The netter’s timing couldn’t have been worse. I’d been in Savajinn a week, looking for a knocker named Tarc. A whole bleeding week. When Tarc finally agreed to meet, at the Sick Savaj, that’s when the netter decided to show up.
Netters were all over Savajinn—had to be to catch their bounties—but only one was gully enough to walk into a Savaj pub alone. They called her Cold Crys, said she once took a bullet to the shoulder and smashed her ship just to net a guy worth a hundred notes—not even enough to pay the doctor to get the bullet out.
She walked straight to my table, ignoring the stares. She didn’t try to grab me or anything, just waited. Her rep didn’t scare me, but if she aimed to throw me back in the klack, I’d miss my meeting with Tarc, and then my daughter was good as dead.
I focused on the board in front of me like she wasn’t there. The swabber I was playing against—Tarc’s middleman, he said—had me in check. I moved my king out, away from the pawns. “So what are you doing here?”
“What do I do anywhere?” said Crys. Her expression was unreadable, hidden behind that black rag she always wore on her face.
“Aye, but here? Last time a netter grabbed a mark in this pub, he got swung from his own keel.”
She sniffed, but said nothing. The other thing about Crys is she’s always thinking ahead. You lose her in the streets, only to find her waiting for you in your safehouse. The way she strolled in there, all guns and blades looking for a fight, I reck she wanted me to run. No doubt she had guards at the exits to make sure I didn’t get far.
So I didn’t run, no sir. Truth is, I hoped she would leave, wait to catch me outside. I could talk to Tarc then maybe, learn where my daughter was, before figuring out a way to outsmart Crys. “What’s your next move?” I asked.
“Ain’t my turn. And you’re nutted.”
I thought she meant the arrest, but she was looking at the game. The middleman had put me in check again, soon to be ‘mate.
“No worries,” I said. “The pawns are safe.”
She gave me a queer look. “The king ain’t.”
“Maybe I ain’t playing to win.” She wasn’t leaving. I wondered if I was wrong. What if she wanted me to stay, and I was playing into her trap? Either way, I reck I wasn’t gonna see Tarc that night. But like I said, I couldn’t go back to the klack. Not yet.
I waved at the barkeep. “Heyya, baron! More whisk, aye?”
“Oy! Take your turn,” said the middleman.
“I will, Maggie. Don’t wet your sheets. Hey, baron!” I turned, bumping the table with my hip. A couple pieces fell over.
“Watch the game!”
“What are you flailing about?” I picked up the fallen pieces and replaced them. “There, we breezy?”
“Oh, aye,” he frowned, “so long as the king goes back here.”
“What are you on? I put it where it was.”
“You piking bastard.”
“Actually, he’s right,” said Crys.
I smiled inside. Loud enough for the whole pub to hear, I said, “Oh, that so, netter? You’re a bit out of your country to be telling a Savaj what’s what. Next they’ll be letting bleeding jacks in here, telling us what to do, aye? As for you,” I told the swabber, “if you ain’t happy with my king then why don’t you move it yourself!”
I lifted the table, dumping it on Tarc’s middleman. He took a swing at me, then the whole pub exploded. If there’s one thing Savajes like, it’s a good brawl, and none better than with a bounty hunter what doesn’t know her place.
I took my fair share of blows but managed to put some space between me and Crys. As for the men she had outside, it wasn’t hard to get them involved in the fight too, not once I pointed out they were with the netter. Once they were busy, I got away clean.
About three blocks down the road, I turned two corners to an alley to catch my breath. I was fair certain nobody had followed me, but that didn’t mean I was safe. No place was safe with Crys in town, even if the brawl had caught her off guard, which I doubted. She must have known, walking into the Sick Savaj like that, she was picking a fight with the whole bleeding pub.
I had a bigger problem, though. With Crys on me, and me billying with Tarc’s middleman in there, I didn’t see how I’d ever find the knocker again.
“That was a fancy trick, gunner, with the checkers.”
I spun around. The man in front of me was small, wiry. His black hair and moustache fell flat and greasy around his face, and he held himself with all the confidence of a killer. I reached carefully for my gun.
“Easy, mate, I ain’t here to pack you. You’re Bancroft?”
“Aye?” My hand stayed on the pistol.
I shook his hand carefully. “Chess.”
“The game,” I said. “It was chess.”
