I took my seat again, sitting sideways so my tail would have room to curl around by my feet. The floor was pleasantly cold and I focused on the feeling to calm myself down. The atmosphere in the room had calmed significantly, though tension was still obvious in everyone’s postures. Though, I had to admit, the reasons were likely different for my friends and those who weren’t close to the big red demon sitting quietly at attention.
Rodrik coughed to clear his throat then started. “First, we need to lay out what exactly we plan to do and how each of us are involved. And I can think of no better place to start than with Taava.”
Taava pointed at herself and mouthed “me?” but wisely kept quiet.
“Yes, you.” Rodrik frowned. “As you, Officer Lorton, and our own intelligence have confirmed, you, Taava, are responsible for a series of high-profile thefts and killings across Lockmoth and Ordia. Ordinarily, your punishment would be death by hanging. However, in light of the current situation in the city and the fact you may well have done these crimes against your will, Officer Lorton is willing to try to arrange a pardon for your crimes in exchange for your help in this matter, and your allies’ help as well.” Rodrik paused and swept his eyes over us.
All my friends looked to me, Taava nodding emphatically.
“I am open to the idea of helping,” I said, meeting Rodrik’s gaze when it passed over me. “I want to free Taava from those who have a hold over her, but I want to hear details before I accept.”
“Understandable,” Rodrik nodded. “Those ‘people who have a hold over’ Taava are the gang known as the Mudrats, who operate primarily out of Riverside, but have much wider connections. We know from Taava that their next big project is the counterfeiting of pre-war imperial copper pieces. This can lead us to them.
“Aretan and Nelys have already worked with Officer Lorton and the other four of you are either recent additions to the company, or yet-unproven applicants. I think it is clear to say that the Gelles Company is considering a contract to take down the Mudrats due to both the strategic benefit of new members and a heightened ease of operation within Lockmoth and the surrounding areas.
“From here, I will let Officer Lorton explain the details of the contract. Please hold your questions until after he is finished,” Rodrik concluded with a gesture at the officer, whose face had regained some color.
Lorton ran a hand through his thinning hair, leaned forward to put his chin on folded hands, and began. “As Branch Leader Rodrik said, the next move the Mudrats make will be to start their counterfeiting operation. What they have is a die. Without the proper minting equipment, it won’t make coins fast enough to be worth their time. So, in addition to copper and alloying metals—because let’s face it, if the empire cuts the coins with other metals, the crooks are definitely going to—the Mudrats will be looking for equipment and a relatively dry place to do the minting.”
He paused to take a breath. “Garvin, their leader, shouldn’t know Taava is alive, but they’ll still be very careful buying up large amounts of copper. The parts to make the mint itself, however? They’ll be less guarded about that. So that’s our target. We find where they’re setting up a mint, gather intel, and strike when we can. Top people in the gang, probably Garvin himself, are going to need to oversee a site like that from time to time. And we know gang activity’s been ramping up: via recruiting or fighting, there’s been more death and disappearance on the streets lately, especially in Mudrat and Bleeder territory.” Lorton pulled his head up off his hands and wiped sweat off his brow. He scanned the room, eyes lingering on my face longer than the others. “Any questions?”
I raised a hand. Everyone else did too, so I raised both hands on that same side.
“Oh, we’ll be going at night, ideally. And we’ll have auxiliary forces hitting other known sites, too,” Lorton clarified.
Everyone except me and Nelys lowered their hands.
“Yes, Nelys?” Lorton called the small figure first, blatantly ignoring my double hand raise.
“Are we going to kill them?” they asked far, far too calmly.
Officer Lorton took a big breath in and out. “We’re not going to pull our punches. It’s not like everyone who’ll be there deserves to die, but when both of you are trying to kill each other, that’s not the time to try to be the bigger person. Do that, and you’ll end up the deader person real quick.”
“I understand that all too damn well,” I muttered under my breath. Seyari reached over and I squeezed her hand with one of the two I wasn’t raising.
Lorton realized he had to acknowledge me. “Yes, uh, Zarenna was it?”
“That’s me!” I replied with a cheery smile.
Lorton recoiled; I covered my teeth with a hand and mumbled an apology.
“R-right, well, what’s your question?” he asked.
“Two parts.” I held up two fingers. “One: how visible is this going to be? I don’t want to restrict myself to fighting like a human, but I also probably shouldn’t let the whole city know about me just yet. Two: will this operation stop at the Mudrats, or will it include other gangs that I presume are also in the city?”
