Last Chance and the Missing Knife (Last Chance, #3)

This work is part of a series. The first installment can be read here.

A ship.

A lumpy, ungainly, ugly thing. It hurtles at an enormous speed through the dark fabric of the universe, skirting gravity wells and skimming over swirling pools of matter. It passes the womb of a fetal star, soars under the tomb of a long-forgotten planet.

A ship, accruing a fine grey coat of silt. Raw, powdery stuff, crumbling at a touch. It is the ground upon which living things have walked; it is the dead remains of a star that once lit a long-forgotten System. The remains of so many places, with all their lives and wars and poems and stories; dust now, to be washed off at next planetfall.

A ship, pale and tiny against the all-encompassing black.

Pass inside it, through the thick steel plating of its skin. Pass the tough steel ribs filled with insulating foam. Pass the cords and cables, the veins that carry the ship’s necessary lifeblood—energy and information—throughout its small and hollow body. Pass the inner walls, to the interior—it is as dark as the universe itself, in here.

Here is the great belly of the beast, where reactors and injectors feed fuel into the fiery, closeted engine. Here is the cargo hold, where the dark shapes of boxes containing food and chrome and coffee filters lurk against the light-starved walls. Here is the cockpit, where the dials and screens provide a faint neon glow, tracing out the spare outlines of shapes in shades of blue and orange. Empty, worn chairs. A stack of papers topped by a small book.

In the upper part of the ship, just beneath the weld-scarred spine of the ship’s outer shell, there is a small room. It is located just above the cargo hold, slant-roofed in an architectural representation of an afterthought, and retrofitted with a small enclosed elevator to carry supplies up from the hold in order to save storage space in the room itself. It has empty counters, a small metal table, and a fold-down stovetop.

In the dark, the slight sound of hanging pots and pans clicking against one another in response to the ship’s shaky rumble is the only thing readily available to any human senses.

Just outside the opaque glass of the sliding kitchen door, a light flickers to life.

Unusual, for this ship. By UR time, the ship is currently experiencing 2400 hours—midnight. All is usually left quiet, undisturbed, for another eight hours at least.

The light from the hallway glows dully against the sharp lines of the table. The softly swinging pots and pans glint with it.

Voices—one bright with excitement, the other rougher and sleep-slurred—filter into the room. As the steady tramp of footsteps brings the two speakers ever closer, the voices grow louder.

The door slides open, sending the hallway light pouring in unchecked. Holding a stack of photographs, Ketzal barges into the room first, flicking the switch by the door as she enters. The room comes to life, bathed in a white glow.

Covering his mouth to stifle a yawn, Eli comes after her, and the door slides shut behind him.

Ketzal flings her photographs on the table, letting them spread out in a haphazard fan over its weathered, age-dented surface. Eli succeeds in beating down his yawn.

“So.” He makes his way fumblingly to the stovetop. “This guy.”

“Ma-Rek,” Ketzal supplies helpfully, as Eli folds the stovetop down and turns the dial to set it to heat. Among the pots and pans swinging idly above his head, he picks out a blackened kettle. Dislodged from its brethren, the kettle clanks and clatters in protest as he opens it, placing it in the small, efficient sink. The water turns on with a burbling rush, filling the kettle with a sound that is somehow both sharp and soft.

“Uh-huh. Let me see if I have this straight. He gets a ton of chrome,” Eli holds up one finger, as though ticking off items from a list, “hides it all, builds a map to where he hid it, and then—abandons his crew and flies into an asteroid belt?”

He keeps his four fingers up, holding them as though for inspection. Ketzal is unperturbed.

“Pretty much. Though the vampirism on Bleachbone might have been a part of his reason for abandoning the crew, if it happened before he left. Or, he could have just been being selfish, not wanting to share. He was a pirate, after all.”

“Share what? And when? He flew himself into an asteroid belt.”

Ketzal shrugs.

“I don’t know what he was thinking. Too many variables to guess, really. It’s wild, right?”

Eli yawns again.

“I’d go for ‘insane’, but sure.”

The kettle is full now. The water jumps up from the small opening at its top, burbling over the sides like a tiny but very energetic waterfall. He reaches back to shut off the water, pouring out the excess before putting the lid back on the kettle and setting it on the stovetop. The kettle hisses, indignant, at the sudden heat. Ketzal pulls out a chair.

“It might not be a treasure map,” he says, readjusting the kettle on the stovetop.

“How do you mean?”

Eli, circling back towards the table, hesitates briefly by the cabinets. Opening one, he pulls out an apple. Setting it on the counter, he begins to open drawers with systematic steadiness. He frowns, briefly, into each one before closing it again.

“I mean,” he says, to one of the open drawers, “It seems like he went into a ‘kill everyone’ stage, right before he died. He could’ve built that map to—I don’t know, a planet like Blue 12. Somewhere deadly enough that whoever dared to go hunting for his treasure wouldn’t make it out alive. A death trap.”

Ketzal sits, running her tongue over her teeth in thought.

“That’s actually really likely. I didn’t even think of it.”

Closing another disappointing drawer, Eli hums slightly in response.

Ketzal is still turning something over in her head.

“That would be so cool,” she says. Eli turns away from his search to direct a squint at her.

“You’d still go, wouldn’t you?”

“To find out the closest existing equivalent of Ma-Rek’s last will and testament? Of course. Whatever else it is, it’s sure to be fascinating.”

The worry lines imprinted around Eli’s pale eyes grow a shade deeper.

“You can’t be fascinated if you’re dead,” he says, slowly, giving weight and meaning to each word. Ketzal looks up, one eyebrow cocked, shoulders straight.

“You’ve got personal proof of that, or something?” She says, a little sharply.

He frowns deeper, and after a moment, she sighs.

“Sorry. It’s just—I’m not built to be cautious, Eli. I’m not made for being prudent or looking before I leap or—any of that. I have to find things out, I have to look, even if it’s dangerous. It’s just who I am.”

