Where There's a Whip, There's a Way
“You are deliberately trying to get us killed!”
“This isn’t my fault!”
The pair ran roughly around the corner, the explosion following them and rocking the building, knocking them to the floor and setting a ringing in their ears. Tiles rained down as the roof continued its systematic collapse into the interior hallways of the building, the terra-cotta reds shattering around them with a hailing rain of earthy shards. The floor creaked, boards ripping up from below, splintering wood rocketing up to meet the descending roof in a mating dance of many sharp, pointy edges. There were the expected shouts and screams of people fleeing the rest of the structure while the guards were either evacuating the citizens, themselves or their bowels in response to this completely unexpected end to a relatively normal museum exhibition.
“I heard that!” Tarot fibbed over another rocketing upwards shower of splinters. “If you think I’m taking–!” The floor bucked up under them both, another roiling eruption of flames bursting up from the lower story, “The fall for this you have another thing coming–!”
At this point, the floor in front of them gave way, leaving an open maw of smoke and cinders pouring up between them and the rest of the hallway. From below the all-too familiar sound of heavy boots smashing ruined woodwork was heard and orders from the Captain were barked out over and over again.
The red-head beside Tarot pulled his gun, pointing it at him with a ferocity in his ochre eyes. “I should kill you right now and be done with it!” He turned his aim and fired into the hole beneath them to give the coppers a scare before grabbing Tarot and throwing him bodily across the gap–a good way to work out the rage that was scorching off him at present. Tarot landed nimbly on the otherside, twisting his form at the hip and extending his own hand, feet set, ready to catch his companion. Tarjeto jumped, taking the offered hand and pulling himself onto the ledge–the floor creaked beneath the sudden weight and both found it tipping beneath them. They both shared a few not-nice words in varying languages as they scrambled up the capsizing wedge of floor, landing simultaneously as a rush of heat and sparks exhaled upwards from the smoking and ashy hole behind them. There was no time to stop, however, as the windows beside them shattered with the whiz of bolts.
“Crossbows. Who the hell uses crossbows anymore–?” Tarot groaned, hitting the floor while Tarjeto slammed himself against the wall between two windows. The flash of orange-red hair was seen as he turned, fired three shots out into the open rooftops where at least three more members of the city watch were taking aim or reloading and then kept running, Tarot on his feet and right behind him.
“You just could not let it go, could you!? The title was just too much–again!”
“They were calling me God-Stealer! What the hell was I supposed to do–ignore a challenge like that!?” Tarot snapped, though the grin tugged at the corner of his lips even now. “I mean, they think I steal from the gods themselves! You know I couldn’t say no–! Besides, it was your–your–abuela? She started it–!” Tarot was fairly certain that was the word for the woman in this case.
“YOU LEAVE HER OUT OF THIS!”
The older woman sat there, busy at her needlework, eyes focused keenly as she hummed to herself.
“They call him the God-Stealer…” she crooned to herself and her audience, her voice old but not feeble, her face showing the signs of age and the beauty that had once been. Even now she was a handsome woman as the light struck her outline. Turning up her face slightly, she gave a smile that grandchildren the world over knew meant ‘story-time’. “He steals from the gods themselves–takes their most valued treasures, he does. Se las quita de debajo de la nariz.” Her free hand reached up and made a quick grabbing motion to accentuate the point before putting it back down to her work again. The needle tugged upwards in the silence, the sound of the thread passing into the air like a whisper before she continued. “He is cunning as they come and will not say ‘No’ to a challenge. Some say he is blessed by Hermano Bluebird himself–but that is nonsense. Why would he work for a god while stealing from gods? No.” She shook her head with a pleasant scorn at the thought. “No he works for himself, does the God-Stealer…”
The audience did not take their eyes off her for a moment….
“All you had to do, Tarot, was simply keep the woman occupied while I took the key!”
“This is not my fault. I was DOING that. YOU and your damn bad luck is what made it happened!”
Tarjeto was a lot of things–chief among them was unlucky. Unlucky to himself and those around him. Tarot had found that incredibly useful most of the time…this was not one of those times. The shouts from the crowds outside as they formed a bucket-brigade (uselessly by the by as most such brigades are) and did their best to quell the flames that were consuming the bulk of the museum. The wailing cries of the proprietress could also be a heard–a keening soprano that managed to shake what few windows the place still had intact. The pair were currently wedged into a closet, hiding from the guards that were stomping their way up the stairs. A very small closet in a building that was on fire, with smoke and ash rising up from below was not the best place to be–especially not with a man like Tarjeto so close and so capable of shooting you in the head. But getting back to the red-head’s luck–Tarjeto was the sort of man that you’d say spread bad luck like a cold. People that were exposed to it generally built up an immunity but sadly, like in this instance, their target was not so immune.
“let’s just agree the hat was a really, really stupid decision on her part and leave it at that–?” Tarot hissed as he turned to try and pry loose the exposed ceiling above them. “I’ll never understand why people need to wear such–flammable things anyway. Especially around fire. It’s like they just want to–”
“Tempt fate? Por los dioses! Hipócrito!”
His friend was in a very bad mood. He only slipped into his natural-born tongue when he was attempting to be scary, seductive or was very, very angry. Tarot knew it wasn’t the first, wished it was the second and was certain without doubt it was the third.
[Author’s note: To say that Tarot was attracted to Tarjeto would actually be false. They had been working together for a number of years and to be attracted to him at this point would, in Tarot’s mind, likely making them nothing short of kissing-cousins.]
With a heave, he ripped the rotting ceiling down, exposing the bottom of the terra-cotta tiles above them. “But really, she was wearing feathers around a display dedicated to the Goddess of Volcanoes. How did she THINK it was going to end?”
“They say that he always gets his mark. That he has the Devil’s own luck.”