“Hmm…” Lorton closed his eyes. “I can’t imagine it’ll be terribly visible, and we can always pin a demon on the gang. Keep collateral damage in check though. Kill an innocent and you’ll be neck-deep in shit. And given your height, that’s a lot of shit,” he paused and glanced sideways at Rodrik. “Rodrik, Firalex?”
“It’ll be fine, I think,” Firalex spoke first. “Zarenna doesn’t strike me as the type to cause excessive collateral damage, right?” The way they looked at me seemed like more of an accusation than a compliment.
I nodded quickly. “Right!”
“What about her other question?” Seyari interjected. “We’re joining the company to show more people that Renna’s no ordinary demon, but we do want to transfer down south to Linthel. Once Taava’s free and clear, will expect us to stay in the city?”
“That would depend on the contract,” Rodrik answered.
Lorton frowned like he’d bitten a lime. “I’d sure as shit want to include the other gangs. And, to be honest, I can’t say I wouldn’t want your power on our side. The company’s necessary, but you lot might just make this something other than a wash and a massive waste of life and infrastructure.”
“Then I suppose we will just have to show how valuable another operation like this one would be to the company,” Aretan said, breaking his silence. “Provided we succeed, of course.”
“I look forward to it,” Firalex answered for Rodrik.
Perhaps sensing he was losing control of the meeting, Rodrik coughed loudly. “Ah, yes. Now that our plan’s been discussed, we can talk about what needs to happen leading up to enacting it. Aretan and Nelys, I presume you’ll be working with Officer Lorton?”
“Yep!” Nelys replied cheerfully. “There’s a lot that needs doing besides this big business.”
Aretan nodded. “Exactly. Nightly patrols and basic duties must be done properly.”
“You four,” Rodrik addressed me, Seyari, Salvador, and Taava, “will stay within the guild compound until we move to act. It’s too dangerous for Taava to go out alone, and I fear we’d have an incident if Zarenna or Seyari left.”
“Sir, what about me?” Salvador asked.
“Oh, Mr. Rozaro. Hmm, I suppose you would be fine to leave, but do not do so unaccompanied and do not stray from the main streets of Drytown during the day. Any attack on us here would be suicidal,” Rodrik’s eyes flicked to me and back, “I imagine for several reasons, but we can’t protect you outside the company grounds.”
Salvador nodded. “Understood Sir, thank you.”
I opened my mouth and closed it again.
“Do you have a question, Zarenna?” Fira asked.
I shook my head. “Uh, no. I’m sad I can’t go out, but I guess Rodrik’s right. I think Garvin thinks I’m dumb muscle, but if he were to put me into certain situations, it’d get loud.”
Seyari crossed her arms. “If I saw him or his goons I’d kill them on sight, so I agree too.”
“Are you not part angel, Seyari?” Rodrik asked.
“Three quarters actually—and don’t ask why I don’t have wings,” she huffed. “I fail to see how that has any relevance, besides the fact I’m a good bit tougher than a normal human.”
Rodrik coughed over Fira’s laugh. “Right then. You four will be assigned rooms. Normally, you’d sleep in the barracks, but I’d like to reveal Zarenna’s nature once she’s been here for a while, and not have that happen on accident.”
“And not mine?” Seyari interjected.
Rodrik frowned. Any deeper and I thought it might stick like that. “People aren’t going to start screaming about someone who’s part angel in the building. At least not screams of terror.”
I felt Seyari’s anger pick up. “Hey, whoa, I’m fine with that. I scare me, too.”
“Yeah, I guess. Sorry. Sitting quiet during an incredibly stupid plan has put me a bit on edge, you could say.” Seyari glared at Rodrik hard. She was still holding my hand and I imagined her white-knuckled grip would’ve caused a problem were I human.
I stroked her knuckles with a finger and she calmed slightly. “Don’t worry. I’m pissed too, but I wouldn’t be the Sovereign of Wrath if I couldn’t set aside my anger for a better target later.”
Officer Lorton shuddered, but a very excited smile crept across Taava’s face across from me.
Rodrik coughed again. Was he actually sick, or did he just not know another way to get attention? “As I was saying. Rooms for all of you—”
“I am fine to sleep in the barracks,” Salvador interrupted, wearing a smile that bordered between apologetic and insincere. “After all, I’ll be going out sometimes and this way I’ll get to know people better.”
Rodrik sighed, but nodded his assent. “Very well. Taava, there’s a single occupant room you can have, and I assume Seyari and Zarenna are fine sharing?”
