The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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Lourand Rousseau Zoologist, at your service

Rashari swore emphatically and staggered fully to his feet, pushing himself up using the arms of the chair. On the floor at his feet the patrolman moaned pitifully. Carefully Fantel sat up, her muscles ached and her head felt heavy, senses cloudy. She watched Rashari warily. He was still cursing. Raking a hand through his hair he crouched down in front of the patrolman. He hesitated, clearly not wanting to the touch the man.

“Smith!” He bellowed, voice cracking. There was no answer. Smith did not appear. Rashari scowled, tense muscles jumping in his jaw. He was grinding his teeth. Gingerly he shook the patrolman by the shoulder, careful not to touch any bare skin. “Get up.”

The patrolman uncurled slowly, rolling over onto his back and blinking dumbly up at Rashari. Pain and fear still lurked in the depths of his eyes but was rapidly chased away by a rising tide of confusion.

“Come on man, get up now,” Rashari cajoled, shifting a little so he could start to help the man up.

“What happened?” The patrolman sat up slowly, staring at his hands lying limp in his lap. One palm was still sticky with blood, but the other looked fine, no trace of any necromantic taint. “My hand?” The man looked up at Rashari. “What happened? Who are you? What did you do to me?”

“What did I do?” Rashari managed to feign incredulity far more convincingly than he managed honesty. “I did nothing. You sir, are the one who saw fit to pass out on the floor of my cockpit. In fact, I’d very much like to know who you are and what you are doing on my ship.”

“I…?” The patrolman’s gaze darted from Rashari over to Fantel, who peered back at him from behind the chair. The man blinked, a little bit of awareness creeping in. “I’m Lieutenant Roake Dannihan, Aramantine Air Patrol. My team was dispatched to investigate an air crash.” Roake glared at Rashari. “You were found injured at the scene; necromancy poison.”

“Necromancy poison?” Rashari laughed. “I think you are mistaken sir. My – partner – and I were fired on by an unknown craft. I was forced to make an emergency landing.” Rashari waved vaguely at the interior of the cabin, presumably to illustrate his point. “We were boarded by slavers – the ruddy bastards dragged my partner and I aboard their ship.” He paused and glanced over at Fantel, smiling. “Thankfully Madame Chimera is a skilled combatant. Our attackers were greatly outmatched. The last I remember is trying to get the power back on so we could get airborne again.” Fantel and the patrolman both stared at him. His story was almost the truth, as far as it went. Lieutenant Roake rose unsteadily to his feet, Rashari mirroring him.

“We found two dead bodies on the other ship.”

“The pilot and one of the slavers, yes,” Rashari nodded affecting a look of earnest sincerity. The effect was tempered somewhat by his wild hair, chalk white skin and blood stained clothing. He no longer looked near death, but he certainly didn’t look well. Fantel couldn’t understand it. He seemed to weave in and out of health like a short circuiting light fixture, flashing brilliantly one moment, out cold the next. He looked human, acted human –most of the time –but there had been nothing human about that cold, hungry power she had sensed inside him moments ago.

“My partner killed one of the slavers – self-defence I assure you – and the other shot the pilot. I’ll be pit-damned if I know why.” Rashari rubbed his injured shoulder. “We subdued the raider; chained him to one of the cages in the hold. I disarmed him myself. His weapons should be around here somewhere.” Rashari looked around the cabin, with every appearance of helpfulness.

“Who are you?” The lieutenant looked thoroughly exasperated and his left hand, the one he had used to try and heal Rashari, kept twitching.

“Lourand Rousseau,” Rashari replied promptly, “second assistant gamekeeper for the Avenlieu Zoological Park.” He stretched out a hand which Roake deliberately did not shake. “I have identification papers in my cabin, as well as a letter of commendation, if you’d like to see them?” He smiled faintly, a faint whisper of the bluff cheer Fantel had seen him affect before.

Lieutenant Roake looked bemused at best, outright disbelieving at worst. “What business do you have in Aramantine?”

“Samples,” Rashari replied succinctly. “We have a number of Battlan animal species in our zoo, as well as a great number of plant species. Avenlieu is a leading partner in the Granine-Richlieu botanical expedition to catalogue and quantify the indigenous species of spine-backed tree frogs native to the Jannow forest region of the Steppes – perhaps you’ve heard of our work?”

