*My apologies. I was finishing up a workout when I realized today was my day, and the WordPress mobile interface leaves much to be desired. This is the first half of the story I submitted for last year’s Baen adventure fantasy contest. It was apparently found lacking, but I hope you enjoy it, nonetheless.*
“What happened to me, Mallar?” Artringen Cailesh asked, snapping off a quick shot with his Talmon and Findersin repeating pistol.
Answering bullets from the Doge’s guards whanged off the ancient paving stones of the the Via Pandrenaea as the two men fled from the authorities in their commandeered Victus. The delightful machine was creating a new sensation on the Sea of Tears. Produced in the smoldering abyss of Milcarth’s premier manufactories, the self-powered conveyance handily outran the two-man horse-drawn carriages.
It wasn’t nearly so good at corners, he observed as the machine careened around just such a thing at not quite top speed. Sparks sprayed from underneath them as the squat man next to Art yanked hard at the lever between them. The rear of their magichanical steed shimmied back and forth as Mallar fought it for control.
“Not sure just what you mean, sir.” Mallar Trank crouched low over the Victus’ steering yoke as cracks from behind them gave warning the Doge’s best still sought to bring their wild ride to a screaming, rending halt. Art’s compatriot – of sorts – was a block of a man, nearly as wide as he was tall. Traces of a childhood misspent on the docks of Welfrai still graced his speech. Odds were good the two men had tried to beat each other into pulp as boys. Which lent their current circumstance a certain delicious irony.
“I mean, oh keeper of my hope of a future, that I used to be a thief in good standing.” The jouncing as the Victus’ stiff wheels jolted over the cobbled street shuddered its way up into Art’s spine, and roused once again in him serious thoughts of walking away from the whole nonsense.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Captain,” Mallar yanked the yoke to the left, sending Art’s next shot wide. “But you still are, and in even better standing that you was a year gone.”
“Careful, Mallar!” A note of command crackled in Art’s voice. “I don’t want to hit an innocent because you spoiled my aim.”
“Aye, Cap’n,” the shorter man said, phlegmatic as always. “Thought it might be a good thing to not hit the old lady crossing the street.”
“Also that, jackanapes,” Art grunted. He could feel the slight smile that was the only break in Mallar’s typically stoic demeanor.
The lead carriage jerked to the side as it, too, avoided the stooped grandmother in the middle of the street. Both woman and driver swore up a storm. Art grinned. He lined up the T&F’s sights on the driver’s helmet as buildings and people whipped through his peripheral vision. The silly hat was an old fashioned morion, with an upstanding comb. Could he hit that, the two might yet walk away from this unpleasantness.
“Hold her steady, Mallar,” he ordered out of the side of his mouth. “I’m going to try something slightly clever.” He ignored the snort from his companion. The man had almost no sense of panache. The jolting motion of the Victus smoothed – ever so slightly – and Art drew up the slack on the repeater’s trigger.
He let his conscious mind drift, the riotous colors, smells and sounds of their mad run through Altierestes’ commercial districts fading away, until only the fuzzy gleam of the late-afternoon sun on the guard’s helmet and the much sharper bead of the front sight of his T&F filled his vision. Breath slowed, finger tightened on the trigger, and –
No obliging ruckus ensued. Carriages, horses and men disobediently continued thundering along in their wake, instead of piling up in a mess on the cobbles.
“Care to try again, Cap’n?” Mallar didn’t have the courtesy to turn his head. Or even smirk as Art’s jaw hung in dismay.
“I shall have to improve the quality of the service around here, Ser Trank.” Art sighed and shifted to the left horse of the lead carriage. He hated to do it. Shooting an animal who had no choice but to be chasing him turned his stomach. Unfortunately for the beastie in question, the prospect of spending a short eternity in the Doge’s prison chilled his entire being. He took careful aim again, and let go of the world to focus on the target.
When a nudge from the side spoiled both his aim and his mood. He snarled at his cohort, who – typically – ignored his fit of pique and pointed with one finger of the hand still gripping the steering yoke.
Pointed at a heavy drover’s cart laden with barrels moving slowly down the street ahead of them.
Art’s eyes lit up and he spun in the seat to aim forward. He was doubly glad of the goggles strapped over his eyes as air rushed over his face, yanking his hair about and threatening to choke him with his own scarf. Frod’s Rapid Conveyances ought to put a pane of glass – suitably reinforced, of course – in front of the driver and passenger. Of course, had they done so already, he’d have had to lean out to get a shot, which would have made his life immeasurably more complicated right at that moment.
