“Hey! Look at me!”
A voice cut through the surrounding haze where nothing else had. He tried to focus on it.
“Come on. You can do it.”
He was trying, but he couldn’t focus on the voice long enough to figure out where the sound was coming from.
“Damn; they hit you pretty badly, huh?”
He couldn’t even lift his head from where it rested on his chest, a position he wasn’t entirely sure how he had gotten into. He thought he heard a sigh.
“Look at me.”
A musical ring, almost like bells echoing, entered the voice, and he felt compelled to lift his head until he met violet eyes.
“Ah, that’s it.”
Immediately his head cleared and most of the pain faded, allowing him to focus on where he was.
He appeared to be in a cage, with dark metal bars and harsh lighting. It was just big enough for him, a small lumpy cot, and a waste disposal unit. The room holding the cage was gray and bare; it had only one door, with a sophisticated electronic lock, and no windows.
Wonderful. He was in jail.
There were seven other cages in the room, but only the one across from him was occupied. An Avari woman with long white hair tied up in a ponytail and curious violet eyes had somehow hooked her legs through the bars that crossed the top of her cage and was hanging upside down, long ears twitching happily. Her all-black clothing fit tightly to her body; it looked nothing like any of the local fashions. There were no guards in sight.
Then again, he was in the middle of a security station in the heart of the Empire. Of course they would have only the latest technology to keep lawbreakers in their nice cozy cages. No extra guards were required; every move they made was most likely being monitored and watched carefully for any hint of escape. Probably by more tech programmed to look for such things so no one would have to do such a dull and boring job.
She waved at him.
He stared at the woman blankly, unsure what to make of her. She was looking at him intently, but the effect was somewhat diminished by her position.
She looked ridiculous.
Then she smiled, ears perking up happily as she saw that she had his attention. “Welcome back to the land of the living,” she said cheerfully. “It seems like they really don’t like you, the way they just threw you in there like a sack of bricks. Are you feeling any better now?”
He ignored her, feeling his own ears drop slightly in annoyance, and brought a hand up to rub his eyes. He was not feeling quite up to speaking yet, and especially not with some weird person hanging upside down in a jail cell.
He felt a sudden spike of panic, and his hand darted down to his ankle. He touched metal and sucked in a breath in relief; his key was still tied there.
The woman seemed to take his movement as an affirmative and began to swing herself from side to side silently for a few minutes as he tried to get the last of his headache to go away. “So… what are you in here for?” she asked finally, interest clear in her voice.
He raised his eyebrows and sighed, shaking his head and letting his gaze sweep over the room again, not that there was much to look at. He didn’t feel up to dealing with eccentric strangers right now. He shivered as a cold draft worked its way by him; his coat was gone. His new, warm, comfy, gray coat. It was probably considered evidence for the stolen chips, he figured glumly. Or they had wanted to make him suffer a little. Either option was a possibility.
He sighed and picked himself up off the floor to sit on the cot. It felt even lumpier than it looked, but it was better than the floor. At least everything was dry and looked clean – that was even an improvement over his normal living arrangements, where filth was practically a method of interior decorating, and the weather affected the inside of structures only marginally less than the outside. Even the fabric covering the cot was of a higher quality than he was used to.
He looked over at his chatty neighbor in annoyance, realizing that she was still waiting for an answer. Part of him wondered absently if she just didn’t like silence. “Do you really want to know?” His voice was a little rough, but at least it didn’t waver or slur. Better than he had hoped for after such a hit to the head. For that matter, he was surprised that his short ponytail was still mostly in place, just a few ruby-colored strands escaping their tie.
Her eyes widened, violet meeting silver, and she nodded earnestly at him.
He sighed again and cast his thoughts back to earlier in the day, before everything had gone to hell.
“My apologies, Miss.”
The young waiter side-stepped out of the woman’s way, barely missing the embroidered hem of her floor-length red gown. He took a moment to steady the drinks on his tray before continuing to thread his way through the crowd of gamblers and eye candy a little more carefully, pausing every so often to allow one of the patrons to take a full glass or place down an empty one before moving on.
