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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“I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going.”
Gideon, leaning in the open door of Nyal’s cell, watched as the young man dropped a satchel containing his recently returned belongings to the floor with a gentle thud.
“I don’t believe not going is an option,” Doc said from where he sat on Nyal’s cot, already stripped of its bedding. In his lap was a stack of books, pamphlets, and newspapers bequeathed to him by the newly paroled Nyal.
“It should be,” Nyal insisted, spinning to face the medic. “I don’t know what to do out there!”
“I do,” Pavel said. He was looming at the rear of the cell, holding the replica of the Fujian Opera House Nyal had fashioned from bits of cardboard packing materials hoarded from the mess and infirmary. “What you must do, as soon as you get off the transport, is take a five-star from your allowance, go directly to Red Crystal Alley, and get your lance waxed.”
Nyal’s skin darkened with embarrassment.
“I think Nyal’s concerned more about the long term,” Gideon offered.
“Oh.” Pavel shrugged, carefully because of the opera house. “Maybe you could be robbing another bank?”
Nyal made a strangled noise and plopped down on the cot next to Doc.
“You know, you don’t have to go back to Delta,” Doc said gently.
“But that’s the thing,” Nyal said. “It doesn’t matter where I go, because anywhere I am, I will always have killed that guard.”
“And you’ll always have to carry that,” Gideon said, shaking his head at Doc’s warning glance. “But the fact you own up to that? Nyal—that’s one of the main reasons you’ve been paroled.”
“But no one asked me if I wanted to be paroled,” Nyal snapped, then dropped his head into his hand. “I’m telling you, I can’t do it.” He buried his head in his hands.
Now Gideon looked at Doc, but he apparently had no better idea than Gideon what to tell the young man.
Gideon turned to see Horatio jogging up the walkway to join him. He was slightly breathless, and holding a loose sheet of paper in his hand. Behind him, Kneecaps was trotting along as fast as her short legs would carry her.
“Gideon,” Horatio nodded, then looked inside the cell. “Nyal!” He squeezed himself into the cramped space. “Keepers,” he huffed, resting his hands on his knees. “I was that afraid I’d miss you.”
“Actually…” Nyal began.
“Only, I just spied that model of the Allianz colonial library you gave t’Kneecaps,” he said, overriding the other man. “It’s—smogging magnificent! It’s the bees swarming knees! It’s the bear dog’s bollocks! Isn’t that what I said?” he asked Kneecaps, who’d come puffing to a stop next to Gideon.
“He did,” she gasped. “He said exactly that. It is a wonder, Nyal,” she said after heaving in a deep breath. “Thanks for leaving it with me.”
“Oh.” Nyal shrugged, still looking miserable. “It’s nothing. Just a way to pass the time.”
“Bollocks to that,” Horatio waved him off. “Have you seen the thing?” he asked Doc, then continued before he could respond. “Our Nyal managed to build a replica, to scale, of the swarming Allianz Colonial Library—with a removable roof and detailed interior—out of nothing but playing cards and spent matches.”
“Is that where my cards kept disappearing to?” Doc asked.
“Ha,” Nyal said.
“If I was you, I’d be right chuffed,” Horatio said to Nyal. Then his eyes latched onto the opera house in Pavel’s hands. “Keepers in the blooming comb,” he breathed, all admiration, and took a step forward.
“Mine,” Pavel growled.
Horatio took a step back and turned back to Nyal. “What you have, mate,” he said, his expression suddenly serious, “is a gift.”
“It’s just making things. More out of habit than anything,” Nyal said with a shrug. “The modeling helped me plan heists back in the day. When I was a thief,” he added. In case, Gideon supposed, anyone in the prison cell had forgotten this. “It was all I ever knew, the thieving.”
“Now you also know how to harvest crystal,” Pavel pointed out.
“I hear it’s a booming industry,” Gideon said. “Sorry.” He held up both hands as five pairs of eyes and an elbow from Kneecaps hit him. “Sometimes it’s just too easy.”
“At least here I have a place. And friends,” Nyal said, looking up at the others.
“You have friends,” Doc assured. “But there’s no future for you here.”
“There’s no future for me out there either.” Nyal gave the satchel a kick. “I don’t even know anyone outside these walls. Not anymore.”
“But that’s why I came runnin’ to find you before you scarped,” Horatio told him. “Because I know exactly what you should do when you’re back in the world.”
“If it’s anything to do with Red Crystal Alley, we’ve covered that one,” Gideon told him.
“Never a bad option,” Kneecaps admitted with a longing sigh.
“True,” Horatio agreed. “But I was thinking more along the lines of this.” He shoved the paper Gideon had noticed earlier into Nyal’s hands. “Ask for Marta,” he said, pointing to a section of the paper that Gideon supposed was an address. “Tell her I sent you. She’ll give you a place to be,” he promised, “and people to be with.”
Nyal looked up from the sheet of paper. “Are you sure?” he asked, his eyes filled with a terrified hope as they latched on Horatio.
“Trust me,” Horatio said, then winced. “But don’t tell Marta I said that last bit. Just find her, and show her what you can do with a matchbook and a set of playing cards. I promise, she’ll find a place for you.”
Nyal still looked uncertain.
“I believe you should listen to the little man,” Pavel said.
“Not that little,” Horatio muttered.
“Nothing wrong with being little,” Kneecaps added.
Pavel ignored the byplay. “You do have a gift,” he said to Nyal, nodding towards the opera house in his hands. “Maybe this Marta will help you use that gift. And,” he continued thoughtfully, “if it turns out little man is lying about this Marta, you send me letter, and I will break him for you.”
“Good talk.” Gideon gave Horatio, who’d gone quite ashen, a bolstering pat on the shoulder.
Nyal stared at Pavel a moment, then turned to Horatio. “I’ll do it,” he said, tucking the review in his shirt pocket. “And thanks.”
“It’ll be Marta thanking you,” Horatio promised. “Especially if you can show her you know your way around a thrust.”
“I thought we’d moved on from Red Crystal Alley,” Gideon said, stepping aside in anticipation of Kneecap’s pointed elbow.
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