Authors: Megan E. O'Keefe
t was a pretty
nice burlap sack. Not the best he'd had the pleasure of inhabiting, not by a long shot, but it wasn't bad either. The jute was smooth and woven tight, not letting in an inkling of light or location. It didn't chafe his cheeks either, which was a small comfort.
The chair he was tied to was of considerably lesser quality. Each time Detan shifted his weight to keep the ropes from cutting off his circulation little splinters worked their way into his exposed arms and itched something fierce. Despite the unfinished wood, the chair's joints were solid, and the knots on his ropes well tied, which was a shame.
Detan strained his ears, imagining that if he tried hard enough he could work out just where he was. No use, that. Walls muted the bustle of Aransa's streets, and the bitter-char aromas of local delicacies were blotted by the tight weave of the sack over his head. At least the burlap didn't stink of the fear sweat of those who'd worn it before him.
Someone yanked the bag off and that was surprising, because he hadn't heard anyone in the room for the last half-mark. Truth be told, he was starting to think they'd forgotten about him, which was a mighty blow to his pride.
As he blinked in the light, the blurry face of his visitor resolved into an assemblage of hard, almond-brown planes with sandy hair scraped back into a tight, professional plait. Ripka. Funny, she looked taller than the last time he'd seen her. He gave her a stupid grin, because he knew she hated it.
“Detan Honding.” He liked the way she said his name, dropping each syllable in place as if she were discarding rotten fruit. “Thought I told you to stay well clear of Aransa.”
“I think you'll find I've been doing my very best to honor your request, watch captain. I am a paragon of lawfulness, a beacon for the truthful, aâ”
“Really? Then why did my men find you card-sharking in Blasted Rock Inn?”
“Card sharking?” he asked in the most incredulous voice he could muster. “I don't even know what that
. What's a sha-ark? Sounds dangerous!”
Ripka shook her head like a disappointed proctor and took a step back, tossing the bag to the ground. Detan was sorry to see such a fine sack abused so, but he took the chance to take in his surroundings. The room was simple, not a stick of furniture in it aside from his own chair and the corner of a desk peeking out from around the eclipsing curve of the watch captain.
By the color of the warm light, he guessed there weren't any windows hiding behind him, just clean oil lamps. The floor was hard-packed dirt, the walls unyielding yellowstone. It was construction he recognized all too well, though he'd never had the pleasure of seeing this particular room before. He was in the Watch's station house, halfway up the levels of the stepped city of Aransa. Could be worse. Could have been a cell.
Ripka sat behind what he supposed must be her desk. No books, no trinkets. Not the slightest hint of personality. Just a neat stack of papers with a polished pen laid beside it. Definitely Ripka's.
Keeping one stern eye on him, she pulled a folder from the stack of papers and splayed it open against the desk. Before it flipped open, Detan saw his family crest scribbled on the front in basic, hasty lines. He'd seen that folder only once before, the first time he'd blown through Aransa, and it hadn't had anything nice to say about him then. He fought down a grimace, waiting while her eyes skimmed over all the details she'd collected of his life. She sighed, drumming her fingers on the desk as she spoke.
“Let's see now. Last time you were here, Honding, you and your little friend Tibal unlawfully imprisoned Watcher Banch, distributed false payment, stole personal property from the family Erst, and disrupted the peace of the entire fourth level.”
“All a terrible misunderstanding, I assureâ”
She held up a fist to silence him.
“I can't hold you on any of this. Banch and the Ersts have withdrawn their complaints and your fake grains have long since disappeared. But none of that means I can't kick your sorry hide out of my city, understand? You're the last person I need around here right now. I don't know why you washed up on my sands, but I'll give you until the night to shove off again.”
“I'd be happy to oblige, captain, but my flier's busted and it'll be a good few turns before she's airworthy again. But don't you worry, Tibs's working on getting it fixed up right.”
“Still dragging around Tibal? Should have known, you've got that poor sod worshipping your shadow, and it's going to get him killed someday. What's wrong with the flier? And stop trying to work your ropes loose.”
