Flori flitted down the alley, a crisp twenty folded in her hand. She tossed the wallet in the dumpster. She wasn’t big time; she didn’t fool with the credit cards. Urre and Kulta, who ran drugs, took bolder risks. Flori emptied out enough to eat and kept a low profile. A sound at the alley’s mouth alerted her. She looked back long enough to see the tourist’s head, the same distinctive ponytail she had noticed when peeling the wallet free of his pocket. “Shit,” she muttered. Then she yelled, “check the trash mister,” and made a good show of running straight into the dead end wall, only to whip around and charge when he was nearly on top of her. For a moment, she wished she did take more from her lifts, wished she kept enough to buy just a dram of lartë. With a dram, she could change into a cat and dart between the man’s legs right now. Instead, she ducked under his arm and sped past him back to the street. She heard him follow. He chased her several blocks, shouting all the while for the gendarmerie. “Son of a bitch,” she muttered. Sooner or later, one of the flics would pay attention to his racket, especially as they got closer to the better end of town. Damned if she was giving his cash back now. Flori bolted down another alley, this one a twisting affair that ultimately separated into two narrow streets. She stole a glance over her shoulder. Although she could still hear the man, she could not see him any longer. She broke left, darted into a restaurant, and dropped into a seat facing the window, hoping he would choose the wrong path. The table’s former occupant had been drinking coffee. Now, he was arguing loudly at the counter. Flori took a sip of his drink. Too hot by half. She spat it back into the cup and moved to another chair just as the customer turned and came back. “Hey,” said the counterman, “What do you want?” “Coffee,” Flori answered. A cup grew out of the table in front of her, and she grimaced. Food delivered by magic was always too cold. She carried it to the counter and flicked her coin down beside it. The twenty was plastered into her shirt, and she wouldn’t have let on to having such a large bill in this sort of establishment anyway. The counterman sighed heavily, lifted the pot, and topped her off. She took a sip and smiled before she returned to her seat. Just right. She stayed nearly twenty minutes, but when she left the shop and walked out of the alley-street, the damned tourist was sitting at a café, watching for her. The two streets didn’t diverge far before they came out on a main avenue. Not far enough, anyhow. He could watch both from his vantage, and she regretted going forward instead of turning back when she left the restaurant. Flori saw him a hairsbreadth before he saw her, and she ran again. “Why you got such a hard-on about twenty bucks?” she yelled. “I threw the wallet away.” “Nobody steals from me!” One of those. At least he hadn’t picked up any flics while he waited. Flori ran back up the alley-street, looking for the family of three she had just seen walking out their front door. She hadn’t paid much attention to them. But now, it seemed very important that they hadn’t suddenly decided to go home. They were still haggling with the greengrocer. Perfect. Although she was in plain sight of the man, she sprinted up the family’s front steps and grabbed the handle. Open! She told the door. And it did. She clattered through the narrow house, talking to the furniture all the while. Move it, she told a table. Into the hall, she ordered a heavy cabinet. But when a child’s rocking chair tried to follow the wooden parade, she said, No, you stay put. Not all magic required drugs. She heard him struggling, and the crack of wood suggested he was trying to clear the path with his own spell. Excellent. Flori regretted the property destruction, but no tourist was going to beat her over twenty dollars. (And would he stop at beating? Flori didn’t want to find out.)Initially, Flori’s plan was to sneak in the front then right out the back again. But from the sounds, her tourist was well trapped. So she popped into the toilet to take care of the coffee, which suddenly pressed to escape her bladder. She sat on the commode while the man thrashed, cracking chairs as he tried to free himself. Another man’s bearlike roar carried in from outside now. She had to guess that was the individual she had seen holding a head of cabbage like a weapon. Man of the house. It was impossible to tell if he understood the trapped tourist’s explanations, though from the sounds, the tourist had a lot to say. Then, she saw three vials sitting in a neat row on the sink directly across from the toilet. “That’s not perfume,” she whispered. “Lartë.” She flushed and rose. Everywhere outside the bathroom, the furniture creaked, her little casting holding out against not only the tourist, now, but also the returning family. Flori’s spell just caught up all their magic up like it was more furniture and added it to the mess. It was a problem that she had learned to use to her own advantage. She closed her hand around all three tiny bottles. She tucked them in her pocket and sprinted out the back door, feeling a pang of guilt as she heard a child’s voice for a moment above the adults. “My chair!” it wailed. “My chair, my chair, my chair.” Damn it, I told that chair to stay put. Nothing for it right now. The back door opened into a courtyard that separated four houses. This house and its neighbor backed up to two others that opened into the opposite alley-street. A little fence between the courtyard and the alley was a small obstacle, easy to vault over, but she didn’t want to vault. She wanted to fly. She studied her bottles of lartë, each labeled for strength. The first one measured two drams. Too hard. She wasn’t a regular user, and she doubted she could either manage a trip that strong or moderate her intake to consume only half of it in a hurry. The second bottle was only half a dram. Too soft. But the third bottle was exactly one dram. Just right. Just exactly right. She tucked the two wrong bottles into her pocket, then broke the seal and turned the third into her mouth. After the *pop* that told her the transformation was complete, she jumped and flapped her arms, which were now wings. She had only ever turned into a cat before. Running, leaping, and twisting were all instinctual to her. But her bird body wound too tightly around parts that ought to move freely. Her wings felt unnaturally light, and she stumbled on feet with the wrong number of toes. She twitched her wings, hopped and beat the air. Finally, she pushed her magic out into her body, ordering it, Fly, fly, fly. It wasn’t the same as calling furniture. Living flesh responded more slowly than dead wood to her compulsion. But finally, she lurched more than lifted into the air, her wings beating of their own volition. Then, her body caught the rhythm, and she eased the spell back. At least when she held the magic close this way, it didn’t get out of control and start sucking other things in. She caught an updraft and