Junil 7, 1543
Two months after the Dawngate opened
The wind hissed like a cobra, rippling sun-bleached fabric. The thin old sticks holding the tent up creaked and bowed.
The other man tossed a pair of worn cards on to the pile between them, settling against the bulging base of the tent wall. “How much longer you think this’ll blow?”
He grinned. “You in such a great hurry to leave, Mayzhar?”
Yellow teeth glittered in the half-light. “I nearly have your full purse. And I know you ain’t good for a loan.”
“Damn your eyes, I ain’t.” He pulled at the tip of his moustache, examining the cards arrayed in the crook of his crossed legs, leaning back into the odd angles of metal at his back. “It’s all on account of them extra fingers. You can hold yer cards and drink.”
“You’d been a better thief, you’d still have the other arm.”
He rolled his shoulder, stretching the creaks out. The metal plates cladding the stump they’d left him dug into the flesh. “Balls to you, mate. One-armed, I’m still best damn bandit you ever worked with.”
Mayzhar snorted. “You’re the only one I ever worked for.”
“There you are, then.” He tipped his cup back, then further back, then turned it over and shook nothing out of it. “Where’s the bottle?”
“You gonna play your hand, or what?”
“Arak before cards. I play better drunk. Keeps me mind sharp.”
“You play like shit, drunk or sober.” Mayzhar scanned the piles of equipment strewn across the floor. “That mighta been the last.”
“I knew four bottles wasn’t enough. Next time, we pack three a piece.” He put the stained old cup down and scratched the back of his head. “Weather’s bleedin’ intolerable, so it is. I got sand in me-”
Mayzhar threw his cards down. “You got it in your every-damn-thing, and so do I. When I need to file my nails, I scratch my nethers.” He leaned back and tugged his hat down over his eyes. “You ever plan to take your turn, you let me know.”
He and watched the canvas ripple and snap in the dust-light. “Reckon they’re still out there?”
“Ain’t we still in here?”
“We’re used to this shit.” He flicked his fingers at the world outside. “Them city folk must be cryin’ into them great perfumed pillahs they haul about. Pillahs instead of liquor, like respectable folk pack.”
Mayzhar stroked his beard thoughtfully, then winced and scratched in earnest. Grains of sand jumped free of the tangle. “They’re even less like to move. Be worried about getting lost, or having their paint scratched or whatnot.” He frowned. “Like as not they’re letting their hathi take the brunt of it, sitting in their lee.”
He looked at the rippling walls, through threads of fine dust skirling across the heavy air. He could almost see them through the canvas, through the hissing, scourging breath of the sand. Great beasts, four times the height of a man, harnesses glittering with weathered gold, sand-scarred gemstones, and the faded sigils of the Avant Guard. His hand curled into a fist. “Hathi what rightly belong to us.”
“How you figure that?” Mayzhar yawned.
“They’re in me desert.”
“Gettin’ crowded in your desert, Kahgen.”
“We’ll see.” He glared through the canvas and sand, away south where the plush folk spent their days singing and dancing, drawing pretty pictures, rubbing swoopy shapes out of earth and stone and cooing over it all like it meant something. All the water a body could ever want down in them cities. Every roof covered with green. And still they grabbed at the gritty brown trickles his mates hauled from the darkness below the sand. “We’ll just see, now.”
“What would you do with hathi, anyway?”
Kahgen grinned. “You want to know?”
“I’d mostly like to know how you’d feed it, but sure.” Mayzhar tipped his hat back off his eyes and looked across the dimness at him. “Let’s say you get yourself a hathi. What do you do?”
“I’d give her armor. Strip the cargo nets and pallets off the howdah. And then,” his lips pulled back from his teeth. “Then I’d fit me on some of them bombards. Like the western folk put on their sailing ships.”
Mayzhar choked out a laugh. “Bombards. On the back of hathi. Out of your damn mind, boss. They’ll startle.”
He tapped stubble of his chin, less silver than outright grey; more weathered than distinguished. He’d long since stopped believing ladies who approached claiming attraction, or affection. Gold and fear were motives a man could trust. You always knew where you stood with them. “Well then, I’m like to need me a deaf hathi.” He cocked an ear to the hiss of the wind. Seemed to be slacking. “…And I’d call her Arushti.”
“After that little number down in Shira’bel?” A soft laugh, contemplative. “That was, what? Twenty years gone now?”
