Phyrnos: After Ice Book Two

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The floating market was always busy, but on harvest days, the enormous crowds made it easier for Isela to slip undetected among the commoners. She wore her cloak with its hood drawn low over her long, sculpted snout. Only her shining eyes were visible inside it. But her graceful walk attracted attention, as did the menacing Gilahawk perched on her shoulder. It had a red silk vine strung round its neck. Isela held the end of the leash loosely in one hand, but the beast clearly was not tame, and would savagely attack anyone who menaced her.

Isela loved the market. Especially at this time of morning, when moons still hung gleaming in the raw, early sky—it reminded Isela of her youth, and the mornings before her family would undertake a long journey. They had always visited the market first for provisions. Her father taught her how to handle herself in the dangerous crowd. “A crowd is an organism,” he’d told her once; “its members like so many cells. Each cell responds to changes in the collective whole, and you can read these shifts, Isela, as clearly as the Countess reads the cards.”

Rogues, traders, and thieves streamed past her while giant lifters, filled with the bounty of the Phyronisian fields, jostled invitingly just outside the banks of the crowd. Thieves admired her thick cloak, noticed her Gilahawk, and moved on. A group of young thugs were haggling lazily with a shopkeeper over the price of slings. It was a warm, tropical morning, and everyone seemed placid and relaxed, except for the fresh-skinned hatchlings who clung terrified to their lumbering mothers as they shopped.

Suddenly Isela felt discord ripple over the crowd: something was wrong. Something was coming. For her. All this time her right hand had rested over her dagger in its sheath; now she turned calmly to face her aggressor.

He was splitting through the crowd even as she turned. He was skilled in veiling his thoughts, but even so she could read his motions before he made them. He was a young junkie, strung out on zuulite. As he leaped toward her, Isela saw that he was so crazed he’d not even noticed her Gilahawk.

He flung himself at her, his thin jaws open wide, and flew... directly onto Isela’s waiting blade. She turned it inside him, unlocking the weave of his scales. Blood ran down her dagger as he tore himself away, screaming. His tongue was grey, covered with broken abscesses, his eyes rolling in his head as he staggered back. The crowd moved back thickly and stared.

Isela followed him, neatly slicing him again. Her cloak fell back, revealing her face. The crowd began to whisper, and the Gilahawk tensed on her shoulder. She soothed it.

“Stay,” she said. “He is done.”

The junkie pressed his wound, hissing at her. “I isssn’t done,” he said. “I iss just begun.”

Isela calmly wiped her blade and sheathed it. “I think not,” she said. He tried to lunge at her again, but fell to the sand.

“So cold,” he said, and lay his head down. Blood spread around him like unfolding wings; he watched her wonderingly as she stood there, waiting for him to die. The well-fed members of the crowd swept away, but the hungrier ones stood waiting to see if she would leave his body.

She did. They closed over it quickly, and the sounds of briskly ripping flesh and snapping bones overtook the quiet hum of the market.

Trace elements of the zuu would pass into his devourers, along with his flesh and skin, but this could not be helped. The substance was so expensive it would be difficult for any of them to form an addiction. She smoothly pulled up her hood, wondering how he’d been able to support his habit. Zuulite crystals were a valuable commodity, even among the wealthy. They were a main form of energy among her people, far too precious to be wasted by consuming them for recreation. Although the high must feel tremendous...

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