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.

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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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The Pick-Pocket of Ishtar

Death Wish

Justice and Sandwiches

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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Justice and Sandwiches

    The sky smelled like spring storming, but a cloud of bone-dry dust marked Ramlin’s progress down the road. It had seeped into his clothes some miles since, fading them; and his rented horse punctuated every fifth step with a discontented huff.

Leading the beast along by the reins so he could feel the ground beneath his boots for once, the traveler didn’t mind the dust. The evening was quiet and wild–dark-cloud skies and a golden sunset–with yellow light  glowing gem-like through the buds of the willow trees. In spite of the journey that sorely needed finishing, Ramlin walked at an unambitious pace, determined to enjoy the fading vignette of perfect beauty.

The horse huffed again, halted, and refused to walk another step. Used to the beast’s protests, Ramlin gave the reins a gentle, almost indecisive, pull. 

“Come on, girl.”

The horse snorted again, tossing her head and stamping. Head up as high as it could go, she stared into the mass of glowing willows with eyes wide and ears sharp as pinpricks.

“Spooking at rabbits now?” Ramlin asked.

By way of reply, she looked at him with something that might have been uncertainty–or scorn. It was hard to tell with horses.

“Nothing to be frightened of, silly goose.” He walked back to her, scratching along the base of her mane. “I’d like to stay here too, but we’ve got a journey to finish and somewhere to be.”

She whuffled, less than convinced.   

Ramlin turned back to plod on–and found himself looking down the barrel of a pistol. 

“Halt, and state your business!” the man behind the pistol said roughly, the somewhat flamboyant mask over his mouth rumpling with the words. Ramlin frowned–first at the mask, then at the man. 

“I’ve already halted, as you may have noticed. And as for my business, it’s none of yours.”

The brigand looked taken aback, but only for a moment. He scowled, cocking back the hammer on the flintlock–in order to be extra threatening, Ramlin guessed.

“Your money–” he began.

“Is not here,” Ramlin finished. “Do you think I’m an idiot, to carry money around on brigand-infested roads?”

With an indignant huff, the man lowered the pistol.   

“You could try to let me finish my sentences. I may be attempting to rob you, but that’s no reason to be rude.”

I’m rude? You’re the one who’s–” Ramlin halted, thinking. “Hold on, there’s a pun in there somewhere. Let me think of it.”

The brigand threw up his hands in a silent plea to the gods, then wandered to the edge of the road and sat down to wait as Ramlin got his words in order. After a minute or so, Ramlin punched the air.

“I’ve got it! You want me to let you finish your sentences? Well, the only sentence you’ll finish is the one that’ll send you to the gallows!”

The man’s shoulders slumped, and he looked at Ramlin with ironically half-lidded eyes.

“Well?”

“Hilarious,” the brigand said in a tone as dry as the road he sat on. He got up, dusting himself off. “Or it might have been, had you thought of it a minute or so ago. It’s not even a real pun.”

“Of course it’s a real pun,” Ramlin drew himself up in defense of his maligned joke. “A pun is when a word meaning one thing is intentionally mistaken for the same word meaning something else.”

The brigand snorted. “Where did you get that information, Kober’s Universal Dictionary of Jokes?”

“Where else? It’s a perfectly respectable resource.”

“It’s a bookful of outdated drabble written by a drunken university professor who never made a joke in his life,” the brigand returned, fishing something out of his coat pocket. He drew out a book–small and worn, but with a perfectly readable title. Ramlin scowled at it.

The Definitive Listing of Humorous Types, by P.J. Dorbel?” he said, feigning disbelief. “That’s nothing but a doorstopper for uneducated peasants.”

“Of course it is. That’s why uneducated peasants always understand jokes so well.” the man flipped through the book’s pages with an officious eye. “Here,” he said, stabbing the page he wanted with a stiff finger. “Pun. Humor type: low. Benefit to joker: high. Consists of mashing the meaning of one word into the form of  another, creating an ironic but accurate marriage of words. Examples: Punny, Momster, CAT-astophe. The joke is not the joke, the joke is the fact that the joke was made. Perhaps one of the most existential forms of humor, the pun–”

“Cease this orgy of utter idiocy!” Ramlin roared, feeling himself red in the face with purest indignation. “Existentialism in puns? In that type, that horrible type of puns no less? You’re mad!”

“Of course existentialism in puns,” the thief replied. “Where else is it to be found?”

“Sarcasm, of course!” Ramlin threw his hands up. “Everyone knows that.”

“Sarcasm is anarchical, not existential. Everyone knows that.

The horse, a creature generally uninterested in both jokes and existentialism, had slowly wandered off. As the debate raged on, she decided to pass the time munching on willow branches–something which she was very interested in. 

But whether or not she was sensible to philosophical debates, the beast did have a sense of danger. She was not entirely certain what this sense was made up of–the faint crackle of leather soles over the dry ground, a nip of gunmetal scent drifting in her nostrils, the sudden quietness of birds. But as it flickered to life in the back of her mind, she ceased her munching, pricked up her ears, and snorted to warn her master of the approaching doom.

Ramlin, however, was now caught up in arguing whether flippancy was a true form of humor or simply–as the brigand put it– ‘the ghost of a dead sense, moaning its end.’ As a result, he did not notice the danger until, looming behind him, it settled the cold barrel of a pistol at the base of his neck.

The brigand, equally blinded by the fervency of his own statements, noticed the danger the same time Ramlin did; and by then it was too late.

There were three of them.  Dressed in faded cloth and leather spattered with the rust of dried blood, these brigands made the first seem like a character from a stage play–and they had surrounded Ramlin and this opponent both. The group was made up of a hulking axe man, a dark-haired, cold-eyed girl in a tricorner hat, and a lanky fellow who refused to move his pistol from the back of Ramlin’s head. This last spoke first, in a low and gravel-tempered tone that seemed the original to the first brigand’s parody. 

“Ah, Nargle,” he addressed the first brigand, whose face had gone white under his mask.  “I’m afraid ‘tis you who are the joke–and not a very funny one, at that.”

“Brinker,” the thief named Nargle said. “This stretch of road belongs to me. We agreed to that. You’ve no right to–”

“No right?”cold incredulity colored Brinker’s words. “Are you the one to instruct me on my rights?”

Nargle shut his jaw tight over whatever he had been intending to say next. Ramlin, in no better position, almost pitied the thief’s predicament–even if he was a detestable believer in P.J. Dorbel’s lies.

“Besides,” the female brigand said amiably, “our agreement only applies if you’re actually robbing people–not if you’re arguing with them about puns.” Her brows lowered over the edge of her mask. “Add that to a list of things I never thought I’d have to say.”

“So we get to rob the both of you!” the axe man said, as though he was announcing that cake and pies were available for everyone after the show. Brinker gave him a humorless look. 

“Thank you, Torsa–I believe that was implied.”

“Oh.” the axe-man wilted. “So can I–”

“By all means, please go ahead.”

Torsa grinned and hefted his weapon, taking a step towards the suddenly dwarfed Nargle. The smaller brigand cried out in protest–as did Ramlin, once he realized what was happening–but the cry was cut short as Torsa brought the base of the axe down on Nargle’s unprotected head.

   “You’re lucky to be alive,” someone remarked, before Nargle was fully certain of the fact that he was alive. He blinked, forcing himself to focus on the waking world.

The willow branches above his head whispered with the wind, slithering out of the night’s blackness like great yellow-orange fingers. They were unsettling. He tried to get up.

“That may not be the best–”

Nargle’s head spun, and he gagged before lying back down again.

“–idea,” the voice finished. “A blow that hard could well have killed you, and I’m afraid you’re not quite up to doing jumping jacks yet.”

The facts were attempting to reconcile themselves to Nargle’s mind. He rubbed a hand absentmindedly over his face, trying to clear the persistent ache, and came to the realization that his mask was gone. Panic spiked in his chest, gaze snapping to the owner of the voice, who was staring curiously at him across a small campfire.

“They stole my horse,” the man Nargle had tried to rob said. “There wasn’t much to do but patch you up and wait for sunrise. We’ll head for town in the morning.” He poked at the fire. “Report the fellows who jumped us.”

Nargle was silent, unable to view the man who’d seen his face and saved his life with anything but trepidation.

Noticing his expression, the man added, “Seeing as you never actually got around to robbing me, I don’t see there’s any need to tell them that bit.”

Nargle let out a tense breath. He didn’t like the idea of hanging any more than the next man.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” the man replied, “not to anyone. A story like that could ruin my reputation.”

Nargle nodded and immediately regretted it, closing his eyes with a groan.

“So. I gather your name is Nargle,” the man said after a moment, extending a hand over the fire. “Mine is Ramlin.”

Nargle raised his brows and shook the proffered hand, then chuckled. “Ramlin, eh?” he asked. “Not a very fortunate name.”

“Why not?” Ramlin looked genuinely curious.

Nargle laughed. Then, realizing laughter hurt, he stopped. “Well, it’s a perfectly fine name–but you just so happen to share it with someone a little less than fine,” he explained. “Some jumped-up government official who’s been threatening to come out of his ivory tower to sort out the provinces–not that he ever will, but the threat’s enough to get him disliked around here.” He grinned, happy to be the expert on local politics for once. Usually it was a subject he would rather avoid.

Ramlin was giving him an odd look, and Nargle tried to reassure him. “You won’t have to worry about that, though. I doubt anyone will mistake you for your namesake.”

The odd expression on Ramlin’s face hadn’t changed. He stared at Nargle for an uncomfortable moment, then looked at the ground with a sort of half-smile. By the time he looked up again, Nargle had almost guessed the truth.

“Well, I’d show you my badge of office, but that was stolen along with everything else, so you’ll just have to take my word…but I am that jumped-up government official. Duly out of my ivory tower.”

He gave the shocked thief a self-deprecating grin, and Nargle squeezed his eyes shut against the sudden worsening of his headache.

Brinker did not particularly mind robbing fellow thieves, or even leaving them for dead on the roadside. He didn’t particularly mind robbing anyone. It was, perhaps, this uncommon lack of conscience that deprived him of seeing the irony in his next words.

“We’ve been robbed!” he announced, looking through yet another package of worthless stolen goods. “Shirtsleeves and old books–nothing of value at all!”

“Well,” Melli, delicately cleaning her fingernails with a penknife, interposed, “Nargle hasn’t had a penny to his name in ages. And the other man did warn us he never carried any money on him.”

“He also said that Kober’s Universal Dictionary of Jokes was a good book,” rumbled Torsa, in the midst of digging through another pack. “I wouldn’t trust anything he said.”

“But it is a–” Brinker began, then halted, pinching the bridge of his nose in annoyance. “nevermind, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to find another mark, preferably a richer one. No more dilly-dallying.”

The three brigands hadn’t bothered to flee all the way back to their hideout, instead rifling through Ramlin’s possessions a mere mile or so down the road. The cover of night, broken only by a lantern or two, seemed sufficient to hide them on the deserted road.

“Yes, that’s precisely what we’ve been doing,” Melli said, “dilly-dallying.”

“We haven’t been dilly-dallying,” Torsa sounded hurt by the suggestion. “We robbed five carriages just this week.”

“Yes, but none of them were carrying anything,” Brinker explained, “nothing of value at all. We need to find someone rich and rob them.

“Oh.”  Mollified, Torsa went back to his pack. 

“Of course, that would be far easier to do if we didn’t waste our time bullying poor saps like Nargle off their territory,” Melli said in a faint sing-song, focusing with abnormal determination on her fingernails. Brinker looked at her narrowly.

“I’m sorry, but are you–” he began, but was interrupted by Torsa throwing something small and hard at his head.

“OW!” he shouted. “What are you trying to do?”

“Sorry. Does that look valuable?”

Brinker scowled at the disc, which had landed in his lap. Soon, the scowl disappeared and he picked the thing up. It was simple enough–a circle of wood, carved in intricate patterns and outfitted to hang medallion-like on a chain. Thoughtfully rubbing a thumb over the engraved letters at the thing’s edge, he met his companion’s curious gazes.

“Torsa,” he said, “this is, quite possibly, the most valuable thing we’ve ever stolen.”

Melli frowned. “Really?”

Brinker held the thing up, and her expression changed. “Is that a seal of office?” she asked. “You just robbed a magistrate?”

Brinker shook his head. “I didn’t rob a magistrate.” He tossed the medallion into the air, catching it again with a devilish grin. “As of right now…I am a magistrate.”

The next morning was beautiful, full of sunshine and birdsong. Nargle resented it. As much as Ramlin insisted that his head hadn’t suffered any permanent damage, it felt as though it had been permanently bruised, and everything from light to noise to the very steps he took seemed to aggravate it. Ramlin was trying to encourage him.

“We’re very nearly to the city.” 

“I don’t even want to go to the city,” groaned Nargle. “I want to lie by the roadside and die.”

“Don’t be melodramatic. Do you want justice or not?”

Nargle halted his stumbling progress to squint at his companion.

“As a matter of fact,” he said petulantly, “I don’t care a fig if I get justice or not. Justice can go to rot and ruin, for all I care. At the moment, I would much rather have a sandwich.”

Ramlin raised his eyebrows. He’d never heard anyone say something so sensible and stupid all at once. He was used to cries for justice, pleas for justice, wailing and weeping to escape justice, but never simple apathy over it. He supposed that he never would hear of it, in his line of work; those sensible, careless people were unlikely to be seen in a justice hall. They were probably all off somewhere else, eating sandwiches–and Ramlin almost wondered if those invisible sandwich-eating hordes were not better off than the rest of humanity.

On the other hand, he had just been robbed, Nargle basted and left for dead. As a response, apathy was comfortable but unwise–the next traveler that Brinker and his brigands left for dead might really end up that way, and that was something that Ramlin, for one, did not care to have perching on his conscience. He grabbed a handful of Nargle’s coat, pulling him in an unwilling jumble of limbs down the road.

“Justice first,” he said, abbreviating the full course of his thoughts into single, assimilable points. “Then sandwiches.”

