John’s “only a few blocks” increased by several dozen, mostly because Nike’s streets teemed with street drones, all armed and all scouring the city for someone who, to all appearances, had upset the wrong people.
“They can’t be after us,” Jagati whispered as she and John ducked for cover. Again. “Or, not all after us.”
“I’d like to think not,” John murmured, his breath warm on her ear. “But we have annoyed at least two different parties tonight.” Then he pressed his hand over hers, where it was flat against the cold stone pavement (their most recent hiding place being underneath a parked rickshaw).
Out on the street six boots—one with a loose sole that flap-splashed its way through the puddles—continued on toward Carroll Square.
As soon as the street was clear, they crawled out from under the rickshaw, just in time to see the driver emerge from the tea shop before which it had been parked, wolfing down a scone and slurping from a tin cup.
On spying the bedraggled pair stumbling out from under her rickshaw, she swallowed a lump of scone and tilted her head. “Most folks prefer to wait inside the cab,” she pointed out.
“Ah,” John said. “Well…”
“Donne Street, 4th District,” Jagati said, climbing into the hooded cab and landing with a squelch. “And don’t spare the batteries.”
“Yes,” John said, climbing in after her, “that.”
The driver rolled her eyes, dumped the remains of her tea into the gutter, slid the tin cup into one of her capacious pockets, and jumped astride the cycle.
She didn’t know what she was expecting when they got to 18 Donne Street, but it certainly wasn’t this elegant, inner-circle town home.
At least the rain had eased to little more than a reluctant spit, making their current position, huddled in the box-elders that lined the cobblestoned street, less uncomfortable than it would have been a half hour earlier.
They’d settled in the bushes as soon as the rickshaw driver, who had taken Jagati at her word and not spared the batteries (or, John pointed out, any missing cobbles) rounded the corner onto Canterbury.
The curving street, third out from Nike’s city center, while close enough to smell the parliamentary must, boasted only a few estates, spaced widely apart. It wasn’t the Keeper-recommended standard for urban dwellings, but ristos had a way of working around little things like residence-to-natural-growth-ratios; ways like keeping one’s own private forest, if 18 Donne Street were an example.
Anyway, the lack of urban density was good for them. No houses meant no neighbors looking out their windows to see the two wet, grungy aeronauts lurking in the shrubbery, scoping out the mansion on the other side of the street.
And quite a mansion it was. Even in the rarefied environs of inner Nike, the place stood out. No solemn Avonian granite here, but rather the smooth curved plaster of the West, tiled in red and with arched windows from which light speared like lances into the clouded night. “I haven’t seen anything like this since I took liberty in Tendo,” she said.
“It is impressive,” John murmured.
“Well, you said she had money.” As she spoke, Jagati’s searching eyes spotted an apiary to the right and a stable to the left—both good cover for someone keeping watch on the house.
“Money, yes, but…this doesn’t seem to fit her.”
She looked over to see him studying the house, his eyes troubled. “Why not?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “It just doesn’t.” Then he exhaled a breath, fogging the air with it. “All right.” He straightened and stepped onto the smoothly paved walk. “Let’s get this over with.”
She eased out of the shrubbery after him. “If you can get Sameen in front of that giant window,” she said as she pointed to the left side of the house, “I can cover you from the stable.”
“I’ll do my best,” he said, then reached for her, causing her to jerk back until she realized he was pulling a stray leaf out of her hair.
“Ah.” She brushed a hand over the damp coils. “Thanks.”
“Think nothing of it.” He flashed a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, and started across the street, leaving Jagati alone and feeling oddly incomplete, as if something that should have been said, hadn’t.
Under the porch light of Sameen’s house, John checked his weapons, adjusted the satchel, ran a hand over his hair (then shook the water from his hand) and finally gave the door’s bronze knocker, a female jinn with wings of fire, a brisk double tap.
Waiting for a response, he wondered if the jinn was of Sameen’s choosing, or happenstance.
Then the door opened and he ceased wondering over the minutiae of home decor and commenced wondering over the woman standing before him. Sameen was a petite woman, coming only to his chin, but she made up for the lack of height with an excess of curves that, this evening, were draped in the gossamer folds of a green sari. Her burnished hair fell loose to her shoulders, and wire-thin bracelets chimed over the ivory-pale arms.
This version of Sameen took him aback, being as it was a far cry from the sobbing bundle of nerves he’d met at Nike’s Transit Authority, clutching her expensive coat closed over a modest, but equally pricey, gray dress.
The Sameen at the TA had held onto his arm, tears fogging her beryl-green eyes as she begged him to retrieve her property.
This Sameen’s hand rested casually on the door, her jewel-sharp eyes assessing his bedraggled state, and her lips curved as if she’d not only stolen all the honey, she’d killed the queen in the bargain.
“Captain Pitte,” she greeted, every jot the Avonian risto. “Or may I call you John? You’ve gone to such trouble for me, it seems foolish to adhere to formalities.”
“I’d prefer it,” he said as she stepped back, allowing him entrance to the foyer. “Given you never told me your surname.”
“Oh, but surely I told you?” Perfectly arched brows, only a shade darker than her hair, pursed thoughtfully.
“I’m certain I’d have remembered.”
“Well, of course you would,” she said, the thoughtful expression falling away like a veil. “I can’t imagine what I was thinking at the time, not that I was thinking at all clearly.” She waved a delicate hand and again the air resonated to the jangle of the thin gold hoops. “Which makes me fortunate you’re as trustworthy as you appeared. Another aeronaut might have taken my money and run for the Adidan border.”
“Maybe not that far,” he said, turning his attention to the surrounding space.
Like the outside, the house’s interior reflected Fujian sensibilities: smooth plaster walls and bamboo floors—none of the typical stone or rugs Avonians favored—and a lamp of copper and sepia glass gilding the space from above.
