Posted in Fantasy / Science Fiction, My Ebooks | Posted on 24-05-2014|
Deathmaker, the new fantasy/steampunk adventure in the Balanced on the Blade’s Edge, world is ready to go.
When Lieutenant Caslin Ahn joined Wolf Squadron, she was prepared for the reality that she might one day be killed in the line of duty. She was less prepared for being shot down, assumed dead by her own people, and dragged off to the Cofah Empire as a prisoner of war. As if being thrust into a dungeon and interrogated wasn’t bad enough, the sadistic commandant decides to give her a cellmate: the notorious pirate Deathmaker. Given the crimes he’s committed against Iskandia, Cas owes it to her people to try and kill him.
Part warrior and part scientist, Tolemek “Deathmaker” Argoson has not only slain thousands with his deadly concoctions, but he has a special loathing for Iskandian pilots. It was Ahn’s commander, Colonel Zirkander, who ruined his military career, forcing him to leave his country in shame and join a pirate organization. Years later, he uses his dreadful reputation like a shield to keep people away; all he wants is to be left alone to work in his laboratory. But when fate lands him in a cell with Zirkander’s protégé, he sees a chance for revenge. Why kill the lieutenant when he can use her to get to his old nemesis?
There’s just one problem: it’s hard to plot against your enemies when you’re in prison with them. Cas and Tolemek will have to work together if they hope to escape the Cofah dungeon. In the process, they may find that neither is what the other expects, and that they have far greater problems to worry about than ensnaring each other…
Cas didn’t like her new cell. After having spent two weeks jammed into a dark locker on a Cofah warship, the space so confining that she couldn’t stand up or stretch out straight, she probably should have considered this an improvement. But she wasn’t one of those irritatingly cheerful optimists. She hadn’t liked the last cell, and she didn’t like this one either. The window might let in the ocean breeze, but it was too small to climb through, not to mention barricaded with iron bars. The cries of parrots and the yowls of monkeys beyond it were a reminder that she was in a strange land, far from home, without hope of rescue.
Heavy footsteps and the jangle of weapons sounded in the hallway.
Cas bared her teeth, hoping the guards would only stroll past on their way to attend to another prisoner. It had been scarce minutes since her welcome-to-the-Dragon-Spit-prison-and-here’s-a-thorough-beating-to-make-you-feel-at-home greeting. She was still lying on the floor and recovering, so she flinched at the idea of another round with those bone cudgels. For all her vows to stay strong, she had spent most of her first beating curled in a ball on the ground, clutching her gut, and doing her best not to whimper. Whimpering wasn’t expressly forbidden in the “Survival, Evasion, and Recovery” chapter of the army field manual, but the line about the “inherent stoicism of soldiers” seemed to discourage it.
The footsteps stopped, and the door opened. Yellow lantern light spilled in from the hallway, making Cas realize that twilight had fallen outside. Not that the time of day mattered much.
A guard scurried inside carrying a stool. He set it down, the legs scraping against the hard sandstone floor, then he stood beside the door. Thanks to the shaven head, scarred face, and broad shoulders, he would have been ominous and forbidding even without the bone cudgel and short sword secured on either hip and the shotgun gripped in his hands.
Another shaven-headed man walked in, this one older and wearing a tiger fur cloak over his brown uniform. It didn’t look particularly climate-appropriate. The man wasn’t carrying any visible weapons, but Cas assumed he was in charge. If the Cofah military was anything like her own, only important people got to tinker with the dress code. For a moment, she thought of her own commander, Colonel Ridge Zirkander, and the way his non-regulation cap was always tilted at a rakish angle, but she hurried to push the image away, lest tears form in her eyes. She could be tough while they questioned her, but only as long as she didn’t let herself think of comrades—friends—back home… and whether she would ever see them again.
“Lieutenant Caslin ‘Raptor’ Ahn,” High Lord Cloak said, settling on the stool. “Wolf Squadron.”
Cas searched for something cocky to say, something to show that she wasn’t intimidated by him or this situation—Zirkander would have had a witty riposte for this statement of the obvious—but all she got out was a muffled, “Yeah?” Her lips were split and swollen from the beating. Even that single syllable hurt.
“Raptor?” Cloak made a point of eying her up and down, or rather, since she was on the floor, forward and back. Then he smirked. “Truly?”
Cas would have liked to stand up and tower threateningly over him, but she had to wear her thick-soled combat boots to brush the five-foot-two mark on a measuring wall. So far, she hadn’t managed to tower over anyone older than ten. It would have hurt too much to climb to her feet anyway.
“I didn’t give myself the nickname,” she grumbled. Not that she minded it; most of the squadron had embarrassing nicknames, especially the other young lieutenants. Pimples and Snuggles came to mind.
“Well, Raptor, our latest intelligence confirms that your people know your damaged flier sank during the skirmish in the Seven Tides Strait. They believe you’re as dead as the other pilot.”
The other pilot—Dash. Her eyes threatened to water again. She had seen the fire in Dash’s cockpit, seen him burning, his skin charred, his mouth open in a scream of pain right before his flier plunged into the ocean. There was no chance he had swum away as she had, having survived by clinging onto a piece of a wing until someone pulled her out of the water hours later. The wrong someone.
Cloak leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped as he regarded her. “That means nobody’s coming for you.”
A monkey howled in the distance. Cas wouldn’t have minded making a similar screech. She muttered a, “No kidding,” instead. Maybe she shouldn’t be saying anything. But if she responded to him, she might get a scrap or two of information in return. Though she wasn’t sure how she could manage it at the moment; escape had to be her priority. That was specifically mentioned in the field manual. Escaping and reporting back, that was her duty.
“That means we can keep you here as long as we need to.” Cloak smiled. Someone who found joy in his job. What a soul to be treasured.
“Oh, good,” Cas said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t get to thoroughly appreciate this hot, humid-as-spit climate before getting shipped somewhere else.”
“We’ll interrogate you, of course,” the man continued, as if she hadn’t spoken. Maybe he was used to talking to himself. “I doubt you know much. What are you, a year out of the academy?”
A year and three months, thank you, but she kept the thought to herself. No need to start giving away intel before they began the interrogation; no matter that they already seemed to know more about her than she would like.
“But you are Wolf Squadron,” Cloak went on. “If you’ve served under Zirkander for a year, my emperor will want whatever information you can supply on him.”
Cas had been beyond proud when she had been selected for Wolf Squadron straight out of the academy—she had done her best to live up to the prestigious unit’s reputation—and she would never regret that choice. But, for the first time, she realized her position might not serve her well. Everything that made her commander a lauded hero in Iskandia would make him a loathed enemy here.
“Zirkander?” she asked, licking her lips—odd how dry her mouth had suddenly grown, humid air notwithstanding. “His favorite color is green; his favorite meal is pot roast; he prefers beer to straight spirits; and, when winter comes, he’ll throw a snowball at anyone, even officers who outrank him. If that’s enough intel, you can leave my cell door open, and I’ll be happy to show myself out.”
Neither the guard nor Cloak seemed to find her sarcasm amusing. Given how much saying all that had made her mouth hurt, she shouldn’t have bothered.
Cloak pulled a dagger out of a sheath that his furry garment had hidden. Cas tried to draw back, or at least manage a sitting position, but he moved quickly for an old prison commander. The blade came up beneath her chin, the sharp point digging into tender flesh. She froze, but that didn’t keep a drop of warm blood from welling and dripping down her throat.
“I’ve sent a communication to the emperor,” Cloak said. “It’s possible he’ll simply want to hurt Zirkander by sending him your head. As a sign of his failure.”
Cas lifted her chin, part defiance, and part an attempt to put some air between her and that blade. “The colonel wasn’t even in command of the squadron at Seven Tides. He didn’t fail at anything.” Although Cas couldn’t help but feel that she had failed. Due to her inability to dissuade a Cofah diplomat from groping her, the colonel had stepped in and punched the man, a move which had resulted in disciplinary action. It was Cas’s fault the colonel hadn’t been flying with the squadron that day. The man who had taken over, Major Pennith, was a good officer, but Zirkander never would have accepted the mission, one that ultimately cost the squadron four fliers and Dash’s life. The colonel would have known the odds were too poor and would have pushed back against the general, maybe even the king, or he would have changed the situation, changed the odds somehow. As he always did. As Cas should have done in facing that diplomat. She shouldn’t have needed rescuing. Her father would have been embarrassed for her. Rightfully so.
“Yes,” Cloak purred, “we’ve heard that he hasn’t been flying of late. Care to tell me where he’s been?”
“Not that I would tell you anyway, but I have no idea. You’re right that lieutenants fresh out of the academy don’t get told much by generals and colonels.”
Zirkander had barely had time for more than a goodbye wave to all of them before disappearing to who knew where. Reassigned, he had said, his face almost ashen. Cas had never seen that expression on him before, and it had alarmed her. But he’d told them he couldn’t say more, simply giving everyone pats on the back and encouraging words before collecting his lucky charm from his flier and walking out of the hangar.
“You’re sure you’re not anyone’s bedroom confidant? You’re young and pretty enough. Under the blood.” Cloak traced her jaw with his dagger, his dark eyes growing thoughtful.
For a moment, rage replaced fear, and Cas spat at his face. It was stupid, but it felt good. She found the strength to pull away from him, too, not that she could go far. All he would have to do was get off that stool. If he couldn’t corner her on his own, the guards surely would.
