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Here We Are Standing on the Corner of "Walk, Don't Walk."

"What is this place?" Nereid asked as Tam drew her through the curtain into a crowded room. She was overwhelmed by myriad rich scents of food, reminding her that it had been some indeterminate time since her last pseudo-meal. As she looked around, every face she saw was Asian, and every voice she heard was speaking a language she didn't understand.

"Mistress Wang's," Tam said.

"Why are we here?" she said, raptly watching a plate of steamed buns go by in someone's hands.

"To get information," he said. "You want to find your friends, right? If there's news of them, we'll hear it here."

"Oh," Nereid said, catching herself as she took a step after someone carrying several bowls of soup whose aroma made her salivate.

"Come on," Tam said, and pulled her to a table near the wall, tucked under the stairs to the second level.

"How will you get news?" Nereid said. "No one's speaking English."

He smiled at her and patted her shoulder. "I always manage to make myself understood somehow. Wait here."

Nereid sat at the tiny wooden table and watched it rocking under her hands, trying to focus fully on the tabletop as food -- lovely, hot, mouthwatering breads and meats and vegetables -- went past her. At a nearby table, someone was slurping noodles. Usually, the sound didn't bother her, but right now, it made her want to jump up and dismember everyone in the room with swords she knew very well that she couldn't handle. Swords just like that young woman in the amazing hat (with little fuzzy dongles all round the brim) over at the counter had crossed across her back. All for a bowl of noodles.

Tam sat back down next to her, a bowl of some liquid in his hand. "Well, the lady of the house will be by in a few then," he said.

"Will she know where the Equestrian might be?" Nereid said.

"We'll find out," Tam said, smiling and taking a swig from the bowl. Nereid eyed him pouring the fluid into his mouth, watched his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed, saw a crystalline droplet spill off his lip onto the tabletop. She could smell the raw alcohol. Her mouth was sticky as flypaper. All she wanted was a sip of water.

She thought about making some water for herself. She thought about transforming herself into water -- maybe she wouldn't feel so thirsty or hungry if she were water. If she could make that transformation on purpose. But then would that count as using something from Faerie, integrating it into her body when she changed back? Like drinking or eating? She rubbed her temples.

A tiny, elderly, Asian woman in a royal blue silk cheongsam appeared at Tam's shoulder. Her iron gray hair was caught up with pins and sticks in a complicated way. "Looking for directions, I hear?" she said in perfect, if slightly accented, English. She smiled, her face wrinkling pleasantly.

"Indeed," Tam said, smiling back at her. "Mistress Wang, my favorite lady of ill repute."

"So, the way you want to go is through Sherwood right now, you scoundrel," Mistress Wang said, swatting the back of his head playfully.

"And how do we get there nowadays?" said Tam.

"Ohhh, if you don't know," Mistress Wang said, "then you'd better hire a guide. The roads are a bit... political right now."

Tam pursed his lips. "Who would you recommend then?"

Mistress Wang looked around the hall thoughtfully. She pointed one finger -- Nereid gawped at the size of the ruby adorning it -- and said, "You might ask Coyote. From what I hear," she added, "he's one who gets around." She raised her voice. "Coyote! Got a couple of people here who want to talk to you!" She gave the two of them a professional smile and glided away to another table.

The man pointed out as Coyote was tall, wearing only a loincloth, and quite possibly the most beautiful man Nereid had ever seen. He was also clearly gayer than a nun wearing sequins in the Castro on Hallowe'en. He sashayed over to their table, flipped his glossy black hair over one shoulder, and turned a dazzling smile equally on Nereid and Tam. "Hey, how's it hanging?" he drawled suggestively at Tam.

Tam edged a little closer to Nereid. "What are you doing in this part of town?" he said, doing his best to sound casual.

Coyote pulled out a chair and sat down on it sideways. "Looking for a date, what else?" He draped a graceful arm over the back of an empty chair and winked at Tam with one long-lashed eye. "I don't suppose you're free?"

Tam slid an arm around Nereid's waist and smiled nervously. "Of course not. I'm here with my girlfriend!"

