Past noon, the dull roar of cicadas and the intolerable dampness of summer drove the remaining few inhabitants of Tent City into fitful sleep. Buzzard lay in a fitful stupor, finally deaf to the whine of insects and the calls of birds. He had grown accustomed to his disheveled state, stale sweat and tattered, thin rags, always waiting for the cool of the evening.
Buzzard’s tent was a mess of armor, weaponry, herbs and trinkets and scraps of cloth. It stank from the heat and it stank from him, and the verdant, overripe stink of the forest. A breeze picked up, hot and thick with humidity. It rustled the leaves, stirring the dry grasses and the insect wings. Light entered willfully through holes in the canvas, and the breeze fluttered the flap which served as an entrance. And beneath it all, there was another susurration. Something different, something more…rhythmic.
The rustling grew closer, quieter now, and then it stopped. There was a prolonged stillness as the light streaming through one of the smaller holes in his tent was suddenly obscured, blocked from the outside by one unblinking eye.
Minutes passed. The shadow withdrew and now the rustling started up again, circling the tent, very very quiet now under the drone of insects. The flap covering the entrance lifted with infinitesimal slowness and when it was opened wide enough, the shadow entered. Crouched low to the ground, feet stepping oh-so-carefully across the floorboards towards where he lay, the intruder approached with the faint sound of embroidery sliding across silk. Still he slept, though as a shadow passed over him he snorted, brow furrowing, his snoring quieting for an agonizing moment. But it passed, and he rolled onto his side, coiled like a baby.
Silk on skin. the lightest of touches. It slid across his neck and through the gap between arm and pillowed head, then up the other side, the light fabric darkening with his sweat. The insects outside paused their maddening concerto for a split second and in that silence silk became steel, the coils tightening, strangling him and stealing his breath.
Buzzard’s eyes fluttered open with fear and shock, struggling to focus. His hands went for the cord around his neck, and for a time he thrashed with panic. But a slow, reptilian shadow darkened his face, turning purple but growing more still. One hand stretched backward, under his bedroll, searching for something. His gaze, now focused even as it was panicked, appraised his attacker. She struggled to keep the coiled veil taut around his throat, using the leverage of her position to counter his stronger build. Her face was mere inches from his own, her breath fluttering in mocking gasps across his purple cheeks as she pulled, green eyes bright with adrenaline and desperation. “Hushhh…” she hissed.
Buzzard’s eyes began to shut, theatrically even, his face turning blue as he sputtered. But his hands found their mark, and as quick as he could, his arm rushed out of the covers, bringing something sharp and metal up toward the center of her chest in an underhand blow. When his eyes opened the face above had turned pale, dark pupils widened until only the faintest corona of green remained, they stared down at him frantically. Her chest heaved and he felt the effort shudder through the handle of his weapon and up his arm and with it, there was a horrible wet sucking noise. The noose slackened as her hands came to her chest. Upon feeling the sharp metal, her mouth opened but no sound emerged. Only a pink froth that dripped down her lips and onto his cheeks.
“Hngh.” Buzzard grunted, shoving the bleeding woman away, struggling to stand and free his neck of her noose. As his face returned to its normal color he stared down at her, dispassionately, chest heaving. She stumbled against the side of the tent, bloody hands leaving crimson smears as she clawed at the canvas. Her gaze darted from him, to the exit, to the sucking wound in her lungs. Her lips continued to move soundlessly. She took one wavering step towards the door, then she was falling, landing with a heavy thud on her side on the wooden boards, mouth opening and closing, fish-like. One hand curled feebly around the handle of the impaling blade.
The scavenger went to work. No sooner had she fallen than Buzzard stooped over her, hands running fearlessly through her pockets, her packs, pulling out scrap and brass and items of interest. His expression was flat, like a man in a trance, even as a bruise formed round his neck. His eyes glinted momentarily, hand encountering a piece of folded paper. He pulled it out and opened it. Buzzard’s eyes roved across the contract, the spark of cunning lighting his features. “Ra-jah” he grunted, turning to watch her bleed and gape. “From the glass city of Ve-ga-si-a” There was a flicker of recognition at the sound of her name, then the gurgle from her chest slowed its rapid rattle. Her eyes fluttered closed, skin pallid and shining with sweat as the pool of blood beneath her gaudy, tattered clothing seeped across the wood to lap at his feet.
“I wonder what happened to the slaver.” he mused, pushing his stolen loot aside with an absent hand, watching her die in increments. “Nod if you can hear me.” he said coyly. Her eyes struggled to open, to focus on his face. Eyebrows creased in pain and confusion but she nodded, lips turning blue.
“You misused that freedom,” Buzzard sneered, prodding her in the cheek with a filthy, errant finger, digging his nail into her cheekbone. “now look at you. Sand rat.” he took her chin in his fingers and pulled her head forward, trying to jar her away from the precipice of death a bit longer. “Any regrets?” She tried to squirm away from his hand but didn’t get far, her chest spasming, curling her around the instrument of her death. She tried to spit at him instead, but with no air to push it, the bloody liquid only dribbled harmlessly to the floor.
“Slavery is illegal in Bravo” he mused, looking over her contract, “but it’s fair I think, to have you work off this crime, mm?” he yanked her chin again, eyes turning back to her with malice and amusement. “I’ll spare you. What say you, Ra-jah the sand-rat?” Her eyes were starting to glaze over as she nodded weakly against his fingers, bloody fingers trailed from the knife hilt to squeeze his wrist urgently.
Dispassionately Buzzard yanked the blade from her chest and held it deftly in his fingers, gaze crawling over her like a wasp’s flight. “We will do great things, you and I, and if you make trouble for me-” he smiled and, without flinching, sliced his palm with the blade, “-I will make sure you are buried and forgotten.”
She writhed, hands trying to hold back the blood that gushed anew from her ragged flesh. “Shh” he hushed, concentrating. For all that he was a brute and a strategist, Buzzard was a lousy priest. To call the Autumn god, the maiden of war and thunder, to save a thief? His gut fluttered, rising above his overconfidence and arrogance. Nonetheless he was determined to make the most of this opportunity. With his cut hand he took her face in his grip as one would hold a cantaloupe, and he began to hum, a throaty and unmusical noise meant for gods and immortal ears.
Buzzard was convinced that purpose guided all beings, a great cosmic mechanism, a divine destiny incomprehensible and sublime. It delivered this nimble fingered shadow to him, this ripe fruit in silk. He had seen her in the saloon, dancing, never suspecting the ends to which she might go on a carefree whim, driven by the nectar of freedom. What purpose, what PURPOSE, brought her to him? What god would spare her? The priest was but a conduit for meaning he could only hint at, and now he trusted it to take his offering, of blood and risk, to spare this dreg. Had Autumn delivered him a weapon, or the means to commit suicide? In a heartbeat her wounds snapped back together as if woven by phantoms, and with the pommel of his dagger he delivered a skillful blow to her temple, lest she wake early and trouble him.