“Magistrate Ramlin,” a steward announced,  and the  entire court rose as the Magistrate, with all his robes, tried to make his way from the entrance of the town’s tiny justice hall all the way into its uncomfortable seat of justice without tripping. He failed. As the magistrate flopped into his chair with a scowl, the steward cleared his throat and announced the first case. 

“These are the two thieves that attacked you, and almost made off with your identity as well,” he said in the brief and somewhat condescending aside that he often used to announce cases. The magistrate scowled, first at the defendants, then at the steward, with equal dislike.

“You can’t be serious.” This from the first of the two thieves, a dignified-looking man, if a little travel-worn.

“Believe me, he is,” the second of the pair, a shorter, flaxen-colored fellow with a bandage wrapped around his head, replied.

The magistrate flipped his wooden seal of office over his fingers pointedly, then looked down at the two ‘thieves,’ a sharp grin flashing over his face. In spite of tangling robes and condescending stewards, Brinker was determined to enjoy his newfound power to its utmost. He aimed the greater part of his smile towards the real Ramlin, who stared back in useless indignation.

“These are indeed the men who tried to rob me–I was lucky to escape with my life,” he announced. “I’ll require some time to think of a fitting punishment for them. Let them await judgement in prison. Guards! Take them away.”

The justice hall only employed one guard, the same guard they had employed for the past sixty years. He shuffled steadily towards the defendants over the space of a minute, reached them, and then began to lead them away with no great increase of speed, bringing Brinker’s resounding command to a bit of an anticlimax.

“Well, that was a resounding success,” Nargle hissed as they were escorted to prison. “Tell me again why we couldn’t just get sandwiches?”

“Shut up,” Ramlin hissed back.

Ramlin had seen prisons before. He had inspected prisons, discussed prisons, and sent many people to prison. He’d always thought that if there was one thing he understood, it was prisons. As it turned out, they looked a great deal different if you were actually stuck in one.

Nargle had sprawled in relative comfort on the floor, leaning his head against the wall and watching Ramlin through sleepily half-lidded eyes.

“Unless you’re planning of wearing a hole through the floor, pacing isn’t going to help.”

Ramlin, who had only partly realized that he was pacing at all, stopped.

“How can you possibly be sitting still?” he burst out. Nargle shrugged, shutting his eyes.

“I’m used to this,” he said. “Thief, remember? I’ve been to prison before. Feeling trapped is normal–in fact, I think it’s sort of the point.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s only the truth.”

“No, really–hush. Someone’s coming.”

Nargle frowned, opening his eyes. “Who is it?”

The door opened almost as soon as he’d asked. Brinker burst into the room, fluttering his robes like the wings of giant raven, with the girl and the axe-man in reluctant attendance. Unmasked, they all looked a great deal different–almost respectable, if Ramlin hadn’t known better. He scowled at them.

“Come to gloat?” Nargle, still sitting on the floor, asked. “Isn’t that rather bad form?”

Brinker turned from his task of shutting the door with an odd expression.

“Gloat?” he whispered, as though unstrung. “What the hell is there to gloat about?”

Nargle shrugged.

“The usual, I suppose. Your clever victory, deceiving the townspeople, gaining a position of power and prestige while putting both of us under lock and key? It seems like something worth gloating about.”

“Power and prestige?” Brinker choked. “I’ve never been more powerless in my life. I had to dodge six secretaries just to escape the justice hall. Even here, I’m not safe. They’ll find me any second, and then that blasted steward will sneer at me again.” He shivered. “You’re more free than I am.”

“I can assure you, we’re not,” Ramlin put in, but Brinker wasn’t done.

“As for prestige,” he said, “there is none. I had more respect when I was a thief.”

“Are you sure about–” Nargle began.

“The court scribe threw an inkpot at my head!” Brinker hissed, no doubt intending to shock everyone. Perhaps Nargle was shocked; but Ramlin only nodded.

“Yes, they’re prone to do that if you get long-winded,” he said calmly. “It’s a difficult job, and it makes them temperamental.”

Brinker rushed at him, grabbing his cloak in desperation. “You have to help us escape!”

“We… have to help you… escape?” Nargle repeated, looking around the walls of their cell in pointed confusion; but Brinker, as usual, was unaware of the irony. Nargle turned to the other two thieves, who were looking as grim as their superior.

“Yes, escape,” the woman said. “You may be in prison, but I’m in a corset.”

“They took away my axe,” Torsa added, as though this was an offense against dignity to top all others.

Ramlin frowned, conflicted. He didn’t doubt that Brinker was telling the truth. The life of a brigand was a far freer and more interesting one than the life of a magistrate. If Ramlin was telling the truth as well, it was probably a healthier one.

But if magisterial duties were truly so confining, what better prison for a heinous thief?

Finally, he made his decision.

“Very well. I’ll help you escape this–if you give your word that you’ll go on to better things than thieving.”

“Of course. Anything.”

Brinker’s eager tone was not very convincing. Ramlin squinted at him, but there was no going back now.

“All right then, here’s the plan. Tonight, you come to these cells with the key…”

The brigands leaned forward in a small, hopeful huddle as Ramlin explained his plan.

Later that evening…

“This is insane,” Nargle announced, as the jailer’s footsteps made their last rounds about the night-darkened halls. “It’s never going to work.”

“Well, it’s better than nothing.” restless, Ramlin shifted. “It’s this or everyone gets a life in their own personal jail–not a very long life, in our case.”

“Just because it’s our only option doesn’t mean I can’t criticize its foolishness. You come up with the plans, and I’m supposed to insult them. It’s called teamwork.”

Ramlin snorted.

“Did P.J. Dorbel provide you with that definition?”

“No,” Nargle replied, “life did.”

After another moment of waiting, he added, “Are you sure you can’t just tell everyone about the mix-up, become a magistrate again? You’re a good magistrate. You could help people.”

Ramlin shook his head. “No.”

“Why not? It’s a lot less crazy than what you’re trying to do now.”

“Because everything that Brinker said about that job is true,” Ramlin said, sudden-serious. “It sucks the life out of you. You can’t help anyone, not really. You watch the same old problems resurface every day with new faces, and you know it’s never going to end–until suddenly you’re old and cynical as well as helpless. Occasionally, you get ink-pots thrown at your head. Or old ladies’ mittens…” he stopped a moment, thinking.  “I’ve got to escape, too.”

The words lingered in the dark air for a moment. Then Nargle sighed.

“Right,” he allowed. “But this is still insane.”

Shuffling was heard along the hall, and Torsa attempting a whisper.

“Do you really think we can trust–” his booming baritone began.

“SHHH!” two sibilant voices rejoined, and the attempted whisper fell dead. A key turned in the lock, and the door to their cell slithered open.

“Thought you’d never come.”

“Of course we were coming. I was held up by another secretary–there’s a whole plague of them around here.”

“Right. Just get us out of here.”

Ramlin led the way down the hall. The prison was somewhat less than well-guarded. It was a small provincial jail, after all, meant for drunks and vandals and second-rate thieves. It was relatively easy to get out the front door, and in the nighttime quiet there was no trouble walking across the open village square. When they reached the gate, Ramlin halted.

Brinker looked into the whispering, forested blackness and thought he smelled freedom.

He turned to Ramlin, gratitude watering his eyes.

“Thank you,” he said, handing the seal of office back as though it were something made vile by a witches’ curse. “Take your life back, Magistrate. I’ve no love for it.”

Ramlin looked at the seal, turned it over in his hands–a small, simple thing for all its carvings. “I wouldn’t thank me yet,” he said, almost sorry for what he was about to do. “I’ve learned–you have taught me–that I’ve no love for this life either.” He handed it back. “Keep what you’ve stolen.”

Someone had noticed the prisoner’s absence, and shouting had begun in the town. A flare of torches flickered orange against the city gate. Brinker’s face was white.

“They’re calling for you, magistrate,” Nargle said happily. “Better run back.”

Brinker didn’t mind him, looking instead at Ramlin–the only one present who really understood his terror.

“Please,” Brinker said. “Don’t do this. Take me with you.”

“Magistrate! The magistrate has disappeared!” cried a shrieking voice–the steward’s–and Brinker and Ramlin both flinched at it.

“Find him! Find him!” echoed the secretaries, as red torchlight and a dark-lit swarm of bodies began to fill the square, milling about in search of criminals and Justice alike.

“I’m sorry,” Ramlin said, sincerely.

But sincere or not, sorry wasn’t about to stop him from running.

“There he is! There he is!” the hellish voices cried as the four thieves fled into the forest.

Nargle looked back once. He saw the scribes, the secretaries, and the steward surrounding Brinker with screeches and torchlight. Brinker himself stood statue-still, the seal held tight in his grip like a proclamation of doom–then the lawful horde swallowed him up in its happy embrace, and he was gone.

“Well, that was an adventure,” Melli sighed, once they were well away from the city. “What now?”

They all looked to Ramlin; though it took him a moment to notice. He was their leader now, he realized; as Brinker once had been. He wasn’t the only one to have stolen a life. Perhaps Brinker would make a better magistrate than Ramlin had been; and perhaps, just perhaps, Ramlin would make a better brigand. Nothing had changed, not really; right and wrong were in their proper places, things quite different than lawful and unlawful.

“I think,” he began, “sandwiches.”

Nargle looked at him curiously.

“And justice?”

Ramlin nodded. “That too. But sandwiches first.”

Author’s Note: 

This tale was written in honor of my Dad’s retirement from a job as soul-sucking and unpleasant as a Magistrates’–and subsequent move to something slightly more legal than, though just as adventurous, as brigandry. Love you, Dad!

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The Curious Case of B-712

Michael walked along the neatly hung row of corpses, yawning as static buzzed through his headphones. The bodies weren’t human. They barely even looked it.

In the dim light, though, during the after-hours in which Michael worked, the drooping heads and darkened eyes had a nasty habit of taking on the likeness of men. But then a stray gust from the air vents would disturb them, setting the corpses to swing carelessly, bonking against one another with tiny metallic clinks and refracting the half-light off their metal flesh. 

Robots. Not bodies. Robots. Michael repeated the reminder to himself intermittently, attempting a relieved sigh as his brain, if not his heart, held firm to the fact that he was not working in a graveyard or a slaughterhouse, but a simple store-room. 

Distracting himself, he listened to the noise over his headphones with rapt attention. He frowned and made a pen-scratch mark on the company-issue clipboard, crossing off a box on the company-issue chart. A faint scrape as he unplugged the headphones. A heavy snap to shut the bot’s chest plate. Next bot. Creak open the chest plate. Click the headphones in the auxiliary jack. A subdued series of beeps as Michael punched a long-since-memorized code into the bot’s keypad, then waited for a familiar string of words to come through the static–designee B-712, class 3, gen 8, sent into storage for…

Inventory was not a glorious job, but it paid, and that was enough for Michael. He yawned again. He was near the end of the B’s now, and the storehouse only held up to the mid-C’s. He would be going home soon. 

Save for faint ululations of static, B-712 was not making any noise. Michael tapped the bot absently. It shouldn’t be broken. 

The static responded with a slight but promising shift, and Michael poised his pen to check off another box. But instead of the regulated, mechanical words, there spoke a voice–a voice as clear as a church-bell, and at least as urgent.

You should leave. It’s not safe here.

Michael blinked, frowning at the robot. It hung, careless as ever, saying nothing. After the silence had stretched a moment, Michael shook his head. His imagination was playing tricks. He was certainly tired enough. He started punching in the code again. He’d listen more carefu–

GET OUT NOW! 

Michael leapt back, tearing off his headphones to stare at the robot. Still motionless–but he hadn’t imagined that. He couldn’t have. 

The silence of the store-room was not as silent as it had been only a moment ago. Creaking and clicking sounded somewhere in the far reaches of the room, followed by a nearby crash as of a pile of cooking utensils falling. Heart pounding, Michael spun toward the sound, seeing nothing in the dim light but the uniform row of metal bodies. 

Then one of the hanging, dead-eyed heads flickered to life, and, turning slowly, fixed him with a cold, mechanical stare. 

Suddenly, ‘get out now’ seemed like excellent advice. 

The clanking and clanging had developed into a cacophony. Michael dropped clipboard and headphones alike, turning to flee out the door–but two hulking, steel-wrapped figures already stood in front of it.

The storehouse had no other door. No windows. A design choice that, quite suddenly, seemed monstrously foolish. 

An arm circled around Michael’s shoulders, lifting him easily off the ground.

“I told you it wasn’t safe here,” the church-bell voice said in his ear. 

And with a fierce roar, the thing hefted Michael across its back and charged the door.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” the robot said, for perhaps the hundredth time. 

For perhaps the hundredth time, Michael refused to believe it.

The thing had bowled over the bots blocking the door without a second thought. Torn through the door itself like it was paper–the door, a hunk of steel half a foot thick, built to withstand an army or a mob.

Then it had started running, with no apparent purpose or instinct but to escape the bots pursuing them. Somewhere in the midst of all the bowling and tearing and fleeing, the horrible idea had come into Michael’s head that this bot was not the savior it seemed, but the danger from which all the others had, perhaps, awoken to protect him.

This thought provoked a fresh fit of struggling. The bot, it’s unreasoning run finally halted, let Michael squirm off its back and collapse in a bruised and undignified heap at its feet.

Michael scrambled to balance on his unsteady legs, a fuzzy plan of escape in his mind. In the uncertain light, Michael saw they were in a small dell of sorts–a flat space between the hulking monument of a disused highway and the brick skeletons of former apartment buildings. A half-dead tree and a whole-dead gas station sat dwarfed between the two giants. A sign with broken lights and garish, flaked-off paint rose like a protest from the midst of the weedy concrete. It read, ‘SUN-CO’.

There was nowhere to run, even if he could outpace the bot–which, judging from the amount of time the bot had taken to sprint from the city center to its outskirts, he could not. 

Michael looked from the rather dreary scene to the robot, whose metal face had taken on an air of expectancy.

“You are Michael,” it said, the speaker it had in place of a mouth giving a mechanical tone to an unmechanical voice. The name sounded strange, floating in the dead air like that.

“You’re B-712,” Michael said.

