"I'd like to thank you. For your help. You came after me. You did not have to do that." Bujilli shifted his weight on the cracked tiles. The footing here was more treacherous than some of the ravines he had been forced to free-climb as a child. If it wasn't so cold. He considered removing his boots. But it was too cold. His toes would go numb too soon for it to give him any real advantage. Raised surrounded by steep mountains, he was quite used to the cold...but the wind wailing across the rooftops of Wermspittle was different. It made his bones feel heavy and brittle.
"Would you rather I let Unfred take you to his real bosses? You know what that place was, do you not?"
"A Butcher Shop."
"Yes. They would have made you disappear quite thoroughly. Winter is slow leaving the Low Streets. They'd still be in their rights. No questions would be asked. I..."
"I could not allow that to happen." Leeja admitted as though it cost her dearly. Perhaps it did.
"Thank you," Bujilli bowed his head, "But now..." He wobbled. His stomach rumbled. If anything he was in an even more precarious spot than when he woke-up being hauled along the alley on a make-shift travois by Unfred.
"Now. We're both tired, hungry and it's only a matter of time before someone shows up to see what they can salvage from the bodies we've left behind. Neither of us is in much shape to handle a gang of Butcher's Boys."
"I agree." He shifted his feet again. The longer they put things off, the worse it would be for both of them. Bujilli began to prepare the Voorish Sign. He hoped it wouldn't come to that, but his experience taught him to never assume anything. Ever. That could get you some nasty scars...if you survived.
"I'm hungry, Bujilli. I need to eat. Soon." There was a plaintive quality in her voice that disturbed him.
"No. You don't."
"Look. We both need to get down from here. We both need to get someplace warm and quiet. We both need to eat. Get some sleep. Figure out what we're going to do next."
"What are you proposing?"
"I need a guard and a guide. Someone to watch my back, especially when I'm sleeping. Going it alone in this place is not the best idea...and I don't think it would be wise to return to my room at the Academy just yet."
"I would practically guarantee that. You have an enemy with deep pockets or a lot of influence, maybe both."
"Exactly. I don't even know what I did to set them off, but it looks like I'm caught-up in a vendetta of some sort. I need..."
"I need a friend. I could use a partner." He let the words hang between them.
"I...I have always hunted alone. Always. I am outcast. My birth was a criminal act. You do not want to associate with such as me..."
"You followed Unfred through the streets and alleys. You took care of several of the gonners. You helped me when I was all but handed-over to the Butchers--"
"I now carry six gonnes and the bandoliers that go with them. A good day's pay for a good day's work. Following you was the right thing to do. I'm glad to see that bastard Unfred dissolved into a feculent puddle of vermscheiss--he deserved it."
"With Unfred gone now, do you still have a job at the animal pens?"
"Probably not. Whomever gets promoted, it won't be me. You know...I'm damned tired of shoveling manure..."
"As you should be. Lets work together." Bujilli felt the wriggly white hairs wrapped around his left hand tug at him. Her hair. He decided to take a chance.
He stepped out from behind the chimney.
His tulwar was sheathed.
They locked eyes.
Laughter exploded from both of them simultaneously.
"Let's get out of here. We've got a contract to negotiate." Leeja struggled not to smile. She was quite alluring when she wasn't trying to hide her true nature. Bujilli knew all about that kind of hiding. He'd grown up doing quite a bit of it himself. Until he burned his left hand and the hair never grew back, leaving it too human-looking for his almas-kin. Only among the almas was he reckoned 'too human.'
"Where should we go? Do you know of a place near-by?"
"Several. But none of them are any good to us--they all buy questionable meat in the Winter. They'll turn us over to the Butchers within an hour. If you're up for it, we should cut across these rooftops to someplace closer to the Academy. There's a street cafe that I've always wanted to try-out but could never afford. They claim to have real chocolate. Some scavenger-gang found a stash in one of the old warehouses along the High Pier where all the old airships used to load and unload their cargo. And then afterwards..."
"After the cafe?"
"You can take me drinking over at the Pissing Wyvern Tavern. We can get real food there, for a steep price, but it won't be long-pig or worse. They serve a decent stew made from gutter mussels. Or maybe some venison form the Low Land Marshes. Oh."
"That sounds like a good start."
"Good. Follow me. Let me know if you have any trouble. We can drop down to the street-level, but it'll take longer and there might be more of your 'admirers' out there with more gonnes. And I'm loaded-down enough right now."
"Perhaps we should dispose of those gonnes. You do intend to sell them?"
"All but the only decent one in the lot. I'd like to have a gonne of my own, for those times when my reach isn't quite good enough. You're right. Let's go to the pawnshop--or better yet old man Schroedinger over at his 'Curiosity Shop.' If he doesn't want the gonnes, his partner Cave will probably take them just to spite him."
"Lead on." Bujilli bowed slightly, Leeja laughed at the subtle not-quite-mockery then turned on her heels and started to pick her way across the rooftop. she moved with the fluid grace of someone with more than a little experience in negotiating such treacherous terrain. He would have to ask her about that. Later. After they got to know one another better.
"I should ask," Leeja called back to him over her should as she continued to lead the way over the roof; "would you like to claim one or more of the gonnes? It would only be right..."
"I prefer my bow." Bujilli snorted. He detested gonnes. They were too noisy and marked-out your position with a cloud of stinking smoke for all to see. Though they were damned practical at close range. He'd seen a few gamblers go on to their next incarnation quite suddenly due to someone firing a small fire-arm from beneath the gaming table. One would think that those devoted to such pursuits would not fall for such an obvious bit of treachery, but sometimes the old cliches beat-out fresh innovations.
"Ha. You should have been carrying it then." Leeja laughed. Her voice took on an almost purr-like lilt when she laughed.
"I know. I had thought that it might get in the way..."
"It's all one trade-off after another. Life is one unending succession of negotiations. Watch yourself--this stretch of slates is shifting and the timbers below are probably rotten."
"Is it far?"
"No. We'll be there in just a few minutes if you can keep up with me"
Bujilli laughed. She must not be familiar with almas. Or she was playing with him. He hoped it was the latter. He grinned hugely in the moonlight.
Keeping up with Leeja was demanding. Physically draining. But they needed to get where they were going sooner, rather than later.
Then the roof collapsed...