Art’s point of aim was the box containing the mechanism holding the rear gate closed. He’d commandeered a cart of the same make once in a job – before he was obliged to go to work for the legitimate authorities – and had discovered that a blow of sufficient force would not only cause the gate to release, but also drop the rear of the cart by a solid foot. Intended to assist stevedores in loading and unloading, it would do to discourage their pursuers, as well.
If he could hit it.
“What I wouldn’t give for Bramonten’s favorite rifle right about now.” Some enterprising mind in Frod’s design shop had the decency to set a box into the passenger side of the Victus on the board housing the instruments. In this one, which he’d opened completely by accident – and a handheld lock picking tool – Art had found a pair of rather expensive leather gloves. He used these as padding between his wrists and the hard metal frame of the Victus, and took careful aim at the rapidly approaching release mechanism.
The madness of their flight disappeared until the world consisted of Art, the T&F’s sight, and his target. The CRACK of the pistol surprised him, as it always did on a good shot, and the gate control box on cart ahead obliged him by exploding in sparks as the heavy flat-nosed bullet punched through the thin metal casing and shredded the mechanism inside. The gate swung out and the cart shuddered on its chassis as heavy barrels rolled off the end to fall to the cobbled street.
They roared past the cart just before the barrels rolled across their path. The drover screamed obscenities and called down imprecations upon their heads in their wake. The guard driving the lead carriage had a bare moment to gape before they ran headlong into the mess. And then the trailing carriage ran into them, leaving a twitching, heaving mass of horses, guardsmen, shattered carriages and equally shattered beer barrels. Art crowed and cocked a jaunty wave as they sped off through the city.
After several more sedate turns left the wreckage well out of sight, Art turned and clapped Mallar on the shoulder with a grin. The shorter man flicked a glance his way, and said, “Much better, that time, sir.”
“You wound me, Mallar. Deep in the heart and soul of me,” Art said, sounding remarkably unwounded. He cracked open the repeater, a top-break model, and the extractor ejected all seven shells from the cylinder. He separated the two empty casings from the unfired ones. Those went into a hidden, inner pocket of his coat, and retrieved two more unfired shells from a row of loops sewn into the lining of another pocket. With all seven chambers filled with their own little bundles of mayhem, Art snapped the repeater closed and tucked it back in the holster under his right armpit. “Ah. What is this place?”
Mallar directed the Victus up a short ramp and into an opening in the side of a building. Art could see a small crowd pulling handcarts laden with fresh produce and handicrafts into the space in front of the door. Four burly gents dressed as farmers – but for the cleanliness of their skin and the lack of dung clinging to their rough shoes – lifted the ramp upright and then slid a door across the opening, plunging the still-humming Victus and its passengers into darkness.
“This, Captain, is where we get off.”
A light appeared in the darkness, illuminating a vulpine face topped with a dark bob haircut. Large, green eyes regarded them solemnly for a moment, the amber light shining off them bringing the fox-like cast of the woman’s features into striking relief. Eyes that narrowed as her fingers curled around the light in her hand. It was an odd, little device. He’d heard of galvanic torches made portable by a single person, but most of those created in manufactories still bulked large. Sorcerer artificers occasionally made smaller things, but such cost the proverbial arm and leg. Certainly too much for the Senator to authorize one for the use of a minor agent.
“Captain? I was told to expect a merchant and his manservant, not an officer and batman.” Her voice remained smooth, and clear of emotion despite the suspicion her features evinced.
“And no more are we,” Art lied. Instincts honed by a lifetime spent in distinct skepticism of authorities prompted him to betray as little information into untried hands as possible. “Ah, madame, Megarde and I used to work for the Afforala Combine. Flying airships. When we both left their service, he signed on with me, in a strictly, ah, civilian capacity.” He smiled, as much to get the emotion into his voice as because he thought she could see it. “He still calls me ‘Captain,’ though, out of habit.”
The woman stared at him through the darkness, inscrutable as she pondered his glib untruths. After a pause pregnant with deep currents, the light grew brighter, and she spoke.
“I am called Nelline, ‘Captain,’ and I will be your guide to the place of safety.”
Mallar tensed beside Art as she spoke. Something was wrong.
