Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions.
from “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” T.S. Eliot
Mika Radgers hadn’t wanted to get the little weasel killed. He’d just wanted to lose him.
He knew the weasel’s name was Jesse, and knew he was an acquaintance of an acquaintance, someone he’d been warned to stay away from. If Jesse recognized Mika, though, it was only as a potential target, a rich kid slumming at the docks. The Melifen was neither a kid nor rich, but Jesse didn’t seem inclined to get into a discussion over such trifling details. Mika looked like someone out of his element, and someone not likely to be carrying a weapon, and both of those details were true.
Ducking down an alley, the gray tabby broke into a run. He didn’t know where it led, but he knew there were almost no dead ends in Old City–it was one of the place’s odd attractions, that you could get lost but never too lost here. His footfalls echoed loudly against the cracked cobblestone, and acrid, salty scents wafted from half-open doorways and glistening puddles.
“Hey!” the weasel snarled, leaping into chase. “Just wanna fuckin’ talk, pretty boy.”
The dim, heatless glow of the closest streetlamp had already been left behind, and Mika ran for a moment through almost complete darkness, until he turned and abruptly found himself in an empty lot between buildings, a half-dozen paths leading away. Piles of trash filled most of the lot, partially illuminated by a dim lamp over a shop’s back door. The lamp had the eerie blue hue of Ranea’s previous generation of cheap glow crystals, before the wizards had engineered ways to mimic moonlight and sunlight at a cheap enough price that even waterfront dives could afford them.
Mika hesitated for two, even three seconds, trying to decide which way to go, and that was too long to wait. The weasel slammed into him from behind, hard. Jesse was lighter than the Melifen, but he was moving fast. Mika went sprawling. He recovered almost immediately, spinning around on the ground, but Jesse stood over him, a switchblade out, shining in the artificial light.
“I don’t have anything,” Mika snapped, sounding as much angry as frightened.
“Yeah, how about you show me what you don’t have.” Jesse waved with his free hand, and glanced around. “And hurry it up. This place gives me the creeps.”
Mika got to his feet warily. “Yeah, who knows what kind of criminal you might meet?”
“You’re a funny guy, kitty. Empty your pockets.”
The Melifen looked around, slowly reaching into his pockets, trying to stall without being obvious about it. He realized the building he was facing was an old slaughterhouse, and his tail flicked uneasily.
“What?” Jesse said, turning to look in the direction Mika was. The weasel sounded genuinely nervous. He really was frightened by being here.
Mika decided he didn’t want to learn just what Jesse considered dangerous. He sprinted for the nearest alley.
“Dammit!” the weasel snarled, running after him. Mika put on another burst of speed, hearing footsteps clattering close behind.
Then there was another noise, something heavy, like Jesse had just smacked into a wall, and a hiss that made the fur on the back of Mika’s neck stand up.
Jesse started to scream, loud. A moment later the scream cut off wetly.
Mika slowed, shaking, and–even though he told himself not to–turned and looked.
A shadow took up most of the space where the weasel had been, at the opening of the alley the cat had fled down. As Mika watched, it resolved into a dark shape, rising up to a person’s height, folding blackness about itself. Jesse lay in darkness against the wall, his own gleaming switchblade buried in the side of his neck. The black shape had a hand to the blood spurting out of the wound.
Then it turned. He couldn’t make out its eyes, but he knew it was looking directly at him.
“Shit,” he breathed. He took one step backward, then sprinted down the alley faster than he’d ever moved before.
He didn’t hear anything else until he nearly reached the alley’s end and something abruptly appeared in front of him. He ducked, but the something moved down to catch him. He identified it as a hand just as it grabbed his face, pushing down hard enough to slam him to his knees. Another hand moved around the back of his head and twisted into his mane, yanking his head up. As he struggled for balance, the first hand moved away, and he was staring up at the dim stars. Then, he was staring at a face.
Mika had never, in all his life, expected to meet a bat. There were very few of them throughout all of the Empire of Ranea, and he hadn’t thought any lived here in the country of Rionar. The few bats around moved through society without being part of it, at best tolerated, dogged by stories that contained more outrageous superstition than concrete truth–at least, so said enlightened members of society. None of these enlightened members, Mika now understood, had ever been face to face with one.
