Brevian and the Star Dragon, Part II: Meeting With Dragons

Read Part I here.


Prologue:

   “Do we try for a jump?” Boreus asked. The Captain shook his head.

   “It’d only follow us through it. We fight.”

   Four faces looked up to the Captain’s, the same thought in every one. The thing on the veiwscreen was not the kind of thing you fought. It was the kind of thing you ran from, the kind of thing you heard stories about and prayed would never find you.

   Well, it had found them. Fighting was as hopeless as running, and the Captain knew which one he’d rather go out doing.

   “We fight,” he said again, and the four faces nodded, expressions molding into something harder, something darker. The Captain felt his heart sink to see them. He’d led them into this. They deserved so much better.

   Well, a voice that was not a voice rumbled. If it isn’t a little band of thieves and killers. How charming.

   “It’s almost on us, Captain,” Tara said, and he closed his eyes against the ache the voice had left in his temples.

   “Power up our defenses. Lasers at the ready,” he said after a moment, eyes snapping open. The thing loomed in the veiwscreen, eyes black, tentacles curling, as slow, as inevitable as death. The Captain’s voice sounded like an act in his own ears, the bravado pitching false, the assuredness a paper-thin shield to hide his fear.

   “It’s time for a little dragon-slaying.”

*   *   *

   Earlier that day.

   Brevian didn’t say anything. There wasn’t anything to say. He hunched deeper into the worn leather of the hoverchair and stared aimlessly at the equally worn faux wood of Captain Clazan’s desk, studying the scars and stains that marred its surface. He wondered who was supposed to speak first. It was probably him.

   But again, not much to be said. He wasn’t sure if he could trust his voice, anyway.

   Another moment of silence went by. Clazan started tapping the top of his desk. Finally, he said:

   “You’re a prince.”

   There wasn’t much to say to that. It had been a fact for some time. Recently, it had become an undeniable one. He nodded, instead.

   “Not just any prince, either,” Clazan continued, and Brevian wasn’t imagining the exasperation in his voice this time. “the Emperor’s son.”

   “Second son,” Brevian clarified, because the distinction was more important than the Captain could know. He glanced up, and found Clazan giving him an odd look. Frustrated, but…oddly not so very different from the look he’d given him when Brevian had claimed to be a street rat. He looked down again, returning to his study of the desk. After another moment of silence. The Captain sighed.

   “So, then.”

   Brevian looked up again, and found Clazan fingering the comm-scroll that lay, recently gone blank, on the desk. He winced, remembering the message that had played on it.  A swiveling image of himself. A voice declaring him a missing prince of the galaxy in the same way one might announce a new flavor of grain-o-flecks, and at the end, a reward placed on his head that he knew would keep the Stingray in fuel for a hundred cycles, at the very least.

   “It was your…older brother, who sent this?”

   Brevian nodded. He still didn’t know why his brother had done it. Brevian the elder hadn’t looked for him at Starport One, hadn’t looked for him for the last four–no, five cycles. He’d finally been crowned emperor of the Fourth Quadrant, after their father. Surely there were more important things for him to worry about than  long-lost little brothers. 

   Unless, of course, Brevian was to be considered a threat now, a contender for the throne, and the intent behind that message was something far less friendly than the hope of a family reunion.

   “You could have told us, you know. Anytime you wanted.”

   Brevian looked up at Clazan’s tone.

   “You’d have taken me back,” he said, by way of explanation.

   Clazan frowned.

   “Yes. Probably. Don’t see what kind of choice I’d have; kidnapping a royal’s a crime worthy of dissection, or worse.”

   Brevian’s stomach twisted at the image.

   “You didn’t kidnap me!”

   I know that,” Clazan said. “But I’d have a bloody hard time convincing anyone else of that.”

   Brevian fell silent, the protest that he wouldn’t let anything happen to the crew of the Stingray, not if he could help it, silenced by the crushing fact that he probably couldn’t help it. No one had listened to him five cycles ago, and he doubted that they’d start now.

   “Why’d you want to stay, anyway?” Clazan asked, the calm that usually tempered his voice gone. “You’re a prince.why would you want to give up a palace and a title to–to scrub floors on a rust-bucket of a ship that runs on half-rations whenever we’re between jobs?”

   The Stingray wasn’t a rust-bucket, Brevian thought indignantly. The food was fine, even if there wasn’t always enough of it. They ate together, and talked together. Scrubbing floors wasn’t bad. It beat being alone.   

   Before he could answer, a knock sounded on the captain’s door. 

   “Come in,” Clazan said, sounding relieved at the intrusion.

   The door zithered open halfway before stalling. Tara slipped past it, and took the time to give Brevian a slim smile before she looked up to the Captain. Brevian’s stomach dropped at the look on her face; it was–well, Tara would never look panicked. But she was paler than usual, and the hand that usually rested on one hip with a kind of easy grace was hooked into her belt, tense, as though it would very much like to be holding something sharp.

   “On the bridge, captain,” she said. Clazan frowned.

   “Imperial troops?” he guessed, and she shook her head, attempting a wry smile that flattened out all too quickly. 

   “No. StarDrake.”

*   *   *

   The thing that curled and coiled, contentedly occupying the void that the Stingray had occupied not a minute earlier, could have dwarfed a planet. Its eyes were black pits, empty and warm; its skin smooth and shining with as many colors as all the nebulas of open space.

The dull obsidian eyes were staring lazily at him, and Brevian could hear his own breath echoing in the confines of his helmet, over-loud with uninvited panic.

   The StarDrake was the most beautiful thing Brevian had ever seen.

   He hated it with all his soul.

   My, my. What is this?

   It had a voice that crackled like a solar storm.

   Are you really trying to flee…from me?

   Brevian looked up at the thing that was looming gigantic as a wayward galaxy over him, and clenched his fists tighter.

   “You killed them,” he said. “I’ll kill you.”    

Heavens around us, the dragon said, its tentacles coiling in tight little curls that released as soon as they formed–an odd, spasmodic motion that Brevian recognized as laughter. So, you will kill me, for the sake of a few thieves who have abandoned you? Well. The wisdom of your chosen course of action aside, how will you go about it–slaying the beast? The dragon said, sounding hellishly amused as some of its silky, snakish bulk began to drift around Brevian, caging him in like an animal in a bio-research lab.

   “I don’t know.” Brevian said. “But I will.”

   Again that silent spasm of laughter.

   Classic human, it said lightly. Don’t know how, but you will. I don’t doubt you shall, if you survive long enough. I shall leave you to it, shall I? Come and find me, when the mood for vengeance strikes.

   With that, it began to uncoil, ready to carry itself and the remains of the Stingray inside its belly away.

   “Wait!” Brevian shouted at it, and the great head turned again, fixing him with a curious expression.

   What?

   “You have to give–give my friends back.” He stuttered over the sentence, hating how it sounded. Words so weak and fragile, thrown against the bulk and brawn of the cosmic beast.

   The ones who left you to die? Whyever would you want them?

   “They didn’t leave me to die,” Brevian retorted. “They were trying to save me. From you.”

   That worked out well, the dragon commented, coiling itself again. Your friends must have been very intelligent.

   “Give them back,” Brevian demanded, even though he knew the creature couldn’t, not really.

   He had been alone before, so it was not as though the cold leaching into his bones was anything new. It was just as unbearable now as it ever had been in his old nursery. Breaker had laughed and chatted that cold away, but–Breaker was gone.

   They were all gone.

   “You have to,” he heard himself saying. “They’re all I have.”

*   *   *

   “Brevian!” Clazan’s voice snapped like a whip. The bridge was a mess of confusion with the StarDrake lingering huge and terrifying on the Stingray’s viewscreen and everyone rushing to prepare a defense that, to Brevian’s ears, sounded pitifully inadequate.

   “Yes, sir?” He was a crewman, he reminded himself, and Clazan was Captain. The Captain would get them through this. He always did. 

   Clazan shoved something small and heavy into his arms, and he looked at the thing in surprise–an emergency spacesuit, light and leathery. As far as Brevian knew, utterly useless in the dragon-slaying department.

   “Go to the cargo bay.” Clazan was holding Brevian’s shoulders as though he might start floating away. “You know how to work around the airlock’s safety?”

   “…yes…”

   “Put the suit on and do it.” Every word had a harsh edge to it–harsh and half-fearful. Brev winced. He’d have bruises on his shoulders by tomorrow. “You understand? Get out of here.”

   Brev didn’t understand, but he nodded.  He didn’t move. He wanted to, but his feet weren’t cooperating.

   Clazan gave him a brief, too-bright smile, and the chill sunk into Brev’s bones like an anchor.

   “We’ll be fine, Brev. Just go.”

  

*   *   *

   Had, the dragon corrected. All you had. You should have put your trust in steadier things, little worm. One swallow, and all you have is gone.

   It had the nerve to sound pleased. Brevian clenched his fists tight in the oversized plastic of the suit–the idiotic last-ditch attempt at saving his life, even when the Captain had given himself and everyone else up for lost–and willed his eyes to stay dry.

   Does it hurt?

   The dragon’s voice was almost soft. Its head drifted closer to him, looming huge, but Brevian was too enraged to be afraid. He didn’t dignify the question with a reply.

   “Why?” he asked, instead.

   There was a flicker in the dark eyes, and the mane of bristles rattled.

   Why is a dangerous question, little worm. For every why there is a because.

   Brevian was slowly beginning to drift upside-down, but he did so silently, arms crossed, with expectant dignity, and after a moment of mutual staring, the dragon capitulated.

   They stole from me. Stole everything from me, the dragon said. They stole my very heart.

   Brev was drifting right-side up again, but he kept his arms crossed. The dragon’s arguments were leaving him distinctly unimpressed.

   “Elaborate,” he demanded, and the tentacles coiled tight again–but not, this time, in amusement.

   They killed my daughter. 

   Brevian blinked. He hadn’t thought that cosmic monsters had children. Or cared about having children. But it seemed this cosmic monster did care. Or had, once.

   She was barely a millennium old. Its voice crackled a little less, now; a flickering candle-flame as opposed to a blazing fire. I was just weaning her off asteroids and small moons. I took her to watch the birth of a star, and she–a spasm of laughter–asked if she could eat it.

   The tentacles gathered in soft curves, as though to caress a thing that was no longer there.

   She would have been a devourer of worlds, in time. A drake without equal in beauty or appetite.

   The thick mane rattled, every spot of glowing light along the dragon’s huge body flashed up like lightning.

   But then your friends came while she was sleeping. She was young–so young–and I was not there to protect her–and they killed her. Sliced through her belly and took her skin, her teeth, her bones, her eyes…they harvested her, fed upon her, like…like…

   The dragon seemed to despair of a word, and fell silent.

   That was a story that Breaker had not told him. Possibly for good reason. Perhaps, he thought, he should have responded with feeling, with compassion–but his memories of the Stingray’s last moments were too vivid still in his mind, and he found nothing in the dragon’s speech but hypocrisy.

*   *   *

“Captain! It’s getting closer,” Tara shouted from the bridge, and the fear that was flickering somewhere behind Clazan’s smile was there, clean and unhidden, in her voice.

Brev took a step back, looking up into Clazan’s face for any kind of assurance, but got only the repeated order: go.

   “It’ll swallow us in a minute,” Liz said helpfully, the second Brev’s back was turned. He started to hurry down the hall, stumbling a little; his legs felt numb. Hurry or no, he was still within range of Clazan’s quiet reply.

   “Well, then. Let’s give this StarDrake a taste of stingray.”

   Brevian ran.

   

The airlock was thick with the scent of rubber. Brevian took a deep breath of it before he struggled into the emergency suit, letting the double-sealed doors close behind him with a soft whush. The Stingray smelled like adventure, even now.

   An alarm was blaring, and Brevian tapped a quick, well-memorized sequence into the keypad to open the second set of doors. He stepped back, taking a steadying breath.

   The final set of doors shot open, revealing the star-dotted ink and indigo of the open space beyond. The void gripped him like the hand of a giant, and he was torn out of the Stingray, no air in his lungs for even a scream. All was rushing noise and flashing lights and then–

   It was silent. Silent and cold. The emergency suit fed him stale-smelling oxygen. He sucked it in greedily. For a few moments, that was all that mattered.

Silent and cold.

   His heart slowed its panicked beat, and his mind began the picky business of thinking. The Stingray was above him, and he stared up at her scarred belly, at the shining orange paint on her fins, with awe. She was huge, he thought.

   Then he saw the thing that loomed beyond her. 

   It was moving slowly, but lithely, with deadly purpose. Its dark eyes were fixed on the Stingray, with no emotion evident in them. No malice, but no compassion, either. And plenty of teeth.

   The Stingray, in a display of utter stubborn idiocy, opened fire on it.

   The ship’s defenses were sub-par at the best of times, built for running off small-time shipjackers or the occasional herd of galaxy mites. They never stood a chance against the StarDrake. They sparked and fizzled with all the efficacy of water guns, and the dragon paused if only regard the ship with plain distaste.

   When it opened its mouth again, it was clear that all the lasers in the world would have been useless. The Stingray kept firing its tiny, futile flashes of light anyway. The StarDrake’s mouth closed. 

   Then she was gone, and Brevian was alone.

   The StarDrake shook out its tentacles contentedly as it swallowed.

*   *   *

   Brevian’s stomach twisted, but his voice was even.

   “Like you feed upon us?”

   All caution had gone out the airlock, in a much less metaphorical sense than the phrase usually described.

   “You talk of eating us as though it’s nothing. Of devouring planets whole, as though it does not matter.”

   Does it not? Your lives are but a day to my kind, human. Your planets but a snack. It is the way of things.

   “Our short lives and our little planets matter a great deal to us. And if you think you can take them–just snatch them up without a second thought–then you had better not be surprised when we fight back. Think of us as little more than insects? Then to us you’ll  be little more than monsters to be killed.” Brevian was shaking, and it wasn’t from fear. “It’s the way of things.”

   The dragon was still, considering him. Quite possibly wondering whether he was worth gulping down. Brevian didn’t care if the creature did swallow him; the emergency suit was already flashing a mild ten-minute oxygen warning at the corner of his vision, and he doubted that anyone was going to magically come by and rescue him in the next ten minutes. Being swallowed was at least a little more interesting than suffocating to death.

   So, it said, finally, and its tone was…thoughtful. The way of things has overtaken us both.

   There was something in its quietness that drained all the anger out of Brevian’s bones, which was unfortunate, because the anger was all he’d had left. He breathed hard, and stared up at the dragon, and ignored the flashing warning on his helmet because it didn’t matter anymore. Nothing did.

   My daughter is dead. Her killers will soon join her.  And like stars you and I will burn in the dark–alone. It is the Way Of Things, the dragon said.

   What did he mean, ‘soon?’

   “You might burn in the dark. I think I’m going to die in it.” the warning had gone from orange to red, and it was blinking faster.

   The dragon was not listening. It seemed to be having an existential crisis.

   I have lived for years uncountable. I have swallowed suns and moons, kings and queens and would-be gods; I have counted myself the greatest creature the universe holds, and, to spite the wisdom of ages, in the space of a second I have learned the name of my master: the Way Of Things. HA!

   Brevian did not care, much, how long the dragon had lived or what it had swallowed while it did; but he cared a great deal about that one word, so casually cast out: ‘Soon.’ ‘Soon be dead’–not ‘dead,’ but ‘soon’, which was a world away from ‘dead’, almost as good as ‘alive’, if only the dragon had meant it–

   The dragon’s voice rose in time with Brevian’s heartbeat.

   Well, Way Of Things, I defy you. You shall be my master no longer!

   And with that, the Dragon’s mouth opened once more, and Brevian’s heart leapt into his throat.

   For, spat out into the black of space–drifting aimlessly, with dead thrusters and a battered, half-digested shell, true, but there–was the Stingray.

   There, the dragon said, coiling itself in apparent carelessness. The Way Of Things has been defeated.

   The audio link crackled to uncertain life, and someone groaned into Brevian’s ear.

   “Brevian to the Stingray! Is everyone all right?”

   “Brev.” someone said, sounding groggy, and Brevian had never expected his heart to leap with joy at the sound of Liz’s voice, but here they were — “What–Ungh. What in’a heck just happened?”

*   *   *

   As it turned out, being swallowed by a dragon was an unpleasant and dangerous experience, even if by some unforeseen miracle it did not turn out to be a deadly one. Liz had a broken arm from being thrown against an unsuspecting Breaker, and Breaker had a gash across his forehead from knocking his head into a doorway. Boreus had declared that the damages to the ship were more important than either wound, and had taken Tara away to the engine room, leaving them both in the medbay with Brevian. Brevian assumed he was supposed to take care of them.

Breaker assumed just the opposite.

   “I’m fine, really,” Brev insisted, dodging another one of Breaker’s attempted comforting hugs.

   “Please sit still, I need to stitch that cut.”

   “Just let him hug you, Brev. It’s easier,” Liz advised, half-asleep on one of the cots.

Brevian did not let Breaker do anything. He was snatched off his feet and squeezed until he feared he’d join Liz in the company of broken bones.

   “It’s all right,” Breaker rumbled as he crushed the air from Brevian’s lungs. “it was frightening, but it will be all right now.”

   “I know.” Brevian wheezed. “Breaker, I know. Please just put me down.”

   Liz groaned from her cot.

   “Let the kid go, Break. You’re gonna squash him.”

   Grumbling, Breaker did as he was told. Brevian crumpled to the ground in a heap and shot Liz a grateful look. He laid on the floor, staring at the ceiling, and wondered if it would be all right if he just took a nap here for a while.

   With a sudden thought, he bolted upright.

   “Where’d the captain go?” he asked. Clazan had been there, when Brevian had been admitted back onto the ship; had joined in the joyful reunion, listened to Brevian’s tale of what had happened while they were inside the beast’s belly. But he’d been quiet–so quiet, that no one seemed to have noticed when he disappeared.

   “Bridge, I think.” Liz said, her eyes still closed.

   Brevian’s stomach sank. Oh, no. The dragon had let them go, all was well enough and ripe for being left alone, but no, the captain was going to go and talk to it. As if the dragon would ever listen. He could feel trouble brewing from here.

   He jumped to his feet and rushed to the bridge.

   “…Sorry,” he was in time to hear. Sure enough, Clazan stood in the middle of the ruined room, focused on a veiwscreen that was entirely taken up by StarDrake. Brevian halted, caught in a paradox of wanting the conversation to end, and not daring to interrupt.

    Sorry, the dragon said, as though testing the word and finding it wanting. Is that the kind of payment you offer for a stolen life, Thief? Is a half-meant word supposed to be enough, among your kind?

   Brev took a step forward, not entirely sure what he intended to do but certain that this was the point at which he should do something, when a hand was laid softly on his shoulder. He looked up into Liz’s face. She was pale and sweating, her injured arm held close to her side like a hurt wing. Her eyes were on the captain, and the veiwscreen beyond him, but when she shook her head, Brevian knew the gesture was meant for him. He stopped.

   “No,” Clazan said, softly. “No, sorry’s not enough. Me and my kind are well aware of the fact, believe me. But when nothing would be enough, it’s…well, it’s all we’ve got.”

   Your kind is very strange.

   Clazan chuckled. “You’re not wrong.”

   I am sorry too.

   Brevian’s eyes went wide. Dragons didn’t apologize, did they?

   Sorry I was not with her, the dragon clarified, and the graphics on the Stingray’s veiwscreen had not improved since their immersion in the StarDrake’s belly, but Brevian could have sworn that the dragon’s pit-black eyes had gone a shade darker.  Sorry I did not save her. Sometimes, I am sorry…that I cannot join her. I have tried.  But…my kind does not die easily.

   There was no way to see the Captain’s expression, but Brevian caught the sudden silence of the man, the way one of his hands fluttered softly as though to make some gesture of help before landing limply at his side again.

   “What are you going to do, now?” Clazan asked, finally, and the dragon’s head drifted slowly, looking away from the ship, focusing on some distant star or planet who knew how many light-years away.

   I do not know. Consume a planet, perhaps. It did not sound excited at the prospect. Be alone.

   Again that careful silence.

   “You don’t have to be, you know.” Clazan stepped back, crossed his arms. “Alone.”

   “Captain!” Liz interjected, causing Brevian to startle. “You promised. No more adopting strays.”

   Stray? The dragon repeated, sounding insulted, while Clazan spun around to face them both.

   “We’re not adopting him, Liz, it’s just–well–we can’t exactly just leave him here, all alone.”

   “Yes, Captain. Yes, we can,” Liz said, but she sounded defeated already.

   I am no stray, the dragon boomed, petulant. But. I…am very tired, of being alone.

   “See, Liz?” Clazan said, but Liz had a hand planted over her eyes, pointedly refusing to see anything at all.

Epilogue:

   Brevian Ecklesworth II, Emperor of the Fourth Quadrant, was staring at the ceiling. His Majesty chewed absently on the end of a pen, ignoring the papers cluttering his desk and using one booted foot to shove off from the desk legs every few minutes, causing his chair to rock wildly in its hover-cycle.

   The emperor was not thinking about the papers on his desk. He was not thinking about Grand Admiral Jorgenson and his proposals of new military outposts; or indeed anything that had been talked about in the latest meeting of his council. 

   He was not thinking about the ceiling, either, for all he stared at it.

   He was thinking about a bland platform on Starport One, a boring school assignment, and a little brother who had been there one moment, and…gone the next.

   Brevian II had gone into a panic when he’d looked up and realized that the boy was missing. He’d searched the whole Starport, and returned home sick with fear–afraid to break the news to the old emperor, afraid of the blame and anger he couldn’t help but feel he deserved.

   Their father had only blinked at the news, then shrugged and ordered a few search parties be sent out the next morning.

   After that, it seemed that everyone besides himself had forgotten that the second prince had even existed.

   That had been the day he had realized that being the son of an emperor meant nothing at all. It  did not make you mean anything to anyone in any way that mattered.

   He’d spent the years since then making very sure that he meant something, that he mattered.  He supposed he should take the crown upon his head as proof that he’d succeeded; but he had his suspicions that that did not mean anything either. 

   It had occurred to him, more than once, that his little brother was probably long gone. Kidnapped, or dead. But the emperor was tired of cynicism, and allowed himself this little sliver of foolish hope.

   “Your majesty?” a disembodied voice said from underneath the cluttered papers on Brevian II’s desk. The Emperor jumped, dropping his pen–ah. Yes. The intercom system. He was…still getting used to it. He fished for the pen, replacing it on his desk.

   “Yes, Miss Schu?”

   “The Department of Imperial Investigations has accepted a comm in reply to the case of the missing prince, your Majesty. Shall I send it in?”

   The Emperor’s hoverchair wavered wildly as he sat up.

   “Has Prackett sent any message with it?”

   “The detective general said, and I quote, ‘I’ve been reviewing comms all day and this one seems slightly less likely to be a fraud, please tell me it isn’t so I can go back to doing by bloody job.’ My own apologies for his lack of tact, your majesty.”

   The emperor did not have to hide the flicker of amusement that crossed his face, for once.

   “Have the connection relayed to my desk, please, Miss Schu.”

   The emperor sat back as the center plate of the desk raised itself up with a pneumatic hiss and flickered uncertainly to life. He frowned at first, wondering if the screen was malfunctioning; but no, it was the quality of the comm link itself. The skittering pictures resolved into the image of a scarred, one-eyed face, who was frowning at something offscreen. Facial recognition scanned the profile, and the emperor scanned the identity it popped up with, making his judgements quickly. A small-time pirate and occasional mercenary. Judging by the state of the ship behind him, not a very successful one.

   “–bad idea.” the audio link crackled to life in time for Brevian II to hear.

