Filia stared down at the smudged ledger where she'd been noting the shop's latest expenses. She turned her hand to the side and sighed, wiping the ink off with a pocket handkerchief. She stood up, tilting her neck this way and that to work out the kinks. That was enough bookkeeping for the day, she decided. She'd better get back to the shop room and help Jillas and Gravos handle the influx of customers. It was a Saturday and things always got a little zooey on the weekends. What was more, she knew many of the town's residents were growing concerned about the agitated rumblings of military intervention out of the capital. Even though it would almost certainly turn out to be nothing more than pointless posturing, she knew for a fact that several of the town's more excitable residents would be considering upgrading their brick-in-a-sock or bat-with-a-nail-in-it security systems to something a little more refined. She'd need to be there to help them make the most informed decision vis-à-vis melee weaponry.
That mindset left her understandably confused when she stepped out into the showroom and saw Gravos and Jillas engrossed in a card game without so much as a single customer in sight to attend to.
"…Where is everyone?" Filia asked, leaning forward to see around the shelves in the hopes that she'd missed at least one little old lady eyeing the vases.
"Don't know, Boss," Jillas piped up, tossing a card down onto the discard pile. "It's weird. Nobody's been in all day."
"Did we… forget to turn over the 'closed' sign?" Filia asked, eyebrows drawing together.
"No way," Gravos said, shaking his head. "I'm not gonna miss something dat basic."
"Well…" Filia said, shifting her weight awkwardly from one foot to another. "I guess I'll go double-check just in case. I'm not sure what else could be the problem…"
She strode toward the front of the store, but completely neglected to check the sign (unnecessary since the "open" side was proudly facing the street) as she saw a crowd gathered just outside. But they weren't waiting to get into her shop—oh no. There were countless familiar figures pushing and shoving to get into the place across the street and a steady stream of people spilling out of the doors with paper shopping bags in hand.
…Of course, none of that made any sense to Filia because, as far as she was aware, the lot across the street had been empty ever since that meat pie shop went out of business a year ago.
"I'll umm…" Filia said absentmindedly, pushing the door open to the accompaniment of a bell chiming, "…I'll be right back," she finished, stepping outside and navigating cannily through the throng.
Filia stared at the wares on the shelves, an inevitable glumness stealing over her. She'd had to fight through quite a few people to get into the building just to even have a chance of seeing what it sold and finally she'd arrived to see this.
Polished wooden handles crowned with spiked, metallic balls. Some were attached by chains and some were just tips on the ends of clubs. She sold many like those in her shop through her line of maces. But now they were flying off, not her shelves, but those of some interloper.
Why? The place was crawling with eager customers and yet, beyond the place's "new" factor, she couldn't for the life of her explain why. In fact, she found even standing inside of it profoundly unappealing. The room stank and the air was heavy with smoke that made her eyes sting. The source of the atmosphere was obvious as soon as she set her eyes on several squat old men lounging in leather chairs in a less crowded nook of the store, smoking cigars with a look of utter contentment.
A pair of glass doors leading to a walk-in pantry stuffed with wooden boxes opened, sending a blast of damp air in her direction. She turned to see a person walking out of the storeroom that she should've expected to see as soon as anything even slightly troublesome happened.
"Ah, Filia, I see you've come out to check on the competition," he said.
Most of his look was the same—certainly the omnipresent smug style was there. But, slightly oddly, he was wearing a red silk-lined jacket that tied around his waist like a robe over his yellow turtleneck instead of his usual black cloak. In his hand was a lit cigar, which overpowered his normally neutral scent with one of foul, burning licorice.
"Xellos!" Filia yelled in his direction. "So you're responsible for this?"
"Partly," Xellos admitted, unabashed. "But, really, I think most of the credit goes to you."
Filia was nearly shoved to the side by a particularly enthusiastic customer trying to get into the room beyond, but she stood her ground. "Me?" she asked, struggling to keep her balance. "Why me?"
"Well," Xellos said, gesturing out the window to her lonely little shop across the street, "I noticed how well your 'Vases and Maces' store was doing and I started thinking that the 'innocuous item paired with rhyming weapon' business might be a lucrative one to get into. And that is how 'Fine Cigars and Morning Stars' was born."
"Fine Cigars and Morning Stars?!" Filia repeated through clenched teeth.
"Oh yes," Xellos confirmed happily. "I went through a couple of different concepts, truth be told: 'Ornamental Spoons and Harpoons,' 'Buckles and Brass Knuckles,' 'Pickles and Sickles,' 'Gourds and Broadsword,' but eventually I decided on 'Fine Cigars and Morning Stars' and, lo and behold, here it is."
If Filia had her druthers, it would not have been there and it certainly would not have been as crawling with her customers as it was. "What on earth would you even want to open up a store for?" she demanded. "You don't need money! You don't need to eat! You don't need to sleep! You don't need to be in my way like this!"
He studied her as though she was some rare, but temperamental species. "I'm not 'in your way,'" he scoffed. "And even I have expenses to deal with. Surely not even you would begrudge me a little financial security in these trying times?"
Filia had been begrudging him from day one and wasn't about to stop any time soon—especially since she'd gotten so good at it.
