It was true dark by the time Ruthy shoved him down into a clump of cattail grass and told him to sit, shut up and don’t even dare twitch. They’d been travelling for hours, first through the woods and then out on the plains. Rashari had no idea where they were. They’d passed through a narrow cleft in the Vay foothills and now the peak of Hy-mati-vy, the giant hill he and Madame Chimera had climbed to reach the Olim’g plain was just a memory, a black shadow lost in the general blackness of the night sky. He didn’t know if they were still in Olim’g or if they had passed out of ogdegre territory completely. Orienteering was not exactly a strong suit but Rashari still had the creeping suspicion he knew where they were going – and it wasn’t back toward humanity.
“Who are you really?” He asked Ruthy as she set about loading a broad barrelled gun with something that looked like a flare. They’d maintained complete silence for most of the journey. Now they seemed to have reached some manner of rendezvous point, if he was going to hazard a guess, and Ruthy was in the process of summoning her cronies, whoever they may be. Rashari was keenly curious to find out who she was truly working with (the djinn was a given, obviously, but as he was equally obviously some manner of hireling Rashari had decided he didn’t count). What he wanted to know was if Ruthy was doing this for Veridree. He was willing to bet his throbbing left arm that it wasn’t.
“I told you to keep quiet.” She snapped, without much heat, firing the flare into the night sky. It rushed upward several dozen feet and exploded in a lurid shower of red-orange light, sending winking embers falling groundward like the debris of an exploding star.
“I know, but I’m contravening that direct order.” Rashari rejoined easily, squinting against the brightness of the flare. Ruthy had lashed his hands together behind his back several hours ago and the narrow rope bit into his flesh unpleasantly. He suspected Ruthy had tied the ropes that tight on purpose. He’d lost all feeling in his left hand once more, a disturbingly familiar occurrence. He dreaded to think what the pins and needles would be like when his hands were untied. It would be ironic if after everything he and Madame Chimera went through to cure him of the Alraune infection he ended up losing his left hand anyway. “You might as well tell me, I’m going to find out sooner or later.”
“Then you can wait. I’m not here for your entertainment.” Ruthy thumped down into the grass opposite him. He could barely see her in the dark. Her face was a blurry, fuzzy white blob.
“I notice you didn’t deny that you’re working for someone, and if it was Nylous you’d just say so.” Rashari chewed his bottom lip. “Why did you chase me out here? What is that you want?”
“Maybe I want revenge?” Ruthy suggested, in tones of supreme boredom. He thought he heard the rustle of her clothing as if she was rubbing her arms to keep warm. It was a chilly night and there was no shelter out on the plain.
“What did I ever do to you?” He asked, a bit aggrieved. While he was absolutely sure that there were people out in the world with a legitimate reason for revenge against him he was equally sure Ruthy was not among them. He’d been scrupulously careful never to do anything to provoke her during those unpleasant few months she and Remus were an item.
“You did kill Remus.” She pointed out drolly. “You planned to betray him and make off with his ship.”
Rashari stared at her. “Not to be indelicate, but you don’t care a fig about Remus. You never did.”
He couldn’t be sure in the gloom, but he thought Ruthy smiled, sharp and bladed, in the dark. “If you’re so smart, why don’t you tell me what I want, hm?”
Rashari opened his mouth and then closed it. Oh, nicely done, Madame; nicely done. She really was good at this game. “No, no I don’t think I’ll do that.” He said drily. “I’m only likely to incriminate myself.” And if he was wrong, if Ruthy wasn’t working for DeLunde via some horrid, vicious twist of fate, then he most definitely did not want to give away anything of his past. Bad enough if she already knew, as he suspected she must, but it would be absolutely disastrous to give himself.
“Then I suggest you do what I told you and shut up.” Ruthy replied cheerfully and this time he could hear her smile in the sharpness of her words. “There really isn’t any way you can talk your way out of this. You are well and truly caught this time.”
