“Seriously? You sure you ain’t cheatin’?” Aliyah looks suspiciously at Saira, where they sit playing cards with Cherry at one of the tables on a slow evening in the Burrow Bar.
“Yeah, I’m startin’ to think the same thing!” Cherry kicks at Saira’s leg under the table, biting her lower lip and grinning.
“Ow! Hey! What are you two looking at me for? I can’t be blamed if you can’t play right!” Saira kicks back, making Cherry yelp and pull her legs up fast enough to slam her knees into the underside of the table.
“Serves you right, flingin’ about accusations!” Saira says primly, tugging at the flowing sleeves of the black dress. “Besides, there’s a million places for me to hide cards in this frickin’ drapery thing you got me wearing.”
Cherry sticks her tongue out at her. “I gave you a choice! I can’t help it if all your clothes now are hand-me-downs from Alma’s old stuff. At least it’s all black, like you like.”
Aliyah tosses her cards on the table. “Well I better settle up. I gotta go on duty in a minute.”
“All right, sugar,” Cherry says, rubbing one knee. “Let’s go to the bar. You sure you don’t just want me to put that on your tab, hon? She wiped you like a window cleaner.”
“Oh I’m fine,” Aliyah says casually. “I always hold some in reserve.” She pulls out her wallet and looks in with dismay. “Uh…Cher…”
“Put it on your tab, huh?”
With a sheepish smile, Aliyah says, “Yeah… Oh, look who just walked in…”
Cherry is already looking toward the doorway as it swings open. “My, oh my, if it ain’t the god of tight leather himself,” she says quietly for Aliyah’s ears only. Then she calls out to Somrak, “Hi, hon! Fancy somethin’ to drink?”
Somrak looks toward Cherry and smiles, then notices Saira, still lounging at the table. As he walks toward her, he says, “One of those cocktails you made me last time, Cherry. Thanks.”
“Sure thing!” Cherry turns to grab a bottle of bourbon with one hand, a shaker with the other, then leans back to say quietly to Aliyah, “Guess he’s eager for a game himself. Heh.”
Aliyah, smiling as she watches him move, replies, “Dangerous game…like gasoline meetin’, uh, flamin’ gasoline.”
“Ohhhh yeah, that’d make one heck of a bonfire, those two together.” Cherry adds ice, bourbon, and vermouth to the shaker. “And then again, I wouldn’t mind gettin’ a little scorched myself. I mean, look at them hips.”
Aliyah murmurs, “É…essa brasa é fogo…”
“Wazzat? Somethin’ like fire?”
“Means he’s hot like fire,” Aliyah says with a grin as she starts to leave. “A couple’a market girls were calling him that earlier when I was coming into work. Seems they say him yesterday with your mom and wanted to know who he was.”
Cherry chuckles. “Word does get around quickly. Wonder how many people he’s lookin’ to burn…”
Saira is leaning back in her chair, looking into space while splitting the deck of cards with one hand and smoothly sliding the cards back together, interleaving them in a shuffle, then doing it again. She glances up as Somrak’s shadow falls over her. “Huh…you again.”
“Playing solitaire?” the fire gods asks.
“Reading fortunes.” Still using just the one hand, she fans out the deck. “Pick a card. Any card.”
Somrak pulls a chair out and sits, then picks a card at random, not bothering to turn it so he can see it, but just holding it up for Saira’s benefit. The corner of Siara’s mouth creases with a touch of amusement. “Dame of clubs. A lady of authority guides your steps. Pick another.”
Keeping his eyes on hers, Somrak tumbles the card across his fingers, trapping it between pinky and ring fingers while simultaneously pulling another card out and holding it up for Saira to see.
She barely glances at the card before returning her gaze to hold his. “Hmm… a seven… One of the temptations. And red. Love or greed.”
Somrak grunts, then asks, “How would you like to get out of here?”
“That escalated quickly.” She looks at the card more fully. “Diamonds. Well, it’s not love.”
“I need help,” he says. “Looking for a market. One that sells demonic items. Maybe you’ve heard of it?”
Saira snaps the deck closed and sets it down on the table, eyes fixed on it. “Been looking for it myself. Not easy to find, I gather.” She looks up at him again. “Why would you be interested in stuff like that?”
Somrak keeps his gold-flecked black eyes on her face. “Normally I might be interested in trying to track down their sources. But this time I’m more interested in their buyers. One in particular. He set off a bomb in this station. Probably also working with the guy who summoned the demon you fought.”
“I’ve heard about the bomb,” Saira says. “Not really my business. I was out cold at the time. The demon-handler, though…”
“He was a lead. They killed him so the Dei here couldn’t question him. Took out another prisoner and a good Popula officer.”
