Chocolate swirled through the milk, its spiral disappearing as the rich brown colour spread through the milk. A similarly brown finger broke the spinning surface. Surinder sucked on his fingertip and made a face. “Not even chocolate can redeem powdered milk.”
His cousin Sanjay laughed. “You’d think powders would all go together naturally.”
“Don’t add powdered eggs to that,” Surinder jabbed a finger at the mug as he got to his feet. “I’m going to give the landlord his blood money.”
There was no real rancor in the nickname. ‘Blood money’ was merely the artisan quarter’s vernacular for rent. Surinder had been staying with his cousin for several months, and the language was about the only thing he’d really picked up on.
Some things struck him as normal. Dirty people wandered by in states of bliss, irritation and drunkenness. Squat houses were built on varying levels to compensate and embrace the pillar city’s own immense height. In some parts of the city, clouds guarded their ancestral territory by coating the human streets in a near-constant fog.
Such things were common in most pillar city neighbourhoods. The colours weren’t.
The entire artisan quarter was bathed in garish colours, each competing with the others to blind passersby. As if that weren’t enough, any wall arguably big enough, sported a mural. None of them lasted longer than a week. Self-expression was like a weapon in the artisan quarter.
It also made it very easy to spot people who didn’t belong. The awful bright costumes would have made any of the residents stand out in a crowd. But not this crowd. The drab clay colours of regular pillar citizen’s clothing might as well have been a tangerine among walnuts.
There were three of them, two huddling in conversation while the third, a rabbity-looking man, stood transfixed by a mural of naked woman holding birds.
Surinder hunched his shoulders and hurried along. He cursed under his breath. What kind of landlord lives so far away?
He may have been able to spot the three outsiders, but he wasn’t so familiar with his surroundings that he could lose a tail. They rounded on him after half a block. The art appreciator screwed up his face into a weaselly sneer. The other two joined in with similarly malicious expressions. Surinder fixed them with a blank stare. Part of him wanted to show fear, but it was the part of him that insisted on standing when a lady entered the room. The unpleasant men were standing right in front of a wall basted in orange paint and misshapen green birds.
The leader, a thick man with limbs like steel beams, stepped just ahead of the others. “Mister Daybreak, I presume.” He mispronounced the last word.
“Are you lost?”
The weaselly art appreciator made a gesture of exhausted ill humour. “Only for bloody ages. We got stuck in that–oof!” He glared at the man who had elbowed him. “For yonks,” the weasel finished, with a sullen face.
Surinder tried to exude confidence, but he felt like torch with a burnt-out bulb. “If this is about that job, I’ve already turned it down.”
“Mister Daybreak, this entire world is built on second chances.” The leader grinned and pointed to the network of scars on his face and arms. “Our Lady Magna believes in forgiveness.” He winked. The gesture made Surinder fear an incoming proposition. “Up to a point.”
“Then she’ll have to forgive me one last time.”
The streets were nearly empty at this early hour. Artisans did not set records for waking up before noon. Surinder backed away from them, wary of an attack.
It came in the form of the weasel pushing hard against Surinder’s chest. The blow had all of the weasel’s weight behind it. Surinder hit the ground with a surprised cry. The sound of it was short-lived, as he did not have enough breath to prolong it. His spine was not happy.
Before he could manage a gasp, the leader’s boot impacted with Surinder’s unprotected side. White lights exploded in his skull.
“One last time it is. I’ll inform the lady of your compliance.”
Surinder curled into a ball and tried to remember what it was that this Lady Magna had wanted him to do for her.