Summary: Sheriff Solshemshesh and his sheriff-in-training Lekni try to stop a rash of violent deaths in the little desert town of Saplapelanka.
Rating: Teen and up
Warnings: Some violence
Notes: Genders: male, female, trine (third gender), quine (genderfluid).
Kimah was setting and the sun rising as Lekni set off at an exasperated trot southwards of Saplapelanka. Someday, she thought, people would stop being idiots. And someday, she would stop being the sheriff’s errand-runner and instead be able to delegate someone else to go lead those idiots back to the town.
She spotted the group before she’d gone three miles, squatting embarrassedly half-naked around a large campfire in the lee of a sand dune. Lekni waved tiredly as she arrived. “I did warn you,” she said irritably to the first of their group, a merchant named Peltlin, if she was remembering correctly.
They scowled at her. “The woman sounded like she knew what she was talkin’ about,” they muttered sulkily.
“Well, I’ve brought you shoes, blankets, and horses. Courtesy of Sheriff Solshemshesh. So you’ll be able to get back to town easily.” She received a highly ungracious grunt that might have been a thanks and rolled her eyes. “Do you need me to lead you back?”
“We’ll be fine,” Peltlin muttered. A young woman patted their arm gently and gave Lekni a sudden smile. “Don’t bother about my parent,” she said. “They’re just frustrated at getting fooled. Thank you for helpin’ us.”
Lekni felt her cheeks warm, like a fool. “Let me know if there’s anythin’ else,” she mumbled, turning her horse back towards Saplapelanka.
She had plenty of time on the way back to curse the person who kept running this stupid con. She could, she supposed, also have cursed Shem for constantly making her deal with it, but that seemed less fair. After all, he was trying to train her to take his place someday, so she should be the one dealing with the routine annoyances. And it wasn’t like he knew this was going to be happening.
When she got back, Shem himself was standing outside the little building that served as their headquarters, looking surprisingly awake, although he also had impressive bedhead. “Deputy,” he said gruffly. “Wasn’t expecting you so fast.”
“They only made a few miles last night before their ‘guide’ disappeared with their money and clothes,” Lekni explained. “A more rush job than usual.” It hadn’t occurred to her before. “Maybe she had something else she wanted to do?” What the hell else would a known scammer have that she wanted to do more than her current scam?
“It’s good you’re back.” Shem flexed his metal hand absently, which he only did when he was particularly worried, and Lekni frowned. He was worried, and if she wasn’t careful that meant he was going to start smoking again to calm his nerves. Lekni had watched her grandfather die after years of smoking, near coughing up his lungs, and she wasn’t about to sit by while the same thing happened to Shem, even if Shem didn’t have anyone else to look out for his health.
She slipped off the horse. “What’s goin’ on?” she asked sharply.
“Just came back from the hospital.” Creak creak, went the metal hand. “Three kids died last night during a spider ceremony.”
Lekni’s stomach abruptly dropped right down into her soft old moccasins. She clambered down off the horse, nearly catching her skirt in the saddle, which she hadn’t done in years. “Three?”
The spider’s ceremony was always dangerous. Ever since the world had burned and the old god had spun everything back together, she’d been insane, or so the tale went. So it wasn’t exactly unheard of for her to claim a supplicant once in a while. But three at once? Either something terrible was coming, or there was a human hand in here and not just a divine one.
“Yep. Walk with me.” Creak, creak.
The sand of the street was already heating up in the warmth of the morning sun. “What do we do?” Lekni asked. Surely, this was a case for the sheriff and his deputy-in-training, but this was so much more serious than the dumb little cons she’d been breaking up so far.
“First things first. We’re goin’ over to check out the ritual site. Got your crossbow?”
She ran the tips of her fingers over it. “You think we’ll need them?”
“I think it’s always good to be ready.”
She looked over at him, but as usual, Shem’s poker face was perfect, and he gave nothing away but a kind of mild interest. Lekni huffed. “You could help,” she said in irritation.
“Some things you have to learn for yourself, Deputy.”
“But not all things, Sheriff.”
That got her a small grin. “Well.”
The Mad Spinner’s ritual site was a round circle of cleared white stone with her threefold circle of circles symbol picked out on the ground in neat dark pebbles. There were still a few supplicants sleeping around it, and a gourd lay in the center, tipped on its side, a still-damp darkened piece of stone beneath it one of the last signs of the liquid that had been imbibed the night before.