On the right he noted an arched door, closed but with a sliver of light visible along the door’s base. Past this door, a stair with wide, shallow treads rose to the shadowed second story.
Straight ahead, the foyer spilled into the darkened living area. All John could make out were humps of furniture, and beyond that, a pair of wide, undressed glass doors that opened into an atrium.
At his left was another arched door, this one open, through which he could see a well-lit room featuring a series of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
Though he knew Jagati had eyes on this room, the right door intrigued him, so he turned towards it.
“Let’s go to the library, shall we?” Sameen stepped between John and his goal. “More fitting for business than the parlor.” As she spoke, she slid her left arm through his right, in a manner more controlling than flirtatious.
With no sound reason to argue, he allowed her to draw him across to the left and into the octagonal chamber.
“Do you like it?” she asked, pausing just inside.
“It is impressive,” he responded truthfully, for he did admire the design.
At the same time he found the space disturbing, and cold, for, despite it being February, the library’s fireplace sat empty and dark as it faced the windows. And though every single sconce glowed, the lamps gave off little warmth.
The room—the entire house—was also preternaturally quiet, and he felt the silence pushing back against the squelch of his boots over the library’s tiled floor and the soft chime of Sameen’s bracelets.
And then there was the dust.
Not the actual dust, for only the thinnest patina of neglect coated the visible surfaces, but more the flavor of dust in the air, as if Sameen had just returned from a long absence, and had yet to fill the house with her presence.
Sameen, however, continued into the room with no sign of discomfort. He thought she might have noticed the chill, as she pressed her body as close to him as possible while leading him past a pair of armchairs, with a table between, and a low sofa facing them on the opposite side.
John looked over the furniture, well made and comfortably worn, with honey-toned upholstery. “I didn’t know you had a child.”
John nodded towards the couch, where a tin airship peeked from under one of the cushions.
“Oh. That. That belongs to the cook’s son. He’s always leaving his toys every which where.” She shook her head at such childish absentmindedness.
John glanced back at the little airship, but said nothing and allowed her to tug him to the slate-topped mahogany desk, more a table, with cushioned benches on either side.
Atop the desk sat a closed writing box, not unlike the one John kept in his quarters aboard the Errant, and behind the desk the large multi-paned window was framed by thick-woven curtains of the same honey as the couch. Beyond the window he could just make out the stable where Jagati would be hiding.
And at the corner of his eye, just peeking from the edge of the curtain, he spied what looked to be a pair of crutches, the cuffs and grips as worn as the furniture.
“Now, John,” Sameen said, releasing his arm and rounding the desk. “Shall we get down to business? I have your payment, right in here,” she added, lifting the lid of the writing box with both hands.
“Of course,” he said, giving the box a brief glance. “But first, perhaps you can satisfy my curiosity.”
“I’d satisfy more than that, given half the chance.”
“Ha,” he said. “Maybe later. After you explain why you asked my crew to retrieve unlawful technology.”
“Unlawful?” Her brow furrowed so prettily he wondered if she practiced all her expressions in a mirror. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Then either you are a fool, or you think me one,” he said, his right hand shifting minutely.
“I’m no fool, but I have to admit, I rather hoped you were,” she said as her hand emerged from the writing box holding, not a stack of starbucks, but a Cooper mini-bow.
Which might have been bad for John, had he not, in the same moment, been drawing the shooter he’d stolen from the Well-Dressed Thug earlier.
“Ah,” she said.
“Indeed,” he replied, and for a moment they stood face to face and shooter to bow.
Interesting, he thought, how quickly Sameen the airy flirt was replaced by Sameen the flint-hard killer.
“Coopers are famed for their accuracy,” she pointed out. “Shot for shot, they’ll hit their target more often than any plasma shooter on the market.”
“At a distance,” he countered. “But with barely more than a meter between us, I’d say it’s even odds we both die.”
“As much as it pains me to admit it, I believe you’re correct.”
“So, shall we call this a draw?”
“That would be terribly civilized,” she agreed. “However, that just won’t work for me—or my clients.”
“Yes, and they’re quite determined, so be a good boy, John, and hand over that satchel.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Of course you wouldn’t.”
“So,” he said after a contemplative pause and a bit of pointless staring, “now what?”
“Now? We do this the hard way.” As she spoke, her glance darted over John’s shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Colin?”
Colin? John blinked, but didn’t look.
“That’s right, Mary, luv,” a male voice with a lower comb Nikean accent replied from behind. “But then, I prefer it the hard way.”
“He really does,” Sameen—or Mary, rather—told John.
“Best put the shooter down, mate,” Colin said, “else you’ll see how hard I can make it.”
“Why would I give up my leverage?” John asked. “Seeing as I can get at least one shot off before either of you take me out.”
“True,” Mary said. “Except for the part where it isn’t you he’d be shooting.”
John had a sudden vision of Jagati in Dyar’s Canyon, Tariq’s shooter to her head.
“Go on,” he heard Colin say, “tell the man what’s what.”
“But I don’t know what is what,” someone, most certainly not Jagati, responded to the prompt.
John wished it had been. Jagati, at least, would have stood a fighting chance.
His expression must have shown his change of heart, because Mary’s face registered an almost obscene level of satisfaction.
A heartbeat later John was turning to face Colin who, it turned out, was the Well-Dressed Thug from Xanadu, holding a shooter the twin of the one John had just placed on the desk.
And standing in front of Colin stood a small boy with wavy black hair, bronze skin, and eyes of an amber John had seen once before.
“Tell me,” he said to the child, “would your father happen to be named Tariq?”
The familiar eyes blinked up at him. “You know my papa?”
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