I stepped into the bar and immediately felt the weight of a hundred hateful stares boring into my skull. There may have only been thirty individuals in this particular establishment, but most of them had three or four reasons to hate me, so I figure it balances out. This was a den of outlaws, and I was most decidedly not welcome.
I took another step inside, casually pushing the length of my duster out of the way to reveal the weapon attached to my hip. Everyone else there was just as surely armed, but if there was one thing about my reputation I was even surer of than how much these despicable folk hated me, it was how much they feared me. I figured it couldn’t hurt to remind them why.
At any rate, I wasn’t really there for them, and they knew it. My own single stare was fixed squarely on the lone figure in the corner, a sad-looking woman with a wide-brimmed hat and an explosion of fine red curls, nursing a bottle of cheap beer and deliberately avoiding me. My former partner, one Arabellis McVanth.
Fires, did I hate her guts.
Still, I had no choice – I had a job to do, after all, and sometimes that job meant working with low-life scum like Arabellis. I made a quick line to her table and sat myself down. I kept my eyes fixed on her hands, in case they tried anything funny.
“What can I do for you, sheriff?”
She asked the question without even looking at me, and I gritted my teeth. She was insufferable, the way she could be so callous and aloof sometimes.
“After four years, that’s all you have to say to me?”
At last, she looked up, just enough for me to see a flicker of those wicked emerald eyes. My father always used to tell me that green was a wicked color, something to do with an old Earth tradition, but I never believed it until Arabellis. Right then, she even made those eyes show something like remorse, which was the worst lie I’d ever seen.
“I guess it’s all been said already,” she said, looking back down at her drink.
“I guess that’s true,” I said, forcing myself to keep watching her, trying not to think about all the years we’d spent together. “But something’s come up.”
“I take it that’s why you came to visit?”
She took a long pull from her drink. I watched her throat work to swallow it; I couldn’t help myself. I’d always loved her pretty little neck, even though now I mostly just wanted to wring it.
“Yeah. I think you might even be interested in this one. It concerns the Followers.”
It was probably a coincidence, but just then a strange silence seemed to come over the disreputable denizens of the bar. Then again, half of every law broken in Ortis was broken by someone who hated the Followers of the Flame as much as I did, and nearly everyone in town knew or loved a recent convert. The Followers – and their weird magic that they called “psychokinesis,” or PK for short - had been in our town for a few years by this point, and suffice it to say that the people here had opinions on the matter.
“Why, Madame Sheriff Penny Lux,” Arabellis said, all theatrical shock, “are you here to convert?”
“Over ten thousand piles of ashes,” I retorted. “And you know well.”
“Well I know you ain’t stupid, too, so you must not be here to ask me to help you fight them…”
“There’s more to it than fighting or joining, Arabellis. Not that I’d expect you to understand that.”
We stared at each other then, her emerald eyes reflecting my own sable ones. There was so much history between us, even I could get lost in it sometimes. Not today, though; I didn’t care to, and there was too much at stake.
“There’s a defector,” I went on. “Someone who joined them just long enough to learn to control his PK, then bailed as soon as he made it back to planetside. Apparently he’s planning to start some kind of offshoot cult. Everyone’s scared to shit about it, saying he could unmake the entire Follower presence. If you ask me, that’s a good thing, but he’s not liable to stop there, and he doesn’t care who he hurts.”
“And the Followers can’t do anything about it themselves,” Arabellis said, picking up the thread of my words, “because of their vow of non-interference.”
“Funny how they pick and choose when to honor that.”
Arabellis slammed her drink down, a sudden burst of anger grabbing her face like a sprung trap.
“Penny, you need to let it go. It was four years ago, and that boy had every right to join them.”
“No one’s heard from him,” I said, cold as my mother’s grave. “In all this time.”
“He didn’t have anyone worth writing back to.”
It was the same old argument, impossible to win, and we both knew it. Four years didn’t change much, apparently. I hadn’t really expected it to, but I’d be lying if I said I never hoped that she’d have a change of heart. Must be hard to change something you don’t have to begin with, though.
At any rate, that wasn’t what I’d come for. I squared my shoulders and spoke my peace.
“I need your help, Bel. I need you to get me a trainer.”
She stared at me like I had scorpions crawling out of my mouth. I couldn’t really blame her, either.
“Why in…Pen, do you even know if you have an aptitude?”
“Since I was ten years old and the monks visited my home.”
It was the truth – I made a habit out of that. The words never tasted right when they weren’t what I really meant. That didn’t mean I couldn’t keep a secret, though, and this was one secret I’d rather not have shared. The memories around it were almost as painful as the ones around Arabellis.
“And you never went to them to learn more?”
Arabellis shook her head at me in that unbearably condescending way she’d always had.
“You realize that the rules haven’t changed? You can’t get the training unless you join the monastery.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“The monastery’s in space, Pen.”