“What happened to the three who died?” Lekni asked soberly as she picked her way to the center, taking care not to disturb the symbol.
“Twig is preparing their rafts.”
In a larger town than Saplapelanka, there might be more than one messenger, but here there was only Twig, a dried-up little trine who looked as though they were about a hundred years old. They swore they’d dedicated themself to every god in the pantheon, and, if Lekni sometimes found this claim personally a little suspect, she never said anything.
She squatted by the gourd, sniffing at it delicately, wrinkling her nose at the bitter odor. Spider’s juice, all right. If there was anything else in it, there was no way they’d be able to tell. Which meant they’d have to rely on asking whoever had survived last night.
“How many people were at the ritual last night?” she asked Shem, who shrugged.
“Ten or fifteen, probably. I’ll get them to come in today. It’s possible someone saw something, though I’m not holdin’ out hope.”
“If there’s no information, what can we do?” Lekni asked in frustration. “I mean, it’ll just go down as a spider’s calling, won’t it?”
“Could be.” Shem licked his lips. “In my experience, things have a way of turning up, though.”
Lekni sighed. “I mean, could it just be a spider’s calling?” she asked quietly.
Shem raised an eyebrow at her. “What do you think?” he asked neutrally.
“I don’t think so,” she confessed after a moment. “But I don’t see how we can conclude anything else.”
For the first time, the sheriff detached himself from the low adobe wall he’d been leaning against, giving the area a cursory glance. “Check the bottom of that gourd,” he instructed Lekni, and she obeyed, flipping it over.
“It’s just a gourd from the high well,” she said, holding it up. There were two wells in town: the high well, located on the humped hill to the north, and the low well, further away and less often used, in the oasis to the south. Each one of them was owned by a different merchant family. Both families had repeatedly tried to purchase the other’s site; the Jostshosh clan, which owned the low well, was much larger than the Zhiki clan, which owned the high, but the Zhiki were locals.
“Hm.” Shem grunted softly. “C’mon, Deputy. We’d better get going.” As Lekni trotted obediently after him, she saw that Shem’s dark brows were drawn down over his eyes again.
They were halfway back to the sheriff’s headquarters, when Lekni heard a hubbub break out from a few streets away. “What’s going on?” she blurted, and then turned to run.
“Get on, I’ll catch up,” Shem told her tersely, his false leg clacking against the cobbles of the street. Lekni nodded, gathered up her skirts, and ran.
She arrived to find a crowd gathering around the central square. Oltet, the woman who owned the bar, was standing on a chair in the center shouting abuse at several patrons, while several people knelt around a convulsing figure on the ground. Someone was yelling for a doctor, while someone else called for water.
“Sheriff’s business, let me through,” Lekni demanded. “What’s going on?”
Before she could get an answer, the town doctor was pushing through beside her; someone must have run for them. Doctor Menni took off their feathered hat and handed it to Lekni, then bend over the person on the ground. “I’m going to need charcoal,” they said. “What was he drinking? Or eating?”
“Just water!” Oltet yelled frantically. “None of these blockheads will listen to me—I just gave him a cup of water from a new barrel!”
Water. Lekni got up and pushed her way through the crowd again. “Hey!” she yelled as she reached Oltet. “Hey! Where did you get the water?”
Oltet pointed, and Lekni turned to see a barrel with, once again, the stamp of the high well on its side. Her heart went tight in her chest as she thought back to the gourd, and she looked up to see that Shem had finally arrived and was striding into the square. He navigated around Menni and their patient and then looked up, eyes flicking from the barrel to Lekni’s face before giving her a single small, slow nod.
“What was in the water?” Shem asked Doctor Menni calmly, adjusting the window blinds to keep out a little more of the light. Lekni hovered silently at the side of the desk. Menni was agitated, angry, and they pressed their face into their hands as they answered.
“I don’t know. A poison. A fast-acting one. Sure as you’re born killed poor Tlon quick enough. But I’d have to do some tests to guess better, and I ain’t know if his family’ll want that.”
“In your professional opinion, doctor,” Shem said quietly, “you think it was a natural taint? Or you think…”
“I don’t know,” Menni said, twisting their hands together fiercely. “There are plants that can kill you that fast. That ugly. Some mushrooms. If the whole well’s gone…”
“We’ll have to test it.” Shem nodded to Lekni. “Could be that it was the barrel and not the well, though.”
