Ekon or the enforcers who have their laser weapons drawn. If the restaurant owner is afraid, it is not evident. He wipes down the counter he is behind with an ease in his movements. Ekon watches the quiet man curiously, waiting on a question, a remark, a gesture. Nothing comes, so Ekon continues.
“The day my project started,” Ekon says, pointing toward the wreckage just outside the door, “you helped that crazy fat lady. Did you know her?”
A pause. Akil keeps his eyes on the counter but answers the question. “I’ve seen her around, but I don’t know her.”
“Then, why help her? I could have had you killed for treason or for pure entertainment.”
“That’s what we do here in Grot. We help each other.” Akil puts down the towel he had been using and leans on the black countertop. “As interesting as it is to have you here, Speaker, the restaurant is closed.”
“I’m high speaker,” Ekon says, correcting Akil.
Strolling around the establishment, Ekon runs his hands across the rough tabletops and admires the furnishings. Everything is clean and authentic. Ekon hates antiques, but the ones here have appeal. These things will look great in his castle.
“I apologize, High Speaker. Now, if you’ll let me get back to my business,” Akil says with some aggression.
“Is this your father?” Ekon says, stopping at a portrait. He looks between the painting and Akil. “I see the resemblance.”
“He was my father. He was killed.”
“I heard about that, and the person who killed your father has been properly disciplined. He was suspended without pay for two days.”
Akil’s nostrils flare and his jaw tightens. It is the most emotion Ekon has seen from the man since arriving here. The anger in Akil excites Ekon. He can see Akil is a fighter. Ekon respects a fighter, even if he will have to kill him.
“Your father colluded with and aided two fugitives, one being my lovely sister, Bahati,” Ekon says.
Akil does not flinch at the name. “I’m sure my father had his reasons,” he says flatly.
“But were those reasons worth dying for? Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll be honest with you, though. I have evidence you too aided Bahati.”
“What if I did?”
No denial. No begging. No asking for mercy. Akil’s response takes Ekon off guard. Ekon loves it, though. There will be no back and forth dance of truths and lies. Akil shoots straight and is too proud to be afraid.
“I like your attitude. Coming from me, that means the universe,” Ekon says, circling back to the counter. He and Akil are now just inches apart, separated by the bar.
“The feeling isn’t mutual, I’ll be honest. It’s hard to like a man who’s done his best to ruin a city, my home,” Akil says, not missing a beat.
“What’s done is done. Nothing I can do about it now, but there’s something you can do.”
“What might that be?”
Picking his teeth, Ekon dislodges a piece of flesh that has bothered him for days. The greyish meat dangles on the edge of his nail. He holds it up, examines and then swallows it. Akil frowns in disgust, and Ekon grins, thrilled by Akil’s.
“Your father gave his life, choosing to protect enemies of Yabisi rather than help arrest them. His fate does not have to be yours,” says Ekon, letting the insinuation sink it.
Akil wipes down the last glass cup and sets it on the rack behind him. “So, this is about give and take? I give you something, you give me something?”
“Exactly. A cooperating captive told me Bahati gave you a journal that belonged to my mother.”
“What if she did?”
“Give me the journal, and my enforcers and I will walk out of here like none of this ever happened.”
“Before or after you kill me?”
Ekon spreads his hands, grinning. “That depends on you.”
“Regardless of what you think, I’m no fool. The moment I give you that journal, you’re going to murder me. If I don’t give it to you, you’re going to murder me,” says Akil, shrugging.
Ekon laughs. He could have ended this a while ago, but this is too entertaining. Akil is defiant as anyone who has not had his claws ripped from his flesh one at a time. Ekon feels good, seeing Akil behave this way and not realizing how bad things can get for him.
“Very perceptive of you. Glad you could read the context clues. Since we’re being honest with one another, you’re right. How you die is up to you. Speedy and painless or slow and hard,” Ekon says, split tongue gliding across his lips.
Akil nods slowly, that knowing quietness settling upon him again. He seems as if he will say something at any moment, and Ekon leans forward in anticipation. He is intrigued by not knowing what Akil may do next. Ekon has encountered all types of fear, yet Akil’s silent fearlessness is something alien.
