by London Lampy
My feet are encased in a pair of brand new shiny black lace up shoes, they're extremely uncomfortable but if I want to be taken seriously I need to wear them, I can't address a room full of the most powerful and important people in the world in bare feet. I have new clothes on too, a suit with a jacket and a short sleeved white shirt. Sampson gave me some money before we left for Kipp so Jack and me went shopping. I'm standing with Jack, Vio and Tippit in a corner of a huge meeting room that's at the centre of Kipp's city hall. It has a rows and rows of chairs laid out on a marble floor that has the city's seal inlaid in it, the ceiling is high and vaulted and around the walls are hung the flags of all the different countries and states that make up the Northern Continent, at least that's what Vio told me they were. At the front of the room is a stage that has lecterns set on it, I'm going to be standing up there soon and every time I look at it I start to feel queasy.
"Are you scared?" I ask Tippit.
"Hu?" he mutters, he's staring at the stage so I repeat my question. "Yeah," he nods.
"Imagine them all naked," Vio says. She's just come back from having a smoke outside, complaining that her cheroots don't hit the spot in nearly the same way the red berries did.
"Eww, no," I reply. "How's that meant to make us less nervous?"
"Don't know come to think of it," she draws her pale eyebrows down in thought. "It's one of the things people tell you to stop you from being scared of public speaking, like don't look down when you're up high."
"That one works though," Jack points out.
"Not for me," I put in.
"Obviously," she sighs. "You don't have a fear of heights."
Tippit takes a well worn piece of paper out of his pocket and studies it, it's his speech. We spent most of the train journey back here drafting them, I know mine almost by heart now.
"You could try imagining me naked," Jack suggests.
"I don't need to imagine that, and I think it would be distracting in the wrong way," I grin at him.
At that moment Vin joins us with someone in tow, and I'm only slightly surprised to see that it's Ry. It makes sense that he would be here as he is a major part of one of the biggest rubber companies.
"Thank the god's you're safe," Ry says when he sees me. He hugs me for quite a long time then kisses me on the cheek, earning himself a frown from both Jack and Vin, and I go from dreading the summit starting to kind of wishing that it would. "Govinder says that you will be giving a speech," he says when he lets me go.
"Yeah," I reply. I don't need to imagine him naked either, or Vin, or Vio come to that, I've seen her naked dozens of times, but it's not really the same as the others, I've never had sex with her. I think that three people a person has had sex with are far too many to be together in one place, and I'm very glad that Sampson picks that moment to bring someone over to introduce to us before things get any more awkward.
"This is Larry, we were at school together," Sampson says, indicating a man of around his age.
The man is dressed in an expensive looking dark blue suit, has short grey hair and the look of someone who never quite gets enough sleep, his eyes have dark circles under them and his complexion looks like it never sees the sun. I know I've seen him somewhere before, I can't quite place him but if he's a friend of Sampson's perhaps I've passed him in the lobby at work of something. He shakes hands with us in turn and the others all mutter things like "good to meet you sir", so I do the same. He chats to us for a few minutes, asking Tippit and me about our speeches, and Sampson about the time he spent in the forest until a man who looks like a bodyguard comes over and whispers something in his ear and he leaves, apologising to us and saying that him and Sampson need to go and speak to the head of the cocoa growers association.
"I recognise him from somewhere," I say, watching as they disappears off across the meeting room. No one replies to this and I turn round to find everyone staring at me. "What?" I ask.
"Are you saying you really don't know who that was?" Vin quizzes me.
"No, but I have seen him before," I say somewhat defensively. Why does it matter if I know who Larry is or not?
Vio puts her hand inside her jacket and takes out her wallet, opening it she removes a banknote, a Twin Islands five pound note. She unfolds it and holds it up in front of my face. "Perhaps that's where you've seen him before?"she suggests.
I look at the note, printed on it is a picture of the man I just met."Yes...that's it, but why is he on our money?"
"He's our president, you idiot boy," she rolls her eyes at me.
Everyone else, even Jack, shakes their head at me. "I knew who he was, and I've been living in the forest for years," Tippit puts in.
"Exit, I don't want to sound like I'm telling you what to do, but maybe you should consider reading the newspapers more often," Ry adds.
Someone else said that to me recently and I'm still trying to recall who it was when a bell rings to tell us that the summit is about to start.
My speech passes by in a blur, and I manage to get through it without thinking about anyone naked, even Jack. People clap at the end and when I go back to my seat Jack laces his fingers between mine, squeezes my hand and tells me I was great, but he kind of has to say that.