He looked down at the fingers in his lap, lips moving as they flicked back and forth. “Twenty-three. Twenty-three?” He furrowed his brow. “Grace’s tears. Coulda sworn it was just a handful.”
Mayzhar half-nodded, half shook his head. “She was a beauty. Them gold eyes. She’d look up, and it was like two suns rising at the break a’ day.” The sand sighed across the canvas. “Wonder what happened to her?”
“Pretty girl like that? She got married, a’course,” Kahgen snorted. “Prob’ly sang sweet enough to make the whole town cry. And then children. Long nights on a balcony with little ones on their laps, looking at the stars.” He unthinkingly picked up his cup and brought it to his lips. Still dry. He shook his head and twirled the emptiness between his fingers.
“Reckon she ever thinks about you?”
“Nah, mate,” he chuckled. “Not kindly, anyhow. I’d be her mistake. The bit of her life she don’t speak on. Probably never mentioned me to whoever she ended up with. Not even in the middle of the night, when you know each other enough to ask after scars.” He closed his eyes and saw thorn-barbed loops, black on pale. Softer than the whisper of sand outside, he added, “May he honor her always.”
“I s’pose everybody’s someone else’s mistake.”
“Ain’t them the words a’ Grace.” Kahgen tipped his empty cup to the man on the far side of the tent. “Well then.” He stood up, his crap hand of cards scattering unplayed across the dust. “Speaking on making mistakes. We ain’t got no booze left, and this jawing has me dead bored. Don’t know ‘bout you, mate, but I say we go start some shit.”
“Thank the damn Spirits,” Mayzhar said, slapping his hand of cards together and leaning forward to collect the pile that had built up between them. “Help me pick these up.”
Kahgen whiffed a half-hearted swing past the other man’s shoulder. “Got to get meself kitted out.”
“Yeah, you always got an excuse. Too drunk. Not drunk enough. Missing an arm. Pfft.” Kahgen tossed an eloquent gesture in his direction, and rolled the pack he’d been leaning against to the center of the tent. “Think that’ll work in this weather?” Mayzhar nodded at the bundle.
“Aishy’s always done right by me.” He grinned toothily, unwrapping dusty canvas from around scratched brass and chipped steel. “Even when I ain’t done right by her.”
“How much keta you got left?”
“Enough, mate. Stop looking for reasons to worry.”
“Oh, I ain’t worried,” Mayzhar said. “The Spirits tole me I’d get outta this. Just making sure I got the reasons down if you don’t.”
Kahgen ducked his head under the strap for the keta tank, settling it across his shoulders. He rolled the main cylinder around, setting the locking mechanism to face him “Mayz, I’ll need help with the reel.” He squinted to align the latches, set the metal plate on his shoulder against the end, and pressed until he felt the tremor of the clamps engaging.
“This is why you’re a lousy bandit. Can’t even get dressed without help.”
Kahgen chuckled. He lurched to his feet and took a few steps, getting used to the dead, limp weight of the metal. “They say them lady knights up north need help getting in and out of their armor. All them steel plates. I’d volunteer for that, eh? Least the bit where you peel it all off. And they’re all sweaty and sore, in need of a relaxing massage…”
“Well you ain’t no lady knight,” Mayzhen grunted, hoisting the reel off the ground. “And I hear the women up there’d as soon put a man’s balls in a vice as talk to ‘im. Turn round.”
“Scurrilous gossip, I’m so sure.” The weight of the reel and cable settled against the small of his back, over the thick band of padded fabric.
“How’s that, boss?”
He jumped up and down a few times, feeling how the weight flopped and fell. “Not bad. Light me up.” Mayzhar dug around in his pack, and came up with flint and steel.
“Try not to blow up,” he muttered, opening the compartment on the back of Kahgen’s shoulder-stack.
“Right. Try not to break wind, then.”
“Oh, sure. Won’t do that if we’re stuck in a tent nigh on two days, but…” The familiar chinks of sparking metal began. Soon enough, a dull slap of hot hair fwamped past his ear. Mayzhar hissed and swore and shook singed fingertips, banging the chamber shut again.
“Let me get my shit together.” Mayzhar hurriedly strapped on his own sword – an ancient but wickedly honed shamshir – as Kahgen tested the range of motion on his metal arm. The keta furnace coughed and spat and crackled at his movements, dark smoke hazing the canvas overhead, steaming tar spattering the sand. He frowned. A little catch in the elbow joint. Could be a grain of sand in the gears. Could be a gear missing a tooth.
