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On the upside, the stall Jagati had chosen provided an excellent view through the window John and Sameen were now approaching.
On the downside, the stall Jagati had chosen provided an excellent view through the window John and Sameen were now approaching.
Do not trust that wasp, do not trust that wasp, do not TRUST that wasp, she thought, her jaw clenched so tight it ached.
“Viper,” she muttered as the pair reached the desk.
“Odd, I was thinking the same thing,” a familiar voice told her.
Jagati looked over her shoulder. “Why didn’t I hear you come in?” she asked as Tariq stepped out of the shadows.
“Like the fog, I move on little cat feet.”
“That sounds like poetry,” she said. “I hate poetry.”
“Imagine how that distresses me. Ysabel,” he murmured, and Jagati’s eyes widened in surprise as Cheekbones slid through the stable door, her shock stick in hand.
“Hey,” she greeted the other woman. “What’s the buzz?”
Cheekbones smiled, a flash of white in the ebony of her face.
“If you please,” Tariq jerked his gun to one side, indicating Jagati should move from the window. “And leave the rifle.”
She sighed, but did as he asked.
Tariq handed his shooter to Ysabel, who kept it trained on Jagati while he took Jagati’s place in time to see Sameen step behind the desk, placing her back to the window.
Jagati looked at Ysabel. “I thought we lost you after the Hokey Pokey. How’d you find us?”
“I didn’t. After I left the pleasure palace, I reported to Tariq, and we came here together.”
Which made zero sense to Jagati. “Why here?”
“Because,” Tariq said, his eyes locked on the library, “this is my house.”
Jagati’s jaw dropped. “Your house?” She let out a low whistle. “I guess crime really does pay,” she said. “But wait, why would Sameen want John to deliver the cargo to your house?”
“Presumably because it is her house as well,” Tariq replied, adjusting the rifle’s scope before adding, “Sameen is my wife.”
“Whoa,” Jagati said. “So, your wife hired us to rob you?”
“That is what I originally thought,” Tariq responded after a beat. “But given the woman talking to your captain is not my wife, I may have been mistaken.”
“And it just got weirder,” Jagati observed.
Ysabel took one step forward, but said nothing.
“They seem to be having a dispute,” Tariq observed, then he froze, eye glued to the scope.
“What’s happening?” Jagati asked.
His response was a single word.
No, not a word.
Jagati’s fists clenched. “And who on Fortune is—”
“Izaldine El Karim,” the boy introduced himself to John, then looked at Mary, holding the Cooper-mini. “We are not to have such toys in the house. Mama says so.”
“Your mama is very wise,” John observed.
“They won’t let me see her,” Izaldine said with understandable resentment.
“Never worry about your mum.” Colin’s dark eyes locked on John. “You’ll see her as soon as Captain Pitte ‘ere gives over the cargo.”
“Izaldine is my son,” Tariq said from where he hunched, his eye glued to the rifle’s scope.
“So your wife isn’t your wife, but your son is your son?” Jagati asked before she could stop herself. “Sorry, but you have to admit, the situation is smogged.”
“Smogged, yes,” he eased back, studying the scene with his own eyes for a moment. “And dangerous.”
“How—” Jagati began.
“How dangerous?” Ysabel asked at the same time.
“At least one shooter,” he said. “Aimed at my son. The woman is holding something. I cannot tell what.”
Jagati stepped forward. “Let me take a look.” It said something, she didn’t know what, that he did step aside, allowing her access to her weapon.
“The woman’s not moving,” she said, peering through the scope, “but the man with your kid? That’s the thug from Xanadu.”
“I told you of him,” Ysabel said to Tariq.
“He’s pointing the gun at John now,” Jagati reported. “And not-Sameen’s moving and—shit!” The expletive came out as a hiss. “She’s got a Cooper-mini. I hate those things.”
“It looks as if your captain is about to give them the satchel,” Ysabel noted from Jagati’s left.
“And when they get what they want?” Tariq asked. “They’ll not need a hostage anymore.”
“Actually,” Jagati said, “that won’t be the problem.”
Inside the library, Mary pulled a battered allusteel case from John’s satchel and set it on the desk. “This doesn’t look a thing like the box our contact described.”
“That’s because it isn’t,” John admitted. “My mechanic broke the original case, so he gave me one of the old toolboxes from his workshop. It isn’t pretty,” he said, “but at least it stays closed.”
