The Blue Lion was exactly the kind of club a sexy pirate would frequent. A mixture of salt, sweat, and sand covered every surface in the place. Sharp words unfit for high society cut through the music, a relaxing melody composed specifically for the feasting hour, one terribly unsuitable for dancing. Not that sailors cared one whit about proper etiquette. A dozen or so people convulsed together in the open space separating the dining tables from the kitchen entrance. Daj supposed the movements could be considered dancing in much the same way a burning gallery could be considered art.
Daj shivered against the cold. The tables were filled with sailors wearing thick tattered robes meant for the open air or the high seas. They must have a conduit on staff to keep the place cool, Daj thought, lamenting her choice of a low cut dress more suitable for the desert’s heat. Couldn't these people change into something proper before socializing?
"You're in the wrong club, mistress," the hostess noted, looking over Daj's dress.
It was a fair, though aggravating, assumption.
"I'm meeting someone here," Daj said, brandishing the flowers she carried.
The hostess glanced over Daj again. "None here can afford your likeness."
Daj blushed and stammered out an unintelligible series of syllables. Shanja snickered behind her, causing the blush to deepen.
"I'm not a-" she yelled, earning a few stares from the tables nearest them. Daj closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Has a gorgeous Feras woman come in recently? Blond hair, about this tall," Daj asked, holding her hand a few inches above her head.
"Yeah. Got her a table in the back," the woman answered.
Daj marched into the room, Shanja followed directly behind. Half the tables stared as they passed. She ignored them, walking with the grace of a magistrate. It only made the problem worse.
"Daj," a thickly accented voice called out.
Misil sat at a table near the wall, a slew of empty glasses strewn before her. She possessed an exotic kind of beauty. Skin ten shades lighter than the deep olive of anyone born in Teletel, glimmered under the electric lights and blond hair streaked with a stripe of red, covered one of her fiery orange eyes. She wore hideous clothing which certainly enhanced her exoticism if not her beauty. A wide brimmed hat adorned her head and a long coat made from dead animal skin flowed to her knees. Strange garments that enveloped each leg separately clung to her every curve. Daj supposed those were fun to look at, although they left little to the imagination.
"Misil," Daj said, thrusting the bouquet of sandy brown flowers toward her friend. "I've missed you."
"I'm sure you have, pup," Misil said, eyeing the flowers. "Sand blossoms?"
"Yup. The traditional gift for a loved one at sea. Reminds them of the beauty of the desert so they longed to return home sooner."
"That’s a little cruel,” Misil said, setting the flowers on the table. “And wouldn’t it make more sense to give them to me when I left not when I arrived?”
"Um… I honestly didn’t think about it that much.”
Misil shook her head and gestured at Shanja. "Who's this?"
"That's Shanja. My bodyguard. She's not so bad, just don’t expect her to talk much," Daj answered, sliding into a chair. "Shanja, this is Misil. She's a pirate."
"I'm a merchant not a pirate," Misil huffed and slammed back the dregs of her glass.
Shanja nodded and took a seat beside Daj. She surveyed the crowded bar with eyes of a hawk. The woman needed a break. No one was going to assault a richly adorned working girl in a bar of sailors and miscreants. Actually, maybe Shanja’s break can wait until after we leave the docks.
"What are you doing with a body guard?" Misil asked.
"Mothers's a Grand Magistrate now. Bodyguards are part of the standard package. So I'm not killed by rebels, or kidnapped for extortion, etcetera. It's irrelevant that Mother would more likely pay any potential kidnapper to keep me."
"Daj, stop it. Your mom isn't nearly that bad. Just a little intense."
"Try living with her for a few years and let me know if you still feel that way," Daj said, rolling her eyes. "How long are you staying in Teletel?"
"A few weeks. The crew needs a break and it's been nearly a thousand tides since we were last here," Misil said. She reached a hand out and grabbed a waitresses walking by. "Three cezas."
Misil set a few vesos on the table and the girl nodded. The coin's sharp edges shined in the dim light like a blade's edge.
"Let me see one of those," Daj said, snatching a coin off the table.
A jade angel was ingrained into the center of the iron coin. The name of the issuing bank and mint date curled along the bottom in sharply pressed letters. The jade seemed a little too yellow and the letters too sharp.
"Something wrong, pup?" Misil asked, eyeing Daj curiously.
