“Do you have any idea how disgusting that is?”
“Seems perfectly natural to me.”
“That’s because you’re naturally disgusting.”
“Tch. Jealousy’s such an ugly thing.”
I let that one pass, and instead just glared at him across the booth. My literal partner in crime reposed on the other side of the booth, stretched out to take up as much of the long bench seat as possible. He’s grown his hair long in the front and swept it down across his muzzle, covering the right side of his face. He claimed it added to his “rouge-ish good looks”, but I knew it also hid a long scar on his cheek. Everything, from the shape of his ears to the reddish brown color of his fur, screamed fox yet somehow also whispered “not quite”. Maybe it came in his build, with the longer limbs and lean muscle that might’ve had basketball scouts raving about his height and wingspan, or how those ears were just a little too big, or a little too rounded to be vulpine. But plenty of people had never seen an actual maned wolf before, so they could be forgiven for not recognizing the Emejre version.
I’d known Aeneas since the Emejre Revolution. He met me first, as he found my unconscious outside the smoldering remains of the lab building I’d been raised in. Though I first found a home with a kindly Emejre performer who took me under his wing as an apprentice that didn’t last. I could blame Aeneas for that, but I’d be lying. I enjoyed the game, as we call our profession, just a bit more than performing. My mentor didn’t approve, and I’d been running exclusively with the fox on stilts ever since. We worked every kind of gig, from pick pocketing and petty theft to elaborate cons and bigger jobs. Heck, we even stole from the Dunkirkers..
…well, almost stole from them, but that’s another story entirely, and still something of a sore point for me, thank you very much.
Point is, you’d think with all that water under the bridge, or over the dam or where ever the hell it goes, that Aeneas would afford me just a smidge more consideration. I’d be the first to admit he’s pulled my tail out of the fire more times than I’ve been able to return the favor, but it’s not as though I was dead weight either. Plus we were friends, closer than most of the other people in the game. But no, he sat across from me, that devil may care smirk curling at the corners of his mouth, daring me to say something else. The root of my discomfort dangled in the air, only inches from his mouth.
I tried not to look. After all, parts of it appealed to me. Bread’s always delicious, and the corn dusted bun(toasted to perfection and lightly buttered) looked amazing. Crisp lettuce, a thick slice of tomato and a few strands of grilled onion jutted out. He’d dressed it with ketchup and mustard. Now, those two are fine condiments on their own, but combine them in the right proportions? You’re only a few stops away from nirvana. You put all of that around a nice portabella mushroom, seasoned with garlic pepper and a little balsamic vinegar, maybe topped off with a few pieces of feta or a slice of swiss and you’ve teetering on the verge of perfection.
Instead, he’d ruined it, because he’d ordered it as a hamburger. Not one of the soy recreations that a few of us enjoy, but a real, honest to goodness patty made of ground beef. In full sight and scent of at least a half dozen other Emejre.
He quirked a brow at me before he took another bite. “It’s not like this is rabbit, so I don’t see what the big deal is.”
“Try asking that to anyone nearby of the bovine persuasion.” I swirled one of my remaining fries in a river of ketchup, hoping tomato and vinegar could overwhelm the offensive smell. “Besides, Guyton’s cooking today. Could be anything in there.”
With a theatrical sigh, he sat the burger down. I fought a brief temptation to scoop it up and dump it into the nearest trash can. Before I could, Aeneas leaned forward and curled his lip and exposed the sharp teeth hidden there. “See these? These are called canines. In the wild, they’re designed to rip and chew meat, unlike the square lettuce grinders your ancestors had. That’s what makes me the predator, and you the prey.”
I sank into my chair, preferring to look at the fries than his mouth. “Dial it back, buddy. You’re starting to sound a little creepy.”
“I’m just pointing out it’s perfectly acceptable for me to eat meat, just like this delicious hamburger… Which, by the way, is getting cold while we debate this.” He jabbed a finger at me, stopping just shy of my own mouth. “Matter of fact, you were created able to eat it too. You just picked up some weird Pather bias along the way and think it’s weird.”
“Because it is.” I finally bit into the fry, though there was almost too much ketchup to detect the potato.
