“How’d you get dry ice?”
Cal wiggled the fingers of one hand and smiled at Flori. He could have been suggesting theft or magic.
She kissed him. “Nice touch.”
Flori turned to the tables. She made sure she could see all of them from the stage, no matter where she stood. She flexed her fingers and all the chairs scooted out. She closed her fists and they returned to their places.
“Don’t test it again,” Cal advised. “They’re coming.”
“All right.” Flori moved both dry ice containers under the central table, forcing them well to the middle, lids and all. Then she put two barrels of beer down there as well. If anybody asked, she could show them the beer. There was room at this table for Urre and Kulta, Aurelia with her First, and one empty chair if Flori had to sit. If anything happened to Cal at this duel, she thought she would need more than a chair.
She stalked around the stage one more time. It wasn’t enough that the furniture obeyed her will. She wanted insurance. She didn’t have time to find any. Aurelia strode in the front door, her hair bound in golden braids that twisted into a headpiece like a thousand snakes. Cal said, “Lady Medusa.”
Flori’s eyes were fixed on Aurelia’s First. She didn’t know the name, but she knew the man. She wondered if he recognized her. She didn’t much resemble the street thief who had stolen his wallet half a year ago. She stroked her hip where she still carried it. After he hunted her so hard, she went back and got the folded leather out of the trash. Now, she understood why he had chased her all over the city for its return. He was no little tourist. And the material still probably contained enough of his essence that Flori could use it to influence him if she had to. Insurance. Suddenly, she smiled. “My lady,” she greeted Aurelia.
“Tell me,” said Aurelia, “why you volunteered to host.”
Cal intervened as he wove his way through the chairs to stand beside Flori. He said, “My parents want to kill me anyway, and I have very little to lose. The drug is a cruel mistress, and I let her use me badly. If I die here, my debt is paid. If you duel to compromise, the risk pays my debt, and I can appeal to the Goddess of Mercy to cure my addiction.”
Aurelia’s First said, “You don’t speak like an addict.”
“I took enough lartë to transform myself into a man for a little while.”
“Fascinating way around the addiction. Turn yourself into the animal you are supposed to be in the first place.”
Aurelia said, “And where are your parents? I am, I assure you, eager to begin.”
A thump from the back answered her question. Flori articulated what they had all realized. “I believe they are satisfied that we haven’t consorted with you to deceive them.”
“Do they think I would descend to conspire with you?”
“They think Cal would aspire to it. And as you’ve seen, he has a silver tongue.”
A moment later, Urre and Kulta emerged from the back room, Kulta pretending he hadn’t just dunked himself in a barrel of beer. He wasn’t succeeding. With some dignity, he shook his wet hair back from his face. He said, “Lady Medusa, you’ll want to send someone to collect your Second. I believe I landed on him. It set me off balance.”
Aurelia began, “If I have no Second…”
Kulta said, “My second was Jason Cartwright. I sacrifice the right to Second.”
Aurelia nodded once. She said, “I name my First Luster of the House Berkilau.”
Kulta nodded to his wife. “My first is Urre.”
Cal said, “The parties are present. The terms are agreed. Let us begin. Admit your warriors. Flori, bind me.”
The doors on either side of the hall opened now, and seven armed fighters from each gang entered. Aurelia and Kulta both said, “I’ll supervise.”
“Do it yourselves,” Flori said. “I’ll give you no cause to suspect me of having set him up to be freed.”
Cal’s eyes widened. He had not expected this. Flori smiled. She turned to the Firsts, Cal’s mother Urre and and the man who had come with Lady Aurelia, Luster Berkilau. “Madam Urre, Lord Medusa, while they tie the tribute to the wheel, you will kindly pay me for the use of my uncle’s hall.” She was handed two envelopes, which she took out into the alley and gave to a messenger.
When she returned, Cal was thoroughly affixed to the death wheel at center stage. She hopped up and kissed him. She did not breathe reassurances. “Now.” She turned to the warring gangs. “Aurelia carries the complaint here, and so Urre and Kulta have supplied the tribute.” She chose her words carefully. “If they have betrayed you, Lady Medusa, then their son dies.”
