“And the guy says ‘no offense, sir, but if 13 doesn’t get the taste out of my mouth, nothing will!’”
The group erupted in raucous laughter as Kemal gleefully surveyed the effect his joke had on the others. He was the newest citizen of the Town — having only arrived a few weeks prior — and it was nice to have gained so much acceptance so quickly.
A gentle silence fell across the group as the laughter died down and digestion took over. They’d just finished another of Mom’s delectable dinners, and were taking their once-daily chance to enjoy each other’s company. Malika did a good job of making sure everyone pulled their weight around the Town, but part of that meant not everyone got to sleep at the same time. Dinner was usually the only chance they got in a day to interact with everyone at once.
The silence went on for quite some time, until a soft “pop” sounded from the fire between them, and reminded everyone how long it had been. A few adjusted their seats, each searching themselves for the next conversation starter. Kemal was about to start another comical anecdote when a soft voice raised from across the fire.
“I was buying groceries,” Jenivive cooed gently. “Cheese, potatoes, leeks, and I still needed to go to the baker’s for some bread. Bastard walked right up, slapped irons on me wrist, and tossed me in a wagon.” She paused for only a moment, and took in a breath. “Didn’t even have time to call to me Gad, ‘fore I was whisked away. Bet it’s still there, stupid machine, rustin’ away in the streets of Dublin.”
Jenivive looked around to find everyone was staring at her. She didn’t mean to call for their attention, and she didn’t know why that was the story that popped into her head, but she’d never really been the best at impulse control. As their gazes all burned into her now, she recoiled slightly, not knowing how to follow it up. She could feel tears welling up in her good eye, and a sob building, as her thoughts drifted back home, and how dearly she missed it.
But before they could come out in front of everyone, Malika came to the rescue.
“I was in the middle of an assembly. I was proposing a budget increase for roads.” She let her gaze fall to the ground. “Doors swung open, and in walked Ju-Long, like he owned the damn place. He uh…” She paused, letting out a small chuckle. “I said I’d go quiet if he let me finish my proposal. He didn’t see fit to give me that kindness.”
“So you pissed and moaned?” Sergei called out, almost more statement than question.
Malika met his eyes, and responded through a smile. “Yeah. Yeah, I gave them hell alright. One of his men is short an eye because of that day.”
“That’s my girl,” Sergei muttered, dipping his face down for a drink. The rest of the group just laughed, reveling in the mutual catharsis of causing their jailer even a modicum of pain. Jenivive giggled especially hard, grateful for the change of pace.
“Coward take me in middle of night,” Sergei offered up, after the snickering calmed down.
“Lord have mercy,” Mom whispered, barely audible. The others let their disgust show as well, as Sergei continued.
“He probably know I see him coming mile away. Take route of scaredy-cat instead of facing me. I was…” He sniffed and coughed a little, making an effort to disguise his pain. “I was in bed with wife, daughter one room over. I wake to see my krasivaya Zenia with gag, tied at wrist. Man say I struggle, she die. So I not struggle.” He ran a ragged sleeve across his eyes. “I ever get in range of that sobaka ublyudok, I put bullet in brain.”
“Not if I get him first, Sergei,” Sunita chimed out, amid nods of agreement. “Caught me crossing the border into India. Promised he’d send my son to the orphanage, but…” Kemal reached over and rubbed Sunita’s back as she struggled to hold in her tears. No one needed Sunita to finish to understand her fear.
“Kemal,” Malika chimed, trying to pull eyes off Sunita. “How about you?”
Kemal leaned back a bit, drawing in a breath through his nose. “Swiss Guard wasn’t too pleased when they found out about my… you know.” He made an ‘empty’ gesture with his hands, to which the others nodded. “The church was in the middle of trying to decide what to do with me when Ju-Long showed up. Offered to make me go away.” He shrugged. “I suppose they said yes.”
“It’s a damn inquisition, it is,” Jenivive complained. “Not even the Pope’s men are safe any more.” The group shook their heads in sorrowful affirmation.
“Armed robbery,” cried a soft voice, as everyone turned to investigate.
“I was in prison for armed robbery. Six years in, when he showed up.” Mom cleared her throat with a handkerchief, long since stained beyond recognition. “He offered to—is something funny, Sergei?”
She turned a frustrated head to Sergei, who was giggling like a child. After a moment, he collected himself. “I’m sorry, I just have hard time seeing you knock over bank with pistol.”
The group chuckled as they turned to hear Mom’s response. “Well I’ll have you know that’s not what happened,” she responded. Smirking, she said “I had a rifle.”
The campfire exploded in laughter as Mom allowed a smile of pride to creep across her face. Acceptance in the Town, she realized in that moment, wasn’t something she earned from her deeds; it was given to her, the moment she landed, like parents accepting a new child. The smile deepened, as she let her shoulders relax a little.
Slowly, the laughter died down, until the only sounds were from Jenivive wiping away tears of joy. For a long moment, they all sat there, enjoying the gentle silence and each others’ quiet company.
“They were going to kill Leon,” the voice rang out from the edge of the circle. Everyone adjusted and turned, straining to see the face in the twilight. “They were gonna burn him at the stake.” From the darkness, Nadiya stepped forward, her eyes fixed on the fire. “But I’d heard about the Dark Hunter. The Chinaman who took witches and Strangers away in the night, made them disappear. So, I grabbed Leon, and we ran.”
“Child…” Kemal whispered, to no one in particular.
Nadiya turned her gaze to him. “Don’t ‘child’ me. I wasn’t going to let them kill my brother. But I wasn’t about to kill my family and friends to keep him safe, either.” She turned back to the fire. “When we got to Barcelona, I raised some alarms. Killed some animals at night, made sure to leave a mess. Let some drunks get too friendly in public, then made an example of them in front of the guards.” Mom put a hand to her mouth in shock. “Leon and I were both under lock and key almost right away, and Ju-Long didn’t take his time. We were here two months later.”
Tension hung over the fire like a blanket, everyone too concerned or too terrified to risk being the first one to make a sound. Nadiya finally snapped out of her trance, and looked around. “We’re safe here, now. And we actually have friends here.” Something resembling a smile crawled across her face, but no one drew any comfort from it. “Anyway, I should get back to patrolling. The Hounds are out tonight.” She turned on her heel, and slunk back into the darkness from which she emerged.
Kemal, once he was confident that she was gone, let out an exaggerated sigh, eyes as wide as dinner plates. Immediately, a half-dozen sets of eyes turned sour on him.
“You’re new, so this only warning,” Sergei said, walking up to Kemal. “Nadiya kill to keep you safe. You think she creepy, she weird? We all weird here.” He stormed past Kemal, being sure to place a firm hand on his shoulder as he passed.
Malika met Kemal’s gaze, expressionless. “Thanks for the stories, everyone,” she said to the gorup. “Let’s clean up.”