‘What if we lose?’ Creem said.
‘You won’t,’ replied Bree, chewing a sauce-slaked chicken wing.
‘Have you ever seen a serpent courtier fight?’ said Theo.
‘Can’t be that hard, they are just glorified brokers.’ Bree replied. She threw the stripped bone away, and Creem caught it before it could fall, placing it back on her plate.
‘And you won’t be the one fighting,’ he said.
Bree grabbed another wing, sucked the meat off the chicken bone and pointed it at Creem.
‘You should be grateful. A quick match before the King’s Cup is good practice, gets the blood moving. Hand upon my mongrel heart you won’t lose.’
‘Please,’ Creem said, grabbing her greasy fingers before she had the chance to place them on her chest, ‘As if the threat of losing my blade isn’t enough, I don’t need more broken oaths.’
Creem’s eyes bore a mixture of stern sorrow.
‘You won’t lose,’ Bree said.
As far as Bree knew, Theo and Creem had only ever lost thrice. Three times was enough for her to refine her bets and consider the wages she made. Perhaps, as Theo and Creem thought, Bree overstepped when she smelt the money in Sam’s pockets.
Bree would wager the world if it meant sating her lust for wealth. Instead of the world, she had two loaded die, a pair of crooked aces, a wild deuce, a Bookwyrm and a Scissorknight.
The question of who owns who was on all of their minds. While Bree believed that Theo and Creem were her assets to bargain, Theo and Creem saw Bree as their reckless younger sibling. And they couldn’t even be angry with her, not because their streak was remarkable but because Bree did things for reasons that made it hard for Theo and Creem to hate truly, so they settled on compliant contempt.
A warm sunset bathed Yoomar, not that Theo, Creem or Bree were awash in its glow. Instead, Orange light peeked through the canopy gaps, making streaks along the ground like searing scars, contrasting against the grey. Everything had been so grey until sunset, and even pieces of colour were welcome.
‘There is a phenomenon in the Gleaming Delta; when underwater vents become too hot, they glow like this,’ Theo said, stepping over the light as if it might burn him, ‘early people would then carved into the seabed to make more fissures, and from above you could see them glow, like runes,’ Theo threw his hands up, ‘Now its just one big glowing hole, the earth caved in.’
Theo jumped from topic to topic, from glowing holes in bodies of water to the spots atop mountains that spewed pink lava. Creem drifted in and out of the conversation, listening to parts while others passed through him. Every new block they turned caused Theo to have a revelation about something he had read.
‘Reminds me of this short story…’ Theo started as Creem watched some nearby birds fight over trash.
Four birds waddled around a half-eaten sandwich, the wrapper frayed with holes from pecks. The most brazen bird was also the largest and most colourful, next to a smaller bird that seemed to taunt the other two. The other birds acted with restraint, letting the bolder of the four peck at the sandwich as they pleased. And suddenly, a scuffle broke out when the two reserved birds had enough of waiting, and all four flailed over each other as the sandwich tumbled. Creem then saw a fifth bird land, a great falcon that towered over the others. It landed on the sandwich, dug talons into the soggy bread, held steely eyes on the four birds who recoiled from their fight, and then the falcon flew away, leaving nothing for the birds.
‘…but of course its just a story.’ Theo said, at least that was all Creem heard of the story.
The birds flew away with no reason to squabble any longer. They expertly navigated up through the canopy’s gaps and past the wires that hung from the upper level’s underside; citizens of Yoomar in their own right. The birds flew through an opening made by a tremendous cylindrical structure, a grand lift. People were going in and out, and the lift was never in one place for very long.
‘Thank you for travelling with Dandellion,’ the lift said before a pleasant jingle chimed, and several different people stepped out. Those uniquely dressed stood out more beside the parade of suited, tired travellers. They scattered in all directions, leaving a gap for the trio to move. Bree, Theo and Creem approached the lift doors, welcomed by the jingle once more. They entered the steel box, doors closing behind them, beside Theo, the button panel with only one other floor to select. He pushed the canopy button, and then the lift began to move.
It also started to play inoffensive, awkward music. The three stood in silence in the painfully slow ascent.
‘I did some reading,’ Bree said, breaking the silence. ‘The grand prize is 80 million.’
‘Where could you have possibly read that?’ Theo said.
‘They were going to announce it tomorrow anyway, I just happened to find some things about some information that slipped through the cracks. I was going to tell you at the book shop.’
‘And so why are we now running after one hundred thousand?’
‘Because 80 million, one hundred thousand is bigger than just 80 million.’
‘Fractionally larger,’ Creem added.
‘Fractions are what the powerful fight over, of all people you should know.’
Creem took a step away from Bree and looked out the little glass porthole. Creem only acted as if Bree wasn’t aware, and after a moment of brooding, he turned to her again.