"Well, you can get your 'financial stability' somewhere else!" she informed him. "This is my town and I already sell morning stars."
"Ah, but after careful research," he said, taking a puff of the nasty thing—probably more to show off his wares than out of any personal inclination—"I've come to the conclusion that the citizens of Achaea are unusually fond of bludgeoning implements. There could be no better place for me to set up shop."
"Careful research?" Filia repeated, one of her blonde eyebrows starting to twitch. "Is that what you call making a nuisance of yourself around my shop? People like maces because of the ones I sell! Stop trying to glom off my hard work!"
"I wasn't glomming," Xellos replied, having the nerve to sound like she was being hurtful.
"You were!" Filia insisted with a childish stamp of her foot. "You copied my idea and set up shop right across the street just to take my customers away and sabotage my livelihood! You are literally stealing food from my son's mouth!"
"I wouldn't say that," he said, shrugging with the cigar between his fingers. "It's more like I'm keeping you from spoiling him too much."
Filia was about to open her mouth to respond when he decided he wasn't done. "In any case, this kind of set-up is the most beneficial thing for your customers, Filia. You may selfishly want to hold a monopoly on blunt force weaponry so that you can set whatever price you want, but competition is really what's required to ensure fairness. If we have to guard against each other then there will be an incentive to put out the highest quality, lowest priced product that we're able to. Isn't that what's best for the customer?"
"Best for them?" Filia asked, waving a hand around to clear the immediate area of smoke. "This is a cigar shop! You're outright peddling dirty habits! What are the kids who come through here going to think? And if you get them smoking, then what's that going to lead to?" Realization dawned on her face and she took one step back. "That's what this is all about, isn't it?" she asked, shaking with rage. "You're trying to corrupt the people of Achaea and lead our children into dangerous vices!"
Xellos blew a smoke ring as coolly as he could. Despite his best efforts, he couldn't match Lord Beastmaster's skill. It just wasn't his thing.
"You know I could say the exact same thing about your business, don't you?" he asked as the shape of the ring dissipated into the air. Lord Beastmaster's smoke rings tended to stick around so she could make them into a chain once she had enough, but Filia didn't need to know how outclassed he was.
She stared at him for a moment. "We both sell maces, so unless you're trying to claim that vases are somehow on the same level as cig—"
"That's exactly what I'm saying," Xellos cut her off, pointing the cigar at her in triumph.
"…Explain," Filia requested after a moment. She honestly wanted to see what sort of insane bullshit he was going to have to come up with to justify this.
"Of course, it starts with one vase and that seems harmless enough," Xellos began thoughtfully. "But then it's, 'Oh, I must get more for different seasons or just in case I decided to redecorate' and 'Well, I can't very well go to Wonder Island and not get a souvenir, now can I?' and 'Just one more for my collection.' Then, before you know it, a full-blown addiction is born. Ceramic knickknacks are everywhere—so many that you can't even walk. So many that the house is clogged with dust. And obviously, vases are just the gateway drug to things like dish sets and figures and, worst of all, souvenir mugs." Xellos shrugged. "Then again, you are a dragon, so perhaps you're pro-hording."
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," Filia informed him. She put her hands on her hips and leaned in to glare at him. "And it's a negative stereotype! I never horde!"
Xellos grinned knowingly. "I've seen your horde, Filia."
Filia took a step back. "What? What are you—"
"That drawer of shiny things you're holding onto?" Xellos reminded her, waving a tut-tutting finger at her. "Classically it should be gold, but I understand you're not rich enough to partake in that tradition."
Filia nearly growled. "Those are for art projects—idiot!"
"Trying to rationalize your problem isn't going to make it go away."
She pointed at him, her finger just an inch away from his nose. "You're the one with the problem, Xellos! Because all this," she said, gesturing to the crowd with her other hand, "is not going to last! Your novelty will wear off soon and then people will realize that they could be buying quality merchandize at my place instead of settling for your inferior copies! And then you'll be out of business!"
Xellos leaned his head back and around to avoid her pointing finger. "Well," he said, as though all of this was very unfortunate, "I had hoped we could coexist as friendly business rivals, but if you insist on playing it like this then that's just the way it's going to have to be."
"That is the way it's going to be," Filia said, argumentative despite the fact that she was essentially agreeing with him. She swept over to the exit and turned back to shout. "I'll take you down, Xellos! Mark my words!"
He waved pleasantly at her as she left. "I look forward to it."
Filia cupped her chin in her hands, her elbows resting against the counter next to the lately disused cash register. "What more are we supposed to do to get people in here?" she asked despairingly.
They were in the midst of the shareholders' meeting—well, sort of. The only shareholders were herself, Jillas and Gravos. Normally if they were going to have any kind of meeting they'd have done it in the wee hours of the morning before they opened or after closing. Now there was very little need to make time for something like that. Working hours had been so desolate the last couple of days that they were striving to find ways to fill them.
"I still say we should lower our prices again," Gravos answered. He was sitting the same way he always did on chairs designed for humans: very, very carefully. "People know they can get something cheaper just across the street, so they ain't even gonna waste their time with us."
