Chapter 42, Friends
[BY AMBER MARIGOLD JILTEN]
“Is there anyone in this room that we’re on friendly terms with?” I ask Xavier.
We finally arrive at the casino - the heart of Pyra Dice. It’s a large room with flickering lights from machines and bells ringing out winnings or losses. Jazz music plays in the background as a nervous band not too far away try to keep us entertained. There are waiters walking around serving drinks in all kinds of colors and I can smell the buffet tables not too far away. I’ll have to gorge myself when nobody is looking later...
I look around and everyone seems dangerous and like they’re ready to stab me in the back. I have to wonder how many weapons people are hiding under their suits and dresses. I have to wonder how many of these people are weapons themselves. Instinctively, I raise my foot a little, but my black heels seem too light for Xavier to have snuck any bullets in.
There’s only a handful of people I recognize. I spot Clarence immediately. With his black hair and grey streaks, the leader of Trojan gang is hard to miss. Not with him getting excited over some gambling game I don’t know the name of. Not too far away I see some friendlier faces. Gareth is in his suit with more grey hairs than I remember him to have... Enzo and Valentina who were at my wedding are with him and the three of them are all talking with their leader.
“That’s Marco, right?” I ask Xavier, “The one with the bullfrog kinda face? He’s the leader of the Gladius gang.” I’ve done my research and Gladius seems like the easiest gang to get on our side.
“Marco Gambino yes,” Xavier answers. He leans in a bit closer and says into my ear, “The two other men with him? The old guy with the shades and the tall man with a beard? Those men are the dons of two of the five mafia families here.”
“We’re neutral with the mafia right?”
“We’ll know once we bump into Don Vito. He sets the tone for these families.”
I glance around more and I’m just too on edge to relax. Anyone here can mean the end of us. And I don’t even want to think about facing Blake. I’m grateful he’s alive, but he must hate me so much! I can’t describe the emotions that ran through me when I made the decision to give him up like that. If not for the silver in me, I would rust and perish at even the slightest thought of betraying a friend.
But I’m more than just a friend to people now. I’m a leader. And sometimes to save some people, you got to do bad things to others.
“Mister and Missus Marigold Jilten, the Kumicho of the Yama-gumi wishes to speak with you,” I hear a deep voice say behind us. I look over and It’s Tetsu who has his head slightly lowered and gaze downward. From this angle, I can see his dragon tattoo from his neck going much further down his chest and back.
“Please, call me Amber,” I tell him.
Tetsu looks up, his already dark eyes even darker with the eyeliner. “Very well, Amber,” he says.
“Don’t bother,” Xavier laughs, “I’ve told him to call me by my name plenty of times but he keeps forgetting.”
Tetsu doesn’t smile, but I kind of get the feeling he wants to.
“Alright, take us to the new Kumicho,” Xavier says, “I’ve been dying to meet him.”
Xavier and I follow as Tetsu leads us to the other side of the casino. Fluke follows closely by, keeping an eye on our backs for us. I try keeping my back straight and expression blank as I pass all the other dangerous families gathered here. With Xavier close to my side I feel a hell of a lot safer. Not because I need saving, but because I just need someone who’s willing to be on my side no matter what.
We walk over to the seated area of the casino. This part of the large room is much more dimly lit with purple neon lights snaking around black leather booths and onyx coffee tables. Each table comes with in-built ice buckets that seem to be glowing with dark purple light. There’s a massive bar occupying the entire far wall of the seated area with more drinks than I’ve ever seen one place have. Exotic plants decorate the era in that same purple theme and all the seats are empty save for a booth at the back.
“Right this way,” Tetsu says as he leads us to the booth.
Alright, Amber, I tell myself. Let’s keep Rebma close by just in case.
There’s a cluster of guards surrounding the booth area but at the arrival of Xavier and me, the guards partway, revealing the Kumicho of the Yakuza, the head of the family, the... the... The playboy?
