It was a simple task.
Haul and cleat, steady the sail. "Six points to spinward, Mr. Harris." Steady my old bones on the rail and watch the arm of the galaxy stretch away into the sky. "We're to swing wide round that dune."
"Aye, aye, Mr. Briggs." Not captain, never captain, even if it's just the two of us.
I close my one good eye and listen to the sand playing over the hull, the cold wind cutting through my clothes. We're a small craft, nimble and smooth. Just me and the pilot, Jase Harris, though there's space enough for three.
"Ware starboard!" Mr. Harris sings out.
The bulk of the sky goes black behind the prow of a fat freighter, speeding through the deep valleys between the dunes. She's running dark and fast in the middle of the night, low and heavy on a dozen blistering thrusters. Contraband. Smugglers for sure.
"We have right of way, sir?"
A mammoth wedge of wood, steel, and sail bearing down without care or cause. She'll run us down and burn the evidence.
"Right o' way, Mr. Harris. That's the spirit." The kid's got talent. Got what it takes to be the best pilot in the Endless Desert. "Let's show these smugglers some proper piratical courtesy."
"Sir." Mr. Harris grins, his fingers dance across the wheel. Our little ship groans, her thrusters spin high and hot and we're rising, up and up. I throw my weight hard against the rail for counterbalance as we cant sideways, skate the side of the freighter and score a gash in her flank she won't soon forget. Skip off her tail and let a smattering of shots and shouts follow us into the sky.
Then the freighter's gone and we're left high and lonely. Naught but the wind for company. "You ever been to the Crescent Cities, Mr. Harris?"
"No, sir. Can't say I've had the pleasure."
"Then hand off the wheel and step lively, port side down." I call it one of the wonders of the world. A jewel, nestled in the broad bosom of the Endless Desert. Viridian. Tourmaline.
They call it a lake. A body of water as large as I've ever seen, sickle shaped and calm enough to flip the stars on their face. Trees and farms hug the outer edge and the inner rim, holding off against the ever-present sand. Here and there, like the bones of some buried giant, towers stretch up out of the green; wizards' playgrounds. Bah, wizards and their flying carpets, always reaching for the stars.
Seven cities, seven ports, and seven thousand ships in and out every day. Landing lights dot the sands, calling me home. "Drink it in, Mr. Harris. Topside's too pricey for the likes us. We'll be berthed down under."
Aye, my bones ache on nights like this.
Find Esme, my captain's wayward daughter, now two years gone across the sands.
I move through the Undercity, along the seventh level market bridge spanning the Pit. Platforms jut like rusted, rotten teeth from the sides of the bridge wherever there's space between a market stall or behind a tavern. From those drop points elevators — little more than metal cages on chains — crank treasure hunters into the darkness and out of sight. Into the Digs twenty, thirty levels down, where they'll find their fortunes or die trying.
Three points down, one of the chains snaps, and a cage tumbles away. The diggers inside have time enough to scream.
"What a way to go." A sunburnt farmer pauses next to me, spits over the edge. Bats swarm the Pit like a cloud of black smoke in the dead diggers' wake.
"At least it was quick," I comment to no one in particular. The farmer's gone after his goats. The bats fly away to an evening meal. And nobody else even noticed.
Good thing I left Mr. Harris on the ship. He would've cared. Esme would've cared. This is no place for either of them.
I walk past a stack of squabbling chickens, around a fall of silks and a jeweler's canny grin to the drop point, the battered steel platform built out just far enough to clear major struts and girders. Other bridges hang high above and below, rainbows of color and opportunity in the ever-night.
I spin the crank, bring up the chain and don't get half-a-look from passerby. By this time tomorrow there'll be a new chain, new cage, and no shortage of idiots ready to test their lives. Mr. Harris would care, and Esme too. I'm just curious.
Cut through. Detail work. Just enough to let it snap, but not so much that anyone would notice.
"Pennies for a poor man? Please, sir. I have no food." A beggar stumbles towards me, half his face hidden beneath a steel plate welded onto his skin. I grab the beggar by the collar, swing him out over the Pit.
"Wait! Hey!" The beggar pinwheels. "What are you doing?" It doesn't look it at first, but the steel plate's a graft, like my eyepatch. The metal's covered in tiny runes that'll spin up at the beggar's command for some form or function. Maybe it sniffs out money for the beggar's marks, or maybe it'll shoot me in the face.
"Who's gonna care?" I snarl.
"What are you talking about?"
"There's no chance you walked over here on a whim." I spin up the runes across my eyepatch and give him a scan. The runes send information past the empty socket and straight to my brain. I skip height and weight, filter for metal, runecraft. For trouble. Other than the mask I spot two knives, a pair of bicep grafts, and a pistol, right side back. "Who's gonna care around here?"
"I don't. I don't. I don't—" The would-be beggar kicks and struggles.
"My arms are getting tired."
"Three streets off the bridge to the right. The Lucky Dog Tavern. He's at the bar. You can't miss him."
"About damn time." It's been a long day and too many people I used to know left me with a whole lot of nothing. I toss the man onto the platform. "You're as much a beggar as I'm governor of the Crescent Cities." I toss him a couple of coins and walk away.
"And you're welcome!" The beggar calls after me as I disappear into the crowd.
I slip into the Lucky Dog. People step aside, shy away. That kind of place. They open a path to the man I want to see, each one ready to gun me down when I say the wrong thing. That kind of town.
"What'll it be?" The bartender cinches his sleeve garters as I lean both elbows on the counter.
Clink. Pop. Trickle. The dribble of alcohol out of a dirty bottle is the only sound in the entire tavern.
"That stuff is swill," the bartender opines.
I pound the shot anyway. "You have anything better?"
"Let me make you the house special."
I watch the bartender. High collared shirt, dapper vest, thin gray beard, and eyes black as hell. The drink comes in a tall, narrow glass. A shot thick as treacle and dark as tar melts over the back of an overturned spoon and pools at the bottom.
The bartender leans back and crosses his arms, watching me watch him. "I haven't thought of a name yet."
I grab a pitcher of water from behind the counter and fill the glass the rest of the way. The liquor breaks on contact, stretching tendrils up through the water that blossom into bursts of milky, chalky white. "A Nightriver Draught?" I finish a coded exchange, now twenty years out of date.
"Tamish Briggs?" The bartender and I clasp hands. "It's been a long time."
"Merrick Castillo." Smile, you grizzled old wolf. "I left you knee-deep in a warehouse full of blood and gold, and this is where you end up? Tending bar?"
The surrounding tension eases. I'm a friend, or at least a business partner, and we're buffeted by the gentle babble of voices. For privacy. "My bullyboy days are behind me. Besides, bartending lends me a veneer of respectability." Castillo slides me another one of his signature drinks and pours one for himself. "To old times?"
It's a question. "And new." I'm not here on a social call. Sorry.
"Pity that." Castillo shrugs. "You still plying the slightly less than lawful shipping lanes?"
"Not lately." Life was simpler, just being a pirate. Straightforward. "I've become something of a detective." I explain the situation.
"So what you're saying," Castillo leans over the bar, gives me a conspiratorial wink. "Is that you've risked returning to the Crescent Cities for a woman?"
It wasn't supposed to end this way.
