“I don’t know, Terry. Punching a judge seems a little… not right, don’t ya think?”
Terry Brocado put a hand on the girl’s shoulder and pointed across the moonlit street at an imposing brick house. The half-dozen hulking men behind him hulked in silence.
“There. Just go on up and knock on the door, V. When he comes, tell him Brocado says hi and give him a shot in the face.”
The young woman, her fiery red hair cascading out from under a large tricorn hat, swayed a little as she peered across the street. Terry held her steady as she muttered half to herself.
“Well, he probably got it coming, don’t he?”
“That’s the spirit, V. Go show him who’s boss. Unless you’re afraid of him?”
“Me? Afraid? Haw. I’m, ‘m not afraid of nothing. Tell you about the time I jumped on the T-Rex?”
“Another time, V. Now go teach that bad Magistrate Eirran a lesson.”
“Yeah. I like this plan. You always got good plans, Terry. Okay. Here I go.”
Terry crouched in a shadowy alley, his men immediately behind him, all of them watching as Victoria stumbled her way across the empty street. She swayed in front of the brick house, tilting her head back to take in the upper stories, and nearly fell over backwards. Terry winced as he watched Victoria flail and twist about, only just managing to keep herself from sprawling on the rain-slick cobblestones. Her hat flew sideways and tumbled along the street, with the drunken girl in staggering pursuit. With a burst of cursewords that drew admiring comments from some of Terry’s men, she lurched sideways, following the still-tumbling hat, and ended up in front of the house just to the left of Magistrate Eirran’s.
Lights came on in a number of nearby houses.
“Uh, no, wait…”
Unwilling to call across the street, Terry mumbled worriedly to himself as he watched the unfolding disaster.
Victoria gave up on the hat momentarily, lined herself up on the wrong house, and marched up the steps to begin pounding on the door.
“Hey! Hey inside, you gotta poke coming your way! Wake up n get down here, ya bad bad bad…”
Victoria’s rant died off as voices broke out inside.
The door flew open, startling the young woman so that she staggered back down the steps, clutching at a bannister to keep her balance.
A middle-aged man stood illuminated in the doorway, clutching a dressing gown at his throat and glaring down at the befuddled Victoria.
“What is the meaning of this disturbance?”
“Go home, you drunken fool. You have no business here.”
“I got bizness. I got bizness evrywhere!”
Victoria lunged up the steps, fist extended, catching the astonished man under the jaw and knocking him back into the house.
Terry covered his face as the BOOM of the man landing on the floorboards echoed up and down the street. Other doors were opening on all sides, and voices called out in concern and anger. He heard Victoria laughing triumphantly and shook his head.
One of the hulking men spoke.
“Boss, this isn’t good. I told ya one o us shoulda done that. What now?”
“First, kill her. Then we’ll figure something out.”
The hulking men moved out, towards where Victoria jumped up and down, her arms over her head.
“Whoa. Where. What. My hat.”
Before opening her eyes, before sitting up or even trying to understand where she was, Victoria reached out with one hand, fumbling on the ooze-slick paving stones around her.
“Damnit. What’s this now?”
She sat up and looked around, rubbing thoughtfully at her jaw.
Victoria found herself sprawled in a dark alleyway. A massive body lay face-down beside her, and Victoria studied the unconscious man for some time, a confused frown creasing her forehead.
“What the kaboodle?”
With a groan, the redhead got to her feet, planting her boots carefully beneath her as she tried to keep her balance in the steeply-sloped alley. In the darkness she could just make out slow, thick streams of dark slime rolling downhill, flowing around piles of refuse here and there, and building up against the unconscious man’s body.
Victoria checked her appearance, but having been downhill of her unconscious friend, she’d been spared the worst of the filthy alley cobbles.
“That could have been worse. Where’s my hat?”
Victoria looked uphill, then downhill, then shrugged and made her unsteady way downhill, bracing herself against the alley walls until she came to a larger cross-street. Shops and taverns opening onto this street hung lanterns out over the pressing crowds, and with a hopeful eye Victoria pushed her way across towards the nearest of these.
“Barkeep! Ale! Or something!”
Victoria strode commandingly into the main room of the tavern, thumbs tucked into her belt and a confident smirk on her face. Every face in the room turned to her and conversation stopped. She stood for a moment, unperturbed by all the attention.
