As soon as I entered, my nose was assaulted by the stench of blood.
I don’t know what I expected to see. Blood splattered on the walls? Piles of carcasses with guts dragged all over the floor? Semi-wild beasts tearing at flesh with their own teeth?
What I saw instead was a tidy room divided with painted screens. There were a few dozen small, round tables surrounded by plush couches, most of them occupied by relaxed, yet dignified creatures, now staring at me with their big, inhuman eyes. I couldn’t help stealing glances at the food on the tables—and while it was raw meat, it was far from the mutilated corpses that I had previously envisioned. It was all cut into small, elegant pieces and carefully arranged. And judging from the smell, most of it was actually marinated.
I should've known. Kas’shams were carnivores, but they were also sybarites.
Silence fell as we walked through the hall; conversation died out and all the patrons fixed their big, bright eyes on us. It was the first time I saw kas’shams up close. Their features were a mix of animal and human, their faces stuck in between, with jaws too long for a civilized creature and eyes glimmering with alien intelligence. They all wore strange clothing, comprised of colorful shawls wrapped in a way that left their joints free. I knew they were incredibly agile creatures, capable of great bursts of activity, and I guessed they didn’t like having their freedom restricted.
“Humans.” The voice instantly drew my attention. I looked forward and noticed that one of the kas’shams was standing before us. Their body was humanoid, but strangely proportioned, with a too long torso, too short legs and arms facing more forward than human's. They had sandy-brown fur, slightly longer around the face, forming a sort of mane. Golden-green eyes took up almost half of their expressionless face.
I briefly wondered if they could even make the same facial expressions as us. . .
“I take it you didn’t come here for dinner?” the kas’sham continued with a low voice that verged on a growl.
“No, sir—” Kaell Sol, my partner started answering, but was interrupted.
“Madam,” corrected the kas’sham. With no outer traits it was impossible for us, humans, to tell her gender. Just as it was impossible to tell what the twitching of her tail meant.
“Madam,” repeated Kaell Sol, bowing his head a bit. I knew he intended that as an apology, but I wasn't sure if the gesture had the same connotation for kas’shams. Or if it didn't, if they understood our ways well enough to realize what it meant. After all, the City was governed by humans. The Others should be adjusting to our customs, not the other way around.
“I’m very sorry. But we were informed that a crime was committed on the premises.”
“A crime?” The tip of the tail froze. “What type of crime?”
“Well.” Kaell Sol cleared his throat, then looked at me for assurance. “Someone reported the murder and. . . tlaloivorain.”
Angry hisses sounded around us. My hand automatically clutched at my wand as I drew my eyes over the room. Many kas’shams laid their ears flat and bared their teeth. They had impressive teeth, long and sharp as scimitars. It made me wonder how they kept them hidden most of the time.
“Filthy lies!” hissed the kas’sham lady. “You need not tell me who spread them. Those damned chavikii have wanted to get rid of us since the beginning! That herd!”
“Referring to another sentient species as ‘herd’ may be the reason,” I slipped. The kas’sham’s eyes turned to me now.
“But it’s all right when they call us beasts? Send Mespana on us?”
“I’m very sorry, madam,” repeated Kaell Sol. “But we need to investigate every report. Could you please take us to the kitchen?”
The madam’s face scrunched up as she hissed at him, her hair bristling.
“Very well!” she spat. “Follow me.”
She turned around and headed towards what we assumed was the kitchen. Her steps were light, almost dance-like and completely noiseless. If any of her brethren decided to stalk me, I wouldn’t know until it pounced on my back.
I tried to keep an open mind, but I couldn’t exactly blame chavikii for disliking the neighborhood. I wouldn’t like to have them walking behind me at night either.
Still, they were citizens, just like chavikii and humans. They had the same right to be here, to live unperturbed. As long as they didn’t break any laws.
