020/Supper & Supposition
Eo drops in on Nana. Ila drops in on Nana. Nana scouts some intel.
"Come on, just fucking sign for it," Eoran Toriet griped to the slack-jawed cretin hanging in the doorway of the musty hallway. He had a clipboard extended in one hand and a box tucked in the other.
"Hell no," the man replied, "For one thing, you can't talk to me like that. For another, I don't know what you kids are trying to pull out here. Do you know what year it is? Clipboard technology is obsolete. How do I know you aren't some arm of that institute, come to put some... some... contraption in me to get me to power this whole city? My tracking hasn't updated in a week and now you show up here unannounced? With THAT mess?" The recipient indicated the box. "Hell no. HELL no."
It was true—the package had seen better days. Where impenetrable layers of shipping tape had tried to mask the truth of its abuse, they only served to highlight those unfortunate imperfections. Divots glistened in the jaundiced light scattered about the corridor; its shape defied reason, like a toddler's hands had taken a cube and mashed into a baleful polyhedron.
"Are you high? Look. The scanner broke. How many times do I have to explain it? Besides, you should be less scared of the clipboard. It's... just a clipboard. No listening devices, no blood samples, no tricks." Eoran shoved that paper-laden plane into the other's chest. "Now sign, so I can go home."
"I said no!" The paranoiac jumped, arms windmilling wildly in the threshold. Eoran's grip slipped and the clipboard was sent flying, ricocheting off the ceiling, then the wall, and the floor a few times before it settled with a rapid-fire set of taps.
"Fine," the courier conceded, "fine. You win.” Eoran dropped the parcel next to the open door and moved to pick the clipboard up. He knew he’d get the side eye from his boss for altering his delivery slips three times in a single week, but his hands were tied. He scratched out the over-highlighted section screaming SIGNATURE REQUIRED! ADULT MUST BE PRESENT TO SIGN and checked the box that instead read: RECIPIENT OUT; LEFT AT DOOR (FRONT).
Either Port Haven was teetering on some unseen edge, or he had been more unlucky than usual. Eoran surrendered himself to the night, thoughts blossoming with recollection of the various superstitions his mother had explained to him in her living days. He didn’t blame the man for not accepting the box—nothing he had supposed was truly out of the realm of possibility. The Ossan wasn’t an operative of the government, but that’s not to say he couldn’t have been… maybe in some parallel lifetime. A sigh was exhaled. The unpredictability of human logic was making his job more difficult, but he prefered it to the alternative: cashing any of those checks Kadenja sent to spend on himself.
Lost in those thoughts, his feet took the lead, guiding him down an instinctual path back to the Ossan heart of that dreadful city. The air was brisk, making light of the collective of problems lurking just beneath its building-pocked skyline. He thought to stop for dinner on his way home, but then he had a better idea.
Knuckles soon tapped on the door belonging to the Acina matriarch.
“Nana Nabet,” Eoran called, fingers straightening the brim of the cap that read LEGIT!courier in loud letters, “special delivery…!”
A shuffle of chair legs and weight sounded from inside the home, wood floors creaking towards the door.
“Eoran.” The old woman’s crinkled face creased out into a gentle grin around the shape of his name, a leathery hand reaching out to brush his shoulder, cup the curve his face.
The fact was that Nabet was truly fond of almost all of the renegade youths which roamed the streets of their families’ squalor. More often than not, that fondness manifested in quick, viper-tongued admonitions, porch side observations called out into the street, and the occasional well placed fwop of a shoe or stirring spoon to set them on the right track.
But, she had always kept a soft spot for the youngest Toriet.
Such a good boy, even so. Even now.
“What have you brought me today, ah? They work you so hard out there, sunup to sunset…you must be starving, yeah?” She took the soft, slightly crumpled yellow envelope from his grip and started back inside, the screen door left gaping open behind her by way of invitation.
When Nana Nabet was set on making you a plate, you stayed.
They left the red dusk at the door, slow dregs of the day aching into her dim hallway before dying out to a cool, cavernous dark, the canned laughter of some generic high stakes soap opera chattering in the background. The past five decades of renovations, landlords, foreclosures, and repairs had left the dilapidating home with a mismatched wood paneled entry hall, matted green carpet in the parlor, and a slightly sticky linoleum tile in the kitchen.