The man sitting in the booth across from us is not exactly what I pictured the head of a large Japanese clan to look like. In my mind, I pictured an older man with years of experience and a stern expression. What’s in front of me isn’t exactly that. The Kumicho sits slumped in the booth with two almost identical Japenese girls clinging to him on both sides. I love their dresses. Black Japanese fashion with purple dragon patterns riding up the sides. The man they cling to I’m a little less impressed with. He’s definitely older. Probably in his thirties but the aura he gives off is more that of a rebellious teenager. His hair is gelled back, but still messy with two scars across the side of his head. His arched eyebrows have two piercings in them and he’s chewing on a toothpick all the while. I look down and it doesn’t help that he’s wearing a fur jacket but no shirt, exposing ancient Japanese art tattoos covering his whole body save for his face. It’s hard to spot, but I notice some sort of weird axe dangling by his side. Other than that, he’s wearing leather pants and has his feet kicked up on the coffee table like he doesn’t have a care in the world.
This is our greatest ally?
As soon as the playboy spots us, his expression becomes much more alert. “Xav, you made it,” the man says with an accent. He smiles brightly and quickly stands up and gives a bow.
“I always told the old man I’d last longer than him. I intend to keep the promise,” Xavier smiles back before bowing as well. I do the same.
When I look up, the Kumicho is suddenly right up in my face, looking at me as though I’m some new discovery to mankind.
“This is her?” he asks excitedly.
“The one and only Amber Marigold Jilten,” Xavier smiles proudly.
The Kumicho looks me up and down, inspecting. “Ah yes, Jilten! You two got married! I wish I could’ve been there, but the timing was bad,” he says, “She’s pretty enough. I always knew you would snag a pretty one.”
Feeling a little ignored, I set my jaw and stand a little taller. “You flatter me,” I tell the man and go to take his hand from his side before clasping it in my own. “But I feel it’s rude for me to stand here without being properly introduced to such an important friend.”
The man looks a little off guard at me taking his hand but smiles nonetheless as I lower his hand for him and stand back again.
“Ah yes, it would be rude,” the man says before stepping back and bowing once more. “I’m Kenichi Hajime, Kumicho of the Yama-gumi, but Internationally I’m known simply as Ken One.”
I watch as Kenichi raises again and suddenly notice the KEN1 tattooed on his neck like a collar.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I am Amber Marigold Jilten, co-leader of the Northern Gang. May I refer to you as Ken?”
“It would be an honor,” he smiles somewhat mockingly.
Ken goes back to smiling at Xavier. “She’s a lot more docile than I expected, Xav. I’ve heard so many things I expected some scary woman to show up and not really this polite, pretty girl.”
From the corner of my eye, I see Xavier smirk and I know this is my cue.
“I prefer it this way,” I tell Ken and bring my hand from where it was obscured by the folds of my dress. “The more docile my enemies think I am, the easier they are to fool.” I extend my hand and reveal the axe I snagged from Ken.
“What...?” He asks while staring dumbfounded at his weapon.
“Fortunately we are friends, are we not, Ken?” I ask with the same smirk my husband has on.
Ken takes his axe with nothing but awe as he looks back at me. “My Masakari... I must have dropped it,” he says nervously while smiling at me. Everyone here knows he didn’t drop it. “Glad to know I have friends to help me pick it up.”
“Since greetings are over,” I suggest we sit down and order a drink,” Xavier says.
“Definitely,” Ken says while looking at me surprised, “Everyone that’s not needed, leave.”
Most of the guards save for one stays. Even the girls that were in the booth with Ken go to leave. Fluke sends me a questionable look and I nod, signaling him to leave. What’s left is Xavier and me sitting in one black booth with Ken across from us - washed in purple light. I look over and Tetsu is staying as well as one other guard that’s by Ken. Now that I think about it Tetsu and that guard look pretty similar...
A waitress walks over and we all order our drinks. Ken being the eccentric that he is picks some exotic-sounding cocktail while Xavier asks for whisky and I order a simple white wine. By the time the drinks arrive, Xavier leans back in his booth.
“So, Hajime, how do you find being the head of your clan?” he asks.
“Definitely not what I was expecting! I was praying for the old man to die already, but he clung to his position for all these years! I thought I’d never see the day I can sit as the head of the family. Now the old man is gone, but instead of riches and power like I’ve been promised, I’m asked to do all these uh, what’s the word,” he says, “Samatsu... uh, yes, all these trivial things! It’s tiring. I leave it all to Seki here. The boring things. All I want is to swim in the spoils and arrive where the action is.”
