Excerpt: Ge-Mi

In the waiting room, people milled about restlessly. There weren’t any chairs provided for the supplicants, nor for the onlookers who were only there to enjoy the show. Handing over a bribe wasn’t supposed to be a comfortable experience, after all.

Nevada stood in a corner, the backpack containing the only thing he had that would suit as a bribe clutched carefully in his arms. Rosto stood next to Nevada, one shoulder pressed indolently against the wall. He was older than Nevada by at least twenty years, his hair grayed at the temples, but his back still strong and unbent. Rosto had done this before—brought a supplicant with his bribe—and he had a personal connection with the lord of the city. Rosto wasn’t worried, but Nevada was.

It had only been six months since Mom died. They hadn’t had the money or the resources to get her proper healthcare, and her cold turned deadly far too quickly for Nevada’s three part-time jobs to pay for a doctor’s bill. It wasn’t just that the doctor was expensive, but payoff money for his silence was too much. Nevada would have risked it for Mom’s sake, but Mom had put her shaking and weak foot down and the matter was settled.

After that, Nevada hadn’t been able to stay in that house or city. The hiding was a fact of life, but he hoped the melancholy could be alleviated with a new home and a new start. Nevada arrived in Kensey three days ago and found himself an apartment that didn’t mind pets. The down payment had sapped the last of his hastily scraped together funds, so Nevada had gone job hunting.

Rosto’s café was quaint and in need of a full-time waiter. The pay was decent and the hours reasonable. But in Kensey, things worked differently than Nevada’s old home. The lord in Kensey wanted a direct bribe from every citizen; the previous lord didn’t pay any mind to peons like Nevada. Had Nevada known he had to meet with the lord directly and provide a bribe that, if accepted, was his ticket to having any sort of life in Kensey, he might have chosen to settle in a different city with a different lord.

The room fell silent quickly, almost suddenly, as a side door opened. The man who stepped into the room first was clearly a guard. He was wearing a light layer of armor, the bluish metal vibrant against his dark skin, and a large laser gun at his hip. His hard eyes surveyed the room once before he stepped aside. The second man who walked into the room looked like he was Rosto’s age, somewhere in his late-fifties. His blond hair disguised whatever grey may have been present, but the crow’s feet around his blue eyes revealed his true age.

“Where is Taylor?” the lord asked his guard. They both walked to the front of the room where a very large desk built of thick, dark wood was positioned. It was intimidating, but that was probably the point.

“Off with his wolves,” the guard replied stiffly.

“That boy,” the lord grumbled. “All right, let’s get started.”

A third man stepped forward from where he had been standing off to the side of the desk. He was holding a datapad from which he read out the first name.

A woman and her two young children stepped forward. She needed help finding her layabout husband. He owed her back wages for childcare and she wanted him to pay up. Her bribe was a gold necklace with a ruby in the center, which would have paid for the childcare handsomely.

“She’s after revenge,” Rosto explained under his breath. “Her husband was a cheat and she wants what’s rightfully owed to her because she knows he’ll suffer for it. Lord Reyes prefers supplicants ask for something meaningful, instead of straight out asking for something purely selfish. He’s a good man.”

Nevada hoped so because he didn’t have anything nearly as nice as a ruby necklace in his bag.

For the next half hour, he watched as fancy watches, jewelry, and other expensive items were offered to Lord Reyes in return for favors. Some of them Lord Reyes agreed to, like the woman looking for childcare money, but others he denied. He didn’t return the bribes either way.

“Rosto Gregorio,” the steward called.

“That’s us,” Rosto grunted as he pushed off the wall. He strode forward, unconcerned, and Nevada hurried to follow.

They reached the desk and stopped a few feet away. Rosto bowed and Nevada copied him a beat too late.

“How’s the café?” Lord Reyes asked, a smile on his face. It was the first smile Nevada had seen from him. He genuinely seemed interested in what Rosto had to say.

“We’re expanding the kitchen at the moment,” Rosto immediately began to explain. “Putting in four ovens so we can sell fresh-baked goods as well. We’re also adding outside tables for the summer, which means I need additional wait staff. I’m looking to hire Nevada here.”

Lord Reyes turned his attention to Nevada and Nevada fought not to squirm. He needed the job, which meant Lord Reyes had to like him.

“New to the area too, I believe,” Lord Reyes said. “Has all the appropriate paperwork been filed?”

“Just last night,” Rosto replied. “All it needs is your seal of approval.”

Lord Reyes nodded. “You’ll have to come over for dinner and tell me about your renovations,” he said to Rosto. His attention switched back to Nevada. “What have you brought to entice me to allow you to live and work in my city?”

Nevada gulped and reached into his bag. He knew what he looked like. He had a ragged bandana tied tightly over his head, his long sleeve shirt was threadbare and unraveling at the cuffs, and his loose jeans had a darned hole in one knee. The clothes were baggy, too, but Nevada had to hide a pair of cat ears and a tail beneath them. He looked poor, but hopefully that meant Lord Reyes wouldn’t look any deeper at what Nevada was hiding. Hopefully it also meant he wasn’t expecting anything extravagant as Nevada’s bribe.

Nevada pulled the fluffiest, whitest cat he had ever fostered out of the bag and gently placed her on the desk.

“This is Princess Pea. She likes big houses and lots of attention. She’s also very particular about what blankets she sleeps on. I thought you might like to have her company.”

The waiting room had gone silent. It was even quieter than when Lord Reyes had first walked into the room. Yes, it wasn’t a ruby necklace, but surely a beautiful cat wasn’t so bad. Nevada fought to keep his neck from turning to look around the room.

Lord Reyes’ eyes had frozen in a hard glare. “Is this a joke?” he snapped.

Nevada bit his lip, wondering how to answer that. Maybe live animals weren’t acceptable as a bribe? Before he could formulate an answer, Princess Pea took over. She sauntered across the desk towards Lord Reyes and hopped down into his lap where she promptly began to purr furiously. One of Lord Reyes’ hands involuntarily drifted down to his lap where he began to pet her soft fur.

“Fine,” Lord Reyes snapped. “Six months probation. Rosto will come report to me then and I’ll decide whether to accept you in my city. I’ll even make sure Princess here isn’t eaten,” he added cryptically.

Rosto bowed, one of his hands pushing on Nevada’s shoulder to force Nevada to bow also. Then that hand pushed Nevada towards the door.

“I can’t believe you got away with that!” Rosto breathed once they were out of the waiting room and headed towards the building exit.

“Got away with what?” Nevada asked, glad to be away from Lord Reyes.

Rosto laughed, but he didn’t sound amused. “You gave Lord Reyes a cat. That’s practically the ultimate insult.”

“Oh,” Nevada mumbled, feeling his shoulders droop. He had six months, at least, which was enough time to save up before he had to move to another new city.

“Where did you find that cat anyway?” Rosto asked as they reached the main doors and headed out into the parking lot.

“I find cats everywhere,” Nevada replied with a shrug. “I have a beautiful tortoiseshell looking for a new home, if you’re interested.”

Rosto unlocked the car without answering. Nevada got in and buckled his seatbelt. The engine whirred to life, and the hydraulics bounced them gently into the air. The car flew towards the city down the hill, Rosto guiding them along in silence. They stopped a few minutes later outside Nevada’s apartment building.

“No more cats where Lord Reyes is concerned, okay?” Rosto said. The car idled in the air for a few seconds as the hydraulics engaged and the car drifted to the ground. “You start on Monday, nine AM sharp.”

Nevada got out of the car and stepped onto the curb. Rosto waved goodbye before sending the car streaking upwards again.