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She remembered the first time she had tasted power.

It wasn’t something easily forgotten, especially at her young age, not many experiences were there to mark her in the first place. She could recall the rush of adrenaline, the lifting motion in her stomach, the smile that graced her face after the fact. Power wasn't something easily forgotten.

She was in kindergarten, maybe a bit older. She had simply told a boy a couple of years her junior what to do with his cut knees. Water, antiseptic, bandages. Something simple, and in retrospect, dangerous. Playing with fire before knowing what it was, what it did.

At the time, she had no reason to lie. But she knew she could tell him anything and he would do it. He didn’t know, that’s what made her powerful.

She figured she had been chasing that feeling ever since.

Taking a long drag from her cigarette, she peered down at the city below. Night was arriving prematurely, the dingy street lights switching on earlier and earlier in an attempt to fight late November dusk. The murky water of Half-Moon Bay looked like black sewage. Temperatures were dropping, leaves were falling, but it wasn’t as pleasant as the many winters before. The cold wasn’t refreshing, it was the type of weather to grip your bones, and the leaves weren't vividly colored like fresh lemons and apricots, but were a dirty smog brown, lifeless and droopy.

She would often wonder what would’ve happened if she had told the little boy something different. Would he have believed outlandish tales? Vulnerability makes one malleable. Would she have felt guilty?

The last question could be answered. She was not a woman of remorse.

She brought the lipstick-stained cigarette back to her mouth and could almost hear July’s nagging voice about her habits. Only like on late nights like this, she would say. It calms my nerves. He knew she was rarely nervous.

Despite her excuses, the thought of July’s disappointed, pouty face elicited a drained sigh from her. She pressed the cigarette against the low concrete railing, watching the embers die out with a fizzle, the last of them streaking the cement.

She had not lied that time. Water, antiseptic, bandages. That was the truth, but it was one of the last times she spoke so truthfully. It has been lies, half-truths, mumbles with just a smidge of legitimacy ever since. This city isn’t kindergarten. A part of her felt mournful; it would never be as simple as water, antiseptic, bandages.

She narrowed her eyes on the ashy stain, her mind finally returning to important matters with a vengeance. Her father had arranged a meeting with one of the smaller businesses. She had wasted enough time reminiscing.

She stepped away from the nightscape, returning to the roof access stairs. Doors clacked behind her purposeful strides as she made her way to the main hallway of the top floor, slipping into room 411. Quickly shrugging off her oversized sweater, she tapped her ear, activating her earclip. “Call Idiot One,” she muttered as she slipped on a pair of formal trousers.

She could hear her call going through, the ring sounding off four times before July’s voice filtered through her head. “Five Hellflowers are waiting outside,” July said evenly. She grabbed a dark turtleneck.

“Perfect.” She made quick work of the lacing of her boots and grabbed a long overcoat before heading out the door once again. “Tell ‘em to wait.”

“Because that would go over splendidly,” he answered.

She looked down at the slim muzzle of her handgun. The metal gleamed under the pale light from the white-washed hallway lights. “It would,” she insisted, finding a rather large pocket lined on the inside of her coat. The elevator buttons made a pleasant noise when she pressed them. “Perhaps sit down from a game of xiàngqí.”

“You’re amusing.” She could hear him shift, stalling, followed by low murmurs in what sounded like Cantonese. “You’re still gloating over the fact that you won in a couple moves, aren’t you?”

She kept her face even as she strode down the road. “You were a natural.”

“I would love it if you kept your snarky comments to yourself. You should come here, quickly.”

She tapped her ear before crossing the streets, cutting an erratic taxi driver a dangerous look before her boot met the sidewalk again. The call went dead.

She made rough estimations in her head. The place of meeting was near the south western part of the city, nearing neutral territory. If she followed the bay, she’d enter the harbor, where she’d need approximately half an hour to walk, ten for a taxi, to reach one of the many warehouses that the Hellflowers owned. Considering a couple of shortcuts…she would be perfectly late.

To avoid a larger crowd, she dove into the underbelly of the city, where tourists and honest natives didn’t frequent. Almost anywhere in the city were thin passageways behind restaurants and services, maze-like and pushed aside by bigger roads. Anyone employed by a so-called business would use these tight alleys—she was no different.

The generator of a hotpot restaurant roared to life as she walked by the backside of the buildings, the paint job peeling and graffitied and scratched. The road was neatly paved with small, smooth, brown rocks, yet they were cracked, some missing, and she was sure the apt pieces could be found beyond the broken windows of an abandoned house to her left.

A group of men were exchanging packages, coats dark, voices darker, intentions darkest. She brushed her hair out of her face with a cynical smile twisting her lips. Calculated looks were exchanged, but a glance at her eyebrow was enough to make that group duck their heads before she passed. Dark hair fell across her cheek, and the brittle cold of the night finally chilled her heart.

A crow squawked in protest as a pair of pants slid down the laundry lines that criss-crossed above her head, like some type of sickly-looking holiday lights. The clothes would never dry anyway; they hung like cold limp hands, ruffled and dirtied by the smog.

“Time,” she murmured, her gaze roaming across the hazy night sky. Twenty-three. Thirty-seven. Her earclip answered. She slowed her pace.

By the sound of boat horns and ropes loosening, she knew she had arrived at the outskirts of the harbor. The Hellflower warehouse was not too far from the water. She had passed it many times before, informants whispering to her about the owners of such a building. The walls were made of dirty steel, the small slit-like windows were high and oily black from the reflection of the bay water beyond. It stuck out from the low port buildings like a sore thumb, modern and large compared to the crouching forms of long traditional wharf houses.

She saw July before anyone else. Unlike her, he was wearing a less formal attire composed of a dark hoodie and sweatpants, paired with a ridiculously bright pair of sneakers. His face screamed Why the hell were you so late? but the two were well acquainted enough to know that such a question didn’t need to be asked.

“Right around the corner,” he informed her quietly, pressing himself against the wall.

“Well aware of that,” she said, brushing her hair away from her face and tapping her clip off again. “Stay cowering here.”

He scowled, but looked somewhat relieved.

With practiced confidence, she strode into the small alley between the warehouse and the tall stone fencing of an old tea house. She could make out four, five, six men of varying statures standing behind the Hellflower leader, foolishly wearing a white suit. No weapons in sight. Her father had arranged this to be a peaceful meeting, and how could a small business like the Hellflowers refuse such a request from the Tenth Sun himself? The inner pocket of her coat suddenly felt heavier.

“White is quite visible in the dark,” she said instead of greeting the men properly.

The leader laughed. “I thought the Nine Suns were a serious business. How could a representative be so late?”

“Well, you waited for me, didn’t you?”

The men behind the leader shifted, unsure what to do. She met his scowl with a wolfish smile, opening her mouth before he could do so. “Talk business, or don’t talk at all.”

Author Notes: another short excerpt of a bigger project

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14 Mar, 2022
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