Into The Little City
From up above, the Lupanar District looked like any other part of Terminus, like one of the nicer areas, in fact. The buildings were all six stories or higher, and as each street passed by, it looked like normal people going about their everyday business. One difference was that the streets, normally kept in strict east to west alignments to capture the most sun as it crested over the mountain peaks, followed their own tangents. Even that wasn't unheard of in Terminus, just less common.
It would mean those streets were colder, though, and the shadows would be longer.
Keydis watched it all pass from the safety of the elevated cable car. A silver bullet suspended from strong cables, the normally-direct public transport had made a wide berth around the Little City within the city. Lupanar was the best-known secret in Terminus, probably in all of Araevis, and yet it continued to exist. It was where criminals flocked to escape the eyes of the guard forces, a place where they could be safe from the law, so long as they followed the rules laid down by the powers that be.
That was the curious part about the Little City. If you told anyone that one part of the city was packed with all the criminals, you'd expect to know it by looking. You'd expect fires, broken windows, probably even bodies on the ground if not brawls in broad daylight. Lupanar kept its own order, though, a vicious sort of order. They had to, because only that measure of control kept the city from waging all-out war on Lupanar. The criminals handled their own and the guards stayed out of the way and so peace was kept.
"I wish they'd hurry up and fix the cable lines. I swear this detour gets longer every year," an old velen man complained from a few seats over. Keydis just smiled wryly. Although perhaps the best-known secret, it still wasn't quite common knowledge. Growing up, she had worked and trained and studied with the intention of becoming a guard. This was one of the things she learned from other guards and then talked to her uncle about at length.
It offended her sensibilities back then. "If you know that's where all the bad guys are, then you should wipe them out!" She had shouted something like that dozens of times in different arguments. Now that she was older, a world-wise twenty-three, it made sense to her. Lupanar was like a pravum, and Terminus its host. Attempting to squash it would just spread it.
Keydis scratched under the wrappings on one arm.
"It's worth a little extra time to go in one shot," Keydis remarked aloud to the velen. The route they took over the city was straight from Jactatio, in the center of Terminus, to the Dioecesis where all the government buildings stood, along with the Arcanum's Specula Sorcere tower. She leaned in and offered the man some common knowledge as if it was a great secret. "If you're in a hurry, you can take the Yellow Line east from the stadium, then hop the Blue Line at the next stop. It goes straight to the north, and a short walk will bring you to the Sorcere. If you don't mind the switch and the walk, it'll get you there twenty minutes faster." Yellow lines traveled east and west while Blue lines traveled north and south. Much less common, mainly due to the way the city was laid out, Green lines would travel the diagonal routes.
"You don't say?" the velen remarked, and his genuine surprise told the girl that he must be new to Terminus, or at least new to using the cable cars. Another passenger nearby confirmed the tip and the cable car's technician also nodded. "Well, thank you! I'll have to remember that for tomorrow. I think a brisk walk might do me some good, at that."
A small smile curled on the girl's lips. In a way, she wanted to keep playing tour guide, but her mind was mostly set on other things. Still, she offered one more tip to the man. "If time allows, you might even try to catch the earlier car," she suggested. It was fifteen to twenty minutes between them. "Add that time to the time saved, and you'll be able to take a break in Hemsey's. It's a sauna for all the important types to warm up."
That started a conversation among the other men and women in the cable car, and Keydis turned her attention out the window again. They had entered the smaller Securus district sandwiched in between Lupanar and Dioecesis. As one particularly cynical guard had explained it, the district only existed so the politicians could pretend not to associate with the criminal elements. Both Lupanar and Dioecesis were large enough to be small cities elsewhere in the world, but Securus was less than a quarter the size of either of them.
The cable car came to a stop briefly in Securus and Keydis stood up. Everyone else seemed surprised for a moment because no one ever got out at that stop. Even the cable car operator started to go again after pausing for only a few token breaths. "Meeting a friend," Keydis explained with the wry smile on her lips again.