She spread her fingers and the chairs skidded back. “Be seated. Send your first warriors.”
A behemoth of a man who nobody had seen entering the hall rose behind Aurelia. “I have no second,” she said, “And so I’ll send in my third.” Her smile suggested that the man Kulta had landed upon had never been her second.
Kulta narrowed his eyes and pointed to one of his own fighters. Flori took the wheel by one hand and spun Cal in a nauseating circle. They all waited until the wheel stopped with his head pointed towards the axes. As the men took the appointed weapons and mounted the stage, Flori stood back beside Cal. She reached out her mind and began loosening his ropes. She would let Aurelia’s mammoth kill Kulta’s first warrior before she pulled off the central binding, and she wouldn’t light that rope until the second death. But after that, when the smoke smell had wafted from behind Cal’s wheel out into the hall, she would knock over the table where the gang heads sat together, along with the barrels of dry ice. She would only release Cal when the combatants all attacked across the false smoke she hoped they would blame upon each other.
She smiled at the men and held up an arm. She said, “It begins here,” and snatched her hand out of the way as the blades attacked.
Kulta’s goon swiped wide and Aurelia’s mammoth dodged. Then, as one, they turned and ran for the wheel.
Flori screamed, “Cal!”
Cal fell, and Flori ran to him as the fighters jumped off the stage. There was no blood “What’s going on?” he said.
“You’re…” But he was fine. They’d cut his ropes. Their axes stuck in the wheel in two different places. Flori didn’t speak further. Cal’s muscles were starting to quiver, a telltale sign that his lartë was wearing off and his addiction floating to the surface. She lay protectively on top of him, and they watched the room from the stage.
All fifteen fighters stood in a circle surrounding Urre and Kulta, weapons drawn. The mammoth had placed himself directly in front of Kulta, but warriors from both sides held weapons against the pair. It seemed Aurelia didn’t need to lower herself to consort with the tribute and hostess. She had already corrupted her rival’s guards. Aurelia stood. As soon as she moved, the swords all pulled up into a smart military stance and spun to face her.
“Did you really think I would duel you?” Her golden headpiece quivered. It didn’t just resemble snakes; it was a mass of serpents. A dozen tongues flicked around Lady Medusa’s head. “Did you think that I would stoop to such strife?” Kulta tried to speak, but something held back his voice.”I didn’t come to duel you, I came to erase you. I have never known a gang so foul that it showed no loyalty to its own family.”
Urre burst out, “Cal’s a thief.”
“Tsk.” Aurelia shook her head. All of the snakes wiggled gently atop her skull. “You try him for the selfsame crime you committed against me.” Aurelia’s tone suggested deep fascination with Urre’s words. Her smile suggested lasting amusement.
“We took nothing of yours!”
“My snakes tell me your voice rings true. But I know the falsehood. Let me correct you. You took nothing of mine. But your husband, I believe, has something still. Retrieve it.” Aurelia flicked her finger, and the mammoth man hoisted Kulta up and began stripping him, layer at a time, starting with his vest.
“It’s in my shirt pocket,” Kulta snarled. The giant ripped off the shirt. He handed it to Luster, who shook a vial of what looked like lartë out of the pocket.
Aurelia accepted it. “Pity you kept only its essence. You can’t give back the snake’s life. Otherwise, I’m in the habit of cancelling debts with small criminals.”
Urre gaped now at Kulta. “And I believed you. You’re no better than your son.”
“And you,” said Lady Aurelia, “are worse than both of them. What mother sacrifices her own child?”
Now Urre’s mouth gummed up as thoroughly as Kulta’s had before.
Aurelia laughed. “Never mind. It’s done.” She nodded to the giant. “End it.”
“No!” Cal threw Flori off and staggered from the stage. The shakes consumed him now, so that he quivered and twitched. He had used his last burst of strength, and he couldn’t keep his feet. He crawled towards Aurelia once he landed.
“Oh my, what a complicated family. All the city knows that your parents have named your life forfeit. And you say ‘no’ when I substitute theirs instead. You can’t possibly be suffering from filial loyalty. Can you?”