Its–her–fur was short and reddish-black, face foxlike with high cheekbones, huge pointed ears, long eyelashes, a surprisingly delicate nose. She’d have been pretty but for the solid, unreadable ebony eyes and the long, thin fangs gleaming in the moonlight. He understood immediately that the stories about bats drinking blood from living prey weren’t just stories.
The hand that had first grabbed him rested himself against his throat. It was slim but strong, tipped with frighteningly long, curved claws that pressed into the skin beneath. He felt the weight of the wing, sweeping back from her wrist, sliding against his chest. “What were you doing with him?” the bat hissed. Her voice–quite female–was low, pitched in a way Mika usually found alluring. He wouldn’t process that aspect of this encounter for several more hours.
“Uh–” It occurred to him that she could kill him at this point just by driving those claws into his neck. He started to hyperventilate.
Her grip tightened painfully. “You one of his friends?” Her voice remained soft, but she didn’t close her mouth as she finished, instead running a long, slender tongue across her lower fangs.
“No!” He squeaked, squirming in her grip.
“He was trying to mug you.”
He nodded frantically.
She met his eyes with hers, holding his gaze in a way nearly as uncomfortable as she held his neck with her hands. Then she released him, and he almost dropped to his knees. When he regained his balance, he backed away hurriedly, trembling.
The bat stood barely five feet high, a half-foot shorter than he was; her wings, each one far longer than her body, were supported by finger-like bones longer than her arms. Those wings were closed now, black leather folds held against her forearms. Overall, her body was slim and well-formed, and she wore the barest wisp of clothes, only highlighting that shape–a tight, strapless top and pants barely larger than underwear. Maybe the less you had on when flying, the better. Maybe she was just an exhibitionist.
If she’d been another, less terrifying race, he’d have considered her attractive, but that wasn’t something he’d realize until morning’s light, either. At that very moment, all he could picture was her swooping down on him from the sky like an eagle after a field mouse. She wouldn’t have to kill him when she landed; he’d have already died from heart failure.
“If I find out you lied to me to save your neck,” she rasped, her wings flexing, “then I’ll find you and remove that neck from you. We understand each other?”
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak without whimpering.
She swept her black mirror eyes over him now, taking in his neat clothes, his precisely-trimmed fur. When her gaze met his again, she looked grimly amused. “So what is it? No fun in your nice, high-class life, so you came out to the bad part of town looking for some? This the first time you done this, or just the first time you got more than you wanted?”
Mika didn’t answer. She laughed; the sound was another eerie hiss that made his tail curl between his legs. “What’s your name, cat?”
He looked at her, paralyzed.
Her smile became steel-edged, and she stepped closer. “I asked you a question.”
“Mika,” he blurted.
“Well, Mika.” She ran the back of a claw along his chin. He couldn’t keep from flinching, which made her laugh again. “You’re going to leave now, but you’re going to just walk away casually, not running like demons are chasing you. You don’t want to keep looking like a target, right?”
He nodded, swallowing.
“And if you come out here looking for fun again, stay away from people like that weasel. You’re lucky he didn’t just stab that little knife into you and take everything. I’ve seen him beat people, hard, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” She clenched one of her hands into a fist, as much as she could with her claws. “Feeding me tonight might be the first good he’s ever done for someone else.”
“You’re going… to…” Mika stared.
She glanced back toward Jesse’s body, then looked back at the tabby, with a mocking smile playing across her lips. “Vampire bats live on blood, kitten, and since he’s not quite dead yet, he’s still fresh. You don’t expect me to let him go to waste, do you?”
Mika took a step backward.
“Go on,” she said. “No running.”
He turned and walked away quickly, rigidly, staring fixedly ahead. When he got out of the waterfront district, though, he ran, and when he got home he spent the hours until sunrise sitting in a corner, staring at the door and trembling.
“You could at least pretend that you’re enjoying yourself,” Dahlu muttered against Mika’s ear as she passed by.
He blinked after his lover, another Melifen, white-furred and dressed in dazzling red silk. She had the natural grace to make even simple clothes look expensive, and in couture wear, she absolutely shone. This made Mika’s distraction at tonight’s party all the more apparent; half the other men in the room were all but drooling into their cocktail glasses as their hostess passed by.
“I am,” he called, a little too late.
The fox sitting on the couch nearby laughed, looking up at the standing cat. “You can’t fool her,” Jack said. “When it comes to socializing, Dahlu’s got the eye of a master painter.”
“Don’t I know it,” Mika replied with a faint sigh.
