Authors: Adrian Tchaikovsky
‘Stenwold has snared a rare catch,’ Achaeos explained. ‘Fate’s weave favours us.’
‘Achaeos.’ Tisamon’s tone was flat, but Arianna detected the faint tremor there. ‘You were not . . . such a seer before, to have such gifted insights,’
‘Save me your tact,’ the Moth said harshly. ‘Oh, I am no great seer, to foresee all things. ‘“Little Neophyte”, they once called me. But now I am led by the nose.
see this. They feed me whatever is needed so that I will dance to their steps. You know who I mean.’
Tisamon flinched, a quick shudder passing through him.
Oh, he knows
, Arianna realized, and:
I want nothing to do with this. This is Mantis magic, and there is no place in it for me.
‘There is to be an interrogation,’ Achaeos continued. ‘I can all but hear the echoes of the questions. Tisamon, I would have you on hand. In case our man proves reluctant.’
In any event it was a day’s waiting before Stenwold could make the arrangements. The locusts of Collegiate bureaucracy had descended on him almost as soon as he reentered the city walls. When the message came it was at very short notice, Stenwold grabbing a free hour and an unused room, and assembling as many as possible to hear what was hopefully to be revealed.
They had Gaved seated at a table in what had once been some administrator’s office.
This should be conducted in some place better than this
, Stenwold thought.
We should have oppressive interrogation rooms, perhaps.
But of course the worst Collegium could offer were the cells used by the militia, and rooms here within the College were more convenient. He and Che were sitting at the same table with the prisoner and would have looked like just off-duty academics except for Tisamon’s brooding presence and Achaeos standing as chief prosecutor.
Also except for the fourth man sitting at the table, whom Stenwold was trying not to think about right now.
‘You’re not denying you were part of this theft?’ Achaeos accused the prisoner.
The Wasp shook his head. ‘Your man spotted me right off,’ he shrugged, ‘so what can I say?’
‘You can tell us exactly what you thought you were stealing.’
‘I have no idea what it was,’ Gaved replied. ‘I didn’t even get a good look at it before your mob came piling in.’
Achaeos glanced at Stenwold, who spread his hands cluelessly.
‘Who wanted it?’ Tisamon asked. ‘You must know that.’
The Wasp shrugged. ‘We weren’t told. You don’t ask that in my line of work.’ So far as Stenwold could tell, he was not genuinely holding anything back. Gaved was simply a mercenary, a hunter of fugitives by preference. Stenwold, looking at him, saw a man who knew he was in serious trouble, but without that desperation he would expect of a captured enemy agent with Tisamon at his back. There was, so Stenwold guessed, no great secret that Gaved was holding close.
‘I can tell you what
reckoned,’ the Wasp added, unexpectedly. ‘It makes no difference to me now. The Empire wanted this thing of yours for someone important. Someone really high up, like a general, perhaps, or someone in the Imperial Court. The fellow who gave us our marching orders said as much.’
Achaeos bit his lip anxiously, leaning imperceptibly into Che, who sat very close to him. Their reunion had brought Stenwold more vicarious joy than almost anything else that had happened recently. It had been Che, too, who had unexpectedly spoken up for their captive, so that Gaved was sitting under guard but not bound.
‘Where were you supposed to take the box?’ the Moth asked.
‘Back to Helleron,’ Gaved replied promptly. ‘Believe me when I say I wish I’d never taken on this job. Helleron’s usually as far south as I make it, and I should have kept it that way. This was a fool’s errand: Phin and the Fly dead, and I didn’t even come away with the goods.’
‘Which brings us to your companion,’ Achaeos said carefully. He had already made his suspicions known to Che and Stenwold.
‘Oh, Scylis?’ Gaved said, in tones of disgust. ‘A treacherous bastard, he is. By now Scylis will be living it up in Helleron with all four helpings of our bounty money.’
At which point the last man seated at the table said, ‘
It was the first thing he had said so far. He was similarly unbound, but Tisamon stood close behind him, wearing his clawed gauntlet, and with a stance that said he was looking forward to any attempt at escape.
‘Thalric,’ Stenwold acknowledged his query. ‘The name means something to you?’
