Four: Paving the Way
Riding a train again, to Ventine, to the one oasis in this country that I know. It’s been considered an oasis for the temples among nature. Based on pictures I’ve seen of oases, this is the odd one out. This time, I intend to stay for longer than I normally do. I wait until I’m at the temples to read the pages that Jack’s contact has given me, threatening to blaze a hole in the inner breast pocket of my light-grey pinstripe blazer. The ride is hours long, more so by the moments when the locomotive has to slow down and then halt, to let others board or get off. I choose to not to get off for something to eat, despite the time I ate breakfast, and I stay on the train. The only times I get up are used for stretching my body.
It is almost six o’clock, the start of the evening, when the train reaches the station where I get off. As usual, someone offers to help with my luggage, but I politely turn the offer down. I walk out of the station, and I ride a carriage straight to the temples.
Upon reaching the unpainted iron gate and fence, I see the surprise on the serval sitting in the booth, especially when I remove the eyepatch. He speaks, “I hadn’t been informed of your arrival.”
“You knew that I’d come back.”
“Yes, but not so soon and without a notice.”
“You can scold me for that later. I just want in.” The serval knows that I won’t tolerate an argument, especially when I’m hungry at the moment. Now that it’s evening, dinner is being served to everyone. He unlatches the gate, and I push it open myself as I carry my bags.
I walk into the sandy field and head to one of the log houses that’s for everyone which I walk right into. I head to one of the unlabelled beds—this house has beds with name plaques on the foot of the beds’ metal frames—next to which I lay down my luggage, and my handbag in the drawer of the simple night table. Then, I head out, back to the sandy field.
On the opposite side of the field where I have just been, there is a large construct made of both stone blocks and of wood. That’s where I head next. Inside of that construct is a long space occupied by wooden benches and matching tables. How surprised everyone is by the wooden door opening and finding the she-wolf with the violet eye entering. The walls are planks fitting perfectly together. The long counter having the large porcelain dishes is made of granite. No one objects to me taking a plate and filling it with food. Everyone eventually goes about their own business, talking amongst each other, though probably about me coming back so unexpectedly. My plate is filled with beef, rice, and various sliced and fried vegetables. I see an opening in one of the tables—probably made for me—and it is where Themba and a few felines are seated. I asked, “You mind?”
The cheetah is the one to answer, “Go ahead.”
I sit down, and I tell Themba, “What’s on yer mind?”
The savannah wolf answers, “Jus’ the regular news.”
As I get the rice to soak up what juice the beef tenders can produce, I ask, “Is not talking about word from operatives hard fer you?”
The wolf sighs, “Very much so”, and then continues with his dinner, like his feline companions. There’s silence among us until he inquires, “So, would this be a social calling?”
I look up at Themba, telling him after downing a forkful, “I will be here a while, Themba, and for a reason, but I would like to catch up further with you.”
The serval of the group asks, “Were… were y-you ever… together…?”
I answer casually, “Nay. I’ve always bin busy and he sees no time fer ladies.”
I could swear that what he mutters in his primary language, is “If only I did.”
I inform the group, “You don’ wanna know how I… get through me heat.” That’s when I begin indulging on my dinner. That is something ironic about me as I won’t hesitate to destroy another brothel if it means getting further toward my target. However, I must plan for something like that again. I get through my dinner, listening to a casual conversation of Themba and the other felines. When they want me to weigh in, I just answer nonchalantly. Themba knows that I will visit him in his quarters before the other turn in.
(At the end of the school day, I was caught up with by another wolf pup, asking, “Fancy a stroll together?”
(I scoffed and headed on, straight home, suddenly not feeling up to a deliberate detour. However, the same wolf pup, who I saw had dull-brown fur, beige fur on his chin and neck, and yellow-green eyes. “Come on, yeh could use the company.”
(“Yeh’ll jus’ lure me somewhere t-beat me up.”
(“No, I won’t!” the pup objected.
(“Yeh’ll still lie about me mum”, I growled.
(“No, I won’t!” he repeated. It just irritated me. “I just wanna be yer friend!”
(I stopped at that, and looked at him sternly. Who would ever be friends with the she-wolf who knew jack shit about her parents? Expecting him to pester me regardless, I sighed, “Fine.” The pup grinned and got next to me. We moved at an equal and consistent pace in the late afternoon in the Spring. I eventually began the conversation as much as I wished to not talk. “So… yeh live ‘round ‘ere?”
(“Yes”, he answered casually. “I live in one o’ those worn houses with only three rooms. I share a room with me father.”
