CHILD OF FIRE AND BLOOD
The rays of the morning sun were barely able to penetrate the lingering cloud of dark smoke that hung in the air over Azirta’s fire-ravaged Upasha District. Scores of laborer hands worked at a hurried pace to sort through the remains of the area’s buildings. Neighboring one of the crumbled structures was a nondescript warehouse that had been damaged by the fire and was host not to law enforcers or fire inspectors, but instead to a score of workers who had been roused from sleep at an unusual hour to move the thousands of boxes being stored on the premises.
The warehouse was a property held by one of the business enterprises controlled by entrepreneur Amilian Tenking. Though the wealthy Tenking was considered mysterious to most, he was known to wield some local political influence and to have a growing ambition for more. Likewise, he was known to have hedonistic interests in fast cars, fast horses, fast boats and compliant women. Anyone who knew him even slightly beyond his reputed proclivities, knew that he never made a habit of showing himself anywhere other than breakfast until at least another hour past sunrise. The well-dressed businessman’s eyes narrowed, his brow furrowing, as the figure of a large, powerfully built man clad in gray descended from a roof access hatch to alight before him on the warehouse floor. His huge left fist clutched a five-foot-long metal staff that held the shine of polished silver and was inlaid with spirals of black crystal. Though his face was partially concealed by the shadow of his hooded coat, Tenking knew him better than he cared to and steeled himself for their latest encounter.
“I don’t smell anything cooking,” the new arrival said, his loose clothes fluttering around him with a sound reminiscent of wings, “so I can only imagine that whatever your men are clearing out of here is worth large piles of money.”
“Moving my company’s merchandise to a location that’s not on fire is good for business, Sterling,” Tenking said with a tightened jaw. “Terrorist explosions and giant firebirds constitute excessive risk. If you ever give up prowling around rooftops and alleyways and get involved in a legitimate business activity, you might learn this sort of thing.”
“Are you going to give me lessons on running legitimate business activities, Tenking?” Sterling mocked him, the towering man peering past his adversary from beneath his hooded coat with piercing eyes. “When do you host your special seminars in falsifying documents, smuggling, conspiracy and miscellaneous fraud? Better still, let‘s skip to the best places to hide bodies.”
“You’re a funny man,” Tenking said, trying hard to keep from displaying his anger.
“I do two shows a night on the size of your ass alone,” Sterling jibed. “You should catch it sometime. It kills on the east side.”
“You need a hand here, boss?” one of Tenking’s workers asked, cautiously approaching the near-eight-foot-tall intruder from behind.
“The big man just stopped in to bring me a few new gray hairs,” Tenking said, running a hand through his expensively cut blond and gray locks, “like those religious crazies blowing up buildings aren‘t causing enough problems. And I‘m sure not waiting to see what Phoenix cults start showing up after last night.”
“Just keep moving crates, Slaran,” Tenking instructed. “This whole place needs to be empty before they cordon off the area. The next truck is due in ten minutes. You boys need to quit dragging ass and double-time it.”
“Sure thing, boss,” Slaran said, his muscular arms reaching to take a wooden box from the top of a nearby stack.
“Hold on, tiny,” Sterling commanded, touching one end of his staff to the side of the crate. “We should take a look inside. It might help you with organizing.”
Determined to follow the orders of his notorious employer over those of the stranger, Slaran grunted and strained, wrestling with all his might yet failing to budge the crate. For all his effort, the man’s merely mortal muscle was no match for the magic of Sterling’s staff, which Slaran might have been aware of had he noticed the faint glow at its tip.
“I heard you was strong,” Slaran said. “I guess that’s true. I heard you scared some guys into thinking you got wings, claws and fangs, too, though.”
“You have a point to make?” Sterling asked.
“Maybe you’re just big and scary,” Slaran said, “and nobody’s had the balls to try fighting you. Momo!”
“You’re going to hurt yourself, Slaran,” Sterling said, reaching for the crate with his right hand and tearing the top open with ease. “Let’s see if we can’t help lighten your load.”
“Momo!” Slaran shouted. “Where is that moron?”
“Smarties?” Sterling asked, his tone obviously indicating his puzzlement at seeing dozens of pocket-sized, individually packaged, personal computers ready for redistribution. “You’re in a panic over these? People can get these anywhere. Hell, they’re practically disposable.”
“I told you, I’m a legitimate businessman,” Tenking said. “I’ve got product to get into the hands of rational, not-crazy people. You can see yourself out, right?”
“So I suppose you have transaction records that show you own all these,” Sterling said.
“Available to show anyone with actual law enforcement authority,” Tenking assured him.
“Momo! Get your fat ass over here!” Slaran shouted across the warehouse.
“And to support your claim of losing them to the fires,” Sterling said.
“Let me explain something to you, hero-man. I enjoy making a profit from disaster as much as the next man,” Tenking admitted. “Truly, probably even more since doing so doesn’t upset any of my moral sensibilities.”
“Morals? Who’d you steal those from?”
“I’m a practical man and as such I don’t make a habit of destroying my own property. It‘s bad for my profits.”
“I would think a practical businessman wouldn’t go to such lengths to run afoul of the law as you.”
“If the upstanding law enforcement personnel of this beautiful city and the illustrious elected lawmakers of our great nation haven’t found any reason to take issue with the legitimacy of my business activities, I don’t see how you can claim to have grounds--”
“I’ve had your society of entrepreneurs in my sights for too long for you to fool me with flowery words,” Sterling shared, “and I’ve never heard of a politician who wasn’t lying about being honest.”
“Yeah,” Slaran laughed, “you know what they say about honest politicians.”
“No, Slaran,” Sterling responded, grabbing him by his arm, “what do they say?”
Slaran was momentarily dumbstruck, amazed at both Sterling’s strength and the size of the large man’s hand around his own not inconsiderable upper arm.
“Slaran talks too much,” his boss said grimly, poking his man in the chest, “about things that don’t concern him when he should be working.”
“Yeah, boss,” Slaran agreed with a nervous laugh, “nothing like a good day’s work for your health.”
“Right. Work’s always better for your health than running your mouth,” his employer reminded him. “Now, get back to packing.”
Sterling’s fierce gaze burned at Slaran through narrowed eyes for several seconds before he shoved the frightened minion away. He looked back at Tenking and growled, “This isn’t over,” before bounding skyward in a single powerful leap.
“True enough,” Tenking mumbled, watching Sterling vanish back through the skylight. “It’ll be over when I’ve got your head on a pole, watching me eat your liver.”
A beeping came from Tenking’s coat pocket. He pulled out his own smarty in response and looked at its view screen to see who was calling him before opening the communication channel. When he did answer the call, the image of the man in his screen was completely shrouded in shadow.
“Friend of yours?” a rasping whisper asked.
“No, damned social crusader’s a pain in my ass,” Tenking replied angrily as he started looking around the warehouse nervously, his eyes darting from shadow to shadow. “You’re watching?”
“You should be used to that. It’s a likelihood for anyone who works with us, at any time, anywhere.”
“Well, don’t expect me to get used to it,” Tenking warned. “I value my privacy.”
“And you’re used to being in charge.”
“Yes,” Tenking said. “I worked hard to get where I am.”
“I don’t care,” came the response. “For now, you’re working for me. Now, is he going to be a problem?”
“No, of course not,” Tenking assured his caller. “He’ll try, but he doesn’t know anything. He’s just grabbing at smoke.”
“Good. I have another job for you.”