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     “Rae?”

     Ugh. Why did his dreams always have to come alive when he had a hangover? Hoping that if he ignored it, the voice would go away, Rae grunted and tried fruitlessly to worm his way back into the dream he’d just been nudged out of.

     “Rae!” The voice insisted, adding a prodding finger to its arsenal. “Wake up. It’s important.”

     “G’way.” Rae pulled the quilt up over his head, trying to roll away from the annoyance. It wasn’t helping the cracking headache blossoming between his ears.

     “Rêdovan!”

     His quilt summarily disappeared, almost taking him off the bed with it.

     “I’m awake, I’m awake,” he groaned. “Wassamarrer?” He peeked out from under the pillow to find Halli pacing – well, limping – agitatedly back and forth in his doorway.

     “Have you seen Blink?” she demanded, abruptly, as soon as he looked vaguely awake.

     Rae wiped his face with one hand, and propped himself on his elbows. “...what?”

     “Have you seen Blink? She’s not in her room.”

     “You woke me for that?” He flopped back down on his mattress and covered his face with both hands. “Do you even know how early it is? Priorities, huh, what are they...”

     Halli folded her arms, her features compressing into a glare. “She went to bed sick, in case you’d forgotten. And now she’s not there. I’m worried that something has happened.”

     “What could have possibly happened? If she was ill, she’d still be in bed. She’s not in bed, so she must be all right.” He let his arms flop into a sprawl at either side. “Go back to bed. You’ve got all jumpy over nothing.”

     “I’d hardly say it’s nothing. She came down with whatever it is ridiculously quickly-”

     “And Odati explained what it was causing it. Too much of that histy-thingy in her supper, and she’d be fine after she slept it off.” Rae groaned and put his head back under his pillow. “Go back to bed. Seriously.”

     Halli peeled the edge of the pillow back, so she could better glare down on him. “All right. You’re not worried, I get it. But I am worried, and I really wish you’d take this more seriously!” The last word turned into a frustrated snap as he succeeded in tearing the pillow from her grasp and jamming it back down onto his ears.

     “I’m taking it perfectly seriously,” he snarled back, although the soft furnishings muffled the words and took the edge off the angry facade he wanted to project. “I can’t help it if you’ve turned into a neurotic heap of nervous overreaction. She’s a big girl, she doesn’t need a nursemaid!”

     Halli growled and only just resisted the urge to stamp her foot, frustrated. “Are you really still that sore that she turned down your advances, the other night?”

     Rae bristled, and glared over the pillow. “You’re right, that must be what it is. I’m totally just a shallow bastard who resents the fact his friend didn’t like being drunkenly mauled, and wants to see her suffer for it. It’s nothing at all to do with the fact that there’s nothing wrong with her, and everything wrong with me!” He let the pillow fall flat over his face. “I’m fighting to keep my stomach from trying to vomit up my entire digestive tract, and my brain feels like it’s oozing out of my ears, right now, and you think I’m just being a jealous spur. Anyone would think you’d never had a hangover.”

     Halli glared, but backed down, at last. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She sighed and plopped her weight down on the end of Rae’s bed. “I just really think there’s a problem. The last time I saw her, she looked awful. Now she’s not there at all, and the big window’s open. I’m worried she’s got delirious, and wandered off. I know something’s happened, I just don’t know what.”

     Rae peered at her, suspiciously, but the small woman did look fairly genuinely concerned. He grunted softly and levered himself upright. “All right. All right.” He put up his hands, defeated. “I’ll come help you look. But when we find her curled up in a cosy chair in the corner of the library, reading some old design journal, wondering what all the fuss is about?” He pointed his finger like a gun, for emphasis. “You owe me an apology.”

     “And you have my word that I’ll give it, without argument.” Halli held out a hand to help him up. “I promise, I wouldn’t come and pester you without a very good reason. You just know Blink the best, you may have a better idea of what’s happened.”

     Rae muttered something incomprehensible, but seemed... mollified, at least for now.

     After another fruitless hour spent searching through the library shelves and store-rooms, finding nothing living but a family of small animals in one of the dusty offices, Rae had begun to feel the same twinklings of concern that had got Halli so agitated. They ‘regrouped’ at the head of the stairs on the first floor, right above the downstairs foyer.

     Halli rubbed her arms, uneasily. “Maybe we should see if Sam is awake.”

     Rae curled his lip, unimpressed. “Oh, I see, I’m not good enough any more?”

     “What?” Halli frowned and shook her head. “No, no, I didn’t mean it like that. Just that he used to be a police officer. Not very high ranking, but worked on some high-profile cases, back in the day – including some missing persons enquiries. He might know where we’re going wrong.”

     Rae followed her down the stairs, griping quietly to himself. “There’s not a whole lot of places for it to go wrong, surely. Look in room, see person is absent, look in next room, and so on...”

