I am beginning to question my decision to go along with Ms Pink’s investigation. When she said investigate, I imagined scouting out crime scenes, suspects’ accommodation, questioning witnesses and friends. You know, the crime novel-slash-drama usual. What I was not expecting is this: walking through a filthy, smelly, sewer deep underground.
“Who are we looking for?” I ask when I think the stench has abated. Bad news. It has not and I am reduced to a coughing fit which does not help in the least. Ms Pink rolls her eyes and takes a packet of something from her pocket. She rolls up a small strip of green into a ball and stuffs it in my nostrils.
I inhale and am surprised to find that the wads of green in my nose are not hindering me at all. And most importantly, the stench is nowhere to be smelt. “What is this?”
“Oh.” I am curious to know more about fabric mimea but this is neither the time nor the place for it. “And who are we looking for?”
“Rats?” Ms Pink answers with a blast of her ice-cold glare but I hold my ground. I am beginning to see through Ms Pink’s ways. With me, she is all-bark-no-bite. So far. It seems. I clear my throat. “Real rats or . . .”
“Okay.” I also feel like asking how safe the sewer is for us to walk through but I don’t. Ms Pink may be all-bark-no-bite with me but that’s no reason to test her limits.
The sewer is rather dark so I have to follow Ms Pink closely and in this instance, I am glad for her luminous pink jacket. It isn’t the usual posh fabric coat she wears to work. This one is like latex and it appears to be waterproof—a useful quality for the conditions down here. Not that I am unprotected. Ms Pink put me in a waterproof suit that covers me from the neck down to my fingers and toes and I am very thankful for it. Even if I am all pinked up.
Turn after turn. Sludge and more sludge. The darkness is beginning to brighten as my eyes grow accustomed to it and I am starting to wonder why Ms Pink isn’t carrying me and going at vampire speed to reduce the suffering when we come to a sudden stop. I am an inch away from bumping into Ms Pink but fortunately, I don’t. I say fortunately because it would be embarrassing to appear clumsy in front of such disgusting looking pests.
Ms Pink wasn’t kidding when she said rats. Right in front of us, standing on their hind legs, are a bunch of good ol’ dirty, filthy rats. Their coats are covered in slime and their whiskers drenched in gloop. And might I add, they are so big that they are almost as tall as us when they stand on their hind legs. It’s all I can do not to run away screaming in disgust and terror.
One of them transforms into a shaggy, ratty man. He isn’t much taller than Ms Pink and in human form, he is naked, thus losing quite a lot of his fearsome factor. “Who is this.”
Ms Pink’s eyes don’t leave the rats as she answers, “The Erika.”
Whiskers quiver and beady black eyes turn to me. “That is all? We are supposed to trust in this tiny mite of a human?”
“Size is irrelevant. Great energy can be stored in the tiniest of spaces. You ought to know that well.”
“She has not proven her powers yet.”
“She killed Praneso.”
The rat-man gestures at the pack of rats behind him. “We did not witness it.”
“You may not trust my account of the incident, but the Federation has found it to be true. It has been proven.”
“Have you forgotten why we are down here?”
“I remember—vividly—why you are down here.”
“If they can kill Olympias, there’s nothing to stop them from killing us.”
“If you think there is nothing left to stop them, you have nothing to lose by placing your faith in the Erika.”
“If we place our faith as you say, we stand to lose hope when she fails.”
“You also stand a chance to secure your freedom, your right to stay here.”
“It’s a gamble.”
“The Erika is not a gamble.”
“The book could be wrong about everything.”
Ms Pink folds her arms. “Is extermination what you want?”
“That is a rhetorical question.”
“Here is a literal question. Have you heard the name Max mentioned anywhere?”
The rat-man’s eyebrows rise and fall as his thin lips curl into an uneasy smile. “I see. This is why you came down to see us.”
“I would not intrude if not for an important cause.”
“Funny you should ask about Max.”
“I am not the first to ask.”
The rat-man shakes his head with a creepy smile. “No, you’re the second.”
“But you will tell me more.”
The creep smile widens. “Since you said so.” The creepy smile narrows. “Without others. Erika or not.”
Ms Pink looks at me as she nods and this is when I begin to understand why Ms Pink does not want to bring me along. She does not want to leave me alone in a place like this. But I give her a push. “Go. I’ll stay here.”
“The Erika trusts us rats.” The creepy smile seems less ominous now as he bows to me. “Noble or stupid?”
“Stupid,” says Ms Pink. She looks at me one more time, a queer expression, then disappears around the corner, leaving me well and truly alone.
Looking around at the remaining rats, I decide that having a conversation is better than the awkward silence and staring. “How many years have you been living here?” I ask no rat in particular.
One of them, a shorter one, morphs. She is naked too, her body displaying her youth; adolescence, for lack of development. “It’s been twenty years for me. Some of them have been here for a hundred, two hundred, way before modernization.”
“That’s a very long time . . .”
“Are you happy living down here?”
The way she looks at me makes me think I asked the wrong question but her answer explains it all. “No one has ever asked me this question before.”