She was probably right; probably. Rashari brushed the fingers of his right hand over his bandaged left palm. The situation was bad, without question, but it wasn’t yet dire enough to use his trump card. If he was right and they really were headed back to the Adaline Fault–well – call it fatalistic curiosity if you wished, but Rashari wanted to know what was going on there. Was Pandora up and running again? Had the Project ever even stopped; he’d thought he was delivering a crippling blow when he left, but he he now realised how naive that sort of thinking was. DeLunde could fail a thousand times to make another like him and they’d still keep going, undaunted. Collateral damage meant little to Project Pandora.
Maybe the rumours about the research facility in Adaline were coincidental and DeLunde had nothing to do with his predicament (and maybe Ruthy had kidnapped him to declare her undying love for him – the chance of one was as likely as the other). No, he couldn’t believe any of this was coincidence. There was only one reason DeLunde would venture back out to Battlan, and that was Project Pandora. Ruthy had known all about the Heart, after all. He had to accept that the DeLunde scientists were even now preparing for his return to captivity, restoring the old facility to working order and completely ignoring just why it was abandoned in the first place. Everything that had happened had formed part of an elaborate plan to draw him out here so he could be returned to DeLunde’s custody. He’d always feared that his father might be looking for him all these years. He wasn’t gratified to discover he was right.
The thought of facing his father again put his teeth on edge, but there was no evidence that would happen. It was easy to forget that Project Pandora was not just his father’s work alone. There had always been others involved. There was a chance his father didn’t know about him at all. If he was honest (which he wasn’t generally but some weaknesses must be faced before they tripped one up entirely) there was a part of him that might actually want to see his father again; in the way that one wanted to get a nightmare task out of the way, when the anticipation became too much. Sometimes the only thing left to do was to face your personal demons. Running away had done nothing to help him forget after all.
He’d given it thought over the years, whether or not he hated the old man for what he’d done and what he’d failed to do. He’d eventually come to the conclusion that he didn’t. He didn’t love the man anymore, not like he had as a child, or even when he was a captive in Scarria and still believed that his father’s primary concern was his welfare and not his own ambition, but he didn’t hate him. What would be the point? He was committed to opposing his father and everything Project Pandora stood for, but that was a matter of philosophy. It was a conscious decision to oppose something that was ill-considered and dangerous. It wasn’t about revenge. It wasn’t about a child lashing out at the father who hurt him and failed him. It wasn’t.
(Perhaps if he repeated the words enough times he’d actually believe them?)
All the small hairs on his body suddenly stood up on end and he tensed, whipping his head around, instantly sure there was someone behind him. A figure materialised out of the gloom, the faintest will-o-the-wisp quiver of sickly green light limning his silhouette. In the black emptiness of his face his rapier smile was still visible.
“’Ello, luv, got yer boy then, I see.” The djinn from the crash site stood right behind him, his trouser leg nudging Rashari’s shoulder as he brushed past and plopped down on the ground between Rashari and Ruthy like the inverted apex of a loose triangle.
Ruthy hissed like an angry cat. “You are late Jaquard.”
“Did yer miss me?” The djinn – Jaquard – chuckled warmly and snapped his fingers, igniting a column of green flame above his fingertips. The firelight striped his narrow face in bands of shadow and chartreuse. He looked like a plague victim; a happy grinning cadaver. “Y’ aright there kid, or should I call you Sebastien? It’s a fair stretch to Adaline. We might as well get proper acquainted – OW.”
“Idiot!” Ruthy hit him, a viper quick strike across the face before her fingers tangled in his long hair and wrenched his head back. A knife appeared in her other hand and notched under Jaquard’s chin. “I should kill you now. You utter moron.” She snarled, quietly furious.
“You won’t,” Jaquard was smiling despite the uncomfortable angle of his head. “You need me to get you and the boy safely through Djinn territory. And anyway, what difference does it make if he knows? He’s got t’have guessed anyway. He’d be a right idiot not to.”
“Shut up,” Ruthy released Jaquard, shoving him in the back of the head. She spirited the knife away with a deft flick of her hand and glared at Rashari. “Both of you. Not one word.”