On the stove, the water simmers.

Eli is still frowning, but after a moment he nods.

“I guess I can see that,” he says. “I don’t get it. But I can see it.”

He directs his frown at the drawer for a moment, then closes it, and opens another. He frowns into that one too.

“Have you seen our knife?”

She sits up in her chair, squinting at the drawer he has open without actually being able to see into it.

“I put it in there last time I used it.”

“Well, it’s not here now,” Eli says. He shuffles the drawer’s contents a bit, as proof.

“That’s weird. Here.” Ketzal digs something out of her pocket. “Use mine.”

He turns around in time to catch the folded knife that tosses at him.

“Thanks.”

He frowns into the drawer one last time before shutting it again.

“So,” Ketzal says, shuffling her photos again, “It’s a death trap.”

“It might be.”

Opening the knife, Eli returns to the apple. He cuts it into neat quarters, carving out the seedy centers in a neat, precise series of movements.

Ketzal nods.

“Okay. So if you had to go somewhere that might be a death trap, how would you go about it?”

Eli returns to the table with two handfuls of apple slices. He places a small pile of them in front of her, and another in front of the chair just across from hers. Opening the incineration bin in the center of the room, he drops the core scraps into it, frowns at the over-full bin, and closes the lid, jabbing the button on its side. With a muffled rush of flames coming to life, the trash from the last few days is burned away to nothing.

“I’d get a good idea of what I was going into first,” he says, sitting down. “Take some time to assess everything. I’d have a plan to get out quickly, and I wouldn’t go alone.”

She nods thoughtfully, shoving an apple slice into her mouth. The water is boiling. Eli gets up again, going to the stovetop to pour out two cups of tea.

“Okay,” she says. “So, once we get to Red 16, do you know if there’d be anyone who would be interested in a possible treasure hunt/ death trap investigation adventure scenario?”

Eli turns away from the stove, walking back to the table and setting the two steaming cups down. He’s frowning again. Ketzal notices.

“What?”

“We’re still going by Red 16 first?”

She wraps her tea in her palms, soaking in its heat.

“Well. Yeah. You still want to go home, right?”

“Of course.”

“So, yeah. Red 16, then Ma-Rek’s treasure.”

Eli’s mouth is a flat line, and the crease between his brows is a veritable channel.

“I’ll pay you for the ship!” She says suddenly. “It’s mostly yours anyway—or you could keep it and I could buy a new one?”

Another silence.

“They do sell ships on Red 16, right?”

Eli bobs his head to one side, an inconclusive combination of headshake and nod that conveys no useful information about Red 16’s spaceship market.

“I do want to go home,” he says, “But not if it means leaving you to go shooting off alone to some pirate’s death planet.”

“I wouldn’t be alone, I’d—wait,” Ketzal gives him a piercing look. “You want to come with me.”

Eli picks his tea up and rolls his shoulders.

“I want to not leave you alone,” he says, after a pause.

Ketzal’s piercing look becomes sharper. It’s an expression she’s practiced many times in the mirror.

“You don’t have any obligation to keep me safe. Besides, I’d find someone to tag along.”

Eli’s shoulders fall.

“All right,” he says, reluctant. “Maybe I want to see this pirate treasure. If it is pirate treasure. Which I doubt it is.”

“Ha!” Ketzal shouts, snapping her fingers. “You’re curious.”

“I’m—I’m not—“ Eli splutters, which only makes Ketzal bend forward over her tea in a fit of laughter. Putting his tea down, he throws up his hands.

“Fine! I’m curious! You’re infectious.”

Ketzal chokes on her own laughter, and Eli shakes his head.

“It’s not that funny.”

“It is” she insists, face planted firmly on the table. The metal surface makes her sleep-deprived giggles reverberate through the whole room.

Eli shakes his head again and picks up his tea to take a sip.

Behind the mug, it’s impossible to see if he’s smiling.

* * *

Half an hour later, the lights are off. Two empty tea mugs sit, ringed with faint stains, in the sink. The ship has fallen asleep. Two of its inhabitants are asleep as well, tucked comfortably away and given over to dreams of treasure and discovery.

In the kitchen, a cupboard door creaks open.

Cautiously, an arm pokes out of it, then a head. Like an egg cracking open to expel a salamander, the cupboard spills a whole sprawling human figure onto the floor, one limb at a time.

They snap their gaze around the darkened room, gleaning what little they can from its shadows. Padding across the floor, they slide the door open. A knife-sharp wedge of light spills into the room, and they stand, a spindly silhouette, in the light.

Breek has a jacket at least a size too large for him on his shoulders and a paring knife in his hand. Wide-eyed, he looks around the hallway.

When no one jumps out from the bare walls to seize him, he seems to judge it safe enough.

The door slides shut behind him, and the kitchen is bathed in darkness once again.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 12 minutes when Breek reenters the room. Peers inside. Frowns. Risking another backward glance into the hallway, he flicks on the light. He creeps into the kitchen, quietly opening a drawer and pulling out several cans—meat, and fruit, and potatoes. Enough to last a few days. He stuffs the food into his coat, looking around all the while, and silently pads away.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 17 minutes when Eli walks into the kitchen and flicks the lightswitch.

The room, utterly contrary to expectation, goes dark around him. Eli blinks into it in confusion before flicking the switch again. The room flares up in friendly visibility. Eli scowls at the light switch for a moment, and finally shakes his head.

“We don’t need to save the ship’s battery!” He says, voice pitched a little higher than is usual for him. “We can leave all the lights on, all the time. I’ll just buy a new ship! I bathe in chrome and brush my teeth with silk!”

He stumps over to the counter, opening a drawer and frowning when he finds it empty.

“Could’ve sworn I just filled this.”

Grumbling at the delay of his breakfast, he walks to the side of the room, where the outline of a door is set in the wall by a panel of buttons. At one point, buttons had clear indicators of their function painted on them, but the paint has worn away, replaced by oily finger stains. Eli knows them by memory.

