The music had picked up its pace, inviting the audience to clap and stomping in time. A few of the crowd had risen to dance as best they could in the limited space.
To John the noise, the movement, were a faded watercolor, a rush of wind—soft and pale in comparison to the woman before him.
The woman he’d been waiting for, wanting, for more years than he cared to count.
The thought had his lip twitching, even as he took her hand to lead her towards the tavern door.
“What?” she said, giving him the too familiar punch in the shoulder.
The twitch became a grin. “Just thinking, had I known music would have had this effect, I’d have sung to you years ago.”
Jagati let out a snort as she and John continued on their way. “Won’t lie, the singing took me by surprise.” She slid him a sideways glance, “I might be asking for a whole lot more entertainment.”
“Happy to oblige, as soon as I can get my hands on another guitar,” he said, dodging one of the local kids as she dashed between the tables.
“Whaddidyoucallme?” she responded with a smirk.
“You know that’s not—never mind,” he said, as now he was wondering how many notes they’d be able to strike before the end of the evening.
The mere thought had him moving faster.
At the table he’d joined earlier, Eitan watched John and Jagati move towards each other with a purpose that did not require a sensitive to recognize.
“You know him? The fellow who was singing?”
Eitan looked at Magnus. “I do,” he replied as the blind man reached for his drink.
“Quite the voice,” Yiva, her flaxen braids sliding forward as she leaned over her steaming drink. “Reminds me of the stories of the sirens of the Amazons.”
“I don’t believe John would use his voice to lure lost aeronauts to their deaths,” Eitan mused, thinking of the centuries’ old myths of the seductive mountain spirits—only one of the many tales of the Amazon range disseminated throughout Fortune since First Landing, and the loss of the Gamma site.
Some might consider them children’s stories, but Eitan had studied the matter, and knew the tales had their seeds in reports of failed expeditions, many returning with reports of hallucinations that had, over time, mutated into sightings of ghosts, sirens, and the like.
The flesh-eating creatures, however, were probably real.
From bear dogs to mountain lions to the fleet, feathered raptors, Fortune had no shortage of apex predators.
Then there were the expeditions who failed to return at all, including, Eitan recalled, the CFS York, on which both Rory and his del-baram, Jinna, had once served.
In that tragedy, they had lost many friends, as well as Liam Del, the father of Jinna’s unborn child.
And still, and despite all the loss, every colony and state on the planet continued to send parties into those mountains.
“Your friend may be no siren,” Magnus’s brother, Jörn, brought Eitan’s attention back to the present, “but he’s lured at least one traveler to his side.”
Eitan followed Jörn’s gaze to where John and Jagati were indeed beginning to move through the tavern. There was no doubt they were heading towards the exit and, from there… well…
“Hard starbucks say they’re about to enjoy a dance between the sheets,” Yiva offered, raising her mug.
About time, Eitan thought. “I don’t believe I will take that bet,” he said, raising his own glass in a silent toast to his friends.
But before he could drink to John and Jagati’s fortune, a hooded figure, shedding snow from the storm, rushed into the tavern, slamming into John before sidestepping and diving into the crowd.
John, being John, shrugged off the contact, and Jagati spared the man a curled lip, but it was obvious her mind was on other business.
The collision may not have slowed either party, but it had caused the newcomer’s hood to fall away, revealing a face red from the cold, stubbled with a few day’s growth of beard, dark hair, touched with gray, and eyes that, even from this distance, Eitan knew to be a dark, dark blue.
A dark blue that, the last he’d seen, had been emptying of life in the middle of the Domino arena.
“Conn?” The name fell from his lips even as he rose from his chair.
Jagati, already pushing John towards the door after their brief collision, came to a sudden halt. “Conn?” she asked, turning to stare at the man who’d barreled into them.
“Who?” John asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied as the name, and the spine searing cold that accompanied it, yanked at her hind brain.
Glaring through at the figure working his way through the crowd, she tried to find the source of the dis-ease but there were just too many bodies in the way, and each of those bodies rife with their own stew of emotions.
Her eyes narrowed in determination as she latched onto the cold shock that had first caught her attention, only at the last catching the hint of cloves that she associated with Eitan.
Smog it, she thought, and turned to John. “I think Eitan thinks that guy’s named Conn, and something about him is wrong,” she said, and added a heartfelt, “Sorry,” before diving back into the tavern, on the heels of the man who’d caused her crewmate such distress.
“I can’t believe I understood that,” John said, but being John, dove after her.
“Something’s up,” Rory said, straightening from his place at the bar as he watched Jagati spin back and muscle her way through the mass of locals.
The music was spinning to a frenzied pitch, but he could see the top of her head, followed by John’s.
