City of Flowers
Gentle humming. The tune is not something Alex recognises, but out here—this far into the tunnels—she’s failing to recognise a lot of things. A man with a prosthetic jaw saunters by, and though Alex does not know who he is, the man himself seems to very much know where, exactly, the Hare’s fearsome reputation comes from. The wide berth that he gives her gives it away.
Ironic. Alex tries hard not to stare, because she’s never seen a fake jaw before. She is about to inwardly fawn over how cool it looks when the man swipes at his chin, rubbing away at some residual drool.
Alex turns her attention elsewhere. By a table, Jackson reasons with a group of similarly mercenaries with prosthetics, each strapped with additional armaments themselves—mostly firearms.
She curses, but makes no move to intercept.
“She’s kinda, like, wearing blue. You know?” Jackson motions towards the sky. “Like that colour. And she was in a cardigan, which I don’t know if you know, but that’s a jacket made out of super raw material. It’s all frayed and stuff. You’ve seen a girl like that around?”
Oh, Lord Lukas have mercy on me, Alex thinks. These people aren’t going to have any intel.
One of the mercenaries—a hulking mass of muscle and Cirsium—rises to his full height, easily dwarfing Jackson in a heartbeat.
“I know what a cardigan looks like,” he says.
“G-great! So have you seen this gi—grrk!”
A lunge, a fist, and Jackson is lifted into the air by his hoodie. He kicks at the man, but he is no match for a trained mercenary, not when his daily itinerary consists of slouching in front of a computer.
Alex is standing a bit further off, but when she glares at the mercenary, he drops Jackson and coughs out a laugh. “The Hare! Holy shit, boy, you didn’t tell me you were with the Hare of all people!”
Before Jackson can splutter out a reply, Alex strides up to the table and pulls him away. “Come on. We’re done here.”
But the man is already hollering back towards the restaurant for a round of extra drinks. “On the house,” he says with a wink. “It’s not everyday you get a drink with the Hare.”
Alex shoots a look towards Jackson before she steps forward. “Look, I’m really flattered—”
“—Oh, by all means, do be flattered—”
“—but we’re on a tight schedule here, and I really can’t afford to be inebriated right now.”
Jackson shoves her back. “Yeah, actually, just because you’re about to miss the six-thirty bus doesn’t mean you’re on a “tight schedule.” We can drink, isn’t that right?”
He shuts one eye roughly, opens it wide, then shuts it again. Alex sighs and takes a seat at the end of the table.
“Yeah," she says, "we can drink.”
The man spouts absolute nonsense between braying laughs and mugs of wine. He talks about himself, condescends to another mercenary at the table, then talks about himself again. He repeats himself like a merry-go-round, all flashing lights and plastic horses. Alex struggles to keep herself from screaming—whether she wants to scream at either Jackson or the man, she does not know.
Jackson himself laughs in turn, finding ways to slot himself in between the man’s humblebrags. It’s surprising how well he knows his way around the art of brown-nosing. Alex's focus wanes. The sun sinks ever lower.
Then the man nods, and then Jackson nods, and the man stands and takes a seat next to Jackson. The man begins to retrieve something from his pockets; Alex shifts her legs under the table.
"Easy now," he says, keeping his hand frozen in his pocket. "Just my phone, yeah? Got something to show you and your friend."
Alex lets her shoulders relax, but she keeps the glint of her legs well in view. Only when the man actually produces a phone does she hide them under the table again.
He flicks through some photos—a dog, another man, himself and this other man—and then finally he stops on a crowded street in the tunnels. He points at a hooded figure in the centre.
Alex feels her lungs freeze.
"There's your girl," he says.
Jackson's demeanour flips at the drop of a hat. "Where was this? No, when was this?"
"Around noon." The mercenary taps the screen and zooms in on the hem of Iris' cloak, where something green and nonhuman protrudes like a vine. "But this is what's important. This is what you're messing with."
Alex presses her lips together. "You underestimating us again?”
"She's fragile goods, Hare. Now, I don't know what that Lordship of yours has in mind, but if he gave two shits about his prized lapdog, he'd tell you two to walk on by." He mimics something walking with his middle and forefinger, then brings one of them to his mouth. "I saw soldiers clad in pale purple around the streets today. Everyone with more than a million in their e-wallets wants a piece of the pie. And you can't fight an army, Hare."
Purple soldiers—Wisteria's elite force. And with some of ION's whitecoated enforcers and assassins crushed dead in Tiergarten, the man's testimony left only the Bank out of the three who had yet to get involved. Which had to be soon.
But Alex keeps her mouth shut and her features still. Jackson has a harder time keeping his shock in check; he distracts himself by asking a question instead.
“Did you see where she went?” he asks.
Alex stops herself from rubbing her forehead. She shoots her partner another look. We already know where she went, Jackson.
He shoots another look back—his brows are pressed tightly against his eyes, and his mouth is a firm line. Before she can figure out what he means, the mercenary stands and pats the dust off his slacks.
And in the corner of her eye, she sees tens of Cirsium prosthetics wink in and out of the streets like dying stars.
You can't fight an army, Hare.