He jabs one, and the panel slides open for him. Rubbing his eyes irritably, he steps inside. The panel slides shut behind him, and the elevator descends with a rush of muffled mechanics.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 19 minutes. Ketzal wanders into the kitchen, her hair tied in a messy purple pile on top of her head and a glowing datapad balancing on one hand like a waiter’s tray. She fills the coffeemaker and turns it on without glancing at it. Frowning down at the datapad, she makes her way, arm outstretched, towards a cupboard.

With a sharp crack and an exclamation of pain, her progress is jarred to a halt and she jumps back, rubbing her hip and taking her eyes off the datapad for the first time since her entry into the kitchen. An open drawer, all hard lines and sharp corners, stands in her path.

“Sheesh. How hard is it to close a drawer,” she grumbles, slamming it shut with her bruised hip and wrenching open the cupboard, retrieving a canister of dry milk and a mug. Clutching these awkwardly in her free hand, she makes her way back. The coffeemaker is burbling its last, the reservoir filled to the brim with hot brown liquid. Dumping a good amount of the dry milk into her mug, she returns to gazing at the datapad.

“Loris, colloquially known as Greyscape. Dry, rocky surface.” She reads. Coffee follows the dry milk, and she stirs the lumps in with one finger. “Mostly flat. Not a great place for a death trap.”

She takes a sip of the coffee and wanders back out the kitchen, leaving the canister of dry milk open and forgotten on the counter.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 21 minutes. A slim figure slinks cautiously into the kitchen. Breek, glancing aside every few seconds, has a can of meat in one hand, and a marked lack of can opener in the other. Muttering to himself, he is quietly opening a drawer to search for one when returning footsteps sound in the hallway, and, cursing, he scrambles to duck behind the incinerator in the center of the room, curling his limbs up and out of sight like a startled spider.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 22 minutes. Ketzal’s head pops through the door, and she bumps the light switch off with her half-empty coffee mug.

“You’re welcome, Eli,” she says, to no one in particular.

* * *

It is 0800 hours and 23 minutes, and Breek has gathered the courage to move from his hiding place. Gingerly feeling his way to the drawers in the dark, he resumes his search. Metallic shuffling and clinking sounds through the room as he shoves aside everything in the drawer that does not feel like a can opener.

The muffled sound of the rising elevator rumbles and screeches through the wall, and Breek shoves off from the counter with a curse. Something falls, hitting the floor and rolling with a loud clatter. Slipping a little, Breek flees. He is a dark shape in the doorway—and he is gone.

* * *

At 0800 hours and 24 minutes, the elevator door opens.

“Oh, for—,” Eli snaps as he is presented with the lightless room. He stomps meaningfully towards the switch, and the lights flare up again. Eli, arms full of canned food, turns around and stares at the floor.

It is covered with dry milk powder. An open canister lies innocently, apparently having been hurled at the tile and then left there.

“Why,” Eli asks the empty room, dumping his armful of cans on the table.

“Why.” as he sweeps up the mess and dumps the contaminated powder in the incineration bin.

“Why.” as he finds the lost knife also on the floor, lying on the drifts of dry milk like a sunbather on a beach.

And finally, “Why,” as his valiant search for the can opener is fruitlessly disappointed.

Having arranged the canned food in its proper place and scrounged a plastic meal packet that does not require a can opener from a cupboard, Eli leaves the room, shutting the lights off behind him with a decisive click.

* * *

At 1100 hours and 48 minutes, the door opens once more, and the lights come on. Ketzal and Eli both walk into the kitchen.

“Coffee is not breakfast,” Eli insists, shutting the door as Ketzal places her datapad on the table.

“I wasn’t hungry.”

Eli’s mouth flattens, but he doesn’t argue.

“I was thinking maybe soup for lunch?”

Eli nods, bending low to retrieve dry broth base from a lower cupboard while Ketzal reaches up for freeze-dried vegetables, meat, and spices.

“That’ll work. I still don’t know where the can opener went.”

“I didn’t do anything with it.” Ketzal says, holding up the meat packets in a gesture of innocence.

“I didn’t say you did. Things just keep disappearing. It’s unsettling.”

“Weird,” Ketzal agrees, pulling down the stovetop. The soup form a promising pile on the counter, and Eli goes over to snatch down the saucepan.

“So,” Ketzal says, “I’ve been taking a look at Loris, the planet that Ma-Rek’s map points to. If the surveys taken a decade or so ago are still accurate, it’s a sparsely populated planet. Carbon-heavy rock, mostly, with some caves and old mine shafts.”

Eli, filling the saucepan with water, turns toward Ketzal.

“Can I see?”

“Sure!” She says, tripping over to the table and tapping at her datapad. When it fails to light up at her touch, she frowns and makes a disappointed noise.

“It’s out of power.” She says. “I can show you on the cockpit computer”

Eli sets the pan on the stovetop, brushing his hands on his shirt.

“Sure.”

It is 1100 hours and 50 minutes when the door slides shut behind them both.

* * *

It is 1100 hours and 58 minutes when that same door opens again.

Breek stands in the doorway. He glances around the room, takes in the abandoned cooking, and hesitates—but only for a moment. Looking back over his shoulder and finding no one in the hallway, he enters the room.

He digs the can opener from his pocket, treading softly to the drawer where he found it and replacing it where it was—or, at least, somewhere close enough.

He glances at the door again—still silent—and bites his lip. Finally, he goes to the sink, turning on the water and ducking his head under the faucet, gulping down greedy mouthfuls. He stands up, wiping his mouth.

Another glance at the door.

Gaining courage, Breek begins to look through the drawers, shuffling through the utensils. Losing that knife has left him all but defenseless, and he’s eager to get it back. He’s gone through two drawers without finding what he’s looking for when voices sound in the hallway—close, and coming closer.