Nereid blinked at him in confusion. She felt slower of mind than she'd ever been before, and that, she thought, was saying something.

A waiter passed behind Coyote, balancing the biggest tray of food Nereid had ever seen on his shoulder. She noticed at least two sizzling, crispy, dark brown roast ducks, an enormous joint of beef with a few pink slices showing like Venetian marble at the side, the jewel-like tones of glazed vegetables, and, in the center, an enormous pile of citrus-adorned rice. The smell from the tray completely distracted her from the next couple of exchanges.

Nereid then noticed, suddenly, that she was overhearing -- and understanding -- bits of nearby conversations. "So I told him," said one of their neighbors, "at Gold Mountain, where else? And he had the gall to say that wasn't specific enough. As if everybody doesn't know where that is." His companion -- South, rather than East, Asian -- nodded sympathetically.

"It could be that I'm going that way," Coyote was saying, leaning his elbow on the table and his chin on his hand. "If the price is right."

Nereid pulled her attention from the fragrant red-cooked eggs the people at the next table were nibbling with their tea and found her gaze riveted on Coyote's perfectly-muscled abdomen. She desperately tried to look away, to focus on something else, on the conversation, on Coyote's face at least, and discovered that he was wearing an iridescent dragonfly barrette over one ear. She found it oddly endearing.

Tam said, "I think I could manage that. When would you be ready to leave?"

"Oh, any time," sighed Coyote, running his fingers luxuriously through his hair.

"Can we go before I try to eat something?" Nereid said plaintively.

Coyote stroked her hand. "Of course, dear," he said so kindly it brought tears to her eyes. Then his gaze focused over Nereid's shoulder and he stood up. "Eeeeeeeh, girlfriend!" he bellowed at someone across the room.

Nereid found herself eye to crotch with Coyote and stared at his loincloth in blank amazement. It was embroidered with fine beadwork in the shapes of little unicorns and rainbows. Tam kicked her under the table. "Could you please not stare at his... his fork?" he hissed.

"Fork?" Nereid said, thinking of food and looking around, forgetting that everyone here seemed to use chopsticks. Except when they didn't. Her head was starting to hurt.

Coyote patted her on the head as he moved around the table toward his friend. "If you like that, you should see my jingle dance regalia," he said absently.

Tam put his face in his hands. Nereid, still not quite understanding what she'd done wrong, twisted her head around to see who Coyote was talking to. An elegant Asian man with hair nearly as long and glossy as Coyote's picked his way across the room fastidiously. He was wearing what looked to Nereid like some type of formal dress. She wondered what his tall, almond-shaped black hat was made of. While he did not seem particularly put out by Coyote's greeting, his companion, who wore a bow and quiver of arrows on his back and a flute tucked into his belt, frowned repressively. This seemed only to encourage Coyote, who was, judging by his body language, flirting excessively, complete with suggestive hip motions and eyelash fluttering. Finally, Flute Boy seized his companion by the arm and drew him bodily away.

Nereid leaned over to Tam, after overhearing another patron grumbling, "Five hundred years isn't nearly enough for that monkey," and said, "I thought you said everyone here spoke only Chinese. But they're all speaking English."

Tam glanced at her, eyebrows raised. "I never said that."

Coyote drifted back to their table. Tam looked up. "Now, perhaps?" he said hopefully.

"I suppose," said Coyote. "Everyone seems to have brought their own dates tonight." He winked at Nereid.


From the Author:
Annnnnnd here's the last episode of February! I'm going to have to drop down to once weekly posting for March, due to some traveling and family medical issues, though I'll post two when I can.

My wife's fun ideas about Coyote heavily informed this episode.

TODAY IS THE LAST DAY FOR VOTING ON THE ROSE & BAY. Please, if you haven't voted at all, consider giving WCS a little boost to get into Round 2 of the Fiction category. Check out all the nominees in all the categories here. And please consider voting for Dave or Lucid (I mean aerynvale or badfaun!) in the Patron category, whose voting completes entirely today.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction!

Date: 2012-01-28 05:47 am (UTC)
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From: [personal profile] the_leaky_pen
I don't even. What just happened?

This must be what Nereid feels like on a regular basis.


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