Chapter 15:

the interrogation

Aboard the Winnow

In the sweet embrace of the morning light, Avett's already had plenty of time to come to the terms that he's been forcibly detained in one of their makeshift cabins. Not as their guest, but as their prisoner. The room only has two windows—one above his bed, and the other on the door—and if he lies on the wooden floorboards and presses his head against the wall, his toes can just about touch the other side. Bookmark here

The flap in the door rattles. A tray rattles against the ground as it slides over. Surprisingly, the food actually looks good—though anything's better than the glorified slop Auren serves, especially when it's got meat in it. Bookmark here

He lets his eyes drift off onto the tray of food. It's a bit far from his bed. They've tied not only his wrists together, but his legs too, because they're scared that he'll kick down the door or something. Lord knows he could do it regardless. Not like he's planning to—not yet, anyway. The fact that they haven't attempted to smother him in his sleep is proof that they're willing to listen to him. He's sticking with Lilith until her full recovery. Worst comes to worst, he's not above assaulting his would-be assailant and making off with Lilith.Bookmark here

It's mashed root vegetables and generous slices of roast beef. Steam is wafting off the tray.Bookmark here

"I'm so glad you guys do room service," he says. Loud enough for his waiter or waitress to hear, but not loud to the point of aggression. Bookmark here

At first, there's no response. Then a feather-light voice responds with, "You're welcome, sir."Bookmark here

A kid. A boy, judging from his intonations. But he's not really sure because he's also got the same accent as Lilith; the boy sounds like he's trying to talk around a mouthful of bread. Bookmark here

If he's young, it means that he's impressionable, which means he can bargain with him. He looks to the tray on the ground. "No utensils?" he asks.Bookmark here

"Will said you're going to have to eat out of it like the animal you are, but personally I don't agree." Bookmark here

The words juxtaposed with his childish tone throws Avett for a loop. Gotta start them young, he guesses. In truth, he'd much rather be spoon-fed than to wriggle over and plunge head-first into a pile of mashed potatoes. He's already decided that he's not eating a lick of that food, but it's getting harder with each passing second; his Kattish nose is betraying him big time, and it smells absolutely salivating. He hasn't eaten since yesterday's noon.Bookmark here

He flexes his hands against his restraints. "Mutual exchange. If you untie me and get me a spoon, I'll tell you where babies come from."Bookmark here

"Sorry, mister cat-man." The boy is walking away. "I already know." Bookmark here

Avett curses under his breath. Kids grow up so quickly these days. A certain frontliner could learn a thing or two from him.Bookmark here

His stomach growls, so he rolls over and faces the wall. The things he'll do for Lilith, he swears. Bookmark here

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Chaos, the slam of wood against wood, and a guttural slurry of swears and commands. Something rattles across the floor and hits the wall. Avett jerks awake just in time for someone to throw him off the bed and hoist him up into a chair. Bookmark here

He squints. Rage boils through his body. "What the fuck do you want?" he spits. "I'm sitting here, I'm being a good boy—I could've fucking kicked down this flimsy piece of shit in seconds but I fucking didn—"Bookmark here

Warm and soft. There's something warm and soft in his mouth, kind of like mashed potatoes but with the additional tang of soap and grass. It is disgusting. Every muscle in his mouth revolts with the urge to spit it out, but the person in front of him—the woman from last night—holds him down by the shoulder and says, "Swallow it. We don't starve our prisoners."Bookmark here

Avett finds himself saying something, but his words are obscured by a mess of uncontrolled fury, bleariness, and drool. So he obliges, for this spoonful, and then the next.Bookmark here

On the third spoonful, he dodges her hand. "Could just untie me."Bookmark here

She stops, puts his spoon back into the tray, and sits down on the ground with her legs crossed. Her eyes remind Avett of the colour of steel, and her skin is an uneven, deep bronze—tanned from living in the forest. "Sweetie, you could've done a lot of things. You said so yourself."Bookmark here

"Don't fucking sweetie me. Just tell me if Lilith is fine."Bookmark here

He watches her jab the spoon into the pile of mashed potatoes and soap. "Is that her name?" she asks. "The name of the Human you so generously exposed to gumboots?"Bookmark here

Avett coughs. "To what? And—you think I used her as bait?"Bookmark here

"Doesn't matter." The woman shoves a spoonful into her mouth. "The other schmucks in the village council forbade me from interacting with you, said they'd send someone else 'cause they can't trust me to use my magic. But fuck it, eh?" Bookmark here