“Whatever floats you. Listen, we best be flying. Won’t take your netter more than five minutes to get out of the pub, and less to find you here, aye?”
I nodded and followed him to the street. We walked to the docks quickly, but casually. No sense drawing attention we didn’t need.
“What did B’Lasser tell you about me?”
I shrugged. “Just said you needed a crewmate, aye?” Though B’Lasser had told me fair more than that. He told me who Tarc was and who he’d been hired to kill. That’s why I’d escaped and why I sought Tarc out in the first place. Of course, I wasn’t going to tell him that, not until my gun was at his head and Jillan was safe.
“I’m a knocker, mate.”
I gave him my best blank stare. “Knocker?”
“Aye, you know. Grave filler, troubleshooter, hitman.”
“Really? Who all d’you kill?”
“Depends who’s paying. Welly ain’t getting his money on time, wants to make an example. Or a govvie wants his election won the easy way. Mostly it’s just folk though. Good old revenge.”
A chill climbed my spine when he said revenge. “Sounds like you work alone then.”
“In the main, but I need someone to help fly the ship, do lookout—turner stuff. Last guy, well... he went crying to the jacks without permission, get me?”
“So you in?”
He was bleeding chatty. I reck he’d told me enough that, if I said no, he’d pack me right there. “What about the netter?”
“Crys, right? You know I heard she killed her husband for five notes and a pair of boots.”
“You don’t mind I got a netter on my keel?”
Tarc shrugged. “Who doesn’t? This is my ship, here.”
The airship was small—a single room enclosed in an oblong egg of ironwood, with two propellers at its stern. It was the ship of a man who traveled light and fast. The tanks that stored the ultra-light cydium gas were built flush with the upper hull; the ship was a dropout—so called for the way pirates would dump their cydium and drop suddenly out of the skies to surprise their targets. A useful feature for someone in Tarc’s line of work.
Tarc climbed the rope to board the ship, leaving me to untie it. While he climbed, I had a clean shot. Ain’t nothing he could’ve done. Maybe I should’ve done it; he was gonna kill my daughter, after all. But knockers were rain in the ocean—kill one, there’s always more. If I wanted to keep Jillan alive, I needed to know who hired him.
Course, I would’ve preferred to find Jillan myself, take her somewhere safe. But between the two of us, Tarc was the only one who knew where she was.
♦ ♦ ♦
It was two long days to Asimont. Tarc wanted us flying through the night to stay ahead of Crys, so we took shifts—me in the day, Tarc at night.
There ain’t much to do on an airship built for two. I’d stoke the burner at times, or make sure the dropout was flying straight, but mostly I was stuck in my thoughts.
I thought about Jillan and the dark I’d put her in. I’d always been afraid one of my old bosses would find out I had a daughter and use her against me. That’s why I kept her hid all those years. Apparently, I didn’t hide her well enough.
Unfortunately, all those years being hid didn’t sit well with my little girl either. When she grew up, and got some morals different from her Pa, she hid herself from me too.
I was never a good father, I admit. But I’d be bled if I was going to let her die for my mistakes, no matter what she thought of me.
Tarc was awake for a couple hours at the beginning and end of my shift, and those hours were longer than the ones I spent with my thoughts. He was chatty as a guiro-bug. I swear I don’t know how he handled the night hours all alone. Maybe he talked at me while I slept.
He didn’t just talk, though. He asked questions. The more he asked, the more chary I got that he’d figure out what I was doing—that one of his marks was my little girl, and that I meant to stop him.
“So what put you in the klack?” he asked the second night.
“I was a junk runner. Smuggled munitions into Salvadora.”
“Aye? How’d they net you?”
I shrugged. “Same way they net everyone, I reck.”
He laughed. I didn’t like to tell him any more than I had to. I’d already let slip that I escaped from prison. At least he didn’t ask why; I guess the regular answer’s good enough. I didn’t want to lie more than I had to either—afraid he’d see through it.
“Do anything before that?”
“I was a merc,” I grunted, “in the war.” Played double agent, too, but I didn’t tell Tarc that. It was a common enough story for a merc, I reck, but it was also why Jillan was in trouble. I didn’t want more questions in that direction.
“Merc, eh? I like mercs.”
That worried me. Nobody liked mercs. “Why?”
“Mercs got enemies. Enemies hire me.”
