Kalliope left the Ojeda residence not long after. Having learned as much as she could, there wasn't much left to do. She considered walking the route the Ojedas gave her to Marlow Zang, the man who commissioned the piece Ozzie never delivered but decided against it. If they were upper class citizens there was no way Kali would get through the door this late at night. No, it was better to retire at the Cuevas residence and recoup for the next day. She needed extra recovery time after the head injury anyway, though it seemed there were no lasting affects. The hot, acrid air dried out her throat. She made a note to carry a water skin tomorrow. Sweat clung to her neck and arms, and Kazimir's heat on her shoulder wasn't made any more comfortable by the heat of the late afternoon. Kali hoped the weather would turn cooler now that fall set in but unfortunately the desert remained a sweltering wasteland people continued to live in. For no reason Kali could fathom, either.
Gustav met Kali at the door and begrudgingly let her in, though the look he gave her when she passed him by could curdle miltank milk. She ignored his rudeness and continued into the cooler recesses of the sandstone home. She didn't understand the prejudice of older folks, especially since neither of her parents ever had such a problem. But she left him as he was. He'd have to accept it eventually. Rocio and Lucinda sat at the table peeling vegetables, talking quietly between them. Cin looked up the second Kali walked in, eyes unblinking, hands squeezing the potato so hard it might burst. "Any news?"
Kalliope collapsed in the seat across from Rocio. "Yes and no."
She reached over to fetch the bowl of potatoes and tried to grab a knife. Rocio stopped her, clucking her teeth in admonition. Kali sighed. "Fine. I just wanted to eat sooner rather than later. It's been a long week."
She was pulling at Rocio's heartstrings and the older woman knew it. Rocio grumbled under her breath and passed Kali a knife. While her hands worked, Kali relayed as much of the afternoon as she could. "There's too much we don't know. Where are the slaves going? Who's running the ring? It can't be legal, not with this many victims."
She tossed the last of her potatoes into the collective bowl and began on the carrots. "There have to be a lot more players in this game than the two rogues I've met. And they have to have so many rattatta holes hidden in Navdia that we'll never plug them all. It's the only way they've gotten away with it this long.""Why aren't there more people involved? Why don't people in the city know?"
Rocio demanded. She smacked her hand into the hard wood of the table. "These are our children and our family. Our neighbors. Why doesn't anyone know?""Slaves aren't unheard of in our world,"
Lucinda pointed out. She'd given up peeling and instead began doodling on the pale faces of the potatoes. "What's it to anyone if a few poor folk get disappeared in the streets? Less hands reaching for purse strings. Good riddance."
Kali raised her eyebrow. Lucinda caught the expression and looked away. "I'm not saying that's my opinion. I'm saying that's the collective opinion of the city. Rogues have always had more of a reign in this city than most. What's one more child stolen?"
Kalliope sighed. Cin wasn't wrong. Frustrating though it was, too many might turn a blind eye to save themselves some grief. And to keep from being targeted instead. "Every life matters. Even someone like Ozzie, who creates more problems than he solves. Some people here might give up but I won't."
She sliced too sharply and cut off the tail of her carrot. She tossed the half peeled carrot back in its bowl, where Rocio snatched it and finished the job. "I just need more information."
She looked at Lucinda. "You said you wanted in. I'm interviewing as many families of the victims as possible tomorrow. I could use your help. An extra set of ears will do wonders. Plus you've experience in the trade industry. You'll better know where people are lying than I will."
Lucinda nodded. She straightened in her seat, twirling the knife blade between three fingers. "I'll help wherever I can."
She promised. They would have continued except Gustav came stomping into the dining area, wearing a slightly stained apron around his middle. "Dinner is served, missus's."
He wiped his hands on the edge of his apron and stomped away. Kalliope wondered if that was standard for Gustav or if he was still feeling salty. Then it dawned on her."If dinner's ready, then what are we doing?"
She asked. She gestured to the bowls of vegetables. Rocio quirked a smile. "We're having stew tomorrow. It tastes better when it steeps overnight."
