Exit Strategy

by London Lampy

Chapter 39

It takes us nearly forty minutes to reach our destination, the further from the city centre we get the shabbier everything starts to become, and for the first time I truly see the rough side of Kipp. The streets are full of dilapidated houses, the inhabitants seeming to prefer hanging around on the steps and pavements outside to being in their homes. Thin faced women and rough looking men track us with their eyes as we go past, but the worst are the children. They start by begging, and get short shrift from Tallis, who tells us to ignore them and keep our hands on our money. After a while some of them become openly threatening, and at that point Tallis produces an evil looking dagger from the gods know where and simply shows it to them. Most of them scatter, but a few keep pace with us until the streets change again and the run down area gives way to better kept houses.

"Never come this way alone, and never ever come here at night, it's as good as signing your own death warrant." Tallis says, once the last of the children have gone. I look around me, although in style the buildings are no different, most of them three or four stories high with stone steps leading up to the doors and often a basement level below as well, the condition of them is a complete contrast to what we've just walked past. Very few possess any broken windows and most of them have neatly painted window frames and doors, but the biggest change is the plants and flowers. Outside almost every window is a box filled with growing things, and on the steps beside the doors are clay pots containing small trees and shrubs, even the lampposts have hanging baskets full of flowers attached to them.

"When the first of our kind moved here they found they missed the forest and set about trying to recreate it in the city streets. While most who live here now were born here the tradition remains." Tallis says when he sees me staring.

Topher is looking around too, but at something very different. "Fuck, I think I'm the only human in the place." He says quietly. He's almost right, practically every figure I can see has a tail.

"You are correct." Says Tallis smugly. "Try calling someone a monkey around here an you'll be lucky to make it out in one piece."

"Hmm." He replies, I suppose it's a strange experience for him to be in the minority like that, it's a strange experience for me not to be.

We follow Tallis until we reach a house like all the others at the end of a row, and before he climbs the front steps he turns to Topher. "You can leave us now. Here." He pulls a handful of coins out of his pocket. "See that little café on the corner? Go and find out what good echoback home cooking tastes like, and we'll meet you there later."

"No, Exit wanted me to come, and those children might return."

"Not around here they won't."

"I'm still staying." He strikes a pose with his arms folded stubbornly.

Tallis sighs. "I'm not going to stand here arguing with you all day, you can come, but you keep your mouth shut unless spoken to, no foul language, I don't want you offending my friends they're decent types, and remember your manners."

This could be interesting, and I suddenly regret saying he could join us. Tallis ordering him to behave is most likely to provoke him into doing the exact opposite.

We ascend the steps, Tallis lets us through the front door and I realise the building is subdivided into flats. "Will they be at home?" I ask as we climb the stairs.

"Hopefully someone will, Tam, that's the wife, doesn't work."

When we arrive at a door on the third floor Tallis knocks and it's opened by an echoback woman in an apron, when she sees who it is she throws her arms around him and kisses him on the cheek.

"So soon after the last visit!" She exclaims as she breaks the hug. Once he's free he turns around and propels me toward her. "This is Exit." He says, I see them exchange glances and she gives him a small nod.

"Hello, I'm Tam." She holds her hand out and I give it a small shake, then her face take takes on a puzzled expression as she spots Topher, Tallis sees it too and sighs again. "And this is..." He starts to say, but he's interrupted.

"Good afternoon, I'm Topher Dyall, Sixth earl of Breakspear." He steps forward and holds out his hand to her, while Tallis gives me an exasperated look.

"Ah...well, you better all come inside." She says a little flustered once she's shaken Topher's hand.

The flat is cluttered but cosy, filled with plants and ornaments, and the floor is covered in toys. A tiny tailed child is sitting on a rug playing with a set of painted wooden blocks, he looks up at us when we enter, then carries on.

"Now." Says Tam. "Make yourselves at home, Senis is at work but it's nearly her lunch hour so if I go out and fetch her." She gives Tallis another meaningful look. "Would you mind watching the baby for me?"

"Of course not." Tallis answers for us.

"Good good, I'll make us all some lunch when we get back."

Once she's gone Tallis rounds on Topher. "What the hell was that?" He asks crossly.

"You told me to be polite, was that not a polite way of introducing myself?"

The baby stands up and toddles over to us, holding out a red block to me, I'm not sure what he wants but I take it and he smiles.

The two of them spend the next few minutes bickering, and I end up being given all of the baby's blocks one by one, until Tam returns dragging a sulky looking echoback girl behind her.

"This is Senis!" She announces brightly. "Senis, this is Exit."

I give her a small smile, my hands full of blocks, she scowls back at me.

"Look, your brother has taken a shine to him, Isn't that sweet?" Tam says pointing at the baby.

"Is he smelly?" Senis asks sniffing the air, and for a moment I think she's talking about me, but then Tam picks the baby up and smells his bottom, Topher looks at me and pulls a gagging face.

"A little." She decides. "Do you know what? Silly me, I forgot to buy any bread this morning, Senis, why don't you take Exit with you down to the bakery to get some while I change him?" Senis gives her mother a dirty look as she's handed some coins. "Get a cake while you're there, one of those nice chocolate cream ones if they have any left, and take your time, show him the neighbourhood."

Unsure what else to do I put the blocks back on the rug, and Tallis nods at me approvingly as I follow the girl out of the door. We descend the steps in silence, but once we're out in the the street she turns to looks at me, placing her hands on her hips and scowling again. "I'm not marrying you." She states firmly.