     They found the white spur in the breakfast room, sitting at the table with both hands cupped around a steaming mug of tea, forehead propped against his wrists, looking like he was suffering the same pounding headache of overindulgence as everyone else.

     “Hey, Sam?” Halli perched on the chair next to him. “A word?”

     “Sure.” He forced a tired smile that wasn’t echoed particularly well in his heavy eyes. “Fire away.”

     “Rae and I are worried about Blink. She’s disappeared.”

     Sarmis’ smile broadened, fractionally, in an exasperated you-really-needed-to-interrupt-my-headache-for-THIS? kind of way. “She’s probably out on the Landing, doodling in her journal again. It’s a nice morning, out.” Beat. “At least, I imagine it is. If you’re feeling well.”

     Halli shook her head. “We’ve already checked. She’s not there.”

     “And her journal is still in her room,” Rae added.

     “So she may be outside. Or down in the library itself. Or, or... I don’t know, maybe she’s gone off to the toilet.” Sarmis let his cheek rest back against his hands. “She’ll be about somewhere.”

     “That was exactly what I said when Hal woke me up,” Rae agreed. “But she isn’t.”

     Sarmis gave them a long, tired stare, his brow creased. “So... what? You’re gonna have to help me out, here. She’s got up and gone somewhere to sit that doesn’t put her in the way of having to listen to folk whining about being sick. What exactly has got you both worried?”

     “She’s not ‘wandered off’, she’s not here, anywhere,” Halli interrupted, frustrated. “We’ve been over every inch of the Library, inside and out.

     “So what you’re trying to say, in a long, convoluted way, is that you think she’s climbed over the fence.” Sarmis pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his eyes, trying to wake himself up a little better. “You think it’s somehow more likely she’s managed to climb over all three barb-topped fences than just... moving around, avoiding the pair of you?”

     “...why would she be avoiding us?” Halli looked hurt by the idea.

     “Well, I don’t know. Guess I’m just having trouble seeing why that idea is somehow less likely to you two than the idea she’s climbed over the fence.”

     “Who’s climbed the fence?”

     All three turned their heads to find Odati pouring herself a glass of juice.

     “I hope we haven’t had any ferals come calling,” she went on, hobbling with difficulty over to the closest chair; she’d not brought her cane, which would explain why they’d not heard her sneak up. “The fences are high enough already without us having to add to them...”

     “No, no, nothing like that,” Sarmis reassured. “Just that Blink wasn’t in her room this morning, and that’s got people worried-”

     “With good reason!” Halli cut in, hotly. “She’s not just not in her room, she’s not in the Library or the grounds, any more, either!”

     “So far as you can tell, anyway.” Sarmis forced a painful smile. “On the assumption that she’s not just avoiding a bunch of whiny, hung over drunks, we were about to discuss the likelihood of her getting confused, and climbing out over the fence.”

     “I see.” Odati frowned. “That’s a rather... dramatic hypothesis, don’t you think?”

     Behind Halli’s back, Sarmis spread his hands in a shrug and rolled his eyes. Exactly what I just said.

     Halli groaned in frustration and covered her face. “Don’t you start as well. If you have any other ideas, then please. I just wanted to check she was all right, and she’s vanished. I can’t find her anywhere.”

     Odati took a thoughtful sip of her juice before speaking again. “And you don’t think she’s not perhaps simply avoiding you? It must have been quite a shock for her, seeing you turn into an animal.”

     “What? No!” Halli straightened, insulted. “She didn’t look shocked. She even carried me home...!”

     “Hmm...”

     It was at that point that Aspazija peered in through the doorway; her pinched features brightened at seeing Odati. “...oh, there you are. Wondered where you’d gone. You left your stick in the upstairs corridor.”

     “Ah!” Odati smiled. “Thank you, Zee. Where was it?”

     “Fell down behind the plant pot.” The fessine handed over the cane, and plopped herself down at the table, followed by Jak. “Pretty heavy atmosphere in here, isn’t it? What’s got everyone so twitchy?”

     “The concern has been raised that Blink might have been sicker than we thought, last night.” Odati glanced at Halli, to confirm what had upset her – at the nod, she went on; “There’s also the worry she might have climbed out over the fence.”

     Aspazija laughed, nervously, and wrapped her arms around herself in a self-protective hug, involuntarily. “Oh, wow. That’s, uh. That’s a bit more serious than I was expecting. Really? Skeida.”

     “Well, let’s think. What is the chance that is correct?” Odati laced her fingers and mantled them on the top of her cane. “Could she have lowered the bridge, and gone outside the perimeter? Does she sleepwalk, perhaps?”

     “Not that I’d heard.” Rae shook his head, and snorted. “Up until a couple of dozen days ago, she didn’t even sleep. Just... turned off. But she was ill, last night, and I’ve not seen her get sick, yet. I guess it’s possible.”

