A Celebration of Lesser Evils 3.1

Before Ana could even think of an answer, Temari had grabbed her by the collar and snarled in her face. 

“Did you?”

Ana knew this kind of person. A slum was a place where territory and friends were scarce. The competition was, no doubt, Temari’s territory. She took to leading the crowd like a natural and had clearly organized it quite well. Shosef could easily be a friend. When you take away both, anybody would get antsy and quick to blame. 

“I didn’t. I have people to vouch for me. Sol would. Who’s that?”

Ana weakly pointed behind Temari to the woman that had come with her to the door. She was vaguely familiar – like she had been in the crowd in the warehouse – but she couldn’t quite place her. She tried to go through the features. She had a pleasant, straw-blond hair, but beyond that Ana couldn’t place any of it. She was quite ragged around the edges; her eyes were surrounded by dark circles, but her cheeks were a soft pink. She’d been drinking. Either she’d seen a ghost or a dead body, and Ana was putting it on that latter. 

“Vella,” she said quietly, “I’m Korel’s sister.”

Temari didn’t let go. Ana thought fast.

“Sol! Temari wants to talk with you!”

There was a thumping from the room upstairs before Sol half-walked, half-stumbled to the living room. He was still shirtless. Ana was almost stunned by the display – his physique was nothing to remark on, but his chest bore an enormous tattoo of an inscribed heptagram. Temari let go of Ana’s shirt, and walked inside. Vella followed, and closed the door behind her. 

“Shosef’s dead. Did she do it?”

Sol shook his head, and sighed. 

“Fuck,” he said, “No, Temari, she practically passed out after the match. She barely even woke up for dinner. She couldn’t have done it without me knowing that she left.”

“How did they find him?” Asked Ana.

“How is this your business?” Replied Temari, “I’m here to-”

“You brandish your gun at me and manhandle me, it’s gonna be my business. I get to ask questions.”

Temari rubbed her nose and scrunched up her face. 

“Vella,” she said.

“They found him in the river. Pale. There were… holes in him. Like a bullet wound, but there were no gunpowder. And there were so many holes that it would have taken every gun in the city to make that many.”

“All identical?”

“More or less,” said Vella quietly, “I didn’t get a good look at him. Hard to remember. But it either took a whole lot of folks with identical weapons, or-”

“Sorcery,” said Temari, “That’s what I would put my bets on. So I thought about suspects. Firstly, eliminate Sol and Terete. Terete’s a doctor for her day-job, and Sol used to be. Not the most inclined to murder-”

“And they took an oath to do no harm,” said Ana, finishing her sentence, “Not that you can always bet on people keeping their promises, but it seems reasonable to eliminate them. I feel like I would have woken up if Sol had tried to leave unless he somehow leapt from the balcony, so you can eliminate him too.”

Temari looked at her with annoyance. Ana quietly chided herself. She was supposed to be some kind of former army type, not an investigator. 

“As I was saying, I could remove most other suspects besides you and Manguyaat, and Manguyaat doesn’t have an address.”

She huffed and supported herself with one hand on the kitchen table.

“Alright. We can- I’m down a good amount of money for not having another fight to show, but I can manage it. Sol, can I trust you to help fix this?”

“You can,” said Sol, “Let me put a shirt on and get my things.”

“I’ll come too,” said Ana.

“Why?” Asked Temari.

“If we don’t find who killed him, then you’re liable to blame it on me regardless of what Sol says,” said Ana, “I’m guessing you have the connections and muscle needed to run me out of town. I got here just about two weeks ago, and I’m just getting settled. I’d rather not have to find a new place to live already.”

Temari and Sol silently looked at each other before Temari nodded.

“Fine. You, Vella and Sol go. I don’t know much about Shosef personally, but I know that the man went to the baths on Olakhi Street more than a few times, for a specific person. Go there, and ask for Seonya. She’ll tell you more.”

She shrugged.

“After that, check with his sister. He might have enemies that want to get to her. You know Maya, right Sol?”

Sol nodded, and went up to grab his things and put a shirt on. While he was gone, Temari stared at her.

