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     Another morning dawned fresh and breezy, hazy with residual drizzle and the air smelling of fresh vegetation after an overnight shower, but Rae found himself unable to enjoy it. He and Halli had devoted all of the previous day to searching around the Library’s outside perimeter for clues to where Blink might have gone, but came up completely empty-handed and were forced to admit defeat as dusk began to deepen the shadows. Sarmis tried to relay comfort – maybe she would still come back on her own, maybe she was just caught out by the distance and it was taking longer than she realised to walk home? – but even that hope faded as evening drew into night, and the dark became an impenetrable pitch.
Hoping she would have still returned home of her own accord, straining his ears to hear the soft pad of footfalls in the corridor below, Rae hadn’t slept well, and the little sleep he had got had been plagued by bad dreams – dreams of Blink succumbing to the disease, of her turning into an angry and aggressive predator, twisted and keen to bite.

     But it had just been a dream, right? Just the meanderings of his unconscious mind. Rae sat on the edge of his bed for several minutes, rubbing his sore eyes and wishing he could call the new sleep-deprived headache just another hangover. Ever the optimist, he headed downstairs and along the corridor to Blink’s room, hoping maybe she would be back... but found the only person there was Halli, apparently still equally fretful. She sat on the floor alongside the bed, on a couple of cushions, with a blanket around her shoulders, her feet tucked up and arms folded across her knees, dozing with her head on her forearms.

     “Hey, Hal,” Rae greeted, drowsily, sitting beside her. “Were you here all night?”

     “...unh?” Halli stirred and lifted her head, and grunted softly at realising she’d grown stiff from the unnatural position. “Most of it, I think. I lost track a little.” She rubbed the back of her head, trying to soothe the dull ache of a cricked neck. “I just wanted to be sure I knew when she was back. That if Odati’s right and she did sneak out, she didn’t just... sneak back in, without telling anyone.”

     The spur sighed, tiredly. “I know what you mean. I spent half the night awake, too, just... listening for her.”

     “What if she genuinely didn’t think anyone was going to worry?” Halli glanced up to meet Rae’s gaze, and the concerned furrows to his brow and the pursed lips concerned her. “That we’d just… know she’d gone out to the Institute, because she’d mentioned sneaking away?”

     “No.” Rae shook his head, firmly. “No, that’s not her way of doing things – and I don’t care what Odati says, she’s only known her just over ten days and that means nothing. If Bee was going out, she’d have told me, or someone else she trusted, or, or... left a note, or something, I don’t know. So we didn’t worry. Especially if she was going to stay out there overnight. Might not have told them where she was going, if she was scared of being followed, but she wouldn’t just up and leave.”

     “So where is she.” The words that emerged were so flat, they barely even resembled a question.

     Rae glanced down at her. “…I hate to say it, but I think we’re both having the same ideas.” He weighed the words in his mind for several long seconds before trusting himself to voice them. “I think... maybe... she’s been taken.”

     Tevak said he wanted her, he sent Breg to catch her, and when that failed, he broke in and took her.

     Halli pursed her lips and rubbed her arms, uneasily. “I don’t want to think about that.”

     “Well we’re going to have to eventually, y’know?” He gave her a gentle elbow in the ribs. “I mean, if she is across town…? The longer she’s with them, the harder it’ll be to get her back out. Not to mention, god only knows what they’ll do to her.” He grunted and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I’d like to say, she’s a smart fessine, she knows what she’s doing, and she’ll keep herself safe, but she’s kinda mostly not firing on all cylinders at the moment, and if she’s been abducted by anyone in Tevak’s group she might put herself into danger in an attempt to escape. The sooner we can get her away from there, the better.”

     “But how are we ever going to find out?” Halli sighed in despair, her shoulders slumping. “If Odati finds out we’ve gone and trespassed on Tevak’s territory – which we’ll have to do, to see if Blink is there – she’ll hit the roof. She’s kicked people out of the Library altogether for less!”

     Rae watched her sink, quietly. “Well, we won’t tell her, then,” he murmured, softly; the zaar glanced up at him, alarmed. “I’m sorry, but I’m not about to abandon my friend, just like that, just on Odati’s say so. If the only way to find out if she’s been kidnapped is to trespass, then I’ll trespass.” He smiled, reluctantly. “I don’t mind going alone and telling you what I find. You have more to lose than I do.”

     Halli glanced over at the doorway, quite obviously checking to see if they were being listened to, and fidgeted, sitting on her hands before answering. “No. If you go, I’ll come with you,” she agreed, faintly. “I’m-... that is... You’ll need someone to show you where to go.”

