A Tri System’s Edge Short
It was colder than normal as Aurelia navigated her way through the usual, busy crowd in the market. As she strolled down the cobblestone road, the aroma of fresh-baked bread caught her attention. She stopped and lingered for a moment, then made her way into the bakery, where the sweet smell originated.
The display window was filled with a wide array of breads and pastries, making her choice a difficult one.
“Can I get something for you?” the baker asked as he worked.
“I’ll take one of these,” she said, pointing to a row of loaves she’d just watched him place in the display.
“Two credits,” the baker replied as he removed one of the loaves, put it in a paper bag, and set it on the counter.
Aurelia smiled as she dug into a pocket in her satchel and produced a small handful of coins. She handed the exact change to the baker, then said thank you. As he turned away to deposit the money in a drawer, she stole a large sweet roll from the counter display and slid it into the paper bag, then started to walk away.
“Have a nice day,” the baker called out, having missed the act of thievery.
“You too,” she said as she placed the paper bag just inside the main pouch of her satchel. She then reached in and tore off a piece of the sweet roll and let the flap drop shut. While she casually walked through the market, she repeated this routine until, finally, she held the last piece of roll in her hand.
Just before she popped it into her mouth, a young girl crouching next to a building off to one side of the market caught her attention. The girl was staring at her—or more likely her food, she assumed—with a longing Aurelia couldn’t ignore.
She lowered her hand, still holding the piece of roll in it, and watched with curiosity as the girl slowly stood, the gesture obviously having given her some hope.
Aurelia motioned for her to come closer, but the girl stayed where she was. She motioned again and smiled. “It’s all right,” she added, not sure if the girl could even hear her above the noise of the busy marketplace.
The girl looked to either side of her, then pointed to herself.
Aurelia nodded, then held out her hand with the piece of roll in it.
The girl hesitantly began to make her way closer.
While she stood waiting, Aurelia took the time to size her up. She couldn’t be more than seven or eight years old. Her long, unkempt red hair, and the ragged clothes that couldn’t possibly be warm enough on such a cold morning said plenty about the life this poor girl led. Then Aurelia noticed the girl wore no shoes.
As the girl approached, Aurelia crouched down and, with a welcoming smile, asked, “What’s your name?”
The girl ignored the question and reached for the bread.
Aurelia pulled her hand back. “Not yet, dear,” she insisted, maintaining a gentleness about her. “What’s your name?” she softly asked again.
Once more, the girl ignored her but remained still this time.
The girl nodded.
“So you do understand me, then. Can you speak?”
It seemed she was going to ignore the question again, but then, in a low, soft voice, she said, “Kalla.”
“Well, hello, Kalla. I’m Aurelia,” she said as she reached out and handed what was left of the roll to Kalla, who snatched it from her hand and devoured it in seconds. “My, my. Hungry, indeed.” She waited until Kalla was done chewing, then said, “You cold? Bit chilly this mornin’.”
“Why don’t you follow me, then,” Aurelia suggested as she stood and started to head back into the market. But the moment she’d turned her back, she felt a slight tug at her side. She turned to look back at Kalla, who was already far beyond her reach. Aurelia could only watch as the girl disappeared around the side of the building—along with the loaf of bread she realized was no longer in her satchel.
While slightly annoyed by the situation, Aurelia couldn’t help but laugh out loud. She was impressed by the ingenuity of a girl as young as she believed Kalla to be, though not enough to let her off so easy.
As Aurelia rounded the corner of the building, she found herself at the edge of a courtyard that had seen better days. In places where it appeared grass had once grown, she found only tall weeds and bare patches of dirt. A playground in severe disrepair sat at the opposite end of the courtyard, and rusted piles of junk were scattered about.
She surveyed the area, wondering where the girl might have gone, and was about to give up when she heard a gunshot echo from across the courtyard, inside what she guessed was an apartment unit.
