Andy DeLamare tossed a blonde curl over her shoulder and preened at her reflection in the mirror. Grinning, she picked her hat up off the vanity and flipped it into the air before catching it on her head. She looked rather academic, if she was being honest with herself. Like she could walk into a university lecture and no one would think twice about whether or not she belonged. But today was not for playing a role. Today was her day off.
She laced up her shoes and twirled in front of the mirror one last time, blew her reflection a kiss, and stepped out into the hall.
“Good morning Miss Wyverna,” the cleaning lady chirped as she passed. Andy didn’t realize the woman was speaking to her at first. Right. Fake name.
“Morning Yamina,” she said brightly. Thankfully, the woman didn’t notice her hesitation. Andy bounded down the stairs of the boarding house and burst through the front doors into the early morning sunshine. The street beyond was teeming with life, the air thick with the smell of the blooming jacaranda and dogwood trees. She loved Bozrah in the spring, she rarely had a chance to enjoy it.
Andy started down the street, whistling a jaunty tune she’d heard in a tavern a few days ago. A piss-poor excuse for a tavern, really, but it was a typical kind of establishment for her targets. She was disappointed when she’d watched her latest one stumble inside—too easy.
Slavers from Andoramy had taken a particular liking to the freeness on the island of Ysai. Her client, some wealthy government official, had paid handsomely for her to quickly and quietly dispose of the person responsible for snatching urchin children off the streets and selling them to the highest bidder—usually the disgustingly wealthy owners of Andoramian lumber yards.
Wretched as these children are, I would rather die than see the fortunes of other kingdoms being made off the backs of our people, he had said.
The lumber yards were a lucrative business that required a constant fresh supply of workers. The trees in the forests of Andoramy grew at a rate that surpassed anywhere else in the known world. Loggers could fell entire acres, only for it all to grow back in a month. With interest, she’d often heard people say. The trees couldn’t be transplanted, either. Every attempt at colonizing them in other parts of the continent had failed. The forest seemed to choose where it wanted to grow. She wasn’t sure if it was the defiance of the land itself, or if the Dryads had anything to do with it. Probably both.
She’d never met a Dryad. All the stories she’d ever heard said that they were strange, hardly venturing out from the cover of their canopied homes. She’d overheard someone once saying that they actually were the trees, and that when they were in danger the tree produced seeds that the Dryad could then move their consciousness into, like a genie in a bottle. She’d immediately dismissed the theory as bullshit.
She had trailed her target for a week. The man was a sloppy drunk with an opium addiction. She’d almost felt bad for the poor bastard when she lured him to the docks with her song. The combination of drugs, booze, and magic had him stumbling over himself—practically on all fours—to reach her. He almost knocked her over when he’d thrown himself at her feet, grabbing onto her skirts as she finished singing. “Please,” he had begged. “Don’t stop. It’s so beautiful. You’re so beautiful.” His breath had smelled so bad she’d cut his throat just so he would stop breathing on her.
Andy’s whistling ended as she walked into the apothecary, the bell on the door ringing pleasantly as it shut behind her.
“Good morning,” said the girl behind the counter, “Can I help you?”
The girl’s moss-green eyes met her own teal ones.
A Dryad. Interesting.
“Good morning,” Andy replied with a smile, “I heard there was a shipment of café that arrived at the docks a few days ago. None of the tea parlors seem to know anything about it.” Or they refuse to sell it to me, she didn’t need to say. “I was wondering if you might have any.”
Andy loved café. Loved it. It was rare and difficult to come by. The trees the beans were harvested from only grew deep in the northern jungle of Andoramy. In an area that was known for being home to trees that were a bit more . . . alive, than most.
The Dryad offered Andy a polite smile, “I managed to get my hands on a small shipment.” Her voice was cool and velvety, like morning dew on a leaf. “Would you like some?”
Andy clapped her hands together, “Oh yes please, very much so.”
The Dryad held up a hand for her to wait and disappeared through a curtain behind the counter.
Andy started up her tune again and began peering at the shelves. Dust motes swirled and danced through shafts of sunlight as she meandered through the shop. She’d never been able to be still for long. Churning like the sea, her mother had always said.
“Krixl teeth,” came the Dryad’s voice from behind her, and Andy almost dropped the vial of tiny, serrated teeth she had picked up. Admittedly, the girl was impressively quiet, but Andy had still heard her approach. She’d learned that feigned clumsiness made others feel more at ease around her. She figured it wasn’t necessary for the Dryad to suspect that she was on high alert, as she always was.
When Andy’s eyebrows rose in confusion, the other girl clarified, “It’s used mainly to help calm people who are about to undergo certain medical procedures.” The Dryad handed Andy a small brown paper bag full of what definitely smelled like café. “You powder the tooth and mix it into their drink. It’s a tricky thing, though, too much and you risk sending them into a laughing fit so intense, they’ll asphyxiate.” Her voice had warmed a bit, as if she enjoyed talking about her craft. Or asphyxiation. Either way, Andy liked her.
The bell over the door jingled and a man walked in. He was made up almost entirely of long wavy lines and fluid ease. His pale gray suit was immaculate, his hair so blonde it was almost white. Not quite opaque though, more . . . translucent. He floated through the room as if he were moving through water, but there was no denying the calculation in every step. A predator’s grace.
