Chapter 13: The High Life

Life doesn’t change with a flash and a boom. It changes with a chance encounter in an alley, an unexpected smile, or a turned back.

—The Queen of Beggars, Act I, Scene II

Kanéko buzzed with excitement as she floated down the hallway. The dinner with Mardas and Falkin went far differently from what she expected. She was too nervous to say anything until Falkin encouraged Mardas to talk about his new steam-powered car. Kanéko suspected that Falkin knew of her interests, but it broke the ice and Mardas and Kanéko talked long into the night about engineering, mechanics, and materials. Mardas traded in brass and iron and knew far more than she could ever imagine about how metal handled pressure and heat.

She pulled up her dress to her knees and started up the stairs. Her bare soles scuffed on the wooden slats. She decided she needed to wear shoes more; everyone she met that night looked surprised at her calloused feet, and she felt self-conscious. They saw her as country nobility, quaint but backwards. Kanéko made a note to ask Virsian about shoes before she left in the morning.

She yawned and tried to remember the last time she heard a bell. After a moment, she recalled hearing the first bell some time ago but not the second; it was very early in the morning. Trailing her fingers along the wall, she headed along the hall of the second floor.

Hearing footsteps on the stairs behind her, she stopped and peered over her shoulder, blinking to clear her fuzzy vision.

A moment later, Maris padded up the stairs. The dalpre’s ears were pressed against her head, and she looked sad. The sight of Maris’s dark fur brought an instant dislike surging through Kanéko’s tired mind. Her face dropped as she waited for Maris to go away.

Maris wore a heavily patched white shift. Kanéko could see faded stains overlapping each other. The fabric clung to Maris’s curves, reminding Kanéko of her own slender body. Without thinking about it, her eyes drifted down before she forced them up. She noticed something in Maris’s hand and focused on it. It was a small leather envelope with bright stitching on the front.

“Good morning,” the dalpre spoke gingerly, “Kanéko.”

“Aren’t you on the first floor? Why are you here?”

“I heard you,” Maris’s ears perked up, “when you came out of the dining room. And I wanted to talk to you.” She toyed with the envelope.

A prickle of fear and danger rushed through Kanéko. She slipped one foot back, ready for Maris to attack her.

“No, not to fight. I just…” Her tail drooped and she ducked her head. “I’m sorry you don’t like me, Kanéko. And I didn’t mean to get upset at the mill. But, they always tease me about being fat. And stupid. And a bitch. And, I thought you were doing the same.”

Kanéko’s stomach twisted with guilt and shame.

The dalpre continued as she toed the ground. “And I know you don’t like me. But I was looking forward to sharing a room with you tonight. But I can’t. And I wanted to give you this.” She hurried over to Kanéko and held out the envelope.

Kanéko took it, surprised that her fingers shook as she clasped the warm leather envelope. “What is it?”

“It’s Maiden Root. You take one a day. And you put them in hot water, like tea. And it prevents you from having puppies.”

Kanéko bristled at Maris calling her a dog. She forced herself to relax and looked down at the envelope. Someone had stitched “Maris” on the front in many colors and she could see where someone had removed the threads of an older name. She ran a thumb along the holes, her gaze picking out “Mamgum.”

Maris stepped back quickly. “And I know you like Pahim. And he wants you. And he won’t think about puppies, boys like that won’t. But you have to take it every day for at least week before it starts to work, so you might want to wait if you can.”

Kanéko couldn’t comprehend the guilt storming through her, eroding the anger she felt for the dalpre. She looked up with tear-filled eyes. “Why?”

“Because, I don’t hate you.”

Before Kanéko could respond, Maris spun on her heels and raced down the stairs. Her feet slapped loudly down the hall.

Kanéko stood alone in the silent hall, holding the surprise gift in her hand. A tear ran down her cheek, and she sniffed. She wiped it from her face before anyone noticed. She turned and headed back to her room. She ran her thumb along the envelop, tracing the name as she struggled with unfamiliar emotions.

The door was unlocked. Inside, she was surprised to see Pahim’s friends sprawled on couches and chairs. Dozens of empty bottles and empty plates littered the floor. The smell of alcohol, food, and sex hung in the air.

Kanéko stepped in the room and closed the door behind her. Her eyes scanned the room as she tried to control the storm brewing in her chest.

Two of the teenagers, the ones always making out, were on the couch. Motes of colored light hovered over their bodies—it was the girl’s magical ability—and she realized they were moving against each other in a lazy rhythm. Only a sheet covered their bodies, but there was no question what they were doing.

Another two were sleeping in each of the chairs. One of the guys still held a bottle in his fingers as he snored loudly. Kanéko stepped further into the room, looking for Pahim. She found him on the bed, sprawled out but still dressed. Setting down Maris’s gift on the end table, she circled the room and stood next to him.