There were many men and women here like the one in the red dress. Only the truly rich and influential were invited to the annual party at the Silver Ring Casino, and the truly rich of the Empire were generally also the truly snobbish. It did not matter that he had not actually made contact with the woman in any way, only that she had perceived the possibility – that something that was supposed to be a background object had intruded on her personal space and impeded her graceful movements. Or perhaps it had been his dark-red hair that had alarmed her, just a few shades too red to be Human, or the pointed ears that marked him as Avari. He didn’t think she’d gotten a good look at his eyes, but the silver definitely would have given him away. Humans were always wary around the Avari these days, and such interactions were common between the two races.
He supposed it was possible that she simply hadn’t expected to see an Avari at such a high-class party, but the kitchen had been understaffed for the event. A few Avari had been hired to help the regular Human workers take care of the guests, and he had joined the unfamiliar faces tonight so that he could carry out his plan.
When his tray was filled with empty glasses he made his way back to the kitchen, nodding to the security guard on the way in and ignoring the beep. Dropping the tray on a nearby counter, he quickly moved through the noise and activity until he came to a door in the back. He glanced around to make sure no one was watching as he entered the deserted room where the help changed into the provided uniforms. Approaching the place where he’d left his regular clothing, he pulled a handful of casino chips out from his pocket and hid them with the small stash that he had previously gathered. He made sure they were out of sight again before he returned to the kitchen to pick up another tray of glasses and return to the party.
Casinos such as the Silver Ring still used a chip system on the floor instead of the universal credit system that reigned outside. While credit provided the government with a clear record of purchases and sales, the chips themselves were untraceable and worth a lot of money – and thus could be sold for untraceable paper cash on the black market. Cash could only be used on the black market, but having the resources to get food for a few months was worth the risk to get it.
And there was risk. Though the chips were untraceable in an attempt to keep them as vintage as possible, the casinos did have security measures in place to keep them within their buildings. All doors leading from the floor had sensors that would beep and flash red if chips passed through them. Guards were stationed next to each sensor, and any offender was quickly escorted back to the exchange terminal.
However, though there was a sensor and a guard next to the door to the kitchen, the rules were a little different for the servers. Since they got tipped for making special trips for guests, the sensor went off nearly every time they went through. The management did not want their employees to waste time exchanging their chips every single time they got tipped, so as long as the sensor didn’t flash red on their way through at the end of their shift it was ignored. He was using this to his advantage, carefully relieving the patrons of a few chips here and there and leaving them with his clothing. He was careful to bring a few back with him so the sensor would trigger on his way onto the floor, ensuring the guard wouldn’t know he was leaving them in the back. This surprisingly simple plan would allow him to sell the chips on the black market later. He already had a dealer in mind who would more than appreciate the chips and pay him well.
The last few years had been difficult, and he’d been barely scraping by. He just wanted to be able to buy food. He didn’t want to have to steal, or to worry about where his next meal was coming from, or if it was even coming at all. All he had to do was put up with a few rich, snobby, bigoted Humans for a few hours.
He had noticed the event two years ago as he had been wandering through the city. He hadn’t paid it any mind at the time, but it wasn’t long before he began to wonder how hard it would be to steal from the casino guests. They were very wealthy; surely they could stand to lose a little money that would go to a better cause. Over the course of the next few days the idea had kept coming back, until he finally considered looking into it. He began researching both the casino and the event, eventually deciding to observe the next party the casino held and hit the one after that. It had been a lot of work and a long buildup, requiring patience and dedication, but now it was all paying off. He could not have hoped for things to be going any more smoothly.
He skillfully weaved through the crowd with his tray, offering drinks as he went. Most of the conversation around him concerned the sentencing of Lady Hotaru’s murderer, which was scheduled to happen within the next few days in the Ni Fon province. People seemed pretty split on whether the punishment would be death or banishment. Would the Emperor himself do the sentencing? Lady Hotaru had been the daughter of one of the seven provincial dukes, but Ni Fon was far and the Emperor rarely left Agale. He had heard a wide variety of stories surrounding the lady’s death over the past eight months, and even the Avari found themselves gossiping about it. He himself did not overly care about the court drama of the Human nobles who ran the Empire, but there were many others who did. He did find it interesting that the killer had been a Human, and Hotaru’s fiancé. But at least that made it not an Avari problem.
He had already amassed quite a few chips, and he was planning on making two or three more runs before leaving. He had slowed his intake to decrease the chances of getting caught, and now he was gearing up for the final part of the plan – escape.
