The target was a trading convoy making its way to a ferry point along the shores of the Half-Sea. They’d gotten one of their containers stuck in a black sand dune and were in the midst of extracting it when the Ugly Rumor
slid up in the water beside it, arc-harpoons at the ready.
Aedar was strapping on his guns, about to take to the shore with the raiding crew, when I came up to him.
“Captain,” I said—I always called him that in public. “I’d like to come with you.”
He made a face, his mechanical eye glaring an angry crimson. “You know my feelings on that.”
I nodded. I knew them well enough. On the crew’s last two raids, he had kept me confined to his quarters, only letting me out when he’d returned triumphant, hauling sacks of loot aboard. But I wasn’t about to sit there like a damsel in her tower forever. By the laws of Skoria, Aedar was my owner, but I’d come to him willing, and I wouldn’t let him forget that. I wouldn’t let him hide me away from the darker sides of his life when it suited him.
He narrowed his purple eye, glaring down at me. I glared back up, the mindlink between us crackling with tension.
“You want to keep an eye on me?
“Two eyes,” I said.
He snorted a laugh. “How many times do I have to tell you? I won’t harm anyone if they don’t give me cause.”
That was true enough. Aedar might have been a thief, but he was no killer. Still, it wasn’t exactly an office job. I held his gaze. “It isn’t them I worry about.
“Captain,” called out Kiar, one of his crew, from the boarding vessel. “We’re ready.”
He grimaced, then tossed me one of his guns. It seemed to be a cross between a hand crossbow and a tiny submachine gun, coiled with copper wire. “You know how to use this?”
I raised my eyebrows at him. “Point and shoot?
He put both hands around my waist and heaved me overboard into the small, sleek boarding vessel. I landed next to Kiar with an oof!
Aedar vaulted in beside me and closed his mechanical claw on my shoulder. “Hang back
,” he sent through the link, “and watch. That is all I want you to do.
“Yes, sir,” I murmured under my breath with only the barest touch of sarcasm.
The convoy had noticed the Rumor sidle up to them—had noticed the aim of its massive cannons. A few well-placed shots from those, I knew, and there’d be nothing left of their lead ship except mist and splinters. I’d seen the Rumor
blast away a rockslide that had blocked its way through a narrow valley. Of course, one shot would also render the merchandise to dust, so it was a last resort.
“Greetings!” Aedar sounded strangely cheery. One of his guns rested casually on his knee as he leaned over the rim of the boat. “Sorry to see you’ve gotten stuck. Can we help take a few things off your hands?”
The bulk of the traders were Thaians—Three-Eyes. They hung back from the shore, sullen-faced. One of them—the leader, I thought—paced back and forth by the trapped container. “These goods are meant for Uldor,” he said.
Aedar’s grin went wider, shark-sharp and pleased. “Oh, good
,” he said. Bashar rei Uldor, the ruler of the city, had once been Aedar’s owner until he gave his arm and eye in the fighting pits to win his freedom.
“Please,” the leader said, “you’ll leave me with nothing.”
“Tell the rei of Uldor that Captain Rictus waylaid you. I am sure he will be understanding.”
The leader kept pacing back and forth across the black sand as Aedar’s crew knocked open his containers and loaded themselves up with the best of the merchandise. They left the baskets of food and the bales of cottony fabric behind, but helped themselves to spices, fine leather, and uncut, rubious gems the size of a baby’s head.
When Kiar started rifling through the gems, one of the Thaians—a wiry, rough-looking man with a wild head of dark green hair—raised his weapon, a kind of makeshift rifle. Aedar pounded his mechanical hand against a container, and the green-haired man jumped and dropped his rifle, raising his hands in a familiar gesture of surrender. Aedar grinned grimly; when he lifted his hand away, the metal of the container was buckled and dented.
The green-haired Thaian’s mouth was set in a hard line. His sending eye—his middle eye—pulsed with a dull blue light. “There’s a fat bounty on your head in Uldor, pirate.”
