To his dismay, the westward sun had already slipped behind the jagged cut of the city's skyline.  A foul haze of orange and red still colored the sky.  To the east, the first stars pricked the indigo sky above the ocean, which shimmered like fire from the last minutes of sunset.
     On a beach, wrapped in a cool, gray shadow of a bridge, a man waited with his head serenely bent and his back leaning against a crumbling wall.  In one hand, he held a weathered, black obsidian rock that vibrated from the lively music blaring from it.  His head nodded with the beat of his jam rock, which had a few hundred songs in it, a lot compared to some.  He never obliterated a song; he kept every single one.  The music occasionally skipped or screeched.  He was pushing its magical capacity and he knew he would have to enchant it with a stronger spell, which we was never very good at, or simply buy another jam rock, which were expensive.
     He unconsciously dug his leather sandals into the moist sand and his worn, black tunic caught the very last of the summer breeze, which was yielding to chilly air, just as the long days were yielding to long nights.
      As he waited, he silently acknowledged the oddity of his affinity for both winter and daylight.  Though he positively thrived in the crispness of cold air, he loved the feeling of the sun on his skin, particularly his eyelids, for some reason.  This particular location was his favorite to trade because the eastern wind blew in fresh, salty air, which he found refreshing compared to the stagnant, overgrown city, just a walking distance behind him.  The sea pulsed in almost perfect harmony with his jam rock and seagulls cooed drowsily, putting him at ease.
     In his other hand, he cheerily flicked a coin.  Now and then, his mouth flashed with blue light; the coin stopped in midair and spun in horizontal orbit.  He was proud of this little power and occupied himself with it often, when in a good mood, or when he had business to conduct and needed to intimidate an uncooperative client.  From lengthy experience he learned that calm, ambiguous gestures were more sinister to the moronic hustlers he habitually worked with than empty threats.  This particular evening, however, he was more eager than he was impatient.
      He lifted his face, which was average looking, to the colors extinguishing in the burning sky.  He had deep, olive skin with dark, oak-colored hair that always managed to find its way across his dark brown eyes, and thick, straight eyebrows.  His jaw line was strong and his nose chiseled.  His natural countenance was lighthearted and pleasing, but more than a few were unfortunate enough to witness how quickly he could snap to aggression, when necessary.
     His best friend often teased him, saying that his face never quite matched his eyes.  His bone structure was formed in such a way that he always appeared as if in deep, brooding thought, but his eyes were always lit up and searching for the next amusement.
     To pass the time, he shoved his jam rock in his pocket and flicked the old coin, spinning it again in midair, but this time he gently blew on the spinning piece.  From his mouth, a gaseous blue light drifted decisively to the coin and wrapped around it.  His face tightened in concentration. 
     This was harder to do.
    He watch with veneration as the coin rotated quicker, sprouting ice crystals until it was encased in clear, glass-like ice, which caught the very last glimmers of the sunset.
     "Ha, ha!"  He grinned and gave a boyish victory jump, which contradicted his staunchly masculine frame.  How long had he been trying that spell?
     "Well, dat was absolutely adorable, Emoc," a thin voiced screeched behind him. "Should I uh' brought a cookie instead?"
     Emoc's trophy fell and shattered on the sand, releasing the old coin from its glass cage.  His face returned to its normal placidity, seemingly undisturbed by the interruption.  He rubbed the jam rock in his pocket, silencing the music.  No reply was given to his companion as he summoned the coin back to his hand and pocketed it deep in his tunic.  He straightened his back and inspected his companion with a hard, unforgiving face.
      The Frivolous Restaurant, which rose from the ocean a few miles offshore, had four levels to its grand design and owned up to its title epically.  The top floor was a landing pad with a dragon barn for privately owned wings.  Though they were on the opposite side, the breeze caught the powerful heat of their breath and brushed against Malika's cheek.  The awful smell made her cringe and she hurried down the thin, aquamarine carpet that led to the center of the roof.  She clutched a feather pole that rose from a broad hole, and descended to the main lobby, landing softly due to the spell cast on the pole.
     "I have a reservation with Crunk," she said to a yellow Magi in an indigo blue and turquoise robe, waiting behind a podium.
     "His last name?"
     "Ah, that's a good question," she said, surprised that she had never wondered what his last name was, or if a man like him even bothered with one.
     "Just 'Crunk.'"
     "Indeed.  I see here.  He is already waiting for you in the aquatic floor.  May I check your cape?" he added, reaching for her shoulders.
      "No!" she cried, backing away from him.
      He gave her an affronted look, but she did not want to reveal her burned and sliced arm to the entire restaurant.  She had no patience for whispers and stares.
     She followed the Magi across the second floor, which was an open air dining area with a bar in the middle.  It was well maintained with expensive enchantments that allowed the pleasant breeze to blow, but kept the air comfortably warm.  Frivolous employed every fine and decadent method of illumination: lighting orbs, crystal balls, Willow Wisps, exotic lighting vines, and candles.  Unlike Willow Whops that released a strobed light, Willow Wisps released a smooth glow.  Most of the diners of the fine restaurant were Magi, and half wore robes of the clouts or shepherds, the elite of society.
     She descended another feather pole after her escort to the aquatic floor.  This huge dining area was encircled by a water wall, held in place by magic.  Though the view was nothing but dark blue ocean in all directions, a large underwater hill was right next to the right of the room, teaming with fluttering seaweed, bright coral, and shimmering fish reflecting the moonlight.