(I asked, “Have you got a kitchen?”
(He answered, “Yes, but not much works. One burner on the stove functions, but the others don’t, and the gas barely works in the oven.”
(I responded, “Every dinner I get is cooked on a stove… Where do you read, play, or do yer ‘omework?”
(“I don’t read at home. I always ‘ave Dorothy teach me to read. I go to ‘er house over lunch.”
(I asked, “Dorothy? Everyone’s favourite cat?” The brown pup nodded. We went into conversation about the teachers and the recent assignments, until he ended up following me all the way to my house.
(Upon seeing the shambles that it always was in, the pup spoke, “You live here?” I didn’t even nod. “It’s a palace compared to my house.” I scoffed, taking it just for flattery. “By the way, I’m Gaston.” I didn’t even give him my name. I just walked in my house.
(However, I saw him through the side window, approaching a house that was more dilapidated than the one I lived in, dirt filling the holes in the decaying planks. I was surprised my mother asking, “Is there something wrong, Love?”
(I turned around, answering, “No. Nothing at all.” Upon walking past my mother, I wipe my eyes threatening to shed a tear.)
“Jade Crown. Stoat. Brothel owner, drug marketer, slave trafficker. She thinks she’s untouchable because she has the money and is in a piss-poor borough. Police won’t bother to patrol there because they’re too shallow to help those starving in the streets.” I think, Speak of the devil, reading the notes that Jack’s contact gave me. As if Jack wants me to start there or simply recommends such, that’s the first co-conspirator I read about. I go through the others, each in different boroughs of Highcond—including the heart of the city—but I already think of actually starting my search in Sputure, where this stoat resides, and I look through what’s provided of her role and own operation.
I find my friend the raven idle at the open window at the end of the long chamber, where I head. I caress the feathers of his head and run my fingers down his back. He’s quiet as I stroke through his feathers. I then let him nip my knuckle. I tell him, “Go on ahead of me. Head to Sputure. Look for a brothel run by a female stoat, the placed called The Dented Shield. When I’m in the borough, yeh’ll know.” He caws once, before he takes flight. I watch him flap his wings, rise in the air, and glide off, occasionally flapping, until his silhouette fades out my sight. Bless that corvid.
I turn around to hearing the door open, and it’s none other than the Savannah Wolf. Themba asks, “How long do you plan to stay here?”
“As long as it takes”, I answer.
Themba emphasises, “As long as what takes?”
“The planning. Everything needs a plan.”
Themba objects, “Life is never planned.” I’m not convinced. He continues as he takes off his shirt, to hang up, “It is wise to have a battle plan, but not everything goes that way. You can arrange defence when forces approach but your forces do not hold all throughout the battle.”
I watch him pace, now bare-chested, and speak, “I have a way of getting around, a way of analysing, and a way of fighting.”
“Even I, chief of security, know that there is more to life than fighting. I know why you do this; you told me. You move abroad only to return and practice on living enemies.”
I state, “Highcond is a lawless place.”
Themba objects, “So are almost all other places. That’s why we have places such as this. The world has always been a lawless place.” That, I acknowledge, but silently. Themba stops pacing, but gets closer to me. He looks in my eyes. “Sister… if eliminating this clan is the purpose of your life, and if you succeed in that… what will come after that…?” He fears something… He then adds after awkward silence, “At least think about it.” He turns away.
I speak, “I am glad ter ‘ave you in my life. Y-know that, right?”
Without looking back, he calls, “I very well do.”
Sharpening my Khopeshes again, I think about how I would approach my target. I also compare the order of co-conspirators to an order that I make in my head. One of them is in Tolden, and I choose to hold off on that for my own reason. I consider the logic of going in order of geography, and strongly. What to do in each borough, I will just wait and see—if things go according to plan on my missions.
As it is late, I turn in for the night, and sleep in the unoccupied bed that I have chosen, as much I honestly consider sleeping in the same bed as Themba. I have known that wolf for years and felt close to him, but there is something within telling me not to have a relationship with him. This becomes one of those nights of me feeling the gnawing inside me, and not because of my body’s messages.
I spend four days at the temples in reading over the notes again and again. Though vague, I drill all that knowledge of my targets in my head. Even after managing to memorise all the names and having their drawn impressions sunken in, I still stare at the pages. On the fourth and final day at the compound, I am knelt in front of the lion idol, still wondering what this deity in her tales would say to one seeking vengeance. The only way to get rid of these criminals is to kill them. I know what that clan has done, and killing them seems the only way halt their trafficking operations for good.