‘I’m going back when the King’s Cup is done,’ he said;
Bree gave a worrisome smile. ‘I didn’t mean it like that,’ she said.
Creem raised his hand to his heart. ‘On my traitor’s heart, I’ll go back.
‘Thank you for travelling with Dandellion,’ said the lift as its doors opened and the trio stepped out. Creem could again see the Ozori, its clouds catching the sunset and turning a soft orange hue. Theo’s attention became fixated on a man selling pocketbooks for a dollar each outside the lift. How could Theosies resist? The world melted away until he saw the grimy table littered with short tales.
‘Creem, look at this!’ Theo said. He picked up a book, a crescent moon on the paper cover.
Creem wandered over and snatched the book; it read Honouring The Moon: Martial practices of Min-Jae Moonkid. Creem opened the book and skimmed details, his eyes widening with delight.
‘That is limited print, the cereal box edition, surely,’ Theo said, grinning ear to ear.
The man selling them said nothing, chewing gum and leaning back in his chair. It was clear to Theo and Creem the seller had no idea what goldmine he rested on. All the other books were of the exact origin, limited print books out of cereal boxes; Theo bought them all, but Creem kept the Moonkid book.
‘This is why I am chasing money,’ Bree said. ‘Could have saved forty dollars, half of those books you will never read.’
Theo held one of the books to the sky, examining its holographic lettering.
‘It’s about more than reading, it’s about preservation,’ he said.
Theo opened his backpack and slotted each book in, shifting other tomes around until the books took up every sliver of space. Theo closed his bag and hopped up, letting out a satisfied sigh.
‘Stand with your chest high, and keep your eyes on the opponent,’ Creem said, and then he acted it out.
The night sky rose high. Creem’s posture fell when they reached the Send-off. It was crawling with snakes in ties patrolling the outside as if they owned it. They did for the next few hours, and every new person coming in was subject to their scrutiny. Theo and Creem followed Bree as she led them through the crowds, who couldn’t help but stare. The word got out that Sir Sam of the Serpent court was challenging two mysterious strangers to a fight on the roof, and only when Theo and Creem came did the crowd know who the strangers were. They stared, and Creem couldn’t find anywhere to look but down, so his posture, already slanted, further crumpled in as he tried to avoid meeting anyone’s leering eyes. Theo met people’s eyes with a smile, saying hello where he could to break the ice, while Bree powered through, eyes locked forward. A large snake-tie waited as the stand-in bouncer of the Send-Off; he took fees from people as they went in, an amount dependent on something nobody but the snake-ties understood, so everyone paid different amounts. Bree pushed through the twisted line, making the path for Theo and Creem.
‘Sorry, my bad,’ Theo said, skirting through the Bree-shaped gap.
Creem kept his head down still, feeling stares of shock and trepidation.
‘Oh my god,’ someone said, pointing at Creem. ‘Is that a dullahan?’
Creem raised his head like prey might jerk their neck to the rustling of grass. Once one person said the word, it travelled along other tongues, and others made the realisation. Creem always expected to be recognised and even feared, but it seldom came with that word.
‘Hey!’ called a man halfway to all drunk.
Creem stopped, leaving Theo and Bree.
‘What’s a D-Dullahan doing here? Looking for a head?’
Creem’s hands became clammy, and he stared into nothing. He listened to the man like nothing else would ever make a sound again, and then he turned to him.
The man was caught in confidence, not realising the weight of his heckling. Creem fought the urge to turn in shame as he staggered towards the man. He was taller than the drunken man. He angled his head down while his posture rose to make him appear like a giant. Creem stared with a vacuous face, and the man still did not understand what he had done.
And then Theo tugged Creem’s sleeve, snapping Creem out of the trance. With his back slumped, he stepped away from the man before turning to follow Theo.
‘Are you alright?’ Theo said.
‘I’m fine,’ said Creem, gazing at the ground.
‘It’s just a word.’
‘To you.’Creem streaked ahead of Theo and caught up with Bree, who was on the precipice of the entrance.
She was in mid-argument with the bouncer, who was doing his best to be polite, but Bree’s choice of words made it difficult for him to keep his cool.
Eventually, both Theo and Creem stood behind her, and she pointed at them repeatedly.
He called another snake-tie over.
‘Are you the Bookwyrm and the Scissorknight?’
‘Obviously, you thick headed moron,’ Bree said, ‘who else do you see walking around with a bag of books and a giant pair of shears?’
‘They are Dressmaker shears,’ Creem added, ‘with a straight edge.’
The bouncer and the guard looked at each other. Then from behind came Sam, his snide face leering out of the gap between them.
‘Ah, if it isn’t my friends.’
