I realised that for the second time in as many weeks I had almost been done in by an explosion. I also realised that this felt like the first time since I’d gotten to this accursed city that I’d had the opportunity to get knocked unconscious and avoided it.
Furthermore, from what I could tell I had escaped major injury – a few scratches, a few aches from the fall, but other than that I was in good shape.
Of course, none of this mattered in light of the fact that Tatianna was lying, face down, next to me in a bloody, motionless heap.
It was Syman who reached her first, wailing like a child as he knelt beside his captain. He was reaching out, gingerly, wanting to help but not knowing where to begin. His hands hovered over her mangled back, every time seeming like he was going to touch her and then thinking better of it and withdrawing.
“Someone help!” He shouted, pointlessly. “Someone… captain… oh, no… no, please…”
Tatianna’s back was a mess of blood, shrapnel, and charred flesh. Pieces of iron – fragments from the grenade – jutted from the ruin of her leather coat. Syman started to turn her over, but Wilhar and Laissa, sprinting over, stopped him.
“No! Don’t… oh gods…” Wilhar stared, unable to do anything but hold Syman’s hand back. “What’re we going to do? What’re… what… captain, I… I don’t…” He crouched low beside her, reaching out to touch her face.
That was the worst part, I thought as I pushed myself upright. Through their eyes I could see her, see her face. Lying on her stomach with her pale cheek against the floorboards, but her eyes saw nothing. It was if they weren’t even there – nothing for me to tap into, nothing for me to reach out and touch. I’d killed enough people, seen enough people die to know exactly what that meant.
But this time I couldn’t stand it.
Tatianna Aurcattio was dead.
She’d been part of the job, part of my mission. Now reduced to nothing but a corpse, and for what? Her final words, her apology, still echoed in my ears. It seemed I could still feel her breath against my skin, and something cold curled in my gut, like a snake had wormed itself down my throat and had begun twisting itself into icy knots somewhere in my stomach.
Reaching out, I brushed my gloved finger along her face, my other hand tightening on my sword as I got to my feet.
“Don’t.” Ingesbror said, and I froze mid-motion. He was standing with a heavy pistol drawn, his grinning, almost skeletally thin second armed with two of his own. They both had their weapons leveled at us, hammers back. The norn threw a quick glance at the top of the stairs, shaking his head. “And stand down, Fotti.” He warned. “I know y’quick w’ yer aim, but not quick ‘nough to take us both ‘fore yer friends’re dead.”
I could see the asura, eyeing the two through her scope with tear-blurred eyes, trying to gauge whether or not she could do it and I, like her, already knew he was right. The two pirates had spread out , clearly anticipating the sniper. “Drop y’ cannon too.” The asura made no move to obey.
“Do it, Fotti.” I said.
“You don’t give me orders, you-”
“Do it!” My voice cracked, and I felt tears running down my cheeks, cutting a trail through the dirt there, but Fotti obeyed. She closed her eyes, moving away from the scope and stepping away.
“You too.” Ingesbror said, gesturing to me. “Drop it.” I did as I was told, there was no point in hesitating. The second came forward, pistols still trained on us, and kicked the rapier away before moving to stand beside the door.
I considered my options, and they didn’t look good. In the space of two seconds I could have half a dozen clones all around the room. A second after that I could have Ingesbror or his partner dead, but not both of them, and in that space most of Tatianna’s crew would almost certainly be dead.
They were in no state to follow any instruction I might give them with any degree of alacrity, and I wouldn’t have time to yell more than a few words. They were collectively in shock, and I couldn’t blame them for that, but it meant I couldn’t expect them to act. Laissa and Fotti might live, might even be of some use, but I couldn’t rely on that to make a difference. If any of us were going to live through this I had to do it alone.
Again, I silently cursed Baen’s absence. I could have trust on her to act, regardless of the situation, to move the moment I did. She would have known exactly what to do, how to react to me, how to signal me some sort of plan. We’d been fighting together for years now, and all of our training had been designed around my abilities.
But without her? I couldn’t fight alongside these people, not really. They didn’t know where to look, where to move, how to relay information to me the way they should. I was stuck – if I acted, everyone but I would be dead in a few seconds. And if I didn’t act? I didn’t want to consider the possibilities of what would happen if we were to be captured.