     “All right. In that case...” Rae sighed, and smiled reluctantly. “Let’s check the Institute first, right? Just in case, so we’ve got some support for what we did if Odati challenges us. If Bee’s not out there, I guess we can be pretty confident she’s been snatched. It’d be kinda embarrassing to turn up on Tevak’s doorstep and insist he give her back, if she’s not there.” Another thought hit him, and he added; “It’d let him know we’ve lost her, so we’d be racing him to get to her first, too.”

     “But it’s a whole day’s walk, to get out there and back. If she’s not there, we’ll have wasted a day we could have spent looking for her-”

     “And what if she is out there? We’ll have wasted a day worrying about someone who isn’t even in trouble!” Rae grunted at the stiffness in his legs as he pushed himself to his feet. “That’s not to mention, putting ourselves into danger by harassing Tevak when we don’t need to.”

     “I’m not sure which idea makes me more uncomfortable – her with Tevak, or her out alone.” Halli studied the floor beneath her toes. “She’s been gone all day, and now all night, too. Even on the headland, there’s blights about. Sleeping out in the open is as good as suicidal.”

     “Well, I showed her how to string up a pretty good hammock, and there’s trees up there, right? We made our way down off the mountain without getting troubled much at night.” Rae offered her a hand. “If she’s in control of what she’s doing, she’ll have her wits about her, and she’ll be fine.”

     Halli accepted the hand. “Maybe Odati’s right and it is me,” she commented, forlornly, wincing as Rae helped her to her feet. “Ah, ow-... thank you.” She hissed softly in pain and canted over on one side, holding her injured leg up off the floor. “It’s nothing to do with Tevak, or the Institute, or anything. Maybe Im what’s driving her away.”

     Rae steadied her until she looked capable of standing on her own again. “Why would you be?”

     “She was fine until she saw me shift, and suddenly! She vanishes without trace, without telling anyone.” She pointed a semi-accusatory finger. “That says to me that she’s avoiding someone.”

     “Nah.” Rae gave her a little squeeze around the shoulders. “If she’s left because of anyone, it’s me. It’s not like you actually did anything except growl at her, whereas I pretty much molested her until she ran away from me. No, shape-shifting is old news, where Blink is concerned – and I don’t mean the whole synthetic to biological thing, either.”

     Halli gave him a probing look. “So what do you mean?”

     “Well, lessee. As a machine, she was designed to be able to change her configuration at will. She spent most of it as a massive but otherwise pretty average biped, like you or me – but she wasn’t just as big as a truck, she could turn into one, if she wanted.” He waved his hands ambiguously, a foot or two apart, as if to convey the idea of big-ness. “Designed with hauling big things around in mind; proper little power-house. I don’t think there was much around the spaceport that she couldn’t handle on her own, even big old gravity engines. Anyway, though. Seeing you turn into a wee growly four-legged critter?” He smiled, wanly. “Wouldn’t surprise me if she thought it was normal for your species. I really doubt she’d have run off ’cause of it.”

     The zaar managed a small, grateful smile for him. “I hope so.” She followed him out into the corridor. “I’ve enjoyed working with her. I wouldn’t want to lose her over something so... small. ...Uh, her friendship, I mean.”

     Rae politely ignored the slip, turning to examine the window at the end of the corridor. Didn’t take the brainiest of spurs to recognise there was something at least a fraction more than just platonic, there, at least on Halli’s side.

     “Um, Rae? That’s not the way downstairs.”

     He glanced back at her; Halli clung to the doorframe, watching him with a thinly-veiled suspicion in her eyes. “Just checking out something I noticed yesterday,” he reassured. “Didn’t get a chance to look in much detail because we found out Blink was missing.” He flicked a hand in a come-hither gesture. “Come and look at this, will you?”

     “Ah-!” Halli only got a step or two before pain shot through her hip, and she stumbled into the wall. “Ow, dammit!”

     Rae took a single step closer, not sure if he should be alarmed. “...Is everything all right? Are you hurt?”

     She twisted to examine the wound on her hip; the tissue had gone a sickly purplish-scarlet, and grown somewhat inflamed. “Does Breg never clean his teeth?” she groaned. “Going to scrub his nasty infected mouth out with caustic soap, next time I see him. After I’ve hassled Sadie for some antibiotics.”

     Rae smiled, grimly. “So you don’t just go to Mama Herbalist, either, then?”

