Sometimes it’s not about what you do, but who you stand up to.
I know, it sounds horribly trite, maybe even dancing on the border of cliche. It’s worth mentioning that things become cliches because they’re quite often true. Your people honor lots of folks who stood in the face of overwhelming odds(and more often than not, common sense) because they wanted to do The Right Thing. No doubt it’s been said better in the past, probably by someone capable of breaking out a coat of English Lit polish to make it really shine. The underlying truth remains the same, though, and my words would look great caved in marble and granite. Like you might fine on a statue, say. Or a tombstone.
“Matthias!” My last name bellowed across all of Mercado Square, maybe rattling a few window panes and chests along the way. I didn’t turn around to answer.
The bellowed in question called himself Venice. In your world, Venice is a city of water and classical architecture, beautiful by anyone’s standards. Our Venice was a towering brute, crossed with the DNA of a warthog at birth. No one would call him beautiful, not even the amniotic chamber that spawned him. Fur jutted out at weird angles, a fur coat full of cowlicks. One of his tusks, broken long ago, jutted at an odd angle and had turned the color of ancient ivory. I could belabor the description more, but the most important points were his frame(tall and bulky), his muscles(frightfully large) and his fists(lumpy bowling balls). Oh, and his fury toward me, which you might have already guessed at.
You see, Venice suffered from a nasty temper, and many Emejre who crossed his path suffered from it as well. I really wanted to avoid joining their ranks. I imagine I could have shoved a few tables and booths in my wake, but I saw no reason to drag an innocent merchant into the chase. Besides, a quick glance over my shoulder revealed Venny was doing a fine job of that on his own, one gigantic hand swatting aside a skinny reptile’s churro stand as easily as I might a mosquito. That quick peek also revealed the warthog was faster than I anticipated, and I might be a few seconds from being the next innocent victim of Venice’s prodigious anger.
Okay, okay. Technically a few hundred dollars in my hip pocket had, until a few minutes ago, been in his pocket. What you need to understand is that he’d earned them no more honestly than me. No doubt, he’d either conned someone with his illusion powers or intimidated them with his massive size. You’re probably asking if I planned to return the money to its rightful owner. Of course I’d love to! But alas, I fear it would be impossible to identify them and return the money. I would offer a silent thanks when I applied the funds to a number of worthy causes, like the Buy Owen Matthias a Really Good Burrito Fund.
That plan centered on the premise Venice would notice the missing money a little later, preferably about the time I was enjoying my first bite of said burrito. Either I was losing my touch, or Venny wasn’t the dumb lug I took him for, the answer to which ranked pretty low on my priority list. At the moment, I needed an exit strategy. I’m not above taking risks in my chosen profession, but life and limb over a couple hundred dollars felt like a poor trade.
Bloody hell, where had Aeneas wandered off to, now that I really needed him?
“Get back here!” Venice cried out as he plodded after me. Why do people try that? Does anyone, in the heat of a chase like ours, decide the best course of action would be to stop and run the other way? I debated it, just to see if pure shock would facilitate my escape. But those massive hands could snag me like a slow grounder to the infield. So instead, I veered sharply to the right, in the hopes my pursuer couldn’t handle corners very well.
Of course he didn’t need that tight turning ratio Of course he barreled through the booth of another innocent vendor. And of course it even let him gain a little ground. I turned again, with the hopes this might be the turn that would get him off my tail.
And almost ran right into three guards of the Red Dragon Caste.
If you don’t know the Rez, that might not mean very much to you. The territory of the Emejre Reservation is split between three groups. Think of them like human political parties, if the verbal sparring turned into recriminations and the odd skirmish. Okay, it’s exactly like your political parties. The Red Dragon Caste are the most militant of the bunch. While they won’t start a fight, that doesn’t mean they’re often looking for one, and they make no bones about using force when the situation called for it. There have been times when Drags have justified attacks over jaywalking or being looked at in an unfriendly way, I couldn’t imagine they would take kindly to me running into them. So I made a point to slide between them, and I almost made it.