Cal’s body jerked on the floor. He had thrown Flori against the weapons table, which collapsed, scattering blades. She couldn’t move fast without getting cut, but she did palm a dagger before she rose gingerly and began picking her way out of the mess. Nobody stopped her.
Aurelia motioned to her behemoth, who picked Kulta up by the ankles this time and started shaking him. Urre blurted, “There’s always some in my bag.” The man dropped Kulta and located the bag under the table. He handed it to Luster.
Flori said, “Have a care for the latch. Open it with your knife or you’ll get a poisoned cut.”
Luster did as Flori suggested and produced a vial of lartë. Before Aurelia let him give it to Cal, she took it herself and poured it together with the snake’s final essence. “Don’t do that to him!” Flori, clear of the weapons, made a rolling dive off the stage towards Luster as he stepped towards Cal. Her dagger sliced through his belt, and she snatched at the leather as she curled away from him, holding it in the opposite hand.
“Goddess Beyond!” said the First. But he poured the vial down Cal’s throat anyway.
“No!” Flori landed under a table. She flipped out into a crouch and moved to cast the belt aside. It hissed at her, and before she could let it go, it flash coiled around her arm. Immobilized by fear, she watched Cal’s herky movements slow, then cease.
Then, with a pop, he stopped twitching entirely. He got up on his elbows. “That was unfair. She thought you were turning me into a snake.”
Lady Aurelia turned to Flori. “Lartë is lartë, whatever serpent it comes from.”
“Oh.” Flori held out her arm and its newly resident snake.
Aurelia crouched beside the young thief and hissed softly. The snake didn’t move. Aurelia said, “It won’t come to me, dear.”
Then, the creature lost substance, became flat against Flori’s skin. It soaked into her, through her shirt where it lay on top of it, and transformed into a black tattoo that ran from somewhere in the middle of her back down to her wrist.
“What an enjoyable group you are.” Aurelia extended one long arm, and Flori had no choice but to allow the Lady Medusa to help her stand. “We’ll sit now and let yon Cal try to persuade me his parents’ lives are worth saving. And then I will tell you why his plight interested me enough to come down from my den.” She resumed her seat. “Come along now,” she said. “Don’t keep me waiting.”
The warriors added a chair at the table for Cal, and Urre and Kulta slowly sat again. Aurelia smiled. There was no question who owned the duel. The only real point of concern was who would leave the hall alive with her. Flori tightened the muscles of her newly tattooed arm and hoped fervently to be in that number.
“Luster,” Aurelia nodded to her First, “Tells me that you are an amazing thief, Flori.” Slowly, her hair relaxed until it was not a nest of snakes but an elegant coif of braids once again.
The man did recognize her. Flori jerked out her wallet and threw it on the table. “Here, take it!” She wished she had left it in the trash. Keeping souvenirs from a lift was never a good idea. It skidded and fell open to reveal a pouch Flori had never noticed. A head popped up, the compartments became wings, and instead of staring at her wallet, she was looking at a small dragon. It belched smoke. “It’s yours,” she told Luster.
“It was yours when it failed to poison you.”
The dragon gave a toothy yawn.
Luster said, “That is a venomous breed. It should have pricked you when you tried to steal it. When you got it out of my pocket, it should have killed you. And when you tied me up with the constabulary and went back to its trash can, the little monster should have pecked your eyes…”
“You were the one got the flic involved.”
“Of course I did. I’m a respected citizen, and it should have been the fastest way to catch you.”
Aurelia shook her braids at Luster, who fell silent. She said “Of course, it didn’t do that. Which makes you interesting to the Yilan.”
On Flori’s left, Cal hiccupped, popped, and turned into a bear.
“What just happened?”
“He changed,” said Luster.
“He already changed,” said Flori. “It’s because you mixed the snake and dragon essence!”Aurelia didn’t answer. Cal popped again. The bear became a kitten, which hopped onto the table and then fell on its face. “He needs an antidote.” Flori rose.
“Sit down.” Aurelia slammed her hand on the table, and the kitten, which had almost regained its feet, fell over again. Flori sat. The kitten picked up its face and found itself nose to nose with the small dragon.
