As Jihanna pushed her way into the raucous press of bodies filling the new Chang Lao casino known as Gavarno’s, she put aside her anger at her absent comrade, Siu Wai. The tall swordswoman, her brown frame lit up with gold jewelry and bright silks, swaggered through the crowd, smiling at the appreciative stares her stature and appearance drew.
Attention was air to breathe and water to drink for Jihanna and she stepped up to the dice table, confident that space would be made for her. And space was. She stood at the table’s rim, surveying her fellow players with a easy superiority as she dug into her newly-heavy purse.
Stares became even more appreciative when she tossed a half-dozen glittering coins down on the felt, not even bothering to count or glance at them. The roper called her into the game and gathered up the coins.
Jihanna smiled and held her hand out for the dice. As she felt the bone cubes arrive in her hand, she gave them one quick shake and tossed them down. The roar of the crowd around her told her she’d won, and she leaned back a little as the roper pushed her winnings at her.
She tossed him a coin and blew him a kiss and took up the dice again.
So engrossed was Jihanna in the dice, the money and the adulation of the crowd around her that she failed to notice the quiet disappearance of her newest gold bracelet. The jade-studded band, worked in the form of a roaring lion, vanished from her wrist, leaving no trace it had ever been there.
But Jihanna certainly noticed the blond man as he emerged from the crowd directly opposite her. He was tall, taller than her, with a glorious mane of golden hair descending past his broad shoulders. His easy smile and piercing green eyes stirred a joyous heat within her. She tossed the dice again, without ever taking her eyes off this gold-haired god, and scarcely noticed further riches pushed towards as the crowd cheered.
Jihanna waved off the dice when they were handed to her, and tossed a handful of coins at the roper. She stepped away from the table, leaving the pile of coins, and pushed off through the crowd, circling the table to approach this new treasure.
He watched her stride through the crowd, grinned as she elbowed a mincing courtesan out of the way, and moments later they stood face to face.
Her smug grin widened as he lifted a hand and stroked her cheek. She raised a hand of her own and spread her fingers through the thick blond hair showing where his shirt hung open. With a chuckle, she grabbed a handful of hair and tweaked, but he only smiled. His hand fit against her jaw, his fingers reaching up behind her ear.
“I like a man with big hands.”
She took his hand in hers and led him away from the dice table. Somebody called out, pointing at the pile of money left behind, but Jihanna paid no attention as she led her new friend out into the night-time street.
Siu Wai held the burning taper over the bowl of her pipe and sucked with steady care. The little mound of coals lit up as she drew the flame over, tilting the pipe with practiced ease to generate the maximum smoke.
As her inhalation ceased, she lifted the taper away and lay back on a sumptuous couch, holding her breath with her lungs full of waterfluff smoke. Around her quiet murmurs told of conversation and laughter, but the small Imperial girl lay by herself, one slippered foot hanging off the side of her couch.
At last she exhaled, watching dreamily as smoke curled and spiralled out from between her lips. She reached out with a perfectly-manicured hand and lifted a porcelain cup to her mouth.
“Madam? Is all to your satisfaction?”
Siu Wai smiled, eyes half-lidded, and nodded to the hovering host who’d materialized beside her. She took another sip of tea, and then set the cup down beside her new silver-handled fan.
Her voice came out low and uncharacteristically relaxed.
“This drying is every bit as exquisite as you promised, Master Benn. Some of the best I’ve ever tried.”
The host bowed as his guest took another langourous drag on her pipe and lay back again to savour the taste and slow glory.
Siu Wai smiled up at the dark ceiling stones, cut eons ago for the sacred steps of some long-forgotten temple. Weird creatures cavorted, and in her daze she imagined the carvings beginning to sport and dance about above her. Her fascination kept her from noticing as her fan winked out of existence without any fuss at all.
Someone was looking at her. Siu Wai, ordinarily paranoid and cautious, had a very well-developed sense of being observed, and even through the fog of her intoxication she frowned. Her gaze lowered from the ceiling and she found a unfamiliar youth standing at the foot of her couch, studying her with grey glittering eyes.
He was pale, his black hair pulled back from a smooth, delicately shaped face. Tall, but slender in his beautifully tailored sky-blue robe, and watching her without a trace of embarrassment or self-consciousness.
