Vashe set the pot down atop the fire barrel.
“Nvara. Check out back, will you?” he asked.
“On it,” Nvara said.
“What’s out back?” Alix asked.
“Food. Monsters sometimes. Nvara’s best at dealing with that stuff.” Svelen leaned against the wall, and rubbed the back of his neck. “What’re we making, Vashe?”
“Stew.” Vashe glanced at the door. “I think we stole some meat. And we got onions n’ potatoes n’ nvoro root.”
“No meat,” Nvara announced. She slammed down a net bag of potatoes and onions, followed by a sack of purple nvoro. “This is what we’re workin’ with. And the flour.”
“We can manage. Sve-”
Svelen pulled a knife from his waistband, and picked up the net bag. “I’m on it.”
He began slicing potatoes. Nvara took a cleaver from a hook on the wall.
In the corner of her eye, Alix saw something move. The bag of onions jiggled unpleasantly.
At first she supposed they were just settling, but they started rattling like plates in a truckbed. She jolted back, just as a black tentacle tore through the mesh.
The tentacle was thick and grooved like the surface of a brain. It split in two, and writhed, and split again. A low growl came from inside the bag. Something inside it burst, and the stink of petrol filled the room. Alix gagged.
Something that had probably once been an onion tore its way out. It bore unblinking, slit-pupiled eyes, and four black tentacles wriggled from its sides.
It started hovering, squealing like a tea kettle.
Vashe screamed, and ducked behind the fire barrel. Nvara tried to get between him and the onion-monster. Svelen raised the knife, but his hands were shaking.
“What-” Alix began. A tentacle curled around her wrist. The onion dragged her close. It split down the middle, and a maw with spatially-impossible teeth snapped at her.
She did the one thing that made sense- jabbed it in the eye with two fingers. It screamed like a dying engine.
A flash of silver arced through the air. Alix ducked just in time. The cleaver sliced the onion clean in two. The tentacle around her wrist went limp, and the onion’s eyes glazed over.
Nvara came over, pulled the cleaver out, and stabbed it again and again. Black goo oozed from it, and melted into the ground.
“Vexfucked Blight.” Vashe breathed out. He picked up the bag gingerly, as if something else inside might explode into a monster. “…We’ve got to go somewhere else.”
“Like where?” Nvara said.
“Is this place really safe either?”
Alix jostled Svelen’s elbow.
“I think if we’re quick-” she said. “We can go down to the docks. There’s a bakery down there, if you ask nice enough they give you their old bread. It’s sxote, but -”
“That don’t bother me.” Svelen pocketed the knife.
“Vashe- We’re gonna, uh, get out of here for a minute.”
“…Can’t blame you,” Vashe said. “Come back safe.”
The streets, this time of night, were almost silent. At three in the morning, only shrimplings and farmers were awake. Mist pooled around Alix’s knees and wet her face.
Once, a motorcar drove past, slow and silent. The Warrior caste sigil- a looping knotwork pattern- shone from its side. Alix ducked into a side alley, pulling Svelen with her, and hid behind a wastebin. The car’s headlights glinted off the bin’s metal, but it passed them without notice.
“Vexing strikers,” Alix muttered.
They stuck to the shadows after that. There were laws about slaves and thoughtforms wandering around at night- unless you had a note from your master, you were doomed. And it was blatantly obvious that Svelen was a thoughtform- freckles like his, the colour of grapefruit, just didn’t exist in nature.
Luckily, they didn’t run into more. They got to the docks pretty easily. Frigid water churned as an icebreaker ship’s horn howled in the distance. It smelt like shrimp and seaweed, but Alix had grown up with those scents.
“Through here,” she murmured.
Vari’s health, the bakery’s lights were still on. She knocked on the wall. The door opened; a bell on top jingled. A tall person, wearing a long shapeless dress and a veil, opened it.
The person was a shrimpling. You could tell even without exposed skin, if you knew how to look- the tell-tale sign was the wriggling. Tiny, vestigial legs ran along their chests, Impossible to fully hide.
“…Alix?” The shrimpling’s voice clacked.
“Yes. Can we come in?”
“Of course, but-” The veil wavered. “Where have you been hiding? I thought you were dead.”
