The Secret Garden
The "secret" part of the store's name seems appropriate enough, as it seems to be an afterthought wedged into a street corner next to a fur salon, with a small and unassuming hand-painted sign out front and no window displays or other obvious advertisements beyond that. The "garden" part of the name is apparently symbolic, though, as the store really has nothing to do with flowers or shrubbery (aside from the occasional decorative urn), but is rather a potpourri assortment of antiques and knickknacks arranged on tables and shelves in no particular fashion other than to cram it in where it will fit, barely leaving room for a customer to squeeze by in some parts, and creating awkward bottlenecks at some points. (Rhians are better off peering in the window, and a Titanian wouldn't likely notice the place at all.)
Standing behind the counter is a white-furred, black-haired Khatta in a high-collared, low-hemmed dress. The Khatta seems preternaturally skinny, and it's just as well, for only a creature as thin as her could be able to fit comfortably into the narrow oasis of space to be found between the counter and cases of knickknacks wedged in behind it. She's somewhere in her teens, just shy of being considered an adult, and has a look about her of one low-born and uncomfortable in the nicer part of town, and the dress is probably more a uniform for her station here rather than her personal attire. There's nothing so convenient as a nametag, though the store is sophisticated enough to feature an older prototype Chronotopian mechanical cash register.
At present, though, she's distracted from her duties, chatting with a similarly skinny teen, though her counterpart is a brown bat of caramel-and-chocolate tones, dressed in a white frilled dress that similarly has the appearance of being more uniform than choice of fashion (especially since it looks like it would be fairly difficult to fly in). Behind them, through the window, across the street, some Kavi workmen busily take down a sign that reads "Blackwater, Kingsley and Forth," and replace it with a larger one with more crowded lettering, reading, "Blackwater, Kingsley, Forth and Vanguard".
"Rephidim's falling apart, really," the bat insists. "Did you hear about Lord Royce Kelsie?" she asks.
"Sure I did," the Khatta replies. "His entire expedition was slain by brigands in the Wild Lands, while he was trying to find some Sifran site or something like that. I mean, really, it seems like those Knightly Order 'missions' are just an excuse for Rephidim's best and brightest to get killed."
"Well, I don't know too much about 'brightest,'" the bat says, looking less-than-patriotic, then continues, "but that's not the latest: his body was defiled just before the funeral! All his possessions were rummaged through while he was lying in state but that's not all. His body … " Here, the bad, looks from side to side to make sure there are no customers around to overhear, and then she looks back, running a finger from the bottom of her chin, down the middle of her chest, to her belly. "Shhhkt. Slit open right down the middle."
The Khatta cringes. "That's sick. You're lying."
"Not at all! I'm surprised you haven't heard about it yourself already!" the Eeee protests, looking faintly hurt at the accusation.
The Khatta just shakes her head. "Poor Kelsies. As if they hadn't suffered enough already."
The bat seems a little less concerned about the Kelsies than her Khatta companion. "Well, it just doesn't say much for respect for those people trying to form the new Knightly Orders."
"I couldn't blame them much, for the news we were getting back at first … but I heard that Seline von Shanar, one of the Questers, discovered a lost Sifran site in the Wandering Roams. Nice to know that not all the questers have died," the Khatta says, then quickly adds, "so far."
The Eeee nods. "Well, that's good for her. Seems the women are doing better than the men by far. I heard Beldane Warrick and he was an Elite Guard before this came back to Rephidim … minus one hand and two of his men. Failed on his quest to become a knight. Another one down… " As they both start to look fairly glum, she abruptly changes the topic. "So, any luck finding the mistress's pet fuff'nar?"
The Khatta shakes her head. "No, and I've heard that it's now up to three fuff'nars that have gone missing around the old opera house. I've heard tell that some sort of sewer monster is responsible. I myself wouldn't discount the fact that, well, you know, that opera house is owned by a Sylvanian 'duchess'."
The bat shudders, then pauses a bit, searching for a new topic. "Uhm … well, you know, I heard that the Gallisians are raising a ruckus with the Temple about claiming that Savanites here in Rephidim are helping Gallisian slaves to escape. You know … as if it wasn't enough to have freedom for themselves, but no … give them an inch… "
"I'm not really surprised," the Khatta says, dropping to a low whisper. "Why, we've even got the anti-slavery bug in the nobility now. Lady Hrolf has started circulating this petition to the Temple to abolish all slavery … that is, you know, criminals and all."
The bat giggles at this. "Oh, don't I know it!" She adopts a different posture, then, with one fist shaking in the air, declares, "'Slavery in any form is barbarity at its worst!'"
"Well said, well said, dear," comes a voice from the back of the store. "Oh, and I've found a piece that would look lovely on my mantle… "
Both the bat and cat suck in their breaths, as their ears blush. "Y-yes, Lady Hrolf," the Khatta says, standing up straighter and smoothing out creases in her skirt.
The Happy Horrib
The "happy" horrib on the sign looks just like an angry one, except that an abstract "smiley face" has been painted on its tail, and an impish-looking bat is depicted flitting away with a paintbrush and sloshing paint pail. Similar depictions of whimsical scenes although a great many of them leaning toward dark humor, satire, or outright mean-spiritedness toward "enemies of the people" decorate the walls of the interior of the bar, a bit of color to offset the beer-stained and fire-marked grays and browns that dominate the venerable and trouble-tested establishment. Hardly any of the furnishings or mugs match, as so much is scavenged from establishments that haven't fared as well. The tavern is midway up one of the shorter towers on the outskirts of Babel, close to a mine still running under the watchful eye of a mercenary band. Accordingly, the clientele is usually heavily armed and rough in appearance and attitude but this is neutral territory, and they know well to behave themselves, or risk losing the last good ale house a short flight (or a Fnerf's short walk) from the mine.