“Could be,” Menni agreed. They looked up, coming to the same conclusion Lekni was at the same time. “You think this is what killed the spider’s supplicants?”
“I have a suspicion,” Shem said grimly. “Barrel or well’s the first question. We solve that, the next one is whether this was an accident—or not.”
“Why would someone want to poison the well?” Lekni burst out.
“That’s the third question,” Shem told her imperturbably. “Let’s deal with the first one first. Send one of our folk to test the water.”
“Yes, sir.” Lekni’s head was spinning. Four people poisoned—maybe. What if there was more? If they couldn’t trust the water—
It didn’t take more than another hour for the report to come back. Three of the sheriff’s people had drawn up a bucket from the well and tested it on some of the local wildlife. Clean. But the barrel wasn’t—and further inspection turned up another two out of five that had been delivered to Oltet from the high well were tainted.
“Something to do with the barrelling?” Lekni hazarded eagerly, nervously.
“Hum,” Shem said flatly.
“What are we going to do?” she asked him, as they shut the door behind Menni.
“A fine question. You’re not goin’ to let me smoke, are you?”
“I am not.”
Shem snorted in irritation. “All right. Your next lesson in sheriffing, deputy. Always be suspicious. Let’s say this was not an accident. Why?”
“Well…” Lekni frowned. “It’d hurt the town. Hurt the Zhiki, too.”
“Right. Go on.”
“If we can’t trust the high well, we have to get water from the low well.”
“Yep.” Shem stared at his hands. “It’s a simple motive, greed. Why not poison a few people to drive the town to use your well instead?”
“It’s just speculation, ain’t it, sir?”
“Without proof, it sure is.” He scratched his head. “Or without a witness.”
“So what do we do?”
“We keep looking.”
The town was restless. The sheriff’s office couldn’t be everywhere, and already they’d had to despatch officers to protect the Zhiki from the occasionall thrown stone. The high well had been shut down for now, and the prices of the low well, in the absence of their competitor, were creeping up, which only added to the townsfolks’ dissatisfaction.
“We near had a riot back there,” Lekni said with a sigh to Rusty, Shem’s cat and the sheriff’s semi-official mascot. His three tails waved sympathetically at her as he wandered over and butted her shin unrelentingly until she stooped down to pet him. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, I really don’t.” At the rate things were going, if they couldn’t figure out who was behind the whole mess, they’d have to arrest the Zhiki merchants just to keep the peace. And Lekni really didn’t want to do that. If they were responsible, because they’d been careless or tried to dilute the water or something, then of course they should be arrested. But if it was the Jostshosh trying to destroy their rivals—or someone else entirely—who was to blame, then—well, that wouldn’t be right. She’d become a deputy to do the right thing, but what did you do when there was no way to know what that was?
The door banged open, and Shem entered with a stranger behind him, still in full desert garb, with a short, colorful skirt and wrap over flowing trousers and a really riotous set of bright-colored feathers veiling their face.
“Right,” Shem growled loudly. “Found us our witness.”
Lekni blinked at the suddenness. “You did?” she asked.
Shem put a hand on the newcomer’s shoulder, and Lekni saw their mouth beneath the feathers curl in a small smile. “This is Illek. They’re a traveling messenger, and they were observing the spider’s ritual last night. They say they saw someone tampering with the water barrels.”
“Who?” Lekni asked. “Who was it?”
It was Illek who answered, in a low, pleasant voice. “Don’t want to say, yet.”
“We’ll have a proper questioning in the morning,” Shem said, again loudly. Almost strangely loudly. “I want to make sure this is all aboveboard, so we’ll want to have a good number of witnesses to the questioning. This is a real serious matter, ain’t it?”
It still seemed strange to Lekni, but Shem was the boss, and he had all the experience. “Sure,” she said. “What do you need me to do?”
For an instant, she saw Shem’s eyes flicker to Illek and then back to her, and then he seemed to come to a decision. “Keep an eye on them, will you? I should make sure none of our fine, upstanding citizens try to start a riot again.”
“Can do, Shem—Sheriff.”
“Great. I’ll leave them with you, then,” Shem said shortly, before turning and striding out.
Lekni looked awkwardly around the room. “Do you need water or something?” she asked, then coughed, because that was probably the most awkward thing she could have said.
“Don’t worry about me,” Illek replied lightly. “You mind if I take my hat off?”
