The hunger was a gnawing, writhing creature in her abdomen.
Feet placed stumbling, one in front of the other, slipping on the dust and rocks of the incline down to the lake. The water glimmered tantalizingly below and she clicked her dry tongue against the parched roof of her mouth.
Curse him. Curse him wherever he be.
Probably dead, she told herself for the hundredth time since the start of the Burning Season, when she had returned after the final trade weekend to find the caravan unattended and in disarray. Papers scattered on the ground and no sign of the shrewd Vegasian who owned it all, herself included. She hadn’t lingered long at the scene, scooping up as many papers as she could find and getting the hell out of there.
Vensik Romani had certainly not lacked for enemies. Whatever had happened to him, she was disappointed she hadn’t been around to see it. A cruel smile slashed her face as she imagined a few choice scenarios, then her stomach growled again and she made a rude gesture at the sky.
Fuck you Vensik. If you were going go die without heads up, you could at least left some food or brass or something.
Any other time of year and it wouldn’t matter. She had always been able to earn brass entertaining and working odd jobs, and more brass on the side doing a different sort of ‘entertaining’ when her Master wasn’t looking, but now that the Burning Season was upon them Bravo was a desolate wasteland, occupied only by the destitute and the insane. The Saloon shuttered and as dry as dead grass. No one was in Bravo for a good time or to hire for shady business. The money had all relocated North, to Star City or further, trying to escape the oppressive heat.
She reached the bottom of the hill, sliding down the embankment to the muddy water of the Lake. Even here, the ground was cracked and hot, the water scummy and putrid. She held her nose and drank it anyways. Filling her empty stomach stopped its aching for the moment but would only fool it for so long. She needed real food and she needed it soon or all the returning Braves would find of her in Sept-embers would be one gaudily dressed, dessicated zed.
A loud snore cut through the hot haze over the lake, rolling from the direction of Tent City, and at the sound she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and stared up the hill speculatively, green eyes calculating and cold.
You still have few tricks up your sleeve. She reminded herself. And if the odds stack a bit higher than you like, it won’t be the first time you’ve have gambled and won. Like any true Vegasian she wasn’t afraid to throw the dice when her back was against the wall.
But first, a rest. She scooted backwards into the shade beneath the dock jutting out of the shore several feet above the depleted waterline and nestled into the darkness, adjusting the layers of her desert garb for maximum coolness. Out of habit, she checked for the small square of paper tucked in her bodice. The one that had her name on it in blocky handwriting. R-A-J-A-H. Even now, she couldn’t believe she had found it. Just laying there on the caravan floor so casually.
The last time she had seen her own slave deed had been almost two years ago. The aftermath of the Judge job in Star City with that pureblood… the pretty whore. What was his name? Dmitri? David? Damian?
“You fuck this up, we’re done. You understand? No more mist.”
Dorian Baines-Johnson’s hands were trembling, his hazel eyes flicked from the Madame’s face to the vials of red sitting on her desk. He licked his lips.
“Yes, I understand.” he agreed quickly.
“Good. This is going down tonight.” Moxie rasped, “And you’re to have an escort.” she rang her silver bell and he swiveled in his seat as the door opened to admit a familiar young woman with long dark hair.
“Dorian.” the newcomer greeted.
“Rajah.” he nodded back, rising to bow politely.
“You two worked well together on the Seasons job. Lets see if you can do as well on this one. This is for you, snake eyes.” Moxie handed over a packet of letters, a large red 33 prominently stamped on top. “And for you, my beauty.” she handed him a small, sharp, black-handled knife. Dorian raised an eyebrow and Moxie shrugged. “He likes it a bit… unconventional.” She glanced at her timepiece. “You have one hour to get to his house across Star City. Avoid the Lawmen until the job is done, then feed them the bait.”
Sweat dripped down his dark hair into his eyes, down his chest, down his arms, down the knife to mingle with red blood on the man’s skin. Their heavy breathing slowed and Dorian rolled away, fingertips dragging across the man’s skin as he rose from the bed and met Rajah’s eyes in the doorway. She nodded once, jerking her head to the desk where the packet of letters peeked out from under a ledger. He gave her a small smile, another job practically in the bag. The payout Moxie had hinted at for this one should be substantial. As soon as he took a bath he intended to be passed out on his bed, high as fuck, for as long as possible.
“Brass is on the table.” the man drawled as Dorian slid back into his clothes.
“Thank you, Judge.” he said quietly as the door closed behind them, the money a pleasant burden in his pocket.
“Are you a Lawman?” Rajah’s voice quavered pitifully, “Oh, please help!” she grasped the man’s duster in shaking hands. “Something’s happened to the judge.”
“Calm down, ma’am. We’ll look into it.”
In the shadows, Dorian watched as the sheriff tipped his hat, rounded up his posse, and rode quickly down the street. Rajah appeared back at his side a moment later. They both listened carefully from the alleyway to the ruckus in front of the Judge’s residence. Snatches of raised voices drifted back, a pounding on the door.
“Open up in the name of the Law!” a creaking of hinges.
“What’s all this then?” the Judge’s voice was chillingly cold. “Do you know who I am?”
“Yessir, very sorry, sir. There were reports you needed assista-… Sir, did you know you’re bleeding?”
Next to him, Rajah snorted back laughter. “The 33 you cut on his skin was nice touch.” Dorian grinned back.
“I’m very sorry, Judge, we’re going to have to search your residence. Please go with these deputies. Sir… SIR!”
Shots rang out and in the alley they stared at each other wide-eyed. There was a long period filled with the grunting curses of a dying man. Then silence.
“Salvation came too late for this Demon.” the Lawman’s voice rang out. “Find the woman and make sure she hasn’t been corrupted as well.”
“Fuck.” Dorian swore, grabbing Rajah’s hand and backing away down the pavement as hoofbeats headed their way.
“Fools!” Madame Moxie hissed. “I said no fuck ups. You were to plant the evidence and get out! Our man on the inside would have done the rest.”
“Look, we finished the job.” Dorian protested, eyes darting from the bag of brass to the red vials still tantalizingly out of reach on Moxie’s desk.
Moxie spat, “You nearly finished me as well! If the Judicial Circuit even so much as suspects I, much less our benefactor, is in any way connected to the death of a Judge…” she drew a bony finger across her throat and pointed it at Rajah. “I’m sorry, girl, but you have to go. It’s too easy for them to trace you back to me.”
“That’s no-” she began to protest but Moxie cut her off, waving a paper in the air. Her name clearly visible on the deed.
“It is already done. Oh, don’t look so surprised. You should be thankful I didn’t just turn you over to the Lawmen myself. I understand this Vensik Romani is a reasonable sort of man. He’s agreed to get you out of Star City and is even willing to let you work off your purchase price for your freedom.”
“What? No!” Dorian exclaimed, “Rajah, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Moxie growled, “I’d have sold you too if I could have. And don’t doubt I considered it! Get them out of here.” she waved and her guards pushed them out of the room, dragging Dorian one way and Rajah the other. He saw her face glance back once briefly, eyes wide and scared in a shock-pale face. Then she was around the corner and gone.
He still wondered what happened to her for a while after that. Then he lost himself in the mist and all thinking blissfully ceased.
Rajah jolted awake under the dock, still hungry but with more energy than she’d felt in a while. She crawled out of the space, glancing upwards to fix the time. The sun was just now at its zenith and all was still. Good. Anyone left in Bravo would be sleeping now in the hottest part of the day. Everyone who wasn’t raised in a desert, that is.
She arranged her possessions on her person carefully, then with a steely glint in her eye she began the climb up the hill towards Tent City.