"I think it's a fake," Daj answered, tossing the coin into the air. It felt the correct weight but she'd need a scale to be sure.
"How can you tell?" Shanja asked.
"Look at the ridges on the embossing," Daj said, handing over the coin.
Shanja eyed it absently while continuing to survey the room. "Yes, those are ridges."
"They're too sharp. See look at this one," Daj pulled a coin out of her purse. “The engraving isn't as deep and it's a little more pitted."
"Is it an older coin?" Misil asked.
"No it was minted this year. Both of them were. The press is what's older. This one was minted with a brand new press."
The other two women gave Daj a puzzled look. The kind she often got when she brought up her work using linear systems to model economic growth on the first date.
"The Secretariat of Finance hasn't commissioned a new mint in over fifty years," she explained. "Where'd you get this?"
"Not sure. Ah, finally," Misil said, as their waitress returned with a tray of drinks. She took one of tumblers and sipped it.
"You should dump this as soon as you can," Daj said, taking a drought from her glass. The amber liquid burned like sandpaper chased with lemon juice.
"Got it." Misil took the coin and flicked it onto the serving tray. "I'm just doing what your ward suggested," she added in response to Shanja’s glare.
Shanja’s scowl deepened until Daj thought the woman’s brow would eclipse her mouth and asked the worst question possible. "How do you two know each other?"
Misil's eyes brightened and a mischievous smirk split across her face. Daj's stomach lurched into her throat.
"Do not tell that story," Daj demanded, slashing her hand through the air.
"Oh, but it's such a profound story."
"No, it's not."
Misil leaned back as if to consider that, glass pressed up to her painted lips, booted feet leaning on the table. She gulped down the rest of her drink and proceeded to destroy Daj’s dignity.
"It must have been over two years ago now. I was in Teletel deliverin’ some Ferish Kierk. It's a type of tree. Light and sturdy. Great for airship hulls. Anyway, after unloading, I realized I hadn't seen my first mate the entire tide. I went to check her cabin. Make sure she wasn’t laid up with the pox or somethin’. Inside, I found her naked along with this miscreant trying to pass for a sea urchin."
"Sea urchin?" Shanja asked.
"I had short hair then and kept it spiked. You know what, that's not important and that's where the story ends. Misil lectured me about the temptations of flesh and I left," Daj stammered, waving her hands wildly in front of her.
"Ha, pup, you wish. I swear her entire body turned so red I thought she'd combust. She darted out the door; didn't even think to grab her clothes, she was in such a panic. On the deck, the crew was replacing the rigging and Daj stumbled over some cordage on the ground," Misil said, laughing. Tears ran down her cheek and she thumped her fist on the table. "She got tangled up and tumbled off the side. She hung there for at least ten minutes, her bare ass swaying in the wind before we hauled her back up."
“It really isn't that funny. Could have happened to anyone. And who keeps that much rope on a ship anyway?” Daj muttered, desperately trying to disappear under the table. Her foot slid in something slippery and she decided that maybe it wasn't quite worth getting sailor ichor on her dress.
"I'm surprised you ever saw her again," Shanja said. She wasn't laughing, Daj wasn't convinced she knew how, but a smile ate at the edge of her lips and she'd stopped her surveillance, fully captivated by Misil.
"My crew took a real liking to the girl and I think she enjoyed the attention."
"And it pissed my mother off like nothing else," Daj met Shanja's incredulous look and added, "I was a touch rebellious in my youth."
"After a while, I got used to her and realized she wasn't half bad for a sea urchin. Well, that and Jass would have led a mutiny if I tried to ban her from the ship," Misil said.
"You know, it's not too late to find out why Jass kept inviting me back," Daj said, softly sliding a finger down Misil's arm.
Misil waved her away and grabbed Shanja's untouched tumbler. "Take it up with my husband, pup. We've been over this a thousand times."
"How is your son?" Daj asked, desperately grabbing at the opportunity to steer the conversation away from the escapades of her youth.
Misil eyed her already empty glass for a long moment.
"He's learned to speak. Drives me insane. Always asking why this, why that. I'm glad his father has to deal with him for awhile."
The band’s boorish music sped up and transformed into a rhythm perfectly suited for dancing. Tumbadora, fiddle, and güiro blended together in a complex and playful tempo. It felt a touch uncultured without an accompanying piano, but Daj supposed she couldn't have everything in a place like this.