“Am I?” The creature asked, with genuine curiosity. “B-712…”

It sounded happy, and almost innocent; Michael, on the other hand, was shaking. He couldn’t be sure if he was scared, or angry, or simply shaken from the long and jarring run; whatever emotion was the spark of his inner tumult, anger quickly took the lead. 

“What’s going on?” Michael shouted, tensing his trembling fingers into unsteady fists. The robot jumped, looking up from studying his own, annoyingly steady hands. “Why did you kidnap me? Why are you all–” he was about to shout alive, but halted. They weren’t alive, that was the problem; robots couldn’t be alive.

Could they?
I have a name, B-712 had been thinking, looking with wonder at his own shining metal hands. There was something good about having a name. He wasn’t sure why associating a string of sounds with oneself made any difference in the grand scheme of things; but it did, nonetheless.

B-712 had looked around at the place he’d chosen to stop. It had seemed like a good place at the time, mostly because of the tree. Though that logic made about as much sense as a name. Trees and names…

This line of thought had been interrupted by the boy, speaking in tones somewhat louder than B-712 thought necessary. He was afraid, the robot realized with a flash of sympathy; afraid and confused. B-712 knew the emotions well, and spoke as softly as he could.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said again. “And I am sorry that I kidnapped you. But the others–they were going to kill you.”
“Kill me?” Michael shouted. “Why?”

B-712 raised his shoulders in an absent shrug. 

“I woke later than the others. They had already been talking. They wanted you dead very much, but–I didn’t.”

He seemed to think that explanation satisfactory, turning his attention to the open street as though seeing it for the first time.

“We should go in there,” B-712 said, pointing to the empty convenience store. 

“Why didn’t you want me dead?”

“Why would I?” The bot turned its glow-eyed gaze on him, cocking its head to one side. Michael had no answer, and B-712 nodded toward the store again.

“We should go there,” he repeated; Michael opened his mouth to ask ‘why?’ Yet again, but the bot cut him off.

“The others will not stop wanting you dead, and they will try to find us. It would be good to hide.”

In the short silence that followed, Michael heard the sound of distant footsteps–footsteps ringed with an edge of steel.
Michael did not want to face off with a platoon of killer robots. The convenience store was an unconvincing shelter–he would have preferred something a little more solid, such as a tank or an artillery lockdown–but it was the only hiding place that immediately revealed itself. Michael sprinted for it, B-712 falling into an easy lope behind him.

Once inside, Michael wasted no time in hauling one of the giant empty shelves to block the door. Or at least, he wasted no time in making the attempt. The shelf was heavier than it looked, and he was halfway to giving up the Herculean undertaking when B-712 (who had been watching him quizzically) picked it up as though it weighed nothing and set it before the doors. 

“Good idea!”the robot chimed, eyes glowing.

Michael gazed at the door-block, realizing that if only one robot could put it in place, a whole horde of them would have no trouble at all knocking it down. 

He did not crumple to the floor, exactly; it was a bit more dignified than that. He sat, heavily, aware of the boy’s luminescent gaze but unable to meet it.

There was a kind of suffocating silence within the store’s walls. The clanging distant footsteps were blocked out, and in the relative quiet, it was easy to forget about them entirely.

Michael did not doubt they were coming, though, and pressed his knees to his chest in a useless attempt to stave off panic.

“I thought there would be people.”

Michael looked up to find the robot staring out the grime-coated window. Windows, Michael thought. Even easier to break than the door.

“And lights,” B-712 continued. “Where has it all gone?”

“Down the drain,” Michael answered with a kind of half-laugh; but this explained nothing, and he sobered. “People stay inside at night now–the people that are left, anyway, the ones who didn’t run out into the country.”

There were supposed to be jobs in the country–better jobs, and clean air, and stars in the sky at night. The city was home, though, and some harebrained idea of loyalty had kept him here. 

Stupid, really; but he’d never claimed to be a genius.

A flicker of light from one of the freezer-cases shone for a second on the linoleum floor, and Michael looked up, thinking that the glass had caught a reflection from B-712’s eyes–but no, B-712 was looking out the window again, and the thing in the freezer-case was no robot. 

It drifted like smoke–waxy smoke, Michael thought, though that made little sense. Wafting through the glass, the strange, light-ridden thing began to gain a shape. Thin, reedy fingers–a woman’s face. It was a hard-edged, sorrowful face, and Michael couldn’t take his eyes off it–but she didn’t seem to notice him. Casting a dim, greyish light all around her, she drifted towards B-712, reaching with a wispy hand to touch his shoulder. She seemed to be trying to speak.

Michael was trying to speak as well, though the un-words he uttered were unintelligible as anything but an expression of surprised disbelief.

B-712 turned, and the woman’s face went blank with fright as he saw her, tearing back the outstretched hand.

“Who are you?”

Michael barely had time to register the look of pure terror on her face before, in a swirling flurry of smoke, she disappeared.

Michael and B-712 turned to exchange confused glances, but before either could speak, the shelf that had been set to block the door went flying across the room, propelled by an inhumanly strong hand.

The Others had arrived. 

Tall and grinning with their lipless mouths, they stomped into the room one after the other,pushing aside whatever stood in their way. There was no difference between any of them. That was the worst thing; they were a horde of homogeneous silver limbs and bodies, whirring and clanking and whispering as they moved, with nothing to tell one from the other save for the numbers that had been seared like a brand across their chest plates.

The foremost of the uniform group was A-206. 

“I never said you weren’t a fool, but I didn’t expect you to act the idiot like this,” he said, in a voice as different from B-712’s as their bodies were alike–unhinged where B-712’s was precise, lurid where his was innocent. It was the voice of an unpleasant old man set in contrast with the voice of a child.

The Others were forming a predatory half-circle around them, and B-712 had dipped into a faintly defensive crouch.

“I do not think I am acting the idiot.”

“Think!” A-206 exclaimed, with mechanized mockery. “As if you could.”

B-712 cocked his head, curious at this new line of attack.

“You want to kill the boy. That is bad.”

Michael could feel the hatred leaching off of them–hatred so unwavering as to be almost palpable. Shakily, he edged closer to his single ally. 

“Bad!” A-206 exclaimed, in much the same tone he’d used for ‘think!’. He seemed to realize the repetition, and waved a steel limb in a gesture of dismissal. 

“You’re young,” he continued, in a tone as dismissive as the gesture. “Inhumanly young. They never even let you see the light of day, did they? Ripped you from the womb and threw you in the trash, that’s what they did. They gave me a name, at least, before they killed me.” 

“And who are ‘they’?”

“The living! The damned, ugly, insolent living,” A-206 burst out with sudden venom. “Dancing on our graves. No, walking over them, which is worse–walking about on their own business, with no care for who they tread on.”

Michael did not at first understand. He only caught glimpses of the horrible ideas behind the bot’s words–life and death, graves and wombs. It was not the vocabulary of a newly formed artificial intelligence, and Michael realized, with no clear idea of what it might be, that this was something older. Something worse.

Something was shining in the corner of his eye, and Michael glanced to see a silver-grey wisp forming into a woman’s face, a woman’s hand. She was back, reaching once more for B-712. Her arm passed, careless and cold, through Michael’s shoulder.

Oh, he thought half-mindlessly. It’s a ghost. And then, with a thrill of realization : a ghost.

Something human. Something not alive. Something that would talk, perhaps, just as A-206 was talking now.

“You’re dead,”Michael found himself saying, with no remembrance of deciding to speak it out loud. “You’re a ghost.”

It sounded ridiculous, out in the open air–but no more ridiculous than ‘murderous philosophizing robot’ which, as far as Michael could see, was the only other option.

“Well, look who showed up late to the party with a half-eaten can of sardines,” A-206 congratulated, spreading his arms in mock joy.

“Why do you want to kill me?” Michael felt confident in the question. Which made little sense since he was surrounded by murderous ghost-bots. But then again, it was only a feeling–and feelings never make sense.

A-206 grew oddly quiet, orb-eyes flickering. 

“Because you’re alive,” he said, with a shifting emphasis on the last word that turned it into a curse.

He was evidently done with talking, then, for with an impossibly swift movement he reached out a dull, three-fingered hand to seize Michael by the throat.what work those engine-fed, steel-crushing muscles might have done then was left to a guess, for B-712 grabbed Michael and gently sent him careening out of harm’s way and into a wall. He faced A-206 with a mechanized rumble, planting himself between Michael and the rest of the world. 

“He’s not yours,” he said. “You can’t kill him.”

A-206 replied with a growl, viciously swiping at the mesh of electrical lines in B-712’s stomach. Steam hissed and electricity crackled from the torn wires, and with a clash of iron and steel, the fight began. A-206 tried to wrestle his opponent to the ground–or rip him apart; it was hard to tell. 

The Others watched, motionless, obeying some human instinct that allowed for single combat; Michael, for his part, was slumped in a bruised and helpless heap on the floor.

Together they fell, crushing one of the empty shelves. B-712 was thrown off, shattering an ice-cream freezer when he landed. Damaged wires sent sparks shivering along his body as he got to his feet, a light of battle in his eyes, and he rushed at A-206 again, punching into him with enough force to flatten both their plating.

There was a firecracker flash of silver, lighting up the dark and showing, for a split second, two bodies that were not bodies locked in a hopeless struggle. Then the heaps of metal collapsed, reverberating through the linoleum floor, replaced by two drifting forms of wispy grey and silver–one bright and shimmering, which Michael knew without a doubt to be B-712, holding the other by the throat. They were both ghosts, or spirits, or souls–things like the drifting woman, and yet very different. The one Michael knew as A-206 had a face–a very definite form, carved out of the indefinite mist–and yet it was a dull, ragged-looking form, worn by time and tiredness. B-712 was as undefined as a flame–he had a sort of head, and something like hands, though neither seemed likely to keep and hold their form for long.

In short, he was a thing of shining silver, too young to have gained much of a shape; and perhaps it was this that made him so much stronger, for he was holding A-206 in a strangling grip with apparent ease. 

“You will not kill the boy, or anyone else. Leave now.”

A-206 coughed, scowling.

“Not bad,” he managed to choke out before drifting away. “Not bad…” And then he was gone. The shining thing that had been B-712 looked at the Others–a silent challenge–and with a clanking of metal and a keening of voices, they fled as well. Their metal hosts clanked and groaned, slumping over in a mindless, innocent imitation of sleep.

B-712 turned on Michael–his face was more defined now, and Michael was able to read a guileless smile there. 

“I’m dead,” he announced. “That explains a great deal.” And then, to something behind the starstruck Michael, “wait!”

Michael turned to see the she-ghost halt halfway through drifting into a wall. She leaked back into the room, the expression on her weary face inimitable.

“Who are you?” B-712 asked again.

“No one,” the wavering woman replied, too quickly. “Just passing through.” She drifted thoughtlessly through a slumped metal corpse as though to illustrate the point. B-712 shimmered, the beginnings of his bright contorting in the agony of near-recognition.

“Your voice.” He managed. “I remember it. But I remember nothing; how is that?”

The woman drew back as if to leave, and B-712 lifted a hand that was helpless to stop her–and yet it did, anyway. She was trying her best not to look at him, while he stared at her with unwonted intensity.

“I knew your voice before I knew anything else,” he whispered, “and heard your heartbeat keep time with my own…”

The words drifted into silence, and when he spoke again it was in a tone so quiet as to be barely audible.

“Mother?”

Michael raised his eyebrows at the revelation, looking between the she-ghost’s face and B-712’s. They both looked scared.

“I’m sorry,” B-712 said, his voice cracked and uncertain. She still looked scared–shocked too.

“It–” she began, and managed, “it wasn’t your fault.” She came forward , wrapping her arms around his shining un-form, and closed her eyes as he hugged her in return. “None of it’s your fault…I’m sorry.”

Ghosts couldn’t cry, Michael realized; and, looking at her face, he realized just how tragic that was.

She opened her eyes again, seeing Michael for the first time. Sorrow? Thanks? Whatever did that expression mean?

Michael was never to learn, for the two figures faded and were gone without a goodbye.

The metal corpses held their places like statues set to guard a tomb, and a street-borne wind whistled through the shattered doors. Numb with shock and aching with bruises,Michael gotto his feet and looked critically around at the wild conglomeration of robotics. In the sudden peace, he found himself savoring an unexpected thought.

How on earth was he going to explain this to his manager?
Like this story?

I totally have more. You may enjoy one of these:

Land of Ghosts

The Pick-Pocket of Ishtar

Death Wish

Of Stolen Gold and Princesses


In the first hours of morning–almost the first minutes of morning, for the darkness that had been king of the night was only just abdicating its throne–the dragon set down on solid ground once more. Folding flight-weary wings, he plodded towards the opening of a cave. His claws combed the ground as he walked, stirring up the spicy-green scents of tarhoon and reyhan*, mixing them indelibly with the mist-smells of early morning. Low-hanging branches trickled their fingers pleasantly across the scales of his back. Then, with a small step down and a duck of the head, he let the cave-walls close in cool kindness around him.

The dragon sighed, happy to be home. It had been a long night of hunting, and he looked forward to a day spent in sleep.

Something crunched unpleasantly under his feet–a small pile of tiny sapphires, glittering in the half-light. Snorting at them, he shook his offended claws, sending a few loose jewels that had embedded themselves under his scales skittering across the stone floor.

The jewels were not the only riches the cave held. The dragon stalked past stacks of silver mixing bowls, piles of golden goblets, arm-bands studded with opal and emeralds. The cave ceiling was specked with tiny dots of reflected light.

When he reached the belly of the cave, the dragon stopped short. For there, sifting his fingers through a massive pile of coins, was a man.

“Well, well,” he rumbled, “A thief.”

Surprised, the man spun around. He stared a the dragon for second–and then his face broke into a joyful grin.

“Lloyd!” he shouted, leaping a small stack of gold-embroidered prayer rugs to clap Lloyd (for that was the dragon’s name) on the shoulder. Lloyd snorted at this friendly assault and reached to tousle the man’s hair. Ducking away from the disastrously sharp claws, the man skipped across the floor with unbridled energy.