I get a name. Nasir. A runesmith five levels down. I take a deep breath, try not to think what the girl's doing sniffing around that kind of a cut-rate hack. Bah. By this time tomorrow we'll be free and clear from this seething cesspit.
"Sir." Mr. Harris is loafing by the cockpit, looking hangdog.
"Is there a problem, Mr. Harris?" I slow, double-check my pistol.
Shrug, a sideways look. "There's a woman in your cabin, sir."
"Not the one we came here for, I wager?"
Another shrug. "She says she's here to see you. By name." Mr. Harris is nervous. The cockpit's where he feels most comfortable. "You'd better go see for yourself, sir."
I have a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. "Guess I'd better do just that."
My cabin's cramped. There's room for a bed, a desk, and a chair. And the chair folds up. There's a runedisk on the desk, spinning bright, showing a girl with dark hair, bright eyes, and a nose for trouble. Two years gone, Esme. Do you still have that smile, or has the world burnt it out of you, just like it burns everything to ash and black glass?
"She's beautiful. Do you miss her?" A woman's pale, delicate finger stops the runedisk, and the image fades. "Colonel Tamish Briggs."
"It's been a long time since anyone called me that." White dress, long legs, slight hips. She has a face like a hawk and eyes as big as saucers, deep as the lake above our heads. The shawl over her head's slipped back, showing hair as white as the southern sands. "Long enough that I wager you weren't even alive at the time." Mr. Harris's age. Maybe less. "Her name's Esme, and I miss her every day."
That costs the woman a nervous frown, a hitch in her delivery. "Colonel Tamish Briggs, commander of the Intrepid out of Dust. Decorated by the Crescent Cities council following a fleet action over Redsands against a strike force from Highcliff. You lost your eye to shrapnel from an exploding cannon."
"And my flagship to the Evicerator, before reinforcements showed." I unfold my chair, give my creaky knees a rest. "Back then, if someone waltzed into my cabin unannounced, I'd have them whipped, shot, and thrown to the sand dragons, in that order. You're lucky those days are long gone."
"I'm… My name is Ilisa." She pulls a sheaf of papers from her pocket and holds them close to her nose. "Colonel… Captain—"
"Mr. Briggs," I interrupt, emphatic. "Or Tamish, if you're feeling friendly." It's not every day a pretty woman shows up in my cabin. "But not captain, commander, or colonel. Never again."
Pause. Ilisa takes a couple deep, quick breaths. I'm clearly not what she expected. "Mr. Briggs, then."
I hear a noise and spot a wide, furred face poking out from under her collar. A bat. A white bat squeaking tiny runes from its mouth. It's the smallest genie I've ever seen.
"Mr. Briggs." She flips through her papers. "I came here for… for…"
"My help?" My eye hurts. The one that's no longer there. The woman's words carry old pain and bad memories. "Why, when you have a genie grant your every wish?"
"No, it doesn't work like that." Ilisa chuckles as the bat climbs around her shoulder. "Even the best genies can only maintain two or three wishes at a time. And Izzie here can't even hold one wish for more than a moment." The bat nuzzles her cheek, and she smiles. "He does what he can, but he's more of a friend than anything else."
I try massaging my forehead. "Miss Ilisa—"
"Where was I?" She takes out a pair of glasses and checks her papers again, holding one of the sheets to the light. "You know, people say I'm prettier without the glasses, but everything's just blurry…"
"Miss Ilisa—" I try again.
"Colonel Tamish Briggs, commander of the Intrepid out of—"
"Miss Ilisa!" I break out my bosun's voice. That stops her cold, drops the paper from her fingers. "Why are you here?"
"I, uh, I need your assistance. To get down to the Digs. Everyone's talking about the return of the famous Colonel Briggs and you can do any—"
"That's just the problem," I interrupt, softer. "Everyone's talking. Miss Ilisa, I'm sorry you had to come all the way down from your high tower to hear this, but I'm not for hire. In fact, I'll be leaving tomorrow, as soon as we're clear to take off. Thank you for your time."
"But. This is my only chance—"
"The Undercity's no place for a girl like you. See Mr. Harris on your way out. He'll escort you home."
"But, Colonel Briggs," Ilisa pleads. "You're the hero of Redsands. You defeated the pirate-king Lazarus in single combat. You sailed the Nightriver—"
I sit up straight. "Nobody knows about the Nightriver." Well, almost nobody. "Who are you?"
"My name is Ilisa," she repeats herself. Shuffles her papers. "I'm not trying to blackmail you or anything. I just need—" No. "What I'm trying to say is—"
"No. Go home, girl." I squeeze my good eye shut. "I'm not the man you think I am."
She leaves in a rush of silk, her little genie squeaking small, fretful wishes all the way.
A scrap of paper lies on the floor when I finally open my eye. The first page of Ilisa's speech. Bullet points. Nice, neat, and twenty years out of date. A list of old times I'd rather forget.
Redsands cost me my eye, Lazarus ruined my reputation, and a wild ride on the Nightriver stole everything else. I reach into my cabinet and grab a bottle of whatever's at hand. Damn memories.
I can't wait to leave.
"What did you tell her, Mr. Harris?" I catch the pilot by the low rail some hours later. I'm not sure how many. Scattered pinpoints of light dot the dark of the high hold. "What happened when she waltzed onto our ship, all fragile and fresh and white as a lakeside flower?" Runelights dim in favor of night.
Harris listens to the low roar of a mid-weight merchantman easing out of port to begin her run while the air is still cool. "They're late, and lazy to leave now. They should've left at dusk." He frowns. "One of their thrusters is running hot. The runechain's degraded. They won't make it halfway across the Flats before the sun forces them high, and with that thruster spitting broken chains all over the desert…"
"Maybe they'll get lucky. Or have weapons enough if the sand dragons come calling." I give him a moment. "Back to my question, Mr. Harris."
Another stretch of silence. "I told her she was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. That the ship and myself were at her disposal for as long as she would require our services. That if only she would favor me with a kind word, I was hers."
"That's a long speech for you, Mr. Harris, when you're not talking ships."
"Well, that's what I wanted to say. Actually, I…welcomed her a board, had her wait in the cabin, and brought her some refreshment."
"I thought you didn't like women." I'm about to lose a bet back home on the Pirate Queen, if the rest of the crew ever finds out.
"Not at all. I just haven't found the right one." I raise an eyebrow. "It's hard to think right with a lady like that onboard."
"We've plenty of ladies on the crew, Mr. Harris. Ilisa there isn't the first to sashay past the steering wheel."
Harris guffaws. "Like Miss Esme? No, sir. I've not ever seen a lady like Ilisa. She's got…refinement." Another stretch of silence, punctuated by some fracas three ships down and ending with a deckhand being thrown overboard.
We both wince when the body smacks against the ribs of the ship's cradle and settles to the black glass floor. "I'm all right," a voice slurs from below.
Harris speaks. "But I suppose she's not coming back, is she?"
"Not if she knows what's good for her."
I hit the narrow labyrinth of twelfth level early, after the bats are abed but before the crowds make me push. I'm in no mood to push.
I pick my way through piles of trash and crates and all sorts of junk spilling out of this alley or that dumpster. The runesmith I'm looking for works out of a cluttered studio fronted by a dingy awning that's fraying at the edges.
"Are you Nasir?" I duck into the shop and repeat myself. Have to shout to be heard over the roar of a nearby turbine, the giant fan forcing hot surface air into the depths. Keeping bad air from the Digs at bay.