"We've already lowered them as much as we should," Filia disagreed. They'd had this conversation before. "Xellos's stuff is cheaper because it's shoddier. It's just low-bid garbage he's order from somewhere else. My maces are handmade and use only the finest materials. You've got to pay for that quality."
Gravos shrugged his expansive shoulders. "Yeah, but people don't seem to wanna."
"I got an idea," Jillas announced chipperly, turning away from dusting the vases. He gestured excitedly with the rag he was holding. "We could do a fireworks show—right over the shop! That'd bring people out 'ere no problem!"
Filia and Gravos exchanged wary looks. "Xellos's shop is right across the street," Filia pointed out. "If we did a show then there's no reason why people couldn't just watch it from there. It doesn't actually help us." This wasn't the real reason she didn't want Jillas fussing around with pyrotechnics, but it was a valid one.
Jillas paused, appearing to give this some thought. Finally he came out with: "Well then, we could set 'em off inside the sh—"
"No," Filia said firmly.
"Not dat I'm saying dat's a good idea, 'cause it ain't," Gravos went on, giving Jillas a sharp look, "but we gotta do something to change things." He held his large hands up in a shrug. "If dis is just people being all excited about a new store and dat dies down so they wind up comin' back here—it's fine. But if dis is just how things are gonna be from now on…" He shook his head. "We'd be better off going somewhere else where we can make a real living."
Filia frowned. "Let Xellos drive us out of town?" she said, more to herself than to Gravos. "No…"
But she knew why Gravos said it. It was a thought she'd tried to drive out of her mind the last few long, empty days running the shop. This town was more to her than a place to run her business. She'd put down roots, made… well, if not friends then familiar acquaintances. If she had to leave then she'd be forced to start over. Not only that, but she'd have to put Val in a whole different school—take him away from his friends and the sense of stability he had. She couldn't do that to him. She couldn't risk his happiness in this second chance he had at a real childhood.
Her expression soured further. What's more, she realized, trying to get away probably wouldn't even work out if it came to that. Houses had been slow to sell lately in Achaea. In her area alone she had several neighbors who had been trying to move on—to seek out a bigger city or to downsize after their children had left the nest—but forced to hold onto their property and slowly slash their asking prices lower and lower. Nobody was buying. She couldn't take a loss both on her shop and her house all for a chance to move to some mythical, Xellos-free zone where she had customers again. Not when there was always that horrible chance that he could follow her.
A tinkling of the bell on the door snagged all of their attentions as a middle-aged man toting a shopping bag walked inside. He lingered by the smaller vases, an expression of concentration on his face as he rested his chin in the crook between his thumb and index finger. Filia, Gravos and Jillas all froze as they watched him. It was as though a rabbit had scampered into the den of a famished hunter and there was a moment of uncertainty as to how to deal with the opportunity. Was it better to remain perfectly still, so as not to spook this prey? Or should they strike now that they finally had the chance?
"Umm… can I help you?" Filia asked carefully.
"Hmmm?" the man mumbled, looking up at her. "Oh no. I'm just browsing."
A tense few minutes followed as the browser picked up pieces of pottery, examined them, and placed them back on the shelf in disinterest. Suddenly Filia was second-guessing her every creation. What kind of impression did that one leave? The colors weren't right on that one… Do you think he noticed the unevenness around the base? In this newly desperate environment she found herself crippled with doubt as to whether any one of her works could woo customers back to her aisles.
Her heart truly sank when he picked up a piece she'd had serious reservations about putting out in the first place. It was a plain little bowl and far too shallow to be of much use. The wide mouth was dimpled oddly and, all in all, it just wasn't a very attractive piece—a victim of her distraction. She'd only decided to put it out at all in case someone needed a cheap ingredients bowl. But with the new, higher standards of the day, she felt sure that the man would decide her work by that example and never come back.
That was why it was such a surprise when he snatched the little bowl up, marched over to the counter and said: "I'll take this."
"O-of course," Filia managed to get out, taking the piece in her hand. She broke into a relieved smile and began tapping the relevant information into her cash register. "And what are you planning on using this for?" she asked, by way of some pleasant small talk.
The man patted the shopping bag he'd come in with. "Got a box of cigars across the street and I figure that'll make the perfect ashtray."
There was a cold and terrible silence.
"…Is something wrong, Miss?" the man asked.
Gravos got up, lumbered over and took the destined-to-be ashtray from Filia's motionless hands. "I can take ya over here," he said, directing the customer to the second register.
Filia hadn't moved from her mortified position even after the chime of the bell signaled the man's departure with his newly purchased cigar receptacle. Jillas exchanged a look with Gravos, full of cautious promise. "'ey Boss Gravos?" he began. "Are you thinkin' what oi'm think—"
"No!" Filia cried, shaking herself out of catatonia. "I will not rebrand my vases as ashtrays for Xellos's disgusting cigars! I WON'T ALLOW IT!"
"But then we wouldn't 'ave to worry about competin' wit' 'im 'cause we'd 'ave…" Jillas snapped his fingers, trying to think of the right word "…synergy!"
"I refuse to have synergy with Xellos!" Filia exploded, breaking away from the counter area to look—or, rather, glare—out the front window.