“I need to put out some fires with several bettors of mine. Make sure silver ends up in the right hands for each party. I can do what I can, but unless that pagan turns up, they’re going to be blaming you for this because you’re a newcomer. You find who did it, and they’ll be off your back. Good luck. I mean it.”

Ana wasn’t sure that she did. She stomped to the door and left it swinging open as she returned to the sleepy early-morning streets.


The brothel wasn’t obviously a brothel. In fact, it seemed to be a fully functional bathhouse and inn that took up a whole block on Olakhi Street. It wasn’t decrepit in the slightest, at least compared to the surrounding buildings. Little images of Saint Merca the Charitable stood in decorated parts of the stone walls, depicting him driving out the intemperate from a temple. Before Ana realized that it was a full-blown, barely-disguised brothel, she thought it was a nice gesture. After, she realized it was a reminder. Pay the temple dues and be charitable, or get out. 

Sol went up to the door first, and walked in. Immediately, Ana was hit with the scent of eight different kinds of perfume and steam. Somewhere, a fire was burning away in its place, but here it was dusty and reddish with the early light. A young woman sat at the front desk, puffing away on a thin tobacco pipe, blowing the smoke away with a paper fan. 

It was around this point that Ana realized exactly what kind of establishment it was. 

“Good morning, Sol,” she said rather happily, “So good to see that you’re still in town after that horrible trouble with that senator.”

“Oh, that,” he said with a grin, “That wasn’t anything, Peyana. I’m fairly certain he couldn’t see my face through all the smoke anyways. Shame about the house though. It had such nice wooden floors.”

“So, we’ll be having one for each of you?” Said Peyana, taking a long exhale of her pipe, “Or would you rather only have one for all of you?”

He shook his head. 

“Oh, no,” said Sol, “I’m sorry to say that I’m here on business. We need to speak with one of your bath cleaners. I believe her name is Seonya?”

“Oh, dear,” said Peyana, “Is she in trouble?”

“No, we don’t think so,” said Ana, trying to support him, “She’s just related to something we’re looking into. Nothing you need to worry about.”
“Well, she was just getting up, last I saw her. She’s on the third floor, the last one on the right.”

So they went up the carpeted staircase, through the quiet morning, their shoes thudding heavily against the fabric. Sol took the lead again, and Ana followed. This was still his area of expertise. She’d been to establishments like it before, but never gone deep inside. She figured most of the clientele came in the dead of night at any rate, but it still felt wrong to be this close to the matter.

Sol knocked on the door, and the past reached up from its grave, and knocked the wind out from Ana’s lungs with a swift punch to the gut. The door opened to a face that for a moment was alien. Seonya at first seemed unfamiliar, and then more familiar, and then she knew who she was. Her straight black hair, her soft cheeks, her smile – it was unmistakable. Ana couldn’t help but blurt out the first words that came to mind.

“What fucking providence? Mikhel?”

Mikhel – Seonya – both, or neither, looked over and locked eyes with Ana. 


She interrupted him before he could respond.

“We- we need to talk privately. We know each other.” 

Mikhel nodded in agreement. She waved off Sol and Vella. 

“Whatever it is, Vella, it can wait. Sorry.” 

He invited Ana in. It wasn’t an awful set of quarters, though quite cramped. There was a small writing desk to one side, and the window was open. A coat and a ring of keys sat on a hanger on the wall. The bed, plain linen sheets and all. The breeze brushed past Ana’s hair, and she closed the door behind them as she got a better look at Mikhel.

He was wearing a green and white dress. That was obvious. He had let his hair grow very long, down to his shoulders, and his eyes were the same beautiful shade of green that she remembered. He leaned against the wall opposite Ana.

“Ana,” he said, “You know, when I left the orphanage, I thought to myself, I am never, ever going to see anyone from this wretched city again, and I’ll be happier for it. Here you go, proving me wrong.”

Ana had thought – hoped – the same. 

“It’s, uh, Merya now,” said Ana, “You’ve changed, Mikhel.”