Intuition told her that Kalla had something to do with whatever was going on inside, so she unsnapped the latch on her holster and pulled her dagger from its sheath. Then she made her way across the courtyard and approached the building where she believed the shot had been fired and walked through the open door.
As she peered down the dimly lit hallway, several randomly flickering lights revealed just how run-down the place was. Graffiti marks covered much of the floors and walls, and trash was strewn about. Aurelia sensed this wasn’t a safe place for herself, let alone a young girl, and decided to make this as quick a visit as she could.
She headed toward a stairway just inside the entrance, and found an aging man sitting on the bottom step, holding a bottle that looked to be about empty. He took a swig that finished off whatever was left, then leaned back on the steps in a drunken daze.
“Did you see a young girl come by here? A redhead?”
The man spoke in an incoherent slur she couldn’t quite understand, then pointed up the stairway.
“Thanks,” she offered as she walked past him and quickly headed up the stairs, taking care to keep as quiet as she could.
When she reached the second-floor landing, she heard muffled yelling coming from one of the units down the hall, and she followed the sound until she finally stood outside the door the noise was coming from.
The door wasn’t shut tight, so she pushed against it and peeked inside.
“Tol’ ya ta steal me sa mer booze!” a large man yelled at Kalla, who sat crouched in a corner of the room, shielding her face with her arms.
It was clear from his stumbling about and slurred speech that the man was quite drunk, and Aurelia didn’t like the fact that he was waving a pistol in the air as he yelled at the helpless girl.
Aurelia carefully pushed the door open farther, intending to slip inside, but the old, unmaintained hinges began to squeak so loud that she was forced to duck out of the room. The man must have heard the noise, as he suddenly went quiet, so she pressed her back against the wall outside the unit and waited.
“Huz thar?” he slurred in an irritated tone.
She heard the sound of unsteady footsteps approaching the door, then suddenly it was thrown wide open and the large man stepped out into the hallway.
Before he could react, Aurelia grabbed the arm that held the gun, pulled the man toward her, and, in a spinning motion, twisted his arm around and forced the gun from his grip. Then, in one final, fluid motion, she thrust the dagger into the palm of his hand, pinning him to the wall.
He let out a scream and began waving his free arm toward the grip of the knife, obviously disoriented by the attack.
“Time to go!” she yelled at Kalla, keeping her eye on the man as she kicked the gun he’d dropped farther into the hallway and out of his reach. “Now!” she yelled when Kalla hadn’t moved.
Kalla jumped to her feet and disappeared from Aurelia’s view for a moment, then reappeared with the bag of bread under her arm.
Aurelia turned her attention back to the drunk, who’d been unable to free his hand from her dagger. She knocked his free arm away and grabbed hold of the grip, yanking the knife free. Then she spun around and kicked him hard in the face, knocking him unconscious. When Kalla reached the doorway, Aurelia took her by the hand and helped the girl jump over the body on the floor, then led the way to the stairs.
Once they’d reached the safety of the marketplace, Aurelia stopped and crouched down next to Kalla. “What do you say we find you some shoes and a jacket?” she asked.
Kalla nodded somberly.
“Good, then. Let’s get to it,” Aurelia replied. She stood and headed into the crowd, still tightly holding on to Kalla’s hand, and led them toward a clothing shop.
“Welcome.” A young woman greeted them with a friendly smile as they entered. “Something I can help you find?”
“Yes.” Aurelia smiled back. “Looking for some shoes and a jacket for the girl.”
The woman looked down at Kalla and her smile faded. “She’s not welcome here.”
The words bothered Aurelia, though she had a pretty good idea what the problem was. Kalla wasn’t new to the area, she assumed, and had probably been caught stealing from more than one shop in the market. Maybe she’d even stolen from this very shop. But it didn’t matter to Aurelia.
Forcing a smile, she made eye contact with the young woman. “I have money. Now either help me, or I take my business elsewhere.”