It had been an uncertain decision, whether to bring Thalric to this table, but, suspect as he was, he was their authority on imperial affairs, and they had a Wasp to interrogate. The initial reaction between the two men had been one of outright hostility. This was not Gaved hating the deserter but Thalric loathing the mercenary for, despite his turned coat, Thalric’s mind was still black and gold.
‘Oh, I once knew a Spider named Scylis,’ Thalric explained. ‘A very . . . able agent. Your niece, for one, should have cause to remember him.’
‘We all have good cause, Thalric,’ Stenwold informed him flatly, as Gaved merely looked on frowning. ‘We know something of what this Scylis is capable, and if anyone could walk out of Collegium in the middle of a siege and get all the way to Helleron . . .’
‘I had wondered,’ Thalric said, with a tinge of mockery in his voice, ‘if you would finally start believing. It took me long enough, but I suppose your Moth there must have helped to persuade you. Sometimes being credulous can be an advantage. If you decide to go after Scylis, little Moth, I would suggest you take care. When he came limping in after catching your arrow, he was not pleased with you at all. If I had provoked Scylis’s enmity I would not get within arm’s reach of
else, ever again.’ He smiled until Tisamon shifted slightly, the metal of his claw scraping on the tabletop, and the smile instantly went sour.
‘So Scylis will have passed the box once he got to Helleron?’ Che clarified.
Gaved nodded. ‘That was the original plan.’
‘Then the plan failed,’ Achaeos informed them, ‘for the Shadow Box did not go to Helleron,’ He unrolled a somewhat tattered map across the table. Stenwold studied it but could see little there: the colours and shapes made no real match to places and lands that were familiar to him. It was an old map, he knew, prepared by Achaeos’s own kinden when this city was still theirs. Just as Achaeos could not grasp how to fire a crossbow or turn a key in a lock, so Stenwold could not decipher the way the Moths represented distance and places on a page.
‘I have charted the course of this Scylis, or whoever holds the box,’ Achaeos explained, although of his audience only Tisamon could follow his markings. ‘Not to Helleron, in fact, but some severe detour. A detour north and then east, here to Lake Limnia.’
‘Jerez,’ Gaved said instantly.
‘You know it?’
‘I’ve done good business there,’ the Wasp hunter replied. ‘That’s Skater-kinden land: marsh and swamp, bandit and smuggler country. Imperial writ runs thin there and so that’s where the fugitives go, hoping to get into the Commonweal, or even escape over the northern borders.’
‘So tell me,’ Achaeos said, ‘why take the box there? Nobody would go
the Empire just to get out again. Scylis could have gone straight north from here and found a pass into the Commonweal.’
‘The black market,’ Thalric suggested disdainfully. ‘Skater-kinden, degenerate creatures as they are, they thrive on it.’
‘He’s right,’ Gaved confirmed. ‘You can buy almost anything around Jerez.’ He raised his eyebrows at Achaeos. ‘And sell anything, too.’
‘Then we have to go to Jerez,’ Achaeos decided. ‘Now. Today if we can.’
the Empire,’ Che reminded him.
‘Just a few of us. Myself. Tisamon and Tynisa,’ he told her.
‘Just for some box?’
‘Che, I have never been more serious in my life,’ he said. ‘You were there in the Darakyon. You
. I made you see. That is what this is about. You have to trust me.’
‘I do trust you but . . . you can’t wander in and expect to find Scylis just . . . sitting there on this box, waiting to hand it over. I don’t care how thin imperial law runs there, it’s still the Empire.’
‘Then we shall take a guide,’ the Moth said simply.
Unwillingly, Che found her eyes being dragged down the length of the table towards Thalric. He and Gaved had both been her captors, and she had made her escape from each before they had truly had a chance to make her rue it. She saw the difference between them: Gaved had some quality in him, something that told her he might have handed her over to worse men but not touched her himself. Thalric had merely been putting off the moment when she would have screamed beneath his artificer’s knife, but it would have come sooner or later. His iron sense of duty would have subjected her to such torture without remorse.
Stenwold opened his mouth to issue one of his usual blanket refusals, but it was clear in his face that he was unsure whether being in the Empire without a guide would be worse than being there with one.
‘If he comes with us, I shall watch him,’ Tisamon supplied, ‘and he knows what I will do to him if he betrays us. There is nowhere in the Empire or beyond that will then shelter him.’
‘And I’ll watch him too,’ Che added.
