Over the next few hours, Winter felt like a cop tracking a suspect with old-fashioned legwork. She usually didn’t like to delegate authority but was relieved to rely on Kafira to lead the way. Her leadership since arriving in Taru wasn’t exactly the stuff of legends like the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was more like the reality of that charge—a dismal failure.
For the time being, Biggs also took Kafira’s lead and stayed out of her way. Simply put, he listened to instructions and didn’t make a nuisance of himself. Winter was certain that Biggs would regress at some point, but, for now, she was beyond pleased with his behavior.
Kafira’s detective work led them to a dilapidated dock on the eastern shore of Garvin.
With a goal in sight, Winter felt a sense of confidence swelling within her again. “This seems like a much safer section of town.”
Kafira shook her head and growled. “Try not to take offense, but are you dim?”
Winter was rendered speechless by Kafira’s taunt. Increasing her embarrassment was a snicker from beneath the hood covering Biggs’s face. She turned and looked back at the corporal but couldn’t see much of his features through the veil of shadow. Winter hoped an icy stare would be enough to keep Biggs straight.
“I’m a highly-trained military tactician. So, I feel that I’m quite talented at assessing a situation. Not to mention, I didn’t say we were safe. I just thought …”
Kafira let out a guttural sound that cut Winter off. “How many times must I say this? You talk incessantly, don’t know how to conduct yourselves, and are confident far beyond your meager skills should allow.” Kafira pointed a clawed finger back towards Biggs. “At least this one has learned to assess, a skill you do not possess anywhere near the degree you think you do.”
Winter wanted to reply but refused to make another verbal miscue.
Kafira stared past Biggs and deeply into Winter’s eyes for an interminable time. She finally stepped back from the huddle, turned and looked up at the warehouse. “Within these walls we may come upon a solution of sorts. Be cautious, follow my lead.” She turned and again looked past Biggs right at Winter. “Any more stupidity and we shall all be dead before dusk.” Kafira walked towards a door on the right side of the warehouse.
Winter tapped Biggs on the chest. “Thanks.”
Biggs asked, “For what?”
“For setting a good example and keeping your mouth shut,” then, without another word, Winter followed Kafira into the building.
It took several seconds for Winter and Biggs’s eyes to acclimate to the dim lighting, but Kafira didn’t have the least problem leading the group in the dark. It was unclear whether she had tremendous night vision or simply that she knew the inside of the structure so well. They were in a massive room with a ceiling more than twenty feet tall. The warehouse was stacked with wooden crates that in many places reached to the ceiling. The boxes seemed to be connected together in a very well thought out pattern that turned the interior into a giant maze.
Kafira pattered along soundlessly. Kafira came to a halt at a corner made from the stacked crates. She turned and looked at Winter and Biggs. “Prove you are capable of learning. Spratt’s isn’t the only life at severe risk,” said Kafira earnestly.
Winter nodded. “Firmly in your hands.”
Kafira waved them forward. “Hands to yourself, don’t speak, and keep your eyes open. These guys have a tendency to be everywhere at once.”
The travelers came around the bend into an open expanse of warehouse. Winter ascertained they were in the rear right corner of the structure. Numerous men worked around some open crates. Several others were hauling heavy wheelbarrows around. Nobody took immediate notice of them.
“Sullivan,” called Kafira.
All eyes turned towards the newcomers except those of a reedy, well dressed, balding man hunched over one of the crates.
The man finally stopped and peered over his left shoulder. He appraised the situation with uncaring eyes. Within moments, they were completely surrounded by this man Sullivan’s men. The group held varied weapons like pipes, metal tools, and a random board. She looked up and shuddered when she saw several men peering down from the rafters. She couldn’t tell what kind of weapons they had up there, but it reminded her very much of the clash with the giants. How many days ago was that? She couldn’t even be sure. Time sure flew when you were on the road to ruin.
“Call them off, Sullivan. I need a favor,” growled Kafira.
Sullivan slowly rose to his full height of six-feet. He stretched his arms which expanded his small chest. Like he hadn’t a trouble in the world, Sullivan grabbed a towel from a small workbench and proceeded to wipe his hands with great attention to each finger. “I despise dirt under my fingernails. In my line of work, you can’t look common!”
Biggs broke in. “And what line is that?”
Kafira wheeled and smacked Biggs across the face. The blow sent Biggs tumbling to the ground. He was momentarily stunned, but quickly sat up clutching his bright red cheek. Kafira had given him twin scratch on the left side of his face. The cuts weren’t deep yet a trickle of blood oozed onto his hand.
“Silence,” scolded Kafira.