“Here, sit down, sit down…” Nabet pulled out one of the wooden chairs around the table, a naked bulb diffusing yellow light through the thin fog of smoke clinging to the air. She cleared off a spot for him among various threads and baubles, pushing half finished charms over to the side to give Eoran a clean place to sit. “Ila is out right now, but will be back maybe in an hour, if you want to see her. I know they keep you so busy over there, but you know, all work no play at your age, it isn’t good for you. It will give you a better house, when you’re old like me, but there’s no use in having a big house with no one to share it with, yeah?”
"I guess..." Eoran gave a long shrug as he settled into the chair, doubt seeping into the edges of his voice. "I mean, I'm not exactly getting paid a premium to bring people their junk. Can't even get them to take it some days...
"I might stay for Reon though," a disjointed segue. "If her idea of an hour is based in any sort of reality." It wasn't that Eoran thought that Nabet's granddaughter did not have a concept of time, it was that he didn't think the established boundaries of what society determined to be an hour could constrain her. Eoran removed his cap, sitting it atop the paper-stuffed clipboard that he let sit next to him. He leaned forward to pick up one of the charms the elder had been making and turned it over in his hands a few times.
"What're you going to do with these?" If he had any idea, he didn't let on. His preference always deferred to hearing the wise woman, in her own words, tell him how the world worked. "Oh! Yeah, and by the way, that package is some herbs I found in the market the other day. I had never seen them before and didn't know what they were used for, but they looked kinda good so I got'em."
Ila’s concept of time not withstanding, that flighty girl had shit to be, people to do, and an hour of her day was juuuust the right amount of cash to keep the landlord off her tits for another month.
The blonde in question was a consecutive set of automatic actions as she flew in the door like a tanager on a mission, letting the screen door slam behind her. She kissed her Nana on the cheek, slapped a stack of cash into her hand, then shot straight to the shortest hallway ever, ducking past vibrant curtain that served as a doorway, shirt already half off.
Ila took one step backwards, as she put her shirt back where it belonged: vaguely covering her tits.
“Hiiiii Eo,” the girl singsonged like she was an absolute angel, like she hadn't just flown into the house and given Nabet a big ol' stack of blood money, the only thing Ila could do to keep a roof over their heads. She crossed those long, tanned legs and leaned against the door frame.
The somewhat wistful smile which had risen in Nabet's face at the young pair's easy exchange faltered as soon as Ila passed over the cash.
She salvaged it back into a thin line as she took the crumpled bills and folded them over with a grateful nod, the hurt in her heart threatening to spill over into her throat.
But, Reon didn't like to talk about it.
She didn't like to talk about it, and who was she to make her. The truth was that there wasn't much to say. She could fight her on it all day, try and impress upon her granddaughter the sanctity of her body, her power - the intricate exchange of energy, those gilded and invisible threads stitching together each cell and system. She could lecture her about the benefits of sex for love, of saving herself for those she held dear, but it wouldn't matter.
Even if she listened, it wouldn't change the fact that applying for a job on the outside could get a free and practicing bloodwright like her snatched off the street and killed or stolen away into servitude, to be made into a disposable recharge utility in some dark Trenchant barrack until they eventually beat her to death for raising her voice.
So the elder tucked their survival into an obscure fabric pocket and turned back to the stove, turning on the heat.
“Hey Reon,” Eoran replied in the after-breeze of the strumpet’s quick storm. His dark eyes rose to meet the curve of her, smile cracking the indifference his features previously held. He knew they were all just doing their best out there to survive.
