The Dwarf behind the bar yelled, “Hey, idiots. Knock it off.”
Cali Leblanc slapped the reaching hands of the frat boy foursome away as she made her way back to the long divider of polished wood that separated the owner from his patrons. She set the tray down a little harder than intended and shook her head at Zeb. “Tourists, right?”
The Drunken Dragons Tavern was a locals bar. More than that, it provided a haven where the city’s magical beings could congregate, more often than not in peaceful coexistence. It lay on the outskirts of the French Quarter, which meant most of the out-of-towners visiting New Orleans for vacation, business, or the intensive debauchery of Mardi Gras never knew it existed. The wooden placard hanging outside over the entrance featured a red dragon clinking beer steins with a blue one, both recently repainted. Their cheap crystal eyes flashed when the sun struck them.
She lifted an eyebrow as she resumed their long-standing argument. “You know it’s the damn gems in the sign that attract them, right? You can see the things for blocks.”
Zeb patted the impressive dark thatch of hair that lay against his chest and shook his head. His smile was mostly lost in the beard and mustache that covered his face, but the crinkling around his stunning blue eyes suggested he still enjoyed the game as much as she did. “Their money spends. As long as they don’t cause trouble with the regulars or the staff, they’re welcome.”
As she was the only person who qualified as “staff,” his meaning was apparent. His bellows across the single main room took care of most issues before they started, and his gaze always seemed to be on her when someone tried to interfere with her work. I just wish he’d give the cute ones a little more time before scaring them away. Seven and a half months before, just after the worst day of her life, the Dwarf had appointed himself her de facto guardian, and had proven both his aptitude and his over-enthusiasm for the role ever since.
She removed and re-secured the elastic that restrained her curly red hair and wiped her forehead. Even with the air conditioner doing its best, October in the south was an oven, and work always made her feel half-cooked. Unlike some drinking spots around town, The Drunken Dragons didn’t go in for skimpy outfits to entice tourists. Her standard work uniform of black jeans, matching boots, and a white button down with a tank underneath was as neutral as could be. But, unfortunately, not all that cooling.
As if he could read her mind – and who knew, maybe he could – Zeb handed her a glass of ice water that she guzzled. She was sure of little about his magic, and on the rare occasions she’d tried to pry for more, he’d smoothly deflected her questions. Really, she was only positive about three things where the Dwarf was concerned. First, he was originally from Oriceran, the magical planet that was crossing over with Earth more each day. Second, he watched over her with the intensity of a hawk tracking a limping rabbit. And finally, he believed in shutting down small problems before they became big ones, usually with a sharp tongue and loud voice.
Cali lowered her head. “Yeah, but some people aren’t worth the trouble their money buys.” The design of the place reflected his desire to keep an eye on his patrons. Long wooden tables ran the length of the room, butted up against one another to form three separate rows with benches and chairs on both sides. On a busy night, elves would rub elbows with gnomes, and the occasional giant Kilomea would spread into space allocated for four. No species was prohibited, and the only rule was that they take any conflicts outside the walls. The Dwarf’s glower was sufficient threat to forestall most potential inappropriate behavior, but a wicked looking double-bladed battle axe hung behind the bar to back it up. She’d never seen it leave its spot.
Zeb pulled a pipe from beneath the counter and took several puffs before stowing it away again. Sweet tobacco smoke filled the air between them. Even when he wasn’t actively smoking his clothes smelled of the stuff so much that now she associated it with him. Technically the tavern was smoke-free, so he kept his vice hidden most of the time. “They’re just young fools. Maybe get them to eat something, though.” A crash sounded from the direction of the foursome, and she swiveled her head to see that two of them were standing with fists raised. “Okay, they’re young, stupid, fools. Go break it up.”
Cali dodged and wove through the revelers on her way to the men. Even though the rest of the patrons didn’t seem to care about the impending battle, it was still crowded enough on this Friday night to make movement a challenge. Both chuckleheads were dressed alike, wearing t-shirts with beer logos on them, jean shorts, and slip-on shoes. If you’re going to be a stereotype, why that stereotype? When she reached them, the pair were exchanging taunts, each trying to muster up the nerve to start something and, when they failed, attempting to goad their opponent into doing it. She slid smoothly into the gap between them and pushed them apart with a hand on each of their chests.