“Seonya,” he said, “It’s a nice new name. And I have changed. You’ve changed too. Do you like it?”

He did a little false curtsy, and grinned up at her. It really was a total difference. There was a slight curve to his chest and his hips; his very face was a little softer. If she didn’t know better, she wouldn’t have suspected he was a transvestite. Her skin crawled under her shirt like an insect had touched her.  

“I can’t say I do,” said Ana, “But how did you-”

“They do wondrous things down in Sondi. It cost me an arm and a leg, and maybe another to get back to Koletya, but it worked. I, uh, well, I have to thank you for that, I guess.”

Ana shuddered again.

“Why are you thanking me?”

“Well, it was your idea.”

Ana stared at Mikhel, then to the window. Memories of the orphanage came rushing back. The stares she got. The girls jeering at them. Grabbing at her clothes.

She banished the memory. She didn’t need to think about this to know what was right.

“I didn’t- I don’t think- I didn’t make you a transvestite.”

Mikhel slowly shifted from one leg to another. 

“Don’t you remember?”

He took a step forward.

“I was a child. I didn’t know better then. I do now. And I didn’t put that idea in your head.”

“Ana,” said Mikhel, her smile utterly gone, “Don’t be like that.” 

“Like what?”

“You know what I mean. You can’t walk into my bedroom and call me names and treat me like I’m some… irrelevant part of your past.”

“Why?” Asked Ana, “Why can’t I? Maybe you didn’t learn your manners right. Let me tell you again. Those that dress of-”

Mikhel cut her off mid-verse. 

“I know the verse. I know why.”

“Then why are you doing it?” 

“Because- have you looked at yourself, Ana? Looked at yourself in the mirror?”

“Don’t try to trick me.”

“Ana. You’re wearing men’s clothes.”

Ana’s face twitched. She felt anger grow hot in her chest.

“These are women’s pants,” she insisted, “Work clothes. Can’t be working in a dress, it’d get caught in things.”

“I work in a dress every day,” said Mikhel, “And you aren’t fooling anyone.”

“You’re right,” said Ana, now raising her voice, “I’m not. I’m not fooling anyone and you are.” 

“I’m honest about what I am, and I don’t particularly care what others think of me at this point. I’m sorry you can’t deal with that, and maybe if they hadn’t beat it out of you-”

“I covered for you. Nothing more. Because you were my friend, and I didn’t know better.”

Mikhel’s face scrunched up in a combination of sadness and anger. 

“I’m sorry. Why are you here, again?”

Ana felt her heart sink. She had been so blindsided by the chance, providential encounter that she had barely remembered what she was here to do. She had been inhumane. That was the word for that conduct.

“Sol – he’ll explain-”

“No,” said Mikhel, “I won’t have it. You tell me. It’s what you owe me for being rude.”

Ana swallowed her faith and her pride. She couldn’t do this. He had been through the same things as her, and it wasn’t her place to judge more than what the Scripture said to. And it was wrong to treat him poorly solely on the account of one sin – one of the more congenial, more forgivable sins at that. She needed to put it aside and treat this right. She would call him – her – by the name she preferred, if only then.

“I think it would be best if you sat.”

Seonya sat on the bed, brushing a dainty hand across the thin sheets. 

“If you ask me to lie down, I have to start charging,” he said, a smile returning.

Ana sat beside her.

“You were close with Shosef, yes, Seonya?”

“Yes,” she said, “I guess it’s hard to keep a secret around here, huh? Why do you ask?”

Ana swallowed and exhaled. She suddenly wished she hadn’t insulted Seonya like she had.

“He passed away. We think it was foul play. Temari does, I mean.”

She kept smiling.

“Oh, now you’re fucking with me. You’re trying to make me-”

Ana stared at her, hoping she would understand. 

“Oh you – you don’t get to fuck with me like this. You don’t get to come in here, insult me, treat me like I’m not a person, treat me like you didn’t cover for me, and then-”

Ana shook her head, and put a hand on Seonya’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry.”

Her smile faded, and even behind the little daubs of makeup Ana could see her face pale. 