Nelline approached the Victus as her light increased, and part of the wrongness sent a chill down Art’s spine. The light shone from a small, luminescent ball hovering over her palm. A fairly common exercise of Power it might be, but that still meant they dealt with a sorceress.
And no sorceress should have been sent to lead them to the safe-house. No Power-wielder should have been: their abilities were held far too dear to send them into harm’s way like that. Moreover, a Senator’s agent should have known their true identities, rather than expecting their covers.
“Please, gentlemen,” she said, her sphere now luminescent enough to confine shadows in the far corners of the room. She stepped toward the still-humming Victus, her expression opaque. “It is important to get your burden safe.”
Her free hand twitched as though she was about to reach out toward them, and then stilled as though with conscious effort. Art wondered, in an academic manner, at her self-control. He presumed a Power-wielder would have to be rather disciplined, given the dangers inherent to the practice. Similar to his previous endeavors, really, thought of which brought an ambivalent roil of emotion to his gut.
“Burden, Serra?” Mallar said, as he opened the small door in the side of the vehicle. Art did likewise on his side, and they both stepped out. “Not sure just what you mean by that. Ser’s luggage ‘as already been removed to the aerodrome for the trip home to Afforala.”
Nelline’s shapely brows drew together, creating a fetching crinkle in the skin of her forehead as she absorbed this falsehood. Art wondered just how much she knew about them.
“That’s … I mean,” she started, when Mallar stumbled stepping out of the Victus.
The squat man lurched against the vehicle. Art slipped his hand inside his coat to grasp the butt of his repeater. Nelline reached out toward Mallar with her free hand. As though she meant to help him, Art thought.
Without warning, Trank lunged toward the slight woman. He was the best close-in fighter Art had ever met. The two sparred regularly as part of their partnership, and the shorter man took him four falls out of five. And Nelline couldn’t have weighed half what the former dockside ganger did.
The sorceress jerked back as he bore down on her, surprise writ large on her expressive face. A fat, blue spark leapt with a CRACK from her hand to contact Mallar’s hip, flinging him against the Victus hard enough to dent the engine cover. Art froze as she turned her eyes to him. Her huge, terrified, furious, green eyes.
The smell of lightning and the stench of singed wool hung heavy in the room as the two stared at each other, to the sound of Mallar Trank’s labored breathing.
“D-don’t move!” The sorceress’ voice matched the her emotional eyes. Art’s pulse rocketed, certain now she was some odd amateur, mixed up in actions that could get them both killed. A professional intelligencer such as his partner and him wouldn’t have wasted time ordering a motionless man to stop moving. Nor would such have been so shaken over dropping an attacker. There was no telling what the madwoman might do.
“I am, indeed,” Art forced the tension thrumming through him out of his voice, leaving it calm and measured, “not moving, Serra. I do hope you haven’t killed my man. Training a new one is always such an inconvenience, you see.”
Nelline’s eyes flared with their own inner light, and for a quick eternity, Art thought he’d just sentenced himself to painful death. The fingers of her off-hand actually began to glow with the same blue-white as the spark with had sent his partner sprawling. The petite sorceress’ nostrils flared and Art wondered what a lighting strike felt like. He debated pulling the repeater, but doubted he was fast enough. Marksman he might be, but he was no true quick-draw shootist, and knew it.
Mallar groaned in the stillness, and Art and Nelline both started at the noise. For a long moment, she stared down at the man she’d struck with her abilities. Art could see the conflict in her form; for a confidence artist of no small success, the tension and unease was practically shouted. It did not fill him with encouragement.
“Power for defense, and never attack,” Nelline muttered, in a slight sing-song that suggested rote memorization. “Poison is in the dose, and the Force which kills can also be the Force which heals. I will not attack, but only defend.” She took a shuddering breath and relaxed, if ever so slightly.
“The Berlammic Oath,” Mallar grunted from the other side of the Victus.
“You, you know the Oath?”
“Surely, Serra. First thing the Order of the Shining Light teaches its students. Along with making a glowball.” Mallar paused, not moving, that Art could hear. “Would you mind, terribly, if I got up?”
Nelline blinked, and the glow in her eyes doused. She stepped back with haste, keeping them both in sight.
“Slowly, Megarde; no more tricks.”
Art relaxed just a hair more. She’d regained some of her composure, confident she had them under control. Time to start undermining it.