She gathered the bowls in both hands. Her tongue slapped the back of her teeth with a loud smack. "What did I tell you about making faces in the potatoes, Lucinda? It ruins the flavor."
Lucinda rose from her chair in a single, graceful movement. "You just don't like it when your food stares at you while you eat it."'
She grinned. "It tastes the same."
She picked up the remaining bowl full of peels and took Kali's hand, leading her toward the kitchen to fetch some delicious dinner. The evening passed quickly and before they knew it, the sun had long set and both Kali and Lucinda fought back yawns. Rocio departed as soon as they finished dinner, leaving the girls to their conversation. They strayed from talk of the current investigation and returned to happier memories. It wasn't long before both women retired for the evening themselves.
An hour before dawn, Lucinda pounded on Kalliope's door. "Get your backside in gear. Breakfast is in five."
Kalliope thrust her face beneath the covers and groaned. Already she regretted inviting Cin along on her morning endeavor. How can anyone be that chipper before the sun was up? She dressed, stiff backed and sighing. Her uniform lay out on the small table near her bed, placed before she fell asleep. Her thick scale mail vest and trousers completed the outfit. Despite the heat of the oncoming day and the extra weight she knew she needed protection. No way was she getting caught in another fight without her full armor. Her buckler hung across her right shoulder. She prodded Kazimir, who slept still on her pillow. "You heard her. I'm not going to be the only one suffering this early in the morning."
She teased, ignoring his wordless complaints. "We won't be snacking all day this time. You eat now or not until dinner."
He batted at her fingers with his paws, but eventually he sat up, glaring blearily up at her with bright pink eyes. She straightened the wild strands of hair and brushed her fingertips over the curves of his horn, taking solace in the fierce warmth emanating from him. She'd read plenty in her pokecard about the unique appendage. Whenever a ralts was happy, especially in regard to their owner, it was warm to the touch. No matter when she checked nor how often, nor how angry Kaz would get at her for spending time with the other pokemon in her party, it was always hot to the touch. Kali smiled and picked him up, cradling him in her arms. They went to breakfast, taking comfort in one another's company. Day NineExtremely hot, humid- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -"Alright, who are we visiting first?"
Lucinda asked, striking out down the road with a bounce in her step. Morning people. "Who do we need to shake down?""Rein it in, wild child."
Kalliope admonished. She kept pace with her friend easily, matching the shorter woman's footsteps by shortening her usual stride. "These are family members and friends of the kidnap victims. You can't go in there on the offensive or we'll get nowhere fast."
Lucinda shot Kali a mock glare. "I know that. You brought me with you for my brain, didn't you?"
She ran a hand through her long, black curls and winked. "Leave it to me. I'll get them to squeal."
Kalliope resisted the urge to groan. Despite her gusto, Kali knew Lucinda would take this seriously. She had her own family at stake, after all. "So? Who is it?""Marlow first. We'll leave a message with their steward - or whatever the rich use nowadays - and then move on backward from the most recent to oldest kidnappings. Better to follow the freshest leads first, you know?"
Kalliope tilted her chin and let her eyelids drop, trusting Kazimir to warn her if she was about to hit someone or trip over an obstacle. "Kyung Lugo, Krysta Locklear, Darrick Himes, Maple Batiste--"
Lucinda stopped her with a gasp. "Do you seriously know every single person we're looking into by name?"
She asked, voice hollow with shock. Kali nodded. "By name and how long they've been gone. I went to Ozzie's family first, even though he's technically after Darrick Himes but before Silas Medrano, because he was close to the Guardian's Headquarters and they were most likely to still be open. Plus they live where they work so even if it was too late for the shop, they'd still be home."
Kalliope met Lucinda's eye with a hard expression in her own. "These victims aren't names to me. Every single life matters and if I have to hunt down information on every last one of the two hundred eighty-four, I will."
Lucinda swallowed and broke from Kali's gaze. "Fair enough. Tell me about...Kong?"
