(The Previous morning in the Café, Allen)
"Here you are sir, one black coffee and chicken sandwich," I call out from the counter, setting the coffee onto the tray.
But of course, this customer doesn't want to pick up his own food. "Allen," Cross calls, his voice low and smooth. "Just set it down over here." He taps the table with a finger. His eyes and smile are sharp. He'd rather badger me into delivering it to his table, like this were some sort of fancy restaurant instead of a run-down café in the quartered district. I almost prefer him drunk.
But the shop isn't crowdedit never is at ten in the morning, since everyone is either at their day jobs, or hibernating at home. So I sigh, and grab the dust cloth and the tray. I weave between rickety tables, pausing at Marian Cross' table to give it a cursory wipe down. I set the tray down gingerly, and give my best polite smile.
"One black coffee and chicken sandwich. Thank you for your patronage!" My smile feels stiff, but I hide it with a bow.
Today's shift is an easy one, and isn't likely to get busy until much later. The couple in the corner is quietly working out the details of a plan, it looks like. Seeing how they touch parts of the table, tracing a line and marking something with a napkin or a cup. From here, it looks pretty much like a job in the worksso they won't give me much trouble at all. Too busy planning. It's only Cross that I have to worry about.
I turn, bee-lining to the nearest table. I wipe this one enough to make the surface temporarily shine, and check the seat of the chair for crumbs or stains. In this part of town, no one is going to worry about the age of the furniture, but I try and keep the place clean nonetheless. While I work around the surrounding chairs and tables, Cross chews his sandwich. Perhaps annoyed by my dodging any small talk with him, Cross takes another bite while watching the door, his expression non-assuming.
Right on cue, the door opens, and a woman enters, her shoulders hunched into what little warmth her lacy shawl offers.
I swallow slowly, feeling a pang of nervousness. Cross may be happiest among women, but they also cause him a great deal of trouble. My stomach knots, a sense of dread creeping up over my limbs. I want to trust himto trust her, but somehow I just can't manage it.
"Tehan, darling!" Cross calls, making the woman pull the lace higher up around her neck and shoulders.
The shawl's really not warm enough to help against the autumn chill, what with too much of her skin is showingshapely legs barely covered at all, and her corseted waist gives accent to her figure. Dressed like that, she stands out wherever she goes, and she gives a wary look over the shop, making her seem worn and tired. But her expression softens when she sees Cross.
"Marian," she sighs, clearly relieved, if not amused. "I never figured you for the café type." Laughter makes her tone sound like bells even when the circles under her eyes are showing through her makeup.
Ever the gentleman, Cross chuckles in return. "Have a seat, Tehan. What will you have? Tea or coffee?" I can imagine him standing, pulling out a chair for her as though she's a gentlewoman, and smiling a devilish smile that snares most women's hearts.
I clench my teeth, cleaning the tables in earnest, doing my best to ignore my teacher's shameless flirting. Maybe if I look busy he'll leave me out of it. I don't want to be used as a pawn between the two.
But his voice can be heard even in a battle, I'm sure. "Allen! Bring the lady some teawith milk and sugar. And some of that vanilla custard." His voice books no argument.
I try fruitlessly to transform my pursed lips into a passable smile, but my efforts only get an amused look from the lady and a ruthless grin from my teacher.
I make myself busy behind the counter, measuring tea leaves into a strainer and pouring hot water over them. While it steeps, I open the fridge and scoop out some vanilla custard into a whimsical glass also used for kakigori
, shaved ice with syrup. Humming a dark ditty under my breath, I check the tea, and pour cold milk into a tiny pitcher.
"Ma'am," I call, "Would you like one lump or two?" My tone feels hallow and false.
Tehan chuckles, hiding her teeth with her hand. "Two, please," she answers, glancing at the other party. But they don't look up from their discussion. "I see what you mean," she says to Cross. "He really is clueless, isn't he? You'd never think a Noah would be so naïve."
My left hand twitches, almost spasming around the sugar spoon. I touch the glove with the softest touch, wondering if I should try bath salts or muscle relaxing techniques. Flexing my finger sends a sharp pain from elbow running all the way up my shoulder and to my back.
I've been caged up in the Quartered District for a year and still haven't gotten used to people recognizing me as a Noah just from looking at me. But with the Noah section of town being here, of course they recognize some trait. Just like the Noah recognize something human about my features or actions. Neither one nor the other, but something in between by birth or upbringing.
