Once more, things take a turn for the worse
Fantel was alone once more. She felt cut adrift and didn’t know why. Solitude was her natural state; she did not seek companionship. She did not regret her sharp words. The idea was absurd. Rashari had tried to manipulate her; all his fine words and openness had been a ruse to lull her, to charm her, to make her…what? Go with him out to the Battlan Steppes? Was that really so awful? No it wasn’t, but his manipulation had been. He had deliberately manoeuvred events to force Fantel’s hand. She was sure he was lying about the Dha-hali believing her complicit with his plans, but it was a plausible lie. Therein lay the rub. If he could lie so plausibly, fabricate likely truths out of thin air to fit his own ends then it was wise Fantel had no more to do with him. There was no reason for her to feel in any way bereft.
Yet she couldn’t help replaying the day’s events in her mind, seeing them not as they were, but as the Dha-hali might see them, or rather as Rashari had claimed the Dha-hali would see them. Fantel was not well practiced in the art of considering perspectives other than her own and some part of her balked at doing so now, yet, the more she thought over Rashari’s warnings, the more improbable her innocence appeared, even to her.
The Dha-hali slavers had ambushed her in the Kitvik badlands beyond Tabris’ northern border. She’d been returning to Danitz and the Wayfarer’s guild there after tracking down and killing a wyrm that had been attacking homesteaders. The Dha-hali had ambushed her in a storm; the lightning and thunder disguising their approach until it was too late. Fantel was certain her capture was nothing more than the product of her inattentiveness but Einar might think differently. Wayfarers were fighters and nomads, employed to deal with the wild beasts and occasional Battlan fiend plaguing the roads of Aldlis. Fantel had been a wayfarer for several years; she was no easy meat like Tamaki. Perhaps the Dha-hali would believe she had been involved with Rashari from the beginning and had conspired to have herself captured. Perhaps they would even believe she too was part of this Veridree raider fraternity? The idea seemed ludicrous to Fantel, yet, Malpus, perhaps her only true friend and fellow ‘farer, had told her of others in their trade who greased their palms with Raider coin. Maybe Rashari had not been entirely disingenuous when he claimed Einar would think her involved in his schemes.
Not that it mattered. Fantel had no real purpose, no home, nowhere to go and no one who would miss her should she vanish from the face of Aldlis entirely. Not in the way Tamaki had, certainly not the way it had been when she was still Chimeri and part of the Great Pulse. The truth was Fantel had been captured not because she had been unlucky but because she had been careless; careless of her life; a life with no true value. She had not sought slavery by any means, but neither did she have anything to show for her freedom; her existence was rootless and drifting either in chains or without. Her work as a Wayfarer was merely a means to pass time, and aside from Malpus she had little connection to others of her ilk. Wayfaring was dangerous and solitary work. Those drawn to the vocation were either non-humans who could not find a living in human towns or vagrant souls who had little to live for, save force of habit. If she was honest with herself she was not truly concerned about the danger Rashari might have brought upon her. She did not relish being in the Dha-hali’s target sights, but nor did it unduly disturb her.
Why then had she become so angry? Standing in the silent back room, catching the faint murmurs of song and conversation filtering in from the main tavern, Fantel found that she was no longer upset about Rashari’s manipulation. In fact she was no longer so certain he had manipulated her at all. At the very least she was becoming increasingly certain his intent had been less deceitful than she had thought. Yes, he had told her about the danger she may or may not be in as a means of influencing her to help him, but was that not the way of all humans? Rashari had been no more or less conniving than most of his kind. He may even have believed he was telling the truth about the danger she was in. He had also told her about the scion stone, and about Nylous and the Veridree raiders; surely speaking so openly to a complete stranger about such things was dangerous for him? Fantel wondered why he had done that. Had he been trying to implicate her further, or had there been another reason?
Partners in crime he had called them. No one, not even Malpus, had offered her a partnership before. She could not imagine why anyone would, especially not a stranger who knew nothing about her. He did not know her crimes, her disgrace; he did not know that she was a wretched, maligned thing. He knew nothing about her. He had not even asked her for her name. He had never asked her anything at all about herself, but had willingly divulged a great deal about himself. What if all I want is the pleasure of your company, he had said and Fantel had dismissed him completely.