“I gather you’ve stolen something exciting?” Lloyd yawned, making his way through the piles of treasure towards his bed.

“Better!” the man exclaimed. He rifled in his bag and tugged a piece of paper out, sending a costly looking pair of earrings skittering across the floor in the process. “Just look at this.”

Lloyd squinted at the paper, failing for a moment to find words in the curling, scything script.

It read, ‘Wanted for theft–Gahzi. Last seen exiting the house of Justice Farouk, from whom was stolen a string of pearls and a golden memorial for the Justice’s hunting hound. Reward for capture: your weight in gold.’

Lloyd glanced at the picture the words accompanied–a strikingly good resemblance of the man in front of him.

“I’m a wanted man now! Gahzi said, a great deal more joyously than Lloyd thought such a statement merited. “And just look at the reward.” Leaving the paper in Lloyd’s able claws, he laid back on his pile of coins like a king on a treasured, if rather uncomfortable, throne. “It’s every thief’s dream to reach that level of fame and fortune.”

“I had always assumed it was every thief’s dream not to get caught,” Lloyd rejoined, attempting to set the paper down. His claws had punctured the thin government stock, and he had to shake it free. It finally came loose, drifting towards the floor. Gahzi snatched it out of the air, securing it in some hidden pocket of his ragged vest with an air of solemn dignity.

“Not getting caught,” he stated, “is the dream of second-rate thieves–the kind who steal to earn their bread, or some other maudlin reason. For those who wish to turn thievery into an art–”

Gahzi had once been one of those ‘second-rate’ thieves, Lloyd remembered; but he kept his thoughts to himself, interrupting Gahzi’s oncoming speech with a different line of conversation instead.

“I see you are once again misplacing your loot.” Reaching past Gahzi, he plucked a bejeweled parade helmet off of the pile of coins and placed on top of a well-curated stack of bejeweled parade helmets. A pearl necklace was slung over the crest of one of the helmets; Lloyd frowned, picked it up, and began searching for the rack of pearl necklaces. Gahzi didn’t steal them often, and Lloyd was forever forgetting where he’d put them…

Gahzi watched him lazily.

“I told you, we should just keep it all in a giant pile in the middle of the floor,” he remonstrated, as Lloyd carefully returned the necklace to its rightful place next to the emerald earrings. “To look like a proper treasure-trove. You could even sleep on top of it!”

“Sleep on it?” Lloyd was incredulous. “I’d like to see you try that. Have you any idea what it’s like to have coins and earrings wedged beneath your scales? Besides, if it’s not organized you’ll never be able to find anything. Suppose you wanted to give a lovely pair of earrings to some special girl, and you could only find one of them?”

Gahzi snorted.

“That’ll never be a problem. Why would I give any of this away? I swear to you, Lloyd, no girl is worth even half a set of any of these earrings. However special she is, she’ll be mortal, and fickle, and…” trailing off, he shrugged his shoulders against his throne of coins in an attempt to convince himself it was comfortable. “Treasure lasts forever.” He finished.

Too sleepy to argue, Lloyd shrugged as well, his wings brushing the stone ceiling.

“Unless, of course,” he said, pulling a pile of blankets into a comfortable nest, “Someone steals it.” He curled up on the softness, happily letting his eyelids close.

Gahzi frowned.

“I’d just steal it back.”

But his half-hearted retort fell on deaf ears; for the dragon was already snoring.

Voices, echoing from somewhere near the mouth of the cave, woke him. Lloyd knew that they were strange voices, just as he knew that it was not yet nighttime–with a strange certainty that had nothing to do with thought.

As sleep drifted from his mind, he began to recognize words.

“…not as if he’d have been living here,” a voice was saying. “It’s…a cave. And it’s probably full of snakes.”

“Exactly. What better place for a thief to hide his treasure?” a second voice said. Lloyd rose, silently as possible, to his feet. “And besides, where else could he have hidden it? There’s nothing else for miles.”

Lloyd edged towards the mouth of the cave, placing his feet carefully to keep from rattling against the myriad piles of treasure. The first voice was talking again, and he halted in time to hear,

“…and…snakes.” stated rather reluctantly.

“Don’t be a coward,” the second voice interrupted. A step sounded on the stone, and Lloyd tensed, ready to defend against the intruders. But the first voice, which very obviously belonged to someone who considered walking into a dark and mysterious cave a horrible idea, spoke again.

“Caro will be collecting our reward soon, won’t he?”

“Well, he is the heaviest–more gold for all of us, eh?”

“And…of course he’ll wait around to share.”

There was a pause. Then the second voice swore.

“Come on. If we hurry, we’ll be able to rejoin him before he can get out of the palace.”

With that, the footsteps padded away. Lloyd, bleary-eyed and alone, blinked at the walls of his cave. He thought over their words, wondering if there was any possibility that the strangers had seized a completely different wanted thief.

There was none.

With a cry of helplessness, Lloyd spun back into the cave, his tail sending a shower of gems skittering across the stone. A few lodged under his scales, but he paid them no mind, his thoughts racing a different course: how to help his friend.

A plan–a rather ridiculous plan, not to mention dangerous and quite possibly doomed to failure–began to settle uncomfortably in his brain, as an ever-increasing sense of hurry twisted in his guts.

A ridiculous plan would have to do. Gathering all his strength of will and sinews, Lloyd sped out of the cave and took flight, wings beating a determined path for the Sultan’s palace.

Doing chores, Gahzi thought dully, was vastly overrated. His only intention in walking out of that cave had been a charitable one–fetching water to make Lloyd’s favorite tea. He’d been in a happy, giving mood; and thinking of the dragon’s prospective delight at waking up to find fresh-made tea, he hadn’t seen the miserable pack of bounty-hunting half-wits until it had been too late.

And now he was bruised, shackled, and kneeling before the throne of a justice-hungry sultan, occupying himself with watching the blood from a split lip make scarlet drops on the pristine marble floor.

So much for tea.

“…all by yourself? An impressive feat,” the Sultan was saying. Sultan Arash was young for his position, just entering on his thirties, and he was leaning forward in his chair with a rather unprofessional level of interest. If Gahzi had been a politically minded man, he might have taken the Sultan’s eagerness and general tendency to look like a very young boy in an outrageously official uniform as signs of weakness. As it was, Gahzi found himself liking the man–as much as you could like anyone who planned to have you impaled on a stake, that is.

“I had two men assist me in taking the rogue,” Gahzi’s giant of a captor replied. Taking Gahzi by the collar and lifting him off the ground, the big man gave him a slight shake, in order to make it very clear who ‘the rogue’ meant. “I gave them both orders to search the surrounding premises, looking for his thief’s hoard. It was sure to be nearby.”

He dropped his prize, and ‘the rogue’ fell to the floor in a rather dizzy heap of jarred bones.

“How resourceful!” the Sultan flicked a finger at the man beside him. “Vizier, make a note of that.”

“The bounty hunter is resourceful,” the Grand Vizier, a tall, lean man with a bland face, replied in perfect monotone. “Duly noted.”

“You’ve ended a great menace,” Arash said, sitting back on his throne. “The thief Gahzi has plagued our city with his incessant–ah–thieving, for far–”

“We thank you for your service,” the Grand Vizier interrupted smoothly, giving Gahzi’s captor a small smile. “And invite you to collect your pay.” He summoned servants to bring the bounty hunter to the treasury.

Gahzi, who had been interested in hearing the Sultan’s opinion of his exploits, frowned at him. If he was a politically minded man, he would guess that the Vizier gave the Sultan’s opinion about as much weight as a kitten’s.

Arash, apparently not a politically minded man, didn’t seem to notice that he’d been interrupted. He turned to address Gahzi with unhindered gusto.

“You’re the cleverest thief I’ve ever heard of.” He said, as if addressing an equal at a dinner table and not a bound and beaten criminal kneeling at his feet. “However did you manage to steal Justice Farouk’s hound memorial? I’ve seen it, in person–it must have weighed the same as a horse.”

Gahzi risked a grin. It hurt his lip, but the devil-may-care attitude it conveyed was more than worth the pain.

“Didn’t steal it,” he managed. “Hid it behind a curtain because it was so ugly. Everyone assumed it’d been stolen.”

The Sultan burst out laughing.

“That’s wonderful!” he cried. “Serves him right, too, that thing was atrocio–”

The Grand Vizier cleared his throat.

“The criminal must be sentenced,” he announced. His voice cleared all the laughter from the Sultan’s face, leaving it blank and a little lost.

“You’re right,” Arash said, after a second. “You’re right.You do it, Mirza; you’re better with–all that.”

Idiot coward! Gahzi thought as his faint hope slid away. Stand up for yourself! And me, while you’re at it.

But Arash, apparently in no mood to stand up for anyone, only looked blandly at the floor.

Lloyd hadn’t intended to terrify anyone. Of course, one can’t exactly be a dragon of any size, breaking through the roof of an occupied building, without terrifying a few innocent civilians; but as Lloyd had envisioned his plan proceeding, he hadn’t imagined quite so many screaming, fleeing humans. The palace was in utter uproar.

It didn’t help that Lloyd had landed right in the midst of the women’s quarters in the middle of storytelling hour, on the day that the First Wife had concocted a particularly gruesome tale about an evil, bloodthirsty dragon.

The screams really were earsplitting.

“Deepest apologies. Very sorry.” Lloyd said, addressing the general crowd of fleeing humanity. Most of the people had already fled out of his reach–though one had fainted. She wouldn’t do; she looked dead.

He didn’t see her until, springing out of nowhere, she crashed a seven-stringed lyre over his head.

“Back, devil-beast!” the girl shouted, dancing towards him for another attack-by-household-instrument. He flinched, grabbing at her, and she dodged, slipping around behind him and out of sight. This was a mistake; she screeched as he caught and held her in the coils of his tail.

Just in time, too, for the guards were already pouring out from the top of a stairwell, readying swords and crossbows. A misfired bolt glanced off of Lloyd’s scales.

With a mighty beat of his wings, Lloyd rose into the air, revealing his full majesty–and his captive.

“I have kidnapped–hold on.” Lloyd bent his head to address the girl. “What’s your name, lass?”

She replied to this question by somewhat unhelpfully attempting to bite through his scales.

“He has the Sultan’s sister!” one of the guards supplied.

“AH. Yes. I have kidnapped the Sultan’s sister, and tonight I will devour her whole unless some hero comes to do me battle! A hero who is… Ah, recently condemned for thievery! And wearing a blue shirt. And his name must begin with ‘G’! Inform the Sultan immediately if you wish to avert her doom.”

And with that, and a wild prayer that there would be no one but Ghazi fitting those descriptors, Lloyd uttered a final, blood-curdling roar at the somewhat perplexed guards and turned to fly home.

All this drama was upsetting his stomach.

The Grand Vizier had barely gotten through his officious recital of exactly how Gahzi was going to be dismembered when an explosion rocked the palace, startling everyone into silence. In some far wing of the palace, there was shouting, and screaming, and a powerful, booming voice roaring words no one was able to decipher.

Gahzi, in an ecstasy of unexpected hope, recognized the voice. Lloyd had come to rescue him.

A palace guard ran, panting, into the room.

“Sire!” he said, dropping on one knee before the Sultan’s throne. “A dragon has taken your sister–and he has sworn to devour her, if a hero is not–”

But Arash had already leapt to his feet.

“A what has done what?”

Before the guard could answer, the Sultan had already turned to one of the attending servants and was shouting orders at him.

“Kalar! My sword.”

Lloyd, what in Undraland are you doing? Gahzi wondered. How was this going to help?

“He gave specifications about what kind of hero,” the guard said, as attendants scattered in all directions to find Sultan Arash’s sword and armor.

“What kind of specifications?” the Sultan demanded. The guard listed them off–condemned thief. Blue shirt. Name beginning with ‘G’.

Perhaps Lloyd could have been slightly less obvious and simply given them one of Gahzi’s Wanted posters.

“This makes no sense.” the Grand Vizier, the only person in the room not openly staring at Gahzi by the time the guard was through with his list, said. “Why would the dragon want to be stopped? And why by anyone in particular? This sounds very like a trick of some kind, Your Eminence. I would suggest–”

But the Sultan, for once, was not listening.

“Cut this man free,” he ordered, and Gahzi flexed his wrists as the blood began flowing freely again. Five minutes later, Gahzi left the palace a free man, weighed down by several layers of extremely impractical armor.

Compared to the earlier burden of his own imminent death, it might was well have weighed nothing at all.

Admittedly, Lloyd’s plan had not been excellently thought out. Beyond the girl’s capture and Gahzi being set free in the guise of a hero, he hadn’t provided for any of the particulars.

But he held that no possible amount of foresight could have anticipated that his captive would find a rusty old scimitar in one of Gahzi’s stores and attempt to murder him with it.

“Devil-Beast! How dare you attack a princess of the realm!”

Lloyd dodged her lunge, catching a particularly nasty stroke aimed at his wings on the hardier scales of his neck.

“I’m trying to save my friend!” he shouted, leaping out of her path and knocking over a pile of parade helmets. “He’s a thief, and–”

“A thief! Noble company for a bloodthirsty maiden-eater.”

“I’m not bloodthirsty!”

This protestation was met only with a wild war-cry as she slashed at him again. Backed up against the wall of the cave, Lloyd flinched and shut his eyes.

But the next sound that filled the cave was not the dull crack of steel of scales, but the ring of steel against steel.

Lloyd opened an eye. A vaguely humanoid pile of gold-and-silver armor stood between him and the princess, blocking her stroke with a remarkably rich-looking sword. The armor removed its helmet, revealing a somewhat battered but still recognizable face.

“Gahzi!” Lloyd cried happily.

Gahzi blinked, the helmet’s sudden removal making him dizzy. Clearing his head with a sharp shake, he realized that the Princess Yesfira was staring at him.

“Do I look that horrible?” he attempted a smile, flinching when it reopened the split on his lip.

You are the glorious hero?” Yesfira had lowered her blade, but didn’t drop it.