The kitchen was separated from the rest of the restaurant by a heavy drape. Besides the lack of stoves, it looked. . . like any other kitchen in the world. Long tables ran along the walls and through the center, stacked with various pieces of meat, a couple of sinks sat in the back, and some mean looking knives and cleavers hung from the hooks. And yeah, it smelled of blood here, but the scent was mixed with that of herbs and spices and, strangely, vinegar.
The madam led us to the pantry, a small room filled with barrels, where, submerged in ako gel, were half-flayed carcasses.
I stood by the door as Kaell Sol brought out three pouches containing some colorful powders and set about performing the spells. He was the sorcerer here. A necromancer to boot, which was the main reason he was sent here. I was just the muscle, here to make sure no one pounced on him when he was in trance.
Although, what I realized was that if the kas’shams wanted to attack us, there was very little I could actually do.
Kaell Sol removed the first carcass out of its barrel then scattered a handful of red dust all over it, murmuring spells. He followed with white dust and lastly black. But that one didn’t fall. Instead it hovered in the air, forming a shape that I recognized as a wild daereleig.
“So, he’s doing the talking and he’s doing magic. What are you here for?”
I turned around, just in time to see the madam smacking a youngish looking kas’sham on the ear. He hissed and scurried off, but I noticed blood dripping down his face.
“Don’t mind him,” advised the lady.
Kaell Sol moved on to the next barrel.
I was meant to watch his back, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the shapes he conjured, the black ghosts of what they once were. Animals, every single one of them. Mostly domesticated, but varied, coming from almost a dozen worlds. Probably bought from actual farmers of different species; I couldn’t imagine any animals would let themselves be kept by kas’shams. Some were wild and I wondered if the owners of the establishment hunted them themselves or purchased them. Maybe the patrons were hunting and bringing their prey in here to be prepared.
But almost all were too big for what we were looking for.
“Don’t bother with that, that’s fish,” I said, when I saw Kaell Sol takeout something that looked like a giant herringbone.
“That’s actually a sandcrawler. From Carmir,” corrected the lady. Her eyes narrowed, and I had the feeling that she saw right through me.
“You are seeking someone in particular,” she half-asked, half-proclaimed.
I cast a quick glance at Kaell Sol. He hesitated, still holding onto the bone, but finally gave me a small nod.
“Moosarin Fjorx, a youngster of the chavikii family has disappeared,” I said.
For a moment she looked at me, then made some strange, rattling noise. It took me a while to realize that she was laughing.
“Did they mention that the head of the family used to beat him so badly that we could hear his screams all the way from here? Every single night! I’m not surprised he took off. He had a friend from another clan. They hid behind our dumpster, you know? Figured the smell would deter the others from following them. They talked all the time about how much they wanted to get out. I guess they finally found the guts to do so.”
I looked at her, not sure I understood and she narrowed her eyes and spread her lips. It looked like. . . she was smiling. But there was no warmth in it, just mockery.
“Yesss, it’s easy to accuse us. We’re predators, of course we’re cruel, capable of anything. Even the worst atrocities! But no one would suspect chavikii of any wrongdoing, right? They are sssoo soft, sssoo friendly, sssoo meek. They wouldn’t hurt a flea, would they?”
I turned to Kaell Sol. He was still holding the damn sandcrawler, the look of embarrassment clear on his face.
“I’m sorry, madam,” I said, trying to placate the woman. “But we have to check every report.”
“Even if it’s merely a speciesist slur?”
“I think we should leave,” proposed Kaell Sol, gently putting the sandcrawler back to its barrel. Not that it was of any use now. “Thank you for your time, madam, and sorry for the trouble.”
To that, the madam bristled, her eyes narrowing. “And who’s gonna pay for all the meat you’ve ruined?”
“You can present your complaint to the head office and we will discuss it with the person responsible for the initial accusation,” recited Kaell Sol, pushing me towards the exit. Dozens of murderous gazes followed us out, but even that couldn’t make us feel more like assholes.