It was insane. How was his shop staying so busy? Yes, a new store was exciting and it had been awhile since the line-up on the main street had changed. Yes, there was now a place to buy cigars where there had never been one before. But, as she stared across the street at Xellos happily handing out coupons to customers as they walked over, she couldn't help but think it was impossible to rationalize away all of the store's popularity. For example…
"Where have all our female customers gone? That's what I'd like to know," Filia commented, her voice tired. "I was counting on them to pull us through this."
The majority of customers who purchased from her pottery collection had always been female, and it wasn't as though she was competing with Xellos on those. She couldn't imagine too many ladies being very interested in those nasty smelling cigars. That just left the maces and, as much as Filia had endeavored to change this, she'd never been able to persuade many of Achaea's women that spiked bludgeoning implements were perfectly ladylike.
"It must just be because Xellos stocks a lot of lighter flails that are easier to manage," Filia reasoned. Her eyes narrowed as he passed an introductory coupon to an attractive young woman who giggled as she took it. "Yes, that must be it," she affirmed. She raised the volume of her voice and added severely: "I can think of no other reason whatsoever!"
"Who're you yellin' at, Boss?" Jillas asked worriedly. If they were being chewed out for something he'd have liked to know why.
Filia didn't answer. She was far too focused on the fact that Xellos had turned his attention away from the throng of people around his shop and over to her—visibly watching him from the window. Filia responded by jerkily pulling at the chord to draw the blinds down, turning aside and fighting to catch her breath. After a moment she finally looked back to peek through the shutters.
He was coming toward the shop.
Filia raced back up the main aisle and hopped back behind the counter. "Look busy!" she hissed at her two employees.
Gravos held out his pale green hands. "With what?" he asked.
Filia ignored him. She was too busy grabbing a clipboard and scrawling on it like someone so drowned in orders that they could not be bothered to deal with monsters. In reality, all she was noting down was a tornado of pointless scribbles.
She purposefully kept her eyes focused on the incomprehensible jottings as the bell sounded again—it had rung twice that day. Sadly, more times than it had in the last few days. She only looked up when a shadow fell over her and, when she did, did her best to look nonchalant yet annoyed.
"Oh, it's you," she said sourly.
Xellos placed a gloved hand on the wooden countertop and leaned forward. "I'd think with how slow business has been for you the last couple of days that you'd be much friendlier to visitors."
"Well, you thought wrong," Filia retorted. Because he was right in front of her and her every instinct was to swipe at him she added: "And has no one told you to stop wearing that stupid thing yet?"
He looked down at the silken smoking jacket he was wearing, gesturing to it with his other hand. "You mean this? What's wrong with it?"
"It makes you look sleazy," she struck out, venom in her tone. "…Or at least sleazier than usual."
Xellos let out an annoyed breath. He'd been going for suave and sophisticated.
"And to think, I came here to offer a helping hand," he said, shaking his head.
Filia snorted. "I'll believe it when I see it!"
"I was thinking," he said, ignoring her skepticism, "that there is some… overlap in our businesses, after all"—Filia would've cut in to say this was because he'd purposefully copied her, but he went on—"and it might be a savvier move to be allies instead of enemies."
Filia stared at him.
He returned the stare with his familiar closed eyes smile. "We could be partners," he ventured.
Filia's jaw slid open. Partners. Her and Xellos. Horrifying.
"W-what about that whole thing about competition being better for the consumer?" Filia asked mockingly, her nostrils flaring up at the unpleasant proposal.
"Well," Xellos began, shrugging his shoulders expansively, "that is one way of looking at it. But perhaps what's really best for consumers is for retailers such as you and I to be able to pool our resources to bring them the best quality and variety of products at the greatest convenience we are able to."
In Filia's mind this excuse translated itself to something like: Screw the consumer. Join me! With my charisma and your expert craftsmanship, we can rule the weaponry/pottery/smokables markets as franchiser and franchisee!
"If that's true"—and Filia doubted this was anything more than an excuse to insultingly absorb her hard work into his lazy-but-inexplicably-successful business—"then that's a shame for them," Filia said, crossing her arms. "Because I'd rather go bankrupt than join with the likes of you!"
There was a meager eye twitch from him, but it didn't seem like this response was terribly unexpected. "Ooh, what a shame," he said, almost overflowing with insincerity as he straightened up and withdrew his hand from the counter. "Because, if events continue at their current pace, that's exactly what it's going to come to."
"Not a chance!" Filia retorted. It was her turn to lean across the counter toward him now that he'd pulled himself back. She slammed both hands down on it. "I've got something up my sleeve that'll stop you in your tracks! Just you wait!"
Her fiery pronouncement was somewhat undone when Jillas dropped his dusting rag in surprise and said, "You do, Boss? Why didn't you tell us?"
Xellos snickered. "I recall hearing something like this before. I didn't see any of that promised marketing genius from you—unless you want to call a little bit of grudging price reduction a master strategy."
"It's different this time," Filia insisted, shooting Jillas a warning look. Damn it! Real plans could be thought of later! Right now it was more important to rise to the challenge. "You won't be laughing when you see what I have in store…"
"Get'chore maces! GET'CHORE LOVERLY MACES! Special sale today only!"
