Lost in the long ago, Eitan was unaware of himself, kneeling in the gutter.
He did not know his skin dripped with sweat as well as rain, his body shook with unspent adrenaline, his face twisted in a snarl of pain and hatred.
Nor did he notice the small group growing around him on the street, each member of which seemed to have their own opinion of what they witnessed.
“Look at that, will ya’?” a woman with the burn-flecked skin of a smith spat into the street. “That’s a bad Spike if ever I saw one.”
“Then you ain’t seen one, friend,” the grocer, drawn out by the crowd in front of his stoop, leaned over, shielding himself with an empty fig box. “Look at them eyes, black as a no-moon’s night, they is. That’s Milk’n’Honey.”
“Will ye look at that, Sadie,” an elderly auntie nudged the more elderly auntie at her side as a trail of spittle fell from the man’s lips. “Time was them’s as were usin’ kept to Wolstonecroft and no bother to anyone else.”
“I see’s ‘im, Ronette,” Sadie replied. “Pity, though. He’d be right handsome if he weren’t fume.”
“Excuse me,” a young woman with a brisk Ford accent pushed through to the front of the little crowd. “Coming through, thank you, excuse me…” With some effort the newcomer burst between the smith and the two aunties.
“Have a care, Miss Jinna.” The grocer looked at the visibly pregnant young woman from under his fig box. “This ‘ere fella could be dangerous.”
“I’ll be fine,” she assured the grocer, at the same time leaning in close enough for her red-gold hair to fall over his dripping black ponytail. “Eitan,” she spoke his name softly. “Can you hear me? It’s Rory’s friend, Jinna Pride. We met a few months back.”
Not a muscle twitched.
“Mebbe we should call the coppers…”
“Or a cog.”
“Or the Keepers.”
“Hold off a second.” The order snapped with martial authority and, combined with a sharp glance out of storm-gray eyes, stilled the tumbling suggestions. In the fresh silence, Jinna took a deep breath and, before she thought better, placed her hand over the sensitive’s cheek. “Ei…”
…tan’s left hand clenched and pulled at the chain anchoring him in the middle of the arena—a handicap to raise the wagers—while the gate creaked open to reveal this night’s opponent.
He did not know—never knew, before the match—who or what he would face. Not until they, or it, appeared.
But he was thoroughly unprepared for who he saw walking into the arena, moving with care, as a woman in her condition might.
He blinked away the sweat already slipping into his eyes but still they showed him Rory’s friend entering the arena, her body more rounded with pregnancy than when he’d seen her last, and her expression filled with concern.
Except the little mother had never set foot in the Illyrian cages. He hadn’t even met Jinna Pride until a few months past, when Rory brought her around the Errant.
Yet here she was… which could only mean…
“Whoa! Easy! Easy soldier,” Jinna jumped back, her umbrella glancing off the grocer’s box as Eitan erupted, going from his knees to a fighting stance fast enough to leave her breathless (and the two aunties as well, judging from the way two brown wrinkled hands fluttered against two wool-covered chests at the same time).
“It’s okay now,” she said, the hand she’d held against his cheek now resting over the mound of her belly. “Eitan,” she repeated his name with care, because in touching him she’d seen where he’d been.
He blinked, then his eyes focused on hers. “Umayma.”
Little Mother. Jinna managed a wry smile at the Fujian honorific. “Not so little anymore,” she said, then her gray eyes sobered as she asked, “Do you know what happened? What sent you back there?”
His response was to blink once, look down at her, then to wave his left arm in a frustrated gesture before uttering a single word and taking off down the street at a run.
Jinna waited half a beat before she, too, took off running—though much less quickly—after him, leaving the grocer, the smith, and the fluttering aunties in her splashing wake because the single word Eitan uttered prior to hurling himself into motion was “Rory.”
Smog it, McCabe, she thought as she thudded after the ridiculously graceful Fujian, what have you gotten yourself into this time?
In the alley, faced by the thief, Rory was thinking much the same thing.
“Is it worth it?” he heard himself ask, his brown eyes wide in spite of the rain.
The hood tilted, as if its owner were considering the question.
He considered it for so long, in fact, Rory wondered if the man in the hood was simply waiting for the coronary Rory’s racing heart was working up to, thus sparing himself the trouble of pulling the trigger.
Then he wondered what had happened to Ei—
“You already have what you want,” Eitan’s familiar, haughty, Keeper-blessed accent sliced through the patter of rain like the Fujian’s favorite sword. “Take it, and be glad of your life.”
“Yes!” Rory’s fist began to pump up in a victory punch but just as quickly dropped because the hooded man now stood behind him, one arm wrapped around his throat and the shooter pointed at his head.
Bad, and also confusing because Rory hadn’t even seen the man move, and he’d been staring straight at him. How could I have missed that?
Someday, perhaps, I shall explain…
A voice—which was not a voice at all—slid through Rory’s thoughts, and suddenly he understood.
The thief was a sensitive.
And you are more perceptive than you look.
“Oy, then…” Rory began, but the shooter’s muzzle pressed into his temple and his protest died on a tongue gone dry as Dyar’s Canyon, rain notwithstanding.
Eitan, however, continued his approach, even now stepping past the prone body of the first, now unconscious, thief.
“You’ll stop where you are,” the hood snapped in a voice deep and graveled, yet with the lilt of a Harp native.
