“I was not expecting to see you again, big fella.” I hold up my diplomat smile for the German to see, but sneak a glance at Garland for a read on whether or not I’m about to be mauled by a landslide. Garland looks worried.
Drydus, the champion fighter, who’s codename was Hilda, who I shot and I thought killed, has an aura like an emerald. Papkao, the girl Garland knew, glows a deep, vibrant gold, and the bronze-armored woman in warpaint has no aura at all.
Garland lets the door close. I wish he wouldn’t have done that because with all these warriors in one room, it’s too small to fit me.
The resurrected champion ignores my remark but studies my face. His look takes in my defensive stance, my hunched shoulders, my bandaged leg and tattered pants.
He says nothing.
“I didn’t expect you to get up from that shot,” I try. “But you look well.”
“Yah,” drawls the German. “You too.”
“Why did Sylvia save you?” I venture, perhaps incautiously.
He looks perplexed for a moment, then says: “Who is Sylvia? Agafya asked Maya to save me. Maybe his mistake.”
Nai speaks up in Thai: ‘Two minutes, maybe less, before more police come. They want to catch you, and they’ve sent for re-enforcements. That’s why you have any time at all.’
Drydus sits back down and the bench groans. He cups his chin in his hand and ignores Nai’s plea.
The Thai fighter looks scared. He stands at a fighter’s ready, his hands, even the hurt one, hovering half raised in front of him. I can’t tell if he’s pointing his fear at me or the others, which I guess is a kind of compliment.
Papkao’s voice sounds like she smokes way too many cigarettes but also a little like a reed flute: “This is all.” I can’t tell if it’s a question or a statement, but she waves her hand at Hilda-Drydus in a way that’s half dismissive and half encouragement.
“I tink,” he says. “I ponder. This vill half to do. What other choice have we?”
Papkao’s bangles jingle as she comes close to wave a hand over the scar on my chest. The German nods and turns his lapis-colored eyes on me: “You vill come to Bitter Flower. You will help us kill Agafya.”
“I will?” I blurt.
The words hang in damp air for a moment before a rumble which might be another bomb or thunder knocks a shower of rain from the roof. A crow caws from above, and the rain continues its ceaseless mutter.
“I don’t understand,” I say. “You work for him, and you and I both wear each-other’s bullet scars. Why should you trust me?”
Papkao babbles a bunch of words too fast for me to understand. The German translates: “Is not complicated. This is what you came to do. You will do it.”
“It’s not…” I wonder if finishing my sentence is a good survival strategy, then go through with it: “That’s not actually what I came here to do.”
Tension pulls tight as a tripwire. Papkao’s bangles jingle. The German clenches his fists and that motion seems to tug all the air from the room. I begin to suspect the bronze-lady is a statue.
“Not that I specifically object, but-”
Papkao spins me toward her. Her oval face and dark eyes wrinkle with intensity. She has shoulders like a lioness, and the hand she raises is missing two fingers, but her movement pauses to ask permission before touching my scar. “This. This no mistake.”
“I know,” I tell her. “But what’s going on? Who are you? Why do you suddenly need my help? Why are we talking about killing Agafya? What changed?”
She glances at Drydus and the German rubs his eyes. I was so distracted by my fear that I didn’t notice how tired they both look. Everyone looks exhausted, myself included.
Everyone except for Black-and-White. The grey daylight behind her makes her bronze armor glow and the aggressive contrast of her warpaint and many flags manages to just barely live up to the intensity of her glower. She doesn’t seem tired. She seems ready. Looking at her makes me want to run away, so I try to stop.
Drudis says: “Agafya found a strange little man in Ayutthaya. This man has helped Agafya to make a trap for our Maya, und now he controls what he has long wanted; the temple and all of its secrets. She who marked you needs you now. She is bound. We must free her. What will you do?”
I plant my feet and try to look strong. “Answer me this: who is Agafya that he must die?”
Drydus nods. Papkao sneers, but a look of deep sadness passes Nai’s eyes and the bangled woman blinks as if slapped, then steps backward. Nai edges closer to her as the German talks: “He was her favorite student. She brought him as a child from the north, another temple maybe, it was before my time. He was already strong and wise and covered in hair. She trained him and trusted him to train others, and he was charming, invincible, and bold. I liked him. Everyone liked him. Then she sent him to fight in China and something changed in him. He came back hungry, and he brought heroine. He poisoned Maya with kindness, with gifts, with gentle words and good service, and all the while the number of his followers grew, and hers were sent away. Some of us saw, but…” He closes his eyes and a tear-laden grimace twists his lips. “He frightened us. He frightened me.”