“Can I help you?” The Dryad said. The man turned pale gray eyes on her, ignoring Andy completely.
“Yes, I believe you can,” He said with a small, knowing smile. His voice was soft, but Andy got the sense that his words could sting. I’ll bet this bag of café he’s a Zoa, she thought.
The Zoa was a gang of local crime lords, led by a family of box jellyfish shifters. Andy had accepted a job from them once, and vowed to never do it again. Their allegiances were ambiguous at best and their code of ethics left much to be desired—basically, they were entitled pieces of shit.
The Dryad turned back to her, “If you’ll just excuse me for a moment.” Their eyes met and Andy read the words there. If you don’t mind, I’d rather not be alone with him.
Andy gave her a polite smile and nodded, “Of course, Miss, I’ll wait here until you’re finished.”
The Dryad turned back to the man and asked what he was looking for. When he named an item Andy did not recognize, she went back to examining the shelves, keeping one eye and ear on their conversation.
“I’m not sure where else you shop, Sir, but I assure you, you will find no lower price anywhere in this city.” Andy picked up another glass bottle and held it up to the light, turning her body so she could get a better look at the pair. Two minutes. It had taken less than two minutes for this man to start throwing his weight around. Andy scoffed quietly. Unbelievable.
The Dryad was holding a small wooden box of what looked to be fist-sized chunks of amber. The man was glaring down at her and, to her credit, she did not break his gaze.
His face contorted for a second, then he seemed to master himself, and straightened his coat.
“Am I to believe you are the owner of this establishment, or is there someone I might speak to? Your procurer, perhaps?”
The Dryad snapped the lid shut. “I am the procurer. As for the owner, if you would like to speak with Mrs. Flintyellow I would be happy to–”
“That won’t be necessary.” He grabbed the Dryad’s arm. It seemed he’d forgotten they weren’t alone. Or he simply didn’t care.
“I don’t think you understand who I am, Miss–”
“And I don’t think you understand what ‘no’ means.” Andy was behind him in a matter of heartbeats, a dagger pressed to his throat. “I believe the lady gave you a price. If that is not sufficient for you, I suggest you look elsewhere.” The Zoa tensed and Andy could feel the telltale hum of magic starting to rise from him. She scoffed again and rolled her eyes. “However, I have a hard time believing that you’ll find a better deal anywhere else in the city. Here, you are also receiving a healthy dose of humility. Free of charge.”
The man seethed under her blade. She felt his muscles tense and shift, as if he’d try to throw her.
“Ah ah ah, not so fast.” Quicker than lightning, she had another blade drawn and angled into his ribs. “If I were you, sir, I would assume that the pretty girl with the daggers knows what she’s doing.” She gently stroked his side with the tip of her blade, teasing. “I would also assume that, since you value your life, it would be in your best interest to either pay the asking price like everyone else, or get out.” She could flay this man alive, and he would beg her to do it. She leaned in close and whispered, “Your choice.”
He took a few tight breaths and relaxed, slightly. His hands lifted in surrender.
“My apologies, ladies, I don’t know where my manners went.”
Andy removed her dagger from his ribcage and slowly circled around to face him, the Dryad stepping to her side. She kept the other dagger angled at his throat. With great, exaggerated care, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a coin purse, “This should cover the cost, yes?” The coins flashed as he dumped half of them into the Dryad’s outstretched palm. She tucked the box under an arm and counted the coins slowly. Deliberately. Seeming to savor the fact that Andy’s knife was still at his throat and she wanted it to stay there, just a bit longer.
“Yes, it does.” She dropped the coins into her apron, opened the box again, and took out one of the amber stones. In the light, Andy could see there was a small insect trapped inside it. It almost looked like a dragonfly, but with six wings instead of four. The Dryad passed it to the man and closed the lid again, replacing it on the shelf.
He slid the fossil into his pocket, and Andy removed her knife.
“See how easy that was?” She giggled and resheathed the dagger at her thigh, the folds of her dress concealing the slit made for easy access to her weapons. “We love negotiating, it’s so modern of us.” She gave the Dryad a maddeningly girlish smile. The Dryad’s answering laugh was like a gust of wind through a canopy of leaves. The man seethed and the boundaries of his body seemed to pulse and dissipate, like he was beating his magic back from bursting through his skin. With a final parting glare at Andy, which she returned with a mock salute, he turned on his heel and left.
Andy turned to the Dryad, “Are you okay?” The Dryad didn’t respond immediately. For a moment, Andy wasn’t sure if she would. Actually, she was quite nervous that she wouldn’t.
The girl looked at the door, then at Andy . . . and then back at the door . . . then back at Andy . . . and burst out laughing. After a few seconds, Andy joined her.
Before she lost her nerve, she stuck out her hand.
She hadn’t had a real friend in years, an unspoken rule of the trade, but she had a feeling this girl was different. Offering a fake name like she usually did just . . . well, it didn’t feel right.
The Dryad wiped tears from her eyes and clasped Andy’s outstretched hand. Her skin was cool and smooth, with a slight dryness to it, like the bark of a birch tree.
“Nice to meet you, Andy. My name is Zinnia.”
Jordyn McClary is an avid reader, writer, and senior at CCSU. She is a Psychological Science major with a minor in Writing and Publishing. Her work has previously been published in Blue Muse Magazine.