A woman in one corner whispered to the man next to her, "Bounty hunter."
Although she had already paid her fare -- a paltry four dahls -- she handed a bigat to the technician at the door as she stepped out. "For all the trouble I caused before," she explained, flashing a wider grin. The man laughed and said nothing. He had personally 'banned' her from the cable cars on at least three occasions but always ended up letting her ride again. The last ban, the last time she had used one of the cable cars, in fact, had been over three years back. A lot had changed since then.
In fact, anyone who had known Keydis before would be amazed at the transformation. Her hair was the same as ever, dark brown, cut short, and spiked upward with the bangs dyed a bright red. The remaining softness of childhood had left her cheeks, though, and her once-pale skin had colored under the bright sun on the Aridus sands. Nervous energy that once had her bouncing around was now controlled, reserved for striking hammer on steel or blade on blade. She was leaner but harder.
The changes reflected in her attire, as well. Gone were the shorts, replaced with more practical armored leggings tucked into her calf-high black boots. She still wore a sleeveless shirt deep underneath, but also a long-sleeved black shirt with reinforced cloth armor, and over that a shirt of bigatium scales, tinted purple; the mail covered her chest and shoulders, and her left arm down to the elbow. A long red glove with golden Aridusian designs covered the rest of her left arm while her right was wrapped in black leather straps. Both the red glove and the smaller black one on her right hand were fingerless. A half-cloak of black wool circled her throat and draped over her right shoulder. An axe handle of dark ironwood and auritium peeked over her left. A series of red and gold Aridusian sashes dangled from her left hip, and a dark violet basket hilt peeked up from among them; on the right, a leather satchel with a small selection of blacksmithing tools.
Keydis made her way down the six stories from the platform. The air had a cold bite to it, but no snow had fallen in this part of the grand metropolis. She lifted the throat of her cloak to cover her face and tugged a hood up over her head. The cloak hung over her left arm but her right, wrapped in black leather, remained out and free. If the situation called for it, she could grab either of her weapons or just deck someone with her fist.
Securus District was a gray area, legally speaking. The guards patrolled there regularly, more-so than in other parts of the city. It was a reminder to the men and women of the Little City that the boundaries weren't to be crossed. Terminus had surrendered as much of itself to the criminal underbelly as it was going to, and any illicit business that spilled into Securus was immediately dealt with.
That being said, however, the citizens of the Securus District were more likely than not involved in some of the illegal activity. Many were either criminals themselves, choosing to live just outside the Little City, or smugglers and couriers between government and the criminals. They walked a fine line, but those who didn't stumble lived comfortable lives.
At the moment, Keydis wasn't interested in any of them, she was on her way to the den itself. It would be her first time in Lupanar, and the thought of it made her skin crawl. It made the disease inside quiver with anticipation. Hidden behind the black cloth, she smiled.
The temperature within the Little City heightened her tension. Some part of her thought back to the sauna she had mentioned on the cable car, but another, more feral part of her welcomed the chill and the way it kept her awake and alert. Her eyes roamed around, looking at the people around her. The streets weren't packed but they were active, and many of the people she would never have placed as criminals. She wondered if she had wandered out of Lupanar or if, instead, these people had accidentally wandered in.
Or could they be people who had, like her, been accused of crimes they did not commit?
The most likely answer, of course, was that they were just criminals who didn't look the part. Ignoring them, Keydis made her way toward a pawn shop. There was a long window display loaded with different jewelry, and behind that, clothes on mannequins. There was no name above the door, just bar dangling two wooden crosses and a flat square diamond. As Keydis walked inside, a bell rang above the door.
It was warm inside, so she pulled her hood back and mask down. Keydis couldn't help but be amazed at the sheer variety all around her, but she immediately reminded herself, "Stolen, every bit of it," and walked to the counter. A tall enlil man waited there, feathers bright red, shimmering. He was dressed in black doublet and pin-striped grey slacks, with the golden chain of a watch or monocle dangling from one pocket. He leaned over the counter as she approached, reminding her of any other store proprietor. The feathers came down to a sharp widow's peak on his pale forehead, and his nose was long and pointed. The sleazy smile, though, made it easy to remember where she was. She smiled back.
