Clara

The small, plastic horse left the hand of the weasel-faced assassin, spun through the air and rebounded off the dirty brick wall of the alley. The spin was perfect, the flick of Mishka’s wrist perfect and the horse stopped dead and dropped, falling no more than an inch from the wall. Clara stepped forward and trapped it under the toe of her boot. There were howls of complaint from the assembled gamblers.
“You can’t do that,” snarled Mishka.
“Just did,” shrugged Clara. “Tell me what I need to know.”
It was a cool response, but Clara felt anything but cool. She felt like she was sweating inside, her breath short, every sense on high alert ready to run. This alley, running to the side of Emer’s bar, was not a safe place for her to be, and these were not safe people for her to be talking to, especially not Mishka. But safety was rarely high on Clara’s list of priorities. Getting the story, on the other hand…
Mishka was actually bearing his teeth now, showing off the fangs that, on occasion, he’d been known to use to gouge the flesh of his victims. His fists were clenching and unclenching, sweat was popping out all over his brow and his eyes were wide and wild. Clara calculated that she had about twenty seconds left before she would have no choice but to move her foot.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” grinned Mishka, the grin looking as much like a threat as any grimace.
“Just give me a sign,” said Clara. “None of these fine gentlemen,” and at this point she gestured to the huddle of gamblers who were many things, but not a single one would be considered a fine gentleman, “will be any the wiser as to what you told me, or why. Hell, they didn’t even hear the question, did you fellas?”
There was a rumble of agreement from the group. They hadn’t heard Clara’s question, because Clara hadn’t asked it, not here, not today. She had been pursuing this piece of information for some time, it was possibly the final piece in the jigsaw that would allow here to write the damned piece. Or maybe it was the opening of a further can of worms, she didn’t rightly know and didn’t completely care. She just hated roadblocks like this, and Mishka’s silence had proven to be quite a roadblock. Hence she’d taken her life in her hands and come here to piss him off.
“Fine,” spat Mishka. “You really want to know? Yes.”
“All I needed to know,” grinned Clara, removing her boot from over the horse. It sat upright, on its hooves. There was a yelp of delight from Mishka and a grumble of complaint from the rest of the crowd. “Nice throw, by the way,” she said, as she turned and left.
A hand grabbed her arm before she could take more than three paces. She looked down into the grubby face of a familiar snitch.
“Mouse,” she sighed. “What?”
“He’s lying,” sighed the diminutive snitch, simply.
“What? Why? There’s no… How do you know?” she spluttered.
“Because that was the wrong answer to the question,” explained Mouse. “He’ll give up Emer, just did, to protect the person who really asked him to kill that family.”
Clara shook her head. But this explanation made so much sense. It was Emer’s style, shutting down people who owed him money and weren’t about to pay. And Konoroz had owed him a lot of money, and had no way of paying it back. He worked on a doughnut stand, for goodness sake, a loyal husband and father. Who else could possibly want him dead?
“What do you know?” she demanded, turning and pinning Mouse against the wall.
“Eww,” complained Mouse, “do you know what’s smeared on these walls? What did I ever do to you?”
“You’re being oblique,” Clara explained, “and I’m tired. And I have to be clever about how I get Mishka’s attention but you’re easier to push around.”
Mouse shrugged, he couldn’t deny that.
Look,” he squealed, “I don’t really know anything. I just hear whispers. People talk and they forget I’m there. And I spend a lot of time in Emer’s.”
“Get on with it,” snarled Clara. Mouse was right, this wall stank of something unpleasant.
“It wasn’t Emer.” Mouse started to talk more rapidly. “I’m certain of that. Ninety percent of Mishka’s work comes from the fat bastard, but not this time. There’s a web, and I don’t know who’s pulling the strings on this one, but I do know that Konoroz isn’t… wasn’t who you think he is.”
Clara groaned in frustration.
“Get to the point! Who was he?”
Mouse only mouthed the answer to that question, each syllable soundlessly and exaggeratedly enunciated.
Re-sis-tance.