“Aye? Like who?”
Tarc wagged a finger. “That’s naughty, that is. Never ask after a knocker’s employers.” He looked to the skies as if he saw something, though we hadn’t seen anybody since we left Savajinn. “Besides, I never know them anyway.”
Damn. Though I don’t know why I expected to get the answer so easy. I thought again about packing him then, but I couldn’t decide which was the bigger risk: trying to find Jillan before another knocker came, or letting Tarc lead me to her.
“So you gonna tell me where we’re headed?” I asked. We’d been flying over land for half my shift.
“Not far. Got a couple of marks here in Asimont.”
“What’d they do?” Maybe one of them was the daughter of an old merc who took money from both sides.
Tarc scowled. “It was cute once, mate. Now you’re bugging me. Just keep to your business and let me kee–”
The dropout shook violently, and we both fell to the floor. With a crash, the stern dropped out of sight, leaving a gaping hole where one of the propellers used to be.
“Take an eye!” Tarc tossed me a spyglass.
I climbed the ladder and poked my head out of the top hatch. “Gunship closing fast! Ain’t got a name or colors though.”
“It’s your netter.”
“You sure?” I looked through the spyglass again.
“You know many gunships got no name?”
He was right. It was bad luck not to name a ship, but Crys wouldn’t care. I thought—maybe just hoped—that I’d missed the name, but sure enough, on second look, her hull was blank. Like Crys was giving Fate the finger.
With a puff of smoke, an iron chain sailed towards us. “Harpoon!”
Tarc slapped a button on the wall, and a hundred tiny hatches opened on the roof, releasing hot, ginger-scented cydium. The dropout fell a hundred meters in seconds, and the harpoon sailed safely overhead.
At least it should have, but instead of a harpoon there was an empty chain above us. The real harpoon—fired shortly after the decoy—hit us square in the keel.
I dropped to the bridge. Tarc stared at the harpoon that had bit into his hull. “We’re nutted.”
I looked around for some solution; I’d be bled before I gave up. Either we were getting out of this, or I’d kill the knocker trying. “Lose the cydium.”
“All of it, drop us till we’re swinging from that chain.”
“You’re loony,” Tarc said, but he hit the button anyway.
I grabbed a support beam. Tarc did the same while still holding the button. The ship pitched down as the cydium escaped and more of the ship’s weight was carried by the harpoon. It wasn’t long before the prow pointed straight down and Tarc and I were hanging on the walls.
“That’s as much as will go,” he said.
I watched the harpoon, hoping the weight was too much for it. Already the wood had cracked under its iron barbs. Nevertheless, it held strong.
Tarc shouted, “Hold on, gunner!”
“What?” I followed his gaze out the roof hatch. Where there should’ve been clear skies ahead, I saw a mountainside.
I barely had time to tighten my grip before we crashed into the trees. Glass and wood shattered as the ship was dragged upside-down across the mountain. I dug my fingers into the support beam until my nails bled.
Finally the keel gave way; the harpoon shot out. With nothing holding us up, the dropout slid into the trees and collapsed on the jungle floor.
I let myself fall onto the ceiling—now the floor—of the airship. Whoever built it had built it tough. I got away with nothing more than bruised ribs and a hangover.
Tarc winced as he stood up. “Nice. Got a follow-up?”
I shrugged. I hadn’t thought much farther than getting off the harpoon. “Run?”
Tarc grunted his assent, but he didn’t leave the wreck right away. Instead, he opened a door hidden in the floor above him. He pulled out a length of cord and a box of firesticks. The cord hissed when he lit it. “Now we run.”
Headache or no, we ran like monks from a whore. A minute later, the hillside exploded in a shower of flame and kindling.
I picked myself off the ground. “Think she’ll buy it?”
“Don’t matter. She’ll have to search to be sure. By then, we could be halfway to Grenai.”
“Who’s in Grenai?”
Tarc was chatty, but not stupid. He didn’t answer, just turned and walked down the mountain. I had no choice but to follow.
♦ ♦ ♦
It was midday before we reached a town. I was too tired to care which one. Tarc, who’d slept just before the attack, offered to keep watch until nightfall.
“We ain’t safe in a wayhouse?” I asked.
“Weren’t safe in the skies, were we? I reck there ain’t anywhere safe.”