     Halli winced into a smile and hobbled the remaining few steps to the window. “Oh, please. I’m not going to indulge that pair in their stupid politics, and I don’t play favourites. Herbs, drugs, whatever, what’s the difference. Whatever it takes to get the job done.” She shrugged one shoulder, and mantled her fingers over the injury, protectively, trying to avoid the urge to touch it. “This is infected, and I don’t trust chewing on a bit of bark with dubious origins to clear it. Last thing I want is a case of blood-poisoning to go along with all my other sicknesses.” She forced herself to leave the injury alone, putting her hands behind her back. “What did you want me to look at?”

     “Here.” Rae turned his attention back to his discovery, and ran his finger along the fresh, pale scrapings up the side of the wooden window frame. “The window’s been pried open at some point recently. Do you know how new this damage is?”

     “...the window was open yesterday morning, wasn’t it?” Halli nodded in agreement with herself, frowning. “I don’t remember us having opened it in a very long time – Jak varnished it last summer, but the wind blew it shut before it had dried and it stuck closed. Because replacing it would be a nightmare, leave the whole corridor open to the elements, and no-one wanted to damage it by forcing it open, we just... left it.” She bent down to peer more closely at it. “It’s been pried from the outside,” she noted, hollowly. “That must be how they got in.”

     “How who got in? What mischief are the pair of you plotting now?”

     The pair turned to find Odati at the head of the stairs, watching them suspiciously. Halli pursed her lips and remained resolutely silent, reluctant to discuss her concerns with the person who had belittled them so completely last time; Rae squeezed her arm, gently, and took a step or two forwards, instead.

     “Could you keep this quiet, Odati?” he wondered, quietly, watching the old vulline limp over. “I don’t want anyone to know we’re onto them.”

     Immediately serious, Odati lowered her voice. “Well, of course. I promise you’ll have my absolute discretion. But... onto who about what?”

     Rae couldn’t help glancing up the corridor, to check they were alone. “We wonder if Bee’s been taken away by someone. Against her will.”

     “Taken?” Odati frowned slightly, although Rae couldn’t tell if she was concerned at the theory, or just concerned that he was away on another flight of fancy. Her tone of voice suggested the latter. “Yesterday you thought she’d climbed over the fence, and now you think she’s been kidnapped?”

     Rae could see Halli nodding, out of the corner of his eye. “Nothing else makes so much sense. There’s big holes in all the other theories. Sarmis already pointed out Tevak doesn’t climb the fence out of respect, not because he can’t.”

     Odati smiled grimly. “I wouldn’t precisely describe it as respect if he doesn’t climb the fence because we have nothing worth stealing, Rae.”

     “Didn’t have anything worth stealing,” Halli corrected, softly. “Until Blink moved in. Then we had plenty worth climbing the fence for.”

* * * * *

     Away across the city, the subtle click of the door opening roused Blink from the most uncomfortable night of sleep she had experienced thus far, curled up on the limited bare concrete floor of the cleaner’s cupboard with only the old mop to rest her head on. Prodded out of a dream, for an instant, she wondered where she was. Then a bolt of electrified pain shot through her, from every extremity, and she immediately wished she could go back to sleep.

     “Good morning,” a voice said – a familiar voice, which she’d hoped her uncomfortable brain had merely dreamed. No such luck. “Rise and shine, girl. No time for lay-ins. Get up. Up!”

     Blink grunted tightly and wiped her face with her hand, hoping it would rub a little alertness in. She tried to push herself upright but the unyielding floor had really done a number on her, leaving her muscles aching and her joints stiff and sore. She got only partially upright, supported on bent elbows, before her stiff back and numb hip flared up and she had to stop where she was, hissing in pain. Sweet Unmaker. How was it possible that such a simple thing could make her hurt so bad.

     Tevak stretched out a hand and caught her upper arm, helping pull her gently but inexorably to her feet; she moaned pitifully as he moved her, against the will of her sore muscles. He held her shoulders while she mumbled to herself and tried to straighten out the cricks in her neck and her knees, and get the blood flowing back in her numb right arm, which had spent half the night crushed into the concrete beneath her.

     Only once he was sure she was paying attention and not about to fall straight back onto her backside did the giant speak. He crouched a little, just enough to bring his face level with hers. “ ’Fore we do anything? Ground rules. You can stay out if you behave,” he explained, softly. “If you don’t? You might spend another night with the paint cans. Or worse. Understand?”

     Blink nodded, jerkily. “I understand,” she murmured, feebly. Her sleepless night might have left her still exhausted, but at least she’d had plenty of undisturbed time to try and come up with a plan. Acting like she was suitably cowed and going to do as told from now on felt like it was her only option. If she pitched things just right, eventually their guard would drop, and she could slip away unnoticed.

     Besides. The idea of spending another night on an unprotected stone floor was not appealing, and if she could avoid it? Better sleep meant she’d be better positioned to attempt an escape.

