On the day of Patterson’s last treatment, I was walking toward the infirmary to meet An when Jaymes scurried right past me, a worried look on her face. I turned to watch her as she hurried toward the castle. I called out after her and she turned, her face lighting up in recognition. Maybe whatever was troubling her was something I could assist her with.
She jogged over to me. “Jochro, I need your help.”
“Okay, I’ve got to go to the infirmary but you can tell me along the way.”
Jaymes nodded and we started toward the infirmary. She told me of a tip that she received from a client that indicated there was an underground covelt smuggling ring beginning to thrive. I knew very little of covelt, but I did recall wearing it a couple of times at Ace’s behest. It was tough to acquire, even for the King. No one really knew how it had originated, but it was seemingly flame-resistant and more importantly, extremely durable and flexible that changed with the individual’s form.
I thought for a moment, debating my options before speaking. “So I’m heading to finish healing my friend. We could actually use your help if you’re free. Then I can get the tip to Ace. It would probably take about an hour.”
Jaymes nodded. We were almost to the infirmary before she asked, “Wait, how am I going to help heal your friend?”
“Did you get a good night’s sleep last night? Eat a nice breakfast?” I asked with a grin.
“…Yes,” she replied, giving me a confused look.
“Then you’ll see!” I gave a little chuckle and we continued down the street.
We arrived at the hospital a few minutes later and I guided Jaymes through the halls to Patterson’s room. We walked in and An was already waiting for us, chatting with Patterson.
I introduced Jaymes to Patterson and confirmed An and Jaymes remembered each other from our protection detail incident.
“Oh thank goodness,” An spoke up. “I’m glad you brought some extra energy. Last time I thought you were going to pass out.”
I turned to Jaymes, “don’t listen to her, I just didn’t have a big breakfast.”
“I don’t even know what we’re doing here,” Jaymes said.
“Join the club, sister!” Patterson exclaimed.
“In due time,” I said as I herded Jaymes over to the bedside. “This is the last session.”
“Aw man,” Patteson said. “I was beginning to enjoy the tingles.”
I shrugged. If this worked he’d surely prefer walking over tingles. Jaymes and I kneeled on the bedside as An squeezed in between us. She held my hand and advised Jaymes she would switch when needed. She placed the other hand on Patterson’s back and closed her eyes. I felt the familiar draw of energy flow out through my arm and into An’s.
“Hey, so is she your girlfriend, Jochro?” Patterson said as I felt An’s flow stutter slightly. I looked at her and it seemed she was stifling laughter.
“No, I wish. Now focus,” I quickly said before closing my eyes and feeling the flow continue to stutter. I realized what I said when An audibly chuckled. My eyes went wide and I looked over at Jaymes and gave her a sheepish grin.
“Close your eyes, you’re distracting An,” was all I could think to say. I closed mine and tried to ignore the warmth flooding into my cheeks. I felt the draw of energy eventually steady and then it began to peter out as An prepared to switch to Jaymes. I was relieved to have my last draw for Patterson done. I wouldn’t miss that uncomfortable feeling that left me drained.
My relief was interrupted when I heard a small yip escape Jaymes’s lips. I completely forgot to warn her what we were doing. She shot me a look of pursed lips and side eye that froze my thoughts. Hopefully, she’d forgive me.
The silence was once again shattered when Patterson cursed under his breath. “What happened to the tingles?!” He was basically yelling, at this point. There was a single tear falling down his face. “This better be worth it,” he said with a laugh. I hoped it would be.
A minute or two later An opened her eyes and wiped her forehead. “You should be good to go now.”
“Good to go where?” Patterson asked.
I shrugged with a smile as his leg involuntarily kicked under the blanket.
“Dude, what?” He reached down and grasped at his leg. It twitched again. Patterson’s eyes went wide and he attempted to roll off the bed. His first leg jerked from under the covers and landed on the floor. He stared back at us and whispered some jibberish. Patterson then helped his other leg over the side of the bed and he pushed off with his hands. I ran over to the other side of the bed to help him up but he collapsed a second before I could reach him. He looked up at me with a wild look on his face and his limbs flailing like a newborn baby. One of his newly energized legs kicked me in the shin and I fell to the floor.
I grimaced and raised my head. “Please, someone get a nurse.”
Shortly before dinnertime, Jaymes, Anroma, my new shin bruise and I made the trip back to the castle after we determined Patterson would be taken care of. I promised to visit as soon as I could so we could take his new legs out for a spin.
