Spirit Splinters, part 10

The city rose up before us, tall and towering, lit by neon signs. The boat had docked in a sea of yachts, liners, and fishing boats, allowing us to climb onto the dock among a crowd of other passengers.

I looked at Laila, who was smiling cheerfully beside me as we stumbled onto the street. She seemed so self-confident compared to the shy, weepy girl I'd met at Ulnow Academy. Was that a side-effect of hanging around me? Maybe I should think about getting a job as a therapist.

I shook my head, a frown creasing my brow. I still had reservations about this little detour. Dawdling in an unfamiliar city seemed unwise in this situation.

Well, at least Laila seemed to be having a good time.

"Look at those liners!" she exclaimed, pointing to a looming boat that cast a shadow over the docks. "It's huge-- I wish I could go on one of those!"

"It is pretty cool, isn't it?" I admitted. "One of my uncles works on one of those."

"Really? Maybe he's here."

"Probably not," I said. "He mainly works in Mandisaria doing cruises around the other regions. So, while we're here, why don't we do something about our appearances?"

"Oh, that's right." she gave her head a shake. "I'd completely forgotten about that." she beamed. "What would I do without you?"

"Graduate Ulnow Academy and become a celebrated supernatural hunter," I answered glumly. She caught my hand and squeezed it. "Stop mentioning that, we're in public. And you don't need to dwell on it any more. Now why don't we go find a hair salon?"

The city took a bit of getting used to. We had to stop and buy a map, and even then got lost a total of five times. After making our way through a neighborhood, a high-class domain, and an abandoned factory district we finally arrived at a shopping mall. My legs were aching, and I had been tempted to call a taxi, but I needed to use the money sparingly.

"Look, there's a hairdresser!" Laila pointed to a rather fancy looking salon with the name Celestine's Cuts and Curls in bright pink letters above the door. "Looks too expensive," I said after glancing inside at the silver-tiled floor. She trailed after me as I walked on, scouting out the stores.

"That looks like a good one," I said, pulling her to a stop. She followed my pointed finger to catch sight of a rather subdued hair salon tucked into a corner. She brightened. "Excellent, let's go!"

The inside was just as drab as the outside, with a wooden floor, dilapidated barber's chair and an electric fan blowing air onto a tired-looking woman behind the counter. She had dark bags under her eyes and was holding a cigarette between two fingers.

She glanced up as we entered. "Can I help you?" Her voice was hoarse and low. Laila stepped up, opened her mouth, and paused. She shrank back, subtly edging behind me. "I would like-- er, my friend and I..."

It dawned on me that while around me Laila acted friendlier and more trusting, she might not extend that way of acting to others. In a nutshell: around strangers, she acted the same as she had been when I first met her.

I stepped forward. "I'd like to get my hair cut short, please."

"What kind? Bob, pixie cut?"

"Um... short?" Having been raised in a small village, I wasn't doing well in the big city. I had always had my hair cut by my mother, and she had decided how short to cut it and how it would look.

She gave an irrititated sigh. "Just sit down in the chair..."

***

We left the shopping mall at sundown. I now sported a short bob, and had even bought a pair of sunglasses to change my appearance further. Laila had braided her hair, dyed it blonde and bought a sunhat. We could have done more, but I was still wary of spending too much.

Still, we looked remarkably different. I almost resembled a boy, not helped by my clothes and lack of "assets". Even my name was male-- in Vetayoran, Saruyan was the masculine form of Saryana, a female given name meaning "rainbow". Clearly the idiots who had made my identity papers knew nothing of Vetayoran naming conventions...

An arm gripped mine. "There's a hotel over there," Laila said, pointing to a building wedged between two department stores. It looked clean enough, so we went in the lobby.

The man at the desk smiled as we approached. "Can I help you?"

"Yes, we'd like a room for the night..."

"One bed?"

"Um, okay."

He swivelled his chair around to search for a key as I dug in my pockets for money. "Enjoy yourselves," he said with a wink as he handed me a key. I sighed inwardly. I was already getting mistaken for a boy.

The room was at the very top of the hotel, and provided a nice view. I was too busy worrying about the dwindling money in my pocket to even bother looking out the window, but Laila did-- and very loudly proclaimed her satisfaction.

"It's so pretty!" she exclaimed, her hands splayed over the glass. "It's like when I took a trip to the capitol when I was nine."

"Did your parents take you?" I pulled off my sunglasses and threw them on the bed, then pulled my sweater over my head. She looked back at me, her expression blank. "No."

Her tone was void of emotion, cluing me into her reluctance to talk about her past. I decided to let it go. No sense in infuriating my only ally.

"I think I'll take a shower, Laila," I decided, turning towards the bathroom. She started. "Oh, wait a moment! Could you let me use it first, please? I'm having my flow and I need to clean up."

"Sure." I stood back as she entered the bathroom, the door closing after her with a snap. I flung myself on the bed and reached for the remote control on the table next to me.

