The would-be murderer and his almost-a victim paused at the announcement from the dark nearby.
The voice was low, amused, maybe a little drunk.
“You can’t possibly be planning to kill that man.”
The would-have-been-a-murderer-in-another-three-seconds frowned, but the tip of his knife did not move from the still-very-nearly-a victim’s throat.
“Pah. He’s so very beautiful.”
Now it was the maybe-not-going-to-be-a-victim-after-all’s turn to frown. Both men turned as a woman strode out of the dark alleyway alongside where they’d been disputing.
She was tall, the dark chestnut tones of her skin contrasting with the glittering arrays of gold at her wrists, her throat and dangling from her ears. Black curls tumbled down past her broad shoulders and her stance was so casual, so unworried, that it was a moment before the still-planning-to-be-a murderer noticed the heavy cutlass hanging from her right hand, point drifting just above the greasy cobblestones of the alley.
“My name is Jihanna.”
He had just started to recover and drawn in a breath to speak, when a cold sharp point pressed against the underside of his jaw. The reconsidering-his-options murderer froze in place, eyes locked on the grinning woman in front of him. She gestured to whoever it was holding the knife at his throat.
“And this is my associate, Siu Wai.”
The man stood perfectly still as a quiet, elegantly-accented voice spoke just behind him.
“It would be best, sir, if you left immediately.”
“I don’t know who you ladies think you are, but you don’t want to mess with the Talon Syndicate.”
The not-tonight-anyway murderer thinned his lips, tilted his head slightly since bowing would have impaled him on the knife held steady at his throat, then turned and ducked away.
The no-longer-a victim looked from the tall dark woman on his left to the other woman on his right. She was small and compactly built, her black hair pulled up tight behind her head. Her almond-shaped eyes told of her Imperial ancestry, but the way she made the knife seemingly disappear into thin air spoke much more of the streets of Chang Lao than the far-off Jade Court.
The smaller woman flicked an annoyed glance at her taller partner.
As Jihanna snickered, both women turned to consider the extremely attractive man they’d just rescued.
He blinked his blue eyes and straightened uncomfortably, brushing at his simple tunic.
“Thank you, ladies, for your timely interruption. I fear–”
Jihanna grinned and put a hand on his broad shoulder.
“We know. You’ve got trouble with the Talons. Not to mention the Chisel Boys. That’s why we’re looking for you.”
“You were looking for me?”
The smaller woman’s mouth twisted in an aristocratic sneer.
“Indeed we were, sir. My name is Siu-Wai. My ‘associate’” — and Jihanna laughed at her friend’s annoyed tone — “and I wish to speak with you about exactly the circumstances you find yourself in. We believe we can help.”
The young man with the broad shoulders and the very blue eyes looked back and forth between the two women standing before him. He picked up a curious object at his feet: an iron pole, as long as he was tall, tapered to a nasty point at one end and forked at the other.
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s simple. We want to get into the dinosaur-wrestling business.”
“Well, first, it’s not ‘dinosaur-wrestler’, okay? It’s ‘raptador’.”
Siu-Wai nodded with an encouraging smile.
“We know. My friend here has a singular sense of humour, I’m afraid.”
Jihanna grinned over her shoulder, leading the other two through the swinging doors of the Hooked Barracuda. They’d ducked through a number of less-than-savoury alleys to get to this fashionable nightclub and even Siu-Wai had not been able to detect anyone following them.
As they passed through the doors and into the club, Siu-Wai smiled again at their handsome companion.
“But we have got a business proposition for you.”
“I’m so popular. You’ll be the third tonight.”
The club entrance was a dark hallway lined with curtains. Siu-Wai did not glance at the telltale waves and wobbles of the curtains that told of passageways behind, but she kept to the rear of their little group and she did glance back at the front door a couple of times.
The rest of the time she studied the very impressive arms of the man walking in front of her. No smirk appeared on her face, although a careful observation may have revealed some tension around her mouth.
They passed into the main room of the club, boisterous and warm with the glow of hanging lanterns on all sides. Well-dressed folks stood at tables, cheering and chattering. Jihanna’s attention was drawn to the duelling corner, where two young men were yelling insults at each other, to the great amusement of all watching. But she resisted the impulse and led them through the room and into the maze of private salons beyond.
The raptador, with his simple clothes and the long iron pole he carried, stood out in the crowd but neither Jihanna’s ostentatious jewelry nor Siu-Wai’s high-collared silk suit caused any notice amongst the other patrons.
“Don’t think I really fit in here.”
Siu-Wai gave the young man another smile.
“These people are no better than you, sir.”
“You need to stop calling me ‘sir’.”
She raised one eyebrow and her little mouth twisted in a mocking smirk.
“My name is Patarich. Ilyon Patarich.”