"Misil, dance with me," Daj said.
"Ugh, I hate Teletian dancing. It's so exerting."
"With a waistline like that, I know you're not afraid of a little exertion," Daj said. She pulled four green glass orbs from her purse and dragged Misil from the table. "Do you have a dance bead?"
"Those silly things. You Teletians use any excuse to channel angel heat," Misil said, a slight lisp dulling her voice.
Daj sighed and handed over one of her orbs. "Use this one." Juggling four while dancing was a risky proposition anyway. She sent the other three twirling around her head and took Misil by the hand. "Bad enough you make me come down to the docks. I won't let you embarrass me more by dancing like a ruffian. I hold you to a higher standard than the median pirate."
Misil sent the glass orb spinning around her body in a far more complicated pattern than Daj could manage; manipulating angel light came naturally to the pirate. With a sharp pull, Daj sent Misil twirling up against her. She put a hand on Misil's back and lead them into a slow spiral. Music thundered and dance beads sparkled in the dim light whirling around them like playful sprites.
"Out of the two of us, I don't think I'm the pirate," Misil said, pulling Daj's hand a couple inches up her back. "But if you insist, I'll play the part. Got any leads for me?"
"Not much," Daj said between spins. "Both corn and cotton are flooding the market right now. The Secretariat of Agriculture started offering exorbitant subsidies and half the country suddenly fancied themselves a farmer. Something fishy is going on with the metallurgy unions so I'd steer clear of them, too. Could your ship fit a couple cars in them? Nothing finer than Teletian manufacturing."
"Too hard to sell. Not enough conduits trained in their usage across the sea. Perhaps I'll stock up tobacco."
Daj missed a step causing the two of them to jostle a nearby couple. Fortunately, they were too focused on each other’s tonsils to notice.
Keeping in step with the rhythm while keeping dance beads aloft was more than enough to keep Daj’s focus occupied. Yet her favorite pirate decided now was a good time to talk business. She sent Misil into a vindictive series of spins.
"You're heading to Malameho?" Daj asked, pulling Misil against her.
"No, your underground is drowning in it. Three peddlers approached us before we even finished docking."
"Sounds like piracy to me."
"If anything, your constables should be thanking me. I'm rounding up contraband for them and removing it from their glorious country. Trade with Malameho isn't illegal in Fera so there's nothing immoral about it. Merely saves me a trip across the mountains. A profound arrangement, wouldn't you say?"
"Nothing immoral about trading with a tyrannical government that outlaws the use of angel light?"
"I’m not trading with them. I’m trading with your city’s underbelly. Pay attention, pup."
"Fine, fine. But I want nothing to do with this. I don't mind providing leads but I’m not going to jail for you," Daj said, slowing their movement. "Your travels take you anywhere interesting?"
"I visited the Star Lands. It was quite a profound experience," Misil answered, glittering orbs dancing in her eyes. "The angels' grave is but a memory that far west. Only torch light and the stars to guide your way."
"I'd love to see the star lands. I've heard it looks like a thousand angels dancing a million miles away," Daj said. The sparking gems twirling around them were but a tawdry imitation of the stars.
"An entire nation could spend the next hundred years counting them all and they wouldn't get halfway done. I'll take you if you want to go."
"What?" Daj asked, nearly stumbling. The three orbs she controlled faltered.
"Come visit Fera with me. I'm sure I'll be returning to Teletel within in the next year, I can bring you back then. An extended sabbatical to learn the Ferish branch of mathematics or some such nonsense. We’ll even stop by Slome or Moa on the way. I know how much you love to sample exotic cuisine," Misil said, her accent growing more and more pronounced until she sounded just like Jass had.
"I don't know," Daj said, hurriedly readjusting the course of her beads before she completely lost control of them.
"Think about it, I'll be here for a few weeks," Misil said, taking the lead. She lifted her hand, spinning Daj under it.
A year away from home to travel the world? Her heart rushed at the thought. She'd be able to learn a dozen new dances and would have a break from her family’s politicking. But she was so close to proving corruption in the unions and finally pushing forth laws to stem it. She didn't know if the chance to do so would arise again or even if Mother would still be in power when she returned.
The song rolled to an end and Misil dipped Daj low, her dark hair brushing against the floor.
"Do I have to pillage and plunder or can I specialize in one?" Daj asked.