The Fox and The Birdcage

Chapter 1

The Fox and The Birdcage
A Map of Military Strength in the Known World

"Well, Dr Deloran...you've come at a bit of an odd time. You see the authorities recently broke up an illegal fight club, one that forced the poor things into deathmatches. Now, most of those little knives still need serious help before they can be of much use to a man such as yourself. Too dangerous, yes? Need to remember to live again, not just survive." A final nod from the slave merchant, as though she expected the topic done.

She gave off the vibe she was discussing stray pets in the shelter, rather than fellow Leder, making the customer distinctly uncomfortable. He'd have expected her to hesitate or fall short discussing the sale and suffering her kinsmen. A Leder slave merchant would be impossible back in Meunria and perhaps that detachment was necessary for the older Snow Hare Leder to live within a cruel system.

"Actually...I came here because it's where most of those saved from that life ended up." The merchant opened her folding fan and covered the lower part of her face, to politely hide shock that was betrayed by a twitch of her eyebrows and sharp draw of breath. He did the gentlemanly thing and gave her a second to recover, before going on, "You see...I have some skeletons in my closet and some may soon start to drag at my daughter. I wish for a protector but more than that, I wish to give my lonely, lonely daughter a sibling she can trust with things no parent can approach. I wish for someone who would kill...and yes perhaps even die for my daughter but not because she was ordered but because I've given her something worth dying for. Someone understands the cost of survival and so wishes, with all their soul to go on living. Can you help me?"

-------------------------------

Yue Rogue, proprietress of the well respected and royal crest endorsed 'Bozian's Blood Moon, (best damn Leder shop in Moon's Grotto, anyone who says otherwise will get told right quick) was told by Royal Missive to expect Jean-Paul Deloran and to see him happy, making sure she was totally unsure about how the meeting would end. When he laid out his request, voice steady and devoid of any accent despite his short time in the country, one person sprung to mind. Glad she covered her face when she nearly gasped, as she was unable to stop from chewing her bottom lip as she thought about the young woman who fits the bill. Lethal in the arena from the age of 12, capable of taking full-grown adults 3-to-1 by the time the authorities got involved 6 years later, her only rule was that she wouldn't kill anyone younger than herself by at least 2 years and she was valuable enough in the betting with an undefeated record and 4 self-defence deaths outside of the ring for her sole demand to be met. Give a girl like that a principle to protect and a family environment to nurture that one line back into a way of living. It'd be possible, the young woman still had a spark in her eyes, one that said she wasn't, couldn't be, broken no matter how bad her situation got.

Finally, she sighed, realising that if she was going to think of someone else by now, she would have already suggested them but little Fyre really did fit the bill. A shame, as even though it had only been a month since she came into Yue's care (the story only made the papers after the case was closed, not on the day of the bust) but the vulpine Leder endeared herself quite quickly to the leporine one.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

It'd been not long after the twenty or so 8-18-year-olds had been dropped on her that Fyre caught her eye. She'd pushed to the front of the line when she'd had taken her new charges to be seen by their inhouse healer, demanding to be seen first. Yue had been about to scold the rude young woman, that there were children in worse shape than she was but caught a stern glare from the healer, a centaur named Cason as skilled with needle and thread as she was with Asire equipment, who then did the full planned physical in full view of the other kids, not even closing the privacy curtain for the parts that required nudity and not even batting an eye when questions were barked at her, any time she picked up a new piece of equipment. That's when Yue caught up to the rest of the room and, checking none except the healer was looking her way, put a finger gun to her temple and mimed the universal sign of 'oh kill me now' to Cason's amusement.

The "rude young woman" was making sure that no harm would come to the kids. Chances are if the fox-girl hadn't liked Cason's attentions or her intentions, Cason would be healing herself for the rest of the day, height and weight difference be damned. The medic had allowed the cut in line because she'd have had to reassure each and every kid individually when they were taken for some real privacy. Now that their big sister figure went through it all in front of them, however, questioning what everything did in as coarse a manner as possible, it was more likely that they'd be relaxed enough for Cason secondary job of looking for psychological red flags. An aversion to buzzing, because they were forced to collect honey from giant wasp nests or unable to wear ties due to frequent strangulation isn't likely to come out in the first meeting but signs of them could peek through a relaxed guard.

Glad that Cason had stayed to help her set up after the war, and lingered when she got invested in the Leder that came through the shop, the proprietress promised the centaur a small bonus with the usual handsign and left her to her work, making herself a promise to watch that little knife closely.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

"Is there a problem?"

