Heading to Belcliff was not a short trip. Unlike Daedalus, with his horse-drawn carriage, I had to go on foot, avoiding travelers on the main road, to arrive at my destination. The journey, while not especially difficult, took several hours. I did not arrive in the city until the suns had gone from the sky and the night had chilled. By Aelurus’ moon, I wagered it to be close to midnight when my boots met the paved streets.
This was only the second time I had ventured into Belcliff, and I felt no more at ease this time than the last. It had been over a year since the mayhem that had beset the city had taken place, and yet it did not feel fully recovered. Wanted posters for Syria, Lethia, and even myself and the others, could still be seen posted at almost every corner.
Elmiryn would have been annoyed to learn that her bounty was less than Quincy’s.
What irked me, was that somehow, someway, the frivolous nicknames she had given herself and I way back in Tiesmire had stuck. Beneath our illustrated faces were the villainous monikers, “The Twin” and the “The Ghost”. What would have been further disheartening to the woman, was not the fact that they had drawn her ears too big and her eyes too close together… but rather, that they hadn’t tried at all.
The whispers in the alleys and taverns explained some of it. Daedalus had related the rest.
The sad fact was, no one could remember exactly what Elmiryn looked like. Only that she was a woman. Only that she was a Fiamman. And only that she was associated with the rest of us. Not even her fiery hair managed to stick out in anyone’s mind. Her wanted poster was a generic outline of some vague female shape that could have been anyone. The Ghost seemed a hauntingly appropriate outlaw name for her, but not in the way she had originally meant it. No one–not myself, Paulo, or even Daedalus, who hardly knew Elmiryn–thought it wise to inform her of this.
The universe was rejecting her, and I didn’t know how to stop it.
Like most of my recent attempts at escaping my problems, Belcliff was proving to be a poor distraction. The city was just… depressing. Especially at night, when all of the vagabonds crept out.
I pulled my borrowed cloak just a little tighter around me as I slipped into a tavern called Fox Tails. It was like any other drinking establishment, but what made this one special was that Daedalus had informed me of the sort of clientele it attracted. As a rule we had all agreed on, I could not approach the same seller as Paulo had last utilized. The point was to avoid attention. That meant no solid connections, no single strong possibility of identification and exposing the others. Broader and more ephemeral contacts was the only way we’d be able to stretch out our recuperation.
Challenging, considering our access to resources were finite.
“Which means,” Daedalus had warned us all with a severe glare, “That your time here is severely limited! Sick or not, you will have to leave this region soon. Perhaps even this continent entirely! You are not safe here. Not at all.”
Trying to ease my mind of its tension, I made a rare and perhaps ill-advised choice.
I sat at the bar and ordered the hardest drink available. In this case, it was ‘fire whiskey’ to which, when I inquired as to the strength of the drink, the bartender sniffed in obvious disdain and growled through silver teeth, “We drink it for the mad, and we drink it for the moody. Tis more than enough for the likes of you!”
He brought me a small mug, which annoyed me, but when I took a swig of my drink, it burned. Not just in the way of liquor–it really felt like fire. I coughed, just managing to keep from choking outright, and the bartender smirked at me knowingly. I pushed my gold at him without meeting his eyes. Rather, it was Quincy’s gold. She’d retrieved a healthy scoop of it from her bottomless bag, and while there appeared to be much of it (if Paulo’s envious grumblings were any indication) I hardly thought that the wizard would appreciate her funds being utilized in such a way. Fortunately, she wasn’t here to harp at me about it.
I took a large swig, still skeptical of how far the drink would get me… and promptly choked. I think even a little smoke curled from my burning mouth.
Fire whiskey indeed.
Did I truly need this? The question nettled me, even as the drink’s warmth pooled heavy into the pit of my abdomen. It was simple fact that one couldn’t sit in a tavern without a drink and fail to draw unwanted eyes. But was such a powerful drink necessary? No. Of course not. I couldn’t even manage to lie to myself.
I was taking a page straight out of Elmiryn’s book. To help ease my nagging guilt, I reasoned that unlike my wayward lover, I wasn’t doomed with a curse to turn me insane.