"I didn't see a name, so I hope this is the right place," Keydis said when the silence had gone too long. "Smart Search?"
"Smart Search Secondhand, Pledge and Pawn Purveyors," the enlil affirmed. "Secon Purvus at your pleasure and service."
"What a mouthful," Keydis replied. "I can see why you didn't have room for a sign." The enlil's smile faltered briefly. "I'm looking for an old friend. You might know him as Caradin."
"Whether I do or don't I could not really say. Gossip is so very bad for business, you see." Purvus had a smug look, now. He took a seat behind his counter and crossed arms on top of it, one palm conspicuously open and up-turned.
Beneath her cloak, Keydis reached into a pouch at her belt, rubbing her fingers against the exa coins inside, just enough for the teasing sound to reach the shopkeeper. Then she turned and headed for the door. "Thanks anyway." Keydis walked out the door, pulling her hood and mask into place once again and walking toward the street corner.
It wasn't until she reached the corner that Keydis picked up her speed. This reminded her of the good old days, and though the playing field had changed, she was sure scoundrels were the same everywhere. Slipping into an alleyway, Keydis darted ahead into the darkness. There was no particular subtlety in her steps. As she reached the back of the pawn shop, she caught sight of a red cloak just before it vanished around another corner.
She turned immediately, running parallel, emerging onto the next street at roughly the same time as her new quarry. It wasn't Purvus, too short for that. Probably a shop assistant. Keydis locked her eyes on the person and then crossed to the opposite side of the street. It was late in the morning, so light was finally cresting over the mountains, but the buildings were so tall and their shadows so long that the streets were still dimly lit, at best, while the sky overhead was a clear and bright blue.
Keydis followed the cloaked figure from a distance. Each time they ducked into an alley, Keydis ducked into a parallel one, maintaining plenty of distance. She was prepared to start running if needed but thus far her target hadn't been that careful. Then again, why would they be?
After Keydis refused to pay for a tip, Purvus would try to squeeze a tip out of Caradin instead, to warn him that someone was looking for him. Maybe to someone who knew Caradin, but either way it would be one step closer. Even if she trusted Purvus to give her legitimate directions, she didn't relish the idea of handing her money over to thieves and cut-throats.
As she caught more glimpses, she realized it was a short velen she was following, probably a teen. She couldn't guess at boy or girl, yet. "Still not worth very much, are you?" she murmured aloud as she followed. It didn't take too long before the cloaked figure ducked into another alley and didn't come out the opposite side. That's when Keydis finally closed the distance. She rounded the corner, finding that the alley the velen kid had ducked into was set up like a small market, with stalls, signs, the whole works.
Her eyes immediately went to the velen boy -- she could tell by his voice now -- and the laicar he was talking to. "I don't know any redheads, so scram."
"But she said she was a friend!"
"Doesn't tell me anything. Either find out more or get lost." The laicar was about the same age as Keydis. His hair, as she remembered, was still dyed blue, but instead of long and moppy, he had it trimmed almost bald. "Wait! How much of her hair was red?"
"Caradin! Buddy! You're looking fit!" Keydis called out, grinning. He was, too. She remembered a scraggly guy, but Caradin had clearly been working out. Like her, he had shed excess fat and toned up muscles. Although not that tall for a guy, he was still several inches taller than her.
"Keydis," he said, groaning and wiping a hand down his face. He leaned back against his stall, covered in purplish red plants in different sized bottles. "Her?" he asked the velen teen. When the blue-scale nodded, Caradin grumbled and slapped the kid with a stack of rolling papers he had in hand. "A friend? She's a Vis-damned bounty hunter, you pebble-brained shit-heel! She's the most obvious bounty hunter in existence! Fuck!" He slapped with the papers again for good measure. "Listen, I don't know why you're here, but things aren't the same as they were back then!" Caradin pointed at her with the papers, then seemed to rethink that. He tossed the papers onto his cart and pulled out a knife instead.
