"Terrapinguin," said the customer, pointing to something that was only mostly a bird.
Lavrent fished it out of its tank, brained it with the back of his cleaver, and set to work on the shell. The customer tapped her foot, hard sole clacking loudly on the tiles of the Neither Fish Nor Fowl showroom. Designer meats were a luxury that he had never encountered before coming to Liscenia, but now his hands moved with a practiced ease.
Shell and feathers and bits of waste fat fell into the basin below his hands. Blood washed warm over them. When he was done, he trussed a reptilio-avian carcass and passed it across the glass counter to the woman, who inspected it, grunted approval, and strolled away towards the checkout.
"Dodecarachnapus," said the next in line, a businessman with graying hair and a squashed bowler hat. "Chop chop," he added, and Lavrent was unsure if this was humor.
The dodecharachnapus had a terrarium all to itself, being a high profile designer meat - and also due to having a beak, venomous fangs, and twenty articulated tentacles. It would occasionally pick the lock on the outside of its own enclosure and it had been spending most of the shift working out ways to subvert the wards that dampened its aggression. Lavrent sighed, popped the lock, and stuck a hand dismissively into its environment.
The dodecarachnapus responded in the manner of its kind - few and strange though that kind was - and bit off three fingers before jetting his hand full of neurotoxic venom.
Neither the finger amputation nor the envenoming took.
Lavrent settled the puzzled animal on his cutting board and neatly divided it into steaks. "With poison or without?" he asked the bowler-hatted man in monotone.
"Without," said the man, his voice shaking. The violence had unnerved him.
Good, thought Lavrent. You ought to understand what you're asking for.
A part of him knew that he was being peevish, but he was nine hours into his workshift with another two more to go. After that there would be the same thing tomorrow, and the day after that, and he would never be any closer to paying off his debts to the Collegia.
At least he no longer needed to sleep quite so much, he ruminated as he filled another customer's order-bag with savagery and impossible giblets. Every night since waking up in the hospital, he had found he needed just a few less minutes of sleep. Now, months later, he was down to four hours and feeling as wide awake and satisfied as if he had had ten.
"Eaglion," demanded a little girl, her hair divided into pigtails and both of those pigtails glowing with ruinic energy from her besequined hairclips. "And no skin!" she added emphatically.
Lavrent gave her a tired smile.
The Nor Fowl did not trust its employees to safely butcher larger fauna up front, and so he reached into an ice chest where the eaglion breasts were kept and flopped two onto his cutting board. He held up two fingers, confirming the order with the girl, and then realized that he was holding aloft the two that the dodec had bitten off. Hastily he swapped hands, hiding the stumps behind his back.
The girl was not fooled. Her lower lip shook. "Can I see that again?" she asked.
Lavrent sighed, showed her the damage, then skinned the cat-bird breasts and popped them into a bag. He held it out to her with his regrowing hand and she grabbed it quickly, beaming at him.
Two more hours until he got to go home, he reminded himself. Two more hours.
"Hey, Trew, you're wanted in the back." Lavrent jumped, but his shift supervisor's face was pleasantly blank. No indication of intent lurked therein. "Go ahead," the younger man said. "I'll watch the front for you." Reaching past Lavrent, he opened up a drawer and took out a porcupowl, holding it by a cluster of its spines.
Lavrent stepped back and let him work.
If nothing else, visiting the back of the shop made for a change in pace.
In the front, there had been a certain collection of sounds. Shouting customers, squealing animals, toppling produce and groaning janitors.
In the back, there was a different suite of noises. Sounds of pain. Of dying. Of men and the fell products of aetheroscience locked in grueling butchery.
Lavrent stepped around a bloodslick leaking from a hook-hanging rhinastodon and ducked under the still spasming wings of a mantadactyl as he made his way to the loading dock in the far rear. There Princip was standing, waving politely, a tightly drawn smile on his face.
"Begging your pardon," the scholar was saying. "I wouldn't have pulled you away from work, but two hours is a long time to wait and your supervisor seemed a bit scared of my rank, so I figured why not exploit that?" A muscle in Princip's cheek twitched and something not unlike guilt crossed his face. "Anyway, there's something important you need to hear, and the Collegia has asked me to play messenger to the displaced citizens of the Notch. So, take a look."