She chewed her lip, trying to place the name of the first on their list. "What do we know?""Kyung. And not much. He's nineteen, and he disappeared three weeks ago. I don't know much more than where his parents currently live."
Kalliope turned, tracing her path to the Ojeda's shop from yesterday. "First, though, we need to speak to Marlow. He might have more information. Plus I want to follow the path the Jynx took Ozzie. I doubt we'll find any clues since it was over a month ago, but we might as well try."
When they reached the shop, Kali avoided going too near the building. She didn't want to upset any of the sisters with her presence. Instead she stood across the street and two buildings up, then asked Kazimir to bring up the map they'd used yesterday in her mind. He was able to mark where they stood with a big, purple dot. Kalliope muttered the directions she'd memorized yesterday under her breath. "That where we're going?"
Lucinda stuck her face in Kalliope's, tiptoeing to better see. "I gotta tell you, that's a ridiculously roundabout way to go."
Kalliope replied without opening her eyes. "I know. Araceli said they did it on purpose to lessen the temptation for Ozzie to drink or waste time at food stalls."
Kazimir tapped her chin and she sidestepped the small child in her way, trusting Kaz to keep her safe. "Sheesh, how bad was this guy? I'd have put him out of his misery by now. Or Momma would have thrown him onto the spice farm with nothing but a head wrap and some trousers chopped at the knee. She would have worked him dawn till dusk for weeks until he ate only what he could put in his face before he passed out, and never touched a drop again."
The mixture of admiration and trepidation in her voice caught Kali's attention. "Is that what she did to you?"
She asked, curious. They didn't talk much about the scuffle between her and her parents. It was too personal and painful. But Kali couldn't help herself. "Yes and no. She definitely worked me to the bone in the fields. Might as well have been a mindless tauros chugging all day long back and forth. But I refused to break. By the sixth month straight, she finally sat me down and told me if I was going to be stubborn and tauros-headed, I might as well do some real work for her."
Lucinda's voice softened. "That's when she started me on the books. If she'd used paperwork to break me, I would have crumbled by day three."
She laughed, but it was brittle. "Still. I forced her hand, and proved myself. I wasn't going to let the numbers break me after all that hard work."
Kalliope wrapped an arm around her shoulder, and Kazimir refrained from complaining. He must have sensed Lucinda's emotional aura. "I always knew you were tough as a Marowak's skull. And hey, she's letting you out on courier duty. Finally!"
Kali tried to cheer Lucinda up with a bright tone and a smile but it fell on deaf ears. "So he's still against it."
Kali sighed. "Someday he's going to have to get over himself. Grandbabies aren't everything, you know. You're perfect exactly the way you are, Cin."
They walked arm in arm for a while longer, silence between them. Despite their silence, their minds ran down the same thoughts.
By the time they reached the Zang residence, the false dawn had begun. More folks were on the streets, but not enough to make walking difficult. They chose the back door where Araceli described Ozzie's drop off point. Kali pulled back her arm from Lucinda, who stepped back to let Kali work. Three sharp knocks and the door whipped open with a rush of warm, damp air. "What're you want?"
A gruff woman in stained linen glowered at the pair, seemingly unimpressed by Kali's Guardian sigil. She bowed to the kitchen woman and tipped her head. "Excuse the intrusion, Ma'am. I need to speak with Mr. Marlow Zang, on Guardian business."
Kalliope announced. Her voice came out confident and even, and she rose as she finished speaking to offer the woman a warm smile. "Guardian Tamsin at your service."
The kitchen maid snorted and shook her head. "Ain' happenin anytime soon, lassy. 'Low's too busy for the likes of you. Send a proper one next time."
She shut the door in Kali's face. Or tried. Kali shoved her foot into the door and the wall. "Saucy tart--"
The woman's face darkened to a ruddy red. "I'm afraid I have to insist. The matter is of utmost urgency."
She braced one hand on the edge of the door and pushed. She was in the better position to muscle the door open and used her hip to push it against the woman. "If you would please send someone up to speak with your master and let him know I will be returning this afternoon at his earliest convenience. He may send a message to the Guardian Headquarters for Guardian Tamsin with the time. I'll wait until your helper comes back."