He froze and mustered up what he thought was a contrite grin. Judging by the way Ripka glowered at him he was pretty sure she didn't take it right. No fault of his if she didn't have a sense of humor.
“Punctured a buoyancy sack somewhere over the Fireline Ridge, lucky for us I'm a mighty fine captain myself, otherwise we'd be tits-up in the Black Wash right about now.”
Her fingers stopped drumming. “Really. Fireline. Nothing but a bunch of uppercrusts taking tours of the selium mines and dipping in at the Salt Baths over there. So just what in the sweet skies were
doing up there?”
A chill worked its way into his spine at her pointed glare, her pursed lips. Old instincts to flee burbled up in him, and for just a moment his senses reached out. There was a small source of selium â the gas that elevated airships â just behind Ripka's desk.
A tempting amount. Just small enough to cause a distraction, if he chose to use it. He gritted his teeth and pushed the urge aside. If he were caught out for being a sel-sensitive, it'd be back to the selium mines with him â or worse, into the hands of the whitecoats.
He forced a cheery grin. “Certainly not impersonating a steward and selling false excursion tickets to the baths. That would be beneath me.”
She groaned and dragged her fingers through her hair, mussing her plait. “I want you out of my city, Honding, and a busted buoyancy sack shouldn't take more'n a day to patch up. Can you do that?”
“That would be no trouble at all.”
“If it were
the buoyancy sack.”
Her fingers gripped the edge of her desk, knuckles going white. “I could throw you in the Smokestack and no one in the whole of the Scorched would lift a finger to find out why.”
“But you wouldn't. You're a good woman, Ripka Leshe. It's your biggest flaw.”
“Could be I make you my first step on a downward spiral.”
“Who put sand in your trousers, anyway? Everyone's wound up around here like the Smokestack is rearing to blow. Pits below, Ripka, your thugs didn't even take my bribe.”
“Watch Captain Leshe,” she corrected, but it was an automatic answer, lacking any real snap. “You remember Warden Faud?”
“'Course I do, that fellow is straight as a mast post. Told me if he ever saw my sorry hide here again he'd tan it and use the leather for a new sail. Reminds me of you, come to think on it.”
“Well, he's dead. Found him ballooned up on selium gas floating around the ceiling of his sitting room. Good thing the shutters were pulled, otherwise I think he would have blown halfway to the Darkling Sea by now.”
Detan snorted. He bit his lip and closed his eyes, struggling to hold down a rising tide of laughter. Even Ripka had a bit of a curl to her mouth as she told the story. But still, she had admired the crazy old warden, and Detan suspected she might just consider carrying out the man's wish of turning him into leather if he let loose with the laugh he was swallowing.
He risked opening his eyes. “How in the pits did it all stay in there?”
Her face was a mask of professional decorum. “The late warden had been sealed with guar sap. On all ends.”
“Still got him? â¦ I could use a new buoyancy sack.”
Detan was too busy laughing until the tears flowed to see her coming. She swept the leg of his chair away and he went down with a grunt, but he didn't care. It was just too much for him to let go. When he had subsided into burbling chuckles, Ripka cleared her throat. He felt a little triumphant to see a bit of wet shining at the corner of her eye.
“Are you quite finished?” she asked.
She produced a short blade of bone-blacked Valathean steel. It probably had a poncy name, but all Detan cared about was the fresh glint along the cutting edge. It was a good knife, and that was usually bad news for him. Good women with good knives had a habit of making use of them in his general direction. He swallowed, tried to scoot away and only dug his splinters deeper.
“Now, there's no need forâ”
“Oh, shut up.”
She knelt beside him and cut the ropes around his wrists and ankles. He knew better than to pop right up. Irritable people were prone to making rash decisions, and he'd discovered there were a surprisingly large number of irritable people in the world. When she stepped away he wormed himself to his feet and made a show of rubbing his wrists.
“Some higher quality rope wouldn't be too much to ask for, I think.”
“No one cares what you think, Honding.” She jerked the chair back to its feet and pointed with the blade. “Now sit.”