The shouts echoed through the streets. Even if one of the main street's passersby had been blissfully unable to hear the cockney hollering then they'd still have been forced to come face to face with Jillas's message. He wore two sheets of poster board over his regular clothes so a large sign fell over both his front and back. In black marker a neat, but hurried hand had written: "Filia's Vases and Maces: Voted #1 in last year's issue of Armory Barn!" on the front and "Quality merchandise at affordable prices!" on the back.
"A fox in a sandwich board sign," Xellos commented from the shade of the awning outside of Filia's shop. "Now why didn't I think of that?"
"Shut up," Filia muttered from next to him. That lifesaving, eleventh hour idea had never shown up. She'd had to make do with what she had… and she didn't have very much.
"'ey you! Oi! Listen to me!" Jillas bellowed, tugging at the coat of a man who had been heading toward Xellos's shop. "Don't you think you oughta be gettin' a gift for your dear old mum? She'd like a nice flower vase, she would! Least you can do, really!"
"Even seeing as you obviously have things well under control," Xellos said, mockingly chipper as Jillas's subject tried to slip away from him, "I feel the need to let you know that my offer still stands."
"You can keep your offer to yourself!" Filia shot back, rounding on him. "I'd rather die!"
"Got a duel comin' up? When you're bashing the other bloke's 'ead in, you wanna make sure you're doing it with quality equipment!"
"That's a bit dramatic, isn't it?" Xellos commented, raising an eyebrow and trying to ignore Jillas's excellent sales pitch.
From where Filia was standing it most certainly wasn't. Ceding part of the business that she'd built with her blood, sweat and—Okay, not blood, but certainly sweat and tears!—to Xellos was despicable. What's more, she got the uncomfortable impression that the kind of "partnership" Xellos had in mind would be more in the realm of 70-30 than 50-50, and the idea of having Xellos be her boss was just unthinkable.
"In case you haven't noticed, we don't exactly work together well," she hissed at him. "It would be a complete and utter nightmare!"
"…I thought it would be fun," he begged to differ.
"Well, of course, you'd think it'd fun," Filia snapped. "You think everything that makes me miserable or drives me insane is fun!" She waved an arm toward his shop across the street. "That's the whole reason you bothered to do this, after all." She turned back to glare at him out of the corner of her eye. "You'd think you'd have better things to do with your time than pick on me."
"That's a bit of a self-centered assessment, don't you think?" Xellos asked, trying to inject some fairness into the conversation. "You think everything I do is directly intended to annoy you."
"That's because it is!" Filia replied, having to shout over Jillas's entreaties to by maces "while they're 'ot!"
Xellos clucked his tongue in mild irritation. "No, Filia. It's not," he said patiently. "I did not make a very large investment in setting up a business purely to get your attention. I have a purpose in mind for my profits."
"And what is that?" Filia demanded. "No matter what you say, you don't need the money."
Xellos grinned. Filia saw him taking on a familiar posture and, with a sinking feeling, knew what was coming. "That is a secret," he answered, wagging his finger at her.
Filia groaned, but this little catchphrase wasn't destined to be the last irritation she had to face on that street.
"Get'chore vases an' maces now for the greatest variety!" Jillas chanted out into the crowd. "Don't wait for the going out o' business sale!"
Filia let her face fall into her hands. It was better than looking at Xellos's smug expression.
Filia walked out into the darkened streets, locking her shop door behind her. It had been lonely the last few hours keeping the lamps lit and finding long undone filing to keep her occupied. She'd let Gravos and Jillas have the rest of the day off. With so few customers there was just no point in them staying. What's more, Jillas had worked hard trying to drum up sales. …He'd worked badly and produced no positive results, but it couldn't have been denied that he put a lot of effort into it. He deserved a break.
Filia suppressed a yawn. This was later than they usually stayed open, but she'd held out some small sliver of hope that if she kept later hours then a few of Xellos's customers, still seized by mace-mania, would deign to come to her shop after his shut its doors. So she'd asked Gravos and Jillas to pick up Val from school and watch him while she worked the night shift.
It hadn't worked. No real surprise there. But she'd had to try.
The street looked so desolate at that time of night. It had been packed with people just that afternoon, but in the dark of night… not a soul was around. She spied to her right the sandwich board sign that Jillas had been wearing earlier—discarded and half submerged in a puddle from a spell of evening rain so that its markered letters ran.
She leaned against the door of her shop and was thankful that, if nothing else, no one was around to hear her ask: "…What am I going to do?"
She turned her gaze to the shop that had caused all the trouble—Xellos's shop. Unlike hers with its frayed awnings and faded paint and streaked glass, his was brand new. They were shabby by comparison—her shop and herself.
A strange, glazed look came over her eyes as she stared at Xellos's shop—as though seeing it suddenly in a new light.
"Such a lovely building," she murmured to herself. "It would be a shame if something were to happen to it…"
"What do you mean you have 'dragon insurance?!'" Filia cried, thunderstruck.
Xellos was perched on top of a demolished slab of concrete, his bearing more in the manner of someone who'd won a prize than someone whose place of business had been reduced to a few splinters of wood and ash. She'd gone over there to lord his loss over him, perhaps in the form of some insincere sympathy—after all, it's what he would've done—but then she got closer and saw that look on his face and those awful two words explained why.