“No.” Roake stated flatly and Rashari seemed to deflate, as if the news upset him.

“Truly,” He shook his head sadly. “Provost Tuft himself is a prominent supporter of the project. The work we are doing could revolutionise the field of medicine. Did you know the barbed, blue backed variant of the Greater Reisling tree frog secretes a form of chemical compound with a mild laxative effect?” Rashari asked with every impression of sincere enthusiasm for his subject. “Very useful in the treatment of bowel complaints and quite lucrative with the right processing and marketing.” He added with the air of one passing on confidential secrets.

“Tree frogs,” The lieutenant spoke in a flat voice. “You are here to collect tree frogs?”

“Oh no,” Rashari shook his head so vigorously he swayed and had to reach out a hand to brace himself against the back of the chair. He swallowed hard and waited for his dizzy spell to pass. “No, no. I’m here for spade grass. It’s germination season. Our last crop didn’t do so well in the arboretum so we need to collect some more of the spores.” He met the lieutenant’s eyes head on. “It’s all in my paperwork, I assure you.”

“And what about her,” Roake pointed at Fantel, who had remained in her crouch behind the chair the whole time. “Are you going to tell me she is a damned zoologist as well?” Contempt dripped from his tone.

Rashari stiffened, chest puffing up like an affronted dandy. “That sir is no way to address a lady.” He rebuked the man. “Madame Chimera is a valued member of the Avenlieu staff. Her native knowledge has been invaluable in our research so far.” Rashari paused and shuffled his feet. He looked down as if suddenly uncomfortable. “We also found that having a – native – supporting our expedition made things…safer.” Rashari very deliberately did not look back at Fantel as he lowered his voice and leaned in toward the lieutenant. “I have paperwork for her as well, proving that the Chimera is the property of Avenlieu zoo and the Richlieu zoological academy.”

“She’s your slave?” Roake peered at Fantel, around Rashari’s shoulder. Fantel gazed impassively back. For the time being she felt it the wisest course of action to play along, no matter how unhappy she might be about playing the part of Rashari’s savage escort.

Rashari twitched uncomfortably. “I prefer the term ‘partner’.”

“Your Chimera killed a man and attacked another. Is she dangerous?”

“She was acting in self defence and to protect my person – as she is supposed to do – and, I would like to remind you, those men were slavers who attacked us unprovoked.” Rashari shot back quickly.

“So you say.” Lieutenant Roake flexed his left hand reflexively down by his side. “You and your Chimera are coming with me. My commanding officer can verify your story back at the base.” Roake turned to go.

“Wait,” Rashari reached out for his arm, stopping just short of touching him when the lieutenant flinched. “What about my ship? I’m not just leaving her here.”

“My crew has called ahead. A tow vessel will be dispatched to bring both ships back to base.” Roake frowned severely. “I don’t trust you, zoologist. Your vessel will be impounded until we get to the bottom of this mess.”

Rashari snapped his jaw shut on whatever protest he was going to make and visibly ground his teeth together. He looked anything but happy. After a second his shoulders slumped and he nodded shortly. “Very well Lieutenant. I have nothing to hide so I will acquiesce to this imposition on my time. However be assured that Arnault Avenlieu himself shall be informed about this. He will not look gladly on any delays to the mission.” All wounded dignity and ineffectual threat Rashari jerked his chin and looked down his nose at the lieutenant. “And I must say I am not impressed by your manner, Lieutenant. Do you treat all the victims of air attacks you come across with such callous suspicion and discourtesy? I have half a mind to lodge an official complaint.”

“You’re welcome to do whatever you want, and tell whoever you want,” Roake replied unimpressed. “Once you’ve given a statement to Commander Arundel.”

Rashari huffed but didn’t object as Lieutenant Roake gestured for him to leave the cockpit. He turned back to Fantel and extended his hand. “Madame Chimera?” With his back to Roake Rashari let his act fall by the wayside. Fantel could see something close to fear tightening the skin around his eyes. His fingers shook a little as he extended his left hand. The stone set into the centre of his filament studied palm was a shade of luminous green, paler than emerald. His body language screamed wariness. He was afraid of what she knew, or at least suspected. Afraid, she realised, of her. Unlike Roake Fantel had retained full memory of what had happened when the lieutenant had tried to heal Rashari. She knew something deadly lurked inside him. If she wanted she could ruin his plans, tell Roake what really happened. She could speak up now and expose his lie – all of them. She saw in his eyes that Rashari knew this, and yet he still reached out for her.