“It’s… a long story. My friends and me need food, Miss Kalarak.”
Alix clasped her hands behind her back.
“Friends? How many of you are there?”
“…I was going to bring food back to them,” Alix said. “It’s four of us. We don’t have any ration books, it’s-”
Her face flushed.
“…Come in, then. Close the door, you’ll let the wet out.”
The smell of bread lingered in the shop. A small humidifier on the counter, next to the ration-book stampers, purred out smoke. The air was nearly as damp as the fog outside.
“You’ve gotten yourself into trouble, haven’t you?” Miss Kalarak said.
“Yes’m.” Alix’s fingers twisted behind her back. “Sorry, ma’am. I only came here because I thought-”
She felt the words wither in her mouth.
“I didn’t want to have to steal,” she said. “And you helped Mama when she needed it.”
“That’s fair.” Miss Kalarak polished one of her claws on her sleeve. “But you realise without a ration book, my hands are tied.”
“But-” Svelen began.
Alix dug her elbow into his ribs.
“All right. We’re sorry for the trouble,” she said.
“…I can give you food waste, if you keep it to yourself,” Miss Kalarak said. She turned her back to them, bending down under the counter. “No one’s going to miss day-old things. Especially if they’re not what humans eat.”
“Thank you.” Alix breathed out.
“For your mother’s sake.”
It was hard to tell where shrimplings were looking at any given time- their eyes were beady and black, just like Alix’s. But she could feel Miss Kalarak’s gaze on her.
“…I’ll do what I can to shelter you, but that isn’t much.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Alix said. “For now, I – I think we’re okay. We just. Needed some food. It was an emergency.”
She shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.
“All right,” Miss Kalarak said.
She passed her a bag the size of a toolbox, and closed the hatch under the counter.
“I’d prefer not to have the Vravresva on my doorstep,” she said. “So if you’re going to stay….”
“We’re not,” Alix said. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
She bowed, as best she could while holding the bag.
“You’re welcome. …Be safe.”
Svelen glanced at the door. Alix patted him on the arm.
“Time to go,” she said.
They left, and took the back way home, twisting up through Torova Vrenli, the Bureaucrat Quarter. All the buildings here were short, grey, and drab, laid out in a neat grid.
“…How do you know her?” Svelen asked.
“I ought to be asking you the same question,” Alix murmured. “Your friends, I mean.”
“Oh. I mean – is there that much to tell?” Svelen shrugged his shoulders up.
“Maybe, maybe not.” Alix shrugged. “…Miss K was my mother’s friend. I don’t know that much about her. You know how it is.”
“You can’t understand them unless you are one,” Svelen said.
“What about you?”
“…I met Vashe after they sold me off,” he said. “He had this plan to get out. I listened.”
He smiled, shyly, and stuck his hands in his pockets.
“Nvara- she’s been his friend since the sun first rose. She helped us get out through the sewers. We stuck together after that. It was Vashe’s idea to go to the Blight, because no one would look for us there.”
Whenever he said Vashe’s name, the corners of his eyes crinkled up into a smile.
“How long ago was this?” Alix asked.
“Coming up on two chains,” Svelen said.
“Half a year! Why didn’t you – I don’t know, say something? Find me?”
“He said it was a risk we couldn’t take. And at first- he was right. We had no friends, nowhere to run to. We’d get caught. And you know what happens to thoughtforms who go rogue.”
“You get… unmade. Right?” Alix scuffed her boot against the pavement.
“Right. …Let’s not talk about that?”
The silence hung in the air like a feather made of lead. Alix wanted to stop there, for fear of hurting Svelen.
They headed towards the Blight through the market. The neon lights overhead flickered, blotting out the stars.
At this hour, the streets were scattered with insomniacs, oxa-breathers, and the odd whore. Alix was careful to avoid them all- she didn’t want to be seen, and oxa-breathers were crazy anyway.
Before long, the artificial glow was replaced by the strange purple fog that filled the Blight.
“Svelen?” She could barely see him through the mist.
“I’m here.” He took her hand. “C’mon, it’s this way.”
He led her forward. It was hard to tell direction through the fog, but Alix saw the destination- a long concrete tube, the kind that belonged in a sewer, rising from the ground like a ramp. Alix followed him through it, down into the rat runner’s home.