“And locked.” Mary looked over to where John and young Izaldine now sat on the couch, Colin covering them with his shooter.
The situation might be dire, but Izaldine, having found his airship in the cushions, was now contentedly running the wheels at the bottom of the gondola over his lap, over and over.
John wished he had such an effective distraction.
“So,” Colin said as he glowered at John, “where’s the key, then?”
“Jacket pocket,” John told him.
“And?” Mary asked, setting the box onto the desk. “Were you planning on giving it to me?”
John looked askance at Colin. “I’d like some assurance I won’t be shot when I reach for it.”
“Life’s full of risks,” Colin pointed out.
John sighed, then with his right hand slowly reached for the inner breast pocket. Once the key was in his hand, he held it up and, when Mary put out her own palm, tossed it to her.
“What do you mean, he does not have the cargo?”
“Exactly what I said.” Jagati didn’t roll her eyes, but only because she was still following the action in the library. “Once we saw what was in that box, John figured Sameen didn’t have any more business owning it than you. Looks like she’s asking John for the key,” she reported.
“We need to get inside,” Tariq said. “They may seek retribution on my son.”
Jagati shook her head. “We need to wait.”
“For what?” he asked.
“For Pitte’s signal.”
He didn’t respond.
“Too late,” Ysabel said. “He’s already gone.”
“You’d better go after him,” Jagati said, toggling her rifle to active.
“Because if you don’t,” Jagati said as she set the fire control to single burst, “he’ll be getting a face full of signal.”
A rush of footsteps in straw told her Ysabel had taken her advice.
“Okay, Pitte.” Jagati took a deep breath and aimed at the most effective window pane. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Do you have any idea what’s inside that box?” John asked, watching Mary insert the key into the lock.
“I know it’s worth a pile of starbucks to the people payin’ us,” Colin said.
“No doubt,” John pressed. “But did these people tell you what it is?”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Colin shrugged his opinion.
“And that doesn’t strike you as risky? Taking on an unknown retrieval?”
“You didn’t ask me what I was sending you after,” Mary pointed out, jiggling the key, which was sticky.
“An unusual lapse on my part,” John admitted. “And after laying eyes on the cargo, one I regret.”
“Naughty thing, looking where you shouldn’t,” Mary told him before letting out a pleased, “Ah ha!” when the lock clicked open.
“Trust me,” John said, “you do not want to look in that box.”
“On the contrary.” She shrugged off his warning. “I want to know what someone would pay a crystal bed to get back. Who knows,” she added, flipping up the box’s latches, “maybe it’s worth two crystal beds.”
At which point John was already turning towards Izaldine so he had the child under the cover of his body when Mary lifted the lid and the crystal-bang inside the toolbox went off.
Jagati closed her eyes just before the woman opened the case. As soon as the bang went off she opened them again and took aim.
Still wrapped around the boy (and the toy airship), John rolled to the floor, then hunched, turtle-like, over Izaldine as he nudged him towards the library door.
A few flashes of plasma, followed by an explosion of glass, told him Jagati was doing her job.
So, it seemed, was Colin, who came leaping out of the smoke, shooter in hand, as John and Izaldine reached the fireplace.
“Go!” John ordered the child as he spun to block Colin.
Izaldine, however, had other ideas, and while the two men grappled with the shooter, edged around behind Colin.
John, meanwhile, got his left hand free to throw a left hook that connected with Colin’s jaw, stunning the mercenary enough that his grip on the gun loosened.
But before John could take custody of the weapon, Izaldine latched onto Colin’s right leg, slamming at it with his airship.
“Bloody swarmin’ gnat,” Colin hissed, kicking his leg, causing John to look down and that, in turn, allowed Colin to regain control of his shooter, which he then shoved into John’s throat. “Keep it up, kid,” he said, “and your mate loses his head.”
“I don’t think that will happen,” John said.
Colin grinned. “Why not? D’ya think the gnat’s gonna give me any grief?”
“No,” Tariq said, his own shooter live and aimed at Colin’s head, “but I will.”
“Papa!” Izaldine released Colin’s leg and turned to his father with a gap-toothed grin. “Hello Ysabel,” he added, waving to the tall woman at the door as if explosions and fisticuffs in the library were a natural occurrence.
While Tariq greeted his son, Jagati, who’d made the dash from stable to window, stepped through the shattered panes and into the library, where her boots crunched through melted blobs of glass and splinters of wood.