Cloak snorted and wiped his face. “It’s unfortunate there are rules against jailers raping prisoners. If the Iskandians are stupid enough to put women in their military, they’re asking for it, after all. Besides, after all of our men your flier squads have brought down—killed—you deserve it.” He looked at the soldier standing next to the door.
Cas gripped the sandstone bench lining one cell wall, pushing herself into a standing position, bruises and pain notwithstanding. Rules were good, but if Cloak wanted to break them, she meant to face him on her feet.
“If you want me to shut the door and see nothing, I will, sir,” the guard said.
Loyal to his commander, was he? How sweet.
Cloak’s thoughtful expression returned to her. There was far too much consideration on his face.
Cas dug through her mind, looking for a way out of this mess. To distract them, if nothing else, and make them forget about her for the night. “Since you seem to know quite a bit about me, you might have heard of my father. He wouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss me as dead when he heard the news. He could be over here, hunting for me already.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of your father, and my research tells me that he hasn’t spoken to you in three years. I understand he didn’t approve of your decision to join the army and serve the king instead of going into the family business.”
Cas swallowed, disturbed by how much intelligence the Cofah had on specific Iskandian personnel. They couldn’t know this much about every soldier in the army, could they? Maybe the flier pilots had been singled out because they were particularly irksome.
“I doubt he’ll be looking for you,” Cloak finished. “No, you’ll stay here with us for a while. We’ll break you and get every iota we can out of you while waiting for word from the emperor.”
Break you. That did not sound promising.
More footsteps sounded in the hallway.
“Any chance that’s dinner?” Cas asked, hoping this chat was over. “They didn’t feed me regularly on that glorified tug. As you can see, I’m getting a little waifish.”
“You missed dinner. I’ll be sure to tell Captain Trivolt that you called his warship a tug though. I’m sure that will make him more hospitable to the next prisoner he captures.”
A guard jogged into the cell and whispered something into Cloak’s ear. Cas took the opportunity to move farther from him and his dagger. She put her back to the window wall, her canvas prison smock little insulation from the cool, coarse stone against her shoulder blades. Coarse or not, she liked having it behind her and putting as much distance between her and the men as she could.
“Yes, I’d heard about his capture,” Cloak said when his man straightened. “An even more intriguing prisoner. Yes, I’ll question him immediately.”
As he stood up, Cas allowed herself a hint of relief. Good, someone else for the commander to harass.
Cloak paused before walking out the door though. He looked thoughtfully back at her, his hand on the door jamb. Then he threw back his head and laughed, a deep hollow laugh that reminded her of the big bell clanging in Sky Tower back home.
“Sir?” the new guard asked. Judging by the way his mouth dropped open, his commander didn’t laugh like this often.
Oh, good, that meant he had come up with something special. Cas prayed it had nothing to do with her. Would the seven gods hear her prayers over here in enemy territory? Or did they think her dead too?
“Bring him here, Corporal,” Cloak said, his lips still stretched with mirth. Mirth Cas couldn’t help but find alarming, especially when he turned that smile toward her. “I believe we’ll save space by having our two new prisoners share a cell.”
The guard’s brow wrinkled. “But there are plenty of empty cells, sir.”
“Ah, but nobody hates Zirkander and Wolf Squadron more than the Deathmaker.”
Cas stared for a stunned moment as the words sank in. Deathmaker. Cas closed her eyes. She would have liked to scoff at the overly dramatic name—pirates couldn’t ever call themselves Thon or Jed, could they?—but she had been to Tanglewood Peninsula, seen the memorial there, the graves. Six years earlier, the entire village—every man, woman, and child—had been slain by a horrible biological agent that melted their lungs and other organs, killing them from the inside out. There was nothing about the Deathmaker that should make one scoff. The evil scientist belonged to the Roaming Curse, one of the biggest pirate outfits flying the Targenian Sea. Wolf Squadron had battled with them just that past summer, taking back a pair of dragon-flier energy sources the pirates had stolen during a raid. Zirkander hadn’t been lenient, and Cas had been along on that mission. She had helped bring down their flagship. She shouldn’t be surprised that Deathmaker had gotten away. He was one of the few pirates who had a reputation even more horrendous than that of his bloodthirsty leader, Captain Slaughter.
But what would he be doing here? Why would a nefarious pirate scientist be roaming about where he could be captured?
“But won’t he kill her, sir?” the guard asked after scratching his head a few times.
“Possibly. Though I’m hoping he’ll want to prolong her torment a bit.” Cloak turned his unfriendly smile back onto Cas. “The rules say nothing about what prisoners may and may not do to each other.” Cloak laughed again. He even wiped tears from his eyes. What a dung flinger. “If nothing else, she’ll be less lippy in the morning, I’m sure.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get him.”
Cas stared at the floor, trying hard not to feel defeated… and failing.
Deathmaker. Fate was hating her this month. When she had gone to flight school and joined Wolf Squadron, she had known she would make enemies. Even if Iskandia merely defended its homeland and rarely looked for trouble beyond its borders, the Cofah believed her people were rebels who should be reconquered. Hundreds of years may have passed since her ancestors had killed their externally imposed rulers and cast the Cofah off their continent, but the empire had a long memory. The Cofah had never stopped wanting Iskandia, and they would always believe themselves the righteous ones. When Cas had started shooting down their dirigibles and attacking their ocean warships, it had been inevitable that she would become a target herself.
Well, she didn’t have to be an easy target.
Cloak and the new guard had gone.
Cas eyed the remaining guard. He was watching her right back, his shotgun aimed in her direction. Surprising him and escaping would be difficult, but the door was still open, and he was alone. This might be the only chance she got.
She subtly slid her hands along the wall behind her, hoping to find some crumbled piece of rock that she might hurl as a weapon. There were such chunks in the corners of the floor, but he would notice if she bent to pick one up. Oh, what she would give for the powers of the sorcerers of old, the ability to convince one of those noisy parrots out there to swoop through the window and claw this man’s eyes out. She would have to settle for a more personal attack.
She shifted her weight and found one of those rocks with her toe. She nudged it away from the wall, thinking to kick it across the room. If she could distract him for a second, maybe she could wrestle that shotgun free from him. She might not be much more than a hundred pounds, and little more than salt and vinegar in a fight, but with a projectile weapon in hand, the odds should shift in her favor.
The footsteps returned in the hall. Out of time. She cursed under her breath.
The guard glanced toward the doorway. Cas kicked the rock.
It skittered across the room, banging him in the toe. Not much of an attack, but he looked down, and she leaped across the room. Her wounds protested the sudden movement, but her nerves flooded her limbs with fire to compensate. She grabbed the barrel of the rifle, trying to yank it free before he recovered.
He snorted. His eyes met hers, and there wasn’t a glimmer of concern in them. He lunged at her, bowling her off her feet, and slammed her into the side wall so hard that it knocked her breath away. She tried to knee him, but he thrust her against the wall again, the back of her head thumping the stone this time. Blackness rimmed her vision, and dots of light floated through the air before her. She was vaguely aware of her feet dangling several inches off the ground.
“Women make pathetic soldiers,” the guard said. “That you’re here is a sign of how desperate the Iskandians are.” He rammed her against the wall again.
“That’s enough, Sergeant,” Cloak said from the hallway.
He had returned, along with more guards, a lot more guards. And another man.
Cas blinked, trying to clear her eyes. The man standing in the doorway, his hands shackled before him, appeared more warrior than scientist, with a hide vest leaving his muscular arms and part of his chest exposed. She had expected a crazy old man with spectacles or magnifying goggles and white hair sticking out in all directions. The figure in the doorway appeared to be about thirty, and his long black locks fell down his back in matted ropes. In contrast to the tangled hair, his mustache and goatee were trimmed, and his bronze Cofah skin was clean of grime, but nothing about the dark scowling eyes, the shark-tooth necklace, or the spiked leather wrist cuffs invited one to venture closer. Amazing that the guards had been able to get his shackles on over all that pointy metal.
They were watching him now, far more warily than they had watched her. No less than four pistols were aimed at the pirate.
“Deathmaker,” Cloak said, extending a hand toward Cas, who was still pinned by the guard. “Allow me to introduce your new roommate.”
The guard stepped back, letting Cas drop to the floor. She braced herself against the wall. Her heart was beating a couple thousand times a minute, and she needed the stone for support. So much for her grand escape attempt.
The pirate stared at her. Full darkness had fallen outside, and she doubted he could see much in the shadowy cell, but she didn’t see how that helped her.
Out of some sense that she shouldn’t let him know she feared him or that he had any power over her whatsoever, she said, “How come you got to keep your trendy pirate clothes, and they forced me to put on this potato sack?”
The prisoner turned his dark glower onto Cloak. If he found anything amusing about her question, it didn’t show on his face.
“Ah, are introductions in order?” Cloak grabbed a lantern from the wall and hung it from a hook in the cell—Cas eased back into the shadows near the window again. “Deathmaker, this is the Iskandian, Lieutenant Ahn. From Wolf Squadron.”
That got a reaction. The pirate’s nostrils flared, and his head jerked back toward her, his hair whipping about his face.
Cloak waved to one of the guards. He stepped forward warily and unlocked the pirate’s shackles. The metal fell away, clanging to the stone floor. The pirate lunged inside, springing toward Cas like a lion taking down its prey.
