Snake is back. He asked why I didn’t put a sunstone in the lair sooner. It wasn’t needed sooner. He only smiled knowingly and started adding his own touches to the sun symbols.
I was… uncomfortable… with him back. Uncomfortable with the reasons why. I excused myself, apologizing for my withdrawal. Again, he only smiled knowingly and nodded. Impossibly emerald eyes regarded me without emotion as I left the lair.
Now at the café, I saw to my delight the crowd was sparse. A few folks here and there, lost in the newspaper, lost in a book, lost in a small personal bubble of attention that excluded me. Good. I slid into my booth to hide away as well.
Jill came at once, bearing my chili coffee that I love so much. But the woman’s face was tense and her bearing unusually formal.
“Madam Ravenfeather, two guests wish an audience with you, should you be so inclined.” Jill’s voice was completely emotionless, nearly devoid of inflection. I had to hold a sip of coffee in my mouth to keep my own tongue.
When she did not turn to gesture towards the guests I scanned the floor. Near the front, two tables away from the door, were a pair of women watching me with the same intensity as Jill’s formality. The café is in a more tolerant portion of the City, to see a mix of ethnicities and religious displays in public was the norm. (As long as you were human.) So to see the women in head to toe covering was not unusual. I glanced at them coming in, noted the jeweled head scarf and jeweled veil, and thought nothing of it. But now they were looking straight at me.
Enough skin was exposed that I could see the burnished bronze hue. Of Persian descent and strong in their identity. Probably need a message ran. A server passed by them, casting a shadow on their face. Bright leonine eyes glowed with steady light. Fuck.
It took another gulp of coffee to beat down the sudden flush of panic. More djinn. I had to take stock of where I was. In the City, and the two djinni are not nuts deep in my spirit. I have my weapons, and several places I can jump to in an emergency. But after what happened last time, why were they allowed so openly?
“Jill, does the Envoy know they are here?” I finished the first mug, but held on to the ceramic to keep my hands busy.
“Yes, Madame. He escorted them here personally.” She gave a little formal nod as she answered.
The scarcity of customers now made sense. I have to assume every one knows about the djinni and is connected to a faction. God damn politics. Chuckling, I allowed myself to relax somewhat. I peeked under the black witch hat that marked the booth as mine. No messages were hidden inside.
“Very well, then.” I released my hold on the mug. “I shall receive them. Would you please make another coffee for me, and have water brought for them and whatever makings would make for a polite presentation. I am ignorant of the social protocol for this.” Jill nodded stiffly again as she took the empty mug. She placed it away before fetching the djinn.
When they stood, I saw the desert clothing under the traveling robes. Where the Djinni that possessed me wore all white with little decoration, these two wore all black with a multitude of draped delicately thin gold chains from which hung a multitude of small gold coins. On standing, the robe closed hiding the gleams of their adornments. The only jewels were on the headchains attached to their head scarves. From across the room, I could feel the gems. Opal. I remembered the Djinni’s quest and struggled to keep my composure.
To my surprise, Jill bid them to wait at their table. Like the Djinni that possessed me, their form was androgynous and fluid. I had mistaken them for women based on half understood cultural references. Still beautiful. Still alluring. I wondered why they covered themselves. The Djinni said this appearance was an illusion. It is one they are obsessed with keeping, if it is an illusion at all.
She returned from the back with a tray and an extra server. Jill led the way to my booth, followed by the djinn, followed by the second server. “Madam Ravenfeather, your guests…” I could see on her face that she forgot to ask their names. Quickly I accepted their presence and bid them to sit across from me. Instinctively I knew they had no names. Any they provided was a personal and private affair. Among their own, they had no names. And so the Nameless sat down with Many-Names. I smiled at the irony.
She set a fresh coffee before me, and placed a brass stylish pot on the table. Three small cups were placed before us three seated figures. She moved aside and supervised her helper as he placed a communal plate of flatbread on the table. He followed it with small jars of intensely sweet, savory, and bitter toppings. They all looked delightful.
Too bad I was completely out of my social league.
Jill bowed and pulled the privacy curtain closed as she left. I waited until I could not sense her anymore before speaking. “Forgive the many faux pas I will make tonight. Social graces is an elusive skill for me. Speak plain with me, and I shall do so with you.”
They removed their veils and I saw the same delicate beauty that the Djinni portrayed. One had a slightly more square jaw. The other had slightly larger eyes. Both were hauntingly beautiful. My reaction to their unveiling was much less than what they expected. “Our appearance does not surprise you.” Spoken as a statement, the question was heavily implied. I only shook my head in answer. “Then you have seen our brother.”