He pushed the two guards aside and made a path for Theo, Creem and Bree. They walked in, and Sam hopped ahead to guide them through.
Music subsumed the Send-Off, a den of cacophonous amalgamations, yelling and drums and cheering, the snake-ties wandering like animate statues. Lights strobed electric blue. Blue was the colour the Send-Off preferred, and even drinks glowed blue in the strobe light. Sam led them past all of it to a guarded lift that took them up to the roof. Inside the lift, it was quiet enough for Sam to start talking.
‘I never got your names,’ Sam said.
Sam repeated their names, then he hummed, ‘it’s like a fable, the great feats of Sir Sam, the battle with Theo and Creem. What do you think the lesson would be?’
The trio remained tight-lipped; there was not enough room in the lift to be candid.
‘I think it would be a lesson in respect.’ Sam said.
The lift doors opened to the roof, which had been repurposed into a makeshift arena, with more snake-tie guards standing around, and a small crowd of only ten waiting on seats. Creem, Theo and Bree furrowed their brows at the meagre spectators.
‘Oh don’t worry, there will be more.’ Sam reared his head again, snickering as he did. Sid was sitting on a small stool in the arena while a petite woman painted his acrylic nails. Sam walked up and patted him on the back, gesturing towards the arrival of their opponents.
Sid smiled and stood up as the woman finished the last of the polish.
‘I’m going to find a seat, perhaps a drink,’ said Bree, and she wandered off.
‘Good luck, Theo! Good luck, Creem! We will split the money fairly because I value you as a human and a friend!’ Theo called to her, but Bree was long gone.
Theo and Creem were left with no other path than to head down into the arena, down a short flight of stairs in a large square patch.
‘What’s with the nail polish?’ Creem said, and for once, Theo shrugged. Sid splayed his fingers, and the woman came by with a nail dryer and placed each finger inside it. The woman finished one of Sid’s hands and moved to the next. He held his other hand high; each finger had a small piece of art on the end of a different colour and design.
‘I am surprised you’ve shown up,’ Sid said.
‘Oh, as if they wouldn’t, look at them,’ Sam replied. ‘Not to mention the misfortune or turning tail on the Serpent Court, am I right?’
Theo shrugged while Creem shifted his neck and shoulders.
Theo and Creem moved into the arena, the edges of which were now formed with more spectators as people started to file in, taking up spare seats before the fight began.
‘Help me to understand,’ Sid said, running one hand’s nails across the other’s palm, ‘what the bookwyrm is doing. Are you going to dictate us to death?’
‘Something to that effect,’ Theosies said. He picked a book from his coat pocket, a hardcover with a long fabric bookmark. It had no title, and the constant use mangled its pages. He flicked through.
‘How’s a story about Thief-King Tully, or a tale of the Masander. Perhaps you prefer this one… Bluff of the Monkey. It’s a personal favourite.’
Sam scoffed.‘Reading, as a means to defend yourself? I now understand that there is no possible way either of you could ever have been in the Noble Aplomb,’ he said, pacing in a circle.‘You need aplomb, to which you have none! And I’ve yet to ever hear of a Noble scissorknight if you are one.’
‘Does it bother you I might be?’ Creem said.
‘I am fascinated, truly. You are a male scissorknight, the very epitome of oxymoron!’
Creem scowled and drew his weapon, the scissor-sword, the two-blade shearing menace in the shape of an oversized sabre. It approximated a pair of scissors, far more blade-like, though it still had a pivot in the middle that let the blade split in two. Up until it came out, Sam’s confidence was unwavering, but seeing the sword made his swordsman’s stance waver. As if the mere sight of the impossibly large blade made him preempt the devastation, it could potentially wreak on his body.
‘An indebted Serpent courtier. That is an oxymoron,’ said Creem, holding the blade to the ground.
The crowd had filled out the roof, some had no idea what was happening, and all others rallied to Sam. A snake-tie walked into the middle and stilled the crowd with a hand raise.
‘And standing against them, the challengers so brazen to believe they have a chance… it is….’ The announcer went quiet, and so too the crowd.‘Them!’ the announcer said, pointing to Theo and Creem. The crowd returned with a booing wave,
‘Spectators all!’ he said, ‘before you is the fight of a lifetime! The great Sir Sam, fifth partner of the Serpent Court and Sid Raffie, Knight of Salon!’
The crowd went wild. The only sound was a ripple of cheers. Sam threw his hand to the sky and waved while Sid pushed his chest out, making him look even larger lion-like.
‘Standing against them, the audacious, the brazen…. them!’
The crowd paused, and then they erupted into heinous boos. Creem passed a deadly glare across the public while Theosies bowed, waved, and blew kisses to them all.