     “But she can’t have got out over the bridge and raised it behind her,” Aspazija reminded. “I can see it from my window when it’s down, and I couldn’t see it, so it must still be up.”

     “Well, did anyone else touch the bridge? Did anyone wake up this morning, see it was down, and pull it up? Halli?” Odati levelled a semi-suspicious glare at the smaller female. “You were up early. Did you see anything?”

     The zaar bristled. “What are you insinuating, that I had something to do with it?”

     Sarmis set a calming hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure Odati didn’t mean any offence. You just happened to be the one that discovered that she’d vanished.”

     Halli shoved him off. “Well, I would have said something if I’d seen the bridge down, Sam,” she snapped. “And if I’d seen that, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, because I’d be out there now, looking for her!” She stabbed her bad hand at the window in an aggressive point, for emphasis.

     Odati’s suspicious frown still hadn’t quite faded. “Why were you up and about so early?”

     “Because I was getting over having my skeleton rearranged, remember? You know I never rest well when I’m recovering from a shift. I didn’t drink, last night, I woke up ridiculously early this morning, and then couldn’t get back to sleep.”

     Odati’s frown deepened. “Something doesn’t add up here, Halli. You expect us to believe you woke up so early, and yet you heard nothing? Possibly with a sick fessine bumbling around in the dark, tripping over things?”

     Halli’s open belligerence began to fade. “But I didn’t hear anything – except other people snoring,” she recognised, uneasily. “If she’d been moving around, I’d have heard her.”

     “Precisely.” Odati sat back in her chair and pressed her fingertips together, lips compressed into a tight, serious line. “So what’s the chance,” she wondered, carefully, “that this was actually all planned? That Blink has sneaked out – or is hiding somewhere, planning to do so, once our attention is elsewhere – on purpose?”

     “What?” Rae challenged. “What purpose could that possibly serve?”

     Odati slid her gaze sideways and gave Halli a meaningful look. “What was it she said, Halli? ‘Next time we want to go to the Institute, we’ll have to sneak away. If no-one knows we’ve gone, no-one can follow us.’”

     All the colour drained from Halli’s dramatically-marked cheeks, leaving her unhealthily pastel-looking. Rae suspected it was only in part due to realising they’d been overheard – and partly, perhaps, in concern at the idea the Blink had sneaked away on her own, into danger, on purpose.

     “She was joking...!” Halli stammered. “She knows what’s outside the fence, she’d never be so stupid-”

     Odati sighed, tiredly. “Ordinarily I’d be inclined to agree, but given her supposed history? If we’re to believe the story she tells, she was a machine – and according to Rae, also a pillar of incredible, indestructible strength. She’s already fought off Breg, and she knows she can’t be infected. She’s hardly a model of common sense – she barely knows her own limits!”

     “But she wouldn’t do that. There’s a difference between not knowing your own strength and just plain idiocy. She wouldn’t go out alone!”

     “Or are you just saying that in the hope she hasn’t gone without you? Because that’s why you went to see her first thing, isn’t it?” Odati sighed and shook her head, glaring. “It’s all starting to make sense, now. You went to find her, so the two of you could sneak out and back to the Institute. Instead, you got there to find she’d ditched you, and now you’ve cooked up a story to raise the alarm, to ensure she doesn’t get very far.”

     Halli’s hair had all puffed up, turning her into an alarmed, spiky ball. “That’s not fair-!”

     “No? She probably doesn’t trust you. For all we know, you could have been the one that alerted Breg that you were out there.”

     “But he attacked me-!”

     “...and didn’t kill you. How better to draw attention away from yourself?”

     “Odati?” Rae interrupted, before the two women could get too deeply into the argument. “She’s left everything behind. Her satchel, her journal, her clothes.”

     The vulline gave him a withering look. “That was the plan, stupid.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I think we should hold off on an immediate search. What is more likely – that she wandered off, delirious, somehow got out over all three fences, without making any noise or getting stuck and injuring herself? Or, that she sneaked out, on purpose, just as she’d been discussing the night before, and simply abandoned her partner in crime?”

     “That’s not fair.” Halli pouted. “You’re ignoring the facts to fit your hypothesis. I know you don’t like her, but you don’t have to punish her by pretending she’s some evil rulebreaker. All we know is that she’s vanished, and you’re acting like she’s committed high treason!”

     “So explain why you were so keen to see her? At such a ridiculous and unsociable hour?”

     “I-... couldn’t sleep. I just thought I’d go and see how she was feeling.” A blush began to rise in Halli’s cheeks. She used her palms to try and flatten her bristling crest back down, but her wilful hair was getting even more spiky. “She was sick the night before. I wanted to check she was getting better.”

     Jak leaned closer. “Hal-li’s got a cru-ush,” he cooed into her ear, in a soft singsong voice.

     Quick as lightning, the zaar twisted in her seat, and punched him square in the face. He tumbled backwards off his chair with a yelp of pain.