I deeply sighed. Without further sound, I poured myself a thimble cup of the thick strong coffee, then poured them a cup in turn. I found myself using the same mannerisms the Djinni had shown me. I served the two djinn in silence and placed the bread and toppings before them. Despite having a chili coffee at hand, I sipped the strong brew. They accepted my attempts at etiquette without critique and waited patiently for me to find my voice.
“Aye, I’ve seen kir. Ke exists no more. Kir hubris was kir undoing.” I took another sip and pulled together my words. “Did the Witch tell you where to find me?”
One djinni remained stoic. The other blinked at the question, then recovered kir composure. “No. Only that you would know what became of him.” The stoic djinni spoke up. “How do you know of her?”
I took a deep breath. “Your brother was careless when ke possessed me. I was able to see through kir eyes and recall some of kir memories.” I immediately took a sip of the strong coffee to avoid the heated stares the two djinn were pinning me with.
By the time I put the thimble cup down, all three of us had regained our composure. “Ask the Witch. She was there at the bridge when the eclipse opened me. She coached kir! If your brother’s quest was foolhardy, she had the chance to stop kir, and she didn’t. All else that happened, was a direct result of kir decision to possess me. I’m surprised you were allowed into the City, after what your brother did here.” The super strong coffee got to me, making me heady. My usual coffee was like water after that, and I sipped it as such.
“What did he… ke… do? And is ‘ke’ a new word in your language?” The stoic djinni had a hand laying subtly on kir expressive brother, holding kir back from a possibly regretful reaction.
“Some of us want a gender-neutral set of pronouns in the English language, so we’ve made our own. I use ‘ke’ and ‘kir’. Others use ‘ze’ and ‘sie’. There is no authoritative standard yet, but whatever we use, it sure sounds better than referring to your brother as ‘it.” A pause for a sip. “Ke possessed me, used my body to gain entry into the City, killed two residents that owed him a debt, tried to kill a third but was repulsed. I learned later there was a death from that raid, but the debt itself was never claimed. The factions put a bounty on kir head but it will never be claimed.”
Jill knocked on the frame and asked permission to intrude. She brought water for the three of us. She brushed against my bare skin and in a flash I understood she was telling me I had armed assistance if necessary. I said nothing but sipped the cooling water.
The strangely passionate djinni was visibly anxious. The stoic djinni poured kir brother another thimble cup of coffee and placed food in kir fidgety hands. “You said ke exists no more. How did ke die?” Ke folded kir hands and stared intensely at my face, looking for any hint of deception.”
“I didn’t say ‘die’. I said ‘exists no more’. You will not find your brother, as ke was devoured and undone.”
“What rite of exorcism or banishment was used to purge kir from you?” There was no hint of socially friendliness in kir voice anymore.
“None.” I answered truthfully. “There were those that took offense to your brother’s possession of me, but they allowed it to continue for a set time. When time ran out, ke tried to bury kirself in my soul and hide. The last I saw of your brother, a pack of predators was tearing kir, and me, apart. What was not of me was devoured. There is no returning from this. I’m sorry. That’s all I know.”
The passionate djinni stared at me in disbelief. The stoic one closed kir eyes and shook kir head gently. “You told the truth until the last sentence. You know more but are holding back. What do you have of our brother? What ever tokens you have, we claim!
Before I could take a breath to answer, before I could blink in reflex, before I could think of calling Jill, the djinn had blinked from across the booth, to either side of me. Each one gripped one of my hands. The passionate djinni was on my right, holding a hand with kir left, and gripping my jaw with kir right. Ke held my head upright and turned towards kir, pushing me into the cushion such that my back arched slightly. Ke was happy to have action at last. Kir long pointed tongue flailed in happy throes. Its movements fascinated me with hues of blue and purple, reminding me of lizards.
The stoic djinni was on my left, gripping my left hand with kir right. Ke pulled off the glove on kir left hand, showing me a glimpse of bronze toned skin before it turned into something like smoke and steam. In this blink of time, I had recovered my thoughts and was about to blink out of the City altogether.
The stoic djinni was faster than my thought.
Ke plunged his shadow hand into my chest, through flesh and bone, gripping my heart.
There was a token of the Djinn there. The only thing that remained of kir after the coyotes and predators tore kir apart in the desert. But that token was not mine. The Ravens of the Boneyard had claimed it as theirs. Strangely, they did not keep it in the Boneyard with them, but used it as an adornment around my heart. I could not remove it. And I had even forgotten it was there.