‘No,’ Achaeos said, and she had been so ready for Stenwold to forbid her that it was her uncle she glared at before realizing whose voice had actually spoken.
‘There is nobody I would rather have as my companion,’ the Moth told her, ‘as you know. But this is a task not fit for you. Stealth and secrecy, Che. A handful of us and no more, to find the box as swiftly as we may, then seize it without fail, and return. I would not involve you in this, as I would not bring along Stenwold or the Ant Balkus.’
‘But . . .’ She looked half angry with him and half aggrieved.
‘Your uncle will have other tasks for you, I am sure,’ he reassured her. ‘We
must play our parts. I am already taking from him two of his closest allies and, Master Maker, you cannot understand why I must do this, but I must. Tisamon has agreed, and Tynisa also, I am told. Will you allow us Thalric? He was a spymaster of the Empire, so he will have ways of hearing things, uncovering things, that we don’t have.’
Stenwold glanced at the ex-Rekef major whose face remained a watchful blank. ‘I am a fairly decent judge of people,’ he said. ‘Remember, I have been in the intelligence game for twenty years, almost: that gives me the right to say no more than that I am a decent enough judge. I do not trust you, Thalric, and I would almost rather have Tisamon kill you here and now than risk your betrayal. I know you will attempt one.’
‘Then you have more foreknowledge of my future than I do,’ Thalric said implacably. ‘What would you have me swear by? I seem to have lost most of the things I used to own.’
‘Gaved,’ Stenwold turned to the Wasp seated at the far end. ‘A word with you.’ He stepped away from the table, far enough that his low tones would be lost to those who waited for him. Gaved rose, his eyes fixed cautiously on Tisamon, and followed him. Stenwold looked him over once more, registering the long greatcoat made of tough leather that had seen patches added and tears stitched up in its time, and noting the burn-scar on his face, the self-consciously unmilitary posture.
‘So you’re a mercenary, indeed?’
‘I try to be.’
‘That can’t be an easy resolution to keep, for a Wasp living inside the Empire.’
Gaved studied him for a long moment, then lowered his eyes. ‘That’s true, and I do work for Empire coin, on matters too shabby for the Rekef and too delicate for the army. But I work for others too, Master Maker, private work, for those that pay: tracing, hunting, finding.’
‘You value your freedom?’
‘All the more for it being hard come by.’
Stenwold shook his head. ‘I had not thought that a Wasp might be just as much a prisoner of the Empire as any of its slaves.’ He met Gaved’s suspicious gaze again. ‘I have a commission for you.’
‘You want me to go after this box?’
Stenwold was watching him closely, watching every blink of his eyes. ‘I have the impression you know the country?’
‘Better than any save the locals. My trade does well there.’
‘I will pay some now, some later, in good coin, if you would go with them, aid them in their task and, most especially, keep an eye on Thalric,’ Stenwold told him.
‘So you trust me, do you?’
‘More than him,’ Stenwold admitted. ‘Once the box is recovered, you can even make your own way home, if you want, although it will mean missing half of your money.’
Gaved took a deep breath. ‘The Empire hired me to find that same trinket, Master Maker. That contract’s dead to me, if you now hire me, but . . .’ He shrugged, groping for the right words.
‘But how can I know for sure that you won’t sell us out?’ Stenwold finished for him. ‘I had considered myself a fair judge of men of any kinden, and by asking that question you’ve confirmed my judgment.’
Gaved looked away from him back to the group gathered around the table. ‘And your Mantis will kill me if I so much as look at him in a funny way?’
‘Of course,’ Stenwold agreed.
Gaved smiled slightly. It tugged at the burn-scar and did little to enhance his features. ‘You have a deal, then.’
The war with Vek had made many names newly famous in Collegium, but none so comfortable with it as Teornis of the Aldanrael, Spider-kinden Aristos and Lord-Martial of Seldis, whose naval assault had broken the Vekken army, burning their ships and landing his mercenary soldiers along the beaches to drive the Ant-kinden from the city. He had been paraded through the streets in triumph and, though he had been in the company of a great many others, it had been Teornis that the men and women of Collegium had talked about afterwards, especially the women. He was young and handsome and always impeccably dressed.
And of course it had not been long before rumour had whispered of his other victory against the Wasp Empire that threatened them even now. Why, he had held off an entire Wasp army for whole
with only 200 men . . .