The Prodigal Sergal
It was strange how a sergal could leave with the world caving in around her ears, only to come back and see everything looking so peaceful, as if that part of her history hadn't even happened. But to look around her, it was not only that the dust had settled - it looked like it had never been disturbed in the first place.
Kirimoana finally finished her journey home, her first step into Silvorum's bustling northern market less dramatic to look at by outside observers than it felt on the inside. She kept on walking, sedately enough to let the other inhabitants think she felt calm, and looked around as she went, seeing the busy and colourful sights and breathing in the smells, embracing all the familiarity with a gratitude she hadn't expected. She scented meat and smoke, fur and clay - a welcome break from the dry smell of the ubiquitous sand that was all there was between the towns and cities of Sailzane.
The market was mostly the same as when she'd left, with a few briefly intriguing changes. She instantly recognised the jewellery shop tended by a grizzled northern sergal whose eyes brightened momentarily as he spotted her and tried to remember the name that went with her scarred face. But she only smiled a greeting and moved on. Beside it was a new shop - new in the sense that it had been something else when Kirimoana had last been there, but now boasted clay bowls and plates, pieces for mosaic-building and bags of grout. A few stalls further on, she saw a fruit shop that she hadn't realised she'd missed until the moment she saw it again.
For it was something of a minor secret that Kirimoana had a taste for fruit - more so than the average sergal. Perhaps it was because she hailed from the cold, lower extremity of the southern regions and fruit, well... it tasted like sunshine. It was the promise of sun-soaked fruits that had drawn her to Silvorum in the first place, all those years ago.
These were small signs that she tentatively took to be good ones. Perhaps it was right that she'd come back.
In fact, she decided that a piece of fruit was the order of the day and turned back towards the long-forgotten shop.
"Welcome back!" enthused Morghanisa, the owner. "I haven't seen you in years!"
Kirimoana had already realised she'd have to anticipate situations like this, and had thought about how to respond while still pacing between the dunes. She knew to expect the locals of her young adulthood to mention her absence, to prod subtly or not-so-subtly at why she'd left. But she didn't want to talk about that. She was going to have enough work on her claws if she ever met an actual friend from the past.
"I know!" she batted back playfully. "We decided to throw everything in and go travelling."
Morghanisa smiled at this. Her long sergal muzzle provided ample space for such an expression. "So where's that charming husband of yours?"
This was the question Kirimoana had been waiting for and could anticipate from a hundred other locals. She sighed and let her smile change from a bright how-do-you-do one to something braver and sadder. "We got to the northern territories and he decided to stay there."
The fruit shop owner looked stricken and raised a claw half to her face as if to hide her thoughtless indiscretion. "Oh, I'm sorry dear." She paused. "Are we sympathetic about that?"
"Ah. Well, I'm sure you'll find somebody worthwhile. Especially now you're back," she added in a bright chirp, and Kirimoana knew that this meant her work was done - that the fruit shop owner wanted to move on from the awkwardness around the end of her customer's marriage.
Kirimoana was about to answer with something suitably banal when a sergal crashed against the corner of Morghanisa's display and instantly sprinted off.
"Oh!" the shop owner rasped. "Damn her to the deserts, that one!" The youngster was already too far ahead for Morghanisa to catch up, so instead of chasing after her she went to tidy up the corner and grumbled to Kirimoana as she did. "You know, that one comes here most days and always steals something. And she leaves me in such a mess every time."
But Kirimoana found herself only part-listening. The other part of her mind had noticed the young sergal's clothing - a pale fitted shawl with a single stripe and shorts - and picked apart what she had just seen.
An opportunist. Probably thieving to survive? Young and quick, relying on her wits and the decrepitude of an ageing fruit shop owner for her lunch.
And with a taste for blushfruit, apparently.
"She was quick, I'll give her that," said Kirimoana, turning back to Morghanisa with a sympathetic smile. "Can I have a bag of those? They do look fresh."
Morghanisa looked at the blushfruits she was picking up with a touch of surprise. "Oh - of course, dear." And she waited while Kirimoana put half a dozen into her travel bag.
After Kirimoana had paid the older sergal just slightly too much (enough to cover the cost of that stolen fruit) she excused herself by commenting that she had to find lodgings for the night and moved on.
Perhaps it was simply that she'd only just arrived in a city that had clearly moved on in her absence, but she felt the need to put down roots. And where better to start than with the fleet-footed little opportunist? It was a bit of a long shot - what type of thief stopped to make idle conversation with witnesses to their crimes? - but something drew Kirimoana to the northern sergal.
Kirimoana knew these streets like the back of her paw. She also knew a hiding place or ten - places a sergal might visit if all she wanted was some peace and quiet, or to disappear from the sight of another sergal who hunted for her. Oh yes, she'd had a lot of practice with that.