Time seemed to stop. The djinni’s ice cold grip caused my heart to stop beating. I felt kir slide a finger under the token and pull to no avail. “Release it!”, kir voice hissed in my ear.
“I… can’t… not mine… to give…” Cold. So cold. Very cold. Need to warm up.
“Who then. Who has bound this to you?” Kir hand became even colder. In answer to word and action, my heart burst into flame in my chest. Ke withdrew kir hand but kept me bound in the private booth.
I could breathe again, but I could not move or blink away. Their grip on my hands bound me to that moment in space and time. “The Ravens.” I took a deep breath and noted Jill was just outside the booth. That she hasn’t acted meant I was not in mortal danger. Yet. That she was there meant she knew what was going on in the booth. And if she knew, then others knew. “You are making the same mistakes your brother did. I am a pawn on a chessboard, but a pawn that others seem to like playing with. And we know how others hate having their favorite toy fucked with. Your brother was torn apart for doing a little more than what you are doing now. I am not a threat to you, but what you are doing is making others notice. Release me now, and we’ll count this a misunderstanding.”
The stoic djinni remained expressionless, much like kir brother did when regarding the first soul to be collected. Suddenly, he released my hand and stared at the other djinni to do the same. The passionate djinni, so close to having fun, pouted at the silent command, but ke too, released kir grip on my hand and throat. Neither one left my side, however.
“If you want it back, you’ll have to talk to the Ravens of the Boneyard to get it back. I don’t know why they embedded it in me. It is completely inert to me and I have no use for it. I had forgotten all about it, actually. If you’re looking for someone to enact revenge on, you’re in the wrong place. The City defends its own, like a mother defends her children. Of course folks were going to go after kir! No, if you want revenge, go lay hands on the one that set kir on the path to destruction in the first place. Go to the Witch.”
I heard a subtle noise outside the booth, and the heavy presence of a familiar figure. “Now then. Had this remained a matter of words, there would be no repercussions. But you laid hands on a City citizen, in a City space, after giving word to the Envoy that you would not cause trouble.” Jill pulled back the curtain. She had a kitchen knife in her hands that pulsed slightly with magic. I knew her illusion was hiding the full appearance of the blade, but there was enough magic peeking through to convey the dangerousness of it. Behind Jill was the Envoy. Behind the Envoy were battlemages of a faction I did not recognize. No one was smiling.
“Get the fuck out.” The passionate djinni looked at Jill and grinned daringly. Jill did not return the expression. Ke then looked at the battlemages behind the Envoy and lost kir desire for combat. I refused to budge, forcing kir to slide completely around the horseshoe shaped booth to emerge from the other side.
The stoic djinni sized up the siuation, closed kir eyes, and nodded. “Yes, Ravenfeather. We did overstep the boundaries we agreed to. Thank you for allowing us to search your body. You spoke the truth after all.” Ke donned kir veil again and regloved kir hand. “I have other questions for you, however it seems it will not be asked here. I reserve the right to return hospitality for hospitality at a later date.” Ke stood, and harshly pulled the passionate djinni’s veil over kir face.
I did not acknowledge the response. I did not know if I would make it binding or agree to something far worse than being merely manhandled. Jill stepped between me and the djinn, keeping her “kitchen knife” in a ready position while facing them. The Envoy silently stepped to the side as the battlemages took up escorting positions around the djinn. As they left the cafe, the Envoy looked back at me with a stern glare. I don’t know if he was displeased with the djinn, with me, or something else entirely.
Jill did not stand down until the presence of the Envoy and the battlemages had left the street. She let out a long sigh and tucked her “kitchen knife” away. “I didn’t think that would go well. They usually don’t stick up for each other. You must have made some impression on them for them to come to the City looking for you.”
“Why did the Envoy allow them entry? After what happened with the last of their kind that snuck in here, I would think he would fire them off into a furnace or something.”
Jill began clearing away the cups and dishes. “Did you see the faction that arrived with him? The battlemages? They aren’t involved in the petty day to day goings on of the City. They sponsored the djinn’s entry, which is why the djinn didn’t fight them. Vulnerability in exchange for exposure.”
As she turned to take away the dishes, I stopped her. “Why did you stick up for me? I saw how you placed yourself. You claimed first rights, almost personal even. You weren’t defending the café , that’s the Envoy’s job. You were there for me. Why?”
She doesn’t turn towards me. She remains facing forward. Quietly she says, “You’re my friend. How could I not?”. She tugs slightly and I let go, allowing the server to perform server duties.
All too soon, I feel the time in the Waking approaching. This chapter is over, but the story is still being written. I close my eyes in the café and open them in my room.
Make of that, what you may.