     “Whoa, hey, easy there!” Sarmis leapt to Jak’s rescue, putting himself in Halli’s way; for such a small individual, the zaar packed one hell of a punch. “You didn’t need to hit him that hard, Hal. You okay down there?”

     Jak sneered triumphantly and wiped blood from his nose. “It’s all right. I guess that was as good a confirmation as any of us needed.”

     Halli snarled something wordless and gave him a half-hearted kick, but Sarmis was mostly still in the way.

     Odati grunted, softly. “All right. For now, we’ll assume Halli is just, ah-... worrying about her friend’s wellbeing...” She shot the zaar a glare, to demonstrate her annoyance that Halli had not just said so to start with, and emphasise her continuing suspicion. “...and hasn’t been helping her sneak out.”

     Jak made quiet smoochy noises behind Halli; she remained puffed up, fists clenched and trembling, jaw set in her determination not to bludgeon him any more.

     “What would you like us to do now, Odati?” Sarmis prompted, in the lull.

     The lightly testing tone to the spur’s voice was impossible to miss, and soured Odati’s mood further. “To stop trying my patience would be a good start.” She waved a threatening finger, pushing herself to her feet. “If you feel obliged to go out looking for that wretched runaway, I’m not going to stop you, but I personally think we should wait for her to crawl back of her own accord, with her tail between her legs. Might teach her a lesson in humility towards her fellow survivors.” With that, she turned, and stomped away.

     The instant the last thump! of Odati’s stick had faded away, Halli groaned, letting her arms stretch out over the tabletop, and flopped onto her face. Muffled words came up from the hard surface. “I’m going to strangle that vul next time I bump into him.”

     Sarmis gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Ignore him. You know he’s only doing it to get a rise out of you.”

     Rae folded his arms on the table, and let his chin rest on them. “Besides, it’s not like you weren’t making it kinda obvious anyway,” he apologised, watching as her gaze came up and met with his, unhappily. “You’d have spontaneously combusted if you blushed any hotter.”

     Halli sighed and let her forehead rest back against her forearm. “I was just embarrassed that I’d accidentally made you all think there was more to it,” she muttered, defensively. “There’s nothing going on. I was just worried about her.”

     “If there was, would it be a bad thing?”

     “But there isn’t-

     “Hal...”

     “I wish you lot would stop looking for gossip, instead of looking for Bee!” Halli thumped a fist against the table, frustrated. “I don’t care what Odati says, she hasn’t ‘sneaked out’ anywhere. She was sick, and now she’s in danger. And we need to find her.”

* * * * *

     Unknown to the quarrelling residents of the Library, somewhere across the other side of the city, Blink was finally stirring from an unnaturally deep sleep.

     The first thing her wandering consciousness became aware of was the bed on which she lay – lumpy, uncomfortable, musty-smelling and short, with high ends that left her legs curled beneath her and her neck cricked at a painful angle. Definitely not her own bed.

     Discomfort nudged her closer to full wakefulness. Had she gone to sleep on that weatherbeaten old sofa out by the firepit again? A muted daytime brightness assailed her eyes when she finally opened them, forcing her to squint. No, it’s daytime. They wouldn’t have let you sleep out there all night, she reassured herself, giving her sore eyes a little rub, trying to clear away some of the blurriness of sleep.

     Reassurances were quickly replaced by new concerns. If this isn’t the couch, where am I? She studied the room in which she lay, cautiously, trying not to betray the fact she was awake.

     Although not quite sure precisely where she was, she knew where she wasn’t, because this really didn’t feel like she was in the Library, any more. Of course, she still hadn’t seen every room in her adopted home, yet, but nowhere else she’d seen looked so... shabby. Run-down, untidy, unloved. There was something about the whole ambience of the new room that felt disturbingly off. The damaged furniture lacked the care with which the Library residents had treated their belongings, great ugly plaques of dirt and graffiti marked the walls, and every last screen on the various entertainment systems dotted about the room were shattered. The vending machine built into the corner stood empty, its glass smashed and its shelves all torn open.

     How had she got here, anyway? Brief flickers of memory came to her through a murky soup of dreams and delirium. She remembered collapsing in her room, with that heavy, giddy sensation making her head swim. The feel of the solid floor moving beneath her feet, like the deck of a ship.

     There were other things in the mess, too, though. Other faces. Unfamiliar faces. The chill of cold air, swirling across her arms, and the discomfort of a very hard, lumpy surface against her back. A whiff of something hard smelling that had made her choke, quietly. Although not really sure what it all did mean, one thing she was sure about was that it could not have been good.

     Blink pushed the thin blanket covering her to one side and warily got to her feet – thankfully, the horrible giddy feeling from last night didn’t return. Maybe if she got an idea of where she was – and she was having suspicions about that which left her greatly unsettled – she could slink away before she was noticed? Her soft, padded feet made her movements reassuringly soundless as she inched towards the door.

