The Curse of the Winged Scorpion

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It was a short flight to the Aramantine air patrol base. Aramant was on the very edge of the Battlan Steppes. It was the last bastion of humanity on the edge of the miasma. The miasma made it impossible to fly over the Steppes, and also made most of the country unsuited for air flight. The Aramantine air patrol base was situated within the country’s only skyport perched on top of a jagged mountain cleft near the Tabrian border. It amused Fantel in a vague way to realise that they were actually flying back the way they had come, leaving Vedeca behind. She glanced over at Rashari, who continued to glare out of the window. It was impossible to know what he was thinking. He appeared to be sulking. The stiff way he held himself, from the tense line of his shoulders to the taut skin around his eyes made it clear he wasn’t open to conversation. Not that they could talk freely now at any rate. She was confident he would come back to life and lies once they landed. She returned her gaze to the view from the cockpit window.

The skyport over looked a deep valley and a serpentine curve of river far below. The city of Aramantine was visible in the near distance, the many walls of the fortress city curled around and around a high hill, and the lights of the city’s towers winked in the night. A suspension bridge stretched between the skyport-mountain and its opposite neighbour, and funicular railways climbed up and down from the skyport to the valley below. A steam-train thundered over the suspension bridge, powering its way around perilous bends to wind down the mountain and onward to Aramantine. The funicular tracks and the bridge were ablaze with rainbow light, strangely beautiful against the inky blackness of the sky.

Fantel sat forward curiously to watch as the patrol ship came into dock. She’d spent time in Aramantine before, and travelled extensively through the country, but had never set foot inside the skyport, let alone the air patrol base. She was a little disappointed to discover that the Aramite port looked almost identical to the one in Remenes; a hive of access ports and red flashing light towers pock-marking the dark mountainside. Lieutenant Roake flew the ship into one of the access tunnels and they floated through darkness picked out with faint pinkish light. They emerged into a hangar bay indistinguishable from any other hangar bay in any other sky port in Aldlis.

Docking was swift and uneventful. Fantel stayed seated as the docking clamps snapped into place around the ship and the engines powered down. Beside her Rashari sighed, a soft tired sound, and shifted in his seat, wincing every time he moved his injured shoulder. He smelled over ripe; the reek of coppery blood and sweat had soaked into his clothes. He had not changed clothes before passing out at Vedeca’s controls. He looked a state. Fantel was grateful for her purloined clothes and the quick wash she had managed in Remus’ cabin. The still throbbing cuts on her arm pulsed quietly, reminding her that she would need to change the dressings soon.

They were escorted off the ship in single file. Tomah was taken first, pushed ahead by the female patrol officer. He turned around briefly to throw a black glare their way before he vanished from the cabin. Then it was their turn. The junior patrolman led the way, followed by Rashari and then Fantel, while the lieutenant walked behind them, his hand resting on his pistol holstered to his belt. Fantel could feel the weight of his eyes on her back as she walked, but took it as a good sign that neither she nor Rashari had been shackled.

The hangar stank of phantasma fumes and Fantel sneezed before she could stop herself. “Keep moving,” Roake murmured at her back when she paused to look around. Metal walkways spanned the wide, deep expanse of the hangar and scaffolding climbed the walls. She could see human men and women in cream and pale hellow uniforms move purposefully around the hangar. Flocks of boxy, propeller driven automatons zipped through the open spaces between platforms. They trilled softly as they went, camera eyes flashing over the resting airships in swathes of glowing blue light. It took Fantel a moment to realise what was wrong with the scene. There were no goblins. The skyport in Remenes had been teeming with goblin engineers, but Fantel could not see a single short, cloaked figure anywhere in the hangar. It was incongruous and wrong. The hangar would have looked less odd without a single airship than it did without a single goblin.