swooped. Below, a small army of people swarmed around the house’s front door. She spared them a caw before she turned back the way she had come. She traveled rooftop to rooftop, because flight hurt. It was little comfort to know that only some of the muscles currently paining her would be present in her real body later. A jackdaw screeched. “Not a bird! Not a bird!” It cackled and dove and then flew high as Flori struggled across from one flat roof to the next. “Flap together, flap together!” Flori didn’t initially realize it was giving her a tip around its cackling laughter. “Thanks!” She called back to it. She lit on a ledge and shook her wings until they fell back in synch with each other. It took an hour to traverse the few streets she had run in ten minutes (half an hour if she counted the delay in the café). All along the way, jackdaws and pigeons scolded her. They laughed at her colors and her size, and they were quick to call out when her wings got disorganized and refused to hold her aloft. Nothing looked the same from the air, so in addition to the mocking that made flapping hard, Flori had to remember landmarks that had passed right over her running head. She winged out to look at the fronts of buildings every so often to get her bearings. Finally, she recognized the dumpster where she had ditched the wallet. She jumped from a roof, forgot to beat her wings down before up, flipped over in midair and crashed headfirst into the refuse. She couldn’t smell a thing, a coincidental function of this body she had fashioned herself. She saw the wallet as soon as she flipped upright again. She flapped over and grabbed for it with an awkward talon. It slipped from her grasp and oozed down below a layer of debris. Flori shook her leg. She suddenly agreed with the jay who had screamed, “Tiny bird! Little beak!” But her form was set until the lartë wore off. So she dove into the trash. With a great deal of tugging and garbage sifting, she got the wallet back to the top of the heap. Since she couldn’t pick it, up, she hopped over to the rim of the dumpster and watched it. Three dull hours later, Flori’s body finally started itching, and the birdskin felt tight. She held the dumpster a little more tightly in her talons and when her human body popped back, she thrust her hands down to grip the rim in place of her feet, which now wore her boots again. She jumped off quickly, shooting a deft arm out to grab the wallet on her way down. “Now, let’s see who you are mister tourist,” she muttered. The wallet was supple leather, soft against her fingers as she flipped it open. It proved to be a bit more complex than Flori had initially realized. All she had paid attention to when she stole it was the cash pouch and her disappointment that it only held twenty dollars. From a rich tourist like that, she would have expected a hundred or more. In a side compartment, she found the man’s driver’s license. His photograph gave her a chance to study his face, when she had previously only paid attention to his leather coat and that long, dark ponytail. He had narrow features, close-set, angular eyes and a sharp nose above a small mouth. His eyes were green, and they seemed to be staring out at Flori. She read his name Luster Anguis and saw that he was registered to drive a big truck. Maybe not a tourist then. Maybe just a trucker arranging a cart to deliver goods to the highway. The truckers, indeed most motor car drivers, couldn’t manage Hiria’s narrow streets. Flori felt a pang of guilt. Twenty dollars would mean more to a trucker than a tourist. But it was done. And she’d damned well earned it when he chased her all that way. Exhaustion from the lartë settled over her limbs, making her feel dull and thick. Time to get out of this alley. She shook out the credit cards and threw them back in the dumpster. She started to send the license after them, but on an impulse kept it. She had green eyes and a similar nose. Her hair was the same color, and if she combed her curls straight and forced them into a ponytail she might pass for her trucker at the city gates, as long as the guards didn’t notice that the person in this picture was just over six feet tall, where Flori was barely more than four. She doubted they paid close attention to IDs unless the governor was looking for someone in particular. The wallet felt good in her pocket as she strode out of the alley. She scurried past two streets and crawled through a broken window into the basement of the Horned God’s temple. She had a bolt hole in a storeroom that the disciples never bothered. Sometimes, she caught their rats by way of payment for the space. She curled up on a pallet of old feed sacks and slept soundly for several hours. Late that night, rested, unpursued, Flori returned to the house where she had caused so much trouble. She realized at once that the largest part of the splintering racket had been the front door, which had twisted off its hinges and snapped in half. They would have to wait for her spell to ebb before they could clear the damage. She looked in the windows for a long time, until she was certain everything inside was still. The family wasn’t staying here. Then, she climbed noiselessly over the broken door. Even in human form, she made a good cat (a far better cat than a bird.) She picked around in the rubble with a flashlight until she found what she wanted, a recognizable piece of the child’s chair, its finished headrest. She carried it back into the narrow street with her and hid in a nearby alley that was still far enough away from the house that she wouldn’t be feeding her own earlier spell by casting another. She stroked the wood and called softly for the other pieces, the seat and legs, the back and rockers. She held the spell tightly close to her own body, only sending out one tendril at a time and fully reeling that piece in before she sent out another spoke. While she petted the chair, it pulled back into its proper shape. Other wood came too,, extra pieces caught in the tangle. The finished chair was at first too lumpy thanks to the embedded mess. Flori removed the extra bits, but that left the chair too smooth, too new. Well, she wasn’t much bigger than a child herself. Flori sat rocking in the night while she cast her spell, until the chair shaped itself to the contours of her body. Just right. At dawn, she carried it back and left it on the stairs for its young owner, a small apology for a chaotic day. She wondered about the tourist, (it was hard to think of someone dressed so richly as a trucker) whether he’d been believed or arrested, whether he regretted chasing her down over such a little bit of cash. But not for long. Like the chair, the tourist was part of the past, part of yesterday. Today, Flori had other things in mind. She would look for Urre and Kulta. See if they still had room for her, if they would teach her how to improve her use of lartë. Next time she had to be a bird, she didn’t want to hear the grackles laughing at her poor form.
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