Sam slowly unsheathed his slender, argent blade out of a twisted scabbard, yet it emerged straight. Sid stretched his fingers and fluttered them. Tension festered as the announcer counted down.
As Creem scanned the crowd, he locked eyes with one man, the same man that heckled him outside. He jeered to Creem and ran his thumb across his neck. He laughed and poked out his tongue; Creem could not stop himself. Before the announcer could end the count, he charged forward with all his force.
Sam’s eyes widened seeing the scissorknight rush, his stomach sunk, and his blade fell. The man behind Sam no longer smiled. He sobered up enough to realise what he had done.
But Creem never made it beyond the middle of the arena because something from above stopped him. Black smoke radiated out in all directions, engulfing the entire roof of the Send-Off. At the origin knelt a smokey shadow. The smoke dissipated to reveal the figure, a tall man, taller than Sid, rising to his feet. He wore a trenchcoat, dark as the smoke draped over his thin frame. In his left hand, he held an umbrella, smoke dropping out of the brim. The only dash of brightness was his golden blonde hair resting on his head like a halo.
Creem was inches from the man; another step or a careless swing, and he would’ve struck the man. Theo’s heart started to race when the smoke cleared. A name was on everyone’s tongue. The crowd that once screamed at the top of their lungs could now only murmur.
I can’t believe it’s really him.
What does he want with them? Has he come for us?
Should we run?
That is Howard Hope.
Howard Hope’s green eyes moved across the crowd, peering down at Creem. Creem took several steps back, looking dead ahead, refusing to meet Howard’s gaze.
Behind Creem, Theo urged him to move further back, trying to grab him without moving.
Theo locked eyes with Howard, and then his body locked in turn. For once, Theo wished he didn’t know who Howard Hope was, that he could abide by ignorance and act without the knowledge he held.
Howard’s stare lasted only a moment, and his focus shifted to Sam and Sid. Sam had dropped his weapon, and the blade had gone limp; his legs shook, and he was heaving air. Sid’s body became rigid. He stood like a soldier without a smirk present. Howard wandered over to them.
‘What is going on here?’ He said. Sam and Sid were silent.
‘Were you in the midst of a fight? The night before the King’s Cup? On a club rooftop?’
Still, Sam and Sid said nothing.
‘Who are they?’ Howard said, pointing at Theo and Creem.
‘Did you pull some poor nobodies off the street to make some sort of example?’
‘I—’ Sam said.
‘Whatever is it you think is an answer, to anything, won’t be enough.’
Howard turned his attention to the crowd.
He waited, commanding their quietus with his own silence. Then he reared and centred his voice within his chest when he was ready to speak.
‘All of you,’ Howard said, ‘who have been taken here to witness this, are as much at fault. Revelling in this foolish display of pompous hubris. It is unbecoming of a crowd, unbecoming of those who come to witness the display of strength the King’s Cup demands. Some of you I recognise, warriors who’ve put their names forward. The rest, nameless but not without your ability to affect outcome. Do you believe it somehow fitting to corral like animals around the pit, and watch dogs tear at each other’s throats?’
Howard waited for anyone to answer him; the crowd made not even a cough. Howard folded his umbrella and pointed the end towards the rooftop exit.
‘Then leave,’ He said, and the crowd scattered.
The drunk stumbled over the sober, all like rats fleeing the ire of the hawk.
Sam dropped his head while Sid stayed straight as Howard turned his attention back to them.
‘Your uncle will know about this,’ Howard said,
‘Please don’t tell him,’ said Sam.
‘And let you run amok picking fights with everyone you see? I don’t think so.’
Howard looked up at Sid. ‘And you… Sidney.’
Howard came right up to Sid. The few inches taller than Howard was, made an exponential difference.
‘Do you believe the Salon would be proud of you? Intentionally causing trouble? Don’t think I haven’t been watching you. Pushing your way through the independent conscripts, what for? So you can have a few eyes on you?’
Sid did not break, though his eyes quivered.
Howard stared at them both before turning away from Sam and Sid and walking up to Theo and Creem.
‘I don’t know who you two are, nor what brought you up here, but let me apologise for Sam’s behaviour. Be off.’
Howard then left, disappearing into the crowd, somehow lost even as he towered over everyone. Theo and Creem’s panicked hearts started to slow. They looked at Sam and Sid and saw their faces distorted into scowls deeper than even Creem’s. Sam’s posture dipped low, and his eyebrows covered his eyes. Sid’s head was high to the sky, looking down with flared nostrils. Theo and Creem locked into their gazes, frozen in the moment of shared disdain, and they would have been there indefinitely had Bree not come in to break their contest.
‘Go,’ she said, shuffling Theo and Creem along: for all the money in the world, nothing was worth Howard Hope.
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