Small comfort, Kali growled behind my eyes.
“Don’t start,” I muttered aloud.
I’ll allow you your sloppy escape, sister, Kali said with her figurative back to me. But there is a limit to what I put up with. I do not enjoy this drunkenness, and I will not suffer a hangover for your sake! At any rate, I grow restless. My time in the world draws near, I think.
I closed my eyes in suffering. “Fine,” I sighed. Having a separate conscious in my head really was starting to feel like being at the mercy of a landlord these days, despite our improved relationship.
Kali’s concern of over-drinking may have been unfounded, though. I had to make my way through three-quarters of it before it really started to take effect. That… fuzzing of your thoughts, where inhibition takes a backseat to desire. Therian-strength drinks were hard to come by, I supposed. Fortunately, this was an adequate substitute.
With my usual anxieties dulled, I found myself making small talk with those seated next to me.
“Gods!” I exclaimed naively to an elderly prostitute dressed only in a spotty gray slip, “You must be cold! Where are your clothes?”
And to the middle-aged man with cropped hair and massive biceps on my right, “Good grief! if I had a problem I needed dealing with, I suppose I’d know who to talk to.”
To my bewildering good fortune, my less-than-graceful remarks only resulted in laughter and counter-teasing. Whether they knew I meant my words sincerely or not was uncertain to me, even in hindsight. I only know that my apparent new drinking partners clapped my shoulders and continued to humor my clumsy attempts at conversation. My ability to take their taunts with little reaction seemed to endear me to the patrons, and perhaps more by luck than anything else, they were open to my questions.
To the middle-aged ‘gentleman’ next to me, I said, “I am in need of supplies–food, medicine… that sort of thing. I have some coin for the voice that can point me in the right direction with little fuss.”
When his dusky finger indicated a fellow off to a center table (Curious, I thought, that he’d pick such a central spot… Better vantage point, perhaps? Or maybe he doesn’t need the corner because he has guards…) This earned the gentleman a few gold coins. I turned next to the aged prostitute on my other side. Producing more gold and offering a weak grin, I asked her to take a drink to the apparent seller in the middle of the tavern with my regards. If there had been a server in this establishment, I would have utilized them for such a task instead, but apparently, the bartender was content to work alone. It was a small place, after all.
When the prostitute had done as I asked, I made eye contact with the shady seller, and he gestured for me to join him. I did so without hesitation… but with a freshly poured mug of whiskey all the same.
The man I would apparently be doing business with was a confident-looking fellow dressed in silk robes under his course cotton cloak. A human Higashan, if I had to guess his species and race by the way of his dark almond eyes, alabaster skin, slicked back dark hair, and soft round face shape. Still, in this place where patrons made every effort to mind their own business, I couldn’t say that with high certainty. People employed all kinds of tricks to conceal their identities.
“Generosity is rare in a place such as this,” The man said with a neutral expression. “When it does appear, there are usually strings attached. Tell me why I shouldn’t cut these strings now?”
The hairs on the back of my neck pricked up, but I managed to keep my voice steady when I said, “Because your purse would lose out on a handsome opportunity.” Then I took a drink… because Sweet Aelurus, it felt like I was trying to make a deal with an alligator who had its jaws around my head.
The man frowned at me. “What is it you think I can provide?”
I wiped at my mouth and sat back in my chair. I gestured around the room. “There are whispers that you are a person who has the means of providing for others who can afford it. Basic supplies, that sort of thing.” I looked him up and down, trying for some bravado. Kali might have been helping in this regard, like a teacher placing a guiding hand over their student’s. “And forgive me for saying so, but it appears you are a man between places. Part of a caravan of sorts, perhaps? You do not have the local color about you. This is to my liking.”
The man’s frown deepened further. His eyes narrowed a portion as he searched my features. I could feel the corner of my lip twitch even as I tried to remain unmoved. Then, suddenly, the man chuckled. It was a silky, but short sound, as if he couldn’t afford to allow even his humor unmeasured.
He extended a well-manicured hand. “I am Soga.”
I took his hand, hoping he didn’t notice the sweat on my palm. “Geld.”