Breek jumps at the noise, casting about the room for somewhere to hide. Fingers outsplayed as though to grasp any hiding place that presents itself, he takes the room in with wide eyes, silently mouthing every curse he knows.

Footsteps, just outside the door. No time. Breek’s eyes settle on the incineration bin, large and shiny and completely enclosed, sitting in the very middle of the floor.

Without hesitation, he leaps inside. A cloud of white milk-dust puffs up around his head for a split second, and then—

The lid is closed, and the door is opening.

“So, I’m hoping that there will be some clue once we reach the surface about exactly where the treasure—“

Eli, a mere step behind Ketzal, shoots her a look.

“—or the death trap, whatever he left behind to be remembered by, is, because I can’t find a single thing from up here. At least, not unless we orbit Loris until our fuel reserves run out.”

“Going in blind,” Eli says dryly. “fun.”

Ketzal either fails to notice the sarcasm, or intentionally ignores it. Her eyes are alight with adventure, and nothing will dim them now.

“I know! It’s gonna be so amazing!” She spins in the center of the room, and Eli steps around her overexcited figure on his way towards the stovetop. This time, he doesn’t bother to hide his smile. It’s only a small one.

“Right! Soup!” Ketzal says, once she sees what he’s doing. She comes over to the counter, prying the lid from the canister of broth while Eli rips open a packet of meat to reconstitute in the the simmering water.

He’s busy pouring it when a sharp, muffled sound makes him stop.

“Did you say something?”

Ketzal looks at him, questioning.

“No?”

Eli frowns and goes perfectly still, straining his ears.

“Ahhhpssshhttt!”

That is not the noise the incineration bin usually makes. Ketzal hears it too, this time, and she gives the canister raised eyebrows.

“Psssshhhttt,” the bin declares.

They look at each other.

“Oh no,” Eli declares, loudly, while opening the drawer and pulling the knife free of it. He holds it loosely in one hand, at the ready. “It looks like the bin is full again.”

Ketzal catches on, reaching up to take a heavy cooking pan from its hook.

“We should probably clear it out!” She says, holding her pan at the ready.

Eli takes a step towards the silent canister. “I’ll just press the button,” he announces, in the exact manner that any right-minded person about to press a button wouldn’t.

At this, the bin pops open, and a spring-coiled figure leaps free of it with a yowl and a cloud of dust.

With a terrifying yell of her own, Ketzal starts running towards the figure with her saucepan raised. Startled by the noise and searching for an escape route, the coughing stowaway spins in a confused circle, standing right in her path.

Even draped over shoulders too narrow for it and covered in milk powder, Eli knows that jacket.

He reaches out and snags a handful of familiar material, tugging the kid out of Ketzal’s warpath just in time to save him from another concussion. Ketzal flies past them both, skidding to a halt just in time to keep from slamming into the wall.

“Kid, I thought I told you not to be stupid,” Eli says.

Ketzal spins around. “Wait, we know him?”

“Ketzal, meet Breek,” Eli says. “The thief.”

“Oh!” Ketzal says, “The vampire kid!”

In response to this introduction, Breek tugs himself out of Eli’s grip and goes for the door. Eli, not particularly feeling like chasing the kid all over the ship, steps forward and grabs him again. Breek tries and fails to pull himself free, twisting around like a caught warp-rat until he’s facing Eli and shoving him away with both arms. The kid’s eyes are red-rimmed and wild, snapping from the knife in Eli’s hand to his face and back again.

He’s afraid, Eli realizes. Of Eli, of the knife, and more specifically, of Eli holding the knife. His grip on the kid releases of its own accord.

Breek staggers back, but doesn’t run. Ketzal and her pan are in front of the door, cutting off his escape. He squares his shoulders and raises his chin, going for a stolid, stubborn look. It’s ruined, a little, by the fact that he’s still covered in dust and coughing miserably with every other breath.

“M’not a vampire,” he mumbles, through dust-choked lungs.

“No, I mean—you know what I mean.” Ketzal lets he pan drop harmlessly to her side in favor of making a vague explanatory gesture.

“Kid,” Eli starts, “What are you doing? Stowing away on a ship that belongs to strangers? For all you know, we could’ve been the types who’d really have turned that thing on with you inside. Are you really that desperate to get off of—“

Breek glares at Eli with red, accusatory eyes.

“I’d do it again,” he snaps. “And—and you can’t kill me. Not unless you wanna never find Malek’s treasure. I know where it is, there’s—it’s impossible to find, unless you know.”

Eli is unimpressed.

“Do you.”

“Yeah. Malek’s treasure, I’ll lead you right to it.”

“It’s Ma-Rek,” Eli says.

Breek takes a step back, eyes darting between Ketzal and Eli with painful wariness. “That’s what I said.”

Eli shakes his head.

“Stop digging while you can still climb out, kid. We’re not gonna kill you.”

“I’m not—“ he starts, defending his honor, but falters as Eli’s words sink in. He keeps his shoulders straight and his head up, thin and brittle as a dry sapling. “I’m not going back,” he says, instead. “I won’t.”

For a moment, Eli is ready to point out that, as a point of fact, Breek has very little ability to direct where he will or will not go; that, by stowing away and then letting himself be found before they made planetfall, he’d put himself almost entirely at Eli and Ketzal’s disposal.

But something stops him before he’s even drawn breath to speak. He looks the kid over.

Breek already knows all of that, he realizes. He’d already known he was powerless here; judging from the raw rage that has filled his every movement since the moment Eli’s first met him, Breek has been aware of his own helplessness for some time now.

Suddenly, Eli doesn’t want to be the one to remind him.

Instead, he turns to Ketzal, who is scrutinizing them both with the same thoughtful, curious expression that she turns on old manuscripts and artifacts.

“Well,” he says. “How do you feel about another member of this adventure party?”

She shook away the scholarly solemnity in the space of a second and grinned at him.