   “I’m not saying we actually lock him up, captain, but to return him without even trying to bargain for a little more reward money is–well, suspicious, for one thing. I’d suspect us.”

   “Liz,” the one-eyed man said, with slumped shoulders. “We’re not holding him for ransom.”

   “Why not? Brev’s on board with it. Aren’t you, Brev?”

   “I wouldn’t mind.”

   The voice was not exactly familiar. Less familiar, in any case, than it should have been. The Emperor sat up straight at it, all the same.

   The movement drew the attention of the man on the other side of the screen, and he startled slightly, drawing a flick of a smile from the Emperor. He would never tire of unsettling people.

   The pirate, on the other hand, looked tired of just about everything. 

   “So,” he said, “are you really the Emperor, or is this just another security screening?”

   Brevian II raised his eyebrows.

   “I am the Emperor.”

   The one-eyed man considered him for a moment, his face cold and calculating. The Emperor curled his fingers into his palms under the desk, preparing for threats or ransom demands or whatever else this pirate had planned.

   The captain merely studied him for a moment, then nodded, and the Emperor had the unsettling feeling that he’d just been through a security screening of his own.

   “Well, then. I’ve got someone who wants to speak with you,” he said, and moved aside. The screen was a pixelated glitch of leather coat and overloaded weapons belt for a moment, and then someone else stepped up to it. Shorter than the Captain, but not half as small as the Emperor remembered them.

   His little brother looked different. Very different. Thinner and taller and with sharper edges to his face. But the facial recognition scanners confirmed what the Emperor already know.

   “Brother,” he said, feeling the cycles-old beginning to slip away. He was alive. He was unhurt. Brevian II’s mind was already whirling with questions and plans–what was Brev doing on a pirate ship, how had he gotten there, he had to come home at once–he’d send the whole Imperial guard to get him if he had to.

   The boy on the screen responded with a flash of surprise, a nervous flick of a smile, and then looked to someone offscreen as though asking for guidance. Finding familiarity in a group of strangers. And the words–I’ve found you, come home, stuck in Brevian II’s throat, because–perhaps home was not home anymore. Not to his little brother.

    But the younger Brevian’s eyes found his again.

   “Brother,” he responded. Cautious. Guarded. (But alive, and there).

   It was a beginning.

   And at the moment, a beginning was enough.

The end.

 

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Brevian and the Star Dragon, Part I: Stowaway

   Starport One hung in the light-scarce black of the heavens with all the brightness, form and color of some rare flower. Inside the glittering bubble of synthetic atmospheric shielding, platforms unfolded like leaves and petals, bearing ships and shops and people, and the trunk from which the platforms seemed to grow was shining with city lights. From the outside, it was graced with silent majesty, a jewel of mankind in the midst of empty space. 

   Inside, the serene beauty gave way to noise and activity. People running with clattering feet, orders and questions called out in twenty different languages, the continual hiss and clank of pneumatics, and the occasional eerie scream as a ship entered the synthosphere. There was barely a speck of boredom to be found on the whole scene.

   Barely.

   The speck of boredom had a name. Brevian Ecklesworth III, prince of the Fourth Quadrant, was sitting on a pile of sacks and picking absently at his shoes. After a few seconds, he looked up, flopped back on the sacks–plain things, marked in strings of Xanthurian symbols and smelling of stale dust–and sighed.

   “Why are we here?” he asked, directing the question at a figure, not much taller than himself, who was scowling at the glowing screen of a notepad. Their parents, with great originality, had named him Brevian Ecklesworth II.

   Brevian II peered at his younger brother, corrective holo-lenses lending a faint glow to his face. Due to the plain clothes that he wore and the  look of pinched thoughtfulness on his face, he might have been mistaken for just another merchant’s clerk or ship’s boy making inventory. Only the thin plutonium circlet set crookedly on his head marked him as royalty; the distant, but very present, circle of imperial guards served to solidify his identity as Brevian II, son of Brevian Ecklesworth I, heir to the throne of the Fourth Quadrant of the Imperial Galaxy.

   Brevian the younger had a plutonium circlet of his own, but he’d lost it somewhere.

   “Because if I’m going to be writing a report about industry in the capital quadrant, I need to see some examples of industry in the capital quadrant.” Brevian the elder said, with condescending patience, as he made another note on his pad.

   “There are shops in the Spine.” Brev sat up again. “that’s industry.”

   “That,” the elder Brevian replied, kneeling to copy out a few of the Xanthurian symbols, “is tourism. We are not tourists.” He continued copying out the symbols, writing a running translation underneath them. Brev watched, feeling more than a little envious. Xanthurian was a sharp, slicing language, and he’d wanted with all his heart to learn it, but his tutor-droid had refused to teach him, saying that Xanthurian was far too complicated for his ‘junior intellect’, and insisted that he learn the easier language of Parve first. Parve was basically the Imperial Tongue, but with more loops around the vowels, and sometimes it went backwards. Frustrating and boring all at once.

   Brev sighed again. The nurse-droids and tutor-droids tried–they really did–but their company was always a little stale and unsatisfying. He’d come along today in hopes that his brother’s company would be an improvement.

   Fortunately, he was used to dealing with disappointment.

   With another pointed sigh, he laid back against the sacks, tried to enjoy the unusual experience of being let out of the palace, and stared up appreciatively at the vast expanse of Starport One.

   Above Platform 34, where they sat, the glittering surface of the synthosphere vaulted wildly, filled with airlocks that constantly zithered open and closed to accommodate the constantly moving ships, screeching as the atmosphere rushed to regulate itself. Ships in need of repairs hung midair in gravity bubbles, silver-jumpsuited mechanics drilling and hacking at them, showering golden sparks. The sparks were dull, yellow, glinting things, compared with the stars that glittered out in the black beyond. Brev focused on them, first on the sparks and how yellow they were, then on the stars and how blue they were. He liked the look of the sparks. 

   “Sulking?”

The crown prince’s voice broke in on his thoughts, and Brev looked up, blinking, to find his brother looking at him with sour amusement.

   “I’m not sulking,” Brev snapped, sounding extremely sulky even though he spoke the truth, and Brevian the elder snorted.

“Of course. If you insist on coming along on a trip like this, it’s prudent to prepare to occupy yourself, instead of expecting me to entertain you.”

   Brev scowled. He’d been occupying himself just fine. And besides, there was a difference in being entertained and being included.

   He was about to point this out when the crown prince shoved lightly at his shoulder.

   “Move, I need to look at those.”

   Brev stumbled, displaced from his seat, and turned to find the crown prince absorbed in his studies. A spark of indignation rose in his chest. The crown prince wanted him to entertain himself?

   Fine, he’d entertain himself.

   He looked around their platform, busy and bustling thing that it was, and at the ring of Imperial guards with their backs to them–looking for threats to the princes, not at the princes themselves. 

   Beyond that ring, a small ship caught his eye–a rusted thing, less imposing and more interesting than any of the others that the platform sported. It was a streamlined affair, patched in places with discolored secondhand metals, and had a painting of a blue fish on its hull. Underneath the painting, scrawling Parve letters read ‘The Stingray’.  The cargo bay was standing open and empty.

   He headed for it.

   Brev glanced back once before he reached the ship, but no one seemed to have noticed him leave. The guards were still standing to attention, Brevian the elder still scribbling Xanthurian translations on his notepad.

   Brev huffed a breath, and stepped into the ship’s empty hold.

Inside The Stingray.

   It smelled…strange. Sharp. Uncleaned and adventurous. Black rubber treaded the ramp up to the  hold, and it felt oddly bumpy through the soles of Brev’s shoes.

   There was another scream as something entered the synthosphere, eerily muffled by the ship’s walls. Brev jumped, heart pounding. The inside of the strange ship suddenly seemed a bit too unfamiliar and a bit too large. He faltered and turned around, ready to go back.

   But when he turned he saw that everything was just as he left it. Brevian the elder still looking intently at his notepad. The guards, still guarding.

   No one had noticed he was gone. He stopped, feeling something unpleasant coiling in his stomach–something that whispered for him to stay here, and hide, until someone did notice he was gone. Maybe until they were well and truly scared that he was.

   He backed slowly up into the ship, glancing around for somewhere to hide–found a small, cool space between one of the crates and the wall, and settled down into it, feeling his resolve deepen.

   It deepened every moment that there failed to be a frightened shout of ‘where’s the prince?’. It dug itself deeper than a dead man in a graveyard, deeper than the mysteries of a black hole, and left Brevian tired, frustrated, and annoyed. The cold metal of the ship’s floor was making him sore, and he laid down. All the wearing bits of the day settled deep into his bones, and his eyes closed.

   Before he knew it, he was asleep.

   He woke to a clatter of cutlery, and blinked. Thick sleep-spit covered his tongue, a cold shiver ran down his spine, and there was a vaguely sore imprint of his own sleeve on his cheek. He blinked, wondering how long he’d slept. Had they still not noticed he was gone?

   Along with the clattering cutlery, the smell of food was wafting over the crates, making Brevian’s stomach grumble. There were voices, too, he realized. Unfamiliar ones, jabbering in Parve.

    “…trying to leave the planet, all right? Kinda quick-like. But it’s just our luck that that’s the one day that the dock guard on duty is Mr. loyal-to-the-company. He reported us for bribing him–”

   “No!”

   Yes,” the first voice insists. “Not a day under ninety cycles old, standing between us and our ship, and I swear, nothing we tried worked. So finally Finn and I decide to take as much cargo as we can carry and just sneak past him–he’s old, right, so his hearing can’t be that good–”

   “Right.”

   “Wrong. So many different kinds of wrong. We got ourselves and our cargo halfway across the hangar when suddenly this guard flicks on the lights and tells us to stop, in the name of the law.”

   On the other side of the crates, a few people were starting to chuckle at the story. Brevian, on the other hand, felt his muscles slowly beginning to seize up in a panic. He’d stayed too long. Who were these people?

   “What did you do?”

   “We ran! And this guard is hobbling after us the whole way back to our ship, waving his laser and yelling ‘crime doesn’t pay, you blasted scoundrels!’”

   Brevian blinked. He had to get past the crates, past the people, and back onto the platform of Starport One. The only plan his scrambling mind could come up with was to bolt for it.

   As it turned out, this was not a good plan. 

   There was a shout of surprise at his appearance, which surprised him in turn. The room looked odd, somehow; wrong. More occupied, for one thing.

   People were gathered around a table in the middle of the room, their white-rimmed stares of surprise barely a blur in Brevian’s vision as  he rushed to dodge them. He was almost past when a thick, tattooed arm shot out, blocking his path. He struggled against its grip on him, vaguely aware of the screech of chairs being pushed back. Another hand was laid on his shoulder, and his struggles became utterly useless.

   “Let go,” Brevian ordered, fighting the fear rising in his throat. He was a prince. They wouldn’t dare detain him. If he just screamed, the Imperial guards would come, and…

   Abruptly, he realized what was wrong with the room.

   The door to the cargo bay was closed. Brevian stopped struggling and stared at the thick metal. He wasn’t going to be able to get through it, and if he screamed, no one outside would hear him, imperial guards or otherwise.

   “Ay, calm down.” a voice rumbled overhead, and a heavy hand patted his shoulder. “Calm down, little one.”

   “Let me go,” Brevian said again, attempting to sound commanding. He failed. “Let me out.” On out, his voice cracked with emotion, and he fell silent.

   “Out?” someone said. “There’s nothing out there. We’re in open space now.”

   Oh, Brevian thought. Oh.

   And then he looked away from the door, to the faces of the people half-standing around the table. Faces worn like leather and pocked with scars, all regarding him with varying levels of interest. No imperial guards in sight.

   Oh, no.

*     *     *

   They were three light-jumps and half a galaxy away from Starport One.

   It was the grey-haired woman who had told him that, and she was speaking now.

   “We could…take him back?” she suggested tentatively, the deep crow’s-feet around her eyes and the wisps of hair that had escaped her braid contrasting sharply with the hand that was resting easily on the machete in her belt.

   Brev  was staring at the sword and feeling increasingly uncomfortable. The crew had surrounded him, a circle of dirty, unfamiliar bodies, all talking over his head about what to do with him. The only face on level with his own was a dwarf’s, but Brev was too preoccupied with the weapons-heavy belts that every other member of the crew wore to look at him.

   “And waste all that fuel going right back to where we started? I don’t think so.” the other woman,  young and blonde with a black tattoo snaking up her neck until it clipped her jaw, said.

   “I say we drop him out the airlock and be done with it.”

   “No, Liz. That would be wrong.” intoned the giant, patiently. “He’s just a kid.”

   Brevian looked up at him briefly, saw that he sported a beard and a blue ponytail, and looked back down at his feet.

   “Since when did Breaker care about morals? I thought he used to kill people,” Liz snapped.

   “I’ve always cared about morals. I didn’t always understand how they worked,” the one called Breaker said patiently, and Liz huffed.

   “I still think we should throw you out the airlock.”

   “No one’s getting thrown out the airlock.” the dwarf clarified, and Brevian shot him a grateful look.

   To everyone’s credit, they had tried to talk to Brevian before they’d started talking about him. But the answers to the questions they’d asked had stuck in his throat.

   Oh, I’m the second prince of the galaxy, and I hid on your ship because I was bored.

   It sounded ridiculous. It sounded, actually, a bit like a lie. And even if Brevian didn’t care about sounding ridiculous or being accused of a lie, there was also the very real possibility of being taken seriously. Even unimportant second princes could be kidnapped for ransom or sale to rival monarchies. He’d decided to stay prudently quiet, and slowly, they’d stopped asking him questions and started bickering over him like her was the last packet of Protein 4.

   “Captain?” the dwarf asked, turning to the man with the eye patch and the laser pistol. So far, he’d stayed fairly silent.

   “Mm?” the captain said, eloquently. Brevian looked up, and he looked back, a faint light of amusement in his eye. “Oh. Well, we could always just eat him.”

   “Cannibalism is also wrong.”

   “Not to worry, Breaker. The Captain is making ill-advised jokes,” the dwarf said, raising his eyes in a plea to the heavens–or, rather, the ceiling. 

   “Ah, you’ve got me, Boreus,” the captain said with a grin. He took another look at Brevian, then squatted down so that his head, if not even with Brevian’s, was at least no longer towering over him. He had a sharp-edged face, Brevian thought, but not an angry one.

    “Don’t look so scared, kid, nobody’s gonna hurt you. Who are your parents? We’ll try to get you back to them, alright?”

    Brevian hesitated, and a small smile flickered over the captain’s face.

   “Trust me, you don’t want to hang around this ship any longer than you have to.”

   “Yeah, kid. The food’s terrible.” Liz said, from somewhere above him. “And there’s…rats. Really big rats.”

    Brevian wasn’t listening to her. He was thinking. Not about kidnapping, but about returning home, back to the bland nursery rooms no one seemed to have noticed he’d outgrown, to the company of  well-intentioned nurse-droids with their painted-on smiles, the guards who never spoke, and the scornful presence of the crown prince.

   He did not want to go back.

   “I–” he began, on impulse– “I don’t have parents.”

   The sudden pity on the captain’s face almost made him guilty enough to tell the truth.

   Almost.

   “Where do you live, then? Who takes care of you?”

   Brev’s mind raced.

   “I … don’t have a house either. And I take care of myself, thanks.” He wondered for a moment if he should try to mimic the strange accent and amalgamated pidgin dialect that he’d heard coming from the children who hung around the docks. He decided not to try.

   “Ah,” the captain said.

   No” Liz replied. “Captain, you promised. No more strays. The last one you took in was Breaker, and remember how that turned out?”

   “There’s no need to be rude,” Breaker rumbled.

   “Don’t worry, Liz, we’re not taking him in,” the Captain said, glancing up. “We’re–ahh. We’re–well, it’s not like we can just shuff him off somewhere. We’ve got between here and the next port to figure something out.”

    “That,” Boreus said, “is exactly what you said about Breaker.”

   The captain wasn’t listening. He stood again, and held out a hand to Brevian.

“Well then, stowaway.”

   “Well then, stowaway. Welcome aboard the Stingray.”

   Epilogue:

   The Stingray sped through the light-scarce black of the heavens with all the speed and grace of a tigress on the hunt. A slightly rusty tigress, but a tigress nonetheless. The copper and zinc of her hull was battered and scarred, but still shone with pride; discolored patches of repairing metal marked her greatest battles, and the blue paint on her fins had recently been refreshed.

   From the outside, she was graced with a sharp kind of beauty, the glory of the fighter in apathetic space.

   Inside, Breaker was washing dishes, and Brevian Ecklesworth the III was scrubbing the floor, uncaring both of apathetic space or the unconscious loveliness of the ship.

   In fact, what was mostly impressing Brevian was the dirtiness of the ship. The water in his bucket was already black, and he still had half the floor to go.

   “Have you ever heard the story of our stay on White 16?” Breaker rumbled, suddenly, looking over his shoulder, and Brevian glanced up.

   “The snow planet?” he asked. “No.”

   “Snow planet,” Breaker said scornfully. “More like ice planet. It all began when the Captain tried to go on vacation…”

   A smile flicked at the edges of Brevian’s mouth as he went back to scrubbing. Breaker liked to talk, and had a habit of telling stories–stories of adventures past, some serious and others simply ridiculous. Liz always rolled her eyes at them, but listened nonetheless. Brevian, for his part, loved them. They made things like scrubbing floors and peeling potatoes go by faster.

   Breaker was in charge of the kitchens, and the captain had made Brev his apprentice.

   ‘Temporarily,’ he’d said. ‘Until we can figure out what to do with you.’

   That had been four years ago.

   It had taken two months for the little ship to make its next port, in which time Brevian had learned to play chess (Boreus’s doing), started to learn how to handle throwing knives (Liz’s doing. Boreus and Breaker were horrified, but she’d stopped threatening to toss him out the airlock), and learned to put out a grease fire (which he’d started).

    Brevian had hid when they’d reached that first port, not wanting to leave, even if everyone was angry at him for having stayed. But once again, no one looked for him. When the ship left port a day later and Brevian had gathered up the courage to step out into the open, no mention was made either of his disappearance or his continued stay.

    It had  felt almost like welcome.

   Breaker was busy relating how the Captain and Liz had gotten stuck on an ice floe with a herd of wild goats, and Brevian shook the water from his scrub brush with a smile. It was better than welcome, he thought. Better than being tolerated or entertained or honored.

   It was home.

Home.

 

Read Part II here.

 


 

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Cracks in the Concrete

Prologue:

   Are they called ghost towns because they are occupied by ghosts? Or is the town itself the ghost?

   Perhaps.

   There are no ghost cities. Once abandoned, the towering buildings stand and rot, growing more vines than cobwebs. In the heavy, unethereal silence, the streets are slowly strangled by the growth of trees, becoming nightmarish in their very claustrophobia.

   When a city is left bare, the void is not filled by ghosts or even ghostliness.

   It is filled by monsters.

*   *   *

   Four hours till nightfall.

   Grey took a soft step forward. Moss depressed silently under his feet, and a low groan sounded from the heavy concrete over his head, but he didn’t wince. Tree roots, careless in their pursuit of life, had snaked roughly into the foundations, compromising them. The whole thing would come crumbling down soon; he could only hope that it didn’t do it while he was inside.

   With four hours till nightfall, it was worth the risk.

   He took another step, heart pounding softly as the building groaned again, and saw what he’d come for.

   The pair of does were young. They stuck close to each other, stepping over the grass-and-moss-covered ground with dainty feet, soft-furred, dark-eyed and thoughtless of the danger.

   Or maybe they were hungry too.

   A thin tree, already weakened by having to bury its roots in the unforgiving concrete, was growing wispily by the crumbling wall. Its thin, pale branches thrust through the window, searching for sunlight. The boughs jerked helplessly as the deer began tearing its leaves away with their all-too-efficient teeth.

   Grey sank slowly to his knees, keeping an eye on one of them. Just one. What he wouldn’t give for a rifle. The pistol in his hands was old, if well cared-for; and it had little forgiveness for his occasionally wavering aim. 

   He raised the pistol, squinted along the sight at a section of the doe’s hide that he knew would give way to her heart. His hands weren’t shaking yet, but they felt weak. He took a slow, steadying breath as his finger touched the trigger. One more breath in, and when he exhaled…

   The deer leapt.

   Grey lowered the pistol in surprise, blinking as he tried to see the world beyond his sights again. He hadn’t fired.

   The deer made no noise of pain. Confused, it tried to run, but spun in panicked circles as its companion gave a terrified snort and fled, leaping over Grey on her way to freedom.

   The doe stopped, wide-eyed and trembling.  Fell–gently, as though she half-believed that she was simply lying down.

   Then she was dead. A brown-feathered arrow stuck out of her ribs.

   The building groaned again, and Grey crouched low to the ground as someone laughed.

   Then the someone was there, yellow-haired and gangling, pulling themselves free of a patch of scrub mere feet from where Grey himself hid and walking over to eye the corpse appreciatively.

   “Nice shot, Farwell!” he called over his shoulder, in a voice as bright and unwieldy as his figure. 

   “My thanks,” another voice, also close by, and accompanied by furious rustling as the speaker tried to free himself from stubborn underbrush.

   The first boy grinned. There was bow in his hands, arrow nocked to the string. He slipped the arrow into his belt and looped the bow around his shoulders, drawing a knife in their place as he stepped towards the carcass. He knelt, studying it, and held a hand over the creature’s nose.

    “Dead,” he announced.

    The rustling renewed its energy by way of reply, and the yellow-haired boy glanced up, amused.

   “Do you need some help?” he said.

   There was a loud snap, and another figure stepped free of the bushes, bow looped over his shoulder. He was trying to get a tangle of stickyweed out of his dark hair.

   “What did you just say?”

   The boy kneeling by the deer raised his eyebrows.

   “It’s dead,” he repeated.

   “Good. Wouldn’t want it getting up on us like the last one.”

   “No. Keep your meat here, deer, we need it to live,” the blond boy said, addressing the still figure on the floor.

   “Keep my meat here?” the one called Farwell said, in a horribly pitchy impression of a woman’s voice. “Darling! How forward you are!”

   The blond boy rolled his eyes and snorted unappreciatively.

   “Here, if you’ll just hold her–”

   “Darling!”

   “Just–take a leg–” he faltered, face stiff in an attempt to enforce a little seriousness.

   “Heavens!”

   Wheezing, the blond boy bent over the body of the deer.

   “Shut up and help me,” he managed and Farwell relented, albeit with a cocky grin.

   Gutting the deer was a messy business, made messier by Farwell’s unhelpful good humor.Grey watched from the safety of his pillar, fighting with his own mind. The pistol weighed heavy and warm in his hand, and the stink of entrails carried a similar weight in the damp and motionless air. Both brought back unwelcome memories. The boys’ sharp joking and choked laughter were unfamiliar, foreign. Grey had half set himself to edging away, quiet and unnoticed, to escape the strangeness of the scene, but he stayed, watching. Listening. Not sure why he wished to do either.

    It was the deer, he thought. He’d taken the majority of the day to track and follow it.

   Three and a half hours till nightfall.

   A little more hunger, and his arms would weaken, his hands would shake, and his chances of surviving what lingered in the dark would be cut to a third of what they were now.

   The boys were so young. So seemingly innocent.

   But Grey was hungry.

   He stepped out from behind the pillar, holding the pistol doubtfully, as though it were a shield and not a weapon.

   Farwell, between jokes and preoccupied in wrestling the deer’s innards free of its carcass, took the longest to notice him. The blond boy looked up when the building groaned, intending to make sure the ceiling remained where it belonged. He never got around to looking at the ceiling. His eyes were caught halfway to their goal, on Grey, and on the gun in Grey’s hands.

   There was a second of silence as they stared at one another.

