I was shooting for May 1st for a release date on the fourth Emperor’s Edge book, but it’s up and ready for you guys a couple days early. I’m posting the blurb and first chapter here, but if you don’t care about such things and just want to pick up a copy, EE4 is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords (look for it at iTunes, Sony, Kobo, etc. in a few weeks).
When you’re an outlaw hoping for a pardon, and the emperor personally sends a note requesting that your team kidnap him, you make plans to comply…
Even if it’ll involve infiltrating a train full of soldiers, bodyguards, and spies loyal to a nefarious business coalition that has numerous reasons to hate you.
Even if it means leaving the city right after you’ve uncovered a secret weapons shipment that might be meant to start a war.
Even if it’s a trap…
The steel framework of the bridge trembled with the train’s approach. Amaranthe Lokdon crouched on a beam overlooking the tracks, steadying herself with a hand on a vertical support pillar. The train chugged closer, approaching the bridge at fifty miles an hour, black smoke streaming from its stack and hazing the starry sky.
Aware of the full moon shining into the canyon, Amaranthe hoped the engineer wasn’t watching the route ahead too closely. Her form might be visible against the dark sky.
When the locomotive reached the bridge, the vibrations coursing through its steel frame intensified. Amaranthe braced herself, ready to jump. She made a point of not looking at the moonlight reflecting off of the river hundreds of feet below, though her pesky peripheral vision refused to let her forget about it—and the long drop it signified.
The massive black locomotive passed beneath her, its smoke obscuring the view of the rest of the cars. The acrid air stung Amaranthe’s eyes. Nerves tangled in her stomach, but there was no time to worry about the view—or anything else.
As soon as the locomotive and coal car blew past, Amaranthe took a deep breath and jumped off of the beam. She dropped ten feet to the first freight car and landed in a crouch, softening her knees to touch down lightly—and quietly. Though she doubted the engineer would hear anything over the noise of the train, she wagered Sicarius was watching from somewhere, and he would have words for her—or a stern, expressionless stare—if she performed sloppily.
Amaranthe turned her head away from the coal-scented smoke in time to spot four figures dropping onto the four subsequent freight cars behind hers. Akstyr, Books, Maldynado, and Basilard, landing one after the other.
Akstyr straightened his legs too soon and flailed his arms for balance. Amaranthe lifted a hand, concern tightening her chest, but he recovered and sank to his hands and knees. Face pale, he glanced over his shoulder at the deep drop and the shallow river below. He raised two fingers in a rude gesture, suggesting the canyon and the train could engage in carnal activities.
Amaranthe snorted. No need for concern. He would be fine.
Akstyr noticed her watching and changed the rude gesture to one of Basilard’s hand signs, an arm wiggle and finger tap that meant both good and ready. She returned the motion. Further down, Basilard, Books, and Maldynado gave her similar signs.
So far, so good.
This might simply be training for the real mission planned for the following week, but the setting made the potential for injury, even death, quite real. Amaranthe had argued with Sicarius, suggesting they do this during the day, and in flatlands instead of on dangerous mountain terrain, but the discussion had been short-lived. She had given in under the force of his unrelenting glare. He had been demanding near-perfection from the team of late, driving them harder than ever, but she could understand why. He had more at stake than any of them.
Akstyr and the others were crawling off the roofs and onto ladders leading to the cars’ sliding side doors. Amaranthe pushed her thoughts away and got moving. After all, Sicarius was timing them.
She dropped to her hands and knees and slithered over the edge of her car, probing for a rung. Again, she had to force herself not to think about the drop.
Air thick with the scent of wet earth and fallen leaves railed at her, tugging at her clothing and making her eyes tear. Amaranthe descended with care, maintaining three points of contact at all times, just as if she were climbing down a sheer mountain face.
The short sword belted at her waist caught between the rungs, and she lost a few seconds extricating herself. Farther down, Basilard, Maldynado, and Akstyr had already entered their rail cars. Amaranthe forced herself not to rush or sacrifice safety for time, but tension tightened her muscles nonetheless. Though it was foolish and she knew it, she always felt the need to prove herself as capable as the men, especially when Sicarius was around to witness.