“You never look too at ease at these things, but tonight you’re out-and-out haunted.” The Vraini flashed a curious grin. “Expecting someone to jump you?”
“Well.” Mika’s tail lashed. “I don’t think I’d say that, but I… didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.”
“Out wandering the docks, no doubt,” Dahlu said as she passed by again, giving Mika a glance that mixed equal parts affection, exasperation and concern. “Still looking for more excitement than polite society can generate.”
Almost challengingly, Mika said, “I met a bat.”
Dahlu paused. “A bat? There are bats in Rionar?”
“At least one.”
“Dear lord.” She touched his neck with two fingers.
“I said I met her, not fed her.”
“You do make the most extraordinary friends,” Jack said with a half-grin. “What was she like? Do they really hunt people down and drink their blood?”
“In order, she’s no friend, since I don’t even know her name and I hope we won’t meet again; she was, how should I put this, fucking scary; and yes.”
“Oh, Mika.” Dahlu gave him a tight hug, without spilling the drink she was carrying, and sighed. “Please stop going to such dangerous places!”
“I think I’ve had enough of them for a while.”
She gave him an unconvinced, troubled look, and swept on across the room.
“Still working at the printer’s when you’re not looking for trouble?” Jack asked. Mika nodded. The fox gestured up at a painting hanging over the fireplace. “No luck selling art?”
Mika glanced at the painting, a colorful landscape, a painting from memory of a lake near where he’d grown up in the southwest part of the country. It was a piece he knew critics would describe, at best, as “competent”; if he simplified it a little, he could churn out a few pieces like that a week and make nearly as much as he did at the print shop. And he’d hate himself. “Not yet.”
Dahlu had paused to talk across the room with Skit, a large, broad canine who resembled a L’rovri, a wolf, but wasn’t. Ranea’s capital city-state had trade not merely via the high seas, but via mysterious magical routes to far-flung lands, opened and maintained by wizards; Skit was a second-generation emigrant over such a route. Mika had heard that Raneadhros itself was filled with exotic beings, traders and the occasional expatriate, but it was rare to see them in other countries in the Empire. Of course, some said that most of the “native” races in Ranea were originally such emigrants–although Melifen like Dahlu and Mika were, as far as could be determined, true natives.
Mika couldn’t hear the conversation, but that was just as well; if he could, he’d probably be scowling, as Skit was likely flirting with Dahlu. The dog never said that he thought Mika was beneath Dahlu’s station, but he didn’t have to. On some level, he was right. Jack, at least, didn’t make an issue of it, even though he had more justification for doing so than most of the others at tonight’s party. Unlike Skit–or Dahlu–Jack’s wealth came from his own business, not family fortune. Jack was nearly twice as old as most others in the room, but had the physique of someone Mika’s twenty-odd years. No, the physique of someone who actually worked out. Rich, strong and handsome, and to top it off, too damned nice to hate for it.
After a few more moments of fidgeting, Mika excused himself and headed to the kitchen, busying himself with plating some of the prepared hors d’oeuvres.
The party, as Dahlu’s usually did, kept going until after the eight chimes for midnight sounded. Dahlu kept her grace even when decidedly tipsy; Mika took advantage of this to slip out before the party ended, knowing Dahlu wouldn’t make a scene over his uncharacteristic departure while other guests were still present. He’d get an earful the next time he saw her for not helping clean up, though, and not staying with her through the night.
Dahlu’s house wasn’t a true mansion, but with a great room and library in addition to a living room and suites for two of the four bedrooms, it didn’t fall far short. Legally, it was still her parents’ house, but they’d retired to an oceanfront “cottage” on the south coast. Her guest suite had become Mika’s second home. Despite her entreaties, though, he’d made it clear to Dahlu he had no intention of giving up his own apartment. It might not be much, but it was his, and that was important.
Well, as much his as a rental could be. Dahlu’s neighborhood was upper-crust, with its own station house for the Ranean Guard and tacitly surveilled entrance roads; he lived several miles away in what Dahlu’s parents would call the “bohemian art district,” safe enough but charming only if one found converted industrial buildings to have great character. His building had been the offices of some long-forgotten corporation, and his second-floor studio loft had a thick frosted glass window on the front door, faded stenciled lettering spelling out “accounting department.” It was described as a “premium studio loft” in the rental brochure, which Mika had gathered meant only that the sleeping and living space had a divider between them, a simple hardwood frame with louvers running from the floor up three-quarters of the way to the ceiling.