A thin man, thick glasses and nose like a hatchet, looks up from a metal workbench. Squints. "I can't do both eyes," he snaps. "And you risk rot if you take on more than that. Otherwise I'd say you're in excellent shape, so walk on out because you won't get more from me." He taps his finger against his nose, leaves a smear of soot. "Three doors down. They'll take your money, if you must become more metal than man."
Nasir has some rodent-like animal perched on his shoulder. The man has a genie. Its right leg is malformed and its tail doesn't quite work, but a genie nonetheless.
I take a second look around. The place is cluttered, but orderly. Everything's in its place. Small stuff, tools for detailed work. There's no furnace, but a genie can heat metal well enough.
"You're good," I decide. And unusually conscientious in an area that caters to sailors, pirates, and smugglers.
"I'm damn good," Nasir snaps. "But the rent on Palm street is too high and besides, I dislike the sun. Commissions down here are far more interesting."
"I'm not looking for anything for myself." I ease into the little shop. A small construction in the corner creates a waterfall of flame, its underlying runes spinning up and down in perfect synchronicity.
"A practice piece. But I keep it around to impress men like you. Now, do you have other business?" Nasir holds up a flat strip of steel and his genie scratches a stream of fiery runes into the air. The runes link with each other and spin into a circle, changing, settling over the metal. Then the wish is granted, the runes are gone, and the metal glows red hot. Nasir sets to work with a small hammer and chisel.
"I'm looking for a girl. A woman actually." After all this time. "A young woman."
"Then I'm afraid, my friend, that you have most certainly come to the wrong place."
"Word has it she's been asking around the local runesmiths. Asking after something special."
"And who is she to you, presuming I care?"
The daughter I never had. "My captain's girl." I swallow an unexpected lump. "Ran away two years now."
"Perhaps old enough to enforce her will upon her future? Or to make any number of idiot mistakes?" Nasir pauses his work. "Word travels fast, Colonel Briggs. But you left the Crescent Cities behind a long time ago, and it has little interest in welcoming you back."
Nasir doesn't look up as I leave.
I let the press of Crescent Cities business carry me through the streets. Alleys so tight I can touch both sides without raising my arms open into multilevel plazas full of roofways that're bridges that become buildings themselves with enough time, like living in a giant spider web. And bats. Everywhere I go, bats.
I finally step from the flow at a highwalk viewing port, third level. A single sheet of runescribed crystal bulges out from the surrounding stone and steel. Five lengths tall and fourteen wide, they show up every now and again along the public promenades. Lovers walks, for those who spend their entire lives in the Undercity. Blue, bright sunlight filters into the lake, and then through the crystal barrier. More water than any of us ever have in our lives, and just out of reach.
"Any luck?" Castillo's cool and cultivated at my side, staring into the water.
"Nasir clammed up when he saw me. Everything else was just a formality."
"He's being pressured." Castillo shrugs. "We all are."
"What for? Not Esme."
"Your girl doesn't even figure into this, except as a bargaining chip. Want to take a wild guess?"
"It's me they want." I avoid the Crescent Cities for twenty years. The minute I walk in I get bounced around place to place, person to person. I fell back on my old contacts, and the ungrateful wretches spread word of my coming. "What gives?"
"You have a reputation for being able to accomplish the impossible, and survive. Don't try to deny it." Castillo cuts off my protest. "You're still alive, aren't you?"
"What of it?" I don't like the way this conversation has turned.
"There's trouble in the Digs. About thirty levels down."
"You don't say." The woman in white, waiting in my cabin. Sounds like she's only the first.
"There's a new excavation." Castillo continues. "Opened up an entirely new section just ripe for the picking."
"Let me make another wild guess. There's a problem."
"Can't pull the wool over your eyes." Castillo slaps my back. "Diggers go in, no one comes out. Everyone thinks it's something big. Everyone wants it."
I wait for the other shoe to drop.
"Everyone wants you," Castillo continues. "They just don't know it yet."
"Even you?" Smile, you grizzled old wolf. Make it a question.
"No, no." Castillo shakes his head, chuckles. "This dig is too rich for my blood. I'm just giving you a friendly heads up, in case anyone comes a knocking."
Of course you are. "Let me know if you hear anything about Esme." A school of fish — red, yellow, purple — darts up to the crystal barrier, then darts away. Down the promenade I spot a pair of familiar figures. A white dress, a mop of brown hair. Well. His own time and none of my business. We make our own mistakes.
"Have I ever let you down, Tamish?" Castillo presses his point.
You don't want me to answer that. "I'll be in touch."
Damn and double damn. This is what I hoped to avoid, why the Crescent Cities were our last blasted port of call. But with Esme's trail hot after so long, I was fool enough to think we'd be in and out ahead of any problems. I was wrong.
I have no reason to doubt Castillo. The mob bosses, drug kingpins, gang leaders, and petty wizards who run the Undercity all want a piece of the Digs. They need to get to it fast, too, before word filters up topside. Before the big boys in their towers come down to play. I expect to be hit up with propositions — people making me offers I'd better not refuse. But the walks are quiet and my way is clear. Meaning three things: Esme's safe. I won't find her before this mess is over and done. And, as I doubtless realize the first two items, my cooperation is assured. The whole Undercity is holding its breath, ready to fight over the scraps of my success. Just as likely over my dead body.
Damn and double damn.
A pair of grafted goons just closed down the alley to the docks. There's one ahead and one behind, both as wide as walls and covered in metal muscle.
"You guys got a message, or death wish?" Grin, man. Grin like you mean it, because you won't take them unless they think they might lose.
"A message." The one in front of me begins walking closer, his hands open in front of him. It doesn't mean a thing, not with those grafts. He's rigged for strength, speed, and probably protection from a pistol, just in case.
"A personal delivery, for one Mr. Tamish Briggs." The one behind me lays a hand on my shoulder like a ton of bricks. I almost fall to my knees. "Or should I say Colonel?" The goon elongates his words until they stretch straight across the alley.
"Mr. Briggs is just fine."
"Such a gentleman," the first one says. "It's like he's worried we're going to do something. Something more than have a friendly chit-chat."
"That's normally our role," the second one replies. "And if you don't listen very carefully, we'll be back to do just that."
"I'm all ears."
"There's someone who would be very grateful if you stayed away from the Digs."
"Furthermore, this same someone would be very grateful if you convinced Miss Ilisa to return to the surface."
"Is that all?" I ask.
The one in front of me nods. "It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Colonel." He envelops my right hand in his own, gives me a firm shake while pressing something into my palm. "It is our sincere hope that we do not meet again."
"Likewise." I allow myself to breathe and slowly take my left hand off my pistol. In my palm is a shiny golden coin, newly minted with a crescent and palm trees on one side, and a face in profile on the other.
"The governor?" Harris rolls out from under the ship, wipes his hands on his pants and carefully stows his tools. "Why would the governor of all the Crescent Cities care about what you do? Heck, what any of us do?"
"Al-Hasan is more than just the governor of the Crescent Cities. He's also the most powerful wizard this side of the Nightriver. One way or another, he's either financing or buying up the proceeds of most Digs down here." He also drove my captain to piracy and killed Esme's mother, but that's old news and none of my business.