   Then one of the blond boy’s hands went questing, bumping against Farwell’s shoulder, and he looked up as well, grin on his face faltering into an odd kind of blankness as he looked from his companion to Grey. He stood, red up to his elbows with the gutting knife still in his hands, and Grey kept the gun trained half-heartedly on his unprotected chest. Behind him, the blond boy was still crouching, but with one careful hand on his bow and another reaching subtly for the arrow in his belt.

Strangers.

   Grey had been hoping, foolishly, that they would take one look at the gun and run. But of course they didn’t. It wasn’t only the potential loss of two precious bullets that weighed on Grey’s heart at the realization.

   There was a clean-edged silence as the parking garage groaned again, protesting so many figures weighing down its abused frame.

   Unexpectedly, Farwell smiled at him.

   “Hello, stranger.” There wasn’t even a hint of wariness in his voice. He glanced at the gun–in a cursory, unfearful way that set Grey back a step–and then at the deer on the ground. He rubbed the back of his neck, a ridiculously boyish gesture that lowered Grey’s defenses farther than any words could have.

   “Ah,” he said. “You were hunting.”

   And we beat you to it, hung unsaid in the air. The yellow-haired boy was gripping his bow as if to say, and it’s ours now, so back off, old man.

   Grey nodded, trying to steel his muscles into raising the pistol, calculating which of the boys to drop first. Somehow, his arms didn’t want to respond. It was the heat, he thought, making him sluggish.

   “Well, it’s a good hunk of meat,” Farwell said. “Enough for all of us. Care to share?”

   His face was as honest as an idiot’s. Grey could only blink in response.

   “I’m Farwell. This is Golf.”

   Golf looked as surprised by Farwell’s statement as Grey was. He looked on the verge of disagreement for a moment, but slowly, his hand relaxed its grip on his bow, and Grey could only lower the pistol in response.

   They finished gutting the deer, and Golf’s mood improved considerably when Grey offered to carry it.

   The building groaned in relief as they left it. From the outside, it looked like even more of a monstrosity than from the inside. With the headache-inducing weight of the doe bearing down hard on his shoulders and its blood seeping warmly into the cloth of his shirt, Grey spared a glance behind at the overgrown thing. Green vines were overtaking it, snaking through the old stone and half-withering in the heat. The whole building would come down soon, crushing whatever was still inside; but then the trees would come and grow over it, like they were already growing over everything else.

   The deer was heavy, and Golf impatient. Grey turned away again before he could decide whether he liked the picture in his mind–of a city fallen to pieces and a forest growing alive and well over the top of it.

*   *   *

   Three hours till nightfall.

   The streets had moss and saplings encroaching on them, but they were streets all the same. A dead traffic light, dark against the twilit sky, leaned crookedly over the intersection, a bird’s nest sitting atop it like an ill-conceived hat. Yellow-painted lines stained the hard grey ground. The tops of the buildings–the ones that still stood–were green with foliage and gold with sunset. The air was thick and damp.

   “Much farther?” Grey asked, the deer on his shoulders weighing more than a man.

   “Not much,” Farwell replied, and Grey gritted his teeth.

   It was only a block later that Farwell turned down a ramp, and Grey stumbled after him. As brick walls rose on either side of them, the hellish heat began to abate a little.

The ramp led down into a cool hollow beneath a thick old building, somehow still standing strong in spite of the years and the vines. A cook-fire smoldered in the deepening shadows, and Grey dumped the deer beside it gratefully, breathing hard and blinking past the sudden dizziness.

   “Welcome to the camp!” Golf announced, giving him a slap on the shoulder that, like the words, was too sharp to be truly friendly. Grey responded with an ironic smile.

   Farwell was looking around the camp doubtfully.

   “Where’s Christy?”

   “I don’t know. I got here the same time as you,” Golf said.

   “I thought you’d have some sort of sense for her. She’s your wife.”

   “So I should know where she is all the time? You shared a womb with her, go activate some super-senses of your own.”

   “Or maybe one of you could look around for a change. I don’t hover around the fire all day, you know,” a voice–a woman’s voice–said, and Grey turned around.

   Tall as Farwell, with a wild mess of dark hair tied behind her head, she was walking down the ramp with all the grace of a deer, one eyebrow raised with Farwell’s humor, and a gentle smile gracing her lips that was all her own. A rifle was slung over her back, and she carried a jug that sloshed heavily with each step.

   Golf went to her, taking the jug and planting a gentle kiss on her lips. Farwell gave them both a crooked grin, but Grey looked away, turning back to the dead doe, which needed skinning yet. Somehow, he had forgotten how to begin about the business, and he was standing, knife in his hand and staring down at the dead thing, when Golf plunked the jug of water down next to him.

   “We brought back a deer,” he told his wife victoriously.

   “And a guest,” Farwell added, kneeling by the fire. Out of the corner of his eye, Grey caught the slight nod aimed in his direction, and he turned around, hurrying to return the unused knife to its sheath.

   Christy looked at him. There was a sharpness, a wariness in her eyes like Golf’s, but her smile was as sincere as her brother’s.

   “Welcome, then,” she said, extending a callused hand that still felt soft and delicate in Grey’s own. “I’m Christy.”

   “Grey,” he replied, cautious.

   And then she moved on, taking over the stoking of the fire as Farwell and Golf moved to skin the deer, working together with practiced efficiency.

   Grey quickly became useless. Limbs worn and weary, he sat, leaning against one of the pillars that supported the building. His skin prickled uncomfortably, the blood that had stained his shirt slowly drying, leaving the fabric stiff and sticky. The smell of it was sickly, but not unfamiliar.

   Grey had not lived through the aftershocks of the end of the world for nothing.

   They said, when the cracks had appeared in the thirsty soil and the green things disappeared, that it was Man’s fault. But when everything was dead and the world was reduced to rock and sand, whose fault it was had somehow…ceased to matter.

   The horrors of the Dust Age, though, had been everyone’s fault.

   Grey’s included.

   He remembered it too well. A world where food and water alike were scarce, where everyone was an enemy. You became as hard and dead as the ground beneath your feet and survived, or you…didn’t.

   He was very good at surviving. But somehow, along the way, he’d forgotten why he wanted to.

*   *   *

   One hour till nightfall.

   The air was still thick and over-warm, but the suffocating power had gone out of it. Though the sky was still bright as day, the cook-fire was casting flickering shadows over the brick walls that surrounded them all. The meat that was cooking over it smelled like heaven.

   “Think the dogs’ll come tonight?” Farwell asked, breaking the relative silence. He was looking up the ramp thoughtfully, and Grey followed his gaze.

   “Well, they’ve come almost every night until now,” Christy said lightly. “I don’t see why they would stop now.”

   The sizzling meat was distracting. Grey’s stomach felt like a hard-edged pit. Farwell turned away from the darkening ramp, eyes troubled.

   “But why?”

   “We’re easy prey?” Golf suggested, and Farwell responded with a snort.

   “Not that easy. The deer don’t fight back; why do they never hunt them?”

  Grey was listening more intently now, and he didn’t realize that he planned on opening his mouth until he was already speaking.

   “They won’t eat deer. Not willingly,” he said, feeling his voice as something out of place, foreign to the little group. It sounded rough and harsh and wrong, but they were looking at him now, curious, so he had no choice but to explain. He shrugged, as if what he was saying didn’t matter much. “They’re not wolves, or really dogs either. The lords of the Dust Age bred them to hunt humans.”

   And Grey was old enough, stained enough, to remember the breeding. Golf looked as though he was going to be sick.

   “Well,” Farwell said, with a dry attempt at humor, “That answers it.”

   Christy nodded, taking the skewers of meat from the fire.

   “Guests first,” she said, handing one to Grey, and that was end of the matter.

*   *   *

   Nightfall.

   Golf and Christy talked, but Farwell was looking at the sky, watching the darkness sink in.

   Grey, for his part, was silent. He ate with abandon, and was surprised to get a second helping when he asked for it. He consoled himself with the thought that he’d carried the deer, at least. Perhaps he deserved as much of it as his stomach could hold.

   But these people didn’t seem to care much for the idea of deserving or not deserving. They just…gave. And the giving was as different from what Grey was used to as the green-grown ruins were different from the desertish wilds of the Dust Age.

   Golf cracked a joke that Grey didn’t understand, but which made Christy roll her eyes and Farwell almost spit out his mouthful of meat. Grey was halfway to a smile himself when a sound silenced them all.

   A howl.

   Grey froze at the sound, old terrors coming to seize his muscles, fingers tightening uselessly around open air.

   Christy snatched up her rifle and the half-empty jug of water, beginning to retreat to the hulking building behind them in the manner of a soldier doing a drill.

  “Got your knife?” Farwell asked, fear behind his eyes, and Golf nodded silently, then turned to Grey.

   “That gun of yours loaded?” he asked, and Grey looked at him blankly for a moment.

  “I’ve got a few bullets left.”

   Over the course of the evening, Grey had started to think of these boys as men. But out here, in the dark with the dogs hacking and howling all around, he saw them right again. Just boys. Frightened, softhearted boys; the Dust Age would have eaten them alive.

   But the Dust Age was not here. Just its ghosts.

   And Grey had been haunted long enough.

   The peculiar baying grew louder, and Grey stood, feeling for the knife at his belt. Gun in one hand, knife in the other. Hoping his hands wouldn’t start shaking. He could drop a couple of the dogs before he had to start hacking at them, at least.

   And like a flash flood, the dogs were there, pouring down the ramp. In the dull red light of a dying fire, the pack had an unholy look to it, and though Grey had never been a religious man, but he could have used a prayer right then, some sign or gesture to ward off evil.

   All he had was his gun.

   Three bullets–the last three bullets–were spent. He didn’t know if any of them hit their mark or not; it was impossible to tell. The crack of a rifle sounded from somewhere above them–Christy, thinning out the pack as best she could. A dog leapt for Grey’s throat, and he stepped out of its way, stabbing at it as it fell. The dogs were swarming, tripping over one another in their eagerness for meat. Grey could hold his own against them–he had before–but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Golf stumble–recover, barely–and knew that these boys could not. Not when the dogs were this desperate, and this many.

   With a growl of his own deep in his throat, Grey surged into the pack, their bodies bumping against his legs as they tried to turn and snap at him, to bring him down.

   But Grey was a child of the Dust Age. He did not fall so easy. He hacked at them–it was impossible to miss–ignoring the warm spray that started to stain his hands, his face, as one by one the beasts yelped and fell away, only to be replaced by another. No matter how many dogs he cut down, another was there to jump at him. Teeth sank into his arm, his leg. His world was tiny and panic-tanged and there was blood in his teeth.

   For the first time since he had stepped out from behind that pillar to be met with a smile, he felt at home.

   But his arms were growing weak, his feet unsteady, and when the next dog leapt for him, he fell under its weight. The world flashed white for a second as his head cracked against the hard ground, and when his vision cleared, he saw one of them standing on his chest, snarling. He snarled back.

   Fitting, that the monsters of the Dust Age would kill one another.

   The rifle cracked again, sharp and clear in Grey’s muzzy-headed world, and the weight on his chest slid off, leaving Grey coughing, spitting bitter liquid onto the ground and trying vainly to struggle to his feet.

   “Get up!” Golf shouted in his ear, hauling him to his feet and shoving him back, shielding him as another dog leapt at them both. Slashed at it, wildly, and it fell with a yelp.

   None leapt up to take its place.

   Grey blinked. Farwell was tearing his blade free of another dog, and one more was fleeing, whining as it went. The rifle cracked once more, and it tripped over its own feet, then went still.

   They were all dead. Every one. And Farwell was looking across them at Grey, a hint of caution in his eyes.

    Christy ran out of the building, barreling to Golf to wrap him in a hug, and Grey felt the tiredness in his bones grow. He let the bloody knife in his hand drop to his side, and he stared at it, watching the red drip from the blade to the ground, until a scratch of booted feet against asphalt told him that someone was standing nearby. He looked up to find Farwell giving him a curious look.

   “You know the dogs,” he said, glancing at the pile of bodies, then back to Grey.

   “I was there when they were made,” Grey said with a forced chuckle. He condemned himself with the words. But the marks of his past were on his very skin, and he was a fool if he thought he could hide them. He was a ghost, a relic, hard and cruel and useless as the dead city that surrounded them, and these people–they were the green as the life that would grow best when he was gone.

   But Farwell was watching him, considering, no joke lighting his dark eyes for once.

   “Well. There are more packs than that one around, and–I’m glad to have you with us. We wouldn’t have survived the night without you.”

   The fire flared up again, the red light turning gold as Golf piled more fuel onto it, and Grey’s head came up as he realized what he’d heard. He’d been resigned to leaving, almost set on it. And now he was standing on the edge of the firelight, with the night behind him and Farwell’s idiotic welcome before–and it was too much.

   He found himself chuckling again without meaning it.

   “I’ve killed a lot of dogs,” he said, intending a harshness that wouldn’t come. “And–a lot more than dogs. Don’t thank me, boy; killing’s my business. Has been, since long before you.”

   It was then that he realized he was covered with blood, painted red with it. His hair was sticky with the stuff, his clothes dyed in it, his hands–

   Oh, his hands had been red for a long time.

   But Farwell wasn’t listening.

   “They got to you,” he noted, nodding to Grey’s leg, where the blood wasn’t drying. The dog-bite was sore and throbbing, and his arm was a mass of pain, and Grey realized that if he did walk back into the dark, he wouldn’t get far.

   “Come back to the fire,” Farwell said, reaching out a hand to Grey’s shoulder. “We’ll patch you up.”

   The fire was blazing gold now, terrifying as a sunrise, but the familiar dark was lonely, and that was so much worse.

   So with stumbling, pain-racked steps, Grey let himself be pulled towards the light.

 

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Land of Ghosts

Saphed Maut

The Curious Case of B-712

Wings

   Soldiers would be coming soon. Icanthus had yet to see them, however often he turned to look over his shoulder; but they were coming. He knew it in his bones.

   It was dawn, and butter-yellow light was shining, jewel-like, on the thick sheen of frost that covered the world. The light was warm, but not quite warm enough to cut through the bitter cold that had kept Icanthus walking and shivering all night long.

   He cursed the sunrise. Sunlight meant daytime, and daytime meant people, and people meant capture. He had to hide.

   He’d reached the foot of the mountains the night before, and made his way up a narrow goat-herder’s path along the mountainside. In the high altitude, the wind groaned around the solid, frozen rock, shuddering through the sparse growths of misplaced foliage. Between the solid rock on the one side of him and the steep drop-off on the other, Icanthus could see nowhere to hide. Even if he did stop and try to get some sleep, in the freezing wind he suspected that it would be a much longer, more final sleep than he wanted.

   He could go back. Perhaps it would be all right. In any case, it would be better than freezing to death.

    He gave the unworthy thought a feral growl, and tugged at his cloak, feeling the sharp spike of pain as the fabric moved across his ragged back. A small trickle of blood dripped, pleasantly warm for the two seconds before the cold got to it, from a freshly opened cut. Icanthus gritted his teeth. He would not go back. He would not turn around.  On the other side of this hellish peak, the lands of the Robber King, where there were no slaves and no masters, lay as a promise of freedom. He would not turn his back now.

    Even if he froze to death here, he would still be free. Slave-tattoos or no, he had no master now, and he never would again.

   The fiery words did not make the wind bite less.

   His empty stomach twisted, and a sudden spasm of dizziness hit him. Icanthus reached out a hand to steady himself on the cliff face, leaning heavily.

   The rock that was supposed to meet his fingers did not, and he fell. For a split second, his overtired brain wondered if he was falling down the mountain; but then he hit the ground and wasn’t dead.

   He was in a cave. A cave where the rock was dry and, though far from warm, protected from the biting wind. Moss grew sporadically, and was the softest thing Icanthus had felt in days.

He didn’t bother to get up. He was weary to the very bone and no longer cared if he froze to death. Too tired even to shiver, Icanthus curled up under his cloak and fell into an exhausted sleep.

*   *   *

   A muzzy-headed world of dreams held fur cloaks, hot spiced wine, and blazing fires. Icanthus woke to darkness and a dry throat. He blinked, worked his tongue fruitlessly, and looked at the pattern of shadows on the cave walls. Moonlight, he thought, reluctant to get up. Time to strike out once more towards freedom.

   He did not want to strike out towards freedom. He wanted to go back to sleep. It was comfortable, sleep. Warm. Pleasant.

   His slowly waking mind caught on a thought, tugging at it like a stream at an intruding branch. Sleep. Dreams. Comfortable. Warm.

   With a dull click of facts fitting together, Icanthus suddenly realized that there was something soft and solid resting against his back, and that whatever it was, it was breathing.

His shoulders stiffened. Other than the soft rise and fall of silent breath, the thing was motionless. Asleep? He eased himself away from it slowly, slowly…

   Getting to his feet as quietly as he could, he turned to look at the shape in the dark. The lumpy ridge of a powerful back, the dark gravity of a huge head–

   It growled softly in its sleep, and every muscle in Icanthus’s body went taut.

   It was a lion.

   A huge lion. A great mass in the dark, large as five men–a giant.

   Away from the beast’s warmth, Icanthus’s own heat was draining quickly. Shaking with equal parts cold and fear, he began to back out of the cave. It was just his luck to stumble across what was probably the only ginormous mountain-dwelling lion in the world. Just his luck.

    Please don’t wake up, please don’t–he sang inside his head, hope and prayer both.

   The great form shifted, a head rising up and turning until the moonlight glinted off of two great yellow eyes.

    It was a wonder that Icanthus’s heart didn’t stop. It raced in his chest, panic-weak, and his mind refused to do anything at all but order his feet to keep walking back, back, slow and calm and steady, as the beast stood up and began to follow, step by step, until they were both bathed in moonlight and Icanthus knew, with an odd certainty, that to step back any further would send him hurtling off the mountain. He stopped.

   The beast was tall as a young tree, and towered over him in a startling outline of silver. A lion’s eyes stared down at him, and a lion’s mane trembled softly in the bitter wind. The beast yawned, stretching out great wings that showed up bright against the bitumen night.

The gryphon shut its yawn with a lazy clack of teeth and tilted its head to look down at Icanthus, regarding him with the same air a housecat might regard a small bug that could be a suitable snack, plaything, or both. Trembling, Icanthus didn’t dare move.

   And then, with a low keening sound, the great beast laid down at his feet. Its head swung around, nosing with pitiful gentleness at a place fear the base of its wing, then back to Icanthus, expectant. The moonlight made the scene a silent one, despite the moaning of the wind.

   If the gryphon had eaten him, Icanthus would have been annoyed. But only mildly so, and only for a very short while. It was expected of monsters who showed up at midnight to eat people, however inconvenient. But the creature was looking at him as though he was supposed to do something; and, tired and cold as he was, doing something sounded much more unpleasant than being eaten by a gryphon. Frankly, Icanthus wanted to go back to sleep and not have to wake up for another day or two. 

   “What is it?” he finally asked aloud, snappish from cold and annoyance. His limbs still shook with fear, but his mind was too tired to bother. The gryphon jerked its head around to the base of its wing, snorting impatiently. It wanted him to look at its wing. He did not want to look at its wing. However, with the great forepaws on either side of him and only the sheer cliff face behind, he didn’t have much choice.

   It keened again, petulantly.

   The wind nipped at Icanthus’s very bones, making his fingers feel like dry twigs and his feet turn into lumps of useless stone. The gryphon huffed again in soft impatience, and the gust of warm air washed over him like an all-too fleeting taste of heaven–if, that was, heaven smelled faintly of freshly slaughtered meat.

   “Don’t eat me,” Icanthus ordered, taking a step forward. He had to climb over its great forelimb to get close to its wing, and it shifted–ever so slightly–as he did. Iron-hard muscle rippled under him, and needles of visceral caution prickled inside his chest. The attractive option of running away as fast as he could tripped briefly across his mind. 

   Then he saw the creature’s side.

   “Oh. Oh, gods,” he whispered.

   He’d thought that the smell of meat had been on the beast’s breath. It had only made sense.

   But there, not quite hidden under a wing that had lost a good chunk of its feathers–

he couldn’t see it well, in the dark, but the smell turned his stomach. Great patches painted black, sticky and gelatinous to the touch, trailing tatters of skin and fur. The gryphon trembled when his hand came too near it, and Icanthus didn’t blame him. The wounds on his own back were a pinprick, a parchment slice, compared to this.

   “What did this?” He asked. The gryphon only stared back at him, dull gold eyes alive with expressionless personality.

   Who did this,” he amended, looking at the sick mess. He almost wiped his face with his hand, then realized there was blood on it, and let it down again. The beast shifted with a soft noise of pain, and Icanthus wanted, suddenly, to do something.

   “I don’t know anything about doctoring,” he said aloud. Partly to the creature. Partly to himself. The only thing he knew about doctoring was that it involved hot water and bandages, and he had niether.

   A sharp wind blew along the cliffs, and he shrugged his shoulders into his cloak absentmindedly.

   Then he thought again, and fingered the soft, thin fabric for a moment.

   The gryphon blinked at him, slowly, as he took the cloak from around his shoulders and began to tear it into strips.

   “You’d better appreciate this,” Icanthus mumbled, through chattering teeth.

   When he finally tied the last ugly knot on the makeshift bandage, his fingers had gone mercifully numb. To make up for it, sharp pains were jabbing from his knuckles up to his wrists at every movement. He stepped back, wrapping ice-cold arms around his stone-cold chest. The cloak had not been warm, but it had been keeping him from freezing completely. The gryphon turned its head to nuzzle at its freshly covered wounds, curious.

   “You’re w-welcome,” Icanthus said. He was feeling snappish, and felt as though he had a right to.

  With a throaty rumble, the beast swung around, pressing its head into Icanthus’s chest. Warm breath huffed softly around his feet. Surprised, Icanthus reached up a cautious hand to stroke the rough fur on the creature’s forehead. With a rumble of pleasure, it pressed his head into Icanthus’s hand, then shook free and licked his arm.

   “Ow! Stop that,” Icanthus protested, flinching away. The gryphon’s tongue was sharp as a razor. A lot of razors.

   Abruptly, the gryphon’s happy rumbling stopped. It looked up, staring out into the blackness beyond the moonlit cliffs. Mouth half-open, it huffed at the air. Icanthus realized, with an odd sense of shock, just how huge and wild and dangerous the creature was. It rose slowly to its four paws, and he took a step back, remembering to be afraid.


   The gryphon turned on him, looking at him with dark, animal eyes. Then it made that keening sound again–soft and almost friendly–and bent down again, extending a paw to him.

Icanthus, with only half a sense of what it wanted him to do, took another step back and the beast huffed with impatience. It stood and lumbered up to him, and Icanthus was paralyzed by the thing’s very hugeness.

   He remained so until it reached down and clamped its teeth over the back of his shirt. It picked him up, kitten-like, and Icanthus suddenly realized just how fond he was of having his feet on the ground.

   “Hey!” he shouted at the creature. “Stop! What–”

   It let him go, and he dropped heavily into the soft fur of its back. There was a man-sized hollow where the creature’s wings met the space between his shoulder blades, and Icanthus’s half-formed plan to clamber off its back began to lose its luster as the beast’s warmth began to seep into his own frozen bones. Its wings folded like shutters over him, keeping out the wind, and Icanthus blinked. The gryphon started walking, but he couldn’t get himself to care whether it took him across the mountains or back to the tramping soldiers who hunted him. He was warm.

And in another moment, he was asleep.

*   *   *

   Voices woke him. Icanthus burrowed deeper into a bed of fur, not wanting to wake up. The world was too bright and too loud to do anything in it but sleep. 