“What- when did he- that’s not possible. That’s not possible. Ana, tell me he didn’t die, tell me this is some kind of joke, I – I’ll – just tell me that he didn’t.”

And Ana hesitated. Ana saw her then like rings on a tree. She had known Mikhel, a sweet orphan boy who had never quite fit in well. She had seen Seonya, fully-grown and blushing and not altogether uncomely, and between them she could imagine all the rings between the center and the outermost bark. And she didn’t want to tell her that it was the truth. It was so clear that she had loved him dearly.

“I’m very sorry, Seonya. If you-”

“I need to see him. I need to. It can’t be him. Let me see it, the corpse. It’s not him.”

She tried to stand, and at once Ana grabbed her around the waist and set her back down.

“Seonya, they dredged him from the river this morning. You don’t want to see him like that.”

“No, no, I have to see him. I have to-”

And then it all crashed in. Tears streamed from Seonya’s eyes, and she wailed. She curled into a ball on the bed, and screamed into the pillow. Ana tried to reach out a hand to her again, but she batted it away. So she waited for her old friend to stop crying.

“M- Seonya,” she said, “Seonya?”

Seonya murmured a response. Ana couldn’t hear it through her hands. 

“I’m working with Temari. I’m sure you know her. We’re going to make sure that they don’t get away with this.”

The poor girl shuddered and screamed into her sheets before she could manage a cogent response.

“No, they already did it. They took him from me.”

“I know,” said Ana sadly, “Would you be fine if I touched your shoulder?”


Ana reached out across the bed, and slowly rubbed Seonya’s shoulder with her thumb.

“Seonya, I know it’s hard to lose someone that you love. I’ve heard that it can get easier if you talk about them. And knowing what was happening last night between you and him, and what was going on, that could help us find the person who did this. You aren’t under suspicion, for the record.”

“What record?” She croaked, having managed to hide her sobs for a while.

“It’s just a figure of speech. But was he worried about anything? Agitated?”

“No. No. He was sweet. He was-”

She sobbed deeper, and groaned. She had consoled before, but this was different. This was someone she had known – knew – and here she was in such horrid pain. 

“I was going to walk home with him. I was going to walk home with him, and I told him no, Ana, I could have gone with him and he would have-”

“You can’t think like that, Seonya. If they got him, they would have got you too. You said he wasn’t upset? That he was in high spirits? Focus on that.”

She shook her head and shuddered as Ana’s thumb passed over a knot in her back.

“We met, like normal, but he didn’t pay me. He said he had a gift for me. A surprise.”  

She pointed to the wall. To the coat, and the keys. 

“He had saved up. Said that if he wanted, we could live together in the- the place he had bought. That he could go steady with me, or at least as steady as someone in my line of work could.”

“Oh,” said Ana, “Oh, Seonya. I’m so sorry.”

Ana sat and thought for a moment.

“I’ll try to look after his things. See if there’s anything set aside for you that he left behind. I’m sorry this happened to you, and you deserve-”
She struggled with the word. For so long it had been a function of her station and her order. 

“Justice. I’ll get you justice. However it comes.”

Ana sat and thought for what felt like ages. Eventually, Seonya came to sit beside her, her face red and covered with tears. Ana fished through her pockets for a handkerchief, and gently daubed her face. 

“I’m sorry for calling you a transvestite, knowing what I knew. It wasn’t fair to you. Can you tell me anything else about him? Anything could help.”

Seonya shook her head.

“He didn’t have any enemies. I mean, he pretended to be tough out on the stage, but he wasn’t a bad man. Not the man I knew. People just liked him. And when he came to me, he was always sweet. I get a lot of tricks who aren’t. Not their job. But he- when he first hired me, we didn’t even fuck. He just talked to me for an hour and left, and I think even then he was smitten with me. He wanted me. No one else has ever wanted me like that.”

Her voice cracked at the last word, and she fell into Ana’s arms like a stack of bricks. She cried into Ana’s shoulder, and Ana gently rubbed her back. She had apologized enough. Any more would be cloying. 