"Then why stop you from trying to investigate? It'll end up with him anyway. Unless…" Harris thinks fast. "Unless he thinks whatever's in there is powerful enough to be a threat. That it's something he can't afford falling into the hands of the competition, and is planning to retrieve himself."
"That's one possibility, Mr. Harris." I spit over the rail. "What's the other?"
"He's governor. He has better things to do than keep an eye on every project in the Digs." Harris walks himself down the other path. "If the margin for profit or power was large enough to risk angering the governor…" His eyes widen. "He might not know."
Like I said, smart kid.
"So what do we do, sir?"
"Al-Hasan's not one to keep his word when it doesn't suit him, and the small timers down here won't be happy if we just sit back and let rumor run its course. They expect me to dip into the Digs because whether she knows it or not, they've got Esme hostage until I do."
Harris swings up onto the deck, checks some runes on the steering wheel. I guess he's doing a preflight check; he spins the runes so fast I don't follow a third of what happens. Harris seems satisfied, though, so it's good enough for me. "Do you have a plan, sir?"
"Aye, Mr. Harris. We need to pay a visit to the lady in white." Out of a passel of bad choices, this is the only one that doesn't take us straight to the cleaners. Not right away, at least.
"Miss Ilisa? Are we going to help her after all?"
"I'm hoping we can help each other."
Harris nods. "But where would we find her?"
"I'll be asking you, I think."
"Aye, sir." Harris hangs his head. "How did you find out?"
"There's a reason you call me sir, Mr. Harris. Now hop to."
She's in a boarding house, ninth level. All the runelights on this level are red. The inhabitants like to say it helps hang onto their night vision. The rest of us say otherwise.
Regardless, it's no place for lady, not that vision in alabaster. There are plenty of women here, take who you will, but Ilisa's a needle in a haystack that'd do best not to be found.
"Have you been here before?" I follow Harris up a clattered, battered set of metal stairs that swings up the side of the building. The door at the top is old and dented, scrap from a broken frigate. I make out the scars where some cannon beat itself again and again against the hull, the runeshot scoring the metal in deep grooves. It's a private room, separate exit. Ilisa has that much sense.
"Once," Harris admits. "She insisted I escort her here, the night you, um, refused…"
"Don't go soft for this one," I warn him. "She'll get you into a world of trouble."
"Don't see it can be much worse," Harris mimics me. Cheeky bastard. "We're locked in port with big names pulling us in every direction but the way we want to go."
Fair enough. I leave off as we hit the landing.
"Ilisa?" Harris knocks, a soft pattern. "It's Jase."
"Once or twice?" I scowl through the webwork of buildings and bridges, everything cast in blood-tinged shadow.
Harris has the good grace to look embarrassed.
"Jase?" Ilisa peers out from a crack in the door, throws it wide and throws herself into his arms. "You came. And you brought Colonel Briggs."
I step into a small parlor. It's not the miserable squalor I expected. Damask curtains, plush couch, a steel and glass coffee table. There are a few crumbs here and there, the only remnants of meals at home. Better than any berth I've taken these many years. "Nice place." I like the wallpaper. Blue and white cool the place down.
"Looks aren't everything, Colonel Briggs, but the landlord's efforts are appreciated." Ilisa has us sit, disappears through a door and past a heavy blue curtain. Slips back a moment later with a hot pot of mint tea. She pours it into three cups of beaten copper, simple chains spinning round their rims to keep our beverages nice and warm. "Nice tea set." I look her over as she walks, look for the telltale signs she's more than she's pretending to be. I keep coming back to her clothes.
White's not a practical color for the Undercity. It gets dirty with smoke, washed with sand and soot. The fans keep the air moving but not every street has spinning runelights. Fire is just as common — lamps burn with oil drawn up from the deep sands or siphoned off the Nightriver.
But Ilisa's white as bleached bone, as the cracked ice that forms on the rails when you fly too high. White, as if she'd stepped down from the towers along the lakeshore and lost herself in this underground squalor without once coming in contact with the dark and danger that live here.
Ilisa sips her tea and takes a deep, shuddering breath. "Colonel Briggs," she begins. "I'm so pleased we're able to meet again, and hopefully on less contentious terms." She brings out her glasses and papers. "I need your help. Unbeknownst to any of the tower wizards, there has been a great discovery in the thirtieth level dig…"
I blink, and Ilisa's words roll over me like a gentle breeze. This is her speech. What she was going to say to me the night she waltzed onto my ship and into my cabin.
"…Reports indicate powerful, ancient runecraft." Ilisa wraps up. "I believe its retrieval will be enough to secure my freedom. I hope then to leave the Crescent Cities forever." She watches me, but I have only one eye and it glares steady. Finally she breaks my gaze, connects briefly with Harris'. "I was watching, the night you came into port. My family has connections with the docks and I thought that such a daring pilot would be perfect. When I found out the ship was actually sailing under the famous Colonel Briggs, it was like a dream come true. I grew up on stories of your heroics…"
"Why, Miss Ilisa?" I ask. "Why try for the Digs when you could've jumped on the first ship leaving and never looked back?"
"My uncle is the governor of the Crescent Cities. I wouldn't get far before his people caught me. I was going to prove my worth. Buy my freedom from him with some stunning treasure that would've otherwise slipped through his grasp."
"The governor doesn't know, does he? About the dig?"
She shakes her head. "I…intercepted the communications. Like I said, nobody knows but me."
"You, and every scumbag in the Undercity." I force air out through my nose and lean back into the couch. "Is there anything else you aren't telling us?"
"Nothing I can think of, Colonel. Only," she pauses, fingers a locket around her neck. Glances at Harris again. "I have a weak heart."
I stand up and walk around. I don't know what to say. She can't help us anymore than we're in a position to help her. I thought maybe there'd be some family or connections we could use, but I don't see it. And I hate delivering bad news to pretty girls. "Hey," I stall; run a couple other plans through my head. "You forgot the introduction." I pass over the piece of paper Ilisa left in my cabin.
"It didn't really work out as I planned." She takes a deep breath. "Colonel Briggs—"
"Don't start over on my account." I wave her off. Damned if I can't think of any way through this without us all ending up dead. "You haven't seen that girl, Esme, have you?"
"I'm sorry, Colonel." Ilisa flusters. "I haven't had the time." Another breath full of nervous chatter. "And Jase said you were coming back so I wanted to be ready for you."
Wait a minute. "Jase said?" I fix Harris with a look.
Harris fixes me back. "You weren't about to leave a woman like Miss Ilisa in distress, sir. It's not in your nature, and not in mine, neither."
"Mr. Harris, we'll discuss your initiative and my predilections further when we return to the Pirate Queen. Until then—"
"The Pirate Queen?" Ilisa's tea spills out of her hands, clatters to the floor. "Jase, you're with the Pirate Queen? And you, Colonel Briggs? But they're a bunch of thieves… Murderers."
"I don't go on the raids," Jase retorts. "I just fly us in, fly us out. I don't hurt anybody, or steal anything. I swear."
"It doesn't make a difference, Jase!" Ilisa edges away. Her eyes dart between us, double-wide behind her glasses. "Pirates! And from the infamous Queen, no less."
"Ilisa, we're not like that." Jase takes a step forwards.
"Stay back!" Ilisa backs into a corner. "Do you know how many years it took me to figure— To find—" She swallows hard, clenches her speech in her hand like a talisman. "I was supposed to be married next month to a lecherous old man, but instead I'm going to be kidnapped by pirates from the Queen and sold into slavery. Ha! The irony."