“Great.”

“I can stay?” Breek asks, surprise leaking past his bravado, if only for a moment.

“Sure thing!” Ketzal says. “Sit down, there’s soup. Want some tea?”

Watching the kid’s eyes grow a little wider with each word, Eli wonders when it was, exactly, that Ketzal’s easy friendliness had stopped surprising him.

Ketzal breezes past them both, hanging her pan back on its hook and turning down the now-boiling soup water.

Breek watches her, then glances at Eli, looking a little lost.

“You’ll get used to it,” Eli promises.

* * *

“I will be needing my jacket back.” Eli says, once Breek has gingerly sat on a chair. He looks for all the world like he expects it to be snatched out from underneath him.

“No.”

“No?”

“It’s not your jacket anymore.”

“It shouldn’t be anybody’s jacket, with all those holes,” Ketzal interjects, and is immediately met with two indignant sets of protests and a detailed outline of exactly why it was a perfectly good jacket, thank you, and how dare she suggest otherwise.

“Alright, all right,” she says, waving a set of bowls at them placatingly. “There’s some perfectly good soup ready, so hush.”

Epilogue:

A ship.

A small, fragile, unimportant thing, in the grand scheme of things. Soaring through such a small patch of space, locked tight in such a tiny swatch of time.

A ship, her walls built of iron ore dug up from deep below the surface of some distant planet—smelted and purified and hardened with carbon, cast and ground and riveted together to keep a few fragile lives safe, just a little longer, from the cold and the drift of the dark universe.

A ship, engineered over lifetime after brief lifetime by hundreds of thousands of thinkers, creatures with minds that could barely grasp what sort of thing a star might be, but who wanted to sail among those unfathomable giants all the same.

A ship that will be rust, and dust, and gone in just a few short centuries. A planet’s workday, a star’s lunch break. Inside it, an adventurer laughs away her fear of the unknown. A brittle boy slurps a spoonful of warm, salty soup. A man wonders, quietly, at a foreign feeling rising in his chest.

A ship.

The stars look on, and do not comprehend.

The Last Chance will return.


Enjoy this story?

You’re in luck, my friend! There are many more. Why not delve into one of these?

The Wolf Of Oboro-Teh

Brevian And The Star Dragon, Part I: Stowaway

Bazar-Tek And The Lonely Knight


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This Screaming Earth

Day 5

The sun was a hard-edged yellow disc in the sky, providing little light and less warmth, when Hamish looked up through frozen lashes and saw the temple.

It was huge, a great monolith of solid stone, rising out of the flat plains with the brutal grandeur of all large things. The pale sunlight made mirrors and abysses of its sharp-edged planes.

He stood for a moment, staring at it. The wind shoved at him, making him stumble a little—shaking the grasses, stirring the fallen snow up into fresh whirlwinds. Struggling over snow that slid out unhelpfully from underfoot, Hamish began to run.

He reached the doors and shoved at them, half-expecting them not to budge under his weak assault. They swung open easily, opening upon a dark cavern of space. He entered, boots clattering oddly against the smooth floor, scattering snow and bits of dead grass with every step.

The doors swung slowly shut behind him, and Hamish slumped against them with a hollow thump, raking greedy breath after greedy breath into his frozen lungs.

There were no more wailing people.

No crunching snow. No howling wind.

Just silence.

Day 1

Hamish sat in the straw of the prison cell, entertaining himself by fiddling with his chains. They were worn and slightly rusted, a testament to the prison’s long life.

“You have two options before you,” the scribe said. He stood outside the prison bars, holding a flat wax tablet and a sharp copper stylus. Hamish did not look up at him.

“Your first option is to appeal to municipal law, and consent to be tried before the county judge. This would likely result in a punitive amputation.”

Hamish did glance up at that. His fingers stilled over a link in the chain, prickling in protest.

“A what?”

The scribe cocked an eyebrow at him. “Your hand,” he said. “They’d cut it off.”

Hamish knew what an amputation was, damn it, but he hadn’t thought—he hadn’t thought what he’d done was that serious. Was it?

“What’s option two?” He asked, throat dry.

“Since it was a temple you stole from,” the scribe continued, looking back at his tablet, “You may apply to be tried by theocratic law, instead of a municipal judge. The priests would assign you a fitting penance. I’m told the most likely one is a temporary exile to the Wailing Plains.”

It was not really a choice.

Day 2

Hamish shifted from foot to foot, half in the temple courtyard and half in a dusty store-room, watching an equally dusty priest rummage through piles of liturgical necessities like animal pelts and brass censers.

“What are the Wailing Plains?”

The priest looked up from his search of the storeroom. The temple was evidently supposed to provide its exiles with supplies appropriate to their destination. Those supplies, he’d learned, included a coat, a scarf, boots, mittens, and whatever it was the the priest was currently searching for. No food. He was told he wouldn’t need it.

He hoped that meant it would be short penance. Somehow, he doubted it.

“It is a physical location,” The priest said, turning back to shuffle for the last of Hamish’s ‘supplies.’ “Though we have so far only reached it through mystic arts, so where it would lie on a map is unknown. Very few have been there, and returned.”

Which sounded less than encouraging, really. Hamish wondered how bad it could really be, life without one of his hands. He could get a hook, right? He could probably live with a hook.

‘Probably’ was not enough certainty to try and change his fate now.

“The few who have been there describe it as— not properly of this world,” the priest went on, finally finding what he was looking for. A flattish ebony box, inscribed with swirling, unreadable letters. “One grows hungry, but never starves. Grows cold, but never freezes.” He blew the dust from the box, and then turned, handing it to Hamish. “They say the true temple of the Silent God is somewhere on the plains,” he said, looking Hamish in the eye. “You will look for it. Should you find it, you may return.”

Day 5

Inside the temple, the air was close-knit and still. It was a balm on Hamish’s wind-worn skin and aching lungs.

He couldn’t stay here forever.