“Right,” Mayzhar said. “Let’s go, boss.”
They tugged cloth up over mouths and nose, goggles down over eyes, and yanked free the knots holding the tent sealed. The canvas snapped, fine sprays of backwashing sand shushing across their faces. They stepped into a world gone vague and dim, a highsun the brown-orange of old pottery.
Kahgen glared about, trying to mark the terrain as the wind pasted his trousers to the back of his legs. The Guard had been pursuing them from the south-by-southeast. They’d set their tent with the opening facing away from the westerly wind, so… He turned and set off, brushing grains off his goggles, scanning for dark lumps on the sand that might mark tents or beasts.
A golden light off to the side. His head snapped up – no. Nothing there. Must have been a break in the wind. A bit of clear sky. A good omen, Spirits willing.
Mayzhar’s hand clapped his real shoulder. He turned. The other man said something, but the wind tore it away; he stabbed a dusty finger off to the side, opposite where he’d seen the light. Eh, there they were. Vague shadows of hathi, almost lost in the snaking streamers of dust. The great beasts were huddled up, asses to the wind, howdahs still buckled across their broad backs. The Guardsmen’s tents would be on the far side.
They trudged through loose, whipping tails of sand, working their way around the grumbling hathi, wary of sentries. There were none. He smirked; like he’d said, probably clutching them silk pillahs and hoping for the wind to die off.
He glanced at Mayzhar, pointed one by one at the three tents, and turned his palm up to the sky. Preference?
Mayzhar shrugged, drew his shamshir, and pointed the tip of the blade at the farthest one.
Right. All at once, then. He moved to the side, placing himself so the tents were lined up in a neat row. He set his feet as best he could in the sand, raised his metal arm, and took a dust-thick breath.
“Stand and deliver!” he barked. They wouldn’t be able to hear, but tradition was important.
Boom. A copper blur snaked through the haze, trailing cable. Gouts of black smoke exploded from the shoulder stack.
Kahgen’s boarding hook sliced through canvas, crashing and splintering, passing through one after another. Rust-colored liquid burst across the yellow wind, spattered darkness along the whirling, smoking ground. In the distance, the bronze metal dipped and skipped across the sand, halting in a cloud that whirled away east.
Loose fabric snapped and waved in the air. A few figures staggered about, clutching at stained bellies and half-limbs.
“See how you dog’s-sons like it,” he snarled, lips pulled back from his teeth, shoulder stump throbbing from the force of the propulsive blast.
One of the hazy figures managed to put hand to sword, putting a forearm across her eyes and staggering into the wind towards him.
He gripped his metal forearm and placed his finger on the winch control. “Reel ‘em in, Aishy-girl,” he grunted, though no one could have heard over the breath of the sand and the trumpet of alarmed hathi.
The reel at his back trembled, clicked, whirled. The cable snapped taut. Sand exploded away from the grounded hook, and it flew back, wobbling on the wind.
It caught the guardswoman in the small of her back, setting her tumbling like a broken doll across the sand. Her sword flew off into the wind.
The hook rammed back home, streamers of fine sand trailing away from the notches on its blade end.
He strode over.
She pushed herself up on trembling arms, inaudible words gasping free of lips caked with sand, tears darkly spotting the dust. Her legs were tangled and twisted the wrong way beneath her. She dragged herself away on her elbows, limp from the waist down, sobbing to draw breath.
There were only two ways her story could end now, and one of them would be a long time in coming.
He got down on one knee, grabbed her shoulder, and rolled her on to her back in the dust. He set the dead weight of his metal arm across her chest and drew the dagger from his sash.
She shuddered, nails scrabbling weakly at the metal. Her head lolled towards the tents, eyes frantic, searching for aid. But Mayzhar was moving among the shadows there, poking the debris with his shamshir, stabbing at intervals.
“Sorry, mate,” Kahgen murmured under the wind. “Spirits give you peace.”
The blade was quick and accurate. He sat with her for the last brief moments. When she was surely gone, he brushed her eyes closed and lurched to his feet. Mayzhar was still among the lacerated tents, but gesturing urgently to the east.
The hathi were fleeing, as fast as they could haul their sixteen tons of muscle. Which was always too damn fast, when you thought on it.
“No,” he snarled, staggering into motion. “I won you bastards fair and proper!” The Guard’s hathi were fair game. Public property, now conveniently short of owners. He brought his metal arm up, pawing for the trigger of the boarding hook.