    His eyes opened, and he stared up at the golden light that drifted through his roof of feathers, listened to the rough voices that surrounded them both. Daylight. And people. He froze, digging his fingers into the gryphon’s fur and praying that whoever surrounded them would leave. Soon. Or that the beast would live up to his fearsome looks and chase them off.

   Instead, the treacherous creature sat down. Still weak-limbed from sleep, Icanthus’s grip failed him; he tumbled bruisingly down its back and into blinding morning sunlight. Something large loomed between him and the light. Icanthus squinted at it. A rough face, bearded and scarred with eyes as clear as shattered glass, squinted back at him.

   “Aye, Decimas. What big lice the beast’s got.”

   Icanthus stared up at the face, and edged away until he felt the gryphon’s solid bulk against his back. He was surrounded by amused faces and men with weapons in their belts, and he could feel the slave-tattoos like a firebrand on his skin. These were not soldiers. Somehow, the fact failed to make him hopeful.

   “Look at his wounds!” someone exclaimed. “It’s a wonder that he’s alive.”

   “Alive and fighting. He’s brought us a bounty,” someone else said, from nearby. “We’ll get some coin, I think, for a runaway slave.” 

   Tired or not, Icanthus’s hands fisted and he jumped to his feet. His legs trembled under him, and he felt the hopelessness of running like an abyss in his chest. Bitter bile in his mouth, he cursed the gryphon, cursed it.

    The man called Decimas was looking at him bemusedly, and in the midst of hating him, Icanthus saw that the gryphon wasn’t the only wounded one. Decimas was covered in cuts and bruises, and held himself carefully, as though some unseen wound pained him.

   Looking around at the gathered company, Icanthus realized that no one was walking undamaged. The clothes the men wore were worn thin and ragged by long use, and often stained with blood. For all the weapons in their hands and the swagger in their words, these were men who had suffered defeat recently, and not a clean one. Which made them at once ten times more pitiable and a thousand times more dangerous.


   With a great, comfortable huff, the gryphon shrugged his wings and began to clean one of his paws.

   “Tom, go get Hemas.” Decimas said, and the bearded man who’d called Icanthus a louse straightened up.

   “You’re certain? He’ll be asleep by now.”

  “I know. He’ll want to see the beast.”

  Tom left.

   “That,” Decimas turned his attention back to Icanthus, “And we’ll need him to figure out what to do with you.”

   The gryphon seemed more than content to sit and lick his paws. Icanthus backed against the beast as much as he dared, seeking a dim idea of protection from the prying eyes around him. Closed in on himself and wondering dully about his fate, he did not hear the faint rustling of movement and voices to one side of the human circle. He didn’t notice anything until the gryphon suddenly got to its feet–a sudden, careless movement that sent Icanthus half-sprawling.

The beast was keening joyfully. Icanthus turned, blinked, and saw a man. Tall and dark, with hollows under his eyes and a caution in placing weight on his left leg, he was grinning up at the great beast like a prisoner might grin at a glimpse of sky. The gryphon bent its head to him, pressing into the man’s chest, keening and purring by turns. The man, obviously tired and in pain, nonetheless reached up a hand, knotting it in the creature’s fur.

   “Aye, and you’re back to us,” he half-whispered. “You’re back, Cornibus.”

   “And he’s brought us a gift,” Decimas called out, aiming a pointed nod at Icanthus, who was now alone in the midst of the horde of men. The tall, shadowy man glanced up, his gaze crossing Icanthus with a faintness of feeling belonging to the very sick and the very tired.

   “A man?” he asked, with evident confusion.

   “A slave, and a thief too, if my guess is right,” Decimas said, with harsh practicality. “He must’ve tried to steal Sir Giant here, and was stolen himself.”

   Icanthus was indignant.

   “I didn’t steal anything.” Not even a slightly thicker cloak from his master’s house, when his master was a man not worth what a camel could spit. He’d taken what was his and nothing else. “He found me and he all but sat on me until I bandaged his side. I thought he was going to eat me.”

   This brought a flicker of a smile to the tall man’s face, followed by a frown as he stepped back, checking the gryphon over.

   Decimas was less amused. “Ah, yes,” he said in a careless deadpan. “And you were so terrified of this monster–” he gestured to Cornibus, who was purring loudly and trying to lick the Hemas’s face– “–That you decided to sit on his back. Or did he make you do that too?”

   “Actually,” Icanthus began.

   Behind him, there was a thick inhalation of breath, almost a hiss, that drew Decimas’s attention and Icanthus’s along with it. They both found Hemas, looking at what Icanthus knew to be the gryphon’s wounded side with an expression of consternation. He looked up, finding Icanthus’s eyes and holding them with an odd kind of magnetism.

    “You did this?” he asked. Icanthus, thinking at first that he meant the bloody mess, shook his head vehemently.

   “No, it was like that when–oh, the bandages. I did those. They’re not very good, I didn’t know what I was doing.”

   Hemas went back to studying them, crooning softly over the beast, petting it as though he could heal the creature by touch alone. Icanthus realized, with an odd sense of space, that the surrounding hooligans had trickled off, one by one, to settle around campfires, talking in low tones. It was a largish camp, and Icanthus didn’t stand a chance of running, even with no one watching him. Decimas was looming over him, anyway, standing with the mountains at his back like a posse of armed guards, keeping Icanthus from the Robber King’s lands.

   “We’re going to have to sell this lump, I’m afraid. I know you don’t like it, Hemas, but with the losses we’ve taken…” Decimas began, but Icanthus stopped listening, looking instead at the mountains, at the glitter of sunlight along their peaks, and feeling an odd tearing in his soul between the wild dreamer who longed to be free, and a dull, practical, half-human thing that, though hardly himself, was likely to survive for a very long time as a slave. He was too tired to feel anything very definite about the division, except that he didn’t like it and he couldn’t do a thing about it.

   “Need their feed–mutiny otherwise–” Decimas was droning, and Icanthus realized that the mountains looked wrong. In a sudden, wild flash of inspiration, he realized that they looked wrong because he was on the wrong side of them.

   He snapped his gaze back to the camp. A robber’s camp, and–he looked sharply at Hemas, whose tired eyes avoided his own–a robber king. Icanthus had done it. He’d crossed the mountains, and he was exactly where he’d set out to be.

   And the Robber King, champion of the poor and downtrodden, was going to sell him.

   Hemas seemed to have been taking in Decimas’s words, but his gaze had never left Cornibus’s side. Finally, as Decimas’s twelve-part presentation finished hammering out in excruciating, convincing detail exactly why Icanthus should be sold, Hemas looked up. Without hope, Icanthus had nonetheless gained a great deal of last-minute insight. Hemas was the Robber King. He looked so like the legends painted him, and yet so unlike. Like a statue battered by time, or simply a man drained by weariness. He looked at Icanthus for a moment–judging just how small a bag of coins he was worth, probably–and then to Decimas.

   “No,” he said.

   The same word lifted Icanthus’s head that slumped Decimas’s shoulders.

   “Sir, the men need–”

   “Food. I know, Decimas. We’re all hungry.”

   Decimas pressed. 

   “For food, we need money. And for money–”

   “One slave won’t fetch enough in any market to feed the whole camp, Decimas. Ten slaves wouldn’t. We will find food, or we will starve, but we will not sell anyone.”

   Decimas was quiet, and Icanthus felt his hopes, which had been slowly sinking into a pit of muck, somehow rise out of it all, dripping and dirty, but whole. It was a great deal more than he had expected. He looked up at the tall, reedlike figure, uncaring as Decimas stumped off in a huff, muttering about idiot ideals and fool’s dinners. 

   Hemas followed the man’s shoulders with his gaze for a moment, then dropped it once again to Icanthus. Dark eyes, but bright. Almost fever-bright, and the way he held himself did not seem entirely healthy, but the set of his mouth was kind enough. Icanthus didn’t dare look away.


   “It’s cold on the mountains at night,” The Robber King commented. “Not many would dare take the cloak from their shoulders. Certainly not to bind the wounds of a beast.”

   Icanthus didn’t know what to say.

   “You’re sure–the money–” he finally began, confusedly.

   “Quite sure. You’re free, boy, welcome to stay or go. Though if you stay, I warn you, you’ll be hungry. Food is scarce in the mountains these days.”

   Cornibus made a low rumble of assent, and ruffled his feathers. Icanthus stared at him, able to think only of the twin facts that the Robber King needed money, and that the Robber King was not going to sell him.

   “Aye, food is scarce.” Hemas said, patting Cornibus’s head softly.

   “But, then again–so are bandages.”

 

Enjoy this story? There’s more where it came from. 

Why not take one of these tales out for a spin?

Desert

Saphed Maut

Land of Ghosts

 

Jester

   

Her name was Jester; but she had the look of a sea-dragon. 

It was not the first time Theophilus Quinn had thought this. The scarlet fanned sails with their wingish ribs made the analogy inevitable. But after the years he’d captained her, Quinn knew Jester better than most, and she was a dragon in every sense of the word. She sliced through the water with the skill of a sea-serpent, hunting her prey with fire in her belly and dagger-teeth in the hands of every crewman, gorging herself on gold and captives alike. Iron-armored hull. Red-silk wings. A love of treasure to rival any fairy-tale drake.

   Theophilus smiled, feeling the well-worn deck undulating under his hooves, and took a deep breath of salt air. His dragon.

Captain Quinn

   “Perhaps we’ll find some plunder for you today, eh girl?” he said, laying a hand on the ship’s side.

   “Is the port bow getting a share now?” a purring, lazy voice said behind him. “I’m jealous.”

   He turned to find his first mate looking at him with cool amusement. Sphynx had a knack for hearing everything she wasn’t meant to hear, and nothing that she was.

   “Yes,” Quinn replied seriously, as Sphynx padded forward on lion paws to join him. “I’ve been recalculating the shares based on who does the most work around here, so I’m giving her yours.”

   A smile fluttered across Sphynx’s face.

   “Ahh,” she said. “Keep it up, Captain, and you may develop a reputation for wit.”

   “Develop?” Quinn returned, with appropriate indignation. Sphynx folded her wings against her tawny back in a kind of delicate shrug, staring out into space and yet somehow completely present. Half-human as she was, there was a lionish, indifferent grace even to her human half.

   “One witty comeback out of two attempts,” she noted. “Better than usual.”

   The base of Quinn’s horns began to itch, and he scratched them irritably, stamping a hoof on the solid wood of the deck. He squinted at Sphynx.

   You’re a witty comeback.”

   Her ethereal smile widened.

   “Why. Thank you, captain.”

Sphynx.

   With a sigh of defeat, Quinn looked out to sea as well. The shore of Griza, a small and relatively ill-armed nation squashed between the larger countries of Sykar and Bresh, was just visible on the horizon. Quinn didn’t like venturing so close to lawful shores, but Jester had been out to deep sea for some months with little action and less plunder. The legend of the Jester and her crew had risen quickly, swept across the sea–and frightened enough traders off the open ocean that it seemed like to strangle itself.

   “That merchantman yesterday had a smuggler’s hold somewhere.” Sphynx said, as if following his thoughts. “We could have looked for it.”

   “Yes,” Quinn admitted. “And judging by the state of that ship, it might have held a penny’s worth of old rugs. Besides, he wasn’t about to give it up without a fight, and did you really feel like running a poor old man through?”

   Sphynx looked at him askance.

   “Perhaps not so drastic as that. Still, I wasn’t exactly about to gift him with a purse of gold either.”

   Quinn stiffened. He’d been so sure no one had seen that.

   “It was from my own share.”

   “As if I wouldn’t know that.” Her tone was one of easy dismissal. “But a warning, all the same; keep that up, and you may develop a reputation for compassion. That is far less desirable than a reputation for wit.”

   Quinn turned to find her golden eyes looking directly at him for once. Half-mesmerized by them, he attempted, without success, to form a reply.

   Thankfully, they were interrupted by Mixen, one of the crewmen, zipping between them on miniature pixie wings.

   “Sail to Second Hour, off starboard!” his pitchy voice shouted at them. “Looks rich too, Cap’n. Kingdom vessel, I’d say, and probably lost.”

   “No escort?” Sphynx asked.

   “None!” the pixie chirped in cheerful affirmation. “I say we go at ‘em with bloody cutlasses!”

   This was punctuated by a flourish of a sword as large as a toothpick. Behind Mixen’s back, Sphynx raised a single eyebrow. Her comments on his reputation still rankled, and Quinn gave the pixie a devilish grin.

   “Raise the flag, Mixen. Bloody cutlasses it is.”

*   *   *

   As it turned out, the flag was somewhat too large for Mixen to manage, and Horace the hawk-man had to raise it instead. But the flag was raised, and that was all the mattered as Jester’s sails were punched taut by a sudden turn into the current of the wind, and the sea-dragon of a ship flew over the water, speeding towards its slowpoke prey.

   “That is a royal ship,” Quinn said when the thing was slightly larger than a breadbox on the horizon. “But not Grizan royalty. It looks like…”

   “Sykar?” Sphynx, just back from rallying the crew into fighting order, suggested.

   “Perhaps–any particular reason for that guess?”

   “The name. Sea Centaur?

   Centaurs. The proudest beings on the planet. And thankfully for Quinn, some of the richest.

   “That would definitely be Sykar,” he said, in a swing of good humor. “Your eyes are better than mine. I’m surprised it wasn’t subtitled, ‘P.S. This belongs to Sykar.”

   Sphynx snorted. “They probably wrote that on the far side.”

   A smile snaked across Quinn’s face, then disappeared as he watched the ship. It was anchored, careless of their approach.

    Jester slowed, then stopped, bumping lightly against the Sea Centaur’s side.

   Half-planned war cries died in throats as the pirate crew, Quinn at their head, stepped gingerly onto the over-quiet ship. Not a single sailor was visible on the decks. No yellow plague banners fluttered from the masts to give its apparent abandonment a reason.

   “Did it…sail off on its own?” a faun asked, after a few moments.

   “Don’t be an idiot.” Horace the hawk-man replied, incredibly articulate for someone who had to speak through a beak. “Ghosts sailed it. Now that we’ve boarded, we’re all dead.”

   “Shut up, the both of you,” Sphynx hissed. “Captain’s thinking.”

   Quinn was tapping his fingers thoughtfully.

   “Actually,” he ventured, “I’m listening. You all hear that?”

   Everyone stopped, blinked, and pretended to listen.

   “Voices,” Quinn explained. “That way.”

   With a blustering, half-timorous crew behind him, Captain Quinn set off in the direction of the cabin. One mighty kick from one of his hooves, and the door flew open. Someone screamed.

   “Oh, what is it now?” another voice  grumbled. 

   Inside the cabin, a huge centaur and a tall but stick-thin elf were standing on opposite sides of a table mounded with paper and ink-pots. One of the ink-pots had fallen on the floor, making the whole cabin smell like a printer’s shop.

   “Don’t tell me,” the centaur said, resting himself lazily against the desk. “You’re here to sell baked goods.”

   Quinn had been about to say something suitably threatening, but his mouth closed in surprise. He would have made some kind of lordly retort, but the centaur was talking to the wide-eyed elf now.

   “Or is this a mighty band of fearsome warriors, here to assassinate me?”

   “Of course not!” the elf snapped, drawing himself up to his full delicate height. “This bunch of jokers is much more in your line.”

   Ever the enthusiast, Mixen flew into the cabin and brandished his toothpick wildly.

   “That’s Jesters to you!” he roared. Or, he tried to roar. His warlike mein might well have been terrifying to another pixie, but to the gathered company, it was rather too squeaky to strike terror into anyone. The centaur even went so far as to raise his eyebrows.

   “Hold on a moment,” the elf said. “Did you actually hire jesters? I know you’re not taking this discussion seriously, Lucius, but really–”

   I’m not taking this seriously?”the centaur, evidently called Lucius, boomed. “you’re the one who keeps quoting his grandmother!”

   At this the elf only drew himself up higher.

   “I will have you know that my grandmother is an esteemed philosopher with many apropos insights–”

   “To Hades with your grandmother! You’re a king, man! Kings don’t listen to their grandmothers!”

   “MAN?” the elf spluttered. “Are you downgrading to plain insults now?”

   Quinn realized with a small jolt that he and his fearsome crew had been forgotten. While he did not, perhaps, enjoy the customary terror of a vessel’s inhabitants upon realizing that that they were faced with legendary pirates, he realized suddenly that he’d grown accustomed to it.

   Being ignored was discomfiting. In fact, he resented it.

   The elf, half-way through a particularly sizzling jibe, suddenly realized that a sword was being held to his throat.

   And I–ah–hmm,” he coughed, looking at Quinn as though suddenly deciding to take in the meaning of his appearance–the scarlet lines inked over his face, the rings of stolen gold and silver haphazardly twisted to hang from his ears, his satyr’s horns etched with the symbols of the Thieves’ Guild. Then his eyes flickered to Mixen, whose tiny blade was tarnished with use, and Sphynx, with her blood-splattered coat and unsheathed claws.

   Lucius was slower to realize what was going on.

   “Bravo, goat-boy! Been wanting to do that all evening, but there aren’t any weapons allowed on this bloody ship, under the rules of the…”

   And at that point he stopped, realizing that there were, in fact, weapons on the ship–and none of them were in his hands. This balance of power was new to him, and it provided Quinn with a silence that was his to break. He grinned.

   “Allow me to introduce myself, gentlemen. I am Theophilus Quinn, captain of the Jester. This is my crew.” Quinn spoke quietly, but evenly. He’d never quite got the hang of officious shouting, and the calm tone seemed to carry more authority anyway.

   Of course, the sword helped too.

   The centaur’s eyes narrowed.

   “Quinn.” he stamped a heavy hoof, rattling the floorboards. “The pirate. I have sworn to bring you to justice.”

   “As have I!” the elf declared, glaring in turn, and Theophilus grinned further.

   “If ‘justice’ is shorthand for having me publicly dismembered, then allow me to wish you both the most tragic of failures,” he said, with a bow.

   “Ah, Captain?” squeaked a voice. “I think I know what’s going on.”

   Mixen was struggling to pull something free from the stack of papers on the table, and with a nod to Sphynx and Horace to watch their two captives, Quinn strode over to join him.

   “Have a look at this, captain.” Mixen delivered the paper into Quinn’s hands, and Quinn scowled at it. It was once been scribed over in excellent calligraphy, most of which was scratched out or blotted over. Only the superscript remained legible. It read,

   ‘Being a Treatie Betweene King Lucius Amon of Sykar and Lorde Berwen of Bresh’

   Quinn raised his brows, and Mixen was jittering with excitement.

   “Kings, Cap’n, both of ‘em!” he said. “I’ve searched the ship for gold and there’s none, but–they don’t call a fortune a king’s ransom for nothing!”

   Quinn was thinking.

   “Horace, what do you remember about the protocols for a legal parley?” the hawk-man had been a lawyer once. He blinked once at the odd question, but listed off the facts dutifully.

   “Must be held on neutral territory, with only the two parties involved present…no arms or men of war within fifteen miles. Or maybe fifty miles.” He shrugged. “Why d’ye ask, Cap?”

   Quinn caught a knowing glance from Sphynx, and grinned. She already knew. Whether it was fifteen miles or fifty, it hardly mattered; the Jester could fly free of this place in heartbeat, with better plunder than any pirate had ever claimed before.

   “There’s no gold for us on this ship,” he announced, and watched his crew deflate at the familiar news.

   “No, we have something better than gold. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have captured a pair of kings.”

*   *   *

   Amidst the ruckus of cheers, Quinn heard the plaintive voice of Lord Berwen.

   “Wonderful work, Lucius. You’ve gone and gotten us captured by pirates.”

   “This is my fault?”

   “Well, if you hadn’t insisted on a royal ship!–”

   Quinn smiled. Their bickering would quiet down soon enough, he wagered. No one could keep up a fierce argument for more than an hour or two.

   Five hours later.

   “Captain,” Horace said wearily. “Please tell me I can just conk them over the head so they’ll stop.”

   The voices of Lord Berwen and King Lucius were audible even on deck. Both locked in the brig, they had begun by trying to discern whose fault it was that they had both been kidnapped by pirates. This had taken them into a deep discussion of their respective countries’ methods of boat-building, and from there Quinn had lost the train of thought. At the moment, they seemed to be occupied with insulting one another’s great-aunts.

   “You could,” Sphynx purred, “But then we’d have to execute you for mutiny.”

   Quinn turned in time to see Horace’s feathers ruffle.

   “I assure you, captain, I meant no–” he began to stutter, but Quinn waved a hand.

  “Never mind, Horace. Sphynx enjoys morbid jokes.”

  “We could always try separating them again.”

   “And have them shouting insults across the entire ship? At least now they’re relatively quiet.”

   YOUR GREAT-AUNT BERTHA WAS A TASTELESS HAG!” a voice belowdecks bellowed.

   Quinn sighed. “Relatively.”

   “Captain!” a blur of wings squeaked, flickering down from the mast-tops. “Sail on the horizon!”

   Sphynx’s brow furrowed.

   “Coming to bargain already? We haven’t even sent out our list of demands yet.”

   At the suggestion, Horace’s dejected countenance transformed into one of the purest joy.

   Quinn sympathized.

   “Perhaps they’ve simply noticed that their kings have disappeared,” he offered, as Horace began a wild dance of victory across the deck.

   Sphynx looked at the fast-approaching sail and cocked a doubtful eyebrow. “Perhaps.”

   “In any case, we’ll only find out what they want once they’ve approached.”

   “Sage observation. Best to look dignified and intimidating, eh?” she looked out over the ship and roared, “Horace! Stop baltering about and roll out some cannons!”

   The approaching craft turned out to be less of a ship, and more of a boat. It drifted toward the Jester with all the caution of a kitten approaching a tiger. There were soldiers on deck, dressed in a drab mess of several different uniforms–Sykurian and Bresh alike, with a Grizan or two mixed in for good measure. Add in an official-looking minotaur and his two satyr attendants, and the boat was well crowded.

   Quinn had intended to speak first, but the minotaur evidently had no time for pleasantries. He adjusted his spectacles and peered up in the vague direction of Sphynx.

   “So! Is it done?” he shouted, in a voice that had taken on a bureaucratic reediness in spite of his massive form.

   There was a very long list of questions that, under the circumstances, Quinn might have expected. This was not one of them.

   He frowned down at the minotaur quizzically.

   “Is what done?”

   “Don’t mess with me!” the minotaur said, sweeping the spectacles from his face and glaring up at the ship. “You know what we agreed. Are they dead?”

   “I don’t know–what? Is who dead?”

   “King Lucius!” a Sykurian soldier burst out, stepping out of ranks.

   “And Lord Berwen!” an elven archer joined in, stepping free as well.

   One of the satyrs was desperately trying to get the minotaur’s attention, but the minotaur only brushed him away.

   “We have paid you handsomely to eliminate those two embarrassments, and handed them to you on a practical silver platter, so–oh, for heavens sake what is it?

   This last bit was hissed to the nervous attendant, who whispered into the minotaur’s ears as he directed wild gesticulations at Jester

   “Oh,” the minotaur said, replacing his spectacles and squinting at the gold-lettered name on the ship’s side.  “Apologies, my friends, but you seem to be the wrong batch of pirates. Have you seen Captain Barrow of the Breakwater Saint anywhere?”

   Quinn blinked. Every soldier had been happily nodding at the minotaur’s chilling speech of treason.

   How were they supposed to hold two kings for ransom if no one wanted them back?

   He would have simply given them back, glad to be rid of their bickering whether he turned a profit or not, but if their own countrymen wanted them dead–

   It looked as though the royals would be staying aboard Jester a while longer.

   Unless.

   Half a plan was formed in Theophilus’s mind, and he snatched it up eagerly.

   Setting a rakish hoof against the ship’s rail and resting a lazy elbow on his knee, Quinn pretended to pick something out of his teeth.