"Our captain has no dealings with slavers," Jase tries again. "We're just here for a girl."
"Another slave, I suppose?"
"My captain's daughter," I sigh, and take Jase by the arm. "She ran away from home."
"Please leave me alone," Ilisa whimpers. "Please."
"The Pirate Queen killed my brother. Left his ship, the White Lady scattered across the sands."
My stomach sinks at the name. The Seven Dunes Massacre. That was a bad business; years old now, and full of misunderstanding. "Mr. Harris." I lead him away.
"It wasn't me," Jase punches the wall. "I'm sorry, Ilisa, but it wasn't me."
"Come along, Mr. Harris. Let's go for a walk."
We leave Ilisa shivering in the corner of the too big room, staring at the scrap of her recovered speech. My glorified accomplishments. My hand brushes the damask on the way out. In truth, it's nothing more than burlap. A little wishing can make anything look fancy, for a while.
We walk the block quiet until we round back to the base of the stairs. No point in going back up.
"I don't want to be a pirate anymore, sir."
"Aye." I expected as much.
"I don't want people like Ilisa to look at me like that. I… You're not arguing with me, sir?"
"Why'd you join up with the Queen in the first place?" I stare off into the red, can't meet the boy's gaze.
"I was born on Oasis, sir. If you're not rich, well, maybe you're a dockhand or a runesmith; or you're a pirate. I wanted to sail, and I wanted a chance at something more than my family ever had. I never realized that elsewhere we'd be seen as… as… When the crew talked, it was only stories. I've never been off-ship during a raid."
"The captain made sure of that, on my advice." I spot Ilisa's bat-genie, hanging from a windowsill. Eavesdropping.
Jase drums his fingers on the railing. "She believed in you, sir." He starts up the stairs, then stops; comes back down. "We both did."
"No, Mr. Harris. She believed in stories of someone who like as not never existed in the first place."
It's like a shooting star, tumbling end over end, trailing smoke as it crashes through the ventilation slats of Ilisa's apartment. A bottle, stuffed with rags afire. The room full of cheap burlap goes up in the blink of an eye.
I catch Jase across the chest, hold him back. "It's death to go in there!"
Jase pushes. "We can't leave her!"
A crowd is gathering. Water's being pumped from the nearby well. Buckets of sand are being passed around. "She's a wizard. She can get herself out." A cannon, under repairs at the local runesmith, is being wheeled into position. Spun up into working order. The fire will only hit the building, but the smoke will take out everyone in the level before the air clears. Another minute, and that building will be rubble.
"Not without her genie!" Jase points up. There's the white bat, fluttering around the ceiling. Small runes trail in its wake, spin down into the building. Small wishes, not enough to beat a path through the flames. And runes are made of fire; they'll never put out the blaze. "Let me go."
I spin him around. He's a stick in my hands, doesn't stand a chance. "You've no experience getting your hands dirty," I growl. "Stay out, and keep that cannon off my back for half-a-minute. Go. Go!"
Why am I doing this? The apartment's a mess, fire's everywhere. I wrap a rag around my mouth and spin up my eye patch. Because she remembers me as a hero instead of the two-bit pirate I've become? Because Tamish Briggs twenty years gone would've been down in the Digs against all odds, and maybe I don't much care for what changes twenty years have brought?
I lost my eye that day out on Redsands. I couldn't tell you when I lost my courage.
My second sight kicks in, and the eyepatch starts feeding me information about the surrounding environment, searches out traces of runecraft in the area. There. Two rooms in, huddled against the wall, there's a splash of crafting, so small I almost miss it against the smoke. Deep breath and I dash deeper into the inferno.
One room. Two. My sight didn't lie. Ilisa's there against the far wall, curled up on the floor, her body shaking and heaving.
"Here we go." Gather her up and hold her tight. Light as a feather. Light as Esme, before she ran away.
My timing's terrible. Flames roar across our path, swing around into the room. An interior wall collapses, blocks the way out, and that's that. These walls weren't made to stand the heat.
I grab the blanket from her bed, wrap it around her body and shield her from the fire. I duck down for another gasp of air but there's almost nothing left. Damn, it's hot.
So much for thinking better of myself. I can't even apologize. Fire's all around now, licking up the walls, eating those ratty burlap curtains. The cannon won't wait. This building'll be leveled from under us well before we burn.
"I'm sorry," I shout, waste my last breath. The fire's hit the ceiling, walls are nothing but death, and us huddled in the center, waiting for the end. This is it. This is— The walls weren't made to stand the heat.
On my left. Vent slats mean it leads outside. I pull the blanket across my body and rush it, lower my shoulder into a wall of fire. Nothing but heat all around. Nothing but heat. I think the blanket's caught fire. Toss it away so I can see the end coming. So I can see…
See that we're through the wall, three stories up and falling fast.
The cannon's bright blue beam cuts through the building, shot after shot, and the entire structure collapses in on itself.
I hit the ground, let my knees fold and roll. Hold Ilisa tight to my chest and try to keep the girl from the worst of the impact. Damn, that hurts, but I'll walk again; just give me a minute.
Jase careens around the corner, bucket in hand. Dumps a load of sand over my head to smother any lingering sparks. "Sir."
"Miss Ilisa?" I set her down, wipe a smudge from her cheek. Her little white bat lands on her shoulder, nuzzles her neck and screeches small wishes against the dirt and smoke. Wishes away tears, running in slim streaks down her face. "These must've dropped in the fall." I pass over her glasses, the lenses falling to pieces through my fingers.
"My glasses?" She braves a smile. "My glasses!" Laughs a little. "Colonel Briggs, you saved my life. You came back for me, even though you…you're a…"
"It was a big place you had up there. I was lucky I found you." Pirate or no, I'm a hero again, to her. Pause. There wasn't a second genie in there, and a person can't freecraft without one. "How'd I find you, anyhow?"
The fans have kicked into high gear, I can feel it through my feet. They'll work overtime to clear the smoke. The folk down here were good shots. The boarding house's a pile of rubble, and it's time for us to walk away before whoever started this mess notices our survival and decides to finish the job.
Ilisa pets her genie and takes a deep breath. "I already told you, Colonel Briggs." Reaches up with the other hand and pulls down the top of her dress. "I have a weak heart."
I am a damn fool.
There's a steel plate over her heart, runes spinning sure and slow, bright and dim with a steady beat. The plate's grafted into her chest. An old graft, but well maintained. The runes will eat through the metal someday, just like they burn through everything eventually. There's a dozen years left at best, probably less.
The little bat genie screeches its steady stream of wishes to knock away dirt, stop the tears before they reach her heart. Another minute and she'll be clean as bone.
A damn, damn fool.
We walk. Ilisa leans on Jase's arm for support. Comfort.
"You can't touch water?" I talk for talking, to shake out the nerves. "Living on the shores of the lake like you do?"
"I drink, carefully." Ilisa responds. "Izzie." She scratches the bat behind his ears. "He helps keep me clean. Sometimes he does other things, but he is only a small genie. I'm sorry to disappoint you, Colonel Briggs, but I'm no wizard, and my family only hopes to gain what advantage they can before my graft gives out."
"Just a rich girl chasing a dream."