She leaned to the side of the ladder, reaching for the metal door latch. Her fingers brushed it. Grimacing, she lifted her leg and groped for a toehold on the inch-wide sill beneath the door, so she could lean out farther. This time, she caught the handle, though it wasn’t easy to open, and she struggled to find leverage without letting her foot slip.
The train had passed over the canyon and was chugging through a boulder-strewn valley, but a fall could still be deadly. If she landed under the wheels, they’d cut her in half faster than any weapon in the imperial army’s arsenal.
“Quit it, girl,” Amaranthe muttered.
She readjusted her grip and twisted and pulled the latch with determination. The handle released with a lurch, but she anticipated it and shifted her weight back to keep her balance. She reached inside, found something metal to grip, and clawed her way into the car. Only when both of her feet were on the textured metal floor did she release a breath of relief. She didn’t relax for more than a second though, not when she was silhouetted against the sky for anyone inside to see.
The freight car carried seeds, tools, and other agricultural supplies, so she didn’t expect anyone to be inside, but Sicarius had promised the objective would not be easy. She envisioned booby traps, but she had to be prepared for anything. She hoped her decision to split up the team had not been a mistake.
Amaranthe pressed her back against a stack of crates strapped to the wall beside the door. She pulled a satchel over her head and removed a small lantern and a wooden match nestled in a waterproof case at the bottom. Making a light was a risk, but she had little hope of achieving the objective, or dodging booby traps, in complete darkness.
The objective was, thanks to her questionable sense of humor and need to interject levity into the strenuous hours of training, to retrieve a fist-sized wooden ducky. Sicarius had said he’d place it in one of the first four freight cars, so it might not be in hers, but she had to check thoroughly. The team had only fifteen minutes to find it and meet him at the end of the train.
After lighting the lantern, Amaranthe eased into one of two lopsided aisles formed by crates stacked floor-to-ceiling against the walls and head-high piles of seed bags in the center of the car. According to Books’s research, much of the cargo had already been off-loaded at previous stops, and the train was on its way to its final destination in Agricultural District Number Seven, near the capital and home.
Amaranthe padded down the first aisle, hunting for places where one might stick a wooden duck. The tall piles of seed bags blocked her view of much of the car, and that made her uneasy. She alternated duck hunting and watching the floor, expecting trip wires at any turn.
Her first circuit revealed nothing, and she went around for another look, this time lifting the heavy bags on the tops of the piles to peek under them. One of sacks leaned precariously, throwing a shadow like a rearing bear against the crates on the other side. She set her lantern down to push the top couple of bags into balance, so the pile had a tidier look, then realized what she was doing and shook her head in disgust.
“Time frame,” she muttered. “This isn’t the place to clean.” She crouched to pick up the lantern. “Or talk to yourself.”
Something at the corner of her eye moved.
Amaranthe spun, her hand going to her sword hilt. Nothing was there.
A rectangle of moonlight bathed the metal floor near the entrance. It winked out as the train passed tall trees and then flooded the car again. That must be what she had seen. She drew her short sword anyway.
Leaving the lantern on the floor, Amaranthe returned to her search. She poked through an open crate filled with metal parts for some steam-powered farm implement. No wooden ducks. She shifted a few more seed bags aside to look under them, though her movements were rushed and less methodical than before.
Not only was she aware of time running out, but Amaranthe was growing increasingly uncomfortable. Something grated against her senses, like the wheels grinding on the rails below her. Though she had been all around the car, she had the feeling that something was watching her. Some animal perhaps? A rat? Or—a new thought occurred to her—it could be some person hiding, someone who had stowed away to avoid the pricy fare of a passenger train.
Amaranthe glanced down at the lantern. It would be highlighting her face, a face that adorned numerous wanted posters in the capital city.
“Time to get out of here.” She crouched and cut off the light, leaving a tang of kerosene in the air.
Before she could pick up the lantern, some sixth sense stirred the hairs on the back of her neck. She heard nothing, but instincts told her to move. Fast.