Tippit and my speeches are only the start of things. A lot of other people have their say, including a few humans and even some visks who are very much in favour of slavery, which means that by the afternoon I'm both angry and bored. During a break Vio points out that Jack and me don't really need to stay around, and suggests that we might be better off spending a few hours in the city instead and so we slip out before things start up again.
"This city stinks," Jack says as we leave the city hall. "Had a few good nights out here though." I think back to the only night I've spent out in Kipp, it managed to set in motion a chain of events I'd rather forget. "It's too fucking hot as well," he rolls up his sleeves and I take off my new jacket, if we weren't in Kipp I'd take my shoes off too.
"What do you want to do?" I ask Jack.
"Eat, then go back to the hotel and have lots of sex."
"How about you get a snack, we go and try to find my friend Senis, then we go back to the hotel and have lots of sex?"
"Is Senis another ex?" he frowns. He wasn't that happy when I explained who Ry was and that we're still pretty good friends.
"No," I shake my head. "Senis is an echoback girl I know." I really want to find out if she's seen Tallis since I gave her my address, and if he's agreed to write to me.
The cab drops us at the end of the street where Senis works, while I'm paying the driver Jack jumps out looking around him at all the plants and trees that have suddenly appeared in the middle of the city.
"It's the forest isn't it?" he says as I join him. "They're trying to make Kipp look like the forest."
"Yeah," I nod. Last time I was here I hadn't seen the real forest, and I now realise that these streets and houses covered in growing things are nothing like it, but I guess it's about the feeling rather than actually living in a tree.
When we get to the dress shop I peer through the window to see if Senis is in there. She is, sitting behind the counter with her arms folded on the top and her head resting on them, looking like she's fast asleep. The sign is turned to open though, and as I push the door to go in the bell above it lets out a chime that makes her sit bolt upright and stare around wide eyed, until she spots me and gives me a relived smile.
"Hello again," she waves me over, "and hello you too," she says in a very different tone of voice when she notices Jack.
"He's with me," I tell her, and she pulls a mock disappointed face at this. "Jack, Senis, Senis Jack." I introduce them to one another.
Senis closes up the shop, saying that it's nearly time and she never gets any customers this late in the day anyway, then goes into the back and makes us tea. When she reappears carrying a tray laden with tea things she asks me what I'm doing back in Kipp and I attempt to explain, I get as far as telling her about being taken to the forest before she interrupts me.
"You were in the forest! Was it horrible?" she questions me.
"No, it wasn't horrible, just different."
"Did you have to sleep up a tree?"
"I slept in a hut in a tree a couple of times, but mostly I slept in a hut on the ground."
"A hut, yuck! Why would anyone want to live in a hut when they could live in a house?" She looks at me and shudders, then suddenly stares at my arm, reaches across and prods my now mostly healed tattoo. "Did you become a man out there? I don't remember seeing that before."
"Um...yes," I nod, wondering if it's allowed to speak to city girls about it.
"Ha! Don't worry, I'm not going to ask you, but you're not allowed to ask me either."
"Becoming a woman." Senis pulls a gold chain out from the neck of her dress, it has a small pendant hanging off it in the shape of a leaf. "I did it last year."
"You get a necklace rather than a tattoo?" Jack asks her.
"Yep, but in the forest they have these huge things." She holds her hands out to indicate the collar like necklaces I saw the tribeswomen wearing. "My grandmother wears one, it looks stupid over a dress, she says when she was young and lived in the forest she never wore anything over her tits," Senis looks scandalised. "Can you imagine?"
"Yes, I was actually in the forest, remember?" I smile.
"Oh, yeah," she waves her hands. "Bet you didn't care though, the boys round here would think all their birthdays had come at once if the girls started dressing like that. So why are you in Kipp now? Did you escape?"
I tell her an edited version of what happened, leaving out bit about the raid.
"Oh, that meeting thingy," she says once I've finished. "My Dad was going on about that last night, said that the bloody poxy human bastards will never agree to ending slavery..." Senis stops and looks at Jack. "My Dad doesn't like humans, but I'm sure you're not a poxy bastard."
"I like to think I'm not," he replies dryly.
"Has he ever found out that you date human boys?" I ask her.
"Fuck no, he'd kill me, but I've got an echoback boyfriend now."
"Your parents must be pleased about that."
"You think I'd tell them?" She looks at me like I'm crazy. "They'd have his parents over to dinner like that," Senis clicks her fingers. "Then they'd be talking about weddings, and babies, gods!"