At the word of the Devil, several of the on-lookers breathed in and made small signs of protection. The old woman sniffed and shrugged, drawing the needle up and through and up and through several more times without speaking, letting her silence explain her distain for their superstition. Her hand did not waver and her eyes remained hard as nails. A groan came from somewhere in the room but no one seemed to want to respond to it. “I will tell you, though, it is not the luck of anyone but himself, you know. He makes it himself as a cook makes a loaf of bread. He makes it and slices it and then serves it out. Clever, clever man he is–and yes, he is just a man. But they say he does have one thing from the outside for himself.”
Her darkly tanned hand pulled the needle up again and touched the smallest finger of the hand holding the steel implement to the corner of her left eye. “They say his greed is so very great that it tainted his eye–that a demon or a fey of Avarice took his eye and replaced it with a golden one. It is what makes him not quite human. It is what makes it impossible for anything bad to happen to him–for any plan of his to fail.” A flash of teeth as she smiled accentuated the point in this tale before her gaze returned again to the task at hand.
“So do not get in his way. He will steal from the gods, yes–but then he will steal from you too. Your gold–your treasures–your magics–your soul some say.”
Snip. Her teeth bit into the thread, cutting it cleanly. It dropped into her fingers and she tied it off, humming again to herself. “That is the second lesson for the day, children. The first, I think–” The old woman rose, letting out a soft sound as her bones protested. Her hands traced over the stitching on the table, seeing where the black thread wove in and out of the pinkish flesh. “Is not to pick a fight with an abuela unless you know she is unarmed. Did we learn that lesson well?” Dark, dark eyes shifted up towards the hardened criminals cowering in the corner–her face returned a moment to the man who had been nearly gutted from one side to the other by her blade about five minutes ago. She packed up her needle and thread into her little bag, slipped the barber’s knife from her sleeve into her left hand and picked up the bag with her right.
“That is all the story I have for today. If you will excuse me, I need to go meet my grandson. Que tengan un día agradable, muchachos.”
The heat of baking tiles in the sun should have burned Tarot’s feet–they never did though. In fact not much actually hurt his feet. That part was easy to explain, like most everything about him when you really got down to it. He and Tarjeto were making their way across the wide expanse of the quickly-becoming-not-so-wide rooftop to the 'Little Museum of the Big Gods’.
“Did you at least get the thing!?”
“Of course I did! I mean, delicacy goes out the window when you actually set the building on fire!” Tarot retorted, patting his bag. “The pisser is–” he panted, sliding down the suddenly steep slope to the guttering at the edge, balancing perfectly on the ledge for a moment to catch his breath, “That it’s not even magical! All this fuss over something that isn’t even MAGIC!”
“It isn’t the magic that does it! It’s what it–”
“Yes, yes, symbols, blah! Could we just at least say it has magic so I feel better about this?”
And indeed there was nothing magical about it; just a whip made of horsehair that had, according to legend, belonged to a god.
“If it WERE magic it would ruin the entire thing!” The gambler slapped Tarot on the back as he scuttled down the slope himself, the both of them jumping from the roof towards the next rooftop, having to catch and scramble and claw to stay on as the tiles clattered and broke free under their hands and feet. “It’s the–fact that it wasn’t–magic–that makes it special–!”
“Of course! Because when I think 'Man who became a god–!” Tarot spat, suddenly hating the construction and home designs of the Coast of Mennes. Why did they need to have interlocking tiles? Why couldn’t they just have thatched roofs or regular tiles like everyone else instead of these curved, half-circle, no-good, no-grip– “I immediately think–of a normal, every-day weapon that I could buy at the corner store–!”
“Then buy one there next time!”
“Next time I’ll just ask the god himself if I can have it! How’s that!?”
Gunfire rocketed upwards from below and that got the two of them scrambling a bit faster up the slope of the roof and onto a flatter surface. “Hello there, Alutice, Lord of Death and Secrets Between the Stars! How are you? Yes, might I have that whip of yours? Oh, why THANK YOU VERY MUCH!”
Tarjeto roared, turned and made to backhand Tarot, who grabbed the hand, clinched it and twisted, locking them together and sending them down onto the roof, kicking and pulling and making a general tussel of it. They didn’t hear the splash of water (or what passed for water in this town) until it was on them and both, sopping wet, looked up to see Captain Pacho glowering down at them, dripping bucket in hand and thick build ready to spring.
“You are both under arrest. You will either come quietly or I will smash your gods-damned heads in with these roofing tiles, see if I don’t.” The Prakhai was unpleasantly large and had mastered the law enforcer’s glare to such a degree that even a thieving degenerate like Tarot was given pause.
[Author’s note: If you’ve never met a Prakhai, it is best to remember two things in the off-chance you ever do meet one in your travels. In the first, they are either very large or very lean and the lean ones come with tails included. In the second, never, ever refer to them as monkeys. They don’t like it and will be a like to toss you off the nearest cliff, which they seem to always know where to find when the need arises.]
“Are we interrupting your banana and honey break, Captain–?” Tarot shot off without a pause, to which the Captain replied with the fully expected response of raising his foot to stamp down and cave in the thief’s head. Clay shattered as the pair rolled away in tandem from the crushing heel, rising together. The officer was very nearly breathing out steam as he raised a hand, pointing towards the pair with pure loathing. His eyes narrowed–and then widened–and then dropped as his whole body crumpled into a heap. Behind him stood the tall frame of a simple old woman, a needle twirling between her fingers.
“I am here to pick up my grandson and his little friend, Captain. I hope you don’t mind,” Abuela nodded before looking up towards Tarjeto and Tarot. “Let’s move along before he wakes up. The sun is getting so high and my old self simply should not be out in this kind of heat.”