“I see you’re still having trouble finding a man that keeps clean digits,” chided Sullivan.
Winter swept her gaze slowly from Sullivan to Kafira, then on to Biggs, and finally up at the men in the rafters. She looked back to Biggs then up again at the men on the catwalk. Biggs looked up from his vantage point on the ground and finally saw what Winter had seen and Kafira had sensed. This situation was evidently more volatile than even Kafira had planned. They appeared to be moments away from death. Biggs seemingly got the point and lay quietly where he had fallen.
Sullivan spoke with a hard edge, “I may owe you a small favor, Kafira, but that does not mean your friends will be spared my wrath.”
“These idiots are not my friends. They have paid me well for assistance in completing a very specific task,” Kafira stopped for a moment and rubbed a claw along her chin. “If completed, I may go home and iron out my own troubles.”
Sullivan seemed taken aback. A look of pity crossed his face. “Your issues in the Robandy Kingdom are numerous and not easily corrected. You have my ear, and please understand I will give ample thought to your request.”
Kafira smiled sweetly. “That is all I could ask,” She didn’t seem comfortable asking the next question, “I came across knowledge that you had recent dealings with Nedra. Dealings that might have unveiled her whereabouts.”
“That may be so,” he responded, carefully, “please, continue,” Sullivan spoke with far more compassion than seemed proper.
Kafira spoke like she wanted the foul words to escape her mouth before the taste would be forever stranded on her delicate palate, “This information is vital to fixing my employers’ problems.”
A horrifying look crossed Sullivan’s features, and his eyes were unmoving and icy. Winter looked around at the men above them on the catwalk. They had been standing ready to bring down the hammer on the interlopers for nearly five minutes. These men all appeared to be highly trained killing machines. They were beyond prepared to kill; they appeared eager to spill the blood of Kafira, Winter, and, or Biggs. One thing held them back, Sullivan, and this appeared to be the moment when their fate would be decided.
Sullivan’s dark features and deep scowl slowly washed away. It was almost as if a light bulb had gone on behind Sullivan’s eyes. A warm glow emanated from his face and Winter would swear that his eye color changed from metallic blue to a deep amber. Sullivan began to laugh as his features mellowed. He finally spoke, “I may be inclined to give away the details of a client if we can finally reach agreement on that other matter.” Sullivan opened his arms wide. “What do you say?”
Kafira took a moment then put her head down and stared at the floor. When Kafira lifted her head again, she looked like a child forced to eat cauliflower in order enjoy cake afterwards, “That would obviously decrease my chances of returning home, and you know that!”
Sullivan nodded. “At least you would protect your employers from death and hasten their own rectification. Your own tribulations may increase, but what can you expect. I’m not here to solve all your problems. I do have my own worries.”
A dejected Kafira shrugged, “I have no choice. I agree to your terms.”
“I don’t know where Nedra is…”
Kafira’s jaw dropped. “I do not have time to waste!”
“Let me restate. I don’t know where she is at present, but I know where she will soon be!” Sullivan wrapped his right hand around his belly and bowed deeply. “Meet me at dusk, at my usual nighttime locale; there we may conclude our bargain.”
“I’ll be there,” Kafira pointed a claw at Sullivan, “You better be straight!” Kafira looked down at Biggs. “Get up.” Then she stalked back into the warehouse maze.
Winter helped Biggs return to his feet. Biggs took a quick look over his shoulder and saw Sullivan and his men laughing. The two ran after Kafira.
Sullivan yelled after them, “I hope these two are worth the upset!” Sullivan’s voice echoed through the building.
Kafira bounded out of the building into the light of the midday sun. Winter and Biggs came out of the door a few seconds later to find Kafira with her head leaned against a wall.
“That man!” Kafira punched the wall for emphasis.
Biggs stood close to Kafira, “You shouldn’t have sold your body to him!”
Kafira grabbed Biggs by the scruff of his robe, spun him around, and slammed him into the wall. “Do you think I would sell my body for you? For anyone?” Kafira punched the wall again, but this time narrowly missing Biggs’s head in the process. “Do you!” A tear rolled down Kafira’s cheek.
Winter placed her hand on Kafira’s shoulder. Kafira released her grip on Biggs. Tears rolled freely down her cheeks.
“How could you think so poorly of me?” Kafira turned and walked away, “Come. We have a great deal to do.”
Biggs had to choke back tears at the sight of Kafira’s breakdown. “I’m sorry.”
Winter cut Biggs off with a hand across his mouth. “There’s nothing to say except: I’m sorry. You did that. Now, please,” Winter clasped her hands together and raised them above her head. “I beg you. Keep quiet.”
