A café on the seafront, half empty.
Arnold tapped his fingers on the table, waiting for his coffee to arrive. He wore wore his simple three piece suit, cut in a mix of Hirlish and Hujang style – light brown in colour with slightly flared sleeves. Sitting alone, near the door, he imagined someone would come to talk to him soon, beginning with an anxious smile and “Do you speak Hirlish?” He was just as desperate to practise talking – his work at the docks afforded him little time for real conversation and he was always afraid of what he would share.
“Would you like to talk to me?” She was pretty, with something in her eyes that drew his answer immediately.
“Yes.” She smiled, her face white to match her gown, her lips a deep blue to match its embroidered trees and palaces.
“Where are you from?”
“Ausgarten, it’s in the south.” A lie, but an easy one. His fingers kept tapping and he played with his sleeve.
“So why did you come out here?” Slightly forward, but Arnold barely noticed.
“I just wanted to explore, I had a seen so little of the world.” This time he was not lying.
Her brown eyes pinned him for a moment, “Do you miss your country?”
“Yes,” the sea’s movement filled the silence, “though it is going through a difficult time at the moment.”
“So you do not support the republicans?” This shocked him slightly, most still referred to them as ‘revolutionaries’ despite their settled rule for the last five years.
“I suppose I do, though not their methods. They believe we should not be ruled by other men, in the value of the common man, that shifting should be taught to all. I believe all these things,” he said resignedly.
“So you do not support the Emperor?” she said, with mock horror.
“I support the Emperor, this is His land. But in my land I support the republicans, for everyone else ignores scriptures.” Arnold shifted, pushing the metal blocks, hidden underneath the back of his jacket, to lie flat against the back of the chair.
‘No man should rule over another, for each man’s weight is enough for his own legs, do not keep a man enslaved, for the King values his life as highly as yours.’
“This verse has been used for a thousand years to justify the monarchy, but it is clear in the surrounding verses that the King is God himself. The verse, and there are many like it, instead calls for an end to Kings and the systems that support them, though the current violence sickens me.” Every few months of he would hear more worrying reports from Hirland, recently he heard garbled stories that a group of the aristocracy had been tried and whose shifting had been been claimed as property of the state – they were then forced to marry their children into the commons or face death.
“You have friends among the aristocracy?” She placed the word carefully so to distance herself from its connotations.
“I did.” He grimaced, having bashed his finger hard against the table. Where was his coffee? He looked around, seeing one of the serving men talking to a man across the other side of the coffee shop. The man was a shifter, he could tell by his bearing.
“Filth,” he swore to himself. Turning to the woman he said, “I’m tremendously sorry, but I’m going to have to leave. What did you say your name was?”
“Jian,” she said smiling, then drew her eyes playfully to the mark he’d left in the table. A small circle around where he had bashed his finger was now made silvery metal instead of wood.
He stood quickly and quietly then began walking to the back of the room, past tables of customers, heading for the door to the servery. The room went quiet. He breathed in deeply.
Arnold turned, shifting the bottom and sides of his leather shoes into water. He fell a short distance and then his bare feet touched the wooden flooring. The man was running towards him. He was Hirlish, but dressed in black and white Hujang robes. Arnold tried to look surprised, perhaps it would make the man underestimate him. The man was about twenty meters away and had his dagger drawn. Grabbing a chair beside him, he sheared off a leg by running his hand down its side and turning the joints into water. With the piece of wood in his hands, he shifted it into steel. The man was meters away. Arnold took a fighting stance, with his weight on his back foot and shifted the wood around his back food to steel, then brushing his toes over the wood in front of him he shifted a huge chunk of the floor into water – his own footing stayed secure on the steel plate behind him. He had chosen this café carefully – it’s placement on the wharf meant the man would fall straight into the sea.
The man must have been expecting it. He only fell for a moment before using his own bare feet to turn the falling water into steel. Arnold immediately swung his metal chair leg towards the man’s head; the man blocked shakily, barely recovered from his fall. Just before the metals collided, Arnold shifted his weapon to water allowing it to continue past the defensive blade before returning it to metal to strike the man hard on the forehead. The man collapsed.
Arnold watched him carefully for several moments before relaxing. The man lay half in and half out of the metal depression in the floor, a falling sheet of water frozen in steel. His upper body lolled onto the wood; his weapon lay discarded by his hand. Arnold shifted himself a metal section of the floor to kneel on and picked up the sword, levelling it to the man’s throat, before checking his pulse.
“Who was he?” Jian asked.
Arnold ignored her. The man was alive but unconscious. Arnold let out his held breath. He spoke then. “A Hurlish assassin. The third they’ve sent in as many years.”
“Who are you?”
“The thing a newly formed republic fears most. It’s rightful King.”