Amaranthe lunged forward, throwing herself into a roll. The lantern flew from her hands and skidded across the floor to clack into a crate. Not important. She kept her grip on her sword and jumped to her feet before the door.
Amaranthe didn’t glance back the way she had come—something told her she didn’t have time. She bolted out the door, jumping to the side and twisting in the air to catch the rungs. She flew up them with none of her earlier caution and only checked below as she was pulling herself onto the roof.
A dark figure jumped out of the car, somehow gripping the top of the doorway and swinging itself up to land in a crouch before her. Amaranthe scrambled to her feet and turned her sword arm toward the person, bending her knees in a ready stance.
The moon came out from behind the trees and shone on the figure’s short, pale hair and familiar angular features. Dressed all in black, he wore daggers to rival a porcupine’s quills, as well as throwing knives sheathed on his forearm.
“Sicarius,” Amaranthe blurted, relief washing over her. “I thought you were—”
A cutlass appeared in his hand, an army officer’s weapon. His face held no expression, and his dark eyes bore into her. She might as well have been exchanging stares with some stranger who wanted to kill her. The training exercise wasn’t over.
Amaranthe had barely prepared herself for the idea of a fight when Sicarius darted toward her, a dark blur under the moonlight. Her instincts told her to leap back, so she had more time to think, but she stood her ground. There wasn’t much space to give up on the top of the rail car.
The cutlass clanged against her short sword, driving it wide. Amaranthe knew the follow-up would slice toward her gut, so she had to leap back, giving herself time to bring her blade back in. She tried to parry, but his second thrust had been a feint, and already the cutlass slashed toward the inside of her thigh.
Metal screeched as their swords came together. She blocked him—barely. The power of his blow sent a painful jolt up her arm, but she kept her weapon in place. If he forced her arm wide, her torso would be exposed, an easy target. Again, though, she was forced to back up, to give ground.
Sicarius didn’t offer her a chance to recover or think. She could only react. Their swords came together, a continuous peal of scrapes and clangs of metal that echoed off the mountaintops. With reflexes honed by months of training, Amaranthe blocked him again and again, even in the poor light, but she could not gain an advantage. Worse, she knew he wasn’t moving as quickly and unpredictably as he usually did, not even close—he knew her skills and her style better than anyone, and he knew how to put himself just out of reach. Usually, he’d stop and offer her advice, but not tonight. Relentlessly, he drove her back.
Amaranthe dared not glance over her shoulder to look for the edge of the car; that would be an eternity during which he could—he would—strike.
Sweat streamed down her face and stung her eyes. She couldn’t pause to wipe it away, not now. Amaranthe tried to think of something she could do, a way to distract him, so she could strike a blow, or at least earn an opportunity to take the offensive, but she had sparred so often with him that he knew all her tricks.
The cutlass dug into her ribs, and she winced, jumping back and banging it away with her sword. Sicarius had used the back of his blade, not the edge, but his point was clear. It was hard to think up strategies when taking her focus away from him and his weapon for a split second resulted in his weapon slipping through her defenses.
The train headed into a curve around a rocky hillside. The car trembled beneath Amaranthe’s feet. She kept her balance, kept parrying his attacks, but she could tell from the amount of roof behind Sicarius that she was getting close to the edge. She had to try something.
The next time she parried a slash toward her torso, she turned it into a riposte, feinting toward Sicarius’s chest, then advancing half a step to strike at his thigh. She made her attacks rapid—her muscles were weary now, relaxed, and she could move faster than at the beginning, when tension had tightened her limbs. Sicarius blocked her strikes easily, as she had assumed he would, but he didn’t turn the attack back onto her immediately. She sensed he wanted her to try something, so she followed her thrusts with a slash toward his sword hand with the edge of her blade. The hand wasn’t a fancy target, but it was closer and easier to get to than the well-protected torso.