In just a moment, he would get up. Leave. Go back.

There were so many who wandered on these plains, so many whose ears bled under the weight of the eternal screeching. This place, whatever it was—he had to bring them here. He had to show them.

So he would get up, he would.

In just a moment.

Day 2

Hamish held his mysterious box, and again wondered if a hook would be so bad, after all.

“Open that,” the priest said, nodding at the box. Hamish did. Inside, lying on a bed of velvet, were two perfect spheres of black wax.

“You’ll need those,” he said. “There are…creatures, on the Plains. They will not harm you, but you cannot listen to them, not for one second.”

Hamish had never liked priests, or people telling him what to do. The combination of the two now was enough to loosen his tongue.

“What happens if I do?” He asked. If he was going to starve to death on an otherworldly hellscape, he would rather not do it with wax in his ears.

The priest’s gaze was soft, almost compassionate, but it allowed for no argument.

“You would become one of them.”

Day 3

The first thing he noticed was the wind.

It cut through his every outer layer, biting at his skin with no regard for his thick coat and stabbing itself into his finger-bones as though the mittens on his hands were mere prayers for warmth. Under the thick grey sky, thinly streaked with yellow by an indifferent sun, it whipped the brittle brown grasses and made intermittent whirlwinds of the icy snow—the refuse from the last blizzard, reliving its glory days by snapping hard icy pellets against Hamish’s face.

The third thing he noticed was that the priests had managed to give him a scarf of exactly the wrong size.

It was wide. It was long. But it was not quite wide enough to cover both his mouth and his neck and the awkward triangle of space where his coat didn’t quite button, and not quite long enough wrap around twice to make up for its deficiencies in wideness. He pulled it up to cover his mouth and keep the cold from entering his lungs, but that only let the cold in to slice, knife-sharp, at his throat. He shoved it back down to cover his throat, breathing through his nose; but he had already breathed on the knit wool and now it was wet and cold. His nostril hairs were frosting up and sticking together.

He growled, feeling the sound low and deep in his chest without hearing it. It was strange, not hearing his own voice.

The balls of wax in his ears were cold and itchy. His attempts to ignore them were failing.

Even with the ready distraction of his many annoyances, his attempts to ignore the second thing he had noticed was failing too.

They were everywhere.

Pale, ghost-grey things, with wide open mouths and cavernous eyes, solid as stones and—if their wild stumbling at every gust of wind was any clue—light as feathers. Milling around aimlessly, they didn’t seem to notice Hamish. He was glad of it.

More than once, Hamish caught himself being drawn in to look at their faces—the wide, pale eyes, the gaping mouths. Every time, he tore his gaze away again. The shivers that ran down his spine had nothing to do with the wind.

Look at them too long, and they might well look back. The wax in his ears itched, but he didn’t dare touch it.

Look for the temple, Hamish thought. It was a simple enough task. Or, it should have been. But the plains were flat as a skipstone, wide and wild, with a barely perceptible line for a horizon; and nowhere did Hamish see a temple. Not even the ghostly outline of one.

He squinted, wondering briefly if it was possible to build a temple underground. He looked down at his boots, half-buried in some dormant snow, and kicked experimentally. He took a step forward, still squinting at the ground.

Something solid collided with him, sending him sprawling on his back. Hamish caught a glimpse of wide, dull eyes and outstretched hands as the creature trampled over him, seemingly unaware of his existence; and then he blinked, and found that he was staring up at the sky.

That was when he heard the screaming.

Hamish sat up with a panicked jerk, turning to scrabble in the powdery snow in a vain search for the gobs of wax. He succeeded only in getting snow wedged into the gaps between his mittens and the ends of his sleeves. The snow was soft, and cold, and unhelpful. The wax was gone.

While Hamish was still on the ground, another of the stumbling creatures tripped over him. It did a sort of one-legged dance, trying to regain its balance, and then finally seemed to gather itself. It moved on, mouth open and face lifted as though it intended to drink the sky, letting out a wild animal wail as Hamish got up and brushed himself off.

Their cries were piercing, high and sharp enough to carve the moon into a harvest scythe. Remembering the priest’s warning, Hamish hastily stuffed his fingers into his ears. Another of the creatures brushed by his back, screaming almost directly in his ear, and Hamish flinched away, wondering if his skin was already turning gray, if he was going to start wandering aimlessly and screaming at the sky. He clenched his teeth shut to ward off that possibility as long as possible.

This wasn’t worth it, he decided. Not all all. He turned back—but when he swung around, he couldn’t tell if he was facing back the way he’d come or not. It all looked the same.

There was no way home.

His beating heart throbbed against his fingertips, doing little to dull the endless screaming, and Hamish swallowed the dull lump that clogged his throat.

The only way back was to find the temple. Wherever it was. If it even existed.

He wasn’t going to find anything by standing here. He started walking, dodging away from the grey bodies that wandered about so carelessly of his own and trying to ignore the spike of fear every time he tripped over the uneven ground.

Day 4

After one night without sleep, Hamish stopped stuffing his fingers in his ears. His arms were too tired, and the priests had probably lied about him turning into one of those creatures anyway. Lying, just to scare people, was what priests did.

His legs were jelly-soft, wobbling as he walked, and his whole body was aching under the oppressive weight of the wind.

It was shortly into this second day of exile that he began to recognize words in the screaming. Jumbled, garbled words, all being screamed over one another; but words.

He checked his hands frantically, wondering if he was beginning to go grey, if something about him was changing that he could understand the inhuman screams; but no, red-blooded flesh still laid beneath his mittens.

It was only a matter of time before the words became sentences in Hamish’s ears.

“Fire! There is fire, everywhere there is fire!” One cried, spinning almost into Hamish before spinning away again.

“Where do I go? Where am I supposed to go?”

“Floods! The rains are coming! The rain will kill us all!”

“I am beautiful! I am new! I am young and lovely!”

