Excerpt: The Gift of Your Love

Ridiculous, just ridiculous, Neely thought as she skidded on the cobblestones and made a sharp turn into the narrow alleyway behind Olekza Square. She could hear sirens wailing and car alarms going off everywhere. Ground tremors, arson, a plague of suicides—and the police wasted precious minutes dogging one little thief!

She came out into a wider street. A flood of panicked people rushed towards her; she slipped between shoving bodies. Caged doves squawked as she jostled them. She smelled frying potatoes and unwashed bodies and carnation perfume. Underneath, rosemary and gunpowder. Sure, the police could have been looking for whoever was burning down homeless shelters and soup kitchens, then leaving insulting graffiti spray-painted over the ruins. They could have been hunting down the murderer who left no evidence other than shattered mirrors near the victims’ bodies. Those cases were all over the radio and the papers. But no. Just because she was poor, because she’d been born in Aprikos, it was like she was doomed to never get away with anything.

Even an explosion would be safer than jail for a foreigner like Neely. It had been more than a minute since she’d last glimpsed a red police uniform, but she couldn’t be too careful. As the crowd thinned out, she deftly ran around. Even the jalopies, hampered in traffic, could do nothing but honk their horns as she sprinted past. The more distance she could put between herself and those Red Beetles, the better.

“Kid, don’t go that way,” a woman carrying a woven basket of embroidered ornaments called. Her kerchief was askew, dust on her pale face. “Didn’t you hear the radio? Ground’s rumbling. The whole square is unsafe.”

Safer for me, then! She nodded politely even as she ran on, squeezing through a narrow gap between two buildings. The newspapers had discussed nothing but disaster recently, and this earthquake, just like all the previous ones, would surely make tomorrow’s front page. They’d probably even televise the aftermath.

A chickadee cried in a leafless sapling. The square, usually filled with market stalls, was empty as could be. Neely could even hear crumpled newspaper blowing in the wind. Edging along a wall, she let herself smile. Her heart still beat fast, but already she tasted the sweetness of stolen Pink Gem apples, her favorite variety. They were hidden under her tucked-in sweater. Ideally, in a better world—a world where she still had a job and a home—she would have made something delicious and beautiful using the apples as an ingredient. But cooking wasn’t the center of her life anymore, not since she’d displeased Olena. Survival was.

Then the tentacle snaked around her ankle and yanked her into the air.

Neely’s empty stomach clenched in nausea as her head dangled towards the ground. It was lifting her higher and higher up… ten feet, twenty feet. If she fell…

She felt the grip slipping, and cried out in terror as it uncoiled like a snake. The ground rushed closer—

At the last second a larger tendril, thick with muscle, seized her waist. It lifted her slowly.

My apples—I can’t breathe—they bounced out and rolled away. But at least she was still alive.

“This is your final warning, Miss Loeb,” a man’s voice boomed out. The sound had a distorted, expansive feel. “If you or your family dare to attack me, this civilian will fall to her death.”

Neely twisted around, wriggling as much as she could in the vice-like hold. “Oh, fuck,” she mouthed, getting a good glimpse of her captor.

The head of a man, small-eyed and sneering. The body, a giant fleshy mass in which transparent organs undulated. And instead of arms… hundreds of tentacles, covered in scales—each topped with a wickedly sharp weapon or tool.

“Interesting. You can see me… I wonder what kind of gift you have, little one?” When the head spoke, the whole body bounced. It was as big as a truck, and everything wiggled, covered in a thin layer of dirt that had stuck to the jelly-like surface.

Neely wanted to say something defiant and bold, but only a squeak came out. A giant man-octopus. Of course, she’d always seen things other people overlooked. She’d notice the one plate in a hundred that lacked a bay leaf garnish, the coin glimmering up from the mud in a rainstorm. She could glance over every table in the café and point instantly to the one lacking a single saltshaker. When she was a child, her classmates at the orphanage had compared her to Baba Yaga; more recently, her employer had joked that she possessed some supernatural power. Sometimes, if she truly concentrated while looking at people, she could even sense their emotional state from a flash of color surrounding them. Such events prepared her to accept the unusual, but she’d never seen anything so utterly strange. Could she be dreaming? No. The dizziness of being upside down and the queasy ache of hunger made it clear that she was painfully awake.

“Now, don’t try anything.” One tentacle came close. Scaly muscle shifted as he waggled a harpoon at her like a warning finger. “Whatever sort of gift you possess, if you even think of unleashing it, you’ll die in an instant. I’ve got a good thing going here. I get paid more money to cause earthquakes than any of you Organization operatives will see in a lifetime! You think I care about the death of a civilian? Just you watch—”

“AAAH!” Neely shrieked as she was tossed up into the air again. Instead of catching her, he ripped a fishhook through her sweater, and it scraped painfully against her skin. Reeling her in, he tucked her under an arm, close to the sweaty stench of his torso. It’s like a huge jellyfish…

His skin seemed to suck at hers, pores the size of fingernails opening and closing with every uneven breath. She wanted to throw up, but there was nothing in her stomach to get rid of.

“Let the girl walk away without hurt. Fight is between us, not her.” The voice was a woman’s, calm and confident—and with the easy accent of Aprikos, Neely’s homeland. Neely dared to lift her head.

The figure at the other end of the square, her hair blowing in the wind, was—in a word—impressive. Her dark wavy hair was worn in a sharp undercut; short on one side, it fell in dangling tendrils down her cheek on the other. Her outfit gave the sense that she didn’t even notice the heat.

And those eyes… a wolf’s eyes, a warrior’s eyes, the deep blue at the heart of a fire. Even with the distance between them, Neely could tell she was in the presence of great power.

Everyone else in the square had run away long ago. Abandoned food carts burned slowly in the afternoon breeze. Only a single seagull dared to peck at an overturned stall.

But this woman sauntered closer, untroubled. “Let’s talk,” she said, showing her hands.

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