     “All right.” He made sure his gaze was fixed with hers. “So long as we understand each other better. Yesterday we got off to a pretty bad start, huh? I should have been open with yer about what was going on, but I wasn’t, and for that I’m sorry. Guess I figured you were just some... brainless little slip of a thing, really.”

     “I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean to be so rude to you.” Blink offered a humble smile, very well aware that he probably sensed the lie, and had been lying to her himself. I’m sorry I wasn’t open with you from the start - really? “You just... alarmed me. I’m sure you’re a good man, really. I-I mean… you’re the leader. You wouldn’t have just got to where you are by chance.” She dropped her gaze to her toes. “And you are very handsome. I’m... sorry, that I made it sound like you weren’t.”

     He bristled, clearly suspicious, and she could have kicked herself for going overboard with the flattery.

     “You said – you implied – you were a lesbian,” he challenged, quietly, fingers tightening subtly on her upper arms. “Are you just making skred up to get me to drop my guard?”

     Blink shook her head, mind racing for a solution to fix it without blowing her cover. She could feel herself going pale, and hoped he’d just think she was frightened. “Like I said, I’m not usually attracted to mech-… males. But I’m not some... some silly little virgin.” Although I wish I was, sometimes. “I-I prefer females, but I’ve had male partners, and I’ve been attracted to plenty. I just... never really got on so well with spurs as I did with other fessine.” She drew in a shaky sigh, and cringed back a little, for emphasis. “I suppose... I’m scared of them, really,” she added, in a faint little voice, as though it was a terrible admission.

     The tension began to relax out of the corners of his eyes. He was buying it. Thank the powers.

     She exaggerated a little sigh, and studied her toes. “My love-life hasn’t really been very good, so far. The men I’ve known haven’t treated me as much more than a convenient hole to stick things in.” The lie made her feel unpleasantly guilty – the only mech she’d ever made love to had been one of the most courteous and thoughtful of lovers, and if anything she’d treated him like just a convenient piece of hardware – but she forced herself to continue. “I’d still like to eventually be part of a proper family – to have someone to spend the rest of my days with. I’d still like to be a mother, to be free of any worries apart from keeping my family happy.”

     It... wasn’t even really a lie, she allowed herself to realise. All those things she’d taken for granted – taking Flash to the doctors, trying to bathe Serendipity, even just sitting tucked up in the lounge with her family around her, watching a some kind of brainless entertainment holograph...? Suddenly seemed so perfect. So far away.

     “I could teach you not to be scared any more,” Tevak offered, softly, in that low almost-purr that sent a shiver – and not a nice one – up her spine. “Make sure that dream of yours can come true, huh?”

     Blink bit her lip, lowered her face, and glanced up at him from beneath shy brows. “I’d like that.” Somewhere in the back of her mind, she could hear someone screaming, and felt fairly convinced it was herself.

     Tevak smiled, and cupped his hand at her cheek. It was a struggle, but Blink successfully restrained the shudder as he stroked his fingers down the side of her neck; his rough skin felt like leathery old sandpaper.

     “See? You keep that up, and we’ll get on juuust fine,” he promised.

     After being given the shortest tour imaginable of her ‘new home’, Blink found herself mostly abandoned in an old office close to the gradiose front entrance. Although it too bore some of the hallmarks of abuse that she’d seen in some of the other rooms – vandalism for the sake of it, mostly directed against objects which still bore the badges of the long-since-vanished police force... this room was in slightly better condition. Tevak had muttered about it being his office, before he’d also gone away, and although she’d considered it mostly hyperbole (what in the world would he need an office for?) she guessed it did explain the better care that had been taken with it.

     The disembodied voices echoing through the corridors made her twitchy – a mixture of sharp, argumentative voices, mocking laughter and encouraging yells, underlain by the sounds of fighting. It could just be an argument, she reasoned, trying to settle her uneasy nerves. Everyone was cooped up indoors together, after all, reluctant to stray out into the slippery, puddled ground; the overnight rainstorm that had blown in off the ocean still hadn’t quite cleared, little curtains of drizzle gusting and twinkling across the square.

     The maps on the wall close to the window were fascinating discoveries that took her mind off the worst of her fears, at least. At last, she could get a germ of an idea of where she actually was. The giant sheets of yellowing paper hadn’t escaped the graffitti, of course; someone had scrawled incomprehensibly on them in pale red marker – but they could at least still be understood, under the red marks of the unfamiliar alphabet.