“Well, we’re not in Uldor, are we?”
The Thaian went quiet at that. Then his gaze flickered to me, standing behind Aedar. Something changed in his expression, and the blue of his eye pulsed with brightness. I frowned; it was like the brush of a gnat against my cheek, faint but irritating. He was trying to send
, I thought, to drop his thoughts into my mind.
“Captain,” I said. The warning tone of my voice was all he needed; our mindlink told him the rest.
He took two steps forward and hit the Thaian hard across the face. He used his own hand, at least. If it had been the mechanical hand, he might have easily broken his jaw. “Don’t,” he said, “even try it.”
“Captain.” Kiar hoisted a full sack. “We’re done here.”
“Good.” His lips were drawn back in a snarl. “Let’s get back to the Rumor
The convoy’s leader looked abject. “What about my shipment? What am I going to do?”
Aedar shrugged. “You’re closer by far to the Freehold than to Uldor. Go and sell the rest of your wares there and go home.”
“Break contract?” He sounded horrified.
Aedar watched him, the look in his own eye baleful. “Don’t keep faith with the faithless, sir. Uldor is a cesspit ruled by a monster.”
The green-haired Thaian laughed, a harsh sound. “And you would
know monsters, wouldn’t you?”
One of Aedar’s crew cracked her weapon—a kind of barbed, electric whip—and cut a bloody line across the Thaian’s cheek. “Watch your tongue!”
“Leave him,” Aedar snapped. “The sooner we’re gone, the better.”
Glancing back over the denuded convoy, over the Thaians’ hard faces, I could only agree with that
* * * *
I lay back on the bed, idly fingering my collar, while Aedar looked through a small pile of the uncut gems. One by one, he took up each massive rock and held it to his machine eye, which flared red for a moment, making the crystalline gem glow with ominous light, then set it aside in a wooden box.
This was the captain’s share, meant for his personal trove. The rest would be sold at the nearest market—the nearest one that would allow the notorious Ugly Rumor
to trade there, at least—and the profit divided among the crew.
After a while, he sighed, closed the box, and turned to me. “Well, what is it?” he said. “I’ve felt
you wanting to speak since we got back on board.”
I rolled myself into a sitting position and tilted my head, looking at Aedar. He’d stripped to the waist again, showing his wide chest and the gnarled scars where flesh met metal at his shoulder. His bare, almost dragonish feet dug into the carpet as he watched me. A faint smile moved across my face. Sometimes I was still stunned by him—not by his difference, his otherness, but by how damned good
he looked to me. My smile widened a little. Was it the effects of the link between us, I wondered, or did I just have a particular fancy for seven-foot-tall alien cyborgs?
Dammit, I told myself, concentrate for a second. I cleared my throat. “About the raids.”
.” He grumbled out a kind of frustrated growl. “You don’t like them.”
I shrugged helplessly. “They’re not exactly…”
“Noble?” His lips twisted; he stepped forward and took my chin in his robotic hand. “You knew what I was when you accepted my collar, Jason. You knew I never pretended to be noble
I opened my mouth to speak—then closed it again and leaned into his cool, metallic touch. I’d known what he was; that was true enough. It was hard to argue otherwise when we could read each other’s minds. And it was true; he’d never pretended
to be anything, but… “You want to be more than this,” I said.
“You heard the Thaian, Jason.” He sighed. “I am a monster, and monsters don’t have their pick of opportunities. What else could I be? A caravan guard for some rich merchant, a house guard in a seraglio…a pit fighter? No. At least this way, I make my own way in the world.”
“It’s a big world,” I whispered. “There’re other things.”
He tugged a hand through my hair. I gasped. My worries were swallowed up by the feel of him touching me, claiming me. His eye flared; my collar tightened, then loosened again. He could control the metal with a touch and a thought—and he knew, through our link, how it made me shiver with pleasure. “Unfair,
” I thought, grinning up at him.
“It is a big world,” he agreed. “And as long as you are in it, nothing else matters.”