"My parents never trusted me to leave our tower. I escaped this once…"
"If whatever's down in the Digs can't help you," I fill in.
Ilisa's shrugs. "It won't happen again." Shrugs again, the kind of shrug that wonders at the worth of it all. "Having seen a little bit of the world, I don't know if I could stand to go back."
You've got a lot in common with someone I doubt you'll ever meet. Esme, run away with the morning wind. Where are you, girl, and have you found what you were looking for?
"What I had. What I would have paid you." Ilisa glances back toward the rubble as we catch a left to higher up. A market, a café, someplace to lose ourselves in a crowd and take some time to think. "It's gone."
"Never mind that." I'm going to regret this, I wager. "We'll help, and hope. It's all we got, come the end of the day."
"You will?" Ilisa manages a smile, this one a little braver.
"We will?" Jase begins laughing.
"Aye." Stay safe, Esme. We'll be there for you soon enough.
I rock the chair in my cabin back and forth on two spindly legs, flip the golden coin over and around the back of my hand. Run my fingers over the missing person's notice I picked up earlier today. Over the blank page and the pen I set out an hour ago. Or more. Everything about this situation stinks, but I told Ilisa when she first showed up — I warned her — I'm not a hero anymore.
Nasir, Castillo, the whole damn Undercity. I'm spinning in circles and Esme's just out of reach; Ilisa's too close to keep safe.
I have to get down to the Digs, if only to put an end to all the speculation, but there's no good way to do that which doesn't leave someone dead or brokenhearted. I can still feel that chain link dangling over the Pit, cut just enough… A wizard could've saved those diggers. When a wizard shows up, anything can happen.
The coin rolls back and forth, back and forth, heavy, solid, certain. Governor al-Hasan's face mocks me at every turn. I drop the coin into the bottom of a tall glass and fill it with rum until the wizard's likeness is left to memory.
I'll get to the bottom of this, and make a decision in the morning.
Smile, you grizzled old wolf.
"Well, look what the cat dragged in." Castillo clasps my arm. "Along with wonder kid and the lady in white." He scans the bar for something brown and strong.
"You know them?"
"Know of them. She's the talk of the town, in certain circles. Him," Castillo nods to where Jase and Ilisa have taken a secluded booth. The place is empty. Business only comes to Castillo's when it's needed, and we're the only business he cares about right now. "You scared the living daylights out of one of my ships when you sailed into port. The pilot wants a rematch. The crew wants him onboard. I want to know where he learned a pull maneuver like that."
"The kid's a natural." I trace circles on the bar with my fingertips. "That was your freighter, running dark over the dunes?"
Castillo grabs a black crystal bottle from the top shelf, two glasses, and pours us each a finger-full. "Ransom's cactus only blooms once every ten years, and then only if it absorbs enough moisture out of the high desert air. Otherwise, it's another ten years wait. The night those flowers bloom, you take a narrow glass syringe and extract the nectar from the bottom of the blossom. It takes the nectar of a thousand flowers to manufacture a single bottle of this liquor. It takes a freighter full of goods off the Nightriver to compete with the price commanded for a single glass." Castillo raises his tumbler and passes it beneath his nose. "Twelve cases are safely away to ports westward thanks to your pilot's exceptional skill in avoiding a collision. To your health, and long life."
I raise my glass. Clink. "Cheers." Castillo's full of it, but the liquor — whatever it is — is as good as he makes it sound. Better, even, as I let it settle around my mouth. "Got a kick there, in the back of my throat."
"Word's come up from the ninth. There was a bad fire in a boarding house down there. No survivors, the way I hear."
"It's a terrible thing, fire in the Undercity." I grin again. "Thanks for taking us in until it blows over."
"Of course." Castillo settles against the bar, contemplates the liquor swirling round and round. "So why'd you do it? Don't tell me you're going soft."
"Maybe I am." Damn, it burns all the way down. "But leastwise I'll be able to face myself in the mirror in the morning. Of course, there's the reward."
"This sheet?" Castillo holds up a copy of the notice. "I printed it. Out of curiosity."
Pieces suddenly fall into place. "To see what I'd do?"
"To see who you are. It's been a long time, Tamish. I needed to know how much edge you'd lost. How many compromises you've made with yourself. More than I hoped, but not as much as I expected." He nods towards Ilisa. "Her parents think she's run off, caught a ride away across the dunes. They're questioning every captain come into port, offering an extravagant reward." Castillo gently lowers his glass, looks me face on. "I'll take a small cut of her parents gratitude, but we could get her back topside. No fuss."
"No can do." I shake my head, and the world shakes with me. "The girl's only hope for a future is down in the Digs. And even then, it's a longshot."
"So you intend, after everything, to head down there?"
I burp, feel something foul in my mouth. "I can't just let her… let…" Castillo's face doubles up and spins in circles as he snaps his fingers.
"One more thing about the distilled nectar of Ransom's cactus, Tamish. One more thing…"
Castillo's voice fades as my entire world goes black.
My head feels like a ring of runes spun up too long. Everything's bright, sharp, and cracked at the edges.
"Can you hear me, Tamish?"
"I hear you, Castillo. Just wait until I get my hands on you!" My surroundings swim into focus. A low steel tunnel, intermittent lighting, and a bunch of unfamiliar faces.
"Let him go, boys." Castillo has a pistol pointed casually at my midsection. He's a deadeye shot. I wouldn't come close to wrapping my hands around his neck. "We're all friends here."
I shake myself. Find my legs beneath me. "Thought we were, at least."
"Come on, Tamish. You're in the Digs and no one's the wiser. Everyone wanted you down here, but no one wants you to survive. Do you really think you could have waltzed out of here without someone trying to bump you off?"
"They'd have tried."
"And succeeded. I told you. I only have your best interests at heart. Once I realized you were determined to try your hand at the infamous dig level thirty, well, I know what you're like when you set your mind to something."
"Of course, you take the proceeds."
Castillo spreads his hands wide, and smiles. "It really depends on what you find, doesn't it?"
"Here, sir." Jase's voice sounds behind me.
"Colonel Briggs?" And there's the squeak of the little bat-genie.
I close my eyes for a moment. Steady my expectations. I'd hoped Castillo would leave this to me alone. "They don't need to be here."
"Call it motivation. When you're done." Castillo backs away, spins up some runes on the side of the tunnel. "Just knock." A massive steel door grinds closed between us.
"What if there's nothing there?" I shout, clenching my fist.
"Don't take me for a fool, Tamish. Too many diggers have died for this stretch to be empty." Bastard. "See you soon."
"Well, Jase, Ilisa. Castillo left us with three packs, a little food, some water…and a shovel." Cute.
Sigh. "Might as well call me Tamish down here. No reason to stand on ceremony." I look around.
"I'm not certain…" Ilisa begins.
"Nevermind." There's comfort in taking orders. So damn young. "Go on as you were. And remember, I give you an order, you hop to."
"Aye, aye, sir." They both salute.
I squint down the tunnel. Ancient runelights supplemented by newer, slapdash installations spin intermittently, create pockets of light and shadow down out of sight. My feet brush the charred remains of a skeleton, dead almost before he got through the door, the metal of his grafts shining down his legs and up his arms. "Let's do this."
We walk, one step at a time, over the dead. Piles of bones and metal, grinning skulls. Everything else washed clean, burned away. Gone. We walk, and listen to our lonely steps echo down the long hall.