Before Avett can respond, the woman stands and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. White residue sticks to her sleeve. "Let me get your name."Bookmark here

Her words sting with the stench of ether. He finds himself complying with her demands, as the water flows, as the clouds go—it's not just in his nature to spill everything he knows about himself to this stranger, but necessary. "Avett Ironsturm. What are you doing to me?"Bookmark here

"Guess those elders were on to something." She taps her foot against the ground and darts her eyes around the cabin. Then she breathes, steels herself, and says, "That's not your actual family name, but it'll have to do." Bookmark here

Avett presses his lips together. He'll spill if he opens up, but thankfully the woman relents and shrugs. "Guess space pirates get their share of family drama too." The ether subsides, just a smidge, allowing Avett to breathe.Bookmark here

Something isn't sitting right with Avett, but right now, rage is all he can feel. "You think I'm a space pir—"Bookmark here

Another wave of ether washes over him. "We were attacked last month too. Were you aware of this?" Bookmark here

"I did not commit myself to this field for five years, only for some backwater bitch who's never even heard of the IRC Numerical System to tell me I've been collaborating with pirates," he responds through gritted teeth. "No. I wasn't."Bookmark here

Surprise graces her features. She hesitates—then raises an iron-toed boot. "You're a space alien or something, I know that much, but I'm willing to bet that you've got the same set of jewels every man on this damn wasteland of a world's got."Bookmark here

Her steel-cold eyes darken into the shade of water-logged storm clouds. Bookmark here

Avett feels like he's going to throw up from the pressure of her ether alone. So he does. Verbally. Bookmark here

"Actually, we're not space aliens, it's more like we're from an alternate universe where we just evolved in a slightly different way, which makes us pretty much the same genetically. So, yeah, I would have an impressive pair of balls. And my cock's pretty substantial too. My measurements are modest, kind of average, but I've got—"Bookmark here

He throws his head back with enough force to knock his skull against the cabin wall; this instantaneously shuts him up. The chair tips over, and he lands on his side with his face pressed right against the tray of food. He groans, his side and rib cage stinging. At least he's not spewing out inappropriate numbers in front of strangers anymore.Bookmark here

The woman looks worse for wear. She's clutching her head and stumbling backwards, probably because she's just accidentally used up the vast majority of her personal ether by letting it spiral out of control. Bookmark here

A groan tumbles out of his lips. "C-can I see Lilith now?"Bookmark here

Finally, the woman flops back onto the ground. She shoves a healthy spoonful of mashed potatoes into her mouth like she's starving. Then she waves a spoon at Avett. "Cilantro and thyme. It's what keeps us all from fucking going off the edge from gumboots here. You're lucky the council decided to add it into your portions. Coincidentally, it also powers us. Our magic. So eat up."Bookmark here

"So ether," he breathes. Bookmark here

"Is that what you guys call it?" She laughs. Bookmark here

"We've got a whole dictionary of situational jargon for things you aren't even aware of." He raises his arms. "I'm not here to do harm. I swear."Bookmark here

The woman slides a knife out of her pocket and unsheathes it. He's freed within seconds, and it surprises him—though that's probably because he's grown accustomed to Lilith's incompetency. Then he looks at her muscular build, then at her towering physique, and then he's wondering why he'd ever doubted her competence at all. She could easily suplex a lesser dragon and have it for dinner with her family on the same night. Bookmark here

She offers her hand. He refuses it and pushes himself to his feet instead. His wrists feel so nice to rub; Fuck, he's forgotten how it good it feels to be free. Bookmark here

The woman looks off at the door and rubs the back of her head. "I'm Marina. They call me Mari here. Sorry about all of this—I was too quick to judge the situation, and as it turned out, I was wrong about you." Bookmark here

"A lot of people tend to be." He shrugs. "Comes with the profession. And the ears."Bookmark here

Mari doesn't answer, but she does offer him an apologetic smirk as she holds open the door. "After you then, sweetie."Bookmark here

As he walks through the village, he tries his damndest to ignore the armour-piercing stares that the villagers offer him the moment he steps out of the cabin without his restraints on. Despite having Mari's 'protection' at his side, he's still unwelcome—though none of the Humans try to engage him verbally, instead choosing to hastily resume whatever they were doing prior to his appearance. Bookmark here