One of the kitchen chairs creaked when the elder finally eased her sore body down across from her favorite courier, close-lipped smile flickering back to life as she took her place. "Thank you for this gift, Eoran." She said, folding one of his hands into her waxy grip, squeezing his knuckles gently with her gratitude. "You shouldn't be spending your money on me." She chided, but accepted the package all the same, gingerly slipping the soft envelope towards herself across the table. Inside, there were two narrow stalks of a tough green frond, wrapped in thin plastic to separate them from a layer of scarlet filaments, the texture of snipped pine needles. "This here...is manaket." She laid the green herb flat on her palm, mouth parting a bit as she peered down from hooded eyes, straining her vision in her old age to be sure. "Make it into a tea, and it can help soothe and stabilize your gut." She pressed the two stalks back down to the plastic like a blackjack dealer snapping down cards. "And this is irosa. Very expensive, but good for stabilizing your system. My mother used to cook it down low and slow in a pan, make it tacky with clear vinegar and then roll it into nalls. Make it like taffy, could help her to transfer energy of her body more clearly." The old woman set the envelope down more gently than the last, her free hand still holding Eoran's. "If you...wanted to use your eye, maybe to...see the gaze more clearly...you would eat this. Would help to break down the dark spots in your sight."
She knew where his other eye laid.
She did not say it, but she knew.
"You could see as clearly maybe as you see this room. No...interference. Clogs."
"Damn, I was hoping it was something I could use to put a curse on him." To call the comment a joke would have been generous; Eoran's expression was miles away from a smile. "You should keep these, Nana Nabet. I'll forget to use them."
Slipping his hand away, Eoran plucked the sprig of irosa from the package and held it up to the kitchen light for examination.
"I've been thinking," he continued in a more solemn tone, "Maybe I should get rid of this eye. Like, at what point in someone's life does remembrance cross over into morbidity? Am I only forcing myself to fester in anger because he is always with me? I don't want to see what he does first hand, why should I? I can just turn on the TV and be equally repulsed." With a sigh, the courier set the plant back down. The aphotic gaze of the Toriet family fell upon the Acina matriarch once more, but in the care of their youngest it was always tender. "I want to let him go, but I just can't—he’s my blood. Does that make me complicit?"
“He’s your family, Eoran—shitty family, but still family.” Ila was nothing but a fly on the wall for the conversation observed. To some degree, she was just a stupid girl, homeschooled in her Nana’s kitchen full of trinkets and folklore, taught to read by the television when Nabet struggled with the alphabet of Amstead. The blonde placed a hand on Eoran’s shoulder. “Maybe there’s a truth you haven’t seen yet, cause you’re only lookin’ with one eye.”
That girl, scarlet lipped and ibis hearted, looked up at Nabet like a youthful mirror of her old world wisdom, struggling to survive in a world that only saw them as bodies to be used. “If you ever do wanna look…”
You know I can help.
The Acina girl kissed Eoran on the cheek and hugged around his shoulders. “You just gotta ask, okay?”
“Ila is right. Sometimes, the things you can see, they get in the way. Make muddy the whole story…” The old woman’s talon fingers unspooled bright red thread from a wooden bolt, the turquoise prayer cloth before her littered with neat rows of tiny glass figurines, each one melted from the sand of the shores she walked as a young girl. A precious commodity bartered and traded through the stalls of The Llamella and up to her doorstep, clutched in the palms of fretting mothers and obstinate gangbangers alike. There was no difference in a walk of life when it came down to the begging for a blessing on a loved one’s life.
It was a known fact throughout the cramped street swell and oversaturated tenements of the Ossan presence in Port Haven that whether you made the trek to Nabet Acina’s stoop begging prayers for your children, your lovers, or your own self preservation, the elder would step out from the crevice of her screen door to turn your offerings over in her gnarled old hands, and if you were not found wanting, she would whisk you deep into the apartment to splay your burdens across her rickety kitchen-table altar, oceanic silk and metallic threads glinting softly in the lamplight. Even the most macho, modernized leaders of round the block street gangs had been rumored to occasionally bow their heads at her table, hands clasped together in hopes that the old priestess would carry their petition all the way up to Arsaiya, and imbue a charm with the goddess’ favor on their behalf.
But now, the sinewy old woman simply sat in her tiny kitchen with two of her favorite people, a fond crinkle of sympathy and pride creasing beneath her eyes, the waxy pads of her fingers giving Eoran one last reassuring squeeze before retracting back across the table to her work.
“When you were a little boy...” She began, taking a sip from her mug of bitter white orita tea, a sharp, slightly antiseptic stench drifting up from it’s milky surface. “Your mother. What did she tell you, of the old gods?”