“I know who you are. Ilyon.”
He stared at her for a second, then grinned.
“You’re trouble, aren’t you?”
Siu-Wai chuckled. Jihanna had found the reserved room and waved them towards her.
They settled themselves in a comfortably-appointed room. Jihanna sprawled across a cushion-strewn couch while Siu-Wai and Ilyon chose either end of a more formally upholstered sofa. Ilyon set his iron pole on the floor beside the sofa. A tall carafe on the table caught Jihanna’s eye and she poured out drinks for everyone, knocking hers back in one straight gulp.
Ilyon held his up towards Siu-Wai. They clinked their glasses, grinning, and drank.
Jihanna watched their play with a suddenly sour expression. She sat up, pushing her hair back behind her shoulders.
“Now, like I said, we are getting into the business. We hear you’ve got an deal with the Chisel Boys.”
“How do you know that?”
Now it was Jihanna’s turn to smirk. She winked elaborately at Ilyon.
“You’ll have to torture it out of me, I’m afraid.”
Siu-Wai sighed, her eyes rolling. Ilyon just waited, expectant, and with a huff, Jihanna leaned back, shrugging.
“Pah. Here’s the offer. You hang back like the Chisel Boys want you to, make it look like you’re going give the wreath to del Parillo. But wait! Suddenly he cramps up, wobbles, collapses. And then it’s just you and the two beasts. The Chisel Boys don’t want you to give up your life, do they? No, so you do what you have to do and save both yourself and del Parillo and gosh, it’s sure too bad the Chisel Boys lose all the money they bet on him, huh?”
“So, wait. You’re gonna get del Parillo to throw the fight I’m supposed to throw, leaving me alone to fight two raptors by myself.”
“You’ve taken on two before. You’ll be fine.”
“What about del Parillo?”
Jihanna waved at Siu-Wai.
“My associate knows something about concoctions. He’ll be sick to his stomach for a couple of days. Something he ate, maybe? Anyways, none of it will come back to you. And we’ll split the winnings with you.”
Ilyon looked back and forth between the two women. He addressed Siu-Wai with his next question.
“Why even tell me? Why not just drug del Parillo and take the money?”
Siu-Wai shrugged and sipped daintily from her glass.
“That was the plan, until the Talon Syndicate decided to get a refund on their bets by ensuring you didn’t show up tonight.”
“How do you know I won’t just turn you over to the Chisel Boys?”
She slid closer to him along the sofa and reached out to toy with his blond curls.
“Since they started doubling the fights, so that two raptadors face two beasts simultaneously, how many raptadors have won more than once against a pair of raptors?”
Ilyon’s eyes narrowed. He leaned towards Siu-Wai, smiling.
“One. Terazawa, two years back. He got killed the third time he tried it.”
Siu-Wai tugged a little on a curl. Her smirk widened.
“So what you have to ask youself, Mister Patarich, is which are you more afraid of: dying in the ring, or hearing for your entire career about how you were almost as good as Terazawa.”
“I was right about you, sweetheart. You ARE trouble.”
Jihanna got to her feet with a tremendous sigh.
“Pah, I can see how this is going. Plum Blossom, give me the bottle, I’ll go over to del Parillo’s and dose him up. You just make sure this kid is at the ring in two hours.”
Siu-Wai scarcely took her eyes from Ilyon’s face as she nodded.
“Remember, just half the bottle will give him the symptoms in an hour or so. Don’t overdo it.”
Jihanna swore to herself as she stormed out of the club. She did not take a cautious route through less-than-savoury alleyways, nor did she watch for anyone who might have been following her. She simply stomped straight up Leopard Snake Avenue, the broad cross-street nearest the club.
Like all of Chang Lao, Leopard Snake Avenue had been built out of the massive stones once forming ancient temples here. The blocks that paved the street had once held detailed bas-reliefs, but years of feet and wheels had worn away the carvings and now the painstaking efforts of ancient craftsmen only served to make Leopard Snake Avenue bumpy and uneven.
Which may have been why Jihanna tripped and sprawled inelegantly right in front of the building where del Parillo lived. As she cursingly got to her feet, she realised she’d been surrounded by a half-dozen big, unnervingly steady men.
“Gentlemen. I give you good evening. And now–“
Before she could finish, a dark-skinned woman with her hair in tight braided rows stepped through the circle of steady men to smile at Jihanna.
Her voice, when she spoke, was low and full of menace.
“Good evening. My name is Bessala Day.”
“Wait. Aren’t the Chisel Boys run by a woman named–”
The woman smiled and bowed.
“You’ve come to see del Parillo. You’ve come to convince him to throw the fight. Unfortunately for you, you were spotted by my boys and now you are in our power.”
“Well, that’s just great.”