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pudding in your hands

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Saeko has a problem.

Her problem isn't the heavy bag bouncing against her back as she runs. It's not the cobblestones that catch her boots and make her stumble. It's not even the people swearing at her as she blasts past them, or the stands of expensive junk she keeps bumping into, or the shrieks of red-faced merchants. Nor is it Futakuchi’s usual shit definition of an easy job, or what’s-his-face being a no-show. No, her problem is a much simpler one: she's being chased.

She must have at least a dozen guards on her tail, which she thinks is a new personal record. They're all dressed in the garish emerald green of Iron City's elite guard, though she can also spot the red plume of a squad captain when she glances back. Damn, she's really done it this time. She can't wait to spin stories of this epic escape at a tavern later—as soon as she actually manages to escape.

She wheels around a corner and spots, to her delight, a large group of people huddled around what looks like a puppet show. She happily barrels through them, knocking a few out of her way and onto the ground. She tips over the puppet show backdrop for good measure.

Creating chaos cost Saeko precious seconds, and she just barely starts running again before the guards turn the corner. She runs down the center of the street to plant a false trail, then ducks to the side, doubles back, and hides in an alley.

She was hoping the alley was open, but it's blocked by a wooden fence. No problem, she's jumped dozens like it before. She takes a running start and launches herself at the fence, but she miscalculated. It's too tall, her arms are not long enough, and she's too winded from the smog from nearby factories sticking to her lungs. Saeko just barely grabs the top of the fence and her body slams into it. It's all she can do to keep herself from falling. She hears footsteps, freezes, turns her head. Guards run past. She doesn’t risk pulling herself up. She scarcely breathes. She's done it, she successfully shook them, she’s home free—

One glances her way.

Saeko hoists herself up the fence, on a windowsill, and up to the roof before he can finish raising the alarm. She feels too exposed on the roof, but she knows from experience few guards would dare follow her up here. Too many complaints from property owners about ruined windows and chimneys and such. Saeko likes the citizens of Iron City's priorities.

Her bag thuds rhythmically as she runs, her prizes clinking against each other. Saeko is just thinking she prefers the clay tiles of cities to the unstable straw and mud of smaller country villages when she jumps to a building with a tin roof—and slips. She falls.

Saeko lands in a soft pile of fabric, her first lucky break of the day. She rolls out of it, poised to bolt, and finds herself in a sleepy courtyard. At the center of the courtyard is a large, babbling fountain. Bright flowers fill the air with fragrance. It’s the only place she’s seen outside of the mayor’s quarters that isn’t bland, grey, and utilitarian. Saeko sees a few people milling about, mostly under awnings, and none seem to have noticed her yet. Good. Her luck is holding.

The courtyard has only one exit she can see, under a large archway. Saeko makes her way towards it casually, hoping all these fancily dressed people won't notice her ratty clothing and dirty face. She squeezes her bag closer to herself and grins. She's almost to the archway, she can taste freedom—and guards march in and spot her.

“It's her!” One of them says, pointing at her. “Get her! She threw a flowerpot at my head!”

“I did not!” Saeko shouts back, but then she notices he’s got dirt on his shoulders and, oh yeah, she did nail a guard with a flowerpot when she was leaving the mayor’s house, didn't she? She doubts he’ll listen to her explain how it was an accident and how she didn’t mean to elbow it over the balcony, so she turns on her heel and runs the other way.

There's no easy way to climb the walls for a repeat escape to the roofs, so she axes that plan. She looks frantically for a second exit she may have missed, but doesn't see one. She could try to fight off the guards with the knives she always keeps hidden on her person, but she's been up since before sunrise and has been running for ages. She's too tired to put up a fight.

Saeko doesn't want to do her final plan, but she has no choice if she wants to escape. She makes a sharp turn and heads for the fountain. The only person nearby is an old woman with her grey hair up in a braided bun and wearing an elegant green gown. Saeko grabs one of the woman's arms and twists it behind her and wow this old bat is taller than Saeko thought. Her original plan was to hold her knife to the woman's throat, but she'll have to settle for pressing it to her ribs.

“Don't move,” Saeko says, loudly enough the guards can hear her. They stop half a dozen yards away. “I’m taking you hostage. Do what I say and you’ll be unharmed.”

“Oh my,” the woman says, and Saeko realizes she's not an old woman at all. In fact, she looks around Saeko’s age. Her hair isn't even grey, it's an ashy platinum blonde—a foreigner, maybe. Worst of all, she doesn't look scared.