The woman hesitated for a moment and seemed to be having a debate in her head. Finally, she smiled back and said, “Please, right this way.”
Kalla’s blank look never changed as Aurelia and the shop owner showed her different items of clothing. She only nodded when there was something she seemed to prefer.
After paying the young woman for the new clothes the girl had chosen, Aurelia took Kalla’s hand and began to leave the shop.
“If you’d like to get her cleaned up,” the woman interrupted, “you can take her to my place and use the bath. When I close up for the night, of course.”
“Thanks,” Aurelia said without looking back. “But we’re good.” Turning to Kalla, she said, “Doesn’t sound like a bad idea, though—a bath. Don’t you think?”
Kalla looked up at her and shrugged.
“Well, I think you could use some cleanin’ up before you put on those new clothes. So what do ya say?” Aurelia stared down at the girl, and for the first time since they’d met, Kalla smiled back at her. “It’s settled, then.”
They walked through the market until they’d reached the far end, where a row of larger buildings stood. “I’ve got a hotel room over there,” Aurelia said, pointing to a large, fancy structure with a bright neon sign.
“Are you rich?” Kalla asked softly.
Aurelia giggled for a moment. “I have what I need, dear,” she replied.
“My, my. You clean up quite nicely now, don’t you,” Aurelia said with a great deal of satisfaction as she looked the girl up and down. Her hair had been brushed straight, and she wore her new clothes—a pair of tight-fitting pants with a dark-red leather jacket that complemented her auburn hair. “Gonna be a little heartbreaker someday.”
Kalla turned to look in the mirror, but it was still fogged over with steam from the hot bath. Looking back at Aurelia, she said, “Thank you,” then gave her a long hug.
“Oh, you’re welcome, dear,” Aurelia said as she hugged her back.
When Kalla finally pulled away, she looked at Aurelia as if about to speak, but she just stared.
“What is it dear?”
Kalla seemed to hesitate, then finally, in her soft little voice, asked, “Well, why are you being so nice to me?”
Aurelia smiled and crouched down next to her. “You know dear, I guess you just remind me of a young me. That, and you genuinely needed some help from someone.”
Kalla smiled. “Thank you,” she said again.
“No need to thank me anymore, dear,” Aurelia said. “You’ll have plenty of time to make it up to me when we get to my ship.”
Kalla backed away and seemed to tense up. “Am I . . . your slave now?”
“Oh, no dear, nothing like that,” Aurelia said with a chuckle. “I just mean that you can join my crew if you’d like. We’ll go places, have adventures. I’m sure there’s plenty you can do to contribute, and we’ll teach you how to really live—if you’d like.”
Kalla’s face scrunched up for a moment as she considered Aurelia’s offer. “I don’t remember ever being on a ship,” she finally said. “Would you teach me how to fly it?”
“Now that sounds like a great idea,” Aurelia replied as she moved over and hugged Kalla again. “We’ll stay here tonight, then head to my ship in the morning. Sound good to you?”
Kalla nodded. “Does it have a name?”
“Never did officially name her, but sometimes I call her Lady.”
Kalla smiled. “Lady. Can’t wait to meet her.”
It was late the next morning when Aurelia and Kalla left the hotel. “Let’s head to the market and find us somethin’ to eat, then we’ll be on our way. Sound good to you?”
Kalla nodded and smiled.
Aurelia smiled back, then led the way to the market, which was already bustling with people moving about. She headed toward a café she liked and opened the door for Kalla the moment they reached it. After locating an empty table inside, she pointed. “Let’s sit over there, and we’ll order something.” Once seated, she picked up her menu.
Kalla just stared at her.
“It’s alright dear. Just look over the menu there and see what you want.” Aurelia encouraged.
Kalla obediently reached for the menu lying on the table. “There’s no pictures,” she said as she slumped down in her seat.
Aurelia looked at her and said, “You can’t read, can you.”
Kalla shook her head.
