The front doors opened then, admitting Huey Castelaine. He was slender but muscled, his shoulders wide and his waist trim. His ears were longer than a human’s but shorter than an elf’s, tapered like teardrops and set off by wavy, honey colored hair. His blue eyes were large and friendly. His mouth was set in a grin balanced pleasingly between triangle and half-moon. He wore a white suit coat, a maroon vest and pinstriped pants, all perfectly fitted. Some white dust clung to his black leather shoes and the cuffs of his pants.
“Heya, Jaz,” he called. Then, seeing who sat at the counter, “Hey…Oz. You’re…here.” His grin widened and kept widening to the full width of his face.
Jaz’s neck muscles ached with the strain of not turning to look in the trash can.
“I hope that’s not a problem for you,” Oz said.
“A problem? No of course not.” Huey strode to the counter and settled on a stool beside Oz. “I was early myself, as you see. I needed to get some…coffee and stuff here anyway, so…”
“I wasn’t aware you drank coffee,” said Oz.
“Coffee, tea, wine, beer—you name it.” Huey’s grin was plastic. “I love Jaz’s…dark roast.”
“Jaz, what’s that dark roast I love called again?”
“That would be Sugar ’n’ Spice,” said Jaz.
Huey’s eyebrows twitched. “Really? That’s what it’s called.”
“Same thing it was called last time you had it.” Her previous encounters with Huey, who spent most of his time in casinos in the lawless country of Alchaven, had given Jaz had the impression that in the event of some horrible disaster or life-threatening situation Huey could shake off his flippancy which often made him seem ridiculous, and perform intelligently—even bravely—but that event had not yet happened. At least, not in her store.
Bracken suddenly walked toward the counter opposite where Oz sat. “The other assistant you mentioned. Was it a girl named Sadie?”
Shielded from Oz’s view for the moment, Jaz sidled against the trash can and, keeping her eyes in his direction, began to reach inside for the pastry box that held the book.
“Yes,” Oz said. “She was also Apeili.”
“Apeili?” Asked Bracken.
“A shapechanger. Like you.”
Bracken blinked. “You can tell I’m…”
“Of course,” said Oz.
Huey leaned to one side, catching Jaz’s attention and waggling his eyebrows as if to ask, ‘What’s going on? Why is he here?’
Jaz widened her eyes as if to respond, ‘I don’t know, he just showed up.’
Huey widened his eyes and tilted his head a fraction, wondering, ‘where the devil is the book now, and has Oz seen it?’
Jaz shook her head no. Her hand tapped the rim of the trash can.
Huey’s mouth dropped open as if an unpleasant taste had just entered it.
Oz leaned to one side, looking around Bracken at Jaz. “The other one was Apeili too, isn’t that right?”
Jaz’s fingers spasmed on the edge of the can, crackling the plastic liner. “Huh?”
“Your last employee was Apeili.”
“Oh. Yeah. Mhm.”
Huey joined Oz at the counter, lounging far over it on his elbow, drawing Oz’s gaze to him as he asked Bracken, “You’re Apeili, eh? Been away from the homeland long?”
“Not very long,” said Bracken.
“Ah. That explains it,” Huey said with a jerky nod.
With one eye on Oz, Jaz quickly reached into the trash can, lifting out the pastry box.
“What explains what?” Bracken asked.
“Why you’re still sane,” said Oz. “Apeili who leave their homeland don’t adjust well to different cultures.”
“Neither do Cialos,” Huey said.
“Oh, we’re quite insane from the start,” Oz told him.
There was no way to tell if Oz was serious or not, so Bracken simply asked, “How many ah…races are there, exactly?”
“Eight,” said Oz.
Huey listed them helpfully. “Elven, human, Seidyrian, Cialos, Apeili, Kyra Kyth, Sassacus and Nykul.”
“And some scattered halfbreeds,” said Oz. “Here in Houzai you’ll mostly see humans and elves.”
