Welcome to Flavortown - Vazi, Keen Negotiator
Mountain and Vazi, Keen Negotiator | Illustrated by Adam Paquette and José Parodi
She's a Union Woman
Managing the needs of what felt like every citizen of New Capenna was a logistical and psychological nightmare. Vazi would sit down with a request from the artisans of Caldaia, which seemed simple enough. But a keen eye like hers would notice that passing it would conflict with the contract with the Port District Manufactors Guild. But denying the artisans their request could spark a revolt, since they were economically stressed by the Brokers' agents, so Vazi would spend the next couple hours attempting to stop a grand territorial dispute, come to some conclusion that would draw ire upon her, and then realize she was only past the first stack of papers for the day.
She leaned back in her chair, watching the fan above her slowly rotate. Ever since Xander's murder, her job was getting busier and busier. The night of the Crescendo was the closest Capenna had come to falling once again. She'd packed her bag, just some clothes and rations, in preparation to escape to the ruined outside world if the invaders breached her district.
But that never happened. The otherworldly people came and went, leaving her to pick up the pieces. Sure, they'd disposed of that demon, but they weren't planning on addressing the massive property damage, disposed leadership, and general havoc that was caused by their squabbles. They just barged into their city without any regard for the long-term consequences of their actions. And why would they, if they could just leave so easily?
New factions emerged. A sort of overarching committee between the families called the Restorationists. The wealthy aristocrats of the city that campaigned for bringing back the Capenna glory days. What exactly those glory days were, they wouldn't say. But they'd gained quite a bit of popularity. The promise to clean up the streets, even if that meant drowning the poor in their poverty, appealed to folks. That meant that more and more folks were ending up in sticky situations.
And so Vazi's services skyrocketed in demand. She liked to make it clear to her clients that she wasn't a "problem solver" so much as a "disaster stopper." If you had another merchant or contract hounding you, she'd settle a deal that got you off with minimal bruising. But life on New Capenna would always be what it'd always been: unfair. If people weren't willing to deal with getting pushed out by some cugine looking to make their mark on the world, maybe they should hit the streets. That kind of talk doesn't make you loved, but it makes you rich. So Vazi stayed rich, perfectly content with keeping things not fair, but livable.
The rock in her life ended up coming in the form of a young woman bursting into her office. Jaxis, a particularly rambunctious boxer from the slums of Caldaia. When folks described her as "blazing," they always assumed that was a metaphor. But the woman's fists, alight with bright red flames, said otherwise. Assuming this was the start of an assassination attempt, Vazi scrambled to the drawer of her desk where she'd stashed a bludgeon. But instead, Jaxis snapped her fingers and drowned out the flames, smoke still pouring from her tight fist.
"We're going to talk. You and me. Now." Jaxis leaned over the desk, standing a few inches taller than Vazi.
"You could have just called."
"And be put on the waiting list of your bloodsucking clients? I'll pass." She dug into her pocket and produced a crumpled paper, the edges singed. "You're pushing Restorationists into my people's territory. We're gonna lose our homes."
She tossed it onto the desk, like challenging her with a glove. It was a flyer advertising the expansion of a new industrial complex in the Verts. Illustrations of these sharply dressed aristocrats weaving their way through neatly made gardens adorned the page. The New Capenna Restoration Project - Clean Up the City with Luxury. Vazi did remember signing this deal. A realtor working for the restorationists was mad he didn't get the rights to a building in the Mezzio. So Vazi found another place to sell him.
"I didn't know that was your place. But it's business. He offered a good sum for it. You try turning that down." Vazi handed the paper back. "Please don't make me the bad guy."
"No, I'm not taking that answer. The Verts is the last affordable housing in the district. We don't have anywhere else to go. If they tear it down for their luxury apartments, you're sending a couple hundred families onto the streets."
Vazi mulled over her words, clicking her tongue to hide the pause as she assessed the situation. "Jaxis, the money they spent on those apartments is going back into the city. I get your concern, but their growth is going to trickle down at some point."
The boxer shouted an expletive that shocked Vazi. "They'll just shuffle that money back up to the Mezzio. The only trickle-down wealth we'll get is when a Maestro rich kid pours his halo on our graves. What happened to the woman I grew up with in Caldaia who needed that support like we do now?"
No one was going to walk into her office and say she's some turncoat. Vazi gritted her teeth and resisted the urge to throw a punch. "I got smart. Look, if I quit my job, it's my life and all my employees' lives on the line. So next time you want to point fingers, think about what I've got to lose."
A train whizzed past the office. The lights of Capenna flashed, the boxcars creating a dizzying strobe. In the darkness, lit only by lamplight and embers, she could see the sunken eyes and ashy cheeks of Jaxis. A red badge glittered on her chest, a symbol of her Workers' Union. A body worn down to the core, it wasn't rage in her eyes as much as confusion. But what was there to be confused about? Vazi was taking care of herself. Jaxis's people should do the same. Some people rise to the top, that's just how life works.
The train went past and Jaxis took a breath. "Maybe. Just didn't think I'd lose a friend, too." She ashed her thumb out on the desk, leaving a pitch black crater in the oak. And she was gone, leaving only the faint scent of smoke in the air.