He locked the door behind him and sat down at the kitchen table, then flipped through a book he’d checked out of the library this morning. It was the only book he’d found there that talked about bats.
The formal race name, he’d learned, was Derysi, and Ranean society had no “respectable” place for them. Few people were comfortable around a race that required warm, fresh blood to survive. The book asserted they only had to drink once or twice a week, but that they could take a lot from a victim, and that the longer they went without feeding the more dangerous they were. It was described as if Derysi were slaves to this need: once they started feeding, they couldn’t stop until they’d taken as much as they needed, and that they had an overwhelming compulsion to hunt not just live prey but sapient prey. Most of them gave up trying to be part of conventional society because of that, and some, although not all, enjoyed the dark reputation they had.
He’d lay money on which side of that the line the one he’d met was on.
Mika sighed, pushing the book aside. It was very late. He looked out the apartment’s sole window, up at the moon, then pulled the shade closed.
In daylight, the docks looked far different: less sinister, but older. The weathering of the piers and the buildings became more evident, and with the activity of ships being loaded and unloaded, the sailors and dockworkers looked just as weathered themselves. Mika didn’t see a single face that didn’t look like its owner had been working with the sea for longer than the Melifen had been alive.
He realized this was the first time he’d come down here earlier than dusk since his very first visit a year ago, when he’d been down here looking for a watch repair shop he’d heard of. He never found the shop, but he’d found the different world he’d walked into unexpectedly compelling, from the salt air to the way nothing ever looked new. Mika knew not to take these glimpses of an older way of life as revealing something more honest and real than the work he did, yet he kept being drawn back to the roughness.
At least until it nearly got him killed. This was the first time he’d been back here since the encounter with the Derysi.
He headed into Ted’s Sea Shanty, a pub he’d been in once before. Despite the uncreative name, the place always seemed to be, if not bustling, at least half-full.
Mika sat down at the bar, and shortly the bartender approached, a human of indeterminate age; between his shaggy gray hair and unkempt beard and a black eyepatch, he looked like a villain from a children’s tale.
After ordering a beer–even at lunch, ordering a soft drink would earn a skeptical look–and a sandwich he knew would be passable, Mika stopped the bartender from heading away again immediately. “Hey, are there any bats who come in here?”
The man squinted his one good eye. “Yes,” he said after a moment, and headed down the bar to his next customer before Mika could ask anything else.
When he brought the Melifen’s sandwich over, though, he rested one arm on the counter and squinted at Mika again. “So you lookin’ for a particular bat, or you just wantin’ to tangle wit’ someone who got leather wings?”
“Are there so many bats around here I have a choice?”
The squint was joined by a scowl. “You’re talkin’ about a girl bat, right? Pretty, for a furry.”
Mika did his best not to grit his teeth at the insulting language. “I guess you could say she is.”
“Brown fur, thick stripe of hair ‘tween her ears, right? Gives you the feelin’ she’d bite your spleen out if you piss her off enough.”
“That’d be her.”
The eye unsquinted. “I’d say don’t ask questions and keep your spleen, kid.” He walked away again.
Mika stared after him, then shook his head and ate his sandwich.
He’d gotten through half of it when someone touched his arm. He nearly jumped, turning around quickly. A short, slightly plump Vraini stood nearby. The vixen looked like she might be at least ten years older than he was, with a piggy muzzle but good-humored eyes. “I heard you asking about a bat.”
He nodded once, slightly warily.
“Don’t let Ted worry you. Revar may not make friends easy, but she makes them. Why you asking around for her, though?”
Mika let out a breath slowly. “I… guess after meeting her the other night, I’ve gotten perversely curious.”
“You met her and didn’t ask her name?”
He turned back to his sandwich and took a big bite of it. When he finished it, he muttered, “I guess it slipped my mind at the time.”
She gazed at him more sharply. He realized she was looking at his neck. “No, she didn’t bite me,” he said.
The vixen laughed. “Wouldn’t be the first time someone went looking for her after she did, as weird as that probably sounds. I’m Orlonda.”
Grunting, he scooped up the rest of his sandwich and stood up. “Okay,” he said, without looking back at the Vraini. “This wasn’t a good idea.”
She tilted her head. “You don’t want me to pass a message on or something?”