“I know,” Saira says. “And almost took out a Dei.” She is paying close attention at Somrak’s expression, watching how he seems to be studying her just as carefully. “All that is your business. But there weren’t many Dukaines who could get away with demon summoning. Not if they didn’t work for someone up near the top, someone I’d love to find.” She turns over a card, the ace of spades. “That would make it my business.”
Somrak glances at the card and smiles. “I’ve been rounding up the Dukaine summoners myself. I’d love to have the complete set. The one who turned our lead into a dead end was probably his teacher. And I think he may have been very highly placed indeed.”
Saira takes a deep breath. “A lot of Dukaines have told me things with their last breaths. I know who you’re talking about.” She brings her chair back onto all four legs, then pushes his back as she stands. “I’ll be needing my crossbow.”
Cherry sets Somrak’s drink down on the table. “Crossbow? Hey, what’s goin’ on?”
Saira takes Somrak’s drink and sips it. “Mmm. Just planning some target practice, sunshine.”
Cherry puts her hands on her hips. “Don’t you sunshine me! I can tell when you’re shinin’ me on. And you are not supposed to be drinkin’!”
Saira puts the glass down, looking serious. “They need me to talk to some people. I’m going. That’s all.”
Cherry opens her mouth to say something, but closes it on seeing the expression on Saira’s face. Looking angry, she turns to Somrak. “What the hey are you gettin’ her into, mister?”
Somrak replies calmly, “Cherry, Alma approved it.”
The Bunny glares at him. “I heard the rumors about what happened over in Rio Novo.”
Saira looks impressed. “That was you? Nice!”
Somrak sighs. “That was a mistake.”
“Yeah?” says Cherry, her voice tight, leaning in to put her face close to his. “And what about when you make a mistake and Saira here ends up dead? Huh?”
Saira is on the verge of snapping at the Bunny, cutting her off and telling her to mind her own business, but on impulse she instead puts her arms around Cherry from behind, pulling her close. The Bunny looks surprised for a moment, then lays her dark-brown hands on Saira’s tanned forearms, turning her head to look up at the taller woman. Saira says, “Cherry… I know you worry, but I’m a big girl and I can take care of myself. Besides, I’m all better now. I won’t play hero.”
Cherry sags a little in Saira’s arms. “You’re a big girl who almost fell off the roof a couple days ago. You ain’t all better! Dammit girl… You promise me! You promise me you mean it when you say you ain’t gonna play the hero.”
Saira brings a hand up to Cherry’s face and gives her cheek a stroke, half-smiling. “It’s a promise.” Good thing Aliyah isn’t here to see this, she thinks. Her jaw would be on the floor. She remembers how, not so long ago, she had pointed her crossbow at Aliyah and at Cala, threatening them both with death. How nothing mattered to her but vengeance. How, after all her experiences from her first memories to the murder of her gang by the Dukaines, she had long decided that friendship was a weakness, a deadly weakness. But Aliyah and Cala, and now Alma and Sky, and the Bunnies, most particularly Cherry, were wearing away at that resolve. I am going soft.
“I didn’t spend all that time takin’ care of you just to see you limp on a cold slab, sugar.” Cherry’s voice shakes a little. “Don’t do that to me, y’hear?”
Saira hugs her. “I’ll be fine,” she insists. “Just gonna talk to some people, walk a bit. Get out of the cage, so to speak.”
Cherry closes her eyes and sighs. “Go on, get yer poke.” She squeezes Saira’s hand and then steps away.
Saira lets her go and says to Somrak, “I’ll be just a minute.” She turns to leave, looks down, then turns back. “I can’t go out looking like this! I look like a freakin’ princess!”
Cherry smiles against her will and shakes her head. “All right, Miss Princess Sparkle Bunny. You get your stuff together and I’ll go rustle up Sage. He was adjustin’ another one of Alma’s outfits to fit you. I bet he’s done. I’ll have it here for you by the time you get back.”
Cherry watches Saira go, then turns to Somrak, her face serious. “You are taking care of her.”
Somrak nods. “Yes.”
“You are not lettin’ her do anything stupid.”
“No jumping around on rooftops, no walking into the middle of unsavory crowds.”
Cherry gives her best extra-hard glare, then softens. “All right then. I guess she’s gotta get this outta her system, along with the poison.” She picks up the cocktail, takes a big mouthful. “You ain’t stickin’ around long enough to drink this anyhow, and you sure ain’t goin’ out with her after drinkin’ one of these.” She reaches out a hand and lays it on his heart, looking at him with a silent plea. Somrak looks back at her, and she decides he looks like he’s really listened to her, that he means it. Ain’t too many gods who really listen to mortals, she thinks. Somehow we keep gettin’ the good ones.
She pats his chest and then goes off in search of Sage.