Almost being the operative word, because I slammed hard into what might best be described as a brick wall with fur. At least ten feet tall, his muscles would have let him kick sand in Venice’s face without any worries. I looked up, as one might in front of a skyscraper, to see the black horns atop his head, sharpened to razor points. He’d also dyed the short fur across his body a bright red, which completed the whole brick wall comparison nicely. We’d never met before, but I knew him all too well: General Haze Toshiro, leader of the Red Dragon Caste armies. Venice would be preferable.
Venice skidded to a stop at the end several feet away and pointed a finger at me. He gasped for breath, but even that couldn’t mask the sickening combination of fury and satisfaction on his ugly mug. I imagine he was thinking of what he might do to me, and none of it was pleasant.
“That warthog is chasing that poor, defenseless rabbit!”
Most people probably thought the cry came from a woman in the crowd. Maybe the tension of the whole situation hid the exaggerated falsetto, but General Toshiro looked from me to Venice and crossed the tree trunks that passed for arms over his chest.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“The rabbit, that rabbit…” Breath still came in gasps. The delay bought me some time, and I slipped into the old performer role. I shrank back against the general and opened my eyes wide in exaggerated fear. My ears dropped back onto my shoulders, and I added a little shaking. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I even threw a little lip quiver in for good measure. It must’ve worked, for one of the Red Dragon guards put a hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t worry, kid. We’ve got your back.”
“Venice Bridgeford.” General Toshiro spat out the name like the pit from a cherry. “I’m familiar with your work. When illusions fail you, you rely on physical force. Which, I wonder, was this youngster a victim of?”
“You have it all wrong, General. That little rat stole from me.”
“And what a pity that would be, Bridgeford.” He popped a knuckle, which sounded like thunder. “Whether he stole from you or not, I have no evidence to support. I can, however, see a trail of damage behind you. And the Red Dragon Caste will not tolerate any violence in Mercado Square. Against my better judgment, I will let you walk away without incident.”
“Do not test my patience. I believe you can see I am being more than generous.”
Venice nodded, but not before he spent a few seconds glaring at me. He said a lot with that look, most of those things crude and not worth repeating in polite company. Let’s just say it conveyed the message that he wouldn’t forget this. I won’t lie, that caused butterflies in my stomach. He walked away, bumping one of the booths with his shoulder and almost knocking it over.
That resolved, the general looked down at me. “Are you injured?”
“Nothing but my pride.”
“Something we could all stand to do with less of.” He leaned over and added with a whisper, “Did you really take anything from him?”
I suddenly found the surrounding booths and the ground a lot more interesting. “What is it the humans say? I’m pleading the fifth.”
He snorted, but then flashed me a smirk. “I think I’ve heard of you as well. Owen Matthias, isn’t it?”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Dash Hermann is a good friend of mine,” Haze said. “A shame you’re no longer performing with him. Tell me, you’re not lightning the loan of any other tables in the Square, are you?”
“Good. But I would recommend caution in the future, Mr. Matthias. Venice won’t like being shown up. And make it a point to keep your hands out of any other pockets.”
He craned back up to his full height, and nodded to one of the guards next to him. “
Alright everyone, show’s over!” The lieutenant cried. “Go about your business!”
We’d gathered a small crowd, but it largely dispersed at the order of the Dragons. Still, an Emejre in a dusty old cloak approached, leaning heavily on a cane. The stranger fell into step with me and followed as we made our way out of the square. Once we’d gotten well clear of the scene, the cloaked stranger leaned closer and spoke.
“Excuse me, sonny, could you give me an autograph?” I assume they were going for an old woman, but the voice was so cartoonish it would have fooled no one.
“It’s for my boy, Jocko.” Okay, I’ll admit, the tremor in the voice and the unsteady gait were nice touches. Still, the whole performance was too broad to be convincing, but he’d probably not spoken a word to anyone else. I could see the reddish blonde strands of hair dangling down from under the hood, and I imagine they were swept over the right side of his face, as always.
“Very funny. Any luck?”
This time, he spoke in a whisper, but without the theatrics.. “Maybe. If you’re done taunting criminals and glad handing with the Red Dragons, we can talk about it while we eat.”
“That sounds fantastic.” We walked a few more steps, then I thrust an arm out and stopped him. “You’re going to be respectful, right?”
He went back to the old lady voice again. “Well, sonny, I’ll be very bit as respectful as I need to be.”
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