“Jaz is a halfbreed, aren’t you Jaz?” Said Huey, and nodded to Bracken. “You can tell by the hair.”
“Uh huh.” She wasn’t. “Come and get your coffee.”
Huey hurried to meet Jaz at the gap between the tea counter and the wall. She had gone into the kitchen and returned carrying a large, brown paper bag of coffee beans. She thumped it down on the counter and they leaned over it, giving it a close inspection.
“Jaz,” Huey said through his teeth, pretending to read the tasting notes scrawled on the front, “I need that…item.”
“What were you bloody thinking, meeting him here?” Her whisper was a shout that lacked volume.
Huey winced. “I thought I could get it before he came.”
“You are killing me.” Jaz shoved the bag against his chest and wheeled away. Huey clutched it with one arm and grinned nervously at the room.
Jaz came back with a second bag of beans and dropped it next to the first. “You are buying these,” she whispered fiercely.
“Fine, fine, but where is…”
Jaz went to the back counter and brushed wet coffee grounds off the pastry box, carrying it nonchalantly back to Huey. She set it down with an air of triumph.
He peeked under the lid. “This is…half a blueberry cobbler.”
Jaz snapped her jaws shut and returned, white-faced, to the trash can. With her back to Bracken and Oz, she arbitrarily pulled napkins out of a dispenser with one hand while fishing inside the can with the other until she found the box.
Huey took it and, after raising the lid, smiled at Jaz with relief. “My favorite.”
They turned back to Oz who was saying to Bracken, “I suppose you’re looking for the doorway generator, also.”
Bracken blinked. “The what?”
“Like the one before you. She asked me about it numerous times.” He looked to Huey who, having dumped the book from the box into his satchel, had just closed the top. “I’ll take the book now, if you’re done making your purchase.”
“Huh? Oh yeah, yeah,” said Huey, shuffling around the counter toward Oz with the bag pinched between his fingers. “Got it right here.”
He had only taken a few steps when Oz extended a hand toward him. His fingers stretched past Bracken and several empty stools along the counter to the satchel. One finger slashed a long hole down one side of it, and the others slipped inside and pulled out the tome, wrapped around it like thin white ribbons. They retracted back into his hand and he put the tome carefully into his satchel without expression.
Huey stood quite still, clutching his own torn satchel in both hands, watching Oz’s hands until they returned to normal. When they did, he glanced at Jaz and let out a soft sigh. She relaxed against the counter with a similar sigh.
Bracken, after a long moment of silence, asked, “What’s a doorway generator?”
“It was created by Janus, master of doorways. Some legends say he had two faces, so he could stand on the threshold and look simultaneously into two worlds,” said Oz. “Or into time, depending on the legend.”
“Janus?” Bracken looked over his shoulder at Jaz.
She kept her face vague and shrugged.
“Yes, Janus. A Lumenatra. Beings from outside our dimension, with immense power, capable of massive destruction,” Oz said. Then after a moment’s pause, he added, “Though, many believe the Lumenatra are only a myth…”
“Sadie…was looking for something Janus made? Why?” Asked Bracken.
“She never told me. She was quite adamant about finding it though,” said Oz. “We corresponded for a time.”
Jaz jolted at this. “You did?”
Bracken’s voice rose slightly and he leaned toward Oz, gripping the edge of the counter. “Did she go into y—somewhere in Houzai? Is that where she is now?”
Jaz froze, a slow horror coming over her as the conversation veered in a direction she’d avoided since Bracken had begun traveling with her. Because she still could not bring herself to say what Oz was so casually saying now.
“No. She is dead.”
This episode’s music is not so much what the elves might listen to, or even a theme for their world, as it is a theme for the situation Jaz and Huey find themselves in. It was the constant accompaniment in my head as I wrote this scene.
Also, how do you think Bracken will react to the news that Sadie is dead? Are the legends about Janus true?
As always, thanks for reading and voting!