Brant shuffled along the street, his tail dragging a furrow through the dust. The early-morning air was already warm, though the sun had yet to rise, and the few passers-by were already keeping mostly to the shadows.
“Going to be a hot one,” Brant murmured, scratching under his helmet. He reached the covered stairway that led down into the Veins and turned, shading his eyes with one paw. The topmost turrets of the Palace of the Seven were already limned in gold, the white marble seeming to almost glow. Brant watched a moment more before sighing and descending the stairs.
The undercity was cooler, the thick brickwork of the arched tunnels never quite letting the warmth through, and as he made his way along the streets he nodded to the few uplifts he saw as he wended his way home.
He stood looking at his front door for long minutes. Beyond the wooden door he could hear the sounds of his wife moving around, putting a meal on the table. She’d brewed tea, like always, and he could hear her softly humming under her breath. He reached for the door, then drew back as a small twist of panic sprang to life in his stomach. It left a hollow feeling, and he took the wooden helmet from his head, turning it around in his paws. Before he could change his mind, he pushed the door open and summoned his best smile.
“Morning, love,” Brant said.
Marn was beautiful, as ever, sleek fur picked out in the warm glow of the lantern as she shuffled around the kitchen on all fours. The panic rose again, threatening to steal his breath from his lungs, and he turned away from her to hang the helmet up on a hook, slinging the satchel from his back up next to it.
“Good morning,” she said, putting the bowl she was carrying in her mouth down on the table. “How was work?”
“Oh, same as usual.” Brant stood in the doorway for a moment grooming the worst of the dust off his tail, then came over to his place at the table. “The contract’s been extended; the city’s building more and more houses, and taller ones too. There’ll be humans living among the clouds before long.”
“Good,” Marn said, settling herself opposite him. “I’m glad it’s picking up; I know you were worried for a while.”
“New granaries and the like are going up over on south side, too; we’ve been asked to come and put the framework for those together, so there’s plenty going on.” The table between them was laden with two large bowls of tea, two bowls of soup, and a large platter of leafy greens. He took his place on one side, and on the other Marn wasted no time in picking up the soup, blowing the steam from it, and taking a deep draught. Brant took a sip of tea to calm his stomach. “How about you?”
“Oh, nothing exciting. Night shift never is. The supervisor says I’ve probably only got another couple of months at the dust dispensary; after that, who knows? I’ve heard rumblings that there might be some work at the palace, but I’m sure the checks needed for that would be ridiculous. Or the Trade district; apparently some Merian duke has sent enough product north that it needs guarding, and we won the bid, but I’m not sure how they’re assigning the work.” She took a pawful of greens. “Soup’ll go cold, love.”
“Yes…” Idly, he picked up a leaf, shredding it in his paws. “Well, I guess no-one’s stupid enough to attack a yellowdust dispensary.”
Marn watched him for a moment, then put her bowl down. “Right,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said, the words unconvincing even to him.
“Brant, I know you better than you know yourself sometimes,” Marn said, paws on her hips. “Spit it out before it eats you alive.”
“It’s nothing,” he said, then sighed. “I just… I was thinking. Been preying on my mind a bit, y’know? Hirk, the overseer at the building site… he’s a ferret.”
“Not like those next door, I hope,” Marn said. “At it again they were, all hours of the day, and there’s at least five of them living there. There’s no common decency-”
“Not like them, no,” Brant said, cutting her off. “He’s got just the one partner, and they’ve just had a child.”
There, he thought. It’s out. Now we can talk about it.
“A child?” Understanding dawned in Marn’s eyes. “Go on.”
“He seems… happy. They saved up, got the dust together, found an independent chemick and a ferret that they reckoned could take the uplift. And it worked. Hirk brought him along when we broke for lunch. Nice lad.”
“But he’s not a child,” Marn said.
“Not exactly.” Brant sighed. “He’s an uplift, like any other. Aware, full grown, damned healthy. But… he calls Hirk father, and defers to him, at least in some things. They act like a family, y’know? It’s not uncommon, not these days. And Hirk… Hirk’s over the moon.”