“Great.” They smoothed their skirts a little and gently took the hat from their head, revealing neatly parted hair in a braid and a patch over their left eye. “I’ll just…” They looked around for a moment, then—to Lekni’s puzzlement—grabbed the old coatrack from the door and pulled it in front of the window, setting the hat carefully on top of it. They closed the blinds and lit the oil lamp on the table. Then, frowning, they took Shem’s winter coat, which was still hanging there, and moved it around a little. Standing back, they nodded, then gave Lekni a bland smile. “Rituals, my dear young deputy.”
“That’s no ritual I’ve ever heard of,” Lekni said, with a frown.
“Am I doing any harm?” They headed for the side of the room and flung themself down into the rickety old chair by the bookshelf, the one Lekni always curled up in of an evening to read to herself.
She sighed. “I guess not. Have your ‘rituals’, then.”
Something wasn’t right. The conviction grew on her as she stood at the door, watching Illek, who was apparently napping in the corner, waiting for Shem to return. Something just was not right. There was something Shem hadn’t told her. It was well past sunset now and he hadn’t returned—was she supposed to watch their witness the whole night? She’d do it if she had to, but it seemed like overkill.
Biting her lip, frowning, she went over to inspect the ‘ritual’ coat and hat.
“I really wouldn’t, if I were you,” Illek said mildly. Apparently, they weren’t asleep after all.
“I’ll do what I like,” Lekni said. “I’m the deputy.”
Illek sat up, and there was a peculiar expression on their face. “Really. Don’t stand in front of the window.”
“What exactly are you trying to pull?” Lekni demanded, crossing her arms.
They leaned forward. “Step back, will you?” A ghost of a smile. “Part of the ritual.”
Lekni’s chin firmed up. “Explain your ritual.”
“Oh, gods dammit.” Illek rose and went quickly to the side of the window, parting the blinds to peer out. “Get down.”
“Get down!” There was a whizzing noise, and a thumping noise, and a loud profanity. Something hit Lekni very hard in the chest at the same time, and the next thing she knew, she was looking up at Illek, on top of her, and there was a line of arrows quivering in the coatrack. Illek scrambled up immediately, rushing to the window. “Damn. Dammit!”
They clambered out. Lekni stared, dumbly, for a moment, and then pulled herself to her feet as well. Whatever was going on, she couldn’t let the witness out of her sight. She went over the windowsill and dropped to the ground beneath in time to see Illek pelting hell-for-leather towards a figure on the rooftop of a nearby building.
The streets were too wide for someone to jump from one building to the next, thankfully, so after a heartbeat, she gathered her skirts up and began to run for the ladder on the side of the building.
Illek reached it first and shouted something that was carried away by the howling night wind. They had produced a small crossbow from somewhere and were pointing it at the barely-visible figure on the rooftop. Lekni felt for her own crossbow and discovered she didn’t have it. Had Illek…?
She reached the base of the ladder in time to see the would be assassin drop directly from the roof onto the street below, a good twenty feet away. Illek swore violently, flicked the crossbow up, and shot a bolt that whizzed across the gap and took the fleeing figure in the upper left shoulder. They winced but kept running, and Illek and Lekni ran after.
They ducked around the stables where the main bulk of the town’s horses were kept and into the yard where they were exercised—and a crossbow bolt whined past Lekni’s ear. The man they’d been chasing had turned and fired. She flattened herself instinctively against the wall. Their quarry was in the center of the yard, and he had acquired two friends, one holding a very long knife, the other with a short but still deadly-looking axe.
“Oh, come on,” Illek muttered. “Hey, how are you with a knife?” they said, never looking at Lekni.
What a shame she’d left her club back at the office. “Better with a crossbow,” she responded pointedly, and they grinned at her.
“Sorry about that.” They reached out and passed the crossbow back, pausing to pull out their own knife. “Can you get Shem? I don’t think this is going to go well if we don’t get backup fast.”
“You want me to leave you with three people trying to kill you.”
“Well, it’s not ideal,” Illek said, never taking their eyes off of the three people in front of them.
“Fuck that.” Lekni reached into her belt and pulled out her flare gun. Not the best thing to have to use in the middle of town, but Shem would just have to deal. As the flare roared upward into the night, the three attackers leapt at them.