This earned a bemused smile. “Ah… ‘Geld’. The Elvish word for wealth. A bit on the nose, isn’t it?”
I shrugged. “It gets my point across.”
Soga laced his fingers together as he leaned on to the table. “What has me curious is why such a petite thing such as yourself requires something so rudimentary in such a manner? After all, you make this request from a traveling foreigner, in the middle of the night, at an out of the way bar?” He tsked. “It makes one curious.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “I could ask the same of you, sir. Why is a traveling foreigner dressed in such fine silks sitting in an out of the way bar–a bar, I might add, that has a reputation for attracting shady individuals–and entertaining requests from characters such as myself? No. I think questions are best left out of the transaction, don’t you?”
The small smile on Soga’s slim lips took on a hard slant. “Fair argument. But I’m willing to bet you did not expect to find someone of such means as myself. You should know that my business will not be cheap, nor small.”
Now I blinked. The price was not an issue… but if he was suggesting there would be a minimum of items purchased, that was an entirely different challenge altogether. Could I carry it all back without too much attention? A big rucksack I could manage, but certainly not a wagon’s worth.
“Whatever the case, I must insist we do this business swiftly,” I said. “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement. Gold is not an issue.”
Soga nodded slowly. “Understood. Tomorrow night then–”
“No,” I said with a quick shake of my head. Now I really started to sweat. I can’t stay here overnight! “It must be tonight!”
Now the man was looking at me suspiciously. “My apologies Geld,” he rubbed his chin. “I did not realize your haste was so… urgent. Afraid to stay long in the city, perhaps?”
I clenched my teeth and managed to fight down Kali’s growl. This is too dangerous, sister! She hissed in my head. This man is a jackal! We should find our supplies elsewhere!
If I can secure a deal with him, then we may be able to avoid another trip for weeks, I returned irritably. I cannot afford to miss this chance! What else are we going to find anyway? Some bandit with a crate of moldy turnips to fence?
Trying to conceal my inner exchange, I made a show of patting my fat coin purse, which had previously been hidden beneath my cloak, and started to stand. “My coins find your questions irksome, Soga. We do this tonight or we have no business!”
The surprise was clearly written on Soga’s face at the sight of my carried wealth. “Wait!” he hissed, one hand shooting up in a halting motion. I paused, scowling at him. “Forgive my rudeness. Clearly your needs are great, and you have assured me of your means to make it worth my while… Please, let me pay you in kind,” he beseeched. Then, without waiting for my reply, he motioned to someone on the other side of the bar and stood from his chair.
The jackal tries to play at being a puppy… but his jaws are deadly, and his pack circles you. Be on your guard! Kali warned.
Noted, I thought back to her as I eyed the two large men who approached from two separate tables. My guess that Soga had bodyguards around the bar had been correct, it seemed. Just who was I really dealing with?
Soga made a gesture toward the bar’s exit. “Come, Geld. Let us take you to my wares.”
When Elmiryn had announced her intentions to Paulo, she couldn’t help but be shocked at how swiftly this decision was acted on. As if not trusting her resolve, the boy had escorted her back to the tower to tell Quincy and Daedalus. The wizard and elf appeared pleasantly surprised at the news, but not overly so, which made Elmiryn wary.
“You were going to try and force me to stop whether I wanted to or not, weren’t you?” Elmiryn accused them with a glare.
Quincy smirked back at her. Daedalus only crossed his arms and offered a stony stare.
“Just leave it to us,” Quincy said with what Elmiryn supposed she thought was a reassuring voice. “We already have a plan. It’ll just take about an hour or two to get started.”
“Get started with what?” Elmiryn asked. Her throat felt dry. Where was her drink–?
“Just wait outside,” Daedalus ordered impatiently. “Visit Lethia for a moment. We’ll call you when we’re ready.”
Elmiryn did as she was told without argument. Perhaps because she was feeling so taken aback by what was starting to happen that she was robbed of all witty retorts.
And so, dazedly, Elmiryn made her way to the barn, where she was relieved to find Lethia was already asleep. The woman stood over her friend’s dozing form, feeling sicker the longer she went without a new beverage to nip her body back in order.
