Leah winced as she put her cracked and blood-stained knuckles under the running water. The action sent shivers up and down her spine and made her shoulders involuntarily jump as they stayed there. If that had been the only remnants of her fight, she wouldn’t have been overly concerned. One more struggle in the long line that had been her life.
Her head hurt though. A dull ache, one that crept around the top of her forehead and down her circular face. It snuck into her blue eyes and pressed against them, into her thin pale red lips and petite ears. Even her nose felt it, its long point and sharp tip feeling a mild throb. It had gotten in her skin, under her pallid complexion, and was crawling around in there.
“Mucktack,” she mumbled to herself, standing up and flicking her fingers down. Leah recalled when her assailant had grabbed her hair and pulled. How she’d screamed and clutched at the air trying to get away from his grasp. If he’d been a better fighter, she’d have been the one on the ground — dead — instead of him.
Running her hands through her patch-work coloured strands of brown and black, she looked around the town. It was small, maybe ten shops large. All of the places glowed with a faint colour that highlighted their magical properties — blue for shadows, yellow for fire… Leah didn’t know the rest. She hated Gamics. She wished she could still believe their tricks were nothing more than clever performances to fool the locals, but she’d been out of Scinok territory too long to keep believing their lies as well.
Sighing, Leah started walking towards the snipper — a sign with a pair of scissors etched on it advising what services the store offered. Light peaked through the green canopy of the forest up above. It was more silver than white today and created little shimmering shapes on the earthen road with its lilting base and deep holes that no one seemed to have tried to fill.
It took her twenty-two steps to reach the door, and one flash of her timer to notice there was almost no one inside. No customers at least. All the chairs were empty, their black coverings and metal bases contrasted with the wooden floor of the store. Each cutting area had a rack full of scissors, and scooping blades that vibrated and sliced at the same time. There was a closed space at the back with a sign that said ‘Snippers Only’ and some magazines stashed on top of tables next to the waiting benches on the left.
Only one man was inside, his black hair full but with the occasional gray patch in the wrong place. It was not styled, it was sticking out in any way it wanted.
Leah pushed the door open and heard the twitter of a bird, she guessed it was the sound of the entrance charm. “Need a cut,” she said.
The snipper turned around, his face structurally handsome but the rotations had not been kind. He had two scars on his right cheek, one on his left and both his ears had a small piece missing from their ear lobes. His eyes were mismatching — green and blue — telling her that his lineage was mixed and as he moved into the light, his olive skin became more prominent.
“Long or short?” he asked in a voice that Leah believed should’ve belonged to another type of man. It was husky, and warm. It carried itself and wrapped its tones around your heart until you relaxed.
“Short,” she said as she stroked her hair that went past her shoulders. She’d grown it for her bonding partner, he’d loved to tangle it in his fingers and hold it up in front of her. At least until she’d been transferred, to here. To the backend of nowhere.
The snipper clicked his tongue and looked her up and down. She noticed his eyes fall over her blue and black uniform. The one that had infused metal bindings to keep her safe. One that told everybody she was a Guardian. The kind of clothes that get your evicted from Gamic businesses unless you’re on patrol or willing to bend a few guidelines.
“You going to pay for it?” he asked.
“That’s a –“
“Twenty baral,” he pointed to a metal basin. “Or get out.”
Leah squinted, she knew about the anti-regulation shakedowns by other Guardians, but she didn’t like his tone either. “You want to make this a spot check?” she said, reaching for her knife.
The man continued to rub his hands with a white cloth. “We’re a fringe village here ‘nok, no one follows your standards. Or didn’t you notice?”
Her fingers started to curl around the hilt. “So what happens now?”
“Twenty baral, in the dish, and I slice up your hair. Or I slice you up and take your body out to the forest so the versarches don’t get hungry.”
Leah let her gaze linger over the snipper’s scars, then his tools of the trade — blades and scissors of all kinds — before pulling her hand away from her knife. She walked over to the bowl and put in the twenty coins. Then, as an afterthought, she added another one. For his courage.
The man flicked his left hand toward a chair, she sat in it. “What type of experience you want?” he asked as she stared at a reflection of herself in a polished metal mirror.
“I told you,” she snapped, “short — “
“No, magic or standard. Some gamics lose their keit if I don’t cut it with the props.”
“I like the sound of scissors, tells me you’re working.”
He pulled a cream towel around her neck and stuffed it in the back of her top. “Never understand you ‘noks,” he said, as a white sheet floated down on top of her. “You talk about safety and then let a stranger get close to you with cutting tools. The other way’s much less accident prone.”
“When a Scinok snipper opens up out here, I promise not to bother you with my preferences,” she said.
He laughed and clinked a metal comb and a pair of scissors together. “A Guardian’s hair doesn’t get this long from paranoia. Lover?” He ran the comb through the section on her left.
“Any of your business?”
“Is if you want a good style.” Something slid across her throat, something sharp and cold. “See what I mean about accident prone?”
She swallowed, finally accepting how far she was back from the regulated walls of Mystilvern. How much land the Scinok advancement didn’t control, but pretended they did. “One that would come looking for me if something happened.”
“You want your cut as short as your truth?” he asked, holding her hair up. Now that they were closer she could make out the deadness in his eyes.
“To the top of my neck,” she said.
“You going to be killing a lot of drunkards then?”
