by London Lampy
The city is just as I remembered it, hot and noisy and crowded. As we make our way through its busy streets to the hotel we are going to be spending the night in Vio nudges me. "Fuck," she mutters. "Sure are a lot of lizards here."
"Lot of everything," I reply, pointing with my free hand to an Echoback couple looking in a shop window. "And they've got their tails out."
She glances over at them, then behind me at my tail. "Doesn't it feel weird? Kind of seems like you're half dressed to me."
"Nope, feels good, like the first day in spring when it's warm enough to go out without your overcoat on."
"This is it," Vin, who has been walking up ahead with Sampson, says over his shoulder as we arrive outside the hotel. I'm glad we don't have to walk any further, Vio and I are carrying Sampson's suitcases and the one I've got is seriously heavy, the handle is cutting into my palm uncomfortably. My own much smaller bag is slung across my back, it's got everything I need for the next few weeks in it, I can't imagine what Sampson has brought with him that fills two suitcases and weighs this much.
As we step into the lobby a porter comes straight over to us and I gratefully hand the case to him. Vin goes to the desk to check in and Sampson comes and stands with Vio and me.
"This damn city, I always forget how bloody hot it is," he runs a finger round the inside of his collar. "Don't suppose you feel it though, do you?" he looks at me. "I mean to say, this is nothing compared to the jungle."
"Sir...I'm from Parnell, I've never even been to the forest," as far as I know anyway.
"Oh, yes," he frowns. "I suppose so, but isn't it in the blood?"
"I don't think so, I find it hot here too."
"Ah," he turns to Vio who's mopping her face with a handkerchief. "If women glow, men perspire and horses sweat, I'd say you were a horse right about now," He laughs, and I can see her clenching her jaw. "Govinder, what's the hold up?" he suddenly shouts across the lobby and strides away from us over to Vin.
"I wouldn't be so fucking hot if I hadn't had to carry his fucking suitcase half way across this stinking city," she growls, and I simply nod, not wanting to irritate her further. She really doesn't like hot weather, she starts to grumble as soon as the glass gets above mild.
It takes another few minutes for Vin to finish checking in, he would have most likely been quicker if Sampson hadn't decided to get involved, but he finally gets the job done and we go up to our rooms. Once again I'm sharing a room with Vin, although this one only has one double bed in it. I look at it, then look at him.
"Sorry," he says, his expression is anything but sorry. "It's all they had."
Due to Sampson guarding commitments Vin and I haven't actually had sex since the day after the idiot got himself stabbed, I can see that situation is about to change though.
"Does one of us have to spend the night in Sampson's room?" I ask.
"No, we've got connecting rooms this time, he can't get in unless we unlock from this side," he points to a door off the bedroom. "But if anyone decides to attack him in the night we should hear it."
I think about this for a moment. "But doesn't that mean that he'll be able to hear anything that happens in here too?"
"Yes, it does," he fixes me with his green eyes. "So that means you're going to have to be very quiet."
"I don't make that much noise," I frown at him, sitting down on the bed.
"You do. I'm surprised those good folks whose shop you live over haven't complained." He looks very amused.
"They don't sleep in the shop and I'm mostly at work when it's open." I lie back and look up at the ceiling, in the centre is a gas light. I forgot that they don't have electricity over here.
"Good thing too," he joins me on the bed, lying on his side, one hand on my tail. "You have any idea how incredibly sexy you look with this out?" he asks, stroking it.
"Vio thinks I look half dressed and indecent."
"You do look sort of indecent. That's why I like it."
He kisses me, his tongue has just found its way into my mouth when Sampson starts banging on the internal door, it sounds like he's doing it with his cane.
"Govinder! Govinder! Are you in there? I need to speak with you about our trip to the office this afternoon."
Vin pulls away from me and takes a deep breath. "I'll be with you in a moment Sir," he shouts, glowering at the door.
Vio and I are left alone in the hotel after lunch as Vin and Sampson have gone on a visit to our company's offices in Kipp. Vin decided as they were travelling there by taxi and were going to be surrounded by people who work for Sampson that it would be safe enough for just him to go. I'm very grateful for this, I don't want to spend hours listening to Sampson droning on about the company.