Marn swept a paw through her whiskers and came around the table. “Brant, we’ve talked about this, love.”
“The humans on the shift, it’s all they seem to talk about,” Brant said, fighting to talk past the lump in his throat. “Talking about how they work to provide for them, or about what new skill they’ve learned. I just…”
He finally met her eyes, and the sympathy there almost broke him.
Marn gently stroked his shoulder. “Brant, my love, we can’t afford it,” she murmured. “If it was a question of want, then… maybe, yes. It’s not something I’ve ever thought seriously about, to be honest. Us uplifts don’t really get a say in it, y’know? It’s not like those caravan-runners who had me uplifted did a good job raising me, and I’m better off half a country away from them. But…” She sighed deeply. “I can see it’s something that you really care about. Did you ask Hirk how they were able to do it?”
“I meant to,” Brant said. “He was gone before I could, though. Wanted to spend time with his son, he said.”
With a final pat, Marn took her place back at the table. “Ok, well, let’s look at this like any other logistical problem. We’d need thirty doses of yellowdust, that’s the magic number.” Brant’s eyes widened in surprise, but she only smiled. “I guard the Yellowdust Dispensary, love. You hear things, they stick with you. The dosage is about half what we get rationed out to us each week. So if we kept hold of… an eighth of our ration each week, we could probably-”
“An eighth? Can we afford an eighth? Won’t we be risking, you know…”
“Rampancy?” Brant flinched as Marn said the word, but she carried on regardless. “Probably not, but that’s a good point. Half that much again, then, maybe? That way, we’d have…” Her brow furrowed, tail twitching slightly, as she tried to do the maths.
“We’d save about a dose a month,” Brant said quickly. Marn nodded. “But that means it’ll take thirty months to save up… nearly three years!”
“Well, I never said it would be easy. And that gives us time to plan, save a bit of money too, dig an extension to the house…”
Brant was shaking his head. “No, there must be a quicker way to do it. If we saved the money, we could buy the dust we need.”
“From who? It’d be black market; no-one in Centrum sells dust, not legally anyway.” Marn plucked at the apron of white fur on her chest, sweeping fragments of leaf out of it. “Brant… listen. I can see you’re not going to take no for an answer. I’ll be honest, the whole idea of adopting a child - or an innocent at least - is something I’ve ever really thought about. I mean, they’d be an adult after the imprinting, but a needy one… I suppose that I’m willing to meet you halfway. After all, neither of us are getting younger, and maybe it would be good to have a plan for the future.”
Brant cocked his head at her. “How so?”
“We’ll find a beaver, an animal, not an uplift. We’ll have it here in the house, acclimatise it to the place. If we can take care of it, then we can start saving.”
“You mean it?”
Marn shrugged her paws. “I suppose I do, yes. I’ve heard of people doing it this way before as a way of… testing things out.”
Brant paused for only a moment’s thought before he nodded. “Ok then. I’ll make the arrangements.” He picked up a handful of leaves, suddenly ravenous, and saw Marn looking at him strangely. “What?”
She shook her head. “I love you, Brant, but you do get some unusual ideas.” She picked her soup back up and raised it to her mouth. “Good thing you’re handsome.”
The next day, Brant made sure he was home before Marn. He shuffled quickly back to the house, wicker carry-case clutched tightly in his paw.
“Won’t she be surprised,” Brant cooed, as he unlocked the front door and pushed it open. He set the basket down in the hallway and hung his helmet up on its hook.
The basket shifted slightly as the creature inside hooted its displeasure, and Brant scurried around the small living space, tidying. Everything at ground level went onto the tall cabinet, and he slid the needles from the knitting project he had started over six months ago away into their case. The wool, though, he kept hold of. “Nice little bed, that’d make,” he murmured. The carry case moaned again, and he shushed it.
The front door opened again and Marn walked in. She got two steps in before she stopped short.
