The greeting, as brittle as it was chipper, had Gideon groaning as it shredded through the fog of his concussed dream.
“Still feeling poorly, are we?”
Gideon cracked an eye open to see Rory, crouched at his right side. “Poorly is how a guy feels when he’s hung over,” he said. “What I’m feeling is an order of magnitude past that.”
“Good!” Rory said, giving Gideon a vigorous slap on the shoulder before setting a cold pack, somewhat less vigorously, against the back of his head until Gideon’s right hand rose to hold it in place. “That means you’ll think twice before trying a cocked-up move like that again.”
Gideon wasn’t so sure of that, but at the moment he had other concerns, first among them not being able to recall precisely what those concerns were.
Then another man crouched down on the wet tarmac to Gideon’s left, and he remembered one of them.
“I saw you die,” he told Eitan Fehr.
The man who’d been his second-in-command so many years ago shook his head—which sported much longer hair than it had back in the day.
“You saw me fall,” Fehr corrected. “A bad fall, but into the river below, so not quite fatal.”
Gideon’s gaze held a moment, then tracked down, pausing at the point on Fehr’s left arm where his hand used to be. He looked up again.
“That came after,” Fehr answered the unvoiced question. “After the river carried me into Illyria.”
Which would have been bad, Gideon thought—very bad, as Illyria, being an Adidan protectorate, held with the practice of slavery.
The locals preferred the term indentured servitude, but few, if any, ever managed to become outdentured, and prisoners of war, as Fehr would have been, weren’t even offered the chance.
“I’m sorry,” Gideon said.
Fehr looked down at the hand that wasn’t there. “You could not have known. I understand,” he continued, “others were not so fortunate. Walsingham, young Carver…”
“Them, I saw buried.” Gideon pushed himself to a seated position, so he could look his former lieutenant in the eye. The world wobbled some, and Fehr set a steadying hand on his shoulder. Once certain he wasn’t about to pitch over, Gideon continued the thought, “With you among the living, we lost five, all told.”
Fehr nodded, once up, once down. “I know.”
“Yeah?” For some reason that just made it worse for Gideon. “And how exactly do you know? Was it Pitte who told you?”
“Most of it, yes.”
“And you’re okay with it?” Gideon asked, uncomprehending.
At this point Fehr looked at Rory, who cleared his throat. “I’ll just get back to yon engine pod, shall I?” The young man sprang to his feet. “Be sure t’keep that cold pack in place.”
Gideon slapped the pack back in place, then remembered something. “Wait!”
Rory paused, looked back.
“What about Jinna?” he asked. “And where’s Mia?” He was going to ask about Elvis too, but a chirrup and a flutter of wings told him the draco was parked atop the gondola.
“Jinna is aboard the Errant, as it seems she’ll be traveling with us for a spell,” Rory said, his pleasure in that fact obvious. “Mia’s keeping her company for the nonce, and Jagati’s off t’fetch supplies and dig up some intelligence on your man, Del.”
“He’s not my man,” Gideon said shortly. “Or my problem.”
Rory stared, but to Gideon’s relief did not point out that by bringing Jinna to the Errant, Gideon had waded hip deep in a problem not his own.
“So, how is Pitte doing, anyway?” Gideon asked, more because it seemed politic not to antagonize these people any further than because he cared about Pitte’s well-being.
“He’ll survive,” Rory said, visibly tamping down the flicker of anger before turning to Fehr. “Jagati’ll be back soon, I’d think, and we’re aloft soon after.”
Fehr nodded, though he never took his eyes off Gideon. “You have questions,” he said.
Gideon met the calm, nearly black eyes. “A few.”
“Understand,” Fehr began, “I do not speak of Illyria.”
“All right.” Given there were a few moments in the Barrens Gideon would be happy to never bring to light, he could accept that. “How are you on the whole, working for the man who murdered half your company, and shot you off a cliff?”
“John did not fire those cannons.”
“Fired, ordered fired.” Gideon waved that off, “It’s all the same thing.”