He shouldn’t have been able to hear it in the roar of the wind. All reason said he shouldn’t. But he’d swear to the Spirits, right before the metal arm seized up, he’d heard one of the intricate little cogs within it burst into tinkling shrapnel.
“Damn it!” he roared, sand spraying as he vainly pounded after them, wrenching and cursing the dead, sputtering metal. “I’ll murder every mother-rutting last one of you! I’ll cut your damn throats and bathe in the blood! Your grandfathers,” he hollered, throat shredding, “were buried face-up in the diarrhea of a thousand hathi!”
He stopped, hissing at their receding forms, punching the dead arm hard enough to split knuckles. “You’re mine, damn it! Have to be! Spirits curse you if you ain’t!”
Why could he hear himself?
The sound of the wind had gone, but the haze lay thick in the air, still and sparkling, suspended. The orange light had turned golden. Was the storm clearing?
Why was his shadow stretching across the sand before him?
He turned, slowly, to a roiling maw of uncountable golden tentacles, writhing across the floor of the desert, curling around fistfuls of sand. Grabbing and grabbing and grabbing.
“Er,” he said, scratching his chin. “I was kidding about the curse, like.”
The image of the receding hathi burned in his mind.
His eyes narrowed, and he spat in the sand. Probably not where the Spirit was. But there was a lot of it, and who gave a shit anyway because his damn hathi were getting away. Fleeing back away south, where they sprayed water in the dry, still air just because it was pretty. Where the roofs spilled over with green, and fruit dropped from vine and branch at the slightest touch. Where perfumed men traded quips over trays of honeyed delicacies, left half-eaten and tossed in the street for dogs. Where lowly guards draped themselves with cunningly-wrought metalwork, glistening as they marched hither and yon, nodding along with the intricate melodies spilling out of salons. Where a girl with vivid hazel eyes still laughed from the back of a cantering stallion, reaching for his hand with a smile like the sun coming up. Shimmering mirages, always receding in empty years on the sand.
The Spirit hissed. The suspended sand glittered in the air, shaking rainbows across the ground. The tentacles lunged in.
The wind roared to life, scourging the tips of his ears. Where had-?
The hathi were ahead of him, still retreating. He cursed and punched the dead boarding hook.
The metal arm was spilling golden light across the sand, growling below the edge of hearing, purring in his bones.
“Well thass more bloody like it,” he growled, and raised it as if it weighed nothing.
The hollow blast rolled through the air, pulsing away the wind-blown sand.
The boarding hook blurred away, fast and sure, arcing out to crunch through the structure of the leftmost hathi’s howdah. He grinned, grit in his teeth, and tripped the reel.
The belt dug into his back, straight through the band of padded fabric. He pushed off the ground and flew over the sands as the reel spun and sang.
Those hathi had been awfully far away, come to think on it. The angle of the shot had been terrible flat.
He managed to get his feet under him as the ground rushed back up. His shoes tumbled away behind him as he rose again. “Ow, Spirits curse it!” he howled.
Coming up again. The rammed his feet down, wincing in anticipation.
His feet burned off. He howled into the wind, and got a mouthful of sand for the trouble.
The hathi was coming up fast. He’d have to-
He folded over the rail of the howdah, the breath exploding from his gut. Panting, he put a shaky leg over the rail and rolled on to the deck.
The sky above was vague and filmy, rippling sheets of sand snaking darkly back and forth across it. “That weren’t me brightest move,” he told the sky. From within, a restless turning.
He sat up and checked the bloody mess of his feet, probing with the expertise of long necessity. Didn’t seem to be anything like to cripple. He ripped a few strips of cloth off his trousers and wrapped them a few times about. It would have to do for now.
The boarding hook was lodged deep in the teak structure of the howdah – it would take time to work it loose. He slapped the release and his metal forearm clunked to the deck. He grabbed the rail and hauled himself up, wincing as he put weight on his feet.
The hathi were still pounding away, rocking like caravels on the sea, seeking a place with less noise, blood, and sand. He’d have to haul ass to get back to Mayzhar before they lost their way completely.
He leaned over the edge of the howdah to peer into his stampeding hathi’s white-rimmed eye. “Your name’s Arushti,” he hollered over the wind, grinning. “Welcome to the bandits of the Rahli Keta.” He patted the beast’s massive grey flank. “Worry not, mate. You’re gonna have fun.”