"I see that. You're moving on up, a big man in the Little City." Keydis grinned. The other stall owners, four of them, had come out and were all surrounding her. The handful of customers, however, had wandered off elsewhere. Not like it was their problem. "Still with the gaudium, though. Don't you know that stuff will kill you?"
Caradin made a gesture to his fellow sellers, a nervous sweat beading on his forehead. He didn't like how calm Keydis was. "I'm clean now," he said, "but it's not like everyone wants to be clean. It doesn't hurt nobody that doesn't ask for it!"
"Is that so?" Keydis slowly turned around and looked at the dealers surrounding her. A fat moon-scale, a burly laicar with a twisting goatee, a mixed woman with shark teeth and yellow feathers, and a demvir missing an arm. As she came back around to face Caradin, she gave him a pointed look, one that said, I'm not impressed. "I'm looking for someone. You're the kind of guy that always knows who to be afraid of."
A momentary look of relief fell across his face, but then Caradin seemed to find his backbone. "It doesn't work like that around here, Keydis."
"How does it work?"
"Get you gone afore you get a knife in the back, girly," the mixed woman hissed. "Your kind ain't welcome here."
Keydis turned to look at her. She was still unarmed, hand down by her side. "I'll be gone soon enough. Sooner if you swallow your tongue and mind your own Bell-damned business."
The woman reached for a knife but then the demvir grabbed her arm. "Not our problem," he advised in a harsh, croaking voice. More of a crowd had gathered around, however, wondering what the commotion was.
"What's it going to be?" Keydis asked, raising one bushy eyebrow. Whether or not he thought she would win, he knew she was just crazy enough to try, and if a fight broke out, it would only mean bad things for him. The powers that be would make sure of that.
Caradin met her look, gritting his teeth angrily. Then he forced a smile, still with a smoldering glare in his eyes. "Let's talk. I owe you a fancy dinner, don't I?"
"Let's do that."
"I've got a good thing going here and you are ruining it," Caradin hissed across the table at Keydis. They had moved to a pub, the Igne Ebrius. It was a long walk from Caradin's stall and deeper into Lupanar. Far enough that they could be reasonably sure no one tailed them as easily as she had. Even so, Keydis was sure that everyone in the place was paying more attention to their conversation than she'd like.
Then again, if she didn't know they were in Lupanar, it would be a cozy enough place. Hardwood floors, clean walls, ample lighting. The tables were round, smooth from years of use. The chairs were not quite as old and weathered, but Keydis had been in many a dive with splintery, cheap furniture, and these were not so bad.
"So let's talk and I'll be out of your way," Keydis replied, looking around the pub. No one had entered after them. There were two rough looking bouncers that gave her some worry. Keydis was confident she could take either of them without drawing a weapon, but both? The last thing she wanted to do was draw a weapon.
She shouldn't have let Caradin lead her so deep into the Little City. If she had to fight her way out….
Caradin scowled and hissed at her under his breath, "Order something!" When she quirked an eyebrow at him, he forced a smile and none-too-subtly nodded toward the bouncers and then the demvir behind the bar. "Order something! This joint is all about the coin. If you're not worth coin, you're not worth the air you're breathing."
Keydis was still looking at him curiously. "What does that even mean?" she asked in a normal voice. "They're going to throw me out if I don't spend enough money? Going to beat the shit out of me if I don't order right away? If you're hungry, then you order something!"
With a groan of irritation, Caradin leaned across the wooden table and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Keydis, I need you to get with it, we aren't down by the warehouses anymore. Got it? I brought you here because this place doesn't give a fuck who you are as long as you pay."
Folding her arms across her chest, Keydis scowled. "Isn't that everyone here? Doesn't matter, though. I'm not giving my coin to thieves."
"For the love of… argh. Parker! Two whiskeys, neat!" Caradin, pulled out a handful of coins and set one aside for the order, a silvery bigat.