He blinked, ears perking up, surprised anyone would directly address him in a non-negative fashion, and turned around to see a blonde Human in a sparkly, skimpy white dress blinking large blue eyes at him. He immediately offered her the tray, thinking that she might simply want a drink, but she didn’t so much as glance at it. Her eyes gained a predatory gleam and her smile widened.
Something about that set off an alarm in his head. He suddenly felt very uncomfortable, his ears dropping.
She moved closer, then followed him when he took a hasty step back. “I’m thirsty for something else, lovely. Oh, your eyes! So pretty. Silver is such a lovely color. And it goes so well with your hair! What’s your name?” she cooed, reaching out as though to touch him.
He was sure that under other circumstances this would be funny, considering she looked to be about four years younger than him, maybe seventeen or eighteen, but he couldn’t find it in himself to be amused. Instead he felt vaguely sick and took another step back. He tried not to think about how Avari often disappeared when they gained these sorts of attentions from Humans. It was illegal, but such trafficking did occur, especially among the rich. Why was this happening now?
The girl’s smile slipped from her face as she looked at something over his shoulder. He stepped to the side to keep her in his line of sight and immediately saw the issue. A tall Human woman with intricately pinned-up white hair – or was it a pale blonde? She looked too young to have naturally white hair – stood a few feet behind him. Her gown was such a dark green that it was nearly black and had what looked like diamonds sparkling at the edges. A net veil covered the top half of her face, but he could still make out the sharp green eyes pinning him in place. Everything about her screamed power and wealth. “I would like a Turmoi Martini,” she continued, seeing that she had his attention. “Fetch one for me.”
He bowed immediately, hiding his relief as he sensed an escape from the blonde. “Of course, Miss,” he murmured, careful to speak at a proper volume. “It will be a moment.” He started to move away.
But before he was able to take more than a step, the blonde grabbed his arm. “Go find another one,” she snapped, just barely civil. “This one’s busy.”
The pale-haired woman tilted her head ever so slightly to the side, taking in the situation. “Indeed; he is busy getting me my drink. I would appreciate it if you would allow him to do so.” She leveled a pointed gaze at the blonde’s grip on his arm.
“No he is not! I asked for his help, and he was just about to come with me.” She looked at the now petrified thief and managed a sweet smile. “Were you not?” she asked almost kindly, looking at him hopefully. It was disturbing, and the sick feeling intensified as his stomach dropped.
“This is not an auction or a store for you to shop at, Ms. Kirsin. Do I have to remind you that he works here? He is not here for your entertainment, but to get the rest of us what we ask for.”
The smile disappeared as the blonde snapped her gaze back to the woman. “He’s mine!” she hissed, refusing to give up. “When I tell my father–”
“Yes, let us tell your father,” the pale-haired woman interrupted. “You are making a scene, which I’m sure he will appreciate, and I also think that he’ll be very interested in the Gallian apples, don’t you?”
The woman’s voice was cold as she gazed at the girl, who paled, then flushed, then paled again. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out, leaving her looking rather like a fish searching for food. Her shock was palpable, and he could see it warring with the livid anger on her face.
The woman’s dark-red lips turned up ever so slightly into a smile. “I didn’t think so.”
It was pretty clear to the thief who had won this battle. The blonde managed to pull herself together long enough to shoot a vicious glare at the woman. She snatched her hand away from him, turned on her heel, and stormed away without looking back.
He barely managed to refrain from a sigh of relief. Saved!
But then the woman turned her sharp gaze on him, pinning the thief in place before he could escape to the safety of the kitchen. She surprised him, though, when her gaze softened by a fraction.
“Now would be a good time for you to leave,” she suggested coolly. “That girl is very possessive, and you do not want to end up as one of her playthings. Forget about the drink.” Her gaze lingered on him for just a moment more, then she stepped back into the crowd and was gone almost immediately.
The thief stood there, frozen in shock for several long moments. Saved by a Human! But whatever her reason, she had given sound advice. He didn’t trust the blonde to continue to leave him alone once she noticed that the other woman had left. It was definitely time to go; he had stolen more than enough to last him for quite some time anyway.