Ken swings his axe around in his hand as he talks, looking like he’s thinking about all the people who’ve seen the unfortunate end of his weapon.
“I must admit, I’ve been used to the boring things before I became leader,” Xavier laughs, “Though the fun is still in seeing your enemies suffer.”
“Exactly!” Ken says while straightening up, that toothpick still in his mouth as he speaks, “I just want to crush anyone that’s in my way.” He looks over to me suddenly and I take a sip of my wine. “What about you? Do you enjoy killing your enemies?”
Xavier looks over as well, curious.
I think about the question. When I was Rebma... I think I kind of enjoyed it, but Amber? Amber definitely hated it. What am I now? Do I want to see my enemies suffer? I think about Jane and all she has done. I think of how she’s the reason so many are dead. Lynch... And I think about how she’s the reason Owen is in a wheelchair and yet... If I hate her, I’d be the person I swore never to be. I’m not here because I want to kill. Whether the innocent or my enemies. I’m here because I long for this life, but more than that I want to save people. Xavier and I both... we just want to stop good people from dying because of the choices of a couple of bad people.
“No,” I eventually answer, “I don’t like it. But I also don’t dislike it. Treating murder as a hobby is not my way of going about it. Rather it’s much more similar to the boring work you refer to. It’s unfortunate but necessary and you don’t have time to regret it.”
Ken stares at me intently for a moment, chewing on that toothpick of his. “Nah,” he says, “With time you’ll see. People like us have to learn to enjoy the dirty work. We won’t make it out alive unless we take pleasure in the pain.”
Something about what Ken says sticks with me.
But I fear the day I enjoy the killing will be the day I become like the people I’m out to stop. And that would really kill me. I have to be better. And not just in words, but in actions.
I can’t end up like the people I’m trying to stop.
“Hey, uhm, I need to get some air,” I say when I start to feel a little uncomfortable.
“You okay?” Xavier asks.
“Yes, I just want to go outside for a moment. I’ll be back in a sec,” I say before standing.
“Fluke is here somewhere. Take him with you.”
“I won’t be long.”
I leave the seated area of the casino and head towards the outskirts of the large room. There’s a hallway right around the casino with giant pillars marking the casino area. I walk past those pillars, down the hallway, and to a massive glass door leading outside.
Cold night air quickly greets me, but I don’t mind the breeze. It was pretty hot during the day, but I can feel the temperature dropping quickly here. I walk over to the edge of the balcony, if you can call it that. Barely a meter below me is a garden with water features going all around. I walk to the sandstone railing and lean against it - looking up at the starry sky. With the palm trees and beautiful constellations, a single thought comes to mind...
“I could really paint that,” someone says behind me.
I whirl around and my stomach turns.
“What are you doing here?” I sneer.
“I don’t believe we’ve officially met,” Kyle says while walking over with his hands in his pockets. He has a classic black tux, but his white shirt underneath isn’t buttoned properly and it’s bothering me.
“I’m Kyle Bowmen, co-leader of Southern Sterling. It’s a pleasure to meet the famous Amber Marigold.”
“What are you doing here?” I repeat with much less patience.
“Well, I wanted to get some air and then happened to stumble upon you. No need to get so aggressive,” Kyle smiles, “You don’t have to keep your hand so close to the gun you undoubtedly have strapped to your thigh.”
The blood drains from my face. How does he know I have a gun on me? Has he been watching me?
“I’m leaving,” I say and aim to walk past Kyle, but with one smooth step, he blocks my path. I’m suddenly just too close to him. He really looks a lot like blake, but just older. His black hair is kind of disheveled with silver eyes that appear polite. There’s a soft smile on his face that I really just want to punch. You can’t fool the girl that has everyone else fooled. This guy is a snake wearing a mask.
“No need to be so hostile, Amber,” he says, “I just want to congratulate you.”
“On?” I ask skeptically. I take a step away once his cologne is bothering me as well, but in doing so, I spot blue paint at the hemp of his Jacket. What the hell is wrong with this guy? Doesn’t he wash his clothes?
“Tricking me. You really fooled me into thinking the wedding wasn’t at Isabella’s. I... I regret to say this, but I underestimated you,” Kyle explains politely. He takes a step closer.
“Everyone underestimates me,” I reply, “You’re not special.”