Sicarius evaded the attack, but he backed up half a step. Finally. Amaranthe forced him to block three times, each strike as fast as possible without sacrificing precision, and she managed to get inside his arm. She angled her sword toward his shoulder, lifting her front leg with extra emphasis, to show she meant to lunge in and throw everything behind the attack. But she slowed the blade, striking at half of her previous pace, hoping that she’d set him up to expect speed, and that he would move to block too soon. Then she would glide in over his arm and find her target.
It might have worked against a lesser opponent, but Sicarius saw through her ruse.
His cutlass slammed into her sword, sending her arm wide, and she almost lost the blade altogether. Knowing she couldn’t yank her arm back in quickly enough to block his next attack, she skittered backward. Her foot landed halfway over the edge of the car, and, with her momentum going that direction, her heel slipped off.
Amaranthe’s sword flew from her hand. She pitched backward. Fear stole her thoughts, and all she could think to do was flail, to try and catch something, but there was nothing but air around her.
A hand clamped onto her wrist. Sicarius pulled her up and back onto the roof. He plucked her sword from the air before it dropped away.
Amaranthe stumbled against him and clenched her eyes shut. The image of her body being cut into pieces beneath the great metal wheels of the train flashed through her mind. She wiped sweat out of her eyes with a trembling hand and fought to bring her breathing under control. More than exertion had her panting.
After a long moment, she stepped away from Sicarius. He extended her sword, hilt first.
“No, no, I’m fine,” Amaranthe said. “Thanks for asking.”
A normal sparring partner would have apologized for nearly sending her plummeting to her death. Sicarius never bothered with social niceties, though. She had never heard words such as “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “good morning,” or “sorry I almost got you killed” come out of his mouth. He merely stood there, waiting for her to accept her sword.
Amaranthe took it and sheathed it firmly, letting him know she was done with train-top sparring matches for the night.
“You were thinking too much,” Sicarius said.
“I like to think. It gives my brain something to do.”
“Think to stay out of a sword fight, not once you’re in it,” Sicarius said. “I drill you on routines over and over, so they become an automatic part of your unconscious memory.”
“I haven’t noticed that I can get through your defenses consciously or unconsciously.” Amaranthe waved to the cutlass that he had sheathed in a scabbard on his back. “You’re using an army blade, so I figured you’d be mimicking a soldier, but no soldiers move like you.”
“The emperor’s elite bodyguard is extremely well trained,” Sicarius said.
“You think I don’t know that?”
Amaranthe sounded bitter and frustrated, and she knew it. Taking a deep breath, she willed the feelings to drain away. She would never beat Sicarius in a sword fight, not when he had been trained to kill since birth. They practiced so that she improved enough to beat other, lesser foes. She had to remember that and be happy with the progress she made.
“I’m hoping to come up with a plan that involves taking them by surprise,” Amaranthe said, “not fighting them on the roofs of moving trains. If we can’t get Sespian out of his car without killing people…” She tucked escaped strands of hair behind her ear, though the wind simply whipped them free again. “Well, it’ll be hard to convince him we’re good people who want to help the empire—help him.”
It’d been more than two months since Sespian gave Basilard a secret note, asking to be kidnapped, and Amaranthe still had no idea what had prompted him to choose her team for the request. Did he realize that she had been wrongly accused of plotting against him the winter before, and he wanted to get the real story? Or had he simply been motivated by the fact that her men were the best outlaws around and the logical ones to work with? Or maybe Sespian was working with Forge to lay a trap for her and her team. Though nobody in that coalition had attacked her directly yet, the shadowy business entity had to be aware of—and annoyed by—Amaranthe’s existence by now.
With the exertion past, her body was cooling, and the chilly wind needled her damp skin. Amaranthe climbed down the side of the car and slipped inside for its protection.
When Sicarius joined her, she asked, “Where are the others?”
“Only for the purposes of the training exercise, I assume.”
Sicarius pressed something into her hand. The duck. “You should’ve stayed together or split the team into pairs.”
“You gave us four cars to search, and there are four of us. It seemed logical.”
“It is difficult to search and watch one’s back at the same time,” Sicarius said.
“I was only expecting booby traps. I didn’t know you would be a player in the game.”
“It’s not a game.” His tone was cool and clipped.