“Madam Chimera – is everything alright?” Meira, laden with a tray of empty tankards turned toward her wide-eyed as Fantel stepped through the door into the main tavern. Ignoring the human girl she scanned the room.
“Rashari,” Fantel began failing to catch a glimpse of a dark hair or a blood stained jacket amid the tavern patrons, “where did he go?”
“Oh – out.” Meira peered at Fantel curiously. “He said he was going for a walk to get a breath of fresh air. Why? Is anything wrong?”
“No.” Fantel said shortly, thinking to herself that he would not be back. His breath of fresh air would no doubt be found several hundred feet above the ground. He would fly away now, perhaps angry that he had failed to ensnare a partner into his schemes. It surprised her how easily she could see him in her mind’s eye, muttering to his automaton as he piloted Vedeca through the clouds, a sharp scowl scouring his features, dark eyes fixed on the far horizon.
“I will follow him.” She heard herself say as her feet propelled her toward the door of the tavern. If Meira said anything else she did not hear her. She would not have stopped even if she had.
The sun was beginning to set and the city inside the crater was thrown into purple shadow. The dying sunlight banded the sky in bars of orange-red, the evening clouds painted mauve and backlit with gold. The flood of people thronging the narrow city streets moved swiftly, a flowing current racing toward the residential sectors. Fantel manoeuvred around barrow-boys and city officials, street cleaners and bewildered tourists, her senses primed for any sign of Rashari. She made for the skyport, having nowhere else to begin her search, and certain in a way she could not explain that he would still be there. Ready to depart but not yet gone - waiting perhaps.
The market vendors were packing up their unsold wares when she arrived back at the square, pulling down the brightly coloured awnings, and dismantling the scaffold of the big marquee. A young human boy, perhaps nine or ten years old, dropped a wicker basket full of balls of brightly coloured wool. The balls of yarn bounced across the cobbles. Fantel bent down to pick up a red ball as it rolled over her foot, beginning to unravel. She ducked down between two empty stalls. She saw another blue dyed ball of wool sitting underneath one of the stalls and reached to snag it. She froze when she spotted two pairs of feet in silver studded boots on the other side of the market square. Quick as a weasel she peeked over the top of the stall. Two Dha-hali stood together at the mouth of the street leading toward the skyport. She recognised Tomah. Ducking back down again she froze, barely breathing, straining to listen.
“The Chimera must be here somewhere.” Tomah said, speaking to the other Dha-hali, a man with deep violet braids and a neatly trimmed beard.
“Brother, why do we bother with the Chimera? It is the Veridree raider we seek.”
“Our orders are to catch them both. The Dagoman was insistent. He wants the Chimera as well.” Tomah snapped. “The boy will have gone to ground, hidden away –in the city he will not stand out. But the Chimera is not so fortunate. She will be noticed, and she will lead us to the Veridree bastard.”
“Hey you,” The small boy who had dropped his basket pointed at the ball of wool in her hands, “give that back.” He too was hunkered down close to the ground, his child’s voice high and piping, but thankfully he was not speaking loudly enough to attract the Dha-hali’s attention.
“Shhh,” Fantel chucked the wool to him, darting another quick look over the top of the stall. Tomah and the other man had left the mouth of the side street and started toward the centre of the market square. In moments they would pass her. She slipped under the nearest stall, scuttling awkwardly down the line headed for the side street and the skyport. The stalls were simply tables covered in waxed cloth, anyone paying attention would spy her crouched underneath; she would have to break cover. She caught another glimpse of the twin pair of booted feet; they had turned toward her – beginning to walk down the aisle of stalls. The small boy stared at her, expression creased in bemusement; he would give her away in an instant.
“You boy,” Tomah snapped, “What are you –“ Fantel burst out of cover.
Vaulting over the top of another stall she dropped low on the other side, rolling beneath a table before getting to her feet and breaking into a run. The Dha-hali were in hot pursuit, she could hear them. Sprinting for the side street Fantel didn’t waste time looking behind her. She didn’t slow down as she hit the end of the street and ended up on one of Remenes main avenues. Hover-cabs zipped and nipped along the avenue, and rickshaws queued outside the imposing façade of a city hotel. Fantel ran right past an endless wall of store fronts, eliciting startled gasps from the owners of the expensive boutiques as they closed up shop. She did not slow down. The Dha-hali would not dare shoot her in the middle of one of Remenes’ most populace streets but she knew she could not outrun them forever.