“Except John was not the one giving those orders,” Fehr insisted. “The orders came from General Rand. Captain Pitte refused to comply, so Rand had him removed from command—forcibly. Once the Kodiak returned to Epsilon, Pitte was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.”
Which might, Gideon thought, explain the look on Pitte’s face, and the weird-ass apology.
My fault, but not… not mine.
Except wasn’t that too easy? Too convenient? Would General Rand, with all his careful planning, have ever risked flying with a captain who would balk when the time came to eliminate Gideon?
“This is what he told you?” he asked, unable to reconcile what he was being told with over six years of focused hatred.
“No,” a woman’s voice broke in. “That’s what I told him.”
Gideon looked up to see the inimitable Jagati had returned, hoisting a burlap sack held by a strap over her shoulder, and a crate against her hip.
He’d thought her intimidating before, during that brief glimpse as he was blacking out. But in the cold light of slightly concussed, she was even more formidable, even with her gun holstered.
“Which would mean something if I knew you,” he said evenly, “but I don’t.”
“Point,” she replied tersely. “Like I don’t know you. Which is why, until Fehr spoke for you, I was ready to dump your unconscious ass in the river. Lucky for you, I listened.”
Had that coming, Gideon thought, suddenly weary as the last dribbles of fury evaporated under Jagati’s glare. “I’m listening now,” he said.
It was not quite an apology.
She was not quite impressed.
“Should have thought of that before you tried to throttle my captain to death,” she told him, adjusting the strap on the burlap sack and swinging around to stomp up the gangplank.
Halfway up she stopped, swore, and looked down at Gideon. “Long and short, Pitte never got to explaining the whole Rand thing to Fehr. He just apologized for not taking Rand out when he had the chance. He’s never forgiven himself for that.”
The way she looked at him, Gideon got the impression she’d never forgiven Rand.
Join the club, he thought.
Lifelong member, her gaze seemed to reply, before she broke the contact and looked at Fehr. “I got some dirt on the granddaddy,” she said, “Killian Del.”
“It is bad?”
“Bad enough. Between him and the smog-fest our job has turned into, I’m pushing for us to be aloft ASAP.”
Fehr hissed, but all he said was, “Understood.”
Jagati gave Gideon one last, fulminating glare, and finished stomping her way into the ‘ship.
“She’s fairly impressive,” Gideon said, after a beat. He moved the cold pack long enough to gently knead the contusion, and winced. For certain she’d made an impression on him.
“She is at that,” Fehr agreed. “Jagati is also a solid officer, and a good friend.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it, seeing how she pretty much hates me.” Then he looked more closely at Fehr, still in that animal-like crouch. “Don’t your legs start to cramp up, sitting like that?”
“No.” Fehr almost smiled. “There is more,” he added, his voice lower than previously. “About Rand. It may also relate to what happened at Nasa.”
Gideon waited, wondering what more there could be.
Certainly falsified orders, five murders, Pitte’s ruined career, Gideon’s imprisonment, and Fehr’s enslavement were plenty to lay at Rand’s regulation-shined boots.
“There is a chance Odile was somehow involved.”
“Odile,” Gideon echoed the name.
Fehr’s head dipped.
“As in Odile, the super-secret spy inside the Corps? The spy Command only found out about because our unit intercepted one of Odile’s couriers?” he asked. The Odile General Satsuke believed was still active? he thought. “That Odile?”
“That one, yes.”
“Huh,” Gideon said, peripherally becoming aware of three things.
One, his butt was freezing, but sitting on damp tarmac in the middle of the night could do that.
Two, the Errant’s engines were emitting the sputtering hum of power-up.
And, three, there was no such thing as coincidence.
The first and second things he dealt with by clambering to his feet, where he found himself steady enough to walk to the prow of the gondola, and therefore away from the increasing clatter of the Errant’s less-than-spanking-new engines.
“Did you get this from Jagati, too?” he asked Fehr as the other man joined him. “The word on Odile?”