"You don't say?" The woman's voice bubbles up, light and sparkling as glass. "But don't the Noah have magic?" She stifles her giggles, glancing over at me in her mirth. "He really just took off with your wallet and just ran off? You'd think he would have tried an illusion or something."
"Yup, and he ran straight into a police officer, the little brat." Cross finishes, his teeth white and shining by the dim light coming in from the window.
My ears burn. I set the tea strainer on a little dish, add the sugar and lay two spoons on the tray. Memories, old and worn as they are, still have power over me.
"He fixed that officer with his big grey eyes and looked as innocent as can be, for all that he just stole my wallet."
I set the tray down, anger burning in my gut. "Will you be paying in cash then, General Cross? I'm afraid your tab has gotten too high for me to add anything else on without a down payment," I smile, bowing again at the waist. Really his tab isn't more than a day's wages, but there's enough truth and past history in the lie that any casual acquaintance would believe me.
Cross's cheeks flush rosy, but his smile doesn't waver. "Now, now, kid, we both know that is an exager"
"Don't worry, Marian," Tehan smiles gently. Her eyes crinkle with amusement. "I'll be paying my own way, young man. How much was it?"
I tell her the amount, confident that Cross has lost more in this woman's eyes than I did by his little story. If I can't win back my own pride, I'll settle for taking his down a notch or two. My smile doesn't feel so tense as I make my way back to the counter to write up a receipt.
Today is a good day after all.
(The Noah's Church)
On my way home, the weariness of the day spreads over me. A numb feeling spreads over me, settling into my limbs like an old friend. The feeling is familiar like the ache of a wound so old that you forget about the pain of it.
The streets are narrow, and the buildings are a chaotic mess of design and style, but it's clean, and people are more-or-less friendly. Here in the Noah area of the Quarter, there's more greenery, too
With a less dense population, there's more room for aesthetics. The houses are mostly white-washed or done over in colorful stucco, and most people have a garden in the back. It's unheard of in the rest of the Quartered district, but for the Noah, who can't live anywhere else in the city, this is home or good enough, so they might as well make it how they like it.
Like the church
There's a ring of tall trees blocking the building from a passersby view, offering shade and privacy. My pace slows almost unconsciously as I consider the steep walls and abstract sculptures. I remember the stories Mana used to tell me, how the strong looking one represents the God of the Sun, and the God of the Moon is the beautiful, almost delicate one.
There's a flickering light in the corner of my eye, and I turn to look. An eerie glow extrudes from under one of the tree's branches. Tales of will o' the wisps and kitsune-bi
, foxfire, come to mind, jumbling in my thoughts like a thrown dice. Den-o, den-o, I must get back to my den-o,
one of the many songs I sang with Mana in England
I shiver in the autumn breeze, my body pleasantly tingling with remembered stories of murder and deceit wrapped in rhyming verses.
The light multiplies, but then I realizeit's not multiplying so much as it's moving so fast as to appear as many lights in my eye. It's not just a light, I realize, but a candle flame, and the magical fire is like a fallen star.
The enchanted flame spins to a stop right before Road alights, her rounded black shoes touching down lightly. She throws herself into my arms, circling me in a hug so fierce you'd think I'd been gone a week. She kisses both cheeks.
"Allen!" she chirps. "Ne, I want to go eat cake!" She tucks her chin in; the move makes her eyes seem larger and her mouth like that of a little girl's. "You'll treat me, right?"
I attempt to disentangle our limbs with limited success. "Hello Road ," I begin. She relaxes her grip, and I'm able to smile down at her. "I need to" she spins out of reach while I'm talking, and I slow down, wondering if she can hear at all. "get a few things done before tonight
She pouts. "You've been having teas and puddings all day at work, and you won't treat me now?"
"Road, I don't get to eat any of the food
" I remind her.
"Liar-liar, pants on fire!" She exclaims, and her voice is like a bird's. It's hard to believe she's more than twice my age. Instead of chatting slowly or trying to compromise like an adult might, she pulls my sleeve and lets me have an eyeful of her candy-pink tongue.
I wince. "Road, you've been eating lollipops all day again, haven't you?"
Road giggles. "Did you practice today? Are you learning to control your arm?" She's moved on to avoid a lecture I probably wouldn't have given, but at least we're not talking about cake anymore. "Everyone says you're either going to be a great musician, or you're going to flunk out entirely. But I don't think you'll flunk out, Allen. I think you just don't practice enough. Cozy old job at a cake shop doesn't give you much incentive, I guess
" Words spill out of her mouth, like the incessant chirping of a songbird.