Still grinning Jaquard shifted and nudged Rashari with an elbow. “What d’yer reckon, mate? Think she’s mad?”
Rashari blinked at the djinn. “I think you might be.” He frowned. “What did you do with Madame Chimera?” It was difficult to tell but it didn’t seem that the djinn was carrying any life threatening injuries, and he refused to believe that this lunatic could have bested Madame Chimera at all, much less with all his limbs still intact.
“Gave her a right run around,” Jaquard grinned wider, a feat that Rashari would have said was impossible if he wasn’t witness to it himself. “She was fun. Feisty, got a bit of fire to her, not like most of her breed. Last I saw she was hightailing it back to the Ogdegre village.”
Rashari relaxed infinitesimally which meant that he was definitely not prepared for Ruthy’s slap around the chops when it came. “I told you to shut up.” She snapped whirling on Jaquard, but she stopped when he raised both hands, all ten digits spread and magic flames dancing over his flesh like water.
“Don’t get yer knickers in a bunch, luv.” He purred, smile diminishing into something deeper and far more ominous. Ruthy eased down slowly, watching the flames dance. In the reflected light of the magic fire she looked displeased but hardly afraid. Rashari had the feeling this was not the first kidnapping they had worked together and despite Jaquard’s overt insolence and Ruthy’s over-the-top annoyance Rashari sensed a solid partnership between them. All this drama was a ploy, a feint. They wanted him to think they hated each other, wanted him to underestimate the strength of their working relationship. Rashari wasn’t sure where his sudden insight came from but he trusted his intuition. It rarely served him ill. He wasn’t sure what all this meant, or precisely who Ruthy really was (but clearly she was more than Nylous’ main squeeze) but he had learned something, or more accurately had been allowed to confirm his suspicions. Sebastien. Jaquard had used his old name, which meant he was right. Ruthy was working with DeLunde. Well...that was that then. Only thing to do was to bide his time and wait. It was almost a relief, at least now he knew he wasn’t going crazy.
His left hand gave a twinge; he didn’t think that was coincidence. Nor was it due to the ropes or the Alraune curse. Deep in his core he could feel the scorpion stirring. He almost smiled. As much as he could glean anything from the scorpion he knew that it did not relish the prospect of captivity anymore than he did. The scorpion had helped him escape Scarria all those years ago, when all was said and done. Whatever it truly wanted it seemed content most of the time to stay put inside him soul, breaking free every now and then when Rashari let it or was too worn down to stop it.
“May I sleep?” He asked aloud, infusing his tone with just enough surliness to suggest the correct amount of defiance expected from a prisoner in a tough spot, but not enough to suggest he was planning anything. He rolled onto his right hip, balanced awkwardly between sitting and falling flat on his face in the grass.
“Yes, do that.” Ruthy agreed shortly. “Jaquard take first watch. We’ll set off at dawn.”
“Aye, aye Captain,” Jaquard drawled, soft and low, but somehow Rashari didn’t think he was being sarcastic. Ruthy had never captained a raider airship to the best of his knowledge, but there were other organisations wherein she could have earned the rank. The Adran Imperial navy, the Imperial legions and the air corps all used the rank of captain. So did the Marre Noir.....oh. Rashari stopped himself from sucking in a surprised breath, his heart contracting painfully in his chest. The Marre Noir: the Adran Empire’s intelligence division. Oh, he was an idiot. It was so clear to him now. Ruthy was a spy. Of course she was a bloody spy! There were always spies planted within raider sects. Some raiders were open and even vocal about their extra-curricular information sales with various world governments. It was generally accepted that there were spies hidden in the ranks and that the selling of secrets went both ways. Pit take him, LePortail. The old man had warned him. Cryptically and in such a way that almost encouraged him to miss the clue, but still. He was not an amateur at this. A black tide rising, LePortail had said back in Aramantine and he hadn’t listened. A ‘black tide’ translated into Old Adran was Marre Noir.
Stunned he stared out at the blackness in front of his face. He’d never stood a chance, had he?