“That’d probably be a worse idea.”
“Hey, what’s your name?”
He paused. “It doesn’t really matter. Thanks anyway.” Mika pushed past her quickly, heading out. She called something else after him, but he didn’t reply.
“You haven’t said why you wanted to talk with her again at all,” Dahlu snapped.
Mika rubbed his forehead. He’d known coming over without stopping at his own place first, to change and shower, would be a mistake; she’d be able to pick up the scents of salt water and beer, she’d ask where he’d been, and because she already knew the answer, he wouldn’t lie. And he went on to compound the problem by volunteering more information than he really needed to. He wondered if he did this to himself on purpose. “She saved my life.”
“She threatened your life!” she replied, incredulous. “What if you hadn’t convinced her you weren’t friends with that weasel?”
That was a question he’d asked himself more than once, and he hadn’t liked the answers he kept coming up with. “It wasn’t like that. She saw what happened.”
“So then she just threatened you because it was amusing.” Dahlu threw her hands up in the air. “That’s so much better.”
Mika crossed his arms without replying.
“Don’t give me that,” she growled, as if he’d said something. “If you hadn’t been down there in the first place you wouldn’t have been threatened by that thug or the bat. And now you’re going back to see if you can find your sociopathic savior. Don’t even pretend this makes any sense.”
“I…” He uncrossed his arms, only to put his hands on his hips. “Look, I can’t help but be a little curious, all right? It was a passing whim.”
“Maybe you should stop having passing whims that are going to get you killed!” Dahlu’s voice rose to a borderline scream.
Mika sighed, staring resolutely at the carpet now.
“Damn it, Mika! You won’t take your art to a gallery, you won’t look for better work, and you want to spend your free time with longshoremen and criminals. I do not understand the way your mind works!”
“I don’t always, either,” he mumbled, still looking at the rug. He felt her eyes locked onto him for several more seconds. Then she growled a low, back-of-the-throat noise, spun on one foot and stalked out of the room.
Sighing again, he dropped onto the sofa, slapping his hands on his knees. “Well, this is going splendidly,” he muttered aloud, and closed his eyes.
After about a minute had passed, he felt a sudden sense of being watched, hackles rising involuntarily. He opened his eyes and jerked his head around sharply to look behind him, toward a window. A shadow moved against it, cast by something outside in the fading sunlight; the Melifen leaned slightly to one side, and could see it was a tree branch swaying in the breeze. Dahlu remained in the kitchen–he could tell by the drawers being banged around furiously.
Smoothing down his fur again, Mika resettled on the couch, trying to compose himself in a way that looked demure and slightly contrite, neither argumentative nor obsequious.
It took nearly five more minutes before Dahlu returned, looking more exhausted than angry now. She sat down on the same couch, but with a cushion’s space between them. “I just wish,” she said at length, her voice breaking a little, “I understood you. That’s all.”
Mika slid just a little closer, reached out and gently took her hand. She didn’t respond, but she didn’t pull away, either.
“I don’t mean to be hard to understand,” he said softly.
“I know.” She sighed. “It’s just the way you are. Some doors you still won’t unlock.”
His ears folded back. Her words echoed frustrations she’d voiced for over a year now, her conviction that Mika still kept her at arm’s length from some of his thoughts and desires. She’d hinted that the fascination with the docks was one of those “private rooms” he wouldn’t open for her, which he’d denied. But he realized that going back there, chasing after the Derysi, had to make that space he wouldn’t let her into look very, very large.
Sliding closer, Mika put his other hand on her shoulder, and leaned forward, almost touching noses with her, making it difficult for her to not meet his eyes. At length she did. “Love,” he said softly, “I’m as close as I can be.” He gave her a soft kiss.
When the kiss ended, her eyes brimmed slightly. “That’s what worries me,” she whispered. She returned his kiss, though, with a desperate ferocity.
Mika’s ears swiveled forward and he made a surprised noise, but he met and held her kiss, sliding his arms around her. They undid one another’s clothes quickly, incompletely, both their breaths quickening, and their embrace became complete.
Afterward they didn’t speak of the fight. He simply held Dahlu until she started to fall asleep, then brought her into her bedroom and tucked her in. She smiled, sleepily and dreamily, and for that he was thankful.
Not long after that, he stood on the street outside the house, looking up at the moon and feeling curiously hollow. Taking a deep breath, he began the walk back to his apartment.