     She flattened herself against the wall, and peeked out into the corridor. Another shabby set of dirty walls, another cluttered floor, a flight of steps, heading upwards to her left... and on her right, a massive doorway, slightly ajar, through which could be seen long grass and the warm glow of summer sunlight. Her ears perked, all on their own. The way out! After checking the way was clear, she stepped uneasily out into the corridor, edged her way past the scattered heaps of rubbish, and peeked out through the narrow slit into daylight.

     Although the area was unfamiliar, she got the impression that this had once been a fairly important part of the city, so was possibly in the north of Kust. Ostentatious buildings made of rich golden stone soared gracefully skywards, still venerable in spite of their graffiti-covered stone and broken windows, and the small field outside had probably once been the main town square, with a broken fountain in the centre that looked like it contained more weeds than water.

     But where to go? She had to find her way back to the Library, somehow. People will be looking for me, she reassured herself. They’ll have noticed I’m not there, and be looking for me. If I make my way south, along the coast, I’ll eventually find the beach Halli and I went to. I can get my bearings and find my way from there-

     “Oh, hey!”

     Blink almost leaped out of her skin. She span away from the door, flattening herself back against the wall, and met the predatory stare of a brawny, silver-gold ondrai male.

     He perked his ears forwards, and barked, showing his long canines; “Guys, she’s awake!”

     Blink didn’t need to think twice about it; she bolted – straight out the door, slamming it in his face, and down into the street. She didn’t hang around to work out what he was yelling, or see how long it would take him to get through the door.

     As she ran, it rapidly became apparent that she was not only not in Library territory, but slap bang in the centre of Tevak’s. A dozen unfamiliar blights had emerged from the undergrowth already, attracted by the commotion, and joined the hunt, trying to herd her where they wanted. Adrenaline fizzed through her veins; she felt like she was flying, barely able to keep track of where she was going. Concentrate. Concentrate!

     There was literally nowhere to hide – not to mention, no time to find a good hiding place! The only thing she would be able to do was plead for her life when they finally caught her-... She clenched her jaw, determined not to let it beat her, determined to keep her feet moving, concentrating on trying to keep her breathing steady. The lack of obvious escape route didn’t mean she had to go quietly, or make it easy for them.

     Off to her left, she spotted a short, broad flight of about a dozen stone steps, leading up to the unattended main double doors of a building which reminded her superficially of the Library, constructed of the same brightly-coloured bricks and elegant, carved stonework. If it was anything like her adopted home, it could be riddled with hiding places and secret passageways. She noticed that although the broad lintel above the entrance had since been liberally daubed with insulting graffiti, like the rest of the walls and old notice-boards, it had once borne the word police, carved deeply and proudly into the golden rock. How ironic that the thugs and vandals had taken up home in the place that had once worked against them. Maybe she could hide indoors? Get inside something, find some narrow corridor that only a determined fessine could sneak down? Somewhere they couldn’t follow. She fled up the steps, and promptly slammed into the golden wall of muscle that had just emerged in the opposite direction.

     “Whoa, hey. Who let you out?” Tevak made a ponderous snatch for her with one meaty fist.

     Alarmed and running primarily on instinct, by now, Blink ducked blindly under his hand with a few microns to spare, and vaulted over the guard wall up the side of the stairs, throwing herself out over an unanticipated drop significantly deeper then she was tall. Skeida-! She felt her stomach cramp, her throat constricting, and her heart jolted painfully in anticipation of the landing-

     A squat, thorny little shrub broke the worst of her fall, but the ground still came up painfully beneath her feet, jerking at her legs, straining the joints. She could very nearly feel the bruises flowering on the undersides of her feet. She managed to get back to her feet, but pain shot up her legs and she stumbled into the wall.

     ...now there truly was nowhere left to go. From every direction, her pursuers approached – some growling, some glaring, some just suspicious, but all bigger and sharper and stronger – hemming her into her corner by the wall, under the stairs. Nowhere left to go.

     Blink pressed herself down into the corner, trying to make herself as small as possible as they crowded closer. The pain in her legs had driven the flight out of her. “Don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me,” she pleaded, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “I’m not trespassing, I promise, I don’t even know how I got here-...! Please don’t hurt me. I-I’ll go peacefully. I didn’t even know I was here-! Please let me go-”

     “Boss will have to make that decision,” said a voice somewhere in the back of the crowd.

     The Boss? Blink had only a split second to work out what that meant before the murmuring crowd moved apart to allow Tevak to come through. No, no... She shook her head and tried to shrink a little further down, unable to stop the rill of frightened, whimpering incoherence that still spilled from her lips.

     Tevak crouched. “Guess this means you’re feeling better, now, huh kid? Certainly got some speed back in them little legs.”