Once the two girls and I reached the castle, I sent for Ace and had him meet me and Jaymes in the red room. Jaymes quickly relayed the information she had on covelt smuggling. Once she finished Ace advised he’d be back shortly and he left Jaymes and me alone.
“So, you wish, huh?” She asked.
“What? Oh! Yeah, who wouldn’t? You’re attractive and a good person… if you ignore the rude, crunchy exterior,” I said.
She playfully hit me on the shoulder, “I was going to say you had a chance if you played your cards right, but you blew it with that crunchy comment.”
“I’m engaged anyway,” I said, channeling my best An posture as I leaned back and placed my hands behind my head. I couldn’t help but smile, slightly breaking my intended image.
Then, I heard a cough come from the doorway and there was Ace, staring at me. He gave me a brief “…okay,” before continuing into the room.
“I just spoke with Aga. Jochro, you’re going in this evening.” Ace turned to Jaymes. “And you, if you’re willing. You’ll be appropriately compensated of course.”
She looked to me and turned back to Ace. I had my fingers crossed she would accept. Despite my “engagement,” I’d love to spend more time getting to know her. “Sure, sounds good,” she eventually responded.
“Great. We can get An to change your appearances slightly. She should be able to give you some wind too, in case you get into trouble.” Ace began to pace the room. “An should be here shortly. Any questions?”
We shook our heads. “Oh, and Jaymes, I’d like to consult with you regarding some maid protection laws I’m pushing for. We can discuss them once you return.”
“I’d like that,” Jaymes said with a rare genuine smile.
Less than an hour later, we were on our way. An had used her newfound knowledge to grow my hair to my shoulders in a matter of minutes. I hoped that was enough of a disguise as she offered to alter my face but I passed on that due to a fondness for my current one. Jaymes and I approached the street where her informant had advised the entrance was. There was a slender man leaning against the wall, no door in sight.
“Hello, we are looking for the fabric that has it, 3401,” she spoke the passcode to the man. The man simply nodded and kicked over some trash on the ground, revealing a hatch. He pulled it open and gestured us inside.
Realizing my mouth was agape, I closed it, gathered Jaymes’s arm around mine and entered. It was a short drop, I had to let go of her arm to duck and walk into the underground hallway.
I reached the other side and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. She followed shortly after. I looked back at her after completing a brief scan of the hallway. It appeared to be dug out, so it was a rough hallway with dirt walls and two torches. The end of the hallway wasn’t visible. I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck and my stomach roll. Creepy. Jaymes agreed with a nod. She rejoined her arm in my and we began to walk down the dirt path. It smelled of a long day working on the plains outside of Ikalga, which added goosebumps along my arms. Dead bodies were often found in those plains. “It’s just the dirt,” I whispered aloud, hoping to convince myself.
Jaymes sniffed twice. “It smells weird.”
“Yeah, it’s just the dirt,” I said again, hoping to convince myself more than her.
We continued ahead and the end of the hallway slowly came into view. There was a pudgy individual sitting on a chair. I was unsure how the small wooden chair held up him and his folds.
I opened my mouth to address him but thought better of it. A pleading smile to Jaymes and a nod in the napping man’s direction and fortunately she spoke up.
“Hello?” No response. “Hello?”
“Heavy sleeper,” I added, quite helpfully.
She kicked the chair and the man grumbled. She kicked again, this time a little harder. The man’s head snapped up.
“Mariah’s milk, what?” He grimaced and rubbed his eyes, a scowl plastered on his face.
“We’re here for the auction,” I said.
“Well, you won’t find it here.” The man closed his eyes and crossed his arms.
A voice came from behind us, causing me to jump.
“They’re with me, Geoffrey.” It came from a figure that emerged from the shadows. The figure had black hair tied into a bun on the top of its head. As it reached Jaymes and me, its features came into focus. Thin eyes with a glowing smile that was easily visible in the dark hallway.
“Alright, alright,” Geoffrey conceded. He nodded once toward the wall behind him.
The thin-eyed figure walked toward the wall and pushed. It was just a brown curtain. We followed. It led to another hallway, similarly dark and haunting.