“What is that?”
Brant grinned as he patted the carry case. “After our talk, I went looking for a merchant that could sell me a beaver, and here he is!”
“You… already?” Marn hung her leather jerkin up on the hook next to his helmet, moving closer to the basket. “I thought we might be able to do it, to choose something, together. I mean… I don’t know if I wanted a boy or a girl, even.”
Brant’s whiskers drooped as the excitement drained from him. “I… I didn’t think, love.”
“No, you didn’t,” Marn retorted. She sighed deeply and shook her head. “Listen, sun’s up already and we’ve both finished long shifts. Let’s… get him out and see if we can get him acclimatised.”
“I’m sorry, love.”
The ghost of a smile flitted across her face. “I’m excited too, y’know? Just… I would have liked to have done this together.”
With quick, jerky movements, Brant undid the large fasteners that held the basket closed, then reached inside, gingerly lifting out the small furry bundle that huddled at the back.
“There we are, little one,” he murmured.
The beaver was mostly brown, ginger hairs running through its fur enough to give it an orange caste, though the soft leathery pad of its tail was darker. Tiny ears flicked back and forth as its nose twitched, sampling the scents of the apartment.
“At least you managed to find one that looks like us,” Marn said.
“Of course.” Brant dandled the beaver in his paws, drawing it close to his body. “The merchant assured me that it was of a good pedigree, in good health, about a year old, and that it fits the bill for a chemick being able to uplift it.”
“Which we’re not doing for quite some time,” Marn reminded him. “He’s… almost kind of cute. Were we ever this small?”
“Apparently so.” Brant passed the small beaver over to his wife, and she gasped a little as it immediately clutched at the hair on her chest. “Not that we’d remember, and neither will he.”
“Still, the calmer and more comfortable he is, the better… we can’t keep calling him ‘he’, though,” Marn said.
“You choose. To make up for me going ahead and getting him.”
Marn considered the beaver for a moment, then clicked her teeth. “Kitt,” she said. “How about Kitt?”
Brant put his paw around her shoulder, holding them both close. “Kitt,” he said. “Makes sense.”
Between them, the tiny form of Kitt began to chitter in satisfaction.
Brant sat with Kitt as the young beaver played in the nest of wool. Paws that were still tiny despite another month’s growth fumbled with the threads as he happily kicked the fibres around.
“Brant, I need you to go and restock the woodpile,” Marn called from the back room.
“In a minute,” he called back. Kitt sat up suddenly, shook himself, then began to gather the wool into a pile in front of him. Several of the strands caught around the beaver’s tail, and he turned around in animal confusion.
Gently, Brant unwound the wool and set it down in front of Kitt. “There you go, little one,” he murmured.
“Come on then,” Marn said, poking her head out. “I’m waiting for that wood. Fire’s not going to light itself.”
Ears flicking in irritation, Brant got up. He ruffled the fur of Kitt’s head on his way to the back room.
“I was playing with Kitt,” he said. Marn looked around from where she was mending a tear in her jerkin with a bone needle and thread.
“Yes, I know,” she said, not looking up. “But wood’s more important right now, hm? I need to get off to work in a few minutes, and I don’t want to be doing it when I get home.”
Brant narrowed his eyes as she pulled the thread taut and snapping it with her teeth. Before she could look up, he crossed the front room and picked Kitt up, moving him away from the door. As soon as he was on the floor, the beaver scuttled towards the small pool they had set up in the corner, and began to paddle around happily.
It took several minutes to bring in enough wood from the communal shelter across the street, and when he got back Marn was filling a bowl of greenery for Kitt.
“All done,” he said.
Marn put the bowl on the ground, stepping back as Kitt snuffled towards it. Brant clicked his teeth together and reached for the bowl. Marn put her paw out.
“What’re you doing, Brant?”
“You always feed him like that, instead of at the table,” Brant said. “We’re trying to acclimatise him to being with us-”
“And us to being with him,” Marn retorted. “Honestly, Brant, I think you’re a little blind over this.”