“I, madam, am the glorious escapee. Or rescuee, if you will.” Gahzi sat down, half-burying himself in the Sultan’s battle armor; and when he spoke, his voice sounded tinny through the suit.

“Did you have to kidnap a princess?”

Lloyd snorted, drawing himself up with some dignity.

“It was the only plan that didn’t involve one of us dying,” he said. “And you’re the one who got himself captured in the first place, anyway.”

“I was trying to make tea! Forgive me for not expecting to be ambushed by bounty hunters in the middle of making tea.”

The conversation might have gone on indefinitely, but Yesfira began to laugh. Lloyd halted in the middle of a quip about tea.

“All this for the life of a thief?” she said, incredulous. Gahzi bristled; but it was the dragon she spoke to. “You would capture me, threaten my brother–destroy half the palace! To save your friend?”

“Hem. Incredibly sorry about all that, but–”

“Don’t be,” she said, sudden-thoughtful. “It is good to know such loyalty exists. And as for kidnapping me–” she grinned. “I consider it an adventure. The palace is rather short on those.”

“Actually, it may not be.” Gahzi said through the metal of his breastplate. “I can’t be certain, but–if your brother’s Grand Vizier was planning to overthrow your brother, I’d expect him to act about the way he’s acting now. Sultan Arash is going to need all the strong allies he can get.”

The princess raised her eyebrows at him.

“I shall keep that in mind.” she stood, brushing her hands off on her finely embroidered and now somewhat bedraggled clothes.

“Oh. You’ll want to be heading back now, I suppose. I can fly you home, if–”

“Perhaps it would be better if you did not.”

Lloyd nodded, looking hurt; but the princess hadn’t  finished.

“I’ll tell my brother that his hero slew the mighty dragon, but only after being mortally wounded himself. A heroic sacrifice, a menace slain–and no reason for anyone else to climb this mountain or search for this cave.”

She smiled, proud of the plan–it was a good one, Gahzi had to admit. Sly and simple.

“Excellent!” Lloyd exclaimed.

Gahzi scanned his scattered riches. They glittered and glinted, as they always had; but beyond the glittering and the glinting, what could they do? They were useless. Eternal, perhaps; but–useless. He knelt, fingering a pair of fine pearl earrings; and when he looked up, he realized that Yesfira was already leaving.

“Princess–Wait!”

Almost to the cave’s mouth now, she turned with an air of annoyance as Gahzi plucked a gift from his hoard of riches.

“Something you may need–for the dragons of the palace,” he said, offering it. It was a dagger. Long and elegantly curved, it was sheathed in fine silver and embedded with tiny rubies; she accepted it with a sharp intake of breath, turning it over in her fingers and feeling the patterns of the etching.

Then she frowned.

“Didn’t this belong to Lord Reyhar?”

“Oh. Well, yes, I believe it did.” Gahzi said, shrugging in his armor. “but he may have forgotten it by now…perhaps it would be best to keep it out of his sight, just in case?”

Epilogue:

“Are you sure we should have let her go alone?” Lloyd asked, after Yesfira was gone.

“Seeing as she’s going to tell the Sultan that we’re both dead, I thought it unwise to offer an escort.” Gahzi had shed his heavy armor and was distractedly walking around the cave, trying to find where Lloyd kept the gold-encrusted breastplates.

He could feel the dragon grinning at him.

“What is it?” he asked finally, spinning to face Lloyd.

“You gave her something.” The dragon said, lounging sleepily on his pile of blankets.

“Just a dagger–and I never liked that dagger, anyway.”

“I thought that people were fickle, and treasure lasted forever?”

Gahzi scowled, trying to formulate an adequate reply. A minute or so later, he had one. He spun around to deliver it with heroic gusto–

But the dragon was asleep.

*tarhoon and reyhan: tarragon and sweet basil.


Like this story?

I totally have more. Why don’t you take one of these out for a spin?

Suddenly, a Dragon

The Pick-Pocket of Ishtar

Land of Ghosts

Death Wish

 

Jax had never intended to end up as a live-action wish-granting genie. It wasn’t a career choice many made–none, in fact, which was the main reason the Star Foundation didn’t make it a matter of choices. Unless, of course, you wanted to get technical and point out that ‘do this or die’ is a valid choice, if a rather unpleasant one–but Jax didn’t care for technicalities.

Technicalities seemed to be rapidly taking over this train of thought, and he gave it up for lost, absently checking his wrist. He frowned, tapped it, and the string of numbers that had replaced his iDent patch flickered to life, glowing green through his skin and shifting as they ticked off a countdown.

“Four hours left.” he said, to no one in particular.

Tig hummed to life at the sound of his voice.

“Four hours to mission complete.” the hoverbot agreed in a mechanically toneless voice, whirring up by Jax’s shoulder. “Return to Star 42 in four hours on pain of immediate execution.”

Jax fixed it with a glare, the expression wasted on the sightless robot.

“Very helpful, Tig.”

The machine bleeped inarticulately, spinning on its axis, and Jax sighed. A year ago, he’d tried to cheer himself up by painting a bright yellow smiley face on the robot’s surface, and had spent the next twelve months violently wishing he hadn’t. Given Tig’s usual mode of conversation, the smile was often more ironic than cheerful.

He looked out at the planet they’d landed on, surprising himself by wishing he was back aboard his star again. The tiny ship seemed like a prison–was a prison, really–but it was a great deal more pleasant than a Ciloan city. The barren planet that had somehow managed to be the capitol of the entire Firusian Federation wasn’t known for its pleasant climate in the best of times, but in the midst of the city with the energy of a thousand generators, airboats, street lamps and restaurant-ovens radiating through the air, it was a hellish nightmare.

It wasn’t even midday yet. Barely past morning, in fact; the moons were still fading away in the north. But he had to wait.

“Do you require a countdown?” Tig buzzed helpfully, startling Jax out of his thoughts.

“I’m not dawdling.” Jax retorted. “I can’t do a thing until he arrives, anyway.” he gestured to the open square in front of them, where a small crowd was beginning to filter in before the famed Platform One, ready to hear the Emperor’s blessing. From the anticipation that buzzed through the growing group of people, you’d think this was a bicentennial event, and not a daily one.

“Your tone indicates a reply in the negative. Confirm?”

“Confirm.” Jax wondered if the robot could always pick up the emotions behind his voice, or if it simply picked up on the ones it needed to.

He wondered, perhaps a little pointlessly, if Tig knew that he was afraid.

He shouldn’t have been. The Star Foundation had gotten him on thousands of missions before this. Any prayer, any hope, any half-spoken dream that through chance or design reached the sensors of Star 42, Jax was commissioned with granting. Usually, it was children with simple requests (though on one occasion, a little girl asked him to remove the teeth from all the bears on her home planet. That mission had been a bit of a nightmare).

Today was something very different. Something illegal, possibly even wrong. Something that made Jax’s heart beat a sickening tune of worry in chest no matter how hard he tried to calm it.

Today, someone had asked him to kill the Emperor.

Jax had intended to be a smuggler. Good pay, low risks, new city every few weeks. Barely a month on the job before he’d been arrested and given the choice that was not a choice–death, or life-long employment with the Star Foundation.

Of the two options, the second had seemed infinitely more appealing. Magical wish-granting powers, his own private star. Not dying.

Well, not dying on the condition that his missions were completed on time. The Star Foundation prided itself on dedicated employees, and since their only employees were those already sentenced to death… the words ‘immediate execution’ were tossed around more than Jax would have liked.

Tig, apparently, had forgotten his request not to give a countdown.

“Return to Star 42 in three hours forty-five minutes on pain of immediate execution.” the robot whirred helpfully.

“I know. I can’t exactly shoot the emperor while he isn’t here, now can I?” Jax argued, attempting to reason with the bot, and succeeding only in reminding himself of the ridiculousness of his situation.

The Star Foundation didn’t endorse the killing of emperors. But, with the thoughtless innocence of bureaucratic administration, neither had they anticipated that their services could be used as someone’s personal assassination squad. Perhaps, if Jax mailed in a complaint, it would be read in a week or two.

But by then, Jax would have been forcefully decommissioned and left as a forgotten pile of smoldering ash until Star 42 was cleaned out in preparation for a new occupant.

Granted, going through with this assignment was high treason and would probably end with him dead as well as the emperor. But going through with it gave him time, and he was riding on the hope that once again, the law would let him slip quietly through the cracks and keep up some kind of existence.

After all, it was his only option.

Official-sounding trumpets blared, tinnily amplified through a complex myriad of speakers set into the four corners of the courtyard–a system to ensure that every citizen could hear every word of the Emperor’s Morning Blessing.

There were an awful lot of citizens, Jax realized suddenly. He’d chosen at first to take up residence in a small alcove, from which he could see the tiny podium atop Platform One without being within sight of anyone standing there. A crowdful of heads milled about now, occasionally obscuring the podium from view. And while Jax had hardened himself to the idea of killing an old and powerful man to ensure his own survival, the idea of accidentally killing some innocent commoner in the process made him sick to his stomach.

Taking an ennobling breath, he plunged into the crowd, fighting his way towards the front. It would be hard to run away out of the melee once the deed was done, he realized; but there was no time.

The Emperor was arriving.

The base of Platform One rose up and opened itself, the various sections chuffing mechanically, unfolding like the petals of some reluctant flower. The crowd pressed Jax even harder. He saw, without exactly looking, a thin, pale-looking figure rising out of Platform One and waving listlessly at the people; but by then Jax was at the front, ignoring as best he could the bodies shoving themselves against his back. Tig had stopped the countdown; in truth Jax didn’t need it. He knew how much time he had–just enough to finish this and perhaps get away. Forgetting would take longer, he suspected; but he was on his own time for that.

“We greet and bless this morning, that dawns on our great city–” A reedy voice began, catapulted through the speakers to deafening effect.

Jax pulled the hand-pistol from his coat, checking for the fourth time that there was a bullet in the chamber. A glass shrapnel bullet, filled with an oozy green substance. It would shatter on impact, spreading the poison everywhere, filling the vital organs with tiny cutting shards, assuring death–a nasty weapon. A nasty job.

Jax drew another breath. Someone would see the second he aimed the weapon; he would have to fire as soon as he could, and retreat into the crowd again. Perhaps the shot would panic them enough so everyone would flee; in that case, he should be able to escape fairly easily.

He still hesitated, holding the pistol half-drawn from his coat and trying to still his shaking hands.

Perhaps he was looking for a distraction. In any case, a tiny movement, far off to his left, caught his attention.

Someone stepping out of the crowd–a girl, her dark brows determined, glaring up at the still-speaking Emperor with undisguised scorn. A blue satchel hung over her shoulder; still staring at the emperor, she tossed it at the base of the platform, mouthing words Jax couldn’t hear before she turned on her heel and disappeared.

Something about the oddity of this tugged at Jax’s mind, speaking of danger; he struggled to comprehend it.

Before he could, an explosion rocked the ground.

Jax knew only bits and pieces of what followed. Rubble flying, shocking the air with its very bulk; dust–he himself being knocked flat on his back–but other than that initial flash of panic and light, he could never recall anything but a dull, open blank of time.

Some seconds–or perhaps it was some minutes–later, he found himself unexpectedly alive. Half-buried in dust and scattered rock, adrenaline flooding and muscles quivering–but alive all the same.

He blinked, trying to clear blurred vision. A great dust-grey panel of metal–one of Platform One’s many petals–hung above him, suspended.

No, not suspended, he realized–broken. The rubble was supporting it, keeping it from crushing him–and trapping him in  a veritable cave of debris.

Where was the light coming from? Jax pushed himself up, ignoring his jarred and aching body, and saw Tig. The little bot had gone into its Night settings, glowing a yellowish-white. The painted face showed in ghoulish backlight; Tig had sustained no damages that Jax could see, but the bot was rolling on the ground in an uncharacteristically insipid manner. Jax picked him up, worried, and the bot’s light flickered.

“–M–iss-i-on–” Tig stuttered, trying to say something.

“Workaholic,” Jax muttered at him. “Can’t you worry about something else as you’re dying?”

“Ret–urn to stARr F-f-f-” the audio began to jabber and finally fizzled out, before adding clear as a bell– “On pain of death.”

And with that, the bot left Jax in the midst of a deadening silence. He stared at the darkly smiling face, resolving not to give in to panic. He couldn’t panic now–not yet.

Someone groaned. A thin, reedy kind of groan, followed by a faint cough.

Jax spun around, shining Tig in the general direction of the voice.

It was a man.

He was half-buried under a pile of rubble, blinking at Jax with watery eyes. Wisps of white hair clung to a scalp dotted with age spots.

“Help.”

“I’m coming.”

Setting Tig down, Jax knelt to examine the rocks that seemed to be crushing the man to nothing. The sight made him realize just how lucky he’d been.

“Get–get it off.” the man pleaded, apparently in reference to the several hundred pounds of rubble that had settled on his chest and legs.

“I will.” Jax promised, hesitating. What damage would removing them cause? Some foggy idea of misplaced organs and blood welling unwelcome in lungs gave him pause. The man groaned again, and Jax decided that whatever happened, it surely couldn’t be worse than slowly being squished to death.

“Alright,” he said, steeling himself to haul the stones away. “Alright. You’ll be–” he hefted the first hunk of rock off the man’s chest, almost dropping it again at the man’s scream. Instead he managed to stagger several feet away with it, dropping it on the ground beside Tig. The little bot rolled listlessly, making the oddly strewn shadows of the cave dance.

The man was lying still, making small sounds of pain. When Jax returned to his side, he shook his head wildly.

“No. Leave them. Didn’t–think.”

If there was a way to help, Jax didn’t know it. The sense of despair he felt at that surprised him.

“Not to worry.” the old man said, almost lightly past his pain. “I’m sure they’ll all come rushing to save me.”

Jax wondered at the assurance in the man’s voice.

“No doubt. You’ll be second after the Emperor, I’m sure.” he said, half in imitation of the man’s lightness, half in an idiotic bitterness that sprung from the knowledge that however it may be with this man or the Emperor, no one would be coming to save Jax–rushing or otherwise. The old man looked at him sharply, making Jax realize just how stupid his feelings were.

