A long time ago, sometime after Seamoore became Skymoore and sometime before the present, a number of disabled, sick, pretentious, and otherwise undesirable people were deemed unfit for proper society, and they were quarantined in a crowded district to live in misery together. (Today it is generally agreed that this was an awful thing to do, though that doesn’t do much for the people who languished there.) The resulting region was forced to expand upward, rather than outward, and to become its own self-sustaining ecosystem, containing a little bit of everything if you knew where to look. This jungle of wood and rust, known today as the Mish Mash, was almost a city unto itself, with its own politics, its own culture, and its own leaders.
One such leader, The Claw, sits now on a bronze throne in a warehouse filled with granola bars – chocolate chip, peanut butter, and otherwise. It is not her ideal throne room, but it will do. Her body is covered in white fur, like a cat. Her eyes are green and narrow, like a cat. And she is in possession of a tail, much like a cat. Her ears rest on the sides of her head, and she is bipedal, and she can speak and hold a knife and conduct business, much unlike a cat. In many ways, she is both like and unlike a cat.
Another such leader, Glen Cringle, stands now on a concrete floor in a warehouse filled with granola bars – frosted, unfrosted, and otherwise. It is the kind of place he is used to meeting in, but not the kind he expected. His body is short and sluglike, a vibe he tries in vain to suppress with tasteful business suits. Suits do not mask slime trails (but his assistant, armed with a fast-acting solvent, does his best).
Each of them is surrounded by their lackeys and cohorts. An important distinction, as lackeys are scruffier and likely stupider, while cohorts present themselves as best they can in hopes of better job prospects. The Claw’s top cohort, a fire elemental called The Furnace, stands menacingly beside her throne.
“I anticipated a more tasteful arrangement,” Glen Cringle says, noting their surroundings.
“The Cabal has grown suspicious of the Mish Mash,” The Claw replies. “Or they have grown bored. Either way, I have been regrettably compelled to conduct my business in unsavory environments more befitting men of your stature and cleanliness.”
“Good to see you’re as pompous as ever. Forced to live like the rest of us, but still you sit on a throne.”
The Claw shrugs, and relaxes in her throne. “King’s gotta king. You know how it is. Or not, I s’pose.”
“Are you going to insult me? Or are we going to do business?”
“Up to you. I’m waiting.”
Glen nods to a cohort, who gestures to a lackey, who grunts at a cohort, who shoots a confused glance at a lackey, who slaps his forehead dramatically and runs outside. The Claw is not amused. Everyone gets a little more tense. A moment later, the lackey returns pushing a covered wheelbarrow, which he hands off to a cohort who, with permission from both Glen and The Claw, steps between the two and unveils their product.
“Jam,” The Claw says.
“Jam,” Glen confirms.
“Jam?” The Claw snorts.
“Jam,” Glen reaffirms.
The Furnace chuckles a rusty, frightening chuckle.
The Claw leans forward in her throne. “Let me get this straight,” she says. “You’re short on your product this month. I ask why. I say, cositium is selling like candy right now. You say, in your sluggy voice, ‘I’m no longer selling cositium, miss,’ and before I claw your eye out you stammer ‘hey, hey, it’s okay, I’ve got something else. Something better. I’ll show you tonight.’ So I give you the benefit of the doubt even though I hate looking at you, because you’ve been in the game longer than I have and, generally, you’ve been a quality source of loyalty and advice. And you give me jam. Am I following.”
“You are,” Glen says, sounding less confident now. “But you do not see the whole picture. The Cabal isn’t going to arrest someone for selling jam.”
“People can buy jam at the market, Glen. This isn’t a market. Do I really have to explain to you how jam is not drugs?”
“But this is illegal jam. Banned by the Health Ferrets.”
“Well it’s probably not a very good idea to eat it then, is it?”
“Everyone always says that,” one of Glen’s lackeys says. “We really need to change our pitch.”
“It’s only illegal because it’s so good,” a cohort explains. “Like, you know, ‘this is so fun it should be illegal!’ Except it is.”
“I can explain my own product!” Glen says.
The Claw rolls her eyes. “Good or no good we can’t just sell jam, blubberbottom. I have a reputation to uphold. So cancel your little bake sale, and let’s forget you ever embarrassed yourself so bad.”
“I will not be insulted!” Glen shouts. “As you say, I have been in this game a lot longer than you, you, you impudent child! I run the undermarket with respect, dignity, and an industrialist mind. You just follow whatever trend you read about in this month’s Teen Rogue. It’s disgraceful!”