   “Captain Barrow, eh?” he said. “As a matter of fact, I have seen him. I’d love to say he said ‘hello’, but there was a bit more screaming than talking at our meeting. Unpleasant business, but…” he trailed off, shrugged. “These are my waters. Can’t have trespassers now, can I?” he grinned down on the minotaur, who seemed nervous. “So, you’ve killed your kings, eh? Good for you. I’ve always fancied killing a king. Or being one.”

   He turned to Sphynx. “D’ye suppose there’s a vacancy for ‘king’ anywhere around here?”

   “Hmm,” the minotaur said, now looking decidedly uncomfortable. “How lovely. I wish you the best, sir Jester, but desire to take up no more than is absolutely necessary of your precious time–”

   “Hold on!” Quinn said, as though striking upon an original thought. “You’ll be needing a king, won’t you?”

   This halted the slowly retreating little ship in its wake. Everyone on board had the sense to look nervous now.

   “Actually, we were thinking about starting a unified oligarchy,” the minotaur posed, quaveringly.

   “What?” the elven archer interrupted, before Quinn had a chance. “I thought we were going to be a capitalistic democracy.”

   “I wished to return to the ways of our ancestors!” a Sykurian soldier shouted, stomping a hoof. 

   “Communism!”

   “Republic!”

   “Anarchy!”

   “Hmm,” Quinn said, tapping his chin. “It seems you really do need a king–to organize you. And to, ah…what else do kings do?” he turned to Sphynx, who was wearing an edged smile.

   “Collect taxes, mostly. And build roads,” she supplied.

   “Taxes!” Quinn declared. “Ah, yes, lots of those. And was it building roads, or building tolls on roads?”

   “Oh, certainly tolls. That’s what I meant, of course.”

   “Of course,” Quinn turned to the now quite jittery boatload of citizens with a magnanimous grin. “Being king’s a difficult job, but I’m more than happy to offer my assistance.”

   The minotaur blinked up at the ship, its looming cannons, and the sword-bearing pirate crew, and thought with a flash of rare insight that he had exchanged two simple fools for one cruel tyrant. If he had not yet considered the Jester as a sort of metaphorical sea serpent, he certainly did now; and he felt her coils wrapping, inescapable, around his throat.

   Then–like the voice of a saint from the grave–the song of a bird from midwinter–he heard a familiar voice, crying:

   “I do not bake moldy muffins!”

   The slumped shoulders of the elven archers straightened.

   “They taste as though you made them out of rubbish-heap findings and acorn shells!” shouted a second voice, and the Sykurians raised their heads and swished their tails.

   “With your tastes, that’s a compliment!”

   “We’re saved!” the minotaur shouted. “Sir Pirate, we have no need of a new king–ours are right there, alive on your ship!”

   Taking on an appearance of offense, Quinn huffed.

   “If you want them back, you’ll have to pay for them,” he said, folding his arms.

   The minotaur beamed.

  “Anything!”

  Epilogue

   “Your share,” Sphynx said, padding into Quinn’s cabin and plopping a bag of gold coins on his desk. He looked up at it, then at her.

   “Not bad for an evening’s work.” He put down his pen and spectacles. The ship’s log lay open on the table, the entry for the day still blank.

   “Not bad at all,” Sphynx yawned, sitting gracefully and wrapping her tail around her paws. She stretched her wings, folded them, and Quinn realized that he was paying unwonted attention to her magnificently glossy feathers.

   “Perhaps even…good,” she admitted, as he forcibly refocused on her face.

   “Good enough to earn that reputation for wit?” he was attempting a devilish grin, but she wasn’t in a gaming mood, for once.

   “For a second, I thought you were going to actually try out being a king.”

   Quinn snorted.

  “Fearsome thought, eh?”

   She stood up as gracefully as she’d sat down. “I think you would have made a good king.” She ruffled her feathers, announcing the conversation over.

   “But a better pirate?” Quinn asked as she began to stalk out the door, putting a small cough at the end of his words to hide the stutter that had begun them, and Sphynx halted, looking over her shoulder with a small smile.

   “Just don’t spend all that on pitiable old merchants,” she said.

Mixen.

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Justice and Sandwiches

Bazar-Tek and the Lonely Knight

Of Stolen Gold and Princesses

Desert

   For once, Micah was not worth robbing. In spite of the oppressive heat, that fact brought a spring to his step.

   The floor of the wadi was cracked and sizzling, the sky in one of its dry-season moodss–clear and blue as the season demanded, but dully so. Underneath it, the world held nothing but golden dust and heat-gnarled vegetation. It was a day over which the sun ruled like a tyrant, to worship or shake a fist at, as inclination dictated.

Micah.

   But Micah already had a God to worship, and he had never been much of a fist-shaker. He trotted along the wadi floor in happy oblivion, kicking up dust that stained his coat, swishing his tail at imagined flies.

   Thieves’ Valley was not a popular road–or, really, a road at all. He liked it for its very loneliness. Soldiers and tax officers avoided it because of the lions and robbers; for his part, Micah preferred the lions and the robbers. They, at least, only bothered you when they were hungry.

   Micah was close to home, and glad of it, but there was enough daylight left to take his time in getting there.

   As a point of fact, there was a little too much daylight. It was blindingly bright, and when Micah saw a stand of wind-weathered trees ahead large enough to promise a patch of shade, he made for them. A moment’s rest, a drink from his water-skin, a moment of thought and leisure away from the midday glare before being on his way again.

   He would be home before sunset.

*   *   *

   Aureus fought to keep his eyes open to the blinding, hellish light. Take one painful breath in. One painful breath out. Focus on the faintly waving branches over his head.  Every lungful of air was like a stab in his side.

   Flies zithered around his head, crawled on his side to feed off the blood that was drying on his fur. He brushed them away angrily.

  Wait until I’m dead.

   In this heat, it wouldn’t be long.

   The fire in his veins might have been rage or a spreading sickness. He fostered it, whichever it was–the rage might keep him alive. The sickness would help him finally die.

   A light skritching of small hooves across the thirsty ground made Aureus go still. Waiting.

  Had they decided to finish him? Gathered what scraps of barbaric honor this country held to give him a soldier’s death, after all?

   Pulling his fingers to a tighter grip on his sword, he bit his tongue as he gathered his legs to stand. He’d killed one of their kind before. He’d kill another before they were able to finish him.

   He would die fighting.

   The hooves came closer, and he waited for the stranger to round the scrub.

*   *   *

   The waterless heat had yet to kill the trees. Light green leaves hung like defeated flags from the grey branches, and Micah reached up to brush his fingers against them, wondering at the spark of color in the faded white-grey world.

   Unbidden, a patch of the tree’s shade took form and lurched at him with a gutteral growl.

  Startled half out of his skin, Micah stumbled back and heard the sharp hiss of a swung blade as it missed his throat. He scrambled away from the shadow-beast and into the sunlight, slipping on the dusty ground.

   The beast gurgled, towered over him briefly, and collapsed into the dirt, landing hard mere feet from where it had leapt up.

   Micah’s skin was still prickling with fear, hearts pounding hard, but he didn’t run. He snorted and stamped a hoof as the thing made another low noise of pain. 

   It was a soldier. Slick with sweat, stained with dirt and blood, but with a military cut to his tail and a short sword gripped in his fist. His legs had twisted under him oddly in the fall, and he glared up at Micah, making no attempt to rise again. Belatedly, Micah saw the dark sprays of red soaking the ground, hidden in the shadows of the trees and dripping in discomfiting amounts from a nasty-looking wound in the soldier’s belly. A thick scent of gore hung in the air, and Micah felt ill.

“Come to finish me?”

   “Come to finish me?” the soldier’s accent was thick and foreign, but easily recognizable. Hermean. The conquerors of the world, pompous even when they were bleeding half to death.

   “Do it,” his voice was dry, and it cracked into a snarl. The blade he held was wavering, but sticky with congealing blood that Micah guessed was not the soldier’s. “Do it if you dare!”

   “Ai, calm down. Calm down,” he raised his hands, placating. “I didn’t see you.”

   The soldier looked skeptical, but the bloody blade lowered, a fraction less ready to hack him limb from limb.

   “Ach, what happened to you?” Micah took a step forward–gingerly due to the sword still held ready to take off his head. The soldier watched him, equally wary. Kneeling uneasily at the man’s side, Micah peered at the wound. It was long, running the length of the soldier’s stomach, and bleeding badly. “Get attacked by a pack of lions?”

   The soldier snorted. “Just a Jackal.”

  “You’re lucky your guts didn’t spill out. This is deep.”

   A deeper wound than any jackal could have managed, but that was no business of Micah’s. He rifled half-helplessly through his bag for something to staunch the bleeding, there was only his water-skin, half-empty, and the cloth satchel itself. It was dirt-ridden and rough, but it would have to do. With a calculating glance at the wound, he began to tear the satchel into strips.

   The soldier watched him as he worked, eyeing the bandaging as though to judge it.

   “You’re a healer?” he asked, as Micah carefully laid the makeshift bandage over the worst of the wound. Concentrating on his task, he shook his head.

   “Silver merchant.”

   The soldier grimaced. “Ah.”

   Blood was already seeping through the bandage, but Micah fancied that it was flowing more slowly as he tied off the last strips of cloth. Not as slowly as he would have liked, though.

   “We should get you to a healer as soon as we can.” He looked uncertainly at the man’s legs, twisted and eerily still. The soldier laughed without any hint of humor.

   “Broken,” he said. Micah’s stomach twisted.

   “Ah,” eying the soldier’s bulk, Micah wondered if he was up to the weary task of carrying it.

   “The name’s Aureus, by the way,” the soldier said, interrupting his thoughts. Leaning his head back on the scrubbish tree-trunks, he gave Micah an appraising look.

   The blazingly Hermean name shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It wasn’t a surprise, exactly–but Micah still looked up at the soldier with new eyes, considering the fact that he was one of the ten thousand marching swords who had come to conquer and to kill, one of the arrogant red-cloaked penny-pinchers who had chopped the land into counties and sub-counties, building their traffic-heavy tax-racked roads and sitting petty governors in the seats of kings.

   A flare of fiery and not unfamiliar anger stole into his heart, and Micah stuffed it down with practiced ease.

   “Micah,” he offered, stretching out a hand. “And I may not be a medic, but I do know a bit about splinting broken limbs.”

   He looked up at the spreading tree above them both. “There’s a tree like this outside my forge, and there’s always some young rapscallion or other trying to climb it–and falling out of it, more often than not. Sometimes I think I make more splints than chalices.”

   Catching a glimpse of what he wanted in the midst of the tree leaves, he jumped for it. The dead branch jostled drily, but did not come loose, and he tugged at it, willing the thing to break free.

   Aureus watched him.

   “Why not cut the tree down?”

   There was a resounding snap as the tree branch finally gave way, and Micah caught it before it fell on the soldier’s skull.

    “Excuse me?”

   “Cut it down.” Aureus repeated, brushing a wayward leaf from his hair. “No tree, no climbing. No climbing, no broken bones. No broken bones–more chalices.”

   Micah frowned.

    “I never thought of that,” he said with a shrug, managing to make it sound as though the soldier had had a novel and intelligent idea. In truth, Micah had no more thought of that solution than he would have seriously considered killing the birds that woke him five minutes too early every morning. Working the fallen branch into a usable splint, he quietly reveled in the utter coldness of the over-logicked mind of Hermeans. They were the type of men who cut down trees for the sick sake of convenience, who probably would kill a bird that dared interfere with their strict schedule. They were not the kind of men Micah wanted ruling the world–whatever their emperor’s ambitions.

    “Which legs did they break?” he asked, splints ready. Aureus’s gaze had been wandering feverishly, and he blinked, seeming to shake himself into a dizzy kind of alertness. He gestured silently to one of his forelegs and one of his back legs, and Micah felt his stomach twist again.

   Aureus hadn’t been attacked by some wandering robbers, and Micah suspected that he hadn’t been left alive by accident. The soldier’s wounds were calculated and methodical–the wide slash across the stomach that would never knit on its own, sure to sour, poison and kill within a day or two of exposure to the heat, the legs crippled so there was no hope of getting to safety. Someone had wanted him to die alone and slowly.

   Robbers were one thing, but an attempted assassination such as this could hardly be ignored by the Hermean garrison. There would be a hunt for the attackers, and, failing to find them, the Hermeans would take their libation of blood from any one of Micah’s countrymen that came to hand.

    Micah could see it clearly playing out in his mind, and his fingers were unusually clumsy as he attempted to tie the splint. 

   “You could easily have left me here,” Aureus noted, watching him. “There would have been no ill for you. My body would be found in three days or a week–another poor deserter, fallen to robbers–and you could have made your chalices in peace.”

   It was as though the soldier had pulled Micah’s own thoughts out of his mind and read them aloud–but he wasn’t about to admit it. He pulled the knot tight on the first splint, and Aureus sucked in a breath, letting it out through his teeth.  The pain, though, failed to quiet him as Micah moved on to the second limb.

   “So why do you continue to help?” he asked, eyes over-bright. “I would not, had it been you lying there. Our peoples are not of the sort to help each other.”

   Micah snorted.

   “I’m not my people,” he said sharply. “And neither are you, try as you might to pretend that you are. And peoples aside, it’s nothing short of a sin to leave a wounded man to die, so drink some water and shut up.” He tossed the water-skin in the general direction of Aureus’s head, and was annoyed when the soldier caught it instinctively out of the air, still giving him that curious, fever-eyed look. Aureus opened his mouth, intending to say something which Micah intended to ignore, but there was no time for either of their intentions to come to fruition.

   Another voice boomed out over the wadi, startling them both.

   “Hermean!” it cried. “I’ve decided to end your suffering after all.”

   Micah looked up, recognizing the accent of his own people, and then to Aureus. By the sudden hardening of the soldier’s face, Micah guessed that he had recognized the voice.

   The assassin had returned.

*   *   *

   Aureus had almost hoped to escape the day alive. Fool. Fool to think that a well-meaning silver merchant could make any difference in the course of fate. Fool to think that that rabid dog of a rebel, the self-proclaimed Jackal, would be deprived of blood so easily.  He twisted, a curse and a prayer held under his tongue as he tried to see beyond the shielding screen of trees.

   “That’s the man who attacked you?” the silver merchant asked, half-whispering, hands halted midway through tying the second splint. He was right to be afraid, Aureus thought with a bitter taste on his tongue; the Jackal and his pack would kill him too for daring to help him.

   “Those are the men who will kill me.” Aureus said, straining his eyes to catch an over-shoulder glimpse of the Jackal at the head of his pack of devotees. “They’re ill-armed, but many and bloodthirsty. They want me–they need not have you.”

    Using the thin trees for support, he was struggling to get to his feet, not much wanting to face death lying down.

    “Don’t be an idiot,” Micah hissed, trying to get him to lie still. In truth, Aureus was not sure he could stand, but he was determined to try. Javelin-sharp pains shot through his legs and dug their barbs into the gash on his side, and he halted mid-rise, feeling the impossibility of the situation like a brick in his chest. But if he stood, if he fought, he could get the silver merchant away safe. He could set something in this ugly, barren world right, and if that was all the glory his death was to afford him–it was better than none at all.

   Micah was still trying to get him to lie down.

   “Just–hold on–” he was saying, a layman’s understanding of war prompting him to hesitation, but Aureus knew better. He struggled again, forcing his angry limbs to hold him and hearing the steady drip of his blood into the sand. The ground would be scarlet with more blood than his when this was over, he thought with vicious pride as Micah continued his protests.

   “If you’d just calm down for one–”

   “When they attack–” Aureus began.

   “But–”

   “When they attack,” Aureus repeated, slowly so the man could understand. “You run.”

   Micah only shook his head, not listening.

   “But–”

   “Hallo to the hiders-in-the-brush!” the Jackal called, cutting off the merchant’s words. “Having a banquet back there, or only deaf?”

   The sword was beginning to slip from Aureus’s sweat-stained fingers, and he adjusted his grip uselessly, tightening it until the whole sword, and not only his hold on it, wavered. He should have rubbed his palms with sand before he stood; he did not dare kneel to do it now.

   “I advise the Hermean to pray his gods for peace in the afterlife,” the Jackal roared, to the accompaniment of faint laughter. “But to my misguided countryman, I offer a chance to live, traitor though he is. Leave within the minute, and your life will be spared.”

   This was a surprise. Aureus glanced up, watching for the silver merchant’s answer.

   He didn’t know exactly what it was he expected. For an unarmed, peaceful citizen to offer to die beside him like a warrior, on the virtue of ten minute’s acquaintance? A word of reluctance, a single moment of hesitation when time was of the essence?

   Perhaps.

   “I’m coming!” the merchant shouted almost at once, going against every one of Aureus’s unexpected expectations in the space of a second. “Just a moment.”

   Aureus blinked as Micah bent to pick up his water-skin from where Aureus had dropped it, and wondered why he was surprised.

   The merchant turned, his expression unreadable.

   “Listen–” he began, sounding pained, and the half-started apology brought Aureus to his senses. What right had he to expect anything more than he’d already been given? The brief respite, the attempted healing he had been offered was more than enough mercy from one whose people were enemies and slaves in the eyes of Aureus’s kind. He shook his head, cutting off whatever the merchant had been about to say.

   “No. My thanks for your aid, and may the gods repay you for your kindness.”

   The merchant frowned slightly, and without another word, turned and walked out from the protection of the scrub-trees, raising his hands peacefully.

   “I’m coming!” he yelled to the Jackal, and Aureus was left alone.

*   *   *

The Jackal.

   Micah was met with silence and scornful glares as he walked out from behind the trees. The assassins were masked, and Micah watched their eyes with a twinge in his gut, afraid he would recognize someone–a neighbor, a friend. These were his people. But the only thing he recognized in any of their faces was a feeling–anger. Anger stoked to the point of bloodlust.

   Someone lifted his mask to spit at Micah as he walked by, and then as one the group turned to ignore him, beginning to talk amongst themselves. Plotting, perhaps, the best way to heroically vanquish the man they’d left crippled and dying in the middle of the desert.

   Pack of jackals, Micah thought, realizing that Aureus’s description had been apt.

   The thought gave him a very ridiculous, utterly idiotic, idea.  In a moment’s consideration, he was determined to carry it out. He grinned back at the tree-scrub and the arrogant Hermean behind it, then broke out across the wadi at a gallop.

   The jackals were so intent on pointedly ignoring him that they did not realize that he had set off in the exact opposite direction of home.

*   *   *

   Aureus could hear the zealots murmuring amongst themselves and a faint breeze beginning to rustle the leaves of his tree.

   Even the small honor of one life saved was taken from him. He would not run–he could not–but he also could not fight for long. He could barely stand. As the dim voices murmured on the other side of the scrub-trees, he fought to keep the world from spinning before his eyes.

    He wanted desperately to close his eyes like a martyr, but he was a warrior. He would die fighting, unresigned to any fate but the one he made himself.

   The Jackal was shouting again.

   “Who’s the conqueror now, Hermean?” he roared. “Where are your armies? Where are your gods? Can’t they save you?”

   Aureus tried shifting his weight. In a white flash of searing pain, his legs gave way, and he dropped like a corpse to the ground.

   “Oh, Zairus,” he cursed through his teeth, biting down a scream. “Just shut up.”

   He was weak–helplessly weak–and only getting weaker. With a soft, surrendering shudder, he closed his eyes, wondering how long the Jackal would keep boasting after he was dead.

   A sound like thunder shook the air.

   Aureus’s eyes opened of their own accord, the sound spurring his heart to race even before he recognized it. When heard behind the walls of a fort, the sound was quixotic. Out in the unprotected open, it was terrifying.

   Lions. 

   There was a man’s scream from beyond the tree-scrub as the lions, wherever they had come from, attacked.

   Aureus could run from lions no more than he could from jackals. Was he to be torn apart by wild beasts now? Raising his eyes to the sky, he wondered which god he’d offended to deserve a death like this.

   Something crashed through the brush behind him, and Aureus twisted to face it, vision blurry and hands tight on the slippery sword.

   It was Micah, bleeding from a few long slashes on his flanks and grinning like a fool.

   “What did you do?” Aureus shouted, above the screaming of the Jackals.

   “Stole a cub,” Micah panted. “Made a gift of it to our friends over there. Those lionesses are faster than they look.” 

   “You–”

   “Need to get out of here. As do you. Come on.” The merchant ducked, pulling Aureus’s foreleg over his withers and hefting with all his might to help him to stand.

   “Hopefully, the jackals and the lions will keep each other occupied long enough to get us out of here,” he said, helping Aureus to hobble one step, then another. Every step was blinding pain, but the corner of Aureus’s mind that mattered couldn’t find the energy to care. It was pain with hope beyond it, pain with the helping shoulder of a friend to get him through, pain that meant he was alive.

   There was another roar, another scream, behind them. Aureus was still hung up on a smallish detail, which his rattled mind would not allow him to skip over easily.

   “You came back,” he said, half to himself. “For me. And I’m a–a-”

   “A cursed slow walker is what you are. Pick up the pace or I’ll have saved neither of us.” Micah snapped.

   Laughing hurt, but Aureus did it anyway, shaking and almost falling over as he struggled to go faster.

   “You brought a pride of lions,” he said, half-choking on his own amusement.

   “They were closer than the garrison.”

   Aureus coughed unable to stand, and Micah scowled as he stumbled under his weight.

  “I don’t generally rile up lions on anyone’s behalf, either, so you’d better live to appreciate it.”

  Aureus swallowed his choking laughter. Tasting the tang of blood, he took another excruciating step forward and made a promise.

   “I will.”

“The neighborhood’s going to the tar pits, Helen.”

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The Pick-Pocket of Ishtar

The Wolf of Oboro-Teh

Death Wish

Sunset Soliloquy 

 

  Train tracks ran in silver strings through a landscape of matte grey. The last glimmers of golden sunset light had gone; in its absence all was slowly succumbing to dusk. Only the sky retained its color, and below that pool of gold-feathered blue, the world lay in an amorphous haze, treetops blending to rise like the heads of horned things in silent rebellion against the sky’s beauty.

   Marah took in the landscape. She walked along the tracks as faithfully as a fairy-tale heroine along the path to a golden city, but her mind was anywhere but on the path.

   The railway was banked up, rising on a bed of gravel a respectable distance from the surrounding swamp. Short, stubby trees stood on either side of it, ancient and impermanent. Their long limbs dipped low, swaying just above the mossy ground. The dearly departed light had lit the trees in jewel-tones, showing them alive with budding leaves. In the current dim, moss and lichen were visible staining the trunks in living piebald patches.

   Swamp-soil was rich and good for growing, but no matter how deep the trees plunged their roots, the soft earth had no strength to hold them. The very heaviness of their branches eventually betrayed them, and the swamp floor was filled with the rotting corpses of trees it had nurtured and let fall.

   Marah’s mind existed in a tangled, confused jumble, quite separate from the rest of her. She was dimly aware that she had been thinking about life and swamp-mud and tree roots for some time, but she was too tired to sort out what her thoughts meant or why she kept turning them over and over in her mind as if there was something more to them than mere ecology.

   Her body and her mind had long since parted ways, and her body was busily focused on the tracks, the journey ahead, on ignoring the prickling between her shoulder-blades and her own fear of the dark to keep taking one step, then another, along the disused track.

   Like the landscape, Marah was grey today. Her hair was grey, and her eyes were grey; her torn and ragged suit was grey and getting greyer, her deep-cracking bones and her purposeful thoughtlessness alike contributed to the greyness that had settled on the world ever since the sun had sunk below the horizon.