I roll my eyes. "I am practicing, Road," I mumble, and reach for her hand. She dances just out of reach with a giggle.
Thoughts of abilities that are 'mine by blood and birthright' spin and twirl in my head. The weight and expectation lies heavily on me.
"Do you want to go into the church?"
"I've been all day," she complains, though she likely hasn't. Tyki tells me she spends more and more time away from here, locked away in a magical city that few can enter.
I ignore her complaint, but offer a smile. "Later then. I'm to play in the evening for the moon viewing
Thoughts of the ceremony and music are pushed out of my head as I remember the sweets. I think of the dango
, sweet rice dumplings, that are likely to be there, and the different kinds of teas. My stomach growls at the thought.
Road laughs. "You're still hungry?" she grins. "Allen likes to eat a lot," she sings, her voice a little off-pitch and vowels swallowed and then lengthened in play.
With a wave at her, I try and think of what to say to that. She grabs both my arms, pulling me around in a clumsy circle. I think she's attempting to dance.
"Ya," a dry voice calls out. "Hello there boy." Humor lurks in those words, and a kind of promise I don't know what to make of. Tyki's brown eyes are dark and deep, like he knows a secret that might kill someone. Or maybe he's just melodramatic.
Fumbling with the dance, I nod in greeting, still not sure if I should be bowing or waving at the man who claims
to be my uncle, even though I've never heard about Tyki being related to anybody at all.
He and Road are among the older Noah; strong magical talent lending years and youth to their lives. Their talent and age set them apart from the others. I heard once that the two of them played a part in taking down the old Millennium Earl
allowing his successor to take on the mask. And yet they do penance with a regularity that suggests dark deeds more than heroic ones.
"How are you, Uncle Tyki?" I greet, offering a lopsided smile that's wider for all the spinning. I laugh out loud, and Road finally spins away.
"Just Tyki, Allen
" he smirks broadly, and his teeth catch the light. "Will you be taking part in the service then?" At my nod, his grin softens into a smile. "I'm still on penance
" he remarks lazily. "I'll be there all night. Glad someone with some amount of musical talent will be playing
" and he pushes his glasses up his nose.
Not knowing what to say to that, I incline my head and say, "I'll be there a few hours, yes. I doubt I'll stay past midnight, though."
"Splendid. Come on then, Road." He smiles gallantly, and manages to sneak attack her, taking her by the arm as one might take a dance partner. But his grip is firm, and his smile isn't in jest, but placating. "
You're doing penance too
" He looks back at me, and his glasses have slipped so that I can see his eyes
it's a little disconcerting, the way he looks at me.
When our eyes meet, he murmurs, "Good evening then, young man." His arm on Road's, he and she bow a little. Manners from a century past. "Until the service," he throws over his shoulder, and the two of them walk back under the trees, like death and sorrow, always hand in hand.
(The Club, Kanda)
I can feel the music pulsing up through my feet and in my bones. The beat is heavy, the melody mundane and predictable, but it's easy to see why it's playing. That kind of music is easy to dance to.
Lenalee feels her way through the crowd lightly, as though she's winged, walking on air. How she can let herself go, how she can sink into the scene, I don't know. But the room seems to follow her, and more than one person sidles on up to dance with her.
Her smile is small, her eyes void of malice, but she doesn't look pleased by themso I do my job. Walk up to the idiots who get too close or have no business talking to an ace of the Order. A girl who could break your neck as soon as give you the time of day
or that's how she's supposed to be. All razor-tooth smiles and monstrous appetites. But she's not
not mostly anyways.
"Lenalee," I recognize the voice, and sure enough, a tall, gawky man wanders up behind me, moving my hand from a lesser offender's wrist. His hair is as long as some girls keep theirs, but it's kept neat under a cap of sorts. "Are you going to dance with me?" he asks hopefully, his tone one I associate with whiny toddlers or real perverts.
"Kanda, did you just snort?" Lenalee reprimands. Her hands fly to her hips.
"No." It comes out a little more curtly than intended, which only makes Komui frown and Lenalee hide a grin.
I turn to Komui. "You might be attracting too much attention." He's smiling now, and a spark of intelligence returns to his eyes. I retreat few steps, and go back to watching the scene.
