We walked down the street in silence. Snow continued to fall, little whirlwinds picking at hair and clothing, and, before long, the streets of Sangeron were covered in more than a dusting of white. Around us, the society ladies with their fancy ruffs and their parasols scurried by, oblivious of everything but getting home before their hairdos were affected by the snow.
We turned down a side street filled with small shops. The storefronts were a bit more weathered, and the metal on the upper floors was a bit more rusted than out on the main street. The garbage bins were emptied a little less often, and more bits of trash blew in the wind. It wasn’t a poor area, not one of the ones where citizens slept in the streets and robberies were common, but it wasn’t a place my sister would ever frequent, either.
Madam Cora’s was a small tea room that saw few visitors. It was the place I normally patroned, though it was further away from the park than the café I’d visited earlier. For a moment, I wished I had just come to Madam Cora’s. It would’ve made it harder for Elbert to find me, and I wouldn’t have had to listen to the sneers of the other women.
“A tea room?” he asked.
I nodded and smiled. “One of my favorite places. The Steam Whisper isn’t open yet.”
We entered the tea room, and the weight I’d been carrying lifted off my shoulders. A tiny bell tinkled when we closed the door, and Madam Cora came into the dining room with a tea towel in her hand. She was a slight woman, less than five feet tall, with wide shoulders and hips and a tuft of hair on her chin. Elbert’s eyes widened, and I chuckled at his surprise.
“A dwarf? In Sangeron?”
Madam Cora arched a bushy, brown eyebrow at him, and I nearly fell to the floor laughing. Part of me felt sorry for him because he was somewhat right. While the Xaggarene Empire wasn’t known for its tolerance, there were still plenty of elves and angels within its borders. Dwarves, on the other hand, were known for not leaving The Kingdom of Emerell. They were an insular group that had no love of outsiders.
“Ye’ve a problem with dwarfs?”
Elbert shook his head. “No, ma’am. I’ve spent a good bit of time in The Kingdom of Emerell, and I’ve always found the dwarven folk to be quite hospitable.”
Madam Cora nodded as if she approved then turned back to me. “How’re you doing, Muhulda, dear? What can I get for you?”
“Some tea and cakes would be great,” I replied. “Seeing as how someone took me away from my breakfast.” I shot Elbert a look he couldn’t misinterpret.
“All right,” Madam Cora replied. “You two have a seat, and I’ll be back in a minute.”
We made our way to a table and settled down under an incandescent lamp. Elbert leaned forward, and I suddenly realized he was much younger than I had thought he was, much closer to my own age. What I’d assumed were wrinkles were, in fact, small scars. His eyes were a deep purply-yellow, as odd a color as I’d ever seen. His clothes looked like he’d pulled them out of a garbage bin, a weird mixture of sleeveless shirt tied in the front and trousers that looked like they were missing their lower half. His weapons were no joke, though. Knives ringed his belt and stuck from the top of his boots, and a chain with a heavy, spiked ball on the end hung at his side.
“What do you want from me?” I asked. “You’ve been following me around since last night.”
Elbert shook his head. “I’ve been following the ba’soray around for several days now, and it’s getting a little old.”
“Are those the demons with all the tongues?”
Elbert nodded. “I was sent because a nest of them was discovered near the dock.”
“But I thought most of the demons were in Moirena.”
“Most of them are, but these are more like animals than demons. They’re parasites without a lot of intelligence, in case you haven’t noticed. You can train a spitmoller easier than you can these things, and even the other demons try to eliminate them.”
“Where did they come from?” I wanted to know.
Elbert shrugged. “No idea. That’s why I spent most of yesterday evening drinking with them.”
“I don’t get it,” I admitted. “If they’re so unintelligent, how can they wander around drinking Melon Peckers and hitting Bleeding Grim?”
Madam Cora came with our food at that moment, and Elbert waited until she had gone to say more. He dug into the cakes she had brought like he hadn’t eaten in days.
“They have to be controlled by someone,” he said around a mouthful of cake. “The humans are hosts. That’s how they move around.” He took another bite. “That’s why I was with them last night. I was trying to get a lead on where they were going and who was controlling them.”
“Then maybe killing them wasn’t the brightest idea you ever had.”
He took a sip of tea and shrugged. “Maybe not, but you don’t want one getting its hands on you.” He gave me a smile. “It was a choice. I think, the right one.”
My tea and cakes remained untouched on the table in front of me. I picked up the cup and took a sip, grimacing because the tea was cool. “Well, I thank you for that, but what does any of this have to do with me?”
He scarfed down the last of his cake and eyed mine. I pushed it across the table and leaned back, waiting for him to get to the point.
“I asked you earlier why those things were after you.”
“And I told you earlier that I don’t know. I’ve never heard of them.” I leaned up and propped my arms on the table. “I serve drinks to a bunch of lowlifes and try to keep my sister out of my life. That’s the best I’ve got.”
“Friends? Lovers? Anyone who could haver a tie with these things?”
I shook my head. “Not unless it’s Bramwell. He’s the only person I ever see besides my sister.”
“And what am I, dear?” Madam Cora asked. “Some ghighet you stop by and feed?”
Neither one of us had noticed her approaching the table.
“No, Madam Cora. I just meant that I don’t socialize a lot.”
She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Well. Would you like more tea?”
“Yes, please,” Elbert replied. He gave her a smile that melted the frown off her face and made my heart skip a beat.
Madam Cora shuffled back to the kitchen, and I turned back to Elbert. “Why would they want me? What do they usually hunt?”
“That’s the thing,” Elbert replied. “There’s no type that they prefer. They’ll go after whoever or whatever they’re sent after. So, who would want you eaten by a bunch of demons? Any enemies? Pissed off anyone lately?”
“Only my sister.”
“Would she do something like this?”
Fury bloomed in my chest like a blood stain on clothing. “How dare you.” I rose to my feet. “She may be a selfish, self-righteous, annoying bitch, but she wouldn’t hurt me. She’d be too worried about it damaging the family name.”
“Anyone else?” Elbert acted like accusing my sister of trying to kill me was nothing.
I plopped back into my seat and banged my hands on the table. “No.”
Elbert leaned forward and tried to place his hand over mine. I snatched it away. He sighed and leaned back just as Madam Cora placed a plate of cakes and a pot of tea on the table. Elbert helped himself and waited, as if I had more information and was hiding it.
“Tell me,” I said. “What’s the sword do? It came out of nowhere and disappeared.”
Elbert continued to eat, and I wondered when he’d eaten last. His bright red hair and tufty little beard were mussed from the fight, and I could see faded scars on his face and arms. He shrugged and took a sip of tea. “It’s the Varunastra of Varuna. It’s a magical weapon that can take any form. I’m partial to the sword, so that’s what it becomes most of the time.”
I leaned forward then, my interest piqued. “What else does it do?” If I could find out about the Shadow Walkers’ weapons, I could sell the story to the highest bidder, maybe even get a job at one of the newspapers, and get the hell out of the Steam Whisper.
Elbert set his tea down and looked at me with a strange expression on his face. “It does what it needs to do, and that’s all I can tell you.” He rose to his feet. “I’m going to see if I can track down the ba’soray. I suggest you stay inside as much as possible and give a lot of thought as to who wants you dead.” He laid some coin on the table and headed for the door.
I, too, rose and glanced at the coin on the table. It was more than enough to cover our cost, and I thought Madam Cora would appreciate the extra. I wanted to ask more, but he was gone before I could get the words out. Still, I had enough to get started on a good story, and I still had several hours before time for my shift at the Steam Whisper.