The usual nod became a single, slow, side-to-side shake. “I… learned of it in Illyria.”
During that time he didn’t talk about, Gideon thought. And sure enough, Fehr’s face was stretched tighter over the bones, and there was, in those dark eyes, something old, and cold, and utterly unforgiving.
A something, in other words, that Gideon could respect, so he didn’t press for details. Only the basics, like, “Did what you hear implicate Rand?”
“The name Rand was mentioned,” Fehr confirmed, looking away, but Gideon didn’t think he was seeing the airfield.
“In what context?” Gideon asked.
It was a moment before Fehr answered. “It was mentioned that Odile and Rand were one and the same.”
Which, Gideon had to admit, he was not expecting.
Unfortunately for Gideon—or, more importantly, for Gideon’s obsession with Jessup Rand—further discussion of Rand-as-Odile had to be tabled, as first Mia, and then Captain Pitte came down the gangplank, followed in short order by a worried-looking Jinna.
Fehr took the opportunity to move away, as if by physically distancing himself from Gideon, he could also achieve distance from his past.
“He’s one of my favorite classical writers.” Pitte was gesturing at a book Mia was clutching to her chest. “Next time we’re in Nike, you can tell me if Rory sounds as much like Pratchett's wee free men as I think he does.” Then he glanced at Jinna. “Though it may be a while before we drop anchor in Nike.”
“I really don’t want to be any trouble,” Jinna said, with the air of someone continuing a previous discussion.
“So you’ve said,” Pitte replied, confirming Gideon’s supposition. “But lately, trouble is pretty much the Errant’s stock in trade.”
As if on cue, the port aft engine sputtered, whined, and ground to silence.
“I’m on it!” Rory shouted from within.
Jinna’s worry-face dialed up to consternation.
“Really,” Pitte said, “it always works out. Eventually.”
“It’ll be fine,” Mia said, foregoing the treasure of the book to thump her friend on the shoulder.
“Yes. Absolutely,” Jinna said, although the glance she cast, from Pitte, to the one-handed Fehr, to the ‘ship itself, was dubious.
Gideon couldn’t say he blamed her. He looked past the young woman to see Pitte was studying him.
“So,” Gideon said to the man he’d throttled, “you’re okay?”
“Couldn’t be better,” Pitte said, then, seeming to find that insufficient, added, “I should have taken care of Rand. If I was going down for dereliction anyway, I should have taken care of him.”
“Not to worry,” Gideon told him, looking to where Fehr stood, watching, “I will.”
Fehr’s head dipped, almost imperceptibly.
Gideon returned his attention to Pitte in time to see the protest forming in his eyes, but then the port engine sparked to life, causing Elvis to jump from his perch on high to land on Gideon’s shoulder, where the need to soothe the draco’s hissing displeasure prohibited any further discussion.
Only minutes later, the Errant was ready to rise, and Pitte was escorting Jinna into the airship.
Gideon put Elvis in Mia’s custody and sent her to a safe distance before he stepped between Fehr and the gangplank. “One last thing.”
Fehr, who Gideon knew could have gotten past, over, or through him without so much as breaking a sweat, stopped.
He met his former colonel’s eyes. “Ask.”
“Who gave you the information on Rand?”
Fehr looked up over Gideon’s shoulder as he answered, “A ranking member in the Midasian military.”
“This guy have a name?”
The dark eyes slid to meet Gideon’s. “That would not help you.”
“You don’t know that,” Gideon insisted. “What Rand did to you, to Carver, Pitte—even a witness from Adidas could go a long way towards proving his guilt. Especially if it turns out he was acting against the Colonies the whole time. ”
Fehr shook head. “You do not understand. Knowing who told me would not help you, because the information was given me by a dead man.”
Gideon blinked. “That… is quite a feat.”
“To be fair,” Fehr said, “he did not know he was dead at the time.”
After which he strode around Gideon and into the Errant, leaving Gideon alone, and hoping he never ended up on Eitan Fehr’s bad side.
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