“I’m aware of that, too.”
I’m not too proud to admit that I derived a fair deal of satisfaction from watching her struggle to make sense out of what I was saying. It was nice not to be the dumbstruck one for once.
“Well I’m sure you don’t need my help to go do that. What spark of Fire changed your mind?”
“I’m not going to space, Bel.”
Her eyes narrowed at me, then. I think she started to get it, because she turned away from me and took another long pull from her drink. She always used to do that when she didn’t want to accept something ugly.
“No way,” she finally said. “I don’t know what you’re planning, but I’m not interested.”
“Guess you must be interested in a prison cell, then,” I said all-too-casually. “You know there’s still a reward out for the kidnapper.”
“You wouldn’t,” she said, but there was a fear in her eyes that told me she knew I would.
“Things have changed,” I replied. “I need you to help me do this.”
Slowly, her body tensed up; I didn’t have to be able to see below the table to know it started in her toes and worked all the way up to her eyebrows. Then, sure as a wound spring in clockwork, the tension exploded out of her in a sudden, snake-bite turn towards me, her tone all incensed conspiracy.
“And what exactly is ‘this?’ How, exactly, am I supposed to help you get the training without you joining the monastery? You want me to kidnap a monk of the Flame?”
“Not a bad idea,” I responded, leaning in to conspire with her. “Think you can handle it?”
Her jaw worked in furious concentration as she struggled to find a winning response.
“Even if we ignore the fact that every one of those monks has mastered the training,” she tried, “that still leaves the not-so-minor detail of it being a breach of an interplanetary treaty. I know you don’t give a single shit about the Followers or our war against the Void Dragon, but I’m sure you can imagine the repercussions for our planet if you foul this up. Besides which, it goes against the very law that you are sworn to uphold. Sheriff.”
She bit into the last word like a too-tough piece of bread, stale and crunchy in all the wrong ways. I couldn’t help but smirk at her.
“Why do you think I’m asking you for help?”
She shook her head in some kind of emotional display – disgust, outrage, I couldn’t be too sure.
“Penny Lux, you are some kind of hypocrite, you know that?”
“Well,” I said, leaning in closer to put the full weight of my own emotional display in front of her, “we know who taught me that, don’t we?”
We stared at each other again, and as I looked into those unyielding eyes of hers, so full of passion and determination and beauty, I couldn’t help but fall in love all over again. But all it took was one more look to see the wickedness, the betrayal, the crime that had ruined our life together and could never, ever be forgiven, and I hated her like new. I felt like I could stay locked in that cycle for ages, and if it’s not too boastful to say so, I had the feeling she was stuck in a similar trap staring at me.
But now was no time for those kind of feelings, and we both knew it. Of that, I was certain.
“I can’t stop him without the training,” I said at last. “And if I don’t stop him…”
Arabellis nodded. She was never slow – none of the McVanths ever were.
“It’ll be disaster for everyone. Absolutely everyone.”
“So, what do you say?”
I extended my hand for a shake, and she eyed it suspiciously for a bit.
“Not sure you’re giving me a choice in the matter, Pen.”
“Can’t trust you not to make the wrong one, Bel.”
At last, a real smile flowed across her lips, glorious as the rising sun. She smiled because, despite all my piercing comments, she knew she’d won, in the end, and so did I. She smiled because, even though the argument between us would never be over, she had succeeded at her mission and I’d failed at mine, and the fact that I couldn’t let it go just proved to her that I was some kind of sore loser. And, despite that smile being at my expense, I still felt my heart race to see it. I hated myself for feeling that way, but beauty is beauty, after all, and even a lawwoman can’t be immune to it.
“You can trust me on this one,” she said, taking my hand and giving it a firm shake. “It’ll be just like old times. Before all this unpleasantness between us.”
“No,” I said, finishing the shake and retracting my hand as quickly as possible. “It can never be like old times. Not after what you did, Bel.”
“I saved the boy’s life,” she said, taking another sip from her drink. “And one day, you’re going to realize that.”
I had a thousand things to say in response to that, but knew that it would do me no good, and get me no closer to stopping the defector or his cult, so I swallowed every single one of them. It felt like a glass bomb went off in my chest, but you didn’t get to where I was in the law if you weren’t tough enough to handle that sort of thing.
“I’ll meet you at the old spot,” I said, standing abruptly. “Tomorrow night, after mooncross. Don’t be late.”
“Never have been,” she said, tipping her hat at me. “I’ll see you around, partner.”
I left with a nod, unable to decide whether I was hoping I’d imagined the tone of longing in the word “partner,” or hoping I hadn’t. Hearts are truly wretched organs; right then I’d sooner have done without one. Unfortunately, I happened to need my heart to keep pumping my blood, so for the time being I resisted the urge to carve it out of my chest, and I focused on making plans for my next meeting with the outlaw who’d stolen it.