Keydis looked at the small pile of coins, mostly dahls. "Got a good thing going?"
"It's been a slow week," Caradin said defensively. He tucked the coins into a different pocket.
"Niketas Leon," Keydis said abruptly, cutting the banter and getting right to the point. "Who is he? Where do I find him?"
They were interrupted by a server bringing their drinks from the bar. Keydis never took her eyes off Caradin while he looked everywhere but at her. When he reached for his drink, Keydis grabbed it from across the table, sipping it. "Not half-bad," she remarked.
"You don't serve bad liquor to dangerous people," Caradin remarked weakly, taking the other glass of whiskey and downing it all in one go. He was visibly sweating now. Pulling out another bigat, he held it up and called out, "Two more!" and set the silver cross on the table. The first one had disappeared with the server.
"Well, I know the name," Caradin said with a shrug. "He exists. That's all I can say." He refused to meet her eyes; he knew that wouldn't be enough.
Keydis sipped more at her whiskey. She wanted to take the man outside and beat him until he gave up an answer, but in spite of her threatening demeanor, she did have a soft spot for Caradin. His bounty paid her rent on many a lean month. It was starting to feel like continually ordering him to tell her was not going to get anywhere, but this deep in enemy territory she wasn't about to show weakness.
The server interrupted again with two more tumblers. Keydis sipped at hers, still only halfway through the first one, welcoming the burning in her throat. "Okay, so tell me what you can."
"I can't tell you anything," he reiterated, staring into his glass. "I'm not a very popular guy here. I'm on thin ice as it is." Half of the whiskey went down in another gulp.
An idea came to mind. "So tell me about that, why don't you?" At his questioning look, Keydis waved him on. "Tell me how you ended up on thin ice. Did you bed a crimelord's babe?"
Caradin let out a heavy laugh. Keydis let him talk for a while, keeping an eye to the light outside. He'd only been in Lupanar for a year, and he started out in good standing. As he talked, he would drink more. After his second glass, Keydis slid her second over to him: she was still on her first.
He rambled on and on before finally getting to the point. Caradin owed favors, usually called in by having him carry unknown packages or standing lookout, simple things, skirting the line of illegal. "All I was s'posed to do was stand lookout," he was saying. His third glass had been empty for a while. "Such a simple fucking thing, right? Stand. Look. S'easy!"
Lightweight, Keydis thought to herself, but not light enough. Reluctantly, she pulled out two bigats and waved down one of the two server women as they passed. She placed the two coins in the server's hand and asked for two more drinks. "How'd you fuck it up, then?" Keydis asked, prompting Caradin to keep going. The server hesitated but then went back over to the bar.
Caradin hesitated for a long moment, looking at his empty glass. Finally, he admitted, "Soozi."
"Soozi? Like the guard Soozi?" Keydis asked, honestly surprised. "You squealed to a guard? By the Five, you are dense, buddy!"
"Tha's not… I didn't..!" Caradin's protests were cut short by the arrival of new drinks. Thankfully, they understood her unspoken order and they came as doubles. Her blue-headed companion didn't say anything, but picked his up and started drinking. "Things went, they went bad. Guards e'rywhere, my jobs over. Some other lookout screwed that lan'ger. All I has to do is walk away. Tha's all."
Keydis listened curiously, sipping her own drink. He was loosening up but still being careful and there was only so much time she could waste on him. "What about Soozi?" she prompted. Soozi Armodis was a guard once stationed at Conexus outpost near where the two of them lived, a tall and Amazonian velen woman with golden dreadlocks and pink skin. Caradin always had an attraction to her, a possibly masochistic one, and Keydis had made sure to rub his face in it every chance she got.
Turned out, she was one of the guards busting the thieves that night. He saw her run after a guy. Not just any guy, but the leader of the outfit, and a first cousin to one of the crimelords in Lupanar. Even now, Caradin wouldn't give away which one or what the cousin's name was, but he said there was a scuffle. Soozi ended up on the losing end, something Keydis could scarce believe. The cousin pulled out a gun, prepared to shoot Soozi point-blank.