I was about to ask how he ever slept thinking like that, but I was out as soon as I hit the pillow.
Next thing I knew, Tarc shook me awake. “Move it, gunner. We gotta go.”
I bolted up, wide-eyed.
“Easy. Crys ain’t found us yet.”
What was I doing? Jillan, right. I had to find Jillan. “Where are we?”
“Bendarin. Got a couple marks to pack, then we can fly.”
The marks were here? “Which ones?”
“I told you to keep that flack to yourself. Ain’t your trouble, and you don’t want it, breezy?”
I said no more as I followed him into the street, but my heart clogged my throat. How was I going to find Jillan before he packed her? Was she here in Bendarin, or did he have marks somewhere else too?
Tarc slowed down, investigating the townhouses pressed together on either side of the road. When he found the one he was looking for, he told me to stay outside. “Jacks come sniffing, you pound on that door, breezy? Knock and holler like your wife threw you out.”
I nodded. Tarc didn’t enter the house he told me to knock at, but one across the street. He worked at the door a second, then slipped inside.
I waited a moment, then ran to that house. The outside bore only a street number, no name. I looked in the window, but it was too dark to make anything out. I paced the front of the house, rubbing my hands like it was winter. If this was Jillan’s house, I had to stop him, but how? Worse: what if it wasn’t?
Pike it. I had to take the risk. I opened the door as quietly as I could and stepped inside. Nobody was downstairs, so I tiptoed to the second floor. Through an open door on the right, I heard a man pleading for his life. “Whatever they’re paying you, I’ll double it.”
“I doubt that,” said Tarc. “This ain’t the house of no welly.”
I poked my head in, but snapped it back just in time. Tarc’s pistol gouged a hole in the doorway. “It’s me!” I said.
“Jesus, mate, what the hell are you doing?”
I came around the corner slowly. “Sorry...” I needed a lie. Jillan was safe for the moment, but I still didn’t know where she was. All I could think of was, “The jacks.”
Without taking his eyes off me, Tarc drove his knife into the other man’s chest. “Didn’t I tell you to knock, they come?”
I glanced back and forth between Tarc’s gun and the dying man. The man gasped for air, his mouth opening and closing yet producing no sound. Mine did the same as I sought a reply.
“I’m starting to think that you—” Tarc stopped. Outside came a low rumbling—airship propellers. Tarc looked out the window and frowned. “Jacks.”
“I told you.” My voice shook, but the lie came easy then. “I didn’t want to draw attention, if we didn’t have it.”
Tarc thought it over, still frowning. Finally, he removed his knife, wiped the blood on the dead man’s nightshirt, and led the way downstairs. The jacks’ airship had passed by; they weren’t looking for us, not yet.
“You scared me,” Tarc said, reloading the shot he’d fired from his two-barrel pistol. “I thought you were cheating me, sure.”
“If I were gonna do anything, I’d have done it in your sleep, aye?”
Tarc smiled. “Aye, s’truth.”
Seeing I had his good humor, if not his trust, I hazarded a change of subject. “So one more, you said?”
“Aye. Once she’s done, we can blow.”
She. Jillan? How many marks might he have that were women? He hushed me before I could ask.
We came to a standalone house, with a fence and a yard. The yard grew chest-high, and the fence was rotted, held up only by the creepers that had grown over it. The boards that made the house looked just as rotted. “You sure this is it?”
Tarc motioned for me to stay on the street while he went to the front door. He found it unlocked and disappeared inside. I didn’t hesitate this time. I hopped the fence and ran through the tall grass to the back of the house. Sure enough, the door there was unlocked too, so I stepped inside.
I didn’t have a plan. I just prayed I could find her before Tarc did. As it turned out, she found me.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Jillan hissed. She’d come up behind me, held a knife to my back.
“Never come back. Remember me saying that?”
She was loud. He would hear. “Jill, listen—”
“I thought getting you arrested would be hint enough.”
I paused. I didn’t know she’d done that. “There’s someone in your house, Jill.”
“Aye, and he ain’t leaving.”
That stopped her.
“He’s been hired to kill you.”
“Why?” She was whispering now.
“I don’t know. I think maybe someone I played in the war is trying to get back at me.”
I expected that to produce a new string of epithets. Instead, her eyes widened and she breathed the word, “Seth.”
“Who’s Seth?” I asked.