Lekni fired three shots with her crossbow into the chest of the man going for her, and he went down hard, his body making a hard thudding noise as it hit the dirt. Beside her, the other two rushed Illek, and rather than standing firm, Illek faded to the side, bringing the butt of their knife down on the head of the person who had shot at them originally. He crumpled, and that left only the third person, a woman all in black with one long, thin, wicked-looking dagger in each hand.
She didn’t charge; she maneuvered herself until Illek was between her and Lekni, which stopped Lekni from being able to get in a clear shot. The next second, she had closed the distance between them and instead of trying to stab Illek, she tackled them. Lekni stared in consternation at the two combatants rolling on the ground. There was no way she could help; she couldn’t shoot and trying to get closer to two people wielding sharp knives was likely to leave her minus a hand.
A horse galloped up beside her. “What’s going on?” Shem demanded, and Lekni pointed mutely.
“Two of them down, sir, but the third—”
“Fuck. The others are on their way—we were trying to prevent a riot and I didn’t expect—” He cut himself off, then turned to the fight, where the woman had managed to knock one of Illek’s knives out of their hand, and Illek was doing everything possible to keep the knives away from their face. “Hey! You’re surrounded! Stand down!”
No response other than the awful scrape of steel on steel as the woman forced her knives down on top of Illek’s single remaining one. Hesitantly, Lekni raised her crossbow again, because they weren’t moving as much now, and she was on top of the other person. “Don’t,” Shem told her tersely. “Wait.”
In an instant, Illek dropped their blade, rolling sideways. The sudden removal of the opposing force sent both blades forward; one of them thunked audibly into the dirt. Illek’s elbow came up and smashed heavily into the woman’s ear, and then she gave an oofing noise and doubled up. Illek caught her wrist and slammed her heavily sideways into the dirt, raising their dagger.
“Azh!” Shem yelled, the word sudden and loud in the awful stillness of the courtyard.
Illek, breathing hard, hand tightening around the dagger, looked up at him. Their eye patch had come askew, and in the yellow light, their sightless left eye reflected a milky star shape. “Gods damn,” they spat, and hit the woman in the face with the butt of the knife. “You ain’t goin’ in my ledger, bitch. Lucky for you.” Leaving her stunned, they staggered upright and threw the dagger to the side, then bent over and pressed their hands to their side. “Ow. Where’s a doctor when you need one?”
Shem raised his hand, and Lekni and the other officers headed forward to arrest the three perpetrators. The one Lekni had shot was quite dead, unfortunately, but the other two were alive. They dragged the dazed woman upright, and Shem smiled grimly. “Jostshotsh Anotli of Saplapelanka. Guess that solves our mystery.”
“Glad to help,” muttered Illek. “Can I have a doctor? I did just get stabbed.”
Shem’s head whipped around. Lekni was watching at just the right instant to see an expression on his face she’d never seen before, although it was quickly wiped away. “Get Illek to a doctor, Lekni. Immediately.”
“Thanks,” Illek said exhaustedly as Lekni got her shoulder under theirs. They had their hands pressed against their side. The second knife Anotli had wielded hadn’t hit the earth, it seemed. “Don’t think it’s bad, but it sure hurts like the devil’s heart.”
When Lekni got Illek to Menni, the doctor concurred with their assessment. “Just skidded along your ribs.” They frowned at Illek from under bushy eyebrows. “Who are you anyway? I feel like I’ve seen you around town, but I thought I knew all the residents.”
“I go by Illek.” Illek gave them a tired smile. “I’m a merchant. I’ve passed through a time or two before.”
“Hm,” said Menni, and Lekni looked in confusion from one to the other. “Well. I’ll clean it and bandage it, and you’ll want to change the dressing every so often. You had stab wounds before?”
“Not often,” Illek confessed. “But it’s happened, yeah.”
Another noncommittal hum. “Lekni, turn around. You’re goin’ to hurt my patient’s modesty.”
“Oh. Sorry.” She shuffled around and stared out the window, rubbing a hand through her hair. There was something funny going on that she couldn’t quite grasp. Probably because she was dead tired. They’d solved the mystery, obviously. Plenty of witnesses would say Jostshosh Anotli had been among the assassins trying to kill the witness. Wasn’t really even any need for what Illek had seen in the first place…
She shook her head. She needed to get home and sleep. Her brain would work better in the morning.