“Sis!”

Saeko’s head swivels to look at whoever just shouted, and finds and equally tall boy who is obviously related to Saeko’s hostage. He looks significantly more shocked than his sister does.  

The woman shushes her brother. “It's okay, Lev,” she says. “Don't worry about me.”

The guards don't know what to do in a hostage situation, so they try saying, “Let Lady Haiba go,” and, oh no, Saeko is holding a noble hostage? Her situation continues to get worse, and she can't even reassure herself with the tales she could tell because no one in her right mind would believe her.

“If you make one move, she dies,” Saeko says. She presses her knife into the fabric of Lady Haiba’s dress.

The guards freeze, which is good, because Saeko is queasy just thinking about how close she is to accidentally stabbing her hostage and how she's so tall Saeko's arms are falling asleep. She guides Lady Haiba to the archway. Thankfully Lady Haiba offers no resistance, which almost makes up for the awkward angle Saeko has to hold her knife hand at. They pass a few more guards, who all let them pass without a problem.

So far taking a hostage has been easier than breaking and entering. Saeko’s heart starts to calm, and when the adrenaline rush wears off she’s left with exhaustion. They walk down the street, and once Saeko is in sprinting distance of city limits, she pulls her hostage behind a building.

“You’ve been great.” Saeko puts her knife back in the sheath on her arm. “Wait here a minute before going back, will you? Thanks, hope to never see you again, bye!”

Lady Haiba grabs Saeko's arms before she can run away. “Wait! You aren't here to kidnap me?”

Saeko stares at her. This noblewoman is out of her mind. “No?”

“Don't say that!” Lady Haiba says. “You're kidnapping me, and then we’re going on adventures! It’ll be great.”

“Taking someone hostage is different from kidnapping them!” Saeko says. “No, no, I am not having this argument. I’m escaping. Goodbye.

“Please?” Lady Haiba grasps Saeko's hand in both of her own. “Pretty please? With sugar on top?”

Saeko can hear guards starting to organize. A bigwig must have realized how poorly they handled the hostage situation. She doubts she can pull the same shabby trick twice. She throws her tired brain through weighing the pros and cons.

“Fine,” Saeko says. “You can come along. But you have to listen to everything I say, got it?”

“Of course!” Lady Haiba looks so excited she's beaming. “I look forward to learning from you!”

Lady Haiba bows, and, not for the first time, Saeko regrets taking this job. She sighs heavily. “Whatever. Just follow me, and don't talk .”

Lady Haiba nods and mimes zipping her lips. Saeko can't imagine anything good coming from this, and plans on ditching her in the woods outside the city.

.

“No, this job was a disaster ,” Kamasaki insists. The bruise around his eye looks progressively more purple the longer this one-sided argument goes on. “She shouldn’t be here!”

“What are you talking about? It was a riot,” Futakuchi says. “It went spectacularly bad but we’ve still got the goods,” he gestures to the table, which is covered in jewels and silver and other finery Saeko stole for them earlier in the day. “Stop taking it so seriously.”

Saeko yawns. Normally she’d be in the fray and throwing down in her own defense, but she is too damn tired. The argument is good for her, though—neither of them have noticed the slight bulge in her pocket. Lady Haiba leans over and whispers in her ear, “Was he really that guard back in Iron City?” Saeko nods. Lady Alisa purses her lips. “And did you really...?”

“Nail him in the head with a flowerpot?” Saeko says, loudly enough that Kamasaki’s eye twitches. “Yeah. It was an accident, but it wouldn’t be one a second time.” Her knocking him out explains why he wasn’t there to provide cover for her escape, but she thinks Lady Haiba has gleaned that much already. Given enough time Saeko will find a way to blame Kamasaki for this.

“This is the perfect opportunity,” Futakuchi continues. “They're gonna be looking for her, which means they’ve forgotten we robbed half of ‘em blind today, and if you bring her back then the head honcho will overlook your little mistakes today, blah blah blah, next week everyone will forget about it and we can steal something else.” Futakuchi pauses, then points at Saeko. “Not with you, though. You're public enemy number one.”

Saeko feels a spike of irritation. They've been talking about Lady Haiba like she's not there this entire time, and now Futakuchi decides to diss his best thief to her face? Unacceptable.