Komui is completely graceless as he tries to keep up with his little sister, but she's not stupid. Getting Komui off her back is second nature, and the introvert-of-a-man doesn't really want to be there. I don't have to hear the words to know what she says.
Lenalee goes with him to the bar, gets something she probably oughtn't drink, and lets her brother pamper her as they find a seat. I trail the two of them.
Wordlessly, I take the first cup and take a sip. It passes immediate inspection, but when I turn to Komui, he scowls and covers his beverage with a hand. I look at him.
"Drinking after a person is like a second-hand kiss." He remarks, and swishes the stuff around.
I shrug. I've been trained not to think about it that wayin any way at all. It's simply a function I've been conditioned to perform. "Suit yourself." I step back again, leaning against the table and watching pairs move their arms around one another, moving clumsily to a fast beat. I can't keep my lips from turning down.
Behind me, Komui makes a strangled noise. "
But maybe I should test yours, Lenalee, and
and I'll have that one
" he's making a strange face, I can tell by the sound of his voice. I risk a glance at the two of them, and am rewarded with Lenalee picking up her brother's cup and taking a sip.
"It's fine," she says firmly. "Drink your own drink, brother." She passes it back and nurses her own drink.
Across from her, Komui stutters, fidgets, and generally gasps, acting like a baby with a crush again. "You didn't have to do that"
I turn away again, looking out at the swarms of dancers. To me, their chatter is meaningless; even if she is an important weapon on the front, he's not about to talk business with her. Not before she's cut the order into her skin, bled for the bosses, and shackled herself permanently to the ideal. She's only sixteen. He won't take her into real confidence for years yet.
Some minutes later, I hear a buzz to my left. Komui flips open his cell phone, checks the ID and simply says, "Yes. I'll be right there." Then he's standing, nodding at the two of us, and out of sight in seconds. I guess he can work tonight after all.
Lenalee sips again once, watching where her brother used to be. She doesn't speak. Just leaves the table, and throws herself into a dramatic possepractically soaring as she flees the moment.
I follow again, letting not the smallest hint of admiration show.
Time passes. It's much later, and a woman has approached Lenalee. The stranger is looking at me with suspicion, eying my hair, my face, and finally my hands. "What is it?" he asks. A hand goes to her cheek, as though comparing my genetically altered, flawless skin with her own. "Some kind of doll?"
Lenalee shrugs. "That's Kanda." She's looking beyond the momentary pause, and I follow her gaze. A figure trailing a black shawl and a smooth, slinky dress. Too high class for a place like this, and heading for the upstairs balcony. "He's been with the Order for years now," she says absently, and looks back at the disappearing form of the woman. "You were looking for me?"
The two of them move as one, and without a look to anyone on the dance-floor, they're up the stairs. I follow a few paces behind, but I'm more
than uninterested. No one in their right mind would attack Lenalee. But I follow, stopping before the door, ready to keep anyone else from coming up behind the party.
Lenalee frowns at me, and her eyes flicker to the other women. "Watch the door from outside. If my brother asks, tell him I'm in the bathroom."
I nod curtly and close the door behind me, hesitating at the top of the stairs.
The door isn't the most soundproof place to have their kind of conversation, especially with my hearing. In spite of their hushed voices, a few words are audible. "
the situation," followed by a muffled "
But once I'm a few stairs back into the din of music and party people, I can't hear anything else.What's going on here tonight,
I wonder, resisting the urge to look back up at Lenalee's party. They went up there just after Komui left
I lean against the side of the stairs, watching the crowd, examining their pockets and counting clip-on knives and looking for signs of someone hiding a gun.
I spot a few more security and some undercover professionals
members of the Black Order, or someone's hirelings, I can't tell. But they watch the crowd the same way I do, and feel my gaze on them almost as soon as I look their way. One unconsciously touches his side for the briefest of seconds, and I think he must have a weapon hidden there.
I resign to suffer through a long night in the bar. I cross my arms, and frown. Whatever is going on, Black Order business or not, I'll need to keep an eye out for trouble.
Angry words break out near the bar, a woman, by the sounds of it. There's some scuffling as she pushes her way through the crowd. A man calls after her, but he stops dead when she throws her drink at him. He sputters, calling her all sorts of names.
"You think you can buy my cooperation with a few drinks? You probably think any woman in the District is a whore, you lousy prick." Her tone is scornful, her face contorted with contempt. "Go back home to your salary job and your wife."
I sigh. I may have my work cut out for me yet.
Thoughts?on to chapter 2