My family had a television, albeit a small one. My sister mainly watched cartoons on it in the morning, but sometimes if there was nothing to do I tuned in to whatever was on. Mostly it was reality shows and the occasional soap opera, as my rural village did not get very good cable. When we took a trip to Alespectra, I had been entranced by the sheer number of channels they had, but had spent most of the time fighting with my siblings on which one to watch. Now that I was alone, I could browse to my heart's content.

I heard the faint patter of a shower coming from the bathroom. I winced, knowing that it would ruin her dye job, but it was too late now. I sighed and clicked on the TV.

"Hunt for murderers Cenobi Hannele and Minoka--"

The remote fell from my slack hand and clattered to the floor.

"--responsible for the death of Ariera Tabith, a student at Ulnow Academy--"

My breathing was heavy and erratic. "Minoka," I tried to call, but my voice came out as a croak.

"-nation-wide search underway--"

The shower turned off, and I heard the patter of wet feet.

"-the renegades, seen here--"

I watched in horror as a picture of me, taken just two weeks ago for the records of Ulnow Academy, appeared onscreen beside one of Laila.

"MINOKA!" My voice came out as a ragged scream.

Laila stepped out of the bathroom, clutching a towel around herself. "Saruyan! Don't call me that! You know we're not supposed to--"

"Just get over here!" I interrupted. Perhaps it was the expression on my face or the tone of my voice, but either way she stole over to the bed.

As soon as she saw the screen her jaw dropped, and her eyes widened.

"--possibly murder more people. If seen, contact your local authorities."

The segment ended and an advertisement came on. I stared at the screen for a moment, completely and utterly horrified. I had thought we had been safe here for a few days. I thought we had time. My heart was thudding so loud I could almost hear it.

I was startled back into reality by Laila's high-pitched wail. "I'm sorryyyyy!" She sobbed, "I didn't know, I didn't think that they'd start searching so--"

"Shut up!" I was panicking, and that made me angry. "Just get your things! We need to get out as soon as we can!" And we'd just paid the hotel fare, too. All that money, down the drain.

Laila rushed to the bathroom to change while I grabbed my sunglasses and jacket. She emerged fully dressed, and Operation GTFO was in action.

I had to try not to run down the hallway. When a woman passed us, all I could think was, what if she recognized us? What if she saw us on the TV and called the police?

She was staring at Laila. This gave me a chill until I realized that the shower had washed out most of her dye, and her hair was now a hideous mix of blond and black. Noticing, Laila abruptly jammed her sunhat on her head.

The man at the lobby was surpised to see us back so soon. We returned the key under the pretense of our parents suddenly calling us home, and left the hotel without further disturbance. As luck would have it, a taxi was on the streetside with a person leaving it, and we jumped in as soon as it was available.

I handed the driver a wad of money and told her to take us out of the city. I hoped my tone hadn't been too panicked, but by the look she gave me she knew something was up. She didn't argue, just pulled out and began driving.

The lights flashed by us, neon signs advertising restaurants, arcades, casinos. My stomach rumbled, and I remembered I hadn't had anything to eat since this morning.

"So," said the driver, startling me out of my reverie. "What's your story, kid? What are you running from?"

"I..." My mind froze up. "We... I..."

"We're eloping," interrupted Laila with her soothing tone. "Our parents don't want us to marry, so we're going to build a new life somewhere else."

The driver laughed. "Oh, so is that it? Well, you wouldn't be the first passengers to do that. Good luck to you, kids, you're going to need it."

"Will we ever," I muttered, face red with embarrassment.

***

The driver dropped us off just outside the city limits, saying that was as far as her company allowed her to take the taxi. On the plus side, she gave us half of our money back.

We stood on the roadside, cars whizzing past us. It was dead night, the light seeming to stop just outside the road.

"Think we can hitchhike?" suggested Laila hopefully. I shook my head. "It's too dangerous. They could recognize us, or try to attack us. We need to walk until the next town, then maybe catch a bus or something. Then we need to get as far away from civilisation as possible."

She looked apprehensive. "Does that mean living alone?"

"Well, no," I said, taking her hand and leading her down the road. "We'll live near a village, just not a very big one. We'll grow our own food and carve out a living. I know how; I've lived in a rural village for all of my life. I can hunt and fish. Well, maybe not fish, 'cause there wasn't a river near my village..." I realized I was rambling and cut myself short. "The thing is, Laila, I know how to take care of us. We'll have a bit of a hard time at the beginning, but things will work out. We'll have each other to rely on."

And so we walked down the road, hand in hand, facing the unknown.

Nice to See This Again...

So was the school anticipating the need for a male disguise when they chose Hannele's alias? Unlikely, I guess, or they would have mentioned it to her instead of making her put pieces together more or less accidentally.

Still, I wonder how much scrutiny Hannele/Saruyen can handle without being exposed as a girl. I have the feeling they're less likely to be recognized by someone on the street as the killers than they think they are -- Tabith's investigators are a different story, but hopefully they're spread thin -- and they seem a relatively good fit for the nearly solitary life that Hannele envisions. Of course, if they did settle down for good, the story would have to change direction.

Eric

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