They were led up a series of ramps and metal stairways toward a wide bank of glass windows high up on the far side of the hangar. Fantel could see more humans in uniforms on the other side of the bank of windows. It looked like some kind of control hub filled with desks and terminals. They were marched through a security door, the anima sigils framing the wide doorway flashing silver-white as they passed through the threshold, and into the room beyond.

“Argyle,” Lieutenant Roake stepped ahead of Fantel as soon as the security door had sealed closed behind them, addressing himself to a sandy-haired man seated behind one of the larger terminals directly in front of the door. “We’ve got one prisoner to process and two – guests – who need an escort to interview room five.” Roake flicked an ironic gaze in their direction. Fantel mostly ignored the exchange, curiously looking around at the wide open office space filled with faintly glowing desk terminals. There was a hush in the room, one filled with the quiet weight of concentration and the subliminal hum of sensor pads. Fantel glanced over at Rashari, who caught her look. One side of his mouth ticking up in a smile; he leaned in so he could whisper for her ears only. “Wonders of bureaucracy; I’ll bet half the people in this room are just staring at a blank screen.”

Fantel arched one brow but refrained from comment. She was supposed to be a mute savage after all. She was perfectly blank faced and impassive when Roake twisted around to scowl at them, having caught the faint murmur of Rashari’s voice.

“Mr Rousseau, if you’d follow Officer Argyle to one of our waiting rooms, my commanding officer will be with you shortly to take your statement.” He said, throwing Rashari a bladed smile. The man behind the desk came around toward them, eyes fixed on Fantel warily.

“And my associate,” Rashari nodded to her and Fantel shifted her weight from one hip to the other a little impatiently. She had been willing to play her part so far, following Rashari’s lead, but she was not prepared to be put in a cage like an unruly pet.

“The Chimera stays with you,” Roake said his gaze resting steadily on Fantel. “So long as you think you can control her?”

Fantel twitched just a little at that and Rashari huffed a startled laugh, which he swiftly covered by pretending to cough into his hand. “I think Madame Chimera is more than capable of controlling herself,” he murmured, the dry edge to his voice more in keeping with his true self than the supercilious Imperial he was currently pretending to be.

“Hmm,” Roake watched them coolly. Fantel had the feeling he was trying to work something out. He was already suspicious, doubting Rashari’s story. Yet whatever suspicions he might harbour he was still at least pretending to go along with Rashari’s lies. She wondered what would happen when someone asked Rashari for his official papers and discovered that he most definitely was not a zoologist.

“This way please,” Argyle spoke with a stiff, officious curl to his lip and spun sharply on his heels, not waiting to see if they would fall into line obediently behind him.

They followed Argyle passed the bank of desks and humming terminals and through another security door, down a corridor and deep into the bowels of the base. Fantel could almost feel the weight of the mountain above and all around them. There was something disconcerting about being so close to Mother Aldlis’ beating heart and yet not be able to hear even a whisper of her presence. She wondered what it was like for the humans who worked here, burrowed deep as ticks in the ground, ignorant of the power of the land they bent and broke to their will so casually. Did they feel powerful surrounded by their technology and concrete, or did they sit in fear of the mountain crashing down on their heads?

“Wait in here please,” Argyle said stopping in front of an unmarked door half way down a long grey corridor. He fixed Rashari with a dubious look that seemed to linger on his blood stained clothing and wildly mussed hair. “For your safety the door will be locked. There is a call bell inside the room.” He narrowed his eyes at them both. “For emergencies only.”

Rashari smiled at the man, showing teeth. “And audio recording devices hidden in the walls for spying purposes. Yes, I think I know what sort of room this is.” He reached around the man and opened the door, nodding to Fantel. “Ladies first.”

Fantel stepped into the small, nondescript room. There was a square table and three chairs in the centre and no other furniture. The walls were bare and the floor was uncovered concrete. A single phantasma light panel set into the ceiling threw rainbow reflections across the table top. It looked like someone had upended an artist’s entire supply of oil paints onto the table and smeared the paint around. Argyle wasted no time locking them in. Fantel immediately turned to face Rashari questions writ large upon her face.