He quickly moved off to the side of the room, and after checking to make sure no one was looking, he dropped all the chips he had on him into the massively leafy branches of a convenient potted plant. He then put the last two drinks on his tray onto a nearby end table and headed back towards the kitchen.
When he reached the guard, he stopped. “This was my last trip,” he informed the man, who nodded silently as he passed through the sensor. The light flashed green, and the guard waved him towards the kitchen. He dropped his tray on the nearest counter and headed back to the changing room. Luckily no one else was there, and within a few minutes he had changed back into his normal clothing with his precious cargo stowed in various pockets throughout his coat. He stuffed the uniform in a nearby locker and darted out the door towards freedom. He smiled as the back door to the Silver Ring closed behind him, leaving him in a side alley.
He had actually done it! He had succeeded in stealing from one of the most prestigious casinos in the entire city of Lyndiniam – no, the entire province of Agale, the very heart of the Empire!
He was going to be rich.
His mood improving considerably from the nauseating encounter with the blonde girl, he strolled out of the alley onto the main street and emerged into the bustling nightlife.
Buildings made of white lester and glass climbed in clean, straight lines all around him. Here in the center of the Empire, everything was made to be sleek, ageless, and modern. Greenery was carefully controlled. The streets were smooth, paved with a modified silvery-gray lester. The casino was the one building that stood out – in another attempt to be more traditional, the giant doors were framed in a dark-gray stone, with flourishes and decorations etched into it. Despite the late hour, the streets were crowded with people as they went along to their destinations, talking and laughing to one another as they went. Officers of the City Guard stood at attention at their posts in sharp black-and-gray uniforms, keeping a watchful eye on the populace, ready to act at the first sign of trouble.
It was nothing like the part of the city he hailed from, where Avari had to make do with whatever scraps they could get and crime ran rampant.
The cool autumn wind blew by him as he started down the street. The weather had only just started to change, but it would be cold soon enough. Winter was always difficult when you lived in buildings that were open to the elements and didn’t retain heat, but this year he now had enough money to spend the cold season comfortably. His winter coat was another new thing this year; it was plain, but warm. A good steal. All in all he was looking forward to a good winter.
As he approached the front of the Silver Ring, he could hear what sounded like crying coming from within the building. The giant doors were open, and as he passed by he glanced into the lobby. He blinked in surprise as he saw the blonde girl from earlier with her white dress torn and her hair a mess. She was sobbing as she talked to several guard officers, one of which had a digital pad and stylus in hand and looked to be taking notes. Then she looked past the officer and locked eyes with him.
She screamed, backing up and pointing one damning finger at him.
The thief didn’t know what exactly she had told them, but he could bet it wasn’t good, and there was absolutely no one who would take an Avari’s word over that of a rich, young, female Human. They wouldn’t even bother asking questions. He would have no chance.
So he turned and ran.
Straight into two members of the Guard.
Luck was with him; they seemed surprised to have the blonde screaming and pointing in their direction. He dropped and spun, kicking his leg out to sweep the closer officer’s legs out from beneath him. In the background, he heard a voice yell “Stop him!” and knew he had no time to get into a brawl. The other officer didn’t react quickly enough, and a strong elbow to the stomach cleared an escape route, but that was when his luck ran out. The other officers had gotten close enough to join the fight, and one flying tackle landed him on the ground with the breath knocked out of him and an officer on top of him. He tried to twist and kick free but couldn’t break the officer’s grip. Sudden pain blossomed in his head and stars appeared as the officer slammed his head down into the ground, momentarily stunning him. This was all the opportunity the officers needed to subdue him long enough to cuff his hands behind him.
He was roughly hauled up off the ground and slammed against the hood of a nearby guard vehicle. His cheek was pressed against the hard material, and he moved just a little to rest his aching head against the cool surface. He could still hear the girl screaming in the background. “It was him!” she shrieked, over and over again. He wished she would stop as he tried to focus on what was going on around the pounding in his head. He was already being arrested; what more did she want? He felt the officer’s hands begin to search him, then freeze when they encountered one of the many pockets full of stolen casino chips.
Not only was Luck no longer helping him, but she seemed to be cheering for the other side as the officer pulled out a handful of black-and-silver chips. The thief heard the officer’s sharp intake of breath. Briefly he entertained the idea that the guard would let go of him in shock, but if anything the hold on him tightened. “An assailant and a thief,” the guard spat in disgust.
