“Don’t blame me.”
“Who should I blame? It was you that removed del Parillo from contention before the event was sheduled to begin.”
“Pah, you’re the one who was banging Patarich instead of getting him here.”
“I was hardly…”
Siu-Wai trailed off and busied herself with the table full of iron implements. Jihanna, smirking, looked from her embarrassed friend over at the gentlemen in question, who sprawled side-by-side on the packed sand of the floor.
The hall around them was of bare arched stone, lit with guttering lanterns hung from the walls. Distantly they could hear a roaring crowd, the dim rattle of chains and occasional screams.
Patarich met Jihanna’s smirk with a strained smile, his injured leg held out in front of him. He turned his wan face to watch Siu-Wai fidgeting with the many blades and weapons on the table.
“Don’t worry about those. Fighting raptors isn’t like fighting men. They’re faster and stronger than you. Much, much stronger. With tough hide. Even your big cutlass, lady, is going to struggle to cut through. You need a raptor pole. Pick one up, there.”
Siu-Wai composed herself and drifted against a wall as she watched Jihanna heft one of the long iron poles. She brandished the sharply pointed end like a spear, lunging forward with a battle cry.
del Parillo, as green as Patarich was pale, shook his head.
“Not like that. Raptor’ll dodge that.”
Patarich agreed, “Or even worse, leap right over it. These animals prefer to attack by leaping, you understand? They can jump right over your head and land on you with those huge toe claws of theirs, and that’s the end of you.”
Jihanna examined the weapon in her hands more carefully. The opposite end forked, with two tines curving forwards, creating a gap about as big as her waist. She poked that forward experimentally.
“So what, try to trap them or hook them with this? Seems awkward.”
Patarich shook his head.
“You have to wait for them to leap. Once they’re in the air, they cannot dodge or change direction. They’re committed. Get them to leap, and you have a chance.”
del Parillo nodded, but couldn’t manage to speak.
Siu-Wai raised an eyebrow and spoke without removing herself from the wall.
“Didn’t you just say that having them jump on you would be… unwelcome?”
“Yeah, that’s where the pole comes in. When the beast jumps, plant the sharp end in the sand and brace the other end up, to catch it as it comes down. If you get it just right, you can snap the thing’s neck, but mostly you’ll just knock it back and really piss it off.”
Jihanna’s snort of disbelief echoed through the dark hall.
“Pah. One musket ball would–”
“Your job isn’t to kill the beast as quickly as possible. Your job is to entertain the crowd. Keep it alive. Let it get close to you. The closer to the forked end of the pole you stand, the more danger you put yourself in, the more the crowd will cheer for you. I’ve seen crowds riot and murder raptadors who killed their beasts too soon.”
Siu-Wai’s raised eyebrow dropped and she scowled. She pushed off from the wall and strode over to the table, picking up one of the long iron poles. She hefted it and then slammed the tapered end into the sand at her feet, bracing the forked end up in the air.
She and Jihanna considered each other.
A sudden deafening roar came from outside and iron shrieked as some massive gate swung open on rusted hinges.
The two women each held one pole and sorted hurriedly through the table full of heavy weapons.
Jihanna picked up a sort of club with a nasty spike sticking out sideways at the heavy end. Siu-Wai selected a pair of knuckle-dusters fitted with sturdy blades.
Footsteps tramped up the hall outside, growing louder. The crowd was still cheering and bellowing.
Siu-Wai gave Jihanna a sour look.
“Do you recall telling me that this couldn’t possibly go wrong?”
“Pah. I say that every time.”
“Which only makes your unbroken record all the more astonishing.”
The heavy iron door screamed open and the roar of the crowd suddenly rushed into the room. A troop of armoured men marched in and their leader pointed at Jihanna and Siu-Wai. Patarich and del Parillo watched helplessly from the floor.
“Your turn has come. May you die in glory.”
“I let my associate do that for me.”
“I am not your associate.”
As the beasts emerged from their cells, Jihanna and Siu-Wai each made a half-turn, facing the nearest creature while keeping their backs to each other.
Above them, the delirious crowd roared and thundered in dense rows, mad with bloodlust. The hot sands under the two women were patchy with dark splotches and the stink of blood filled the air.
The raptors came out blinking under the torchlight, the massive sickle-shaped claws on each foot digging a little into the packed sand. Their long heads, crested with colourful feathers, turned from side to side. The darker one, facing Siu-Wai, hissed at the noisy crowd, but the nearest row of seats was too far up for even this beast to jump.
The women had taken position in the center of the arena and so the raptors were a solid spearcast away. Jihanna had the sneering smile she always wore when going into battle, while Siu-Wai’s cold eyes only narrowed slightly. Both women stood relaxed, their long forked poles hanging easily at their sides.
Screams and curses fell upon them, whipped up to ever-more frenetic heights as the deadly beasts came forward, cautious at first as their reptilian eyes surveyed the arena. They stood canted forward, balanced behind by a long stiff tail.
Just as Jihanna and Siu-Wai had instinctively closed ranks, the two animals seemed to instinctively spread out, circling to either side around the two women in the center of the ring. The raptors hissed to each other as they slowly neared their prey.
Jihanna’s smile transformed into a worried frown.
“How do we know when they’re about to jump?”
Siu-Wai’s expression changed not at all.
“I have no experience with these beasts of course, but I see the one before me is beginning to crouch and lash its tail. Perhaps we’re about to find out.”
The raptor before Siu-Wai let out a snarl and Jihanna turned to see if her friend needed any help. Only the most unconscious of reflexes alerted her as the beast on her side leapt without warning, taking advantage of the distraction created by its partner.