"Well, obviously I do, Filia," he answered easily, getting up. "No businessman operating so close to a dragon would be without such essential protection."
Filia's jaw flexed as she tried to make a response. The fact that this actually seemed to be a real thing and his implication that the rest of her neighbors had the same policy… well, did people just not trust her or something?
"Are you implying that I did this?" she demanded, summoning from the depths of her soul all the false outrage of the accused that she could muster.
Xellos gestured to the peculiarly shaped crater they were in the midst of. "We're standing in one of your footprints."
Filia bit her lip. "Th-that could've been from any dragon. I'm not the only one in the world, you know." She crossed her arms. "That's circumstantial evidence! Just because I happen to be a dragon and happen to have a store across the street doesn't mean that I'm automatically responsible for this!"
"…And even if I was," Filia added, striking out wildly, "I… have been known to sleepwalk! So I'd of course have no memory of the event nor any responsibility for it!"
"Of course," Xellos replied, all too understanding for her comfort. "And, in any case, dragon insurance doesn't work that way—seeking out a perpetrator and demanding payment for damages. It would be rather like trying to track down a hurricane or a tornado and asking it for reimbursement." He held out his hands in a gesture of helpless acceptance. "It's clear that there's no point in expecting such wild creatures to control their petulant rage."
A muscle in her cheek quivered without her bidding it to move and she clenched her fists. She hated it when he referred to her as though she were some sort of mindless killing machine.
"In any case, there's no real harm done," Xellos continued, oblivious to her simmering fury. "The insurance company will cover all the damages, and it won't be long before…" he trailed off, eyeing the passersby stopping to look at the wreckage, before he finished in a much louder voice, "we have our grand reopening sale!"
The milling pedestrians broke into applause at this dangled prospect. Filia stalked away, nearly tripping over a laser breath-barbequed slab of timber in the process.
Filia sighed and got up off her front doorstep. She'd thought staying home and relaxing for the day while Jillas and Gravos took care of the shop would give her a chance to clear her head and find a way out of this mess, but it just wasn't working. The little gains they'd managed to make back with Xellos out of commission were being taken away once again in the face of that promised grand reopening sale.
She walked down the slope of her front lawn with the intent of heading for her shop. She'd probably be just as useless there as she was at home, but at least she could be useless with Gravos and Jillas alongside her.
Her eyes fell on the "For Sale by Owner" sign in the yard of the house next door. It had been there for so long, like too many others in the neighborhood. Filia had a nasty premonition that hers would be next. If she couldn't beat Xellos then there was little other choice but to leave—to run away from this town with her tail between her legs and to pray to the gods that Xellos didn't open up a new branch across the street from wherever she ended up doing business.
But she desperately hoped there was a way to avoid this. Of course… there was. She knew there was. More than one, really. But both were almost too awful to consider.
She could bite the bullet and do what Gravos and Jillas wanted to; to quit fighting against Xellos and instead try to monetize the new needs he created; to say goodbye to the vase and mace-making business and instead dive headfirst into the repellant and depressing world of ashtrays and air fresheners.
…And then there was Xellos's solution which managed to somehow be even worse than that.
Her mood was stormy as she cut through the park on the way to the main street, and the sights she saw there did nothing to improve her mood. The scent of tobacco lingered in the air as several people blew wisps of smoke, rolling the fat bundles between their fingers as they prepared to take another drag.
On the paved area by the fountain, a couple older boys were playfully jousting with spiked clubs—not, of course, her make. That was the biggest heartbreak, really—not that Xellos was eating into her profits, but that he was tricking people into buying inferior products. She put so much time and care and thought into making her maces that it stung to see crowds of people going out of their way to buy mass-produced fare from whatever big city company focused only on its bottom line that Xellos was ordering his stuff from.
Maybe people thought that there wasn't a difference, but Filia knew better. Xellos's weren't weighted properly, and would tarnish and break with time and constant force. Then again, Filia couldn't help but think that might be all part of Xellos's master plan. He'd sell people products that he knew full well couldn't stand the test of time, and then collect more money when they eventually broke and a replacement needed to be bought. Genius—in a completely repulsive sort of way.
She stopped in her tracks, a light coming to her eyes. She dawdled for a moment there in the park—the sounds of water sprinkling from the spigots along the edge of the fountain, the children's playful yells, and the smokers' coughs faded into the background.
Filled with renewed purpose, she raced ahead.
"I challenge you to a fight!"
The words immediately superseded the hum of activity in the shop, as every eye turned to the young woman who had dramatically pushed her way through the front door.
Xellos held a hand to his head, narrowly avoiding singeing his hair with one of his lit wares. He didn't dignify Filia, standing their determinedly trying to catch her breath, with a direct look. His posture suggested embarrassment—though not for himself.
"Filia," he said, his voice moderate and pleasant as his customers listened on, "I realize that as a golden dragon you may be used to settling all of your disputes with violence, but in this case—"
"No! It's not even like that," she spat in response, marching closer to him with her fists clenched. "This isn't about us fighting." Much as she hated to admit it, in a real match-up between the two of them, she would always lose. "This is about our maces."