Amaranthe sighed. The same night Basilard had been receiving that note at the emperor’s big dinner celebrating the winners of the Imperial Games, Sicarius had taken her for a stroll in the Imperial Gardens where he had surprised the words from her mouth by kissing her. Even though he’d made it clear he wanted to wait until everything with Sespian was resolved before pursing a romantic relationship with her, she’d thought… Well, she’d thought it might have changed something, that he’d relax more around her, maybe make a joke or even deign to smile once in a while. But he’d been more controlled and aloof than ever since reading Sespian’s note. Amaranthe hoped that had to do with concern over the emperor—his son, a fact that nobody knew about except her—and not because he’d realized the kiss had been a mistake.
The wind had tugged his short hair in a thousand directions, and her fingers twitched. She longed to brush it into a semblance of neatness. Sicarius, however, did not look like a man who wanted to be touched. He gazed out the door, into the passing forest, his jaw tight, his eyes hard.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t go after him sooner,” Amaranthe said, feeling a need to break the silence. Shortly after giving Basilard that note, Sespian had left on a two-month trip around the empire to inspect the major military stations along the borders and coasts. There was a precedent—most emperors did such a trip once a decade—but Amaranthe wondered if someone had wanted Sespian out of the capital for a while. Books had spoken of an older woman who’d been there at the dinner with Sespian, acting like a chaperone. Since then, Amaranthe had tasked Books with researching Forge, trying to get names and addresses of key members, but it was a far-flung group, and her team had yet to pinpoint a leader. “I’m surprised you didn’t go that first week,” Amaranthe added, “and try to sneak into the Imperial Barracks yourself, to see if you could get him without our help.”
Sicarius’s eyes shifted toward her, and something lurked in their depths. Wryness? Chagrin? It was so hard to tell with him.
“Or did you?” Amaranthe asked.
“A new addition to the Barracks.”
Amaranthe arched her eyebrows. “Magic?”
The Imperial Barracks was not only the centuries-old building atop Arakan Hill where the emperor and his staff slept; it was also the headquarters for those that ran the satrapy and managed the affairs of Turgonia itself. Hundreds of people worked there. To imagine magic being used openly… magic in an empire that killed anyone suspected of employing it and, at the same time, denied its existence…
“It’s not apparent to anyone who hasn’t been trained to be sensitive to the Science,” Sicarius said, perhaps guessing her thoughts. “Even then, it’s well hidden.” He flexed his hand, as if in the memory of some pain.
Amaranthe lifted her own hand out of an urge to grasp his and offer some comfort, but she stopped before touching him. Maybe he wouldn’t appreciate it. She’d known him for almost nine months now, and nothing she had learned in that time suggested he found human touch desirable. Amaranthe let her hand drop with an inward sigh. She did think too much.
“We’ll get him, Sicarius.” She clasped her hands behind her back and settled for standing side-by-side with him, gazing out into the night. “We’ll get him, and we’ll help him with Forge. Whether he thinks he wants our help or not.”
Sicarius said nothing. Amaranthe hoped it wasn’t only in her mind that he appreciated her efforts.
* * * * *
Akstyr leaned against the wall of the rail car, his head brushing the metal roof. He sat on eight feet of greenhouse kits with his book open in his lap, though he was struggling to concentrate on it. His lamp wobbled on his pack, threatening to tip over with every clickety-clack of the train. That was plenty distracting, but it was the thoughts bumping around in his head like drunken soldiers that made reading hard.
Across the way, Books didn’t seem to be having any trouble skimming his newspaper and scribbling notes in a journal. Farther back in the car, Maldynado wasn’t having any trouble napping—as the obnoxious snores proved. But those two didn’t have anything to worry about. They hadn’t been plotting with Basilard over the summer, thinking up ways to get Sicarius killed to collect on that bounty.
A trapdoor in the roof scraped open. Greenhouse frames and crates of glass covered the entire floor of the car, reaching to the ceiling in many places, and the only way in or out was through that door.
Basilard dropped inside, followed by Sicarius.