Kalliope brightened her face with another warm smile and stood there, halfway in the doorway. The young boy covered in flour and something sticky on his fingers stared at her. She met his wide eyes with a wink. When the woman said nothing, Kali twisted to look her in the eye and let the warmth drip away. "I'll wait all day if I must."
The woman's face twisted into an ugly sneer but she nodded to the boy, who took off up the stairs. Kali could hear his frantic feet almost all the way up. "Nice day, don't you think?"
Kalliope asked pleasantly. The woman said nothing. Up close she looked perhaps thirtyish, with her face weathered from constant exposure to heat and flame. She had two burn marks on one arm, her wispy hair was tucked away in a scarf. Pale gold hair spilled out in a few bright strands stuck to her face. Kali felt a little sorry for brutalizing the woman, but with rich folks, politeness only went so far. Especially when it came to an investigation involving any of their people, however indirectly. As long as Kali used respectful language and no actual brute force, she should be fine to a point. Eventually the young lad came bounding down the stairs, breathing hard. "Twas still asleep, miss."
He gasped. "But he'll hear soon as he wakes."
Kalliope nodded and stepped back, though she kept her foot in the door for another moment."See that he does. I'd hate to have to come back under less polite circumstances."
Kali met the woman's eye as she took another step back. The door slammed in her face. Kali chuckled. "Sometimes my job sucks. But sometimes, I really enjoy what I do."
Lucinda laughed and they strode off, this time with Lucinda in the lead. By the time they reached the Lugo household the sun breached the horizon and pale gold painted the tops of the sandstone buildings. Kali took point again, leaving Lucinda to have her back. She knocked, three decisive raps. No one came running. Well, it was early. She knocked thrice more. Slowly the lock snicked and the door widened two inches. A dark, almond eye stared up at her. Olive skin, deeply creased around the eyes and mouth. Dark, thick hair. "Excuse me, are you Mrs. Lugo?"
Kali asked. The woman nodded once. "May we take a few moments of your time?""What for?"
Came the curt reply. Kali blinked. "It's about your son, Kyung--"
The door swung open, revealing a petite, middle aged woman in soft gray wool and a tight mouth like she was holding needles between her teeth. "What do you know of Kyung?"
She demanded. "I've never seen you before."
She whipped her hand up and down, gesturing to Kali and Lucinda each. "Who are you?"
Kalliope executed a short bow. "Guardian Tamsin, Ma'am. I'm here regarding his disappearance. I had a few questions to ask about what happened."
The woman didn't move a muscle. Not her pursed mouth, not the way her hands folded over her stomach, not the staunch way she stood directly in the doorway to keep Kali from entering or looking inside. "The report we have is sparse and we would appreciate a little information."
Mrs. Lugo stared at both girls one at a time, eyes flicking between without moving a single inch in any direction. When she stepped back and to the side in a single motion, Kali released the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. "Come. I don't help much, but I will answer."
She muttered. She jerked her head sharply, a quick and aggressive move. "In."
Exchanging a look, the girls entered. The older woman led them inside. The house was dark, every window buttoned up to keep out the heat of the day rather than let in the occasional breeze. The walls were bare, the furniture simple but functional. Kali sat across from Mrs. Lugo and Lucinda sat at her elbow."Thank you for your help."
Kalliope tried a smile. The woman's blank expression didn't change. "Well. Like I said, we have a few questions."
She fumbled, trying to put words into a proper order. Mrs. Lugo was intimidating as a rabid mightenya. "Our report says he disappeared three weeks ago, on Kernday.""What of it?"
Mrs. Lugo demanded. Kalliope flinched. "What time would you say you realized he was gone? Was it early morning or afternoon? Did he say he was going somewhere or did he just leave without a word? Is it normal for him to leave without saying anythi--"
She swallowed hard. Mrs. Lugo lifted a hand, her tiny fingers a firm command. "Too many questions. I don't know when he left. I don't know where. He went to bed, he didn't come to breakfast."