Before she was even aware of her own actions, Elmiryn was wheeling back to the tower, sweat beading on her forehead and her throat tightening itself into a giant knot. “Quincy!” she hollered as she cast her eyes wildly around her. “Daedalus! I think– I think I just need more time!” She peeked haphazardly into the kitchen before turning to go to the study– that’s when she saw the door to the cellar was open. Swallowing with effort, Elmiryn started down the stairs into the dank cellar space. “I think we’re rushing this,” she went on to say. “I think I just need more–” Her voice choked to a stop as she froze at the bottom of the stairs.
Against the back wall, there had been a simple barrel rack of four barrels. This, Paulo and Daedalus had emptied, and were in fact, carrying the last barrel into a corner, where the others were stacked. The rack had been moved aside, leaving more central floor space. In this area, Quincy had drawn what looked like a salt circle with runes chalked around it.
Everyone froze in their activities to stare at Elmiryn, and she stared back. The moment stretched long.
Then Elmiryn turned without a word and ran back up the stairs. She heard Paulo curse.
Quincy yelled, “Stop her!”
The barrel Paulo and Daedalus were carrying hit the floor with a loud thud. Elmiryn could hear the boy give chase behind her as she cleared the cellar entrance. She crossed the small foyer in one long stride, then literally leaped out the open entrance of the tower in a wild bid for freedom. Instinctively, she knew, she had a better chance at escape in the wide open than in the confines of the tower, and the boy was too quick. He was fit and tall. She was weakened and out of focus.
Though in hindsight, her wild jump out the tower entrance was a hopeless attempt at getting away. Especially because, when she hit the ground, Elmiryn fell, skinning her hands and knees. As she scrambled to get to her feet, boots sliding wild in the dirt, she only managed to go forward a scant few feet before she felt Paulo’s body collide onto hers, knocking the wind out of her lungs.
There was a mad rush to disentangle, with Elmiryn fighting to get out from under Paulo, but in her insistence on getting away, he managed to get strong grip on her wrist, wrenching her arm up and out with palm turned backward, his other hand digging the heel of his palm down between her shoulder blades, and his knee into the small of her back. The weight of his body and the leverage on her arm sent Elmiryn into the dirt into such a swift and effective wristlock that under any other circumstances, she would have been impressed. Unfortunately, the boy’s skilled technique went unappreciated.
Elmiryn screamed through bared teeth, blades of grass quivering from her furious breathing. She struggled briefly, one leg kicking in an attempt to twist her body, her free arm trying to push her body up while her torso strained against Paulo’s weight on her. He wouldn’t budge. Tired, she soon stilled.
All the while, Paulo huffed over her, “Easy, lia. Easy.”
“Paulo,” she grunted with effort. “Paulo, let me go!”
“I can’t,” he said. “Not just because I think you’d beat the hell out of me, but also because I know it’s not you talking.”
Elmiryn yelled and renewed her struggles. “Git off o’ me, shithead!”
Paulo twisted her extended arm and wrenched it back, sending pain up and into her shoulder.
“Stop it, Elmiryn!” He barked at her. Then he added with a growl, “Why couldn’t you just wait in the barn like they asked!?”
“You’re gonna trap me down there!” Elmiryn screamed. Half her sweaty red face was coated in the dirt as she spat, “I won’t let you fucking do it! That isn’t what I agreed to!”
“It’s the only way,” Paulo hissed. “Now quit fighting!”
“What are you going to do, Paulo? Huh?” She snarled. She settled back into the dirt, the pain in her shoulder anchoring her senses. Conserve your energy… Wait for your moment… “You can’t hold me here forever.”
“What about you, huh?” Paulo snapped back. “If I freed you, are you gonna run away into the woods like an animal? I won’t let you, lia! You’re doing this!”
Elmiryn heard footsteps along the ground, and soon came Quincy’s voice. “It’s ready.”
