The feast is laid out before us.
“Daytime Drinking.” Walmart jokes, filling the glasses I had filched from the Faded Hearts Caravan. We clink our toasts with wide, toothy smiles.
“Hail Industry.” snarks Ynk.
“Where’s Tes?” I demand, and then he’s there, wandering up the path with the colorful parasol I’d handed him, blinking and squinting against the bright sunlight.
Slowly, Braves join our table until we’re a raucous double line of colorful bodies.
“Vegasian table rules.” Obediently everyone piles their weapons on the table where they can be seen. Even Jess deigns to join us, reeking of peppermint and slowly collapsing against me with each pull of his flask.
“Oh my, it’s warm.” Walmart laughs, fanning a handful of cred to make a breeze.
“Ohohoho.” Singer joins in with fake laughter, mopping her forehead with currency. I wince at the squishy sound.
“I don’t have any money.” Tes says softly, frowning at his knuckles.
“No? What happened to the rung we just earned?” Ynk’s voice is surprised.
“What’s the point of you working if you spend all your pay right away?” I chide. “What are you even buying?” Tes blinks at me slowly, crosses his arms. Next to him, Nat picks up the teasing, potent hooch making every movement grandiose and elaborate. Iggie is talking about his mother’s noisemaker and Ynk and I are shouting in unison, collapsing in fits of giggles.
Tes is sliding off the bench onto the ground, clumsy and docile, disappearing out of sight.
The screams of King Louie’s raiders ricochet in my ears. The ground bucks and twists, plumes of dirt and fire shooting upward as mortars slam into the ground near us. My skirt is on fire and I beat it out hastily.
The battle surges towards me. A massive man smeared in blood is standing in front of me, his club raised high. I try to sidestep but he is already crashing down, metal and wood smashing into my ribs.
I am on the ground, gasping for air. Time has stilled. Someone is screaming, high pitched and feminine. My fingernails are scrabbling on the floor. Something sharp is slicing through my skin, layer by layer. It senses my heart, is burrowing towards it. My heels are beating on the ground and all I can see is that hairy face with its maniacal grin and dripping blood.
I am flayed open. One more slice and my heart will be exposed. Whoever is screaming has run out of air. Now there is only the harsh sound of my teeth grinding and the frantic gush of blood in my ears. This is how Rajah of House Lux dies.
A glowing red fist closes on my ankle, yanks me across the concrete. My body is flipped into the air, there’s a shoulder in my gut, a wall at my back, gravel under my thighs. Glowing fingers pouring liquid into my mouth. I can feel the surge of Infection in my bones, knitting my flesh back together. I place a hand on the wound on my chest, feel the heat and ache of muscles repairing.
“What were you doing?” Ynk’s voice is angry. “Run away!”
“Tes.” I hiss back, the single word an explanation “I wasn’t trying to get killed.”
We stare at each other in the dark. Red glow bright and angry under indigo night. Hands tight on weapons, lips stoppered tight on our fear and adrenaline and the exhilaration of battle. Then we are dashing back into the fray, watching for the flash of pale linen and a dark braid in the crowd.
Somewhere along the way it had become what tied us together. The phrase that filled in the blank spaces of our day. The thing that kept us moving and feeling.
Umber dust has settled thick and matte across Iron Rosie’s hood. It crumbles under my fingers, lifting into the breeze in floating whorls, revealing the hashmarks hidden beneath, sharp and silver against the dull red paint.
With a twist of my rose-handled blade I add another line to the neat rows of scratches. It is a silly, meaningless ritual, but it makes my lips twitch, eyes meeting those of the Iron Slave slowly pulling on his boots inside the pickup’s cab.
“Another success. Where’s Tes?”
Five months ago Slaver’s blood had sloshed across my skirts and across the shocked faces of six slaves who thought I was there to purchase them. I had collected my brass from the Slavers bodies, removed the manacles from their wrists. Given them Freedom.
And somehow I’d still managed to purchase a life.
I pat the envelope in my pocket, creamy paper and curling ink.
Washborne Asset #735. The numbers flow across the paper, stark and dark. Black ink on pale skin.