Ketta flipped her hair out of her face and leaned forward a bit to study the sprite's impossibly small face. Every square millimeter was etched with lines of distress. She might not be innocent of the crime, but the only people she was hurting were the consulate's bureaucrats, so Ketta was willing to call it a worthy cause.
"So are you going to help me?" shrilled Mithnee. "Please, I don't know who I'll go to if you won't."
Ketta repressed a wince at the tinny voice of the minute fey. It wasn't Mithnee's fault that she sounded like the world's smallest teakettle. Every species had its quirks, and considering that the last time Ketta had been snapped at about her "human stink" she'd relieved the speaker of a few pints of blood, it would be fairly hypocritical of her to turn around and complain about some poor sprite's voice.
"Yeah, I'll help you," Ketta answered, leaning forward and permitting a grin to spread across her face. "You know the usual price for my assistance, right?"
Mithnee nodded hesitantly, the movement virtually imperceptible. "I don't have it all right now but I heard you had an installment plan and once I'm out of the city I should be able to move funds from -"
"Forget what you've heard. From you I want a charm."
Mithnee's gaudy green-and-gold wings whirred and she rocketed backwards about a foot. "A charm? That's forbidden magic, I can't give you a -"
"You're already in trouble with the consulate and you're not going to get out of here without my help," Ketta replied firmly. "Performing one charm before you go won't get them any madder than they already are and if you didn't think I could smuggle you out of the city safely you wouldn't be here."
Mithnee flew around in a spiral, agitated, but she apparently couldn't come up with an objection to Ketta's logic, because finally she twittered, "Fine. One charm - or I'll try it once, anyway. If they're an elf or a vampire or already in love with you it won't work. Who on?"
"I'll show you," said Ketta.
The Twisted Fork was packed any night of the week, but Ketta always went Sundays. Her own schedule was irregular - the odd jobs she did came unexpectedly and could take any amount of time - but Ennec came like clockwork, at ten p.m. on the dot every Sunday. He'd never mentioned to Ketta what he did for a living (and she'd never asked, since then she'd have to concoct an excuse if he turned the question back on her) but whatever it was offered more regular hours than Ketta's work. Since the first time she'd run into him she'd made time most Sundays at ten to drop by the Twisted Fork, but that had been less than a year previously and to hear the bartender tell it, Ennec had never missed a Sunday in almost a decade.
Ketta would never have thought to demand a special price from Mithnee if it hadn't been a Sunday when she'd careened through the air vent, having just barely lost a pack of the consulate's Chasers. A surprising percentage of Ketta's clients showed up while being actively pursued; she supposed that this would probably get her into trouble one day, but so far no one had managed to stumble into her office with Chasers close enough on their heels that they'd been led to Ketta.
I'm just lucky like that, I suppose, Ketta thought to herself as she strolled into the Twisted Fork, permitting her brow to furrow. She should probably move somewhere new, where she'd be harder to find and less likely to act as an emergency hostess for fugitives. Her good fortune couldn't hold much longer. She resolved to put away some money - not that waiving Mithnee's cash payment would help her supplement savings - and move her office as soon as she had enough that it wouldn't mean skipping too many lunches.
"You okay in there?" Ketta murmured under her breath, patting her purse where she'd stashed Mithnee, trusting the hubbub in the bar to keep her unheard, and the cut of her dress to keep anyone from noticing that her lips were moving. A feather-light, reassuring tap on her deliberately placed thumb confirmed that Mithnee wasn't likely to suffocate or be crushed by the purse's contents, so Ketta took another several steps into the room and let the door shut behind her, scanning the room for Ennec.
He didn't disappoint. In his out-of-place starched white shirt complemented by an almost painfully black vest, he stood out from the seedier crowd of the Twisted Fork like a zebra among raccoons. Ketta wondered for the hundredth time why he hadn't been assaulted, dressing like that and frequenting a place like this; she'd lived in the neighborhood for five years and it had only been the second half of that period that people seemed to have learned that she really did know how to keep drunken idiots, thirsty vampires, and miscellaneous muggers away from her and her possessions. As far as she knew, Ennec had no such skills.
Ketta slid up to the bar and caught a waitress's eye. "Zoe, right?" she asked, and after getting a confirmatory nod, she went on. "Get me a Mermaid's Tear. I'll be over there in the corner. I've got a tab running under the name Ketta Plesk." Having placed her order, she sidled over to Ennec and slid onto the stool beside him, giving him a smile when he looked up to see who it was but saying nothing yet. Sometimes he could be coaxed into starting a conversation himself; this might or might not be one of those times.