Paulo shifted his knee off Elmiryn’s body and took his hand off her back so that he knelt at her side with a two-hand grip on her twisted wrist, likely so that he could turn and speak better. “I’ve got her, but I need–”
“Raaaaagh!” Elmiryn popped up and rolled forward as fast as she could. When Paulo tried to force her compliance by re-asserting his wrist lock, she monkey kicked him in the armpit with her left foot and, with this new leverage and the added assistance of her other hand, wrenched her trapped wrist free.
Paulo was good, but he wasn’t as experienced and lacked Elmiryn’s well-trained discipline. She felt a fleeting sense of relief at this. She hadn’t completely lost her edge, it seemed.
Quincy started to shout something, but in the scramble, Elmiryn couldn’t make it out. Her focus was almost entirely on Paulo who fought hard to win back a dominant position. He grabbed her left ankle with his left hand, but she pulled herself away, leaving him holding only a boot. Now entirely freed, Elmiryn quickly rose to her feet and sank into her fighting stance, shaking fists raised as she eyed both Quincy and Paulo like a cornered animal.
“You aren’t trapping me,” she said hoarsely.
Paulo backed off, dropping her boot to hold both hands up. He didn’t just look worried, he looked… scared? “Elmiryn, we are trying to help you. Remember what you asked of me? You knew you would feel like this. I’m only doing as I promised!”
“Well stop it!” Elmiryn spat. She started to glance nervously from side to side. It occurred to her that she didn’t know where Argos was. Was he in on it too? Would he charge her? “That circle down in the cellar is a containment field, isn’t it!? Just how long are you going to keep me down there, huh? Days? Weeks!? Fuck that!”
Quincy, who had been hovering close behind Paulo, now stepped out into better view. Like the boy, she kept her hands where Elmiryn could see them. “You’re right. We don’t know how long it will take, Elmiryn,” Quincy admitted with slow and exaggerated speech. “But we won’t have a better opportunity to treat you than we do right now.”
“Is that why you tried to trick me down there?” Elmiryn asked. She heard grass rustling on her right. She dared to whip her head in that direction, but she saw nothing. When she looked back at Paulo and Quincy, she thought they looked a little closer.
“We weren’t trying to trick you, lia,” Paulo said, actually looking offended at the suggestion. “But we knew if we gave you too much warning you’d–”
“Run?” Elmiryn interjected with a strained laugh. “You’re gods-damned right!” She heard the grass rustling again on the right, and this time she jumped back, swinging a fist. Did the air ripple in front of her? “The fuck–?”
Something hard and heavy struck her in the side of the head, making her vision ripple and her knees buckle. Elmiryn was of the opinion that she had a pretty sturdy chin when it came to blows, but…
When her vision fuzzed back into view and had the good courtesy of stopping its cartwheels, it was about then that Elmiryn became cognizant of the fact that Paulo was once again holding her down, and Quincy was hog tying her with rope that was spooling out of her magic bottomless bag.
Standing over all of them was Lethia, pale, shaking, and looking anxious. “Er… Sorry, Elle,” the girl said with a wince. She lifted a large rubber mallet with her one arm. “The commotion woke me up and when I saw you and Paulo fighting, I… grabbed a mallet. And hit you with it.” She smiled weakly. “If it’s any consolation, the only reason I hit you instead of him was that you were the only one I could use my magic to sneak up on.”
“Che cazzo?” Paulo snapped up at her. “THAT was your only reason?”
Lethia shrugged, only looking a little sorry. “I didn’t know what was happening. Why are you two tying her up?”
Quincy tightened the last knot. “Because, Lethia Artaud… Elmiryn is finally kicking her drinking habit,” she said breathlessly as Elmiryn thrashed and snarled in her new rope binds. “Whether she wants to or not!” Quincy added in a shout down at Elmiryn.
Just as Lethia replied, the ground cracked, her voice came out her right ear in reverse, her stomach dropped, and all she could see was a myriad of searing bright color.
And Elmiryn knew this because she’d ruthlessly pulled at the threads in Lethia’s head, cannabilizing her perception of the world. She’d tried fighting the right way. They were leaving her no choice. She had this raw power, didn’t she? How could she not use it? Consequences be damned. She knew, angrily, that none of them would submit their freedom so willingly, fae-driven addiction or not. Death was definitely preferable.