“Tell me, Serra,” Art kept his voice light, “what is it you want with a somewhat well-to-do merchant and his manservant?”
“Merchant and his manservant,” she repeated. Her vision turned momentarily inward, her lips twisted, exposing small, even teeth in what could charitably be called a smile. “You are no more merchant than I am, Captain. Somewhat well-to-do merchants do not, as a rule, careen through cities in a brand new autocarriage, let alone a Victus!”
“Perhaps I did well in a business deal while visiting your lovely city.”
She raised an eyebrow, following it with a bark of laughter quickly silenced.
“Oh, truly. You did so well in your putative business – what is it, again, that you trade in, master merchant? – that you threw away all your profits-” her fiery gaze raked his just above average coat, “-and upset the Doge’s Guard with antics more often perpetrated by aristocratic scions than such sober businessmen as yourselves!”
“Ah, well, you know, Serra: trade has its ups and its downs. It is quite easy to lose one’s entire capital on a deal gone sour. Why, once – early on in my career, just after I parted ways with the Combine over the Galbarad Affair-” Though she quirked that eyebrow again, she didn’t otherwise react to his mention of the accidental death of an heir to the Carnelian Throne that had nearly enveloped the Sea of Tears in war. “-I invested-”
“Wagered,” Mallar muttered.
Art stared hard at the back of his partner’s head before rolling his eyes.
“Invested, I say, a sizable sum in a shipment of Talliver’s Jungle Snake furs from the Green Lands. The last word I heard from the convoy they’d just pushed off from their anchorage and were expecting fair winds through the Strait of Yultark heading to the great, cold north. It should have been easy money, but they got caught by the eruption of one of the Jade Isles near Mintanay. Which one was it, Megarde?”
Mallar’s shoulders artfully slumped.
“Dogache.” Art thought the disconsolate note in his voice quite well done; just the thing to suggest remembered pain.
“Dogache,” Art repeated, keeping his tone dismissive. Despite inserting a number of significant disasters into his brief soliloquy, natural as well as man-made, she’d reacted with nothing more than polite skepticism. “So you see, one can make or lose a fortune on what might seem like nothing to someone else. And when a fortune is made, spending on something, well, perhaps a bit extravagant could be in order.” He beamed at her, radiating nothing so much as honest good will.
“You’re a talented liar, Ser,” Nelline said, face closed but for a tightening of the delicate skin around her eyes. She backed into a corner, gesturing toward the closed door behind her with the illuminating hand. “Please, Sers, precede me from this place.”
“Cap’n?” Mallar turned his head just far enough to see Art out of the corner of his eye.
Art shrugged and pulled his empty hand out of his coat, then waved toward the wooden portal.
“Well, good Megarde, you heard the lady with the dangerous hand,” he winked at Nelline, who scowled in return.
Mallar stumped toward the door and jerked it open. Muttering what were no doubt curses couched in the dockside cant of his childhood, he swiveled his head around to bestow a truly cantankerous glare on Art. Warmed through, and delighted by the bizarre turn, he beamed back at his shorter companion.
“Liar, I may be, Serra. Most men are, I’ve noticed,” Art said as he sauntered around the Victus. He paused just on the other side, and reached inside the still-running vehicle. The kill switch cast a hush over the room. Art could hear the noise of the street outside muffled by the thick wooden door and masonry walls. At almost identical quizzical looks from Nelline and Mallar, he explained. “It just wouldn’t do to leave a magichanical device like this running. For one thing, it might explode. Rather unthinking way to treat the kind folk who provided such an excellent escape for us, no?”
His partner sighed and shrugged, turning back toward the dark doorway. Nelline looked slightly confused, but gestured toward the door.
Art stepped through into momentary darkness. When their diminutive captor followed, the light from her still-glowing hand showed him a nondescript corridor, off of which doors opened every half-dozen paces.
“Offices, I shouldn’t wonder. M- my man,” he covered, quickly, “do you suppose they have anything interesting inside?”
“This is the building of Namboro and Sons, Factors, Ser,” Nelline said before Mallar could respond, a touch of asperity making her voice curt. “No doubt these offices are full of papers, ledgers, records and all the various and sundry implements of trade. Interesting, no doubt, to a man such as yourself, but not to us in our current endeavors. Now, if you please, through the doorway at the end of the hall, and into the warehouse, Sers.”