     The city of Kust had been divided into several big coloured segments; presumably different districts for the individual constabularies. Right now, she appeared to be in “the Old City”, whose name and careful, geometric streetplan implied it was the very first area to have been built, by the first colonists. A red splodge and scrawl of writing towards the south of the image, in a differently coloured section, probably indicated the library. It helped that someone had also added on their fences, delineating the limit of their territory, in a slimmer, more careful black ink. Worryingly, the closest fence was further away from her now than the fence was to the Library.

     The river wound its way in a series of giant sinusoidal curves through the north of the city; presumably tidal, a series of dotted lines indicated the usual maximum and minimum water levels. A thicker line marked “flood defences” ran a significant distance alongside it, almost all the way up to where the dotted tidal zone itself stopped. On the north bank were more buildings, but the suburb itself looked small, and the owner of the red pen had scrawled something insulting along that part of the image, as well. The rest of the land to the north was thickly clothed in either forest, or was rocky hillside, stretching all the way to the cliffs on the east coast.

     The diagram of the police station itself, tacked up with aggressively driven nails next to the district map, reassured Blink a whole lot less. It looked like it had been press-ganged into a diagram of which resident owned which room, but that wasn’t what worried her. No, what had her concerned was the way the big building backed right onto the river, without even the slimmest inch of shoreline between the two, so there was no possible way of sneaking out of a back door somewhere, as she had originally planned on trying to do. Frag, there was no back to the property – just high walls, deep water, and thick estuarine mud. There did seem to be some old fire escapes marked on, and what looked like small boats moored under the wall, but what was the chance they were still there and still working, twenty years after they lost their uses?

     Blink perched on a desk, disappointed, arms folded around her chest in a self-comforting hug, and watched out of the window as the residual curtains of rain swirled and billowed across the empty square outside. Whatever was she supposed to do now? Just going to have to wait for them to drop their guard, she recognised. Because the likelihood of a rescue was... slim to negligible. The Library not only had fewer residents, those residents were smaller, weaker, more lightly built – and had essentially already told her she was on her own, if she got into this sort of trouble.

     A new voice caught Blink’s attention – a hushed, careful female voice from out in the corridor:

     “So, she gonna behave now?”

     The fessine glanced up, surreptitiously, to watch via the limited reflection in the window as Tevak arrived with a newcomer, to discuss things with him in hushed voices. The new speaker was a burly laima she’d seen at a distance yesterday, but until now she’d assumed the individual was just a big spur – hearing the soft, female voice come from ‘his’ lips made the fessine realise ‘he’ was actually medusi. It made her a little alarmed; the only high females she’d met so far had been naturally aggressive and overbearing, so what in the world would heff do to them?

     “Sure, sure.” Tevak waved a dismissive hand. “I think I convinced her that her life will be more comfortable if she just does as told. Soon as Zinovy’s got her room ready, it ain’t gonna be an issue anyway.”

     Blink wasn’t entirely sure what they meant by that, but hoped she wouldn’t be around long enough to find out. She watched as the medusi licked her lips, and smirked; Blink felt her insides shrink, worried.

     “Well just you remember our agreement, sweets,” the woman whispered to Tevak, and flicked his nose, although Blink couldn’t tell if she had intended her to hear or not. “Keep on bribing me with nice things, and I don’t challenge your position.”

     Tevak smirked. “The only reason you don’t challenge me is ’cuz you know I’d wipe the floor with yer, Asnaté,” he corrected, but shrugged, amiably. “Buut, I guess I could stand to share, every now and then.”

     Blink finally glanced uneasily over at the door, and met a pair of way-too-friendly smiles. She tried to smile back, but it felt more like a grimace.

     ...Then the storm blew in. Suddenly framed in the doorway was the hostile young woman Blink had seen at dinner yesterday, who’d glared at her so horribly. “You!” she snapped, accusingly.

     Blink dropped back to the floor, alarmed, trying to keep the table between them. “I-I’m sorry?” she stammered, not sure where this unprovoked tantrum had come from. “What’s the matter?”

     The flame-haired fessine advanced into the room, apparently undaunted by the fact it was Tevak’s office. She stood significantly taller than Blink; the crown of the smaller woman’s head would have come only to her shoulder. Speaking of which, something – Blink figured it must have been a botched shape-shift – had left said shoulder sufficiently deformed as to be unusuable, on the left side, the joint thrust forwards so much it had frozen in place, leaving her lower arm as the only part she could move. Like Aspazija, she had a pointier, more animal-like face than the average laima, albeit hairless, and when she spoke – or rather, shrieked – disproportionately long fangs gleamed in the front of her mouth.

     “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?!” She had worked herself into such a temper, saliva sprayed from her lips as she spoke. “You’re the matter, you skinny little brat, prancing in here like you own the place!” She pursued Blink around the table, leaving the smaller fessine wholly convinced she was about to be bodily attacked. “Well just let me tell you I am not rolling over and letting you stand on top of me!”