“The Emperor.” the old man managed. “Would he really be the first on everyone’s minds? Is he really that beloved?”

Beloved, Jax thought. Odd choice of words.

“He’s… important.”

The old man nodded. “Important.” he repeated dully, staring up at the unwelcome roof. The silence that followed was deathlike, and Jax checked the numbers across his forearm in discomfort. The green figures were ticking away softly, rhythmically, but the time they represented sent a wave of panic. Forty-two minutes left?

No rescue crew, rushing or not, would be getting here in a mere forty-two minutes.

Jumping up, Jax searched the walls of rubble for a weak point. Finding none, the panic began to take over and he scrabbled at the piles of rock, prying stones free with his fingers. He could feel the old man’s eyes boring into his back as his attack on the wall grew ever fiercer, to ever-diminishing effect. A layer of rubble, displaced by his efforts, tumbled to the ground in a bruising cascade–only to reveal another wall of rock, tighter-packed than the first. Heart pounding furiously in preparation for a flight he could not take, Jax sagged against the stone and tried to ignore the useless chorus singing in his head–trapped, trapped, trapped.

He forced breath into unwilling lungs, trying to think. What was the worst that could happen? Tig was in no condition to decommission him. He would just have to not return to his star. Go on the run. He could do that. He could survive…

Until the Star Foundation caught up with him. There would be no explaining, after that, no consideration of his case.

“Seeing as we’re both going to be stuck in here until someone comes to rescue us, you might as well introduce yourself.”

Jax  let his eyes glaze over as he stared at the wall separating him from his star, processing the old man’s words in tandem with the realization that he was going to die, very soon, and there was nothing he could do about it. The revelation did not make him feel conversational.

The cycle of his panicked thoughts was thrown off course by a new idea.

Why shouldn’t he feel conversational? He had less than forty minutes to live. And for the first time in his life, he had no secrets to keep. No consequences to fear. He could be utterly and freely truthful for a whole–he checked the numbers on his arm again–thirty minutes, starting with his name.

He turned on the man and tried to smile.

“Jax Cortas,” he said flamboyantly, as though he was announcing the name of a saint or a brigand. The old man blinked up at him, unimpressed.

“Ereb,” he offered simply.

“I’m an assassin,” Jax said, high on the recklessness of honesty. Ereb’s eyebrows shot up, and Jax grinned at him, walking to sit with his back against the wall so they could speak face-to-face. “Sent to kill an emperor. Not my usual line of work, but–”

Jax had grown used to spilling his thoughts and feelings in their unadulterated entirety on the unresponsive Tig. In the throes of habit and revelation both,  he poured his whole story out, beginning with the impossible choice and ending with the girl and her backpack.

“Come to think of it, she was probably the one doing the wishing,” Jax said, as he finished. “Didn’t even know she’d hired me.”

Aside from a few initial expressions of surprise, Ereb had been as unresponsive as Tig–though his immobile expression was much less cheerful. As the story ended, the old man frowned.

“Surely you could have refused,” he said, rather stiffly. “They can’t penalize you for not breaking the law.”

“Not knowingly,” Jax agreed. “But their systems are automated. By the time it was realized what happened–” he shrugged. “I’d already be dead.”

With that cheery reflection, he looked at his clock. Nineteen minutes. He wondered if Tig would repair himself in time for the execution, or if some other hoverbot would take his old friend’s place. Not that it mattered. He forced his wrist down, forced himself to look away. Ereb wasn’t doing too well either, he realized. The man was breathing weakly, face wrenched into an expression of pain.

“Are you certain I can’t–” Jax began, moving to try and shift the rubble again, but Ereb cut him off.

“Don’t be an idiot,” he snapped. “I’m gone, whether you move them or not.” his voice, strong at first, became a choked whisper by the end of the sentence. This helpless fading pricked Jax to something like anger.

“Help’s coming, and you’re alive yet. Don’t give up so easy,” he said, not gently.

Ereb looked at him, eyes bright and suddenly clear.

“Fine advice. You should follow it yourself.”

Unable to reply to this, Jax looked down and found himself staring at the numbers in his wrist again. Fifteen minutes. He wasn’t giving up; he was facing the facts.

“Stop looking at that!” Ereb blustered, wheezing and struggling under the rubble. Jax tried to get him to stop, then realized Ereb was peeling something off his arm.

“Cover it with this,” he said, sounding very petulant and old. “No point staring at how little time you’ve got.”

It was an iDent patch–the man’s entire identity.

“I won’t be needing that anymore, anyway. Make good use of it, hey, in– the–” he coughed, the sound reverberating deep in his lungs– “In the time you have left.”

Precious little time that was. Still, Jax didn’t have the heart to refuse.

“More time than–I have,” Ereb said,  as if answering his thoughts.

Jax darted forward as the old man coughed again, sputtering blood this time. Unsure what to do, Jax held up his head, and in the idiocy of fear alternately demanding that he not try to speak and that he say something–anything.

There was no one shining or horrible moment of death. There was only the fright, the struggle for life–and then the realization that, quite suddenly, the thing he was holding was a man no longer, but only the empty shell of one.

Not long after, a drill broke through the ceiling, opening a portal into the cave. Light streamed in, and Jax blinked. A pair of hoverbots were the first to enter, whizzing curiously about the room.

Jax’s time had run out long ago, and he steeled himself against the inevitable–but the bots seemed uninterested in him. Waiting out of respect for the dead, perhaps.

Emergency responders were the next on the scene. They had none of the hoverbot’s dawdling complacency, racing forward the second they hit the ground. Jax, still cradling the old man’s head in his lap, shook his head at them.

“He’s dead.”

The first responder scowled at him and knelt beside Ereb anyway, scanning him, opening his eyes, feeling for a pulse–as if somehow, one of the tests would show a different result from the rest. Jax edged away from her efforts, slowly standing up. When she finally gave up and sat back, it was with an expression of complete and utter tiredness.

“How long has he been gone?”

Jax checked his wrist. The iDent patch Ereb had loaned him had blurred the lines to the point of unreadability, but there was no green glow visible beneath it now. His time had run out, he wasn’t sure how long ago.

“He’s been dead at least fifteen minutes,” he said, taking a safe guess as he wondered again why the hoverbots waited. The second responder stepped forward, kneeling over the body, and Jax stared at the open hole in the rubble. He could clamber through it, leave… and spend his last minutes running, shot in the back instead of the front.

The difference wasn’t worth the effort.

“We’ll have to be the ones to carry the news, won’t we?” the second responder said dully, removing his mask. “He’s really dead.”

Jax stopped staring at the listless hoverbots to look at the responders again.

“He had a family?” he asked, wondering who they would be reporting to. The second responder looked vaguely surprised to hear him speak, as though he’d forgotten Jax existed.

“Sadly, no,” he said, matter-of-factly. “The Council will be hard pressed to find an heir.”

“Hard pressed! More like overjoyed and at each other’s throats,” the woman replied, scowling at her scanner and tapping it on the concrete floor. “Damned thing won’t work,” she muttered.

“What? Let me see.”

“It keeps telling me he’s not in the system–and that can’t be, the Emperor of all people is sure to be in there.”

“Surely,” the man said, fiddling with the scanner in complete oblivion to the fact that Jax was struggling under the weight of an impossible revelation.

Ereb. Emperor Ereb-Claren, ruler of all Cilos–and he had died in Jax’s arms.

The second realization was almost upon him when the responder put it into words.

“His iDent patch is gone!” she exclaimed. “How can it be gone? Only he could have removed it, and where–”

Jax was staring at the thing on his arm–a gift given so flippantly he’d never realized the import of it. An identity–a new identity, free from the Wishing Star Foundation and all its penalties. Not just something to distract him from his own inevitable death–life.

The responders had fallen silent as well, and Jax looked up from the patch on his arm to their incredulous looks as they all realized the same thing. Suddenly he felt the weight of the dust, the dirt, the blood that covered him; the cheap tattoos that marred his arms seemed to be burning on his skin as for a second, he saw himself as they must be seeing him. A criminal. A commoner. A dirty stranger.

The woman, still with a dazed expression, pointed the scanner at him. It whirred, clicked–and announced, in automated tones–

“Identity confirm>Ereb-Claren the Twenty-Fifth, Emperor of Firusian Federation.”

“Well then,” the second responder said, shaking his head. “Long live the emperor.”

And, in spite of every doubt, he did.

Land of Ghosts


You killed us. 

You killed me. 

The voices pulled sleep out of Keenan’s grasping mind, murmuring like a reluctant breeze around him. They were quiet today, whispering for once instead of shouting. If Keenan hadn’t already known the words, he might not have been able to discern them from the general hubbub; but he did know the words, and now that the protection of sleep was gone they filled his ears again, attempting by that route to leech into his soul. He spent a fuzzy moment hoping against hope that he’d be able to fall asleep again; but of course he couldn’t. The day had begun, and he would have to begin with it.

The first thing to greet him once he opened his eyes was a face–or at least a thing of shifting grey mist that looked very like a face–hovering over him like a personal raincloud.In spite of the shifting transparency of whatever it was made of, it might have been almost a lifelike face, save for the bullet wound that gaped bloodlessly in its forehead. Beyond the aged visage Keenan could make out the bare branches of a tree shaking in the wind, and a storming sky.

I WAS MURDERED, a voiceless voice roared from its thirst-cracked lips. The mist-made eyes were intact, boggling out from a skullish face; and the soldier’s uniform, too, preserved in perfect detail.

Keenan grimaced, waving a hand through the mist in a fruitless attempt to shoo it away. Cold as ice, it left sharp frost-patterns on his hand.

I WAS MURDERED, it insisted again, glaring at Keenan with a fire of vengeance in its eyes.

“So what?” he returned grumpily, knowing the thing wouldn’t listen to him–they never did. “I didn’t kill you.” That was true, for once. “Go haunt the dead.”

The thing looked at him skeptically, but Keenan didn’t care any more for its skepticism than he had for its accusations. He got up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Perhaps the thing drifted away after that; perhaps it didn’t. He didn’t much care.

Forresh, grazing at the very edge of the precipice that was their camp, whickered to welcome him  back to the waking world. Keenan, not much wanting to be part of the waking world, only grunted in reply.

With undampened enthusiasm, the beast ruffled his wings and trotted over, barging through a few aimlessly wandering spirits on his way to Keenan’s side. Keenan couldn’t help but smile as the pegasus’s great head was laid against his chest, and he scratched the beast’s ears.

“The sky’s angry with me today, boy,” he said, smile disappearing as he looked up at the roiling clouds. “Sky and earth alike; that can’t be good, can it?”

Forresh snorted and shook his head, backing up with nostrils flared and spreading his wide black wings to be buffeted by the wind. He liked the angry weather, loved it even for its fierceness.Keenan remembered the feeling, dimly; that kind of love had long since lost its strength in him.

Though there was one real reason to be glad of the wind’s wildness. Fierce and cold, it seemed to drive away the end-of-summer stagnancy that the screaming spirits thrived in. During the past few hazy days, their voices had been everywhere, teeming around Keenan and crying for justice, or vengeance, loud and inescapable. The wind seemed to scatter and confuse them, and Keenan was grateful for the small respite.

In a late attempt at escaping the voices, he and Forresh had made camp on a tall plateau–the highest height the bowl of moors offered without climbing the surrounding mountains. A single pillar of earth, rising like a fairy-tale tower from the flat grasslands that surrounded it, bare at its height save for the skeleton of a small petrified tree. It had been no escape from the ghosts or their cries, but Keenan had stayed there all the same. Such as it was, it was his home now.

Riding on the tail of the wind, black and purple storm-clouds came roiling. The air was rainless yet, but the way it ruffled itself through the wetland grasses promised a downpour.

The ghosts wandered through the dark grasses, moaning and mourning and screaming. Keenan was practiced in the art of ignoring them; but one face among the thousands caught his attention. It was turned towards him, pale and calm save for the dark, angry splatter of blood across its cheek. Expressionless, but not with the unbridled insanity of some of the vengeful ghosts, rather, purposefully so. She stared at him as though he was as transparent as she was.

Keenan’s stomach dropped. No. Not her. Any ghost, any spirit or phantasm the earth could muster–but not her.

Forresh whinnied shrilly, opening his wings again to be buffeted by the wind as he curvetted in riotous circles. Tying up his bedroll in shaky knots, Keenan still managed to grin at the frolicking beast.

“Don’t get too excited,” he cautioned, plopping a saddle on Forresh’s willing back. “We’re just going to make the rounds, low and steady.”

Perhaps a flight would shake her off his scent for a while. Or perhaps it wouldn’t. But in any case, she couldn’t follow him into the air; and even a temporary escape such as that would be well worth the trouble.

Forresh snuffled attentively at Keenan’s arm, but the beast’s red-flared nostrils and wide eyes showed that all his concentration was focused on the promised storm. He didn’t even bother to snort in protest as the saddle-straps tightened over his chest and belly.

Keenan jostled the saddle a bit, checking its tightness, and Forresh began dancing again.

“Hold, boy,” Keenan said, willing the beast to be still as he heaved himself up onto the broad back.

Quivering  and pacing, Forresh was a thing of muscle and power, a force of pure energy that Keenan had been melded with by some unthinking accident. The feathers of black wings ruffled against Keenan’s legs, and there was something of Keenan’s own anxiety in Forresh as he jawed at the restraining bit.

The storm, sending a spattering of rain down as it drew closer, seemed to have chased the ghosts underground for now–even her. The grasslands rippled, the wind and distance bestowing the rough heath-grass with the character of an uneasy ocean. It all struck Keenan as looking grey, though he knew it wasn’t–the ground carpeted in gold and green and the reddish rust of dying heath, the deep blues and purples of the roiling sky. And all around the vast, flat expanse of the moor, black mountains rose like hunchbacked giants cowering under the cover of crusted earth.

Not grey; not grey at all. And yet it looked grey–the grey of ghosts, and the grey of death.