Her mind fell back to Edam. Ana hadn’t been certain that anyone had wanted her like Edam had. She felt a keening sense in her heart, and worried – worried that somehow the trouble that was befalling her now would follow Edam and hurt her. It wasn’t a rational sense, but her mind began to spiral off the various scenarios where she went after Temari or the bettors to try and find her and she would end up dead. It worried her, even if it didn’t make sense; she didn’t even know if Edam was following her. 

She let Seonya keep crying into her shoulder for as long as she needed. It felt like an age, but eventually Seonya let her go and pulled herself away. She looked down at her lap, her makeup smeared across her face and Ana’s jacket. Ana gently wiped it off her as well, and then off of her shirt.

“You’re going to be okay, Seonya. Not now, but someday.”

She nodded heavily. It was as if an invisible weight was dragging her head down towards the floor, and yet she still raised her head to nod. It felt like an incredible display of strength. She turned her head to Ana as she did.

“Thank you. Thank you for saying my name. I know you don’t agree, but-”

“Hey, don’t focus on that. It’s my fault. And it doesn’t matter what you are when you’re grieving like this.”

She nodded again, and turned to the open windowsill. The sky was a bright blue. It didn’t fit with the sadness, but the weather didn’t wait for anyone. Outside, white sheets fluttered on strings to dry and men yelled and sold their wares. She heard the girls, the women of the brothel, too. Some called down from their windows. And there, in the windowsill, there was a raven, beady-eyed and carrying ruffled feathers. A white feather, out of place and strange on the night-black bird, marked its head. Seonya’s face turned red again. 

She rose, grabbed the bird by the neck and pulled it into the room.

“Oh, fuck you, fuck off! You don’t get to evesdrop on this, Vella! You don’t get to fucking do this! I know- I know he was in your sheets too but that doesn’t mean-”

The bird squawked and croaked, struggling against her grip. With a sudden, violent motion, she threw it towards the ground with great force. Ana blinked, flinched, and in the moment she did she heard a loud thud. Instead of opening her eyes to a dead bird, there was a bruised, angry looking man on the floor.

A man with blond hair. 

A man she also recognized. 


He stood up at once, and it was most certainly Korel. He ignored her question.

“Fucking Saints sake, you nearly broke my neck!”

“Maybe you would fucking deserve it! Trying to listen in like that!”

Seonya pointed wildly, stray hair flooding over her face. Ana continued to try to calculate what had happened.

“You were a bird,” she said, as the two continued to argue.

“I was worried about you,” he said.

“You should have knocked,” said Seonya, “It wasn’t your business.”

“I’m sorry,” said Korel, “I’ll – I’ll just leave. I know when I’m not wanted. I still need to talk with you later.”

“Fuck you.”

Korel slowly and shamefully left, closing the door behind him without another word.

“He was a bird,” repeated Ana. Human transfiguration of that scale was only possible with the use of witchcraft. Which meant that, logically, he was a witch. And he looked nearly identical to the woman who had called herself Vella, and Seonya had called her by that name, wich meant that the odds were that she was the same person. Ana supported herself with a hand on the bed as she rose and came to terms with what had just happened. 

“He’s also a witch,” Ana added, “And a woman.”

“Yes, yes he is,” said Seonya, clearly still incensed by the whole exchange, “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

“Aren’t you worried by that?”

“I’ve had sex with worse people. Just, uh, keep it quiet? Word travels quickly around here, and I don’t want it to reach a witch hunter. I’m still angry at him, but most people don’t know and I don’t want to bring anything bad to him.”

“I, well, of course. Lips sealed,” said Ana listlessly, still trying to get over the repeated shocks. 

Ana stared at the wall for a moment. If they had met three or so weeks ago, she would have hunted Korel down like a dog to bring back to one of the Antipodes. Now she was going to have to work with him. Ana leaned back in the bed and used the momentum to bring herself to standing when she brought herself to her feet. 

She had readied herself before opening the door, and bidding Seonya a quiet goodbye. She’d informed a lover. Now it was time to inform Shosef’s family. 

It was going to be an awful day.

This web serial does not promote the use of tobacco.

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