The Longest Shard, originally published in spring of 2020, is a time-hopping prequel to Soldier of Fortune, and offers no spoilers.
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Gideon’s breath huffed out as the arrow of Renny’s explanation struck home, then again as Renny’s blade swept in.
Metal spade clanged dully against stone dagger, and then both men were leaping back to reset.
“You’re saying you murdered your commanding officer?” Gideon asked on a pained breath.
“What choice did I have?” Renny asked, the shard weaving in front of him. “What choice did you leave me?”
“You had the advantage of surprise,” Gideon almost spat with exasperation. “You could have disabled them, taken their radios, and made your escape.”
“And what makes you think it could ever be that easy?”
“Because I’ve done it,” Gideon replied. “A lot.”
“Of course you have,” Renny snarled. “Because you’re nothing but a thief.”
“So are you,” Gideon told him. “I’m just better at it.”
Renny’s response to that was less wordy and more stabby, and Gideon was hard pressed to defend against the series of feints and jabs before he got a good slice to Renny’s shin, sending the Adidan limping in reverse.
“There’s only one thing I don’t understand,” Gideon admitted as Renny dug in, blood and sweat dripping.
“And what is that?” Renny asked as he delivered another broad slash.
“Why today?” Gideon dodged the first swipe, parried the second, shoved Renny off.
“What do you mean?” Renny pushed off the wall of the defile.
“I mean,” Gideon said, dragging in a pained breath, “for over two years you’ve been taking jabs at me, but you’ve never been this… rabid,” he decided. “Why are you so smogging mad now?”
“I’m so smogging mad,” Renny said with clear disgust, “because you remembered him.”
“What?” Gideon asked, straightening. “I mean, who?”
“Horatio,” Renny hissed the name. “A grifter. A nobody. A piece of trash you passed on the street… once. And yet, years later, he shows up in the Barrens, and you remember every detail of that moment.”
“Ah,” Gideon said. “Well, I—”
“You took everything from me!” Renny cut in, spit flying as he threw his arms out wide. “Everything! And for over two years, I have been in your face, dropping hints the size of mammoth turds as to where you went wrong but not once—not once—could you remember me, or where, or how we’d met.”
“I can see how that would be upsetting,” Gideon agreed while, on the ground behind Renny, he caught a shimmer that did not come from the crystal bed.
“Upsetting?” Renny echoed, the anger in his expression shifting to the more familiar murderous. “Did anyone tell you you’ve an annoying ability to understate the matter?”
“It’s a gift,” Gideon agreed, his glance flicking from Renny’s shard to the shimmer and back.
“Allow me to give you another,” Renny said, hefting his shard.
“Okay, but do you mind ducking first?” Gideon asked.
Without waiting for a reply, he spun the spade in an overhead arc, aiming directly for Renny’s skull.
Lucky for his head, Renny did duck, slicing at Gideon at the same time.
Gideon felt the sick tearing of the shard parting flesh even as he altered his angle of attack, driving the spade, not into any of Renny’s parts, but straight down and into the ground, where it bisected the viper that had been about to bury its fangs in Renny’s leg.
At his side he heard an intake of breath, looked over his shoulder to see Renny spinning to stare at the two halves of a viper twitching their last.
Renny swore, then spun again to glare at Gideon. “Why?”
Gideon’s mouth opened, though he had no idea what he meant to say, and anyway, by that point he was starting to notice the bleeding, which was becoming insistent.
Looking down, he saw thick dark stain spreading over the sweat-stained gray of his shirt, making a mockery of the paltry trickles on his chest and arm. “Oh,” he said, and then felt his knees give way. “I think that’s where you got me the first time,” he added, pressing his hand over the wound.
“Answer the question,” Renny demanded, as if Gideon hadn’t spoken.
Gideon looked up to see Renny kneeling in front of him. “I guess I don’t want you dead?” he ventured.
And while he didn’t know what reaction he expected, it certainly wasn’t to see the ice storm of Renny’s hatred melting into a pale and wretched grief.
“You should,” Renny said, his head weaving back and forth, much as the viper’s had, just before Gideon killed it. “You should want me dead.”
“Probably,” Gideon admitted.
“But you don’t.”
“Why?” Renny asked again.
“Because I lied,” Gideon said, his head tilting as he eyed Renny’s face, which seemed suddenly to be framed by shadows.
“You’ll have to be more specific.”
“About Horatio,” Gideon clarified.
“I don’t understand.”
“I lied about knowing Horatio,” Gideon explained through teeth clenched against all manner of pains. “I never laid eyes on the guy before he stepped off the airship, last week.”
“You pretended to know him?” Renny’s expression blanked. “Why would you do that?”
Gideon shrugged, but the pain of that motion had the darkness around Renny’s face shuddering and sending out blobs of black. “Classic de-escalation,” he said, while the spade he’d forgotten he held dropped from numb fingers to thud to the ground. “Learned it from my fagin. Someone’s in trouble, you make sure the trouble sees them as human. Better chance of survival. Pavel had to see Horatio as one of us, so I made him one of us.”
“One of us,” Renny echoed, glaring at Gideon.
Idly, he wondered if Renny planned going for the throat or the heart.
He hoped he didn’t aim for the gut.
Gut wounds were the worst.
Then, much to Gideon’s surprise, Renny took him by the shoulders and helped ease him the rest of the way to the ground.
“I’ll send someone,” he said, then shoved himself to his feet, turned away, and strode out of Gideon’s shrinking range of vision.
Why? The well-worn question wafted through Gideon’s thoughts, a brief flicker of light as the dark finally closed over his eyes.
* * *
It wasn’t until he woke in the infirmary—again—that he learned Renny had indeed sent help, and while the COs were sorting out how to get Gideon back to the prison, had turned on his heel and walked away.
And kept walking.
“Why?” Gideon asked, out loud this time, but to that Doc had no answer.
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