She slid the pressure of her gaze off of the boy’s face and back down to the thread between her fingers as she spoke, giving him the space to reflect seemingly unobserved as she began to weave the blessing from one of her barters with the double-edged goddess into the shape of a safflower, cadmium thread wound around the slippery form of one of the tiny glass figures.
Eoran briefly laid a hand over Ila's, the gesture of gratitude an undercurrent to the tides of their discussion.
"Well," Eo began, "my knowledge is mostly perfunctory, though probably through no fault of my parents. I wasn't the most attentive kid. It was always a struggle to balance retaining myself and my history when I tried to put so much effort into surpassing it..." He paused; tilted his head; scrunched his nose. "No, that's not right. Not even really surpassing it, but suppressing it trying to do what my parents wanted, which was to get into that school. The people at Bourbaki are callous. I still remember when Kaden received his letter of acceptance there were so many underhanded remarks about him being Ossa." Eoran shook his head. "But yeah, the old Gods were important to us, just wish I hadn’t wasted a lot of time learning about other things that do not matter."
Scritching the back of Eoran’s neck, the blonde slipped away, heading off to her room to grab a change of clothes before a quick shower. “I’m out at the warehouses tonight, so I’ll be late, Nana. I’m gonna go and take prayers.” Ila always neglected to mention that it was the prayers from all the gangs clustered in Holm and the other Ossan neighborhoods, but Nabet already knew. Why rub lemon on a salted cut? “Don’t stay up, ya?”
“Not after midnight, yah? You know, Maro’s daughter didn’t come home. Snatched up by those hunters.” Quick fingers laced her prayer motion, hard eyes not looking up from her work to the girl. “Don’t make me have to come get you. Keep me away from my beauty sleep.” Nabet cut the end of a loose thread with her teeth. “Maybe I should send Eo out with you. You can teach him some things about Arsaiya, he can keep you out of trouble…”
The elder murmured her threats and musings towards her lap, the subtle acid of her tea blistering in the back of her throat. Curdling her gut just enough to power the exchange needed to infuse the charm with her Utility.
“Your brother, though… he was always a hard study, yah? Before that school chewed him up. Mind you, I never trusted that place. Always told your mother, I understand, but didn’t trust them.” Of course she understood. If she thought that she could have found a way to get her granddaughter enrolled in an institution that would eat up her skills and brains and push and pull her into a person palatable enough for the Amstead public to accept and revere instead of fear and despise her, she would have pushed it in an instant. But she had survived in this country, in this broken city long enough to know that would never be the university’s goal, not for people like them. If they were accepted, there was sure to be some kind of lab rat caveat required to slip past their disdain. They would take and take and take all of the parts which made them Ossa and strip them out until they were unrecognizable. A new face carved over their own, a death mask meant to obscure them in the eyes of their gods. But that didn’t matter now, what she thought. Everyone was so elated that he got in, her suspicions fell on deaf ears, clogged too much with possibility and pride. “When you were young...did you see him apply that same focus from his entrance exams to the tenants of Varaket?”
Eoran's gaze listed, pursuing a jagged maw of shadows cast by innocuous kitchen utensils. "Not... really. There were occasional rituals, but if I ever had a part in them, it was a miniscule one. That was something that he and my dad had in common, and their relationship was one that I didn't try to breach. He made side money from his utility, but that was his own thing."
“Mm.” Nabet nodded a slow affirmation over the slim revelation of his words, her fell theories pressed ruminatory against the top of her mouth. She released him from her slight interrogation with the softened snag of a smile, looking down to absently fix a bend in the band of his mail cap, fond fingers adjusting the LEGIT!Courier ribbon. What he said wasn't much that she didn't already know, but still she filed away the information still, tacked it up to her overgrown mental map of the mystery which was Kaden Toriet. “Orietya ah… iyariespat-”
The cheerful ping of hot steam against the lid of her stew pot snagged her back to the present and the elder pushed her chair back from the table with a muttering sigh, words lost in the screech of wood across chapped linoleum.
Nabet lifted the mottled copper lid from the pot to relieve the asthmatic huffs of the broth threatening to boil over, stirring it once and adjusting down the heat.
“You’ll stay for dinner, ah?”
Eoran smiled, nodded. “Yeah. I will.”