"What do you want to do now?" I ask Vio as the waiter clears our table.
"I'm going to write to Caddy," she replies, finishing the last of her beer.
"Don't you want to explore the city?"
"No, it's a city, I live in a city. It's got lots of people and lots of buildings just like our city, but it's hotter, it smells bad, and at least according to you they eat insects. I can't think of any reason why I'd want to go out."
"Come on, I promise I won't try to make you eat bugs. You can write to Caddy later," I attempt to persuade her.
"I want to write to her now," she looks quite serious.
"You like her don't you?"
"No monkey boy, I can't fucking stand her," her voice drips sarcasm. "Of course I like her, we've been dating for the last few months. I'm not like you, I don't drop my underpants every time someone smiles at me."
"I don't wear underpants, they get in the way of my tail," she rolls her eyes at me. "So you really don't want to go out for a walk?" I can't believe she's just going to stay in the hotel.
"No I really don't, but you could do something for me while you're out."
"Get me some stamps."
Vio's request for stamps reminds me that I promised to send Effie and Ry postcards so I set out to find a post office. We're not staying in a part of the city I've been in before, but I'm not sure it would really help if we were, my track record for getting lost in Kipp is pretty bad. I walk around for a bit, not really picking any particular direction, just avoiding anywhere that looks run-down. I have plan for if I get lost this time, I know the address of the hotel, I'll simply hail a cab and get back that way. If I'm late the worst thing that's going to happen is Vin will shout at me, and I can live with that. It's not like anyone is going to start invading anyone else's ship.
It takes me less than half an hour to find a post office. I choose two postcards, one with a picture of the Angel Square statue on it for Ry, and one with three kittens in a basket and the words "Greetings From Kipp" written across the bottom in curly writing for Effie, I think it's the sort of thing she'd like. I also buy the stamps, and I even remember to ask for ones that can be used to send stuff to Parnell. Stopping at a café, I get a glass of lemonade, borrow a pen and write the postcards. I can't think of much to say other than that we've arrived safely, I don't suppose I ought to mention Sampson getting stabbed, and I'm certainly not going to write about what's been going on with Vin and me, and those are the only two things of note that have happened since we left. Once I've finished my drink I put the cards in a postbox, then wonder what the hell I'm going to do next.
Sitting in the taxi I can't decide if this was a good idea, a stupid idea, or just a pointless idea, but I'm committed to it now so I settle down and watch the city passing by. Unlike at home the cabs here are open with a kind of folding hood that I assume can be put up if it rains. I can't help thinking back to the time that Ry and me got carried away and nearly ended up having sex in the back of a cab, you couldn't do that in one of these, you'd end up giving the whole city a free show. I know people are more laid back about that kind of thing in Kipp, but I'd still rather not try it.
"You visiting relatives?" the cabbie's question pulls me back from my thoughts. That's another thing about this sort of cab, you can talk to the driver, unlike back in Parnell where they are sort of sat on the roof.
"No...just visiting," I reply, not being sure how to explain why I want to go to the echoback part of the city, because I'm not sure myself.
"Uh huh. My family, we're from Rosheen, my parents moved to the city when I was a baby, both my sisters were born here..." he goes on to tell me a lot of things about his family that I'm not very interested in and after a bit I stop listening. I look at him though, he looks like a less attractive version of Quint and it makes me wonder if the Captain's mother was from Rosheen originally. He had the same colouring as this man, caramel skin and darkest brown hair, and he certainly didn't get any of that from the Admiral. "...my uncle and cousin still run the goose farm, ah, alright if I drop you off here? See, if I go down there I'll have to go around and back again because it's too narrow for the cab to get through the other way."
"Here's fine," I say.