She could only take a step before her back smacked into the wall. She tried to duck and dodge away, but even in the darkness, he anticipated which way she would go and grabbed her. Much as the guard had done, he slammed her into the wall. Her already battered body betrayed her, and a gasp of pain slipped out. She wanted to fight, to spit curses if nothing else, but a calloused hand wrapped around her neck.
Cloak’s dark chuckle came from the hallway, then the door thudded shut, leaving Cas along with the pirate. The hand about her neck tightened.
Tolemek stood unmoving, his hand around the woman’s throat, listening for the footsteps to recede in the hallway. There was a guard still standing outside, he was sure of it, but Commandant Searson was leaving, along with his hairy-knuckled team of brutes. He didn’t know if they knew who he was—who he had been before becoming a pirate—but they had relished going over him with their cudgels either way.
While he waited, he noted the window, the breeze stirring the muggy air, and the way he could see the prison’s rampart from the cell. That was good. If that kid came through, this might work out after all. Whoever his “roommate” was, this location was superior to the windowless holding cell he had originally been placed in.
He was about to let go of the woman—though there was a big part of him that wouldn’t mind ridding the world of one of those cursed Iskandian fighter pilots, his attack had been a ruse to get the guards to leave him alone for the night—but she had recovered from the surprise of being grabbed. She twisted, trying to jam a knee into his groin. Hands clawed for his face. Fortunately, she wasn’t very tall, and his longer arms kept him out of her range.
“Enough woman,” he said and released her. “Leave me be, and I’ll do the same for you.”
He took a step back and waited in a fighting stance in case she came after him—she seemed livid enough to take on a pack of wolves barehanded—but she backed away, too, not stopping until her shoulder blades bumped the door.
The commandant had left the lantern hanging on the wall, and the light illuminated the side of her head. Her short hair hung in wisps about what was likely a cute, impish face when it wasn’t bruised. She had endured at least one round with the guards and their cudgels too. Her swollen cheekbone, and the blood smearing her chin and upper lip made him feel guilty about manhandling her, show for the commandant or not. He reminded himself that she was an enemy. Her pale, freckled skin and red-blonde hair couldn’t be anything except Iskandian. If Searson was to be believed, she was a mortal enemy. She scarcely looked old enough to be out of her basic military training though. It was hard to imagine she had been on many flier runs. And just because Searson had said she was in Wolf Squadron didn’t mean she was; the commandant had clearly wanted to manipulate Tolemek into something. Something designed to hurt her? Or a trap for him? If he murdered some other prisoner, they might have an excuse to shoot him without a tribunal.
He shook his head. He could muse upon it another time, after he escaped from this cell.
He propped a boot on the stone bench and tore off the hem of one of his trouser legs. The material wasn’t bright, so he would have to trust that his helper out there was paying attention. He tied the strip around two iron bars in the window, making a cheerful bow.
Tolemek sat on the bench to wait, his back against the wall. He pulled up a leg and propped his arm on his knee. Nothing except the woman’s eyes had moved. They were round and green. Innocent was the word that came to mind, and he wondered again at Searson’s assertion. A fighter pilot? Truly? And if so, how had she gotten onto Colonel Zirkander’s team? They didn’t have any rookies flying with them. After last summer, Tolemek could say that for certain. He rubbed scars on his lower back that still itched—three bullets had been extracted from his flesh. The doctor had sworn he should have died and proclaimed his organs the toughest in the outfit. Another dubious accolade that, for good or ill, added to his reputation.
The girl—Ahn?—was considering the strip of cloth. She glanced at the lantern hanging beside her, and he wondered if she was thinking of burning his little flag. Well, she wouldn’t have much luck if she tried.
“Got friends coming?” she asked softly, her Iskandian accent lilting, almost singsong to his Cofahre-born ears.
He didn’t answer her. The last thing he needed was for her to alert the guard to the fact that he was trying to escape—and failing to menace her, as Searson had so clearly wanted. At least she had kept her voice low—it shouldn’t be audible to the man standing in the hallway. He thought of keeping quiet, of saying nothing at all to her, but his curiosity got the best of him.
“You really a fighter pilot?”
It was more than curiosity that prompted the question; he wanted to know if he should let her go when he escaped, or make sure she stayed put in her cell. Though his loyalty to the Cofah had faded after his expulsion from the army, he still had family on the mainland. He worried from time to time that her people would one day shift their strategy from defensive to offensive. The size of the Iskandian army, and their population as a whole, might be laughable when compared to the empire’s, but with those fliers, they could dance circles around imperial dirigibles and easily engage in guerrilla attacks on the mainland.
This time, the woman was the one who didn’t answer. Tolemek kept his amused snort to himself. There wouldn’t be much of a conversation if neither of them answered questions. It was just as well. The silence suited him. He looked at the starry sky beyond the window, listening for quick feet on the rampart that might not belong to the guards. At least he tried to. The howler monkeys made it difficult. They ought to be sleeping by now, surely? Maybe some predator out there had them roused.
A soft clink sounded outside. A pebble thrown at the wall.
Tolemek sprang to his feet, at the window in an instant. As soon as his face was pressed against the bars, a small irregularly shaped object lofted over the outer wall and sailed in his direction. Right away, he knew the trajectory was off. It wasn’t going to land anywhere near his window.
He knew it would be in vain, but he stuck his arm out anyway. He would only get one chance.
The small bundle struck the roof overhang twenty feet above. Tolemek stretched his arm out as far as he could, hoping luck would bless him, and he could catch it as it fell. The packet shifted, but caught on some crevice or drainpipe on the edge. He stared, disgusted. This was what he got for enlisting the aid of a twelve-year-old boy.
A whistle blew on the rampart, then two guns fired. Monkey howls blasted from the jungle. Tolemek didn’t see the target, but the guards were aiming toward the rocks beneath the wall. He cursed and hoped the boy had been able to scramble away quickly or knew how to swim and had dived for the deep water beyond the rocks. The kid had known the risk of helping him, but he had volunteered anyway, his eyes gleaming at the promise of a silver round before and a gold one after, but Tolemek hadn’t expected the guards to shoot at a kid. That was the reason he had enlisted someone young instead of talking the captain’s men into helping. That and the fact that, should his mission prove fruitful, he didn’t want to share the find with any other pirates.
“Problem?” the woman asked.
Yes. “No,” he said and patted along the window ledge, hoping he might pull out some cracked piece of sandstone to use as a projectile.
“There are some rocks on the floor.”
He eyed her. She hadn’t moved, but had clearly deduced his problem from his wild lunges. Without saying anything, he patted around on the floor. He found a few chunks, then stuck his arm out the window again. Ridiculous angle, but he had to try.
He threw the first rock. It clanged off the roof eave, several inches from the pouch. He grimaced at the noise, but the monkeys were still complaining about the gunshots, so he doubted anyone would hear it. Still, his grimace grew deeper as he tried three more times. The last time, the rock sailed past the pouch, six inches away. Curse the awkward angle—the bars made it impossible to make a decent throw, and he had limited ammunition.
“Need help?” the woman asked.
Tolemek snorted. “What are you going to do?”
“Hit whatever you’re trying to hit, I imagine.”
“Uh huh.” He knelt to grope around for more rocks. “Can you even reach the window?”
“I’m not that short.”
Though he was loath to waste even one rock, he wasn’t having much luck himself. And she sounded oddly confident. Maybe she had a secret rock-throwing skill. Who knew?
Tolemek extended an arm toward her, a rock on his palm. She hesitated a moment before walking over, then visibly steeled herself before coming close enough to pluck it from his grasp. He wasn’t surprised. His attire choices were more about convincing bloodthirsty pirates to leave him alone than scaring off women, but they had a dual effect. He backed away, so she wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with him breathing on her neck—or the top of her head. She was barely five feet tall. Didn’t the Iskandian army have height requirements?
Rock in hand, she looked out the window and located her target. She had to stand on tiptoes to stick her arm between the bars. He snorted again. If the angle had been awkward for him…
She stuck her tongue out of the corner of her mouth and threw the rock upward. A second passed, and she jumped and flung her arm out as far as she could.
Tolemek’s mouth dropped open as she caught his pouch and landed back on the floor. He recovered his usual grim expression before she turned in his direction and was ready when she tossed the sack to him.
“You have dragon blood or something?” he asked.
The flash of surprise—and horror—that crossed her face told him that suggesting such was as much of a faux pas in Iskandia as it was in Cofahre, maybe more so. He lifted a hand, his instincts urging an apology, but she spoke first.
“I shoot things all day for the king. Hitting a target that close isn’t much of a challenge.” She strode to her spot against the door, folded her arms across her chest, and resumed watching him.
“Even when you’re bleeding?”
At some point, her nose had started trickling again. She must have felt it, but she only sniffed. “It’s not the first time.”
These words were the admission she hadn’t voiced before, and Tolemek found himself starting to believe the commandant’s claim. Zirkander wasn’t his quest, not now, but he wouldn’t mind paying that man back for all the lives he had ended. And for the military career he had ruined.
Tolemek splayed his fingers and looked down at his hand, a hand that had once held a sword for the Cofah army, a hand his father had once grasped with approval. If he brought one of Zirkander’s people back to the captain, maybe the Roaming Curse could use her to lead them to him. To set a trap for him. To kill him. Goroth loathed Zirkander even more than Tolemek did.
He lifted his head and met the woman’s eyes. He didn’t smile—he didn’t want to be too obvious that he wanted something from her—and forced a casual disinterest into his tone as he hefted the bag in his other hand. “I know the layout of Dragon Spit, above ground and under. And I aim to escape. Want to come with me?”