“Not my problem,” Saeko says. “I’m going to crash, you two duke it out some more.” She stands. Lady Haiba stands as well, and Saeko glances at her. She has the same pleasant, vapid smile on her face she's worn since they trudged out of the woods, muddy and bug bitten, and stumbled into the Datekou Inn. Kamasaki raises objections to them leaving, but Lady Haiba doesn't spare him a glance.

Lady Haiba’s expression slips into stress as soon as they duck out of the hidden meeting room and into the empty kitchens. “That was...” Lady Haiba pauses. “Unpleasant.”

“A little...” Saeko agrees. She jiggles the heavy bag of coins Kamasaki reluctantly gave her and grins. “No big deal. I got what I came for.” She quietly touches her pocket with the tips of her fingers.

Lady Haiba frowns. Saeko can tell she's about to say she doesn't want to be brought back to Iron City, and thankfully Saeko spots some movement just outside the kitchen and calls out, “Hey, Aone! Come here for a second!”

Aone, tall, intimidating, kind-hearted Aone, steps into the kitchen and looks at her quizzically.

“Could you get Lady Haiba a change of clothes and show her the baths?” Saeko asks. Aone nods. She adores him. Saeko turns to Lady Haiba. “Aone’s a good guy, he’ll get you set up.”

Lady Haiba dresses herself up with her fake people pleaser face and smiles at Aone. She looks beautiful and poised, despite her hair coming loose and the tears all over her nice dress. Aone nods at her, and Saeko knows him well enough now that she can tell he's on the intimidated side.

Saeko grins at him as brightly she can manage through her exhaustion, then heads to her room.

.

For some reason Saeko wakes up in the middle of the night.

She stares up where the ceiling disappears in the darkness and tries to figure out why she's not sleeping. Then she hears a little tap tap tap on her door, and she wonders who the hell would be stupid enough to wake her up after the day she had. She pulls herself out of bed and opens the door. Of course, the question itself is stupid, because who else would it be other than Lady Haiba?

Lady Haiba stares at Saeko with a hand still raised to knock and a lit candle in the other. “May I come in?” Lady Haiba asks.

Saeko gestures Lady Haiba inside, then closes the door behind her. Saeko feels a little bad about passing her off on someone else earlier and decides to let her speak first.

Lady Haiba paces around the room, lips pursed, stops, and says, “If they're going to take me back—against my will—who's to say they won't turn you in for reward money?”

That isn't what Saeko expected her to say at all. She stares at Lady Haiba. “...What?”

“Well,” Lady Haiba says, and she resumes her pacing. “These people you’ve worked with, they're opportunists—”

“Like you,” Saeko points out. “Most people don't try to take advantage of being kidnapped.”

“And you're not?” Lady Haiba counters. “I know you didn't give them all the stuff you stole.”

Saeko's hand drops to her pocket. She pulls out the necklace she stowed in there and watches the light from Lady Haiba's candle flicker the ocean green gem like waves. “How?”

“I’m observant,” Lady Haiba says. Saeko is impressed by how smug she sounds. “I saw you take it out of your loot bag when we were walking over here.”

“Loot bag,” Saeko repeats, amused. She replaces her rightfully stolen goods in her pocket. She’s starting to see how a noblewoman kept up with her in the woods. She blamed it on her being tired, but judging by the mess Lady Haiba made of her dress—well, maybe she isn’t like other nobles Saeko’s met.

“Like I was saying,” Lady Haiba says, “these people are opportunists, and they're going to take me back for either money or personal gain. A few of them are angry with you, so it's easy to imagine they may get greedy and decide to turn you in at the same time. It makes little sense to rescue me without taking in the kidnapper, after all.”

“I didn't kidnap you,” Saeko points out.

Lady Haiba isn’t moved. “Regardless, you’d be arrested as a kidnapper.” She stops pacing and faces Saeko. “I’m leaving tonight,” she says. “I’m not asking for permission. But I would still like to go with you, Ms. Tanaka.”

Saeko studies her. Lady Haiba looks more the part of a traveler now that she's traded her muddied dress and harsh updo for a simple pair of pants and a neat braid. She stares calmly back, but Saeko notices the slight tremor in her hands.

“You can just call me Saeko, you know,” she says.

“Oh!” Lady Haiba says. Her cool noblewoman demeanor slips and she looks excited, like a puppy. “Yes, yes, I can do that! Like friends do!”