Akstyr stared at the pages of his book. After being the one to bring up the kill-Sicarius idea, Basilard had decided he didn’t want to do it after all. Akstyr didn’t figure Basilard had said anything to Sicarius—or Akstyr would have had a dagger shoved down his throat by now—but the simple matter of Basilard having that knowledge made Akstyr nervous. What if Basilard let something slip eventually? What if Sicarius figured it out on his own? Even if Akstyr hadn’t done anything, he’d been thinking of doing something, and Sicarius seemed the type to kill a man for having a notion against him.
Amaranthe dropped into the rail car last and pulled the door shut. Maldynado sat up with a start, thumping his head on the ceiling, but barely noticed.
“Hullo, boss,” he said.
Books lowered his newspaper and gave Amaranthe a respectful nod.
“Who’s hungry?” Amaranthe grabbed one of the group’s rucksacks. “We have a bounty of delicious ready-to-eat-without-being-heated delights.”
“So long as it’s not noodles and lamb chunks again,” Maldynado said. “A man shouldn’t have to eat anything with the word chunks on the label.”
“On that we can agree,” Books said.
Maldynado gave him a suspicious look, as if he expected an insult to follow. Books was busy eyeing Amaranthe’s rucksack, as if she might pull poisonous snakes out of it. Akstyr thought the others were wimps. He’d eaten far worse stuff when he’d been growing up. The winter when he’d lived on used cooking lard and skewered rats, sometimes cooked, sometimes not, came to mind.
“Uhm.” Amaranthe rooted through the bag, passed on a couple of cans, and pulled out a flat tin. “How about beans and sausages?”
Books’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that small print say?”
“That the sausages are chunked and formed.”
Books’s lips flattened.
“How is that better than the lamb chunks we already vetoed?” Maldynado asked.
“I wasn’t sure if it was chunks specifically you had a problem with,” Amaranthe said, “or all permutations of the word.”
Basilard lifted his hands and, in his Mangdorian hunting code, signed, I could make a real meal if we had access to a fire.
“Alas,” Amaranthe said, “I don’t think the engineer would have kind words to say if we showed up at his furnace with frying pans in hand.”
“He might if all he’s been eating are meat chunks dubiously made in some squalid factory.” Books lifted his newspaper again. “These are strange times we’re living in. Every technological advancement removes us further from nature.”
“Beans sound good to me,” Akstyr said, hoping to interrupt whatever lecture or diatribe Books might be working himself up to. The man had some gray at his temples, and was probably in his forties, but sometimes he acted like the doddering geezers who played Stratics in the park and whined about wayward youths.
Sicarius removed a package from his rucksack and unwrapped his supply of bricks. That’s what Akstyr called them anyway. They were some sort of dried fat and meat concoction Sicarius pounded into bars for traveling. Akstyr doubted the starving people on the streets where he grew up would eat them unless the rat supply was extremely low.
Sicarius offered a bar to Amaranthe. She glanced back and forth from the can of beans to the proffered brick while wearing the pained grimace of someone deciding between torture by branding irons and torture by toenail pulling.
Sicarius looked in Akstyr’s direction. Akstyr pretended to be engrossed in his book, but he could feel that stare upon him anyway, about as friendly and warm as a piss pot frozen over in winter. Sure, Sicarius always looked at people that way, but Akstyr couldn’t help but worry. Sicarius knew more about the Science than most Turgonians, and maybe he knew a few practitioners’ tricks himself. Like mind reading.
Though Akstyr appreciated that Amaranthe watched his back, and nobody here cared that he studied the mental sciences, he figured it would be better for his health if he got out of the area sooner rather than later. And far out. Far enough that Sicarius wouldn’t bother coming after him if he ever learned the truth. Some place like the Kyatt Islands. They were way out in the middle of the ocean, and they were known for their Science practitioners. Maybe Akstyr could even go to school at their Polytechnic and finally learn what texts alone couldn’t teach him.
“Huh.” Books’s paper rattled. “Look at this. We’re mentioned.”
“Oh?” Amaranthe had a couple of cans in her lap and was digging out an opener. “I thought you were researching links to Forge people, not reading the exploits of a heroic and wrongfully accused band of outlaws.”
