Fortune Favors the Cruel – Lucy Smoke, Kel Carpenter

Silver strands whipped around her face as an errant wind brushed over her bare forearms, raising goosebumps in its wake. Quinn shivered, then paused. The southern market of Dumas was alight with happy faces and playing children. The sun shined, and the sand drifted in the breeze. It was the same as it always was. And yet it wasn’t. The scent of smoked meats and salt water filled her nostrils, but there was something else there too. Something subtler. A shadow in an otherwise peaceful scene. Quinn glanced down the row of brightly lit tents, pausing for only a moment longer before someone bumped into her. “Sorry,” she breathed as a stranger hustled by with a muttered curse. Shrugging off the strange feeling, she turned and ducked into the tent to her right. “Quinn,” the middle-aged woman said in greeting. “Is it that time again already?” The woman stood and the colorful swaths of her patchwork dress fell loosely to her feet. Quinn pressed her lips together in a tight smile as she reached around to the back of her neck and lifted the leather drawstring.

“So it seems, Jada,” Quinn answered. Her fingers brushed over the black opal stone that dangled off the end. It flashed for a brief second, and Jada frowned. “I renewed the barrier just two weeks ago…” she began, her brown eyes filling with concern and trepidation. Quinn’s fingers tightened around the amulet, her neutral expression going cold as tendrils of fear wafted from the other women’s rust-colored skin. It was cloying, sinking into Quinn’s pores as though attracted to her own power. “It’s not working.” Jada swallowed for a moment, her eyes moving from the pulsing stone to Quinn’s face. “If it’s not working then it’s not because the spell weakened,” Jada said, treading cautiously. “That renewal should have lasted at least two more weeks…” Quinn bit the inside of her cheek as the shadows under Jada’s skin stirred further.

Riling her up more, the smell of midnight weeds and damp petals grew stronger. Why was it that they always feared her? Was it the marks on her skin from all her past masters? Perhaps it was the quiet tone she used; accented, but without emotion. Or maybe, just maybe … it was the look in her ice blue eyes—the crystalline color tinged with darkness. “The amulet isn’t working and you’re the only apothecarian that will see me.” Quinn took a step forward just as Jada took a step back. The flap of white material behind her shifted as a child came bounding through and ran around the rickety wooden table. She stopped short at the look on her mother’s face. Jada pulled her to the side and spoke soft warnings under her breath about disturbing her while there were clients about. Quinn pretended not to notice the way she shielded the young girl with her body, or how she sent the child to the back of their shop instead of back out into the streets. “My apologies,” Jada said.

“As I was saying, though, I want to help you, Quinn. I really do.” She opened her mouth to continue, but Quinn looked away, a familiar tingle spreading through her limbs as she clenched her jaw shut to keep herself in check. “You’re telling me there’s nothing you can do to make this work properly again?” she asked, wrapping her knuckles in the leather string and holding it up. The colorful veins running through the black opal sparkled as beams of light shined through the cracks in the tent. “Magic is not easy, Quinn. It’s even difficult for those of us who have ancient scrolls and potions to go by. There’s not much known about your type, and—” “Can you do anything?” Quinn asked. It was the last time she would. She didn’t come here for excuses.

She came here for a fix. A solution for her problem, if only temporary. A barrier. “No … I—maybe,” Jada said, clasping her hands together. “The best I can do is renew it, but if the current one hasn’t lasted, I don’t know if that will do you much good at all.” Quinn dropped the stone on the table with a heavy thunk. “Do it.” “It’ll still be fifteen pieces of silver…” “I know,” Quinn snapped. It was expensive and would drain most of the small sum she’d saved, but she was at the end of her wits. If she couldn’t keep her magic under control it was only a matter of time until another accident happened, and she couldn’t afford one of those or there would be a noose around her neck before the week was out.

Quinn counted out the fifteen pieces requested, and not a copper more. Jada swept them from the table into a leather pouch and set to work. Her spindly fingers grasped for some herbs that she ground into a fine powder. Quinn stood off to the side, arms crossed and expression pinched as she listened to the bustling market beyond. “Blood,” Jada said. Quinn pulled the knife she kept sheathed under her oversized burlap shirt and came to stand over the onyx bowl of dark sludge. The slice of the razor edge pressing into her skin only briefly registered before red droplets fell into the waiting solution. The moment it touched the mixture, it molded into a semi-clear fluid, growing more translucent with each passing moment. Quinn pulled away, wiping her bloodied knife on her pant leg before stowing it as Jada murmured an incantation in a foreign tongue under her breath and dipped the black opal thrice. The lacquer hardened and then broke away, leaving the veins of color glowing.