Yue was snapped out of her thoughts at the question, slapping her fan closed in her standard trick to regain the lead in the conversation, she notices the distraught father be replaced by the shrewd intellectual that was his reputation, "Just that it was such a specific request that I'm left ashamed at my lack of choices." She paused to see if that shook him but aside from Dr Deloran's steely blue eyes narrowing a small bit, there was nothing. Okay then... "Only one in my whole stock matches such an order. A kind-hearted killer, who's in touch with the animal instinct towards family packs and who is all the more human for it. Yes..." She turned to the servant by the door, his practised invisible-until-needed aura causing her customer to start at his sudden appearance, "Please inform little Fyre there is an individual who requires her skills and to come to the salesroom."

---------------------------------

Jean-Paul considers himself a patient man but the slow, deliberate manner of Madam Rogue reminded him of merchants who could acquire medical devices, equipment and supplies and would use lives as another value to be haggled over. Plenty of times in his work, he saw slaves straight from the merchants. Miserable creatures bought and sold in bulk to be worked to death or to serve to "advance science" through cruelty. And much can be learned from cruelty. Seeing the Leder as that merchant made his stomach curl that much tighter, as though he was seeing a new betrayal each time she spoke.

Now sitting in silence, Madam Rogue was happy to sip her tea (where had that come from?) but Jean-Paul yet stewed on the situation. He hated that he had to come to one of these places. Despite having a great deal of love for his home country, he could no longer stay in the face of just how awful Leder are constantly treated even against the wishes of the Arch-Bishop and seeing this place dressed up as though it were a real store and not a well-dressed nightmare made him have to keep an active focus on keeping his temper.

The moment the door opened fully, however, Jean-Paul quickly revised his opinion of the store. Standing there was a tall, well-fed vulpine Leder. Dressed in a red hooded jacket, with white highlights on the stomach and that faded to black on the arms, accompanied by black fingerless gloves. Full-length skintight leggings and mid-length amber coloured shorts lead down to black socks and boots. Long rust coloured hair fell loosely around her face, her eyes peeking out from behind long bangs. It started to turn white as it went past her shoulders at the back and sides and likely reaching mid-back from how long it fell in front. Her Leder features stuck out even more than her mode of dress, however, as they shared her hair colouring and stood out from the human silhouette, though the young woman made it seem that NOT having them would be unnatural for her. Two orange triangles poking out from the top of the curtain of hair pointed fully towards him and a long silky tail swayed back and forth behind her. Ten sharp claws tipped each gloved hand, matched by two canines too large to stay behind her lips, even with her holding her expression as blank as possible. Most remarkable was her eyes, as around the expected slit pupils was an iris that seemed to smoulder, less burnt and more burning orange, as though the embers were yet to go out.

"You may be wondering about the outfit," He hadn't been but now that she mentioned it..."Well, are you familiar with the Vis-ire program 'Grand Champions'?" He'd never watched it himself but her was aware of the premise and her clothes were reminiscent of the costumes he'd seen on posters if more...fit for a public setting and not an arena with cameras on her. He had little interest in Visual Asire technology beyond a professional interest in advances in medical equipment. He much preferred Audio Asire devices for his home life. "Well, little Fyre here- Fix your hair, I showed you how." The Leder in question nodded and began working her hair into a ponytail (Foxtail?), "was a fan of it, even when she was with the malignant tumour that claimed to be her previous master. Always dreamed of stepping onto that stage, even designed her own costume to wear. Well once Cason got that little bit out of her, I simply had to know if the design had potential and passed it onto a seamstress friend of mine who wasn't busy. She was bored enough to take it on as a project instead of simply looking at it and maybe a professional sketch based on the descriptions I gave her. By the time anyone back here knew what she was doing, most of the outfit was done and it'd be a waste of supplies that scrap it. She has more typical clothes, suited to her Leder traits of course, in her pack."

That was something, at least...

-------------------------------------------

Big Sis Yue said that she'd probably be bought up quickly, in fact, her exact words were, "You're too good, my dear..." Fyre got it though since she'd been 'too good' for one-on-one fights for a couple of years now. A personal point of pride, she'll admit if drunk. Getting her a Grand Champions style outfit had nothing to do with Fyre's obsession with the show because it wasn't one. Fyre mentioned liking it when Miss Cason was trying to find out what she thought about fighting in general. Big Sis had overheard and ran off to tell her seamstress all her costume ideas. Fyre didn't turn down the outfit since it was the nicest thing someone had done for her in a long time, without her having to kill or maim someone first. That just made her think that she might have to do that later on instead, though, so if it hadn't been Big Sis Yue responsible she'd have been very suspicious of the expectations such a gift had attached but Big Sis was very diligent in making sure all of the kids were seen to, wanting nothing in return. It was easy to trust proven intentions after all.