He pressed a finger to his lips, warning her to silence even though she had made no move to speak. He walked to the table and drew out one of the chairs. He sank down into it, wincing and clapping his good hand over his injured shoulder. Fantel grudgingly moved to the table and perched on the edge facing Rashari. Carefully she brushed aside his hand and pulled the open neck of his shirt down so she could see the wound. The skin was mottled with painful purple-black bruises that blossomed like roses over his pale skin. The wound itself looked angry; the skin split and torn, swelling around the edges of the tear. All the same the bleeding had stopped and his upper chest was no longer marbled with necromantic veins. Fantel looked up into his face, noted the faint hint of fever heating his cheeks, and the ghost of wariness in his eyes. She wasn’t touching his skin, but she could feel the ordinary warmth of living flesh radiating from him, completely different from the clinging, vicious chill that had iced his skin when Roake had tried to heal him. Once more she looked from his wound and into his eyes and saw the unspoken plea that she keep back her questions. He was more afraid of what she might know than he was of the Aramite authorities.

Fantel pulled away, settling back on the edge of the desk, and let her hands drop to her lap. There was dried blood ingrained around her nails and her arm still throbbed. She could feel blood from the saturated bandages seeping into the inner lining of her coat. She stared at the blank back wall and struggled to maintain her silence. Her mind was teeming with questions, like a shoal of silvery fish flashing and swirling in an ocean of confusion. She wasn’t angry, or in any way afraid to be so near to Rashari. What she had sensed inside him before had scared her, but sitting beside him now, even knowing he had dragged her into even more trouble, she was surprised to find that she had no desire to escape his company. She wasn’t angry. She was curious. She wanted to find out what was going to happen next. Would they be arrested and taken under armed guard to the Aramantine jail? Would Rashari manufacture some sort of jailbreak, perhaps with Smith’s aid? Fantel had taken note of Smith’s disappearance, and everything she had learned so far led her to believe that the automaton had deliberately hidden from the air patrol. She wondered about Vedeca. Rashari hadn’t been happy leaving his ship, but he had done so, which was surprising in and of itself. He’d also made no effort to hide from the patrol before they arrived. Fantel wondered now if he’d meant to be caught by the patrol all along. He seemed to have a back-up plan for everything and a plan for nothing. The suspicion that he was simply making things up as he went along was a powerful one, yet, surely he must have some notion of what he was doing? He’d told her he needed to get out onto the Steppes, but he hadn’t told her plainly what he intended to do with the Heart once there. Battlan was a wild and treacherous place, vast and ill-suited to humans, it was not a place to venture lightly.

Fantel drummed her fingers on the table top as she pondered the strange turn her life had taken in the last day. The silence between her and Rashari was comfortable, if not restful. Occasionally Rashari would shift in his chair, rolling his injured shoulder, or rake his fingers through his hair. Fantel let her gaze track over the walls trying to find the hidden recording devices Rashari had mentioned.

The door opened, shattering the slow crawling seconds of boredom. Fantel slipped off the table and turned around to face the door as a broad-chested man with a long, dour face and slicked back hair stepped into the room. The shoulders of his air patrol uniform had gold tassels, and Fantel guessed this must be Roake’s commanding officer. Affording Fantel a cursory –and less than happy –glance the man fixed his eyes on Rashari.

“Mr Rousseau?” His tone made it clear that he didn’t believe Rashari’s alias anymore than Lieutenant Roake had. “My name is Commander Arundel. I understand you and your – companion – had some difficulty tonight?” He sneered, fleshy lips peeling back from strong white teeth.

“If by difficulty you mean were we attacked by slavers on route to this very skyport, only to be forced to make an emergency landing and narrowly avoid becoming prize lots in the next Dha-hali slave auction then yes,” Rashari replied tartly. “We have indeed had a difficult evening.”