It is simply because I am done with my knees aching from being pressed against the stone floor I rise to my feet, but still having my eyes on the sculpted lioness. When I turn around—there the High Priestess of the embassy is in the open doorway, clad in her white robe and blue sashes. I am unphased as she has a habit of surprising others. I speak, “You know what I want.” It is no question.
The High Priestess replies, “I do. But you still ask yourself why that is.” As if she can read my mind, I do not respond. She continues, “It is still justifiable as you still are loyal to my cause.”
“Then you know that dangers of Highcond await me.” I approach her, to bow to her. “When I come back, it will be for the cubs.” Then, I stand up straight again, heading out of the temple with my bags, and then head out of the embassy’s front gate.
Another two days later, I get off the train to take me to Sputure, getting off at its first stop in the borough. The station that I exit is but a few kilometres away from the southern edge of the borough. This is definitely a place of poverty; even the train station tells that. The wooden walls of the station and the houses near have taken apparent beatings from fire and explosives outside. I just look around, heading north of the station. The borough itself, upon a few minutes of treading the dirt sidewalk, looks appalling to me, and the air stinks of musk scents, bodily waste, and flesh decay. It’s more than enough to make my sensitive nose scrunch hard.
I take about an hour to find an inn. Granted, it’s the first inn of the borough that I see, labelled “Timmins and Co.”, and it’s with peeling paint on wooden planks looking as if they’ve just begun decaying. Upon entering, the inn looks no better than the erratically singed wood outside. At the crude desk made of wood that’s been scratched on the top, sits a brown tabby cat with a slim build. He asks, “Here fer a room?”
“Yes”, I answer. “Any available?”
“A few”, the cat tells me plainly. “Would any room do?”
“Yes”, I answer after a short hesitation. I can’t afford to be picky.
The brown cat hands me a key with the number three crudely etched on. He informs me, “All rooms are on the upper floor. We have only one loo, which is in the corner. We charge two pounds per night. Yeh’ll need bring yer own food bought from stores if yeh want yer meals cooked here.” I glare at him with my eyes narrowed. I know what kind of place the borough is. I mutter, “Thank you… You’ll barely hear me…” I slowly walk aside and up the stairs until the cat is out of my sight.
I enter the suite, which is drab at best. The wallpaper that decorates the room is mostly gone, torn off, the walls being wood, but the faded-blue paint has been chipping, bits of it peppering the edges of the floorboards placed clunkily. The one window in the room has a hole broken in its glass. The bed has a simple frame made of wood as well, and seems to be the only thing to have no signs of decay, the sheets and pillows looking ragged. I sigh before I place my suitcase in the middle of the near-empty suite. I look around for possible holes in the walls of all sides. When looking and feeling around, I conclude that there are no holes for anyone with curiosity getting the better of them. So, I take off my eyepatch and test the bed with my hand before sitting on the edge of it. I pull the stack of pages out of my inner breast pocket, to set next to me, and then pull out a small piece of canvas from my other one, which has been folded twice. I stare into the picture taking up that canvas, again looking for some kind of guidance. “Giffard…”, I seethe. That name has long since been in my head. I expect him to be no pushover, knowing that talk of him has sent chills down the spine of someone as nonchalant as Seàn MacNiadh.
Eventually, hunger gets the better of me. I get more of the lay of the land, going to a butcher shop that the brown tabby recommends. It turns out that it’s the best meat one can get in the borough, and it’s the butcher herself whose word I take for it. Even that shop is not safe from the stenches of contamination and decay. I end up buying several strips from there, because the meat cuts are very thin and beaten, as if they’re the scraps from bones. Just up the street is a pub that Jack has instructed me to go to, and I order for the meat to be cooked and served with a large side of potatoes, or at least the best they have. I also order two rolls, one to save.
The barkeep, an otter in a white work shirt, plain suspenders for his black trousers, and having chestnut fur with long and droopy whiskers, brings the meat to me along with two potatoes each cut in half. He asks me then what I want for a drink, and I order a pint of Shrier’s Beer. There’s barely an aroma from the meat and potatoes. The beer is no better. The meat barely has juice for its taste, even though it’s medium rare. As for the beer, it tastes more like grass than it does like distilled grains.
The otter returns to me, asking, “Anything else I kin get yeh?”
I answer plainly, “How about whiskey? MacEimhin.” The otter nods and quickly heads to get a bottle. He fills the same mug that I’ve emptied of the awful beer, with a splash of the whiskey.
The otter states, “You know of the brand. For wealthy people compared to what whiskey is made at home.”