In the weeks since she's hardly worn anything else, only taking it off for laundry and sleep. It was more comfortable than any clothes she'd ever worn before meeting Bis Sis, had loads of little extras (like hidden pockets in the sleeves, waistband and boots) and was HERS, she didn't have to share it with the younger kids same she did with any luxuries her fights earned her in the past. Technically, she didn't have to, but being cold and starving before she started winning was worst than the beatings and the "training" sessions. Even with her strength, she couldn't keep those kids from those that meant them physical harm, she might as well have used it to make sure they healed up okay.

Despite the good that came from that first match, though, she could barely remember how that first fight went...

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

She had only started winning real fights in the first place because another kid ended up sick on top of their injuries from a loss they just took. Illness and injuries that were perfectly treatable but when combined would be lethal to a starving child. Earning medicine meant winning their master enough in gambling fees and winnings. So, at twelve years old, 80 pounds soaking wet and without even a name to answer to, she volunteered herself to fight an opponent that would have massive odds against herself, enough that her master wouldn't have to put a lot of his own money down to see a return big enough to earn medical supplies. She got the green light and her master set up a fight that ended up with 30/1 odds against her.

A cage match against an adult Kikimain Bear. 300 pounds of fur, teeth and claws, with a thick hide, that's able to deflect bullets if stories are to be believed. Apparently that's what a twelve-year-old bear from that far north looks like. Since her master couldn't find any Leder opponents with the odds she was looking for in her age bracket, he simply took the next logical step. She was at least given a small knife to overcome the "slight height difference".

Swallowing her fear by rationalizing that anyone she fought at those odds would be a death sentence anyway, she got ready to play 'poke the bear' for the next hour. Then the human leading the Leder dragging her very unwilling contender to the 15-foot cube of iron bars she was already inside of (and why wasn't the bear part told to her prematch?) injected the animal, that she was now realising was just pretty scared, with what probably wasn't tranquillizer, considering the bear's pupils tightened to pinpricks and it started thrashing enough to throw off the poor Leder being forced to get the beast to the cage. Then it locked onto her and charged, the chains attached to the metal collar whipping around it.

Seeing pain and death barreling down, Fyre clambered up the bars at her back. A good jump and a kick off the crossbar in the iron let her narrowly sail over the top of the freight train of muscle and swinging metal, missing her footing and tumbling to a stop on the floor. Springing up as quickly as possible, she spun to see what the bear was doing. Thankfully, it seemed more interested in the crowd it could see just out of swiping range, so she could catch her breath after the near-miss. Then she heard a whimper behind her, too close to have come from outside the cage. Reluctantly turning away from the berserk mass of painful death, she saw a reptilian Leder. He looked to be bigger than her but not by much and especially not when curled around a broken arm like he was.

He let go too late, gate closed behind him...

"And we have a surprise extra to the betting tonight! 60/1 against the lizard surviving in the bear cave!" She spared a glance to the chalkboard hung above the spectator seats, where the odds of each competitor are listed, realising that 30/1 was only her chances of surviving in a cage with a bear and now that she was faced with a drugged up, frothing at the mouth bear that had metal swinging from its neck, those odds weren't looking much better than her companion. "Now that everyone is sure who they want to bet on, let us get to the part you're all here to see."

The announcer threw a switch with a dramatic flourish and the hum of an Asire generator sounded over the crowd, followed by a high pitched whining. The bear roared in pain, staggering back from the bars as they became electrified. Once it recovered, it was quick to assume that was the fault of the tiny two-legs it was stuck in the cage. With a roar that made her insides feel like jelly, it moved quicker than an animal that large really should have been able. With it so eager to close the distance between its intended mauling victim, she wasn't able to get clear of the massive paw slapping her aside. She skipped like a stone against the dirt floor, stopping just short of impact with the cage. With her sight spinning, she managed to see that the bear was less interested in her and more on her incidental fellow maulee. The same protective instincts that got her into this shitshow screamed at her to stand up and help him. The last thing she remembers is reaching for the thing next to her to help her get back to her feet...

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Next thing she remembers is waking up with one arm down the thing's throat, looking into it's destroyed eyes. One had the knife she was given sticking out of it, and the other had what looked like teeth marks around it. Seeing as she'd won, and kept the second Leder alive, she had just made her master-at-the-time a LOT of money, making her able to get medical treatment without the risk of master pulling something tricky like "I gave you all the medical supplies you needed" and getting the kid she'd been trying to save killed anyway. Oh no, her master needed to get his new golden goose onside if he wanted her making money for him, so she was treated for electrical burns on her hands and feet, a number of broken bones, teeth and claw marks and acute blood loss. Then she was given a small healing Asire device, medicine to dull a fever and sent back with promises for a feast for her skulk, Barrack Four. Too exhausted to anything other than do as instructed, she passed over the meds, did the same with the message and then collapsed on her bedroll.