   She shivered slightly, thinking of the dark that would settle soon after. As little as she liked the grey twilight, nighttime was another matter altogether. It was difficult to see now, but soon it would be impossible.

   The dark, though, did not matter today. She knew where she was going, and she didn’t need to see more than a foot in front of her face to get there.

   She was going home.

   Home. She held the name out like a promise to keep her going. Can’t stop now, you’ll never get yourself started again. Then where would you be? She thought to herself, watching the half-rotted railroad ties depress slightly under her feet. Alone in the middle of a big old swamp, that’s where.

   There was a turn in the railway coming up, and Marah wondered how near it had gotten in the past five minutes. Soon, she would reach the curve and see what lay beyond it. In the dusky twilight of her mind, this was an exciting prospect.

   She glanced up.

   The gravel under her feet shifted abruptly as she came to a halt, staring at the thing up ahead as it, in turn, stared back at her.

   A wolf.

   In the midst of all the grey, its white form stood out, with sharp ears pricked toward her and copper-colored eyes looking into hers with something more than animal curiosity.

Marah’s stomach plunged, picturing the wolf charging at her with claws and teeth and killing intent–she had no weapons. It had been idiotic not to bring any.

    But the beast didn’t charge. It only stood and watched, fur showing up like snow against the dying day.

   It grew tired of her. Turning with preternatural silence, it made its way off the road and into the thick swamp, disappearing into the thicket of trees.

*   *   *

   A day ago, at a Sun-Co gas station a mile from the railroad tracks, Marah had bought a backpack, three bottles of water and an entire box of candy bars. Her hands shook as she counted out the change, scattering pennies across the floor. The cashier had a kind smile and a disarming laugh, and as Marah had stuttered over an apology for the trouble, the girl had flitted over a dismissal of any need to apologize. A kind girl, but Marah could feel the cashier watching her as she left the store. Wondering, probably.

   Marah’s hands hadn’t stopped shaking until she’d reached the railway an hour later and decided to follow it.

*   *   *

   That was the last conversation she remembered having, the last time she’d used her voice.  Motionless on the tracks, watching the wolf disappear into the swamp, Marah felt as though she had been alone her whole life.

   The blank expanse of empty railroad before her was oppressively, impossibly lonely. The fear that the wolf would kill her was gone, replaced by the less reasonable fear that she would never see it or another living creature again.

   Stepping off the crumbling ties and shifting gravel of the railway bed, Marah scrambled down the short slope and into the woods to follow it.

   The swamp was oppressive in its very blandness. Dull light through the spotty overhead cover of branches gave the ground a false seeming of solidity. The forest floor gave way into ice-cold sinkholes of mud or rose up in tufts of foot-tangling grass. The trees blent together, separating themselves into visibility mere seconds before Marah crashed headlong into them, and brittle dead branches brushed against her legs like weakly grasping fingers. She stumbled through, snapping limbs and squelching through sock-soaking mud, searching the horizon for a silhouette of white.

   There it was, bobbing along in the distance like a dropped marshmallow. Marah plunged after it, twisting through the trees without a care for the branches that snagged at her hair or the faint varied protests of birds woken from their slumber.

   The wolf stopped, turning to watch her thoughtfully for a moment before bounding away again. It kept stopping, letting her catch sight of it again before it led her further, through mud and brambles and thick, crunchy fields of white flowers.

   Finally, the puddles and mud gave way to steadier, grass-covered ground and the trees grew taller and farther apart until they finally gave way, forming a small clearing. There was still the smallest vestige of light from the dying sky, and compared to the thickness of the swamp, the clearing seemed almost bright.

   The wolf was nowhere to be found.

   Like someone awakening from a spell, Marah blinked and looked around, realizing that the railway was God-knew-where, lost behind a tangle of thorns and trees. As for this place…

   Decisively black against a grey world, the trees were cleanly spaced, branches pruned and cared for. Curiously, Marah brushed her fingers against a short and stocky trunk, feeling the curling bark come away at her touch, a familiar scrabble against her weary fingers. Fruit trees. It was an orchard–or had been, once.

   A shadowy lump squatted in the center of the clearing, motionless as a sleeping rock. Marah strained her eyes trying to make out the shapes. A tractor, half-dead with age and sinking into the soft spring earth. The feel of tree bark fresh and pleasant in her nerves, she reached out to touch it, rubbing fragments of rust between her fingers thoughtfully.

   It creaked and shifted beneath her fingers, and she jumped back with a short shriek of surprise. The dull shape of a living thing stood up on top of the old machine, letting itself be silhouetted against the darkening sky, and chuckled. Its eyes were bright and familiar, glowing down on her in amusement.

   “What’s the matter, Mar? You know me.”

   She blinked up at him, frozen in surprise. Its face lit by the copper glow if its eyes, the demon grinned back.

   “So. You here to make a deal?”

*   *   *

   Marah was already shaking her head.

   “No, I just–I thought I saw something.” She frowned at the figure silhouetted against the sky.

   “Was that wolf you?”

   “Wolf?” the demon looked thoughtful, looked down at himself quizzically, then back up at her.

   “Don’t think so. You saw a wolf?”

   “I suppose not,” she said, still looking around the clearing as though the wolf would appear out of nowhere. Predictably, it didn’t. Was she hallucinating things now?

   “I should be getting back.” Back to where, she didn’t know; but the demon’s shadow shape and glowing eyes were unsettling her, and she wanted to get away.


   “Aw, cmon! Stay awhile.” The creature called after her brightly, leaping off the tractor. “I’ve always taken care of you, Mar, ever since ninth grade. Remember?”

   Marah did. She’d been fifteen, dumb and desperate. Back when everyone told you that school was everything, and you were stupid enough to believe them. He’d showed up with a deal too good to be true–straight A’s for the rest of the semester, and all she had to give him in return was the color of her eyes.

   He’d showed up the next year, and the next. She’d bargained away her ability to juggle, the remains of her childhood crush on Remington Steele, and the double joint that had been the pride of her pinky.

   Her parents had been so proud.

   “Graduated top of your class, didn’t you?”

   She looked up, wondering if he’d read her thoughts, but the demon only smiled at her innocently.

   “Hey, I keep my promises.”

   “Yes, you do.” Just because it was the truth didn’t mean Marah wanted to hear it.

   “You got accepted into that college, right? And got a job at that big old lawyering firm right after.”

   She remembered agonizing over the price of those–a memory. She wondered now if it had been a good one.

   “And that fancy promotion. I was so proud of you, kid.”

   An unimaginable pay raise and a corner office. Her husband had never looked at her quite the same, though, and the office windows had let in as much winter cold as they did city view.

   “Last time we saw each other, it was that one case, wasn’t it?” he continued. “Jorgurson vs. Jorgurson.”

   Marah took a reflexive step back, not wanting to remember the price of that one. The last deal she’d ever made, and the last she’d ever make.

   “You should’ve seen their faces when you won! Except–oh, wait–you did. Because of me.”

   “Stop,” she ordered, more harshly than she intended, and the demon held up his clawed hands, placating.

   “Sorry, sheesh. What’s going on with you?”

   Marah shook her head, wondering how she’d ended up here again. She’d been walking to get away, to find something different, not…

   “What are you even doing here?” she asked.

   “I can’t just come to say hi every once in a while?”

   “You never have before. You always come when I need something, need it bad enough to–”

   He cocked his head, frowning. “That’s a point against me now?”

   “–but there’s nothing I want right now, so why show up?”

   There was a moment of silence in which the woods around them both seemed alive with restless creatures. Marah ignored them. Finally, the demon shrugged.

   “I’m worried about you. You were really moving up in the world there, getting things done, accomplishing your dreams–and then you just–” he stopped, gesturing wordlessly at her. “What happened?”

   The question burrowed into her brain like a maggot. What had happened?

  “Nothing,” she said.

   A great big bunch of nothing. Deal after deal, each promising a good future–but deal after deal, the future had arrived and turned out to be as colorless as her eyes, as grey and uncertain as the twilit swamp. Finally she had just been tired. She threw her briefcase into the river one morning and started walking.

   It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

   “I’m just…done. And I want to go home,” she confessed.

   “You’ve got a house, Mar. Just buy a plane ticket.”

   Her house hadn’t been a home in years. Maybe it never had.

   “Not what I meant.”

   “Oh. Like, home-home…”

   She looked at the ground beneath her feet. She wasn’t sure, really, where home was anymore.

   But even if there wasn’t one waiting for her somewhere, she could try to make one.

   “Boy,” the demon said, interrupting her thoughts. She looked up to find him thoughtful.

   “It’s a tall order. But, hey, I’d do anything for you, so…” 

   Marah frowned.

   “What are you talking about?”

   “You want a home?” he took a step back, spreading his arms like a showman. “I can get one for you. Ready-to-order, all-that-you-dreamed-of–this is my gig, remember? You could’ve just come to me in the first place.” He chuckled at her softly, shaking his horned head.

   Marah felt fifteen again, nervous and desperate, shaking at the thought of fulfilling a dream she’d thought impossible.

   “Think about it, if you need to,” he said. “I’ve got all the time in the world.”

   She’d made a promise, after the last deal. A promise to never do it again, because the deals always went sick and sour when they took.

   But how could a home–a real home–go sour? How could it spoil and sicken?

   Maybe the problem all along hadn’t been the deals, but what she’d asked for.

   And, promise or not, she wanted this.

   “You want to deal?” he asked, as she came to a decision.

   She smiled.

   “Yes.”

   His grin grew wider.

   “Good girl!”

   “What do you want for it?” she didn’t care if her asked for her voice or her legs. He threw his head back, clicking his clawed fingers together as if calculating a sum.

   “Ah. Well, let’s see. Generally I like to bargain for concrete, solid things, you know, but as you seem to be running low on those, I’d be willing to take something a little more…ethereal. Something you won’t even know is gone.”

   Marah had never liked skirting around the point.

   “What is it?”

   “In buyer’s terms? Item: one home. Price? One soul.”

   The wind wasn’t blowing. It would have been a warm spring wind if it had; but there was a chill in the air that hadn’t been there a moment earlier.

   Marah blinked.

   “One what?”

   “Soul.” Came the perfunctory reply. “You up for it?”

   Marah had never given much thought to the matter of souls. Perhaps the sudden revulsion in her bones was nothing more than the product of a hundred fairy-tale stories spinning in her head, long since forgotten and rising up now only because of the cartoonish mention of a soul. A soul. Something she wasn’t even sure existed, but she could feel her fingers curling tight as though to hold on to it.

   He watched her, expecting an answer.

   “No.”

   He was surprised. She’d surprised herself.

   “Come on, Mar,” the demon said, gesturing limply. “I didn’t think you were superstitious.”

   She choked on a nervous laugh.

   “I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”

   He huffed, and she shook her head.

   “It’s…maybe it’s not the soul, so much. I don’t know what I was thinking–I appreciate all you’ve done, really. I do. But…I think it’s time I try to make my own way.”

   His glowing eyes were strangely motionless, and the silence between them was palpable.

   Taking a hesitant step back, she waited for him to disappear like he usually did when their deals were done.

   He remained, steady and still. A faint prickling ran between her shoulder blades as Marah realized that he always left once he got what he wanted.

   And she had just refused him.

   “Well…I’ll…” she began. 

   There was nowhere to go but back into the swamp, and she began to retreat cautiously towards the trees.

   “You think you can make your own way?” he asked before she’d walked three feet. His eyes were burning now, tiny tongues of flame licking up over the lids, glittering along the curves of his horns and illumining the pitch-black clearing with dull orange.

   Marah froze.

   “I want to try.”

   “You’ll fail.” His voice was a blank.  “Your ‘own’ way–you don’t own anything, honey. You are owned. By me or by whatever other of my kind feel like picking you up out of the dirt and brushing off the nasty.”

   There was a cruel and dead-serious twist to every word he spoke.  Her stomach curled in on itself.

   He smiled a smile that went all wrong at the edges, and his voice turned light again–more like his old, friendly self–but Marah’s stomach only knotted itself tighter as he spoke.

   “Devil you know, kid. Think about it. I can give you a good life. Think you can find one yourself? Think you can make one?” he laughed, all the hopelessness she’d ever felt shivering in the air. “I’m the only shot you have.”

    Marah saw him. He didn’t look any different, but for the first time she saw him, as he was behind the promises. Curling horns and skin grey with death; hellfire in the eyes and a persistent scent of sulphur. He was a demon, in the most superstitious sense of the word–and he wanted her soul.

   Her knees shook, and she would’ve run, but she couldn’t trust her legs. The flames in his eyes were furious, beginning to crackle, ember-like, through his dry and peeling skin.

“I’ve been coddling you for years. Caring for you, giving you whatever you wanted, letting you pay in slips and tokens while I laid the world at your feet–”

    In the midst of all her fear, a flicker of unexpected anger flared.

   “Slips and tokens? Slips and tokens? I gave you everything!” she shouted, voice cracking at the unaccustomed volume. “I gave you my eyes! My memories! I gave you all that I was!”

   The truth of the past thirty years came slowly to light. He had chipped her down stroke by stroke, making her a mere ghost of herself. And she had let him.

   “Mar–” he started, but she cut him off.

   “You might have the color of my eyes. You might have my body, and my mind, and my life–” her voice broke and quavered, betraying her when she needed it the most. Feeling the oncoming blubber of tears, she spoke quickly to outrun it.

   “But I won’t give you any more. You can’t have anything more that’s mine, and I don’t care who else owns me, just so long as it. Is not. You.”

   He gave an animal growl and lunged forward, digging his fingers into her side, his fire-and-brimstone breath searing her face as he spoke.

   “Oh, honey,” he said, as she struggled to breathe. “You’re already mine.”

   Marah gurgled, and he tore his claws out of her stomach, letting her crumple to the ground.

   The pain was so sharp that the rest of the world seemed hazy and soft. Marah blinked muzzily, watching her blood drip from the dagger-sharp claws, and followed the ember-glowing arm to find the demon’s face, looking down at her in something like amusement and something like disgust.

   “Go to hell,” she burbled unconvincingly, and his face flickered.

   “It’ll only be to join you there,” he said, and was gone.

*   *   *

   The ground soaked up all her heat, giving her its half-frozen chills in return, and Marah choked on her own air, dimly aware that every breath was pumping more blood out of her veins and into the dirt.

   In the light of the demon’s last words, dying was a minor tragedy.

   “I don’t wanna go to hell,” she told the dark, the thin branches she couldn’t see and the invisible spring breeze that shook them. “God help me, I don’t.”

   There was iron in her mouth, bitter and warm, sickening the clean air with a butcher-shop stench.

   If demons made deals, did angels do the same? Did God?

   “I don’t have much.” She warned the waiting dark, just in case.

   Just a single, flickering soul.

 *   *   *

   The trees swayed and rattled in the wind, and the world smelled of rich swamp-mud and green growing things. The sun was on the other side of the world, leaving the hemisphere in starlight, and in a tiny apple orchard, not a single creature stirred or breathed.

   Marah was home.

Enjoy this story?

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Land of Ghosts

The Wolf of Oboro-Teh

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Saphed Maut

 

The train sped into the station with a flash of gold and a huff of steam. A muffled loudspeaker crackled to life, calling out names and numbers as the station was inundated in a flood of departing passengers.

   The torrent of humanity washed over Detective-Inspector Avaidh Isha with the full force of a thousand uncaring strangers desperate to get home. He ignored the rough jostling. He had more important matters to worry about…for instance, his train ticket. 

   It seemed to be written in some kind of code consisting of numbers and letters, which seemingly bore no relation to one another or to anything else in the station. He scowled at it. It did not become any less cryptic.


   He glanced up, straining to see over the swift-moving herd of humanity in the dim hope of discovering some sign of where he was or where he was supposed to be. His train was supposed to be arriving within the next couple of minutes–though it could be late. Or perhaps he was late. Or did he have the wrong station?

   The numbers painted on the station’s walls bore no resemblance to the numbers adorning his ticket. Deeply dissatisfied, Isha returned to scowling at them.

    Past the general hubbub, the bored-sounding loudspeaker began a new string of names and numbers, which Isha, by some miraculous chance, clearly heard and understood.

    “Number three-forty Upanyaan Express, departing for the provinces of Shoony, Mahatvaheen, and Kahhi Nihan in five minutes.”

   Kahhi Nihan, Isha thought, head snapping up. His destination. Tightening his grip on his single case of possessions, Isha plunged into the fray and fought his way to the platform.

*   *   *

   Between the train doors and the ranks of prospective passengers stood a man in unassuming green livery, checking tickets with a vapid expression that seemed to rise above circumstance in a manner similar to a meditating monk’s–save that the monk generally had greater awareness of his surroundings.

   “Ticket please,” the man recited as Isha approached, and Isha gladly handed off the bit of indecipherable script.

   “Detective-Inspector Avaidh Isha,” he announced unnecessarily, in an attempt to stir the ticket-priest from his reverie. “Has my luggage arrived safely? I’ve a great deal dependent on their–”

    “Am I supposed to keep track of your belongings, Kamatar?” the man in green snapped, looking up. Taken aback, Isha was about to rebuke the man when he saw the triangle tattoo of a Behetar on the man’s wrist. His words died in his throat. No matter how low their occupations, the Behetar held a higher caste, and therefore a higher rank, than any Kamatar.

    “Apologies,” Isha muttered, taking his ticket and ducking onto the train as the Behetar relapsed into glaze-eyed contemplation.

   As the train rumbled and wobbled to life beneath Isha’s feet, he made his way to the next green-uniformed attendant–a servant-caste Kam Se Kam this time, as evidenced by the small circles inked upon his wrists–who politely informed him that his luggage was indeed settled quite comfortably in the back. With a calmed mind and an uneasy stomach, Isha found his way to his seat, sitting down just as the train gave a decisive lurch forward.

   One of Upanyaa’s famed hovering railways, the train shuddered slightly, then began to glide without the slightest tremor. Isha watched the landscape outside his window blur as the train began to come to speed, his churning stomach quieting a little. Watching the shaggy grass-ridden hillsides and scrubs of mangroves whiz by, he wondered why he’d ever accepted this mission.

   It was a pointless question. The commission to bring Saphed Maut, the White Death, to justice–to capture the most successful brigand Upanyaa had ever known–was an honor impossible to refuse. It was a level of respect that had never before been shown to a mere Kamatar, and Isha intended to prove that it was deserved.

   Of course, he’d accepted before he’d known the mission would involve travel and commanding his own squad of men. He was uncomfortable with both. But the traveling was already underway, and seemed more or less survivable. As for taking on his first official command, he would muddle through as best he could.

   Saphed Maut was a prize well worth the trouble.

   Little was known about the origins of the white-clad brigand. Isha had first heard of him in snatches of song on the street, where the brigand’s escapades were put to rhyme by half-starved poets, and the poems put to tunes by riot-happy children. It was difficult to parse the facts out of the stories that were told about the man, and after months of investigation, all Isha knew for certain was that the brigand had a habit of popping out unexpectedly upon travelers and caravans, taking two-thirds (always two-thirds; never more and rarely less) of their goods, and slipping away again like mist in the morning.

   Of course the legends went further. They painted pictures that seemed the stuff of fairy tales–Saphed Maut escaping from the gallows, Saphed Maut aiding star-crossed lovers to escape their families, Saphed Maut escorting a poor widow across his territory and leaving her with a generous gift of gold.

   Of course none of the stories could be confirmed–their very nature did not allow for it–but neither could any of them be disproven.

   For the hundredth time, Isha found himself wondering what had possessed him to accept this commission. Honor was only a powerful substitute for an answer, and it did not explain his fascination with the man. Perhaps there was something in that fairytale figure which simply demanded to be noticed.

   That was it, he thought. It also explained why a simple brigand was such a priority in the minds of his superiors–for, true or not, Saphed Maut was the sort of figure to inspire such stories. Dangerous stories about nobility and rebellion that the government could not abide.

   And they were right, Isha ceded reluctantly. Rebellion was never good. Nothing ever came of it but chaos and bloodshed. He turned from the whizzing landscape to stare at the seat-back in front of him.

   A slim ribbon of one of the brigand’s stories flicked its tail as Isha pushed it forcibly from his mind, and he looked up again, determined to chase away all thought that did not relate to the copper-colored sand or azure sky outside the window.

*   *   *

   The train lurched. Starting awake to sit up poker-straight in his seat, Isha gripped the arms of his chair just as the great, smoothly operating train screamed, leapt, and halted with a deafening cacophony of shattering window-glass and its nose in the sand-banks beside the railway track.

   It was all more shocking that violent. When a sudden tenuous silence indicated that the crash was over, Isha took stock of the damage–one old man appeared to have fainted, the porter was nursing a bloodied nose, and Isha was still perfectly safe in his seat.

   Barely a second of silence passed before the yelling started. A jumble of varied dialects began to jabber to the general effect that everyone wanted to know what was going on, no one did, and someone would certainly have to pay for it.

   A scream from the pilot’s car silenced everyone. The door between the pilot’s car and their own burst open, and into the gap stepped a man dressed in white. Isha sucked in a breath, not alone in his recognition of the towering figure.

    Saphed Maut.

   Only his eyes showed through the turbaned mask, but they glittered with devilish joy. The whiteness of his robes was broken by the stains of sand and sweat–but the very stains seemed like marks of age and importance, like the tarnish of ancient statues. Cocking his head to one side, the brigand spoke.

   “Hello, ladies and gentlemen,” he said politely. “I’m here to rob you.”

   Shifting in his seat with the half-insane idea of getting up, Isha was halted by the click of a flintlock. Turning cautiously, he found a young boy squatting in the sill of the shattered window, fixing him with a white-toothed grin.

“Keep to your seat, Grandfather,” he said jovially. Isha raised an eyebrow at him–Saphed Maut wasn’t known to work with partners.

   The boy wasn’t the only one. Behind the brigand, hugging a sack that was larger than herself, stood a mere child of a girl with wonder-wide eyes.


    Pinned in place by the gun aimed at his head, Isha watched how Saphed Maut worked. Apart from the conductor who must now be lying dead in the pilot’s car, the brigand didn’t shed another drop of blood. Taking the sack from the tiny girl, he tossed it in the very center of the floor.

   “Ladies and gentleman, a small request. A donation–a single valuable, with which you will not be heartbroken to part, and which we shall be most gratified to gain.”

   The edges of the brigand’s eyes gained deep wrinkles as a mask-hidden grin widened. An earring was tossed into the sack, and then a glittering pocket-watch. Isha shifted in his seat, and the boy pressed the barrel of the flintlock closer to his head. The movement, though small, drew Saphed Maut’s attention, and the wrinkles at the edges of his eyes were replaced by a wrinkle between them.

   “Hari, I don’t believe we need to keep this gentleman on the danger end of a gun.”

   The boy huffed, but readjusted the flintlock’s aim to point at the ceiling. Isha found himself looking up into the brigand’s mask.

   “You have my thanks.”

   “I’d rather have your gold,” the brigand said lightly.

   Isha thought of his ‘luggage’, waiting only a car away, and of the pilot’s dying scream. And then he stood, rising until his eyes were level with the brigand’s.

   “I’m afraid,” he ventured, “That you will not be leaving with the gold of anyone here.”

   The slit in the brigand’s mask showed the faintest glimmer of confusion.

   “Men!” Isha roared, hoping that his assigned squad of officers were in the next car and not drugged or unconscious or bribed away. Saphed Maut had a talent for foresight.

   But it seemed that the brigand had not seen this coming. Isha’s officers crashed through the door, flooding into the car, and Saphed Maut all but tripped over the small pile of valuables on the floor in surprise. Seeming to recover himself, he darted forward again, seizing Isha’s sleeve and dragging him off-balance. Struggling against the unexpected attack, Isha found his arms caught in a vice-grip, back stiffening as the brigand’s blade pressed against his throat.