     Blink could barely find her voice, and when she finally got it to emerge from her mouth it was as tremulous shreds. “F-feeling better? What do you m-mean?”

     “You don’t remember? We found you wandering, out in the city.” He gestured towards the square with a muscular arm almost as big as entire Blink’s torso. “Figured we couldn’t get you back in the Library, with all their stupid fences, so instead of yelling for attention and letting every hungry blight in the neighbourhood know we was there, we decided it was safer to bring you back here for a bit.”

     “W-... wandering?” Something doesn’t add up. How had she even got past the fence? Accusing him of lying sounded spectacularly foolhardy, however, so Blink concentrated on something a little less overtly political. “Then I-... I’d like to go home now. Now it’s light, a-and people will be awake. Please.”

     Tevak smiled – that weird, bared-teeth smile that his cool reptilian eyes didn’t mirror. “Sure. Soon as it’s safe. Some of my folk have noticed hungry biters still prowling on the edges of our land.” He held out his hand, to help her up, and offered, unexpectedly; “Come have something to eat, while you wait.”

     She’d been prepared to hear a lot of things, but that had thrown her. “...What?”

     Tevak beckoned lightly with his fingers. “Something to eat. We’ve got some fresh game on the cooker, and it’s already passed high sun. Been a while since they fed you, I figure?”

     It had been a while since she’d eaten, Blink acknowledged, uneasily slotting her hand into his and allowing the giant to help her to her feet. And what she had eaten hadn’t really fulfilled her appetite, with that unpleasant taste and the unpleasant symptoms. “Thank you. That would be nice.”

     Tevak’s smirk seemed to confirm he knew she was just being polite, but he didn’t call her out on it.

     The rest of the group – or should that be “the rest of the Pack”? They looked more like a raggedy gang of hunters with their animals than her fellow sentients – all sat around the grassy square, in a loose circle around the cooking pit. The ‘oven’ was a dramatic contrast to Aron’s carefully-designed little brick-built structure; two heaps of rubble propped up a mostly-horizontal sheet of wire mesh probably scavenged from a heavy-duty fence, holding it a few feet up from the shallow pit in which hot coals glowed. Assorted chunks of flesh sizzled atop the grid, fat dripping down into the pit below and generating small spurts of flame.

     Tevak patted the cushion next to him, expectantly. Blink eyed it, unhappily; a small, thin round cushion, very very close to the giant. His lips pulled back into a broader smirk, and he gave it another little pat, for emphasis. You will come here and you will sit here and you will look like you like it.

     Painfully aware that she still didn’t have any options apart from doing as told, Blink sat primly down upon the seat she’d been offered, feet together, back straight, firmly holding the chipped white plate in her lap in an effort to keep her hands from trembling, trying not to look as scared as she felt. She tried to relax; it was all just some big misunderstanding, right? She was ill, the night before. Maybe she had wandered, and they had rescued her. Besides, she’d got so tense, her insides hurt.

     Blink let her gaze drop to her plate. Why did everyone have to make such a big deal out of watching her? Almost every gaze was upon her again – mostly curious, or amused, waiting to see how she’d react next, but the flame-haired fessine a few steps away around the circle wasn’t even trying to hide her hostility. Resentment poured off her in great waves, blazing like wildfire out of those hazel eyes. She reminded Blink a little of the unfriendly waitress in tiao’I spacedock departure lounge.

     Dinner landed with a wet-sounding thump on Blink’s plate, making her jump – a slab of unidentifiable meat, grilled to a rich dark brown but oozing translucent pink fluid, ever so slightly. Barely cooked. (Probably only just dead, too.) There didn’t seem to be anything else on the menu, either, so it was eat it, or starve (and insult her ‘hosts’ in the process).

     “C-can I have any cutlery?” she wondered, quietly.

     A flurry of distracted laughter was the only response she got. Glancing briefly around at the rest of the diners, she quickly cottoned on to the fact that nobody here bothered with it, simply picking their food up in their fingers and tearing it apart with their teeth.

     Its recent exposure to red-hot coals made the steak difficult to handle, not to mention the clinging hot fatty juice that burned her skin, where it oozed down her fingers and dripped off. She picked the meat up in her very fingertips, gingerly, trying not to get too much of the unappealing, oozing juices on her hands, and nibbled at the meat with her teeth. It was tough, though, and difficult to bite through, and scalded her lips.

     Tevak clucked his tongue; he was already halfway through his dinner, which was easily four times the size of Blink’s little slip of flesh. “C’mon, girly, anyone would think you never had a steak before. You laima are meant to bite with the side of your mouth.” His rough finger stroked against her cheek, drawing a line along her skin roughly level with her back teeth.

