Underby was adding bitters to a drink when Bib approached through the thick blue smoky air of the Bucket of Blood, knocking twice on the end of the bar as he passed. As he rounded the tall bald man he drew his small finger down the side of his face, as if casually scratching at a rogue itch. Mr Underby passed the drink to the drunk woman at the end of the bar, then looked at Bib who subtly nodded with his head toward the far table in the back corner of the bar. Underby grabbed a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, making his way through the swaying drunks singing, swearing, and fighting, to the back table where the stranger waited for him.
He had met his share of animal men over the years: scientifically engineered moreaus; highly evolved versions of beloved household pets; alleged angels and demons in bestial forms; he had never before, however, encountered a taheen. He was rather disappointed to discover it looked no different than most other animal men he had met over the years, though this one was in the form of a man-sized raven, and Underby had to admit that was a new one.
He sat down at the table, placing the bottle and two glasses between them, smiling and holding eye contact. The being held his gaze, cocking its head to the side slightly in sharp fluid movements, seemingly regarding him with inky black eyes. “A wise man who sits in an establishment like this, back to the wall.” Underby said, uncorking the bottle and pouring out two glasses. “I believe we share a mutual friend.”
The raven nodded its head. “I concur heartily, sai.” it said, its voice holding a whispering tinny quality, and the individual words sounding like they were being made by a handful of gravel being shaken gently. “I am Kalfoo of Fedic, at your esteemed service.”
Underby raised his glass. “Mr Fedic,” he said. “the reason-”
“Please.” came that whispering voice again. “Simply Kalfoo will do. Fedic is where I am from, not my name. My name is Kalfoo.” The raven dipped its head forward, sinking the large black bill into the glass.
Underby watched it drink for a moment, then sipped from his own glass. “I understood you were from Ravila.” he said.
“More accurately, you misunderstood.” Kalfoo said with a dry rattling chuckle. “I come to you from Ravila, but I do not hail from there.”
Underby shrugged. “Where you were hatched is no concern of mine.”
The taheen stared at him. “Sai.” it said slowly. “I was not hatched. I am no bird. I am taheen.”
Underby raised his eyebrows. “My apologies, I am largely unfamiliar with taheen. You are the first I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.”
“A shame for you; an honor for me.” came the reply.
Underby held up a hand. “Please, none of that. I am aware my reputation is one who delights in obsequiousness of all flavors, but you are, I understand, first and foremost a man of business.” Underby drank, then looked at the… well, was it fair to say raven? He looked at the taheen. “Is referring to you as a man also an insult?”
“Certainly not.” Kalfoo said. “Nor was I insulted to be said to have hatched. I corrected you only out of the assumption that you were a learned man and would prefer to be able to accurately understand my kind.” The being’s clawed talons tapped on the table top with what Underby took to be amusement.
“You assume correctly.” he said. “At a later date I would adore to learn everything you might be able to tell me.”
“But not this night.” Kalfoo said.
“No, tonight is for business. Would you care for a refill?”
Underby poured. “How much do you know about New Babbage, Mr. Fee- eh, Kalfoo?”
The taheen raised his its head from the glass, whiskey glistening in the candlelight on the end of its bill. “Little besides what everyone knows.”
“The city is in an extremely precarious situation at the moment.” he said, taking a cigar from his waistcoat pocket. He held one out to Kalfoo, who refused silently. “Our usually abundant coal supply has dwindled dangerously low.”
“An unfortunate time of the year for such a thing to happen.” the taheen answered, tracing a design on the table from the moisture left behind by the glasses.
“Exceedingly.” Underby said. “Have you ever heard of Falun?”
Kalfoo cocked his head from one side to the other. “I believe I have.” he said. “A mining town, is it not, sai?”
Underby nodded. “Exactly.” he said, then took a drink from his whiskey. “Our city’s coal supply is derived from many different places but Falun is probably the closest, and the most obvious candidate to order more shipments from. However, due to demand, they have decided to cap our orders so that they might spread their supply more evenly around the area.”
Kalfoo nodded. “A seasonal sense of altruism.”
“Probably. I don’t care.” Underby answered. “I want that coal.”
The taheen cocked its head again. “You perhaps have an altruistic streak of your own, sai?”
Underby smirked. “While the volume of what I do not know about taheen culture could be measured in basketfuls, clearly, there is much you do not know about me. Altruism is not a quality I hold in high regard.”
Kalfoo chuckled again. “Sai, I must work on my delivery… trust in the fact that through our mutual friend, your reputation very much precedes you.”
Underby thought that perhaps he should be insulted by that remark, but somehow was not. He leaned across the table and said in a low voice: “This winter coal is as valuable as gold, and I mean to Babbage’s answer to King Midas, my friend Kalfoo of Fedic.”