When it was clear she wouldn't speak again, Kali moved on. "Okay, can you tell me where he worked? Does he have close friends around here we might speak to?"
Kalliope inquired. Mrs. Lugo shook her head once. "Anything?""He doesn't live here. He visited from Little Marchton, I don't know where he worked. He didn't know anyone here. That's all I know."
Her curt voice cut off Kali before she could go on. "I can't help you.""Ma'am, if your son was taken the same way my family was taken from me, there might be a chance to get him back. If you could just--"
Lucinda began. "Who woke me up this damned early?"
A deep, grave voice called from the room behind Mrs. Lugo. A large, tan man stomped into the room wearing nothing but a pair of trousers. His hard, round belly stuck out over the hem and his thick, golden brown beard touched his chest. His blue eyes met Kali's and glowered. "What's a Guardian doing in my house? I haven't done anything, y'hear? Now leave me alone.""She's here about Kyung."
Mrs. Lugo explained. Her eyes never left Kalliope, as if she thought Kali would reach out and swipe at her if she turned away for a second. "Asking questions about his disappearing."
He stopped. He swiveled to stare at Kali and Lucinda for a few seconds. As she watched, his face turned purple and his cheeks began to tremble. "OUT! Get out of my house this instant!"
He shouted. The table near rattled off the floor. Kali leaped up in shock, hand on her sword. She immediately dropped both hands, reminding herself that this was a civilian. Kazimir covered his ears and Lucinda knocked over her own chair in her haste. "You have no business meddling in my son's life. You get out of here right now or I swear I will smash your skull in!"
All this time Mrs. Lugo didn't move. Of course, she wasn't at risk of getting her face smashed in. "I understand you're upset sir but threatening a guardian--""Damn your arceus forsaken Guardians. Get your ass out of my home or I'll throw you out!"
He threw up one arm as though he planned on smashing her face from five yards away. Kalliope backed up. This wasn't a time for her to fight or argue. She would beat a retreat and come back another time. Possibly with backup that could restrain him without her getting in trouble for the struggle. "Thank you for your time, Mrs. Lugo. If you have anything else to tell us or remember some detail, I would appreciate hearing of it. Send for Guardian Tamsin."
She turned on her heel and left, trying very hard not to look like she was running from the screaming madman at her back. The door slammed behind them, barely missing Lucinda's backside. She hissed, baring her teeth. Kalliope led them away from the door and around the next corner. "For parents with a missing son, they are surprisingly closemouthed about the whole thing."
Lucinda observed. She glanced over her shoulder, the bright daffodil of her dress a contrast to her dusky skin. "What was with those two? A defensive maractus would have been less prickly than that woman. And her husband? What a maniac.""Agreed. The really interesting thing is neither of them reported him missing."
Kalliope pointed out. She slowed once they walked beyond the first block away from the Lugo residence. "Did it seem to you like they were hiding something?"
Lucinda nodded slowly. "It did. We didn't learn anything at all. Other than Mr. Lugo has a nasty temper."
She picked up the pace and sidestepped Kali, taking lead. "Wait, then who did?"
The streets remained moderately empty, with a handful of youngsters playing or running errands for their families."Someone named Ha-Jun."
Kalliope rifled through her mental notes. "There was almost no information regarding Kyung's disappearance. It's one of the reasons I chose to investigate him personally."
She glanced at Lucinda. "How do you feel about asking Ha-Jun a few questions?" "Mysterious tip, suspicious parents. This looks like a job for a nosy redheaded Guardian."
Lucinda grinned. Kalliope met the expression with a smile of her own. "Lead on."
She threw her arm in the air, like the announcer of a pokemon race. Kali cleared her throat. "Maybe you should lead? I have no idea where I'm going."
She admitted. "The Ginger Guardian and her Trusty Sidekick!"
Lucinda decreed. "Follow me!"
They took off, laughter chasing in their wake.