"Shh." Ilisa pets her djinn, clutches him tight. It's hard to say who's more nervous, them or me.
"Should we, um, look for traps?" Jase pauses with every step, expecting it to be his last.
"Do I look like a damn digger?"
"No, indeed." I straighten my shirt. Much as it might comfort me, my second sight won't do us a bit of good here. The bones we pass, those skulls are fitted with a fair bit more hardware than my eyepatch. Didn't do them a lick of good. Don't see it doing us any better. "If something happens, we'll figure it out. Until then…"
Jase and Ilisa are holding hands. I give them a long, steady look. Jase shrugs. Ilisa doesn't notice. "Alright, then."
The corridor twists and turns. A couple of blast doors have been forced open, broken runeguns hang from mounts in the ceiling. They're remote operation, meaning genie's work. Now I have nothing against rogue djinn, if that's what's waiting here. Not that the djinn will have anything particular against me either, after my smoking corpse hits the floor.
"Your parents are probably worried sick about you, Ilisa." I talk just for talking. Because the sound of my own voice is better than meeting death in silence.
"They're worried that my marriage, a political alliance, will fall through. If I go back, I'll be moved from my rooms to his. Just another cage."
"It'd probably be a big cage, comfortable. You'll never wanting for nothing. Not so bad in my book, compared to this."
"Except the ability to leave."
"Excepting that." You should meet Esme, girl. The two of you would be thick as thieves.
One more blast door, bigger and thicker than the rest. It isn't closed properly. Just enough room to slip by to another corri—
No, not another corridor. A large chamber, deep and round, holding about a dozen man-sized tubes of soot-blackened glass, and one that looks like there's some fire dying inside. Old runecraft. I can't say I know what to make of it. You find all sorts of stuff under the sands. Some of it'll make you a fortune. Others'll just blow up in your face.
The far end of the room opens into a wide crystal window. I had no idea the lake came down this far.
And then there's the column of water flowing, in reverse pretty as you please, in the center of the room. "Well, I'll be." I suppose death can find me now because I wager I've seen it all. Close in, it almost looks like there's someone floating in the middle of all that.
"Sir!" Jase is at my side. "Come over here. We've found someone."
"Not something?" I leave off the waterfall and step over to the edge of the window. A school of fish as long as my arm scatters in all directions, and there's Miss Ilisa, pretty in white, crouched over a fellow in a long dark cloak.
"More would come," the figure rasps. "As soon as the first seal was broken, I knew it was only a matter of time." The poor digger must've had a falling out with his fellows on hitting the motherload and they killed each other off. Common enough.
"Colonel." Ilisa edges aside, her eyes straining to focus. "Can we do anything?"
I see it then, the dagger in the man's belly. Runecrafted, illegal, not that it means much down here. "Make him comfortable." I crouch down, ball up my vest as a pillow. "That dagger's made to pump fire up through your insides." Nasty, painful way to go. "That he's not dead yet is a miracle in itself."
"It comes," the digger laughs softly. "Oh, it comes."
I pull back the man's hood, ease my vest behind his head. Pause, only for a moment, on seeing his face — blue skin tiger-striped with gray and white. Hair white as Ilisa's and eyes as deep as the lake. "Nightriver wanderer."
That earns me a smile. "You know my people?"
"Saw you once, long time ago, when I wasn't supposed to. Didn't know you left your arkships."
"You are of Ophelia's get." The poor man's not making sense. The pain must be excruciating.
Ilisa takes the man's hand. "I've wished and wished." The bat squeaks from beneath her robes. "But Izzie says it's beyond him."
I shake my head. "The dagger's already spun up. Tearing it out now will only cause hurt for no reason."
The wanderer chuckles. "There is no treasure here."
Shrug. "I figured as much."
"Only the prisoner."
"Within the waters is the greatest threat humanity has ever known. A rogue of no exceptional power, but for his ideas. His ideas," the wanderer mumbles. "They will destroy everything." He coughs, closes his eyes.
"He's right, as far as I can tell." Jase comes back from walking the room. "There's nothing else down here. This is the end of the dig."
"Aye, then." Castillo won't let us out without something, not that I think he plans to let us out at all. "I'll think of something."
"Shh." Ilisa rubs the wanderer's hand, leans close so she can see his face. "He's so cold."
"Are you sure about that?" I ask. He should be burning up.
She nods, trying to warm his hand in her own.
"Your genie has told me much." The wanderer sighs, his eyes still closed. "Take this, though it may never come to use." There's a flash of blue light from between Ilisa's cupped hands. "And it may not work."
Ilisa opens her hands, confused. "They're empty."
I fold the wanderer's arms across his chest, close his eyes. "He's dead."
We have a bit of silence, respect for the man. The wanderers aren't like us, and I don't know their customs, so it'll have to do.
"What now?" Jase asks aloud, to no one in particular.
"Now you will walk out, touching nothing." A new voice echoes across the chamber. A man in white robes stands on the balcony overlooking the chamber, a dozen armored troops fanning out behind him, rifles at the ready.
"Colonel Tamish Briggs." The old wizard inclines his head. "Your message regarding this dig was timely. You shall have no trouble with your departure from the Crescent Cities, provided you do not dawdle." He smiles slightly, taking in the chamber. A small metal scorpion clacks its claws by his ear. "Ah, Ilisa, what an unexpected boon. Your parents shall be most pleased at your return. The colonel will see you back to your tower."
"Governor." I nod stiffly.
"Colonel Briggs?" Ilisa clutches my shoulder, her bat squeaking away the tears as they threaten to fall down her cheeks. "I have to go home?"
"The wide world's no place for a girl like you. I told you that when we met." I feel like the scum of the earth. "Your parents care, even if they don't know how to show it." Just a guess, maybe I'm projecting. Maybe another runaway is one too many for my old, tired bones. "You've had your adventure, and we didn't find what you needed." So much for my clever plan, drummed up from the bottom of a bottle of rum. You weren't supposed to be here. Should've been safe with Castillo until I came back from the Digs, and then we could've all sailed into the sunset.
Nah. Better you hate me for it than have any dream it could've been different.
Ilisa turns away, falls into Jase's arms as we walk out.
"Mr. Briggs?" Al-Hasan's steel-cut voice stops me at the door. "I believe your reason for gracing the Undercity with your presence is currently at Nasir's." There's that smile again. "Pray we do not meet again."
Castillo's just outside the door under the watchful eye of two of al-Hasan's guards. His own men are nowhere to be seen. "Come on," he says. "Grin, you grizzled old wolf. I would've let you out eventually."
"Assuming I wasn't dead."
Castillo shrugs. "Didn't think it would come to that. But I gotta know. Was it a guess, that you were being set up?"
"I've been out of touch with the Undercity for a while, so you could've fed me a load of lies and I would've swallowed them whole."
"So where'd I trip up? The firebombing? The talk by the lake?"
"Nah. The goons in the alley. Al-Hasan and I know each other from way back. If there was something he wanted down here, he'd walk over the bodies of every last soul in the Undercity to get it. It only stood to reason that he hadn't heard of the treasure. I knew it was a setup, but I didn't figure the source until too late. Certainly didn't expect to be drugged and thrown down here."
Castillo takes it in. Smiles. "Well played, Tamish."