“It’s a tiny piece,” Books said, “tinier, I see, than this editorial on a perceived cat overpopulation problem in the city. But listen to this: Eye witnesses claim that Amaranthe Lokdon and the group of mercenaries calling themselves the Emperor’s Edge defeated notorious murderer and gang leader Bloody Batvok last week, ending his illegal taxation-for-protection stranglehold on the merchants and grocers working along Thistlemount Avenue. Local enforcers offer no comment. The group consists of a former warrior-caste fop, Maldynado Montichelu—”
“Fop?” Maldynado asked. “Who wrote that?”
“—gang member, Akstyr, last name unknown,” Books went on without a glance at Maldynado, “former professor Marl Mugdildor, and a Mangdorian named Temtelamak.”
Basilard rolled his eyes at his moniker. Maldynado had entered Basilard into the Imperial Games with the name of an old war general who’d been known for his bedroom exploits. Apparently, it had stuck.
“The assassin Sicarius is also believed to have been there,” Books finished.
Amaranthe grinned and shared a long look with Sicarius. “Not exactly front-page fame—and it’s hard to compete with feline population problems for attention—but at least someone’s writing us up now. That’s not even The Gazette,” she said, naming the paper where she’d made friends with that journalist, Deret Mancrest.
Akstyr felt satisfaction of his own because he’d helped take down Batvok. The thug had been from a rival gang that had always been trying to stomp out the Black Arrows when Akstyr had been a member. Too bad he didn’t have any aspirations to be famous. Given his hobby of studying the illegal and forbidden mental sciences, it was best for him to be invisible in the empire. Fame would only—
His thoughts hiccupped.
Maybe this was his way out of the empire. Everyone knew about the million-ranmya bounty on Sicarius’s head, and now that Akstyr’s name had been mentioned alongside Sicarius’s, people might know that Akstyr ran with the infamous assassin. There was no way Akstyr would try to kill Sicarius himself, but what if he didn’t have to? What if he just sold information to someone on how to find Sicarius? Akstyr didn’t need a million ranmyas to get out of the city. If he had twenty or thirty thousand, that’d be plenty to buy a train ticket, a steamship ticket, and maybe even pay for his tuition at the Polytechnic. Hairy balls, it might even buy him food and a place to stay while he studied. His heart swelled at that idea of himself as… well, as a wizard. Sure, only Turgonians called practitioners that, but he had to admit it sounded brilliant. It sounded more than brilliant.
“Beans?” Amaranthe asked, touching Akstyr’s arm.
He flinched in surprise, and his elbow bumped against his lantern. It toppled, and he lunged to catch it. In the process, he lost his book and slid down the pile of greenhouse kits. He ended up wedged into a gap that left his knees pressed to his chin.
“Sorry,” Amaranthe said, though her eyebrow quirked in amusement. “I didn’t realize you were so engrossed in your book.”
“My book?” Akstyr asked blankly.
She lifted the tome and handed it to him.
“Oh, right. My book.” Akstyr swallowed. Idiot, he cursed himself. All he’d done was think about his plot, but he was already acting suspiciously.
“Maybe he’s just that excited over the idea of sausages chunked and formed,” Maldynado said.
“Yeah, that’s it.” Akstyr laughed. Did it sound nervous? Or forced? He hoped not. He accepted the book and the food.
Amaranthe smiled, but Akstyr felt Sicarius’s gaze upon him again. Emperor’s warts, Akstyr was acting suspiciously. He was no good at lies.
In that second, Akstyr decided he’d be a fool to actually betray Sicarius. Maybe he’d sell false information instead. False information on Sicarius’s hideouts and the best way to capture him. Thanks to the newspaper, people should believe he had that information. He still knew gang members who might put him touch with those who could afford to pay well for a chance at a million ranmyas, and by the time everyone figured out what he’d been up to, he’d be out of the city and on his way out of the empire forever. By winter, he’d be on a tropical beach on Kyatt, enrolled in school to learn about the only thing he truly loved.
What could go wrong?
* * *