But Tatianna’s unseeing eyes were locked in my vision, staring at me, as if they were daring to me to move. I saw them through the tear-filled eyes of her shipmates, and it was suddenly as if I woke up.
Tatianna had mattered. Part of my mission, maybe but her odd charm and unexpected willingness to fight for me had slithered its way into my affections. Perhaps Baen had been right – since Cymea had betrayed me I’d subconsciously been searching for someone to replace her. Tatianna had been lining up to be everything that Cymea had been to me and, perhaps, so much more.
She could have been new family – I would have saved her from The Misericorde, freed her from the pit she’d been trying to claw her way out of, and if I did that surely she would have understood when I revealed the reason I had come to the city in the first place. There was a charm about her, an odd protective warmth and the complete absence of that condescending pity that Cymea had so often revealed despite her best efforts.
But Tatianna was dead now, and a cold, numb hunger rose in me.
What did her crew matter to me? I would kill Ingesbror and his second, escape, then I’d hunt down his crew and put every last one of them to the sword. I barely knew Wilhar, Syman or Laissa – their lives weren’t more important than the killing. I felt that smile start to pull at the corner of my lips again, and there was a flicker of genuine fear and then anger on Ingesbror’s bloody face.
“Don’t move.” He warned. “Y’re a quick ‘un, but they’ll die.” He gestured to the crew. “Come quiet like’n I’ll let ’em go. Killin’ the Aurcattio bitch was’ll I needed.” His bloodied expression became feral, hungry, as he looked me up and down. “Y’re just goin’ t’be for the fun o’ it.”
That was enough. Careful not to let it show, I prepared to move. Two clones to distract, then I’d dive. Another two clones to tackle the partner, then two more to pin Ingesbror in place as I retrieved my sword. It’d be all too easy to put it through his throat. He was big, he was strong, but that powerful norn heart of his would paint the walls with his blood.
Then Tatianna gasped, and my numbness vanished.
“She’s alive!” Wilhar shouted. “Captain! Captain!” I was frozen now, truly, as they huddled around her. “She’s alive!”
“No.” I said quietly. “She’s dying.”
It was true – the rattling sigh that escaped her bloodied lips was just the last few shudders of a dying captain. It’d be more merciful, I thought, if she’d simply never woken up. Now her eyes could see again, and darting back and forth in panicked shock as the brain began to catch up to the seriousness of its situation. The side of her face was still flat against the floorboards, and I knew from the dimming of her vision that this was only delaying the inevitable.
“Move.” I ordered, crouching down beside her and shoving Wilhar aside. Blood trickled from her mouth as her lips moved, but she stared up at me and I couldn’t tell whether she was trying to speak or trying to scream, but I knew there was only one thing I could do for her.
“What’re you…” Wilhar fell silent in horror as I drew the knife I knew was hidden in Tatianna’s boot free. “No, you can’t!” I brought the knife up, taking a deep breath as I lay it against the mortally wounded captain’s throat, wishing desperately that the numbness would come back. Wilhar’s hand reached for mine. “Don’t you-”
A shot rang out, and Wilhar’s head snapped back. I gasped as blood hit the side of my face like a wet slap and his body fell, dead before it hit the floor. Ingesbror drew his second pistol and aimed it at me, walking forward,
“Don’t touch ‘er.” He said. “That goes f’ all of ye!”
“You bastard.” Laissa’s voice was less speech and more roar. “You krait sucking-” Ingesbror’s second put a lead ball into her shoulder, and she went down, roaring curses.
“Aurcattio’s mine t’ kill.” He came forward, and I could see Tatianna’s eyes roving desperately, going from Wilhar’s corpse to the fallen Laissa. She gurgled, trying to speak, and I touched her cheek, uselessly trying to comfort the dying woman. “Always been Levaunt’s pet, safe ‘hind ‘is favour, but n’more.” Ingesbror stopped beside me, massive boots crunching on the splinters as he came into Tatianna’s line of sight. “Yer mine t’finish.” He smiled hideously. “Mine t’enjoy.” Her eyes widened even further, and I knew that she knew what was coming.
I saw the blow coming and wove aside, bringing Tatianna’s knife up defensively, then froze as I saw the other pirate tighten his finger on the triggers of his pistols. All it would take was one more move and more bullets would start flying, more people would die and Tatianna would have to spend her last few moments before her final violation watching what was left her crew be murdered.