“Yes,” Arundel smiled, ignoring Rashari’s sharpness completely. “Lieutenant Roake said you claimed to have been the victim of a Dha-hali attack.”

Claimed?” Rashari snapped, incredulous.

“Yes,” Arundel repeated, neatly cutting Rashari off. “Claimed.” He sat down in the vacant chair across the table from Rashari, sparing a glance for Fantel. She stepped back to lean against the wall. “You see, my lieutenant also tells me that he found two dead men at the crash scene, and one Dha-hali chained up in the cargo hold with teeth marks in his neck.” Arundel smiled, conciliatory and insincere, gaze settling meaningfully on Fantel before flicking back to Rashari. “You must admit Mr Rousseau the circumstances are a little suspicious. How do I know you and your little friend over there aren’t the real slavers? You could have switched ships before my people arrived, seeking to pass yourself off as the victims when you realised you wouldn’t be able to escape.”

“That’s far-fetched.” Rashari stated, deeply unimpressed. He pointedly looked down at his bloody clothing. “I suppose I also beat myself up to make my little ruse that much more convincing?”

“Perhaps you did,” Arundel was still smiling but his eyes were hard. “You are not a zoologist Mr Rousseau and you are not in Aramant for tree frogs.” He sat forward, lacing his fingers together, hands resting on the table in front of him. “Your Dha-hali friend is a wanted man. There are warrants for his arrest in Tabris and Bhuvam. Air Patrol’s reputation will be greatly enhanced with his capture.” Arundel’s bottle green eyes gleamed under the cold ceiling light. “All of this has put me in a – magnanimous – mood. I might be willing to overlook any irregularities around your presence in my country,” he said smilingly, “If you make it worth my while.”

Fantel blinked, shifting against the wall, her gaze darting to the back of Rashari’s head. A bribe; the man had just asked for a bribe, hadn’t he?

“Make it worth your while?” Rashari drawled. He sounded bored and vaguely irritated and Fantel realised he was no longer pretending to be Lourand Rousseau at all. She wasn’t sure who or what he was pretending to be now. “I’m not sure I know what you mean, Commander.”

Arundel lost the smile, face falling into long creases. “You realise I can have you arrested for entering Aramite air space without authorisation?” He snapped, irked. “I can impound your ship, throw you into prison, and toss your pet over there out onto the Steppes to be torn apart by the other savages.” Arundel leaned further forward across the table, hands braced on the table edges. “I can charge you with murder. Provost Tuft is an enthusiastic proponent of the death sentence, Mr Rousseau, especially when applied to arrogant Imperials caught lying to government agents.”

“Well in that case,” Rashari said smiling and sitting up in his chair so he could lean forward until he was almost nose to nose with Arundel. “You can explain to old man LePortail why his cargo has been impounded.”

“LePortail,” Arundel sat back abruptly, deflating into his seat like a pricked balloon. He stared at Rashari, his expression a complex mesh of surprise, displeasure, worry and scepticism. “You work for LePortail.”

“I’m transporting something he wants,” Rashari averred, not quite answering the question. “I doubt he’ll be impressed if he has to retrieve his merchandise from the bowels of your base. He’s a reclusive sort, not fond of drawing attention to his imported purchases. Do you think the kudos you’ll get for capturing the Dha-hali will be enough to appease him?”

Arundel looked anything but happy now. “You could be lying,” he said, clearly clutching at straws as he scrambled to regain control of this interview.

“I could be,” Rashari admitted, easily enough. “You seem certain I’ve done plenty of that already.” He sat back in his chair and hitched his right shoulder in a slight shrug. “On the other hand I might be telling the truth. I might have something LePortail wants. He might, in fact, want to talk to me very badly about certain items that may or may not be in my possession as we speak. He might, possibly, be less than pleased to find out I was detained by your patrol on my way to meet with him.”

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