Alex finally places the emotion on Jackson’s features. Fear. He is buying her the time that he knows he is running out of.
She scans her peripherals. The man they are talking to has no visible weaponry—and though his arm glints silver, there is no grace behind the way he wields it. The woman beside her is staring straight ahead, but every so often her hand floats back to her pocket. And the other mercenaries either do not have a clear shot or they are too enamoured with their bar food, too unprepared to flick their firearms towards Alex’s head at the drop of a hat.
She has one shot at this.
Putting all of her weight onto a hand, she swings her leg up and into the woman’s chest. Her heel caves in her ribs, and she hears the sickening crack of bone before her body falls to the floor, lifeless.
Someone behind her swings for her head with a prosthetic fist, but she lets it slip past her ear like a bullet. Another arc of her leg, and that someone is dead before Alex can even perceive them. She doesn’t want to perceive them. Not while she’s kicking over the table, splintering it into bits and impaling the rest of the man’s mercenaries, spilling all sorts of who knows what from their flesh-and-bone bodies. She doesn’t want to perceive any of them.
“Alright, alright. That’s enough.”
The voice snaps her out of her bloodlust, and she looks to the wall. She hears a whimper from Jackson; the man tightens his grip around the boy's neck, presses the tip of his knife against his Adam's apple.
He says, "Let's strike a deal, shall we? You let me live, and I'll let the runt go. Sound good?"
Realisation hits her like a bad punchline.
"You're with the Bank," Alex says. "And you want the girl too."
He laughs. "Always wanted to catch a Hare. But a boy’s good too."
She watches the knife with bated breath. She needs time, she needs a mistake—the man needs to fuck up, to loosen his grip as he's gloating around. "And what makes you think you've got a better shot at this than me? You're still up against ION and Wisteria. I don't care how ridiculously funded the Bank is, you're still fighting two corporate behemoths. It's like you said; you're not fighting an army."
"Who said anything about being against anyone?" the man asks, his smile thin and devious.
Alex feels her stomach sink. A single thought races through her head; Is Lukas safe without me?
"Lotta work just for one girl," Jackson manages, his voice straining as he struggles to keep his neck away from the knife. "And it looks like you don't even have her yet. You're gonna need a lot more than just three corporations if you're having trouble keeping down one girl."
"Oh, but that's where you're wrong." The man's smile does not come off at Jackson's taunt. "It's not about keeping her down, no, that'd be too easy. It's about keeping her away from his Lordship, Lukas Lee. From the Ancestry Hall. The Daemon she's carrying has the potential to ruin everything we’ve built, Hare. That girl could reduce New England to rubble if Lukas wanted it so."
She narrows her eyes. "Everything you’ve built?"
"Society as we know it." A smile. "The dead have secrets, and some of the vessels don't talk for a reason."
Jackson stops struggling; Alex stares at the mercenary, her eyes wide at the revelation.
"What?" he says. "You didn't really think Lukas just wanted to fix the vessels, right? The slimiest man in New England, having good intentions and no ulterior motives? Really?"
He's not slimy, Alex thinks of retorting, but the words die in her mind before they even have a chance to reach her mouth. There are facts that don't add up and actions that don't fit an inescapable and cunning man such as Lukas. The mercenary speaks truth; Lukas is always lying and hiding.
"So what'll it be, Hare? The boy?” The knife glints silver and gold, catching the light of the streets. “Or the man?”
She bares her teeth. "You're going after Lukas after this, aren't you?"
She continues, "And I can't stop you."
"Nope," says the man.
Her eyes flit back and forth between Jackson's pleading stare and the man's knife. Finally, after much deliberation, she steps back and raises both hands into the air.
The man drops Jackson to the ground, and he lands with a grunt. "Excellent choice, Hare. We keep the ones that we love close, yes?"
"Yeah." Alex nods. "We do."
But then she hears the whirr of Cirsium, and then the grind of metal joint against metal joint. Suddenly, the man has closed his hand around his own throat, and his face is bloating up like a purple balloon. He stumbles, grasps at his prosthetic with his real hand, the one made of flesh and bone, but he is nothing compared to the might of Cirsium. He twitches, crumples to the floor. His mouth remains open; nothing passes through his lips.
And then he stops writhing.
His hand is still around his neck.
Before Alex can react, Jackson has jumped into the centre of the mercenaries, who are just as shell-shocked as her. His eyes are wide, delirious. They look like they might pop out of his sockets.
"Stay back, you fucks!" he screams. He is waving something around, but Alex cannot see what it is. "Stay back if you know what's good for you. You wanna die like him, huh? I could wipe all of you silver-legged fucks out right now, make you die the most pathetic fucking deaths imaginable. You're not safe." He points to a woman with a Cirsium calf, his finger quivering in the air like a twig. "None of you f-fuckers are. Stay back. I'm warning you! Don't you dare fuck with Jackson Jose Chavez the Third, you fucking fucks!"
The streets are silent. The mercenaries dare not move; some of them even scuttle back, hiding their prosthetics under their clothes once again.
Alex grabs Jackson by the sleeve and runs off before it's too late.