They stared at each other. He smiled, a teasing, minute lift of his lips that triggered an answering smirk on Siu Wai’s face. She pushed herself upright, her gaze fixed on his cool grey eyes as he reached out towards her.
His hand was cool and strong and he pulled a little bit, just enough that she could easily get to her feet.
“Is this gentleman a friend of Madam’s?”
Siu Wai smiled at the worried host as she allowed the beautiful young man to lead her away.
“I’m quite sure we’re going to be great friends. Thank you, Master Benn.”
Benn watched with a puzzled frown as the elegant Imperial noblewoman left with the pale stranger.
“Anywhere, I don’t care. Anywhere.”
Jihanna laughed as her huge blond companion gestured down a narrow alley. She strode ahead of him, confident of his eyes on her, and without any sign of fear at entering such a dark lane.
A few steps in, towering stone walls hanging overhead, and she grinned as she felt his hands slide around her hips.
She stopped and he pressed up against her from behind, his torso rock-hard with muscle. His massive arms came up around her from either side as his warm hands slid over her belly. Her fingers gripped his forearms and she leaned back, savouring his strength.
Jihanna turned her head and inhaled, tasting a heady male scent of sweat and oil and a faint odour of brimstone that made her smile up at his big bearded face.
She shivered and rose up just a little, twisting to nibble at his lips.
His arms wrapped fully around her, squeezing with a thrilling potency. Jihanna grinned, reaching up and back to tangle her hands in his long blond locks, pulling a little and chuckling. She kissed him fiercely, trying to force his mouth open with her tongue, but he suddenly pulled back.
His green eyes flashed, and Jihanna felt those strong arms hurl her away, further down the alley. She recovered and spun back to snarl at his discourtesy, but her protest died in her mouth as she watched his handsome face distort horribly, his glorious mane of blond hair erupting all around his shoulders. His teeth grew, great canines suddenly extending as he roared, shaking the heavy stone walls on either side.
Each of his big hands now held a gigantic scimitar. He strode forward, his legs strangely bent and a long lashing tail reaching out behind him.
Jihanna blinked and shook her head.
“You couldn’t have waited till after?”
Siu Wai smiled as the slender young man removed his hand from her backside and bowed in apology. She placed one dainty foot on the carriage step and lifted her arm. Immediately his hand was at her elbow, steady for her to press her slight weight upon as she rose up and into the carriage.
She settled herself on the rear seat and watched with satisfaction as her companion entered, his easy athleticism making the awkward motion graceful and fluid. He sat beside her as the carriage started forward, and lay his hand palm-up on his thigh beside hers.
Pretending not to notice, Siu Wai turned away to take in the grand sweeping view from where they rode. The great city of Chang Lao dropped away before her, towers and domes cut from ancient ziggurats and temples, altars chopped down to make doorways and pillars. Brothels rose on the sites of sacred hermitages, and scholars spent their lives trying to reconstruct what the original metropolis must have looked like.
Torches and great lanterns flared in the midnight darkness all down the slope, and across the still harbour ships’ lights glowed. The great mass of The Island, the high promontory that formed the far side of the harbour, blocked the stars in the western sky.
Still admiring the view, Siu Wai lifted one hand and placed it in the open hand of the young man sitting next to her. She smiled to herself as she felt his long fingers wrap gently around hers, and she lifted their conjoined hands.
With her free hand, Siu Wai casually undid the top few clasps of her gown, and still without looking at her partner, she slid his hand in against her chest.
His hand was quite cool, and she gasped as his fingers spread over her skin and then cupped her flesh. She felt his other hand graze across the nape of her neck, pulling her hair aside, and then his cool liquid lips slid against her, just beneath her ear.
Siu Wai moaned, unaware that behind her a long slim-bladed dagger hovered in a pale hand. The blade thrust at her, but just at that moment she turned to pounce on her lover, stopping only to stare in a confused fuddle at the knife buried in the upholstery next to her.
His annoyed snarl deepened and grew deafening and when Siu Wai looked back up at him she recoiled against the far side of the carriage. Her pale companion’s elegant features twisted and flowed, extending forward to form a hideous muzzle, and as he rose up, lifting away the roof of the carriage in the process, he unfurled great membranous wings from his back.
The driver shrieked and leapt from his perch, leaving his poor beast to stampede down the hill, Siu Wai and her giant silvery dragon-man careening in the carriage behind.