“Come on, sweetie, come to Papa! I pwomise not to huwt you…”
At this the speaker grinned, and laughs rippled through the crowd of spectators. Yula made note of her surroundings: the customary Dratian fighting pit, essentially a shallow hole with a mesh dome atop, was today relatively dry. The rainy season was almost over, but heavy rains earlier in the week had left a thin layer of mud for the fighters to contend with that day. Above her, harsh noonday light filtered through the observers and rusting grate. Across the pit stood her opponent for today, a heavyset man with a long, pale scar running from the crown of his head, through his right eye, and down to his shoulder. His grin had revealed a mouth full of golden teeth filed to points, which Yula made note of. They would go for a good amount on the black market, enough maybe for her to get an apple or two from that vendor in the market district.
His dark tan bled into a set of badly worn leather armor, studded with rusty iron spikes. In his hand was a scimitar of greensteel, evidently older than the fighter himself. Flecks of light struck the sword here and there, giving off a green aura in flashes. Its edge glinted maliciously as he swung it experimentally through the heavy air and strode forward.
He was too confident.
Yula’s right hand exploded into action as she skirted the border of the arena. It was a favorite trick of hers to hide her whip in the arm of the loose tunic she wore in battle, deceiving her enemies with a short sword in her left hand before the fight. Now, twelve feet of braided cactus fibers flew across the room to wind around the big man’s forearm. Scorpion stingers, one for every man she’d killed, punched through his skin and delivered the desert’s precious gift directly to his bloodstream.
The man roared in pain, yanking his hand backwards. Yula flicked her wrist, and the whip jumped free, cutting open his cheek in an insolent detour.
The man stepped hastily over to the opposite wall, where he took a defensive stance and started sucking the poison out of his wounds. Surprise was plain on his face as Yula circled slowly around to the center, raising her voice to be heard above: “Baby, silly, you only suck THUMBS!” It was a less than amazing joke, but the audience was drunk and laughed anyway. The man she was killing probably knew them all by name, and yet the chatter hardly died as her whip thudded into his flesh again and again, dancing past the pretty, heavy sword in lazy curls, weaving another strand of disregarded loss into the fabric of the air.
After the fight, Yula shouldered her way through the scattering of men too drunk or too bored to leave the pit to Borno’s, a run- down dive of a tavern that subsisted mainly off the crowds that came to watch the fights. At the entrance of the ally was a rusty side door which had evidently once been painted white. Yula had been instructed what to do here. She looked around cautiously, then tapped the door three times quickly, followed by one sharp knock, a pause, and finally two long ones. A flat, hollow tone continued down the alley and died. Yula shifted her feet nervously, waiting for some recognition. Had the signal changed already? What was behind the door?
The seconds stretched on. Finally, without any preamble, the door banged open to reveal a squat, thin man with a dour expression and a knife. The room beyond him stood cloaked in shadow, a bare few orange candles flickering on the walls.
He squinted at her, evidently disoriented by the natural light, and pointed at her with the knife. “Well?” Yula responded with measured confidence, “Sphylix broke the desert sands. Twelve.” At the spoken code, the man relaxed his stance.
“Well, ya comin in er not? All tha cold eir’s gettin out!”
He turned and stepped back into the shadows.
“Now shut the door, hear, and mind Sergent,” At this a massive dog stepped from the shadows with a growl.
“He’ll bite if you get too close.”
A few murmured conversations began again as Yula stepped in to the cramped back room of Borno’s. The front for this, a small bar and a few rooms, was the cover for a thriving black market based on the riches of the ruins nearby, and though few of their clients ever came looking for anything besides artifacts, gold would sell well enough. At least for a night of board, anyway.
The deep shade inside was a slight reprieve from the blistering afternoon heat, but Yula wished she had the change for a mug of something cold. She sat down in a corner booth, under a candle, and was debating whether or not to get something with her winnings when the short man returned. “Need anything?”
“Yes- could I have some water?”
“Three standards a mug.”
That was ridiculously expensive, even for the region, but Yula paid without complaint. Before she could put her wallet away, though, the man coughed significantly. With a sigh, she added another few bits. She’d be robbed blind if this kept up, but one’s first night in a town is not the night to challenge people.
The man walked off, and returned a moment later with a small earthenware mug, half- full of dirty water. She took a sip, and leaned closer to the squat proprietor. “Excuse me, sir, but I have a small problem I was hoping you could help me with. You see, a few days ago, my uncle passed away, and he’s left me with some gold I’d like to exchange. I was wondering, would anyone in this town be capable of handling such a… delicate situation, privately?”
“Well, then, my regards to the uncle, dearie.” He coughed into a dirty red cloth, and pointed across the shadows. “The only man so, uniquely,” (another cough) “Capable ‘round here would be the gentleman over yonder. Big ol’ beard, you can’t miss em.”
Yula drank the rest of her water, and set the mug down with a thud.
The man picked up the glass and walked away without a word.
Yula watched the man until he cracked a door on the adjacent wall and disappeared through the sliver of light it allowed, then stood and walked over to where he had gestured.
“Gloriashi Nathum, at your service.”
“Tessa Ware.” It was her innocent identity.
“Please, sit down. I don’t bite.”
He chuckled in a practiced, formal way, one that made her think of some high society brunch, not the dark end of a back room black market. And that name sounded distinctly foreign; Yula had once known a man from the Peninsula whose name was similar. His face was heavily tanned, and his garb was a plain white shift that exposed only calloused hands and sandaled feet. On his head sat a white headdress with deep blue embroidery that matched his piercing, intelligent eyes. They seemed to cut through pretense, to somehow know her, and yet want more. Yula was unable to meet them more than an instant at a time.
“You seem anxious.”
"Well, Mr. Nathum-" "Please, call me Glori." "Glori, It's just- well, my Uncle died recently, and he left me some gold. I need cash, sir, and I was told you could make me a deal."
Glori peered at her from across the table with a blank expression. Something in his look told her he understood the true situation, but wouldn't clear the field just yet.
"Well, ah, miss, you've come to the right person. I'm sure we can arrange something. May I see the gold?"
Yula dug a tooth out of her pocket and set it down on the table.
He raised an eyebrow ever so slightly, and bent down to examine the tooth.
"This all you got, miss Ware? I need to see everything."
Yula ignored the question. "Is it worth anything much?"
"7 from the smith, 10 in season... I'll give you two bits a tooth. Funny thing for an uncle to leave his niece, Tessa. Where you from?"
"Around. Six bits."
"Miss, I think that it may be better for me to speak to a parent about this. Besides, the only way I'm paying six is if I get a month of work from you."
"Don't have any parents. I'll help you two weeks on a bit a week, 5 per tooth up front."
"4 per tooth, two weeks, no salary. Final offer."
Yula grabbed the tooth from his hands and stood up.
"Goodbye, Mr. Nathum"
"So soon, miss Ware? We both know I was more generous than I could have been. You need the money."
Yula saw what remained unspoken in Glori's frigid blue depths- the threat of force, his approval of her character, the satisfaction that came with victory assured. She dropped the gold into his open hand.
"When do I start?"