Poor Senis, seems she can't tell her parents about any of her boyfriends, whoever they are. She asks me a whole lot more questions about the forest, she's horrified when she discovers they don't even have proper toilets, but when I tell her about how they eat monkey she's not one bit bothered. It turns out you can buy dried monkey meat in the shops here and apparently it's considered a delicacy, but in a city where people happily eat insects I guess it's not that odd to her. Just before we go I ask her about Tallis, I leave it until then because I don't want her to think it's the only reason I came to see her.
"No, I've not seen him since you were last here," she shakes her head. "But if I do I'll be sure to pass on your address, and tell him about all the stuff you've been doing."
I try to hide my disappointment, but I know that he'll come to Kipp sooner or later, and that when they do Tallis will call in on Senis' parents.
Jack, who's sense of direction is clearly much better than mine, thinks he can find his way back on foot so we set out walking. "Senis can talk, can't she?" he says, once we're a few streets away.
"Yeah." We're in a bad part of town, and I see a few people glance at us, but no one tries anything and I know that's because of Jack, if I was alone I'd most likely have been mugged by now. "But I like her, she's funny."
"Hmm," he replies, and I get the feeling he's not quite so keen on her as I am.
When we arrive back at the hotel two men approach us in the lobby, one is carrying a note book and pencil, while the other has a large camera slung around his neck on a strap. The one with the notebook introduces himself as a journalist from one of the Kipp daily papers, and he asks me if I'm happy to answer a few questions about my speech and have my photo taken for the paper.
"Um...I don't know," I reply, I'm not sure I like the idea of being in the newspaper.
"Come on," the man says. "This is your chance to get your views across to our readers."
"I'm not sure I have views, I just want slavery to end."
"That's good," he writes down what I just said. "Now I know that you had an encounter with the notorious Father Barnaby, can you tell me something about him?"
"Well..." I tell him about how Barney wants to end slavery too, but not much more than that. The journalist then asks me some stuff about Sampson, the summit and my speech. I tell him how nervous I was, then he has me stand out on the street in the evening sunlight ready to have my picture taken, but just before the man with the camera clicks his shutter Jack stops him.
"Could you do something for me mate?" he asks. "Seeing as he gave you an interview for nothing, could you take a picture of us both together?"
"I'm sorry," the photographer says. "But we only really want him in the paper," he points to me.
"No," Jack shakes his head. "Not for the paper, what I mean is could you take a picture of us together and could I buy it off you?"
"Can I buy a copy too?" I ask, I like the idea of having a picture of Jack and me.
"Tell you what," he laughs. "You lads can have a couple of copies for free so long as you come down to the newspaper offices and pick them up."
First he takes two pictures of me by myself, then he tells us to stand together. Jack puts his arm around my shoulder and he takes a final one of the two of us together.
Just as they're finishing up I see Vio and Vin coming down the street toward us. "What was that all about?" Vio asks when she reaches us.
"I'm going to be in the paper," I say. "They interviewed me and took my picture. Did I miss anything interesting this afternoon?"
"A lot of fucking boring speeches," she blows out a stream of blue smoke. "But a whole load of companies have agreed to sign up to the forest treaty."
"That's great, they must be finally starting to understand how wrong it is."
"No," Vin shakes his head. "Our president, the man you failed to recognise this morning, has said that the Twin Islands will impose trade sanctions on any company that refuses to sign."
"Trade sanctions?" I frown.
"Won't buy shit off them," Vio provides. That's exactly what Barney wanted to achieve by kidnapping Sampson in the first place.
"Indeed," Vin adds. "And because of that a lot of smaller countries and states have said that they'll do the same."
"So basically the companies have to be blackmailed into doing the right thing," Jack mutters.
"What would you suggest then?" Vin looks at him. "That we sit them all down and tell them it's not nice and that they should stop it?" Jack glares back, they really don't like one another. Before things go any further Sampson comes to join us, with Tippit in tow.
"Aha, sorry we lagged behind there, I stopped off to buy Mrs S a little pressie." He opens a hat box to show us something inside that could be a hat, it's hard to tell under all the feathers, silk flowers, ribbons and netting. "Just the sort of thing she likes, Tippit was good enough to model it for me." I glance at Tippit, who pulls a face. "Now seeing as today has been something of a success I feel that a party is in order. Some drinks and some food, I know a splendid restaurant a few streets from here, and I won't be taking no for an answer."
I mouth "sorry" to Jack, I don't think that we'll be getting back to our room for lots of sex any time soon. "Later," I say as we follow Sampson and the others down the street.
"Oh yes," he replies, squeezing my ass. "Later."
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