Seyari and I both nodded.
Taava pumped a fist at getting her own room. “If I’m next to you, you two’d better keep it down. Can’t imagine the walls are that thick here.”
I flushed a deeper crimson and Seyari blushed as well. “Taava,” my girlfriend warned, “we do not need that sort of advice right now, thank you.”
Taava stuck out her tongue.
Rodrik sighed and seemingly handed the reins to Firalex. Turned out they were more of a “slap a palm on the table to get attention” kind of person. I jumped a little, and we all snapped to attention.
“Very good!” they congratulated us like a frustrated teacher corralling unruly kids. “We’ll discuss your pay later, but room and board are both free for now. I’ll take you four on a tour—if that’s all we need to talk about?” Fira looked at Rodrik.
His glower stayed firmly in place. Maybe it was stuck. “I suppose so. Officer Lorton?”
“I’m good” The officer put up his hands defensively. “And I won’t tell anyone about Zarenna being a demon or Seyari being an angel or Taava being alive. I’m no rookie.”
“Good.” Rodrik stood up swiftly with both hands planted on the table. “Meeting adjourned!”
I let go of Seyari’s hand and stood, turning my chair and pushing it back under the table. I walked to the door, but a nudge from Seyari reminded me to change back to human form. Easy enough.
“And this,” Firalex beamed, “is the mess hall. We try to have decent food here, but there are a lot of days with simple meals. Lucky for all of us, today’s not one of them!”
“Is this why you stopped here last?” Salvador asked, sounding tired.
“Exactly right!” Firalex pointed at him. They walked over to the line. “Should be simple enough to understand.”
“Sure thing, I’m starved!” Taava hopped in line next to them.
I followed the others. Salvador tried to let Seyari and I go in front of him, but I forced him back in front of us. Guy looked like he really needed a good meal.
“Can we have multiple servings?” I asked.
“If you pay for them, Fira replied, “you can take as many servings as you want.”
“Didn’t you say our room and board would be paid for?” I laced my voice with faux-innocence.
Fira reached the front and took a place. “I can always take it out of your first paycheck, Zarenna.”
“Deal!” I beamed back.
When we all sat down together, I’d taken a triple portion of today’s meal, which happened to be roast chicken with a variety of sides. I’d managed to score an entire bird after explaining how much I wanted. A few other mercs looked my way. I assumed part of it was “new people with Fira,” and the rest was “giant lady with a crazy amount of food.”
While we ate, we talked about mundane topics, like hot bath usage times and what was and was not allowed on the training grounds. All of this made me want a place with good food and a hot bath I could call my own. Someday.
I was thinking about how to make a soft bed I wouldn’t shred with my claws while absentmindedly eating the last of the chicken when Seyari and Taava started laughing. Even Salvador chuckled.
I finished crunching and swallowed. “Is there something on my face? Did I spill on my blouse?” I looked down. Clean.
“Do you normally eat the bones?” Fira asked quietly.
I looked up and more than a few people were staring. “Huh?” I ran a tongue over my teeth, realized I’d shifted them absentmindedly, and quickly turned them back to being dull and human. “Oh, uh sometimes. Part-ogre and all that, you know…” I loudly stumbled through an excuse.
Down on my plate, the carcass had clean breaks through the bones. I was pretty full, but I wanted the rest of it.
“Right, of course. Part-ogre!” Fira tried their best to latch onto the excuse. Taava, on the other hand, laughed even harder until Seyari reached across the table and clamped a hand over her mouth. The company mage continued, “a bloodline like that’s rare enough that I must’ve forgotten.”
“You mean I can finish?” I glanced up at Fira, eyes full of hope.
They sighed, hard. “Sure. Why not?”
“Thanks!” I picked up the rest of the carcass and merrily crunched away.
Lorton: points to cute little bean, to answer their question first and delay interacting with the big scary demon
Cute Bean: asks if it's okay to commit mass murder
nelys uses they/them I think
@Leek Thank you for the reminder.
She should start telling people she got so tall by eating bones, gave her body lots of calcium to work with.
Honestly if I were in the Gelles company I'd be talking about the gang too, but it'd be largely bi swooning about the very, very big & strong lady. Honestly tho, every time Zarenna gets to use all four of her arms I just think about how excellent of hugs she probably gives.
Maybe even the best hugs, but that's a big claim to make
The marrow the merrier?
I will probably steal this--uh, I mean accept this generous gift of a chapter title...
Bone crunching plan? I dunno
I am sorely tempted...