Eitan stopped, smack in the middle of the nearer patch of light, his expression gone blank.
“Whatever weapon you are carrying, drop it,” Rory’s captor ordered.
With visible care, Eitan withdrew the shock stick he’d secreted under his coat. After a suggestive jerk of the pistol, he let it fall, clattering, to the pavers, and held out his now empty right hand (and even more empty left arm). “As you see, I wish you no harm. Nor, I think, do you wish to harm him.”
“The person I once was might not wish to harm him,” the hood replied, “but I have changed.” The hood’s fabric brushed Rory’s head, as if dipping in a nod. “You have.”
A statement that, to Rory, came as the greatest shock thus far.
Eitan, however, looked resigned, and perhaps a little sad. “Leo,” he said, pivoting in place as the hood—or rather, Leo—pushed/pulled Rory to the right to circle past the Fujian. A dicey business, given the alley was so narrow the maneuver brought them within Eitan’s reach.
Leo, however, dug the pistol that much deeper, to the point Rory felt the warm trickle of blood joining the frigid rain on his face.
“Let him go,” Eitan said.
“I might have, before,” Leo said. “But thanks to you, he knows my name.”
“So do I,” a new and distressingly familiar voice called from behind.
Which only proved Rory had been wrong earlier.
This was the greatest shock of the day.
“For instance,” Jinna continued, sounding slightly winded to Rory’s ear, “I know you’re threatening someone who matters to me and I know how to drop a man with a shooter from fifteen meters—and you are way closer than fifteen meters.”
“Syl?” Leo asked, the brush of his hood telling Rory the thief had turned to look at Jinna.
“What?” Jinna asked back.
“Who?” Rory tried to look at the man holding the gun.
“Let. Him. Go,” Eitan said again, before the comedy homage could continue.
“What he said,” Jinna added, causing both Rory and Galileo to tense.
It was Galileo who relaxed first. “If you insist,” he said—and then shoved Rory straight at Eitan, who dodged.
Jinna cursed and Rory stumbled upright, turning in time to see Eitan and Leo grappling in the patch of light.
Eitan gained the advantage quickly, pressing the other man against the alley wall.
Coming round towards Jinna, Rory saw Eitan’s right arm was trapped between their two bodies, where his hand clutched Leo’s over the gun.
Jinna started forward, shooter in one hand and umbrella in the other.
“Don’t!” Rory and Eitan, and even Leo, shouted.
Luckily the three-pronged warning startled the woman to a halt. Just in time, too, as Leo’s shooter fired a single burst of plasma that sizzled in the rain before striking the pavers.
The smoking hole at Jinna’s feet set Rory’s heart racing again, and had him sending her a flapping back-off wave whilst he moved to assist Eitan.
A useless move, for at the same time Eitan’s left arm twitched and Rory heard the snicking release of the spring-blade he’d given his crewmate not two hours past.
“Stop,” Eitan ordered softly, pressing the dagger into Leo’s side. A breath of silence followed, and then…
“Consider me stopped,” Leo said, letting his right hand go lax so the gun fell to the ground with a splash. Sometime during the struggle his hood had fallen away, revealing a marble-pale face and dark eyes beneath a mass of curling hair blacker than Eitan’s.
“Wow,” Jinna said, making her opinion known.
Nor could Rory disagree. Put alongside Eitan, it was as if two matinee idols had run away from the Circus, choosing instead this dismal alley in which to play their scene.
Their very intimate scene, judging by Leo’s next words.
“It has been a long time, delbar-am.”
“A long time, indeed,” Eitan responded, his voice barely audible above the falling rain, “for you to become a killer.”
“This, from the man who ran away to war?”
“That was different.”
“So you said.”
Rory couldn’t see Eitan’s face, but there was something in his posture, a subconscious shift that spoke of a more-than-casual history with the other man.
It made Rory feel very much an intruder.
The more so when Leo’s lips turned up and his eyes dipped. “Is that a dagger in my side, or are you just happy to see me?”
Seriously? Rory thought.
“Seriously?” someone who was not Rory, nor Jinna, nor Eitan, said aloud.
Everyone, including Leo, turned to where Redbeard, the original thief, was pushing himself up from the alley floor. “Piece of honeycomb, she says,” he said as he got one knee under him. “Won’t be a bit of trouble, she says,” he grumbled, grabbing a bit of nearby wall and hauling himself to standing. “Like taking a pack from a skinny mechanic. No offense meant,” he added, glancing Rory’s way before he looked at Jinna, who’d put herself up against the opposite wall between Redbeard and the other three men. “I don’t suppose you’d care to hand me back that there shooter?”
“Sure. And would you like a side of hummus with that?”
“So that’d be a no.”
“That’d be a no, yes. No.”
Rory almost smiled, but there were still Eitan and—
“Leo,” Eitan breathed the name. “What sort of pollution are you involved in?”
“I would love to explain, really,” Leo said in his ridiculously rich voice, “but—”
—I am afraid there is no time.
Blinking into the rain some untold moments later, Rory watched Eitan slam his palm flat against a wall now decidedly absent of Leo.
A frantic look left showed Jinna where she’d been, umbrella and gun and all, and the red-bearded thief now flat on his ass in a puddle.
“Bloody smogging wasps in the hive!” Rory cursed, slapping his thigh and kicking at a puddle. “He did it again!”