“This morning, when I woke up, I did not expect to die. Everyone knows they’ll die one day, but how many of us get to choose how we die?” Akil says, his palms sliding from the counter and disappearing. When they come up, he is holding a foot-long knife. “Not many, but I will.”
“You should have seen it,” Ekon says, stopping at Imani and Bahati’s cell. He grins at everyone, including the two enforcers who are with him. “I thought he would scream or at least tell us where the journal was. He never did.”
“Maybe because Akil wasn’t a coward like you,” Bahati says, spitting on Ekon between the bars.
Ekon’s enforcers draw their weapons, but he holds out a hand. They immediately put their weapons away. Ekon is in total control.
He wipes the spit from his face, still grinning. “When I’m done with this vote on Experiment G-Three, I’m going to pull every tooth from your mouth and make you eat them.”
Imani is incensed but says nothing. She puts a hand on Bahati’s elbow, attempting to pull her away from the bars. Bahati is too strong, and her feet are set. She shakes free of Imani’s grasp as if flicking off a bug.
“Don’t give him any attention. At least he didn’t get the journal,” Imani says.
Ekon pulls the brown journal from his pocket. It is dotted with patches of fresh blood. “Humans are so stupid. Of course, I got the journal.”
Imani scowls. “Did you have to kill him to get it?” she asks, her voice raising.
“Actually, no. Halfway through torturing him, the journal fell from his pocket. You know how I am, though. Can’t start something without finishing it.”
The callousness in his voice challenges all the patience Imani has. She stares at Ekon, seeing nothing but evil in the reptilian. It feels like she is in a nightmare, watching herself watch him. She can she her own mouth drop in disbelief, can see the smirk on his face and can smell the blood on the journal.
Imani is all cried out. She has shed more tears than she can count, and not one has done her any good. No dead person has been brought back. Ekon has not lost power. All she has gotten in return for her gloom is greater gloom and depression. She is barrel of despair reaching its maximum capacity.
She wants to say something or make a threat at least. Her words would be worthless, though, no more useful or true than if she spoke them to a deaf woman. So, she climbs onto her metal slab and turns her back on Ekon. She can not stand to look at him.
“When am I going to get out of here?” Imani hears Creo say.
“How do you like your new roomie? Is she alive?” Ekon says, walking to Creo’s cell.
“She’s in and out. But what about me? You promised if I got you information on the journal, you’d let me out.”
Imani jumps to her feet, but Bahati is already screaming a Creo. The betrayal runs deep and pinches new nerves in Imani. She is angry and confused. What is he talking about? Creo, the man she trusted, set them up. Her foolishness is evident. She never should have run her mouth about the journal’s location.
“How could you turn on us, Creo?” Imani says, feeling herself about to cry.
“Creo, you coward,” Bahati says as loudly as possible. Her words ricochet off the walls and throughout the corridor.
“You’re the coward. You should have cooperated with High Speaker Ekon from the beginning, and my city wouldn’t have been torn apart,” Creo says angrily.
“I swear, you better pray I never get my hands on you.”
“There’s a bunch of hostility here. It makes me uncomfortable,” Ekon says, grinning. He elbows his enforcers. “Can’t we all just be friends.”
“Ekon, you’re no one’s friend. That’s obvious,” Bahati says. Then, she aims a finger at Creo. “But you, I thought you had some self-respect.”
“It’s not about you. It’s about Grot, my home. You’re the reason for its fall,” Creo says.
Imani watches Creo, and he has never looked more like a snake than now. He reminds her of a cobra, big head hidden in plain view. His treachery angers and exhausts her.
“Do you hear yourself? You’re in cahoots with the same man who leveled the Low District and may do as much to the High District. He threatens the whole Yabisi,” Bahati says, hands tight on the bars.
“I’m still standing here, little sister,” says Ekon, making a sad face.
“I made a choice bigger than you. I chose to help my city any way I can. If that means watching you and your girlfriend be killed, so be it,” Creo says, unrelenting.