So she could guess where a slender-bodied thief might go to eat her lunch in peace.
She climbed up onto a short wall and checked behind the angled awning of the glass mosaic specialist. The awning made an excellent screen so long as a sergal sat with her legs crossed and tail curled close, and the sun wasn't behind her to throw her shadow onto the fabric. No sergal there.
Kirimoana moved on and took a right down a shady narrow alleyway that led to an even narrower one. The sun didn't reach here and the air felt blessedly cool, but it smelled or urine and she didn't consider it likely that her southern sergal would be there. She was going to be eating, after all. But for sheer privacy, hiding places near makeshift latrines were hard to beat - pursuers tended to wrinkle their noses and turn away if they didn't know for sure that their quarry was there. But anyway, there were no sergals hiding there. She moved on.
The roof of the local sentry team was absolutely hidden by a turret that looked like the actual roof from the street. A sergal had to look at the lay-out from the ground and was then climb up the rear of the building and piece together what bits of architecture must be where from memory to recognise that there was a hiding place - and then make a couple of nerve-racking jumps to get to the secluded spot. Nevreans tended to rest here sometimes, being winged and able to see hiding places from above.
She checked it. Instead of taking the final leap to the sentry roof she put her things to one side and lay belly-down on it to look over the edge. She didn't want to startle the little one if she was there.
And there the northern sergal sat, gnawing the last few scraps of flesh from the blushfruit's pit. She saw Kirimoana out of the corner of her eye and whipped her head in the southern sergal's direction.
There was nowhere for her to go. Kirimoana wondered what she would do about that, and was intrigued to see the other sergal quickly weigh up the options (the indecision showed on her face for a moment) and then adopt a petulant expression, challenging her to tell her she'd done wrong.
"I thought you might want one more," said Kirimoana, reached behind her for her bag, and tossed one of her own blushfruits down to the stranger, who caught it with a look of surprise.
Kirimoana half-expected the grey sergal to say thank you but she didn't, only looked resentfully away and started gnawing on the new fruit instead. It was a rejection of Kirimoana but not one from a position of strength - she could see the wariness in the southern sergal's expression.
But Kirimoana wasn't offended. Indeed, she felt charmed by the southern sergal's indomitable spirit. She rested her temple on her paw and watched, a relaxed smile on her face as she realised how pleasant it felt to be mostly alone and with the clay roof warming her belly as much as the sun above warmed her back. She didn't know yet what to say but there was no hurry. The other sergal would speak to her if she wanted.
For several breaths there was blissful silence...
"Don't you have somewhere to go?"
That came sooner than Kirimoana had expected. She opened her eyes - only now noticing that she'd closed them in her state of relaxation - and regarded her companion. "No, as it happens." She thought about how much more to say. "I've just come back home. I've been travelling." She glanced at the space around them with a sense of affection as warm as the sunshine. "I used to come here when I wanted to be by myself, too."
"So you know that I want some privacy." The barb in the small sergal's voice was clear. But still one that betrayed her nervousness, her underlying fear.
Of what? Kirimoana wondered, and smiled. "Unless you'd prefer some company." She made sure that this wasn't a question either. Two could play that game.
The other sergal shrugged - an uncomfortable, squirming gesture - and carried on eating. Kirimoana reached for another fruit and ate it herself. "My name's Kirimoana," she said between bites.
Kirimoana smiled but didn't answer. She finished her fruit slowly and then stretched. "Well, I'm going to find somewhere to stay. I hope we can have lunch again sometime."
"What do you care?"
Kirimoana noted a hint of pain in this question and thought about her answer. "It's good to know there's another here who likes the sentry's roof. I'll be here tomorrow at noon if you want lunch again. I'll bring enough for two."
"Didn't say I was going to come."
"I didn't say you were either. But if you do then you are welcome to eat with me. Until then, little one." And with that, she left.
Kirimoana was accustomed to conserving her money, so although she might have afforded something more luxurious she lodged instead in a cheap room that offered little more than a pallet to sleep on and breakfast.
She lay on her back and made patterns out of the cracks on the ceiling, and considered her little thief. Why do I find her so fascinating? And why look to a petty thief for companionship?
She knew the answer well enough, but for now - perhaps forever - it would have to remain her secret.
Kirimoana... preferred the company of female sergals to male. This hadn't been the reason for her husband's angry treatment of her, but it hadn't helped. She'd hidden it as best she could but her lack of enthusiasm for nuptials with him hadn't gone unnoticed.
It was unlikely that her new friend felt the same way as Kirimoana herself, but that was why she felt so fascinated to her. So attracted. She smiled at the idea. If unrequited love was all she had to worry about then her life was already sweeter than before.
The mystery solved, she turned over and settled down to sleep.
TO BE CONTINUED...