Jihanna cursed, unable to plant her pole properly, so she simply stepped straight back, swinging the long piece of heavy iron sideways.
The pole caught the animal in mid-leap, knocking it sideways, but without enough force to stop it. The shrieking beast cannoned into Jihanna, one talon digging into the swordswoman’s leg as she and the raptor tumbled to the sand in a raging flurry of snarls and snapping curses.
Their battle cries were drowned out in the excited roar from above as the crowd reacted to this development.
Siu-Wai kept herself facing the other raptor, as it stayed low ground, tail lashing and tilting its head up to hiss at her. She chewed at her lower lip, cold eyes showing a little worry as the growling and thrashing behind her went on. Both of her hands, knuckles embossed with wicked blades from the weapons she’d picked up back in the waiting hall, tightened on the pole as the raptor before began to circle slowly to her left.
Moving with equal care to her right, Siu-Wai drifted away from the tumultuous combat between Jihanna and the other raptor. As she moved, she was able to catch sight of the battle.
Jihanna appeared to be riding the enraged beast, one arm looped around its throat while her long legs dug tight in front of its hips. The thing leapt and twisted, trying to throw her off, but Jihanna cursed and roared back at it, brandishing her big club over her head. She swung the massive weapon down at the thing’s shoulder, but it bucked and thrashed and the club only bounced off, triggering a new round of bitter, angry snarling from both combatants.
The crowd was on its feet, filling the arena with deafening enthusiasm.
Siu-Wai and the other raptor continued to circle. She caught sight of her own footprints as she reached the halfway point and realised the thing was slowly closing in on her, and had spiraled nearer without her noticing. Something in her sudden tension must have triggered the creature, for it launched into the air, leaping up to come plunging down on top of the small woman.
Just as Patarich had told her, Siu-Wai planted the end of her pole in the sand, hoisting up the fork to receive the incoming beast. Its extended claws reached out at her and Siu-Wai could not remain entirely without worry. Her eyes squeezed shut.
There came a terrific clang, an infuriated roar, and a tremendous blast of noise from the crowd. Siu-Wai opened her eyes to see the raptor scrambling to its feet only a short distance away. Without thinking she yanked the pole free from the sand and rushed backwards a quick half-dozen steps, pausing there to ready herself once more. She swept the pole behind her back.
Jihanna appeared to have given up trying to strike her enraged opponent with her club. She’d somehow gotten the weapon’s shaft shoved into the creature’s jaw and, still riding the leaping, spitting thing, was now heaving on the club with all her strength.
The other raptor studied Siu-Wai with tilted head, and then leapt again. This time she kept her eyes open as she planted the pole, and she was able to position the fork just right as the beast flew at her.
The fork caught the creature’s neck halfway between skull and shoulder, and both snapped forward.
The raptor thrashed for a moment, retching horribly, and then collapsed to the sand. Siu-Wai looked over, panting, to see Jihanna tumble off the other beast, which staggered away, its lower jaw hanging uselessly, blood pouring from its face. The big woman hefted her club and slammed the spike sideways into the dinosaur’s face. It fell. A heartbeat later, her left leg still bleeding, Jihanna did likewise.
“You did as requested. You made us even more money than we would have on del Parillo. Very long odds were offered on two unknown women surviving the fight. Thank you.”
Jihanna and Siu-Wai glanced at each other over the head of the surgeon who was bandaging Jihanna’s leg. Bessala Day stood at the door to the infirmary, her Chisel Boys visible in the hall behind her. The gang leader offered a smile that only seemed to deepen the coldness of her expression.
“If you wish a career as raptadors, come see me. I sponsor many fighters. I might even pay you next time.”
“I don’t think my associate would approve.”
Siu-Wai rolled her eyes and kept silent as Day and her thugs left.
“Another perfectly executed plan, ending in utter ruin. I am beginning to think we aren’t cut out for entrepreneurship.”
“What do you suggest? Back to robbing tombs? Hunting pirates?”
“I confess I have no ideas. But we can’t even afford a room for you to convalesce in while your leg heals.”
“Pah. It’s nothing. I’ll be fine.”
A knock at the door interrupted their conversation. Two pairs of eyes widened as the door opened, revealing young Patarich on his crutches, and del Parillo looking pale and with a hankerchief at his mouth.
“Ladies. That was quite a performance.”
“You were watching?”
“Pah. Such beasts are nothing.”
del Parillo coughed and the two men edged further into the room.
“Truly, your courage and skill were impressive. I have not often seen the like.”
Jihanna smirked a little at del Parillo’s sickliness.
“How are you feeling, my friend? It was just business, you understand.”
“You poisoned me.”
“Only a little. Look, my leg is injured. I shall need a sofa to lie upon, and someone to bring me drinks when I am thirsty.”
Siu-Wai turned away from del Parillo’s answering grin to see Patarich nearby. He gestured to his leg.
“I doubt we’ll be able to, ah, pick up where we left off, but…”
She laughed and came up beside him. She took his crutch and placed his arm on her shoulder as del Parillo helped Jihanna to her feet.
“I suppose planning can wait.”
Jihanna laughed as the four made their way out of the infirmary. They emerged into a broad hall leading outside, lined with cheering spectators. As they made their way out, shoulders pounded and ears poured full of breathless offers, promises and declarations, Siu-Wai sighed once more.
“And I don’t suppose our next plan will work out any better than this one.”
“Free drinks and applause and two beautiful men and you call this a failure? Pah. Life is short, my dear. Associate.”