“What?” Kallik, who’d been making eyes at a receptive Keld, turned to Rory. “Where?”
“Not sure, and there,” Rory jerked a chin towards the rear of the pub, where Eitan was on his feet and stepping away from his conquest of the night. “Eitan’s onto something,” he determined, from the grim set of his crewmate’s expression.
He was only a few steps away before he realized Kallik had followed. “Do you guys do this often?” they asked, bumping into Rory.
“Do what?” Rory asked, tugging Kallik closer to avoid being trampled by a pair of dancers ploughing through the tables.
“Look for trouble.”
“Mostly, ’tis trouble that finds us.” As he spoke, Rory ducked under a swinging mug, then ducking again as it swung back in time to the music.
“I get that,” Kallik said, wiping spilled mead from their shoulder. “Hmm. Maybe we should try the mead on the way back.”
“You’re on,” Rory said, peering over a furred shoulder to see Eitan diving through an arched door at the rear of the pub. “That way!”
“This is very exciting,” Kallik offered, steading a wayward toddler and sending the child back in the direction of her parents. “Any idea where Eitan’s going?”
“Nary a clue—oof!” Rory’s reply was cut off as one of the crowd danced into him, dragged him into a spin, and shot him off in the direction he meant to go.
“Fair enough,” Kallik replied, offering Rory a steadying grip before charging onwards, their expression gleaming with curiosity.
It can’t be him, it can’t be him, it can’t be…
The single phrase pounded through Eitan’s thoughts as he scythed through the crowds after Conn.
Not Conn, he thought, eyes latched on the too-familiar lope. Not Conn, because it could not be him.
He held onto that, even as he dove through the arch, because—because how do you forget the face of a man you killed?
Then he rounded the corner behind the stage and dove through the open arch into the space beyond.
He had time to take in only the essentials—a small room, the odor of singed flesh.
The room’s single table tipped on one side, both chairs knocked over, one missing a leg which, Eitan surmised, explained the pile of ice on the snow.
Beyond the table, a body—the drummer—her eyes glassy with shock, skin pale as snow packed floor on which she lay, a pool of red icing beneath her.
Pyotr, kneeling the drummer’s side, shooter in hand—and a fur-clad shape ducking through a door which stood open to the howling night beyond.
Eitan spared a glance at Pyotr.
“She lives. He can’t,” the small man said, nodding at the door, all trace of his Stoli accent gone. “You understand, me Lieutenant Fehr?”
“Not entirely,” Eitan said, but his left arm twitched, releasing the spring blade Rory had made him, in lieu of a prosthetic, while his right drew his own shooter from beneath his coat. “We will talk more of this,” he told Pyotr, before he raced out into the howling night, in pursuit of a ghost.
John managed, by means of dodging around some dancers that Jagati tried to plow through, to round the corner at the back of the tavern just seconds after Eitan had disappeared.
As soon as he entered, he smelled it, the spark of crystal plasma, and came to an abrupt halt and ripped his coat open, meaning to draw his shooter.
Jagati was smogging pissed.
Not only because of the interruption, or even because John had managed to get ahead of her, but because—thanks to the hyped up dancer’s she’d gotten tangled with, she now had snow in her boots.
Why, in the name of the First Landers, couldn’t the ice tavern designers have laid down a few rugs?
Cursing her bad luck, and the cold sliding down her calf, she dashed around the corner on John’s heels, and slid right into John where he stood, haha, frozen, in the entrance of a small room.
“What?” she began to ask, before registering the smells of battle. “What?” she asked again as she took in the view, over John’s shoulder, of a body down, Pyotr, holding his head with one hand and a live shooter with the other.
She spied motion, and looked past Pyotr to where Eitan was racing out into the storm.
She was already drawing her weapon, about to follow, when she was struck from behind.
“Sorry,” Rory called as Jagati rammed into John’s back.
Later, she would be impressed by how he managed to retain his balance, but in the moment she felt like she’d been driven into a boulder.
Driven into a boulder twice as, a heartbeat after Rory’s apology, another body struck.
“Whoa,” Kallik said, their breath warm over Rory’s ear, before they let out a hiss, and then they were shoving past the Errant crew and dropping to their knees next to Pyotr.
“I’m fine,” Pyotr said, though Jagati thought he sounded strange.
Kallik appeared to think so, as well, offering their companion an odd look before turning back to the woman bleeding out on the snow. Snow which they immediately began scooping up to pack into the woman’s wound. “Packing the wound,” they said, “but I could use a med kit.”
“On it,” Rory said, spinning to rush out of the snug.
Since Jagati could see no use for herself in this scenario, she peeled herself off John’s back and made for the exit.
She didn’t know if she was pleased or irritated that she heard John’s steps crunching in the snow behind her.