"Nottingham has enough pubs and clubs", say the local police. If you wanted to get around every last one of them it would take a year at a brisk trot before you were starting to visit establishments more than one mile from the centre of the city. Pick a Friday or a Saturday, any Friday or Saturday of the year: the establishments will be rammed and jumping and the streets bustling with people in their most tightly-wound and elaborately crafted drinking costumes. It's going on Christmas but the cold season has not added much to the average number of layers. Multicoloured decorative illuminations span the alleys and narrower streets; yellow curlicues and red stars and inexplicably five-pointed white snowflakes. Orange light spills out onto the street from the pubs. Floodlit trams cruise past, bells ringing at stumbling people in the way. Officers with cars and vans and fluorescent visibility jackets hold a largely pre-emptive presence on various likely streets. Quite frankly, it's a quiet one.
Laura Ferno and her three compatriots-- and in her head that's how she thinks of them, herself plus three, there is no question as to who is the first among these equals-- stumble across the Square towards Iris, ratted on vodka-and-vodkas, largely insulated from the cold by the invisible effects of booze. There is a saying. "Drink through it." "It" is usually clear from context, but in this case the interpretation seems to be "life".
Laura is the shortest and darkest and cleverest of the four. "You're so clever!" they tell her, all the time. She denies it, and tries not to show it. Highly polysyllabic words give her away, though. Donna is snarky and insufferable when not handled with the greatest of tranquility, and adorable and sweet when she wants something. She is well-off and very entitled. Sandra is the oldest, and is practical and maternal and overweight. She prefers beer and has the greatest capacity for it. Lisa is almost as dark-haired and almost the same height as Laura and often gets mistaken for her, at least until three seconds of conversation have elapsed and her distinctive accent and her almost scintillating general exuberance show forth.
The fact that all four names end in "-a" hasn't gone unnoticed, but it really is just a coincidence.
Lisa is on the phone, one finger in her ear, mostly shouting over her mostly hysterical friends. "Well is he there? Put him on! Davey! We're in town! What's happening? Is it time? ... Serious? Girls! Girls! They're in the hospital."
They all know who "they" are and why they'd be in hospital. Somebody is having a baby.
"Oh my God!"
Lisa, on the phone still: "I know, I know, they don't know that she's not here on the phone. They should, though. Shut UP! I'm talking to Davey!"
"Alright, alright! Alright! I can't hear you! Alright! See you! Bye!"
They round another corner and begin heading up the hill away from the square. The vomitously-coloured neon sign outside their destination moves into view, as does the frankly preposterous queue outside it. They still have a long way to walk to get there and almost as far again to get to the end of the queue.
"How much is it to get into Iris?" asks Sandra.
"Five fifty," say two others simultaneously.
Laura has a thought strike her and rummages through her purse. "I need to stop and get cash again."
Donna: "What did you get last time? A fiver? Did you find-- excuse me-- the only cash machine in Nottingham which dispenses fivers?"
"I'll cover you," says Lisa. "You can buy me a drink once we're inside."
"No no no. I can't, I don't have cash."
"Well then use a card!"
"I-- okay, why are we going to Iris anyway? It's crap and you can't see anything and it's so expensive. It's so expensive."
Sandra: "Because the music's good, and dancing, and it's Donna's friend's first day behind the bar so he can get us a discount."
"Well, I don't even know him, and I hate Iris anyway."
"Overruled!" Laura is dragged forward by several limbs.
"If overruled I will not queue! If-- if dragged in I will not pay! If someone covers me to get in I will not drink and if someone buys me a drink I will still not drink. Seriously, I'm trying to-- hey-- keep a cap on my entertainment budget. It was one cash machine visit per outing, no cards--"
"Oh, come on, it's only--" Lisa turns around and looks at the big clock overlooking the square. "Two. Almost."
"There's a night bus at two. I'm going to try to get the night bus at two. I'm going. Take care!" There are some hurried hugs but Laura manages to extricate herself and hobble off within a few moments.
Yes, she was making excuses, there is a better reason for her not to want to visit Iris and a good reason why she didn't figure it out until just now, but that's not so important.
Crossing the Square takes a little while because the shoes were made for looking good at the expense of comfort, convenience, durability, mobility, price and so on. Her boyfriend never wants to know how much they cost, and yet, like a car crash or gripping slasher flick, can't look away when she reveals the hideous truth each time. (Where is he now? Probably drunk out of his skull with his mates at their local, or, by this time, in bed with half of a sloppy, cooling pizza from the Exchange, taking a good run-up for tomorrow's hangover.)