That really didn’t seem quite right to him as he tried to fight the disorientation that was steadily getting worse. He hadn’t attacked any… oh. Oh. He should have figured that the blonde bitch would have told them something like that.
“What else did you expect from an Avari?” he heard another officer snort. “It’s not like they know how to behave.”
He reflected in a somewhat detached fashion that he was never going to see the light of day again as he felt himself being manhandled into the vehicle. He was starting to feel increasingly dizzy as he watched the lights of the city pass by in an incomprehensible blur as they drove to one of the security stations located in the city.
By the time they arrived, he had to be pulled from the vehicle and dragged into the building, as the dizziness and disorientation had increased to the point where he had to focus completely on staying awake. If he fell asleep now, he had a feeling he wouldn’t be waking up again. He couldn’t pay any attention to what was going on around him, where he was going, or what was happening to him. Distantly, he felt himself hit a hard surface, which knocked the breath out of him again.
“Hey! Look at me!”
Well, why not?
“I assaulted someone and stole millions from a casino.”
The woman blinked, looking almost confused and a little disappointed as her ears drooped a bit. She eyed him for a moment, then raised an eyebrow skeptically.
He shrugged and decided not to explain any further. “How did you get in here, then?” he asked.
She smiled, ears perking up. “I walked.”
He opened his mouth to clarify, then shut it. He wondered if she was insane, and if he should be questioning his own sanity for expecting a straight answer out of someone who had been hanging upside down for an indeterminate period of time.
“This isn’t the main jail,” he said instead, changing the subject and giving the room another look.
“No, it’s not. You were arrested after admissions closed for the night, so we’re just in Officer HQ Security Station until the morning.” She began to swing herself slightly from side to side again.
Then he realized that his headache was not just better, but gone. Completely. Which was strange, as he was pretty sure that he had had a concussion. His memory was still rather fuzzy, but he could remember seeing violet eyes, and there was only one other person around.
“What did you do?” he asked suddenly, shifting to look at her.
She gave him a puzzled look. “I walked?”
“I had a concussion,” he clarified. “But now I feel a lot better, and that doesn’t seem possible unless you did something. What?”
She smiled and shrugged, which looked odd, given her position. “Oh, that. Magic.”
He stared at her. “Crazy” was sounding like a better and better explanation. “Magic doesn’t exist anymore,” he reminded her slowly, wondering at the same time why he was even bothering.
“Do your concussions often heal themselves?” she asked curiously.
She cut him off with a happy grin. “Of course not! Concussions don’t do that. So the answer is obviously magic. Unless you have a better explanation?”
He was flabbergasted. Why was magic more likely than a self-healing concussion? He shrugged, groping for a better answer. “New technology?”
She gave him an amused look. “If you say so.”
Silence fell between them for a minute or two. Maybe he had actually guessed right, since she hadn’t tried to argue the point. It certainly made more sense than magic. Still, he wondered what type of tech could fix a concussion from over ten feet away.
“So… what is your name?” she asked suddenly.
He paused. “Jamirh,” he finally offered.
Her eyes narrowed, and for a moment he thought he saw something dark flash in them, but it was gone so quickly he wasn’t sure he had seen it at all. “I did not ask what you are called; I asked what your name is.” Something in her voice changed, echoed.
He stared at her, bemused.
She stared back.
“My name is Jamirh,” he finally said, ears lowering slightly. He didn’t know what she was going on about, but this was ridiculous. He’d answered her; did she have to pry further?
She frowned slightly, her own ears drooping unhappily. “Stronger, this time, but whatever. I suppose you can call me Hel, then.”
She was an all-around strange, annoying, invasive, insane person, and he tried to stop himself, but in the end he had to ask. “What kind of name is Hel?”
She smiled. “A very, very old one. Now, I strongly suggest you try to get some sleep. We have a big day tomorrow.”
He was cut off by a dull buzzing sound emanating from the other side of the door as the lights went out, leaving them in total darkness. Not even the emergency lights remained lit.
“Well, would you look at that.” He couldn’t see her, but he just knew from the tone of her voice that she had a feral grin on her face. “It’s tomorrow already!”