     “But I don’t-”

     “I’m his favourite, and don’t you dare forget it!” she shrilled, backing Blink into the corner. “Don’t you think that just because you’re pretty and perfect you get to be more important than me! I worked hard to get where I am, and I’m not going to let some scrawny little cointe climb over me to get into his bed!”

     Tevak had seemed to be enjoying watching the little catfight, but the second it looked like they were about to come to physical blows, he finally caught her arm and pulled her away, carefully. “Ease up there, Natalja,” he soothed, amusedly, nuzzling his long snout at her damaged shoulder. “What’s got you running so hot and bothered, eh?”

     “Your new party piece, that’s what. How dare you bring her in here and expect me to roll over and like it!”

     “Is that all?”

     “Is that all!” The fessine – Natalja, apparently – angrily thumped his chest, fearlessly. “Next thing, you’ll be telling me she’ll be joining the rest of us in the master bedroom! Well, I’m not sharing a nest with her. The other girls respect me, they don’t... parade their pretty rump around for every male to drool over, and flash their hips like to say, see me, I’m perfect-

     Tevak carefully steered her out into the corridor before she could work herself back into too terrible a frenzy, and there followed another whispered conversation Blink felt she wasn’t supposed to be party to.

     “You’re still my favourite, Lia, my darling pretty wife. No fluffy bit of eye-candy like this is ever going to replace you,” the giant purred. “That’s the only reason she’s here. For when you lot get, ah... ‘headaches’.”

     Natalja glared suspiciously at him, but finally nodded her agreement. “All right. So long as she knows her place, and stays there.”

     “She won’t have much choice in the matter, lovely.” He dropped his voice again, and Blink had to really concentrate to catch the last words. “Just don’t spook her so she runs off before Zinovy has finished his work. We might not catch her again.”

* * * * *

     After explaining his concerns to Odati, Rae couldn’t tell which she sounded more unsettled by – the idea Blink might have been kidnapped, snatched from under their very noses, or the idea that Tevak had broken into the Library with such ease that no-one even noticed.

     And speaking to Sarmis didn’t help matters – if anything, the white spur managed to further muddy the picture. They bumped into the laima on their way outside, and after having things explained to him he hastily stammered something defensively apologetic about not hearing anything, then tagged along behind them, trying to look unobtrusive. The idea the friendly, down-to-earth male might have been involved left Rae feeling very awkward and uncomfortable.

     “I’m worried that someone here might have been involved,” Odati added, softly, reinforcing Rae’s growing suspicions as they made their way around the building. “It’s true that Tevak has climbed the fence before, but he wasn’t quiet about it when he did it. If he did have a hand in Blink’s vanishing act, he did it worryingly quietly.”

     “You think someone lowered the bridge for him?” Rae shot her an uneasy glance. “That has some nasty implications.”

     “I know.” Odati spread her hands. “But I can’t think of any other way for him to have got in unnoticed. Even though everyone here was so terrifically drunk, someone should have heard something.”

     They got around the side of the Library to find someone already at the exit; Sadie stood beneath the folded structure of the bridge, staring critically up at it.

     “Sadie?” Odati called, unable to quite hide all the suspicion in her voice.

     The hind glanced over at them. “Oh, hey. What’s up?”

     “I could ask you the same thing. What are you doing?”

     “I was just looking to see how possible it would have been for one determined little girl with engineering knowhow to have pulled the bridge up from outside,” she explained, looking back up at the big structure. “If she’d rigged up some pulleys, she probably could have done it, y’know? She didn’t need to have had an accomplice.”

     “That’s as maybe. Unfortunately, the situation has evolved since then.”

     “Oh. Right?” A puzzled frown flitted across Sadie’s face. “What do you mean?”

     Tired of all the dancing around the issue, Halli sighed dramatically. “What our great leader is trying to say is that we think Bee has been abducted.”

     “And who should we find here at the bridge but you,” Odati added, grimly. “Checking you didn’t leave any clues laying around, is that it?”

     “Hey, that wasn’t what I meant-” Halli protested, but her words went ignored.

     “Are you guys still implying that I had something to do with it?” Sadie flicked her tailtip, irritated. “Come on. I’m hardly going to help kidnap my ticket back into the scientific community, am I?” she growled. “I might not like the whole ‘sweet little innocent’ act she’s got going on, but I’m not gonna help get her killed ’cuz of it.”