Through the tatters of remaining smoke she saw Tariq doing unto the Well-Dressed Thug as the Well-Dressed Thug had meant to do unto John.
Izaldine stood at Tariq’s side, looking so proud of himself she threw him a salute with her rifle then, without so much as looking, she swung the butt of the rifle sideways and into Sameen’s chest before the woman, who’d been hiding under the desk, could swing the remains of Rory’s toolkit at Jagati’s skull.
A whooping sound emerged as Mary staggered back, followed by the clatter of the toolbox onto the littered floor.
On the other side of the room Ysabel disarmed Colin and Tariq crouched to face his son.
John eased away from both Colin and the fireplace, nodded to Ysabel, and was just turning towards Jagati when a soft snick, followed by an equally soft grunt, had him spinning to see Tariq slump to one side, the fletching of a small crossbow bolt sticking out of his shoulder.
“Jagati!” John caught the falling Tariq at the same time Mary, still at the window, lowered the Cooper-mini she’d concealed under Rory’s toolbox.
Jagati spat a word that had Izaldine’s jaw dropping in awe at the same time she gave Mary’s legs a sweeping kick that dropped her flat on her back, amidst the busted glass.
Mary yelped and started to scramble away from the cutting shards, but the business end of Jagati’s rifle had her easing back.
A shadow fell over the two women. They looked up to find John glaring down at Mary.
“There was no reason to shoot him.”
“True,” she said, “but then, I was aiming at you.”
“Do we need her?” Jagati asked.
“For a few moments, at least.”
John, Jagati, and Mary looked up to see Tariq, pale but standing, one arm draped over Izaldine’s shoulder.
“Oh, good,” Mary said. “You survived.”
“You won’t,” Tariq said. “Unless you tell me what you’ve done with my wife.”
Under the shadow of Jagati’s rifle, Mary’s eyes shifted, obviously calculating. “You know how this sort of thing works—you give us something we want and we give—”
Whatever it was Mary meant to give went unsaid, because a heavy fwump from outside had everyone looking to the window, where a long, knotted length of several types of fabric unfurled to the wet ground.
This was followed by a slim, dark-haired figure slithering down the makeshift jump line before coming to a shuddering halt in the box elder.
“Sorry,” the figure said, hanging tight to what looked like a counterpane, “so sorry. I heard the noise, and figured this was a good time to make the proverbial break for it.”
“Mama!” Izaldine beamed.
“This mean I can’t shoot Mary?” Jagati asked.
“Or him?” Ysabel said, eying Colin, who met her glare for glare.
“Jagati,” John murmured.
“Ysabel.” Tariq shook his head, though his eyes remained locked on the woman hanging onto bedding. “Delbar-am, it is good to see your face.” He started forward, only made it one step before he stumbled and caught himself on the desk.
“Delbar-am,” she repeated the endearment. Then her head tilted, her mouth quirked. “I see you’ve been shot again.”
Though her dark eyes shone with mischief, there was something else—something lurking just beneath the levity—that had John looking away. Which was when his eyes caught on the crutches he’d spied earlier, and he looked back to where Izaldine’s mother still clung onto the bedding—as if to hold herself upright.
“Oh,” he said, then, without thinking, stepped around the desk, edging behind Jagati and over the windowsill to where the real Sameen waited. “If I may?” he asked, holding out his arms.
“Of course,” she said with a grin and a little whoop of glee as John swept her into his arms and through the window.
A moment later he left Sameen perched atop the desk between her husband and son, who was clambering up to her lap, already explaining how he’d found his airship.
While Izaldine chattered, John returned to the window to pick up the crutches.
For reasons she couldn’t comprehend, John’s chivalry towards Sameen escalated Jagati’s need for violence—and here she was with no one to hit.
She glanced over at the desk to see what Tariq made of John’s gallant show, but one look told her the shadow trader barely registered John at all.
His eyes were for his wife alone.
Not what she expected from the man who’d threatened to skin her crew back in Dyar’s Canyon. Oddly uncomfortable with this new, human version of Tariq, she turned away at the same time John handed the crutches to Sameen.
“Thanks,” she said, the smile turning over her shoulder to include Jagati, “both of you— whoever you are.”
“Oh,” John began, “that’s a—”
“That’s a long story,” Jagati said. Then rolled her eyes.
“One that can wait,” Tariq said. “At least until I’ve dealt with these...people.” His gaze fell on Mary who, for the first time, looked nervous.
“Will there be skinning involved?” Jagati asked.