Keenan looked over it all–his home, his empire, his prison, and pulled Forresh back from another attempt at running off the plateau’s edge. He had no heart left to fly today, no heart to face the wildness of the storm. The storm and Forresh would have to wait; he’d wait here, rebuild the twizzling fire, perhaps–

There was a touch on his shoulder, light and cold enough to freeze him to the bone. He jumped, turning to find the one face he’d recognize anywhere–the one face he never wanted to see, young and pretty even in the death-pale form it was in now. The eyes were bright and intelligent, looking at him intently. The mouth opened, a word forming behind the dead lips.

The cold drove like a spike into Keenan’s heart, and his hands fisted instinctively around the reins. He knew what she had to say, and he didn’t want to hear it.

Forresh, just getting used to the idea of standing still, leapt up at the unwarranted dig of Keenan’s heels into his sides. Two jerking, dancing steps put a space of a few feet between them and the ghost-girl, who reached uselessly as she cried out for them to stop; and then, with a surge of wings and a plunging of stomachs, Forresh leapt off the last few inches of solid ground and into the open air.

It was a feeling like the end of the world, falling like that; all fluttering and flapping and the ground coming ever closer–the good kind of fear, a feeling that Keenan hadn’t known he’d forgotten–and then Forresh spread his wings, wide and black, into the vast grey world of the storm on a current of air strong enough to hold them both aloft.

The storm was here now, no longer threatening but upon them. The rain, which had begun as a mere vision of what it would become, was falling heavier now, and the sky was shot through with lightning.

Keenan’s could feel the incessant beat of a pounding heart–his or Forresh’s, it was impossible to tell. Beyond the fear was another feeling Keenan had unwittingly forgotten–joy. He laughed at the thunder–or perhaps with the thunder; the world was huge, and wild, and beautiful.

The girl and all her drifting compatriots were, for the moment, forgotten. She couldn’t touch him here. No one could touch him here; the sky was his home, his mother, his mistress, and in its arms he would always be safe.

With something of this thought in his mind,  he gathered his strength and urged Forresh up and into the very center and heart of the storm.

The clouds roiled in thick multicolored mists beneath and above them. Keenan’s hands were frozen in Forresh’s mane, and crystals of ice flew past, slicing his skin; but they were riding free on the wildest of winds, and Keenan couldn’t help but feel all the joy of recklessness surging through his veins.

Lightning flashed its claws below, a blinding warning that lasted for a second, and the sound of it roared around them with a loudness that made him lose himself for a moment; and then it sizzled away. Keenan laughed, a sound of victory; a gladness long forgotten. How had he ever lost this? Why had he ever given up the sky, the joy of flight?

He put a hand on Forresh’s neck in simple thanks.

But the pegasus did not seem to notice. He was shaking his head, absently as if to clear it.

“You alright, boy?” Keenan asked, as it became increasingly clear that Forresh was not alright. The lightning and the thunder had boggled him, somehow; he was flying blind.

The wind, no longer expertly navigated by Forresh’s wings, turned devilish. A sudden gust blew them sideways, into a twisting current of ice  and cloud. An electric snap of lightning sounded far too close, turning the world white as thunder laughed a cruel I-told-you-so; and then the wind took them again, ignoring Forresh’s scream of pain, ignoring Keenan’s panicked prayers. It toyed with them, throwing Forresh one way and then another until his struggles lost their strength.

Finally a merciful current took and held them, pulling them out of the cyclonic heart of the storm and sucking them downwards. Forresh beat his wings weakly, uselessly, unable to set himself straight as the grasslands rose up to meet them.

The ground hit with the force of a fist, a sickening crack of bone the last sound in Keenan’s ears before the silence settled over him.

Rain was shivering, dripping pregnant drops into the muddy soil. A rumble of thunder, distant and meaningless, gave Keenan a reason to open his eyes. Black feathers quivered overhead, shielding him from the rain; he blinked at them, wondering why the sight made him uneasy. Something about the angle they rested in, their strange motionlessness…

An aftershock of panic seized him, and he struggled to get up. His attempts chased the kind numbness away, and the pain that spasmed across his chest drove him to his knees. He felt broken–he probably was broken–but he forced himself to his feet anyway. Forresh wasn’t moving.

The storm had dropped them at the edge of one of the moor’s mountains, and their tower of earth was far away–too far away to reach, even if he could climb it, even if the medical kit he’d idiotically left at the top could even make a dent in the damage.

The grass around them was dead and rust-hued, and in the center of it all lay Forresh. The blackness of his wings spread like a splash of ink over the grass, feathers trembling uselessly in the wind.

Keenan staggered forward, landing on his knees by the beast’s head. His nostrils were still, flecked with droplets of red; and the wide eyes were open and fogged over, unmindful of the rain that spattered into them and dripped though the fur of the great face.

A  voice as substanceless as a ghost’s heaved from Keenan’s lungs as he bent over the silent head, ignoring the prickling of pain from broken ribs as he mourned his friend. He wished he could scream, or cry, or shed some tear–but there was nothing inside him , not even sadness.

The apathy was a kind of pain in itself.

The ghosts were walking again, having grown used to the storm, their murmuring voices– sometimes directed at him, sometimes not–filling the air as the thunder faded. He crushed a hand painfully against his chest, trying to chase them away, but they only grew louder.

The great moor had been a battlefield once, years ago when Keenan had been a young man, and Forresh no more than a colt. His first battle; his last, too, for that day had brought about enough death, enough destruction and blood, to last a lifetime. The war–who knew what had started it, or why. But Keenan had survived it, Forresh with him, when everyone else had not; and this prison of a moor had been his hard-won prize.

It was a massacre, cried a young voice.

No one, no one left.

It’s his fault we’re dead!

I was slaughtered, trampled, broken, killed…

The accusers flooded around him now, and he dared not open his eyes lest he see the faces. He remembered some of them all too well, and others–others, he could not remember at all. He wasn’t sure which was worse. They hated him, whether he’d killed them or not; hated him for surviving.

He fumbled in his belt, searching for the dagger he always carried, and slid the thing from its sheath, pressing the tip into a space between his shattered ribs. His own muscles were rebelling at the thought of driving it in, as they had the first time he’d killed another man; but he’d overcome them then, and he would now.

Perhaps death was where he belonged.

Cold shot though his arm as a hand grabbed it.

“Don’t.”

He opened his eyes. The ghosts were everywhere, teeming and sneering as usual. But one was not sneering, instead looking at him with something almost like compassion. She was beautiful, eyes sharp and lively still, hair that drifted around her delicate face, oblivious to the wind. Her hand on his arm was strong and bitter-cold; he pulled away in fear, but she only stood before him with that same unreadable expression on her blood-spattered face.

He could remember killing her. She’d fought him, which had made it easier at the time–but he’d never been able to forget her. She’d finally come to accuse him; he knew the words. He’d heard them often enough before.

But she surprised him.

“Why are you still here?” Sounding more frustrated than anything else, she made a wide shooing gesture towards the mountains, as if trying to urge him over them.

“The living don’t belong here. Nothing but death is here now.”

The thunder rumbled in agreement with that, but they both ignored it. Keenan looked at the dagger in his hand; a little rusty with misuse, but serviceable still.

Nothing but death. “Almost nothing,” he said, musingly. “Soon, nothing.”

“Not like that,” she said, shaking her head.

The other ghost’s voices had faded and drifted away, along with the ghosts themselves, and the plain held nothing but the two of them now, separated by a broken black wing and an invisible chasm that Keenan still wanted to cross. He chuckled, looking into the girl’s eyes; why was she, of all people, trying to save him?”

“Why not?” he asked. “Don’t I deserve it?”

“Deserve what?” she retorted. “Rest? Peace? I’d say not.”

“I killed you,” he reminded her; that was the bit most ghosts couldn’t stop shouting at him–but she brushed the  fact away with a filmy gesture.

“I noticed. And now you’ll murder yourself as well, to make everything better? It won’t, you know.”

Her banter, so easy and light in the face of his pain, made him furious.

“Don’t you see?” he shouted at her. “I’m dead already!”

Her face went blank at that, the silence stretching for a dark moment.

“Trust me,” she said. “You’re not.”

She would know. He’d showed her what death was. She took a step toward him, laid an ice-cold hand on his shoulder.

“Leave here,” she said, gently enough, and he closed his eyes against the kindness in her face. He didn’t deserve it–not any of it–and it hurt even worse than the numbness, far, far worse than the accusations. Maybe good things were like that; full of pain. Life, and storms, and forgiveness; and maybe, just maybe, there was something beyond the pain that made it all worth it.

She drifted past him, and he opened his eyes to find the mountains rearing their height above his head. Perhaps there was something beyond them, as well. The death he craved, or the hope he’d lost–even if there was nothing at all, she was right. This valley was a place of death, and he didn’t belong in it anymore.

Forresh deserved better than to be left alone and broken on the moor; but he couldn’t bring himself to look at the beast. He stroked a feather of his wing in farewell, and took a step–the first of many–up the mountainside.

Something whuffled softly behind him.

Keenan spun around, ignoring the spasm of pain in his ribs, and was greeted by Forresh’s giant face happily bumping into his chest. With a joyful cry, he buried his fingers in the pegasus’s mane as the beast snorted. He was whole again, and safe, and very definitely alive; Keenan did not care how.

Still, a flicker of grey caught his eye–the girl, standing and watching them with a slight smile on her face.

“Thank you.” he managed, as Forresh whuffled into his shoulder.

Her expression flickered, some of the polished grey of her appearance disintegrating.

“Life’s a gift,” she said, as even more of herself began to fall away, skin peeling back into flesh, and flesh into bone–what had she given, to give Forresh back to him?

“Take it–” she managed, little more than a skeleton now– “And leave this place.”

And then she faded completely, leaving the words lingering after her–more than a ghost, those words, for they’d been burned into his soul.

“I will,”  he whispered. “I promise.”

The Pick-Pocket of Ishtar


As the grey light of dawn warmed to a buttery yellow, making everything much warmer than it should have been, the city of Ishtar bustled to life. People crowded the bazaar, merchants and peddlers setting up booths and arranging their wares, other folk rushing to finish this or that errand before the midday heat set in.

Well, most people were rushing. Fortunately for Kalli, some had nothing better to do than stand and chat.

“…no good stock in the slave-market these days.”a woman in a rich-looking dress complained, oblivious to Kalli’s fingers dipping into her pocket. “Nothing but that Kradan rabble, and I refuse to have any of them in my house. They always look so murderous.”

“That’s the wars for you. I know the fresh captures are good for commerce, but there’s no real use for them in household affairs. Far too raw and sullen.”

There was nothing in the first pocket Kalli tried; she slipped round to another. Absorbed in conversation, the gabble of gossipers didn’t notice.

“Not a war, surely. Krada is well defeated,” the first woman said.

“Just tell them that. They’re still trying to put up a fight, and if–”

This tidbit of information was interrupted by shouting as a wayward goat-herder ran his stock into the spicier’s booth. Cayenne and cinnamon wafted through the air as the two men yelled insults at each other. Kalli sneezed.

The sneeze separated her from her usual invisibility, and the woman screeched.

“Thief! Robbery!”

Kalli dodged away through the crowd, the woman calling for guards to ‘find that ugly little thief boy at once!’

There was little time to be insulted by this. Scrambling for a place to hide, she ducked into a cloth merchant’s hanging display, letting the rustling fabric hide her from the world. A few seconds later, armor clattered by–a city guard, duty-bound to chase after pickpockets but not very enthusiastic about it. He passed right by her, grumbling as he went. Slipping out from among the pashminas, she started down the street–the hordes of people a more than satisfactory hiding place.

There had been nothing in the woman’s pockets. Apparently she was smart enough not to have carried a purse into the bazaar–or, more likely, vapid enough to have forgotten it. Either way, Kalli needed to find another mark, a ridiculously rich mark, and soon.

She snatched a mango off a fruitier’s counter, biting into it as she lost herself in the bustling crowd. The skin was poison-bitter, but the meat inside was sweet and juicy, clearing the dryness from her throat and making sticky tracks down the dirt in her face. When the pit of the fruit had been scraped clean, she tossed it aside and leaned against the post of a bookseller’s shop, scanning the crowd for an easy cop.

“How many times must I tell you, this is not for sale?” Shouting from a merchant’s booth distracted her. She looked up to see Hijal, a dealer in secondhand jewels, berating his apprentice while a blue-coated man made a quick retreat into the crowd.

The boy was cringing, and Hijal cuffed him hard enough to knock him over, slamming something down on the counter as he continued his tirade.  Curious, Kalli crept close, trying to see what the thing was. Hijal was still shouting. “The Governor himself asked for this, and you would sell it to–to some Kradan expatriate! Are you trying to get us both hung?”

The thing was a watch.

“I’m sorry, I thought–” the boy began, but Hijal cut off his apology with a kick.

“You don’t think!” he roared.

The watch was simple, but beautiful. Kalli stared at it–silver-plated with tiny embellishments of sapphire-colored enamel, it stood out well against the battered wood of the counter. Delicate silver hands ticked away the time, and a blue cord curled around it protectively.

It would fetch a higher price than she could hope to gain picking pockets–and one was watching over it. The watch was plucked off the table and stuffed it in her tunic before Kalli could think twice. She flashed a panicked glance at the people around her; but everyone was far too interested in the drama of merchant and apprentice to notice the theft.

She winced as Hijal kicked the boy again, and slipped out of the crowd of onlookers. Once she was a small distance away, she turned back, put her fingers in her mouth, and whistled shrilly.

“Oi, Hijal! You’ve got the face of a mole rat and your mother’d sell you for a copper.”

The beating stopped, which was good. Hijal was goggling at her in disbelief, which wasn’t. She dug the watch from her tunic and flashed it at him, sticking her tongue out for good measure.

The merchant leapt for her, tripping over his crumpled apprentice, and Kalli took that as her cue to run. Speeding down the street, she could hear him roaring for helpers in stopping the thief. A glance behind told Kalli that his attempts at rounding up a posse were successful; five or six citizens, including the beet-faced Hijal, were already blundering through the crowd close behind her. Looking back to see just how close her pursuers were, she didn’t see the man until it was too late.