Hamish could have sworn it was enough to make his ears bleed. He walked as fast as he could, squinting against the flakes of snow that pelted his eyelids, trying to block out the noise.

Intent upon his feet, he didn’t see the figure until it collided with him. The solid body knocked him flat on his back, and he found himself looking up into a pair of pale, wide eyes, set into a long, sagging face. Irritably, Hamish got up, expecting it to wander off again.

The watery eyes followed his motion as he rose, and the keening, wordless cry died down a fraction. Hamish, occupied with brushing himself off, stilled. A spark of fear flared up bright in his belly as he realized that the creature was actually looking at him.

“Swords!” the creature bellowed, a hollow sound from hollow lungs. He watched Hamish without blinking, as though in expectation of a response.

“Swords, really?” Hamish said, trying to shake the snow out of his mittens.

“Swords! The grass is made of swords!” A gust of wind blew up, and the creature stumbled a step, but held his ground. The watery eyes stayed fixed on Hamish.

Hamish had spent so long carefully not looking at the creatures or their faces, only catching glimpses of the wide-wailing mouths. The thing’s face is strange, disturbingly solid and fleshy despite its ghost-gray color.

“The grass,” Hamish said, “is swords.”

“Old swords! Ancient swords,” the creature said, volume decreasing slightly as it spoke. It was as though the simple act of listening had created a thin shield around them both, blocking out the incessant screaming, if only for a few moments. The thing bent over, careless of the wind that nearly tipped him flat on his face, and plucked a bit of brown grass out from its bed of snow. It lifted it up, waving it in front of Hamish’s face.

“Blade!” It said, and then let out a wild whoop of laughter. “Blade! See? The grass is made of swords!”

Hamish blinked. He was cold. He was hungry. He was tired. He did not want to listen to a theory about the origin of grass, much less a theory based entirely upon a pun.

“Fascinating,” he said, even though it wasn’t. “I’m on my way to the temple, though, so—“

The man’s gaze snapped suddenly to his.

“The temple is empty!”

“It’s—you’ve been there?” Hamish asked. “Wait! Where—where is it?”

But the creature’s gaze had already slipped away from him, and when another snap of the wild wind made the thing stumble away, it began stumbling off aimlessly, once again screaming to the sky about swords—and grass—and swords. Once again just another dull figure in a horde of dull figures, all ears made deaf by their own shouting.

Hamish watched it go, heart pounding.

The temple is empty. That was what the creature had said. Not it’s gone, not there is no temple.

It’s empty.

There was a temple, then. There had to be. For something to be empty, it had to exist. And if that thing had found it, then Hamish could too.

The thought did not settle a sense of determination in his stomach. It did not invigorate his body with fresh energy.

Instead, his feet felt frozen to the earth.

The only thing that stirred them was desperation—desperation at the thought of an eternity of life like this, frozen to the bone, surrounded by the careless, screaming creatures with their blank eyes and drunken steps. He had to find a way out of this. He had to find a way home.

He took a step, hardly knowing where he went. At least he was going somewhere. Maybe, if we wandered long enough, he would stumble across the temple by accident.

He told himself that it was hope.

The sun slunk lower on the horizon, rebelling against the worldwide grey with a stripe of faded red.

Hamish’s limbs had stopped feeling the cold. He knew enough about cold to know that this was not a good thing, but all the same, he couldn’t help but be relieved at the lack of pain.

He could hear the words better now. When he listened to them, it made the screaming both easier and harder to bear. Parsing out the individual words distracted him from the fact that the cries made the very bones of his ears shake until they seemed about to shatter, but the words themselves were difficult to listen to.

The creatures, it seemed, were masters of truly terrible ideas. They screamed that the sun didn’t exist. They screamed about how unbearably hot the Plains were. They screamed that it was too quiet. They screamed so many inimitably stupid, false things that Hamish had to keep an iron vice on his tongue to keep from screaming back at them.

He clenched his teeth closed and stepped out of the way as one of the things spun past him, wailing that clouds were secretly made of bees.

“Curse the earth,” Someone said softly from right beside Hamish’s ear, and he jumped. He spun aside, turning to stare at the thing who had spoken.

No, not a thing. A girl.

She was small, fine-boned, with eyes set so wide apart that they seemed to be trying to make room for a third. Her flesh had not yet gone gray, and her fingers clutched at her arms, knuckles pale, as though trying vainly to keep warm. Her eyes flicked briefly over Hamish, seeming to take him in, before sliding away again.

“Curse the earth!” She said again. Not a scream. Not a wail, but a small-voiced, mourning plea. “There is blood in it. Curse me, for I have shed it!”

There were tears in her voice, and anger too. It was such a human voice that it caught at Hamish’s heart. He took a step towards her, and her eyes slipped towards him again. Instead of sliding past him, though, this time she fixed on him, her eyes suddenly intent. Hamish went very still.

“I have shed blood,” she told him. “Too much blood. It’s seeping from my feet. It fills my eyes. They sent me here to be whipped clean by the wind; but the wind is no cleaner than I am.”

Hamish could not tell if it was sorrow, or triumph, in her tone; whatever it was, it leaked out of her in the next moment. Her shoulders slumped, and her voice cracked with tears.

“Oh, curse the earth!”

“Why should I?” Hamish asked.

“Because it’s full of blood,” she said. “Can’t you feel it—surging beneath your feet? See, it’s starting to leak into the sky.”

Hamish looked at the sunset. It did look like blood, now that she mentioned it.

“That’s not—“ he began, turning back towards the girl, and his words caught in his throat. There was a living fire in her eyes, directed at the sunset; a wild, raging red; but the rest of her—

The rest of her was gray as a stone.

“I’m looking for the temple,” he said, mouth dry.

She looked back at him, unblinking. Her eyes had gone ghost-pale and watery.

“There is only the earth, and the earth is full of blood,” she said, unshakably certain. “Curse the earth!”