Behind her she heard a woman cry out, a man shout, and a loud crash. Someone blew a whistle, the sharp shrill note piercing her ears. In front of her the skyport loomed at the end of the avenue; even now a steady stream of people flowed out of the revolving glass doors. Leaping off the curb Fantel dashed into the middle of the road, darting around the back of one hover-cab and barely dodging a passing horse-drawn carriage. Another sharp whistle pierced her ears. Someone ran into traffic behind her.
“Stop; in the name of the law I order you…”
Fantel broke out of traffic and dived for the main doors of the skyport. Startled pedestrians leapt out of her way. She hit the doors at full speed. Her first glimpse of the skyport’s foyer was of a high vaulted ceiling, mounted with enormous phantasma chandeliers, a wide expanse of pink veined stone flooring, and a scattering of proud columns decorated with tiny blue and green mosaic tiles. People milled around the lobby, baggage handlers manhandled luggage racks and a serried row of generically pretty young women, all dressed in the blue and gold uniform of the Imperial Aviation Company stood sentry behind a wall of dark wood desks at the back of the lobby, checking travelling permits and stamping boarding passes.
Fantel looked around; at the far side of the lobby she saw a sign directing people towards the private skycraft bays. Fantel ran toward the door.
“Stop that woman!”
Fantel shoved her way past a man in yellow robes and darted through the door. She knocked down a well dressed Imperial as she raced down a flight of metal stairs. The docking chamber was just as loud and busy as it had been on arrival. A group of cloaked goblins stared after her as she dashed down one of the platforms, jumped over the safety rail and fell ten feet unto a lower platform. She remembered that docking bay thirteen was near the far right wall. She almost ran straight into a motorised baggage cart, driven by a blank masked goblin, as it trundled along the platform laden with crates of beer and a rather attractive pine wardrobe. Flattening herself against the rails, Fantel sucked in a breath. A flock of flying automatons, resembling oversized dragonflies, zipped past her through the air as she hurried down more metal-clanging stairs. She dove under a hovering baggage float, rolled across the metal grating, jumped to her feet and vaulted over another railing. She was still being followed.
“Security – stop that woman!”
She could see Vedeca; the lavender flourishes covering the ship’s hull one of the most welcome sights she had ever seen. Though not as welcome as the sight of Vedeca’s captain jumping up from a comfortable slouch atop a large packing crate, bottle of Tabrian beer in one hand and a look of complete surprise decorating his face. Rashari stared at her agog as Fantel all but flew down the ramp, trailed by three skyport security officers and a Remenes city guardsman.
“Fly human,” she yelled at him still several feet away. “And be quick about it!”
He was fast on the uptake; dropping his beer he turned and darted up Vedeca’s lowered boarding steps. The group of goblins he had been sharing a beer with were equally swift to jump to their aid; as Fantel dashed across the bay and into the ship and the goblins closed ranks behind her. One of them threw aside his cloak and mask and spread his long, spindly arms – flaps of skin extended, opening up like the sails of a ship to stretch from his fingertips to his hips. The goblin jumped up, grabbed hold of the guardrail of the platform several feet above and clambered up on top, landing right in the path of Fantel’s pursuers. He bared needle point teeth in a vicious smile, blunt nosed, furred face creasing into a savage grimace. The humans skidded to a halt, startled by the goblin’s unmasked appearance, which gave his compatriots enough time to release the vice-clamps holding Vedeca in place.
Fantel slammed the boarding door closed behind her, spinning the airlock wheel. The ship shuddered, violet lights pulsing through the walls as Rashari started the engines. She hurried into the main cabin, quickly stepping down into the cockpit and gratefully sinking into the waiting co-pilot’s chair. Vedeca rose up, engines whirring to full life as Rashari banked gently to the left, breaking free of the docking bay and turning so they faced the nearest of the many exit tunnels. Fantel glanced out of the window; catching sight of the human security officers berating the goblins for allowing them to escape. She breathed out a sigh of relief.
Rashari shot her a quizzical look as Vedeca zipped past a lumbering skybarge, loaded down with rusty metal containers, and disappeared into one of the tunnels before skyport security could lock down the chamber. “So,” he said brightly as they popped out of the other side into the purpling sky above Remenes. “I take it you’ve reconsidered my offer then?”