“I’m blind?” His voice rang off the walls. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He’s an animal, Brant,” Marn said firmly.
“He’s our son!”
She didn’t reply, just stared at him. Between them, Kitt ate with noisy abandon.
“I see,” Marn said finally. “Brant, I’m sorry. I thought that after a few weeks of this your enthusiasm might have cooled at least a little. I’m sorry to see that I was wrong.”
Brant gaped at her. “Kitt is… what, a pet to you?” Hot anger filled him, and he slammed a clenched paw down on the table. “You never meant to start saving our dust, or uplift our son, or any of it! You lied to me!”
He wasn’t too far gone to notice her shift in stance, the bristling of her fur. She loomed over him, eyes seeming to stare through him.
“Put your temper away, Brant.”
“Or what? Or you’ll throw me out? Beat me up? You’re security at a glorified warehouse, Marn.” He stared defiantly at her, but the corners of her eyes softened.
“I don’t want to hear it!” He grabbed his helmet off the wall and slammed it onto his head, grabbing his satchel with the other paw. “I’m going to work.”
“I said no!” He opened the door and waddled out into the street, slamming it shut behind him.
He paused for a moment, straining his ears for any sound from the house, but there was nothing. He clicked his teeth together, growled, and marched off into the dimness of the Veins.
The site, up on the overcity, was quiet when he got there. The sun was only barely down, most of the uplift workforce not due to start yet. Brant weaved between the low-walled structures, half-built houses built around wood-poled frames that would one day house over a hundred humans. He kicked at a piece of rubble, sending it skittering off into the shadows, and swore.
A voice from behind made him turn with a start.
“Evening, Brant. Good to see you about early for once.” A white ferret, long tail flicking, leaned in close. “You ok?”
“Hirk… I wasn’t expecting to, ah…” Brant clacked his teeth together a couple of times, then waved a paw. “Bah, I’m fine. Bit of a to-do with the missus.”
To his relief, Hirk laughed. “I get you. Happens to the best of us! God, if I could tell you how many little spats I’ve had with Jina since our son came into the family… lots of changes, lots of little points of irritation all round. He gives as good as he gets - hard to remember he’s an adult, too, sometimes.”
Brant shifted on his feet and took his helmet off, twisting the hard wood in his paws. “About that,” he said, then took a deep breath. “I apologise if this is an… impolite question, but… how’d you afford it, Hirk? Yellow’s expensive, and the ration’s barely enough, and-”
The ferret held his paws out, stemming the tide of words. “I get it, Brant, don’t worry.” He came closer and slid one paw around Brant’s shoulder. “Listen… if I had to guess, you and the wife, you’ve been thinking about it, yeah?”
Hirk tucked his clipboard under one foreleg and shook his head. “I’d love to tell you, Brant, but… I was sort of sworn to secrecy.”
“I already know it can’t have been-” Brant broke off, looking around, then leaned in closer. “Legal.”
“Not so loud,” Hirk hissed, eyes darting every which way. “It could have been. Maybe we saved for years for this moment.”
Brant just stared at him, whiskers dead still.
“Ok, so we didn’t save for years,” Hirk said. His voice dropped, becoming silky, and he began to lead Brant away from the entrance to the site. “We didn’t take it from our ration. I knew a guy, a human, who was selling it.”
“No-one sells it on the open market,” Brant said.
“Quieter,” Hirk hissed. “Like you say, regular traders don’t, but this guy, he was Silver Talon. You know, that ‘equality for upifts’ crap? They’re all about us being equal, as if we’re not, or something. Anyway, he said they’d got it down in Meria, where it’s traded freely, and frankly I didn’t question him. Didn’t like to, y’know?”
“Buying things outside the country and importing them isn’t a crime.”
“Yes it is,” Brant snapped. “It’s smuggling!”