“Why’d you think I helped you with that pouch? I’m hoping you have something in it to handle the door.”
“I was thinking beyond the door. I have a ship waiting in the harbor. You help me get what I’m looking for here, and I’ll get you off Cofahre.”
“Sure, Deathmaker. Sure, I’ll hop right into your ship with you. With your chivalrous reputation, how could I go wrong?” While he was considering a response—his reputation might not be flattering, but he didn’t think it had anything to do with being unchivalrous toward ladies—she surprised him by shrugging and adding, “I will happily get out of this monkey-kissed dungeon with you.”
He wasn’t surprised she didn’t embrace his offer wholeheartedly—even if she couldn’t guess at his ulterior motives, she had to be thinking that she would be, at best, trading one imprisonment for another—but it was good enough for now. He felt fairly certain she wouldn’t shoot him in the back at the first opportunity, not if she believed he knew a way out. It was after they stepped into the jungle that he would have to keep an eye on her, lest she slip away and he lose his chance to get Zirkander. But that was something to worry about later. He had a stop to make before leaving the ancient fortress.
* * *
Cas moved out of the way so the pirate could approach the door. He was untying his pouch and eyeing the hinges.
“You can call me Tolemek,” he said.
Oh, first names? He was schmoozing her now, eh? She would use it, but only because Deathmaker was on the unwieldy side.
“Ahn,” was all she gave him. Maybe it was too much, but Cloak had already spilled the beer all over the table. He knew who she was, and he had to be thinking the same way Cloak and his people were—that she was a route to the colonel. Let him think whatever he wanted, if he got her out of this prison.
He glanced at her, but she couldn’t read his face. Probably because all that shaggy hair was hanging in front of it. What an animal. Wait, no, she had better not think of him like that. After all, Deathmaker was supposed to be a scientist, even if this man didn’t look the part, a scientist who made horrible, horrible disease-filled devices that could kill legions of innocent people.
She leaned against the wall and watched him unwrap a couple of items from the pouch while wondering what kind of reward she might get for bringing him back to Iskandia in chains. Or maybe she could just bring his head. But decapitating people was gruesome, even by her standards. Growing up as her father’s student had somewhat inured her to death, but there were levels of beastliness that a human being should never descend to.
Tolemek opened a glass vial with a glass stopper and used a slender brush to smear dark goop onto the hinges. He removed the lantern from the wall. “I have matches, but I might as well save them, since our guards were thoughtful enough to supply ambient lighting for our evening.”
The casual tone and chatter didn’t fit in with his look or his reputation, so she assumed he was trying to win her over. Like a hunter laying salt out in the woods for the goodly deer to enjoy, all the while waiting with a rifle in the trees. Even if he wasn’t, she wasn’t going to be anywhere around when he beelined for whatever ship he had in the harbor. She would find a freighter and take her chances stowing away.
Tolemek held the lantern up to the hinges. Cas lifted her brows, thinking he meant to light the substance—though that would be tough with the glass sides protecting the flame, but he was merely observing his work. Soon, the goop burst into a white flare.
The intensity of it made Cas blink and look away. Something clanked to the ground. By the time she looked back—it couldn’t have been more than a second—Tolemek was tearing the door off and thrusting it sideways into the hall. The edge rammed into the startled guard’s chest. Even though the man had been turning, swinging his weapon toward them, he didn’t get a shot off. Tolemek used the door to shove him against the opposite wall. The man’s grip loosened on his weapon.
Seeing an opportunity, Cas jumped through the door and caught the guard’s rifle before it hit the ground. She leaped back, checking in both directions—and checking her pirate as well. He wasn’t so busy bashing the guard into the wall that he didn’t notice her grabbing the firearm. Nobody else was around, so she trained it loosely on the guard, but the man’s eyes were already rolled back into his head, the result of a few palm strikes from Tolemek.
Cas waited to see if he would argue over the rifle—or try to take it from her. He did eye it briefly, but he simply took the guard’s sword belt, tightening it a few holes so he could hang it, complete with sword and cudgel on his own waist. Like he needed weapons to look fiercer. Cas gave him an insincere smile and risked getting close enough to slip the extra bullets out of the ammo pouch. She stayed on her toes, feeling like the deer watching the hunter, ready to dart away at any moment. Tolemek’s eyebrows flickered, but he didn’t say or do anything. After she had fished out the bullets, he headed down the hallway. Not in the direction that would lead to the stairs and the offices Cas had been led past on the way to her cell.
She eyed the lantern, but it had struck the floor hard in the melee, and oil was spilling from its dented cache. The gas lamps on the wall couldn’t be removed, so she hoped he wasn’t taking her anywhere dark. She jogged to catch up with him.
They hadn’t gone more than twenty steps, passing several other closed oak doors, when he stopped before an intersection and raised a hand to halt her. “Don’t fire unless it’s an emergency,” he whispered. “It’ll be too loud. They’ll sound an alarm, and there won’t be time to… escape.”
She resisted the urge to point out that he was stating the obvious. Besides, she was busy noticing that little hesitation. Escape wasn’t the first thing on his mind, not when he seemed to have let himself get captured so he could get in here.
The sound of rustling clothing somewhere around the bend reminded her to focus on the moment. Without warning, he burst into a sprint, disappearing around the corner in a blink.
Startled, Cas hustled to the intersection. There were three guards in the hallway he had charged into. The closest one was on the floor, clutching his stomach; the farthest one was staggering backward, grabbing at his face with both hands—something dark and blotchy covered his eyes and nose. Tolemek was trying to take the middle one down, but this opponent had clearly had time to react. He had his sword out and swung it at the pirate’s head.
Though shooting would have been a quick way to end the fight, Cas was as reluctant to make noise as he was. She grimaced as sword struck sword, the clash echoing in the hall. She raced to the man on the floor, who had recovered enough to get to his hands and knees. She kicked him in the side of the face. His head cracked against the sandstone wall hard enough that the thump rang out as loudly as the swords. The colonel would have found a way to take these men out with more honor—or at least without kicking them while they were down—but her size didn’t get her far in fisticuffs, and her mission was escaping, not sparing the lives of enemy soldiers. Fortunately, the crack against the wall dazed the man enough that she could remove his weapons without hurting him further. In addition to the standard cudgel and short sword, he had a pouch of Cofah throwing stars at his waist. She plucked it off with relish, glad for a projectile weapon that didn’t involve gunpowder explosions.
She palmed one of the stars and stood, seeing if her pirate needed help. But the guard he had been trading sword blows with was down, his eyes rolled back in his head. The last man hadn’t figured out how to remove whatever was sticking to his eyes, and he could only flail ineffectively with his sword. Tolemek dodged the swats, ducked under his arm, grabbed it, and twisted his wrist so the man dropped the blade. After shoving him against the wall, Tolemek grabbed a key ring off the guard’s belt. He kicked open a door and thrust the man inside. Tolemek locked the door before his foe could recover. He grabbed the unconscious sword fighter and thrust him into another cell. It crossed Cas’s mind to help manhandle the last guard inside, but she couldn’t begin to lift one of these big men. Besides, Tolemek was handling the situation fine. He hoisted the last man into a cell and locked that door too.
Interesting that he hadn’t killed anyone, given his reputation. Or maybe not. Even if Cloak had locked him into a cell, she was fairly certain he was Cofah and that these were his people or at least had been at one time. If this were an Iskandian prison, his choices might be different. No, given his record of killing her people, she was certain they would be different. She wondered if he knew there was a memorial on the Tanglewood Peninsula and that kin of the three hundred people who had died in that village made pilgrimages there every spring to pray for the souls of their lost loved ones.
With the last door locked, he faced her. Cas had the rifle in one hand and the throwing star in the other. A good fifteen feet separated them. Enough for her to throw one of the stars if she were of a mind to. If she did, could she get out on her own?
For a moment, they stared at each other, and she suspected he knew exactly what was on her mind. There was a wariness in his stance, like he was prepared to spring away if he needed to, but he didn’t look that worried. He probably didn’t think she was that dangerous with some enemy weapon native to his continent and not hers. She thought about showing him how dangerous she was, but what would that serve? Only to warn him that he had best keep an eye on her.
Cas waved at the hallway behind him. “What’s the plan? There another set of stairs that way?”
“Yes.” Tolemek held her eyes for another long moment before turning his back on her to lead the way.
She watched the target area between his shoulder blades for several seconds before following. She hoped a moment wouldn’t come when she regretted not taking the opportunity to plant a bullet or throwing knife there.
Another turn took them down another hallway of cell doors. On the positive side, it was devoid of guards. On the negative side, it was devoid of stairs or other exits too. That didn’t keep the pirate from striding down to the end. There wasn’t an interesting tapestry, decorative plant stand, or slyly placed lever that might suggest a secret door, but he rested his ear to the stone and thumped the blunt tip of the cudgel against it. Whatever he heard satisfied him, for he delved into his pouch, pulling out the vial again. He dabbed the goo on the sandstone, making a circle with it this time.
Cas leaned against a side wall so she could watch him as well as the way they had come.
“What is that stuff?” she asked, wondering where he had gotten it. The burning of the metal hinges had been handy, and if it could also burn holes in a six-inch-thick sandstone wall, that would truly impress her. She could think of a few useful applications for it back home.
“It doesn’t really have a name.” Tolemek kept dabbing at the wall, trying hard to stretch what little paste he had to complete his circle. They better not get locked up again, because he didn’t look to have enough for another set of hinges.