Vashe was still inside, warming his hands over the fire barrel.
“We got food,” Svelen said. “Where’s Nvara?”
“Tryin’a do the same vexin’ thing.”
Vashe half-smiled, and glanced at the bag Alix held.
They made supper for the second time. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as the first, for the better. Miss Kalarak had provided a loaf of seaweed bread, a few half-stale cheese pasties, and a single cream horn, as big as Alix’s fist.
She’d also slipped in a small jar of svass crystals. Alix would have to thank her later.
Vashe reignited the fire and heated up water in the old pot. Svelen took some mugs from the chest in the corner. All of them were chipped or cracked. Alix poured the crystals into the bottom of each, and set the pastries over the coals when the water boiled.
When everything was ready, Vashe perched atop the chest, and Svelen and Alix sat by his side.
“So. Your crazytalk plan,” Vashe said. “What exactly are you gonna do?”
Alix looked at Svelen. Svelen shrugged.
“I- You’re better at explainin’ this stuff, Alix…”
She rubbed her eyes. It had been a long night, and it was going to be a long, long day. The svass would help.
“… Fine. The plan.” She stared into her mug as if it held an answer.
“My- old master’s house, it was built before the Revolution. There’s servants’ corridors in the walls- so that the rich old farts don’t have to see you, yanno?”
Vashe nodded, but his eyes narrowed. Svelen’s hand drifted over, resting on top of Vashe’s.
“There’s one back door- it’s by the kitchens- it’s always, always, always unlocked. Cook keeps it open because she smokes like a house fire. We sneak in when she’s not working and take the staff elevator to the fourth floor. Mas- His bedroom and his study are both on that level. It’s gonna be in one or the other. We sneak around in the staff corridor, go in, find that glove.”
“What if someone catches you?” Vashe asked.
“It’s not likely. At nine in the morning, M- my old master’s at the Cathedral. So guess where everyone else is?”
“They still have that valaxa game?” Svelen’s lips twitched.
“Yep. They keep raising the stakes, too. Last time the coalboy bet Cook his entire weeks’ work and won. She ain’t too happy about that. — Point is, everyone’s gonna be in the servants’ parlour. Playing or watching.”
Alix took another bite of her pastry. The sharp cheese burned her nose.
“And if someone runs into us- if they haven’t noticed I’m gone, which is possible, I can say I was running an errand. We can forge Svelen a note from his ‘master’. We get in, get the glove, get out before he comes back from the Cathedral.”
“If they do notice you’ve gone?” Vashe asked.
“Lie like crazy. If that doesn’t work, run like crazy.”
“Sounds like too much of a risk.”
“No, it could work,” Svelen said. “Alix’s good at slipping out of sight. She- she likes to read.”
“He has a sizable library,” she muttered. “Lots of rare books. It’s easy to get lost in there.”
The excuse fell out of her mouth, and her shoulders hunched up. Svelen breathed out.
“… Calm down.” Vashe’s voice was as growly as ever, but his tone was gentle.
“So what you’re sayin’ is, you could get in and out, and if someone noticed you they’d figure you were just sitting around suckin’ your thoughts instead of doing what your job.”
“Basically,” Alix said. “It’s a long shot, but I think it’s worth it.”
“Me too,” Svelen said. “It’s the best chance we’ve got.”
Vashe’s brow furrowed, and he bit the side of his finger.
“Sve-” he said. “Can you take the pan out?”
Svelen squeezed Vashe’s hand, stood up, and grabbed the pan. The door closed behind him.
Vashe turned his head towards Alix. His gaze burned.
“Listen up.” His nostrils flared.
“I don’t know what the fuck you want. But Svelen trusts you, and that counts a lot for me. You say you can get it back, he says you can get it back? Fine. I’ll bite. You come back with it, and with him, you’re one of us.”
“But?” Alix stared back at him through her bangs.
“But if you get him hurt or killed- I will find you. And if you sold him out, I’m gonna break every bone in your body, and break the splinters.”
His lips parted in a snarl.
“Are we clear?”
“Clear as ice,” Alix said.
“Good.” He stood up.
“Get some sleep. Or make more svass. You’re gonna need it.”
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