“Might be that’s so.” Hirk shrugged. “Listen, Brant, friend, it comes down to how much you want it, eh? You can save for years and still not have enough, or get it now. I didn’t question too close, y’know? Just paid the man in coin, took the dust, found a chemick, paid his cut. Way we saw it, it was a small price to pay for happiness.”
“I don’t know…”
The ferret patted Brant’s shoulder and disentangled himself, stepping a pace away. “Listen, his name was Kay. Young man, understood the sign language though. Smells a bit like he lives in the sewers. He told me he was usually in the Anchor’s Shank, down on Docker’s Street, early mornings - or someone there would know where he was, at least. If you left early at the end of a shift… let’s say, I’d know why.” Hirk paused, fixing him with one black eye. “More than once, though, and you’re taking the piss.”
Brant watched his overseer turn and walk away into the site towards two moles that looked lost.
“Kay,” he murmured. “At the Shank, Docker’s Street…”
He turned the words over in his mind for a moment, then shook his head and went to find his assignment for the night.
Barely even knowing why, Brant pushed the door to the pub open. It was a tall door, wide enough to allow uplifts in, but the bar was human style, and he had to stoop to see the surly man smoking a roll-up at the taps.
I’m looking for Kay, Brant signed. The landlord didn’t say anything, just jerked a huge thumb in the direction of the mixed section. “No drink, no seat,” he rumbled, as Brant took a step away. The landlord reached under the bar and pulled out a large leather flask with a strap, slinging it onto the table. It was too large in his hands, designed for paws, and it sloshed unevenly as Brant picked it up. He pulled a small pouch out of his satchel and counted out coins until the barkeep waved him away, taking a drag on his roll-up.
The pub wasn’t busy; the sun would be up in a couple of hours, and most of the clientele were uplifts at their tall tables. A ginger cat was curled up near the fire talking in low tones with an owl gone to fat, most of her feathers missing, and at the table next to the greasy window a pair of squirrels huddled over a table, their red-brown tails flicking excitedly. He ignored them, moving around the corner to the mixed section.
There were only two humans who weren’t unconscious. One was a drunken, bewhiskered old man with a dozen empty mugs in front of him; he blinked rapidly as Brant entered the cloud of stale beer and bodily smells that surrounded him. Brant shook his head and moved on, towards the other human, who was sat watching him with a bemused expression. He was young, almost a boy, sandy-haired and dressed in a ragged shirt and trousers. Brant dithered for a moment as the young man’s mouth quirked in amusement.
“I take it you’re looking for me,” he said eventually.
Brant nodded. “You’re Kay?” he said, signing for the human’s benefit as he did so.
“Depends. Who sent you?”
“I’m looking to buy yellowdust.” The boy’s hand drifted slowly below the level of the table, and Brant realised that he hadn’t answered the question. “Hirk sent me. Ferret, oversees building contracts? White fur, about this tall?”
His eyes flicking from left to right, Kay’s hand casually moved past the hilt of the knife he wore at his belt and delved into his pocket instead, coming out with a small vial of dust which he kept crooked in his hand, out of sight of onlookers. “I didn’t know what he did for a job. We don’t tend to get too well-acquainted with buyers… but I do know him. So, how can we help you? Looking for a bump, maybe?”
“I need thirty doses.”
Kay’s expression stayed the same, but Brant caught the subtle scent of excitement that came off him as he tucked the vial away again. “Ah, I see. Enough to uplift an animal, eh? Well, I can’t say that it’s going to be cheap.”
“Of course it isn’t,” Brant muttered, signing How much?
Kay named a figure.
For a moment, Brant just stared. “That’s… that’s a ridiculous amount,” he said, almost forgetting to sign as he spoke. “It would take me almost as long to save that much up as it would to put the yellowdust aside.”
The boy shrugged. “Have a drink and settle down, friend.”
Brant uncorked the flask and took a gulp of the reeking spirits within, almost choking on it.
“We understand that,” Kay said, “and we can help, of course. Monthly payments, nothing too outrageous… as long as you keep the payments up. There’d be a small amount of recompense, a little extra each month as thanks to us for extending this offer to you.”