Biggs wiped a tear from his eye and nodded. The pair soundlessly followed their guide. Winter felt a tremendous depression grip her body. Not only was one of her allies imprisoned or dead, but the people she needed to rescue him were both crying.
* * *
An hour later, Kafira, Winter, and Biggs were back on the roof of Keb’s home. A palpable tension was in the air as they sat eating a light lunch. Kafira had also given them a powerful black liquid stimulant that was very similar to coffee. While she didn’t have any herself, Kafira gave the others no choice. “This will help keep your energy up!”
The meal was wafer-thin bread, bitter purple vegetables, and a shredded orange meat. Winter thought it interesting that the meat tasted like chicken. The meat may not look like chicken, but the familiar taste made the world just a bit less alien.
Kafira finished eating first. She took a moment and licked her paws clean then briefly worked on her face. Once content with her cleanliness, she sauntered to the sunny side of the roof and stretched out on the ledge.
Biggs looked at Kafira, but turned away anytime she peered over. It became a cat and mouse game.
Winter started to sit up. She decided to go over to Kafira and try fixing any damage which had been done.
Biggs threw down the napkin he’d been holding, “Major, let me talk with her. I’ll get us back on track.”
Winter took a moment to contemplate then finally nodded her head. “It would probably be best if you did this yourself.”
Biggs stood. “You know, as strange as it may sound, Taru is helping me mature. If I don’t get us killed, I just might become a fully functioning, responsible adult when we get home,” he smiled wanly and walked towards Kafira.
Winter saw quite a bit of herself in Biggs. While she was the picture of perfection throughout her military career, her outside life mirrored Biggs’s struggle to find himself. He was hardheaded and didn’t think his actions through, much like she was in her private life. Many of the mistakes Biggs made were because he thought he was doing the right thing. That’s exactly how Winter put her family last in life and made her husband walk away.
In many ways, they were both screw ups. As sure as she killed her private life, Biggs might kill them with his big mouth. On the bright side, she thought, if he was really learning from all of these mistakes, then he’d probably be their salvation. If they were lucky, it would be salvation all around. Part of her said that was psycho-babble mumbo-jumbo, while the other side thought maybe she’d just down her own road of maturity.
Winter grabbed the last bread wafer from the center of the table and crunched on the tasty food. She steeled herself to the fact that she wouldn’t interfere in Biggs’s conversation with Kafira, at least for several minutes.
Biggs approached Kafira at a snail’s pace. When he was within a hand’s reach, Kafira arched her head slightly and glanced at him with one yellow eye. She didn’t seem to mind, so he sat on the ledge a few feet from her.
Biggs took a big breath before speaking. “I wanted to apologize.”
“You can apologize all you want, but it will not make things better. I help you now because it is my debt, but I hold no respect for you!”
Biggs attempted to cut in. “I know what you’re saying.”
Kafira moved in nose to nose with Biggs. Winter’s muscles tightened. She was ready to interject in the fight before Biggs was thrown over the side of the building. She didn’t have many allies left and couldn’t afford to lose him, even if she could see the appeal in throwing him over the side.
Kafira nearly spat as she cut Biggs off. “Always talking, but never hearing,” Kafira paused briefly and her voice softened, “You wounded my honor and hurt my reputation in a span of moments.”
Biggs only looked at Kafira. For a change, he did not speak.
“Many in my place would have killed you for such.”
Biggs looked imploringly in her eyes, “I’ve always had problems running my mouth. When I was a kid, I talked myself into all sorts of trouble,” Biggs was surprised as Kafira sat back intent on listening to his story. He took in a deep breath, “I grew up in a small town in Missouri.”
Kafira looked at Biggs quizzically, “Miss-or-E? Never have I heard of such a place.”
Biggs waved his hand, “Like we said, pretty far away. It was a nice place to live and the schools were small, so I knew most of the kids. I had some friends, but I also had a nasty habit of turning them against me after a while. It didn’t matter how close we were, somehow I’d push them away.”
“Why would you do such a thing?” asked Kafira.
Biggs chuckled and looked at the bustling streets below. He finally made eye contact with Kafira again, “Who knows? For some reason I kinda got off on giving people a hard time. Come on, it’s kinda fun. It wasn’t so bad when I was in grade school, but once I went to middle school there was endless drama. I never knew when to shut up, so I got throttled pretty badly. I wouldn’t call it bullying because it was like I was asking for it. One time I got like twenty kids so mad during recess, they chased me all over the playground. The stupid teachers had no clue we weren’t playing a game. Lucky, I was always pretty fast. If those kids caught me there would have been some mob violence that day!”