Estrel

Estrel was on the minitram across Toun for his evening shift in the Citadel. He had only been awake for half an hour but he was tired. The world seemed distant, cut off from him by a fog. There were two other people on the tram, both of whom appeared to be on their way back from somewhere, which didn’t help his general sense of not being with it. He was operating under different conditions from these people.
He checked his ComN for the time. Nearly seven. The Wizards would be drunk by now. Hell, even the Novices would be drunk by now. He hated the twilight shift. He hated all of the shifts, but he particularly hated the evening shift. Midnight wasn’t too bad. But the rest were just painful, and that’s before the havoc they played with his body clock. He coughed something from his throat into his mouth, then swallowed it back down. His mouth now tasted of bitter, dank moss. I wouldn’t do this if the Citadel wasn’t where I was meant to be, he reminded himself. It would be helpful if I remembered to believe that.
He thrust his hands deep into his pockets and slid forward in his seat until his knees were jammed painfully under the guard rail in front of him and his spine had to bend at right angles in the middle of his back. It wasn’t at all comfortable but like that but, with his chin tucked into his chest, his head didn’t roll around with the lurching of the minitram and he had a chance at grabbing some more sleep.
Or he would have, if the tram didn’t immediately lurch to a halt at the latest stop – Apt Nodding he thought – to let a crowd of new passengers on. Damn those other people. He kept his eyes stubbornly shut, so he didn’t realise at first but after a minute or so he become aware of a musty presence on his left hand side. He tried to breathe more deeply, mimicking sleep, ignoring whoever it was, but he gradually became aware of a damp pressure against his arm as whoever-it-was lent into him. He managed no more than a further fifteen seconds of pretending he hadn’t noticed anything before he felt a blast of warm air in his left ear.
“Would you like a biscuit?”
Disgusted, Estrel slid himself back up, hands still trapped in pockets, shaking his head, looking shocked and trying to appear as if he’d actually just been woken. He wasn’t sure why it was important, but he felt like he didn’t want the stranger to know he was trying to ignore him.
“Wha-?” he asked.
“Biscuit?” the man asked, holding up a packet of what Estrel could swear were hog-biscuits.
Estrel grunted, hoping that this would be accepted for the universal signal of “no, leave me alone” and pulled his right hand out of his pocket, bringing my ComN with it.
The stranger seemed to get the hint, for now at least, and leant the other way. Estrel dragged down the Com screen to see what was going on. He needed to concentrate on something that wasn’t the creeping miasma from his neighbour. Mouse had been posting vids again, but it was never wise to watch them for the first time in public; there were a whole host of motion alerts from home, which were probably also Mouse related; his comms were stacking up but the first four were all junk and he lost his enthusiasm for wading through them before he got to the fourth…
He tried to play a bit of MooKa’ching but he couldn’t really concentrate and the motion of the minitram kept causing me to tap the wrong pod with his thumb and blow himself up. He sighed, blanked the screen and closed his eyes again, this time remaining upright. He could hear the dull buzz of the minitram radio below the murmurs of conversation. He’s not supposed to have that on…
“…and immediately caught the assembled press by surprise with the announcement that his number one priority would be to crack down on the illegal activities of the so-called Black Knights… despite persistent rumours of high level involvement in the Black Knight gangs within his administration, the Mayor’s new stance might be enough to guarantee another six-year term when the electorate goes to the polls next month…”
“Chaguartay out,” mumbled Estrel, under his breath.
The brakes hissed to a halt. He opened his eyes, it was Ogre Awarded so he hadn’t lost count after all. The stranger next to him got up to leave, although not without slapping a hand down on Estrel’s shoulder to lever himself up. Estrel waited until he’d taken a step down from the raised rear of the carriage before he dusted whatever residue of crud he may have left behind off with the back of his hand. He couldn’t help himself but sniff it afterwards as well. That made him gag something horrible. Serves me right.
“…Begrade score three times in their latest victory over local rivals Academy but the game ended in controversy as their captain was stretchered off after a vicious tackle by Academy defender Le Singe…”
They’re not kidding it was vicious. I saw the game in Emer’s. You could see the hatred in his eyes as he jabbed the pike through his ankle. Estrel shuddered.
“…and the schedule for this evening is rain, so make the most of this afternoon’s late autumn sunshine – this might be the last we see of it until next year…”
The sign Barley Omen, for Tunnel Terminus flashed past the window and Estrel got to his feet.