“Who is ‘us’, anyway?”
“We’re friends of animals.” Kay’s smile had become a mask, albeit a smooth one. “Very good friends.”
Kay just stared at him until Brant threw up his paws in frustration.
“So,” the boy said. “Think we can hash out a few details?”
“Do you have the dust now?”
Kay laughed, the sound surprisingly light in the heavy inn air. “Of course I don’t. I’m not carrying around a king’s ransom in yellowdust to every pub I visit. No, if you agree, and make the first payment, we’d be able to make the dust available in short order. You come at a fortuitous time, actually. We’ve just had a shipment come into our possession, just this last night. We could effect delivery in, oh, a couple of days?”
The size of the cost returned, filling Brant’s mind, as though he’d put too much food in his mouth to chew. A little dazedly, he nodded.
Kay put a hand out, and as Brant grasped it, the young man leaned in close.
“Best not miss a payment, though, eh? Just a friendly word of advice. Because if you do, we’ll be back for what’s ours, and I’d hate for a young life to be touched by tragedy, you get me?”
His expression didn’t change as he slowly released Brant’s paw, nodded once, and got up to leave.
Brant stared at the space where he had been sat. With a shaking paw, he reached for the flask and drained it, the sting of the spirits cloying at his throat.
“What have I done?” he murmured.
Kitt shuffled around the floor after Brant as he walked from the front door to the kitchen table and back, endlessly pacing.
“Darling, I’ve got lovely news,” Brant said to the empty air. “I’ve been looking at our finances, and I think we’ve got enough to buy the dust we need upfront… No, that won’t work. She knows we don’t have enough…” He turned, tail almost sweeping Kitt to one side as the tiny beaver followed him too closely. “I chatted with Hirk,” Brant began again. “He said they could lend us the money… no, she’s said before she doesn’t want to borrow, damn it…” He shook his head. “I could not tell her. Surprise, my love! We have a son!” He growled in frustration, sending Kitt scurrying away.
Brant dropped to all four paws with a sigh, beckoning the little beaver out from under the table. “Come on, little one, I wasn’t growling at you.” As Kitt slowly came forward, nose twitching as he tasted the air, Brant shook his head. “Just at my own stupidity. This was an awful idea. They’re criminals, nothing more, and I’m bringing myself down to their level by dealing with them. I should get back in touch with that Kay fellow and tell him the deal’s off.”
A knock sounded at the door; Brant jumped. Kitt froze, wide eyes staring at the door.
“Who… who is it?” Brant called.
“City Watch,” the gruff voice on the other side said.
A chill washed down Brant’s spine as he slowly stood up. With leaden feet, he walked to the door, guts churning. How did they find me? I only left the pub an hour ago; did Hirk tell them? Was Kay some sort of a plant? He looked at Kitt, whose gaze was flicking nervously from Brant to the door. They’ll take him away. Take my son away!
“Open up, please, sir,” the voice came again, and Brant looked frantically around for something, anything - a weapon, should it come to it. He grabbed at his helmet, holding it awkwardly in his left paw as he opened the door with the other one.
Revealed on the other side was an uplift, a tan-furred bloodhound with a collar, from which dangled a badge. Cinched tightly around the bloodhound’s torso was a belt, from which hung a variety of tools and little bags.
The bloodhound flicked his long ears morosely. “Citizen Brant?”
“That’s me,” Brant said. He clutched at the wooden helmet, suddenly aware of just how large the dog’s teeth were. “Can I help, officer?”
“Actually, I’m afraid I come bearing bad news. My name is Gurnet, and I’ve just come from the southern district. Your wife, sir, Marn? She’s been involved in an altercation.”
The helmet dropped from Brant’s nerveless fingers. “Is she-”
“She’s injured, sir, heavily so, but she’s been taken to the Grey Tower hospit.” Gurnet licked his jowls dolefully.