I pay him and jump out of the cab, he taps his horse on the bottom and trots away as I look around me. I didn't come to this street before when I came here with Tallis but it's much like the one I did visit. Every place that a plant can be fitted into has a plant in it. Window boxes are overflowing with red and yellow flowers and trailing leaves, all along the pavement small trees and shrubs have been planted in pots and tubs and the street lights have baskets of flowers dangling off them. There is about one human for every three echobacks here and I enjoy the rare sensation of being in the majority.
The street is mostly filled with shops and small cafés and I slowly walk along it looking at what is being sold. A greengrocers has wooden crates piled high with all kinds of fruit and vegetables, only about half of which I recognise. I stop to read a menu posted outside a café, most of it is written in a language I don't understand. The hardware shop is much the same as you would find anywhere, but they do seem to sell a lot of gardening tools and flowerpots. A tailor's shop makes me smile, it has a window display of trousers with holes in the back, I wish we had one of these in Parnell. Next door is a dress shop, although the skirts and dresses in their window don't have holes in the back. Echoback women wear their clothes over their tails, unless they are wearing trousers I suppose, not that I've ever seen one in trousers and I kind of can't blame them, skirts would be much less bother.
As I peer into the dress shop I spot a face I recognise, sitting behind the counter looking bored is Senis, the echoback girl Tallis unsuccessfully tried to set me up with. I stand and watch her through the window for a few moments, unsure if I should go in and speak to her or not, I don't know if she'll remember me. She hasn't spotted me as she seems to be leafing through a magazine, I take a deep breath and push the door, which opens with a tinkle.
"Men's stuff is next door," she mutters, barely glancing up.
"Senis?" I say to get her attention, and she finally looks away from her magazine.
"Oh my gods! It's you! Hello," she grins.
"Yes, it's me." I'm glad she remembers.
"Hang on," she jumps off her stool, goes over to the door and flips a small sign hanging off it from "open" to "closed", then shoots a bolt near the top of the door home for good measure. "You want tea? I'll go and make some."
Senis disappears through a beaded curtain into the back of the shop, she's gone for a while and I start looking through her magazine. It's full of flowery romantic stories, pictures of the latest fashions for girls and articles on theatre stars, it's not very interesting. She eventually arrives back with a tray laden with tea things.
"Sorry, I don't have anything to go with the tea. Mrs Hayes, my stupid boss, won't let me have any food in here, says it'll get on the "merchandise"." She drags a second stool out from behind the counter and I sit down as she begins to pour the tea out. "So, what's going on? Tallis came by for a visit a few weeks back and when I asked where you were all he would say is that you weren't sailing with him any more."
"Is he alright?" I ask, I'm very very relived to learn that he didn't get killed in the fighting.
"Yeah, same old Tallis. Got my dad drunk and sung dumb forest songs 'till three in the morning, but why aren't you sailing with him now?"
"It...I left," I don't want to tell her the whole story. "I decided I didn't want to be a pirate."
"Huh, I got the impression you liked it. What happened to your boyfriend, that pretty Surosian boy who annoyed Tallis?"
"Did Tallis say anything about him?"
"Nah," she shakes her head. "Not to me anyhow, so did you two split up?"
At that moment the door rattles, an echoback woman is trying to get into the shop. "We're closed!" Senis shouts across the room, making a shooing gesture at the woman with her hands.
"Yeah...we kind of broke up," I look down into my tea cup.
"Why? Was there another boy? Was it a love triangle?"
"No, nothing like that, I just haven't seen him in a long time." I decide to change the subject. "What about your boyfriend, have your parents found out you're dating a human yet?"
"You mean Owain? He's a bastard, turns out he was seeing two other girls as well as me so I dumped him." She doesn't sound too upset about this. "Now I'm seeing Julian, he's got his own flat and he works for the cartel, look, he gave me this," she shows me a ring with a blue stone in it. "Said it matched my hair."
"Is he a human?" I ask.
"Of course, the boys round here are so dull. They all do exactly what their parents tell them to, and if my stupid mother knew I was seeing an echoback boy she'd be wanting to invite his parents round for dinner, then they'd be plotting for us to get married. Besides, if I only go with human boys I can't get pregnant, and my parents would kill me if that happened, and then make me get married."