“How can it not have a name?” Cas tried to imagine shopping for it in some exotic market by simply describing its properties.
“The creator didn’t come up with one. Though I hear it’s recorded as Brown Goo Number Three in his journal.”
Oh, so this was something he had invented. Even though it had proven nothing but handy thus far, the admission, however oblique, chilled her. It was as if, in admitting to creating this little concoction, he had admitted to creating every horrible thing she had heard of the Roaming Curse using on its enemies—its victims.
“Chastor?” someone called from the hall around the corner, the hall with all the guards locked in cells. “Ponst?”
“Better hurry,” Cas murmured.
“The wall is thick. This will take a minute.”
Cas fingered the rifle, then decided on the throwing star. She bent her knees, readying herself in case a guard ran around the corner.
An acrid scent lit the air. She had been too busy running out to grab that first guard’s weapon to notice it before, but she knew it was the goop burning. When she glanced back, the wall was charred and smoking, but it was intact. Brown Goo Number Three might not be strong enough to help them escape again this time.
The guard in the other hall didn’t call out again, but his footsteps echoed ahead of him. He was walking their way.
A grinding came from behind Cas, followed by a couple of grunts, then a crash as loud as a rifle shot. So much for not warning the whole fortress.
She started to cuss at Tolemek, but the guard ran around the corner. He halted so quickly he skidded as he gaped at the end of the hall. That didn’t keep him from whipping his rifle butt to his shoulder. Cas was already hurling the throwing star. She trusted her aim and knew it would hit, but ducked anyway—she was the closest to the intersection, and that rifle had been pointing toward her.
It never went off. The throwing star lodged in his throat, slicing into his jugular. Blood spurted from the severed artery, and the rifle tumbled from his fingers, clacking onto the floor. He crumpled soon after.
Aware that beige stone dust had flooded the hall, Cas faced her pirate again. He had to have seen her take down the guard—so much for not showing him she was dangerous—but he didn’t say a word. He stood by a circular hole in the wall, the gaping orifice opening into utter blackness, and extended a hand toward it, like a man holding the door open for a woman at a café. So much for her hope that they weren’t going anywhere dark.
“No, no, you go first.” Cas batted at the dust in the air, almost coughing when she spoke.
Tolemek slipped through the hole and disappeared. He looked like he had dropped down. She supposed it was too much to hope that he was simply leading her into some nice forgotten tunnels that would deposit them on a beach below the fortress.
Wishing she had kept the lantern that had been in their cell, Cas walked to the lip of the hole and peered inside. Her estimate of a six-inch wall had been off; it was more like a foot thick. That goo was powerful. The edges of the hole still smoked, and she wouldn’t have touched them if she hadn’t already seen Tolemek do so.
“How far of a drop is it?” she whispered.
She didn’t want to stall—someone would have heard that noise, and the dead guard would soon be missed, too—but she couldn’t see more than two feet into the gap. She had the sense of a vertical shaft dropping away and didn’t see any stairs.
Tolemek didn’t respond. He hadn’t done something stupid like falling to his death, had he? For a moment, she thought she would have to go back the other way and hope she could avoid notice, but his voice finally drifted up from below.
“Fifteen feet to a landing. Then there are stairs. Sort of.”
Well, didn’t that sound promising?
He didn’t sound farther down than his estimate, so Cas took his word. She ought to be able to land from that height without breaking anything. She stuck her feet through the hole and slithered over the edge. For a silly moment, she wondered what the view looked like from below. She might be an expert marksman, but nobody had ever accused her of amazing athleticism.
She lowered herself down, probing with her feet, though logically, she knew she would never reach the floor without letting go. Also, her boots pressed against some squishy substance growing on the wall. Maybe it was better without the lantern.
“You out of the way?” she asked before letting go.
“Does that mean you don’t want me to catch you?”
“It means I don’t want to kick your ear off as my legs flail around on the way down.”
“Thoughtful.” His voice had shifted—he’d moved to the side.
He hadn’t truly been thinking of catching her, had he? Having the Deathmaker’s hands wrapped around her waist sounded a lot more creepy than it did thoughtful or pleasant.
A gong reverberated somewhere in the distance. Alarm. No more dawdling.
Cas released her grip and fell into the darkness, her heart in her throat. Without any light, she couldn’t gauge the distance to the bottom, and could only guess when she needed to soften her knees for impact. The landing jarred her nonetheless, though a hand caught her arm, steadying her. Tolemek released her almost as soon as he touched her.
“Thanks,” she said grudgingly.
The air was warm and close, smelling of the jungle, of plants and decaying matter. The gong was barely audible from down in the well, but she heard it nonetheless.
“You’re welcome,” Tolemek said. “The stairs are behind you. I’ll lead.”
“Good, because I wasn’t going to volunteer.”
He didn’t light a match. She supposed his stash would burn out quickly if he did. She found a wall with her palm, grimacing at the bumpy algae—or whatever it was—growing on the old stone. It was on the stairs too. Her boots squished with each step. At least they were going down. Down was good. There should be a way out to the beach or the jungle from below the main fortress.
The stairs, beneath the inch of algae, felt old and worn. More than that, in several spots, the edge crumbled beneath her boot.
“What is this place?” she whispered as they continued to descend. Their cell had been on the second story of the three-story fortress. Though there were no landings to help judge it, Cas already felt as if they had descended three or four floors.
“Long ago, there was a dragon rider outpost in the base of this cliff,” Tolemek said. “Real dragons, not little mechanical fliers designed to look vaguely like dragons.”
“Should you be insulting my people’s aircraft when I’m walking behind you with a gun?” She said it lightly, though his tone had miffed her.
She expected some dismissive comeback, but he descended a few more steps before responding with, “Probably not. Are you as deadly with a rifle as you are with a throwing star?”
“I’ve had more practice with firearms.”
“I thought you were too young to be what the commandant claimed, but I’m beginning to believe that Zirkander would have recruited you.”
His tone didn’t drip malice when he said the colonel’s name, but the alarm gongs that went off in Cas’s head rang far more clearly than those in the fortress above. She didn’t want to discuss Zirkander with him, or her work at all. The last thing she wanted was to slip up and give away some useful intelligence, especially to someone who could make explosive goop and only the gods knew what else.
“Were you with the squadron last summer?” Tolemek asked in the same conversational tone, but there might have been the faintest edge to it. A were-you-among-those-who-fired-on-our-dirigibles-and-nearly-killed-the-captain-and-me-last-summer edge.
“Where I am is watching your back until you get me out of this dungeon, and I think we can leave it at that.” Another throwing star had found its way into Cas’s hand. The cold steel was reassuring against her thumb. Maybe she would leave it there until the fresh jungle air was upon her face and Tolemek had taken off in his ship.
The stairs ended at a wide corridor with the stone floors pockmarked with age. Some of the holes were deep enough to be considered craters, sizable obstacles in the darkness. Tolemek walked near the edge, fingers following the wall, taking care to test each step before he committed to it. He wasn’t expecting booby traps in the centuries-abandoned fortress, but crumbling floors could drop him into a pit as easily as an ancient architect’s whims. And then there was the woman walking behind him, making his shoulder blades itch. Thus far, she had been helpful, but it didn’t take some telepath of yore to sense that she believed she would be doing the world a favor by getting rid of him.
They came to the first intersection, the wall disappearing and his fingers brushing air, so Tolemek concentrated on the route. He had memorized the old map he’d found before coming, but it would be easy to grow disoriented down here in the dark. The few matches he had wouldn’t do any good without a lamp to light, and he doubted he would find one down here that still had oil in it. Or whatever they had used back then. There were tales that said the halls in the sorcerers’ homes were simply alight with their magic.
Something rustled through the algae on the floor, whispering past his boot. Not magic, but a snake. Whatever sorcerous power had once imbued this place was gone, leaving nothing but ruins. He wondered if he was a fool to believe he would find anything here.
At the third intersection, Tolemek said, “Left,” and turned down it.
Lieutenant Ahn grumbled something under her breath, but kept following.
“I do have a couple of likely escape routes in mind,” he said. “After I find what I’m looking for, I believe I can get us to the jungle.”
She didn’t answer promptly. He admitted likely and believe weren’t the most encouraging words he could have used. Since he had only studied the fortress from a distance, he was reluctant to promise more. He feared that at any moment, the route would be blocked by rubble from some hundred-year-old cave-in. He had memorized a couple of routes to the library, just in case, but so far the only obstacle was the musty air. Possibly the snakes.
“How does this stuff grow down here without light?” Ahn mused.
“I’ve wondered that. Perhaps some residual energy left in the walls from those ancient sorcerers. Plants are highly adaptable, and most ecological niches get filled, given enough time.”
Her grunt suggested she wasn’t that interested in his theories. Or that discussions of sorcerers made her uneasy. Or maybe she was imagining sinking her throwing stars into his back again.
Tolemek was counting doors, or rather doorways since the wood had long since rotted away, and didn’t speak again. He wondered if the books and scrolls he hoped to find had rotted with age too. He hoped the ancient scribes had used their magic to preserve some of them.
“This is it,” he whispered when they reached the fifth doorway.
“The treasure room?” Ahn guessed.
Was that what she thought this was? Some quest for gold? He supposed it was as plausible a theory as any. “In a manner of speaking. This was their library.”