     Blink flinched away from the touch. “...I have never had a steak before,” she confirmed, in a defensive little mumble, trying not to be embarrassed by the cluster of watching eyes nearby. It didn’t feel like she’d ever be able to open her mouth wide enough to do as she’d been told, grimacing in an effort to pull her lips back away from the strong, shearing teeth in the back of her mouth. As Tevak had suggested, the more powerful bite cut far more easily through the tough flesh, but it made such a mess. Pressure wrang the juice out of the meat, and she could feel liquid run down the side of her face, onto her neck and into her clothing. Uugh. Don’t shudder, don’t.

     “There, see?” Tevak chuckled, satisfied, his words muffled by a mouthful of food. Meat juices dripped from his lower lip. “Good stuff, huh?”

     After several laborious seconds of chewing, Blink forced herself to swallow; the tough, fibrous lump threatened to stick in her throat. “Uhm, it-... it’s...” What to say that wasn’t insulting? “...richer than I’m used to.” The wild game had a strong, off-putting taste to it, a little like liver, and she wasn’t entirely sure she liked it, without Aron’s skilled hand having made it palatable beforehand. She stared down at the mauled lump of barely-cooked animal on her plate, and wished it would spontaneously turn into a bowl of stew, like she’d enjoyed so thoroughly that first night at the Library. “Don’t usually have this much meat,” she excused herself.

     “That’s because they’re all useless namby-pamby weaklings, back at the Library.” Tevak swallowed the very last piece of his dinner and licked his lips with relish. “Can’t catch enough game; s’why they have to bulk it out with vegetables.”

     “Vegetables are all right. I like them,” Blink added, but without much heat, and took another awkward bite of her dinner in the hope that she could avoid having to speak any more.

     The day wore on in much the same way; while some of the Pack went off to attend to jobs around their ramshackle home, or to hunt – including Tevak – a large proportion of locals just sat around enjoying the sunshine, not seeming particularly interested in doing much at all. Ignored for the most part, except when she attempted to leave, Blink sat and quietly watched all the coming and goings, and fidgeted, uncomfortably.

     A handful of Tevak’s people flaked out on one of the grassy patches to sunbathe; another few sat playing some sort of game with a well-worn pack of cards, gambling with what looked like cigarettes. A couple went off to spar with each other, although the flurries of kicks and punches looked more like they were for practice than because either fighter was actually angry. One even settled in the shade of a tree to read a book.

     Most of the group seemed more interested in watching the ‘entertainment’ two of their fellows had arranged, however. Two small cages were brought out, each containing a noisy, brightly-coloured animal, which were then released in a fenced-off circular hollow in the dirt, around which the Pack gathered, peering down into the hole to watch. The hyper-aggressive little animals puffed out their scales, turning into what looked like long, spiky pinecones with legs, and spent a few minutes posturing at each other. The jeering, catcalling crowd made them excitable, though, and eventually they lunged for each other, all teeth and claws and spitting fury. The watching crowd erupted into shrieks and yells of excited encouragement.

     Blink inched away backwards, not sure if she felt more unsettled by the violence the little creatures were doling out to each other, or the enjoyment the observers were getting from it.

     By the time Tevak returned, the sinking sun wallowed red and bloated in the broad street separating two rows of old government buildings, hanging close to the road and staining the rooftops an intense orange-red. His little group had two slack quadruped bodies carried between them, the dead game’s long thin legs strapped to a pole of some sort, probably old scaffolding.

     Tevak ambled over, wiping his hands clean on a rag stuffed in his pocket, and Blink’s heart gave a little jump. Could it be they were about to send her home? She sat forwards, expectantly.

     “Hey,” he greeted ...but that was it.

     Going to have to prompt him. “I hate to look like I’m not appreciative of your generosity, but-... I just wondered...” She met his gaze, bravely. “I’d like to go home, before it gets dark. Can somebody show me the way?”

     Tevak smiled down at her. “You are home.”

     Blink just stared at him, for a few seconds, wondering if she’d misheard. “I’m sorry...?”

     “No need to be sorry.” He sat down next to her, casually. “Honest mistake to make.”

     “I-I mean... I think you might be mistaken.” Blink tried for a hopeful smile, although it only seemed to pull up on one side of her face. “You said I could go home, once it was safe. We’ve waited all day. Surely it’s all right for me to go now?”

     “But go where? You’re home now.” He leaned down closer to her level, propping himself up on an arm that just so happened to pass behind her. His harsh, growling words descended into something soft, almost breathy, almost tender. “Come on. Everyone told me you were a smart cookie. Haven’t you worked it out already? You’re here because you’re mine, now, sweetlips,” he explained, softly. “This is where you belong, and this is where you’ll live from now on.”

     Blink shrank back away from him, barely daring to believe his words. “This is a very poor joke. Let me go home, now, please.” She scrutinised his face intently, looking for the smallest hint of teasing. “I-... I won’t hold it against you. I won’t even tell them you did it.”