     About a quarter of the cavernous, decadent dining area was a pool of ocean water raised to waist level, from which Merpeople surfaced to chat with Magi and Humans.  The fourth floor below no Human or Magi could access, because it was the ocean floor, where wealthy Merpeople dined on rare and raw fish.
     The aquatic floor had two stages: a normal one, and another behind the water wall, open to the ocean, where Merpeople performed.  Both were empty at the moment, but the ocean stage swirled with colorful, flashing fish, and an occasional monstrous blur of a creature lurking just out of vision.
     As she passed the elevated pool of water, a waiter argued with a scowling Merman.
     "Sir, please!" cried the water. "You must check your weapon at your underwater entrance.  No staffs or tridents are allowed in the dining areas!"
     Encircling the dining area, and lining the water wall, were enormous, frosted-glass pearls that towered over Malika's head.  As she was led to one she spied a mountainous shadow inside, which could only be Crunk.  Her escort stopped at the glass and bowed slightly, expecting her to enter.  She had never dined in a privacy pearl before, and uneasily reached her hand out.  When she made contact with the pearl, it dissolved slightly around her fingers, and when she retracted her hand the frosted glass rematerialized.  Confident with the process, she walked through to find Crunk, rising to greet her.  She dodged his hug and kept her cape on as she took her seat.
     The pearl was invisible from the inside out, so she and Crunk could see and hear everyone in the restaurant, though they appeared as shadows in a frosted-glass sphere.
     Just like Crunk, she smiled, as he filled her mother-of-pearl goblet with sweet coral wine.  The legs of their table were black metal Merwomen reaching up into a ruby tablecloth.
     "Why the privacy?" she asked, accepting her goblet from him.
     "I'm being followed."
     What a relief it was to hear his deep, bass voice again.  She did not realize until he sat before her how sorely she missed his company.  His being followed was not uncommon.
     "Then why are we in a restaurant?"
      "Because to them," he smiled, "you are my beautiful date.  If I met you in a more secluded area, it would place your under more attention and proliferate their existing suspicions.  Edamame?" He heaped the appetizer onto his own plate.
     "No, thank you."
     They spent a moment in silence, as he sucked crunchy pods from the dark, green bean, and she sipped her wine.  Was it her imagination, or did he seem thinner?
     "What do you mean by 'more attention?'" she asked, her lips resting on the goblets rim.
     "That is one of the many reasons I asked you to dinner," he replied, wiping the salt from his fingers onto his lap napkin.  "I have received some intelligence that you and Emoc have had your bank accounts drained.  I'm very sorry this happened to you both," he added courteously, but Malika detected more cordial business than sympathy in his tone.
      "Is there anything you don't know?" she asked sourly.
      He chortled. "There is so much I don't know, it makes my head spin."
     "Where have you been?" she demanded bluntly. "Why did you disappear like that?  Why did you keep me in the dark?"
     "Do you know a magnem by the name of Lackley?" he asked, ignoring her questions.
     This answer did not satisfy him. "Captain Lackley is under the direct order of a new dog in town.  This vicious Magi goes by the name of Lieutenant Sicarius.  Does either name ring a bell?"
     She shook her head no.
     He frowned slightly. "Lackley is the signature that authorized both your accounts to be usurped.  You never encountered either of these people?  You don't know what you might have done to capture their attention?"
     "No," she replied, growing frustrated with his unrevealing questions. "Other than a bad trip months ago, when I accidentally hexed Landon to smuggle us out of the city walls, and me 'disrupting' a Worship service by leaving early, I've done nothing.  They don't know how we got out, so that can't be it.  You know so much.  Are you going to tell me why this happened to us?"
     She tactically excluded the contraband shoved into her life, a burden of guilt she could not shake.  It only grew in her heart, heavier and graver with every passing hour.
     His face sunk. "I was hoping you might have been able to illuminate this for me."
      The fact that he had no answers made her resentful towards him, and she regretted that it was plainly written on her face as she scowled at him.  As she gulped her coral wine, desperate to soften her rigid nerves, the aquatic stage near their table lit up.
      A Merwoman rose from the ocean's depths like a ghost.  Her long, curving tail was a gleaming silver.  Behind her a Merman carried a coral harp, taller than both of them, and placed it on a gray rock, blanketed in algae, in the center of the stage.  The Merwoman pushed her heavy, blond hair streaked in violet, away from her pale, blue face.  Her sea green eyes glanced briefly at Malika, before turning away.  Their eyes were very similar to Magi, curvy and reflective.  She wore a seashell top adorned with glittering gems, specifically for her performance here.
     Generally, Merpeople did not trouble themselves with clothing, except when interacting or performing for any White Block-regulated establishment.  Ahuram frowned upon the wild, carefree nature of Merpeople.  Unfortunately it took a great deal of magical resources to travel and breath underwater, so all the clouts and shepherds could do was condemn them from the shore, and force them into clothing whenever possible.
      She rested her silver fins on a rock next to the harp, cracked her pale, blue knuckles, and began stroking the strings.  The song was not high pitched as they often were with ocean harps.  Her melody was deep, hypnotizing.  The aquatic stage lights dimmed, so that a light show ensued from each pluck, serenading the dining hall with a primal, sorrowful tune.
     "Crunk," Malika said, staring at the Merwoman, whose eyes were closed as she rocked back and forth. "I want answers."
* * * * *