   The onslaught of officers came quite suddenly to a standstill.

   “Hari,” Saphed Maut said softly, “Kiran. Behind me, now.”

   The flintlock-happy boy was as wide-eyed as the girl now, and he scrambled to join her behind their leader. Isha swallowed, disliking the way the blade-edge wavered against his throat.

   “I’m going to back up now,” the brigand took a single step back. “Don’t make a move, don’t follow me–and I will let him live.”

   Isha opened his mouth to shout that his men ignore what the brigand said. Capture him! Finish the mission! But the tickle of the knife killed the words even as they rose in his throat, and he remained silent. Saphed Maut began to pull him back and out of the train as the officers, glancing at one another, reluctantly stood down.

   Like everything else that whole unbalanced morning, the rest happened in a flash. One of the passengers, inspired, reached out behind the brigand’s back, seizing the boy as a counter-hostage. The girl screamed as she was grabbed as well. Saphed Maut spun with his unwieldy burden to help them, and one of the officers took the opportunity to fire at his unguarded back. The bullet pinged off the wall of the train, and Saphed Maut ducked. Another shot rang out, and the brigand stumbled, jerking backwards into the pilot’s car and shutting the door behind him.

   And then the hero–the criminal–fled, dragging the Detective-Inspector with him.

*   *   *

   Isha’s lungs were not nearly bursting. They had burst, several hills ago, and then he had grown new ones and those had burst as well. They stopped in a little clearing where the morning sun was not as cruel as usual, and Isha allowed himself to crumple onto the ground below a tree, where he panted with slightly less dignity than a dying fish.

   Saphed Maut did not let him rest long. Rounding the clearing with a string of breathless curses, he turned on Isha, hauling him off his feet and pushing him ungently against a tree.

   “You ordered them to take my cubs?” His voice was lower, more dangerous than a shout, and his eyes were blazing. “They are children! They know nothing–”

   It would all have been very intimidating, but Isha was far too busy being tired to be frightened.

  “Oh, yes, I silently signaled those civilians with a special code, because of course a couple of street urchins were the very first thing on my mind while I was being held hostage with a knife at my throat!” he snapped irritably.

   For a split second, Isha thought the brigand would kill him. But then the White Death blinked, shuddered a tiny laugh, and stepped back, letting Isha slide back down to the ground.

   “You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry.”


   He rubbed his face like a cat trying to wash itself, unwrapping the mask and letting it fall in a fluttering wave of white to the ground. He was young, Isha realized with a dim sense of surprise. Barely into his twenties.

   “I left them,” the brigand said shakily. “The second it looked to go ill for me, I left them. Lord of Heaven help me.”

   Isha waited in discomfited silence for a moment, feeling that he was witnessing something very personal.

   “They won’t kill them,” he assured weakly. “Not even for being your allies. They’re children–the judge will surely be lenient.”

   The brigand gave a flat half-laugh.

   “Kill my cubs? No.” he turned to face Isha with an ironic smile. “They will not do that. Only hurt and enslave them. I have seen the leniency of your judges before, Detective-Inspector; I will not trust my children to it.”

   Isha frowned, wondering how the man had guessed his rank–and realized that his coat had fallen open during the run, and his badge of office was hanging out of it with undignified precariousness. Straightening it, he sighed.

   “Avaidh Isha.” he said, without really expecting to be heard. “That’s my name.”

   The brigand gave him an odd look.

   “Jaidev,” he offered, holding out a hand. Isha noted the marks on the man’s palm–a pair of intersecting lines. The mark of the Kucch, the lowest cast of all. There was some speculation as to whether they were even properly human.

   Gingerly, Isha reached up to clasp the brigand’s hand in his own.

   Jaidev’s harsh smile seemed to soften somewhat, and he turned away again, walking the little clearing as a beast paces its cage.

   Isha shook himself into some sense–the children did not matter. It did not matter that Saphed Maut was young, and it did not matter that he was Kucch. Isha was still an officer of the law, and all that mattered was bringing the brigand to justice.

   And as unpromising as the situation seemed, Isha had an idea to accomplish it.

   “You want to save your cubs?” he asked.

    Jaidev raised his brows.

   “I intend to.”

   Isha forced his voice to sound calm, disinterested.

   “My superiors want you, you know. Not two orphans they’d just as soon toss in the gutter.”

   Jaidev’s eyes went cold, calculating, and he cocked his head to one side.

   “Meaning?”

   “A trade.” Isha said. “You could give yourself up in exchange for their freedom.”

   A bark of laughter.

   “And why would I give myself up when I could simply trade you?”

   Isha shook his head.

   “They won’t take me. I’m replaceable. But give yourself up, and I swear to you that your cubs will go free.”

   “And am I to trust the word of an officer of the law?”

   “I keep my promises.”

   Realizing that the brigand had no reason to believe him, Isha tried to look as trustworthy as possible. But Jaidev was already looking at him, looking as though he would look through him. Finally, he said:

   “Yes. Yes, I believe you would.” thoughtful, he looked up again, into the sun-gilded higher branches of the trees around them, blinking as if only just realizing that they existed, and were beautiful. Then he looked down to Isha again.

    “Very well. Take me back–and let my cubs go.”

*   *   *

   Technically Isha’s prisoner, Jaidev strode ahead of him towards the small group of police and train passengers still gathered by the crash. He had put the mask on again, seemingly determined to give himself up as Saphed Maut and none other.

   Isha had been surprised to see the face behind the mask; it was odder, somehow, to see the mask with the face underneath it. Jaidev was a young man who was willing to give up his life for his cubs. Saphed Maut was a thief and a murderer. And somehow, they were both the same man.

   Startled by the brigand’s approach, the officers by the train stepped back, beginning to huddle in formation. Swords were drawn, and a rifle leveled. Before the confusion got entirely out of hand, Isha rushed ahead, stepping between Jaidev and his own, now very confused, men.

   “Sirs,” he panted, “We have reached an agreement.”

*   *   *

   “He wants what?” Isha’s second-in-command, a Kamatar who very much resented the appearance of someone he didn’t outrank, said. Isha considered his tone of disbelief out of proportion to the situation, but kept his sheen of politeness nonetheless.

   “The children, Detective Hoishe. He’s formed an attachment to them, and values them above his own life.”

   Hoishe snorted, eying Jaidev, who stood off to one side with crossed arms and an implacable expression, uncaring of the rifles trained on him.

   “They have some method of breaking him free, more likely. I say, seize him now and let the justices deal with the lot of them.”

   Isha drew himself up.

   “I’ve made a promise, and it’s a promise I will keep. If our prisons cannot withstand the assault of a couple of children, then there is no point in arresting anyone.”

   Hoishe raised an eyebrow, then shrugged.

   “Fine. If you’re so intent on letting a couple of criminals go free, then I’ll not stand in your way–but remember, this is on your head.”

   He gestured, and an officer ducked into the wreck of the train, coming out again with the prisoners in tow. The girl gasped at sight of Jaidev, breaking free of the officer and running to him. The boy followed, and Jaidev knelt to pull them close.

   “Kiran, Hari. Take good care of each other.”there was the faintest hint of a smile showing through the implacable mask. “I’ll be seeing you soon.”

   “The only person you’ll be seeing soon is the hangman.” Hoishe butted in. “Enough of this.”

   Reluctant, Isha gestured for the officers to seize their charge.

   “Run now.” the Jaidev told his cubs, harshly, as the men took his arms. The children stepped back, reluctant at first, then turning to flee like rabbits from a hunter.

   When they were gone, all the fight that was in the brigand seemed to disappear. He let the mask be jerked from his face, let himself be shoved to the ground and his hands tied behind his back. One officer kicked him in the ribs, and Isha stepped forward.

   “Enough.” he ordered. The officer stood down with a scowl, letting Saphed Maut be pulled to his feet.

   A small cheer broke out from the few remaining bystanders at the sight of the brigand in custody, but Isha couldn’t muster a drop of pride. Whatever had happened today was not good, and it was not a victory. At best, it was cold justice; and as Isha watched the limp, robed figure escorted away, he could not help but wonder if even justice was too generous a term.

*   *   *

   The White Death was safely locked away, and for the first night since the advent of his career, the general populace could sleep in peace.

   Isha, oddly enough, could not sleep at all.

   Jaidev would be hung in the morning, if all went as expected. A fair punishment for a murderer.

   Troubled and restless, Isha went over the events of the wreck in his mind until he was sick of them. The lurch. The halt. The scream of the dying conductor.

   Isha had been surprised by that; Saphed Maut wasn’t known for bloodshed.

   Blood, Isha thought dully. You would think that there would have been some small splatter of it somewhere on the brigand’s white robes, or on one of the blades he carried.

   There had been none.

   Come to think of it, Isha couldn’t remember seeing a body either.

   Sitting up straight with the energy of dawning realization, Isha considered, for the first time since the crash, the possibility that the conductor had not been killed. The events fell into place neatly. The train had not crashed by chance, but was guided off the rails by a skillful hand–a bribed hand, perhaps. It fit Saphed Maut’s profile far better than a messy murder.

   Which meant Saphed Maut was not a murderer.

   Which meant Saphed Maut did not deserve to die.

   Heart pounding, Isha ripped himself free of the sweat-grimed sheets and leapt to his feet, searching the floor for the official uniform he’d discarded.

   Saphed Maut did not deserve to die.

   And Avaidh Isha intended to make sure he did not.

*   *   *

   The city prison was not a noisy place, even on the worst days. At night, the only sounds were the quiet shifting of straw as prisoners stirred in their sleep, the click-clack of a guard’s game of dice, and the chirring of rats and locusts.

   A bat had appeared in the prison earlier, and the yelling of the guards as they scrambled to kill it had been the most ruckus the prison had seen in months. By the time Isha arrived, the bat incident had long since blown over, and the guards had returned to their game of dice.

   “Detective-Inspector.” Badak, who had been losing, beat his companion to a salute. “What a–hm–surprise.”

   The Detective-Inspector was by and large uninterested in salutes, and glanced briefly at the game.

   “A pair of sixes, and you’ll win the pot,” he remarked helpfully, continuing, “Which cell was Saphed Maut put in?”

   “The White Death?” Badak shivered. “End of the hall.”

   The Inspector looked down the hall distractedly. “I wanted to ask him some questions before he’s sentenced in the morning.”

   “Ah, right.” Badak fumbled at his key ring, unhooking one and looking up to hand it to the Inspector. “This one should do the trick. Will you requ–”

   Detective-Inspector Isha shook his head, taking the key without a word and striding down the dark hallway.

   “That man’s braver than I am.”

   “Like that’s such a compliment.” Harjeet snorted, sitting at their table again and palming the dice. “You should have seen your face when that flying mouse flew in.”

   Badak drew breath to defend himself, but Harjeet only tossed the dice nonchalantly.

   “Also, you’ve lost the game.”

   Badak growled.

*   *   *

   Isha was trying not to let his nervousness show, trying equally not to look at the straw-floored cells and their quiet occupants. How many people were here? How many people deserved to be?

   Isha had trusted the law, once. Now it seemed a fragile, easily twisted thing, hard to straighten out and impossible to rely upon.

   The last cell on the block was the darkest, the lonely light bulb in the hallway having burnt out. In the shadows, it was hard to tell what was straw and what was man. With another glance towards the distant and well-distracted guards and a decisive shake of his head, Isha twisted the key in the lock. The door creaked open, and he stepped inside.

   It was all straw. The cell was empty.

   Isha’s gaze settled on a blur of white tucked between the cracks in the wall. He took it, unfolding the thin paper and tilting it to get the best of the dim light. It read,

   Dear Officer of the Law,

      I regret to inform you that I must once again decline your kind hospitality. I have been called out on pressing business, and was obliged to slip away, not wishing to trouble anyone with my affairs.

   I thank all and sundry for the warm welcome.

     Regrets,

   Saphed Maut.

   (Postscript): One of your brethren made remonstrances to detain me, and, my business being urgent, I was forced to resort to unkind means of putting him off. The man can be found in the supply closet just down the hall from my suite, and he should be commended for his vigilance.

   Isha coughed, suppressing the spasm of laughter that threatened to take his lungs. He read the letter again, and was caught in the throes of another coughing fit. Finally, he folded up the bit of paper and deposited it in his pocket, shaking his head at the empty cell. 

   Then he turned to make his way back to the dicing guards and deliver the horrible, horrendous news that Saphed Maut had escaped.

   The hardest part would be in keeping the smile from his face.


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Bazar-Tek and the Lonely Knight

   Now entering Gravity Pool Three Thousand and Six. Necessary adjustments to navigation systems in progress; expect some delay.

   The Mermaid’s audio interface sounded alone and eerie in the empty cockpit of the ship. Wandering, the tin-toned voice echoed down an oil-stained, aluminum-lined corridor and out into the cargo bay. Once there, it buzzed in the air for a hope-filled second, and finally died.

   Bazar-Tek, who served the small, rattling ship as Captain, pilot, and all the rest of the crew, looked up as the last echoes of the automated message faded.

   “Some delay,” he noted, attempting to rub off a patch of grease on the ship’s wall with his sleeve. “You mean, of course, that the mapscreen is going to be a large and useless glitch for upwards of an hour?”

   The ship was silent, and Tek grimaced at the patch of grease. It had been transfigured, if not removed, by his efforts, and now existed as a large and somewhat ungainly smudge. He rolled up his now-stained sleeve and shrugged, patting the ship’s wall.

   “Ah, girl. You’re getting old for this job.”

   The words found no traction in the overlarge room, reverberating slightly before drifting into the all-consuming white noise of the ship.

   The cargo bay was a wide, rattling, drafty place where the gravity always seemed slightly off and the air always smelled a little sour, with a strong overtone of acidic lemon-scented cleaning spray.

With a rumble and a whuff, the heating set in. Dust swirled in the air, and Tek coughed, waving a hand.

   Complication adjusting navigation systems, the voice informed. Please wait.

   “I’ll complicate your navigation systems,” Tek grumbled, without malice. The Mermaid had taken a laser blast from an Imperial ship on their last job; hearty creature that she was, the blast hadn’t stopped her from sailing–though it had given the main computer’s mapping function a nasty habit of stalling for hours on end whenever they crossed the border into a new gravity pool.

   Systems reloading.

   Tek brushed the dust from his shirt.

   “That won’t work for another two hours, at least. Why don’t you just take a nap?” he suggested, glancing up at the expressionless overhead speaker. The ship didn’t respond, and Tek gave a noncommittal shrug.

   “Just a suggestion.”

   It would be days, at least, before that they reached the next planet in Galaxy One–Thirty-Nine Blue. A new planet–new enough that the Imperial soldiers wouldn’t know his face. A planet hopefully lax or corrupt enough to allow him to unload his new merchandise, exchange it for food and fuel towards his next foray into the unknown.

   The unknown. The phrase ran through his mind oddly, demanding resolution, and he wondered for a second where he’d go next, what he’d do. Perhaps he’d find a fat and unusually defenseless Trader–or perhaps he’d fulfill the outlaw’s dream, the victimless crime of robbing a Taxer. Stealing taxes had a heroic ring to it.

   Tek snorted, shaking his head. Heroic. He couldn’t lie, not even to himself, to pretend that he was a hero. There were none, in this business–or in any business. ‘Hero’ was a character in a child’s dream, not a job title.

   In any case, wondering about the future were as out of place as heroism. Handle one job at a time, live from take to take, and don’t think too much–that was a plan.

   In the general interest of Not Thinking, Tek pulled himself upright, setting latent muscle to half-petrified bones to make his way towards the center of the rattling room.

   The floor was pleasantly, livingly uneven under his feet. Scuffed and ill-used, it was patched over with such a mottling of metals as to seem like a mad scientist’s attempt at creating skin for a mechanical tortoiseshell cat.

   One of the more extravagantly repaired sections, however, had never needed the work. Crafted of a thicker gauge of steel than any part of the rest of the ship, a single square of flooring in the exact middle of the room had been patched out of art, and not necessity. It blent unwaveringly in with the rest of the floor–Tek scuffed over it, searchingly, twice before he finally recognized it.

   “The day I find this door without missing it is the day I retire,” he muttered to no one in particular, kneeling to feel along the edges of the square of metal. The ship responded in uncharacteristic silence, the panel sliding open to reveal a deep, musty-scented hold stuffed with recent acquisitions. The crates and bundles, Tek had expected; but his shoulders stiffened nonetheless, and he looked down, unable to take his eyes from the one item he had not expected.

   It was a man.

   White-haired and thin-limbed, he looked far too ancient to be settled as comfortably as he was atop the hard-edged crates. For a moment, Tek could only stare; and while he was staring, the man shifted, eyes fluttering in response to the sudden light. He sniffed, blinked, and sat up, eyes alighting on Tek’s face. He smiled, and his face took on the appearance of crumpled cloth–annoyingly unsurprised cloth, at that.

   “Ah,” he said, “you must be the captain of this fine vessel. Allow me to inform you, sir, your ship is one of the finest I have ever laid eyes upon. This compartment alone–dark and rich as the mind of a philosopher, or the heart of a saint. Wonderful place to think. But–” he sighed, stretching to his feet– “one can have too much thought. Action! That is what is needed.”

    Following his own advice, the stowaway leapt out the hold with impossible energy, and stepped forward to shake Tek’s hand.

   “My friend, I am in your debt for this–my–rescue. A very noble rescue, might I add, albeit an unwitting one.”

   Too shocked to speak, Tek limply allowed his hand to be grasped and shook. The stranger spun away, examining the drafty, dusty, oil-stained bay with a skeptical eye.

   “Hold on,” Tek managed through his surprise, but the stowaway interrupted him.

   “An excellent ship!” he declared with great conviction. “the floor–of pure marble! The pipes, so efficient!”

   Tek followed the man’s wild gesture to a leaking coolant line, and scowled.

   “The clean and shining walls! The golden filigree upon–”

   “Stop complimenting my ship.”

   There was a growling tone in Tek’s voice that made the stranger halt, looking at Tek with raised brows. Taking in the stranger’s appearance–the torn and oddly stained robes, the outdated and yet deadly holo-sword that hung inactive at his belt–Tek shook his head, and in his curiosity, forgot to sound threatening.

   “What are you?” he asked. If the outlandish, ancient figure had declared itself to be a figment of imagination, a living illustration from a child’s storybook, or a ghost, Tek would not have been surprised. Instead, the man only smiled, a wide, crumpled-cloth smile that, like the rest of him, seemed too boisterous, too large and too alive in the dull, dust-and-acid air of the cargo bay.

   “I am called Ezra Kote. And I,” he paused, out of a spirit more of melodrama than hesitation, “am a hero.”

   Systems reloading, the Mermaid informed in her usual light and mechanical tone. Please wait.

The heaters, their work done for the moment, shut off with a reluctant, rumbling whirr.

   Tek blinked, looking at the stranger, who merely smiled back, calm and assured as though he had listed off any other real and quantifiable profession.

   “Right. A hero,” Tek said, finding himself unreasonably rankled–not at the man’s intrusion on his ship, or at his manner once there, but at those last, still faintly echoing words.

   “A hero,” Ezra confirmed, factual and unrepentant. Tek huffed.

   “Call yourself what you like. But aboard this ship, you’re an intruder. I–”

   He was cut off by a sudden, rending crack that rocked the ship and almost threw him to his knees. Ezra looked up curiously, somehow keeping his footing through the assault.

   “Ah. That would be an Imperial ship; I’m afraid the Empire is not overly happy with me at the moment.”

    With a jolt of panic, Tek realized what the sound had been–the laser cannons of a Lawship signaling the Mermaid to a halt. He took rapid stock of the situation–the open smuggler’s hold, the stranger blinking at the ceiling with an odd brand of resignation.

   “Into the hold!” Tek shouted. “Now, before they access the security feeds.” If, by some wild chance, they hadn’t accessed them yet. Ezra looked at him for a wide-eyed second before doing as he was bid, and as the camouflaged panel slid silently into place once more and Tek tried to still the fear rising in his chest, a deep and unfamiliar voice–entirely unlike the Mermaid’s–began to boom through the speakers.

   “Tradeship Mermaid, you have been hailed by Her Majesty’s Lawship Marksman. Halt immediately and prepare to accept a Holographic Comm.”

   If the lawship had witnessed Ezra clambering wildly for the hold, or seen the hold itself filled with Empire-stamped goods, the voice over the speaker gave no sign, but they were surely watching now. Wearing a plastered-on smile, Tek saluted the nearest camera and the eyes who watched him behind it before making his way to the cockpit.

*     *     *

   “He looks like a brigand to me,” Captain Vargus remarked, watching the figure on the grainy feed from the little trade ship’s cameras. His second, Patrol Officer Kohn, sat beside him in the over-wide, over white comm chamber with characteristic dignity–or perhaps characteristic pretension–and said nothing. Vargus scowled askance at him, but did not lower himself to speak.

The Marksman’s patrol had been a long and exceedingly dull affair, and as he watched the Mermaid’s captain muddle about in her ratty cockpit, he half-wished that the man would turn out to be a pirate or a naer-do-well and lead them along a merry chase–but his luck had not improved since the day he’d been assigned this particular mission, it seemed. The trade ship slowed to a juddering halt, and Vargus sighed.

   In the center of the room, the hologram from the ugly little junk-ship began to flicker to life, stuttering as if it had a bad connection. The figure of a hulkish, shortish man showed for a moment in hazy tones of grey before fading to uncertain static. A clang and a curse came through the speakers, and the hologram became whole–grainy and low-quality, but whole. The figure it showed was a young, tattooed vagabond of a man.

   “How can I help you gentlemen, then?” he said, attempting to sound genial while speaking through his teeth. He failed.

   “Officer Kohn and Captain Vargus to you, space-crawler,” Kohn barked. He was not attempting to sound genial, and his resounding success at it almost startled Vargus from his seat.

   “And Captain Tek, to both of you,” the hologram said scowlingly, shifting on its feet.

   Vargus coughed.

   “Hem. Yes,” Vargus coughed again, realized that coughing was doing little to aid the situation, and resigned himself to pretend that the last few awkward minutes had not occurred. He drew himself up in dignity.

   “We have halted you, Captain Tek, to inquire if you know the whereabouts of this man.” He gestured to the screen behind his chair, flicking the desired image onto it with a simple twiddle of his fingers.

   “He’s a dangerous lunatic and an egregious criminal. Perhaps you’ve seen him?” Vargus recited hopefully. If he never had to repeat those words again after today, it would not be too soon.

   The vagabond squinted at the picture for a moment, then shook his head.

   “Nope. Don’t know him.”

*     *     *

   From the comm chamber of the Mermaid, Tek did his best to seem nonchalant. Inside, he was seething in a mixture of anger and worry. If the officers didn’t believe him, or decided to conduct a search…

   “Calls himself the ‘Lonely Knight’?” the captain quested again, more in half-hearted hope than suspicion. Heart pounding, Tek kept up his careful expression of indifference.

   “Sorry. I’ve seen a lot of old men, but can’t say as I’ve seen that one.”

   The face of Ezra Kote stared unblinkingly from the screen behind the ship captain’s head, and Tek glanced at it again without the slightest hint of recognition. The captain looked at the first officer, then shrugged–and with a flash of relief, Tek realized that they believed him. They were going to let him go, and at this point it was in his best interests to end the call and send them on their way as quickly as he could.

   With that thought in his mind, the next thing he said was a surprise, even to him. While the captain drew breath to end the conference and let him free, he asked:

   “What’s he done, exactly?”

   The captain blinked as Tek cursed himself. Curiosity–stupid, stupid curiosity–but too late to take back the question now.

   Captain Vargus shrugged, then began to tap through his control screen.