Papers appeared with a crisp flourish.
Lavrent wiped his hands on his smock, leaving stains of deep crimson to dry on the white fabric, and gingerly accepted the documents.
"Re-homing options," he read aloud. His brow furrowed. "What in the Sanctioned Hells is this?"
"The Collegia considers it a friendly gesture to a displaced people," said Princip, with the kind of brightness that suggested he was not buying any of what he was selling. "They have considered the devastated site that once was your home and looked into several ways of rehabilitating it into a place where people can settle again. That would be Liscenian people, of course, and also you. You would lend a certain legitimacy to what would otherwise be a bald-faced effort at sneaking a toe-hold in between the Somnolents and the Princes, and oh goodness did I say that last part out loud?"
Lavrent stared at Princip, who was no longer smiling. "They want us to come home," he said.
Princip nodded. "They'll even rebuild most of it for you. Granted, you'll be largely liable for the cost, and because of your temporarily indentured status you won't be eligible for a share of the profits of the township, but the Collegia will happily accept that on your behalf. And they'll even pay you out a portion of that share, which you can then use to pay a portion of your debt to them. First year economics majors are terrifying when they get a chance at some field experience."
"Students are rebuilding the Notch," said Lavrent blankly.
"Students are financing the Notch, through the Collegia. You would probably be doing the actual building. And I suspect there will be stipulations about setting up a more developed experimental lument drill or some such. It would be rare to see the Collegia pass up an opportunity for power or research." Princip folded his hands politely and waited while Lavrent read the rest. When the other man was done, he added "there's room enough for your daughter, those old women, and that half-shadowed kid. It's not a bad offer, and I can promise you that I've got my monograph all wrapped up. I won't be popping by in the dead of night for details about cuisine or superstition or warding customs again."
"Joy," said Lavrent, followed by "no."
"No to being done with the monograph, or…?" Princip let the question hang out in the open until Lavrent batted it away.
"We won't be going back. Not if they paid us. Not if they built the village exactly as it was, down to every last splinter and cobblestone. This," Lavrent swept an arm at the loading dock, at the cramped alleyway that ran past it, down which vendors' carts were struggling and produce was threatening to slip its tethers. "This is safety. No one comes in here to extort me. No one breaks into our apartment to threaten Rabekka or Yosephyne. And after the first couple of taxis hit me, I've even got a feel for the way your traffic works. We are not leaving."
Princip shrugged. "It's far from perfect. I wouldn't blame you for - "
"Who are you to blame us for anything?" thundered Lavrent. Setting a hand to the center of the scholar's chest, he pushed and sent him stumbling backwards off of the dock. Fuming, the big man wheeled and marched back into the Nor Fowl, where he spent the rest of his shift parting muscle and tendon from bone in short, decisive cuts.
Wade looked at the letter. He shook it out, smoothed some of the creases, and took a contemplative sip from the mug in his other hand. The steaming tea filtered through his lips and began to diffuse in visible waves across his chest, mingling with his half-real, half-night flesh.
"I don't think this is a good idea," he said. "But it's no worse than where we are now."
Wysteria nodded. She was watching him closely, no longer with anything resembling attraction but instead with academic curiosity. The last batch of tea she had brewed him had sent little flowers climbing up from his fingernails, where they had straightened, bloomed, and then fell dead onto the floor.
The ingredients for this new trial were much less expensive.
She was expecting less dramatic results.
"Do you think we should go?" Wade asked.
Wysteria, who had been working nights at an unsanctioned herbalist's bolthole nodded again. Her head felt heavy and her eyes were raw. "It pays better than banditry."
It paid at all, which was what had Wade's attention. After the Collegia had finished their battery of tests on him, they had turned him loose quite quickly. Wysteria had found him then, and since he neither ate nor needed to drink anymore, she had given him a place in her flat.
"It'll just be for a little while," said Wade. "Until I figure myself out. Not forever."
Wysteria pursed her lips and nodded. Then she went to get a pen to sign the papers.
As she did, Wade's hands began to reek of roses, and within a minute they had perfumed the entire inside of the apartment.