Jillan ran deeper into the house. I followed her, tried to grab her arm, but I was too slow. She threw open a door, and a pistol shot rang out. She fell to the ground.
I leapt into the room and pulled a gun on Tarc.
“You piking bastard,” he said. He had his two-barrel aimed at me. He had a knife out too, but instead of a pleading man in a bed, it was a boy. Bleed it, the boy looked just like Jillan.
Jillan groaned on the ground behind me. I silently thanked God.
“Who hired you?” Mostly I was stalling. Now I’d found Jillan, I could kill Tarc and deal with other knockers as they came. But he had the boy, crying softly, under his blade.
“I knew you were setting to cheat me,” he said. “You working with Crys too?”
“Nay.” Crys melted out of the shadows to my right.
I drew a second gun on her. Tarc turned his two-barrel to her, then thought better of it and aimed at my grandson. “So it’s true,” he said. “You are the devil’s bitch.”
Crys raised empty hands. “Don’t do anything stupid, aye? I ain’t alone.”
Tarc grabbed the boy by his collar—he couldn’t have been more than five. Tarc held him close, a knife to his throat and a gun to his head. Slowly, he made his way towards me and the door.
I was nutted. If I shot at Tarc without killing him, the boy was dead. Even if I did kill him, Crys was there to take me in, and Jillan would be left alone. If I wanted to protect Jillan from the knockers, I’d have to kill Crys too. But I wasn’t sure I could hit them both.
Tarc came closer, his eyes darting quickly between me and Crys. I stepped aside, putting Tarc between me and her as he walked out the door. I still had a gun on each of them.
What was Crys’s plan? She wouldn’t have walked in there without one, but all she cared about was netting her marks. For all I knew, she’d let Tarc take the boy, if it meant catching him later. She might be willing to do that, but I wasn’t.
Tarc passed between us. He was skittish; he kept trying to look at both of us at the same time. Meanwhile, my shot was getting easier. If I were going to pack two at once, now was my chance.
Tarc turned his head at a noise outside. I took the chance and fired. At the same time, Crys dropped her hand, her sleeve exploded, and I blacked out.
♦ ♦ ♦
I woke to a bright light. Clouds. Sun. I was dead for sure, but when I glanced to the side, my brain went off like a cannon. The dead don’t get migraines, do they?
A shadow hovered, put a hand on my chest, a cold towel on my head. “Ask your questions,” said Crys. “Then rest.”
Questions? Since when did Cold Crys care to explain anything to her marks?
I tried moving parts of my body. Nothing hurt aside from my head, but my hands and feet were tied down. I heard the hum of airship propellers and finally figured out where I was. “Why ain’t I dead?”
“Wax bullet. Prison wanted you back alive.”
So that’s why my head felt like the devil had spit up my nose. Crys had had a gun up her sleeve. She’d come in empty-handed so as not to scare us into anything stupid. Or more stupid, I guess. “Tarc?”
“Nay,” she said.
“Didn’t need him alive.”
I breathed a short sigh. “And my daughter? The boy?”
“They’ll be right.”
I allowed myself a longer sigh.
Crys crossed her arms. “That was stupid, what you did. I admit I didn’t see it coming.”
“I ain’t always playing to win,” I said weakly.
I saw something—maybe admiration—in her eyes, but her expression was hidden behind the mask. “You ain’t like the stories I heard.”
She paused a moment, as though remembering something. She laughed. “You were saving your pawns, weren’t you?”
“Didn’t want Jillan getting killed on account of my sins.”
“Your sins? You think the knocker was sent cuz of you?”
She hesitated, probably deciding how much to tell me. “Jillan owed a welly some money. Weren’t about you at all.”
So... what then? It wasn’t my fight after all? But it was my fight. Whatever Jillan thought of me, she was my daughter, even if she’d brought the knocker on herself. “It don’t matter though. They’ll send another knocker. After you take me back, there’ll be no one to protect her. Jillan’s good as dead.”
“Nay, she’ll be right. Welly got his money, as it turns.”
The expression behind her mask was unreadable. “Cuz sometimes, pawn lives long enough, she gets to be a queen.”
“You don’t mean you...?”
She waved me quiet and said, “The stories about me ain’t true either.” Then she got up to see to her ship and crew.
“I... I’m sorry I shot you.”
“No worries. You missed.”