“Listen, guys, I’m not sure what’s got you ticked off, but this isn’t the place. If you’re going to fight, take it outside. Otherwise, you might disturb the patrons, and these aren’t the type of folks you want to get upset at you.” They looked first at her, then at the room around them, then finally at each other. She thought she had them convinced, but then the taste of black licorice washed over her tongue as her magic read the men through her touch. It was stronger from her right, and that one sneered and drew back for a punch. Cali sighed, ducked underneath, grabbed his moving wrist and wrenched it downward with a twist. He dropped howling to a knee. She lifted her other hand to point at his foe. “Don’t think about it.” He backed away, his own palms raised.
From the direction of the bar came a gruff, “Pay up and begone, you four,” and she nodded.
“You heard the man. I’ll release your friend here once you all are outside.” He attempted to rise, and she twisted his wrist against the bone, drawing a yelp. She scowled down at him. “Behave, you. Or I’ll let the boss take care of you. Trust me, yours wouldn’t be the first blood he’s washed off that axe.” He paled, and she looked up in time to see Zeb smother a smile. Finally, the others were gone, and she freed her captive. He rubbed his arm as he rose, and she kept her weight equally balanced in case he decided to try something she’d need to deal with. The smarter part of his brain won out, and he flipped her off and made his way to the exit.
She collected their cups to the sound of the room’s low laughter as the door slammed closed behind them. A dark elf she particularly liked raised a fist, and she bumped it with a smile. She set the glasses on the bar and the Dwarf moved over to wash them. He offered her a grin. “Well done. You have a way with idiots.”
A chuckle escaped her. “You realize you just totally set yourself up, right?”
He nodded. “But you’re far too wise to take advantage.”
She leaned both elbows on the polished wood and invoked another of their frequent discussion topics. “You know, aren’t you supposed to be the rage-driven warrior? Why am I fighting your battles for you?”
Like always, he grinned and tapped his temple. “Brains over brawn. I’m smart enough to have you do it for me.” His eyes flicked over her shoulder, and he shook his head with a sigh “Jarten just ran without paying. Again. Stop him, but don’t hurt him. Much.”
Cali spun and dashed for the door. It’s not Friday night if I don’t have to chase some idiot down over the price of a drink or two.
Her quarry was one of the many people of Atlantean descent that populated the Big Easy. The legendary undersea city had really been a thing, like the legends said, but its population was originally from Oriceran. Atlantis had been destroyed long before, but the bloodline lived on, strong enough to be seen easily in some, weak enough to be invisible in others. In Jarten, it was weak.
Her own half-Atlantean lineage was most visible in her hair, which was thick, curly, and frequently downright annoying.
His magical ancestry didn’t make the man she pursued any faster than normal. His lead dwindled rapidly as he pounded along the street. He turned into an alley, and his head swiveled left and right, up and down, as he sought options. Fortunately for her, these houses were similar to many in the town, protected by high walls topped with sharp rocks, broken glass, or pointed iron spikes. When she’d closed the gap to six feet, she yelled, “Jar, knock it off, idiot. It’s not like you won’t be back in a week.”
He flashed out of sight ahead, and she skidded to a stop as she rounded the corner and discovered three other people standing with him. They all looked to be near the age when they’d be graduating college if they were attending. Two were male, of a body type similar to Jarten’s, tall and thin. The woman was her height, which was to say neither tall nor short, but had at least twenty pounds on her, all of it muscle. Cali nodded. “Folks. See if you can get chucklehead there to pay the tab he owes at the Tavern.”
The others stepped in front of her quarry, drawing a sigh from her. The tallest of the bunch lifted his head and looked down his sharp nose. His Atlantean blood was obvious in his own thick hair, which was gathered into ratty dreadlocks. He spoke with an unexpectedly low, gravelly voice. “How about you cover this one for him? And, you know, if you’re feeling kind, you could cough up a few bucks for us, too.”