She held it out and Quinn took the amulet back, frowning slightly when the usual blissful silence of magic didn’t immediately fall over her. “You did it?” she asked. “I did,” Jada answered, more tepid than usual. “But I can tell by your face it was not the results you were hoping for.” She went about dumping the odd concoction into an unmarked jar and seated herself again before Quinn. “You’re coming into your full power, and soon even this spell will do nothing for you.” “How long?” Quinn said quietly. “How long do I have?” “It’s hard to say,” Jada murmured. “But at this rate I wouldn’t bother coming back to me again. You’re going to have to learn how to control your powers and the”—she paused, a twinge of sympathy in her expression as she said—“side effects.

” Quinn pressed her lips together and looked away as she slipped the string around her neck and stuffed the amulet down her shirt. The black opal sat snuggly between her small breasts, cool against her skin, and not nearly as oppressive as it should have been. “Thank you,” Quinn whispered. “It may not save me from the gallows…” She swallowed and looked to the top of the tent. “But you’ve bought me time these last few months.” She didn’t look back at Jada as she departed, not wanting to see the pity in her eyes. Quinn simply lowered her head and swept out her arm, stepping through the gap. The flap fell shut behind her and she was alone once more in a crowd of people. The sun sat high in the sky, its fever bearing down on the bustling marketplace. Fresh flowers wilted in the scorching heat of Dumas as a mirage danced on the horizon.

Quinn pulled her gaze away from the enticing illusion and turned down the nearest alley. Her worn boots were near silent as she stuck to the shadows, but not all was quiet. The sharp sound of a whip meeting flesh rang in her ears like an echo from the past. Quinn stopped in her tracks. Her hands limp at her sides as she blankly stared straight ahead. A second crack split the air, and Quinn shuddered. A woman screamed. A baby began bawling. All the while the muffled grunts of a man and harsh bite of the whip flooded Quinn’s senses. Her hands balled at her sides as she tried to resist the call.

Tried to defy the compulsion. Tried to do something—anything—other than what she knew she could not resist. Without realizing that her choice was already made, Quinn turned on her heel and began tearing through the marketplace, following the sounds of disparity. Another wayward wind slammed into her, blowing the long strands away from her face. Her teeth grazed her bottom lip, biting down when the sound of the whip rang out again. The scent of copper and tang of metal in her mouth made Quinn pause before the courtyard. She reached up and pressed a finger to her lips. It came away red. Crack. She looked beyond that bloodied finger to the man in the street.

He wore a tattered burlap shirt not all that different from her own. Dark brown hair hung from his head in sweaty locks, and on his cheek—smudged, but visible—was the brand of a slave. Quinn’s heart began to pound so loud it was all she could hear as the slave master’s whip came down again. Tendrils of black that only Quinn could see snaked up the slave’s arms as he used them to attempt to cover his face from the brutal assault. “Stupid. Pathetic. Weak.” The master spat one-worded insults with every blow as a woman in a slave shift stood behind him, screaming with silvery streaks of tears running in rivers down her face. The baby in her arms, swaddled in dirty rags, bellowed its own outrage. Quinn didn’t think as her feet moved towards the man.

She didn’t register what she was doing as cold calming clarity settled deep within her bones. She hadn’t known how much the man’s fear—the woman’s fear—the baby’s fear—all called to her. All she knew was a whip and blood and silence. The master struck once more, turning his head to look at the crowd, the end of the thin leathery weapon falling into the sandy streets in front of her. Quinn’s boot came down on top of it, holding it in place as he yanked his arm again. He turned when he realized it would not budge. Sweat slicked his skin, cheeks red from anger and exertion, tan skin rough and darkened in uneven patches. He had a finely trimmed beard and black eyes, but these things were all trivial to Quinn as she followed the path from the whip being jerked about beneath her boot to the handle that he gripped tightly. “I detest whips,” she said quietly. Her voice was abnormally distant, the roaring in her head louder than her words.

The sound so consuming that it blocked her from hearing or feeling or thinking about anything else. It stopped her from seeing the shadowed figure in her periphery. “Who do you think you—” the slave master started. “It doesn’t matter,” Quinn answered softly. She knelt down, her fingers reaching for the smooth leather vice. She picked up the thin end of the whip, trailing her nails along its bloodied exterior. Without any warning, her left-hand wrapped around it. Her right reached for her dagger. The one she always kept on her, its sheath resting over the brand of a master from long ago. A master that had the same detestable urge as this man.