It's sixty seconds to two and she has a long zig and then zag to take to get to the top of the hill where the bus stops are, but there is thankfully a shortcut, a narrow and steeply-stepped (but usually quite well-lit and friendly) alley which cuts off the corner of the triangle, so she takes that instead. It's well-lit because the Slouch is halfway along it and usually completely filled with people. Of course, she remembers a little too late, the Slouch got closed down a couple of weeks ago because some stupid woman took drugs and almost died on their property. It'll be back, but there are legal proceedings. In the meantime, for the moment, this is quite a dark and empty passage.
A couple of dudes come around the corner and start coming down the steps. "'Scuse me!" she chirps, moving to slide past them on the side. They don't move. How irritating.
"That's her," she hears a third man mutter some yards behind her.
It would be nice to say that all the alcohol in Laura Ferno's system leaves her at this point and she gains laserlike, crystalline clarity and the following happens in slow motion. But, though armed, she is drunk off her face.
A momentary pause to elaborate on what she's wearing. The key word here is "rings". The high-heeled, high-impracticality shoes have been touched upon already. The black leggings, black skirt and black top are inconsequential. Resting comfortably around her neck, though, is a very fine silver necklace made from thirty-seven components, each a unique three-dimensional elongated silver shape linked with wire; this is much more significant. On her ears, large silver earrings in equally complex shapes. Around her left wrist, four silver bangles and one golden bangle, all slightly different sizes, each custom-made by a different craftsperson, but engraved with the same complicated repeating and interlocking design, reminiscent of Korean text but illegible in any human language. These five are independent, but amplify each other. Around her right wrist, three more bangles, these ones relatively commonplace items bought "off the shelf", albeit a specialist and extremely expensive and obscure shelf. These three interlock and (in ways which may become apparent) interact with one another in useful ways. On her left index finger, left thumb and left middle finger, three smaller rings with similar designs which control the bangles on her right hand. On her left ring finger, nothing (but ah, one day). On her right index finger, no rings, but an intricate tattooed design circling the base of the finger where a ring would sit.
That covers everything not concealed in her purse. The three guys -- no, four guys -- aren't mages. They haven't realised that Laura Ferno is bristling with openly-carried thaumic weaponry. Even with just the tattoo this would have been a bad idea.
She turns as fast as can be expected given the events and alcoholic content of the preceding six hours. Guy Three's Maglite, the four-D-cell kind, lands on her head with a bop like a coconut and she yelps and drops to the ground. She rolls and hisses at the pain for a moment or two. That much of the scene goes exactly the four guys anticipated. Then Laura's had enough time to remember her emergency phrase and form a few syllables.
"Dulakut surutai jiha, twenty you em!"
She flails her right hand at her attackers and they recoil with hot pain as large amounts of hard infrared and microwave radiation wash over them like water from a fire hose. The thermal output is invisible, but immediately felt on the face and skin. Laura swings her hand at the two groups of attackers, burning two or three of them quite severely. But not enough.
Guy Four manages to shield himself with his heavy leather jacket and lurches forward in front of Laura, managing to deflect her hand upwards where it's relatively safe. But before he can make a grab for her other hand she has managed to pronounce "Kafa'u six kay dulakut!" and a quantity of directed linear momentum has erupted out of it like a fist into his sternum, hurling him up and backwards into the wall and along it and down into the street beyond. He breaks a leg or two. He won't be back--
"Sedo sed," Laura says, turning on Guy One (now lying flat out on the steps clutching his face) and delivering an identical colossal thaumic impulse at him, pounding him into mush. Guy Two has recovered and is up and running, but another "Sedo sed!" propels him out into the other street, where the night bus Laura just missed has to brake and swerve to avoid splattering him across the windscreen. Finally, "Thon su" deactivates the thermal flare, and it's over.
And Laura is left leaning against the wall, shattered. Alcohol and junk food from earlier in the evening swirl in her gut and she throws a lot of it up. It makes her feel a lot better, for a moment; then her brain becomes clear enough to process what just happened and, worse, what just almost happened.
She staggers up the steps and out into the street where passers-by are gathering incredulously. "I need some help. Um." She pulls her phone out and, unusually considering how rational she usually is, calls her friends first. They haven't even reached the Iris line yet and they come right away. It's only once they turn up that the police get called and it's a surprisingly large number of minutes after that that actual police officers turn up to take the Guys away.
She makes a statement. The statement is: "I want to go home," and once it becomes clear how incapable she is, the cops concede it.
They give her a lift. The boyfriend is, as expected, conked out. Instead of waking him up, she just crawls into bed on top of him and tries to sleep for long enough that it all goes away. Though tomorrow will come on time and will still have to be faced, it's the right answer.