“Aren’t you hungry?” Cheisumn asked. “You must have traveled a long way.”
“We did. But these pleasures are not meant to be eaten alone. Please, can we have the use of some cups and a bowl?”
She rolled a table over, the dishes upon it clattering on the bumpy rug. “Anything else?”
“No, but thank you for the hospitality of your shop.” Garjah flicked something from his pocket to her, and she caught it and winked.
“What was that?” I hissed.
“A what?” I scritched the bumpy skin behind Bouncer’s ears, but he barely flicked them in annoyance.
“I paid her. A good sum, but then it was for than the nuts and milk. You had a good eye, Essell. Are you sure you haven’t taken part in intrigue and espionage before?”
“What?” I glanced at the pair of men on the other bench. They weren’t even pretending not to listen to our conversation. How rude! “No, of course not.” I nudged Garjah, lifting my eyebrows and glancing at the men when he looked my way.
“Ah yes. Now that I have everything prepared. Gentlemen, can I interest you in a little snack?” I gaped at Garjah. What? These were who we had to give it away to? The two stood readily enough, but I noticed, with dismay, that there were four cups on the rolling table. Garjah picked up two, handing me one.
“Thank you,” one of the men said politely. He lifted the cup. “To generosity.”
“To curiosity,” said the other.
“To audacity,” Garjah said.
They all looked at me. “What am I supposed to say?” I lifted the cup nervously. “Um, to humanity?” I mean, all their words rhymed. It was all I could think of. The second Four Arms snorted.
“It fits.” He tilted his cup toward me, and I could tell he had a lot more in there than Garjah had put in mine. Thank the stars! From the look on Garjah’s face, I couldn’t get out of drinking the swill. I gagged the second it hit my tongue, the burning acid stripping away taste buds before the funk coated my teeth, tongue, and cheeks.
I desperately wished for some plain water.
“Great,” Garjah choked out.
They all looked at me again. Damn Garjah for not giving me enough information to go on. Then again, I probably would have insisted on staying in the shuttle if he’d told me I’d have to drink this stuff. “Tastes great…” The tip of my tongue touched the roof of my mouth, and I gagged. I clapped a hand over my mouth and swallowed convulsively, not wanting to vomit.
It was close.
The men were smiling, clapping Garjah on the back. The first one spoke up. “I am Chaintrik. This is Swintik. Teams were sent out when you were noticed.”
“I thought they might be. We stopped at the first seller with the sign on her stall outside.”
“Sign? What sign? And why are these guys so friendly all of a sudden?” Gone were the blank expressions and standoffish postures. They were smiling and leaning against the table, looking for all the world like they were old friends with Garjah instead of strangers.
“You drank the nut milk and appreciated it. We know you’re safe.”
I blinked. That made no sense. “What?”
“Lying is almost unknown in our culture. Some word play, sleight of tongue, perhaps, but outright lies? No.”
“But to be a rebel means to embrace many new things,” Swintik said. “Anyone who can drink nut milk and compliment it clearly is a liar.”
“And we like liars.” Chaintrik grinned.
Narrowing my eyes, I considered their logic. “Mereval lied to me.” How did Garjah explain that?
“Did she? Or did she just not tell you the whole truth?”
Stars! He had a point. She had evaded revealing her true motives by revealing ones that I wouldn’t like but that would make me stop looking for deeper deceptions. “But that doesn’t mean she can’t like in action instead of words.”
Chaintrik shrugged. “There is a difference,” he insisted.
Garjah clamped a hand over the bands on my arm. “Agreed.” I clamped my lips shut and let him speak. This was his show, after all.
“Shall we go? Perhaps get a real meal and drink?” Swintik piled his cup on the tray with Chaintrik. The bag of acoji nuts were tucked into his belt.
“Lead the way.” Garjah watched him intently. Chaintrik hurried over and peeked through the doorway into the main room.
The pair of them grabbed the rug and pulled it back. Underneath was a wooden floor and several of the slats were discolored. A trap door.
We had to go underground? I shivered, and Bouncer pushed against my hip. I dropped a hand to his head. He’d hate this. I didn’t like the idea of it either.
Swintik lead the way, stepping onto a panel that slid smoothly down before it rose again, empty. “I will go first,” Garjah said. “Stay with Bouncer.”
“Like he’s going anywhere.” My cerops shadow was close enough to press against me and force me to lean into him so I wasn’t pushed over. His claws were also out, scraping lightly on the wood floor.
Apprehensive, I listened as Garjah went down, but nothing happened. Snorting I shook my head.
Bouncer and I took the pad down next, and I knelt to be closer to him just in case. Not hiding, just… a precaution. My head wouldn’t be where someone expected it to be.
But the pad stopped in a small room light with adaptive lights. They highlighted shadows, throwing Garjah’s strong features into relief and emphasizing the strong muscles of his torso as he captured me in a hug.
“We made it,” he said. “And we’re getting in.”
Swintik was feeding something the acoji nuts. It turned in half, bent over its back, and blinked large, yellow eyes at Essell.Want more flash?