Slowly Fantel rose to her feet, sliding awkwardly out from between the chair and the cabin wall. She did not take Rashari’s offered hand. A flash of hurt crossed his face for an instant before he turned back to Roake with his mask in place. Fantel stood at his back, close enough for the purposes of their deception, but not too close.

Head held high and spine stiff Rashari strode out of the main cabin, Fantel at his heels playing the meek kept-Chimera. Lieutenant Roake followed them out of the ship, a confused, wary presence dogging their steps. Rashari didn’t look back as he and Fantel left Vedeca behind, but she did, wondering what had happened to Smith and whether the automaton’s convenient disappearance had anything to do with whatever plan Rashari was working toward.

The Aramite patrol ship was not much larger than Vedeca. Fantel and Rashari were shown to two seats at the back of the main cabin and told to sit there and not to move in no uncertain terms by Roake. Fantel looked around for any sign of Tomah, wondering if the patrol would take him back to base as well or leave him chained up in the cargo hold of his ship. A commotion back in the entranceway answered her question as the boy Dane and a red-headed woman in Aramite patrol uniform forced a shackled and resisting Tomah aboard. His neck had been treated and bandaged, the gauze very white against the rich reddish-brown hue of his skin. Unlike Fantel and Rashari he had evidently not chosen to acquiesce quietly to being taken to the base.

“You!” He snarled. He fought against the two patrol officers restraining grip when he saw them. His face was suffused with fury, gaze locked on Fantel. “You will pay for what you did to my brother.” He promised in Bhuvanti.

“That’s enough,” the female patrol officer struck him a glancing blow across the back of his head with the side of her torch. She was a tall, sturdily built woman who looked as if she might be a match for Tomah in a fight. Her broad, wind-burned face was tight with annoyance. “Sit down and shut up. That’s an order. Another peep out of you and I’ll sedate you for the rest of the trip.” She and the junior patrolman shoved and herded Tomah into a seat on the other side of the aisle, pushing him down and then cuffing his wrists to the chair-arms. Tomah said nothing, his muscles stiff with tension. He stared at her, unblinking. Fantel met his gaze, a quiet challenge in her eyes, and a willingness to meet any threat he might make and best it. Rashari, in contrast, remembered the part he was supposed to be playing. He made a show of alarm.

“I say,” he exclaimed, perfectly modulated quiver in his voice. “What are you doing? Don’t you have a holding cell to put this brute in? What if he escapes and attacks us again?”

“You’ll get yours too Veridree,” Tomah sneered, lips pulling back from very white teeth. “Your luck won’t hold for long.”

“You see,” Rashari shouted, pointing with his good arm and looking to Roake and then the two other patrol officers. “There! Did he just threaten me? He did, didn’t he? How can you let this stand? I’m a law abiding citizen of the empire I demand that you…”

The female officer strode across the cabin and smacked Rashari across the back of the head with her hand. “You can shut up too.” She snapped, with less vehemence than she had shown toward Tomah but considerably more annoyance. “You ain’t in your precious empire now, boy. You’re in Aramant. You follow our orders and obey our laws. And right now you’re going to shut your whiny little mouth.”

“Ha – brutality!” Rashari yelped before subsiding quickly when the woman threw a glower his way.

“Quiet all of you,” Roake had settled down in the pilot’s chair and Fantel saw him shake his left hand again before clasping the steering levers. Unlike Vedeca the Aramite patrol ship did not run using technomantic interface. It was probably safe to assume that this ship was just a ship, and not alive.

As they took off Rashari twisted to look out of one of the small porthole windows, looking down at Vedeca with a frown marring his face. Now that he had been ordered to keep his mouth shut and the members of the patrol were otherwise occupied, he didn’t seem as interested in maintaining the pretence that he was Lourand Rousseau second assistant gamekeeper of the Avenlieu zoo. He sank back into the chair, stifling a wince as he jarred his wounded shoulder. Fantel watched him out of the corner of her eye. He very deliberately kept his face toward the window, avoiding any chance of meeting her eye. They both ignored the fact that he clutched at the chair arms with bloodless fingers as if his life depended on never letting go.

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