In fact, she’d almost prefer Meznik finding her again than submitting to their so-called ‘intervention.’
As the others lost their footing over the rising chunks of earth, and the light splintered around Elmiryn’s body to blind them all…as the sound around them defied time, reversing and confusing their minds as to their origin…as the rope that bound Elmiryn undid itself, and thick green shoots of some sort of plant–laying dormant as seeds in the ground all this time until her alien power woke it and hastened its growth–curled from the churning soil and lifted her bodily back upright…
As the horror overcame Elmiryn’s rage and she realized that her fae magic was getting away from her, wrapping the newly grown plant limbs around the others throats, and tugging with a mindless need at the glowing threads of life in the weaves of their existence… she knew…
Meznik may very well find her, and it wouldn’t be a moment too soon.
Soga led me to his wares, hidden in a rundown warehouse that looked–to any passerby–completely deserted. The space was mostly empty save for his four large wagons… and even these barely managed to take up a fourth of the dark and musty storage space. In its heyday, I imagined the building had once been filled with overstocked cloth, pottery, oil…
Soga had more men in his employ than I had even guessed. There were at least six other men waiting for us with the wagons. It made me wonder what some of the merchandise might have comprised of, but I knew better than to ask.
At the first wagon, the Higashan merchant loosened the wagon’s bonnet coverings at its rear to reveal bushels of grain, thick animal pelts, and of course– weapons.
“I have storable food, precious skins, and the means to protect it all,” Soga said with a grand sweep of his hand that didn’t match his unvarnished tone of voice. “I also have pickled foods, but they are for… refined tastes. Less the commoner’s day-to-day pantry-fare you seemed to be seeking,” he said with what looked almost like an apologetic half-shrug.
I motioned at the exposed wagon. “May I?”
He glanced at one of his guards standing closest to me, the one with the lantern, then nodded to me. The guard approached with his light to help with my vision.
Using the spokes of the tall wooden wheels, I pulled myself up onto the sideboards to peek into the wagon’s opening. The grains were closest to me. It seemed he had rice and flour, but of the sort I’d never seen before… The rice was white and the grains were long, unlike the short and brown grains so common on the Sibesonan continent. A Higashan import, perhaps? The flour was also not as fine as I expected it to be, though it was white. Suspicious of its quality, my mild inebriation afforded me enough gall to stick my pinky into the lumpy powder and taste it. It turned out it was finer than it looked on the surface, but… it didn’t taste like white flour. It was actually sweeter.
“Coconut flour,” Soga said behind me, sounding amused. I heard scattered chuckles among his men. When I looked back at him, he was smirking. “You see that my stock is not of typical variety. I assure you, this does not take away from its quality. Think of it as a, ah… break from the norm.”
I nodded, a gleam in my eye. “Give me ten pounds of the rice, and five pounds of the flour.” I would be paying a higher price, but quite frankly, I was getting tired of the monotony of flavors I’d suffered these past few weeks. (Tired of the monotony, are we? My! How far we’ve come from the days of being happy for a single carrot flower and a dead frog! Kali quipped.) I ignored my sister’s sanctimonious sarcasm and asked next: “And your pickled goods?”
But Soga was not one to lose out on the chance to up-sell. “No new weapons? You seem capable on your own, but I find myself doubtful you’d need so much dry food just for yourself… Surely your compatriots–”
“The pickled foods,” I said firmly.
Soga pressed his lips in a show of disappointment, but he led me to his next wagon.
We haggled over the prices of his pickled oca, kohlrabi, salsify, and fiddleheads… all vegetables I’d never heard of, but given their similarities to yams, potatoes, and other basic greens, I figured Quincy might be able to manage something with them (the unofficial cook that she had somehow become). I quibbled over the price for the final jar until Soga, disgruntled and maybe even a little impatient, agreed to throw in a cowhide (clearly the least valuable of his skins) so long as I agreed to either another jar of oca or another five pounds of flour. Unsure of my ability to carry everything without being completely vulnerable to attack by bandits, I reluctantly agreed to the extra jar.
