“Why did I say anything? Nerves?”
Chloe exited the castle. The city had been built around the stone building’s backside, which meant that in order to get into the city, she had to exit from the front, walk half a kilocubit, and re-enter through the impenetrable main gate. In concept, it was an effective way to keep the citizens safe from bandits and raids, but in everyday life, it was nothing more than a detour.
To assemble a research team, the university would have been a good first stop. It was not where Chloe went. Her default response to meeting new people was simple—don’t. She was aware that such an approach was flawed and impossible given her task, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t procrastinate. Chloe, instead, headed for the home of someone she did know.
The door opened after a few tolls on the bell. A pale man with dark hair and bright eyes opened the door. He was more than an entire head shorter than Chloe, so eye contact was a chore for both of them.
“Good morning, Chloe.”
“Did you just wake?”
“Yes, but not because of you. I live with the earliest bird in the tree. As a result, I enjoy waking up an hour before even the sun on a daily basis. Even off days.”
“Right. Where is she?”
Finch, Chloe remembered, had married somewhere between three and seven years ago. (Her memory for such things was limited.)
He said, “Well, while it is a weekend, she should be leaving…” he looked to the sun, “A little while ago. Alice!”
Finch called out behind him, and an athletic-bodied, bare-chested woman skipped to the door, her upper half jamming itself into a top that seemed too small.
When she had dressed, she said, “Hi Chloe, I have to go! Visit me some time?” And then sprinted away.
They watched for a few moments as she ran towards the heart of the city. Alice was undoubtedly one of the friendliest, most competent, and certainly the physically strongest of the Solune city guards. The strength came from her heritage; Alice was of the Plainkind, a people who were particularly biologically deviant. Mhm… larger teeth, wider torsos, and musculature that is simply and unfairly more naturally powerful. What an unfair race to be put in our midst.
Chloe had come to know a certain Plainkind very well almost a year ago during the Legendary War; the war which had opened the walls to outsiders for the first time.
Chloe caught herself daydreaming. She turned back to Finch and said, “Ah, can we sit maybe?”
“Sure, I happen to own a kitchen table.”
They sat and caught up, as they had not spoken for so extended a period in nearly a year. Finch explained that he had recently left the guard to study kemia and physics. Chloe told him about her trip, and the Lussa, and then finally her current mission.
“Oh nice. Isn’t that the whole thing you’ve been complaining about this past month?”
“Yes. I’m wondering if you know of anyone I could bring, anyone academic.”
“You could check out the university.”
“Yes, but who for?”
Finch considered. He really didn’t know anyone. “Oh, well, you could always try my cousin Alexandre.”
“Yeah? What field?”
“Kemia, but more recently the hormonal differences between the kingdom’s various ethnicities. We are all quite unique, it seems. Especially the N’Tarial, and Riley like myself.”
“Oh. Is he married? Okay with leaving town for a few months?”
“She should be fine.”
They ended up having tea, and then eventually lunch before Chloe finally stood to leave. Before she went out the door, Finch added, “She’s just out of prison a couple years ago though, so she can be a little rough around the edges.”
“Ah…” Chloe lost what little momentum she had at this. I guess it would be right to assume that she is going to be something of a hassle.
As usual, the university’s flora was entirely overgrown. The grass was knee-high, and vines draped over trees and buildings. There had been a set of large stone letters that read ‘THE SOLUNE ACADEMY’ but the rock was new entirely covered in lichen and leafed plants. At least it is still readable. I can understand everything else, but why not clean off the lettering?
The paths that lead from building to building were where the health and safety concerns really began. The cobble had a thick layer of moss, and it would detach and slide if you stepped on it incorrectly. The liberal and academic solution was simply to put up a sign, ‘slipping hazard.’ Luckily for the faculty and the students, there was someone more conservative and practical who had added ‘shovel walkways’ to the list of janitorial tasks.
The only thing that kept the path up to municipal code was the footpath of stone that ran through the moss, wide enough only for one person, and cleared weekly.
Chloe sighed. I love it here.
She headed first to the administration building. Then, because it was locked and unlit, she went to the biokem building to see if anyone was there. Also locked. The lounge building maybe?
There was only two people in the lounge. What is going on? Chloe surveyed the building. Lunch tables, some longer seats, a café area, and a woman who looked like she was from the Djeb. Chloe looked around and saw a calendar.
Oh no, it’s Secast, ah, it is the weekend. Of course everything is closed!
Chloe spun around so fast that she lost her balance and fell forward. She was caught by the Djeb woman.
“Oh, ah, thank you.”
“Sure! Are you a student her?”