     “Aw, come on. I wouldn’t lie to you about something important like this.” Tevak’s lips broadened in a smile that sent a chill up Blink’s spine. “You’re my guest now. All I want is for you to sit there and look pretty for me. I won’t ask you to hunt, or do heavy work, or even do any chores, very much. Just... be there when I want you.”

     Any last doubts over who had sent Breg and Tun after her were finally dispelled by hearing the same words that Tun had used coming from Tevak’s thin-lipped mouth. Blink could feel the blood draining from her cheeks, a sensation like cold fingers drawing their way up her back.

     “I wanted something pretty, and valuable,” he went on, in the fessine’s horrified silence. “As befits my status as the leader of this bunch of ingrates. Something nice to look at, something to make me feel good about myself.” His voice softened even further, into something barely audible, something she barely caught as he dipped his face to her neck. “Something to warm my bedsheets for me in the winter. Keep me company and keep me entertained when the snow traps us indoors.”

     She just stared at him, for several long seconds, aghast. “...what?”

     “You...” He let his arm creep further around her, hand coming in at her waist, pulling her closer against him; she couldn’t help shuddering. “...are mine. My pretty, perfect little bedwarmer. So... how about we go and get to know each other a little better, somewhere more private?”

     Blink pressed her palms against his chest, trying to push him off. “I will not be sparking off you any time in the near future!” she spluttered, ears folded, horrified outrage in her eyes. “Keep your clumsy hands off me!”

     Surprised by the unfriendly reaction – although experience should have dictated that he expect that sort of response – his hungry smile had already begun to turn into an unpleasant baring of the teeth. “You might want to think about behaving yourself, laima,” he reminded, soft voice reverting to a rumble of threat. “Just because you won’t get sick if I bite you doesn’t mean you can’t be hurt.”

     Blink’s stomach went into freefall. He knew? How could he have possibly known her secret? Someone in the Library must have told him, she realised, a horrible frightened nausea crawling like bile up the back of her throat. Probably the same one that had betrayed her, when she’d gone to the Institute. But why, why would they do that? Did-... did they really dislike her that much?

     “Well you’ll have to get used to it,” she retorted, sounding braver than she felt inside. “Because I’m not going to roll over and let you just do what you like to me. I do have some standards.” After a beat, she added; “I’m not attracted to mechs normally, why in all the deepest levels of the Pit do you think I’d ever offer myself to one that’s barely more than a mobile slab of meat?”

     The smile had by now vanished altogether. “Well, I paid for you, fair and square,” he snarled, closing one meaty hand around both her small wrists, pulling her closer. “And you’re gonna learn some manners if I have to beat ’em into you.”

     Blink jerked back on her arms, but she might as well have had her hands set in cement, for all the good it did. “What could you possibly know about manners?” she demanded, her voice going squeaky and breathless as he dragged her to her feet, and away up the steps into the old police station. Where is he taking me now? Her breath caught in her throat, dreading that he was going to drag her away and do something particularly nasty-

     Instead, Tevak opened a small door hidden away down an inner corridor. The gloomy, unlit interior already made it impossible to see anything inside, and the tiny window close to the ceiling seemed to suck away the rest of the light, making everything so much darker.

     “What’s-” she started, uneasily.

     Tevak delivered a sharp shove between her shoulder blades; she lost her balance over the threshold, and lurched clumsily into a rack of unseen shelves, only a step or so inside, lacking the room to recover from her stumble. “Ah!” She swallowed an expletive as the old wood bit into her forearms, like a very blunt knife. Old containers rattled at the impact and a mop fell over onto her.

     “You can come back out when you’re feeling like treating me with the respect I deserve,” Tevak snapped, pushing the door closed.

     “Wait-... wait!” Blink lurched for the diminishing opening, but the door clicked shut just as she reached it, slicing off what little remained of the day’s sunlight. She leaned her weight against the door, trying to force it open, but it was like hammering her fists on a slab of solid granite – fists that could have once punched through inches of sheet steel now barely even made a flimsy sheet of wood rattle. She didn’t think she’d felt quite so helpless in her entire life. “There’s been a misunderstanding,” she pleaded, but couldn’t find the optimism to actually believe it.

     “No, no, you were very clear. I’m an ugly, brainless slab of meat, with all his brains between his legs.” He punched the door, startling her backwards; Blink promptly fell back against the shelves, painfully jarring her spine. “Your life will be a lot more comfortable if you just do as I say, cointe. You’ll learn to respect me, or you’ll stay in there.”

     Blink listened to his footsteps moving away down the corridor, and groaned softly to herself. What new horror had she managed to get herself tangled up in this time?

     I paid for you. His words echoed up out of the recent past. Fair and square. Surely-... surely he didn’t mean someone at the Library had sold her? Sold her, like a piece of machinery? Or maybe that should be, a head of livestock, since Frond’s meddling. A very valuable head of livestock, but still just an animal. She wrapped her arms around herself and tried not to whimper, softly.

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