"I assumed a weapon would be involved," he countered dispassionately.
She pointed a shaky finger. "But this is not about me bashing your head in with my mace or vice versa!" No matter how much she dearly wanted to give that a try on certain occasions. "This is mace vs. mace! A mace-off!"
The crowd muttered to itself in a mixture of confusion and excitement.
"You can talk all you want about competition," Filia went on, "but the fact is that Achaea doesn't need two shops that sell maces! So I say we quit trying to compete based on things that don't matter and put our work to the test."
She was relishing this. He clearly didn't want to go head to head. She could beat him! She just had to change the venue.
"You can pick any model that you sell, and I'll use an equivalent from my shop," she went on, laying it all out. "We'll put them up against each other and see which one breaks first."
"And?" he prompted, daring her to get to the bottom line.
She took a deep breath. "…And the loser will have to close up shop in Achaea," she said.
Xellos raised his eyebrows as the crowd gasped appreciatively. He held up his gloved hand for examination as though he could possibly check his nails through silk. "Overly dramatic as usual," he appraised. "And what reason do I have for involving myself in this? I'm not one for brawls, Filia."
This was true. He was one for horrifying stabbings and bringing about magical genocide with frightening ease. But bare knuckles and the smacks of truncheons weren't his scene. Somehow, she couldn't help but categorize his violence as being less honest and down-to-earth than hers.
"If you don't show up tomorrow at noon in front of our shops to face me, then everyone here will know that you were scared because my products are better after all," Filia shouted, making eye contact with a few choice ex-customers. "And they'll tell their friends and their friends' friends that your shop sells second rate merchandise!"
She rushed out of the shop almost as abruptly as she'd rushed in. The slam of the door followed the yell of: "I better see you tomorrow!"
"So that's what you're going to be using?" Filia asked, getting ready to square off.
Xellos stood a few paces from her in the center of the street. A crowd had encircled the both of them, which seemed to be ready for, if not blood, then at least some hot mace on mace action. He held in his hands a slender metallic club, with a bit of perfunctory detailing along the shaft, and a bulb on top with short spikes. She'd hoped against hope that he'd pick a bulky enough mace that she could use her personal weapon to bring him down, but that didn't seem to be in the cards.
"Yes," Xellos said, hefting the thing so the steel head was in his palm. "This will do."
Filia turned to Jillas, who hastily opened a velvet-lined case full of a variety of maces. She was sure she had one that was close enough in design to make a good match. Spotting one, she easily lifted it out of its slot.
She turned back to Xellos with it, swinging it lightly in front of her to test its weight and characteristics. He watched her, calmly—all too calmly. If he thought having the crowd on his side would help him out then he was dead wrong. This was about craft, not charm. And she knew that hers was superior.
"Why don't we make this more interesting?" she suggested, on a sudden jolt of inspiration.
Xellos cocked his head to the side curiously. "We're putting both our businesses at stake here, Filia. How much more interesting do you need it to be?"
He had a point. Nevertheless, if she was trying to solve her problems with this fight, then there was another annoyance she wanted to clear away.
"I was thinking that if I win, you should never wear that ridiculous smoking jacket ever again," she said. This fight was about which of their products would break first, so she couldn't really smack him. But she could at least do so verbally.
He looked more doubtful than insulted. "…Is this some variant of strip poker that I'm not familiar with?" he asked, as though he was pretty sure that he was familiar with all the strip poker variants. "And, if so, what article of clothing will you be wagering?"
She grimaced. Why did he always have to take things the wrong way?
"Never mind," she said, her voice heightening. "I've decided things are interesting enough already."
He smiled. "If you say so, Filia."
They marched off to opposite sides of the ring of people. Filia knew that Xellos was better at the stare-down than her. Nobody she knew could pull off a more unsettling look. But he wasn't giving her his A-game. Just his usual agreeable, insincere grin. She answered with a scowl.
Gravos walked into the middle of the street. He held up his hands for quiet. "Now dis here is gonna be a clean fight," he declared. "Weapon contact is the only thing dat counts. Dat means no magic, no biting, no hair-pulling, no eye-gouging, no smacking upside the head, no wrestling holds, no bone-breaking, no nutshots—"
"We get it already!" Filia shouted.
Gravos stepped back, to the edge of the crowd. "The fight starts now!" he declared. "Stand back if ya don't want a concussion!"
If anyone in the crowd had considered staying close to get a good view of the action, they immediately reconsidered when they heard Filia's war cry and saw her sprinting toward Xellos with her weapon raised. The screeching probably wasn't doing anything to improve her form—Xellos certainly wasn't joining in—but it gave her confidence and that counted for something.
Xellos seemed confident enough without that kind of belligerent display. He didn't even run to get momentum. Instead he just lifted up his mace at the very last second before Filia struck in a loud clang of metal hitting metal.
His smile was even more unpleasant so close to her face, but she did her best to ignore that. She had to push against him with all her might.
It was disheartening to know that all her might—so much compared to the average human—was nothing to Xellos. She could never be stronger than him; she was too mortal. He was unstoppable, immovable, and even if he babied her, she could never win against him.