Chloe looked at her. The Djeb had sand coloured hair and down-turned eyes. Her skin seemed a touch darker and thicker than even an a moderately outdoorsy Solune. She was, all in all, not that much different than other Djeb people Chloe had seen—not even that much different than the Solune when, she thought about it. The woman also had the universal Djeb neutral expression, one of both constant joy and concern.
“I am Alumni.”
“Oh! Even better! Would you like to do an interview with me?
Chloe squinted at her. “Not right now. I am, ah, I’m looking for Alexandre Dirge, but I do not think she is here today.”
“Oh, probably not.”
“Yes… You would not happen to know where she is, or how I might contact her?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Ah, is there anyone I might leave a message with?”
“I’m not sure.”
Chloe wasn’t quite sure if the woman was being evasive on purpose. She said, “You, you’re a little frustrating to engage.”
“Why’s that?” The Djeb smiled.
Chloe frowned, “Do you need something from me?”
“Yes—but wait, aren’t you busy?”
“Ah,” she paused, lining up her contractions before speaking, “not if Alex isn’t here. If she is not, I won’t be busy until next day.”
“Wonderful! My name is Senica, I’m an anthropologist from the south.”
“You mean the west, where the Djeb is?”
“Nope,” Senica grinned, “the south.”
That does not make sense, there’s only a mountain to the south. Chloe decided, despite the contradiction, not to get into it. Senica was already irritating her enough on her own, she would rather not keep her talking.
“I came here to do some research and ask people some questions.”
“I, ah, Senica, I am not in a good mood.”
“Oh, well… okay.” She looked a little dejected, but recovered quickly; a good skill for someone conducting surveys to have.
They parted ways. Chloe went homeward.
On the way back, passing through the market, she saw someone with short black hair and pale skin. Finch? No, far too tall… and feminine. Who…
The woman was arguing with a stall keeper. Chloe got close enough to hear.
“Look, I’ve even used these before. I’ve worked with the guard too.”
Chloe saw that she was at a smith, a swords booth.
“It doesn’t matter, you need a permit.” Then he added under his breath, “This is why I hate coming to market.”
Chloe, feeling bored, failed and frustrated, decided to step in and see if could help one of them; she just wasn’t sure which one. I just need… an outlet, a distraction. Maybe I can solve this, or at least try.
“What is, ah, what’s happening here?” She slipped up in her first sentence, and the Riley noticed. She also noticed Chloe’s nervous tone of voice.
“This Riley wants to get a hard edge sword, but lacks the permit. She’s not allowed to purchase a weapon, no one can without a permit!”
Chloe thought for a moment, and then said, “No one?”
His eyes widened with recognition, but he quickly returned to his unhappy expression. “Well, there are exceptions.”
“Not exceptions. They are clear and in the law. There are no exceptions in Solune governing. And,” she turned to the Riley. Her speech was beginning to speed up; she was reaching her limit. “What of you? Who are you?”
The Riley spat on the dirt. “I am Jutt. Soon, you would call me Dr. Dirge.”
“Are you Alexandre Dirge?”
Chloe’s system released a hit of adrenaline, and her senses sped up. She took a good look at Alexandre. She really did look like a feminine Finch, but her hair was a little longer, and oddly kept. It was as if she patted it down in the morning, but as the day went on, the split ends tangled together, making it all look rugged and pointy. Her face was more pale than was usual for a Riley, and her expression seemed to be stuck in one of scorn. The biggest difference, however, was that she could look Alexandre squarely in the face. She was almost as tall as Chloe, which was quite strange for a Riley. It was also quite an advantage, as Alexandre used her height to throw aggression laden looks at her as they spoke.
“Don’t worry about it, Prince.” Alexandre turned to leave.
Wait! No, I need to say something more forceful than wait. “No.”
Alexandre glanced back apathetically and stepped away. Chloe, who was both taller and broader, grabbed the Riley’s wrist.
“I have been looking for you. You are a student of Kemia, right?”
Alexandre tried unsuccessfully to wrench away.
Chloe sort of lost herself in thought. I am stronger than someone who wishes to wield a sword. I wonder why? Perhaps that is why she wants one, because she’s weak? Wait… Chloe remembered what Finch had told her. Why was she imprisoned?
“I’m not working for the castle.”
She wrenched again.
“No, not the castle, I am going on an expedition to study the Lussa, I, ah, I’m assembling a research team.”
Chloe let go. Alexandre skulked away, rubbing her wrist only when she thought she was out of sight. Chloe still saw. She turned back to the blacksmith and said goodbye, and scanned the market.
She stood in the middle of the bustling market, and entered a state of deep thought.
Next week will be an unrelated story.