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“We will not allow you to bring your pet armadillo along,” Mika taps on the poster on the door that has an ugly illustration of an armadillo with a giant cross mark on it.

“C’mon Mika. I can’t leave her out here—you know that. She’ll draw attention!” I say, pouting.

“I could lose my job, Rei,” Mika says.

“How about I buy you a nickleberry juice after your shift—just like old times?” I implore, searching for her eyes through her nitrous visor.

Mika sighs. “Ok fine, but you have to leave her out back where the other customers can’t see her,” she says, pointing to the alleyway that leads to the stables.

“Thanks Mika, I owe you!” I salute her and lead Anya across the narrow pavement.

I find a small, shady spot for Anya to rest, and place a few ferret chips in front of her.

“Can you stay here for a few minutes? Mommy needs to go in and get some information,” I coo, petting Anya’s latticed armour.

She yawns, and a giant row of teeth glistens back at me.

“Thas ma girl,” I say, giving her a scritch.

I head into the Tenzin Bar and look for my target. It takes a while, but I eventually spot him. Sitting surreptitiously in a corner is a small, winged ocelot, licking his coat.

“Hi Occe, long time no see,” I chirp cheerfully, sliding into the seat next to him.

“Rei. What are you doing here,” the ocelot replies, surveying me with his bright, yellow eyes.

“Is that how you greet your good friend?” I laugh, nudging him.

“I wouldn’t consider us friends. You only look for me when you need something,” Occe states pointedly.

“Ok, ok, you’re right. But this time it’s urgent. Girls have been going missing and there have been reports of shadowy figures lurking around the crime scenes. Do you know more?”

Occe looks at me gravely. “I don’t think I have to tell you this, Rei. But my information comes—”

“Comes at a price, I know.” I dump a bag of duploons in front of him. “Always so calculative, eh, Occe?”

He narrows his eyes at me. “If you weren’t an orphan, I probably wouldn’t even give you the time of day,” he remarks, sweeping the duploons under his spotted wing.

“Aw, so you’re looking out for me. That’s super sweet,” I reply.

Occe rolls his eyes. “The shadows people saw aren’t shadows—it’s coal dust.”

“Coal dust? But only the Coal People leave coal dust behind, and they’re not native to this area. They’re also a pretty peaceful race. Are you sure it’s coal dust, Occe?”

“They’re part magic, and I can always sense magic,” Occe replies. “But there’s something else—there’s darkness too. The Coal People are bearing some intense emotions, and I can feel it in their magic residue.”

“So the Coal People aren’t happy about something and are kidnapping girls. Got it. Anything else, Occe?”

“Yes. I wish you to leave me alone.”

“Always so dramatic. Why come to a bar if you’re so anti-social?”

“They serve the best pine-pear cooler here.”

“Huh. It never occurred to me. Thanks for the info, Occe, I’ll see you around!” I curtsy, drawing another eye roll from Occe, and shimmy out.

As I enter the stables, I see a little girl feeding Anya.

“Hey! What are you doing!” I yell, bounding towards them.

“I’m just giving your armadillo some lychee seeds!” the girl says, taking several steps back.

I scrutinise the seeds and ascertain that they are, in fact, lychee seeds.

I sigh, relieved. “Sorry. I overreacted. But it might not be wise to feed other people’s pets. They’ll think you’re poisoning them,” I say.

“That's my fault. I just learnt in school that armadillos love lychee seeds,” she admits.

“They do, actually,” I reply, smiling. “But we gotta go now. C’mon, Anya, time to hit the road.”

“Oh hold on, you’re part of the Iron Squadron!” The girl says excitedly.

I laugh. “How could you tell?”

“I recognise you! You’re… you’re Rei! The only woman on the team and you help the Royal Family work on secret missions!”

Classified missions, actually. And that might not be such a good thing if you recognised me so easily.”

“Oh! Don’t worry, I only know because I worked for the Royal kitchen for a year.”

“Phew. That’s definitely a relief,” I say, winking.

“That’s so cool though. There were no women on the Squadron until you joined.”

“You’d think that after centuries, we’d have torn down gender barriers,” I chuckle.

“Do you think I could join the Squadron one day?” she asks. “I mean, I don’t know how to fight but I am very inquisitive and a fast learner!”

“Of course you can. What’s your name?”

“I’m Tai!”

“Well, Tai, you’re absolutely welcome to join the Squadron. The folks in the academy are a bunch of old guards, but if you can show them what you’re capable of, we’d love to have you.”

Her eyes twinkle. “Thanks Rei—that's awesome to hear. Are you also searching for the missing girls?” Tai says, as her voice drops to a whisper.

I nod.

“I hope you find them. And I hope they’re safe. We need them.”

“You’re absolutely right, Tai. And don’t worry, I’ll find them. It's my promise to you.” I tip my helmet and together with Anya, we exit the stables to track our next clue.

This piece is part of a writing challenge between me and my friend, Lisa. We've essentially agreed to write around 500 words daily, for seven days, about randomly picked topics. Today's topic is: "we will not allow you to bring your pet armadillo along". There are no hard and fast rules—except to have fun, and not worry about our pieces being too polished. To read Lisa's interpretation of the topic, click here.


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