If you’re just tuning in, you’ll want to start at the beginning….
I wouldn’t dream of heading into battle without my black leather jacket and knee-high boots, but there was more to this gig than fighting. So I showed up at the Arena an hour later in a baby-pink blouse, ruffled neckline drooping low enough to show off my nearly nonexistent boobs. I tied up my hair in two above-the-ear pigtails. And I splashed enough smoky blue and silver eye shadow on either side of my nose to accentuate the slant of my half-Japanese eyes.
The effect wasn’t me…but I’d do a lot to put food on the table for my sister. In this case, unfortunately, a lot wasn’t quite enough.
“…did you hear about the hooker they found dead down by the river last week…”
“…new bar with two-for-one appetizers…”
“…wouldn’t bet against Mai if you paid me to…”
The news of the day swirled around me in a cloud of horrors, excitement, and—unfortunately—overwhelming appreciation for my prowess. As if to prove the last point, a meaty hand came down on my shoulder as a random audience member congratulated me on my most recent win. “Nice job against those bozos,” he boomed.
The male in question was a head and shoulders taller than my five-feet-zero frame, and he likely could have lifted me off the ground with one arm tied behind his back. Still, his posture radiated respect for more than the length of my rapier…which should have filled me with much-deserved pride.
Unfortunately, my boss had been using the unlikely disconnect between my appearance and my skill level to her financial advantage for nearly a decade. It was a lucrative proposition—toss the tiny street girl out against a gang of heavy hitters, bet on the underdog, and watch the cash roll in. Since my ten percent of the take paid the rent, having members of the audience betting for me rather than against me could very well turn into a financial disaster for both Ma and myself.
Drat and blast! What did it take to be underestimated in this town?
Before I could decide which evasive action to take, though, I glanced toward the other side of the stadium where my opponents usually held court. Best to see what kind of warrior Ma Scrubbs had dug up before I decided between the damsel-in-distress routine and the fake-wound walk….
New fighters were always easy to pick out due to the contestants’ banners slung across their chests. And I was ready for any number of them. After all, I’d faced down five opponents just last month, forgetting myself and knocking the quintet down like dominoes with a few short swipes of my sword.
But during that ill-matched contest, I hadn’t been forced to hide my abilities. Had been facing humans only, without a single werewolf in sight.
Now, as I eyed one tall male and one erect-ruffed four-legger, I not only recognized the abilities of the shifters before me, I also knew immediately who they were. The man standing on two legs possessed uncannily familiar features for all that I’d never set eyes on his face before. And no wonder when he smelled identical to the wolf panting by his side, both boasting the same deep musk that lingered on my tongue despite every effort to wash their granite and ozone signature out of my brain.
No, these opponents weren’t strangers. Or at least the wolf wasn’t. Instead, this was the self-same shifter who had accosted my sister on the cemetery wall earlier in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, the two-legged shifter’s words were just barely audible with the help of my own supernaturally assisted hearing. “Of course this is a good idea,” the male murmured on the other side of the chattering crowd. His voice was gritty with rebellion, which struck me as strange since I could smell his dominance from fifty feet distant. “You know the evidence leads here.”
Evidence? Were these werewolves hunting something? Could they possibly be seeking me?
Whether that conclusion was grounded in reality or in pure paranoia, I’d risk too much by fighting fellow shifters unaware of my closely held secret. So I turned on my heel and stalked off in the opposite direction.
It was time to hold a serious conversation with my boss.