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First Posed the Question

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“So they’re wantin’ ye to go ‘n find somebody,”  she repeated, gesturing with a fork’s worth of chicken, rice, and thick sauce. 

I nodded, shuffling my own portion around the plate.  “Said the fucker had vanished out of some business deal. Not returning contact spells, not answering the door.”

“They say why they want them?”

“Nah.”

“Might start checkin’ ‘round the Undersling then. Seedy ass of a place. That good ol’ shit.”

Something about it struck a bell.  “We’d sneak down there, wouldn’t we?”

Jo grinned wickedly.  “Aye. That we would. Nearly give the proctors a heart attack on the tailend, comin’ back with nasty goods ‘n swollen eyes.”

“Drink to that.”

We clinked water glasses, and Katrine snorted as she slid back into the booth.

“Already plotting, ain’t ya?”

“Tick’s got some of his old part a the business already lining back up, seems.”

“Oh?”

I shrugged, stirring my drink with an old wand and churning the water into a harsh shade of dark malt. Katrine took notice.

“Bit outta date, isn’t that?”

“What?”

“Wands. Got kids using sortir and such now, ain’t they? Gonna peg you for an old wanker in a heartbeat.”

“It’ll be like warnin’ colors to his personality,”  Jo drolled.

I waited until she took a swig, stuck my tongue out, and watched her giggle-choke on the inhale.

 


 

Ya think the bouncer saw us?

Can’t have, we were in and out. 

Splittin’ up, just in case? 

Yeah, we’ll meet back up in a few hours. 

My place or P----’s?

His, I’ll get in through the window and let you in once you’re there. Hour detour?

Aye. Scurry on back ta that twunk’ve yours. Don’t go drinkin’ all of it ‘fore we can celebrate proper!

 


 

The Undersling hung below the city, the very literal criminal underbelly nestled in the moon’s subterranean caverns. The bridge that connected it wasn’t sturdy - I had more than one plank tumble down into the abyss behind me as I walked - and the district itself didn’t look much more secure, chained to the rock ceiling with hooks and cables like some kind of overindulgent masochist. 

Relatable.

Bioluminescent growths stuffed in cracked planters illuminated the etched-out street signs, underworld shops, and warm dens with familiar smells that I made a mental note of for later. 

I propped the travelling case on its haunches against the dreary sidewalk and unzipped the top segment. I drummed my fingers against the rim as I lit a cigarette, and waited until I could hear scrabbling nails.

“Out you go, fuckers. Time to earn your keep.”

One hissed, and got a bap on the nose ridge for it.

“Quit that. Shoo. We’re looking for some cunt with a book for a head, coffee mug stain on one corner, lot of ink splotches on the right half. Probably holed up in a rental somewhere. Might not even be down here, but it’s some kind of start. We’ll do the docks next, see if…”

I exhaled and watched as they scurried away into a drainage pipe, clearly not giving a single damn. 

“Fine. Fuck you too.”

I rezipped the trunk, tucked it in behind one of the planters, clutched my wand between my teeth, and started up to the roofs.

 


 

I’ve read ‘Prințesa în crinolină’ once or twice. This can’t all be more difficult than what they did in that.

But I didn’t actually have much of a plan, much less an idea of however I used to do this, beyond stumbling my ass across the streets from above.

And there were plenty of streets.

The plaza below - Pinion Court according to the sign - wasn’t in the center of the hanging island, but it was as close to a central spot as the place allowed. Feathers and shreds of wing sinew lay in an uncanny kind of half-preservation, untouched by the cavern’s drafts but stirred in ripples by the light foot traffic.

I nudged a loose shingle with my boot and watched as a light post slowly enveloped the carcass of a bird that had been unfortunate enough to find its way below the surface. 

It was almost transfixing - an internal clash between ‘What the fuck’ and ‘Yeah, it’s just hungry’ - but the movement of a figure just inside the glow of the light drew my attention away. 

They were short, cloaked in cracked skin-drapes and a wide brimmed hat, with a large tome clamped against their chest. It had some sort of symbol on it, but I couldn’t make out what it was.

The way the hat was tilted made it seem like they were watching me as they passed. Not in any interested way, how I usually liked, but still intently enough for me to watch back.

Needle teeth clamping down onto my boot broke my concentration, and I shook the imp off.

“What?”

They chittered, spat at me, then darted off.

I cast a last look down, nodded at the person in idle support of whatever it is they were doing, and sprinted after the fucker.

 


 

The condo room was in shambles, and not in the cultivated way that mine was.

I slipped through the broken door, scanning the shredded curtains and upturned furniture. Papers in the hearth, too late to be saved, burned with the unmistakable, pungent smell of salted inscription work.

What agitated the imps, and set my skin prickling, was what had been done to the walls. Uniform sets of nine, deeply carved in rows and columns, pulsed like agitated wounds in the flesh of plaster and cheap wallpaper.

9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9.

I scratched my chin. The sound of nails on hair was uncomfortably loud, but felt better than suffering the silence with only muted fire pops for company.

A low hiss from one of the imps drew my eye again, and I approached the crooked closet door they pawed at like an insistent cat, wand readied in what I hoped was a useful fashion. It felt right.

I could at least jab someone’s eyes out with it, assuming they even had them.

The door opened with a groan, and the occupant whimpered with a fluttering rasp. They were badly concealed within a thin row of jackets, wrapped in a powder blue suit that lead to a grey neck of false-flesh; a trunk that supported a breathing, opened book cover in place of a head.

I watched them, and I assumed they were watching back. I tried raising my free hand in greeting.  “Alo.”

They shoved past me and ran for the hallway. I darted out the window, ready to cut them off at the bottom, before I heard the clatter of miscalculated escape on the opposite side of the building.

 


 

Catching up wasn’t the problem; the sigils carved into my heels hadn’t gone anywhere, even if I was hazy on how they got there, and they made short work of most pedestrian mobility problems.

The fact that they could actually remember the area, and presumably knew where they were going, was.

I slid to a stop at a junction, froze, then darted down a side street at the sound of panicked protests. 

“NO, PLEASE, NO!”

They brought me to a dead end, a curve where the backs of two desolate buildings kissed a safety wall. The book bastard was crouched, arms folded above the rustling pages of their head, defensive against the other occupant of the alley.

“An unanswerable question is not meant to pose a challenge, scholar,”  a cacophony of low voices hissed. “It is just an absolute.”

“Can’t we talk?”

The voices cut over them again, a low drone of syllables that tore at the air like shards of ice, countering with a different question that I could only catch the vague form of. 

The book faltered, shaking, and sobbed a tentative answer. 

The terrible shrieks, the way their ink-filled flesh with ripped apart at the existential seams by invisible hands until nothing lingered but paper scraps lost among stray feathers, told me the guess had been very wrong.

The man in cracked skin-drapes and a wide brimmed hat turned, his face a canvas for mouths with sharp teeth and lolling, slug-like tongues. 

And each one smiled in twisted recognition.