“I assume an arctic fox has given it t-yehr as a gift.”
The otter narrows his eyes as he glares, and climbs toward me, his elbows on the counter, telling me, “What has Jack sent yeh for?”
I answer, “He says you know of a business here. Men working fer one Jade Crown.”
I can tell that the otter narrows his eyes further and lowers his brow before he grumbles to me, “I dunno why Jack would inform you of that bitch, ‘cause believe me, yeh don’ wanna cross ‘er. That shor’ an’ cute stature of hers is how she gets yeh.”
“If you give me what notes act as leverage, I can lure her outta her brothel, enraged, by making sure her dealers had their last day.”
The otter shifts aside along the counter, before shifting back in front of me again, to speak, “If you’re curious about me beers, you’re welcome to see the barrels in the back of the kitchen.” I get that code. I stand up from the wooden stool, surprisingly sturdy as it is, and wait for the otter to be in sight again, and he stands out at the door to the kitchen. I follow him through the way of the scratched wooden door, and along the dirt for the floor of the kitchen with a barely functioning coal oven and the two workers seeming only half-alive, the pungent fumes making me on the verge of coughing upon forcing their way in my nostrils.
The otter, with a big effort and both hands, forces a door open. The awful odours of musk and rot are no better in the back room, showing three wooden kegs, one each having a different label crudely painted. Upon me closing the door, the otter speaks, “First, let me introduce meself. I am Conrad.”
I meet him up close, and he already settles on another tall stool that’s climbed up, and reply, “Nice t-meet you.”
“What’s your name, Lass?”
“That’s for you, and even Jack, to find out.”
The otter raises a brow and tilts his head. “Whatever you say, Jack’s friend.”
I ask nonchalantly, “Now, what would have you so poor that you would stay in the godforsaken place that is Sputure?”
Irritated, Conrad ignores that for another question: “What would drive you so mad that you would go after the sex trafficker and drug dealer that people know as Jade Crown?”
I answer calmly, “That’s not important.”
“Well then”, the otter rasps. He pauses before going on, “What do you expect out of crippling a corrupt businesswoman?”
Still cool, I say, “Not cripple; kill. And it is only removing a cog from a clock that needs dismantling.”
The otter places his hands atop his head and runs them down his face. He then stares at me intently. “Whatever you expect out of this, I hope it’s worth the effort.” He pauses, expecting me to remark on that. He continues, “She is but one of many cartel members, Crown. Her boss is the one who funded her brothel. She follows his way of moulding children into dolls to do their bidding.”
I interrupt, “I already know that part.”
The otter continues after a sigh, “Her loyal employees are rats. Of the animals to hold in trafficking, rats are most popular for their small size and their habit of multiplying. Three rats, in particular, are her dealers. For quality shit, they sell at a reasonable price for residents of this borough. I doubt she cares what she causes from this. Crown is the one to point your finger at if someone you know has become destitute, having lost most of their capabilities. She gets her slaves addicted to the shit, as well. So, she can breed slaves from those already taken in.
“The rats, her dealers, plan to return soon, to pick up their shares of the shipment at the brothel, The Dented Shield. Their names are Casey, Iggy, and Nate. Surnames are nothing to them. You find them, you get them to the police. Maybe you know where their opium caches would be, but they don’t.”
I inquired, “How do you know their names?”
The otter sighs before he lowers the straps of his suspenders. He opens and takes off his shirt, his back to me, showing the linear gaps in his fur. Scars. “Those bastards did this to me, when I refused to sell their shit. They did it with just their teeth.” He turns around again, facing me, buttoning his shirt. “You tell me this is personal? I will still feel obligated t-do a favour fer you. I was given notes where the rats hang out whilst in town, awaiting the shipment.”
Meeting with that otter has left me with a bad taste in my mouth, both for that lacklustre dinner and what he has shown the drug dealers do to him. As it is now dusk, I perch next to the dull spire of the equally dull chapel, the one building of the borough to stay well intact out of all houses, stores, and pubs making the neighbourhood.
Before long, I am met with a caw, and I look up, seeing the curious corvid, feeling content. I call, “Michi!”
He comes toward me, now clad in my blue suit, brown vest, white shirt, and golden mask, and perches on my right forearm, his three feet holding tight. I look into his pale-green eyes and caress the feathers of his crown, telling him lowly, “Glad yeh kin survive this hellhole. Although, every day must mean a feast fer you.” I pull out a roll that I have ripped open, from my coat’s side pocket. As I watch him pecking at the bread, I add, “I can assure you: the next time I serve you fresh meat is sooner than you think.”