Saeko is taken aback—friends? Lady Haiba is an odd woman to want to befriend someone who introduced herself by pressing a knife to her ribs.

Lady Haiba continues, “I’m so glad you decided to go with me, I know I’m a little naive so it makes me feel better knowing you’ll be there to—”

“Now hold up, hooold up,” Saeko says, raising her hands. “I haven't said I was going yet.”

“Oh, oh yes,” Lady Haiba says, pulling herself together, “yes, of course. Take your time.”

Lady Haiba doesn't look like she thinks she's going to dislike Saeko's final decision. She stands impatiently, bouncing on her heels.

Saeko thinks about it. Even without Lady Haiba's wakeup call, she would have woken up early and come to the same conclusion that she needs to leave—probably. And she would have left without Lady Haiba... probably.

...No she wouldn't. She's not sure why she pretends.

Still, she doesn't think Futakuchi and his crew would turn her in for kidnapping and leave her to rot in a cell. It's much more likely they would bust her out later, if they even decided to bother turning her in at all. She’s too skilled for them to alienate her completely. Not to mention most of them are too lazy to bother. However, Lady Haiba doesn't know them like she does, and she can appreciate that kind of caution.

“Listen,” Saeko says with an air of importance. Lady Haiba snaps to attention. “I’ll go with you—but if things get hard, I am not taking you back home. I’m not babysitting you either. Got it?”

“Got it!” Lady Haiba says. She looks like she knows Saeko is full of hot air.

Saeko ruffles the back of her hair. She's only gotten a few hours of sleep, but she feels wide awake and they really don't have time to spare. “I can't call you Lady Haiba if we do this, you know. You’ll be recognized.”

Lady Haiba smiles. “You can call me Alisa.”

Saeko grins back. “Like friends?”

“Like friends!” Alisa agrees.

.

The wagon bumps again and Alisa clutches her stomach. “Tell me when it's over,” she moans.

Saeko rubs Alisa’s back absently. “We're almost there,” she says. She's tired of the trip herself. They've trekked for a week to put distance between them and Iron City, mostly on foot. Saeko decided to pony up some coin for a wagon ride through the vast Blue Forest, but she wishes Alisa had told her about her motion sickness. “Have you never been in a wagon before?”

“They're usually smoother than this,” Alisa chokes out. Saeko wonders what kind of ritzy wagons she's been in that don't bounce everywhere.

It's dark and cool in the forest, but after being cooped up with Alisa in the back of a wagon so packed with crates it’s claustrophobic, Saeko feels antsy and wants to move. The wagon bumps violently, sending Alisa crashing into Saeko.

“Oh no,” Alisa groans.

Saeko props Alisa up and is about to guide her to the open back of the wagon when it comes to a stop. Alisa clutches the wall of the cabin and looks at Saeko with hope in her eyes. “We're still in the middle of the woods, sorry,” Saeko says. Alisa makes a face like a kicked puppy. Saeko pokes her head out of the wagon. They’re so deep in the forest the trunks of the trees that crowd the road are as wide as a child is tall.“Why'd we stop?” she asks the driver.

The driver of their wagon is a tired looking young man named Kunimi. He takes so long to answer Saeko thinks he’s fallen asleep and the horses stopped on their own, but then he answers, “Tree in the road.” He sounds bored, just like he did at the beginning of their journey. “Could be a while.”

“Oh noooo,” Alisa says, slumping over a crate. “More riding...”

“I’m gonna climb a tree,” Saeko announces, surprising both herself and Alisa. She hops out of the wagon, past the startled wagon driver and curious horses, off the dirt road, and starts surveying the trees.

Alisa carefully crawls out of the wagon behind her and sits down in the grass. Saeko is still impressed by how little Alisa cares about getting dirty. “Maybe that one right there?” Alisa says, pointing to a tree to Saeko's left. She sounds much better on solid land, but still shaky. “It's got some nice low branches.”

“What do you take me for, a wuss?” Saeko scoffs, offended. “I don't need any stinkin’ branches!”

“That one, then,” the Kunimi says, pointing to one on the other side of the road. Saeko didn't know he was listening, but the tree is perfect: a tall, ugly pine with no branches to speak of for meters up the trunk.

