Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chapter Thirteen

It had been too long since Ashen had had a good cup of tea. The east was much stronger on alcohol, perhaps because they had more troubles to forget, or perhaps because tea wasn't strong enough for the people out here. Ashen had to admit, in a fair fight, without weapons or ambushes or supernatural powers, he'd probably lose to nearly any of the well-built, resilient residents of the Shattered Kingdoms. Or at least, those of the Shattered Kingdoms he'd seen, and given they only got less civilized and more individually intimidating the further east one went, Ashen imagined it would remain that way.

The tea sloshed around a bit in the tin cup Ashen had been drinking it out of as a slight tremor went through the earth beneath him, accompanied by a loud thud. Ashen turned his head to see, but the deafening roar told him what he needed to know before his eyes got the chance. Someone had gotten on Damaskenos' nerves. He seemed to be very nervous in general, which made avoiding his nerves something of a tricky subject. With a sigh, Ashen set his cup down and began walking towards the commotion.

Ashen supposed Damaskenos was probably still scared of the world after what had happened to him in Sergeinov Circus, and his successful escape and the subsequent flight to Novakagrad with the Dark Wood Circus had done wonders for dealing with his tendency to overestimate an opponent's strength. Unfortunately, this dovetailed directly into an aggression problem, which was probably a bit better for Damaskenos, but was significantly worse for those around him.

"Oi!" said Ashen, arriving at the scene of the fight. Jenna was pulling Jaromil away from the fight, Jaromil looking back over his shoulder in a mix of excitement and horror. Vanagandr, Ceslav, and Nikolas had gathered around to watch the fight. Wilder was crouched low, battle-ready, and Damaskenos snap-kicked in his direction. Wilder leapt out of the way too slowly, the kick sending him sprawling. Ashen wasn't sure where Damaskenos had learned Karate, but he'd been getting a lot of practice in since they'd left Lanbrott, as if being nine feet tall and nigh-unto indestructible wasn't enough.

"I think maybe you've taken the concept of 'break a leg' a bit too literally," Ashen said. Damaskenos ignored him, advancing on Wilder. Ashen stepped in between them, and Damaskenos swung at him with one hand. Ashen took a quick step backward and fought the instinct to strike back while Damaskenos was off-balance. "Damaskenos, come on, I thought we were friends," Ashen said, opening his palms in a mock surrender. Damaskenos paused for a moment, glaring at Ashen. After a moment, he turned and pried a small tree from the ground. Ashen prepared to leap out of the way, but Damaskenos tossed it over one of the wagons and, letting out a massive roar, turned and walked away.

Ashen turned around and helped Wilder up. "Jenna, bring the water," Ashen called over his shoulder. Jenna ran over and handed the vial of water up to Wilder, who drank it down, his bruises instantly healing, and judging by the sounds, a rib or two snapping back into place. Immediately after he'd finished drinking, Jenna snatched the water and ran off. She was not fond of Wilder. "Are we speaking the same language?" Ashen asked, walking into an empty wagon, Wilder following just behind, "Because yours seems to have an entirely different effect on people."

"What do you mean?" Wilder asked.

"Listen," Ashen said, "I don't know what you're trying to accomplish by picking fights with everyone and their dog, but stop it. You're making all of us look that much weaker."

"And carting Jenna around doesn't?" Wilder said.

"Not 'us' the Circus, 'us' as in Devil's Hands!" Ashen said. Wilder was caught off-guard. After a moment, he opened his mouth to respond, but Ashen cut him off. "The only people who run around picking fights with every emotionally unstable misfit they can find are the people too weak to pick fights with anyone else, and everyone in power knows this. The only thing that shouts your weakness louder than picking fights with Jaromil is when you lose fights to Damaskenos thirty seconds after they begin!"

"We're not weak," Wilder said, "We don't have to hide!"

"Lying is what we do, Wilder," Ashen said, "Lying, and hiding, and scheming, and making sure the fight is never fair. You're never going to be stronger than everyone else, Wilder, because if nothing else there's always going to be other Devil's Hands who'd love to remove you as a threat to their personal cults, but you can make people think you're too powerful to risk fighting with if you'd just keep your damn mouth shut!"

"You don't have any idea what you're talking about!" Wilder shouted, "I'm above everyone else! Hell chose me to-"

"God, the 'chosen one' rant," Ashen said, rolling his eyes. "Every single Devil's Hand thinks they're the chosen one of Hell or Heaven or one prophecy or another. I killed three 'chosen ones' this year alone, four if you count both of the twins separately. One of them wasn't even hard to kill!"

"You kill Devil's Hands?" Wilder asked.

"Yes, and you will, too, if you don't want to be killed by one yourself," Ashen said, "We're not all on the same side, Wilder. If you take nothing else away from this, take this: You. Are. Alone. Every single Devil's Hand is ultimately an army of one. We might work together for a while, possibly even our whole lives, but only because circumstances make it profitable. You taste just as good as Jenna. Better, in fact, since no part of you is extra crispy."

Sighing in frustration, Ashen turned and left the wagon, leaving Wilder to try in vain to come up with some kind of pithy comeback.

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