…But that was okay, because this wasn't about her strength against his strength. This was about which one of their maces could withstand the most. She knew her weapons. She'd made them with her own two hands. And she knew that she could wield them with every last ounce of her strength and they could take the punishment. Xellos, she was sure, couldn't say the same about his outsourced weaponry.
"You're going to hurt yourself," Xellos warned quietly into her ear. Likely he was unintelligible to the rest of the crowd over Filia's groans of effort.
But Filia didn't care. A burst blood vessel would be worth it. Anything would be worth it to win.
She let out one finally screech—one final push—and snap! The thinner material of Xellos's mace caved to the pressure, sending the spiked ball at the end flying into the crowd, narrowly missing striking a spectator. The sudden lack of force to push against sent Filia toppling into Xellos, knocking him over onto the ground.
The crowd, a fair-weather one if Filia had ever seen one, broke into cheers.
Filia lifted her head with a wince. It had whacked into something hard—in all probability, Xellos's head. She looked down at him—for the moment, pinned under her weight. He seemed surprisingly unruffled despite the loss and despite the fall, but his hair was fanned out awkwardly as he looked directly up at her. It made him look so delightfully stupid that Filia was loath to move out of the way and let him up immediately.
"You're not a salesman, but I've got to admit you're a pretty good blacksmith," Xellos commented lightly.
Filia grit her teeth. Why did he have to be such a graceful loser? She didn't even get to see him disappointed and it took a lot of the fun out of the rare times she managed to one-up him.
"Don't even think about going back on our deal, Xellos," she warned, just itching to have a reason to put her (you'll notice still intact) mace to use on him. "You will close your shop now, right?"
He sighed. "I suppose I'm obliged to. I won't be your business rival anymore, if that's how you want it."
"Good," Filia said, a genuine smile on her face for the first time in more than a week.
He smiled back at her, his hair still spread out all around him like a ridiculous purple mane. With an unwelcome tingle down her spine she suddenly realized how… precarious their positions must have looked and scrambled off of him—brushing herself off as she stood and trying her best to look ladylike. He rose more slowly, as though disappointed to be unpinned.
Jillas took this opportunity to redeem his name in the "hawking of wares" department. "Come on in everyone!" he cried, strutting over to the door of the shop. "And you can get the same type o' mace you just saw the boss win with!"
The throng liked this idea very much and rushed past Filia and Xellos to snatch up such proven equipment for themselves. Filia only hoped that she had enough of that particular model in stock.
Xellos looked over his shoulder to his now closed shop with a slight air of regret. "Well, it seems that I'm stuck with a great deal of merchandise that I'm no longer allowed to sell here," he said. He turned back to Filia. "I don't suppose that you might…"
"I'll take them off your hands—the maces at least," Filia said, but her tone was far short of magnanimous. In fact, there was an unsettling gleam in her eyes. "But since I'm only going to be melting them down to make something that's actually worth selling, I want them from you at cost—and, knowing you, I'm pretty sure you wrangled a good deal for them."
"…I suppose I have no choice," Xellos admitted ruefully. He opened both eyes to give her a serious looking over. "I should've realized that you're a much more ruthless businesswoman than you seem."
Filia smiled—a weight that had been on her shoulders for so long was now well and truly lifted. There were finally customers again; so many that, by the looks of it, she'd better be getting back inside to give Gravos and Jillas a hand with them.
"If you'd figured that out earlier you could've saved us both a lot of trouble!" she called over her shoulder as she drifted over to the front door of Achaea's one and only vase and mace shop.
After her triumphant return to the top of the retail food chain, not even bills could sour Filia's good mood. After all, she knew she could pay them now. And, as she stood by her mailbox, sifting through the bills she'd received, she wasn't thinking about how many there were or how she was going to scrounge up enough money to pay them; she was thinking about how blue the sky was and how perfect the last few weeks had been.
"I think I've developed a bit more of an understanding about dealing with creditors after my recent experiences."
Filia nearly dropped her mail. That voice… No. No it couldn't…
She forced herself to turn around. He was back! Not only was he back, but for some reason he was standing beside the mailbox next to her own.
"I nearly thought I wouldn't make my goal after your little upset managed to shut me down," Xellos said casually. "But I was at least able to recoup much of my loss by passing on my materials to you—even if you were far from kind in your asking price. And a stroke of luck selling to a cigar dealer in Ruvinagald made the difference. With the rest of my savings and a little finagling, I was able to make it work."
"Xellos…" Filia tried once she found her voice. "You… you don't…"
"I told you, Filia," he went on with a sunny smile, "I needed the money."
The "For Sale" sign… With numb horror she realized it was gone. It had been planted in the yard of the house next to her own for so long, and now its absence seemed to stick out like an amputated thumb. How had she missed it when she'd walked down to the mailbox? It didn't matter. Even if she'd noticed she could never have in her most paranoid of nightmares dreamt that he…
"I guess what I'm trying to say is…" Xellos began, as he stooped down to pick up the newspaper that rested on the grass by the mailbox. Behind him the house came into sharper focus in Filia's panicking mind.
He straightened up and saluted her with the roll of newspaper. "…Hello, new neighbor!" he finished brightly.