“Yes, I see that now, Amber,” he says, “You are just like me! We both wear masks so people wouldn’t expect too much and yet we both want to lead with love and not fear. We both want to make this world a better place as well. And that’s why I don’t understand why we aren’t working together.”
I laugh at this. Is this guy an idiot? “My cousin is your co-leader. She wants me dead. There’s no working together with me, Kyle Bowmen.”
Kyle’s smile grows for a second. “You said my name,” he says before a bit of red suddenly flushes over his cheeks, “It kind of sounds good when you say it.”
“Stop fucking around and get to the point,” I tell Kyle, “You know working together is impossible.”
Kyle sighs and walks past me, towards the sandstone railing where he leans against it and faces me. He looks incredibly relaxed and comfortable, as though he’s posing for a magazine cover photo.
“Jane’s time expired the moment she became Sterling’s leader. Taminn disappearing like that only strengthens my claim. From the start, her own father knew she was unfit, but she was...” Kyle looks over at me curiously, “The only reasonable option for him at the time.”
“You don’t seem to like your co-leader very much,” I comment.
Kyle chuckles, “No, I don’t,” he says, “I liked her gang and her power, but that girl is out of her mind. And as psychotic as she is, she’s also an idiot really. She rules with fear. The opposite of me and fear can only get you so far. At some point she’ll get stabbed in the back because nobody’s there to willingly protect her. Everyone wants her dead. I can’t think of a single person that wouldn’t want to see her head roll. It’s just a matter of time before she dies now. And when that happens, Sterling will be all mine. Just like I planned.”
“You wanted Sterling?” I ask.
“I want what Sterling has.”
A bit of realization washes over me. “So all this? Killing my parents and faking your death? It was to get Sterling?”
“I didn’t kill your parents, Amber,” Kyle says sincerely. “Jason did that. My Southern co-leader at the time. He did it without my knowledge.” I watch him take a step closer and I’m too shocked to pull away as he takes my hand. “I’m really sorry about what happened to you. You were never meant to be in the line of fire.”
I want to see through his words, but for the first time I can’t tell if he’s lying.
Damn this guy is either serious or a really really good actor.
Kyle lets go of my hand and runs his fingers through his hair as he lets out a sigh. “I’m being honest with you, Amber,” he says, “I was one of the candidates to marry Sterling’s heir. It would’ve been perfect. I could get Sterling without spilling blood and use Sterling to make this world better instead of letting corruption spread further. This country is rotten to the core. This world is rotten. But I don’t want to give up on it because this world is my home and I want it to be a good place for future generations.
“So when I found out West wouldn’t make the cut, I knew I needed to find another way to get Sterling. I thought at the time I needed to unite Tygerwell and have Sterling bend to me, so I hatched a plan. I faked my death and hoped my brother would keep the West floating while I built power in the South. I thought once I became leader of the South, Blake and I could unite and make East bend.”
“What about the North?” I interrupt. “What would you have done to make them bend?”
Kyle stares at me a moment too long. “When I faked my death, the North were still ruled by the Sauvage bloodline. They were horrible people, Amber. They did really bad things and so... I ended them.”
“You murdered them.”
“Murder is but a simple factor in our field of work, Amber. Do not look at me with those eyes when you have spilled just as much blood as I have,” Kyle says firmly.
I stare at him in shock, because I actually can’t blame him for killing the North. I’m willing to do the same thing to him all because he’s my enemy. It’s as simple as that. You get rid of the people in your way. And right now... I might actually have the same kill count as Kyle... Maybe slightly less, but... the whole reason why Xavier and I are against Kyle’s way of saving the world is because too many people would die his way. And yet... He hasn’t killed any more than Xav and I so far...
So why... why am I really fighting Kyle? My fight is with Jane, right?
I look down, avoiding his stare but I can feel Kyle take a few steps closer to me. “We aren’t enemies, Amber, he says.” I look up and his face is too honest for me to think he’s lying.
“We could make this place better. and believe it or not, but I want a co-leader that’s not only powerful like Jane but smart and kind as well, like you.”
“What are you saying?” I ask.
“Let’s work together, Amber. Let’s be friends,” Kyle says and raises his hand for a shake. It’s then that I suddenly notice the cut on his palm and blood dripping from the wound.
He’s... willing to bind our blood?