“The way your mouth runs, I can see how people would react that way.”
“Yeah, well I used to be a lot worse. It was probably some way of keeping myself from getting too attached to friends,” Biggs’s eyes went glassy as he thought back, “I always wanted one best friend and to spend all my time with them. With the few girlfriends I’ve had, that was especially so. I’d hang all over them and get so attached. I’d expect them to give up their entire outside life for me, but I’d always mess up when it was most important.”
Kafira seemed impressed by Biggs’s openness. “I’m glad you have confided your youthful indiscretions.”
“Did you actually go to school?” Biggs cringed before the question was out of his mouth.
“Do you think my people are savages because my body is covered in fur?” Kafira poked Biggs in the chest. Not enough to break the skin but hard enough for him to squirm, “I’ll take you to my Kingdom someday. Then you can see how we live. I do not exaggerate when I state it’s absolutely beautiful. To be sure, there are issues, like any cultured place.”
“I’d like that. It wouldn’t happen to be on the way to Oklani?”
“Even if I were to come with you, I’m afraid it would be wise to steer clear,” Biggs was confused by her response, “Firstly, as Keb said, I won’t be going with you. Second, well, much like you had problems as a youth, so did I. Thus, my current role finds me as an outcast of the Robandy.”
Biggs just nodded his head.
Kafira smiled, “Once we have found Spratt, I will deal with my concerns.”
“I really thought you were through with us.”
Kafira’s voice hardened, “That was merely anger. I would never abandon you, although I was tempted to take an eye.”
Biggs laughed heartily, “An eye! Nice one.”
“That wasn’t a jest.”
Biggs stopped laughing.
“Never again offend me or cause me to lose face,” Kafira poked her claw at Biggs’s chest even harder this time, “Got it?”
Keb came onto the rooftop, “My friends, how did it go?” The long looks on their faces betrayed their difficulties.
Kafira made eye contact with Keb, “May we talk privately?” Kafira looked back towards Biggs as she walked towards Keb, “Thanks for speaking with me in my own language. I didn’t know you could speak Robandy. That really helped.”
Biggs smiled, but had no clue what Kafira meant. “No problem.”
“I should square a few things with Keb before we are ready to find Nedra.”
Keb and Kafira left the rooftop without another word. Winter, still sitting at the table, grabbed a napkin and wiped her mouth. Biggs walked over and took a moment to bask in the warm sunlight.
Winter stared impassively for moment before giving him a glowing smile, “Good job, Phil,” she winked, “You really knocked that one out of the park.”
“I didn’t do anything special, really. I talked from the heart. She seemed to like that.”
“It wouldn’t hurt if you dropped the silly façade a little more often.”
Biggs looked hurt at Winter’s comment.
She continued, “I’m not saying to stop altogether. I actually find you funny.”
“Occasionally,” she cautioned.”
Biggs nodded his head then continued, “I did find one thing awfully strange.” Biggs took a sip of the coffee-like drink, “Kafira thanked me for speaking in her people’s language.”
“Really? Very interesting.”
“How could the stone change languages? I mean we were clearly speaking something else before now. You know?”
She stood and patted Biggs on the shoulder, “You did great. I don’t want to try and figure things out right now. Just remember, that stone may make the words intelligible but I seriously doubt it can put thoughts in your head.” Winter walked away and looked down on the city below. “You’ve proven you’re as capable as Spratt or me. If you start to think before you act, we’ll be better than fine.”
“Major, I’ll be honest. I’m terrified. More terrified than I’ve ever been.”
Winter gazed at the horizon, “Could you just call me Winter? The name sounds more appropriate for Taru,” she turned and looked deep in Biggs’s eyes. “I’m probably more afraid than you are. It’s a bit of a stereotype in life-or-death situations, but being afraid is good. Fear of failure, fear of death, and good old terror will keep us sharp and, hopefully, alive. Just close your mouth a bit more.”
As if on cue, Keb and Kafira returned to the rooftop.
“My friends, time is of the essence,” Keb waved them forward, “Come inside quickly.”
Biggs turned to Winter as they descended the staircase into the house. “Winter,” he paused as if taking a moment to tryout the name, “I think we should both go the last name route here in Taru. So, could you call me Biggs?”
Winter smirked, “Sure. I’m just glad you didn’t want to be called Luke Skywalker.”
Biggs smiled, “Don’t be silly. When we find him, I’m sure Spratt will want to be known as Chewbacca or something else ridiculous. Me? I don’t go in for all that geeky foolishness.”
Winter wrapped an arm around Biggs as the two went down the stairs laughing for the first time in a long while.