In the back corner of the warehouse, one of Glen’s lackey grows angry on her boss’s behalf. She slides a dartgun out of her sleeve, then thinks better of it. She takes a deep breath, and considers her options.
The Claw remains impassive. “Done with your little tantrum? Do you feel better? Need mama Claw to burp you?”
The lackey raises the dartgun to her lips.
The Claw jumped to her feet. “Whoa whoa whoa! Human chick in the back, calm your ass down with the blowdart. I applaud your stealth, but your strategy could use some work. I mean think about it: you shoot me and I die, then my lackeys here kill you; you shoot me and you miss, then my lackeys here kill you; you shoot me and you hit me and I live, then I use you as my personal scratching post, use my sharpened claws to maim a loved one, and then my lackeys kill you. I know you folks are hot and bothered for honor, but Glen, please tell your friend in the corner to drop her weapon.”
The Claw sits. “Good, good. I just want us to stay friends, you know? We can forget about the missing funds, all I ask is that you just get back to selling cositium so I won’t have to let The Furnace melt you and sell your remains in a jam jar. We in agreement?”
Glen, swallowing his pride, dampening his anger, bowed. “Yes, my lady. Your terms are kind, and fair. As ever.”
The Claw smiles. She doesn’t make a habit of killing people, but she does make a habit of making people think she did. A dead person was no good to anyone, but a scared person could be a lot of good if you know how to use them.
“Alrighty everyone. Meeting adjourned. Get home safe.”
The Claw always walks home alone, both because bodyguards are for wimps and because she liked it. She’s in a good mood because the meeting went well, because she got to call Glen blubberbottom, and because both the Pale and Warm moons are full in the night sky, making everything look quite beautiful.
As she passes the Mish Mash’s library, she sees Teyla Eastwind sitting on its stone steps, writing something on the base of a pillar in chalk. It looks like a horseshoe, only its inside a crystalline shape, and has a number of weird lines inside of it. The Claw stays away from magic stuff, but she knows an Eldritch rune when she sees one. She’s pretty sure Teyla is in a cult, what with the black robe and glowing chalk, but who isn’t these days?
“Hello, Kelsie,” Teyla says.
Kelsie nods and takes a seat beside her friend. She looks like she’s lost weight in a bad way, but The Claw is only a bitch when she needs to be, so she holds her tongue.
Kelsie nods again, and exhales. It’s cold next to Teyla, Kelsie realizes, and she can see her breath. This is why she stays away from cults.
“How’s that going?”
“Good,” Kelsie says. “Keeping people in line. Someone tried to sell jam instead of my product.”
“Oh yeah, I heard about that. This town is so inane.”
“Laxer?” Teyla offers her a joint of holloweed. Kelsie takes it, and they smoke together in silence. It’s soft stuff, and it doesn’t do much for Kelsie these days. If anything, it actually worsens her mood. But she smokes it anyway.
“Whoa,” Karessa Plunderton had said, some night almost two years ago. She exhaled a ring of smoke which changed from pink to blue to white and then whisped away as Kelsie breathed it in. They giggled.
“Isn’t it the best?” Kelsie asked. “It’s called holloweed. I always smoke after I rip someone off. Helps settle the nerves.”
“Everything’s so bright,” Karessa said, passing the drug to Kelsie. Her purple eyes were so wide. Kelsie wanted to fall in, but she forced herself to look away. “Your fur…it’s like a snowy mountain, with Sol shining down upon it. It’s beautiful.”
Kelsie closed her eyes and inhaled, letting the chemicals brighten her world as well. “You were incredible today,” she said. “Those Spearheads didn’t hear a thing. You just walked out with their stash like it was nothing.”
“And you planned the perfect escape! Going out the window like that? And landing on an awning. It’s straight out of a story. It tried so hard not to laugh when it worked.”
“We’re an amazing team.”
They took turns with the holloweed until it disappeared in a bright pink burst of flame. Karessa yelped, and they both laughed until they couldn’t breathe. As they came down, the two friends reveled in each other’s presence for a time, laying side by side in Kelsie’s fluffy grey bed. Just happy to be together, to be young, and to be high.
Feeling daring, Kelsie brushed her hand against Karessa’s arm. The halfling shuddered. “This stuff’s good,” she said. “That really tickled.”
“I think so.”