Saeko takes a running start, using her momentum to launch herself halfway up the trunk. The wagon driver looks interested for the first time all day. Alisa stands, looking a cross between worried and excited. But if there's one thing Saeko is good at, it's climbing. She shimmies up the trunk and hoists herself on the first branch mere seconds after starting. She’s not satisfied with that, though, not when her blood is finally pumping, so Saeko leaps and catches the branch of a second tree, then uses her momentum to flip to another.

Alisa gives her a round of applause. She's evidentially forgotten all about her motion sickness from earlier. “How did you do that? That was amazing!”

Saeko sits pretty on the branch and preens. “I’m just talented, y’know.” She also has gross, sticky sap all over her hands and knees, but Alisa doesn’t need to know that.

Even Kunimi looks impressed. He glances away and presses his finger to his lips. Saeko switches to her professional mode immediately, tensing and surveying the road. Alisa notices the change in her demeanor and looks at her quizzically.

Saeko spots the reason Kunimi told her to be quiet—another of the wagon drivers, the one with the goofy hair that sticks straight up, is heading their way. He isn't trying to approach quietly, so Alisa sees him, too. Saeko jumps to a branch right above the new guy with only the slightest rustle.

“Kunimi,” he says, “You're needed up front.”

Kunimi sighs deeply. His head flopped to the side. “What a pain...”

The other guys crosses his arms. “We need to get that tree moved as soon as possible. Hanamaki said we’d need you.”

“Of course he did,” Kunimi grumbles. Saeko winks at him, hooks her legs on the branch, and slides backwards so she’s dangling upside-down. Kunimi makes an expression that’s a poor imitation of surprise and says, “Wait, what’s that?”

“What’s what?” the other guys says, and he turns around, finding himself nose-to-nose with Saeko.

“Hi!”

He shrieks so loud birds take off from nearby trees. He stumbles backwards and falls on his butt. “Why would you do that!” the guy says. He looks offended, like a child. Alisa howls with ugly laughter.

“Kindaichi,” Kunimi calls from his wagon seat. “Be nice to our customers.”

The guy, Kindaichi, shuts up, which Saeko finds endearing. He doesn't have to be nice to someone who pranked him as an introduction.

Saeko drops from the tree, flipping mid-air to land on her feet. “Like a cat,” she says to herself.

“Hmm, not quite,” Alisa says, considering her. “A cat would have stuck the landing better.”

Saeko narrows her eyes. “I’m so glad you’re feeling better.” Alisa grins cheekily. Saeko snaps her fingers, trying to remember something. “The tree!” she says. “I’ll help out with the tree.”

“I’ll help too,” Alisa volunteers.

“No you won’t. I don’t care how rude you are to your favorite person in the whole world, you still need rest. So rest!” Saeko orders. Alisa frowns in the way Saeko is learning means she's not going to listen.

Kindaichi seems to be recovering from his heart attack well. “Er, well, okay,” he says, blinking. “It's, uh, up there—”

“At the front of the line? Wouldn't have guessed.”

Kindaichi states at her blankly. Kunimi snorts. Saeko waves cheerily and starts walking, too impatient to wait for Kindaichi to get on his feet. Shockingly, Alisa follows her.

They were too worn out way back when Saeko chartered their ride that she hadn’t had the chance to check out the wagon procession. She expected to be in the company of merchants from the cargo of the wagon they’re in, and she's right. Unlike every other merchant she’s ever met with the same boring silverware and pottery, these guys have the most fascinating stuff. She sees one open crate full of bright peacock feathers, one wagon that smells like tart fruit, and when she peeks in one particularly stinky wagon, something in a cage looks back at her. Saeko takes Alisa's arm and steers her away from it, sure her curiosity will get her into trouble.

Saeko sees the roots of the downed tree before she sees the swarm of people around it. The trunk is almost as tall as the two people arguing in the front. “Holy shit,” Alisa says, voicing Saeko's own eloquent thoughts.

One of the arguing men, the taller one with brown hair that Saeko bought their passage from, says, “It's fine, we can get it. Who cares if we have to spend the night here?”

“I’m not risking bandits,” the other, dark haired man says. He crosses his arms. “We need to turn around, find another path.”

“But if we did that we’d have to spend a night in the woods anyway! The closest road to Cat Town is over a day's ride away, and we're already well past noon—it might take two days!”

Alisa stiffens. “We're going to Cat Town?” she whispers in Saeko's ear. Saeko isn't sure how stealthy that is when Alisa needs to bend so far down, but no one is paying them any attention anyhow.