“Max,” the figure held out its hand to me, smile still displaying bone-white teeth. “Follow me.” Max began walking down the second dirt corridor. He reached to his hair and let it down. The black hair flowed beyond his shoulders. He fiddled with the front of his jacket and pulled it open to reveal a tight black blouse. “This next guard knows me as Maxine.” He, now she, tied the blouse around her waist and reached into her pocket. She dragged the object she had removed across her lips, making them shine, further enhancing her smile. Maxine, in a slightly higher voice, spoke softly over her shoulder and said, “Showtime,” under her breath as we neared the next sitting guard.
“Rob,” Maxine addressed the guard and pulled him into a bear hug as he stood.
“G-good to see you, Maxine. C-come on in. Full shipment yesterday.” Rob rubbed his hands together and hurriedly pulled the next curtain aside as the three of us stepped through.
We walked into a large room, this one well-lit. Several torches and lanterns lined the cavern. Jaymes and I continued following Maxine, going forward with our good fortune.
“This is the shipment room. The auction room is next,” Max said, noticing our blank expressions at the men and women managing an obscene amount of packages. The only clear space was the path we walked on. The rest was taken up by the workers in bright yellow overalls or large piles of packages against the wall.
“Not now,” Maxine shushed me with a finger to her lip. “Simply follow.”
The workers ignored us as we neared the other side of the large carved out room. Their faces expressionless, although a couple did nod to Maxine. One glance to Jaymes and I could tell she wasn’t expecting this. I furrowed my brows, hoping she’d get the “what have you gotten me into” message I was beaming to her through my eyes.
We finally reached the other end of the room. There was actually a door here. Apparently, this one needed more security than a flap offered. Maxine rapped twice on the door and it opened. The three of us walked in and Maxine skipped a few steps to our right and took a seat. Jaymes and I quickly sat down next to her. “What… even…” Jaymes whispered in my ear. I shrugged. I had no idea.
Finally able to sit I scanned the room. It resembled the last room, cavernous and dirt-walled. The doorman that let us there wore the now familiar yellow overalls. He had his arms crossed and his gaze didn’t waver from the stage. A path from the door led down to the stage where two men stood behind a podium. On the opposite side of the steps was a well-dressed group of people.
“Those are the bidders. Most are representatives of noble families.” Maxine stood and faced us. “Covelt is going to change this city.” She walked backward down the dirt seats. “Nice to meet you in person, Jochro. Anyone in this room in five minutes will likely die. Use that information as you will.” She saluted me and turned on her heel. As she continued down the stairs she began to pull up her hair. Once she reached the bottom she veered right and disappeared behind the stage.
“Who was that?” Jaymes asked me.
“I wish I knew. But perhaps we should go?”
Jaymes locked her arm around mine and we rose, despite just arriving. In the corner of my eye, I saw Max emerge stage left in a new pair of yellow overalls. She sure changed fast.
The two of us reached the door and I pushed. It didn’t budge. I knocked on it twice and looked at the doorman expectedly. He rolled his eyes.
“It’s a pull, dingbat.” My face flushed and suddenly I was sweating. I avoided looking at Jaymes as I pulled the door. “Here.” The man handed me a sack that I didn’t notice earlier. I grabbed it and my arms sagged. I grunted.
“Heavier than it looks.” I wasn’t sure who I was trying to reason with. But by now we probably had four minutes if these deaths were really-
A thump brought my attention back to the stage where one of the men was now dead. A grinning Max stood over the body and had a hearty laugh with the other man.
I urged Jaymes forward with a hand to the small of her back and we briskly walked down the path – the workers still ignoring us. The trip through the packaging room felt like an eternity as a drop of sweat trickled down from my temple (and it was not from exertion). Jaymes and I exchanged a furtive glance and before I knew it we were running for the tan door flap. I saw at least one of the overall-wearing individuals smirk. Was he in on it?
I pushed the thought from my head and we cleared the first flap. The prior dirt odor hit my nose but through sheer will of not wanting to die before asking Jaymes out, I kept running. We made it through the second flap and I let her up the ladder. Please, no murders, no murders, I thought while I waited and then as I climbed the ladder. We made it up and paid little mind to the smirking garbage doorman. We rounded the nearest corner and I slid, back against the wall, to the ground.
We sat silently for a minute before we heard boots against the ground and the hatch open and close.
“I’m sorry,” Jaymes said. “Some tip that was.”
I reached over and grabbed her hand, my head still facing forward. At least, until I grabbed a banana peel and had to look for her hand. I peeked down to see her hand fall and meet mine. We intertwined our fingers.
“Is this because we almost died?” I bit my lip. “Holding hands doesn’t seem very you.”
“Don’t ruin the moment, dingbat.”