Kicking off his sandals by the door, Mika twisted the ignition knob to fire the ceiling lamp, and headed to the kitchenette. It consisted of a gas-fired cooktop with two burners, a porcelain sink and a small in-wall cooling cabinet. He needed to have someone come out and look at the cooler; the water he added to it weekly should be enough to both power the enchantments and make ice, but the ice he’d been getting recently often wasn’t completely frozen.
He filled a pot of water to brew some coffee. Dahlu would scold him for drinking it past seven-chime, with less than three hours now to midnight, but truthfully, it didn’t keep him awake. On the contrary, he usually found it calming. Since he rarely drank–except by the docks, perhaps, but he didn’t keep any alcohol in the house–a cup or two of coffee seemed like a good idea right now.
The light in the room flickered, and he looked up at the ceiling lantern. It remained steady. He turned toward the bay window, frowning; this seemed to be a night for being spooked by shifting shadows. After another second passed, he rummaged through a cabinet to find a tin of cookies.
A loud, heavy shudder came from the bay window. Mika jumped, looking up sharply. The shadow right against the window, one that hadn’t been there when he’d looked just those few moments earlier, resolved itself into the form of the Derysi woman. He dropped the tin of cookies onto the countertop.
She rapped again, less sharply, more a knock now, and motioned for him to open the window.
Mika remained frozen, staring at her, aware his mouth was slightly open. His loft was on the building’s second floor, and there was no balcony, just the bay window; he couldn’t tell how she was supporting herself out there.
The bat’s seemingly expressionless face drew into a very clear scowl, and she motioned more urgently, miming yanking the window open, then wedging her claws into the side of one pane. She didn’t do anything else, she just stared directly at him. Mika got the message: you can open the lock for me or I can force it open, your choice.
He swallowed, doing his best not to shake, and went over to the window, unfastening the lock. Before he could push the window up, her hand moved, and she slammed it open, rattling the jamb. Then she swung in, headfirst, wings mostly folded against her.
“Thanks,” she said, straightening up. “Clinging to the side of a building is pretty hard.” She flexed her wings, then looked back up at him. “Mika, wasn’t it?” Her voice was conversational now, rather than the threatening hiss of their first encounter.
He nodded, otherwise motionless but for an erratically flicking tail. The kettle on the stove started to whistle.
“Great to see you again, Mika. I bet right now you want to know how I found you and why. For the first–” She shrugged. “The bottom line is that I’m better at stalking you than you are at stalking me. But you’re not surprised by that, right?”
When he realized she was actually waiting for an answer, he just smiled weakly.
“Now, for the second one, the why, that’s because you’re stalking me.” She clasped her hands together and smiled brightly, showing a set of teeth that would make most wolves he knew wet themselves. “So now, you’re going to tell me why you’ve been doing that, and it’ll be a very, very good reason.”
“I… uh.” He swallowed, continuing more hoarsely. “Do I get a few minutes? It might be kind of a long story.”
“Of course!” She spread her arms, wings spreading partially. “I have the night off, so I can spend hours with you.”
“Right,” he said, voice cracking slightly. He headed back into the kitchen to take the pot off the boil, then put the cloth filter bag over the glass coffee pot and added a few scoops of grounds. The Derysi–Revar, if he remembered what Orlonda had called her–watched him unblinkingly.
“I never thanked you for saving me,” he said, without looking at her. “Uh… Revar, right?”
“Right. I wasn’t interested in saving you,” she said flatly. “I was interested in killing Jesse. You know it, I know you know it. Try again.”
Mika bit his lip, and started to pour the water over the grounds, working on collecting his thoughts. “I was curious about you,” he finally said, sighing.
“Why?” Her tone was challenging.
“I don’t know!” he said, his own tone rising defensively.
That seemed to draw her up short. She didn’t say anything; she just kept looking at him, waiting for him to go on.
He finished soaking the grounds, and set the kettle aside, watching the coffee slowly stream out of the filter. “I guess you were right,” he said softly. “I’m not ‘high-class,’ but I started going to the docks looking for…” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t call it ‘fun.’ Something I don’t have.”
“This looks pretty high-class to me,” she said, gesturing around at the loft, eyes settling on an easel. “You an artist?”
“Sometimes. It’s a nice enough place. But it’s small, it’s old, and I can barely afford it. You might think I’m rich, but I’m not.”
“Not like your girl?”