He was handsome, with his muscular body, blond hair, and pale lips. She loved being with him. She remembered the walks they enjoyed around the campground, out of sight of others and just standing next to each other. She wondered if he would kiss her, and when he did, what it would feel like.

Kanéko scanned the room, picking out more bottles of wine on the floor and platters on the tables. She didn’t know what she wanted. Part of her wanted to crawl into the bed with him and let her fantasies take place. Another part of her wanted to beat him and chase everyone out of the room. It felt wrong that they had a party without her in her room. She sighed.

Pahim’s eyes fluttered open. He looked at her, and a broad smile stretched across his face. “Kanek,” he whispered, “sorry, I was waiting up for you and dozed off.”

Kanéko looked around for a place to talk. She rejected the bathroom, and then remembered a balcony hanging off the back of the room. She pointed to it and cocked her head.

Pahim nodded and sat up. He grabbed a bottle of wine and followed after her.

She closed the doors behind them and breathed in the cooler night air. It was dark, but the small sliver of moonlight lit up the forest behind the inn. The smell of rain washed over her with a breeze and she took a breath to clear her head.

“How was, um, the dinner?” He stood next to her and she felt a tiny bit of excitement creeping back.

“It was fun. We talked about iron and brass and steam cars.”

“Sounds… exciting,” Pahim muttered. He pulled the cork out of his bottle and took a swig. He held it out to her.

Kanéko looked down at it. She had only had a glass during her dinner and Falkin encouraged her to drink slowly. But, now that she wasn’t in a tense situation, she wondered if she should drink.

“Go on, you deserve it.”

Kanéko nodded and took the wine. She took a tentative swig. As the burn coursed down her throat, she pulled a face. It was far stronger than the wine Falkin offered that night. She coughed, and then blushed when she saw Pahim smirking at her. “That’s strong, Pah.”

“They have good stuff here.”

Kanéko looked down at the bottle, knowing that Pahim’s “good stuff” was probably the cheapest wine in the inn. She took another pull and found it didn’t burn as much the second time.

Pahim pried the bottle from her grip and took a gulp.

Kanéko worried her lip as she thought about her next words. “Pah?”

“Yes?”

“Could… you not invite your friends next time?”

He looked surprised, and then grinned broadly. “Just you and me?”

She almost said “alone”, but nodded instead. “I’m supposed to be representing my father.” That sounded right to her. “What if I was paying for all that wine?”

“You can cover it, can’t you?”

“I only have a couple hundred crowns in my wallet. In there,” she nodded with her chin, “is probably twice that in bottles and food.”

“Oh,” his eyes flashed with guilt, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” Then he smirked, “But, you have a couple hundred more crowns than me. I have twenty-one crowns, eight rings to my name.”

There was a brief but uncomfortable silence. To fill it, she spoke softly, “I can take care of you.”

Pahim stepped closer so their hips were touching. “Then, my bartim, those freeloaders will be gone before you wake in the morning.”

“Good,” said Kanéko. She felt Pahim’s closeness like a brand, the heat rolling off him searing her senses. She leaned into him, her skin tingling.

Pahim handed her the bottle. When she took it, he slipped his arm around her waist to hold her closer. “Think tonight could get any better?”

Kanéko fixed her eyes on him as she drank from the bottle. The wine slid down her throat and pooled in her stomach. She set it aside. When she released it, it slipped off the edge. Kanéko grabbed for it, but the bottle slipped from her fingers and hit the ground with a wet smack.

Pahim chuckled. “I’ll get some more from inside.”

As he returned to the room, Kanéko leaned over the railing and looked down. A large garden filled the space behind the inn. It was a couple chains long, going from the wall of the inn and reaching into the woods. From her vantage point, she could see dozens of little paths leading to dead ends filled with benches and quiet places to talk. She amused herself by tracing them with her mind.

It is a lovely night.

Kanéko gasped as she heard Garèo’s voice from below. She ducked down and leaned on the railing to peer over the edge, her heart beating faster as she waited for him to call out to her.

Garèo and Virsian walked with arms intertwined as they headed into the gardens. The cat woman’s tail swayed lazily as she spoke, the tip of it occasional tapping against the back of Garèo’s leg.

Virsian batted him with the hand that wasn’t intertwined in his fingers. “Don’t try to impress me. I don’t know that much Miwāfu.”

He chuckled as he looked at her, his dark skin almost black in the dim light. “Then how will you know if I sing the right words?”

Kanéko shook her head and whispered. “No, don’t let him sing. Whatever you do, don’t sing.”