"And you." We clasped hands. "Are you going to be okay?"
"I've gotten out of worse. Take care of yourself. And look me up next time you pass through the Crescent Cities."
"Sure thing, Castillo. Sure thing."
Everything's white. The couch, the walls, the curtains. No drop of color except the grime I bring with me from the Undercity. It makes me feel dirty, inferior. I can't imagine that's an accident.
It's been an hour since Ilisa was whisked away into the endless white, and an hour since I was told to sit tight. Someone would be with me, I was assured, right away. I spent most of that time watching out the window. Watching the lake, the palm trees, and the ships sailing out to the distant desert.
A butler, white as all the rest, walks in with barely more sound than a bit of sand hitting the floor. "Your reward, sir, for the return of his lordship's step-daughter." A selection of coinage — mostly gold — is counted out into a pouch. "He trusts it is sufficient."
"Not inconsiderate of him," I comment, hefting the pouch. The Pirate Queen's been needing some repairs of late, and this will go a long way toward seeing her shipshape. I weigh the pouch again. Hand it back. "It was no trouble" I can't take money for this.
"Very good." The butler returns the coins to the strongbox. "Will there be anything else?"
"Miss Ilisa? How's she getting on?"
"She is home, sir." I wait, and the man softens a bit. "She will adjust, in time."
"Can I see her? It was a bit of a flurry when I came in. I didn't quite have the chance to say goodbye, proper-like." I pause, seeing the butler frown. "Supervised, of course."
"Of course." The butler leaves the room momentarily.
"Colonel Briggs." Ilisa slides into a chair opposite, the butler discreet in one corner.
"No glasses yet?"
"It'll take a couple days to get a new pair. My father's angry, and not so eager to hand back any of my independence."
We fall into silence.
I got a lot of words bottled up inside, none of them worth the breath to speak. None of them to make a whit of difference. "I'm sorry it came to this."
Ilisa is very still, the entire room holds its breath. Then the curtains billow inwards with the smell of heat and sand. "I'm sorry, too."
"We'll be leaving around sunset."
"Ah." The wind dies down and I wait, in that intolerable whiteness, once more. She tries on a smile, a real one, but there's no courage there and it sits like an ill-hung suit. "Will you pass by my balcony when you leave?" Pause. "So I can wave farewell to Jase?"
In the far corner of the room, the butler frowns.
"I can't make any promises there." You got someplace cool, with plenty of water. It's hard to ask for a better life, however long you have left. I hope you understand that, someday. "Probably not."
"I see." The smile drops, nothing left to prop it up. "Well. Goodbye then, Colonel Br—" She stumbles over her tongue. "Tamish. Goodbye."
"Goodbye, Miss Ilisa."
I wander down to Nasir's in the late afternoon. Jase has promised me he'll prep the ship for departure and generally stay out of trouble. I feel bad for him, falling for an uptower girl like Ilisa, but he's young. He'll find someone else eventually. And if he still wants to leave after getting back to the Pirate Queen, that's fine, too.
My eye catches on a bit of trash blown across the deserted street and there she is, stepping out of the runesmith's. Older than the fresh-faced girl who ran off with the morning wind. Leaner, with the hungry, wary look of someone who's been out and about. The last two years haven't been gentle.
Her eyes meet mine from down the street, and the years melt away.
"Esme." One step forward. Three steps back as she knocks the wind out of me. "Hey, hey there. You'll like as not squeeze the life out of me."
"I didn't," she hiccups. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again."
"Your father sent me out to find you." She pulls back. There's that look again. Wary. "We've been out a long time now."
"You would have come on your own," she asserts.
"True enough." I pause. Everything I've been through and for what? But she deserves the question if anyone ever did. "Esme, do you want to go home?"
"You came all this way…" She catches me with those big dark eyes.
"And now I know you're doing okay. That's enough."
"No, it's not. I want to come. I just thought I wouldn't be welcome back." She stops me. "By the way, did you notice?"
"Notice what?" I must be getting old.
"My new graft." She holds up her left hand, encased in a gauntlet of runescribed steel.
Sigh. "Your father won't be happy." I can't say I approve either, but now is not the time.
"It doesn't matter. With this." She turns her hand this way and that, catching the light off a thousand individually crafted pieces. "With this, I can finally fly."
"Three points east, northeast Mr. Harris. We'll rendezvous with the Pirate Queen at Dragon Rock."
"Aye, sir." Jase takes us smoothly up out of port and rides the sunset towards home.
"Swing by that tower first, Mr. Harris. On our left, third balcony above the water." The lake shifts yellow, catching fire out of the fading sky.
"Sir?" Jase is all business, but there's hope in his voice.
I watch Esme at the bow, straining against the sky with the wind in her hair and the world falling away beneath her feet. Nothing at all like fragile Ilisa, with everything in common.
"One more chance to say goodbye, Mr. Harris." One more chance to apologize. For not being the hero I was made out to be.
We swing high, sail in towards Ilisa's balcony. Her window on the world.
"There she is!" Jase points. A delicate figure has just stepped out into the sun. Good timing for once. "Ilisa! Ilisa!" The girl doesn't seem to notice.
"A bit closer, Mr. Harris. She can't hear us from here." Can't see us either, with the sun at our backs and us more than five feet away.
Something flaps frantically through the rigging.
"Tamish?" Esme calls back to me. "Tamish? That girl…"
A white bat. Frantic, full of fear.
"Jase!" I roar, lunge for the sails. "Full speed ahead!"
"Tamish!" Esme's voice cuts through the blood rushing in my ears, the desperate squeaks of the djinn, the roar of the thrusters. "That girl. She's going to jump!"
Ilisa raises her arms, stares straight at us, and takes a single step.
"Ilisa!" Jase dives us hard for the lake, pulls a bead on the fluttering form. Not white for once, but gold with the last of the light.
Kid's got talent, can't deny that. Got what it takes to be the best pilot across the Endless Desert.
I'm over the side with a rope around my waist before we even slow. Down and up, down and up. The water's crystal clear. Where is she?
I have a weak heart.
Where is she, dammit!
Runecraft's useless down here. I'm searching with one eye blind. A bit of white, near the surface. Cloth. A scarf, a tangled locket. Nothing else.
I drag myself back onboard, toss the scarf to the deck and cough water from my lungs. "Take us away, Mr. Harris."
"Now! Unless you want to be shot out of the sky for murder of the governor's niece."
"It's not true!" Jase is stubborn.
"She was going to be in an arranged marriage, you damn fool. Any wizard worth his salt could figure what you two were up to." I need to cut him some slack. "It's politics, Mr. Harris. And we're just a couple of pirates."
For a minute, nothing happens. Then we start to rise, riding high and away from the waters of the Crescent Cities. Away into the hot winds over the Endless Desert.
"Who was she?" Esme settles next to me when we're over the horizon and there's no sign of pursuit.
"Not my story." I glance at Jase Harris, his hands white on the wheel. "Not yet. Maybe not ever."
Esme gives me a hug, like when she was little. Like when she knew something terrible had been done and there wasn't any more to say.
"She was…" This much is mine. "She reminded me of someone I used to know."
The adventure continues in Andrew's forthcoming novel, Nothing Left to Wish For. Enter the coupon code AW53A by February 1, 2015, to get the book for $1.99 (instead of $2.99) -- a special discount for Virgil and Beatrice readers!