The deal was struck. His men wordlessly began to set aside my supplies. As they did so, I counted out Soga’s gold at a rickety table near the warehouse entrance. Five hundred pieces worth–nearly twice what Quincy probably would have expected, but I was really and truly so sick of eating her grass and lentil soup that I was more than happy to bring in some new ingredients. The cow skin could also serve as the starting pieces of a new outfit to Elmiryn–
I froze, the last coin pinned under my finger as I stared through the table. I could feel Soga’s questioning gaze.
“Problem?” He asked, trying, and failing, to keep the impatient sigh out of his voice.
“Spirits,” I murmured.
I looked at him, feeling uncomfortable. “You’ve shared much of your merchandise with me, but not all. Have you any spirits?” At his blank look, it was my turn to become impatient. “Liquor, Soga. At least a bottle?”
The man’s brows rose. “Ah! Yes. I do. Forgive me for not mentioning. You seemed to be reaching your limit as to what you could carry.” Soga snapped his fingers, and one of his men went to the wagon furthest into the dark. A moment later, he returned with two armfuls of bottles, all of different shapes and colors.
When they were placed before me, Soga quickly (hurriedly, I even ventured) pointed out what each bottle contained. “We have Fiamman wine, Higashan sake, Indaban rice beer, and the rest is of the local whiskey variety.” He straightened, like he was done, but then looked sharply at the dark blue bottle in the middle, with the crescent moon stopper. “Ah! And Ailuran absinthe. Forgive me. I tend to forget this one. Its potency has left it in my possession for longer than I’ve liked. Not many can withstand a therian drink, and they make up so little of my clientele.”
I pointed at the wine, sake, and (trying to make it as an afterthought) the absinthe.
But Soga wasn’t fooled. He’d seen the way my eyes had lingered on the Ailuran bottle. I told myself I was buying it for Elmiryn. So that she wouldn’t suffer her withdrawals. But I knew better. That was to be mine alone, and Soga, the keen merchant he was, sensed it.
“Two hundred,” he said.
I balked. “Two hundred! Why these are worth seventy-five at most!”
At that moment, I heard someone speaking at the warehouse door, but I didn’t turn to look. So irritated was I at having been seen through, that I was lucky to register the newcomer’s presence at all as I haggled furiously with Soga.
“A hundred!” I spat, throwing the coins down in disgust.
Soga chuckled as if my offer was hardly worth a counter-offer.
Feeling my blood flush my cheeks and neck, I threw another fifty coins worth onto the table, only now becoming aware of how light my purse was becoming.
Soga smirked at me and crossed his arms. “Two… Hundred.”
I growled at him. Audibly growled, like an angry mountain cat.
Kali pulled at the back of my mind. You are letting your newfound malice get the better of you! We are overstaying our welcome, can you not see? Another buyer comes! Soga is leveraging his shrinking time on you, fool! Accept his offer, or leave now!
I whipped my head around. Who was this new buyer undercutting my bargaining power, anyway? Surely he could wait a little longer!
I froze, feeling every muscle in my body tense.
That mountainous mass of muscles… the studded leather and black fur… the massive saber with red ribbons tied to the hilt… the metal ingots on that sturdy belt…
I was staring straight at Karolek, the metal sorcerer. The bounty hunter. The man who had very nearly bested Paulo, Lethia, and myself a year ago in this very city.
He was the reason Soga had been in a hurry all this time. They must have scheduled an appointment, but me, in my drunken haze, had failed to see what the night was leading to with all my long-winded haggling.
I looked at Soga and said with what sounded less like my ferocious growl from before and more like a sickly mewl: “Two hundred. Done.”
I fumbled to retrieve the required gold. A heavy hand fell on my shoulder, and I turned deathly pale. I couldn’t bring myself to look, and even then I could feel Karolek’s gaze, like weights, on the side of my head.
“Now, now!” his boisterous voice said over me. “Do not rush your business on my account!” Did he recognize me? My hood was off, but my face was turned and my hair was notorious for getting in the way. Maybe he didn’t–
Then he leaned down. “We have much to catch up on,” his grip on my shoulder tightened painfully and his voice dropped to a whisper meant only for me. “Nyx, the Twin.”