Ekon’s brows come together, as if finally seeing the whole picture. In the gloom of the dim light, Imani can see understanding glowing in his eyes. His ever-present grin blossoms into a full-blown smile. It chills Imani.
“I knew you two had an odd friendship,” Ekon says, approaching their cell. “But a human and a reptilian as lovers? That’s an interesting dynamic. Are you two girlfriends?”
Imani bites her lip, says nothing. Since the time Bahati said not to label what they have, Imani has not given much thought to what she and Bahati are. They are friends who do more than what friends do. Their relationship is at best complicated. So, she prepares herself, waits for Bahati’s denials, anticipates the “She’s not my girlfriend” reply. It will hurt Imani, but she will get over it.
“She is my girlfriend, and I love her,” say Bahati unflinchingly.
The statement is as true as it is unexpected. The frankness of it takes Imani’s breath away. It stuns her and uplifts her, making her smile. She lifts her head a bit higher, tries to get a better view of Bahati who is staring down Ekon. Imani sees no fear in the other girl. All that is there is defiance, the same defiance that has defined Bahati forever.
“I’ve been questioning my own sanity. Compared to you, I feel I have nothing to worry about,” Ekon says, confusion in his tone.
“You have everything to worry about. You’re destroying Yabisi. The cowards in the capital may not go against you, but the rest of the world will,” Bahati says, pressing her face through the bars.
“I think you’re wrong. If you’re right, that means I get to make an example of the disobedient peons, and I will.”
“High Speaker, we had a deal. I’m ready to leave this jail,” Creo says, interrupting.
Ekon turns slowly, as though Creo has suddenly reappeared. “We did have a deal, but I think I’m going to hold on to you a bit longer than expected.”
“That wasn’t the deal. The deal was, I get you information on the whereabouts of the journal, and I’d be set free.”
“Deals change,” Ekon says, leaving with his enforcers in tow.
When he is gone, Bahati bursts into spiteful laughter. “You thought he’d let you out of here? You idiot. You made a deal with Ekon, the man who has no conscience.”
Creo sits on his slab opposite Stella. “He’ll let me go. You’ll see.”
“You’ll be scraps of flesh whenever that happens, believe me.”
“I don’t believe you. I believe Ekon. Wait and see. I’m going to laugh when he kills you.”
“You’re likely going to die first,” Stella says, coughing. Her voice is weak and raspy but sure.
Stella sits up, and moans with the effort. She is a tall woman, taller than Creo but thinner, muscular and toned. Imani guesses Stella exercised a lot before being jailed.
“You’re a bigger fool than Ekon,” Stella says, looking at Creo.
“I’m no fool, and if I were you, I’d be careful with the words I choose. I’m a decorated former commander of Yabisi’s Interstellar War Fleet, and I won’t let a humanoid disrespect me,” he says.
“If what you say about being a former Fleet commander is true, then you know your main focus is defending your planet.”
“That is what I am doing.”
Stella shakes her head slowly. “I heard the whole conversation earlier. You are not protecting the planet. You’re protecting yourself.”
Stella says nothing more, her eyes on Creo. He turns his back and lay on his slab. Coming to the bars, Stella’s eyes meet Imani’s. The other woman’s hazel brown eyes comfort Imani.
“How are you feeling?” Bahati says, standing beside Imani and eyeing Stella.
“I’m alive, but that isn’t saying much when I’m Ekon’s prisoner,” says Stella, coughing.
“How did they capture you?” Imani asks.
“I don’t really know. I was at home drinking water. I started feeling strange. People in black, I don’t know what species, burst into my home. I put up a fight and woke up here. What about you?”
Imani and Bahati tell Stella their whole story, holding back any details or plans they do not want Creo to know. The two girls pick up where the other left off, keeping a rhythm as though reading from a script. Some parts are too hard for Imani to recount, and when she chokes up, Bahati takes over. It is a tale that takes and hour and a half to recite between Stella’s questions.
“We have to stop Ekon,” Stella says solemnly. Then, disregarding Creo’s presence, she gives her plan to escape.