He eyed the rickety structure and shuffled his feet toward the door. “Wouldn't want to take up any more of your time, watch captainâ¦”
“Did I say you could leave?” Her knuckles went bloodless on the handle of the blade, her already thin lips squeezed together in a hard line. Detan glanced at the chair, then back at Ripka. A few traitorous beads of sweat crested his brow. He thought about the selium, looming somewhere behind her desk, but shunted the idea aside. She pointed again.
He obliged. He had a life philosophy of never saying no to a lady with a knife if he could help it. And anyway, something had her wound up crankier than a rockcat in a cold bath. She needed something, and needful people often played loose with their gold.
“Thought you wanted me gone yesterday,” he ventured.
“Then it's too bad you're here today. I want a timeline from you, understand?”
“Oh, well. Let's see. In the beginning, the firemounts broke free from the seaâ”
“Stop. Just. Stop.”
He shut up. He didn't often know when he was pushing it, but he knew it now.
“Thratia is making a grab for the warden's seat, understand? I can't have you in my hair when I've got her in my shadow.”
He grimaced. Detan had been all over the Scorched Continent a half dozen times easy and he had yet to run into a woman more ruthless than ex-Commodore Thratia Ganal. Sure, she was Valathean bred and all sweetness and light to anyone with gold in their pockets. But it had to be the right amount of gold, backed by the right intentions.
Poor as a smokefish? Better work for her. Enough gold to buy a proper uppercrust house? Best pay your fire taxes, Aransa was a dangerous place, after all. More gold than her? Better invest in whatever she wants and then sod right off to wherever you came from.
A pleasant conversationalist, though, so that was something.
Rumor had it Thratia didn't appreciate the spidery arm of Valathean law meddling with the Scorched settlements, which meant Ripka was in the shit if Thratia took over. Even with the whole of the Darkling Sea between Valathea's island empire and the Scorched, the empire's control over its frontier cities was absolute through its selium-lifted airships and its watchers. The watchers held to imperial law, and kept the Scorched's selium mines producing to fill Valathean needs and Valathean coffers.
And Thratia didn't much care for Valathean needs, now that they'd kicked her loose.
He stifled another
, watching the honorable watch captain through enlightened eyes. The way she kept glancing at the door, as if she were worried someone would barge in. The way she held her knife, point-out and ready to dance. She was scared senseless.
And scared people were easy to play. Detan leaned forward, hands clasped with interest, brow drawn in grave understanding. Â
“You think she was behind the warden's death?” he asked, just to keep Ripka talking while he worked through the possibilities.
“That crow? I doubt it. It's not her style, wasting something as valuable as selium to make a point. The favorite theory going around right now is it was a doppel.” She snorted. “Caught one a few days back, impersonating some dead mercer. City's been seeing them in every shadow ever since. Might as well be a ghost or a bogeyman, but I can't ignore the possibility. Your mouth is open, Honding.”
He shut it. “Are you serious? A
He'd heard of the creatures â every little Scorched lad grew up with stories of scary doppels replacing your loved ones â but he'd never seen one before. The amount of skill and strength it'd take to use a thin layer of prismatic selium to cover your own face, changing hues and sculpting features, was so far beyond his ken the thought left him speechless. He was all brute strength when it came to his sel-sensitivity. He even had trouble shaping a simple ball out of the lighter-than-air gas.
“They're not pets, rockbrain,” Ripka said. “They're extremely dangerous and if they're geared up to attack the settlements then we're going to have to send word to Valathea.”
Detan's mouth felt coated in ash. Valathea liked its sel-sensitives just fine, but as Detan had found out to his own personal horror it liked them weak, fit for little more than moving the gas out of mines and into the buoyant bellies of ships. Anytime the sensitives got too strong, or their abilities deviated from the accepted standard, Valathean steel came out ringing. Â
“That'd mean a purge,” he said.
She tipped her chin down, and her gaze snagged on the knife in her hand as if seeing it for the first time. For just a moment, her mask slipped. Detan squinted, trying to read the fine lines of her face. Was that sadness? Or indigestion? Ripka rolled her shoulders to loosen them and retightened her grip.