"I apologise on behalf of their behaviour," Mari says once they're out of earshot. "Most off-landers who visit come with the intention of causing us harm. You're the first we've let out of that cabin unshackled."Bookmark here

Or alive, for that matter. Something uncomfortable settles in his stomach at that intrusive thought before he remembers that he's not here to do harm to them. He shrugs and continues to walk. "I'm used to stares. Another perk that comes with the ears."Bookmark here

Mari arrives at a cabin that's bigger and more intricately built than the others. It has an overhang above the entrance that's supported by two stripped logs. It's clear that someone of authority lives here, maybe multiple, even. As requested by his tour guide, he removes his shoes before entering. She leads him through a spacious kitchen and down a corridor before stopping in front of a door. Bookmark here

Lilith's face is still. And red. The nurse at her side has placed a damp cloth on her forehead, and there are multiple syringes on the table, their chambers filled with a dark, greeny substance. Mari nods to the nurse, and he leaves the room.Bookmark here

"Your partner's a fighter," Mari says. She's next to him, her powerful arms folded. "No one's ever been this exposed to gumboots—and left with just a fever." Bookmark here

"More of a wet rag than a fighter." Avett takes the nearest stool and drags it over to the bed. "But she's got it where it counts."Bookmark here

Silence. Then, testingly and teasingly, she asks, "I see how it is, then."Bookmark here

"Oh?" He turns and props his elbow against the counter. Playful mirth dances across his features. "You think we're in a relationship?"Bookmark here

A low, gut-quaking laugh. "Excuse me. She was all you wanted in the cabin."Bookmark here

Avett glances back at Lilith. In spite of her current condition, this is the most peaceful he's ever seen her. "Relationship is… stretching it. I hardly know her. She's just a colleague."Bookmark here

He looks down at his hands. The word 'colleague' doesn't seem to fit; it's too narrow, too stoic for someone like Lilith. It's a tenuous term that falls apart under scrutiny. She's not 'just a colleague' because that would imply that he puts on airs in her presence. She's the only person he trusts, and he's only just realising that now. It's just a shame she won't return the sentiment. He's only got himself to blame for that.Bookmark here

The soft slap of leather against wooden flooring snaps him back from his stupor. Mari's chucked off her jacket and thrown it against the floor. A stool rattles up to his side, and she sits right next to him, her eyes searching Lilith's face with unhinged curiosity.Bookmark here

Then she says, "Not really seeing a wet rag here, Avett." Bookmark here

"She's more wet behind her ears than anything." Avett doesn't have to force himself to remember all the times she'd thrown herself into the midst of danger at the expense of her wellbeing. If he dares to take his eyes off of Lilith for even a second, she'll probably find some obscure, out-of-the-way method to kill herself under the guise of 'the better good.'Bookmark here

"Wet behind the ears?" She grins. Then she tilts her head. "You look a little light on the years yourself. You sure you're allowed to say that?"Bookmark here

"I've been in the mercenary workforce for three years now, and she's been in for two weeks. I can say whatever the hell I want."Bookmark here

"Three years." Mari briefly counts on her fingers. Her hands are big—they're stubby and coarse from years of woodworking, he presumes, but there's a feather of softness to them. "Jeez—how old are you?"Bookmark here

"Twenty." Bookmark here

Another laugh. "When I was seventeen, I was a fucking handful for my parents. Not out being… an intergalactic bounty hunter, or whatever it is you do."Bookmark here

Avett catches himself before he makes a quip about his outburst from earlier. Mari's eyes have lost their ferric shine. Bookmark here

He presses his lips together. "Lilith also lost her parents."Bookmark here

"I know." She turns to look at a dent in the floorboards. "A miracle if she still had them."Bookmark here

The silence that follows after is deafening.Bookmark here

She stands and straightens her back. Her smile returns as quickly as it had disappeared. "I'm surprised that, as a mercenary, you haven't thought about getting back your weapons yet. Am I that distracting?"Bookmark here

He blinks. Then—fuck. He pats down the pockets on his pants; the cloth flattens against his thighs. He turns to face Mari again, but she's already heading towards the door. "Come on," she says. "I'll take you to Will's and show you around the council."Bookmark here

She dips around the corner. Avett flashes one final glance at Lilith as the nurse ushers himself back in with a bucket full of clean water and a freshly folded cloth.Bookmark here

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