“Only when they skip out on their contracts. He had a chance to come back alive.” The scissors started to slice away at her tangled mess.
“Did us all a favour,” the snipper said, although his eyes told her that he didn’t mean it.
“I’m just a cog in the wheels of progress,” Leah said as she felt her head become less heavy.
“I love that line.” He kept cutting, his eyes not looking at what he was doing but straight at her. “What’s the other one you ‘noks like using to avoid being called keits?”
“The machine rolls on?”
“Love that one too.” He stopped and clanked his instruments together, hair fell out of them and floated towards the ground. Reaching around, the man ran the comb across the faint scar line next to her right eye. “What did you do to get sent out here?”
The snipping continued. Leah cleared her throat and looked away from the mirror. She peeked out of the store’s windows and saw a few people walking down the main street. No revenge gang was forming outside the snipper’s. No one seemed interested in the corpse lying on the street either.
“Aren’t you going to take care of your own?” she asked, without thinking too much about the consequences.
“Probably would if he was one of ours. ‘nok on the run is still a nok.”
“But he’s…” Leah stopped herself before she finished her sentence. Green eyes didn’t mean they were Gamic. Neither did his dark skin. Could’ve been a distant family member was one. Could’ve been a hereditary thing from hundreds of rotations previously. She hadn’t bothered to ask how a Gamic had ended up on the wrong end of a contract, and the details had been very clear. They’d told her he was one of the others, and that’s all she’d ever needed to know for processing purposes.
As if sensing her thoughts, the snipper said, “So you could’ve bought him back alive?”
“The machine rolls on,” she repeated.
He’d moved up now, her precious two-rotation’s growth all over the floor. “What did you do?” the man pressed. “Seems like you’re going to be here a long time. No one gets their hair cut when they’ll be back in city limits in a kew or two.”
“Sure, kids. Little wood blocks. Seen one of them open up their flow too much and then explode.” He clapped his hands right next to her ear. “Pop! Gone. Blood and entrails. You’re thirty-something rotations on though. We don’t get that many second rounds when we shuck up.”
She gazed at the man’s reflection, wondering if this was a power game by a small human enjoying the moment, or something else. If he was one of the dark ones, the remnants of the rebels from the war. Leah decided to chance it. “I’m good in a fight,” she said, hoping he knew what that meant.
“Not embracing the calmer days?” For the first time, he looked down and checked the length of the hair at the top of her head. The comb went up and down, as if trying to find the right place. Then, without asking, he cut. “Maybe you need a vocation.”
“Like being a snipper?”
“Never know who you might meet,” he replied, a tiny smile appearing at the corner of his mouth. “There’s always a little crazy out there, hiding away. You just got to recognise it.”
“My ‘lover’ had a little crazy, and an extra vocation. Merchant, exporter. He didn’t mind the anti-regulation trade either. Nothing big, just a few odd supplies here and there. Food, prototypes, Gamic kids.” Leah felt her pulse rise, and sweat break out on her forehead. The man’s cutting slowed. “We had a fight.” She stopped and ran her scarred fingers along her thigh. “They give you the same ranks. Survive a battle, earn a line on your chest. Think of something innovative in an office, get a pompous ceremony. Break up two kids wailing on each other, they slap a courage badge on your chest. Save your squad leader from a death trap, pin the exact same thing on you. Gets a little confusing once the battles are over.”
The snipping continued.
“So we had a disagreement — him and his business interests on one side, me and my beliefs on the other. Gave him the whole speech about what we were fighting for, what our positions mean. Then, when that didn’t work, threatened to bring the Zhu in. Love isn’t as real as baral, it appears.”
“Sometimes.” The man clicked the metal tools together again. “He didn’t make it?”
“Oh, they tried. All those healers and their instruments rushing around. My commanding officer had a stake in the enterprise, didn’t like the regulations being applied to her as well. So, the war hero has to go.”
“It happens. After all, it’s clear what kind of hero you are, it’s right there in the title.” He kept cutting. “But you could’ve saved him?”
“Sure, but I hate weak men,” Leah turned her gaze away from the mirror. “Maybe I just hate weak people, killed enough women in the ditches. Maybe I hate pretenders, I don’t know. All these individuals who talk big, strut around with their confidence on display and then come up short. I thought about it, at least. But, he wailed, like an animal without control, so I choked him out. Shucking deserved it.”
With a sudden movement, the snipper made a dramatic finish to cutting her hair. “Done.”
Leah shook her head, refusing to look at the style, at herself. “Don’t you need to clipper me? Get all the little parts?”
“I’m lazy, I used magic for that.” She could hear him chuckle.
Swallowing hard, she turned back and looked at the style. It was better than what she’d have gotten in the city, if she’d paid five times more. The part was split perfectly in the middle, the edges were completely aligned and when she moved her head it flowed with ease. “Anyone tell you how good you are?”
“Only if they get out of my chair alive.” His hands reached around her throat and pulled away the sheet.
“Do I need another heartbreaking story next time I come here? If I want to be one of those fortunate few?”
“No,” she could feel his hands undo the towel, “just don’t kill anybody. Even if they are a ‘nok on the run.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” Leah replied, standing and brushing herself down. She turned, took one last look at the snipper with his stony face and strange eyes before spinning and heading back to the door.
“Think about that vocation,” she heard him call out after her. “War’s over after all.”