Kelsie gently ran her fingers down her friend’s arm, and joined their hands together. Karessa rolled onto her side and smiled. Her lips looked so soft. Her eyes were so wide. So bright.
“If we keep this up, I’m gonna be set for life,” Karessa said. “I can keep doing theater and pay bills for years. K&K, robbers of thieves.”
“Steal from the bad, give to the us. Best idea we’ve ever had.”
“Best idea anyone’s ever had.”
Kelsie kissed Karessa. It was just a peck at first. Karessa gasped, but she didn’t move. So Kelsie kissed her again. Longer this time. It wasn’t Kelsie’s first kiss, but it might as well have been. Maybe it was the drug, maybe it was the girl, but it was so soft and warm and comfortable.
“What are you doing?” Karessa asked.
“This,” Kelsie said, and kissed her again. Karessa pulled away this time. “What’s wrong?” Kelsie whispered. “Doesn’t it feel good?”
“Everything does right now.”
“Come on. You’re so beautiful.”
“In my dad’s jacket?”
“Yes.” She leaned forward again, but Karessa rolled onto her back and sat up.
“I just don’t think of you like that,” Karessa said. “You’re my friend.”
“But we can be more than friends. K&K, right? Together we’ll run this shit stain they call the Mish Mash.”
“Well now that you said shit stain I’m feeling all kinds of romantic.”
“Shut up,” Kelsie said, and she shoved Karessa, and they laughed, and neither of them brought it up again for some time.
“Seeing anyone?” Teyla asks as she takes the joint back from Kelsie. “Because there’s this girl I met the other day that-”
“Oh, get over it,” Teyla says. “How long are you going to pine over her?”
Kelsie says nothing.
“You can still see other people.”
“Of course I can. I’m The Claw. But I’m not interested.”
“She sold you out, Kelsie. Almost ruined your life. Almost took everything from you.”
Kelsie says nothing. She’s in love, and no amount of talking sense is going to change that.
“Thanks for the smoke,” Kelsie says. “Good luck with your demon summoning or whatever it is you get into these days. Tell Karessa I said hi.”
“Yeah, I’m not gonna do that.”
Kelsie goes home. She lives in a tower, the highest point in the Mish Mash, the top of which resembles the blocky face of a toy she had as a child, with a long red carpeted bridge acting as the tongue. It’s accessible only through the barbershop of Dever, a Far One, whom Kelsie pays for his discretion.
You have a visitor, Dever projects into Kelsie’s mind.
“I’ve told you before. No one gets through when I’m not home.”
You said to make an exception for this one.
Kelsie almost runs across the bridge. Karessa waits outside the door. Her hair is up, and she’s wearing dark makeup. Even though she hides herself beneath her father’s oversized fishing jacket, she’s still beautiful.
Kelsie almost smiles, but then she remembers she’s still a little angry with her.
“Karessa,” she says. “Hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
“Oh,” Karessa says, and Kelsie realizes she’s looking a bit somber. “No, not too bad.”
“Are you in some kind of trouble? Do you need something? You’re allowed to visit, of course, but…”
“You’re still mad at me.” Kelsie shrugs. “I don’t really want to talk about it. Just want to see a friendly face.”
“I’ll see if I can find one.” Kelsie grins. “Jokes. Come on in, short stuff.”
Kelsie’s home is expensive, and she wants you to know it. Clean maroon carpet, crystal wall braziers, finely detailed gaseous statues of demigods. And that’s just the greeting room. Her main room has two long, velvet sofas, a black marble table, and a large portrait of The Claw overlooking it all.
“Fancy,” Karessa says.
“Can I get you anything to drink? Eat? Smoke?”
“Drink. Like drink drink preferably.”
“Coming right up.”
Kelsie’s hands tremble as she pours a pair of fruity moonshine drinks that she’s left sitting for a special occasion. She reminds herself that she’s mad at Karessa. She reminds herself that Karessa doesn’t like her. That Karessa may not even like girls. None of that stops the pounding in her chest.
Karessa is sitting on her couch, looking up at the chandelier with interest. Kelsie sits on the couch across from her.
“Drink up. I forgot you haven’t been in here before.”
“Beats the hells out of my apartment. You’ve done well for yourself. Queen of the shit stain at last.”
“No thanks to you,” Kelsie reminds her. Reminds both of them.
Karessa takes a drink. She coughs. Her eyes bulge. She blinks. Kelsie laughs a big, genuine laugh. “It’s good,” Karessa squeaks. She steels herself and takes another drink.