“Good girl.” Ingesbror had almost taken a step back when I’d moved, but now recognised that I understood my position. The smile was back. “Shame y’had t’be such a pain, might’ve ‘ad a use fer y’ otherwise.” He shrugged. “Might be t’dangerous t’have fun with.” Still keeping his pistol trained on me, the norn reached down and grabbed Tatianna by her wrist. “This ‘un, on the other ‘and…” He grinned. “She’s ‘ad it comin’.”
I didn’t move. Couldn’t move as he began to drag her away, leaving a bloody smear on the floor as she did. I knew I couldn’t let this happen – even if all I did was kill Tatianna to keep her from being literally raped to death, that would be what I’d do. I’d almost certainly die in the process, but that had to be better than allowing this. I knew what was coming if I stood back, and I knew I would be forced to watch it all.
But I didn’t move. Syman was next to Laissa, tears blurring his vision as he tried to stop her bleeding. Fotti fumed impotently at the top of the stairs, not daring to act, but I could see her eyeing her rifle, trying to calculate whether or not she could make it there in time. I wondered if she too realised that perhaps Tatianna’s head was a better target than Ingesbror’s.
When Ingesbror was about a dozen feet away, he let go of Tatianna and straightened. “Come on in boys!” He roared, and I knew my opportunity to act had passed as it took only a few seconds before a dozen pirates came through the door to witness the scene. More of the miscreants crowded in behind, straining to see.
“Cover ’em.” His second ordered, and within moments there were a dozen guns aimed our way. “They move? Kill ’em.”
“She put up a good fight.” Ingesbror shook his pistol at me. “Then this ‘un tried t’interfere. Broke the rules, she did.” He nodded down at Tatianna. “And y’all know who she is, so y’re all gonna watch while I teach ‘er right from wrong.” Handing his pistol to another pirate, he nudged Tatianna onto her back with a heavy boot.
A raking cough – something that might have been an attempt at a scream – escaped Tatianna’s blood streaked mouth, and she stared wildly at the ceiling as Ingesbror began to work at his belt.
“Stop.” I said, barely realising I’d started speaking. “Ingesbror, just stop.” He snorted with laughter, not even slowing as he undid his belt. “You’re going to die if you don’t listen to me.”
“How’s that?” I took a breath.
“My name is Kaede II, daughter of Quintus Varr, Lord of Kryta, and Lady Maeka of Asanno.” I said. “I am Lady of the House of Varr.” He looked at me for a moment, hesitating. “I have money. I have power. I am worth a queen’s ransom.”
“If it’s true? Good. We’ll keep y’alive then.” He shrugged. “Boys, be sure y’don’t kill that ‘un till we know f’ sure.” He crouched down, wrapping his meaty fingers under Tatianna’s collar in preparation to tear her blouse open. Her hand came up, shaking, fingers weakly straining against his wrists.
“That’s not my point.” I said. Ingesbror hesitated again, and I slowly rose to my feet with hands raised to keep the pirates from gunning me down there and then. “Think – why would a Krytan noble be here? Why would I be playing pirate? Why would I be selling old relics?” His eyes narrowed. “I was born Lady of Varr, but I am here as Agent Kaede Varr of the Order of Whispers. I assume you’ve heard of us.” There were mutters at that, the pirates clearly unsettled by this. “There is a strike team of Whispers Slayers on standby, watching us as we speak, and I’ve just blown my cover to you. They won’t let anyone possibly hostile walk away knowing who I am unless I say you’re worth keeping alive.” Ingesbror hesitated.
“Y’re bluffin’.” He said. “And even if y’aren’t, we’re not ‘fraid ‘f no Whisperers.” He turned his attention back to his prize, and through her eyes I could see his evil face split into a hungry grin. “Kexx, how many o’ the boys we got left?”
“Thirty-two, and we’re still awaiting Imral’s men.” A smug little asura replied with a toothy grin. “Certainly more than enough to engage with any would-be interlopers. No strike team sizable enough to pose a credible threat could be nearby.” Tatianna’s eyes started to roll back in her head, and I could see the fabric of her blouse start to strain in Ingesbror’s grip.
“Don’t do this.” I said, halfway between wanting to plead and scream. “You’ll all die. Every last one of…” The words died, thought died, everything trailed off into stunned shock as Tatianna’s vision snapped back into focus and began to shift to a fell, familiar green.
End of Chapter viii