He slipped inside, forgetting some of his caution. He almost didn’t notice the long pause before she asked, “You planning to study some ancient magics?” She had stopped at the doorway. “To help you make better… goo?”
Her tone was full of wariness. She knew his name, the rumors surrounding him. She had to be uneasy down here with him, understandably so. He wasn’t sure how to settle that unease. He also hadn’t figured out how he was going to get her to his ship, short of overpowering her and knocking her out. As long as they were close, and she didn’t have the range to throw something sharp at him, he figured he could overpower her, but that seemed a poor reward for the help she had provided so far. If she hadn’t been there when that guard had rounded the corner, he would have aimed at Tolemek instead of her. Waiting for his goo to work at the end of the hall, he had been too far away to do a thing about it. But simply letting her escape into the jungle? He didn’t know if he could do that either.
“I prefer science to magic when it comes to my goos,” he said. “Not that I know enough about magic to know if it has any useful applications, regardless, but this—what I seek here—is to help another, not myself.”
“Some lover or relative sick?”
“What?” he blurted, almost tripping into one of the pockmarks in the floor.
In the darkness, he couldn’t see the shrug, but he heard it in her voice. “They say some of those old sorcerers were healers.”
Tolemek’s first reaction was to stop talking or to brush her off. Her guess had been a little too close—not even the captain knew what exactly he was searching for and why. But maybe he could lessen her wariness by talking about his family, making her believe that no matter what she had heard, he was simply a person.
A person who wanted to entrap her for his own gains. He grimaced at himself. Why was he even worrying about her when he had reached the room he had been scheming and planning to reach for the last three months?
“Not a lover,” he said by way of completing the conversation. “My little sister.”
Tolemek fished out a match from his pouch and found a wall to scrape it on. The flame flared to life, revealing walls full of stone bookcases, empty stone bookcases. A few old tables had been pushed to the sides of the big room, and an expanse of mostly bare floor lay before him. The mold wasn’t growing on it, but piles of fine gray dust undulated across it. Rat and snake tracks disturbed it in places, but there was so much that it hadn’t been scattered completely by time or visitors.
Frowning, he crept forward and crouched, touching his finger to one of the piles. His match burned down, searing his flesh and going out, at the same time as he realized what he was looking at. Not dust. Ashes.
He snarled and slammed his hand into the hard floor. He couldn’t see them now in the darkness, but he felt the ashes stirring and rising into the air, tickling his nostrils with the scent of ancient books and scrolls long destroyed. Oh, he didn’t know how long it had truly been, but it didn’t matter if it had been a year or hundreds of years. He was too late.
* * *
Cas waited in the darkness beside the doorway. She wanted to get going—this far under the main fortress, she couldn’t heard the alarm anymore, but she wagered it was still going on, and it wouldn’t take long for guards to find that huge hole in the wall. Still, she suspected Tolemek would want to search further, if he had made the journey here specifically for this. Whatever this was. That room hadn’t looked promising from what she had seen in the handful of seconds the match had been lit, but maybe there was more to it.
“We can go,” he said scarce seconds later. He hadn’t even bothered to light another match.
Cas thought about telling him she was sorry he hadn’t found what he was looking for, but she wasn’t sure she believed his story about wanting to help his sister. For all she knew, he was looking for something to turn into a weapon. “I’m ready.”
He took the lead again, and she followed him through the dark passages, using a hand on the wall to feel her way along. She tried not to feel uneasy about the fact that she would be lost down here without him. Usually, she had a good sense of direction, but they had taken a few turns, and the darkness made it hard to note landmarks.
“Right turn,” Tolemek said, “and a tight squeeze.”
She found the gap in the wall, using both hands to get a feel for the opening. It wasn’t tight by her standards, more like the width of a closet door rather than a wide corridor. But as soon as she turned after him and bumped into his back, she understood what he meant. Maybe it was a closet.
“You can pick your hole,” Tolemek said, shifting to the side, “though my understanding from the blueprint I studied is that they all come together into a single vertical shaft that drops eighty feet before joining with the current sewage removal system.”
Cas stuck her foot forward, trying to find whatever hole—or holes—he was talking about. But she smacked her toe on a wall. No, the base of a shelf or bench. It took a moment for her to realize where they were. Not quite a closet. “Is this a latrine?”
“Yes. A centuries-old one. There shouldn’t be any biological contaminants left, if you’re concerned about cleanliness.”
Cleanliness? Please. “The eighty-foot-drop you mentioned is more problematic for me. Unless you’ve got a coil of rope hidden in that little pouch of yours.” She was beginning to see why he’d arranged to have himself captured instead of simply using his concoctions to infiltrate the ruins from below.
“Rope would have been impractical for someone to throw across the courtyard to my window.”
“Maybe so, but it would have made a much bigger target to aim at with a rock.”
He snorted. “The walls are somewhat slippery, making climbing up the shaft difficult, but I think we’ll be able to slow ourselves down enough to land on the bottom at a reasonable, unlikely-to-break-bones speed.”
How comforting. “I’m going to refrain from making sarcastic comments or telling you to stuff your head in a latrine, but only because I could be stuck back in that cell and waiting for my next beating right now.”
“And because I will be stuffing my head in a latrine?”
Huh, her pirate had a sense of humor. How odd for someone named Deathmaker. “Yeah, that too.”
Tolemek lit a match. “So we can see what we’re getting into.”
Between his description and her time feeling around, Cas already had an image of the place in her head, and it proved fairly accurate. Three holes in a sandstone shelf were all that remained of the latrine. The rims of the openings had crumbled away, so they were larger than they would have originally been. She could squeeze through one, yes, and he probably could, too, though it would be a tight fit.
When he held the match over one of the holes, she peered inside. If there was an opening at the bottom, it was too far down to see. He dropped the match inside, and for a moment, she had a good view of those walls before the flame went out, long before it got close to the bottom. The important thing was that the shaft appeared narrow enough for her to climb slowly down, bracing herself with her arms and legs. The stone was stained with time—or something more visceral—but wasn’t cloaked in algae and hadn’t appeared that slick in the light.
“I’ll go first,” Tolemek said.
“All right, but do me a favor, will you?”
“If you slip and fall to your death, try to crash down in a way that won’t leave those spiky bracers pointing up for me to land on.”
“I’ll keep your request in mind.” He climbed into one of the holes, grunting as flesh smacked against stone.
Cas waited for the curses, scrapes, and bumps to fade away before she stuck the pouch of throwing stars into her mouth and climbed onto the shelf. She almost left the rifle there, but thought she could make something of a lap as she descended, her legs out and her back against the wall, and keep it from falling. She thought about waiting long enough for him to climb down the entire eighty feet, so that if she fell—or dropped the rifle—she wouldn’t knock him loose, but there had to be guards searching in the ruins by now. She imagined one running in, looking down, and shooting her while she was helpless. She didn’t want to die in some latrine drainage shaft.
With that cheery thought, she lowered herself into the hole, pressing her back against one side and her legs against the other. She lowered one hand, then the other, from the rim of the hole and placed them on the walls to either side.
“A promising start,” she murmured when she didn’t slip, then inched her way downward.
It didn’t take long for her to find the slick spots Tolemek had mentioned. When that happened, she slipped inches—or feet—before catching herself on coarser material. Each time, her heart tried to leap out of her chest, doubtlessly searching for a less insane place to reside. She almost lost the rifle a couple of times too. Tolemek would not be pleased if it cracked him on the head, but maybe those thick ropes of hair would offer padding.
Without being able to see a thing in the blackness, it was hard to judge how far she had gone, but she guessed she was halfway down when her butt bumped into something. That gave her heart another jolt. It turned out to be a bend in the shaft. The passage curved in one direction before returning to vertical, and maneuvering past the hump, which was slick of course, was scarier than her first time upside down in a flier had been. At least she didn’t pee on herself—a couple of her classmates at the academy had done that on some of their early flights. Although, if one were to have such an accident, this would be the natural place for it, she supposed.
“Ahn?” a soft call came from below.
She had lost track of time, so it surprised her. “Yeah?” she asked around the pouch of throwing stars, her voice as tense as the rest of her body.
“I’m on the ground. We made it.” Tolemek sounded like he was about ten feet down and standing right under the hole. Lucky for him that she had managed to keep bodily functions under control.
“Are your bracers out of the way?” she asked.
“Yes.” He sounded amused. Maybe deep down, pirates knew their wardrobes were silly.
Cas’s heart got one more jolt when she ran out of wall to brace herself against, and one of her feet slipped, dangling into emptiness. Her hands pressed against the side walls like immovable anchors. She didn’t say anything, but Tolemek must have heard her suck in an alarmed breath, for his hand came up to touch her leg. “You’ve got a seven- or eight-foot drop, and then it’s flat down here.”
She didn’t want to admit that his touch reassured her, but since she couldn’t see a thing, it did. She let herself drop, twisting in the air to land facing him and grabbing him as she fell—just in case he was on a ledge and there happened to be another hundred-foot drop for the foolish girl who missed it. Her feet landed on solid stone. She released a long, relieved breath.
“Are you trying to undress me?” Tolemek asked mildly. She had a death grip on his vest, her fingers clenched in the thick hide, and he was probably missing a few chest hairs too. “Or just admiring the feel of my clothing?”
As soon as he spoke, Cas released him and took a step back, glad for the darkness. An embarrassed blush heated her cheeks. She pulled the pouch out of her mouth and strove for a nonchalant response. “It is an upgrade to what they gave me to wear.”