“You’re not really stressing out over a burger, are you?” He leaned back in his chair and smiled, revealing those canines again. Though he meant it as a friendly gesture, I still fought against a brief second of primordial panic that told me to run away. There’s vestigial stuff like that lurking in every Emejre, though it’s a bit worse for the herbivores. Thankfully common sense won out, and I realized I wasn’t staring at a hungry maned wolf across an open field, but my best friend.
“Seriously, what’s going on?”
“Your charbroiled death is making me ill, for real.”
He rubbed his chin, seemingly lost in thought for a few seconds. “You’re not scared about Venice’s little threat, are you?”
“Please. It’s not like he’s the first preson who’s threatened me. You do know what Dalton might do if he ever found out what we did, right?”
“That’s why he never needs to know what we did then.” He snatched up the burger, took another bite and wiped away the excess sauce from his muzzle with a shirt sleeve. Charming. “Either way, Venice is small time, and all bluster. You’ve got me, and you took care of him just fine on your own.”
“Thanks to General Toshiro.”
“To-may-to, to-mah-to. Point is, you’re fine. We’re fine. Everything’s fine!”
I patted the small wad of bills I’d snatched from Venice’s pocket. In addition to his charming personality and my (false) assumption he was too slow, I’d picked his pocket thanks to him fanning a roll of bills a few times in the Plaza. But as Venice so aptly proved, size isn’t everything. He’d padded it with small bills, most of them singles.
“The only thing that bothers me about Venice is the end result. The whole thing turned out pretty blue for us.”
“No kidding? I thought he’d at least have a decent amount of cash on him.”
“Makes sense, though. Who needs actual money when you’ve got an illusion casting Gift and can make people think those bills have a few more zeroes than they really do?”
“You think that would work?”
“As long as it needed to. After the transaction was complete, they couldn’t prove a thing.”
“Hell of a world we live in, when you can’t even trust the money in your own hand.”
“I don’t need to trust it, but we do need more of it. We’re getting close to being tapped out.”
“I’m working on it.”
I rolled my eyes, slowly to make sure he noticed it. “We were supposed to be working on it, and you were half an hour late.”
“So you decided to lift from a particularly dangerous criminal .What, were you bored?”
“Worried you weren’t going to show up. Again.”
“I was taking care of important business.”
I waited until he’d taken another, particularly large bit of the burger before I spoke again. “What was her name?”
He almost choked, hacking loud enough that a few homs at the register spun around, showing plenty of confusion and amusement but distinctly lacking any compassion. They drove that point home when they pulled out their phones and started recording Aeneas. No doubt they’d post the video online, with a goofy title like “Strange, Exotic Lab Rat Ritual!” or something else senseational.
And maybe in a way, they were right. Moments like this defined our friendship.
After a few deep breaths and a long swig from his soda cup, his breathing returned to normal. “I’m hurt by your wild accusation, Owen.”
“That’s not a denial.”
“Joke’s on you, because yet again you’re wrong. I wasn’t talking to a girl.”
“I know, since you’d never–”
“It was two. Twins, as a matter of fact.”
Of course. “Only you.”
“And the green eyed monster returns once more!”
“If you think I’m bad,” I said with a smirk. “I can’t wait to hear what Cinnia would think.”
“She wouldn’t approve, but not for the reason you’re thinking. You see, this has something to do with a job.”
I groaned. “This had better not be another one of your errands of mercy.”
“Not at all. This ties in with that little tidbit we heard a few days ago.”
“And you shared it with two innocent strangers… why?”
“Because they’re not strangers, and pretty far from innocent. In fact, they’re in the game.”
“Really? That’s an odd–” The appropriate synapses finally sparked to life, and I drew the connection. I dropped the fry in my hand, and barely noticed the red blotch it felt on my scarf.
“Wait a minute. Wait. A. Minute.”
“Did the light bulb finally turn on?”
He could only mean one thing. “Don’t tell me you’re trading info with the Sisters Desmond.”
“Better yet, they’re interested in working an angle with us.”
“And you told them no, of course.”
The pause before he replied answered my question. “It sounds promising.” And maybe if he’d left it there, I would have stayed at doubt, rather than leap frogging all the way up to outright fear when he added on six words no one in our profession should ever say: “What’s the worst that could happen?”
The answer to that question would change everything.
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