“How did you know to find me? What happened?”
“Someone on her staff. As you no doubt know, she was part of the security detail at the Central Yellowdust Dispensary. It’s a high-value target, no doubt about it, and it was attacked in the early hours of the morning by a criminal syndicate.”
“Which… who attacked it?”
The dog cocked his head to one side, frowning slightly. “Unclear at this time, but we’re suspecting a highly organised gang, sir.”
“Silver-” Brant clamped down on the thought as Gurnet carried on talking. His jowls moved a few more times, rolling out platitudes that Brant didn’t hear. He felt Kitt pressing up against his leg, and Brant lifted him into his arms.
In his mind’s eye, he could see Kay sat at the table in the dingy pub, casually saying that they’d had a delivery of dust come in the night before. The moment stretched, Kay’s expression becoming one of knowing, stretching into a grin that had too many teeth in it.
“I’d imagine you want to go and see her,” Gurnet was saying, the words cutting across Brant’s consciousness. He paused a moment, then lifted a paw and rested it on Brant’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, sir, you must be going through a lot right now. I’ll let you get on your way.”
With a nod, Officer Gurnet turned, leaving Brant at his open front door.
Kitt made a small chirping noise as he clambered out of Brant’s arms and up to his shoulder, clinging to the short fur with tiny claws.
“I did this,” Brant murmured. He caught hold of Kitt and drew the animal back into his arms. “I did this… come on, Kitt. Hold on tight.”
Letting the door slam closed behind him, his child clutched to his breast, Brant began to run, all four paws pounding the cobblestones. The subterranean streets of the Veins were crowded, nocturnal animals heading home from their night shift mingling with those workers, mostly human, who were preparing to start their day. Brant ran on, heedless of those he pushed to the side. Sunlight streamed down through the regular stairways that lined the street, signposts tacked to each one.
“I was stupid,” Brant panted, clinging on to Kitt with one paw. “Stupid. Should have listened to her, and now it’s too late, god-damnit…” He pushed between a pair of lynx, their hissing swearwords almost lost under his own panting breath. “Sorry,” he called back, unheeded.
He tore around the corner and into one of the stairwells, taking the stairs two at a time. A man balancing a pair of crates scuttled backwards as Brant charged onwards; the crates crashed to the floor, sending off-fresh fish slithering over the paving stones. Brant stopped long enough to check the man wasn’t injured, then ran on, insults ringing in his ears.
The Grey Tower rose from the Centrum cathedral, just one part of the monolithic building whose spires soared into the sky. The bell that was housed at its pinnacle, Bessie, began her sonorous morning chorus.
The entrance for uplifts was a wide archway, tall enough that Brant didn’t have to duck his head as he entered. Several groups of white-robed acolytes, some of them with the fine embroidery of Mothers and Fathers, were working around long treatment stations, most of which were full. She wasn’t hard to spot, though, her squat form rising above the heads of those that were working on her.
Brant took a few paces towards her, Kitt still clutching at him, and then stopped short at what he saw. Marn’s fur was burned off in patches, pink and red-blistered skin visible beneath, and several wounds oozed blood. She was unconscious, mouth agape and whiskers drooping, and it was only as he tentatively moved up next to her that he saw the slight rise and fall of her chest.
One of the humans tending to her, a stooped woman with one milky eye, turned and looked up at him. “You the husband?”
Brant could only nod.
“She’s gon’ be ok,” the woman creaked. “Took some damage; they used sticky fire, them cowards. But she’ll be right in a few days.” She paused before taking up an envelope from the end of the bed. “Prolly not the right time - no good time, eh - but we’ll need this settlin’ up. When you can. We en’t gon’ let her die, don’t you worry none.”
Brant took the envelope, only able to stare at her.
“She’ll waken soon,” the healer said. “We’ll leave you to it.”
Quietly, the other church folk drifted away, tidying their bowls and poultices away as they went. Brant sat by the bedside. Kitt wriggled down until he was sat between Brant’s legs, curling up and closing his eyes.