Fortunately, he didn’t make any more jokes about her grabbing him—or mention that he’d noticed that the climb down had scared her. “Getting out should be easy from here,” he said, turning away from her. “This way.”
Cas followed him down a new passage, this one with water trickling down the middle—water that didn’t smell all that fresh—and was relieved when a warm breeze touched her cheeks. Finally.
They turned around a bend, and the blackness faded to gray, the bumpy green walls growing visible. The end of a tunnel came into view beyond a grid of rusted iron bars. The alarm gongs were audible again, and Cas wondered how many guards would be out there, searching for the escaped prisoners.
“You have any more of that metal-burning goo?” she murmured as they walked toward the bars.
“No, but I already applied it.” Tolemek strode toward the grate. “Last night, when I was hoping I could get into the ruins without having to deal with the dungeon or its guards.”
That meant Cas never would have met him—and would still be in her cell—if not for a thousand-year-old latrine. Fate was a capricious spirit.
Tolemek lifted a hand to stop her and dropped into a crouch near the wall. They were still twenty feet from the bars but close enough that she could see hinges, identifying it as a gate, and a shiny new steel lock securing it.
“Looks like someone noticed your sabotage,” Cas said.
“Annoyingly efficient of them.”
The sounds of foliage being snapped and trampled drifted in from outside. Someone in a uniform jogged past the entrance. The figure glanced in their direction, but continued on without pausing to peer more closely. Glad for the shadows, Cas reached in her pouch for another throwing star. She still had the rifle as well, but if they could slip past the guards without making any noise, they would have more time to escape into the jungle. Then again, if they were forced to engage in a skirmish out there, that might be her opportunity to slip away from her pirate, especially if the guards, considering him more dangerous, focused on him. Once she was on the other side of those bars, she could find her own way home.
“Anything left in your little pouch that can handle locks? Or iron bars?” Cas asked.
“Unfortunately not. We’ll have to try another exit. There are others.”
Cas shifted from foot to foot. The jungle called to her. Out there, in the night, she could hide. Here, they were simply waiting to be discovered. “I can shoot the lock off.”
The lock was shiny and new, but so were her bullets.
“Guns don’t solve every problem,” Tolemek said, heading for the interior again. “And making noise will tell them where we are.”
It would tell them where he was. If the guards spotted him, they might forget to worry about her, at least for a few moments. That was all she needed.
Tolemek had no more than stepped past her when Cas lifted the rifle. She fired three rounds at the lock shank from far enough away that the bullets shouldn’t hit her if they ricocheted off. But the lock lost the war early on and clanked to the ground. Cas walked up to the gate, gave it a shove, and it squealed open.
“Guns do solve a lot of problems.” She smiled at Tolemek as he ran back to join her.
“The guards will have heard that.”
Cas loaded bullets to replace those she had used. “I expected another fight before getting out of here.” With the guards… or with him. One or the other.
She started forward, intending to use the mouth of the tunnel for cover and to shoot anyone who ran their way. But Tolemek gripped her arm, stopping her.
Shouts of, “Over there,” and, “The drainage tunnel,” accompanied the crashing of foliage.
“What’re you doing?” Cas demanded.
“I have one more tool to use.” Tolemek opened his palm, revealing a leather-wrapped ball.
He pulled her back through the gate and into the shadows of the tunnel. She was tempted to yank free and fight her own battle—the jungle foliage wasn’t more than a hundred meters away, so if she could subdue the guards in sight, she ought to be able to sprint out there to it… but Tolemek’s grip was firm, and he could probably sling her over his shoulder without much trouble. She went along with him. She could shoot from the back of the tunnel if she had to.
“Down,” he whispered, crouching again.
A second later, the first guard came into the sight, a dark outline against the jungle. Cas melted to the ground, making herself a small target, and lifted the rifle to aim.
“Wait,” Tolemek breathed in her ear.
Two more guards came into view, one holding a lantern, both armed. Cas’s finger tightened on the trigger. They might not be able to see her and Tolemek in the deep shadows, but if they started firing into the tunnel, they were bound to hit them.
“They go in? Or run out?”
“They must have come from in there and run out.”
A soft rustle of clothing came from behind Cas. The little leather ball flew through the gate, bounced on the ground, and came to rest between the men. Its sides unfurled like flower petals, and some sort of smoke oozed out.
“What is that thing?”
One of the guards shot at the ball, which was inches from another man’s foot. Everyone jumped back. The unfurled ball seemed undamaged; if anything it spewed more smoke.
“You boys all right down there?” someone asked from the side.
“I…” The guard who had fired—and doubtlessly caught a big whiff of the smoke—grabbed his forehead and stumbled backward. The next closest man simply pitched to the ground. The third soon followed.
Cas thought she heard a couple of thumps from near the tunnel exit too. How potent was that smoke? She couldn’t smell anything in the tunnel, but it had to have a decent range.
“Poison?” she whispered, her stomach queasy at the thought. Yes, she would have shot the guards with the rifle, but somehow this seemed more diabolical.
“Not exactly.” Tolemek rose and trotted to the exit. He leaned out and scanned the surroundings to either side before waving for Cas to join him.
She was already on her way, though she held her breath as she drew closer. Just in case.
Tolemek headed straight across the clearing around the base of the fortress toward a vine-draped trail that disappeared into the dark jungle. Cas paused to touch the throat of the first man who had fallen, checking for a pulse. Surprisingly, it was there, beating normally. Aware of the alarm gongs and more shouts in the distance, she ran for the foliage too.
She thought to veer off in a different direction, to find another trail into the jungle, but Tolemek had stopped to wait for her. Was he being thoughtful? Or did he want to make sure he didn’t lose her for his own reasons? The latter seemed more likely. But as thick and dense as the vegetation was, she ought to be able to slip away at any point along the trail once they entered the jungle.
“You made them fall asleep?” Cas wondered, noting that he hadn’t killed anyone in their entire escape. She couldn’t make that same claim.
“They’re unconscious. They shouldn’t wake up for a half hour to an hour, depending on how much they inhaled.” Tolemek looked like he might take her arm, but he stopped himself and simply pointed toward the dark jungle. “More will be coming.”
“Right.” Cas strode down the path, glancing back before they left the clearing. Dragon Spit leered down from atop its rocky precipice, rock that wasn’t as solid as she had assumed when her cage on wheels had been hauled up the winding road to the top earlier that day. That road and the entire above-ground complex were lit by lights now, dozens of yellow dots against the night. There had to be a lot more guards out there searching.
She and Tolemek slipped into the jungle. Though the main road meandered along the rocky coast, that would doubtlessly be watched. Their trail seemed to parallel the coast, but it was difficult to be certain. Even though it seemed to be regularly used, vines and large leaves hung low, and they had to duck often. Branches scraped at Cas’s bare shins, and once again, she lamented the shapeless canvas smock she had been forced to don. The shoes—more like moccasins—had soles like paper, and she felt every root and rock on the trail. When she wasn’t tripping over something, she was stepping into mud that kicked up, spattering her legs.
The monkeys had fallen silent, but numerous large creatures shifted and rattled the leaves as they passed. A tiger or panther roared in the distance. Even though the jungle didn’t sound like a friendly place for a solo traveler, Cas would rather face it than a ship full of pirates.
The trail split, and she saw her chance. Tolemek veered toward the left. Cas would take the right.
She hadn’t taken more than a single step in that direction when dark shadows oozed out of the foliage. She barely managed to keep from yelping with surprise when someone appeared right in front of her, blocking her route. She whipped her rifle up, but someone grabbed her from behind. She tried to jerk away, to back into the brush so she would have more space to shoot, but the firearm was torn from her grip. She dipped her hand toward the pouch of throwing stars, but the man behind her caught both of her arms before she could grasp a weapon. She stomped down on his foot, but he was wearing boots, and her pathetic cloth shoes lent nothing to the power of her heel.
Lanterns snapped open, and yellow light filled the pathway. Scarred, bearded faces full of missing or dead, brown teeth leered at her. Tattooed arms were wrapped about her body, restraining her—and squeezing all of the air out of her lungs. All manner of pistols and daggers were being waved about, more than one pointing in her direction. Cas’s first ludicrous thought was that these were some savage jungle nomads or bandits who scraped out a living by preying on those who dared walk these paths, but she realized the truth as soon as she spotted Tolemek. He was standing, his hands on his hips, next to a gray-haired man wearing an Iskandian general’s gold-braided hat, a spyglass on a thong around his neck, and a breastplate made of human finger bones. There were stories of cannibalism among some of the pirate clans, but they were just stories. Weren’t they?
“I wasn’t expecting you, Captain,” Tolemek said as calmly as if everyone had shown up to smoke and play cards together. He looked at Cas and waved to the hulking man holding her. The death grip around her torso loosened slightly, though she still couldn’t have slipped a hand down to those throwing stars. At least the pirates had only taken her rifle so far. Maybe she could still find an opportunity to escape.
“We were planning to while away the evening in the tavern, conducting a few repairs, and dodging a few lawmen,” the gray-haired man said, tapping his spyglass against the breastplate in a soft clink-thunk pattern. Was this Captain Slaughter? If so, he was one of the most powerful among the Roaming Curse, and perhaps the most infamous. “But some soldiers came by and were bragging about how they’d so daringly and cunningly captured you and that the commandant was going to torture you ceaselessly. I grew worried about you.” He flashed a grin—his teeth weren’t quite so poorly cared for as many of the ones in the other pirates’ mouths. “And my next batch of projectile naphtha you promised.”