     Odati pursed her lips. “No, but you’ve mentioned several times you want a sample of her blood-”

     “Oh, right! So now you think I’ve bribed Tevak into helping me kidnap her?” She snorted. “What, you think he’s got her safely stashed in a cupboard somewhere, so he’s got something pretty to play with and I have her blood on tap? Just have to hop over the fence and draw off a coupla pints when I need it?” She gestured angrily at Sarmis, whose ears immediately flattened and he straightened up, startled. “I hate to break it to you, Odati, but yesterday I was just as hung over as your right-hand spur over there, and I don’t see you accusing him of bumping the brat off.”

     “What possible reason could Sam have for wanting to help kidnap her?” Odati scoffed.

     “Well, I’m sure I don’t know.” Sadie folded her arms. “It’s not like cop-boy thinks it’s solely his job to keep the place well-protected, or anything. And it’s not like having Blink around put us at constant risk of attacks from the muscleheads up north, either. And oh! It’s not like he was one of the few folk who knew her and Hal were sneaking off to the Institute, couple of days ago, either.” She couldn’t quite hide her half-smirk of triumph. “Do a deal with ’em, did you? They can have the girl if they leave us in peace? Or are you just trying to win your old office back?”

     Sarmis looked completely blindsided by the accusations; an eerie blush spread into his pale cheeks, and his mouth moved soundlessly, for a second or two, like that of a landed fish. “That-... that’s nonsense. I would never-...” He managed to splutter the words out, at last. “Nothing would convince me that betraying her – in any way – would be worth it. If we had to reinforce the fences to maintain security, then that’s what we’d do.” He threw a glance back at the others. “...when did we start throwing accusations around, anyway?”

     Sadie snorted. “So it’s okay for den mama to blame me? All right. I’ll remember that.”

     “I never said that-!”

     “All right, all right. That’s enough, children.” Odati put her hands up. “Sadie? Stop being so infantile, and Sarmis, if you wanted to let her know she was getting at you, congratulations.” She glared until the two backed down. “Let’s just take a look at what evidence we actually have here, shall we? Before we start tearing our society apart with accusations.”

     Sarmis was first to nod his agreement, and Sadie quickly followed suit.

     “All right. So, let’s assume this is the way she left, be it under her own volition or coerced or carried or whatever...”

     Sadie scrambled nimbly up to the top of the bridge the instant it was lowered, and crouched on it level with the fence, tail wrapping around it for support. “There’s scraps of material caught in the wire,” she observed. “Not much, but it’s the right colour.” She peered down at the line of concerned faces. “Could she have just climbed over? Like Tevak does?”

     “I guess, but she’s still not the nimblest of fessine, she’s not even been in that body a month yet. She wouldn’t have got over without ripping her skin to shreds, too.” Sarmis watched her pluck at the fabric caught in the barbs. “Is there any blood there?”

     “Nope. None as I can see.” Sadie crouched very low, to sniff at the wire. “Can smell anything either.” She narrowed her eyes. “There’s hair, though.” She pulled a strand free and held it up in front of her face; a long, stiff brown hair. “Breg, maybe?”

     “That’s it. I’m going after her,” Halli declared, hobbling for the ladder.

     Sarmis caught her arm before she could get there. “Whoa, whoa, Hal... no. I know you want to help, but you’re in no position to go tramping around out there. You can barely walk, right now.”

     “I can’t just sit here and wonder, Sam-!”

     “Well you’re gonna have to learn to be patient, because until your hip gets better you’re gonna be less useful than a sack of bricks. Please. Last thing we want is you getting hurt out there too, because you’re too stubborn to know your limits either.” The ghostly spur smiled, wanly. “Rae and me can go out hunting, for you.”

     “For once, Sam, we agree on something.” Sadie put herself under the zaar’s arm, propping her up. “Come on, love. Come indoors, and lemme take a look at that bite, yeah?”

     Halli hissed a sharp intake of breath through pursed lips, but nodded. “All right. You two are going keep me informed, though, right?” She waved a finger at the two spurs.

     “Well, of course we will.” Rae bared his teeth in a smile. “And we’ll get even for you, don’t you worry about that.”

* * * * *

     The drizzling rain conveniently dried up around lunchtime, allowing the ondras Blink had met on her arrival – Metu, she’d learned his name was – to get the firepit lit and prepare another barbecued meal of fresh game. Blink sat once more at Tevak’s side, trying not to look as deeply uncomfortable as she felt. Perhaps it would have been more tolerable if they weren’t all watching her, quite so closely?

     Her outspoken rival, fiery Natalja, sat and glared at her with open contempt in her eyes for the whole of the meal. None of the other fessine with whom she sat looked so openly hostile – in fact, half of them looked just as uneasy as Blink, and every single one seemed to be in awe of the ‘head wife’. It reassured Blink that perhaps she could make a friend or two, here, if it came to the worst and she never managed to escape.