When the room erupted in deafening cheers, Victoria raised one eyebrow. She stood there as a boldly grinning young fellow came up, doffing his hat to bow to her.
“Everyone’s been talking about it since the first reports came in. We never thought we’d be lucky enough to have the night’s heroine here with us in person!”
Shouts came from across the room.
“Tell us! Tell us!”
Victoria kept the smirk on her face even as her eyes began to dart about in confusion.
“Tell you what?”
The bowing young man offered Victoria an immense earthenware mug, overflowing with foam.
“Tell us the story of how you defeated Brocado’s thugs! The battle raged all up and down the Windward docks!”
Victoria began to make her way into the crowd. She took a hefty swig from the mug, wiped foam off her face and nodded.
“Ah. Yes. The battle. Of course. Well, you understand, in the heat of the moment, sometimes, well things can get a bit blurry… Say, did anyone hear about what happened to my hat?”
People pressed towards her on all sides. An old lady, her eyes gleaming with bloodlust, grabbed Victoria’s arm as she passed.
“But is it true you cut one bastard’s throat right in front of the Imperial Monument?”
“Oh, the Monument…”
“And what about the fifteen swordsmen you took on at the peak of Footsore Bridge? How many jumped to their deaths rather than face your steel?”
“Ah, well, it was dark…”
“How did you get away from Gorilla Gronx when he threw you into the snakefight pits?”
“I’ve always been… good… with gorillas…”
“And did you really jump on a T-Rex?”
“You bet! Let me tell you about that — “
“Victoria! You have escaped me for the last time!”
With a certain sense of relief, Victoria turned to the doorway she’d just come in from, where stood Terry Brocado, flanked by two dark-clad figures. The crowd in the tavern backed away.
“Hey. Terry. You see my hat anywhere?”
“Did I skip out on the tab last night? I have no idea how I got… well, I never did get home, so, anyway, if I owe you something — “
“If you owe me? If you OWE me?”
The incredulous fury in Terry’s tone made Victoria blink.
She turned back to the crowd.
“Did you guys say BROCADO’S thugs?”
Everyone nodded. Victoria turned back to Terry.
“So… I guess things got a little out of hand after we left that barbecue place, huh? I guess I lost my hat, but I don’t really remember anyth — “
Victoria grinned as she yanked her rapier from its sheath.
Only to discover her sheath was empty.
Victoria backed away from Terry and his two thugs, still grasping for her missing rapier. She realised she still held the enormous earthenware mug in her left hand and raised it to her mouth, chugging down ale as she watched the two thugs come forward.
These thugs weren’t like Terry’s usual crowd of knuckle-headed goons. Dressed in simple black, they each produced a four-foot-long oaken pole. Victoria once again raised an eyebrow as the poles began to spin.
She wiped a foamy moustache off her face, her eyes darting back and forth between the two heavies. The crowd opened out around them, tables and benches groaning across the plank floor. Victoria continued to back away as the two pole-wielding dark-clad thugs came forward.
She paused near the center of the circle the crowd had formed. A hanging lamp swayed near her head. She held up her right hand.
“Wait a minute. Are you guys ninjas?”
Terry scoffed in disbelief from over by the door.
“Are they ninjas? You drunken fool. Say hello to the finest warriors of the Black Whirlwind Clan!”
“Black Whirlwind Clan? Really? You ninjas take yourselves way too seriously.”
The pole-twirling ninjas scowled. Victoria laughed.
“Black Whirlwind. Whadda bunch of — “
Furious, her opponents came rushing at her. Victoria somersaulted to her left, clutching the big beer stein close to her chest as she flipped over.
Her trailing boot caught the hanging lamp, dumping oil all over the floor. One of the Black Whirlwind ninjas lost his footing and crashed down on his back. Victoria landed squarely in front of the other ninja and grinned.
“Some ale for you?”
She smashed the stein into his face.
The earthenware shattered, leaving the ninja spitting out chunks of pottery but otherwise unharmed, and leaving Victoria holding only the handle of what had once been an enormous mug of ale.
She twisted to call out to the barkeep.
“You got anything stronger?”