Ennec was wearing a brooding expression, staring into his beverage as though it would help him answer some ineffable question. This wasn't out of the ordinary - he rarely started off an evening looking happy, although a pleasant night often saw him stroll home with a faint smile on his lips. On this particular evening, however, he seemed even more preoccupied than usual.
Ketta jostled her purse on the pretense of reaching to take the Mermaid's Tear Zoe handed to her. "How are you this evening, Ennec?"
"I'm all right. And you, Ketta?" he replied, absently fingering the curious amulet he always wore. It was a twisted lump of gold with a small red stone in the middle - too opaque to be a ruby, but whatever it was, it was pretty.
There. Now Mithnee has a name and a voice. Should be all she needs, Ketta thought to herself. "Oh, I can't complain," she laughed cheerfully. "Have you seen that new show about the werewolf who falls in love with the vampire heiress? What was the title again..."
"I don't recall. And no, I haven't seen it. Is it good?"
"My cousin Beth says it's cheesy but the action is good. I haven't seen it myself either." Mithnee, what's taking you so long? Ketta thought impatiently. She pushed her purse sideways with her elbow as she set down her drink, and felt acknowledging taps from the other side of the fabric.
As soon as Ketta registered this, there was a loud alarm from another part of the bar. Ennec leapt to his feet and shouted something that Ketta didn't catch, because at that moment, someone hit her at the base of her skull and she collapsed to the floor, unconscious.
Ketta woke up in the one place she least wanted to be. True, she'd never been in a consulate prison before, but she'd heard descriptions, and the gray, bare cell she occupied certainly matched them.
To her small relief, she was in a single cell, and not being forced to cohabit with someone else - yet. After she was tried (and undoubtedly convicted of about a dozen different charges) she would probably be in even less desirable accomodations.
She patted herself down. Her purse was gone, and her pocket pistol with it. They'd found the knife tied to her leg and some clever person had noticed that her hair fastener had sharp parts, but at least she hadn't been transferred into a prison outfit. That was either a sign that someone working for the consulate had qualms about undressing an unconscious girl, or that there was a reasonable chance of her being released, either of which could bode well.
Leaning against the wall, Ketta waited for something to happen. There was no one immediately visible in her cell block, and she had no tools with which to attempt escape, so there was nothing to do but wait for someone to drop by to feed her prison slop, or get her acquainted with a public defender, or some similarly unwelcome prospect.
As it turned out, she didn't have to wait long. One of those spine-chilling red and violet uniforms came stepping between the rows of cells not fifteen minutes after she had come to. Ketta scooted to a sitting position and peered through the bars.
"Ennec," she breathed.
"Ketta," he replied.
"You!" she snapped. "You're with the consulate. I can't believe I - for a year - I turned down five thousand suls from that pixie -"
"Ketta," he said calmly, a phantom of sadness passing behind his eyes before he blinked it away. "Please calm down. I need to ask you a few questions."
She winced. "Considering some of the rumors I've heard about how the consulate's people go about asking a few questions, that sounds more like a threat than anything, Ennec."
He looked off to his left and stared at the floor. "I'm not going to hurt you. But I need to know who you were going to get the pixie to charm, and for whom."
"Is she all right?" Ketta asked, feeling guilty about having gotten Mithnee involved in her stupid personal life.
"She's all right. The charm failed, so we're probably going to wind up having to release her for an arrest on an uncommitted offense even though she's been embezzling from the consulate for years. We know you were going to smuggle her out of the city, by the way, so you don't need to worry about keeping that a secret."
"I take it somebody had a charm detector in the bar and traced the charm to my purse. And thought that would be a good reason to put me out of commission," she said glumly. Ennec nodded, and Ketta looked at the wall. "She was going to charm you."
He took a step back. "Me?"
Ketta made a valiant effort to stare a hole through the wall. "Me. Now let me out."
"I don't think I can do that now," he said, sounding surprised and - afraid? Ketta had never seen Ennec afraid. "Who are you working for?"
"Look, I didn't know you were with the consulate, okay?" Ketta growled, whirling her head around to stare at him with smoldering eyes. "I don't work for anybody. It's not like I was getting a charm on you to get into the inner ranks of the system. It was a stupid thing to do, I regret it already, I should have just taken Mithnee's money and gotten her out of the city that very minute..."
"You didn't know?" he asked, taking a small step forward.
"You never told me!"
"Then why in the world were you getting me charmed?"