     The meat was tougher than yesterday, and it sat heavy and not-especially-pleasant in Blink’s stomach. An unpleasant sharp sensation made her upper chest hurt – indigestion, she wondered? – and bile left an acid taste in her mouth. Don’t purge your tanks, it’ll upset them. Don’t purge. Don’t.

     “Here, look.”

     Tevak’s voice attracted her attention. The second she glanced up, he grinned and produced a small, plastic-wrapped object from his pocket, placing it carefully into Blink’s palm. “Knew we had a few still kicking around in the cellar. S’a few years past its eat-by date, but eh, we still eat ’em, haha.”

     Blink turned the object over to reveal a long-life fruit pastry; mostly pastry, with a seam of... jam, perhaps?... running along the middle. The brightly-coloured packaging was covered in crudely-drawn, cartoony images of fruits.

     “Well, you said you liked vegetables, right?” he prompted.

     Blink found an unwilling smile for him. “Um, thank you. It’s... it’s very kind of you to think of me like that.”

     “Well, y’know how to thank me, later,” he murmured, and nuzzled her hair.

     She shuddered, maintaining her smile by force of will alone.

     Tevak grinned, demonstrating his teeth. He seemed to be interpreting the shiver as one of pleasure – Blink felt her spirits lift. She opened the wrapper on the pastry with a renewed optimism that she could somehow get herself out of this mess on her own.

     Blink got her next chance surprisingly sooner than she’d expected – although she would later realise it had been too soon, and waiting for them to lower their guard fully would have served her better. The mess left over from lunch had been tidied away and the plates piled into a bucket of water, and she sat watching the pack mill around and slowly disperse when the discomfort began to build in her abdomen.

     She was familiar enough with the awkward sensation low on her body to know what it meant, by now. “Um. Tevak?” She felt herself going pink. “Do you... do you think somebody could show me to the latrine?”

     Tevak flicked a hand at the closest blight. “You heard her, Tun. Jump to it.”

     “Toilet duty? Gavos. How much longer you gonna punish me for, Tevak?” The vul sneered, wrinkling his lip in displeasure. He had a wicked intelligence in his eyes now he was no longer quadruped. “Come on then, girly...”

     Tun dutifully led her around the end of the building, to an alcove in the wall; a hole in a plank over the river was apparently the best facility they had to offer. At least a bush screened her from the vul’s curious gaze. Blink sighed, and got down to business...

     After a few minutes, Tevak’s voice came thinly on the wind. “What’s taking so long? You better not have let her give us the slip again!”

     Tun cackled impolitely and yelled back; “Nah, s’fine! Chick’s constipated!”

     Another ripple of laughter came from around the corner. Blink glared at it, failing to see the humour that could be gleaned from a faulty bodily function. This is something I will never get used to, she mused, cleaning up with the coarse paper in a weather-shielded box to one side.

     Pulling up her trousers, she realised that this might be the chance she needed, to make good her getaway. She was out of sight, and Tun had unwittingly given her an excuse to be gone a long time. And the wobbly old plank could be press-ganged into use as a weapon...

     Blink cleared her throat, and put on her sweetest, most seductive voice. “Tun? Could you come here please? I, um... I could do with a hand...” She hefted the plank and mentally crossed her fingers very very firmly.

     The vul was only too eager to comply – not sure what she wanted help with but convinced it was going to be something worth getting-

     The instant he was in view, she slugged him around the head with the plank. He went down without a sound.

     Her hand flew up to cover her mouth. Good work, there, Bee. Once again you fail to stop and consider the consequences, the critical little voice in her head reminded. Now you’ve got no chance except to run, because if they come and find you stood here with a plank in your hands and a dead vul by your feet?

     He isn’t dead, she heard herself protest, but her conscience was annoyingly right. She’d backed herself into a corner. She had to run.

     She closed her eyes, trying desperately to remember the layout of the map she’d spent ages staring at. If she carried on up the street, it would eventually bear slightly north, then curve around to follow the seafront to the south. If she made a run for it – really desperately made a good hard run for it – she could be out of sight and well on her way back to safety before they realised she was gone!

     This is a really bad plan, Bee, her unconscious reminded. They’ll follow you, and they’ll be so angry! They won’t give you the smallest chance to give them the slip any more.

     But I have to try, she consoled herself. If I don’t, I’ll be trapped here forever, until I’m an old, disfigured, resentful old hag. And I’ll still have not got a message to my family. Every chance that presents itself, I have to take.

     Her mind made up, Blink fled.

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