To beat her to the edge of death. She never went anywhere unarmed after that. Even when she became as much a weapon as the sharpened bit of metal that she kept on her person. With a flick of her wrist, the dagger soared true. A crunch of tendons snapping and bones splintering. An anguished scream as he dropped the whip’s handle. The dagger protruded from his hand, sticking out the other side. Red smeared the open wound, dripping down the gleaming steel and into the sandy streets. Quinn didn’t even blink at the mess she’d made. Violence was in her bones.

Brutality in her blood. She swung the whip and the thick end veered straight into the man’s face. A deafening crack rang, and shadows gathered beneath his skin. Fear. The very thing that called to her. She licked the copper taste from her lips and swung again and again and again. The leathery end pummeling his face into a bruised and broken pulp. The blood vessels in his eyes burst, turning them a grotesque shade of pink. The skin over his cheekbones split, and when he spat, a wad of crimson and mucus came out, two of his teeth landing in the puddle of fluid. Even still, Quinn didn’t stop.

Not when his breathing grew shallow or the stench of piss ran in the streets. Not when the thick end of the whip coiled around his neck, choking the life from him. Not when she ripped the dagger free, only to raise it— “Stop.” Quinn blinked. The roaring quieted. All at once, the bubble of silence around her popped and she heard it: the screaming, the sobbing, the shouting, the chaos. The cracks of the whip had lulled her into a state where there was only rage … only pain. And the sound of a man’s voice—dark as a shadow, deep as the ocean, powerful enough it reverberated through every bone in her body—was what pulled her out. Warm fingers stilled the hand where she clutched the dagger. Quinn paused and raised her eyes, taking in the man that had stopped her.

Backlit by the sun and sky, a creature of savageness and sensuality stared down at her. His eyes, they were unlike anything she’d ever seen. Smoldering coals they were, burning from within, without a spec of color in sight. Her lips parted and her breath caught, but only for a moment. Those eyes were so … fierce. There was a wildness to him that Quinn had not found in others. Ever. She took a step back and he paused, waiting, before he released his hold on her wrist. She composed herself, a mask of indifference falling over her as she allowed her eyes to travel the length of him. Long dark hair—the color of black skies—hung in thick strands surrounding a face that had seen more than its fair share of fights.

His skin was tanned, but an off-white scar spanned from his left eyebrow to his cheek. Other smaller flecks of old healed wounds dotted his face, making it all the more striking. Quinn found it a strange sort of beautiful. He wore the fine fabrics of a noblemen that was worth his weight in gold, and two rings adorned his left hand. None graced his right, Quinn noted as she took a step away, slowly coming back to her full senses. “Who are you?” he asked her. The shouts grew louder as a crowd began to form around them. Quinn didn’t spare the slave master a look. She’d never killed before, though she’d come close. Despite her slipups with that cold impassioned madness that sometimes took hold, the honor of her first kill was reserved for someone who owed her restitution, and therefore she didn’t want or care to know if he was dead or alive.

Quinn took a step away, slowly lowering the dagger to her side. She didn’t put it away. Not yet. “No one,” came her reply as she moved back towards the crowd. There was a ringing in the square, and the occupants of the market scattered in confusion and fear. The bells meant only one thing. Soldiers. City guards, to be exact. She froze. “No,” the man said.

He didn’t move. Neither of them did, even as the people in the streets scattered like rats around them. “You’re someone.” She began to shake her head, and he stopped her with a calculated look. “You’re someone like me.” That made her pause. Did he mean… The streets thinned as the pounding of hooves against mortar thundered through the city. She needed to get out of here. If they caught her with the evidence of her actions bleeding out behind her, she would never even find out if Jada’s latest attempt at keeping her magic under control would work. She’d be hanged before the end of the morrow.

Quinn turned to leave when something stopped her. It was startling; a whisper of air blew across her face. The cold chill of winter that didn’t belong. “I’ll find you after I take care of this,” he told her. She didn’t have to ask what this was. Nor did she want to know what he meant. As much as he intrigued her, Quinn just made herself a wanted woman one too many times. Still, she looked over her shoulder. With a frown, she replied, “Unlikely.” Then she disappeared into the shadows where people like her belonged.

Where she should have stayed.

.

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