Morning brought more lucidity, but Lekni still felt like things didn’t quite fit. There was a piece missing somewhere. She got up, headed to the sheriff’s headquarters, and fed Rusty. Her thoughts were still swirling about; there was one suspicion that kept floating above all the others, and she kept dismissing it. Shem wouldn’t do that, surely? Besides, how would he get hold of someone to…? Well—either way, she’d need to talk to him to figure out how to wrap all of this up. With both wells sort of compromised, there were going to be a devil of a lot of logistics to handle.
“Um, scuse me?” It was the young woman she’d met the day before, Peltlin’s daughter.
“Yeah, how can I help you?” Lekni smiled at her, and the woman smiled shyly back.
“Just figured I should come in; my parent’s still grumpy. I wanted to let you know we’re dropping off the horses at the stables. Thanks again.”
“Just doin’ my job. I don’t want people thinkin’ this kind of scam is okay in Saplapelanka. Sheriff Solshemshesh runs a tight ship. Oh—before you go—can you give us a description of the person who tricked you?”
“Sure, but we didn’t see much of her. A veiled woman calling herself Zasha. She wasn’t wearin’ anything very memorable, although she did have a kind of…mottled pattern or scar on the back of her left hand.”
“Right. I’ll make a note. Doubt her name is really Zasha, but the information should help if this happens again.” When, Lekni thought cynically. They really needed to do something about this. People were dumb, but that was no cause to keep stranding them in the desert and stealing their money.
Anyway, where the hell was Shem? He should be in by now, shouldn’t he? She chewed on her lip as she made a few last small-talk exchanges with Peltlin’s daughter. Probably nothing was wrong, and she wasn’t really supposed to show up at Shem’s house, but after last night, she was a little on edge. What was the harm?
She patted Rusty, who was meowing round her legs again. “I already fed you, you little con artist,” she said affectionately, and Rusty gave her an affronted look and leapt up to the window sill, where he cleaned a paw before curling up for a nap in the warm sun. Lekni gave him a last little ear scritch before getting one of the other officers to take over for her and heading out the door.
Shem’s place was a little ways outside of town, a good ten minute ride up from the south well. It was cut directly into the side of the mesa, very cool and pleasant in the morning. She passed the Trine on her ride, waving to the old, weathered triangle of stone as she went past. She used to play there when she was a child, rubbing charcoal across parchment to take imprints of the few strange runes that hadn’t been erased by time. She’d thought of becoming a scholar for a little while, but the Banded Eye didn’t have many worshippers in Saplapelanka, and then she’d met Shem, and—well. She was good at what she did, even if sometimes she did kind of sigh, looking out at the horizon and wondering what was past it. She kind of understood all those people who got themselves lost or scammed looking for the Center, because—well—you wanted to believe in it. You wanted to believe someone could take you to it. You wanted that magic to be real.
There was a little stream trickling around Shem’s door. Not enough to supply water for many people, but it was a nice little perk of being the sheriff. Nearby water to drink and wash with. As Lekni approached, she saw that someone was kneeling next to it, washing their face—but it wasn’t Shem.
She reined her horse in and stared as Illek splashed water on their face and ran their hand through their hair. It wasn’t the dark braid they’d had the night before, which must have been a wig. Instead, they had a shock of white hair, raggedly cut to the line of their jaw on the right side of their head. On the left, there was nothing—a smear of what looked like splotchy burns across the scalp, ending just above that sightless left eye. They sighed and sat back, wincing as the bandages across their chest shifted, and they looked up to catch Lekni’s gaze.
Why was Illek at Shem’s house? Half-naked, barefoot, washing themself in his well? Suspicion crawled up inside Lekni’s stomach. She urged the horse forward again and leaped to the ground beside them just as they stood up, raising a laconic hand in greeting. A good part of the skin on their left side was a mottled white that didn’t match the rest of their coloring—they must have been hiding it with makeup the day before. Lekni’s eyes flicked to that left hand, mottled and scarred, and the next second she had her crossbow out, pointed at them.
“You’re the con artist,” she said accusingly. “What are you doing at Shem’s? What is all this?”
“Whoops,” said Illek, raising their hands. “Hey, Shem?” they called over their shoulder. “We got a problem.”
“What is it, Azh—” Shem opened the door and looked out at the little tableau. “Damnation.”
“Shem?” Lekni inquired, voice rising. “You know them? You know them.” Shem was naked from the waist up as well, and there were long red scratches on his chest and shoulders. “Runner’s tits, you’re—”
“Language, Lekni,” Shem growled.