He looked over at her, eyes widening.
She shrugged. “I been following you. And let me tell you, pretty boy, there are people in neighborhoods like hers who’d put me in jail just for being a bat. Probably people not too different from you.”
“Well, I wouldn’t, and neither would she.”
“Sure she would,” Revar replied dismissively. “In a heartbeat.”
“Don’t insult her,” he snapped, tone forceful. “You don’t know anything about her.”
The bat just stared at him for several long seconds. “This is where you tell me to stay away from her or you have to mess me up, right?”
He laughed nervously, his ears folding back. “I… uh… don’t have to, I’m sure.”
She remained unsmiling. “Good bet.”
Mika bit his lip again, then suddenly said, “Would you like some coffee?”
Revar tilted her head, her brows lifting this time. “Sure,” she said after a few moments. “Just a half a cup, though. It’s not too good for us.”
“For Derysi, you mean?” He poured two cups.
He headed to the kitchen table with both cups, setting one down in front of each of the two chairs. “Derysi. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Right for what?” she said, sounding cross. “What’s it mean?” She headed over to the other seat.
“Your formal race name. I’m a Melifen. You’re a Derysi. I’d never heard the word before I looked it up, but I’m surprised you haven’t.”
She furrowed her brow, for once being the one who looked at a loss, and picked up her cup. After she took a sip, she said, a little more subdued, “Good coffee.”
She took another sip, then sighed, leaning back. “Look, kitten, what is it you want from me? You know shit about me I never heard of. I’m kinda creeped out, and I’m supposed to be the scary one.”
“I just did a little reading the last few days.”
“Fantastic.” Revar snorted. “It’s not like we met on friendly terms. You’re all casual now, but I can smell I’m still scaring the hell out of you.”
Mika rubbed the back of his neck. “Um, a little less than before.”
“Well, isn’t that a relief. So come on, what is it, then? Your girlfriend’s sexy enough that I want to sleep with her, so I guess it’s not lust. You hoping to play the hero and bring the serial killer to justice?”
Mika’s ears had flushed as she spoke about Dahlu, and he tried not to stammer in response. “No, no.”
“Are you trying to piss me off because you think I make an exciting way to commit suicide? I mean, if it’s what you want, just ask. It’s happened before.”
He drew back. “What?”
“Look, if someone’s stupid enough to kill themselves, nothing wrong with me getting a meal out of it.”
Trying not to wince, Mika drained his coffee. “Can I ask you a question?”
She grunted once and looked back at him.
“Why did you want to kill Jesse?”
Setting down her coffee cup, she shifted position, letting out a long, slow breath through pursed lips. “I don’t know why you like the docks, but I usually just stay around there all the time. It’s where I work, and my kind’s not real welcome in nicer areas of town. And it’s the kinda place where people look the other way if you nab a bum, ‘specially if he wakes up the next morning.
“I think I’m the only bat around here now, but not too long ago I had a friend. Jemara, she could feed on someone without even waking them up half the time. Take my word for it–doing that’s a real trick.”
Mika nodded, swallowing nervously.
“Anyway, about a half-year ago Jemara bit someone that Jesse’s gang wanted to beat up. When they got to him, they didn’t know how weak he was, and they ended up killing him instead. And they blamed her for it.” She looked across at the Melifen. “So they went after her with brass pipes. The one doctor I know who’ll treat us said she was lucky to be alive.” Her voice got hard-edged again, but the tension hinted at far deeper emotion behind it. “But she’ll never fly again. For a bat that’s pretty close to death.”
“Where’d she go?” Mika asked softly.
“I don’t know,” she replied curtly, looking down at the table. “She left after I’d gone to sleep one day, and the only note she left was ‘I’m sorry.’” After a second of silence she jerked her head up. “Anyway. Can I get a little more coffee?”
“I thought it was bad for you.” He got up and headed to the kitchen, though, returning with the pot.
“It is,” she said, holding her cup up.
Mika smiled, refilling hers up to about the two-thirds point this time. His fright had dulled enough now that he could, finally, fully take in what she looked like; she was prettier than he’d remembered, but alien. She wore little more than what he’d first seen her wearing–short black briefs, almost hidden in dark chocolate fur, and a wine-colored halter. That puzzled him, and he leaned forward as subtly as he could, trying to look down her back. The wings were thicker than he’d thought, falling from the entire length of her arms in a flap, merging again near the base of her spine. Enough room was left between her arms and where the wings joined for clothing straps, although he couldn’t imagine how she fastened them. It looked like she must have fragile bones, yet her upper body suggested the muscles of a bodybuilder compressed into the slimness of a gymnast.