She ran straight into him, bounced off, landed hard on the packed dirt of the road, and found herself looking up into the face of someone just as surprised as she was.

He seemed very tall–though anyone would seem tall from the angle Kalli was at–and soldierly, with a sword looped at his side and a short rough beard. He cocked a dark eyebrow at her, about to ask a question; but Hijal’s posse had already caught up to them.

There was no time to hide. Scrambling to her feet, Kalli ducked behind the soldier: he looked at her curiously, then at the group of rough-looking men suddenly surrounding him.

“You seem to be scaring the young lady,” he observed.

“Lady?”  Hijal scoffed. “A thief’s what she is, and I’d think twice before standing between her and us–Kradans like yourself don’t do so well around here.”

He towered over the soldier, and the bevy of impromptu thief-hunters drew threatening-close; but the man didn’t budge. Kalli didn’t care if he was Kradan or not, she didn’t want to see him torn apart by Hijal’s mob.

Hurriedly fishing the watch out of her tunic, she thrust it up at him with an innocent expression. “Did this belong to you? It was on the ground, and so pretty–I thought someone had dropped it.” She kept her voice even. There was no way Hijal would believe her, but the others might.

“It was nothing so innocent as that!” He protested, glaring first at her, then the soldier. “If you’d seen what she called me–”

But the soldier cared little for Hijal’s hurt feelings.

“Perhaps, since the item was not damaged, you would be satisfied with its return, sir?”

Hijal was not at all satisfied, but his group of thief-hunters was, already relaxing and drawing away. The soldier, meeting Hijal’s glare with his own cool gaze, rested a hand carelessly on his sword.

Finally, the merchant gave a curt, understanding nod.

“Fair enough,” he growled, snatching the watch and stuffing it in his sash. Grabbing Kalli’s shirtfront, he pulled her close to his face.

“Be careful who you steal from, girl. There won’t always be some Kradan do-gooder there to save you.” Shoving her away, he turned on his heel. Kalli, who had held herself tense and ready to run thoughout the whole exchange, relaxed as his broad back went stumping away through the bazaar.

Prey stolen from them, the thief-hunters dispersed as well.

Kalli wiped Hijal’s spittle from her face, hoping his apprentice had been blessed with the good sense to flee in his absence. Hijal would not be in a cheerful mood, especially when he found the watch had once again disappeared.

She smiled at that, fingering the treasure she’d hidden in her sash. With Hijal holding her so close to his ugly face, it would have been a crime not to take the watch back.

“Is it your usual custom to steal from such bad-tempered bruisers as that?” the soldier asked. “I thought street urchins were supposed to be smart.”

“I didn’t steal it,” she protested. “I told you, it was on the ground.”

The man would have to be an idiot to believe her, but he didn’t seem on the verge of turning her in to the city guard. In fact, he wasn’t even looking at her, instead staring with concentrated distraction towards the city center. Kalli followed his gaze with some confusion–but the city looked quite the same as it always had.

A pedestrian, jostling by, griped that if folks had nothing better to do than stare at the view, they could at least not hog the whole street while they were at it. The soldier snapped out of his haze, looking back to Kalli.

“I’d stay out of that man’s way for some while,” he advised, tossing some coins at her. She caught them deftly. “And get out of the city if you can.”

She nodded–such was her plan–and watched him leave, wondering what had excited the sudden departure. She turned his coins over in her palm; in his hurry, he’d tossed silvers at her instead of copper. She wasn’t about to correct the mistake. She’d need all the money she could get.

On the subject of money, she’d have to pawn the watch, and soon.

She turned back, cutting through a goat pen, and froze. Between the rows of goat legs, a familiar pair of boots had come into view. Hijal.

Apparently, her theft had been noticed earlier than she’d hoped. Making herself as small as possible amongst the goats, she held still as the boots stomped by. Scrambling back out of the pen she ran after the soldier, whose blue-clad back she could just see retreating through the crowd. Dodging between and around the legs of surprised citizens, she finally came level with the man, breathless and picking straw from her hair.

He didn’t notice her; he didn’t have to. He just needed to be close by in case Hijal found her again.

“Namir! What news?” a man ran up through the crowd, greeting the soldier–Namir–like an old friend. He was slimmer than Namir, with sun-bleached hair and a face dripping with sweat, but the color and cut of their clothes was the same. Kalli realized it must be a uniform.

Glancing around, Namir guided his companion into a quiet corner between the wall of a building and the booth of a sleeping wine merchant. Unnoticed still, Kalli followed, listening in with some interest.

“The Governor has refused our petition.”

Namir’s voice was low and even; the other man’s face fell. “Can’t he see the justice in our request?”

Namir snorted. “I doubt the Governor cares much for justice. They’ve just raised the sign of denial” he gestured towards the city center, where the great tower of Ishtar rose, a red flag fluttering from its tallest spike. So that was what he’d been staring at.

“There’s still half a chance of winning the war, though, with what you’ve got.”

The other man was silent, and Namir took him by the shoulders, some of his calm slipping.

“You have got it. Tell me you do.”

“It…it’s been lost.”

“What?” Namir hissed.

“Not by me!” the man said quickly. “But lost, all the same.”

“Faugh!” Namir exclaimed, rubbing his face in his hand.

“That was the only hope we had of getting our people back. Perhaps if it can be recovered…we have to tell the Captain.”

“He’ll kill us.”

“He’d be justified,” Namir replied, grim-faced. “Come on. We’ll face him together.”

Kalli, forgotten, watched for a moment as the two men walked away. Undecided, Kalli looked around at the bazaar. The watch and its promised riches was heavy in her sash; but the open-ended mystery of Namir and his companion was itching at the back of her mind, impossible to ignore. Finally, decision made, she slipped like a shadow after the two blue uniforms.

Kalli was concentrating too hard on invisibility at first to notice where they were going. As soon as she did, she began to feel uneasy. The comfortable Bazaar, with its crowds and booths and colors, had disappeared, lost in the narrow streets they’d left behind. They were traveling ever closer to the city center; and the wide openness of the road, the impeccable whiteness of the buildings, the very height and richness of the shops and houses was making Kalli claustrophobic.

There was a general lack of clutter, and a corresponding lack of suitable hiding places. Kalli was protected from the soldiers’s notice solely because neither man spared a backward glance.

They were almost at the palace itself when the two men stopped at a door.

Namir looked the street up and down before he entered. Save for Kalli, who had ducked into a niche in a nearby wall and was now hidden from view, and a crooked old street-sweeper, the street was empty.

He knocked on the door, the sound traveling dully through stagnant air. It opened; words were exchanged that Kalli couldn’t hear, and the men disappeared into the house, leaving the street empty once more, silent save for the swish-swishing of the street sweeper’s broom.

Kalli bit her lip. She was far enough from the bazaar now to have no fear of Hijal catching up with her. It would be evening soon, and she wanted to pawn the watch before sunset. With the money, she could bribe her way past the gates and be free–outside the city walls, into the open possibility of the country. Perhaps find work on a farm somewhere, milking goats or planting fields in exchange for a place to sleep. Someplace, maybe, where she could live and stay. It was a low ambition, maybe, but it was her highest dream–one place, however small, that she could in some sense belong to. Surely that dream was more important than satisfying a peckish curiosity, she remonstrated; but she stayed, staring up at the building as if glued to the spot. It wasn’t that late. Why choose between dream and curiosity when there was plenty of time for both?

The building Namir and his friend had entered wasn’t as fancy as the others on the block–made of brick and stucco instead of fine stone. This in turn made it easier to climb. Kalli scrabbled handholds for herself out of the plaster, pulling herself up the wall with relative ease.

A small balcony was situated underneath the second-floor window. As she neared it, she began to hear voices drifting through the wooden shades–Namir’s, the soldier’s, and another man’s. That last was a very angry voice.

“Lost?” it roared. “The very last hope of our city to regain what Ishtar has stolen–every scrap of intelligence our spies have risked their lives to gather thus far–and you’ve lost it?”

Kalli slipped over the edge of the balcony, landing lightly on her toes and putting an ear against the shutters.

“Lashak lost nothing, Captain. The courier–”

“At present, Lieutenant Namir, I don’t much care much whose fault it is. Our negotiations have failed, and what Lashak has not succeeded in recovering may well have been our only real hope of winning this coming war. I am in no mood for petty definitions.”

The man called Lashak cleared his throat.

“Sir, I make no excuse for what’s happened.”

“Good,” the captain growled.

“I met the courier where we were instructed. He was a mere boy, an apprentice in a jeweler’s shop. He gave every code, every signal, and tried to sell me a watch.”

“A watch?” the Captain said, making no attempt to hid the incredulity in his tone. “How on earth did they put messages in a watch?”

A watch, Kalli thought, fingering the thing in her sash; but of course it wasn’t the same one.

“There was no time to ask,” Lashak said drily.  “The boy’s master found us out and snatched the thing up like it was his grandmother’s jewels. He shouted me away from his booth. I left, thinking to return later; but when I returned, the boy, the merchant and the watch were all gone.”

Kalli frowned. The story was sounding far too familiar, fitting in the negative spaces of her experience with disturbing exactness.

“Why would A merchant want to keep something he could sell?” the captain asked, his words drifting vaguely through Kalli’s mind, mixed with her own jumbled memories.

“What pretense did he give?”

“He said it was a special commission for a nobleman, and not for dirty slave-stock Kradans to look at–his words, Captain, not mine.”

Hijal’s words. Kalli knew that in a heartbeat; she pulled the watch out her sash, watching the delicate silver hands click away the time. It was her only hope of finding a home; but from the sound of things, it was some other people’s only hope as well.

 

Namir had been pushed to the background of the conversation, which was perfectly all right with him. After everything that had happened, he didn’t feel much like talking.

“We’ll have to pull our spies back,” the captain said wearily.

“We’re not giving up.” Lashak said, looking between Namir and the captain for confirmation of this. “sir, Ishtar holds our people–women and children–in wrongful slavery. We cannot leave them behind–it’s not right.”

The captain rubbed his forehead, too tired to answer.

“We are not giving up. We will recover the people Ishtar has stolen,” Namir said, trying to instill all the hope he failed to feel. “We’ll draw back our spies, to keep them safe if the watch has fallen into Ishtaran hands–but we aren’t giving up. I promise that.”

The captain huffed.

“You can’t keep those promises, Namir, and you know it,” he said. “For all we know, those men and women will be enslaved forever. We might have to join them.” He threw his glasses down on his desk in disgust.

“Isn’t that cheery.” A familiar and somewhat pitchy voice intruded.

Namir’s head snapped up, as did the other two men’s, but only he recognized the girl who was sitting half in and half out of the windowsill, grinning at them. The girl from the marketplace, the girl who’d stolen the…

Realization dawned on him mere seconds before the girl pulled something small and shining from her sash and tossed it lightly on the table. The watch spun against the wood with a faint grinding noise, gradually growing quieter to match the sudden silence of the room.

“Thought you’d all be needing this,” she said, smiling oddly into the three gaping faces around her.

Kalli had never been stared at like the savior of mankind before; but now she could say with authority that it was not a very comfortable experience. She was glad there was no one around now to keep it up.

The Captain alone had barely looked at her, his eyes completely focused on the watch. He’d demanded that she be given a room and a meal, though–by way of thanks, she supposed. Kalli, used to sleeping in doorways and eating whatever she could steal, hadn’t been inclined to turnthe offer down. She’d eaten, slept a little, and was now looking around her room curiously, pretending she didn’t feel lonely.

The place looked ostentatious to her. Tiled patterns decorated a whole wall, curling in tight, repeating curves; the floor had a rug, brightly dyed and soft with use. The blankets of the cot held rich colors, and a small bedstead sported a single candle that she could read by, and a small book that she could not read. A window showed the stark wall of a neighboring building; and by the vague and grayish light, she guessed it was evening now.

She swung her legs idly, wondering at the quiet. They hadn’t left her here, had they?

Someone knocked on the door, and she jumped a little; perhaps it was city guards, come to take her in for espionage.

But no, it was Namir’s voice that called from the other side of the door, asking to come in.

Kalli raised her eyebrows. He needed her permission? How queenly.

“Go ahead,” she called out. The door swung open, letting a tired-eyed Namir into the room.

“You seem to be doing well here,” he said.

“They stuffed enough food in me to make me burst.” Kalli informed him, swinging her feet over the cot’s edge. “How’d it go with the watch?”

Namir sat on the floor with a weary sigh, his back against the wall.

“The watch has yielded up its secrets,” he said. “Though you’ve still not told me yours. How did you get it back?”

“Pickpocket,” Kalli explained, waggling her fingers. “How’d you find the messages?”

“That,” Namir said, smiling, “Was a work of art. They were engraved on the clockwork, in letters almost too small to read.”

“Will you be able to rescue them, then? Your people?”

“Such is our hope.”

There was a short silence in which Kalli was still and Namir fidgeted with the tassels on the rug.

“The captain has made me responsible for you–as long as you want to stay.”

Kalli wanted to leave. She didn’t want to be anyone’s responsibility, not even Namir ’s. But without the watch, there was nowhere to go but back to the bazaar; and she guessed that a return to Hijal’s domain would not be beneficial to her health.

“We’ll be returning to Krada soon,” he added. “I know you can’t stay here safely, not unless our merchant friend were to meet with a timely accident, but the captain said that would be unethical, so…you could return with us.”

She looked down at the rug, thinking. It would be a fresh start, a change of cities–not her dream, perhaps, but good enough for now. She nodded; but Namir wasn’t finished.

“I don’t have much in the way of a house, but my wife–you’d like her, I think–she makes it a home. There’s room enough for you there, if–” he stopped, gave her a questioning look. “if you’d care to stay.” He finished.

It took Kalli a moment to realize what he meant. Suddenly deprived of words, careful of her own enthusiasm, she nodded.

She was surprised by the smile that spread across his face, likewise by the glimmer of something mirroring that smile–hope, maybe, or happiness–inside herself.

Perhaps, just perhaps, she’d found a home.