“Ahh,” Art leapt on the opening as they filed through the doorway, “and what are those endeavors, Serra Nelline? What exactly is it you want from me? I am, as mentioned somewhere previously, a simple merchant.”
Nelline’s light-sphere, which had illuminated the narrow corridor, lit only a small bubble in the cavernous interior of the enormous room. Wooden crates upon wooden crates faded into the darkness.
“Why, the magitechnical formulae you wheedled from Dottore Atrianni suggest otherwise, Ser Captain,” Nelline retorted. “What I don’t understand is why you killed him afterward. And in such an atrocious manner.”
Remembered horror choked her voice to a rough whisper. Art, surprised at his concern, turned his head enough to catch her out of the corner of his eye, and indeed: her green eyes were dark wounds in pale blaze of her face.
“What?” Mallar choked, surprising Nelline and Art both, though Art’s professional vanity made him hope he controlled his face better than she. The squat man turned around, his face a twisted mask of rage. His half-raised hands flexed in rigid claws. “Menigarius Atrianni dead, foully murdered?”
“But, but of course, Megarde,” Bewilderment – with no small admixture of fear at his furious outburst – muddled her fine features. Her high emotion fanned the flame of her Power, sending brilliant blue-white arcs crackling through her fingers. Art pressed himself against a nearby crate, his desire for self-preservation warring with his hope of eventual freedom from the dictates of the Republic’s spymaster. Incongruously, the scents of drifting dust and packing straw tickled at the back of Art’s nose, an incipient sneeze threatening to explode.
“How could you not know? You were the last ones to leave his rooms this morning!” Anger, righteous or not, lent Nelline’s voice the strength it had lacked just a moment earlier. “The poor man was rent limb from limb, his tongue and eyes plucked out. His blood sprayed across the walls and the very ceiling of his apartment!” Shudders of reaction gripped her slight frame, though her Power-filled hands remained steady in front of her.
“We-?” Thoughts whirled through Art’s head. “Well, bollocks and botheration. Serra, just who are you, out of professional curiosity? You’re no agent, that’s for damned certain. You have the trade-craft of a gifted amateur, which, in this field is just enough to get you killed. Quickly.”
Mallar froze, a thick ribbon of surprise and curiosity clear on his face, pulling him from the brink of – likely suicidal – violence.
“I, I’m-” Nelline shrank back, her brilliant eyes and the svelte lines of her form proclaiming her uncertainty for the world to see. All of it in the darkened warehouse, at the least. Her gaze turned inward, then outward, shifting rapidly from Art to Mallar and back again. “Who are you, Sers, that you speak of agents and trade-craft and visit a brilliant magical theorist immediately prior to his murder?”
Art and his partner exchanged a long look. Mallar, now seeming completely relaxed, shrugged, a simple abnegation of responsibility made eloquent by his customary economy of effort.
Art swung his head back to face Nelline, putting on a charming grin with just a touch of predatory anticipation. Her gaze locked on his face, her shoulders growing tense and mouth pinched as his expression registered.
“Well met, Serra Nelline of no place in particular. I am Captain Artringen Cailesh, agent-under-duress of many faces, and my companion-of-necessity is Ser Mallar Trank, leash-holder, general ne’er-do-well and dog robber for the Andrine Republic.” He swept a Phelgen court bow full of flourishes, waggles and gestures, ending with his head nearly touching his left knee. Instead of the customary bowed head, however, he canted his to see Nelline’s reaction. He was stunned when she spun her hands out and around in the Phelgen hand-sign to indicate he’d shown her inappropriate respect. A very honor-conscious people, the Phelgen.
More impressive yet, that she’d managed it without losing her grip on her Power.
“Captain Cailesh, Ser Trank – if, indeed, those are your real names -” she said with a taut smile and a short curtsy, “why in the names of the Nine of the Phelgen pantheon would I tell you who I am, let alone my goals?”
Art bobbed straight, manfully converting a guffaw into a warm chuckle.
“Mallar, I like Serra Nelline. May I take her home, do you think?”
Steam hissed and lumber splintered as a huge something dropped from the darkness above them to land on the stone floor of the warehouse with grating shrieks.
“Not on your life, Cailesh,” a hard, hated voice cracked out of the darkness. A darkness that vanished as galvanic lamps burst into light, forcing all three of them to squint against the sudden brilliance all around them.