Virsian purred and rested her head on Garèo’s shoulder. “You just spent hours trying to get your wards sleeping. Do you really want to wake them up this close to the inn?”

He smiled broadly. “I have a beautiful voice, you know.”

Kanéko pulled a face.

Virsian’s tail snapped violently a few times before quivering to a stop. She looked at him with shimmering eyes before leaning closer. “Why don’t you show me back in my cabin?”

“Of course, my lady.”

To Kanéko’s surprise, they didn’t head back to the inn but instead continued into the garden trails. Frowning, she lifted herself to peer over the railing and watched them walk among the shadowed leaves. In her mind, she traced their position but where she expected a dead-end only resulted in them slipping into a gap between two bushes and walking away from the inn.

Kanéko wished for more light as she raised on her toes, trying to figure out where she mapped the trails wrong in her head and also where the couple went. Well beyond the line of trees, she saw a brief flash of a door opening and warm light coming out before it went dark.

“Oh,” she whispered to herself, “there are cabins back there.”

It made sense the staff would have a private place outside of the inn. She didn’t expect it to be so far away. With a smile, she leaned against the railing and updated her mental image of the garden paths to include the new information, including what she expected the cabins to look like.

The door creaked as Pahim returned with two bottles. Handing one to her, he leaned against the railing. “Better than being stuck in a room with that bitch girl, huh? I heard she and Ruben were sharing a room with Garèo.”

“I just saw Garèo. I think he’s going to spend the night with Virsian back there, where they have cabins.”

Pahim pulled a face. “That cat whore?” He made a gagging noise. “No accounting for taste. Figures he’d get the hots for a non-human. Probably why he is always around Maris. Probably getting into her skirt too.”

She listened to his words with an uneasy feeling. But, he focused his smile on her, and she felt the warmth of his attention again. Pushing aside her concerns, she took a large swallow of the wine. It burned down her throat. It was far stronger than her father usually served. With another breath, she took a gulp before letting out a tiny gasp and lowered it to chest.

“To tomorrow,” she said.

Pahim’s eyes sparkled. He lifted his own bottle, but instead of clinking it, he slipped into her arms until his chest pressed against hers. He looked down and whispered deeply. “How about tonight?”

Her heart beat loudly with his closeness. She could smell his body, a now familiar scent that made her cheeks flush. She thought about Maris’s gift on the night table. “Not tonight.”

He sighed. “I’m not good enough?”

“I’m just not ready to do that.” She gestured in the room where the motes of light danced along the ceiling.

“How about just a kiss?”

Kanéko peeked up at him. She could see his brown eyes searching for her face, and his lips parted with anticipation. Her hands trembled as she considered his request.

To answer, she lifted her chin and closed her eyes. Her heart pounded in her chest as she waited for him to kiss her back. The touch of his lips against her own sent an electrical current coursing through her body. It was her first kiss to someone besides family, and she drowned in the excitement. Her heart pounded loudly. A steady thump that shook the air around them, deafening her with the intensity of unstoppable machinery. She held her breath as they kissed, unwilling to forget a single moment of it.

A light shone on her face. Kanéko opened her eyes as the light faded and she caught sight of something moving along the sky. Surprised, she broke the kiss.

An airship flew above the inn. A retrofitted sea ship hanging below a rigid shell. Lanterns lit up the entire hull. The shell was painted bright orange, like flaming clouds in the sky. The powerful beat she felt wasn’t her own heart, but the steady pounding of a steam engine. Two banks of oars stroked through the air, the canvas between the poles billowing in waves.

“Kanek?” Pahim was frustrated.

Kanéko wouldn’t look away. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered. Her eyes sought the exhaust of the ship, where heat rippled the air around the lanterns. Below the exhausts, thick pipes plunged back into the ship and along the sides, no doubt to drive the oars with mechanical devices. She could almost picture the mechanism in her head, using ideas from the mill, her dinner with Mardas, and the magazines she had read over the last few months.

Pahim grunted. “That’s the Burning Cloud Queen, my father’s ship.”

Kanéko gasp and tore her eyes away. “Really? How do you know?”

He pointed to the rigid shell. “It’s the only orange and yellow airship in the area. You can’t see the name in the dark, but Captain Bilmour had a painted queen on a cloud throne on the bow.”

“Do you think I could see it? Will it be back?”

“We’d have to go to Panzir.”

She considered her fantasies. The lure of the airship was strong, but her dinner with Mardas showed her a different path she could take. She felt herself on a crux of choices. She sighed and closed her eyes. “I don’t know right now. Let me think about it.”

“How about a kiss?”

He didn’t steal her breath the second time, but she smiled anyways. Not because he was kissing her, but because she might see an airship in the morning.