“If I lean forward you can get a better view of my butt,” she said acidly.
Mika’s ears colored and he straightened up quickly. “I was looking at your wings.”
“Oh.” She grinned wryly. “I guess that’s okay.” She leaned back and seemed to examine him now as he sat back down across from her. “So now what?”
He poured the last of the coffee into his own mug, and then held it with both hands. “The truth is…” He sighed. “The truth is I don’t know why I wanted to see you again. Hell, you threatened to kill me and then called me a coward when I was scared of you.”
“So you wanted to prove I was wrong.”
He looked back up at her, but the mocking expression he’d expected was absent. “Maybe. That’s pretty shallow, isn’t it?”
“It’s honest. Most people would rather be cowards and lie about it.”
“I don’t think being scared of you makes me a coward, Revar. I think you like being intimidating.”
She hissed a laugh again. “Maybe I do.”
“Maybe?” he said with a slight smile.
Her smile faded, and her voice grew more distant. “Let me tell you something. If I walk into a restaurant, even one I’m a regular at, people stop talking for a second. If I sit down at a bar, people move a stool or two away. Sometimes the bartender won’t come within arm’s length.”
“I can understand that,” Mika said, without thinking.
Revar snapped her head back up, and as enigmatic as her solid black eyes were, he could see the venom in them. Mika fought the urge to flinch. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Unexpectedly, she dropped her eyes first, setting her mug down heavily. “Mika, when your girl was a kitten, I was the monster in the bedtime stories her mother told her. If you and I were friends, everyone you know would tell you to get away from me before I killed you, because I would, sooner or later. Everybody who isn’t a bat knows that.”
Her voice became softer. “I wish I could tell you what it’s like to fly, to glide on the wind of a full moon, to see the world from a thousand feet high and to travel farther in a night than a horse could travel in days. It’s… it’s everything powerful and beautiful, it’s something no other race I know of in Ranea has and it’s part of what we are.” By now she spoke in a hoarse whisper. “But the price… the price is being every other race’s nightmare come to life. And sometimes I wonder if that’s a little too steep, you know?”
Mika found himself leaning toward her, searching for something to say.
She looked away. “So yeah, I enjoy being intimidating. I don’t have much else to be.”
“If you and I were friends,” he said softly, with a slight smile of his own, “I guess I’d have to tell anyone who told me to get away from you to go to hell.”
Revar looked back at him, clearly shocked, then–for just a moment–self-conscious. She smiled slightly, took a deep breath and downed the rest of her coffee. “It’s about midnight, isn’t it? Early for me, but I’m guessing not for you. I should let you sleep and get something to eat.” She stood up and stretched her arms, wings partly unfolding to resemble a cape tied at her wrists.
The book he’d read mentioned that Derysi didn’t live only on blood. “What can you get this late? Or early?” He took the two mugs to the kitchen.
She shrugged. “There are all-night breakfast places. Donuts, a waffle, maybe a small child.”
“I’m kidding. They charge way too much for those.”
Chuckling after a moment, he led her toward the door, unlocking it. “I’m presuming you don’t want to fly back out the window.”
“No, the door’s a lot easier.”
He nodded, opening the door, flicking his tail as he tried to think of what else to say. Finally, he just said, “Well. Goodnight.”
Revar cocked her head to one side. “Yes, it is.” She took his right hand in hers. “Listen. If you ever want to talk and you can’t get anyone more respectable… look me up.”
“I still don’t know how to find you.”
She touched his arm briefly with her other hand, her long claws sending a buzz up its length, then let go, flashing a toothy grin. “Ask around. I’ll find you again.” She stepped outside, and gently closed the door.
Mika stood in place, hearing her footfalls recede, then locked the door and went over to the window, latching it and drawing down the blinds. Stripping and tossing his clothes onto the closet floor, he extinguished the lamp and dropped onto his bed, staring at the ceiling in the dim light.
As he closed his eyes a few minutes later, starting to drift to sleep, an image of Revar holding a donut in one hand and a cute baby fox screaming for its mother popped into his mind. He snapped his eyes open, then laughed uneasily, burrowing under the blanket.