A strong gust of wind made her stumble backwards, almost falling. She wandered away, and as she walked, she began to wail. The wind caught at her words and tore them away, so that they reached Hamish’s ears as though it was the very air that screamed them.

“Curse the earth!” The earth itself reverberated, as Hamish looked down at his shaking hands and wondered when the color would leach out of them, when he himself would begin to wander, forgetting what he’d come here for. When he would stumble and scream his lungs raw at a sky that would never listen.

“Curse the earth!”

Day 5

It was early morning, the grey world made hazy by the new light, when his foot caught on something. There was a sharp pain, a sudden snag, and Hamish found himself splayed flat on the ground, taking panicked breaths through a faceful of snow.

After a night of sleepless wandering, every moment afraid of losing himself to the gray wailing plains, Hamish had to fight down the insane urge to start laughing. It was all so ridiculous. Sleepless and sore and starving, wandering to someplace that might not even exist, and he just had to trip. Fall flat on his face in a perfect farce, an excellent summation of his entire life up till now.

He wanted to lie where he’d fallen and just not bother to get up again. What would be the use?

Frightened by his own thoughts, he struggled to his feet and turned back to scowl vengefully at the thing that had probably left a throbbing bruise on his left big toe.

It was a stone. Low and square, half-hidden in the grasses. Hamish felt a jolt of rage for his still-throbbing foot and the snow that had been dumped down the front of his coat; who would set a stone like that out in the middle of nowhere, just for people to trip over?

Then, as sharp as the wind that cut into his skin: someone had set that stone there. It was too square, too clean-lined to be there by accident.

His head snapped up, and he studied the surrounding ground with renewed energy. There. Another stone, hidden by the grass, and another, just a bit farther from it.

It was a path. He set off, following it, and began to laugh. It was hysterical, his laughter; something that bubbled out of his lungs like vinegar fizz, sharp and sour, the product of sleeplessness and desperation and a wonderful, horrible relief that ran, soft and clean as soapy water, through his veins. He had a path. He’d had nothing, and now he had a path.

Just ahead , one of the screamers was stumbling under the force of the wind, a wild, unstrung dance. One of the pathway-stones caught at their feet, tipping them over in a sudden sprawl that looked like something out of a comedy play. Hamish hurried towards the fallen figure, laughing all the harder.

“It’s a path!” He shouted, even though the wind swept his voice away. The sprawled figure in the grass was still lying there, probably without the motivation to get up. “Follow it, don’t trip over it!” Hamish shouted, voice unsteady with the hilarity that bubbled up in his lungs. He knelt by the figure, tapping them on the shoulder, offering his hand to help them up.

They made no move to reach for it.

He touched their shoulder again, gingerly pulling, turning them over.

Their eyes were blank, mouth frozen open. On the grey skin of the heavy-boned face, a thin line of bright red marked where their skull had cracked against the frozen ground.

Hamish was still laughing, lungs seizing with it as though they had forgotten how to stop. His hand, where it rested on the human creature’s shoulder, was a cold and stony gray.

He slapped a hand over his mouth, trying to force himself to be quiet. He felt sick inside.

Laughing at this forgotten someone, someone who had been wandering just as he wandered, tripped just as he’d tripped, but—had not been given the chance to get back up again.

Even though all hilarity had left him, even though he had no desire to laugh any more, his clutching lungs and shaking throat too far too long to settle, seeming to have gained a will of their own. He got up and stumbled away, hand still covering his mouth, ribs trembling with his efforts to keep them still.

Hamish hated the path. He followed it, clutching his hand to his chest as though whatever warmth still thrummed through his heart could return the color to the changed limb, but he hated it. The sharp, stubby ridges of rock. The way they hid in the grasses and the snow, almost malicious as they lay in wait for someone to trip on them, careless of their deadly power.

And yet—if the screamers would just stop shouting, and look—they could find their way, they could get free of this place.

Thinking that, he almost hated them.

In the end, hatred was useless. He let it slip through his fingers. He followed the line of rocks again, keeping an eye on the stumbling men and women. He ran ahead to pull the them back whenever they seemed likely to trip. They yowled at him in response, never listening when he tried to explain, but they also didn’t die.

He didn’t laugh at them, or himself, again.

Day 1

“Well then. I’ll alert the court of your decision, and you’ll be remanded into the custody of the priests by tomorrow, if all goes well.”

The scribe tucked his stylus into his sleeve, clapping the wax tablet closed. He looked up at Hamish, his eyes unclouded for the first time, and gave a single nod.

“I’ll offer a prayer for your well-being,” he said, with a sincerity that made Hamish stop fiddling with the shackle that was beginning to gall his wrist.

“What have you to gain from that?” He snapped.

The scribe shrugged.

“Peace of mind, I suppose.”

Hamish shook his head. “Silent god,” he said, scornful. “With all that silence, how are you supposed to know if he’s answered your prayers or not?”

“I won’t.” The scribe said, simply. “But I hope you will.”

Day 5

The doors of the temple were solid and smooth against Hamish’s back. The warmth was making a slow but determined foray into his ice-numbed bones, sparking stabbing pains that ran up his arms and sliced through his joints. It was excruciating, but good. A living pain instead of a dying one.

As the shivers began to subside, one deep breath caught in his throat, making a hitching, soft sound that sounded like blasphemy in the stillness. His face was wet. His hands were shaking.

How many wanderers were there, he wondered? How many lost?

He could go home now, if he wanted. The priests would take him back. He’d found the temple, completed his penance.

But how many had been left unfulfilled?

He could go home.

But he wouldn’t.

He would drag every last one of them here, by force if he had to. No one was going to be lost on those lonely plains again if he could help it.

So yes, he would get up. He would get up, and go out, and start bringing every last screaming human thing here until the only wailing on these plains was the lonely wind.

The silence, the stillness, was like a healing balm on his skin.

He would get up.

In just a moment.


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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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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.


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