There’s something child-like in his round face. His cauliflower ears, his broken nose, his sharp, intelligent eyes, all speak of a man who’s not to be trifled with – he wears his scars like badges of honor, but when he says those last words, the raw admission paints a vivid tableau drawn from my own childhood.
Papkao speaks in slow Thai with her eyes at Nai and her words to me: ‘For many of us, Bitter flower was not a temple; it was a road to power. Agafya was not kind, but he led where I wanted to go. Maya always danced in circles, deflected, and asked me to answer my own questions. Agafya gave freely. Now I see that I only know what he wanted me too, and have discovered nothing for myself that is new or mine. But Nai…’ The smile she points at him flickers like a signal light, but he crosses his arms. ‘Nai has helped me remember that the temple is not for us. It had a purpose, and… and I will not be ruled by a man.’
Hilda’s huge fist makes the bench jump: “He has bound our Maya! He put a chain on her! Many follow him, but I vill not. You see? I vill not!” Tears of mingled shame and courage shine on his cheeks. “We fight him, we few! We die.” He nods with grim certainty. “We die for the right cause.”
Papkao bobs her head in agreement. “Yes.”
Their auras bloom such a brilliant red-gold it’s like looking at the rising sun. I flinch and step back, and Drydus takes it as a rejection. His aggression flashes upon me and his hand catches mine with such speed I barely registered he had stood and crossed the room.
It’s like a handshake from a moving train.
Nia cuts in: ‘Police truck in the road. Listen! You can hear the engine.’
Papkao waves her hand between us and the sound of her bangles rings a bell to break the tension. ‘Tell him the plan.’
Hilda seems to read something in my face. His grip relents and as I shake out my bruised fingers he says: “Agafya has two captains; Hound and Wren. If they are allowed to work together, then we will not beat them. We must kill the captains first, and we must do it when they do not expect, all suddenly at once. Treachery would be best! We will split up to strike the two of them at the same time. If either survives for one second, then they will kill us all.” He turns his face away. “Agafya cannot be killed by treachery. We must all survive our fights with the captains. Then, together, we will face Agafya, and we will die. We will try to inspire others to finish what we start.”
“Maya?’ asks Nai. “Will she help?”
Hilda shakes his head. “We think she is bound in the deep, outside of our world. I cannot go there and neither can Papkao. Some of the others might be able to, but we won’t know who we can trust until the battle lines are drawn.”
“Leave Wren to me,” I gambit. “I can handle her.”
Papkao tilts her head and smiles in cool disbelief, but whatever she would say stops as a truck engine coughs and brakes screech just beyond the wall. Boots splash into mud and the voices of Thai boys babble under the sound of stern orders.
‘Time to go,’ says Papkao.
“I will help,” I say. “First I have to deal with these police.”
The bronze woman of black-and-white shifts her weight and around her maple-leaf blade a little saw-wheel of violent color coalesces into a whirl-pool of the memories of blades and rent flesh. She takes a single step, but Nai’s shout stops her: ‘No! They are defending their homes! They do not deserve to die!’
“They’re not a enemies!” I say, frantically. “They might help us, actually!”
The black painted eyes dart between Nai and Papkao. The bangled woman flinches in hesitation. The club’s front door bangs open and many boots enter, even as other footsteps ring around the outer wall.
“Vait at Bitter Flower.” Drydus pats my shoulder. “Ve will rejoin Agafya and fight beside him until he comes home to lick his wounds.”
“Go!” I say. “We have our plan, and you will have my help!”
They go at a run, startling a pigeon from the thatch of the roof. By the time the bird has left by the same doorway, they’ve cleared the two-meter wall at the back of the yard and vanished from sight.
In Thai, a single voice cries: ‘Stop! Police!’ and a rifle-shot echoes from the alleys and rooftops.
Garland says, “Why you not go?”
“The police know where Jenny is,” I tell him.
Police shout: ‘They’ve gone out the back!’ ‘Follow!’ ‘This way!’ and many feet run on the other side of the yard’s wall.
“Jenny…” muses Nai, then switches to Thai: ‘It would be better to leave her.’
“I can’t do that.” I kneel and put my hands behind my head.
He kneels too. ‘She can’t go. Neither can I.’
The door to the back room jumps as someone kicks it.
I frown. “Nai, Garland, you stood by me in Ayutthaya, will you not stand with me again at Bitter Flower?”
“No,” he says. ‘The police tried to break in. Now, the temple doors are sealed. It will accept none but its own. If I go, I die. Same for your friend.’
‘There’s always a way,’ I tell him, as the back room bursts open and in rush that same officer and his dozen armed men who are done waiting.
Nai says: ‘You don’t understand. She won’t reach the front door.’