“Thalay!” I half shriek, before she manages to get her hand all the way over my mouth.
Too late. A couple of the tallest men turn to stare at me, their brows furrowing darkly over their squinted eyes. One of them glances at Mariah, his mouth quirking in distaste. “Is she one of your djibri?”
If I’d been her, I think, I would’ve squirmed, would’ve squirmed bad. But she doesn’t even blink an eye. Instead, she just turns and gives Thalay a look, her voice carefully level – not cold, really, but definitely not warm, either. It’s the kind of voice, the kind of look that makes me think oh, shit, but Thalay hardly seems to notice – or doesn’t care, anyhow. “She is,” Mariah says slowly, out of the side of her mouth, “one of us. Thalay, get your hand off her lips.”
One of the men laughs. It’s a low laugh, and it makes me fume. He’s laughing at me. I’m sure of it. But then he turns to his comrade, and points, and his finger wavers on Thalay instead.
She scowls. I blink and turn away, hoping she won’t notice the glint in my eyes. I may not like her much, but I don’t wanna be on her bad side.
“Take me to Umbra,” Mariah says, after a moment.
The man dips his head. “If Umbra will see you, yeah, I’ll take you.” They seem to make an effort to speak in my tongue, not in normal Junker, and I can’t understand why. I’ve noticed it ever since Mariah called the undead the eena, because she hasn’t let the word slip since. Almost as if she’s afraid to speak in Junker.
I highly doubt they’re speaking normal for my benefit, anyway.
Mariah narrows her eyes at the man. “Umbra will see me.”
“You are a woman.”
“Djibri -” she stops, clears her throat, “our own have chosen me as their speaker, with respect. Take me to Umbra.”
She says the last word so sharply, so intensely that it’s as if she’s slashed a sword through the air. The man raises an eyebrow. “I’ll see what I can do, Mariah. But if I take you to Umbra, the others can’t come. They’ll have to go to their sector. Everything is in order. Umbra requests a meeting of the speakers tomorrow night at sunset. Bring only yourself and one guard.”
Mariah dips her head. I glance across at Thalay. What’s going on? I mouth.
She just gives me a look that says, shut up.
And then the others flood in. They look different than us – same rugged gear, but everything in red and brown colors, and they all have a single spiked tattoo curling along their neck. Most of them are taller and broader than we are, and their bikes are black, with strips of cloth hanging onto the handles and the backs of the bikes – almost like flags. They let us ride, but only slowly, and they flank us on all sides like some sort of fucked up motorcade.
The gang guarding the gang. Great.
I’m behind Thalay again. This time, everything feels bumpier, and the sweat trails down my face faster than before with no wind to whisk it away. The city is a labyrinth of stalls and people in doorways, everything built in stone and glass. It’s not so different than home, excepted that everybody here has that extra rugged thing I’ve come to think of as the junker look.
My helmet keeps out the most of the sand, but that doesn’t stop my throat from feeling raw, ragged, and hoarse. I stop trying to speak, because it hurts too much. I need water. I need it badly, but I’m too tired to ask for it. They probably wouldn’t give it to me anyway, if I brought it up.
Then we’re spreading out, each of us going in a different direction, and Thalay’s dismounting, pulling me and the bike along with her, speaking in a low, raspy whisper.
“First,” she says, “we get water, because I’m fucking dehydrated. Then we’re gonna get you a tat, because otherwise you won’t have a free pass to live. The people here don’t trust easily. You gotta have some way to show them like that, that you’re one of us. Tat’s the only way.”
Tat. Tattoo? I don’t want a tattoo. I’m scared of needles. But Thalay wouldn’t listen if I told her, so what’s the point of bringing it up?
Besides, better to be poked with ten thousand needles than to die one death.
We park the bike by a low house set into the ground, gleaming where the sun touches it, dark where cloth umbrellas cast it in shadow. Thalay goes down first, swings the door open without knocking. “This is my place,” she says. “You’ll be in here with me, too. Can’t trust a new girl to have her own place.”
“You could, actually,” I mutter under my breath.
I must’ve muttered it too loud, because Thalay swings her head around to glare at me. “No,” she snaps, “we can’t. We’d be trusting a stranger with their own life. You’d probably run the first chance you got, and be dead by the next sunset.”
“Didn’t think you were a pessimist.”
“Didn’t think you were an imbecile.” She pauses, grabbing a big metal thing and setting it into a wall basin with a loud clank. “Actually, cross that. I always knew you were an imbecile.”
I shake my head. “Who’s Umbra and what’s this city?”
She pulls the metal thing up and drinks from it in a long, loud gulp. “Lots of things you don’t understand, Jo – can I call you that? Jo? There isn’t time to explain everything.”
“We have time right now.”
“We’d be wasting it. You wouldn’t understand half of it anyway.” She hands me the metal thing and makes me drink from it before I can say anything else, and I almost choke – it tastes salty somehow, enough that it burns just a bit as it goes down. She laughs at my expression. “Used to having it more purified?”
“This is saltwater!”
“Not really. It’s mostly normal. You’re just sensitive and overly picky. People can’t survive off saltwater, that stuff is filtered. Just not enough for your taste.” She plucks the thing from my hands and sets it on the ground, pushing me outside. “Let’s go get you a tat.”
“Do I get to choose the design?”
“This is why I never explain anything to you,” Thalay rolls her eyes at me. “You never listen. It’s supposed to mark you as one of us, so you have to get the same tat as we’ve got.”
“A scorpion.” She winks at me. “Because were never afraid to sting. Never slow to strike. We are djibri, Jo.”
Djibri. That word again. It makes me want to ask her about why Mariah keeps talking in non Junker, but I figure she’s probably run out of patience by now. She probably wouldn’t explain even if I asked.
I’m in no rush, anyway. I have a feeling I’ll be stuck with Thalay for a while longer.