“Your concern is touching,” Tolemek said drily.
Dry tone or not, when the captain thumped him on the shoulder, Tolemek shared the man’s smile. Cas didn’t like the easy camaraderie she sensed between the two. With her, Tolemek had seemed normal. Even solicitous. Oh, she was sure he had been using her all along, but, reputation or not, he hadn’t seemed like some vile monster. That might change now that he was back among his pirate brethren. Damn, she wished she had veered into the jungle just a few seconds sooner. She might have watched this reunion from some nearby treetop and then sped off before anyone caught her.
“It seems you escaped on your own,” the captain said. “Can’t say I’m surprised.”
Several of the men nodded and chuckled.
“But this isn’t quite what I thought you were searching for.” The captain extended a hand toward Cas.
“No,” Tolemek said.
She caught his eyes—or maybe he was studying her at that moment anyway—and silently implored him to keep quiet about who she was. Or even to let her go. Did he have that kind of sway? Or were all decisions in regard to prisoners left to the captain?
“She someone special?” the captain asked. “Or were you just feeling randy tonight?”
That drew snorts and more chuckles.
“She ain’t much to look at,” the man standing in front of Cas said. Yeah? Who was he to talk? How could he even chew his dinner with those teeth? “Not with all them bruises. Her whole face looks like someone used it for a punching bag. There’s some girls in town who—er…” The pirate’s expression grew nervous, almost contrite, when he glanced at Tolemek.
“Wouldn’t be afraid to sleep with the Deathmaker?” The captain smirked.
“I don’t know,” Brown Teeth said. “I mean, I haven’t asked. I figure he’s purty enough, but I ain’t a girl, so I don’t know if’n… uhm…” The man clasped his hands behind his back, apparently deciding he had shot enough holes in his flier.
The captain smacked Tolemek on the chest. “Darts just called you pretty. If the girl doesn’t entertain you tonight, I think you’ve got a backup invitation.”
“Coming up behind us,” someone called softly from ten meters back down the trail.
“Shutter those lanterns, boys,” the captain said, pulling a pistol from his belt. “Target practice coming.”
Cas caught a grimace on Tolemek’s face before the lights disappeared. Her captor—she had yet to see the man’s face, but he had the meaty arms of a smith and the breath of a dead fish—dragged her a couple of steps into the foliage. After the light, it took her eyes a moment to adjust, and she wasn’t the first to see the figures jogging up the path toward them. Three guards. It was too dark to make out their uniforms, but who else would be searching the jungle at night?
At some unspoken signal, several pistols fired at once.
Two guards crumpled immediately. The rearmost one cried out in pain and tried to run. More pistols fired, hammering him in the back. He toppled into the brush beside the trail.
The lanterns came back up.
“Guess this isn’t the best place for a confabulation.” The captain grinned and dipped into an ammo pouch to reload his pistol. Cas’s gaze snagged on the pouch for a moment. It was probably made from some kind of hide, but that might have been human skin too.
She told herself that as long as she wasn’t locked in a Cofah cell, her odds of finding a way back home were still better than they had been before, but it was a struggle to find greater optimism than that.
She wondered what Tolemek thought about the downed guards. After he had worked hard not to kill anyone all night. His face didn’t give away much. His ropes of hair hung around his eyes, shadowing them, helping hide his thoughts. Maybe that was why he preferred the style. Or maybe he simply didn’t care, and his earlier efforts had been nothing more than experimenting with his various toys. Most of the pirates had the bronze skin and dark hair of the Cofah, though one had black skin and a couple others might have been from Iskandia. Wherever they hailed from originally, they didn’t seem to mind killing the Cofah.
“Let’s get back to the Night Hunter,” the captain said. “Too much law down here on land.”
“I have an errand to attend to first,” Tolemek said. “It shouldn’t take long. I’ll meet you at the ship.”
“And the girl?”
“She helped me escape. Treat her well.” Tolemek looked around the circle of men, but he also pinned the captain with his gaze. The command pleased Cas, but she wondered what he risked in trying to give an order to his superior officer. Maybe the Deathmaker had enough of a reputation that Slaughter, too, walked lightly around him?
“You mean, treat her well on the way to town and give her a swat on the rump to say goodbye, or treat her well on the way to our ship where we take her on?” The captain rested a fist against his hip. “If it’s the latter, I’ll be knowing who you’re bringing aboard and why.”
Cas held her breath. This was her chance. If Tolemek gave the word, she’d be let go. At the moment, he was the only one who knew who she was, the only one who cared.
He met her eyes and didn’t answer the captain right away. She lifted her chin and stared back at him. She wouldn’t plead—appearing weak in front of these scavengers was the last thing she dared—but she had to make sure he knew what she would prefer—after all, he had offered her a ride on his ship. She had answered with sarcasm but hadn’t given a straight-out no. What if he thought he would be doing her a favor, taking her across the sea, closer to Iskandia?
“I can find my own way home from here,” Cas said.
“Wait.” A pirate in the back of the group stepped forward, raising his lantern toward her. He had matted blond hair and paler skin than the Cofah men.
Cas’s stomach sank lower than the pouch of throwing stars. She didn’t recognize the man, but what if he recognized her somehow? She hadn’t been flying long enough to be notorious, not like Zirkander and some of the older pilots, but there were pictures of the heroic flier squadrons back home, especially in the capital city, where they had their air base. She had been recognized on the street before.
“That’s Gargon Ahnsung’s daughter,” the pirate said.
Cas didn’t move, though her heart threatened to beat its way out of her chest. Was this some colleague—former colleague—of her father’s? If her father had ever killed a Roaming Curse member, she might not be any better off than if they knew her as one of Zirkander’s squadron, but at least they wouldn’t think to use her against the colonel. That would be intolerable.
“The sniper?” the captain asked.
Tolemek’s eyebrows rose. “I guess that explains the accuracy with rocks.”
“Yeah,” Cas managed—her mouth was dry. “We all get together and see if we can knock over empty bean cans at family picnics.” In another situation, she would have laughed at the idea of her father hosting some family gathering, not only because she was his only living relative, but because he was as social as a mountain lion.
The pale-skinned pirate was nodding. “Yup, that’s her. I been out to Ahnsung’s house once to deliver a message, back when I worked for the guild. Seen her then, shooting bows with him out back. Must have been nearly ten years ago, but she was a pretty little thing.” The pirate grinned. “Deathmaker, she might be all right once them bruises heal up. You might want to keep her.”
Cas bit down her tongue to keep from calling the man a creep for ogling her when she’d been a thirteen-year-old girl. Nobody was cursing or sharing irate whispers about her father—hells, these criminals probably respected a mercenary sniper—so she might still get out of this alive.
“She flies with Zirkander now though,” the pirate added.
“What?” The captain’s head jerked up—no his whole body jerked to attention, the finger bone breastplate rattling with the movement.
A blast of other exclamations, some curses, some streams of anger and disbelief, came from other mouths. The arm around Cas’s waist tightened again, putting images of boa constrictors in her mind.
The oh-so-helpful pirate snapped his fingers. “’Course, you must have known that, Deathmaker. That’s why you brought her out, isn’t it? Now that’s a fine prize.”
“I’ll say,” the captain whispered, his eyes as hard as steel as they bored into her. One of his hands was balled into a fist, and the other clenched the hilt of his pistol. “That man ruined—” He was so choked with emotion—with rage—that he could barely speak. “Were you flying with him last summer, girl?”
Cas doubted he would believe her if she lied—he didn’t look like a man ready to believe anything that would interrupt his right to rage—but she kept her mouth shut. Wasn’t there a quotation about silence never getting a man in trouble?
The captain slowly pulled out his pistol—every eye there was riveted by it, by him—and stepped toward her. “Answer me, girl. Were you with him last summer?” Between one word and the next, he shifted from a whisper to a yell. “Did you help take down my ship?”
The pirate holding Cas stepped forward, forcing her closer to the captain. She tried to squirm free, to kick him or find an arm she could bite, but the man was no amateur at restraining prisoners.
The captain stalked closer, his face burning as hot and red as a furnace.
Cas didn’t notice Tolemek move, but he was suddenly there beside the captain, pressing his forearm—and the pistol—toward the ground. Several of the surrounding pirates drew in startled breaths. The tension was thicker in the air than the humidity.
“She’s nothing compared to Zirkander,” Tolemek said. “And she’s worth even less dead. We can use her to get to him. Set a trap, make her the bait.”
Even though Cas had suspected Tolemek had something like that in mind all along, she felt an overpowering urge to shoot him. If only these louts hadn’t taken her gun. She had to settle for hurling daggers with her eyes.
The captain looked down at the hand on his arm, then lifted his gaze to Tolemek’s. He was hurling a few blades with his eyes, too, but he finally stuffed his pistol back in its holster and muttered, “It must be nice to be able to see everything so logically all the time.”
“A boon and a bane,” Tolemek said. He glanced at Cas, but must not have liked what he saw on her face, for he soon looked away. “My errand won’t take long. Put her in my cabin, and treat her well,” he said again, then added, “She’ll make poor bait if Zirkander can’t recognize her.”
The captain walked with him several paces away from the group, and they exchanged a few words. Tolemek must have soothed the older man’s anger, for their discussion ended with the captain slapping him on the back and waving. Once again, Cas feared she had made a mistake in not bolting in those first few seconds in the jungle. A big mistake.