As she frowns in thought, another rat morphs into a man—rather aged, if his white hair is any indication. “This environment suits us. It is not a question of how happy we are living here. This place beckons us. Naturally.”
“I see . . .” It is strange, but I sort of understand what he means. “Suitability is a kind of happiness too.”
“You could say that.” He smiles. “It is nice of you to ask. Few souls care for us rats. Most see us as pests.”
“Rats may be pests but this world still needs rats.”
The old man chuckles. “You, Erika, are a rare type. When the time comes, we will do well to have you on our side.”
When the time comes? This sounds very much like . . . “G-Gerant?”
“We are rats. We know everything. But contrary to the popular phrase, we don’t rat on others. We simply cooperate when necessary.”
So cooperating with Ms Pink is necessary. But why?
“Don’t ask. We won’t answer.”
Ms Pink returns just then, so our conversation ends like this—no answers, even more questions.
My conversation with the rats reminds me of one important detail I have neglected to tell Ms Pink about but judging by the dark clouds hovering around her, I think it can wait. Instead, I accompany her in silence, giving her some space and time to figure it out. It is only after some time that I realize we are not going back to her castle or my apartment. We are going to High Society.
Royal red and the familiar décor greet me as we sweep past the doors, Ms Pink’s presence gaining us swift, unhindered entry to the place. The mild crowd barely even notices us as we walk through to the other side. But this time, it is not the door to the dungeon-like corridor that Ms Pink leads me to. This time, we go through a black panel that I didn’t know could slide and enter another corridor that looks exactly the same as the one I know. Ms Pink doesn’t explain where we are going and neither do I ask. I suppose I will find out soon enough.
We stop in front of a black door that looks like a piece of burnt wood and smells off ocean salt. Maybe it used to be part of a ship. Ms Pink opens the door and enters without knocking so I follow quickly before the door closes on me. Stone-cold walls surround us. A cool draft breezes by and gives me the chills. Gosh, who are we here to meet?
“Princess Pan Ni, welcome to my humble office.”
“There is nothing humble about your office.”
“It’s humble compared to yours.”
“You have a point.”
“Which I would concede to you any day, Princess Pan Ni.”
“It is good of you to know your boundaries, Madam Hyo.”
Madam Hyo? I can’t resist peering over Ms Pink’s shoulder. It is her! It’s Hyoyeon!
“Who’s that hiding behind you?”
“You know who she is.” Ms Pink turns to me. “Step out,” she orders.
I move out to Ms Pink’s side and flash a smile at the familiar face of my saviour. “Madam Hyo,” I greet, remembering how Ms Pink addressed her.
“Nonsense. Just call me Hyoyeon. Or Hyo, if you like.”
Hyoyeon grins at me and nods. “That’s me!”
“Thank you for saving me back in Demortams. I never got a chance to thank you after the trial.”
“Ah, it’s no biggie. I was feeling so bored in that place anyway. You gave me some free entertainment,” Hyoyeon says with a laugh.
“You speak too easily of that day, Madam Hyo.”
“Easy come, easy go. Just go with the flow. Call me Hyo.”
“I am here as Princess Pan Ni. Your official title is Madam Hyo. I will address you as I should.”
Hyoyeon sighs. “In that case, let’s get it over and done with. Have a seat. What are you here for?”
“Max,” says Ms Pink as she sits.
With my mind pumped full of curiosity, I take the plush chair next to Ms Pink’s and wait for Hyoyeon’s answer.
“The blue guy.”
“We’re not supposed to talk about him.”
“That is why I am here.”
Hyoyeon grins. “Well, since you’re here . . .” She reaches under her desk and takes out a vial of blue. “This is what I can offer you.”
“What’s your price?”
Hyoyeon nods at me. “I have slayers to feed.”
“Strategic but not generous enough.”
Ms Pink turns to me. “It is your blood. Your call.”
I am momentarily stunned. Is Ms Pink handing the decision over to me? Right in front of Hyoyeon?
“Don’t take all day, Taeyeon,” Hyoyeon adds with a cheeky grin.
Is everything a joke to her? I wonder. At the same time, the fact that I wasn’t asked if I’m willing to trade my blood for the vial isn’t lost on me. But Ms Pink is allowing me to negotiate so that’s an improvement I guess?
“You are a generous negotiator, I respect that. To show my sincerity, I will not raise it any further. 30 cc it is.”
With a sigh, I stick my arm out. There goes my blood again.
Hyoyeon sends us off with a great big smile. At least someone is happy with this exchange. I suppose Ms Pink is happy with it as well, since it isn’t her blood she trading with.
“What are we going to do with the blue vial?” I ask as Ms Pink starts up her car.
“Seo will have it analysed.”
“What is it?”
I freeze in shock. “Max’s blood? But how did Hyo—” A hand clamps over my mouth, shutting me up immediately.
“Do not mention any details. Do you understand?” I nod and Ms Pink’s hand releases my lips. She stares at them for a moment, then leans over and kisses me. “You did well today.”
A deeper, longer kiss later, Ms Pink pulls away with a smile. “Stupid human.”
“Will you tell me when it is safe to talk?”
With that, I settle back and relax. It’s been a long, long day.