Brant looked slowly around the room, at the other patients. Uplifts all, they filled the air with the stink of illness and pain. More than one had the look of rampancy.
“…missed the last four doses,” he heard one of the attendants say as the malnourished dog they were working on writhed against the leather straps that bound it. “Not a lot we can do but make him comfortable…”
“Why do we do this,” Brant murmured, stroking Marn’s head. Between the burnt patches, her fur was as sleek as it had ever been. “Who would want this? We’re no better off than animals… at least they’re innocent, unaware. I’m so sorry, my love,” he said, voice dropping to a whisper. “This is all my fault.” He looked down at Kitt. “I can’t do this. We can’t do this.”
She drew in a sudden breath, eyes flickering open. Immediately, pain clouded her face, her legs twitching as she gasped out her surprise. “What-“
“Calm, love, calm,” Brant said, pressing her arm down. “There’s… you’ve been in a terrible ordeal.”
She focused on him, her paw grasping at empty air. He slipped his own paw into hers until her breathing slowed.
“I remember… I was attacked,” Marn said. “The Dispensary… they had fire, knives and swords… there were too many of them, and then someone hit me over the head when I bent down to bite…”
The words cloyed at Brant’s throat, too big for him to get out, and he licked his lips nervously instead. “Listen, Marn…”
She closed her eyes as a wave of agony passed through her, then slowly relaxed back into the table. “I’m glad you’re here,” she whispered.
Brant looked around the room, at the other animals in this wing of the hospit, at the acolytes that scurried to and fro carrying water and healing supplies, at anything other than at Marn. “It was me,” he finally choked out. “It was my fault.”
Marn furrowed her brow. “What do you mean, love?”
“The attack on the Dispensary. I… I met with someone from the Silver Talon.”
She was silent for a moment as his eyes finally found hers again, and when she spoke it was firm, calm. “Tell me everything.”
The whole story spilled out, in fits and starts, as Brant’s guts writhed with guilt and shame. Marn listened to every word, only a slight creasing at the corners of her eyes any indication of the pain she was going through. When he was done, she was silent for a long minute.
“Well, first off, you’re not to blame,” she said. “By the time you spoke to this… Kay, the contact, they’d already attacked the Dispensary. They were going to do it whether you spoke to him or not.”
Hope blossomed in Brant’s chest, tiny but inescapable. “I… I suppose so,” he said. “I enabled that sort of thing though!”
“Really, Brant… you must have known he wasn’t on the level. That what you were doing was fundamentally wrong.”
“I couldn’t see any other way-”
Marn cut him off with a click of her front teeth. “Before you dig yourself any deeper…” She sighed. “I wasn’t happy with the way we left things before work, about maybe uplifting Kitt.”
Brant shook his head. “I don’t think we can, love.” He lifted the beaver up, cradling it in his arms. “He’s an innocent, content to live his life one moment to the next. If we uplifted him… we’d be condemning him to this worry, the same heartache and pain that we go through. We didn’t have a choice about our uplifting - who’s to say we can make the choice for him?”
“True, love. I found myself thinking of our own ‘parents’. The folk who uplifted me… my parents, I suppose - we owe it to any little one we uplift to do a better job than they did. I wasn’t given the choice, neither of us was… but who is? And we’ve made the best of it, despite everything. For every moment like this, there’s been a hundred where I’ve been glad to be alive, glad to be with you. In a way, uplifting gave us that choice, to be with each other, to spend our lives as we want to. To find love… and to give that love to another.” Wincing in pain, she wriggled into a more upright position.
Brant hardly dared to speak for fear of shattering the moment. “Do you mean…?”
“I mean that, one day, when we have saved up enough dust - properly, mind - that we should uplift a little one,” Marn said. She smiled at Brant. “A child, one day.”
“One day,” Brant said, and he swept her into an embrace.
As the two uplifts held each other, Kitt wriggled between the two of them and began to chitter in contentment.