Vazi wasn't doing the right thing. But she was doing something. She told herself this for the rest of the day, until she turned off the lamps in the office made the long walk home by gaslight.
There was a shortcut leading from her office to the condominiums. To be fair, a more accurate description would be a collection of loosely connected railways that Vazi could navigate. Most folks avoided it out of safety. A handful of punks with a deep sense of hubris met grisly ends there. But given enough time, she had learned the timings of the cars and felt the hum of the city beneath the soles of her boots.
On one of the tracks, she could get a view of the Verts. It was a shoddy building, nuts and bolts barely holding together the rotting skeleton of infrastructure. She could barely glimpse the golden insect-like vehicles whirring overhead. No doubt some restorationists looking to chop the building into something sleeker and more expensive. But at this point, the deal was in motion. They owned the deed to the building. All they needed to do now was tear it down.
A visitor approached her, a viashino man with a massive hammer hanging over his shoulder. His clothes clearly indicated some sort of Riveteers's allegiance, but his clothes were torn to tatters. A partially hinged cap was stuffed into his coat pocket, just on the cusp of falling out. There weren't supposed to be any other people on the rails. Not at this hour.
"You lost there, stranger?" she asked, mentally noting the presence of a dagger in her back pocket. The man simply heft his hammer into his hands, holding the metal like it was a maul.
"For your sake, I'm afraid not. Gonna have to ask you to turn out those pockets." He spat off the side of the rail, the glob cascading into the lower depths of the city. "I've got folks to feed. Make this simple for us both."
Damn. She'd taken a couple vials of halo home for private storage. She wasn't about to let some wannabe bruiser take a week's worth of work from her. "Look here, I don't have much on me. But I do pack a punch, so I'm just going to politely ask you to let me by. Otherwise you'll be following your spittle there." She pointed her thumb down to Lower Caldaia.
The viashino's laugh was like sulfur. "I respect that. Just know you brought it on yourself." With a flash he was charging towards her, hammer hissing with steam as some sort of mechanism roared to life. He was brash, but not without reason. If Vazi wanted to make it out of here, the best hope she had was playing to her outs.
As he swung the hammer towards her side, Vazi crouched just out of the weapon's range. Rather than follow through, he let the hammer fall, its head clipping her heel. A surge of pain through her leg. Vazi rolled behind him, careful not to fall into a bigger mess than she was already in. The knife! She reached into her pocket and held her blade at the ready, beckoning him forward. Come on. Into the trap.
The man was tempted by battle. As he rushed towards her, Vazi produced a skinny vial of halo from her bag, crushing it in her palm. The glass dug into her skin, but that feeling was fleeting as the ripples of angelic energy surged through both of them, sending the man flying back and over the edge of the railway. His clothes were scorched by the blast, causing nearby statues of angels to awaken and fly off. Vazi, accustomed to such a surge, stood there with crackles of divine light hanging over her skin.
A glitter on his chest. A badge, shaped like the silhouette of a sledgehammer and a longsword. The Workers' Union. If this guy plummeted into the roaring depths of the city, it'd just give Jaxis more reasons to hate her. Vazi didn't need any more of those. Charged by the halo's exhilarating properties, she leapt from the railways and collided with the man midair. The force of her slamming into his side gave them enough horizontal momentum to crash into an adjacent set of tracks, but it didn't protect Vazi's ribs from cracking on the metal and her body from rolling across the gravel.
Badly beaten and bruised, the euphoric charge of halo faded from her body and pain took its place. At least one of her lungs, maybe both, had been punctured. This is where it ends. Bleeding out on the streets because she couldn't let sleeping dogs lie. Before she could slip into quiet regret, she felt the tang of halo upon her lips, its healing properties pushing her bones and blood back into place.
The man stood above her, carefully giving her a small flask of halo. He cleared his throat, clearly also bruised from the fall. "Bold move there. You interested in a job?"
Vazi soon realized that the halo's healing properties were less "magical restoration of the body" and more so "adrenaline boost with a little bit of kick to it." By the time the man, who'd now introduced himself as Antonio, had walked her to his group's headquarters, she was feeling every last broken bone in her body. In one of the lower sections of the Verts, Antonio showed her what had initially looked like a foreclosed apartment.
"The truth of the Worker's Union. We model ourselves after the angels of old" Antonio said, bringing a fist to his chest in a mock salute. "To divinely defend and serve the commonfolk. That's what the stories say." He laughed to himself. "Back when we were all one. Now we have those dolts in their golden towers."
Its doors were covered with plywood, and it seemed as though at any moment the floor might cave in below them. But with a few simple raps against the doorframe, all of the wear and tear evaporated into illusory mist to reveal the inside.
A couple cots were stacked atop one another, the beds filled with young people dressed in revolutionary garb. To the left, a chef chopped up vegetables into neat piles before dropping them into a stew. And to the right, Jaxis stood surrounded by a herd of people listening to her every word.
"- is planning on taking out the building just past noon tomorrow. While they legally had to send an eviction notice, they only did that an hour ago. This time tomorrow, this building will be razed to the ground." She looked up and saw Vazi. "Ah. And it's the landlord's pet dog."