"Um...all right." I reply.

"I mean it, I don't want to marry you, I've got a boyfriend and we're in love."

"That's...nice." I don't really know what to say.

"He's human, so I can't tell my parents, and you'd better not do either. If they found out they'd probably lock me in the house or something."

I'm relived that she's not got any romantic notions about me. "Shouldn't we be going to the shop?" I suggest.

We start to walk down the street together and she glances at me. "I like your hair." She suddenly says. "Most of the boys round here wear theirs braided, it makes them look ancient like their fathers. I wanted to cut mine short, Owain, that's my boyfriend, said he thought I'd look good with short hair, but my stupid mother wouldn't let me."

"Oh."

"So who's the human with you and Tallis? It's a good job my father isn't home, he doesn't like humans."

"That's Topher, he invited himself along."

"Is he a friend of yours?"

"Yes...sort of." I have no idea what the right word for my relationship with him is.

"He's nice looking."

"Yes, he is." I agree, and she looks at me sideways.

"Is he your boyfriend?"

"Sort of."

She stops outside a bakers shop. "So you don't want to marry me either?"

"No." I shake my head.

"Thank the gods for that." We both smile at each other relived.

On the way back she tells me all about Owain, and I wonder how long it's going to be until Senis' parents find out about him. I hope they don't lock her in, or disown her. When she's not scowling she's very funny and I genuinely regret not having more time to get to know her, it would be good to have an echoback friend around my own age.

"Perhaps we should pretend we want to date each other." She suggests as we approach her house. "It would stop my parents bugging me about finding an echoback and settling down. If I tell them I don't like you my mother is only going to keep parading "suitable" boys in front of me."

"That might work for a while, but sooner or later they're going to want us to do more than date." I point out. "And I really need Tallis to accept the fact that I don't like girls in that way, I keep trying to tell him, but he won't listen."

"Old people are like that, they always think they know what's best for us, my dumb parents can't understand that this is my life, just because they did something a particular way in the forest a million years ago doesn't mean we still have to behave like that. It's not like either of them have ever even been there, they were both born in Kipp."

"You promise you won't say anything to my mother or Tallis about Owain?" She asks as we climb up the stairs.

"Your secret is safe with me." I reply.

Lunch is a slightly strained affair, Senis is still acting stroppy with Tam, Topher's being overly polite to annoy Tallis, Tam and Tallis keep making unsubtle comments about how well Senis and I seem to be getting along, and the baby tries to feed me spoonfuls of his mushed vegetables. The chocolate cake is good though.

Once we are finished Senis makes a break for it, claiming if she doesn't go she's going to be late back to work and her boss Mrs Hayes will dock her wages. It's not until she's out the door that her mother thinks to suggest I should have walked her back, but by then it's too late.

"Come back and see us again soon." Tam urges me from the doorway. "It's been lovely to finally meet you, and I know Senis enjoyed it."

"Thank you very much for your kind hospitality, your home is charming." Topher says, earning himself his hundredth glare from Tallis today.

Back out on the street Tallis asks me what I thought of Senis, before he can answer Topher buts in. "You don't get it do you? He likes boys and that's that." He sounds unusually irritated, not in his normal sulky Topher way, but properly angry.

"Don't speak to me like that boy!" Tallis throws back at him.

"Then stop trying to set him up with echoback girls, it's not what he wants, he's just too nice to tell you!"

Tallis takes a breath as if to shout at him again, then pauses and looks at me, letting it out again with a sigh.

"Is he right drumeri?" He eventually asks.

"Yes." I nod. "I liked coming here and meeting them though, and seeing this part of the city." I gesture at the streets around me. "But please don't set me up with any more girls."

"Oh." He says quietly. "Senis and Tam will be disappointed, but if that's what you want."

"It is, and I don't think Senis will be all that disappointed."

The walk back to the ship is carried out mostly in silence, and seems to take forever. The same group of street children that followed us before do it again, and we only shake them off when we get to the city centre. Once we all make it to Angel Square Topher suggests the two of us stay and look around some more, but I want to drop my suit off in the cabin, I'm sick of carrying it around, so we agree to do that, then return.

"You didn't have to get so cross with him." I say once we are inside.

"And when would you have told him to back off, when you were half way to the altar?"

"I have tried to tell him, he just didn't seem to believe me."

"Maybe I should have just done this." He puts his hands on my shoulders and pulls me in for a kiss, his tongue finding it's way inside my mouth.

"Mmm, if we'd done that in the middle of Tam's living room I think he may just have believed me." I say once his mouth has left mine, then I kiss his neck. "Do you still want to go back into the city?" I ask against his warm skin.

"Yes, I missed out last time."

"Are you sure you want to go now?" I can feel him hardening against me, and I'm doing the same.

"Yes, we can do this later, the Captain will be back this evening."

"We could do it now, and then again with him later." I suggest, trying to unbutton his shirt.

"But I want to go into Kipp with you, and we only have a few hours before it gets dark." He protests, moving my hand away.

It's not like him to refuse sex, so he must really want to go back into the city.

After enough time has elapsed for us both to calm down we leave, I'm turned away shutting the door when I hear Topher softly say "Oh fucking hell no!", and when I look round to see what has got him so spooked I echo his sentiments, Rufus and Jasper are standing on the far side of the deck looking at us.

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