Sunday, 1 April 2012

023 -Favours

Her days in prison blurred together. What they had given her to make her talk had done something to her, something unpleasant, and she spent those days in a place neither here nor there. Sometimes she heard arguments outside her cell, though she couldn't pick out more than a few words. Other times people brought her scanty bowls of foul slop that she couldn't keep down.

Some days after the interrogation – she wasn't sure how long- men came while she dozed and dragged her out by her arms. They gripped her tight enough to bruise, and barked rules at her that she barely understood. They brought her to a door.

"I want you t'know I don't like letting you out. If there's any sort of... weird trouble, I will track you down," said one of the men. She nodded, but he just rolled his eyes in disgust, and opened the door.

 Nelya was shoved through the door into an empty street washed with the colourless half-light of early morning. Her legs felt wobbly, and she was aware in a distant sort of way that the long spell in prison had added an extra pressure to a body already exhausted by limited food and lack of sleep. This was less than ideal.

She'd never been so weak or sick before, but she could manage it. For at least a little while longer. Enough to find her way around. Enough to fix this mess.

On pure guesswork, she turned left and walked down the street, using her last scraps of pride and self control to keep her walk steady and straight. 

A few more turns made more out of instinct than forethought, and she was in a large open square. Even now, before dawn broke over the city, it seemed full of people. People putting up wooden stalls, setting out produce, talking, arguing, stringing banners up between the houses.

This was an unexpected thing. Best to watch and learn. In a shadowy corner was a bench where you could sit and watch the square without being overly on show, and Nelya sat down on it with gratitude. From her new perch, she watched the proceedings with narrowed eyes.

But that focus didn't mean she didn't notice the man approaching her flank. She whipped round with startling speed and glared at him. He raised his hands and smiled.

“Woah, now. No need for that,” he said, with no sign of fear. She remained tense and poised for fight or flight as he approached.

“Can I sit down?”

She nodded, but watched his every move as he did. It was something of a shock to realise he was watching her just as closely. In her experience no-one outside of her tribe looked at things like that, like they were examining every inch to find threat or flaw. She didn't like it. There was something about the way he smiled, like he was expecting something, waiting for something... it was unpleasant, to be so off balance.

“Do I know you?” he asked.


“I know most people who come and sit on this bench.”

“I'm... new.”

For a brief moment he looked like he'd just confirmed something to himself. He leaned back on the bench and, his scrutiny apparently at an end, rummaged in his bag to produce an apple.


She took it warily, and sniffed at the fruit. It smelled fresh and sweet and juicy and her stomach growled.

“It's not poisoned,” he said.

“Then you taste.”

He took a small bite and made a big show of swallowing it.

“All safe, dear heart.”

“We'll see.”

They sat in silence for a while, Nelya running her thumb over the smooth surface of the apple and thinking. She'd clearly stumbled into a situation here, one with social rules she didn't know. Would it show weakness to ask the rules? Or should she risk offending him by blundering...?

“I'm Cal. I like the monosyllabic and mysterious thing you're trying with me. Very intriguing, but it does take up rather a lot of my time. Shall we get right to it?”

Nelya stared at him. She hadn't understood half those words.


“Ha! You're amazing!You actually think you can bluff me, and you're even doing quite well! As if a recent releasee would just happen to wander in to the right time and place she could get exactly the help she so clearly needs... did one of the guards tell you? I'll have to have a word. They aren't supposed to send me people like you...”

Nelya's temper snapped. She took a deep breath and summoned all the words she knew. She was about to use a lot of them.

“I don't know what you're talking about. I don't understand what you say, but I think you said I lie. I don't. I am not stupid. I am not weak. I am not afraid. And I don't know what you know of my people,” she bared her teeth “but my lack of weapons would not stop me from killing you so please explain.”

He blinked at her, then laughed.

“My word, you really are a complete innocent-”

“I have killed thirty-two people.”

“Ah. Really? How... fascinating, dear. I suppose I should best explain, I have no wish to join your collection. As I said, I'm Cal. I help people, Money, information, goods... anything. People come here when they need me. Simple, honest, friendly. So,” he leaned in close to her, his smile even broader “What help do you need?”

Weapons. Food. Friends.

“What do you want in return?”

“Oh, little one. For you, out of the goodness of my heart,” he said, pressing his hand against his chest. “I'd hate to see something like you crushed by this city. Believe me, it is very good at crushing people, and you clearly don't belong here.”

“None of those things are true. “

“I'm sorry, sweet girl?”

“This city will not crush me. You will not help me out of kindness.”

“Well, perhaps you could owe me a favour then, if you won't accept kindness...”

“I will not enter a trade when I don't know the full price.”

“Why on earth not?”

“I don't trust you. You think me stupid enough to walk into your claws? I, the best hunter my people ever saw? You think I never saw a predator's smile before?”

She glared directly into his eyes for a while. He smiled back, but there was something in his eyes, some emotion she couldn't put a name on.

He looked away first. She'd won. For the first time in this upside down and backwards world she had won. It was almost enough for her to smile. Almost.

“That hurts me. I am probably the closest thing to a friend you'll have here, and you refuse to trust me. Well, should you change your mind, just come here at dawn and have a little chat with me, will you?”

Nelya watched as he got up and sauntered away, handss in his pockets, bag slung over his shoulder. She waited till she was sure he wouldn't see her before she devoured the apple, core and all.

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