"The fuck? Did you just stand there?" Keydis asked, wide-eyed.
"No, I…" Hazily, he looked at the near-empty glass in his hand. "I punched him."
"You?" Keydis asked in disbelief. "You punched the first-cousin of the guy who owns the guy who owns the building you live in, your business? Bullshit."
Caradin frowned and finished his drink. "I did! Bust'd a knuckled on his teef!" He showed her the still-red scar on his middle knuckle.
Laughing, Keydis set her drink down and applauded. "Woo, boy. 'Thin ice.' How the fuck are you still alive?"
"'Cause she'sh a guard," he pointed out. He waved one hand around as if that should be self-evident. When Keydis still didn't get it, Caradin explained, "You can't kill guards, you'll get in trouble!"
That made sense. He was in trouble for punching out the guy, but it did stop the guy from getting into hot water. Killing a guard would be something that the city of Terminus couldn't overlook, and it would bring the Conexus down on everyone hard.
"Alright. Where was Nicky during all that, anyway?" Keydis asked suddenly.
All she got back was a blank look. "Whodat?"
"Leon," Keydis clarified.
"Oh, let him rot," Caradin said, suddenly venomous. He spat on the table. "Shiftless slavering pustule…"
"Slaver, right." Latching onto the thread, Keydis gave it a harsh tug. "Sick mofo that doesn't belong in a civilized place like Lupanar. Where is he?"
"Bastard's a guard-killer. Didja know? But still they let him in, they let him walk the streets, let him all the way up to--!" One of the velen bouncers suddenly grabbed Caradin, easily lifting the sloppy drunk and leading him away to a back room.
"Hey!" Keydis shouted. "Bring him back!"
Before she could chase off after him, though, the bartender sat down across from her. The demvir was dressed in a nice suit with a vest, projecting an air of old-school charm and propriety. In place of a mouth, there were only vertical lines. "Problem?" Keydis asked. "I was talking to him."
The demvir folded its hands on the table. Keydis eyes its strangely jointed arms, but waited impatiently. "Ma'am, I must ask you to leave. Your companion will be taken care of."
"Now why would I want to do that?" she asked, suddenly feeling protective of Caradin. The demvir lifted its hands to its chin, and Keydis noted a piece of paper left on the table.
"I'm afraid I must insist," the demvir said politely, yet firmly. The second bouncer stood behind him and the first one returned from the back room.
Keydis stood and slammed her hands to the table, glaring right into the machina's blank eyes. "I'll be back," she promised, kicking over her chair for good measure before she headed toward the door, leaving most of her drink behind. The bouncers glared at her and other customers watched quietly. Nobody moved to stop her or follow her.
It wasn't until she was outside that she let out the heated breath she'd been holding, trying not to boil over from having to play these pointless games. She looked down at the scrap of paper, wrinkled up by her fist. It was an address and nothing more. Beneath her cloak, Keydis slid the paper into her coin pouch and paused to look around, checking for anyone paying her too much attention.
She turned around and noted the pub's name one more time: Igne Ebrius. Maybe Keydis wasn't the best at surreptitious endeavors, but she had a feeling that the pub staff might have saved Caradin's life before he could say something he shouldn't. As much as it frustrated her to lose her shot at squeezing information from him, getting a small-time dealer murdered wasn't part of the plan.
Caught up in the moment, she'd stopped considering the consequences to him. The staff stopped both of them from doing something they'd regret.
Keydis looked up at the sun, already past mid-day. "This cloak and dagger shit is wasting all my Bell-damned time," she complained as she walked. With hood and mask in place again, Keydis grabbed the shoulder of a man with a wooden leg. "Hey pogo, where do I find Bergersen Street? Point!"
The stunned man pointed west, deeper into the heart of Lupanar. "Of course it is. Thanks." Keydis struck off once again.