Flori seized the dragon just before it bit. “No,” she told it. Then she stood up, balancing the dragon in front of her in one palm.
“Sit,” Aurelia repeated. Her hair twisted once more, threatening to return to its reptilian roots.
Flori aimed the dragon at Aurelia and pushed it. The reptile didn’t fly away. It dug sharp toenails into Flori’s palm and balanced where it stood. But it hissed at Aurelia, which was enough to both fully awaken the snakes and make their owner widen her eyes. Without looking away from Lady Medusa, Flori walked to Urre’s open kit and lifted it from Luster’s side. She carried it to Urre, who reached in, then handed Flori a syringe. The dragon hopped up to Flori’s shoulder.
The kitten popped, and now a creature with a dog’s head and an alligator’s body sprawled in its place. Flori stabbed Cal where his alligator flesh met his dog fur. He popped and lay as himself, quivering, splayed across the table. The little dragon flapped forward and sank its teeth into his neck.
Cal sat up. “That hurt”
Aurelia said, “I believe his addiction has given him tolerance for the poison. It’s undiluted lartë.”
Cal crawled off the table and back to his seat. But he didn’t shake. He was solid. Urre, however, was quaking. “You were bluffing,” Flori said. “You never meant to kill him. Even back above the warehouse.”
“He’s a damnable thief,” Urre snapped. Then her voice softened. “But he’s my son. We meant to put the fear of death in him and make him work for the family until the addiction was cured and the debt paid. When he volunteered to set up the meeting with Lady Medusa, I thought it was working. I didn’t know…”
“My patience runs thin.” All the snakesin Aurelia’s hair were hissing now, their fangs pointed towards Kulta, who had killed their kinsman to initiate the feud between the gangs. “You,” she indicated Urre and Kulta, “owe me for the death of one of my own. “You,” she pointed to Flori, who was holding the little dragon in her palm again, “owe me for the theft of two valuable pets.” Flori’s new tattoo, the snake which had been Luster’s belt, stung for a moment. “And you,” she said to Cal, “owe me your life. I have no idea why you couldn’t hold a form, but the snake lartë is a curative, and you were dying. Truth be told, I have no interest in this little gang. I needed to get close to a young woman who has not remained still long enough for me to catch her, even though I’ve known almost exactly where she was for the last six months.” Aurelia fixed Flori between her eyes. “If you will steal one thing for me, then I will cancel all these debts.”
Flori didn’t say anything.
Aurelia went on, “Someone has been poisoning the dragons. I know who, but only a few of the dragons trust in me. They know I run to snakes. You, on the other hand carry one them, and you are a thief besides, which is what they need. They would let you in. The killing must stop or there will be no lartë to trade in this city. You help your own business as much as mine by agreeing.”
“Doesn’t sound like you need a thief.”
“I need you to steal the poisoner.”
“Kidnap, you mean.”
“She is a gnome. Taking her will be more like an act of thievery.”
Flori tensed all her muscles and flexed her fingers. She applied gentle pressure, and the dragon folded back into a wallet. She put it in her pocket and closed her fist behind her back. She said, “I’ll consider it, and we’ll talk again on my terms.”
Luster said, “I do not think…”
Flori shouted, “Hi, Cal, now!”
That was the signal, the one they had agreed upon when the scheme was to rob Aurelia of her money and Urre and Kulta of their drugs. Flori opened her closed hand, and furniture and weaponry flew outward. The vats with the dry ice overturned..
Flori seized Cal’s hand. Together, they ran out back for the bikes. Flori jumped on her motorcycle and pulled her goggles down. She sped out of the alley, Cal behind her. She heard Urre and Kulta’s machines roar to life nearby. On a whim, Flori stopped, and Cal did the same. When his parents came up the street, the thief and her lover fell in behind them.
Kulta gunned his engine and turned sharply down a side street. Flori and Cal followed, and Flori felt a rush of familiarity. This was no different than running away from Luster when she stole his wallet in the first place. She took a sharp turn and wondered where the chase would end this time.
Ahh yes. Those poor people at Trifecta made the mistake of giving me more than 333 words again. And I seem to have fallen into the same story arc. This one should stand alone, but here are the prequels
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.