"She wanted to see what we're doing here so that she can help." Antonio stepped between the two, his bouncer-like frame setting a neat barrier between them. "Besides, she's hurt. The W.U. always helps the sick and the hurt."
"She's the reason we're in this situation." The boxer glared at them, as if a fight might break out at any moment. "But if she's honestly dedicated, we'll need all the help we can get." Jaxis gestured to a sketch of the Verts' layout. The major points in the building's skeleton were marked. With one good hit, the restorationists would be able to neatly remove the Verts.
The Union explained their split of their members into defensive teams, able to combat whatever demolitionists were sent. But just looking at the numbers, Vazi knew they had neither the quantity nor quality of soldiers to protect the building. If this was one of her accounting jobs, the Union would be deep in the red. If they couldn't double, no, triple their firepower within the next couple of hours, New Capenna was going to be the victim of more vicious expansion and consumption.
The city wouldn't be able to defend itself. Or would it?
Newspeople stood outside the Verts, arcane contraptions recording what was being called "The Last Day of the People's Land." Watching from within the tower, Vazi felt sick. If she hadn't been jumped by Antonio trying to get some money for food, she'd be on the other side of this. Watching passively as hundreds of people lost their homes. Jolene, one of the outlaws who fought for the Union, placed her gauntlet on Vazi's shoulder.
"Just do better now. Ya' can't change the past." Jolene's voice was coarse, like rocks being rolled across concrete. "But ya' can be a good person now. So go on, be that negotiator Jaxis used to tell us about."
One of the members gestured for Vazi to head to the ground floor. Upon her arrival, a rhox lawyer stared down his nose with disgust at the Union members.
"Tell me, why have you abdicated such a lucrative position in order to join this militia? You must know you're breaking a contract with at least three of the families by doing this."
Vazi cleared her throat. "Maybe. But I'll give it to you straight up: you make any move against the people's territory and you're gonna regret it."
"Is that a threat? Make that four of the families."
Above them, dozens of Union defenders armed their weapons, ready to fire stunning shots at any incoming forces. Non-lethality was key. But if a couple landlords got bruised in the process, Jaxis wouldn't complain.
But instead of a military presence, a deep roar from the belly of Capenna stirred. One of the buildings of the Mezzio, the most glistening halo-encrusted part of Capenna, began to shake dust from its form. The windows peeled from its sides, living shards of stained glass to coat the streets. Citizens fled inside, afraid they might be pierced by a wayward shard.
And slowly, the building itself began to walk.
Shots rang out from every floor of the Verts. Union members fired arcane shells into the titanic building, shattering the windows and ripping at the structure. But nothing could stop it. Even as more and more steel and silver ripped into the building's possessed form, nothing stopped the beating march of devastation that had been let loose.
And Vazi began to speak. "I call upon the angels. You have a contract to fulfill."
A silent response came from the city. No words were spoken, not that they could have been heard over the cries of terror. But the city forged a sentence through the rumble of freight trains and footsteps. It asked what contract that Vazi was invoking, and on what grounds.
"You promised to protect the common people of Capenna. Now, a long time ago, that was everyone. But since the demons installed this hierarchy, there's a big working class that needs protecting." She pointed towards the building that had come to life. "And that seems like something they need protecting from."
A response came from the hum of the sewer system below, one that explained that the titan in question was also part of the city. To combat it would be to wage war against itself.
"That thing is a byproduct of every person who's stolen our labor. It's not a part of your city." Vazi stomped her boot into the cracking pavement. "Looks like it's getting close. Better act now before you break your agreement. To divinely defend and serve, right?"
The titan approached the Verts and prepared to lift it from the very surface of the city. The Union fired at the hands of the animated monstrosity, trying to buy just a few more seconds.
Salvation came in the form of sleek black wings. The retribution of the divine angels, sworn to the common person, descended upon the titan. Dozens of angels appeared from the surface of the city, their wings unfolding into pristine constructs of light and void. One screamed past Vazi's head, xer silver eyes burning with zealous rage.
An arm was cleaved from the titan, then one of the knees was torn asunder. The Union cheered and kept firing on the building, which began to stumble back. For a second, it looked as though it would crush the landscape behind it, but angels began to grab its sides and lift it into the sky. Soon, it was high over the city, dragged into the wastelands to be torn apart by rabid beasts.
Vazi stood in front of the Verts, which stood strong in the face of devastation. One of the Union members handed her a megaphone. There was a brief feedback screech, then quiet. She stepped atop a piece of rubble that had fallen beside them.
"Maestros. Brokers. Obscura, Cabaretti. Let me make my message now and let me make it clear: you come for the people of Capenna, and we will fight back. The Riveteers are the unity of Capenna. We will join in forces that outnumber your gold, your halo, and your power. Because we do not fight for one-"
It wasn't right for her to say it. The woman who started this should. Jaxis approached her side, taking Vazi by the hand and nodding in agreement. She took the microphone and lifted it to her mouth, and the voice of liberation spoke.
"We fight for all!"