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“So, I hear I have a competitor,” she said. Despite her appearance, she spoke English without any hint of an accent. “What’s your name, tiger?” Her light flashed with what was clearly a bit of contempt.

In her presence I felt a bit ashamed of my nickname, so I didn’t bring it up. “I’m Billy Taft. Miss…?”

“Lung Fofaa,” she said. “You think you can out-eat me, do you?”

I shook my head. “I didn’t—I had no idea what I was in for. They just offered me a free meal.”

“No such thing,” she said, “Trust me.”

“What are we even competing for?” I said.

She leaned in close and put her claws on my belly. “Fuel for the fire,” she said. My light flickered a bit at the feminine touch, but she didn’t react to it, if she noticed at all. “You can eat here for as long as you like—until a better eater comes along. And you must take on all challengers.”

I looked up into her eyes as her talons almost imperceptibly squeezed my gut. “Believe me, miss, I have no intention of threatening your meal ticket.”

She snorted, a puff of red smoke from her nostrils washing over me. “Nonsense,” she said. “The challenge has already begun. Go on,” she said, to the man who brought me in, “Let’s get me caught up.”

She took her place at a long low table beside me as he left for more food. “I beat a man for this position,” she said, “Over a year ago. He was just an ordinary human; no challenge whatever. No one since has even come close. But you’ve got fire in you too—you might just be able to compete.”