"Because I'm in love with you, you utter dolt!" Ketta screamed at him. "For almost a year and nothing was working and it was such a stupid thing to do and if only Mithnee hadn't come on a Sunday but there she was and sprites can do charms and I figured... I thought..." She broke off and began inspecting her nails.
Neither of them spoke for a few minutes, although Ketta huffed a little bit to catch her breath from the sudden outburst. She started picking at a bit of dry skin near a cuticle, and was trying diligently to be absorbed by this task when she heard the door to the cell swing open.
She looked up. Ennec was holding the door open and looking away from her expressionlessly. Ketta scrambled to her feet and out of the cell. "My things -"
"They'll be delivered to your apartment," he said in a monotone.
"All of them?"
"I'm afraid you may have to replace your unlicensed pocket pistol, and the pixie you had in your purse will not be rejoining you either, but otherwise, yes," he answered.
"Are you going to get in trouble for this?" she asked softly, looking at the vacant cell.
"You must be pretty up in the ranks that you can release prisoners on your own recognizance," she said with a mirthless chuckle, steadying herself with a hand on the bars of another cell.
"You could say that," he said. "I'll show you out if you like. So if you run into someone they don't clap you back in a cell."
"Th-thank you," she stammered. "Ennec -"
He looked at her with that cool expression of his, and she decided against asking - whatever she had been going to ask. She wasn't sure what her plan had been, in hindsight. "Which way?" she whispered.
He set off in a direction and she followed mutely. She wished he would say something in response to her screamed confession. She was not sure what she wanted him to say, but some kind of acknowledgement would have been more comfortable than this silence. She wasn't quite sure that he'd heard her at all.
They were finally approaching a door marked "Exit" when another man in a consulate outfit turned a corner and saw them. Ketta wanted to bolt - she was edgy enough being around Ennec in one of those outfits - but Ennec kept walking, so she followed, trying to pretend that she wasn't bothered. To her surprise, the other consulate employee didn't bat an eye at her, but he snapped off a salute to Ennec. "Evening, Consul," he said as he passed.
Ketta boggled, almost tripping over her own feet. "You're the Consul?" she hissed, after the man had left earshot. "How can you possibly be the Consul?"
"The senators hold an election -"
"I know that!" she cried. "You showed up in that uniform and I thought you were just a Chaser or a bureaucrat or something - you're the Consul. Holy crap."
"That's why I thought you were trying to charm me for... less than personal reasons," he said softly.
"Holy crap," she repeated.
They reached the exit. Ennec pushed the door open for her. She took a half-step towards it, then looked at Ennec.
"Ennec, there aren't very many things that can cause a charm to fail," she said.
"I know," he said. "There aren't very many things that can keep you from getting arrested when criminals routinely congregate at your office with a pack of Chasers following them, either."
Ketta blinked at him, and then, because there was nothing more to say, she kissed him.
"Ceet, I told you, I don't smuggle people away anymore," sighed Ketta.
"But you gotta help me, Miss Plesk! I swear I have no idea who stole the blood from the hospital, I can only feed off animals anyway, you know that -"
"Look, I might be able to do something for you, but not getting you out of the city. I'm retiring. I told you that."
"But Miss Plesk -"
"Sorry, Ceet. I will see what I can do, but I can't get you out of town." She hung up the phone over the vampire's protests and yawned. "Ennec, there's a Ceet Morul being chased for the hospital theft. I'm not saying he's innocent and I'm not saying he's guilty, but I'd have him checked for allergies to human blood before he gets put away," she murmured in his ear.
"Sounds like a sensible precaution," the consul replied. "When do you think people are going to stop phoning you asking for a ticket out of here?"
"Oh, who knows? Maybe never. I suspect someone will notice that the accuracy rate of consulate judges is going up, though. I'd anticipate a different sort of caller request in the near future."
He smiled at her - a more frequent sight in recent weeks. "It wasn't that bad, was it? The accuracy rate."
"Oh, you have no idea."
"The senators are still upset with me for pardoning the Oressy twins," he yawned. "They were so convinced it was them. I don't think they believed the story about the amphibious mermaid."
"They'll get over it. And even if they don't, what're they going to do? They can't have another election until you're dead."
"And I now have the world's best bodyguard to postpone that unhappy event."
"I won't be the best until you get me another pocket pistol, my dear," Ketta laughed, leaning over and planting a kiss on his forehead. "I'm a sniper type, I don't do hand-to-hand."
"You know it."
"Get a license and as far as I'm concerned you can have a military-issue rifle," he laughed.
"I think that might be a little too clunky to carry around," she said consideringly, and then laughed with him.