“Is that a problem?” Saeko asks at a more normal volume. “It's pretty far from Iron City. The guards won't follow us here.”

“I’m not from Iron City,” Alisa says, uncomfortable. “I’m from Cat Town. We were on a trip.”

“Oh,” Saeko says. Her mind whirls with information—hideouts in the city itself, nearby towns, the amount of coins tucked in her money pouch, how badly she wants a hot bath, and how stupid she was for not talking to Alisa before picking a destination. “It’s fine. We’ll decide something else.”

The argument for chopping up and moving the giant tree or turning around for a different road goes on and on while Saeko reformulates her plan. “You have to listen to me anyway,” the brown haired one says petulantly. “ I’m the leader.”

“Like hell you are,” the shorter one says.

“You're not,” adds a bored looking man.

“Nope,” says the one standing next to him.

“What about Port Owl?” Saeko says. “I think it's supposed to be nearby.”

“It is,” Kunimi says, finally joining them. Kindaichi lags behind. Saeko wonders if he’s afraid of her. “When this path comes to a fork, it's on the left. We're going right.”

“I vote cutting up the tree!” Alisa says, loud enough that everyone, including the arguing pair, stops and looks at her.

The not-leader recovers the quickest. “That settles it then! If our very important guests are fine with a night under the stars—”

“The trees are too thick to see stars,” the bored looking guy points out.

“—then we should go along with my brilliant plan.” he finishes, ignoring his friend completely.

The one he was arguing with sighs, and Saeko thinks he's going to press the issue, but he turns to the scary looking guy behind him and says, “Kyotani, go get the saws. All of them. We're going to break a few.” Scary guy Kyotani nods, and heads to one of their supply wagons.

“What can we do to help?” Alisa asks. Her appetite for new experiences is one of the things Saeko likes most about Alisa.

“Chop roots?” Saeko suggests before anyone can tell them to stand out of it. Swinging an axe could be a good way to get Alisa into shape. “And once we’re done that, I can teach you how to climb trees,” she jokes.

Alisa looks at her, excited, her motion sickness forgotten at the promise of a new adventure.

.

That night, one of the members of the merchant group builds a fire and they all sit around it on the cold forest floor. Saeko and Alisa huddle together off to the side. Saeko couldn't tell at first, but the rest of the people in their little caravan, from their wagon driver Kunimi to his jumpy friend Kindaichi, are all an established group. Normally she’d be in the middle of it all, forcing her way into the conversation to not feel out of place, but Alisa is tired and they're planning on ditching them later anyway.

Alisa, on the other hand, doesn't appreciate Saeko’s social sacrifice and complains instead. “I wanted to climb a tree,” she mutters. “Curse these sore arms!”

Saeko feels a little guilty for saying she’d teach her, even knowing she wouldn't be able to after chopping wood. She didn't think Alisa would take her seriously, in her defense. “There's plenty of trees in the sea,” Saeko says.

Alisa can't help but giggle. She sobers up quickly, gazing away into the dark forest, and Saeko waits for her to speak. “What did you steal that jewerly for?” she asks.

“Uh, money?”

“No no, I meant the stuff you hid from the angry eyebrow guy and annoying fringe guy.”

“Oh, those,” Saeko says. She's just as startled by the question as she is impressed by Alisa's nicknaming skills. She takes a second to think. She watches the ringleader guy, who she's found out is named Oikawa, attempt to spin a tall tale while his friends interject with loving insults. “I don't want to go into too much detail,” Saeko says in low tones, looking deliberately at their nearby company. “But I will say that I’m stealing them back .”

It's vague and not an answer, but tantalizing enough that Alisa's eyes sparkle. She still has that carefully crafted noblewoman cleverness and changes the subject instead of pressing. “Have you ever been to Port Owl before?”

“A couple times. I have a few contacts.”

“By contacts, you mean...?” Alisa asks. Saeko nods. More people that operate less-than-legal businesses that like to commission her skills as a sneak and a thief. “I can't wait,” Alisa says, a little breathless. “I haven’t been since I was a child. I remember the water being stunning.”

“Stunningly stinky,” Saeko says, wrinkling her nose. “It's awful this time of year. Reeks of rotting seaweed. The sailors on shore leave sure know how to party, though.”

Alisa grabs Saeko's hands. “A sailor party! Can we go to one, can we?”

“If you can keep up, Lady Haiba,” she replies, grinning.