Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Koreshi Chronicles - Chapter III: Don't Cry Over Spilled Cawfee

3 Winter, 1923

Her new clothes chafed. Lukas had bought them for her as a present, partly so that they could fit in better with the cosmopolitan life of Prince Gable, and partly (she thought) to salvage a piece of their childhood when he could afford to buy fancy clothes whenever he wanted. He had got the size right, at least, and the cut was fashionable. But the shimmery synthetic material itched and pleating in the skirt's waistband rubbed so much she was tempted to rip the damn thing off and walk around half-naked until she got back to their motel room and her travelling pants.

Not that her clothes were the only thing bothering her.

She had already walked twenty minutes -- away from Lukas, away from his unreasonable stubbornness and his arguments that only seemed to push them farther and farther away from their goal of finding the Bear. She'd wanted to talk to Todd. Todd always seemed to have some story from his books that, even if they were stupid and beside the point, made her laugh or boggle long enough to forget her frustration. But Todd was in the library, as he had been every day since they came back north, and Lyta didn't feel like hunting for him.

The mid-afternoon heat and the sand against her bare legs was enough to drive her indoors, to a gaudy cawfee shop with the words "Red Roaster" flashing neon above the door. Cold air blasted against her legs and exposed neck -- a haircut having also been part of Lukas' present. She took in the interior: gold lamé and red chiffon draped the half-dozen tables, most of them occupied, and trideo stars smiled down from gilt picture frames.

She ordered a cawfee from a girl barely older than she was, with her hair in a bob and aggressively pink lipstick. When it came, it was in a brass-colored cup with Mekongese symbols around the rim. She placed the two-dinar coin down on the counter and turned to find a table.

And walked right into a woman in a cream-colored suit.

She jumped back, letting most of the cawfee splash harmlessly to the floor, and cursed.

The woman's suit, at least, didn't appear stained, though the puddle on the floor was threatening her shoes. Lyta saw that there were two cups on the floor, and from the look of it, both had been full. The woman's expression was a mix of shock and indignation.

"Sorry, sorry..." Lyta said. "Look, I'll buy you another one. No harm done, right?"

The woman, probably about ten cycles older than the Sandrider, looked like she was about to object, but finally just nodded.

"Two more," Lyta ordered from the woman behind the counter. She waited for the cawfees to be ready.

Normally Lyta was the quiet type, content to fade into the background while Lukas talked. But something about today -- the heat or the itchy clothes or her anger at her brother -- make her talkative. "Look, I really am sorry about that. I'm usually not that clumsy."

The woman shrugged, and stepped aside to avoid the encroaching puddle. "It happens. Like you said, no harm done." A boy with one pierced ear stepped out from a back room with a mop and begun to clean up the spill.

The cawfees came at last and Lyta paid, then surveyed the shop. There was only a single table free. The women looked at each other, and then, by unspoken agreement, moved towards it together and sat on opposite sides.

"I'm Ellen," said the woman in the cream suit, extending her hand.

The younger woman took it. "Lyta," she said.

Ellen blew on her cawfee and the steam swirled in the cool air of the cafe. "New in town?"

Lyta started. "What?" She's seen the other women in Prince Gable and knew that she didn't stick out, not in her new clothes. She'd left her Koreshi cloak at the motel, and even her quarterstaff was hidden securely against her upper thigh.

Ellen laughed. "I didn't mean anything by it. It's just that the only people who tend to come to the Roaster are out-of-towners who don't know any better and regulars who have a perverse taste for really bad cawfee. And since I haven't seen you around before, I figured you were the first." As if to emphasize her point, she took a sip and her lips puckered. "Strongest stuff this side of the Westridge Range, but it does take a certain getting used to."

Lyta allowed herself a smile and took a sip. It was every bit as bad as Ellen has implied. She looked out onto the street, at well-dressed men and women going about their business. It reminded her of home, which reminded her in turn of Lukas, the Bear, and the entire convoluted purpose of their visit to the city.

She looked back to see Ellen watching her from across the table. "If you don't mind my saying, you look a little frazzled." Her voice was conversational, an innocent question tinged with a touch of concern.

Lyta shook her head, took a sip of her cawfee, and tried to dislodge her thoughts. "I'm fine. I'm just... dealing with some stuff."

Ellen's expression softened. "Anything you want to talk about?"

"No, it's okay. I'm just... My brother's being an idiot." She was surprised to hear the wounds as she said them.

Ellen gave a sympathetic smile. "Family always seems to have a way of getting under your skin, don't it?"

Lyta's free hand fell face-up on the table in exasperation as words tumbled out. "He could make everything go so easy! I know he could. I've seen him do it before. But this time he just insists on letting his pride get in the way of everything. He refuses to say that he was wrong, even if it'll help us..." Her voice trailed off. Part of her mind wondered idly if Lukas would ever find out about this conversation, and how angry he'd be if he did. She realized she didn't care.

Ellen nodded. "Men are like that, sometimes. Can't see past their own egos."

Lyta bit her lower lip. "I just wish that he'd swallow his pride for ten minutes! That's all it'd take! One apology, a couple of pretty words to a guy we're never gonna see again, and we'd have everything we need. He just... can't do it. And so we have to do everything the hard way again, just because he's too damn stubborn to see what's good for us!"

Ellen was listening attentively to the younger woman across the table, cawfee cup cradled in two hands, head nodding sympathetically.

Lyta shook her head again and took another sip of cawfee. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be telling you all this." The cold air across the back of her neck made her shiver as she realized how close she'd come to revealing their entire purpose to a stranger.

Now Ellen shook her head, a half-smile on her lips. "It's okay. I don't mind listening if you want to get it off your chest. Sometimes that helps."

Lyta sighed and realized the rant had used up most of her anger. "That's nice of you. Really. But it's okay. I'll figure it out. He's been like this before. He'll get over it. Or I'll dunk his head in iced cawfee until he comes to his senses." She grinned, and Ellen grinned back.

Lyta realized she'd drunk the entire cup of cawfee, vile as it had been. She stood. "Thanks for listening," she said.

"Sure," said the older woman, rising as well. "If you want to rant some more, we could always meet again. Say, three days? Same place?"

Lyta paused. On the one hand, she was fairly certain Lukas wouldn't approve of her making new friends just as they were about to start an investigation. On the other, it had been a liberating half-hour. Finally, she nodded. "Sure. I'd like that."

She walked out into the hot desert air, the sand immediately rubbing against her legs and caking her lips. But she found she didn't care. As the afternoon sun beat down from the west, Lyta turned and walked back to the motel.

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