   “Well, it’s quite a thick file…horrifying, most of it…ah. Last case was on ArcDay in the month of Songs–the villain stole a bride from the very altar. Pretty young thing, she had been pledged to marry a family friend since the day she was born.”

   A picture of the missing girl flashed across the screen. She couldn’t have been older than thirteen.

   “And upon HanDay, earlier in the same month, the Lonely Knight smuggled a shipment of stolen goods into an orphan work colony on the outskirts of Gravity Pool Five Hundred and Six.”

   The Captain looked outraged even mentioning such evils.

   “His next crime, and perhaps his most heinous, was his attack on the mining planet of Zarg, where he led the miners–a whole lot of rabble–on a wild march into the office of their overseer, and proceeded to hold the overseer himself out the window until–”

   Unbidden, a laugh began to rise in Tek’s throat, taking considerable effort to choke down again.

   “Stop!” he interrupted. “Stop. These…crimes…are too horrible to even…speak of.”

The screen-bound captain scowled at him, unconvinced.

   “I’ll be certain to keep an eye out for this, ah…menace,” Tek added. “He sounds very dangerous.”

   Still unconvinced, the captain nodded.

   “Very.”

   He nodded again.

   “Very…well. Be on your way.”

   He reached out to tap the control screen once again.

   “Yes. Thank you! Best of luck in–”

   Before Tek could finish, the screen went a dull and uniform shade of greenish-black, and the rumble of engines announced that the Marksman was making its Imperial way elsewhere.

Relieved, Tek slumped against the wall of the comm chamber. The world was full, it seemed, of grease and grime and laws and stolen things. These, Tek was used to. But, if the lawmen could be believed–and, if Tek was honest, there had been no reason for them to lie–it seemed that sometimes, there were heroes as well. One, at least.

   In the face of that fact, the grease and grime seemed monumentally less important.

   With a sharp intake of breath, Tek got to his feet. The Marksman would be far enough away now to have severed their connection to his security feeds–and he needed to retrieve something from the hold.

*     *     *

   One week later.

   “Then, of course, I chopped off the villain’s head!” Ezra announced, waving his holo-sword in a dangerous arc through the air and very nearly missing both Mermaid’s control panel and her captain. Used to Ezra’s embellishments, Tek ducked expertly, and came up again with raised brows.

   “You killed him?”

   With another swift gesture, Ezra shut off the sword, replacing it in his belt.

   “Of course not.” He said, sounding offended. “He was a Vertheen, remember. Their heads are very nonessential organs–one might say decorative, really.” He leaned back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling in a trance of reminiscence. “Ah, he learned the error of his ways. Started an organic radish farm, I believe–we’ve kept in touch.”

   Tek leaned back again, taking in the story.

   “And the princess?”

   “Oh, she’ll be a queen now, if the parrot kept its promise–which I believe it did, noble creature that it was.”

   Ezra cracked his shoulders, rising to his feet.

   “And now, I believe it is time for tea,” he announced. ‘Tea,’ as a matter of fact, was a lukewarm mixture of Protein 5 and Mineral 1 that Ezra had first described as ‘nectar of the Gods.’ Tek had responded that it was swill, and they had both settled at the comfortable median of ‘tea.’

Ezra left, and Tek used the few free minutes he could depend upon before the arrival of another story to glance at the ship’s map and check on the status of their journey. He glanced, glanced again, frowned–and finally looked out the window.

   Thirty-Nine Blue, which had been a small but slowly growing dot of golden-brown in the far distance for some days now, loomed now, large and not distant at all. The nearest surface was dark, going through its night cycle, and the white-glowing sun was invisible save for the halo it cast around the eclipsing planet. By the time they were landing, it would be dawn.

   “Tea!” Ezra exclaimed, reentering the cockpit. Silent, Tek gestured to the window, and the old man went still.

   “Ah. Well then,” a ragged half-smile tore briefly across his face. “another adventure awaits, doesn’t it?”

*     *     *

   The Mermaid rattled loosely, complaining in rusted creaks and groans as she settled on the landing pad. The thrusters stirred up a golden whirlwind of loose sand, which swirled wildly in the planet’s wind-whipped air as the ship whirred to a reluctant halt. With a final hiss and clank, the ship settled, and Tek took his hands from the controls with the cautious, expansive gesture of someone who had just set down the last in a long line of standing dominoes. The ship remained silent, steady, and he breathed a satisfied sigh.

   “Artfully done!” Ezra exclaimed, clapping him on the shoulder. “In this fine vessel, my friend, I believe you shall go far.”

   Tek allowed himself a smile.

   “Far enough.”

   He followed Ezra to the airlock. It eased open with a rusty creak, revealing the planet’s dry and desolate surface, complete with an even drier and more desolate town in the far distance.

Ezra walked to the edge of the ship’s ramp, and halted before setting his feet to the planet’s soil. Tek frowned, all but blinded by the planet’s sun-soaked surface.

   “You’re certain you want to stay here?” he asked, looking at that heat-maddened mass of dead sand and seeing nothing worth loving. Ezra looked out too, blinking into the overwhelming light as though he could see beyond it.

   “Not stay,” he said, some of the usual buoyancy going out of hid voice, if only for a moment. “I never stay. I’ll move on, eventually. But–look at this place, my friend. Have you ever seen such purity, such cleanliness? It is as though the sun has absolved this place of sin. There is glory here, I’m certain of it–and I will find it, before I leave.” His eyes were almost glowing with purpose, and Tek nodded, for a moment swept away in the mere ferocity of Ezra’s words.

   But as the robed figure stalked away into the unbearable white of reflected sunlight, Tek felt a swift stab of something else. The Lonely Knight was a hero, he had ceased to have any doubts about that. But for all the people he came across, all those he had helped, none came back to him; and when he fought, he fought alone.

*     *     *

   Captain Tek of the Mermaid stared at the switchboard of his inactive ship, blinking blandly at the dead screens and deflated gauges, and pondered loneliness. From loneliness, he found himself thinking of life as a whole. There were so many souls he did not know, so many planets he had not seen, so much life that drifted out in the great expanse of living dark that at times seemed all there was, and sometimes seemed to promise–more. There seemed a vast abyss of things that needed doing, and Tek was compelled to go and do them.

   He closed his eyes, possibilities drifting through his mind.

   Perhaps he would even do something…heroic.

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The Curious Case of B-712

Death Wish

Justice and Sandwiches

The Wolf of Oboro-Teh

 

Lord Shiram Reuben blinked at the room that surrounded him as though it were a new and unexpected thing. Somehow it was, though he’d been sleeping there for years.

More to the point, he’d been dramatically failing to sleep there for years, which was all the more reason the chamber should seem familiar.

   He sighed, sitting up and trying to pinch the last vestiges of the dream from the bridge of his nose.

   “Lord Reuben?” A cautious scuff of feet in the doorway accompanied a cautious voice. He looked up to find one of the housemaids squinting sleepily at him past the glare of the candle she held. “Are ye all right?”

   Shiram stared at her a second, tried to remember her name. Failing, he shook his head.

   “I’m fine.”

   His own yelling. That was what had woken him–and evidently others, as well. The household staff should be used enough to these nightmares to stop checking on him.

   The maid yawned, pulling her shawl closer around her shoulders.

   “All right, m’lord. Is there anything else ye need, long as I’m here? Cook’s got cakes cooled in the kitchen.”

   Cakes were not the furthest thing from Shiram’s mind, but they were near it. He stared for another moment, mustering a reply.

   “No…Madalena, you can go.”

   He hoped he’d gotten her name right. Not that she’d feel free to tell him if he hadn’t.

   Possibly-Madalena nodded, barely keeping her eyes open, but managing a sleep-soaked smile.

   “Ye’ve the bell to ring should ye need anythin’, then. Wishin’ ye good rest.”

   She turned, plodding down the hall by the light of the single, slightly guttering, candle.

   “Thank you,” Shiram told the open air, unsure she’d hear him. The faint flickering of candlelight in the hall receded, leaving him alone in the equally uncertain light of a dying fire.

   The dream had coiled around Shiram’s insides, pulling death-tight and jolting him awake. Even now, shifting tendrils of it seemed to lurk in the shadows. He closed his eyes, aware both of how tired he was and how impossible sleep would be.

   It had not exactly been a dream if remembering–though those were bad too. Shards of memory, rather, disconnected and slice-sharp. The scarlet smile of a queen and the scarlet spills she smiled at; the curiously wet scent of iron-tainted air and the odd heaviness of a knife in his palm. It had left his stomach sick and his mind reeling with things he would rather have forgotten.

   He took a deep breath, opening his eyes in a cautious attempt to draw comfort from the solid, warm-lit stone of the walls around him and the tattered tapestries that adorned them.

   Shadows shifted rhythmically in the firelight, and a bed, a great feather-stuffed thing Shiram had never quite got the hang of, sat in the middle of the room, casting the biggest shadow of them all.         

   Shiram, surrounded by perfectly comfortable furs, lay on the floor.

   The warmth of the fire was slowly ebbing, allowing the biting midwinter chill to leach in though the stone walls.  Not caring to freeze, Shiram rose achingly to feed it.

   Orange flame rose, sparking, until it licked at the new wood with tongues of white. Shiram kicked a log, watching sparks dance up the soot-choked chimney, then flick out as the cold killed them.

   He’d have to tell James, the steward, that the chimneys needed cleaning.

The thought came uninvited, from a world so very far from his late dream that it made him laugh. There had been a time, before the scarlet-smiling queen, when Shiram would have scoffed at the thought of commanding a castle. He still scoffed at it, so strange it seemed.

   It wasn’t as though he hadn’t earned it. His Queen was not one for superfluous generosity; he had earned this–earned it in ways that gave him screaming knife-blade nightmares, ways that made him see a fire and expect the scent of burning flesh.

   Survival, he’d called it. Loyalty. He’d wanted very much to survive, when the world was a cruel place.

   He thought of Madalena and the cakes cooled in the kitchen.

   The world was kind now; but he was not.

   He closed his eyes, more tired than anything, and the nightmare crept eagerly into the dark behind his lids, snapping him awake.

   The firelight was bright enough to hurt, but he stared into it anyway, wondering if survival was worth all that much after all.

*     *     *

   The next morning, the Lord of Oboro-Teh informed his steward that the chimneys needed cleaning, and announced his own intentions to go riding. James took both facts in stride, assuring his lord that the fires would be kept burning to await his return.

   If the steward noticed the oddly quirked smile that was Shiram’s only response to this declaration, he did not mention it.

*     *     *

   

   The air was bitter. Shiram halted for the third time in the past half-hour, keeping his horse from sweating, and the beast pawed at the snow, frustrated by their slow progress. Leaning forward, Shiram gave its shoulder an absent pat. Though his eyes were glazed over by cold and carelessness, he couldn’t keep them off of the thick pine wood ahead–his goal, if this ride had a goal. There was something about the darkness, the twisting branches, that seemed like a comfort in comparison to the age-blemished expanse of powdery white that surrounded him now.

   Without the dull whuff and scrunch of the horse plowing through snow, another sound–just as quiet–was vaguely audible in the clear air. Voices. Some distance away. Shiram blinked, trying to make out what they said; frowned when he found he couldn’t.

   Noting that the horse had cooled down, he turned it in the direction of the sound. The beast shook its head in disapproval at his indecision, but swung obediently aside.

*     *     *

   As they grew closer, Shiram realized that the voices were shouting. Cresting the slight hill that lay between himself and the voices, he saw–but did not understand–what they were shouting about. 

   The scene was a wild amalgamation of people, sheep, and piled brushwood. Shiram halted, watching in confusion as some of the people rounded the sheep into one great wool-ridden, bleating mass, while others handed out weapons of all kinds–makeshift weapons, rakes and pruning tools and one rusty sword that must have belonged to someone’s great-grandfather.

The brushwood was being pulled into great heaps that might have served either as fortifications or a battlefield funeral pyre. They were working themselves harder than Shiram had dared work his horse, and Shiram felt the faintest twinge of guilt as he wondered why.

   A few of the peasants noticed the newcomer, glancing and nodding to one another without ceasing their work. Eventually the glancing and the nodding reached a white-haired man with work-hardened hands and a work-crooked back, who gave Shiram a long and calculating look before brushing his hands to approach him.

   “M’lord.” he said, giving a respectful nod. Shiram returned it.

   “Goodman.”

   “Thaddeus,” The man supplied. Shiram nodded again, this time towards the general turmoil.

   “Are you preparing for a festival of some kind?”

   The man named Thaddeus shook his head.

   “Would it were something that friendly, M’lord. It’s wolves we’re preparing for–or a wolf, rather.” The shepherd shrugged his shoulders, a slight involuntary movement protesting the cold. “It’s been stealing the sheep–not many, but there in’t much to go around in the first place, what with the taxes and the–ah–” he looked at Shiram, realizing he may not have picked the best person to complain about taxes to, and attempted to amend.  “Not that I won’t give my sheep to feed our queen in a heartbeat–but there’s none left for wolf-fodder.”

   The implied comparison was as unfortunate as it was unintentional. Shiram concealed a smile and gestured to the brushwood barricade.

   “You’re setting up a fire ring,” he noted. Set alight, the wood would burn long and bright–and wolves cared little for fire. 

   “Ay, and a night watch.”

   “No hunting parties?” Shiram asked, realizing the question was idiotic even before Thaddeus shook his head in denial. Hunting bows were not common among shepherds; the Queen discouraged them. Still, they could have come to the keep and asked for a band of Shiram’s men-at-arms. 

   If it came to that, there was no need for them to go to the keep at all.

“One wolf, you said?” Shiram had learned his hunting chasing fugitives and traitors–the queen’s enemies, and occasionally his own. A wolf would be a welcome change.

   Thaddeus was nodding, but without enthusiasm.

   “It’s said…and this may just be peasant’s talk, M’lord…but ‘tis said that it’s no normal wolf. More like a demon, according to the few who’ve seen it. Glowing red eyes and a cry like a banshee.”

   “A demon wolf?” Shiram raised his eyebrows, and Thaddeus gave a half-ashamed gesture, shrugging off the warning. “As I said. It may be the fear talking, and not good sense.”

   Reuben frowned.

   “It may also be poachers, or a clever thief. I’ve known a few to do the like–act the monster or the demon, scare people off their scent.”

   The horse shifted under him, tossing its head, and Thaddeus set an unthinking hand on the beast’s shoulder, calming it.

   “Of the two, M’lord, I’d rather have the demon.”

   “Less destructive?”

   “Less pitiable. I wouldn’t mind seeing a demon drawn and quartered.”

   There was a small fire in Thaddeus’s eyes, though it died quickly again. Shiram suppressed a grimace–he’d carried out the Queen’s laws often enough to know how unforgiving they were. Necessary, from a political perspective. But in the eyes of human beings who knew what it was to be hungry…cruel.

   “Well, there’s a good chance it’s only a lone wolf. Lost its pack, maybe, and turning to easier game,” Shiram said. “Has it left its tracks anywhere?”

   Thaddeus looked surprised.

   “Everywhere.”

   “Show me.” 

*     *     *

   The old shepherd led him to a place where the wolf had made its kill. The tracks were muddled and indecisive, mixed with blood and the plundering hoofprints of a panicked herd, but there was a clear enough path out of the mess.  A trail of blood led up and into the woods; he intended to follow it.

   “It seems a dangerous thing, hunting it,” Thaddeus said, as Shiram remounted his horse. The statement held an inquisitive twist that Shiram did not particularly like, and he shrugged.

   “It seems a dangerous thing, living in these hills,” He returned, indicating the blood-patched snow and still-shouting melee of shepherds. 

   “Ah,” Thaddeus said with a slight chuckle. “We cast our fortunes on the will of the holies, for sure. ‘Course, it’s hard to tell how completely we cast them, for we always expect ‘em back again–but the holies, they come through.”

   He returned his gaze to the snow-frozen blood.

   “Sometimes,” He amended.

   Satisfied, Shiram set to evening his reins.

   “If you ask me, M’lord, any man who goes to fight even a single wolf alone is hell-bent on suicide.”

   Shiram looked down to see the old man giving him a piercing gaze, which lowered as Thaddeus reassumed his place.

   “If you ask me,” he said quietly, with the implication that of course no one would ask him, and that his words were of no import. Shiram only nodded, letting the old man return to his work.

   It was not suicide, he thought in belated self-defense. He was simply…casting his life on the will of the holies.

   He did not expect it back again.

*     *     *

   The woods deepened and the clouds grew darker as they plodded on. Lowering his head, the horse huffed a soft breath at the snow–more warning than frustration–and Shiram found himself reaching for his sword more than once.

   Five minutes–or perhaps it had been half an hour–later, the mouth of a cave gaped before them, darkly visible against the pale-glowing snow. The blood trail spattered in frozen drops over its threshold.

   Snow flew up in a gust of cold as Shiram leapt off the horse, absently looping its reins around a flimsy branch. The horse could make its own way home; Shiram would not be needing it much longer. The beast snorted, a cloud of white in the still air–the dark air. It was near the end of evening, and he would be missed soon–but not for long. Oboro-Teh would find another lord, in time. Perhaps a better lord.

   And this cave would be the grave of at least one monster tonight. Two, if Shiram’s blade held true. With a lightly pounding heart, he drew it and stepped into the dark.

Something cracked under his foot. Looking down, he saw the tiny skull of a rat, crushed under his weight. The cave floor was strewn liberally with other tiny bones, stripped clean and sucked of their marrow, and Shiram frowned.

   This did not look like the work of a wolf.

   There was a shifting, almost a scuttling, in the dark; Shiram jumped back, half-believing he’d heard a whisper of a voice in the biting air.

   He held his sword close and ready, listening as well as he could past the beat of his own heart. The things moving in the dark sounded…small. His mind conjured a horde of rattle-boned ghouls, a contingent of bat-size demons.

   Something pattered past him, brushing his leg. It was out of reach before he could even see it. The thing was followed by another–who was not so lucky.

   Shiram moved like lightning to snatch a handful of hide, jerking the scuttler-in-the-dark backwards and into the light, twisting his sword to run it through.

   He stopped just short of killing it. The thing staring up at him with terrified eyes was a child.

   Shiram stared back, too shocked to lower the sword, and the boy bit him. He dropped it with a surprised yelp; scrambling to his feet, the boy began to run.

   “Stop!” he shouted, but of course the boy didn’t. Shiram, used to hunting men with much longer legs, caught up with him quickly. The child stumbled, and he grabbed the back of the boy’s neck–holding him tight and gingerly, as he would a snake. With a wild-man yell, the boy pulled a knife, opening a stinging cut on Shiram’s arm.

   “I’m not going to hurt you,” Shiram growled as he wrested the little weapon away. He was not very convincing, and the boy tried to bite him again.

   “I’m not going to–ow.” something hard bounced off of Shiram’s back, and he spun to face the new attack.

   If the boy was wild, this girl looked wilder. Her grease-grey hair contrasted with her tiny stature, and her knuckles had gone white around the slingshot she held. A tiny bird-skull was looped inside it, as ammunition.

   “Jess, just run! Get out of here!” the boy struggled as he spoke, evidently wanting to follow his own advice. Jess turned a steely frown, originally meant for Shiram, on him.   

   “I in’t leaving you, stupid,” she said, as yet another child–a tiny, wide-eyed thing in a tattered dress–peered out from behind her skirts. Shiram found her–and indeed everything–unsettling.

   This was not a wolf, not a demon, and it was not death. He felt cheated.

   Another bird skull bounced off his shoulder, doing nothing to improve his mood. He swung the boy around to act as a shield from any further missiles, and ignored the warm trickle of blood dripping down his arm.

   It was poachers, then, as he had feared. What had Thaddeus said?

   I wouldn’t mind seeing a demon drawn and quartered.

   But these were not demons. The boy in Shiram’s grip felt brittle enough to shatter from cold alone.

   “Let him go!” the girl shouted, fingers fisting tighter on a sling they both knew was useless.

Shiram wished he could.

   “I was expecting to find a demon wolf up here,” he ventured. “It’s a good ruse. I’m curious to know how you carried it out.”

   There was silence.

   “Whose idea was it?” Shiram watched the girl’s face, but it was the boy who spoke.

   “Mine,” He snapped, twisting in Shiram’s grip, trying to face him. “Just mine. We all needed the meat–but I’m the one who took it.”

    He sounded as though he was admitting to treason. Given the laws on poaching, he might as well have been.

   The laws of the scarlet-smile queen were just, from her own perspective, but in the eyes of those who knew what hunger was…Shiram had known hunger, once. Had he forgotten that?

   “And blamed it on a red-eyed demon,” he said, watching the boy’s face. “How’d you manage that?”

    The boy clenched his jaw.

   “None of your business.”

   Shiram raised his eyebrows, recognizing the hardness in the boy’s voice. Men became hard, when the world was cruel–and the world was cruel, unless someone bothered to make it kind.

    Glancing at Jess, he countered her frightened scowl with a small smile.

   “Well then,” he said, thinking things through. He looked back the cave mouth, to the set of tracks in the snow–thought back to the shepherds, all convinced of what they’d seen–a demon-wolf with glowing eyes. “There’s no sheep here. No wolf either.”

   He eased his grip on the boy, and the child dropped, scrambling out of reach to stand between Shiram and Jess–but he didn’t run, and the suspicion on his face was beginning to show eggshell-thin cracks.

   “Perhaps the wolf’s dead,” Shiram ventured, sheathing the sword.

   Slowly he realized that Shiram was not here to bring him to the law. He took another step back, suspicious again.

   “Thank you, sir,” he managed. “The wolf’s dead–and he won’t be stealing any more of your sheep.”

    Jess nodded in agreement. “Bless your heart, sir,” she added.

   The boy turned with cold-stiff shoulders to lead them away; and Shiram found, quite suddenly, that he did not want his heart to be blessed.

   “Wait,” he said to the trio of retreating backs.  “Do you expect I’ll leave you out here to freeze to death?”

    Kindness was as soul-seizing as cruelty, once given into. He shook his head.

   “Come back with me. I’ll see you fed, at least.”

   He would feed them for as long as they cared to stay. Perhaps it would not make up for the lives he’d ended, the laws he’d carried out. He did not much care; there were three lives, at least, that need not be snuffed out today–and that was enough. 

   None of the children moved, and even in the deepening dark he could see disbelief twisting across the boy’s face.

   “And in return for all this?” he asked, his voice tinged with something like sarcasm. It sounded ugly, coming from one so young.

   Shiram had asked the Queen the same thing once. ‘Loyalty,’ she’d said. She had meant his soul.

   Shiram shook his head.

   “Nothing.”

   Just his own soul.

Epilogue:

   The boy’s name was Steven, Shiram learned; and the little wordless girl hanging off of Jess’s skirt was called Hanna. The ride home was long, but they were met by friendly kitchen fires and Cook’s cakes. Madalena–for her name was Madalena, as Shiram was proud to discover–was the one who finally made Steven smile. It was a small, brief smile, but it was a beginning.

   Shiram sat farthest from the fire, keeping the nightmare shadows away from the now-happy group. The cold had wearied him to the bone, and he was almost considering going to sleep. 

   A tiny hand seizing his sleeve stirred him, and he looked down to find Hanna giving him a mostly toothless grin. He was too surprised to protest as she pulled herself onto his lap and curled up like a cat, falling asleep in matter of minutes. 

  Shiram blinked–first at her, then at the stone walls. No nightmares lurked there, for once. Just firelight, and kindness, and home. A kind world, in which he hardly seemed to belong. He would have gotten up to leave, but for the lightweight anchor asleep on his chest.

   Lord Shiram Reuben of Oboro-Teh dared a smile.

   Cast your life on the will of the holies.

   For maybe, just maybe, they would give it back again.

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