“You kiddin’ me right now?” she growled back. “You’re fucking the—” not a trine, a quine. “What the hell, Shem?”
Illek smiled. “Guess I shouldn’t have stayed the night last night, huh.”
“Shut up, Azh. Just a second.” Shem disappeared back into the house and reappeared a few minutes later, now wearing a shirt and shoes, though his long hair still spilled wildly over his shoulders in the absence of his trademark braid.
“ ‘Azh’?” Lekni asked grimly.
“Azhmik,” responded Illek, with another smile. “It’s my name.”
“Your real one?”
Azhmik laughed. “Pretty sure.”
“Seriously,” Lekni said. “What is this. Shem. You’re the sheriff.”
Shem sighed and rubbed the back of his neck, looking a little abashed. “I figured you’d have this reaction, which is why I didn’t tell you. Look…” he trailed off, staring determinedly at the sky over her shoulder.
“I seduced him,” Azhmik said, grin widening a little. “I mean, it’s useful to have a lawman on your side, isn’t it? He was getting too close to stoppin’ my little games, so last night I—”
“Azh, Runner’s love, please shut up.”
“I’m just tryin’ to—”
Shem took three steps out the door, ignoring Lekni’s crossbow entirely, and took Azhmik by the shoulder. “No. You don’t get to pretend you’re worthless to me. I’ll handle this.”
Azhmik blinked and, to Lekni’s surprise, sighed heavily and leaned their head forward into Shem’s chest, taking his hand in theirs. “Whatever you say, love.”
Lekni let the crossbow drop, not wanting to aim it near Shem, but although she tucked it back into her belt, she folded her arms and glared. “Seriously.”
Shem turned to her. “Sorry, Lekni. Sometimes things get—complicated.”
“They’re useful. We needed a witness, so Azh stepped up and got what amounted to a confession. Yeah, we cheated, but I couldn’t afford the well situation to keep getting worse. I was pretty sure it was the Jostshotsh family behind the whole thing, but I needed proof. So.”
Lekni chewed on the inside of her lip. “…Okay,” she said slowly. “I get that part. It’s kind of…underhanded, and I ain’t sure I like it, but I get it. But all this Center stuff?”
Azh went slightly red and shuffled awkwardly. Shem glared.
“Keep asking them not to,” he said irritably. “They keep ignoring me.”
“You should be arresting them.”
“I’ve tried that,” Shem said. “It don’t do much good. And they ain’t hurting anyone.”
“They’re stealing people’s stuff and leaving them stranded in the desert!”
“Ah, but I am very careful not to strand them far from water!” Azhmik said brightly, and Shem glared again.
“Deputy,” he said slowly. “It’s within your rights to arrest both of us, if that’s what you want. You going to do that?”
“I—well—I—” She shut her mouth. She couldn’t arrest Shem. He was a brilliant sheriff. Saplapelanka, despite the occasional headache of having to rescue people trying to find the center, was a very nicely-run little town. Most of that was Shem’s doing. There hadn’t been a riot over water yesterday, and that was thanks to him, too. “I ain’t going to,” she said slowly. “But—” Maybe she could make this work out anyway. “But, Sheriff Solshemshesh, I think you better introduce your lover to the town. They’re living here, ain’t they? Should be on record, that.”
“Hey, wait,” Azhmik said, hurriedly. “If you put me on record, I can’t—I mean, people will know me.”
Lekni grinned. Shem smirked. “True enough,” he said. Azhmik turned on him with large, accusatory eyes, and he patted their arm. “There, there. You can still scam folk if you want to do some traveling first. It’ll be good for you.”
“This is blackmail,” Azhmik said mournfully. “Fine. Just because it’s comfy in your house, and it’d be nice to pet Rusty in daylight.”
“How long has this been going on anyway?” Lekni asked, relaxing a little.
Shem coughed, going a little red. Azhmik smiled like a coyote. “Remember that flash flood last year?”
“That long? How did you—”
“Talent.” They leaned up slightly to kiss Shem’s cheek. “I’m going to go and put on some clothes. I think I’m feeling man today.” He waved and headed for the door. Lekni and Shem watched him go.
“Shem…” Lekni said slowly. “He’s got you wrapped around his little finger.”
“Yeah,” Shem agreed. “It’s real frustrating, but I think you’ll like him when you get to know him.”
“Well,” said Lekni, still a little grimly. “We’ll see.”
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