The ninja snarled and lunged at her, whirling the pole over his head and down, catching Victoria behind one knee with a looping smash. She swore as her leg folded.
“Name of the six! Bastard!”
Victoria rolled away, and kept rolling as her opponent brought his staff down again and again in savage blows that splintered the planks beneath her. She could see the other ninja getting to his feet.
“Barkeep! You call this service?”
Victoria put some distance between her and her enemies and leapt back up to her feet, trying not to favour her injured leg. The bartender called out over the crowd behind her.
“I got some Chang Lao whiskey! How’s that sound?”
“Is it strong?”
“Then that’s what I want. And I want it fast, you hear me?”
“Coming right up!”
Victoria turned just in time to see a dark bottle hurtling through the crowd straight at her. She yanked her head to one side, turning back to watch the bottle crash bottom-first straight into a ninja’s face. Blood, teeth, shattered glass and whiskey sprayed all over the room. A black-clad body collapsed to the floor. Victoria called out over her shoulder as the other ninja leapt at her.
“Strong enough, thanks.”
She stepped in towards her attacker, cutting down on the whirling power of his staff, blocked his strike with her right and thrust her left in at his throat. Oak cracked hard against her wrist but she managed a one-handed hold on his throat. They struggled, face-to-face, spitting and swearing, but he got a hand free and with a deft move spun his staff out and then back to clock Victoria sharp on the back of her head.
“What, you think you can just knock me o — “
He did it again, and Victoria sagged in his arms, her eyes rolled back in her head.
Terry sighed, shaking his head. He glared around at the crowd.
“Enough. Get the dumb drunk to the tank.”
Victoria’s hand flailed a little, and banged against something hard.
She groaned as her eyes struggled open. Things moved, wobbled, bellowed.
“Nope. Nope. Not gonna barf. Nope.”
“You are a disgrace!”
Victoria managed to focus on a wobbly thing in front of her, turning it into an angry face.
“Whoa. Who are you, guy?”
The face got angrier. It had the look of a face that spent a lot of time being angry. The furrows above the brow were well-deepened, and the curl of the lips seemed permanent.
“Stand up when you speak to a Magistrate, you disrespectful hooligan!”
“I’m not standing?”
Looking to either side, Victoria discovered she was being held upright by a couple of Terry’s guys. She grinned at one.
“Hey, Borga. Fun night, huh? Oh wait. Think I’m gonna barf.”
“Don’t, V. Don’t make this worse.”
“Worse? Am I in trouble? Hey, do I owe Terry something for the tab last night? Think he’s mad at me or something.”
The angry face thrust forward, red with fury.
“I am speaking!”
Victoria’s eyes bugged out for a second, then she snarled right back.
“So who are you, speaking angry face?”
“I am Magistrate Eirran and I will have order in th — “
“Eirran? Hey, wait. I know that name. Hang on a second.”
Victoria nodded at Broga.
“Turn me around. Definitely going to barf.”
Wiping at her mouth, Victoria smiled as the men holding her turned her back to face the Magistrate.
“Okay. So what’s your problem, Eirran? How can I help you? I’ll warn you, my services ain’t cheap. Also, hey, someone stole my hat. You should get on that.”
“Woman, you are under arrest! You are facing charges of murder, arson, brawling, public drunkeness, assault, property damage in excess of four thousand marks, smuggling, possession of an unlicensed firearm, theft, and treason! I can have you executed, young lady, right here and now! What do you have to say for yourself?”
Victoria shook off the men holding her and managed to keep her feet underneath her. She pointed with a massively swollen hand at the furious Magistrate.
“I say I know stuff about Terry Brocado you’d like to know. Like I know who he sent to rough you up last night, Magistrate Eirran. O ho! Isn’t that a surprise?”
Borga shook his head sadly. Eirran stared, his face now a spectacular shade of purple.
“You dare! Mr Brocado is a fine upstanding member of this community. How dare you attempt to impugn his name.”
Collecting himself, the Magistrate adjusted his black robes and sniffed at Victoria.
“I understand you are unlikely to survive the wounds you’ve sustained over the course of this evening. If you’re still alive in the morning, you will be beheaded in the Ridge Market at noon.”
“Hang on a second. Gonna barf again.”
“Hey. Where’s my hat?”