A couple of hours of deep sleep later, she awoke to the smell of cooked food. It filled the barrack with a warmth beyond the just the food being kept warm on some smouldering coals. The others had waited until she was awake enough to join them before they started eating, something that she appreciated since she was pretty hungry before her deathmatch and Asire healing left everybody extra hungry too. Seeing the honest to Gods happy smiles from across the feast, made of a large pot of stew and more meat than any of them had seen in one place before and seeing even those couple of other kids older than her in the Barrack being more animated was both the best thing she'd ever seen and painful in a way totally different to what she was adjusted to. She had to keep fighting, keep winning if she wanted to ever see those smiles again.

And she did. So she did.

Thankfully, she didn't have to fight any more bears, as her victory meant that her former master was able to set her up for high odds fights much more easily now that it wouldn't be called a waste of time. Fighting Leder and the occasional desperate human in an arena marked with ropes was already so much simpler than the first fight that very little could psych her out. As she got older, in order to keep the odds against her, she had to start fighting at more and more of a disadvantage until the best that her by-now-quite-wealthy former master eventually started trying quantity to keep his golden goose happy and the money coming in. It'd gotten him caught in the end as her victories and especially his attitude towards his competitors about those wins meant that eventually, someone tipped the Guard intent on taking him down a peg. A tip that inadvertently allowed the Guard to tear apart the massive criminal organisation of which the Leder fights were only one part.

Looking back, I'm glad I insisted that the rest of my Barrack get sent to Big Sis, same as me.

She would see them safe and happy. Yue promised that much when trying to convince her that Fyre could, and should, start looking after herself again. That was a hard sell, though, because although Fyre had never experienced another blackout like her first fight, she had only stopped herself from hating her growing strength by justifying it with its use for others and the thought of having another violent blackout without that the buffer of it being to protect someone terrified her. Big Sis had attempted to help separate that feeling from her ability to prioritise herself a little more but it was slow-going since aside from how to ration minimal food and first aid supplies for twenty growing fighters, which was unlikely to be of too much use, her only marketable skills were violence based instead relying on older kids to keep the younger ones clothed and clean with their earnings while she kept their keepers focused on her as much as possible. Things like asking for extra training from the cruellest instructors to make sure they didn't undo any healing meant she learned an efficient suture but didn't have time spare to learn how to sew clothes, for example.

According to her, the treatment they endured was a holdover from when Meunria ruled, a criminal enterprise that had resisted, quite stubbornly despite attempts from both the Guard and the military to oust them. Her shop, on the other hand, adhered to the Princesses' Boon and wouldn't sell to anyone who didn't. What that meant was that although Leder were indeed still bought and sold, there were checks and balances. Ideally, that meant regular health check-ups, nutritious food and a warm bed but really meant that most nobles went from treating them as objects to more like pets that could communicate, and although Yue was quick to say that most people weren't quite so patronising, it was a popular slur against Leder regardless because of it.

A knock at the door broke Fyre's introspection. "Fyre! There's a customer that Yue wants you to meet!" Leaving behind the barely touched writing exercises, she grabbed her jacket, answering the door between each sleeve she pulled on, using her toes to open the door as her hands were occupied with closing the zips. Seeing Kaleb, another vulpine Leder and Big Sis' latest assistant-in-training, she crammed her feet into the boots she'd kept by the door and nodded as she grabbed her pack before she set off to follow him, "After you, pup."

They'd all been shown around, so Fyre did know where their destination was but since her guide was in no rush, she was happy to go at the set pace. Still, it wasn't long before they'd reached the door they were looking for but before the door had fully opened, Kaleb had pulled that disappearing trick, leaving her standing looking a bit punch-drunk for the older man to gawk at. Used to ignoring stares, she walked into the room to stand behind Yue's couch, just far enough left to catch her peripheral vision if the scolding for loose hair was any clue.

Despite making her ears point in the direction of the conversation, Fyre was happy to quietly zone out as the two discussed her in more detail. Likely because of that, she managed to miss the part of the conversation where Yue left the room. And yet, she dropped out of her trance when Big Sis stood, politely excusing herself and hoping the two of them get along. Dumbfounded, she looked between the door behind her and the man in front before gulping nervously, all attempts at remaining stonefaced turning to dust...

fantasy
Read next: Understanding the Collective Intelligence of Pro-opinion
Lee McDonald

Hey there, my name is Lee McDonald and I've been a huge fan of all things fiction for as long as I can remember and writing as a hobby since I discovered I could do it on a keyboard instead of a pen and paper.

Please enjoy!

See all posts by Lee McDonald