“Well, that just won’t do. Somethin’ we’ll have to fix. Not to worry though. I’ll just order for you, dear.”
A waiter approached a few minutes later and took down their order—coffee and some eggs for Aurelia, and juice and toast with jam for Kalla.
The food didn’t take long to arrive, and, as with her meals the previous day, Kalla wasted no time finishing every bite, including all visible crumbs on her plate.
When they were both finished eating, Aurelia flagged the waiter down and paid the bill. “You ready?” she asked Kalla as she stood up from the table.
“Let’s go, then,” she said, taking Kalla by the hand. They left the café and headed back into the market, where Aurelia led the way through the moving maze of people.
When they’d almost reached the hotel, Aurelia changed course and led them down a narrow alleyway where the buildings seemed to close in the farther they went, until finally they reached the end, and the road opened into an expansive, untouched landscape.
There were a few trees scattered about, but as they got farther away from town, the trees became sparser, until there was nothing but a few small bushes here and there, and dirt as far as the eye could see.
“See that ship out there?” Aurelia asked as she pointed off in the distance.
Kalla nodded. “It’s Lady?”
“And where exactly do you think you’re goin’,” a loud voice bellowed from behind them.
Aurelia turned around, and Kalla immediately moved behind her, grabbing ahold of her legs.
“Don’t let him take me,” she begged.
“Wasn’t plannin’ on it,” Aurelia whispered back.
“You’ll be givin’ er ta me, then ya can be on yer way. And that’s bein’ nice since ya left me with this.” He held up one of his hands, which had a bloodstained bandage wrapped around it. In the other, he held the gun she’d left in the hallway.
Aurelia turned her head down to Kalla. “When I say so, I want you to run to the ship, you hear me?”
“I asked her if she wanted to stay here. She said no,” Aurelia said to the man.
The man started to laugh, waving the gun about as his body shook. “No, I don’t think ya understand. It ain’t her choice.” His laughter faded, and he steadied the gun.
Aurelia slowly crouched down, pulling Kalla’s arms away from her legs.
“Whatcha doin’? Hold still,” he demanded.
“Just making the girl let go so I can send her to you,” she lied. When she was low enough, she scooped a handful of dirt and clenched her fist around it. “You ready?” Aurelia whispered.
“Now!” she yelled.
Kalla darted off in the direction of the ship.
“Wait! Come back!” the man yelled as he fired a few shots in Kalla’s direction.
While he was focused on Kalla, Aurelia rushed forward, quickly closing the gap enough between them, that when she threw her handful of dirt, it hit him in square in the face.
He started to scream in pain, instinctively dropping the gun and bringing his hands to his face.
“Don’t worry. You’ll never see us again,” Aurelia said as she turned and started to walk away, leaving him on the ground grunting and in pain as he rubbed his eyes.
Aurelia had only made it a few meters when she realized she couldn’t hear him anymore. She turned around just in time to see him barreling toward her. The hit was hard, and he took her to the ground, repeatedly swinging his meaty fists at her head and torso.
Aurelia tried to block each attack, and even attempted to fight back, but his size and strength overwhelmed her.
“You can’t have ’er,” the man yelled just before punching her one last time in the side of the head.
Aurelia barely saw the final blow coming and blacked out the moment his fist connected.
Several hours later, she opened her eyes to the fuzzy image of a young girl staring intently back at her.
“Aurelia? Are you alright?” the soft voice said.
“Kalla, is that you? Where are we?”
“You’re home, safe and sound,” a voice replied, a voice she recognized.
“But how . . . ?”
“Your little friend here showed up and told us you was in trouble.”
Aurelia turned back to Kalla and smiled. “Thanks, dear. Guess we’re even for the clothes now.”
“You wouldn’t have gotten hurt if it wasn’t for me, though,” she said with a concerned look.
“Don’t you worry, dear. I’m thinking it was worth it,” she said before closing her eyes to rest a little longer.