Another woman tries to get into the shop, but gives up when Senis waves her away too. "People are so dumb," she rolls her eyes. "Can't they see the sign says "closed"? Anyway, what about you, don't your mum and dad care that you're...you know."
"I don't have any parents, I don't have any family full stop. No family, no one to care," I shrug, drinking the last of my tea.
"Oh," she says quietly. "You must think I'm a real spoilt cow to keep going on about awful my parents are."
"No, I don't think I'd like being told what to do all the time."
"I do love them, it's just that they're so annoying sometimes."
That seems to be the way with people and their parents. Effie's rule her life, I know she's bored of working in the shop but she won't tell them that she wants to do something else because she doesn't want to upset them. Vio gave up a lot of her life to look after her father, I know she found it really hard, and she could have had him committed to an asylum, but she didn't. I'm not sure I'll ever understand.
Senis takes the lid off of the tea pot and peers into it. "I think there's enough for another cup, do you want one?"
"Shouldn't you open the shop back up?"
"No, no one ever buys anything at this time of day, they come in, walk around once then leave again," she divides the rest of the tea between our cups. "So, if you're not here with Tallis what are you doing here?"
"I'm working, I'm kind of body guarding someone."
She looks at me then puts a hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle. "Sorry," she says, not quite managing to stop herself from smiling. "I can see how you'd make a good sailor, but don't you have to be big and scary to be a bodyguard?"
"No, I don't think so. It's not exactly like I have to stop people from attacking him all the time, it's sort of just being there."
"So where is he?" she glances out of the window as if Sampson could be lurking on the street outside.
"With someone else I work with, I got given the afternoon off so I went out to explore the city and ended up here. I saw you in the shop and thought I'd come in to say hello."
"I'm glad you did, could you come back tomorrow if you've got time off again? I get really bored."
"Sorry, we're leaving for Shelly in the morning," I say, hoping I'm pronouncing it right.
"Yuck, that's practically the forest. Do you know they have.." she lowers her voice. "...docked slaves up there?"
"Yes, I'm hoping we won't run into any."
"I saw someone who'd been docked once. An ex-slave came to talk to us at the community centre, he was trying to raise money for some kind of group that goes around freeing slaves or something. He showed us his tail, it was horrible, just a tiny little stump, like this," she holds her thumb and forefinger a few inches apart then shudders. "Made me feel sick."
The door rattles once more, Senis looks up with an annoyed sigh, then stops. "Oh shit!" she jumps off her stool like a scolded cat. "It's Mrs Hayes, my boss!" Running over she unbolts the door, a solidly built echoback woman with her hair pulled back into a tight bun and a very angry expression on her face enters the shop.
"Senis, why have you closed up?" she says loudly.
"Um...my friend came over, we were having tea, I've only been closed a couple of minutes." Senis lies.
"Young lady, I have warned you before about having your friends in the shop," Mrs Hayes glares at me. "If I catch you doing it once more I'll be having words with your mother."
"Sorry Mrs Hayes, you won't," Senis says in a meek voice that's not hers.
"See that it doesn't, and get those tea things out of here before any of it gets on the merchandise."
"Yes Mrs Hayes," Senis glances at me. "Come and help me wash up," she jerks her head at the bead curtain.
In the back is a small room with an cracked sink in it, above the sink is tacked up an stained sign telling people not to wash tea leaves down the drain.
"She's such a bitch," Senis mutters, emptying the dregs of the teapot into the sink and running the tap.
"I'd better go," I say. "I don't want to get you into any more trouble. Next time you see Tallis, can you give him a message from me?"
"Will do, what is it?" she asks, rinsing out the cups.
"Tell him I'm sorry...and that I wish things could have turned out differently...and could you ask him how Topher and Captain Quint are? If I give you my address perhaps you could write to me and tell me what he said."
"Only if you write me back," she grins.
I leave the shop under the burning glare of Mrs Hayes, but feeling a good bit happier than I have in a long while. Knowing Tallis is fine is a huge relief, and I now have a small way of keeping in contact with him, and therefore the rest of The Firebrat crew.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]