“An early grave?” John echoed Jagati’s opinion. A warning shot from above seared the air above their raised hands and had him dropping his voice as the odor of spent plasma tickled his nose. “You’re exaggerating.”
“Not by much.”
“Either way,” he countered, “as I recall, this whole Errant Enterprises affair was your brainstorm.”
“Not just… Rory was there too, so… never mind.” Jagati’s own shoulders hunched at John’s sideways glance. She peered up to where the sniper’s rifle was little more than a reflective glint. “Suppose he saw us hide the satchel?”
John’s shoulder hitched in a shrug that rasped against rock wall behind, but said nothing.
During their argument, the clump of humanity which had emerged from the wedge-shaped tunnel grew nearer and separated, six of the party spreading out to surround them while the seventh strode up to where the trapped partners waited.
Shadow trader or not, Jagati had to admit the guy was worth a look —tall and rail thin, he moved with a loose-limbed grace that put her in mind of a jaguar. His features beneath the tanned skin were angular, and his hair a short-cropped wave of black which she guessed was silvering beneath the ubiquitous coating of Dyar’s Canyon dust.
The clothing under the open coat was rough, as one would expect of a member of the shadow trade, but his eyes, a compelling shade of amber, glittered with intelligence and his bearing was pure risto.
Under other circumstances, say when he wasn’t removing her shooter from its holster, Jagati could see herself buying the man a drink. “I believe there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“And I believe a misunderstanding,” he replied in a voice rich as the Fujian lowlands, “is when someone bumps into me and spills my wine.”
“Funny, I was just thinking how I’d like to buy you a drink,” she said, lowering her hands at his gesture.
“Tempting.” The man flashed a tight smile before moving to disarm John. “But I think not.”
“Okay.” She shrugged, opting to brazen it out. “How about you buy me one?”
Seven total on the ground, John counted their opponents while Jagati flirted. At least the one sniper, providing cover. He didn’t know how many were aboard the Errant. Perhaps Rory had spied trouble and taken it aloft.
He grunted and doubled over as the risto’s fist in his sternum interrupted his thought process.
“You would do well to pay attention,” the man murmured into John’s ear, “thief.”
Coming as it did from a member of the shadow trade, John felt this was a case of the wasp calling the hornet touchy.
“Okay, so…that’s no to the drink?” he heard Jagati ask as he pressed his hands to his knees in support.
“You have a sense of humor,” the fist’s owner replied as he turned his attention back to Jagati. “It may be difficult to imagine, but so do I.”
“You do…have a way…with a punch line,” John gasped out.
“Really?” Jagati shot a glare in his direction.
John recognized it as her are you okay glare and not the you’re a swarming idiot glare. He responded with the five by five wink, assuring her he’d not taken any permanent damage.
Seemingly satisfied, she returned her focus to the man in charge. “Heard any good jokes lately?”
“As a matter of fact.” The man gestured, “Just recently, from another uninvited comedian we discovered in our territory.”
On cue, the six outlaws circling them parted like a chorus in the Shakespeare Circus to reveal two more of their number, plus one of John’s, this last with his hands bound before him.
Rory McCabe gave an awkward two-handed wave that showed well-bloodied knuckles. Those, along with the swelling over his jaw, the torn suspender, and the way he pressed his left elbow to his side told her they hadn’t taken him easily. “Hallo,” he said with a level of cheer that didn’t match the simmering anger in his brown eyes.
“Go on,” the risto urged as Rory’s guards shoved him stumbling forward. “Share with your friends the joke.”
“Funniest thing,” Rory began, spitting a gob of blood into the dust at the risto’s feet, “this lot has themselves a lookout on the upper plain that gave them a brae view of the Errant coming in to anchor.”
Which explained what had happened to their airship—up to a point.
“How is E-everything on the Errant?” John asked.
Jagati’s pulse jumped at the hitch in John’s question, but she kept the bland mask in place—it was a particular skill of hers.
It was the risto in charge who replied. “Your ‘ship is in excellent...decent—” but his expression deemed that insufficient as well. “She is in as good a condition as when we found her,” he settled upon at last. “One of my pilots is taking her for a soar as we speak.”
“I hope the Errant is in better condition than Rory here.” Jagati felt John laying a suppressive hand on her arm and favored him with the now you’re being an idiot glare before looking at their captor. “If you’ll just call your people back, we’ll board our ‘ship and get out of your hair.”
“That I might be willing to discuss,” the risto said, gripping Rory’s shoulder. “But first—where is it?”
“Where is what?” Jagati asked, then cursed as the woman to Rory’s left buried the hilt of her sword in the young man’s kidney.
“Where,” the man said, holding Rory upright, “is it?”
“Oh, that it,” Jagati said even as John drew his breath to speak. “We dropped it aways back, on the other side of the rock that looks like a mammoth’s—”
“Deraun?” the risto interrupted.
Another of the surrounding party came forward.
“What did you see on exiting the Spider Crevice?”
“Wait,” Jagati held up a finger, her dark skin going ashen. “You telling me that teeny little tunnel had spiders in it?”
“After Rhys falling?” Deraun, a slight figure with pale hair and silver-gray eyes glared at Jagati, who assumed Rhys was the one she’d shot. “Him,” he pointed to John. “He had the cargo in his possession. He had it until he reached the Axis tunnel.”
Tariq looked at Jagati. “Pity,” he said, pointing his shooter at her head.
“It’s here,” John said over Jagati’s angry hiss. “We threw the satchel up behind those rocks.” He pointed to the outcropping behind them.
“Check it,” Tariq ordered Deraun, who started up the rock face.
“Wait,” Jagati said, “what makes you so sure he’s telling the truth? I mean, if I could be lying, so could he.”
“Is this really the time?” John asked.
She shrugged, seemingly oblivious of the shooter pointed at her. “I just want to know how it is everyone’s always convinced you’re the honest one.”
“I know he is telling the truth,” Tariq said, “because I can see what he values.”
“Got it!” Deraun yelled, holding on to the rock face with one hand and hefting the stolen, recovered, and now re-stolen satchel in his other.
“So much for treble the usual fee,” Jagati said with a scowl at John.
“Yes,” John said, tearing his eyes from the barrel of Tariq’s gun, still pointed at her head, “because that’s the takeaway here.”