She would have imagined Jarten would be the runt of the litter, but the third man added a postscript in a weaselly tone. “Yeah, I could use a few bucks.” Cali met the eyes of the group’s lone female, who shook her head in shared disappointment at the other gender but made no move to step away from her friends. No Atlantean blood was obvious in her, but Cali was pretty sure it was there. She’d heard rumors that Jarten was running with a bunch who drew lines based on ethnicity, but hadn’t realized it was a magical one. Her guess had been Cajun, given his accent. Guess not.
She didn’t retreat, didn’t show concern. “Here’s the thing. My boss sent me out to bring back what Jar owes. I don’t care if it comes from him or if y’all take up a collection to support the stupidest among you, but I’ll be leaving here with it, or with him. Come on, we’re talking ten bucks.” It was really six, but she figured she deserved something for running in the heat.
Deep voice broke into a grin. “You may want to rethink that. There are four of us. And while you may think your karate is fancy, we’ve got our own talents as well.”
She shrugged. “Him or the money. Now would be good.”
Their leader gestured, and the least among them charged at her, holding something in his hand. She identified it as a tree branch, still with twigs attached, as he scratched a line of red onto his own face while bringing it around at her in a wild swing. Even though they’d broken the seal and implied they had magic, she wasn’t ready to reveal hers unless it became necessary. Her father’s voice, kindly and encouraging, had reminded her often to “Always keep your hole card hidden.”
Cali skipped inside the arc of the wood and delivered a sharp punch that channeled the power of her movement into his solar plexus. He dropped gasping, out of the fight for the moment. She looked from his prone form back up to her foes’ spokesperson. “So, can we call this done?”
He peered over his shoulder at the woman, and she stalked forward. Her thick legs showed rippling muscles below her cutoff jeans, and the tank top she wore bared powerful arms. Cali shook her head. I could look like that if I spent more time in the gym. Or any time in the gym.
Her opponent led with a wrestling technique, faking a bear hug and then trying to swim past to get behind her. She set her feet and let it happen. Before the other woman could lock an arm around her neck, Cali dropped into a crouch and pistoned her elbow up and back, twisting her core with the strike. This foe, too, succumbed to the solar plexus shot, but required a quick foot sweep to bring to the ground. Cali moved away from the downed figures, circling left to ensure a clear space to act.
The leader waved at Jarten, who shook his head. The man slapped him on the side of the head, but the object of her search didn’t comply. Finally, the bigger man growled, “Okay, girl, let’s do this.”
Cali snapped, “Don’t call me girl,” as he raised his arms. She performed a reasonably proficient cartwheel to her left as the space in between them filled with wavering light and the fence behind her blew to pieces. She’d guessed he’d go for the home run right off the bat, and the best defense was to not be in the way of it. Her martial arts training was all about avoiding blows rather than standing tall in front of them. She waved her hand and imagined herself running away, summoning an illusion to make it look real while another appeared to mask her lack of actual movement.
As he spun to launch an attack at the visible false-Cali, she stepped into his blind spot and hooked his outstretched arm. A thrust of her hip and twist of her body, and he flew over her to crash hard onto the pavement. She turned in case Jarten planned to use her distraction to deliver a sucker punch, but instead he was using it to run. With a sigh at the need to expend more magic, she shot a thin beam of force at his feet. He tripped and fell, squealing.
She yanked his wallet from his back pocket and pulled out the ten-dollar bill he had inside. “You really are an idiot, you know that? From now on, you pay in advance. Your friends too.”
The others were collecting themselves, so she jogged away before they could gather the confidence to try her again. Jarten’s words reached her from a distance, but were clear nonetheless. “You’ll be sorry that you messed with us. Count on it.”
She threw back over her shoulder, “I’m already sorry.” If they’re smart, they’ll leave it alone. If not, well, guess I’ll deal with that problem when it arrives. With a start, she realized that Zeb had been on his own in the bar for almost ten minutes and increased her speed. If anyone else decided to cause trouble, she’d need to be there to intercept it. She had never seen, and had no desire to know, what her boss was like when he was truly angry.