“They don’t drink much in straightsville, huh?”
Karessa isn’t sure if she means abiding by the law or dating men, so she just laughs and takes another drink. Kelsie downs her glass.
“So, we know things are great for me. How’s life treating you?”
“Good,” Karessa says. “I’m acting in plays finally. Got a job where nobody tries to kill or arrest me.”
“Yawn. How’s your mom?”
Some silence, and they both drink.
“How’s the magic shop, anyways? Okay, yes, I may keep some tabs on you. For research.”
“It’s fine.” Karessa looks into her glass with interest. “I like the people there. It’s boring, but it’s fine.”
“You don’t sound very satisfied with life.”
“The acting’s good. Just have to make some sacrifices to get what I want.”
“But you shouldn’t have to. No one should have to. I don’t have to, not anymore. Why did you give up everything we built?”
Karessa closes her eyes as she finishes her drink. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Is something wrong?” Karessa’s eyes begin to water. “Is it Lawrence?” Karessa looks at her, surprised, as a single tear rolls down her cheek. “Teyla mentioned him. It is, isn’t it?”
Suddenly Kelsie is at Karessa’s side, and Karessa is leaning into her former friend. Karessa’s face is hot. “He cheated on me,” she whispers. “I saw him with another girl. He tried to explain it away – she’s just a friend, or whatever – but I’m not stupid. I know what I saw.”
Kelsie puts an arm around Karessa. Like a friend. But still, her face is warm, too. “I’m sorry, Kar.” The tears make Karessa’s purple eyes glisten like violets in the sun, just after rain. Kelsie lifts her chin to get a better view. Kelsie’s eyes are sharp and forceful and when she says, “forget him,” Karessa almost does. “Now you know who he really is. He’s not worth your time.”
Karessa pulls herself onto her knees and she kisses Kelsie. Just a peck. Both girls tremble as they looked into each other’s eyes. Karessa’s wide and wet, Kelsie’s wide and wanting.
“What are you-”
Karessa kisses her again, longer this time. It feels genuine and it feels needy and it feels like everything Kelsie’s ever dreamed of. The girls’ hands find each other’s shoulders and the alcohol hums in their veins and sets their nerves ablaze where skin touches skin. Karessa grabs a handful of fur and Kelsie kisses back with force before a moment of clarity stays her lust.
“You don’t want this,” Kelsie breathes. “You’re drinking, and you’re sad.”
“I do want this. You’re beautiful. And it feels amazing.”
“Everything feels amazing. I gave you the good shit.”
Karessa laughs but she moves to kiss Kelsie once more, pulling herself onto her lap. The halfling’s weight against her feels euphoric, like she was light and empty before, but now she’s full. Complete. “I’ve always loved you,” she whispers, and the sound vibrates in Kelsie’s ears and seeps into her veins like a drug. It takes all her effort to let Karessa set the pace. It takes all her effort not to pounce.
The night passes. There is much alcohol, and catching up, and kissing. Kelsie knows as she drifts to sleep that she will not remember the evening as much as she likes, but that she will treasure what stays as long as she lives.
As she leaves Kelsie’s apartment, Karessa wishes she could forget the night immediately. After that first glass, she let Kelsie do most of the drinking. A pit forms in her stomach as she takes one last look at her friend, a smile on her face as she sleeps, breathing free and even. Every blissful breath is a painful stab in Karessa’s abdomen.
Making out with her former best friend was easier than she thought it would be, when she put the context out of her mind. She’s an actress, she’s good at that sort of thing. But walking across Kelsie’s home with the crime lord’s Basilisk Heart in hand is agony. The crystal seems to burn in her hands.
The morning air is refreshing. Solkin’s orange and white moons still sit above the city, scrutinizing the halfling. Shaming her. Karessa walks quickly – she knows better than to run at this time of day – across the red carpet, down through the barbershop, and far away from Kelsie’s tower. But she can’t escape the moons. Their diligent vigilance is infallible.
What makes them think they’re so much better than her, anyways?
The Basilisk Heart still burns.
“Got what you need?” Lawrence Dufton asks, standing at their meeting spot just outside the Mish Mash.
“Yeah,” Karessa says.
Lawrence leans down and she stands on her toes. They kiss, and Karessa feels tingles where the pit once was.
“Come on, my love,” Lawrence says. “I’ll show you what we need it for.”
Karessa beams. The moons are forgotten and the burning fades. She’s absolved.
“Lead the way.