“Please. I don’t know where your hat is. Please stop asking.”
“Okay, can I see a doc? Kind of bleeding a lot here.”
Tanir sighed. Usually pre-dawn guard duty at the Dockside Barracks was no big deal. He’d grown to kind of like watching the city slowly awake around him. But just a few hours into his shift, a couple of goons working for that gangster Brocado had dragged this crazy redhead into the one cell in the barracks, apparently scheduled for execution with the coming day.
“Listen, lady, I just watch nobody steals anything, okay? Magistrate Eirran says you’re getting executed tomorrow anyway, what do you want a doc for?”
“Well, you ain’t watching so good, is you? Somebody stole my piss-damned hat. Seriously, enough blood in here I’m gonna need a bucket pretty soon.”
Tanir slumped and got up from the desk. He circled around to the cell door and peered in through the window. The cell had one external window, high up and barred, so there was very little light, but he could make out the woman lying sprawled on the narrow cot.
“Lemme see your hands, lady.”
Two hands, one obviously broken, lifted up.
“I got feets, too.”
Two booted feet rose up as well. Tanir chuckled despite himself.
“Okay, hold it there.”
He unlocked the door and stepped into the room, halting at the moment his boot came down with a squelch instead of a thump.
“Six arms and a holy heart. You’re not kidding, lady. Is this all your blood?”
“Some of it’s barf, I think. Sorry about that.”
“Okay, I’ll send for a doctor. Doc Vinia’s usually up this hour. Hang on, okay?”
“You got anything to drink? And where’s my damn hat?”
Years later, Victoria wedged her eyelids open. Someone leaned over her, their face indistinct in the dawn half-light.
“My hat. Wait. Is it morning?”
“You’re awake. Was beginning to wonder if you ever would.”
Victoria blinked. A few times. The face pulled back a bit and she saw a vaguely familiar face, one side of the mouth swollen.
“Hey. I know you?”
The doctor chuckled. He was a middle-aged man with a shock of unruly black hair, and gentle blue eyes at odds with a bruise on his cheek. His hand lifted Victoria’s right wrist and he shook his head.
“You didn’t get this from punching me, I’m pretty sure. What kind of a night have you had, ma’am?”
“Punching you? Wait…”
Victoria watched as practised hands splinted and wrapped her broken wrist.
“You’re a doctor?”
“Was it the bandages gave it away?”
“You were supposed to be a Magistrate. I think.”
The doctor laughed.
“Yes, Brocado’s men eventually visited my neighbor. They weren’t quite as drunk as you, so they got the right door, and I guess they explained things clearly. What happened to you?”
Victoria tried to shrug, winced, and lay back with a quiet moan.
“Well, apparently I had some sort of enormous running battle with Terry’s guys…”
“That was you? Ma’am, they are saying that you nearly single-handedly crushed Brocado’s entire organization.”
“Yeah, well, apparently a single hand is all I’ve got now. Thanks for patching me up, doc. Didn’t feel right, bleeding out before they get a chance to execute me.”
The doctor stared down at his patient. Eventually he looked up at Tanir, who’d been standing in the doorway the whole time.
“Just a moment.”
“Hey, if you’re going to be helpful, you could find my hat.”
“Well, we’ve got to execute SOMEBODY. Be reasonable.”
Terry fought against the arms holding him. His feet kicked and twisted as he was dragged across the dusty pavestones of the Ridge Market.
“This is impossible! I OWN this town! I own YOU!”
Magistrate Eirran inclined his head magisterially.
“That may have once been true, sir, but your organization has been sadly depleted this past night. It’s too bad you neglected to create any friends amongst those who feared you.”
Borga nodded sympathetically as he held Terry’s right arm.
“The judge is right, boss. Nobody likes you, you know.”
“You can’t do this! It’s all that drunk redhead’s fault!”
“I told you not to use her, boss. You shoulda listened to me. Or at least gotten her hat for her. That girl loves her hat.”
Terry’s shrieks and bellows of rage only stopped once the axe descended and his head plopped into the basket. The market bell began to ring.
On a pretty little sloop just passing beyond the harbour mouth, Victoria looked up at the tolling of the distant bell, and then sank back down, pulling her beloved hat over her eyes with a bandaged hand.