The bar is especially busy tonight, not only with the miners trickling in from finishing their shifts for the day, but also with several mercenaries bearing armbands marking them as crewmembers for the sky patrol responsible for this part of the city, vying for the barkeep's attention.
A sun-bleached tan-to-white bat in padded leather armor studded with pieces of chitin leans over an empty mug, wavering over the weighty decision of whether to blow the rest of his money on more ale, or save it to get better company for the evening. At last, he makes his decision, slapping a coin down on the bar, and banging his mug. "Another round!" In a lower voice, he mutters, "If I'm drunk, she'll look prettier … and less money means nothing for her to steal when I'm passed out."
"Valchek!" calls out a large vaguely vulpine centauroid Fnerf, his normally red fur now a dingy gray rust thanks to his day in the mines. He claps the bat on the back. "Mind if I sit next to you?" It's a figurative request, of course, since there's no way the vulpinoid can possibly seat himself on one of the stools made to accommodate an Eeee's light frame.
The bat coughs several times, recovering from the greeting, hardly able to find the breath to protest even if he cared to. Once the point is already moot (as the Fnerf scoots the stool aside and settles down on his haunches at the bar), and he recovers his breath, he still says, "Go right ahead, Rug, but the service is slow. The sky patrol just dropped in early."
The Fnerf frowns momentarily at this news, but slaps the bar for the bartender's attention anyway, getting a nod from the Eeee barkeep, but not a mug as of yet. The vulpinoid sighs. "Hey, I heard some news on the way over here that Envoy's been sighted again … though she had a disguise on, hiding her wings and with her fur splotched with black dye … and she was traveling around with a Yodhsunala, healing the sick. Now there's a friend to Babel not like those crummy College mages."
Valchek nods. "I hear you there. Word is that it's been decided by the sky islands that the Tower is really a Sifran site, so, you see, they think they have the right to claim authority over what's inside it, and the College is conspiring with some of the criminal elements to lay siege to it. Those greedy mages. So who's going to defend the Tower against them?"
"As in, who's going to hire you for the job, right, Valchek?" the Fnerf adds with a wink, then pounds on the bar again in another vain effort to get some service. A black bat nearby gives the Fnerf an annoyed look, as his mug sitting on the counter rattles and sloshes.
"Well, the Yodhrephath certainly can't handle it," the bat says. "They've got their hands full enough with just stopping the looters at the Wound. And the Yodhsunala are, I hear, trying to hunt down some cult that's sprung up around 'Rinala' goddess of healing."
"'Rinala?' I think I've heard that name before," the Fnerf says, looking contemplative.
"Well, don't say it too loud. It's a religious thing. Legend has it that's what Sunala's name was before she rebelled against the Creator, and cut his tongue or his heart or something like that out. Anyway, so you can see why that'd tick off the Yodhsunala, if some cult is worshipping the old flowers-and-spice version of her instead," the bat says.
"Sounds a lot nicer, though," the Fnerf says. "Can't complain much about healing."
"Ngh. It doesn't work that way," the bat grumbles. "Life stinks. Everybody knows that. We live, we die, we rot, we push up mushrooms. Best to get what little good there is while we can."
The Fnerf grins. "You're trying to cheer me up, aren't you? But, really, I think maybe the Tower's not that doomed after all I think the College may be realizing that it's going to have a tough battle ahead of it. There was this black-and-white horned creature, 'Reesheek,' sent by the Sisters to the Guild Hall, who persuaded them to let the Yodh visit once again."
"Some sort of demon?" the bat asks, brow furrowing, as he tries to peer through an ale-clouded haze to test his memory. "There was the eep one, the Rughrat one, the horrib one … Blast it, I don't think there was one with a horn, though, was there?" He's distracted, however, when a mug of ale is finally slid in front of him … and another in front of the Fnerf, even though the vulpinoid hadn't had a chance to specify what kind he wanted.
The Fnerf licks the foam off the top of his mug, then murrs, "Well, there was a riot at the Guild Hall, but this Messenger-from-the-Sisters shows up, and does a bunch of miracles of fire and wind, and convinces the mob to leave, telling them that 'The Sisters have a plan for these mages.' But after that, I hear that the College might be planning to pull out all their mages and abandon the Guild Hall altogether. Especially, you know, with those reports of all those strange and turbulent dreams … and that green-furred Eeee goddess seen flying about the towers."
"Maybe," Valchek says, after taking a swig, then he growls, "but it could just mean that they're gearing up for serious war. You know, pull out their people so they're not vulnerable to retribution. Maybe even send in another Boomer to finish us off."
"Pfft," says the Fnerf. "I doubt they'd be that bold. If they are, well, and that's the 'plan' the Kindly Ones have for them and us then we might as well dig our own graves right now."
"Yeah, and you'd be the best at that, eh?" Valchek says.
The Fnerf laughs. "Right. We'll all just march in there, and all the work's done for us. To boot, we get to haunt the mine and scare off anyone who comes trying to find our buried gold."
"Blazes, but I hope I'm a ghost when I die," Valchek says, as he goes to his mug again. "It sounds a whole lot more fun than our lot right now."
"Naw, you'll be just as gloomy as ever!" the Fnerf goads, then quaffs his mug in a single gulp.